Talking to Teenagers about Contraception, Pornography and Consent
Our first page on Talking to Teenagers about Sex and Relationships gives some general advice about how to keep communication channels with teenagers open, and the importance of remaining calm and non-judgemental in conversations.
It also gives some information about talking about healthy relationships and how to approach relationship problems.
This page provides advice on three specific areas to discuss with teenagers: contraception, pornography and consent.
These areas are all ones where misunderstandings and misconceptions can cause serious problems, and so it is particularly important that teenagers are well-informed.
But knowing about it, and actually taking some action, are two completely different things.
If your teenager is embarking on their first relationship, they may be embarrassed if you ask them about contraception. But that’s not nearly as bad as finding out that they didn’t know who to ask, and so ‘thought it would be OK’.
It takes two to tango
Yes, it is the girl who ends up pregnant, holding the baby, as it were. But boys carry equal responsibility to make sure that they and their partner are using contraception. Even if they are not concerned about pregnancy, they should be concerned about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Both boys and girls need to know about contraception. As a parent, you have a responsibility to make sure that they have the necessary information.
One very easy way to raise the subject is to visit your GP’s surgery or Family Planning Clinic, and pick up a leaflet or two, or print off information from the NHS Choices website. Casually give it to your child saying something like:
“I thought this might be useful. If you would like me to give you a lift to the surgery, or make you a doctor’s appointment to discuss options, just let me know.”
You may want to follow up after a few days to enquire whether the information was useful.
Most countries have an age of consent. Having sex with someone under that age is illegal: it is a crime.
It is not a crime for the young person concerned, only their partner.
Doctors (and sexual health advisory services) have long held that their responsibility is to the person in front of them. They will provide contraception if they feel that is the right thing to do to keep someone safe from the risk of pregnancy, even if that person is under the age of consent.
They will usually take steps to satisfy themselves that the person concerned is not being coerced or pressured into a sexual relationship, or otherwise being abused.
Consent has been a huge issue for many years, and continues to be difficult.
Many rape cases hinge on whether or not the woman gave consent, or, indeed, was so drunk that she was incapable of giving consent. Other issues are whether consent at one point implies later consent to the same activity, and whether consent was later withdrawn.
As with any other conversation about sex, it is important that both you and your teenager feel comfortable with the discussion. But it is also important to be sure that they know:
- Having sex with someone without their consent is rape.
- Consent is a positive decision: you need to feel that it is right for you to do this. If you don’t want to do it, then it is fine to say no. If your partner says no, you need to respect their decision.
- It is fine to change your mind about whether you want to do something. Your partner should respect this.
- Consenting to one aspect of sex does not mean that you have consented to everything.
- Consenting once does not mean that you have given your consent to that person for ever, or even more than once.
- Some people may not want to say no, but show by their body language or actions that they don’t want to go any further. It is important to respect that.
- Pressuring someone into having sex is wrong. It is abuse. This pressure might be physical, but it can also take the form of threats to dump that person, or spread rumours about them, or using some kind of emotional blackmail (‘If you really loved me, you’d do it’).
- Someone who is too drunk or drugged to know what they are doing is incapable of giving consent. If they cannot give consent, courts in the UK, at least, have demonstrated that they are likely to consider that is rape. You cannot assume consent when someone is drunk, even if they don’t say no.
It is helpful to emphasise to your teenager the importance of being able to talk to their partner about sex, and what they want and do not want. They need to understand that it is important to feel safe in a relationship and, if they can’t talk, that is very unlikely.
Pornography may not be an area that either you or your teen want to talk about, but the need may be forced on you.
Research suggests that the average teen spends over an hour per week surfing for porn. The chances are your teenager, whether male or female, has watched porn. Finding porn is very easy nowadays, with free internet access to even violent and abusive images.
The main problems with pornography are that it objectifies women, and tends to teach young people that abuse and violence are fine in association with sex.
People who watch porn regularly seem to have more trouble developing healthy relationships, although whether this is cause and effect, and in which direction, is unclear.
Porn may also give young people unrealistic expectations of how they or others should look (for example, being free from body hair).
These issues are well worth discussing in the context of relationships and values.
If you discover that your teenager has been watching porn, or sharing sexual images, it is important to stay calm. Young people have been viewing porn, albeit not in quite the same way, for many years. Instead, treat it as an opportunity to discuss relationships and how porn differs from real life, in a way that will help them to learn more about life.
Young people may also send each other explicit images of themselves by text (often known as sexting).
It is important that they know that creating and sharing a sexual image of someone under 18, even if it is yourself, is illegal (at least in the UK).
It can also be extremely embarrassing if someone shares an image of you around your peer group. It is also important to understand that images like this may be shared online, and potentially remain there forever, to be viewed by potential partners and employers in the future.
Sexting is therefore something that can have long-lasting effects, and your teenager needs to know this before they are tempted to do it.
If you discover that your teenager has been sharing sexual images, stay calm. Have a conversation about how it happened, and what it might mean. For example, it may already be a police issue. You may also want to discuss why the person concerned (whether your teen or a friend) felt the need to make and send the image: were they being put under pressure to do so, which is bullying?
There is more about this in our section on Bullying.
It’s good to talk…
All these issues highlight the importance of making sure that your teenager understands the implications of their actions.
Each of the issues on this page carries potentially very serious consequences if you get them wrong. But it is not hard to get any of them right armed with the right information.
It’s good to talk about these things in advance.