When we talk about safe sex weíre usually talking about encouraging teenagers and college students to use condoms to prevent disease and pregnancy. There are two assumptions involved here: theyíre going to do it anyway, and using the condoms will protect them. Both assumptions are false, and today Iím going to tackle that last one.
When I was a teenager, the most common STDís were gonorrhea and syphilis, both of which were curable with penicillin. STDís have since multiplied, and now theyíre more likely to be viruses with no effective treatment.
Not only are they immune to treatment, they may also be immune to condoms. Most alarmingly, condoms donít prevent HPV, a disease that about 50% of sexually active young women now carry. This one, in particular, ainít pretty: once you have it, you have it for life, even if youíre asymptomatic. Itís the leading cause of cervical cancer, the serious kind that can prove fatal even to young women, and once a teenager has had sex with three or more men, sheís already five times more likely to get it. Chlamydia, against which condoms do seem to work, is nevertheless also rising in incidence. Itís been estimated that around 25% of university students test positive for chlamydia antibodies, a disease that can cause infertility in both men and women. The consequences of teen sex, it seems, last far beyond graduation.
Sometimes they last a lifetime. Condoms, if used properly, should prevent pregnancy. That doesnít mean they do, however, and several family members who will bless my Christmas table this year are living testimonies that one should not place oneís faith in condoms. They didnít even work especially well for yours truly, though that may be too much information.
Thereís no doubt that being pregnant as a teenager can be devastating, whether one has the baby or one aborts. It affects one physically and emotionally, and it interferes with schooling, with relationships, with friendships, and with dreams. Many teen moms overcome these obstacles and raise their children wonderfully, but just because one can rise above circumstances doesnít mean that we should stop steering our kids away from them.
A friend, who is also a family doctor, recently counselled a 16-year-old girl after a pregnancy scare. He asked about her sexual history, and she revealed that she had had three partners in a year and a half. In all cases, she had dated the boys for several months before any sexual activity took place, so she was hardly promiscuous by todayís standards. He asked her at what age she would like to get married. "Around 27," she replied. "How many partners do you expect your future husband to have slept with?". "Just a couple," she said. Then he did the math with her. Assuming she keeps up with her current rate of activity, sheís looking at 20 partners by the time she marries. If those partners, and her future husband, have been similarly active, thatís a lot of potential diseases.
The safe sex message, then, isnít quite so safe. Why not, instead, teach about the risks of sexual activity with an abstinence message? Thatís how we teach about drugs. We certainly donít say: "you shouldnít do drugs, but we know you will anyway, so hereís how you find a clean needle, and hereís how you find a vein". We tell them "just say no". With sex, we abandon these kids to make a huge decision with lifelong consequences when theyíre still too young to marry, to drive, to vote, to drink, or even to drop out of school.
The common argument against this, of course, is that "teens are going to do it anyway, so letís protect them as much as possible." Next week Iíll tackle that line of reasoning. Yet for now, I think itís time for us parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and educators to take a look at whatís really going on. We need to teach our kids a new model of behaviour to protect them from heartache, pain, illness, and even death. After all, isnít that what being a parent is all about?