As Alexa Standard's article Health Providers Unsurprised by Teen STI Rate points out, most healthcare providers are not surprised by the recently released data showing that one-quarter of teenage girls have at least one sexually transmitted disease. Healthcare providers are on the front lines and see first hand the ramifications of anti-knowledge abstinence-only programs. Many of the women I meet through my volunteer work have shared that the first comprehensive sex education they received was delivered following treatment for an STI. So, as another witness on the front lines, I wasn't surprised by the STI teen data either.
My volunteer experience began as a member of a woman's group in St. Louis, Missouri, that partnered with local woman's shelters to teach life-skills and health classes. After extensive training, I was matched with a class and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to volunteer at a transitional shelter for pregnant teens. I walked into the shelter with a well-planned lecture on the benefits of basic budgeting and walked out knowing that we needed to add comprehensive sex education to our curriculum fast.
That first class started out with a brief overview of traditional money management methods that quickly shifted to a discussion of the challenges of managing money when you are a teenage mother. It was a great discussion, so I decided to hang out after class and several students remained to ask me more questions. The teens chatted about how hard it is to balance school, work and parenting. Then the discussion turned to sex, pregnancy and prevention, in that order — because that was the order they had experienced these in.
I'll never forget a fifteen year old mother-to-be telling me that she had thought drinking a certain caffeinated soda following unprotected sex would prevent pregnancy and I'll never forget her shy embarrassment when confessing that she still wasn't sure how her pregnancy happened. Through my work I have met young women who didn't know why they menstruated, thought they could tell by looking if a partner had AIDS and more than one who thought soaking in a bleach bath would prevent pregnancy or even HIV transmission.
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Through my teaching, the disconnect between the policy debate over abstinence-only programs and the reality of young women's lives has been revealed. On one side, proponents of abstinence-only programs claim that they are working, while on the other side, the teen STI infection rate in St. Louis city is the highest in the nation. On the front lines healthcare providers and volunteers like me meet young women who learn prevention post-infection, who explore contraceptive options after a pregnancy and who are growing up in a culture where sophisticated media outlets sell sex as power and speculate over baby bumps — yet sex education can now be summed up by Just Say No.
As Lynda Waddington pointed out in her article Missouri's Sex Ed Follow Federal Government Guidelines, Missouri law used to require that students be presented with "the latest medically factual information regarding both the possible side effects and health benefits of all forms of contraception, including the success and failure rates for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases." Now, as a result of a ban against trained sex education teachers in the classroom and the addition of an opt-out option, the only groups allowed to teach sex education in Missouri are those that subscribe to abstinence-only guidelines.
St. Louis city is left to confront alarming increases in STD infection numbers among teens without award-winning trained sex education experts allowed access to them through the most reliable institution, their schools. The results of this flawed approach walk through the doors of local clinics and shelters for testing, treatment and education. If the teen is lucky, she walks out with her health. With HIV/AIDS infection rates on the rise, there is nothing pro-life about an education policy that increases the odds that the wages of sex will be disease and could be death.
While we struggle to educate in an anti-knowledge environment in Missouri, California just received a boon. The California State Board of Education recently adopted its first set of health education standards (K through 12) and they include a comprehensive sex education curriculum. California says that students should begin learning about risks and prevention in the fifth grade and that high schools should be required to teach students "medically accurate" information about birth control. There are still questions about implementation and parents may chose to opt-out, but such standards will empower California communities to proactively address sexual health and risk among teens.
The ban on award-winning sex education teachers and the promotion of an abstinence-only curriculum have made community outreach all the more important in Missouri. Community groups have joined with healthcare providers to increase the number of trained volunteers doing outreach. AIDS service organizations continue grassroots programs that encourage abstinence, prevention, testing and treatment. But as Emily Douglas so accurately pointed out, four out of four teen girls need better sex education.
From the frontlines it feels like we are fighting a relentless forest fire without water pressure. The news from California gives us hope that reinforcements may be on the way, but the question remains: how many teens will be put at risk while we wait for the return of knowledge to our classrooms?