Teens & sex: Does 'NO' message work?

Teens & sex: Does 'NO' message work?

Teens are having sex. No, not all of them, but many. Maybe even your son or daughter or friend.

State surveys say 41 percent of 11th-graders have had sex; 14 percent of eighth-graders have, too. Those numbers may be low.

A 16-year-old Grant Union high-schooler says she estimates 60 percent, or three of every five, of her friends is sexually active.

Some adults confirm her assessment.

"There's a lot of activity going on," said Kerryann Woomer, prevention program coordinator for the Grant County Center for Human Development. "We, being older, don't remember how it was in high school. We look through our own glasses."

"It's a very sexualized world," added Debi Hueckman, community development coordinator for the Department of Human Services and co-leader with Woomer of PEP, People Encouraging Prevention.

Even the way kids are sexually active is different, Hueckman said. There's more oral sex, for instance.

"Kids know a lot more than parents think they do," she added. "Parents need to talk to kids. Kids may not act like they want to be talked to, but they do."

She advised parents to make the effort early and often because they are still an important part of their kids' lives, even when the kids start pushing them away.

"Don't be offended, know 'I'm doing the right thing'," she advised.

The 16-year-old (who is not sexually active and who will be called "Teen G" for this article) agreed.

She said she is very close to her parents, ranking their relationship about nine out of 10. And when asked who or what influences her decisions, her parents came out first, with friends, church, media and teachers following.

Hueckman and Woomer believe the media plays an even larger role in many teens' decisions. They point to these facts from the Northwest Media Literacy Center:

• The average high school graduate spends more time in front of a TV than in the classroom.

• The average child watches more than 5,000 hours of TV before entering kindergarten - more than it takes to earn a four-year college degree.

• The average child sees more than 14,000 sexual references on TV per year.

"Kids get a lot of information on mechanics, but they need information on relationships; what's healthy, both physically and emotionally," Hueckman said.

"In our society, we grow our kids so fast they don't have time to be the age they are," Woomer added. "We're just so disconnected to what our kids are doing."

Teen G described her surprise at how many eighth-grade girls at the recent dance were obviously making the effort to appear attractive compared to when she was an eighth-grader. In fact, the percentages seemed to have reversed with three-quarters of the girls this year dressing up.

"It really is scary they think they are so grownup," she said. Some of those girls are dating high school guys, she added.

This teen also thinks part of the problem in John Day is "everyone is forced to be so conservative all the time, so they just have to break free.

"If this wasn't such a conservative place, the problem wouldn't be so large," she said. Sometimes kids do things just because they're told "no" so often.

So what's a parent or teacher to do?

Teen G knows what has worked for her. Her two closest friends who attend the same church made a pact in eighth grade not to have sex then buried it.

"Having the same religion base as friends helps a lot," she said. " It reduces peer pressure. ... It helps to have friends who aren't."

When she's pressured to have sex, she agreed it was tempting, "but at the same time ridiculous." During spring break, she said, one boy parked his truck and then used the cliche "If you loved me you'd do it."

"I just laugh it off," she said.

She suggested teens calculate things out: "Is it worth more to let down parents and friends or stay strong? In the end, it's better to stick with your morals."

It's not as if parents and teacher aren't trying.

The PEP group meets and talks about prevention, not only concerning sex, but also drugs and alcohol.

Another program Hueckman and Woomer spearhead is STARS (Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex) which is presented by high-schoolers to seventh-graders. There is also a "booster" called Stop and Think for high school students.

It teaches all the reasons it's best to wait.

"We're buying time to postpone sexual involvement," Hueckman said, "until they have better information and can make better choices."

There are also programs in the school through the health class and others talking about abstinence, STDs and prevention.

But Teen G says that's not enough.

"In seventh-grade, they're not listening at all to STARS. It's a joke. If it were presented in fifth-grade it would be better. Seventh grade is too late," she said.

"Parents think kids don't know but they do. Parents need to tell the truth to kids and teachers need to be more realistic. Saying 'When a man and a woman love each other ...' just won't work."

She said the message needs to start even earlier, a statement Hueckman and Woomer agree with.

"Start the conversation early, (before third grade)," Woomer said. "Talk about what's good and bad and build on it. We don't start out reading Steinbeck; we read 'Dick and Jane.' You have to start at the beginning and talk about how you show affection."

"Humans are sexual beings. Talk, be good examples," Hueckman added.

For the older school crowd, Teen G said, "If a teen has already decided not to have sex by the time they are a junior or senior, they are not going to. So the message should be to those who are having sex. They need to hear the consequences. ... the message should be more protection and consequences than prevention."

Another concern Hueckman and Woomer share is the casual way sex is treated among some teens. There's even a saying, "Friends with Benefits," which means casual sex with buddies.

Hueckman worried, "Sex is an emotional thing, but when you take the emotion away ..."

Consequences

"The pregnancy rate is through the roof," noted Woomer. "It's preventable with shots, implants, patches and low-maintenance alternatives.

"Teen pregnancy isn't just about pregnancy, it's about STDs, relationships, emotions. It's not just mechanics and it's more than birth control. It's about being smart about sex," she continued.

If kids are worried at all, Hueckman said, they are worried about pregnancy, but "too often they learn a lesson through the consequences."

Karen Triplett, the family nurse practitioner at the Grant County Health Department, said she had heard there may be four pregnant teens in Prairie City right now and some others in John Day.

Teen G noted she thinks about 12 of the original 60 students in the senior class who have either had babies or abortions, although she said none are pregnant now. She also knows classmates with STDs, mostly herpes, but said she's heard the problem is actually worse in the middle school.

Statewide, teen pregnancies are on the decline, down 20 percent from 12 years ago. But still, in 2000, 11 percent of the babies born in this state were to teen moms, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

In Grant County, there have been an average of three teen pregnancies a year in the five years preceding 2002, according to DHS's Center fro Vital Statistics. That rate of 17.6 percent is not statistically different than other counties.

The Oregon Department of Human Services reported that teen mothers are more likely to be on welfare, only 40 percent ever finish high school and only 20 percent marry the father of their baby. Children of teen mothers are more likely to be born premature, live in poverty and more likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol or drugs and become teen parents themselves or go to jail.

To the parents

The PEP leaders advise parents to come to some kind of understanding of their own sexuality and own beliefs before talking to kids. And, both parents, if available, need to talk about it with their children.

Hueckman said she tells her kids "In our family, you can't watch R-rated movies. We can't control what you watch at friends, but you should know we don't believe you should."

Talk about what youth are seeing on TV, video games and hearing in music. Discuss the reality of ads promoting sexy jeans or trim figures pointing out that what the commercial depicts happening isn't going to happen to them.

Let them know what boundaries you set and why.

"The more you can learn how to help your teen, the better they are going to be," said Woomer.

Start early.

Pay attention to what your kids see you do.

It is"a lot of responsibility, don't shirk it," Woomer said.

"Don't give up that responsibility," Hueckman added. Hopefully, in the back of their head, they'll your voice telling them to stop and think.

Other resources:

Call Hueckman at (541) 575-0309; Woomer at 575-1466

Action Agenda to Reduce Teen Pregnancy

A blueprint for communities wanting to help teenagers avoid risky behavior

• Positive community values

• Comprehensive sexuality education and youth development

• Abstinence education

• Contraceptive access

• Male involvement and leadership

• Balancing health, safety and legal issues

• Young-parent services

- Oregon Departments of Human Services and Education

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