Once again, the alarm has sounded. Here's a novel idea for this time around: Let's actually react to the noise.
Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its biannual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance data and revealed that across the nation, teens' condom use has flat-lined since 2003. This means that just over 60% of sexually active teens use condoms. Teen sexual activity may be on the rise, too. At the same time, fewer teens (89.5% in 2007 vs. 91.5% in 1997) are learning about AIDS or HIV infection in school. No doubt this is in part because of the push for abstinence-only education and the series of school budgetary cuts that have eliminated sex-ed entirely.
Though disturbing, the data shouldn't surprise you. Back in March, the CDC issued data showing that 1 in 4 teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted disease.
Clearly, these STDs had to come from somewhere.
Still, it may have been easy to dismiss the significance of the March data. That study looked at only 838 girls. Surely those girls with STDs must live in some other neighborhood, some other town, some other state. That's not going on at my local high school. Next story, please.
But this time around, the CDC surveyed over 14,000 teens. How much more data do we need before we're willing to see the reality?
In the 1990s, we saw a decline in risky teenage sexual behavior. More students were using condoms, fewer were having sex. But a countercurrent is threatening the tide of progress, and we need to pay attention.
By this, I do not mean we should freak out for a few days, read every article about teen sex and so-called scandal, and tuck the horror stories in the back of our minds until the next cause for freakout comes along, months later. I do not mean we should throw up our hands in despair and cry out, We give up! I do not mean we should blame pop culture, though I see how easy that could be (just think: Gossip Girl, Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy, Juno; hey, even that Today Show Casanova sensation/creep Paul Janka).
What I do mean: Let's delve further into the data and go directly to the source. Let's talk with teens about what's going on. Let's talk with parents. Let's all talk about sex.
I recently read that a nurse in private practice outside of Boston launched a free, joint parent/child sex-ed course called Smart Sex Education Program. Over five weeks, this nurse, Thu Anh Lewin, met with parents and their middle and high school children separately - teaching the kids about sexual, physical, and emotional health, and encouraging the parents to continue educating their kids at home - not in one fell swoop, but in many. The course received rave reviews.
So far the sex-ed debate has centered on comprehensive vs. abstinence only sex-ed. The Left and the Right. But Nurse Lewin is onto something. Isn't there room for a third - and independent - party? A place where we can meet in the middle - where we can bring together parents and children - and discuss sexual health, family values, and everything else under the sun?
We could call it Intergenerational Sex-Ed. That sounds intimidating and dry, actually. I'm sure we could come up with a catchier name. Like Generation Sex. Or Sex and the Real Talk. It could be as open and funny as that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carell has more questions about sex than anyone else in the room. But sensitive, of course. It would be about listening and talking and informing, not judging.
These days when it comes to the future of sex-ed, it feels like we're all waiting for teachers and educators and policy makers to figure out what's going on with teens today and intervene. But it's taking a long time. And in the meantime, more kids are engaging in risky behavior, as the CDC data show.
Maybe it's easier to start small.
That's what Nurse Lewin did. She came up with the idea on her own, advertised in local media, and held the class at a public library.
She reacted. And just like that, she made a difference.