US public schools have notoriously insufficient sexual education. Some countries are more advanced, but unfortunately many students still learn more from movies and porn than from a classroom setting. Most schools don't spend much time educating their students on the logistics of intercourse, sexuality, consent, or protection. This is a shame, because for most teens, sex already is or soon will become a big part of their lives. If you're a teen with more questions than answers about sex, check Seventeen.com's list of 13 things you don't learn in sex ed, but really should know.
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You're not weird if you're into it before your friends are — or if you literally could not care less about it. "You decide when you want to be sexually active," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. Not your partner. Not your crew. YOU.
In other words, it's not just vaginal intercourse — sexual activity includes just about any kind of intimate contact. "That could be kissing on the lips; touching intimate parts of the body with the hands, mouth, or penis; or vaginal or anal penetration," says Sarah Yamaguchi, MD, an OB/GYN at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. So when your doctor asks about your sexual history, any of the above is fair game. And it's important to be honest, so she can tell you how to stay healthy and protect yourself.
For some people, virginity has a cut-and-dry definition. For others, it's a flexible concept (and kind of a heteronormative term, tbh). Whatever rings true for you is fine. As far as your gyno is concerned, what you're doing is more important than how you label it. "We think of virginity as something that's really determined more by an individual girl herself and not by anybody else," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. "It's not a medical diagnosis."
It's never too late to change your mind. You're literally inches away from doing the deed? You've done "everything but"? You said you were ready, but you're having second thoughts? You've already done it, but don't want to do it again? You had sex with your last bf/gf, but want to hold off this time? Whatever your reason is, it's valid — and totally fine to say no. "It is never too late to change your mind," Dr. Yamaguchi says. "Consent can be given and withdrawn" at any point. If your partner is upset, then they are not the right person."
The Pill is 99% effective against pregnancy if you use it perfectly — but most people don't. Under normal circumstances, it's actually closer to 91 percent effective, which sounds solid until you do the math and realize, OMG, that means around 1 in 10 Pill users get preggo each year. If you're worried you won't remember to take it at the same time each day, Dr. Simms recommends asking your doctor about long-acting reversible contraceptives like birth control implants or the IUD instead. Just keep in mind that none of the above protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Condoms can help protect you from sexually transmitted infections like HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and high-risk HPV — but they're not fail-safe, and they don't protect against everything. "Condoms are not effective at preventing the transmission of herpes or warts, since those lesions can happen on an area not covered by the condom," Dr. Yamaguchi says. That's why STI testing is super-important if you're sexually active — yep, even if you're being careful.
"Many STIs are treatable, but we need to know you have them," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. "If you don't know you have them, they can cause long-term problems." Check your state's confidentiality laws — as long as you're over 13, you may be able to get tested without your doctor alerting your parents.
"My patients all think they're going to ask me something 'shocking' that I've never heard before, but I rarely hear a question that hasn't come up before," Dr. Yamaguchi says. "We talk about vaginas and look at them all day. It may be an embarrassing area for you to discuss, but not for us." You should feel comfortable asking your gyno literally anything. If you get an unapproachable vibe from her, or she shades you for asking about your sexual health, it's time to find a new doc.
It's not wrong, it's not weird and it's not just for boys. "It's okay to masturbate!" Dr. Simms-Cendan says. "Just because you're interested in sex, it doesn't mean you have to have sex with somebody. You can make yourself happy. Masturbation never got anybody pregnant, never gave anyone an infection, and never dealt with relationship drama."
If you are sexually active, it should be something you're doing for you, not just to make your partner happy. And while it's totally okay if you don't have an orgasm — it can take awhile to figure out what works for you — it should at least be something you look forward to. "If you're dreading it, don't do it," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. "And if it's painful, talk to a doctor."
We've said this before, but you can seriously stop stressing about what your vag looks like. "Everybody's so different down there," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. "It's a wide variety. And you're normal."
Internet porn may seem like an easy way to get a lot of questions answered at once — sort of like a super-NSFW video tutorial — but it's not exactly known for being realistic. "Porn is as accurate about sex education as action movies are accurate about the real world," Dr. Yamaguchi says. Still, the internet can be a helpful resource for questions you're too embarrassed to ask anyone else, as long as you stick to reputable sites like Planned Parenthood or Bedsider. Or just talk to your gyno — did we mention she's really, really not judging?
Even if your school has a sex ed program, it's likely geared towards straight, cisgender teens — and if that's not how you identify, you may feel like you're not getting the info you need. If that's the case, it can be super-helpful to find an LGBTQ-friendly doc who can answer any questions you still have. "The bottom line is, go to a gynecologist you're comfortable with," Dr. Simms-Cendan says. If your doc seems clueless about LGBTQ+ issues, look for a new one.
This is what sex ed should have taught you, but how many of these have you actually heard from a teacher? What other sex advice have you received?
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