These are the real questions teenagers have about sex
While sex education at school is important, let’s face it, most teenagers learn about sex from their friends. Who often don’t actually know that much about the subject.
But while teens can plug the gaping holes in their knowledge with internet research, they often still have many questions around sex and relationships.
“ I don’t think most people understand how important sex education is,” says sex educator Milly Evans. “It’s not about condoms on bananas and scary pictures of STIs. It should be about core principles of respect, trust and building self-esteem.”
Evans, 22, says school sex education is “incredibly valuable”, but points out that large chunks of information can sometimes be skipped. “So young people might be in a lesson about condoms or contraception but still not know the correct words for their genitals or how to ask for consent. The disjointedness can be a real issue and leaves a lot of young people still waiting for the basics.”
Evans, whose extremely candid book Honest. Everything They Don’t Tell You About Sex, Relationships and Bodies has just been published, says sometimes the emotional side is omitted from school sex education, and other times there can be a sole focus on values and not the practical parts of sex. In addition, she says she hears from many LGBTQ+ people who were never taught about queer sex or relationships at school.
“It’s a fine balance and different pupils will want different things,” she says. “I’d love to see more young people being allowed to dictate what was covered in their sex education. No-one knows the issues teenagers are facing better than teenagers, so they need to be able to suggest topics and tell their teachers what lessons and resources they need.
“Young people learn from each other, through conversation and social media, but we need guidance in order to avoid harmful myths and bad advice affecting people’s choices.”
Here Evans answers some of the questions she says teenagers often have about sex…
How do I know if everything’s okay down there?
Evans says: “Get to know what’s normal for you. Get up close and personal and get to know what your genitals normally look, feel and smell like. That way you can spot if anything changes and get it seen to by your GP or at a sexual health clinic. Learn to use the right words for your anatomy too – it’s okay to say vulva, vagina, penis and testicles! They’re parts of our bodies and they shouldn’t be a mystery to us.”
What does a healthy relationship look like?
“This is a difficult one because it will look different for everyone. In general, it’s a relationship which works for everyone involved, with shared power, boundaries, trust, honesty, communication and the ability to resolve conflict in a healthy way. If you’re not sure if a relationship is healthy, think about how it makes you feel. All relationships have ups and downs, but a healthy relationship doesn’t always feel like an uphill struggle.”
How do I figure out what my boundaries are?
“Think about the things you do and don’t like happening to you, whether that’s in relationships or during sex, or just in everyday life. These might be things to do with touch, space, time, sound, nicknames or anything else. These can help to provide a framework for the boundaries you might like to set with other people. Once you’ve decided on the boundary, tell the people who need to know and be consistent about putting it into action.”
Do I need to worry about STIs (sexually transmitted infections)?
“STIs are common, particularly among young people. The good news is that most STIs are treatable, and those which aren’t can be managed with medication or lifestyle changes. But it’s still important to do what you can to prevent STIs and avoid passing them on to anyone else. Make sure you know how to access barrier methods like condoms and dental dams which help to prevent the transmission of STIs, and learn how to use them effectively. STI testing is usually free for teens and young people, and it’s easy to do.
I’m questioning my sexuality or gender identity – what should I do?
“It can be unnerving to be unsure about who you are and how you connect to other people. But it’s also exciting to explore your identity and view yourself through a different lens. Don’t pressure yourself to have it all figured out, especially because the language we use to describe ourselves and how we experience sexuality and gender can sometimes change as we grow and have new experiences.
“Pinpoint the people in your life who are supportive – and if you can’t find any, seek out supportive (and, importantly, safe) communities online – and connect with people who might be going through the same thing. And engage with LGBTQ+ media – it’s important that everyone gets the chance to see people who are different from them and see themselves represented on screen and online.”
How can I feel less scared about sex and relationships?
“There’s a lot of pressure coming at us from all sides about how, when and why we might have sex or relationships. It’s important to remember two things. The first is that having sex and relationships should be a choice, not an obligation. You get to have a say in if, when and how things happen, and can change your mind at any point. The second is that if you want to have sex or relationships, they should be a positive addition to your life, not something negative, scary or difficult.”
Who can I ask about sex and relationships?
“If there are adults who you trust, that’s a great place to start. My parents really helped to answer a lot of my questions, and those they couldn’t they would research or find a resource for me. There are also loads of resources you can access independently, including books, and websites like BISH (bishuk.com) and Brook (brook.org.uk). Social media can also be a great resource but as someone who shares sex ed on social media myself, I think it’s important to be careful about who you’re trusting with your education.”
Honest. Everything They Don’t Tell You About Sex, Relationships and Bodies, by Milly Evans is published by Bonnier, priced £7.99. Available now.
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