The Biggest Mistakes Adults Make When Teaching Teens About Sex

In our zeal to prevent teen pregnancy, we told teens that sex was bad. But teen sexual experimentation is a healthy and necessary part of adolescent development.

[PHOTO: Young teen in bed in the dark looking at her phone]
Today’s teens are more likely to be abstinent and also more likely to be anxious and depressed—and it's probably not a coincidence. Shutterstock

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Fewer teenagers are having sex than in previous generations.

This trend isn’t new—the percentage of high school students who have had sexual intercourse has been steadily decreasing for decades, to the delight of many parents and public health experts. After all, teens who aren’t having sex are safe from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

But looking at the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) numbers, which found that a mere 38.4 percent of high school students had ever had sexual intercourse, I fear that in our zeal to prevent negative consequences, we may be robbing teens of potentially positive sexual experiences that are—and should be—a natural and healthy part of growing up.

In 1991 when the YRBSS began, teen pregnancy rates were soaring and the still relatively new HIV and AIDS epidemic stoked fears that teen sex could be deadly. That year, the survey found that 54.4 percent of all high school students had had sexual intercourse and that by senior year, almost 67 percent had done so. It seemed obvious to many parents, public health experts, and educators that it was important to reduce these numbers to protect our kids.

Over the next decade or so, the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement capitalized on this sentiment to bring what was essentially a religious message—sex outside of marriage is morally wrong—to our schools under the guise of preventing teen pregnancy.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars would be used to fund curricula and speakers who pulled petals off roses, passed around used candy bars, and had kids spit into cups to prove sex was scary and shameful. At the time, even educators who believed in a more comprehensive approach to sex education began to start arguments with disclaimers like, “Abstinence is the best choice for young people, but …”

Except what if it turns out that abstinence isn’t the best choice for young people? I’m not suggesting that all young people should be having penis-in-vagina sex. (And, this is one of the problems with the YRBSS—it reduces sexual experience to vaginal intercourse and, until recent years, operated under heterosexist assumptions about what kids were doing with whom.) But today’s teens are more likely to be abstinent and also more likely to be anxious and depressed—and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

In her 2018 cover story for the Atlantic, Kate Julian identified a sex recession and tried to puzzle out why twentysomethings are having so little sex. She explores a range of theories that blame helicopter parents for pushing their children to achieve more at younger ages and leaving them with little-to-no unsupervised time; increased access to pornography for making masturbation an easy substitute to partnered sex; hookup culture and dating apps for valuing one-off experiences over long-term involvements; and the invention of the smartphone for removing the need and desire for real-life interactions.

We are sexual beings from birth, but sexual behavior is learned. We have to practice. And, adolescence, with its raging hormones and relatively low stakes, is a good time to practice.

The true cause, which is probably a combination of these factors and different for each person, is less important than the end result. Ultimately, what Julian describes is a generation that is mired in inhibition, socially inept, deeply depressed, and unprepared for real sexual and romantic relationships. I can’t help wondering if this is, at least in part, because we told them not to have sex in high school. (And now, who knows how the COVID-19 pandemic will have an affect.)

We are sexual beings from birth, but sexual behavior is learned. We have to practice. And, adolescence, with its raging hormones and relatively low stakes, is a good time to practice. Ideally, partners have similar levels of (in)experience, and can learn together what feels good, how their bodies respond to certain sensations, and what they just don’t like. Julian’s interviews with young adults and experts suggest that delaying this practice into your 20s and 30s leaves many feeling completely unprepared and too scared to try.

To repeat, I’m not saying that the characters in American Pie, Blockers, or The To Do List were right and that everyone should have sex (penis-in-vagina or any other kind) before their high school graduation. Teenagers run a broad spectrum of physical and emotional maturity. Some are undoubtedly not ready for the vulnerability that comes with sexual experimentation. But the message to teens should never have been don’t have sex, you’re not ready for sex, or sex is dangerous.

Instead, we should help teens recognize what makes a healthy sexual relationship—emphasizing consent and protection—and trust them to make their own decisions. And we should help them understand a wide array of sexual orientations, identities, and behaviors as neither right nor wrong but personal. Inevitably, some may make bad choices or suffer unintended consequences, but most will come out relatively unscathed and better prepared for sexually healthy adult relationships.

Across the country, a new group of teens is starting high school (albeit virtually in most places). My hope for them is not that they remain in a safe, sexless bubble until graduation. Instead, I’d like them to put down their phones and turn off social media long enough to flirt and kiss and experiment with the idea of sharing their bodies with another person for pleasure. I believe this will make them happier and healthier, both now and in the future.