Love & Sex

Our Sex Partners Are The Last People We Talk About Sex With

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A new study reveals teens aren't having "the talk" with who you'd expect.

When we're young, burgeoning sexual beings, who is in our confidence? A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that our sexual partners are actually the last people we discuss our sex lives with as teens. 

Lead by Laura Widman, this study assessed 603 early adolescents’ sexual communication between three key figures: their dating partners, their parents, and their best friends. The six sexual health topics examined were condoms, birth control, STDs, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, and abstinence. The terrifying part? We're not talking to our braces-clad, acne-ridden partners all that much about the things we do quietly underneath blankets in our parent's basement. More than half of participants had not discussed any of the sexual topics with their partners (54 percent), and some had not spoken with their parents (29 percent) and their closest friends (25 percent). The most likely to engage their peers and parents about sexuality -the vocal set- were female, African American, already sexually active, and in their late teens. 

Most notably, increased communication with parents and friends was associated with an increased likelihood of sex talks with dating partners. Among the sexually active studied, increased sexual communication with partners was associated with more frequent condom use. Meaning, if we talk, we keep talking to everyone.

Thinking of how we talk about sex during our incipient explorations is important in light of a major sex education gap within the United States, in which either no information or abstinence-only education is provided. According to a 2012 study done by the Guttmacher Institute, only 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex and HIV education. While in 2006, a dauntingly high 87 percent of U.S. schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV and other STDs, while a mere 39 percent taught students how to correctly use a condom in a lesson. If teens were only using sex ed classes as the launching platform for their sexual know-how, then it's a troubling, narrow, and limited lens to work from.

Which is why this sexual communication study highlights something significant: most of our sexual knowledge will always be proliferated through ourselves, our peers, and organic interpersonal conversation.  Casual chats over a movie, random walks around the mall, and sleepover fodder. The more we engage in these dialogues, the more apt we are to talk to our partners—who are ostensibly the most significant source to join us in a tete-a-tete. Then there's always the larger conversation we have with ourselves after hours, behind the closed doors our of childhood bedrooms as we surreptitiously navigate our bodies and the deeper questions we have about them.

Of course, today an adolescent's deep pondering translates into a Google after about two minutes of brow furrowing.  More than half of 7 to 12 graders say they have looked up sex health information online. Firing off, "How does a hymen break?" and "Can I get her pregnant if I come in her butt?" to an engine may be imperfect, but it's still useful. If we aren't necessarily learning from a regimented or mandated system, then at least the internet community provides a wide berth of knowledge, even if it is largely unedited and unchecked.

Looking at the larger sexual exchanges of teens is a look at a curious state in a life time: an age when bodies and thoughts are mature enough to engage in sexual activity, and yet perhaps, not sophisticated enough to break into uncomfortable conversations. A time when our desires precede our knowledge and the best thing we can do is speak up.

Image via Veer.