There's enormous pressure on today's young people to become sexually active. But it's our role as adults to offer guidance, support and to set boundaries.
As a GP, I dole out contraception and sexual advice to adolescents pretty much every day of the week.
I adopt an underwhelmed, un-shockable, 'I've seen it all' tone and am non-judgemental which, hopefully, encourages them to be open. The basic tenet for treating them is – within reason – if they're mature enough to seek medical advice, they're probably mature enough to be sexually active and treated like young adults.
As a parent though – Dear God, I worry! Because there's enormous pressure on them to hurtle towards sex – not just from their own surging hormones and their peers – but from media bombardment. From magazines, music videos, movies, even down to video games. Sexualised images of girls and the pervasive narrative that adolescents are having loads of sex are the norm.
And what chiefly worries me about this, is that those who aren't ready for sex are made to feel odd, despite that being a perfectly normal, natural way for teenagers to feel. The herd mentality of social networking reinforces the idea. You only have to look at what teenage girls are wearing out at night, to realise that they've already bought into the idea that their self-worth is inextricably linked to being sexy. So they dress like escorts without even fully understanding the signals they're giving off. A 'meet' which nowadays is what a score, shift or snog was a generation ago, is a pretty perfunctory thing. The demise of the slow-set means there's little preamble to 'meeting' someone other than "Will you meet my mate?" Meeting often graduates to casual, manual or oral sex.
The fact that they're becoming sexually active younger, the rise of porn and the general expectation that any given meet will be meaningless, all contribute to the notion of jadedness around much adolescent sex. Despite the fact that no one has had less sex than a teenager – and they're actually thrilled to get within an ass's roar of it – they've to act like they aren't that impressed.
The SpunOut website's fatuous advice last year on teenage threesomes epitomises the pressure on them to run before they can walk. And also the stupidity of adults trying so hard to be cool that they actually add to teenage sexual anxiety. This group is vulnerable. Never mind the fact they're extremely fertile and have scant knowledge of STI transmission or contraception. They often don't even have basic hygiene. One 16-year-old boy I saw with an infection under his foreskin didn't know he should clean under his foreskin. When I asked if he was sexually active, he said he'd "only had blow-jobs so far". On examining him, I pitied any poor girl who had attempted oral sex when it didn't appear he had washed there in 16 years. They're on the cusp of what will hopefully be a joyous and satisfying sex life but they're not there yet. And there's no rush.
Our job as adults is to support them but also to put down a few lines in the sand for them to push against. If we give them no road map at all, they're almost as badly off as we were – with only the teenage rumour mill and porn to guide them.
Fledgling sexuality is a delicate thing for both genders. Humiliation can occur just as easily as young love can blossom.
Of course it's normal that they are going to start to have sex, but the pace at which they are all ready for that is varied and that is not the message that is being conveyed to them. We adults must remember that it's our job to protect them sometimes, even from themselves, and just because we're moving towards a post-Catholic society doesn't mean we can't give our kids some good old-fashioned advice.
Ciara Kelly is a GP in Greystones, Co Wicklow
Sunday Indo Living