Sex on the brain
How do you add ‘safe’ to the equation?
In the quiet confines of Empire Coffee, the train-car café next to the Chico Amtrak depot, Angela Lashbrook sat drinking a glass of water and waving a piece of paper in front of her face to divert the heat. Her reddish hair hung just below her ears, and her skin was so pale you could almost see the veins underneath. She wore pearls across her milk-white throat and a vintage dress.
This is not your typical American teenager. Everything from the way she dresses to the books she reads—J.D. Salinger’s Frannie and Zooey sat before her, although she explained she’s not usually a Salinger fan because he’s a misogynist—and her venue of choice suggests she has more on her mind than summer partying and the return of The Hills.
On this day, the petite 18-year-old with short strawberry-blonde hair and small, black-framed glasses had sex on the brain—but not in a way you might think.
Lashbrook was disturbed by a study released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that one in four girls in America aged 14 to 19 has a sexually transmitted disease. And the National Institutes of Health reported in early July that the rate of teen pregnancy has gone up for the first time in 15 years.
This comes in the wake of several high-profile teen pregnancies, including those of 17-year-old Nickelodeon actress Jamie Lynn Spears and 17 students at Gloucester High in Massachusetts.
A lot of fingers are being pointed, but who or what is to blame for teens having unsafe sex is anyone’s guess. Lashbrook is pointing her finger at education.
Chico junior highs no longer offer health, the course in which sex ed is taught, due to budget constraints. While representatives from at least one junior high have said they’ve figured out a way to incorporate it into the curriculum, the vast majority of Chico teens won’t be taught about sex until high school, and, Lashbrook says, high school sex ed is nowhere near adequate.
High school sex education is a four- to six-week finale to the required semester of health, which can be taken any year of high school, reports Steve Personett, who taught the course for 17 years at Chico High before retiring last year. And while he would like to think the course is taken seriously by the students, the consensus seems to be that it isn’t very effective.
“It was boring.” “I don’t remember.” These are typical responses when the sex-ed question is posed to Chico High School graduates. There are vague references to bananas and cartoons and movies made in the ’70s.
“You just want to kill yourself rather than watch them,” said Ashley Bocast, 23, a Chico High grad.
“Sex is skimmed over,” Lashbrook said of the health class. “They didn’t put any emphasis on it at all.”
But Personett, who helped design the Chico High health program, said that he doesn’t know what more could be done in the classroom to prepare kids for sex. Maybe they aren’t paying attention. Maybe it’s just really hard to reach kids at that age. And he feels good about his program and the reaction from students.
Personett said that, in an anonymous survey given out at the end of each class, 80 percent to 90 percent of students said the class reinforced decisions to remain abstinent or to practice safer sex.
In health class, the entire semester leads up to the sex discussion, which covers reproductive systems, teen pregnancy, STDs and prevention. At times, the topic is treated lightly, even humorously. Bocast recalls a Donald Duck sex-ed video that was “hysterical.” Other times, there’s no way to avoid being explicit.
The main focus is on decisions, and how they can affect the quality and length of a person’s life, Personett said.
“I made it a point never to tell them what to do,” he said, but rather to teach teens to discover for themselves what to do. And he always asked questions and kept discussions open.
So why the staggering statistics?
Well, sex ed varies from state to state, Personett replied. Not every high school has sex ed, and some states have abstinence-only programs, focusing on why to wait but not on how to practice safer sex.
The statistics in Butte County: In 2007 there were 467 reported cases of chlamydia and 60 cases of gonorrhea in females age 15 to 24, which would include high schoolers, but also the college crowd.
Part of the problem is that the real teachers about sex are not our parents and teachers but rather the media, Lashbrook said.
Popular culture jokes about sex to the point where it becomes “cool” and “whatever” instead of something to be valued as the most powerful and affecting form of human intimacy.
Movies, music, television and the Internet have a “huge impact” on how sex is viewed by teens today, Lashbrook said, and results in the unserious view of sex by teens and some of the crude commentary heard by Lashbrook while walking the halls of Chico High, typically guys talking about girls.
