Sex-ed in the real world: Do intentions affect actions in the heat of the moment?

ResearchBlogging.orgNotwithstanding the cute pictures from yesterday's post, Jim is now nearly seventeen years old. He's taller than me, has a beard, and is much less interested in having his photo taken, so I don't have any recent pictures. He also plays a mean bass guitar, and he's in a band, which means -- you guessed it -- girls have started taking an interest in him.

Of course we've explained to him the basics of sex, including contraception and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, but we always wonder whether we've done enough. If you're a parent (or a son or daughter) who's had one of these conversations, you know how awkward they can be. Yet you probably also know they're the Right Thing To Do, and so you do it. But will these talks make a difference? There are millions of unwanted pregnancies worldwide each year, and sexually transmitted diseases and infections are rampant. And as Jonah Lehrer points out, a recent study found that when they are sexually aroused, young men are much less likely to say they'll engage in safe sexual practices than when they're thinking about these things in a clinical setting.

So what about in the real world? Does simply knowing that condoms are a good thing promote actual use? Pepijn van Empelen and Gerjo Kok surveyed 399 Dutch high school students about their attitudes and sexual behavior. The teens were surveyed twice, three months apart, and paid 5 euros each for their time. They were asked whether they thought condoms were a good idea, whether they were planning to buy condoms in the future, and whether they actually did buy and carry condoms. And, of course, they were asked whether they actually had sex, with how many partners and how often they used condoms.

Since the average age of the respondents was just 15, most of them reported never having had sexual intercourse. But there was still a large group of 146 sexually active teens. Of these, only about 58 percent said they always used condoms.

As a parent, what I'm interested in is how to prevent my son from engaging in risky sex, and if he does have sex, how to ensure that he does use a condom every time. But sex is by its nature a spontaneous activity -- we're culturally conditioned to think that planning for sex is "unromantic," and teenagers are no exception to this rule. Studies have found that they often have unplanned sex. If they don't plan for it, how can we expect them to use protection when they do have sex?

Van Empelen and Kok's study confirms the answer implicit in the question: Among sexually active teens, actual condom use bears no relationship to intention to use a condom or belief that using condoms is a good idea. The only factors in their study that correlate with using condoms are buying and carrying condoms.

The implication, if we want our children to avoid unsafe sex, is that condoms must be readily available for teens. The very practices that are most controversial in current-day sex-education debates are the ones most likely to succeed: Give away condoms or sell them in school. Parents may even want to consider buying condoms for their children. Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't.

It's important to note that this study only offers a correlation. We can't say for certain based on this study that if the kids who don't currently carry or buy condoms would actually use them if they were provided. But when you combine these results with those cited by Jonah in his post, a clearer picture emerges: if condoms aren't available in the heat of the moment, many teens will succumb to their passions -- even if they "know better."

Pepijn Empelen, Gerjo Kok (2008). Action-specific Cognitions of Planned and Preparatory Behaviors of Condom Use among Dutch Adolescents Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37 (4), 626-640 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-007-9286-9

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Make sure all of your kids' friends know that you blog. Problem solved. (for you anyway)

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink

According to Nora, having a dad who's a professional blogger is "cool" among her friends. I'm not sure what Jim's friends would think though.

we're culturally conditioned to think that planning for sex is "unromantic," and teenagers are no exception to this rule.

The solution probably lies in changing our views about pre-sex communication. Why is planning for sex unromantic? If sex is a normal fun thing that is part of our lives as human beings, why is doing it safely somehow less fun or intimate? (It seems like talking about it beforehand is only unromantic if sexual activity is viewed as wrong or shameful...)

we're culturally conditioned to think that planning for sex is "unromantic," and teenagers are no exception to this rule.

The solution probably lies in changing our views about pre-sex communication. Why is planning for sex unromantic? If sex is a normal fun thing that is part of our lives as human beings, why is doing it safely somehow less fun or intimate? (It seems like talking about it beforehand is only unromantic if sexual activity is viewed as wrong or shameful...) Talking with our children is important, and setting a comfortable tone for those conversations from an early age would be great (though difficult) -- if it's so awkward to talk about it with parents, then bringing it up with a partner (who they've known a relatively short time) will almost certainly be awkward and avoided too.

Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't.

Well no. That's a bold generalisation. The only thing that is preferably is that one practices safe sex to avoid STD's and pregnancy. Unless you intend to get pregnant of course. All the rest is just an unnatural and man made moral.
You don't need a study to find that kids will have sex, it's the biological thing to do. Those hormones are there for a reason at that age.

