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How, When and Why to Have Conversations with Female Adolescents about Sexual Health

A recent 2022 survey by the Sex Education Forum highlighted that one in four young people in the UK had no Relationship and Sex Education (RSHE) from parents or carers.

What we’ll be deep diving into:

  • How to go about discussing sexual health with female adolescents.
  • What is important to know in order to educate and the issues regarding misinformation.
  • When it would be a good time to start these conversations.
  • Why it’s important to talk about sexual health.

Although there have been increasing efforts to educate and engage young people in conversations about sexual health at school, with the government updating the Personal, Social, Health & Economic (PSHE) curriculum in 2021 encompass RSHE delivery, young people feel that they are still not receiving comprehensive and quality RSHE.

Educational institutions should be making content and materials available to parents and carers on request, providing an understanding as to what is being delivered. The next PSHE curriculum review is due later in 2023.

For many parents and caregivers, there may be barriers for communicating about sexual health and sexuality, like confidence and individual attitudes.

It is important to highlight that sexual health education includes the physical, mental, emotional, and social wellbeing of an individual – it is so much more than ‘just sex’. Conversations regarding hygiene, healthy relationships, sexuality, and consent can all be included under sexual health.

Additionally, the sexuality of a person encompasses their biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. Every individual will experience them differently and can be influenced by a person’s biology, psychology, culture, and religion. This area is as equally important to acknowledge within these conversations.

Educating female adolescents helps to strengthen gender equality, increases their power to make decisions regarding their body and safe sexual behaviours, supports the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and contributes to the reduction of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

Ultimately, equipping young people with factual, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information provides them the opportunity to protect their health and the health of others, both now and in the future.

So how can we go about doing so?

Children and young people often have many questions about sexual health and sexuality and can be unsure where to access information. As a parent or carer, making yourself a reliable and shame-free guide is a good place to start.

Teaching Sexual Health emphasise the importance of being an ‘askable adult’, holding awareness of your personal beliefs / values and reflecting on how this may influence your view of the world and shape your understanding of sexual health and sexuality.

When engaging in these conversations with your young person, be mindful to be an equal participant in the conversation – speaking in a respectful manner and acknowledging their age and current understanding. Avoid using phrases that downplay or trivialise how your young person feels as this may discourage them from talking about topics in the future.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to previous generations and are the experts of their lived experiences. It may be useful to find out what they already know, addressing potential misinformation and sharing facts and resources with them to aid their understanding.

We don’t have to act like we know it all, and if you do not know the answer, research together or tell them you will find out and come back to them, thus demonstrating that you are a source of reliable learning.

Equally there is no shame in educating yourself. Knowing the basics will positively impact the dialogue. This includes using the correct anatomical names for the body parts, helping your child respect and relate equally to all parts of their bodies and learn the correct terminology. Also, building an awareness of the stages of sexual development and where your child is likely to be at as detailed on the NSPCC website.

So, what is important to know for our girls?

  • Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STD & STIs)
  • Contraception – including condoms and emergency contraception
  • Implications of missing the pill
  • The age of consent
  • Defining ‘enthusiastic consent’ 
  • Intercourse and outercourse (oral sex, masturbation, non-penetrative sex) – all classified as sexual acts

Eye-opening fact:

Chlamydia is the most common STI among 16–25-year-olds.

Reflecting upon societal views and values regarding sexuality and sexual health is an important part of the conversation with female adolescents.

Wider societal challenges such as the sexualisation and objectification of females in modern society can impact and influence the standards young girls feel they must meet. For example, it can shape how they view and understand their body, placing pressure on themselves to be ‘normal’ or do as is expected rather than holding an understanding of what is natural and what feels comfortable as they mature into sexual beings.

When misinformation or an alternative viewpoint does arise, it may be useful to think carefully about the cause and effect by using ‘what if’ questions – for example “I’m wondering what would happen if…” or “what if we were to look at it this way …”. This will help them think critically about what they see and hear.

Embody active listening skills, listening to hear them -not just respond to them and talking with them, not at them. Being mindful of your body language is also helpful during these conversations – how is our non-verbal communication being received and interpreted by the young person? Paying close attention to our tone of voice, facial expression and trying to avoid reactions that communicate negative emotions such as concern or disgust.

