Time to talk about the birds and the bees
With sex everywhere — from music videos to a plethora of images advertising anything from cars to ice-cream — it is hard to fathom that some Australian teenagers lack the most basic of sex education.
But uncovering menstruating teenage girls who thought they were dying was just one of the surprise findings from recent Australian research which tried to find out just what teenagers know about sex.
Queensland University of Technology sexual development researcher Alan McKee ran 20 focus groups with teenagers aged 14 to 20 and admits he was shocked by some of the responses.
While many young people — well over 90 per cent — had high levels of knowledge about safe sex and could easily parrot off details of how HIV was spread, it was text-book information that many struggled to relate to their own lives.
In a media briefing last week to coincide with the release of a special issue of the teen girl magazine Girlfriend, Professor McKee said some young people were missing out on simple biological information that could help protect them from dangerous diseases.
“We have done a great job of getting the facts out there but what we also see is they are not applying that knowledge, ” he says.
“The facts are out there about sexually transmitted infections but they see the information as scientific and not relevant to their lives. You can’t give them the information without showing them how to apply it.”
Professor McKee says the gap in practical information could help explain the explosion in rates of the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia in Australia in the past decade, particularly the past three years.
He says magazines such as Girlfriend and Dolly have a valuable role in helping to curb the rise in infections and prevent unwanted pregnancies, acting as “translators” for teenage girls.
Even their adolescent brothers sometimes obtain information by osmosis or taking a “sneaky look” at what their sisters read.
Unlike girls, boys rarely buy magazines and instead rely on comedy — particularly vulgar comedy — as well sport and the internet for their sex information.
But parents still have a big role to play, he argues, even if many felt uncomfortable broaching the subject.
He says they need to answer honestly the questions children might ask, some from the age of about five.
Professor McKee says euphemisms and nicknames for body parts —“down there” and “private parts”— are unhelpful and give the impression to young children that it is something shameful.
He argues it is well-established that the best way to protect against child abuse is to provide children with basic information about the body and use terms such as penis and vagina.
“We know from research that the majority of parents want to be part of their children’s sex education, but they are not confident about it, ” he says.
“That’s not surprising because this is probably the first generation of parents where there has been an expectation that they will talk openly and honestly about sex, so we’re making a generational change.”
But he advises against parents putting all their eggs in one basket with “the talk” where they sit their children down for a once-off talk about the birds and the bees.
“It’s a really bad idea, ” Professor McKee says. “You want to talk to them early and often.
“Do it in an age-appropriate way that’s not melodramatic or hysterical. And don’t go in wearing your battle gear ready to tell them what they’re doing is wrong.”
Some mothers have told him that while they can talk easily enough to their daughters, sons are a different kettle of fish, hard to pin down for a conversation about sex without both feeling very awkward.
He suggests talking in the car while driving somewhere because you can sit next to each other without having to stare directly at one another, which feels far less confronting. Other “teachable moments” include when something relevant comes up while watching a show on television.
But of all the myths surrounding sex education, Professor McKee says top of the list is the notion that the more teenage girls and boys hear about sex, the more likely they are to have sex, and early.
He cites the Netherlands, where there is extensive sex education from an early age but the average age of first having sex is 17.7 years. In the US, where education starts later, is less thorough and tends to focus on abstinence, the average age is 15.8.
Somewhere in between is Australia, where the average age of first sex is 16.
“There is still this confusion in parents who worry that if they talk to their kids about sex, they’ll have sex earlier, ” he says.
‘But we know from research that the more information they get about sex, the longer they wait to have it.”
Rebecca Smith from FPWA Sexual Health Services agrees, and says having plenty of good quality information about sex actually made young people think twice.
“Generally it means they will commence sexual activity later, not earlier as some people think, ” she says.
“We encourage parents to leave the door open for communication, and their children will often be the ones to raise the issue.
“But while some young people will be very interested early on, others won’t be.”
Sarah Tarca, editor of Girlfriend magazine, says this month’s “Guide to Life” edition is intended to give teenage girls aged 14 to 17 information, not act as a “how to” guide.
And despite the perception that “all kids are having sex, ” a recent survey of their 240,000 a month readership showed less than a quarter were sexually active.
Professor McKee recommends as one of the best resources for parents a simple guide developed by the WA Health Department, Talk Soon Talk Often.
Find it at healthywa.wa.gov.au/Talk-soon-talk-often.
© The West Australian