08/21/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Trouble Talking About Oral Sex

Isn't it strange that so many adults can't (or won't) use their mouths to inform teens about oral sex when many teens, themselves, are actually use their mouths to do it?

Now that CDC has released the most recent data on teen sexual activity, the lots of people are chatting about the "unmentionable." I guess the chatter is good, after all speaking about "oral sex" takes practice. On the other hand, I'm deeply disturbed by the tone of the chatter, which seems to reinforce unhealthy and unconstructive messages regarding adolescent sexuality, prevention education and public health.

To begin with, all adults were, by definition, once adolescents (and some of us even get stuck there). If we try really hard, we might just remember the hormonally-based awakenings of sexual experience and the developmentally predetermined shift of primary relationships from family to peers. Teens are waking up to their human birthright of adult sexuality; and however you define the parameters of sexual arousal and intimacy, we are sexual beings and our survival as a species depends on that.

So, the demeaning tone of the chatter about teens and oral sex is both hypocritical and unconstructive. I suggest, instead, that we focus our attention on accepting the urge to explore sexual experience while cognizant of the various risks involved. If teens are ready to have oral (or any other) sex, then we, as a society, need to do our utmost to help them recognize that "being ready" means more than just understanding the mechanics or being afraid of STDs.

Talking about oral sex does not encourage teens to have oral sex. If anything, it's the opposite. And, encouraging teens to talk with their sexual partners before engaging in any sexual behavior most likely lowers all the risks involved. They really do understand the comment, "If you aren't okay with speaking about what you're doing with your body, why are you doing it?"

Behavior change is predicated on the notion that people have self-awareness; and few, if any, of us are fully self-aware. If we want teens to make active choices about their sexual (or any other) behaviors, we need to provide them with training in self-awareness. If they can become more mindful and know what's happening, in and around them in "real time," they will be primed to make conscious choices. On the other hand, many teens get drunk or high on purpose to reduce their inhibitions, thereby decreasing their ability to make conscious choices. This increases their risks, as it does among adults who often engage in sexual behavior while under the influence.

Teaching teens about oral sex begins with accurate and comprehensive education about reproductive health as well as social and emotional learning. Ideally this occurs in the home and community, but the schools also have an essential role to play in promoting public health and ensuring that all teens are informed.

Once teens understand "what" oral sex involves, and "how" these behaviors are risky, they can consider their associated attitudes. The next step is developing and practicing the mental, emotional and communication skills necessary for reducing, if not eliminating, their risks. Finally, education needs to address the maintenance of low- or no-risk behaviors, while providing a constructive safety net for those who are still at risk.

Relying on fear-based strategies and scary statistics is insufficient to promote desirable behavior change, if not counter-productive. Teens want to make healthy decisions, and they welcome education and support to increase their confidence and competence. Adult hysteria and fear-mongering only serves to alienate teens and can even make some feel so ashamed of their behaviors that they believe they are no longer worthy of being safe. If we want teens to be mindful about what they do with their mouths, we adults must also become more mindful of what we do with ours.