How do you get herpes?

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen March 25, 2003
Original Title: What teens want to know: Real Questions, Real Answers

How have society’s changing attitudes about sexual activity and responsibility affected our teenage children?

The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a U.S. non-profit group promoting sexual abstinence outside marriage, lists the devastating toll laissez-faire attitudes have had on our teens.

Its data are supported by similar reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The medical institute raises concerns that providing sexual health information without moral context and consequence is harming our children.

The institute’s review of the data indicates that our children’s emotional and physical health is at risk.

Half of all 13- to 17-year-olds will become sexually active. Twenty-five per cent of all sexually active teens have a sexually transmitted disease.

Over 20 years, the prevalence (number of existing cases in a given population) of genital herpes in children 12 to 19 years old increased by 500 per cent. Chlamydia, a leading cause of infertility in women, occurs in one in 10 teenage girls, half of all cases in 15- to 19-year-olds. Human papilloma virus, a leading cause of cervical cancer, is reaching epidemic levels in the teen and young adult age group. Teenage girls with the virus are more susceptible to cervical cell changes that lead to cancer, compared with adult women.

Oral sex is a means for some girls to maintain they are virgins. Many do not see oral sex as being sexually active. Many teens do not even have a definition of what “sexually active” means.

As many as one in five of our teenagers are clinically depressed. Suicides have increased threefold in 30 years.

After nine years of giving health clinics at Canterbury High School, thousands of patient visits and hundreds of handwritten anonymous questions answered during classroom visits, these reports and statistics lead me to accept them for what they are: the truth.

Before writing me off as alarmist, please read what your children have had to say:

Grade 9

“What happens if when you’re having oral sex, you swallow sperm?

“If a girl swallows my sperm, will she be pregnant?”

“How is abortion performed?”

“What is the average of females being raped and beaten in the ages 14 to 16?”

“How does Viagra work?”

“As a male, if I impregnate a girl, what are my obligations?”

“Can you get pregnant without having sex?”

“My friend used to have a boyfriend who hit her and treated her like crap. He even used to use her for sex. Now he wants to get back together with her and she hasn’t made up her mind. As a best friend, what should I say to her to make the right decision without hurting our friendship?”

“Do males have to ejaculate or is it something they choose to do?”

“Can you arrange an abortion without our parents knowing?”

“Can a girl get pregnant if a guy ejaculates in a pool and she is near him?”

Grade 10

“Are there any risks for girls under 14 years other than pregnancy and STDs?”

“If you have intercourse with someone who has an STD, are you guaranteed to get the STD?”

“What is herpes? How can you get it? And how do you get rid of it?”

“My friend might be pregnant but she doesn’t want to have it. She doesn’t want to go to the doctor. She wants her friend to punch her in the stomach to kill the baby. I don’t think it’s right. What can I do to convince her to not do this?”

“Does the size of a man’s penis affect his personality?”

Grade 11

“Would it be safer to have sex now while we are younger, considering that the number of people who have AIDS is rising very quickly?”

“Is it illegal for a 15-year-old girl to be having sex with a 20-year-old guy? What if she’s 16?”

“Can you have an abortion when you are 16 without letting your parents know?”

“I just can’t handle it with the workload any more. I’ve had it trying to balance out school, homework, work, sports, friends and a boyfriend and especially parents. I’ve gotten to the point of nervous breakdown. I don’t sleep, hardly eat. I feel helpless. What can I do? P.S. What is hepatitis B and how do you catch it?”

These questions cut across all socio-economic and cultural strata. We must face this growing trend. We cannot ignore what is happening to our children. Many parents come into my office gravely concerned about their teen’s behaviour.

Teenagers, despite their protestations and efforts to act as adults, need guidance and support to become mature, caring adults.

The guidance centres on responsibility, respect, sexual behaviour and following the rules of the house.

Many parents try to be their children’s friend. The idea is the child will be more likely to accept you into their life. Parents hope they will have more influence on their child’s life decisions and actions.

This strategy, well-meaning and caring as it is, will not stand the test of time.

Friends do not tell friends when to go to bed. At some point, circumstances will dictate that parents will have to switch hats from friend to parent. Viva la revolucion!

Despite their challenges to your authority, teens do need their parents to be a foundation for morals, limits, rules, understanding and love, regardless of what the teens might say or do. Too many feel adrift in a sea of confusion. They need to know they can return safely to port.

As the questions above show, what possible benefit is it to a 15-year-old to have to worry about whether their boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating on them?

Why should they have to deal with the complications inherent in a sexual relationship on top of their educational, social and family responsibilities?

Why should they have to come into the office freaking out over whether they are pregnant or have an STD? Why are they worried about the effects of swallowing sperm? What can parents do? Quite a bit, but it is not an easy road.

Tomorrow night, Dr. Joanne Tannenbaum and I will present at the Citizen conference centre a forum for parents and teens called “What your teens want to know: Real answers to real questions.”

Sign up by e-mail at . Please include your name and phone number.


Tomorrow’s column will look at teens and drugs.

Dr. Barry Dworkin is a family physician and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of

Read previous columns at

Web Sites:

Medical Institute for Sexual Health:

Centers for Disease Control:

National Mental Health Association:

Teen Sex: What You Need to Know

Saturday: The demise of dating: Why school kids have ‘buddysex.’

Sunday: In their own words: Students talk about hooking up.

Monday: In search of guidance: Health educators try to guide students through the morass and attempt to curb date rape by teaching the dangers of mixing alcohol and sex.

Today: Sex ed: What are they teaching our kids in elementary and high school? And Dr. Barry Dworkin on what teens really want to know about sex.

Tomorrow: High-school confidential: the Canterbury health clinic. And Dr. Barry Dworkin on kids and drugs.

Thursday: A look at what parents and teens have to say in Wednesday night’s public forum. And Dr. Barry Dworkin on the angst teens are dealing with on the subject of sex.

Friday: The consequences of the hooking-up culture: Where will society and divorce rates be in 20 years if we continue in this direction. And a reality check — teens are not the libertines they are portrayed as.

Public Forum on the Culture of Teen Sex

Parents, teens and others interested in the culture of ‘hooking up’ are invited to a Citizen-sponsored public forum held by Drs. Barry Dworkin and Joanne Tannenbaum, tomorrow at 6 p.m., at 1101 Baxter Rd. Register by e-mail at or by phone at 596-3664. Please include your name, phone number, and the number of people who plan to attend.

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