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Teen Girls' Health

Surviving Sex Ed

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By Jennifer Ashton, M.D., Ob-Gyn with Christine Larson
WebMD Feature by “The Body Scoop for Girls”


If your sex ed class is anything like mine was, it’s torture. First, mine was taught by the gym teachers, not by nurses or medical professionals. Second, it was a coed class. Trust me when I say that sitting next to the guy you have a crush on while hearing about periods and erections is an embarrassing agony you do not want to live through.

Pop Quiz

Has Your Sex Ed Class (or Health Class) Covered This?

If your sex ed class doesn’t cover all the topics in the list below, ask your pediatrician, gynecologist, or parents to fill in the gaps. You owe it to your future health.

  • Information on puberty and reproduction
  • Information on STIs, HIV, and AIDS
  • Information about abstinence and contraception (including how to put on a condom)
  • Sexual violence and gender issues
  • Relationships (family and sexual)
  • Effects of smoking, drinking, and drug use
  • Communication and behavioral and decision-making skills
  • Issues of self-esteem and body image

Did You Know?

Your Parents Have Some Good Stories

Your parents may not be as dumb as you think. Try asking them how old they were when they started having sex. Or if they regretted it. Or if they had any funny or memorable stories or words of wisdom for you. You may be surprised at what you learn—and your parents might actually be relieved that you want to talk openly about sex.

Gay Teens

Nationally, 2 to 4 percent of teen girls identify themselves as lesbians. When patients tell me that they’re attracted to girls, I share with them two key medical facts.

  • You can still get STIs even if you’re not having vaginal intercourse.
  • Beware of medical discrimination against lesbians.

Many gynecologists assume that if a woman isn’t having vaginal sex with a man, she should be treated medically like a virgin. That’s not true. I urge my gay patients to be vigilant about their health and make sure they always receive the care they need, including Pap smears and regular testing for STIs.

Lip Service: Safe Oral Sex

So by now you’re probably thinking, “How many more times is Dr. Ashton going to tell me that you can get an STI from oral sex? I understand, OK?!? So what am I supposed to do about it? Not have oral sex?”

Actually, that’s not a bad idea for your health, especially if you’re under eighteen. But let’s be realistic. The fact is, you can have safe oral sex. It’s simple. If you’re performing oral sex on your boyfriend, make him wear a condom. And if he’s the performer, he should use a dental dam—basically a small, thin piece of latex that acts as a barrier to bodily fluids, reducing STI transmission. The partner who’s giving oral sex holds the dam against the body part in question, then sets to work. Some people recommend using a water-based lubricant for comfort. Don’t use an oil-based lubricant or lotion, since it can break down the latex. Be sure to use just one side of the dam and don’t reuse it on another body part: There’s no recycling here.

Horrible as it was, what’s even more horrifying is that in the past twenty or thirty years, hardly anything has changed in the way sex ed is taught (except that now they sometimes they call it “reproductive health” instead of sex ed, because it sounds less scandalous). But come on! TV, movies, magazines, and just daily life expose young people to much more sexual content today than ever. On TV alone you’re exposed to twice as much sexual content as teens were just a decade ago. With teens getting so many more messages about sex and knowing so much more than they used to, you’d think sex ed would be more sophisticated, too. But sex ed has hardly changed a bit.

I learned this the hard way, when I started to explain things like STIs and contraception to my patients, figuring they already knew all about this stuff. “I’m sure this is nothing new to you,” I’d say, “but you do realize you can get herpes from oral sex, right?” Under other circumstances their shocked, dismayed, and horrified expressions might have been pretty funny. But this was too important to laugh at. So I’d start from scratch with my explanation.

I usually find the same shock and dismay when I go into schools to talk about STIs and contraception. Even the best schools don’t always cover all the bases. When I spoke at one of the top high schools in my state of New

Jersey, the students were appalled to learn how easy it is to get herpes and that even virgins can get it. Sex ed curriculum varies across the country, so there’s no way to know whether your school is going to cover everything you really need to know.

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