May 28, 2003
I had "the talk" with my two teen-age siblings the other day. And they were more ready for it than I was.
At my mother's request, I sat down with my sister, 14, and my brother, 16, to talk to them about s-e-x. The timing could not have been better. Both my siblings were curious about their bodies, anxious about romantic relationships and uncertain about their rights and responsibilities regarding becoming sexually active.
My brother and sister are among the millions of teens who are yearning for guidance from their families about a life-changing decision they're under a lot of pressure to make.
A new study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that one in five adolescents has had sexual intercourse before his or her 15th birthday.
The report also revealed that "parents are usually unaware that their young children have had sex." Alarmingly, parents seem to be in serious denial about it: "Only about one-third of parents of sexually experienced 14-year-olds believe that their child has had sex," the study concluded.
As their oldest sister, I have had a lot of influence in my siblings' lives, and we have always shared a very deep connection based on trust, respect and open communication. Our close relationship allowed me to broach the subject of sex in a comfortable way. I was relieved to learn that they were informed about the risks of having unprotected sex and about the various methods of contraception.
But what they wanted to talk about the most were issues like intimacy, how to deal with pressure from peers, when the right time is to have sex and how to know when you're ready. These topics aren't usually covered in health class or in pamphlets at the doctor's office.
"How do you know if you're in love?" That's the topic we spent the most time on. It was also the one that tied all their other questions together. More than anything, my siblings -- not unlike many teens -- wanted reassurance that it was okay to wait, that it was normal to be curious about how your body responds to emotional and physical cues and that they could ask questions without being judged.
"Early, clear communication between parents and young people about sex is an important step in helping adolescents adopt and maintain protective sexual behaviors," asserts the Centers for Decease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Discussion must begin early, before adolescents begin engaging in sexual activities, and should continue throughout the child's development," it urges.
Talking to your teens could start them on the path to taking more responsibility for their sexual health. The CDC reports that teens who used condoms the first time are 20 times more likely to use condoms the next time they have sex. With 46 percent of high-school students reporting that they had sexual intercourse -- 49 percent of boys, 43 percent of girls -- odds are that your teen-ager is already sexually active.
Talking to them is one major way to ensure that they have accurate information on which to base their decision, and that they protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and other dangerous behaviors. If you're not comfortable talking to your teens, ask an adult they trust and respect to talk to them.
As for my siblings, I'm going to make sure our talk is not the last we have on the subject.
Juleyka Lantigua is a free-lance journalist in New York City.