Somewhere I got the idea that if I couldn't talk about sex with my girlfriend, i.e. "plan" for sex, then the relationship wasn't ready for sex. But it didn't come from my parents, whose communication strategy was nil to nothing. Maybe it was that a couple years earlier I had lucked into a first-printing of Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask by Dr. David Rubin, MD. Anyway, when the time came, my girlfriend and I went to Planned Parenthood, got solid information and contraceptives, had fun, didn't worry.

It was one of the few things I have done right in life, and the other thing I did right was to tell my kids about it just that way. I told them; "Don't fool yourself", in effect giving them license to exercise proper care in a dangerous (but fun!) situation. Seems to have worked out; they're grown and moved away, no disasters.

But the credit may go to my wife, since actions speak louder than words. One of my kids, or one of their friends, wrote "box of condoms" on the shopping list as a joke. Next day, Mrs goes into the living room and tosses the box on the coffee table, where 2 sons and 2 friends were BS-ing. "Someone put this on the list," and left the room without another word.

I was and come from a long line of teenage mums,I was determined to break this cycle when I had my kids.So we never had 'the sex talk' sex talk was always a normal part of conversation in my house,age appropriate of course,I also made sure that son and daughters had condoms available to them,they were highly embarrassed at fifteen (a fairly typical first time age here in the UK)to be given condoms to be kept in purse or wallet,they all deemed them unneccessary as they weren't ready for sex,I politely explained that the best laid plans oft go awry,and I am pleased to announce that next week the youngest of my four will be twenty-one.
I have done it ! no teen parents in my lot.

Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't.

I agree with #5; this is a gross and grossly inaccurate generalization. I did not wait until marriage, nor did my wife, nor did any of our peers. And I certainly would feel like a failure of a parent if I wound up raising a child who grew into an adult with such an un-integrated sexuality.

And of course, though hopefully this will not be an issue for too much longer, what if your children are gay? Would you want them to "wait until marriage"?

By Joe Ardent (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink

Joe (#8) and Steeph (#5):

Maybe my statement was overgeneralized. Certainly many of us would prefer it that way since it would make our lives simpler. But of course it's not an especially realistic hope, which I make clear in the same sentence.

What if the kids are gay? Then I'd prefer for them to wait until they are in a committed monogamous relationship, not unlike marriage. And ideally, by the time they are considering such a relationship, it will be legal for gays to marry nationwide!

I have been someone who has waited from the general first time age. I waited until I was about 20. At this time, I've been on the pill for 2 years, and the boyfriend at the time, wore a condom. Now, a few years down the road, I'm not pregnant, completely clean. Although, my parents have never had the talk or told me to do certain things. I like to think that I was smart enough to do the right thing and we actually sort of preplanned (he had condoms in the bedstand). I plan on continuing this for a few years to come as I'm still finishing my education.

There is hope. I do agree that parents should talk (just in case) and should help provide. Safe sex is way better than unprotected sex... I know they would rather have no sex at all, but that's extremely idealistic... they don't want losing control of their kids and what not, and they understand it's part of growing up... it's just that they see them as still their child and not any older...

Poor Jim. I hope he isn't totally mortified to have his baby pictures, family vacation photos, and details of his sex education posted for all the world to see. :P

But in response to your post, I think it has a lot to do with how much parental intervention there is, and what kind. I've known men that are ultra careful about condoms and avoiding pregnancy to the point of being OCD about it, which has usually correlated strongly to their mothers instilling the fear of God into them about pregnancy and STD's. Those gross pictures in health class certainly helped, too.

My mother's words of warning were a little more vague, recounting stories of always losing complete and total control ("One minute we were holding hands and the next thing I knew he was climaxing.") I have never experienced such a blackout that a pause for protection wasn't possible, so I'm not sure what that was all about.

One segment of "What's the New What" on NPR talked about how unprotected sex is the new engagement ring, so it *seems* that quite a lot of young couples are using condoms until they decide they want a long-term committed relationship with their partner.

Unprotected sex is the new engagement ring? Yikes.

Forgot to mention this wonderful, wonderful essay which any young person (and any educator or parent) should read: Free Bristol Palin

A small excerpt:

...But okay . . . you're embarrassed. You didn't plan this. It just kind of came up and . . .

No, my friends. No, no. I do not want to hear it. If sex is in the picture, you need to get over this misplaced embarrassment. If you get pregnant . . . you are in for a world of exposure beyond your wildest dreams. Your body is also going to expand in nineteen different directions. Your internal organs will rearrange. You may develop conditions that restrict what you eat or do. In time, you will not be able to sit with your legs closed, and eventually you will end up on a table with your feet in stirrups and about fifteen strangers coming in and out of the room and looking at your you-know-what like they are looking at the town clock . . .

