Delaying Teen Sex
There are very few creatures as puzzling as teenagers. They want to be considered grownups, but in many ways they're still children, dependent upon their parents for guidance, love and shelter. This is why the issue of preventing teen pregnancy is such an important one to parents, educators and everyone who cares about this not-quite-mature age group.
One new report, Not Yet: Programs to Delay First Sex Among Teens, is part of an ongoing attempt to definitively identify programs and strategies to delay teens having sex, which, ideally, would also prevent teen pregnancies.
Sponsored by Child Trends and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the study was conducted to investigate various sex education approaches – ranging from those with an abstinence-only message to those who also incorporate skills to avoid sexually transmitted diseases – and to measure their effectiveness. There was some good news in the findings, but there were also surprises, frustrations and many questions yet to be answered.
One Successful Model, Sort Of
Dr. Renee Jenkins is professor and chair in the department of pediatrics and child health at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She has a lot of real-world knowledge of this important subject because she treats pregnant adolescents. Dr. Jenkins and her colleague, Karen Anderson, Ph.D. – a psychologist who specializes in creating school-based projects with adolescents, including gay and lesbian youth – were co-researchers for one of the most successful models evaluated in the report.
The researchers' focus was to replicate a program called PSI, which stands for Postponing Sexual Involvement. The program was originally developed at Emory University. Dr. Jenkins and Anderson tweaked the program in a couple of areas. First of all, rather than relying just on data collected over the phone, they used a more pure experimental model with an intervention group and control group. Second, they expanded the program to include wider school involvement, so that rather than just being one class or session once a week, there were assemblies, small group activities, posters around the school and other events and activities aimed at reinforcing the idea of postponing sexual activity.
"Being able to engage the school is important, especially when you're up against a society where your children are constantly bombarded with messages that seem very opposed to the one we're trying to get out about delaying sex," says Dr. Jenkins. "Keeping the kids' focused on responsible sexual choices is easier if you can keep it in the forefront in the places where they spend their time."
Dr. Jenkins notes that this approach is especially effective with girls. "PSI is based upon skill building, and that's particularly important with girls because at that age they don't know how to respond when someone is pressuring them to have sex," she says. "Unfortunately, the program was not as successful with boys. While the researchers saw knowledge gains for both boys and girls, they did not see behavioral changes in boys."
There are probably a variety of factors to explain this lack of effectiveness, but Dr. Jenkins speculates that a primary reason is simply that early and frequent sexual activity does not have the stigma for boys that it does for girls. "I have to say that right now we're just very frustrated about how to approach boys and get the message across that they should wait to have sex," she says. Anderson adds that getting boys to take sexual responsibility more seriously is a big challenge, because it almost requires society to construct a radically different social norm – and one that kids will accept.
PSI was merely one of a handful of curriculums evaluated in the report. Of the others, there were differing levels of success, including cases where the evaluation group actually reported more sexual activity than the control groups. So while they may not have found one "magic bullet" that will definitely change teens' propensity to have sex, studies of this type certainly help create a model for what does work by taking the successful components and eliminating those that weren't successful.
One important thing they did learn, says Bill Albert, national campaign director of communications for the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, is that birth control education is a big part of keeping the teen pregnancy rate down. "There is growing evidence that using programs that work either to delay the onset of sexual activity or to encourage sexually active teens to use contraception definitely leads to a decrease in teen pregnancies," says Albert. "In recent years, teen pregnancy and birth rates have declined dramatically, and we attribute this to a combination of less sex and more contraception."
However, as Albert makes clear, just because kids are getting information about contraceptives doesn't mean they're getting permission to be sexually active, either. On the contrary, an analysis of the models studied in the report show that the most effective programs at delaying sexual activity were those that were very clear about how important it is to make good moral choices. "When you look at the characteristics of successful programs, one thing that is very clear is that they need to provide very clear messages to delay sex and use condoms," says Albert. "Some programs failed because they were too non-judgmental. They need to be clearer about what is the right choice."
It's also not enough to just send children to programs, especially since there's no way to know whether or not the program being offered by your school or community is an effective one. Rather, expecting children to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy has to start at home. Albert says the most effective program in the world is a close, loving relationship with parents.
Dr. Jenkins and Anderson add that parents need to start taking a more active role in their children's sex education. "I think parents sometimes make assumptions about what their children know," says Dr.Jenkins. "In reality, we were shocked to discover how little factual information these children were getting about puberty. They're learning the wrong information from the wrong people, and that can have lasting consequences."
Finally, don't give up, says Albert. "Even if your teen is pulling their baseball cap over their eyes, they're listening," he says. "If you talk to your children about their bodies and sexuality while sending clear messages based upon your faith and morals, and supervise your children and know where they are and who their friends are, you are the best prevention in the world."