As both a Health Educator and a parent of school aged children myself, I often find myself getting questions or in conversation with friends, family and fellow parents about what we teach, how we answer certain questions, why we talk about certain topics in our programs and if they are age appropriate. One of these topics that seems to come up fairly often is how and why we would possibly need to discuss things like sexual intercourse and the different types of sexual contact with children as young as 7th grade.
With 38% of Illinois high school students engaging in sexual intercourse its easy to understand their need for information on preventing and reducing possible unwanted outcomes. Many students only associate risks like teen pregnancy with sexual intercourse and may not understand the risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections when engaging in any of the different forms of sexual contact.
In Women’s Healthcare: A Clinical Journal for Nurse Practitioners, an article titled Youth Underestimate STI Risk of Oral Sex, it was found that while 85% of sexually active people have had oral sex at least once and 41% of adolescents 14-19 have had oral sex, they are largely unaware of the risk of contracting STIs through the act. STIs that can be transmitted orally include herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV).
An article published by the National Library of Medicine reports that approximately one third of women and men had ever engaged in anal sex, including 11% of adolescents (15–19 years). Unprotected anal sex can spread infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, hepatitis, HIV and syphilis.
According to the Journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association adolescents bear large burdens of both chlamydia and gonorrhea infections. In 2017, for instance, around 438,000 cases of chlamydia and 93,000 of gonorrhea were reported among 15- to 19-year-olds, reflecting 26% and 17% of all diagnoses, respectively. The STI National Strategic Plan from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shares that 15-24 year-olds account for around 50% of the 20 million new STI cases in the United States each year. The rate of primary and secondary syphilis among females aged 15-24 increased 100% from 2014 to 2018. Young people aged 15-24 account for 49% of HPV infections. When left undiagnosed and untreated, in addition to spreading to others, these infections can lead to serious long-term concerns and complications such as cancer, internal organ damage, infertility, and even shortened life expectancy. Young people need to be taught about these risks, ways to protected themselves, and the importance of getting tested for these infections is critical.
Understanding the risks associated with all sexual activity as well as ways to keep themselves safe BEFORE engaging in these activities can go a long way in overall student wellness. Students need the information to help equip themselves when making short-term or long-term decisions. We teach science-based health education, providing students the facts so they have the information and tools that they need to transition into responsible and healthy young adults. As a parent, I, like most people, don’t love the idea of thinking about my 13 and 15 year old engaging in ANY of these types of things, however thanks to this type of education and programming I’m able to sleep well at night knowing they’ve been provided the information to make an informed decision and protect themselves when or if the situation arises.
Written by Sarah Hawkins-Health Educator-Candor Health Education