It’s hard enough as a parent to think about your child being sexually active even once – much less many times, and with many people.

But today’s teens tend to be more sexually promiscuous than in years past. For example, studies have reported that one of every three girls has had sex by age 16, and two of three boys have had sex by age 18.

Why do teens have sex? Unfortunately, it seldom has to do with being in a loving and permanent relationship. It often seems as though teens are exposed to sexual images and messages everywhere – on television and in movies, on the Internet and in magazines. It has been estimated that watching one hour of music videos exposes a teen to as many as 93 sexual situations. As a result, it is easy for a teen to believe that everyone is having sex – and that there may be something wrong with her if she doesn’t.

Some teens see sex as a way to draw closer to another person and receive love, or a way to become more popular or seem more like an adult. Many teens see sex as just another social activity – something fun to do.

The biggest risks involved with teen promiscuity are unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and low self esteem. While most teens are aware of the risk of pregnancy, few understand that many sexually transmitted diseases today have no treatment. Viruses such as HPV and HIV can be transmitted sexually and cause problems including cervical cancer and AIDS.

And few teens realize that if sexual intimacy is begun at a young age, it can affect their perceptions of love and affection for the rest of their lives. Lots of teens believe that once they’ve begun having sex, this will be the expectation in every subsequent relationship.

What to Do
Experts say that it’s important to begin talking about sex with your child at an early age, ideally before she hits the teen years. And don’t stop at one “birds and bees” discussion. Kids need your guidance when it comes to sex just as they do when it comes to learning to drive.

You don’t need to set aside a specific time to talk to your child about sex. Watch TV with her or look through a magazine. Ask her what she thinks about the images or activity that she sees. Does she think that all young people are having sex? Does she know anyone who is? This is an ideal time to acknowledge that all people have normal sexual urges, but that it’s important to understand the risks and responsibilities that come with sexual intimacy.

Studies show that teens consider their parents to be the most influential source of information about sex, and that their decisions regarding whether or not to have sex are largely based upon parental guidance and expectations.

Remember, too, that what you do matters at least as much as what you say. If you live with a succession of boyfriends or girlfriends, the message to your child is that sexual intimacy is an expected part of every relationship, no matter how fleeting.