Furthermore, attitudes toward sex are learned not in health class, but in talking with peers.
It’s not cool to view sex as something serious, or to view women with respect, Lashbrook said. Of course, this isn’t true of everyone, but for parents and teachers alike, it is hard to compete with something as ubiquitous as the media. And it is especially difficult when sometimes the media are the only ones doing the talking.
“The way our culture is set up, it makes it really hard for children to understand the importance of sex,” Lashbrook said.[page]
People are less willing to talk about sex than other topics. It is an awkward topic for a country whose major religion often teaches that sex is a dirty thing, Lashbrook said.
The “weird paradox,” she added, is that because it is illicit and not talked about, people pursue it. She compares it to kids sneaking out of the house at night. They do it not just for the good time they hope to have, but also because they know they shouldn’t.
Because of this lack of talk and fear of the topic, teens have trouble taking it seriously, Lashbrook said.
Taking some of the heat off education, Personett attributes some of the problems linked to teens and sex to youth and alcohol.
Teens go through what he calls the “Superman stage,” when they think they can have sex, drink and do drugs and nothing will happen to them.
“It’s always something that happens to someone else, ‘not to me,’ “ Lashbrook agreed.
Parents can have a huge affect on their kids’ decisions about sex, but they aren’t always around, and those who are don’t always speak up. Parents are kind of “out of it” when it comes to their kids and sex, Lashbrook said.
But this isn’t always the case.
“For me, my parents were a lot more effective [than sex ed],” said Bocast.
But a lot of kids have “no idea” until they step into that classroom, she added. She admits that she doesn’t remember much of her high school health class. She took it in her junior year, and she was “already set in [her] ways” and it wasn’t that effective.
Naphtali Jones, 35, another frequenter of Empire Coffee, places blame not on the schools but on the parents, and believes that sex ed is over the top.
“Discipline has gone out the window,” said the mother of 14-year-old son Kaya. They should first teach a course on “how people treat people” and then teach sex ed.
By “throwing these things at them,” the schools are taking away from teens’ adolescence, she said.
“They are preparing [them] for adulthood instead of letting [them] remember [they] are children.” The real responsibility should be in the hands of parents to teach their children about sex.
“I can’t hide him from the world, but I can guide him,” Jones said about her son.
Lashbrook believes this attitude is damaging to teens. “People not wanting their kids to learn about penises” is naïve, she said.
So what’s it going to take to knock some sense into today’s teens? Education is one answer. Parents who are willing to talk to their kids about sex at a young age is another.
“[It’s a subject that] requires a lot of care,” Lashbrook said, but she thinks kids should learn about sex starting in the fifth grade, with the teaching being expanded upon each year thereafter.
“Get them before they hit puberty,” she suggested.
Marsh Junior High, in fact, is working on a plan to integrate sex education into the P.E. or science classes, so clearly educators see the value in reaching kids when they’re younger.
But in today’s world, education might not be enough.
“They cannot expect us in a semester to solve the problem,” said Jean Delgado, retired Pleasant Valley High School health teacher who helped Personett set up the sex-ed program. It is hard to find the solution to a problem so multifaceted. “If we knew the why, we could fix it.”
And an hour a day for a few weeks during one semester of high school can hardly compete with a world of influences.
“The messages they are getting outside of the classroom are very powerful,” Delgado said. “They think, ‘This is what we are supposed to be doing.’ It’s more than saying ‘no’ in teaching young people.”
Especially in a place like Chico, where the college party scene is so inviting. “How many high school kids go to college parties?” Delgado asked, suggesting Chico has temptations other towns don’t.
For Personett, teaching self-esteem is the real way to deal with the issue. “People who value themselves and their life will take better care of their health,” he said. “Those who don’t take more chances.”
For Lashbrook, changing the teen scene would mean a complete cultural turnaround. It would mean a change not just in education and parenting, but also in the way our culture views sex and the way the media portray sex. And, as even Lashbrook has to admit, this vision is extremely unlikely.
“Sex sells,” she said. And the kids are buying it.