There’s no sugarcoating it: if you’re a teenager, you might already be having sex. Maybe your friends seem to all be talking about it. Maybe you’re considering it, but haven’t decided if you’re fully ready yet. No matter what the circumstances, there’s one thing that’s definitely true. It’s important to be educated about sexual health. Correct information can protect you and any potential partners.
Safe, responsible, healthy sex starts with setting good boundaries. It means knowing how much risk you’re willing to accept and making choices about how you’ll protect your sexual health. Because as fun, carefree, and beautiful as sex can be, it still comes with grownup risks like pregnancy and STIs. Here are some key things to know when you decide to do the deed.
Birth Control Methods for Teens
If the type of sex you’re having could possibly result in conception, you need a plan to prevent unintended pregnancy. It’s a good idea to use two methods of birth control, in case one fails or you miss a dose. For most individuals, this means some form of hormonal contraception, as well as a backup barrier method like condoms. But any single method on its own is always better than no method at all.
Oral contraceptive pills are a popular option, and are available and considered safe for most people, even those under the age of 18. And some brands, like sprintec, can have additional benefits, like treating acne and making your periods more manageable. Depending on what state you live in, it’s possible for teenagers to get birth control online without parental consent.
But some teens might not like how they feel on the pill or have trouble keeping track of taking their birth control pills every day. If you struggle to get organized or experience side effects, different options might be better for you. These could include other methods like the birth control shot, which you only need to get once every three months.
There are some U.S. states where laws make it harder for teens to get birth control without parental consent. If you’re in a situation where accessing healthcare or prescriptions could be a challenge, you could consider even longer-lasting options. For example, while you can’t get an IUD or implant in every state, both are safe and legal for most teens. Once you have an implant or IUD inserted, it doesn’t need to be replaced for several years.
What to Do if You Think You’re Pregnant
Common contraception methods are very effective, with condoms and pills up to 98% and 99% effective, respectively, when used perfectly. But no one’s perfect, and accidents and mistakes do happen. Even with two methods of birth control, there’s no 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy. The most important thing is to be prepared and have a backup plan in place.
If your method fails or you’ve had unprotected sex, you could consider taking emergency contraception, aka the morning after pill. Like other contraceptives, it’s possible in many states to get emergency contraception online. Many brands can be purchased over the counter. And only certain types of emergency contraception require you to get a prescription first.
All types of emergency contraception are considered safe for teens. The two main categories of morning after pill are those that contain levonorgestrel and those that contain ulipristal acetate. You can get levonorgestrel over-the-counter at any age, though some states have laws that let pharmacists refuse to help you. It also doesn’t work in every body — for people over 165 pounds, its less effective or could be ineffective.
Ulipristal acetate requires a prescription, but you can easily get it through an online healthcare provider in most states. It works in people up to 195 lbs, but starts losing effectiveness above that weight. If you’re a higher body weight or for any reason can’t take emergency contraception, your best bet may be having an IUD inserted. If all else fails, abortion is considered safe, but your level of access could vary depending on state laws.
Aside from condoms, there’s no birth control method that protects you from sexually transmitted infections. Any sexual contact, including skin-to-skin genital contact without penetration, could result in transmission of infections like herpes, syphilis, and HPV. Even with a condom or other barrier method, there’s still a chance of disease spreading across uncovered areas of skin.
When fluids are exchanged, things get riskier — your chances of contracting an STI like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or even HIV increase. It’s very important to get tested for STIs at least once a year if you’re sexually active. If you have multiple partners or riskier partners, it’s better to get tested every 3-6 months.
There are also other things to do to prevent the spread of more serious STIs. If you or any of your partners are at risk for HIV, consider going on pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP brands, including Truvada and Descovy, are safe and available for teens as young as 12. But some brands, like Descovy, aren’t approved for people assigned female at birth.
As with pregnancy prevention, getting STI care may be more challenging in certain states. Some states have laws that could prevent you from getting certain types of healthcare without parental consent. And even if you do get care, doctors or insurance companies may disclose personal information to your parents or guardians.
Care is Complicated
For most teens, sex is normal and healthy as long as you keep things responsible and consensual. Most of the tools you need to support safe sex are just as safe and effective for teens as adults. Unfortunately, state laws, controlling parents, and even some medical providers can make it more challenging to get appropriate healthcare.
Before having sex as a teen, it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into. Know your state and local laws and do research on appropriate treatments, clinics, and other resources you might need. And this should go without saying, but the first step to healthy sex is making sure everyone involved wants it. Never have sex without enthusiastic consent from all parties.