Teenagers Have Sex: Deal With It

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Commentary Sexual Health

Teenagers Have Sex: Deal With It

If teenagers are going to have sex, and we know they are, they should have access to emergency contraception in schools.

This week, a two-year-old program allowing New York City schools to distribute emergency contraception (EC) in high schools finally made news, and not in a good way. Though schools allow parents to “opt out” of the program, some parents say they should have been asked to “opt in.”

This would make it even harder for kids to access EC (sometimes known as the “morning-after” pill). This is a serious mistake. I don’t think parents should be asked at all. They should be informed when their child enters high school that EC is available, and again if or when their daughter needs it. The health professional should also have the option of not informing parents at all, if the child expresses compelling reasons not to do so.

First, some context for how the program was conceived and implemented.

New York State has the eleventh-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the nation, with almost 60 pregnancies per 1,000 girls, ages 15-to-19 each year. Thirteen percent of U.S. teens have had sex at age 15, and about 70 percent by the time they are age 19. In New York State, approximately 40 percent of high-school students are sexually active. While 85 percent of teenagers say they use contraception during their first sexual encounter, contraception has been known to fail (and teenagers have been known to exaggerate.) Then there are the remaining 15 percent (plus) who don’t use any protection.

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Clearly, high school—and potentially middle school—is ground zero for prevention. New York City has stepped up to the plate in recent years with the morning-after pill program and a city-wide sex-education mandate.

The teen-pregnancy rate in New York and other states with similar rates is not likely to drop anytime soon. A month ago, a New York Civil Liberties Union report on sex education in New York state revealed how little and how poorly students are being prepared for the sex they are having. And at what cost. Those under the age of 19 account for approximately one-third of all newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the state. And not surprisingly, teen mothers are much less likely to graduate from high school than their peers who are not pregnant.

Here are a few other thoughts on why comprehensive sex education should be mandatory, and the morning-after pill available to all high-school students, regardless of where they live.

  • Many teens have sex, whether you tell them about it or not. And telling them not to have sex definitely does not work. Abstinence-only sex education has been proven to fail time and again. My devoutly Catholic adoptive mother, a lifelong education professional, told me more than once that working in middle schools made her want to stand in the hallways and hand out condoms. 
  • The majority of teenagers, especially younger ones, do talk to their parents about sex. Those who do not usually have good reasons not to. Studies have shown that kids are very good at predicting their parents’ reactions. Even those who do talk to their parents don’t always get the full picture. More than three-fourths of teenagers don’t know how to bring up sexual-health issues that their parents haven’t already addressed. If parents do not bring up the morning-after pill or any other contraceptive option, teenagers may have to depend on piecemeal (and often incorrect) information from peers. 
  • The morning-after pill safely prevents pregnancy after a condom has broken; after a sexual encounter in which the partners were too embarrassed to ask about contraception; after rape; or in any other emergency. But the morning-after pill is effective only when used within a narrow time frame. If EC is readily available in schools, it can speed up the process.

The fact is, I can’t imagine what would possess a parent to prevent his or her child from accessing information or health care they might need.

More important, I don’t believe parents have the right to do so. Children are entitled to be heard, and to have their interests protected. If there is anything I have learned from interviewing teen mothers across the Americas, it’s that we cannot assume that parental decision making in the area of sexuality is always in the child’s best interest.

I am not a disinterested party. My daughter, if things go as planned, will be a New York City high-school student in five years. Statistically speaking, she is likely to have sex at some point shortly thereafter. I want her and her classmates to be able to negotiate safe, consensual, and enjoyable sex. I want her to have access to the morning-after pill as soon as possible, should she need it—whether at school or over the counter at the pharmacy.

The real news flash of the week should have been: Teenagers have sex. Deal with it.