So you really should get over that "I don't want to face the checkout person" embarrassment now...

Hmm, here seems as good as any a place I've seen to bring up this only-slightly-off-topic bit:

There's a flip side, too - those who, for no _apparent_ reason (ie, not necessarily ugly nor social disasters), can't get, and perhaps have never gotten, laid (and I'm not talkin' teens). Look up such lovely terms as incel (='involuntary celibacy') and 'love shy'. What _appears_ to be a higher proportion of Asperger's patients also fall into this category (note the 'involuntary' point - I'm only including those who want/would like to).

A rather interesting class of people to contrast with all this talk about teen sex and 'waiting till marriage'. (And as a random question off of that: those of you who say they'd like their child'n to wait till marriage, would you rather they wait for something that looks like pretty low chances, or take the first [practical] opportunity?)

So, anyone got any good comments or research re: that? (I'm lookin' at _you_, cogdaily bloggers..)

--'sufferer' @22, w/ no end in sight..

By anonymouse (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink

Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't.

I would disagree with the statement that we'd all prefer it if our kids waited until marriage. I know it sounds weird, and I have two daughters under 4, but I kind of think it'd be strange if they waited until marriage.

I didn't make it out of high school a virgin but I had excellent sex ed and my partners and I always used a condom plus another form of birth control (usually the pill).

I only know one person that waited until marriage and she got married at 20.

I guess what I'm saying is that when the time comes, I hope my daughters become sexually active for the right reasons and make the right choices.

One of my male friends was visited at 16 by the "condom fairy" (aka his mom) who went into his room when he was at school & put condoms all the hell over the place. Under the bed, in dresser drawers... months later he was still discovering them in jeans pockets.
It made things a bit less awkward by being extremely funny.
And there's no reason not to do it for girls, either.

That's a really interesting finding. And the second author has a very pertinent name.

(In my more cynical moments, I think that effective sex-ed practices are the most controversial precisely because they're effective. Some people want adolescence to be a challenging purity test, so they can feel superior to those who fail.)

"Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't."

What a terrible thing for a parent to say, like wanting ones child to be some emotionally stunted, frightened, repressed little thing incapable of physical intimacy. I'd hope to raise a normal, happy, hot blooded human myself :-)

I had some wonderful - and safe - sexual experiences as a teen, cherished memories. I'd hate to have been denied that, hope your son isn't.

decrepitoldfool, you didn't quote the best part. Here goes:

As if that wasn't bad enough . . . let's look at it from a cold, clinical, beancountery way.

In Alaska alone (you know why we are talking about you, Alaska) . . . teen pregnancies cost the state at least $30 million in the year 2004 [pdf]. AND THERE ARE NOT VERY MANY PEOPLE IN ALASKA. (And no, it is really not that helpful that Governor Palin slashed the budget for the program there for teen mothers.)

Overall, the costs to the nation ran to about $9.1 billion [pdf]. Yes. $9.1 billion. Oooof. And that's just government money. The burden of a lot of this is on families, and who even knows what that runs to. This is all for something that could have probably have been prevented by a small piece of rubber or a pill that costs pennies to make.

A lot of people say, "ABSTINENCE! IT IS THE ONLY WAY! THE ONLY THING TO TEACH! All of this fornication is a horrible modern thing brought on by television and video games and BOOKS!"

Har har har! GOOD ONE! I don't know how these people missed hearing about all of human history . . . but this sex thing has been going on for a while now, and frankly, it's probably going to continue. It's the world's oldest form of entertainment. We come pre-installed with all kinds of hormones and squishy bits. Maybe this will be improved upon when Human 2.0 is released, but this is what we have so far. And in general, it works pretty well. There is lots of fun and comedy value, and we get to continue as a species!

My bottom line is . . . sex is something we really need to deal with. Not shamefully. Not through hiding information. It's up to every individual to decide when he or she is ready for it. And at WHATEVER age you make that decision, you should really be informed about how to manage it.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

The best birthcontrol advice I ever recieved from my mother: "Amber, I have had unprotected sex twice in my life." I have a little sister and I know that the both of us were unexpected. My parents have always created a very open envirnment about sex... even when it was uncomfortable for me they would talk about it. Eventually it was no longer uncomfortable. My friends think it is weird that my own parents have sexiled me from the house before (it was not often my sister spent the night elsewhere). Even still I did not have sex until I was 21 and at the end of my junior year of college. My ex actually wanted to wait until marriage and it destroyed our relationship because I wanted to have sex with him. I agree that waiting is unrealistic and the best thing that you can do it make sex a comfortable subject in the household.


