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Though he never used the words “oral sex,” Patricia M. knew that’s exactly what her 15-year-old son meant. Prompted by a suggestive scene on television, her son turned to his parents with an earnest expression. “You can catch all kinds of diseases that way,” Patricia recalls him saying.

As she and her husband listened to the facts their child shared, gleaned from his hours of school-based sex education classes, they learned an important lesson. “The fact that he is open about it helps with my concerns,” says Patricia, who has another son, age 11. “We set no boundaries when it comes to talking about sex.”

Despite the open communications in her own home, she’s concerned about stories she hears on the news and from other parents that indicate a growing acceptance of oral sex among curious teens who want to avoid pregnancy. “It’s a topic I’m going to have to pay as much attention to as intercourse,” she says. “There’s a lot to worry about.”

Perception Versus Reality

Teens’ experience with oral sex remains difficult to track. While data clearly shows that U.S. teen pregnancy rates have declined and that fewer teens report being sexually active, little research exists about the prevalence of oral sex among adolescents. Still, small-scale studies that have included the subject point out its significance.

For example, in a 2001 survey by the Campaign For Our Children, more than half of teens believed that oral sex did not affect virginity.

A report by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation published this spring added more focus to the topic. Among its findings:

  • 36% of 15- to 17-year-olds said they’d engaged in oral sex.
  • 13% of teens who had oral sex had never had intercourse.
  • 75% of sexually active teens reported also having oral sex.
  • 39% believed oral sex was “safer sex.”
  • Nearly half considered oral sex less of a “big deal” than intercourse.
  • 19% did not know that the act could spread sexually transmitted infections, (also referred to as sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs).

Though they may not have long-term research to confirm it, some experts believe that more adolescents are experimenting with oral sex, and at younger ages. “It may be an unintended consequence of the heightened awareness of the risks of vaginal sex,” says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, DC.

But oral sex comes with its own set of dangers. Both viral and bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be transmitted through oral sex, including:

“Oral sex is occurring, it does have risks, and it’s important to talk about them early on,” Brown contends.

Forget ‘The Talk’

Still, talking about sex in general, and oral sex in particular, makes many parents nervous. Creating an environment in which all family members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and asking questions takes more than a one-time effort—it also takes time.

“This is an 18-year conversation,” Brown says of sex education. “Parents need to start talking early and often.”

She urges parents to build open, honest relationships with their children so that talking about sex can grow out of natural curiosity and trust. “You don’t have to be an expert,” she says. “Young people want a safe place to talk about these things.”

Parents can also help children make healthy life decisions by encouraging them to be successful in school and get involved in productive activities outside of the classroom. As they develop their own sets of values and beliefs, children watch their parents carefully, Brown adds. “Parents have to model respectful behavior in order for their words to have credibility.”

Tips for Parents

From using the ambiguities of popular culture as conversation-starters to sharing their own experiences, caring adults can find many effective ways to communicate with their children about all kinds of critical issues and decisions, including sex. Expert advice includes:

  • Be an askable parent. Tell your children it’s natural for them to have questions about sex.
  • Listen more than you talk. Encourage your children to share their concerns and experiences.
  • Look for teachable moments. “Watch television shows with teens, see what they are reading in magazines—and that becomes a forum for communications,” says Jennifer Manlove, senior research associate for Child Trends, a non-profit research center in Washington, DC.
  • Answer questions simply and honestly. Present the facts, share your values, and direct teens to additional resources when necessary.
  • Coach kids well. Help your children learn how to get themselves out of risky situations. Reinforce their right to make their own decisions and resist peer pressure.
  • Stay involved. Teens need supervision—and guidance—as much as their younger siblings. Though they may not act like it, they really do crave, and listen to, their parents’ advice.