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Posts Tagged ‘Teen Pregnancy’

The Trouble With “Don’t Get Pregnant”

May 18, 2016


By Stella Balsamini, 18, Sex, Etc. Staff Writer

Health classes across the country, many parents and MTV reality television shows, like Teen Mom, send out the same, forceful message to teenagers: Don’t get pregnant!

Lots of organizations, including Answer, recognize May as National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. It’s definitely important that anyone who is or plans on becoming sexually active knows how to prevent pregnancy.

At the same time, having a month focused on preventing pregnancy puts a huge stigma on teenage sexuality and makes sex seem like something scary and shameful. Overwhelmingly, sex is taught about in the same way that drug and alcohol prevention is: with fear-driven warnings about how young people’s lives can be ruined if they take part. Sexual health curricula for teens often forgo mentioning that becoming sexually active is in any way pleasurable or a normal part of growing up, and instead teenagers mostly hear repeated warnings about the potential negative repercussions of sex (such as unintentionally becoming pregnant.) Learning information about the seriousness of being sexually active is vital, but a focus on danger and prevention pins a scarlet letter to teens who are already sexually active or young parents. It also reinforces the idea that sexuality is illicit and taboo.

More than that, focusing only on the risks of pregnancy when teaching teens about sex is way too limited. Teen pregnancy rates have actually been dropping in recent decades, and while there is absolutely more work that needs to be done related to the issue, there are so many other aspects of teenage sexuality that should be talked about just as much as how to prevent a pregnancy. Plenty of people think that all there is to learn about sexuality is how to put a condom on a banana, but sexuality education should include so much more. Rarely do teenagers hear about what to do if they face abuse in their relationship, or where to go if they need to access sexual health services. The process that many teens go through of coming to terms with their gender identity or sexual orientation is rarely talked about by the media, parents or health teachers, and most lesbian, gay or bi teens don’t learn about relationships between same-sex couples at all unless they turn to the Internet.

The idea of having a month focused on teenage pregnancy prevention comes from a good place, and teens should understand what they’re getting into if they want to have sex. In addition to this, sexuality is something that is fun and healthy to explore and learn about, and all parts of it should be discussed more openly so we are informed and prepared. It’s time everyone began thinking of sexuality as a normal part of life, not as a danger.

The First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Lessons “Double Dutch” Can Teach Our Youth

November 10, 2009

Let me start with an admission: I share a birth date with First Lady Michelle Obama and am therefore a special fan. Like me, she is a Capricorn (the Goat), but oh, so much more. Before I read that her birth date is January 17th — albeit some 34 years after mine — the only two people with whom I shared a birthday were Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Now I don’t want to sneeze at either of these two gentlemen; I am proud to be in their company. But I feel a strong, indescribable bond with the First Lady because of the January 17th connection.

I have avidly followed Michelle Obama’s travels and accomplishments since she has arrived at The White House. I have watched as she dug into the historic soil of the South Lawn and planted a garden to encourage more children to eat their veggies (with the exception of beets, which the president doesn’t like). I laughed out loud when I read that on St. Patrick’s Day last March, she ordered the water in the White House fountains turned a brilliant shade of green.

It is fun and games wherever this lively, outgoing, stunningly chic woman puts her touch. She seems to be perpetually surprised and thrilled that she and her family are living in the People’s House and doesn’t want to miss a minute to enjoy the experience. Michelle — as we have never met, I hope she won’t interpret my use of her first name as a sign of disrespect-makes me, at an advanced age, feel young and ready for new adventures. She makes me smile.

My admiration for Michelle’s Peter Pan spirit was only reinforced last Saturday when I read that she participated in the jump-rope exercise “Double Dutch” at a recently held “healthy kids fair” on the South Lawn. For the uninitiated or those who haven’t thought about jumping rope in some time, Double Dutch is a routine usually performed by 10-year-olds, not women in their mid-40s. It involves skipping between two ropes swinging at the same time in opposite directions, and it is very difficult not to trip and get your feet entangled in one or the other of the ropes. (The First Lady did not miss a step.)

