There’s a lot of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching when it comes to talking with teens about sex. Listen, I get it. Parents don’t like the thought of their kids getting nasty. (Trust me, we don’t like picturing parents in the act either.) But if we’re going to be honest we need to come to terms with the fact that the teenage years are when people often become sexual beings and there needs to be a system in place to guide inexperienced young people through that rough transition period. It’s just the responsible thing to do.
Of course, it helps if that information is accurate. Someone must have forgotten to give one Tennessee school the message.
One courageous high school student recorded an abstinence-only assembly. Surprisingly (read: not surprisingly) there were some factual inaccuracies. According to ThinkProgress:
As the Tennessean reports, the conservative speakers included Joi Wasill — who founded a nonprofit organization with strong religious, Republican, and anti-abortion ties — and Beth Cox, a member of a Tennessee county school board. The two women delivered an hour-long presentation for the freshmen and sophomores at Hillsboro High School. Wasill and Cox told students that all medical textbooks confirm that life begins at conception, there’s a new STD spreading around the country that’s worse than AIDS, contracting STDs will leave women infertile, and having sexual relations with eight different partners is the equivalent of drinking a whole classroom’s spit.
Cox told the young women in the room that if they became single mothers to boys, their sons wouldn’t have the necessary male role models in their lives to teach them ‘hunting, fishing, playing ball, all those things that teach them how to be a man.’ During the second half, after Wasill took over, she asserted that ‘fetus’¯ means the same thing as ‘baby’¯ and adoption should always be assumed to be the best option. If a girl is pregnant, send her straight to the nurse and give her prenatal vitamins, Wasill recommended. She also warned that abortion carries the risks of internal bleeding and death.
Aaaaaahhhh!!!! I’m never having sex again! Why did no one tell me these things? Oh that’s right. Because it’s all bollocks.
Dr. Mary Romano, the assistant professor in Vanderbilt’s Division of Adolescent Medicine, told the Tennessean that Wasill and Cox don’t have all of their facts straight. Many of their assertions are taken out of context … for instance, STDs only lead to infertility if they go untreated, and there’s no medical consensus about when life begins. Similarly, a spokesperson from Tennessee’s Department of Health said the agency is unaware of any new STD that is ‘worse than AIDS.’ Wasill was likely referring to widely-debunked reports of a new strain of gonorrhea that health experts do not believe is actually comparable to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
OK. Good. But now I’m not as much scared of sex as I’m scared about the lack of factual information teens in Tennessee are receiving.
The opposite end of the spectrum can be found in Ohio, where Case Western Reserve University’s Infectious Disease Alliance is training teens to discuss issues of sexual health with fellow teens. Including medically accurate information. Tennessee, take note.
Cleveland has an STI problem, especially with HIV. Young people seem to be particularly at risk. A potential solution? Get accurate information out there, not through adult medical professionals, but through highly trained teens.
The peer educators are being trained like highly skilled soldiers to battle on the front-line of an epidemic. For the past year, the teens have sat in sexual education classes, participated in self defense instruction to build self confidence, and learned first-hand from medical specialists such as a sexual assault nurse examiner.
The four peer educators — who were drawn from a list of 37 applicants at Shaw, Glenville and John Adams high schools — spent the last months of this school year working together to create a public health campaign to target teens in high-risk ZIP codes, including the Glenville neighborhood. They have taught at numerous after-school programs and worked in a local clinic talking to teens one-on-one.
The peer-to-peep program was launched last July, so it’s still relatively new. And according to the Plain Dealer, there isn’t a lot of data to show that the program is decreasing the instance of STIs, but medically accurate information is getting out to teens, and that can’t be bad. And really, it’s not like abstinence-only programs are super effective.
Another possible benefit I see from the Ohio program is its possible destigmatizing effect. Instead of OMG DEATH DESTRUCTION AND BABIES that right-wing sex paranoia programs teach, the peer outreach program could normalize the discussion surrounding sex and sexual health. (They hand out flavored condoms and “love notes” with sweet, supportive messages, for the love of mud!) Over time, this type of program is much more likely to lead to a healthy appreciation of and relationship with sexuality. It’s programs like this we need to support.
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