I support access to emergency contraception for teenage girls.
So be it that the contentious discourse about birth control continues. But as of this month, at least one morning after pill is now available over the counter to teen girls as young as 15, provided they show an ID with their age.
As far as I can tell the scientific research shows that a morning after pill has no effect on pregnancy rates. Nor is there evidence that teens put themselves at more risk knowing there’s a possible “out” when it comes to unprotected sex. What access to Plan B gives is another option in the reproductive health tool kit. Those folks who say it’s an abortion pill aren’t reading the science on how it works and maybe they don’t even know how female reproductive organs function. Just sayin’.
Over the counter morning after pills also allow for easier access in the event of sexual assault or if a condom breaks. Any teen or parent hopes that neither situation happens. So maybe it’s time for a chat. Better late than never. After all, appropriate parental involvement is a protective factor for the wellbeing of teens.
But when it comes to talking about sex, many parents just cop out.
Parents as Prevention
Health prevention education works. We know it works because teen pregnancy rates in the US have consistently dropped over the years and more teens postpone intercourse, with the average age of first intercourse at 17. Research that looks at the type of sexual health education offered shows that states with comprehensive sex education have lower pregnancy rates than states that support abstinence-only education.
The discussion that is not taking place is the one between parents and their teens, no matter what one’s point of view about sexual health. We can’t rely on schools. The standards for sex ed are meager and inconsistent. Actually, they are pretty pathetic. Sex ed, if you can even call it that, occurs twice in the K through 12 years. The first birds and the bees chat happens, typically, in the spring of 5th grade. The second discussion is about four years later in 9th grade biology class when teachers discuss human physiological systems. No wonder middle school remains the landmine of emotional drama. Teens are left to figure things out on their own.
All the other sex education comes via friends, social media and a few billboards. It’s a rare school or program that offers a course in Human Sexuality.
I always like to go to the source when it comes to discussion about teen sex ed: teenagers. I did this today given the recent news of the “Plan B” product approval with the purchase ability by 15-year-old teenagers.
Being stuck as the reluctant carpool driver this week to bring a bunch of, yes, 15-year-old girls, to soccer practice in the middle of nowhere, I had a good hour to ask questions of this captive audience. My daughter was mortified. Frankly, she’s used to this by now. Her friends were more than accommodating to chat it up.
Q: Do you girls know what Plan B is?
All: Plan B?
Soccer Mom: Yes, the morning after pill.
All: Ooohhhhh….. Yeah.
Soccer Mom: Under what circumstances would a girl use it?
A pregnant pause as it were.
Girl 1: Well, if a condom broke I guess.
Girl 2: Or if a girl was raped.
Soccer Mom: Knowing that a girl your age could go to the drug store and buy it by showing an ID, do you think that this birth control option will change how teens think about sex?
Girl 3: What do you mean, like have unprotected sex?
I was trying not to lead them, so I’m sure I sounded vague.
Soccer Mom: Ok, sure.
Soccer Mom: Ok, you’re saying that because I’m a parent you know. But really I’m just doing a dispassionate focus group here. On the issue of emergency birth control what does the morning after pill NOT do?
Girls 1 & 2: Stop STDS!!!
They shouted in unison. Go Ms. G, biology teacher.
Soccer Mom: Let me ask another question.
Girl 1: Mommmmmm…..
Soccer Mom: Let me ask you experts in the back seat.
Q. Would you have a conversation with your mom about contraception or safe sex?
Girl 3: Never. If I even started to ask about it, my mother wouldn’t let me out of the house for a year.
Soccer Mom: You mean your mother wouldn’t be open to having a “talk” with you?
Girl 3: Well, she might talk at me about it. But the only reason I would ever ask my mom about the morning after pill is if I were, like, raped.
The whole mini van shook.
Soccer Mom: You mean that the only way you and your mom could talk about it, you’re saying, is if there was a crisis, where something bad happened to you?
Girl 3: Basically. She won’t even let me be on birth control for my acne.
Soccer Mom: Ok, I get where you’re coming from. What about you?
Girl 2: Well, talking to my mom about sex would be awkward. I don’t think we’ve ever had the talk. But I have my older sister. She’s not much older, though. Not sure what she’d say, really. Nothing helpful!
Girl 1: Mom, did we ever have a talk? I can’t remember.
Soccer Mom: Well, sort of. We did the whole shopping down the feminine supply aisle. I still get on your case about being a good role model for your younger sister on the girls stuff, and using the period tracker app…. and we signed you up to participate in the Our Whole Lives program last year unless you blocked it out of your memory bank.
Girl 2: (laughing) Oh, was that your sex ed program?
Girl 1: Oh god, it was 26 weeks. I missed one class the whole year. And, let me just say, ok, it covered EVERYTHING.
Soccer Mom: The rides home after class were a fairly lively, if I recall. That was sort of like “the talk” or maybe lots of mini-talks. More like the talk-after-someone-else-did-the-talk. Took the pressure off me and Dad a bit. But maybe we need to revisit some things…
Girl 1: No thanks.
Q: What if there was someone else in the friend and family circle, like an aunt or former baby sitter, or a friend’s mom that you could talk to in confidence?
Girl 3: Nope. My mom would find out from her best friend, and whatever she dug up, she might not ever say anything to me. But she’d still lock me up for a year.
Girl 2: I like talking to my mom about most things; we just never have talked about this. I guess I’d talk to another cool mom, but I think she’d tell my mom anyway.
Girl 1: Mom, seriously, if I talked to [our old babysitter] that would be really awkward.
I thought about some of my teen clients. Some will readily inform me about the latest on teen life, tell me what hooking up means to them, or confide that they are planning to lose their virginity at prom. They are my source. None would share these thoughts with their mothers. So I’ve gotta believe my daughters won’t be much different. It won’t be for a lack of my openness.
Soccer Mom: OK, but let’s just say that moms got together and made a pact that each of you could go to another mother – like a “mentor” mom – to talk to when things got sticky. You know… on whatever: stress, school, boys, sex, or drinking. But the only reason your “confidentiality” would be broken – that your mom would find something out – is if the “mentor” mom thought you might be in danger, physically or emotionally.
Q: Would you reach out to another mom or family friend?
Soccer Mom: Here’s the thing. Your moms all want you to be safe and sound. The last thing they want is for you to get pregnant unintentionally or raped. Right? That’s a bottom line. Don’t you think they’d much rather have you feel comfortable and open to conversation, if not with them, then with someone else? I know I would be relieved to know there is another mom or trusted person you could confide in. Seriously.
All: I don’t know. Yah. Ok. Maybe. That’s weird.
Soccer Mom: What you all seem to be saying is that whether you have a good or close relationship with your moms – or not – you wouldn’t even think about discussing birth control or sex. That only in the most dramatic, worse case scenario would you confide in your moms! Don’t you think there could be an easier way?
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We arrived at the soccer field. They all gathered their gear, water bottles, and lumbered out of the van. Vibrant souls. Open yet closed. Venturing out into the world of grown ups… somehow thinking they escaped my questions until the ride home. Maybe they were thinking that one way or another they’ll figure things out for themselves.
I thought to myself: These three girls have pretty savvy moms. Well-educated, fairly involved, more or less easy to talk to. They have health care and access to health education. In their young minds it would be worse to admit to sex or wanting to have a plan for safe sex – for fear of punishment or disappointment or embarrassment – than to risk their connection to their moms. When it comes to sex, mums the word.
It’s time to change the dialog. It starts with you.
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Resources: Talking About Sex: List of Books