Well. I'm a teen, turning 17 in a month. I've been with three, the last I'm still with and have been for a year and a half. We're talking marriage. :]
Here's my issue: My parents know that I am sexually active. They abhor the fact that I've done "it". But instead of trying to help me out, they still rant and rave every time they find out that I've done it again. My mom says: Condoms won't do anything! What if it breaks!? You'll end up pregnant and he'll leave to the Marines and you'll be stuck with the baby! [he's off in Jan.] Just DON'T DO IT and you won't have to worry about it!
My dad... he takes the scarier approach.

I appreciate their efforts. I appreciate the fact that they CARE enough in the first place to talk to me about it. But then there comes the issue that, well, it's done. Why not takes steps to prevent the potential consequences of sex, instead of trying to prevent the act?
I have a friend who had a scare. Turned out to be nothing, but she told me that her mother said: I know I can't keep you from having sex, but here's a few condoms just in case, and let me know whenever you want to go on the pill.
Simple? Yes. Dare I suggest it? No.

For some reason I can't figure out, parents don't seem to get that they are not the only influence in their child's lives. Taking away privileges and screaming doesn't help a bit! Parents: if you really want to protect your babies from making mistakes they'll regret their whole lives, leave the decisions up to them. Of course, talk to them, warn them, encourage them to come forward if they ever do have intercourse. Girls especially need someone to talk to (that's not a girlfriend) once they've done the deed. But realize there's only so much you can do. And trust them to make the right decisions and protect themselves. If they end up in a bad situation, you'll be there to help them through it. That's what parents are for. Mistakes will be made, make no doubt of it. But as long as there aren't too many, I can assure you they'll come out ok.

By Diane Casanova (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

To take the counterpoint to some of the folks who object to the language "we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage" I find the implication that choosing not to engage in premarital sex means being " some emotionally stunted, frightened, repressed little thing incapable of physical intimacy" or "an adult with such an un-integrated sexuality."

Certainly healthy sexuality doesn't require the social/legal construct of marriage as a prerequisite, but maybe some people have the maturity not to mistake the first (or second, or hundredth, etc.) rush of hormones for a sign that its time to start bangin'.

To take a counter-counterpoint, Nick, I object to your statement that it's immature to take the rush of hormones as a "sign that it's time to start bangin'" -- that true "maturity" requires one to wait for some arbitrary milestone before having sex, whether it's marriage or something else.

Some people may not be comfortable having sex at the same time as others. But the ones who are ready earlier aren't less mature; heck, some of them may even be more mature. Sex is a natural, enjoyable thing, and unnecessary fear of it is what strikes me as immature.

Jesse, you miss my point (perhaps I didn't express myself clearly). What I mean is that determining when one is ready or not is a totally personal matter, and I object to the implication raised by some previous posters that those who delay sexual intimacy are in some way emotionally defective or stunted. If one is going to respect someone's decision to have sex early, one should be equally respectful of those who make the choice not to. Fair enough?

@Nick: Perhaps I should clarify. I like sex, I like sailing, I want these things for myself. Others will have different desires and that's great, I hope they find fulfillment in whatever way is best for them. Just as some people are colorblind or lactose intolerant some simply have absent sexual desires, I'm sure no one is advocating sex for those who don't *really* want it. However, this is rare, for a great many teens who delay or abstain completely from sex the reasons have much to do with notions of guilt, fear, sin and dirtiness that are deliberately inculated in them by adults with some very antiquated ideas. In my culture those are 'non-reproductive sex is immoral' and 'a girl (and her virginity) are the property of her father', though these may be different in the states. People can be so gripped by shame, guilt and obsession that they really can't form intimate relationships, or enjoy sex at all. Even their sexual relationship with themselves can be pretty bad, with masturbation becoming a furtive, guilt-ridden affair. This indoctrination, combined with social attitudes
against sexually active 'immoral' people are what I mean by repression.

Of course, sex is seldom easy or casual, I'm not suggesting entering into it lightly for its own sake. I doubt anyone is 'ready' for sex the first time they have it, at any age. The emotions it releases are powerful, unpredictable and often painful. Learning to understand and manage these difficult emotions is an important part of growing up. One needs this self-understanding to form the relationships one really wants - much better to date the wrong people at 17 and suffer a little heartache than to marry the wrong person at 21 and get stuck with their child. Choosing the right person to spend ones life with will have a big impact on overall happiness. Arriving in adulthood without a good understanding of ones own sexuality, and without well honed relationship skills is a serious disadvantage. A person may wind up unhappily single or be driven by loneliness into a bad relationship. This is what I meant by stunted.

