This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
By Molly Cunningham, Riverside Brookfield High School, and Andie Linker, Walter Payton High School
Thirty-six seconds. That’s how long the average teen and their doctor spend talking about sex during an appointment, according to a new study from Duke University Medical Center.
It’s not that teens aren’t having sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of high school students have had sexual intercourse.
“I saw the doctor two or three times for a physical, and each appointment we talked about sex for (about) 15 seconds,” said Alexandra Bakalich, a junior at Riverside Brookfield. “The doctor usually asks, ‘Have you had sex?’ and ‘Do you want birth control?’ ”
For many teens, the conversation ends after the first few questions. In the Duke study, researchers found that just 4 percent of teens continued the conversation about sex with their doctors after the “yes” and “no” questions ended.
“I am not sexually active, so my doctor doesn’t usually bring up sex with me,” said Isaiah Reynolds, a sophomore at Lincoln Park. “If I were to be sexually active, I would want to make sure I’m not at risk for STDs and such.”
Sexually transmitted infections are prevalent among teens. Fifteen- to 24-year-olds account for nearly half of the 19 million new infections each year, according to the CDC.
The Duke study also found that girls were more likely to ask about sex than their male counterparts.
“I think that in general, society looks at males as these ‘sex-crazed pigs’ where that’s what they want and that’s all they want, and that really isn’t it in all cases,” said Charles Connelly, a junior at Riverside Brookfield. “Men can be just as emotionally involved in a relationship as women.”
Other students have managed to avoid “the talk” completely. Wesley Chan, a junior at Walter Payton, said he’s “never talked to a doctor about sex.”
Why the silence? It could have to do with the fact that parents are sometimes in the examination room during checkups. If a teen isn’t comfortable talking to their parents about sex, they aren’t likely to bring it up—or feel comfortable talking about it—with a parent listening in.
“I invite the parent to step out of the room to have private time,” said Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Northwestern Children’s Practice in Chicago. “I assure the patient that this is confidential, but I will ask their permission to share some things with the parent. I would specify what I’m sharing so that we have an agreement about that.”
Unger said she understands that sex can be an awkward topic for some. “One of my jobs that I really enjoy is helping teenagers feel comfortable with their decisions and with their bodies. It’s kind of one of my favorite topics,” she explained.
Of course, some teens feel more comfortable typing a question into Google than they do talking to a professional.
“I would probably go to the Internet before my doctor,” said Alicia Heninger, a junior at Riverside Brookfield. “I don’t think we need to talk about sex because we talk about it enough. It’s the same questions over and over. If (my doctor) brings it up, we’ll talk about it, but usually I don’t have any questions for her.” ›››
Kyran Quinlan, a pediatrician at the Erie Family Health Center in West Town, said the Internet isn’t a reliable source of information.
“There’s obvious concern about information on the Internet; it’s almost a comical source of information,” Quinlan said. “Teenagers may see something that freaks them out (online) and not be sure who to talk to about it. It’s important to go to someone whose background allows for them to give reliable advice.”
The problem is that many teens don’t feel comfortable divulging the intimate details of their sex lives to their doctors. They might feel that they’ll be judged for the decisions they make.
“There are stigmatisms involved in talking about sex,” Unger said. “You have to handle that topic differently than ‘Are you drinking milk?’ or ‘Are you eating breakfast?’ ”
Many doctors feel that it’s their job to eliminate some of the risk that’s involved with having sex and do it in a non-judgmental way.
“When I begin to ask about risk-taking behaviors, I use a reference question to ask if they wear a bike helmet because that is completely not threatening,” Unger said. “The topic of sex is embedded in a larger conversation of being safe and making smart decisions.”
Of course, there are teens who do feel safe talking to their doctors about sex.
“I am comfortable talking about sex and other teenage topics (with my doctor),” said Maddie Nash, a junior at Walter Payton. “They’re just another person trying to ensure your safety and ensure success for the future.”
For those who feel pressured in the examination room, there may be hope in the classroom. As of Jan. 1, Illinois has a new law that requires schools that teach sex education to inform students about birth control options and STIs.
“(Health class) is a pretty good source of reliable information. It will be more general—it’s the overview of topics about sexuality, adolescence and sexual maturation,” Quinlan said. “It will be pretty reliable and accurate.
“What I’m happy about as a pediatrician is that I can discuss (sex) one-on-one with a teenager, and it can be very specific to their situation.”
After getting a general understanding about sex in health class, teens can take specific concerns to doctors and have their questions answered privately.
“Generally speaking, I do believe that sex needs to be talked about with doctors,” said Connelly, the Riverside Brookfield student. “Kids need to know that sex is something that can be openly discussed, and that it shouldn’t be awkward to have a discussion about (it), whether it be a doctor or anyone you can really talk to in confidence.”
The path to healthy and open conversations about sex flows both ways, relying on students’ willingness to open up to doctors about their sex lives and doctors being empathetic and non-judgmental listeners.
“You hopefully have some relationship with (your doctor) from being (their patient) for some years,” Quinlan said. “You knew your doctor when you were 10 and now you’re 15, and you can build off of this relationship as you discuss these topics that are emerging in your life.”
9 questions your doctor might ask you — don’t get caught off guard at your next appointment
- Are you currently sexually active?
- If not, have you ever been sexually active?
- In recent months, how many sex partners have you had?
- Are your sex partners men, women or both?
- Do you and your partner use any protection against STDs?
- If so, what kind of protection do you use?
- Are you concerned about getting pregnant or getting your partner pregnant?
- What other concerns or questions regarding your sexual health or sexual practices would you like to discuss?
- Do you have any other questions, or are there other forms of protection from STDs that you’d like to discuss today?
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services