The Business of Better Sex-Ed

 “So, when your daughters are 15, are you going to take them to the gyno and have them put on birth control?” my friend asked me recently over a shared omelet.

Before I could sputter a response, she went on: “I remember when I was in 9th grade, this one girl – you know, the type who lived in the modern section of town, with a tree growing out of her glassed-in foyer – her mom hauled her off to the gynecologist for birth control pills when she was 15.”

I nodded, trying to picture a tree growing inside the house.

“Yeah, everybody knew about it at school – it was a really big deal. We were all kind of shocked and scandalized.”

“I could see that,” I said, finally.

Because I teach teenagers about pregnancy and birth, there is an assumption that my own kids will reap the rewards of my endeavors and won’t be likely to follow in the same teen footsteps.

In fact, I do sometimes speak about the pregnant teens with my own daughters. They can hear my concern and sometimes frustration with their situations. I’m open about what I do, yet I wonder sometimes what sort of effect this has on my own kids — good or bad.

Once, at a school event one of my daughter’s classmates heard me say that I had leave in order to teach. He innocently asked, “What do you teach?” and my daughter cut in abruptly saying, “Don’t tell him. Do not tell him, Mom!”

Later I asked if she was embarrassed by my work – or if it was just “too much information” to share with her male classmate. She confessed that it’s kind of an unusual job and that when boys hear “pregnant teen” and they can only think one thing: Sex.

“Oh,” I said, deflated. “Well…that’s okay. I understand; you can’t get pregnant if the sex part never happened.”

Will my experience working with these teens somehow deter my girls from engaging in risky behavior? I overheard my younger daughter saying that she does NOT want to be a teen mom. She wants to have fun as a teenager and be able to babysit to make money; not take care of her own kid for NOTHING.

How would my daughters even be exposed to such ideas if I were not bringing them home in my satchel containing a pelvis and baby doll? They’re not watching Teen Mom on MTV – so really I am the sole source of bad-outcomes from poor choices. What might they learn in school that could prepare them for what’s ahead? Is it all the parents’ job to enforce knowledge and preventative measures? For many parents, just talking about menstruation is complicated enough. How do we navigate the terrain of pregnancy, STIs, and the emotional ramifications of teen sex? How does it make it parents feel when we hear that most middle-school boys are getting their sex-ed from internet porn?

When we look to programs that are put in place in our public schools, our country has a pretty abysmal track-record. In terms of teaching health and sexuality or providing resources for pregnancy and disease prevention the U.S. lags far behind other developed nations. Even here in Jersey City, where the sobering reality of such negligence is evident in the hallways of nearly every public school – abstinence-only programs are still state-mandated and a part of the current curriculum.

In fact, it’s axiomatic that the entire “abstinence” philosophy for American teens has done far more harm than good. Sure, we’d like to urge teens to “wait until they’re older” or in some cultures to “wait until marriage” but it’s abundantly clear that these suggestions fall on deaf ears. What we are left with is a deficit of realistic health and sexuality programs and a rise in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

In the very popular “No Second Chances” video which has been used in abstinence-only courses, a student asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” To which the nurse replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.” And she’s serious.

What kind of a message is that to impart to impressionable teens? I’d be appalled if my own daughters were taught such antiquated and fear-mongering dogma. But with an out-of-touch curriculum they might very well get the message that to have sex before marriage is basically like playing Russian Roulette (a line lifted from “No Second Chances.”) How about teaching some common sense and responsibility instead?

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an excellent article on one unique sexuality program at a private Quaker school in Pennsylvania. The teacher not only educates teens on the “perils” of teen sex (pregnancy, abuse, disease, reputation) but on anatomy, biology, and even recreational sex. The class of older teen students has a forum in which to discuss the emotional components to their sex lives as well as a place in which to learn the surprising fact that an estimated 70 percent of women do not orgasm through intercourse alone. Imagine imparting that knowledge to a high school senior? This teacher is working so far outside the box that he is a complete anomaly to the sex-education world.

In most sex-ed classes the word “pleasure” is never even allowed to be uttered. To imply that sex, before marriage and during high school, might be something enjoyable for teens would be tantamount to giving the car keys to a toddler.

Back to my friend’s brunch question: Would I haul my kids off to the gyno for birth control pre-emptively? It’s not something I can really think about when they’re this young and seemingly innocent. But before long this topic – along with the others swirling around the simple notion of birth control – should hopefully be part of our long-car-ride-without-radio chats. Keeping an open dialogue about sexuality and all that it entails is probably the best way to move closer to preventing life-altering events from occurring under our noses.

Some years ago, when the “Octuplet Mom” was in the news, my daughters and their friend made a home video of what it might look like to birth eight babies. I posted this on YouTube and though it was met with warm hilarity by most, I remember one man saying that these girls were all going to be pregnant by the time they were 15. Normally I don’t respond to such goading – but I couldn’t help firing back a missive stating how very wrong he was. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that shows that the MORE you know about pregnancy and birth, the MORE likely you might be to become pregnant before your senior prom. I think it’s evident that for most American preteens and teens – less knowledge is creating far more problems than we could ever have foreseen.

Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland summed it up powerfully in a 2006 study in The Harvard Educational Review: “At its core [abstinence programs are] a betrayal of our next generation, which is desperately in need of knowledge, conversation and resources to negotiate the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality in the 21st century.”

When will our state government face facts that in the void of abstinence programs (largely diminished by the Obama administration), something positive must be implemented. Brushing teen sex under the rug is just another form of “abstinence” – that’s abstinence from good judgment.

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