What Teens Should Know About Sex

Teen boy and girl looking awkwardly at each other
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For teens, the mere thought of sex can be overwhelming. There is so much to think about, so much to worry about, and so much that can go wrong. Whether you are sexually active or not, it's important to know the facts about what sex is, what it is not, how to protect yourself, and how to prepare for and enjoy it, both physically and emotionally.

What Sex Is

Any discussion of sex has to begin with defining the term.

It is:

  • Both physical and emotional in nature.
  • Physically risky: You can get pregnant or catch a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Emotionally risky: Your heart might get broken or your ego bruised. You might feel let down or disappointed afterward.
  • A milestone: Losing your virginity is a big step, for both physical and emotional reasons.
  • A judgment call: You should be sure that the timing is right for you and your partner.
  • A significant physical and emotional experience that you should not take lightly or treat as recreation.
  • Best when it is an expression of caring between two people.
  • Messy and full of strange, sometimes embarrassing noises.

What Sex Is Not

Society, in general, makes so much of sex that it's important for you to separate the hype from reality. It's not:

  • A way to make somebody love or commit to you.
  • A test of your love for your partner.
  • A measure of how mature or grown up you are.
  • A good way to get back at your parents or assert your independence.
  • A leisure activity.
  • Always fun or enjoyable (sometimes, you'll wonder if it was really worth it).

What You Need to Know

If you are (or are considering becoming) sexually active, you probably have a few questions, and it's important that you get accurate information. You're probably wondering what to do or how to do it, but technique is not the most crucial thing you need to worry about.

Rest assured that there really is no right or wrong way to have sex—only what feels right to you and your partner. Following are a few issues to consider.

The Law

You might not be aware of this, but in the U.S., each state has an "age of consent" law that dictates how old you must be before having sex. The ages range from 16 to 18. Likewise, each state has rules about what constitutes consensual sex and even about the kinds of sex acts you can engage in. 

Birth Control

Pregnancy is a very real possibility with unprotected sex, no matter what you might have heard. Even with protection, pregnancy is still a risk; no method is 100 percent foolproof. If you're seriously considering having sex, discuss birth control methods with your partner before the issue gets lost in a moment of passion. If you feel too embarrassed to bring the subject up with a possible partner, ask yourself if you're really ready to engage in sex; if you're uncomfortable even talking about it, you probably shouldn't have it.

Once you've settled on a birth control method, inform yourself on its proper use. Even the most effective method won't work if you don't use it consistently or know how to use it properly, so read up on your chosen method.

Birth control missteps—like forgetting to take a pill, failing to leave room for ejaculate when putting on a condom, and other similar mistakes—are common, with predictable results. 

If you have unprotected sex, you can address birth control even after the fact with Plan B, a high-dose birth control pill. You can buy it over the counter—meaning, without a prescription—at a pharmacy, a Planned Parenthood office, your doctor, or online.

It's effective as long as you take it within 72 hours of having sex (the sooner, the better). For that reason, consider buying it before you need it, so you have it on hand. 

Protection

The only effective protection against sexually transmitted infections and diseases, aside from abstaining, is using a barrier method such as a condom. This is a safe-sex must, even if you are using something else for birth control.

Even if you abstain from intercourse but engage in other sexual activities such as oral sex, you should use a barrier method such as a condom or dental dam. Some sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, can be transmitted this way.

Health

Teens face a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Once you become sexually active, you should be tested once a year—more often if you have multiple partners. If you're a woman, you can contract HIV, hepatitis, chlamydia, and other diseases and have no symptoms until later, when they can affect your health and fertility. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause genital warts and cervical cancer; fortunately, a vaccination is available to prevent infection.

Consent

If your partner is under the age of consent, intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, pressured or threatened in any way, or asks you to stop at any point, you cannot legally engage in sex. If you proceed under any of these scenarios, you could be charged with rape.

Comfort

There is no right or wrong way to have intercourse, but if it hurts or if it doesn't feel right emotionally, you should stop right away. Your first experience will probably feel a bit awkward (both physically and emotionally)—this is normal, no matter what you might hear from friends. Women who have never had sex before might experience slight discomfort and even some very light bleeding, but sex should never be painful. It bears repeating: If it feels "off" in any way to you, stop. Listen to your body and your mind.