Apparently, Michelle has a keen eye for what’s the latest rage among preteen and teen girls, probably because of her own two daughters. Double Dutch has an interesting history among games young people play. It was first played by Dutch settlers on the shores of the Hudson River some 400 years ago. The British dubbed it “Double Dutch,” when they arrived in the New World.

During World War II, it became very popular with urban children living in Manhattan, who made up and sang rhymes as they turned the ropes. The first tournament was held in 1974 and drew nearly 600 children. Today, the Apollo Theater in Harlem hosts competitions that draw Double Dutch teams from around the world.

Recently, Double Dutch has gained further recognition as “the newest of 35 varsity sports” played in New York City, according to this New York Times piece. (New Jersey, are we there?) There is also a team called the Dynamic Diplomats of Double Dutch that performs internationally with members ranging from teens to adults in their 30s.

The fact that Double Dutch has become an international sport gives me the perfect segue, since I heard a different definition for the term about ten years ago from a group of sexuality educators. They had returned from a trip organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, a national organization devoted to the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents. They had visited the Netherlands and other European countries to study sex education programs and societal attitudes about sexuality that shape public policy for young people.

These educators told me that “Double Dutch” is a common slogan that most teens growing up in the Netherlands learn at home and in school. It reflects the deeply held societal belief that a good sexual relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility. Young people are taught that before you have sex, you must have a solid relationship based on honesty, equality, and trust (no “hooking up” or one-night stands). They also learn to use two forms of protection against unplanned pregnancy and disease each time they have sex: the female always uses the Pill and the male always uses a condom (the “Double Dutch” method).

Most young people and adults know the meaning of “Double Dutch” and practice it, giving the Netherlands the lowest rates of teen and adult pregnancies, births, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases of any nation in the western Industrialized world.

I do not expect Michelle Obama to take on the issue of adolescent pregnancy in the U.S. It would be too controversial and too difficult in her husband’s young presidency to get mired in the culture wars. Instead, I wish her the best of luck in her effort to encourage young people to eat well and to exercise. I hope she will continue to amaze us by participating in more games of Double Dutch without missing a beat, or a step.

But leaders in urban communities nationally and here in New Jersey, where teen pregnancy rates are stubbornly high, can teach young people that the term “Double Dutch” has a second meaning — and that integrating this meaning into their behavior can make a real difference in their lives. They can even hold Double Dutch events and work in important lessons about sexual health to teens.

Who says that teaching an important concept about sexual responsibility can’t be fun?

A Panel of Palins

March 5, 2009

Let’s give credit where it is due: I am pleased that Bristol Palin and her mother, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan Governor and former vice presidential candidate, are speaking out about the birth of Bristol’s son, Tripp. Tripp was born two months ago when Bristol was barely 18. His parents are still in high school and, although engaged, have no immediate plans to marry.

Hurrah for Bristol and the governor for telling Greta Van Susteren of FOX that they are now opposed to abstinence-only-until marriage (AOUM) education in public schools.  (See video of the interview below.) Governor Palin calls abstinence-only “naïve,” and her daughter, although saying everyone should be abstinent, calls it “not very realistic.” These are small steps in the right direction.




It would be great if Sarah Palin and Bristol wrote to the president, their senators and congressperson and asked them to remove funding for AOUM from the federal budget. The unplanned pregnancy that brought little Tripp into the world is a perfect example of the results of incomplete sexuality education for teens.

Given her interview with Van Susteren, it’s clear that Bristol is willing to become the celebrity poster gal for preventing teen pregnancy. (The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among Western industrialized nations, although it has plummeted in the last decade.) Bristol told Van Susteren, “I’m not the first person that it’s happened to, and I’m not going to be the last.” Later, she added: “Kids should just wait. . . . It’s not glamorous at all.”

