Youth receive mixed-messages about sex and sexuality from parents, television, the internet, music, school, peers, and just about anyone or anything they come in contact with. A young person can barely leave their home without messages and reminders of how to dress, what to say, and how to relate to the world sexually. Youth are also surrounded by harmful homophobic messages that can promote an unsafe, unsupportive environment, particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBTQQI) individuals.
Sexual health is not just the absence of violence, coercion, and discrimination in sexuality and sexual relationships, but also the presence of sexual safety, respect, and pleasure. Youth must feel comfortable discussing and asking questions about sexuality, health, violence, substance use, and other issues that they may not feel comfortable discussing elsewhere. By emphasizing self-respect and respect for partners, as well as positive protection methods like condoms and birth control, adults can discuss sex in a positive way with youth, and promote sexual health. Ignoring negative topics like rape, harassment, and STIs will not make these problems disappear. Youth need to have a realistic understanding of sex.
Being under the influence of alcohol or other substances can impair youths’ judgment, increasing the chances of having unprotected sex. Yet, 22% of sexually active high school students reported using alcohol or drugs during their most recent sexual encounter. This can also increase the risk of contracting STIs, as well as cause confusion, shame, and denial about the sexual encounter. As one youthworker at a BE SAFE training pointed out, “Why would you want to view such an intimate part of your life as a mistake?”
A safe environment free of stigma, judgment, and violence can promote sexual health as well as prevent negative health outcomes for youth. Homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism contribute to negative health outcomes for LGBTQQI youth, particularly suicide. Youth of color who identify as LGBTQ experience higher rates of homophobic violence than their peers. However, LGBTQ youth who do not experience this type of harassment report lower levels of suicidal thoughts and depression than their heterosexual counterparts.
Download the BE SAFE Sexual Health Fact Sheet to learn more.
AIDS Action Committee
Information and referrals for HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Massachusetts. Interpreters available for many languages.
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts
Trained health center staff and volunteers are available to discuss a wide range of issues related to birth control, pregnancy options, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS and other aspects of reproductive health. Hotline available Monday-Friday 9am-8pm.
Provides information on sexually transmitted diseases and infections and offers service referrals in Massachusetts. Interpreters are available for many languages.