The verdict is in on abstinence-only sex education for teens: It doesn’t work. Statistics released by the National Center for Health Statistics in December show that, despite the Bush administration’s faith in the save-it-until-marriage tack, pregnancy and birth rates among U.S. teens jumped in 2006 after 15 years of decline.
The question now is: What next?
Young people and sex-ed advocates aren’t waiting for policy makers to hash out an answer. They are combining old-fashioned organizing with Internet-based efforts to elbow out space for a more honest conversation that speaks to today’s realities—from the right to say no to often-taboo subjects such as anal sex.
Take 20-year-old Mayadet Patitucci, who works with the nonprofit Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health. Patitucci remembers her sex-ed classes at Chicago’s Curie Metro High School mostly because they were incredibly boring. Yet the need for good sex ed was undeniable: 43 percent of the city’s high school students were sexually active, and 6,000 babies were born to Chicago teens in 2005.
Patitucci got involved in a citywide campaign demanding comprehensive sex ed—classes that address abstinence but also discuss issues such as birth control and differences in sexual orientation.
“We believed that the entire school system needed to make a commitment to providing life-saving information to Chicago schools,” she says, “so we took our cause to the top.”
Students organized, demonstrated, lobbied district administrators—and won. In April 2006 the Chicago Board of Education passed a policy requiring comprehensive sex ed. Today Patitucci is organizing campaigns in other parts of the state, working with youths and adults to push for new policies.
Students in New York City, the country’s largest district, are also demanding change. Their efforts began in 2005 with a group of teenagers at a Bronx middle school who took part in an after-school program sponsored by the nonprofit community group Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp.
The students started out small, gathering signatures for a petition for their principal. Before long, they had a brochure, a website, and a MySpace page. In November last year they garnered media coverage across the city with impassioned testimony before the city council.
Their demands aren’t outrageous: “We don’t want lectures, we want conversations,” says the group’s website (http://sexed4u.googlepages.com). Yet lectures have long been the beginning and end of sex ed: Do this or you’ll get a disease; be careful or you’ll get pregnant. Young women are rarely given the skills they need to resist unwanted sexual advances, especially from older boyfriends. Few sex-ed classes teach students—male or female—how to understand the difference between flirting and harassment.
Not surprisingly, students’ efforts to bring about changes ebb and flow as they graduate. So a number of groups are launching collaborative online initiatives that combine youth energy and perspectives with adult abilities to provide access to health professionals and trained counselors.
These websites provide medically accurate information that speaks to teens’ specific needs. For instance, MySistahs.org connects young women of color, who face disproportionately high rates of pregnancy and of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, with trained peers.
Terica Gant, for instance, sets aside about five hours every week from her busy schedule to answer e-mail from young women across the country. Between getting a master’s degree in social work from Louisiana State University, working in a group home for teenage girls, and helping out with an after-school program, she fields queries on topics ranging from emergency contraception to how soon one can have sex after an abortion to how to deal with an abusive partner.
She says the online approach boasts a critical advantage over classroom-based education: No question is too outrageous, and privacy is guaranteed. “Especially if you’re coming from a small town, you might not feel comfortable talking to your parents or your doctor,” the 22-year-old Gant says. “So the Internet is a great way to get the answers you desperately need, but not be judged, or worry that someone is going to tell on you.”
Other popular sites include Planned Parenthood’s Teenwire.com, a bilingual site answering inquiries like “What is morning wood?” and Scarleteen.com, an independent site with a lively sense of humor and a dynamite graphic on the “Attack of the 50-foot Vulva!”
Though much of the conversation about sex and the Internet focuses on pedophiles and pornography, sex-ed advocates stress the web’s positive potential. “The web is buyer beware, and young people have to be careful,” says James Wagoner, head of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “But youth are fighting for respect and for their rights, and we’re just in the early stages of seeing how the web makes that possible.”
Barbara Miner, a columnist for Rethinking Schools, writes frequently on social issues. Adapted and excerpted from ColorLines(May-June 2008), the national newsmagazine on race and politics, and winner of the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for general excellence; www.colorlines.com.