Luby: Teens need facts, candor about sexual health
Opinion Editorial published in Gateway Publications
by Dianne Luby, PPLM President/CEO
Last month when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report showing that one in four teen girls in this country have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the news was widely covered by the media and was met with surprise by the public. While shining a spotlight on the issue is an important first step, there was little discussion about how to prevent STIs and protect teen sexual health. As long as we as a nation continue to shy away from open dialogue about young people and sexual activity, STI and unintended pregnancy rates will continue to rise. April is STI Awareness Month - an opportune time to change the conversation about sexual health.
Every day teens are bombarded with messages about sex and sexuality, but oftentimes these are not the messages we want them to hear. There is inconsistent health education in many schools, an annual visit to the pediatrician often lasts only 20 minutes, and having "the talk" once simply does not provide teens with the accurate information they need to make healthy and safe decisions. Meanwhile, sex is used to sell just about every product in the media, and teens are getting most of their information about sexuality from their friends.
Parents are, and must continue to be, the primary sexuality educators of their children. Adolescents want to talk to their parents about sex, but these discussions can often be difficult to initiate. It's never too early and it's never too late to talk - and it's important to keep those conversations going. The Let's Be Honest: Communication in Families Keeps Kids Healthy program offered by Planned Parenthood provides parents with the resources they need to be successful in educating their children. Positive communication between parents and children helps establish family and individual values, enabling young people to make healthier, safer and better-informed decisions related to sexuality.
This year, more than 750,000 teens in the United States will become pregnant and nearly four million will contract a sexually transmitted infection. Of those teens under 18 that become pregnant, less than one-third will graduate from high school. Moreover, rates of curable STIs in the United States are the highest in the developed world. For example, the gonorrhea rate among U.S. teens is 74 times higher than the rate among teens in the Netherlands, while the chlamydia rate is 20 times higher among American teens than among French teens. In these other countries, there are open conversations and public awareness campaigns about such things as condom use. Here there are TV networks that won't even run condom ads.
Sexual health is an essential part of every person's total well-being, and the recent CDC report shows us why teen sexual health matters. We need to foster public understanding that sexual health is just as important as dental health and that responsible prevention measures like condom use during sexual activity should be as routine as brushing teeth. We need families to engage in open, ongoing conversations about values and decision-making around sex and sexuality. We need school curricula and youth programs to include comprehensive sex education, with information about both abstinence and prevention methods, in order to delay teen sexual activity and curb teen pregnancy and STI rates.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have now received more than $1 billion in federal funding, despite multiple studies proving these programs to be a colossal failure. By contrast, a recent report by researchers at the University of Washington found that teens who had comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to become pregnant or get a partner pregnant compared to teens in abstinence-only programs. Additional research shows that comprehensive sex education actually delays the onset of sexual activity, whereas abstinence-only programs had no effect on the age of first intercourse.
Nearly half of the nation's adolescents have sex by the time they turn 19. Ignoring this fact won't help young people abstain from sex, or use protection when they do decide to engage in sexual activity. We must provide young people with the most accurate information we can so that they can navigate safely through adolescence. They deserve nothing less.
Dianne Luby is the President/CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
April 16, 2008