You can find teachable moments in everyday life, such as content in TV shows, music, adverts, and the news to instigate conversation or address questions and clarify their understanding. This non-directive approach can feel a little less invasive as the spotlight is not directly on the young person.

Modelling how to have responsible, healthy conversations and decision making can be a skill that your young person will carry into adulthood.

When would be a good time to start these conversations?

Knowing when the right time to have these conversations is always tricky. In the UK, the age of consent for sexual activity is 16. Children and young people however are naturally curious about their bodies and other people. It is also important to hold in mind that females tend to physically mature earlier than males and therefore answering questions about sexual health or sexuality when they arise will help them to understand their changing bodies, their feelings, and feelings of others.

In addition, young people today are exposed to more content than ever, and they may have questions at earlier stages than generations before. Depending upon their age, you can keep the language simple and age-appropriate, but it is never too early to talk and provide honest answers.

Move away from the narrative of having ‘the talk’ – instead, talk often. Recognise the importance of having more than a one-off conversation and instead gradually build-up discussion. In doing so it models that relationships and sexual health is a part of normal life and the more natural and comfortable these conversations become.

Fascinating Fact:

Talking to young people about sex won’t make them go out and do it. Research shows that talking about it openly and regularly means that they are more likely to engage in sex later and use protection.

In truth, young people have a right to be provided this information in a timely manner in order to make informed decisions about their bodies and choices as they move through the stages of adolescence and sexual awakening.

And why is it important to talk about sexual health?

Today, young people are continually consuming messages about sex and sexuality from an array of different outlets, whether we are openly talking about the topic with them, or not.

Providing a young person with a safe environment in which to understand factual, reliable information and develop their own understanding, values and beliefs is paramount.

The parental relationship is one of the most influential for young people when engaging in sexual health communication, with research suggesting it can positively impact an adolescent’s risk reduction, behaviours, and attitudes – serving as a protective factor. You can read the research from Research Gate, National Library of Medicine and the Health Education Resources here.

Through regularly engaging in these types of conversation they will learn about consent and honouring their own and other people’s boundaries, they will develop a deeper understanding of who they are and what they feel comfortable with, which ensures they stand firm in their own decisions rather than feeling pressured or unsure.

A point of reflection:

If a young person believes information is being withheld or hidden, they are likely to imagine the worst or attempt to seek out information that could misinform. Avoiding secrecy creates less confusion and less opportunity to feed fear and shame.

Empower them to talk comfortably and confidently. Provide safe and supportive conversations. Be approachable and equally respectful of your young person’s right to privacy as they strive towards developing their emotional coping and communication problem solving skills.

Final thoughts…

Addressing sexuality and sexual health education with our young girls is a transition for all – young people and caregivers alike. It can be difficult to think about them as sexual beings. But adults have an opportunity to co-create a positive foundation with young people to reflect upon their emerging sexuality and to make informed choices.

Ultimately, we want to avoid issues arising simply because we are too embarrassed to frankly discuss sexuality and sexual health, abolishing the silence and shame that shroud this natural developmental process. Viewing female adolescents’ sexuality, sexual feelings, and sexual behaviours as normal supports their development of agency in sexual care.

When we don’t talk to young women about their changing bodies and desires as they mature, we provide no language for it or them. And without language it leaves space for silence, uncertainty and / or misinformation. It perpetuates the narrative that it shouldn’t be spoken about, and they are left to make their own judgements.

Knowledge is power!

Inclusivity considerations:

Using inclusive, gender-neutral language respects the way your young person identifies and builds the foundational trust necessary for conversations about sexual health and relationships.

Things to consider:

  • You may choose to provide resources that do not use heteronormative terms.
  • You may choose to focus on the anatomy rather than gender when discussing sexual health.
  • You may choose to reframe questions, for example asking if they have a partner rather than ‘boyfriend or girlfriend’.
  • You may wish to avoid making assumptions about your young person’s pronouns, sexual orientation, or identity in general.

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