Young people are having sex. Now, this may not come as news to most people in 2011, but many still ignore this concept when it comes to discussing it with youth. And who can blame them? It can be tough to talk about sex and sexuality with a teen or young adult. For some people it may feel dirty, wrong, uncomfortable, or unnecessary; I’m writing to state that in terms of community well-being, it is beyond necessary. So let’s talk “dirty” for a moment.
You might ask, “How does this relate to Community Psychology?” To which I say, “It does. Hold tight.”
Community Psychology as a discipline, from my perspective, is an amalgamation of several wonderful concepts and values. There are key focuses on social justice, empowerment and participation, respect for diversity, and—of particular relevance—individual and community wellness. So when I hear or read statistics that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is one the highest in the developed world (and is more than double the rate in Canada and other parts of Europe), I start to wonder what has gone wrong. Then I think, “How is this affecting our communities?”
To be clear, we are talking about the number of unintended pregnancies—which is also directly associated to the high number of school drop-out rates. When you consider the reason for high rates of unintended pregnancy, high school drop-outs, and the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), you need to consider access to education and resources. It is no coincidence that access to education and resources is directly related all of these things. It is even less of a coincidence that the higher the rate of pregnancy, drop-outs, STIs (including HIV) and drug use, the lower the income of the community.
In a 2009 study done in the New York City school systems, teens made up more than one in every four diagnosed cases of STIs. (It comes as no surprise that New York City also has a much greater number of unintended pregnancies than that of the entire nation). In 2004, a study found that over 75 percent of the New York City school systems did not meet even the most basic requirements for health education, let alone sexual health educationi. This deficit, without a doubt, is a community problem. If we are going to make individual and community health and wellness a priority, we must find ways to spread the knowledge of sexual health care, prevention and contraception to our communities.
If the numbers alone don’t paint a detailed enough picture, consider this fact:
In the past fifteen years, our government has spent over 1.5 billion federal dollarsii on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, all of which fail to teach the details of safe, preventive behavior. This abstinence-only policy has deprived students of information on the prevention of STIs, sexuality and sexual orientation, and options or access to contraception. Moreover, abstinence-only programs deny access to proper health care information for youth who have been sexually abused, have previously engaged in sexual behavior, or identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).
People need information. Over the past few years, efforts to mandate universal sexual health education have become more of a priority in some of the nation’s major cities. New York is one of the latest to pass a policy for consistent, universal sex education curriculaiii. I question how and what we can do for the smaller cities, towns, and rural neighborhoods—not to mention the states that fight these policies. Within our communities, how can we spread information on sexual health education, prevention, and safety? For a start, we can talk to our legislators and push for policy changes, utilizing the examples of other cities as models for our own actions.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to have more discussion of sex, prevention, options, and resources. Parents, grandparents, friends, siblings, aunts and uncles, teachers, mentors: It is our obligation to spread the word about safety and good health. Ready…. GO!
Note: There are many online sites for suggested tips on how to talk to youth about sex, sexuality, and tough stuff alike. This is one.
Danielle Gemmell, M.A.
Planned Parenthood of New Jersey