But this is just my opinion, given the issue lies at the intersection of sex and protecting ones children, our most powerful hard-wired impulses, its easy for reason to become clouded with emotion and inflexible belief. For peer-reviewed studies of teen behavior, attitudes and outcomes, I recommend Judith Levine's excellent book 'Harmful to Minors' (Da Capo Press 2003, ISBN: 978-1560255161), she has a lot of insight and a way of dispelling myths.

Arriving in adulthood without a good understanding of ones own sexuality, and without well honed relationship skills is a serious disadvantage. A person may wind up unhappily single or be driven by loneliness into a bad relationship. This is what I meant by stunted.

As someone currently with that problem, I very much have to agree.

I was one of those who stubbornly maintained virginity until age 35 when I finally gave up and gave in to my own sexual desires. As the price I paid, I now have HPV. Which partner gave it to me, I don't know. Just because I was older didn't protect me. The guys had been around-not me. So much for feeling smug and self-righteous! And, yes, the chlamdyia came along, too, but that was treatable.

I doubt seriously that any teenager--until a relationship is at least semi-committed--is going to take the time to use condoms. Things are just moving too fast for that to happen. Girls are just as bad as the boys. Any parent who thinks otherwise is crazy.

My mom's idea of sex-ed was to wait until right before my wedding-at age 36 and come to me and say "It's time we had a talk." Answer from me? "ok, what did you want to know?" End of discussion. She simply had no idea of how to broach the subject. She couldn't tell me that sex is simultaneously wonderful and awkward as all hell, sublime and slimy, transcendent and earthy. It links us to all of creation and it is the point of creation. But it can also be the source of destruction and disease as it wrecks lives and spreads disease. How I wish more parents, teachers, and friends could pass this message on to the pre-teens before the "romance" of sex gets the hormones moving.

By westgapeachpit (not verified) on 28 Sep 2008 #permalink

I consider it a cosmic accident that I didn't get pregnant as a teenager. My mom never said one word about me having sex, or what to do, other than to ask me after my wedding if I was a virgin before that day (and then she proudly proclaimed my lie to the world, as if my answer were the measure of her worth as a parent).

Just 4 years later, I am amazed at my stupidity. I was playing with fire, and no way am I going to let my son do anything near that. He is going to have a box of condoms in his school bag at all times, and if the supply ever goes unreplenished, there will be hell.

Preventing my own daughters from engaging in risky behavior has become my number one goal. As a parent of a teen, I have taken the road that I will actually be proactive and provide condoms in the house. Along with the contenual education of my daughter, I belive that I can make sure that she will always use protection and think before behaving in risky behavior.

There are a lot of variables in this equation that aren't necessarily being hashed out. I'd like to start by saying the attacks on..."Of course we'd all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won't."... are a bit harsh, i believe that was simply a light-hearted play at making things easier. However one thing that i believe should certainly be considered is demographic. Growing up in a small rural town in KY, in a county that, at one time, held one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, sex, marriage and the alike are approached differently. It always freaked me out that as I continued my education through high school and into college, some of my best friends were getting married and having children (not necc. that order) at ages 18, 19, 20 and so forth. While it seemed strange to ME it was in no case "abnormal." Even having high aspirations of continuing my education, I "fell in love," lost my virginity, and had unprotected sex with a girl in high school. The issue for me on the "wait till marriage" aspect was that, judging from my peers, it was only right around the corner. Once that 2 year relationship was broken, i was so used to being unprotected that it didn't seem like a big deal and so i continued for some point with other partners. Eventually growing out of that method of thought and maturing in a more diverse and liberal college environment, I understood that this is not how much of society behaves. Fortunately i changed my ways and was lucky enough to avoid an unexpected pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Long story short-- sex ed is not a battle so much of the liberal vs the conservative mindset but a factor of patterns long in practice both educationally and socially in different demographics. And while a universalized approach to sex ed is exciting it would first require a universalism of social norms which is all but impossible. The best advice i have for parents, something i wish i had gotten: Be frank, Be realistic and be objective.

It seems to me that the article applies to people in general, not just 'kids'.

It might be easy for many people (including me) to try to prevent behaviours in kids that are common in grown-up too, and where prevention is used of a pain reliever from what as parents or persons we commonly do.