Halfway through this school year a ninth-grade student approached me and told me she thought she was pregnant. As tears rolled down her face, she explained that she had had sex three different times with her eighth-grade boyfriend, two of which were unprotected.
A month later a different young woman explained to me that "sex is not a big deal." She also said that if she got pregnant, she could handle it.
I would love to tell you that these anecdotes were isolated incidents, but the truth is they were not. And every now and again I hear another scary story that proves what I already know: Teens need our help. These accounts, as well as the most recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control, which stated one in four teen girls is infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), should be a wake-up call for us all.
As a health educator working to prevent unintended teenage pregnancy and infection, I see the need for comprehensive sex education in the school setting every single day. As a young adult, I know the need. Many states showing the highest increase in infection are those that have rigid abstinence-only policies, and unfortunately, many northern Michigan schools fall directly into this category.
Those schools that accept federal money for abstinence-only education are prohibited from teaching safer sex practices and reproductive control. Studies have found abstinence-only education to be ineffective in delaying the onset of intercourse; and it now appears that it is failing to prevent infection and disease as well. As condom use continues to drop, the rate of STIs are on the rise, as is the rate of teen births.
In 2005, Grand Traverse County had a record low in number of teen pregnancies (80) since 1989. In 2006 that number increased by 41 percent, resulting in 112 teenage pregnancies. Furthermore, since 1997 the reported cases of chlamydia among males increased from eight to 26, and the number of cases among females increased from 51 to 100. That's an average increase of five cases per year. There has been a steady increase in reported cases of gonorrhea and HPV as well.
I will not deny that abstinence is the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and disease, but the facts don't lie: Teens are choosing to have sex. The Michigan Department of Community Health reports that 42 percent of high school students in our state have had intercourse.
So rather than ignoring the statistics, why not provide teens with the information, tools and skills they need to make healthy life choices?
It is my firm belief that real, medically accurate, comprehensive sex education can save lives. I recommend that educators, parents and students alike join in promoting comprehensive sex education in our schools. Let's keep the "abstinence" but lose the "only" and together make a difference in the lives of our youths!
About the author: Janna Deering is in her second year as education specialist for Planned Parenthood West Northern Michigan in Traverse City. She is a Michigan Department of Education certified HIV/AIDS educator.
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