As a sexuality educator, I know too well that abstinence only sex education doesn't work. Study after study prove it. More recently, it has been shown that youth who take a "virginity pledge" are merely substituting other high risk sexual activities in lieu of vaginal penetration.
Let me be clear that I believe abstinence has a place in sex education--when it is part of a comprehensive sex education program. Being part of a larger conversation about sex and sexuality makes a lot of sense to me. It is the abstinence "only" part that drives me a little nutso.
I'm not a professional wordsmith, but I have enough knowledge to know that the word "withholding" is synonymous with "abstinence", which makes almost no sense to me. Seriously, think about it for a minute.
Communication is truly one of the most important tools anyone uses in their life. However, most people are never taught how to effectively communicate with...really..anyone. Peers, bosses, kids, family, and the list goes on and on.
Using an abstinence only model (with virginity pledges) is really only getting youth to agree to something they don't consent to (as well as depriving youth from learning how to communicate around the topics of sex and sexuality.) Consent is difficult to reach if you are purposely leaving important information out. Maybe I'm a bit dense, but what is the harm with giving youth accurate information about sex education?
Learning to make good decisions is part of getting older, isn't it? Giving youth comprehensive information on sex education allows them to know what the risks are for pregnancy or HIV/STI transmission and how they can prevent it. I, for one, would be incredibly happy to never hear about a new season of "16 and pregnant" or "Teen Moms".
I've worked with a lot of youth in my undergraduate (interning at a juvenile prison & interning with a juvenile probation office) and professional life. My post college work with youth has been as a case manager at a half-way house (in other words, youth who were released directly from prison), as a probation office (and an active participant in a "teen court" program), and working with both HIV positive and HIV negative youth in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In short, I have had a lot of experience with youth--everyone from LGBTQIQ youth who are marginally housed and homeless to students who attend some of the finest (ie expensive & progressive) private college preparatory schools. When it comes to college age youth, I've provided sex education to people attending community colleges as well as premiere universities like Stanford.
Even though I am a non-breeder, I truly love being around teens and young adults. I hear so many parents complain about how they can't relate to their children and that they have no idea what they might or might not be doing sexually. The thing is, with me, I have the exact opposite effect with youth. Basically they tell me in intimate details who, where, and when they have hooked up with sexually. Some have even drawn me flow-charts...I'm not even kidding about this.
Maybe it's because I don't have my own kids that I am able to relate so well (and in such a meaningful way) to youth. Maybe it's because I am super awesome sex educator, or maybe it's because I am perpetually curious and am genuinely interested in speaking with them. Also, I may look younger than I am, but many of the high school youth I had daily contact with were young enough to be my children. So why is it that, in general, youth are so open to talking about sex and sexuality with me?
Here are a few of my thoughts on why youth are so willing to talk openly about sex with me.
I relate to them on their level. Ok, so maybe this makes me a bit un-sophisticated and immature, but I can talk to most youth about almost anything. It usually starts out with me asking something like:
"Whats going on at school?"
"Are you interested in anyone in particular?"
"What's the newest update with you, give me the 411",
"Hey, are you thinking about college yet?",
"What do you do for fun?"
"So, have you been getting any penetration lately?"
Being that I am a super curious person, all I have to do is open the door with a few open-ended questions and the proverbial flood gates open up. I also come from a place that I recognize youth are sexual beings, which is something really difficult for a parent to conceive of.
I've figured out that there is an art to asking the correct questions. For example, If they say they have, indeed, had penetration, I will ask what kind, did they enjoy it, how do they feel about it now, is it with someone serious, do they need condoms and lube, etc.
It's been my experience that youth are way smarter and intuitive than they are given credit for. The youth I have known are really open to confiding intimate details about their life because they see me as a trusted adult and/or ally.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm advocating parents to go out and become their children's best friend. I mean, look at how well that has turned out for Lindsay Lohan and her mom. There needs to be some sort of rules or parameters, and those should be set by the parent.
I guess what I'm getting at is that I don't want people to think youth gravitate towards me because they see me as their pal and, therefore, a push over because 1) If you know anything about me and my past work experience (see above), you know I am anything but a push over, and 2) I have never had a problem calling a youth out on their shit. My process looks something like this--we have a private conversation, we discuss whatever the issue is and I then communicate what type of behavior is expected from them moving forward, and then I drop it and move on. I've lost count the number of times youth were obviously squeamish to be around me after our little private conversation. They are usually blown away that I am still around for them after they have messed up. I think it is these type of instances where I have left the biggest mark on emerging youth. There have been many times when I (along with other youth service providers) have been the first healthy relationship a youth has had with an adult, and it is something I take very seriously. Being an active person in a teens life can have dramatic results, even if that time is limited to only a few months.
I know that this might seem like a radical way of interacting with youth. Open and honest communication...how novel!
I get that not everyone is going to have the capacity to do this. In that case, the best I can hope for is that those youth have some adult in their life who they feel comfortable discussing this stuff with.
Or, you can always send them my way.