I combed a recent People magazine article about Bristol to see if she was going to say something more substantive beyond, “I hope that people learn from my story.”  She added that it was her decision to have the baby, not her mother’s, and that she wishes she had gotten an education and “started a career first.”

However, her message is contradictory, as are most messages when they involve unplanned births; she also told People, “He…brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all.”

I think Bristol should appear as part of a panel of teens who have been affected by teen pregnancy. For example, consider a panel composed of Palin and teens who’ve had the following experiences:

  • a teen girl impregnated by an older man;
  • a teen girl whose family is entirely supportive of early child bearing;
  • a teen girl who has chosen abortion with her parents’ support;
  • a teen dad who had to drop out of school to work in a dead-end job; and
  • a teen who is having sex but using reliable contraception.

This “panel of Palins” would represent different races, ethnicities and classes and would answer all questions put to it by a teen audience. Teens’ questions would be written anonymously and placed in a large Question Box on a table onstage. A trusted faculty person or student would read questions aloud, without embarrassment or editing, to the panel for answers.

My hope is that such a panel would get to the heart of the matter about why and how teens get pregnant and have babies while still in high school. Bristol Palin can really make a difference if she tells the truth and doesn’t gloss over details. She will need to be exceptionally honest and not mouth platitudes such as, “I wish I had waited.”

Bristol needs to tell her peers about the failures of abstinence-only and the importance of using contraception. She can always make a pitch for remaining abstinent, since many teens choose this route. But she also needs to explain how important it is to talk to parents about sex and urge students to use good teen sexual health Web sites like Sexetc.org.

I don’t envy Bristol the role of becoming the nation’s poster teen for pregnancy prevention. But if she does it well, she could make a real difference. This coming May is teen pregnancy prevention month. Bristol and her potential panel members don’t have a moment to lose.

The M-Word: Past and Present

January 21, 2009

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.

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The Demise of Dating

January 5, 2009

Charles M. Blow is a favorite columnist of mine. The art director of National Geographic magazine, he also writes a regular column on Saturdays in The New York Times. I like his work, not only because he uses graphics and statistics in a compelling way, but because he writes boldly and informatively about sexual issues.

Blow devoted a recent column to what he called “The Demise of Dating.” It was about the shift from dating to hooking up by high school seniors and college students across the country. There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about this shift in behavior of students you may be teaching, because Blow points out that it “doesn’t mean they’re having more sex or having sex with strangers.” In fact, he cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that teens today are having less sex.

I recommend his column to educators as a way to get students talking about relationships and values—an important ingredient in high-quality sexuality education programs.

“Gay Marriage and a Moral Minority” is another recent Blow column that caught my eye.  In it, he quotes important data for educators and parents from a Guttmacher Institute study. The data shows the following:

  • Black teens are 26 percent more likely than teens of other races to have had premarital sex by age 18;
  • Black teens have a pregnancy rate that is twice that of white teens; and
  • White teens still have premarital sex, but they are better informed about pregnancy prevention and use protection more regularly than do black teens.

You know about the digital divide and the health care divide, but you may have not heard about the teen pregnancy divide. It could possibly deepen during the economic downturn, when in all likelihood poverty as well as a lack of opportunity among poor urban kids will increase. As always, sexuality educators need high-quality training to support them in their work with young people—and our trainings are top notch.

Thanks, Charles Blow, for your columns on sexual health issues. And, please, in 2009, keep writing about sexuality, sex education and teen pregnancy in our society. Many are grateful.

Looking Ahead

December 1, 2008

In light of the historic fact that Senator Barack Obama will soon become our 44th president, I thought I would review what he has said to date about some aspects of sexuality and sex education. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act on his beliefs (the personal often does not become the political and the political often changes the personal), but his thoughts might point in interesting directions.

