Talking to young people about sex can often be nerve-wracking and awkward. Learn about why it’s important to discuss sexual health, how to start the conversation, key tips to help along the way, and a range of extra resources and referrals for some additional support.
This will help you to:
- use practical strategies to start tricky conversations
- understand the ‘golden rules’ for talking to young people about sex
- identify resources for further information and referrals.
Mental health and sexual health can interact in complex ways. When a young person is struggling with their mental health, looking after their sexual health can become more difficult, including consistently using contraception and condoms, negotiating consent and navigating relationships. The reverse applies too: having an STI, unplanned pregnancy or experiencing a sexual assault can have a profound impact on one’s mental health. So, as workers, it’s important to be aware of the potential sexual health issues for young people and how to talk about them in an appropriate, positive, and supportive way. There’s no need to be scared – this article will help guide you through every step.
Why is talking to young people about sexual health important?
With all the competing needs in young people’s lives, sexual health can often be left untouched by those who work with them. So, let’s check out some key stats on the issue. A third of year 10 students and half of year 12 students have had sex1 and STI rates are high amongst young people, with 15–24 year olds accounting for 80% of all Chlamydia cases (that’s about 67,000 a year).2
Young people need trusted adults and professionals to discuss sexual health with in a supportive way. In a recent survey, over half of Australian young people said they received sexual health education from community health services (65%), youth sector organisation websites (49%), or youth or community organisations (48%).3 This indicates that many professionals are a preferred source of information for young people and lots of conversations are already happening. But sexual health is a tricky area to discuss and it’s perfectly normal to want a little bit of guidance to make sure you’re doing it right.
So, how do I start the conversation?
This is often the hardest part. If talking about sexual health doesn’t come naturally to you, here are a few ways to kick things off:
- Add a sexual health question to your intake form. “Are you sexually active?” usually does the trick. It’s an easy opener to talk about what sexual activity they’ve experienced, the protective measures they’re taking, and how you can support them further.
- Use recent statistics. If you’re running a group, or talking to an individual, bring up some stats on sexual activity. This is a routine and non-threatening way to raise the topic so it’s appropriately impersonal. Bonus: there are a few stats in the opening of in this article that you can use as a starter.
- Keep an eye on the media. Keep up-to-date with celebrities, TV shows and movies, to use as topic inspiration. For example, the recent show ‘Married at First Sight’ could be a jumping-off point to discuss relationships, communication and sexual attraction, and Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition is a perfect way to start discussing gender diversity.
- Use an anonymous question box to allow young people to raise any queries or concerns. This works best in a group setting and ensures that you’re addressing the topics most important to them.
What are some of the golden rules?
Now that you’ve got the conversation flowing, read on for our golden rules to ensure all discussions are appropriate, respectful and accurate.
- Use correct language. Practice saying words like ‘penis’, ‘vagina’ and ‘oral sex’, so that you’re specific and professional. Avoid using too much slang – it can get confusing and trivialises what you’re talking about.
- Don’t assume. It probably doesn’t come as a shock, but not everyone is heterosexual, so make sure you ask about WHAT a young person is doing with WHO rather than simply filling in the blanks for yourself. Find out more about sexual and gender diversity.
- Concentrate on clear key messaging to keep the conversation simple and focused. Some good sexual health messages to integrate are consistent condom use, regular STI testing and practicing proper consent.
- Maintain boundaries by keeping your conversations universal rather than personal. Try to avoid using first-person language like “I” and “you” and, instead, use general phrases like “some people like to…”. This avoids awkward self-disclosures and establishes appropriate professional distance.
- Consider the question behind the question. When a young person asks a clanger, consider: what are they REALLY wanting to know? It’s common for young people to need validation, guidance or reassurance that what they are feeling, thinking or experiencing is okay and ‘normal’.
- Check your values at the door. You cannot be values-free (you are human, after all), but you can be values-fair. This means being open to other opinions and experiences, and referring if you cannot. Your role is to help young people make informed decisions for themselves, not make decisions for them or enforce any particular agenda.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question or concern, be honest. Model good practice by seeking out the information you need WITH the young person – this shows them that it’s okay not to know everything, and it’s also okay to seek help.
Who can I refer to?
You’re not expected to be an expert, but you do have to be willing to help. Check out a few of these options for more information and referrals:
- ReachOut.com has fact sheets and information for young people.
- Family Planning clinics around Australia can be found through Family Planning Alliance Australia, and there are fact sheets on the Family Planning NSW website.
- Local sexual health services can be found on each state government health website (eg: NSW Health, Queensland Health).
- ACON for LGBTI health.
- Mitchell A, Patrick K, Heywood W, Blackman P, Pitts M. (2014), 5th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2013, (ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 97), Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
- The Kirby Institute (2013), HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2013, The Kirby Institute, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
- Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (2012), Let’s Talk About Sex: Young People’s views on sex and sexual health information in Australia, Australian Youth Affairs Coalition and Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS, Australia.