I’ve never been the kind of girl to kiss and not tell. So when one of my closest friends called a few weeks ago, it wasn’t long before we got to talking about our respective romantic lives. The conversation turned to sex, and I casually mentioned something about the danger of contracting HIV. “You can’t get HIV from oral sex!” he laughed.
“Are you kidding?” I shot back. How could one of the most intelligent people I knew be so uninformed?
The truth is that my friend is hardly the only confused, or misled, adult out there. For all the talk about educating high school and college students about safe sex, we don’t hear much about giving adults (those 21 and older) the same resources. But twenty-somethings may be most in need of guidance, since they’re at an age where experimenting with different sexual partners and practices is often the norm.
Without sex ed, young adults can end up making unsafe sexual decisions with potentially serious consequences, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unplanned pregnancies. To reduce the likelihood of unsafe sex at any age, we need to work on creating a culture in which it’s acceptable for adults to admit what they don’t know, and convenient for them to learn.
Sexy and I (Might Not) Know It—What Young Adults Don’t Know About Safe Sex
Technically, safe sex refers to sexual practices that don’t involve the exchange of bodily fluids, meaning either sex without penetration or sex using barrier methods, such as condoms. Lately there’s been a ton of buzz about how, and whether, to teach adolescents about these practices.
There’s no doubt that today’s teens need these resources Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. Department of Plant Biology, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA. PLoS One 2011;6(10):e24658. . But the fact of the matter is that adults—those who have already graduated from high school and/or college and supposedly learned about the birds ’n the bees—may require just as much attention. For some of us, high school sex ed was a long time ago, and we need a decent refresher course. Others of us may have never learned the important deets about safe sex in the first place.
A quick look at the statistics shows that not every adult is on the same page when it comes to safe sex. According to the Guttmacher Institute, between 2006 and 2008, only one third of teens were taught about contraception. About a quarter of teens received abstinence education without learning anything about birth control. Other research has found that one in five adults say they never received any sex education in school at all. That means there are a whole lot of people now in their 20s who never learned how to put on a condom, how the birth control pill works, or that, yes, HIV can be transmitted through oral sex.
The problem is that there’s an unspoken assumption among many adults that we all know how to have sex safely. “Our society has this idea: You’re an adult now, you should know everything you need to know about sex,” said Megan Andelloux, a sexologist and sexuality educator.
But in reality, many adults are at risk of making some potentially unsafe decisions. For example, even in spite of science suggesting that many STIs can be transmitted orally, the majority of American adults ages 18 to 35 (including single and partnered sexually active people) say they don’t use condoms during oral sex. Meanwhile, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are higher in people ages 20 to 24 than in any other age group, including adolescents. And while unintended pregnancies have been declining among teens (in 2011 the rate was about 31 percent), about 70 percent of pregnancies among unmarried women between ages 20 and 29 in 2008 were unplanned.
Health experts have tried to speculate why the 20s prove so problematic when it comes to safe sex. One of the most obvious reasons is that twenty-somethings may be having more sex (with more partners) than people in other age groups, and therefore may be at greater risk for contracting STIs. According to Greatist Expert and sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., for many the 20s are a “period of sexual freedom [when they’re] not necessarily looking to settle down.” Moreover, some people start drinking more once they hit 21, which means they may be making some sexual decisions under the influence of alcohol.
One of the biggest issues, said Kerner, is that parents disappear from conversations about safe sex once their kids reach young adulthood. But, he said, given the urge for experimentation that often characterizes the 20s, that’s a “terrible time to opt out.”
Still, the issue here isn’t that information about safe sex is categorically unavailable to people in their 20s. It’s possible for anyone to ask his/her doctor about safe sex practices (though not every doctor will be comfortable discussing this information), or even to search online (though it may not be immediately clear which web sources are reliable). The problem is more that there’s no way to ensure young adults are receiving and implementing safe sex information once they leave high school or college. And cultural taboos around sex and sexuality—combined with the expectation that adults should have sex “figured out”—may limit people’s willingness to have frank discussions about what they don’t know.
Sexual Healing—Spreading the Word About Safe Sex
Until society gets more comfortable with talking about sex, health and sexuality experts may need to be discreet when it comes to teaching adults about safety. Andelloux is frequently hired for parties, where guests are eager to hear about topics such as sexual pleasure but perhaps less interested in learning how to achieve that pleasure safely. “What I try to do is incorporate safer sex in those [events],” Andelloux said. While many would jump at the chance to learn how to have or give an orgasm, “most people are not going to hire a safe sex educator.” She attempts to make safety “sexy” by, for example, showing people how to put on condoms with their mouths.
Other possibilities involve taking advantage of 20-somethings’ tech savvy. The Internet makes possible a certain kind of anonymity, meaning people can download programs and ask questions privately, sometimes without ever having to interact with another human being. Apps such as Triage let users submit photos of their genitals to health professionals to find out if they might have symptoms of an STI. Other apps, such as Condomatix and iCondom, help users search for the nearest location where condoms are sold. Some programs let users exchange health info via text message or by tapping their phones together to find out if a sexual partner has been diagnosed with an STI.
But perhaps the greatest obstacle to getting adults to have sex safely is changing the conversation around safe sex. For one thing, safety should automatically be part of any conversation about sex, no matter how un-sexy a dental dam sounds. And questions about the transmission of STIs should be just as acceptable as questions about how to please a partner in bed. It’s not only okay for adults to ask about these topics; it’s crucial. Salt ’n Pepa had it right, but until we reach the point where they’re singing explicitly about birth control, we have a long, long way to go.