I started by reviewing Obama’s words from the third and final debate. If you’re like me, while watching presidential debates you always hope the moderator will ask the candidates directly about their views on sexuality education in public school classrooms. So far, no one ever has.

However, moderator Bob Schieffer did move in the right direction when he asked Senators Obama and McCain whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. This led to a back-and-forth discussion which touched on nominations to the Supreme Court, late-term abortion and life-saving treatments for children of botched abortions.

Obama eventually turned the discussion toward our issue: how to find common ground between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life. He stated, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.”

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Imagine…

September 12, 2008

Imagine with me a series of conversations that might have occurred between a 17-year-old who is five months pregnant and her mother.

At age 12…
Mom:
Your Dad and I have strong family values about sex and sexual behavior.  Sex leads to pregnancy and your father and I believe that you must wait until after marriage before you have sex. You cannot have sex until you are able to support a child and you must not become pregnant until after you are married to someone you love. Understand?
Daughter: Is that all there is to say about sex, Mom?
Mom: That’s all there is to say about sex. Just be abstinent. No kissing, no holding hands, nothing until after high school and until you find your guy.  Promise me?
Daughter: I promise.

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Young, Hot and Bothered

August 21, 2008

A recent segment on NBC’s The Today Show focused on what parents could do to help combat teens’ boredom and keep them out of trouble during summer vacation. Judith Sachs, editorial director of ParentingTeensNetwork, appeared on the show to discuss “cures” for the problem. Volunteering, traveling with family, learning a new language and forming a book club were among the activities she suggested teens get involved in.

Studies have shown that teens with too much free time in the summer are more likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes than those who are engaged in structured activities. Surprisingly, sexual activity was not mentioned during the segment.

As I watched the show, I reflected back on a conversation I had many years ago with a Newark, N.J., school nurse. I had just started studying the dynamics of teen pregnancy and the nurse shared with me how she saw more pregnancies in September than in any other month. Some sociologists refer to this as the “summer effect.”

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No Real Help for Teens

July 8, 2008

We all agree that teens need honest, accurate information about unplanned pregnancy and its consequences in order to avoid it. Yet I doubt most will find this information in the new ABC Family miniseries The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It features high-school freshman Amy Juergens, who gets pregnant even though she isn’t sure she’s had sex.

After the first hour of the first episode, I found my head reeling as it was bombarded with many stereotypes about teen sexual behavior. For example, I learned that

  • the one and only subject on teens’ minds is sex,
  • “nice” 15-year-old girls don’t have sex—unless they have a one-night stand that might also be date rape,
  • all Christian girls and guys wait to have sex until marriage…
    …but if a Christian guy is seduced by the school “slut,” God will forgive him,
  • abortion? Don’t even go there, especially in a miniseries,
  • guys only like “nice” girls, so don’t wear suggestive clothes that show your navel,
  • if you’re a guy whose father has sexually abused you, you will seek revenge by having constant, indiscriminate sex,
  • if guys can’t have sex, they will become sterile, and
  • willpower and self-esteem are the only answers when it comes to sex

The first episode has one sensible moment. It’s when the actress playing Amy steps out of character and says to the audience: “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable.” She is 100% correct.

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On Gloucester

June 25, 2008

“Hope is the best contraceptive.”

These words immediately flashed to my mind when I read about the pregnancy boom at Gloucester High School, in Gloucester, MA. I heard them some 20 years ago from Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, when she talked about high rates of teen pregnancy among poor, African-American girls.

She was convinced, and quoted research to prove it, that there is a strong correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy. In order to reduce the high rates, adults from parents to educators to policy makers must provide hope to poor girls that they can expect more out of life than having a baby.

Edelman’s words were strongly echoed by a classmate of the 17 girls at Gloucester High—none older than 16—who reportedly made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. She said: “No one offered them a better option.” The local superintendent of schools backed her up when he said that jobs had disappeared in this mostly white, blue-collar city and that “families were broken.”

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