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Category: Education, Girls

Can We Talk? Teens Need a Realistic Dialogue About Sex and Contraceptives

February 27, 2009

by Shannon Reed While her mother seemed to accept her pregnancy as a normal part of teen life, Bristol Palin, in her recent Fox News interview, acknowledged that abstinence just doesn’t work. Here, the author, a high-school teacher, calls for a new conversation stripped of emotional overload to guide her students and the nation’s teenagers as they become sexually active.

“Life happens. Life happens and you deal with it.” It’s the kind of cliché we expect from someone when life inconveniences us in a minor way with a spilled coffee or a new cavity. Annoying, but relatively easy to deal.

But it was a very major thing that Sarah Palin was talking about when she made the remark. The former Republican vice-presidential candidate was responding to Fox News journalist Greta Van Susteren when asked about how she took the news of her daughter Bristol’s pregnancy last year. In an interview with Van Susteren that aired last week, 18-year-old Bristol discussed life with her newborn son, Tripp, and Governor Palin popped in at the end to say a few words.

Coverage of the interview focused on what Bristol had to say about teen abstinence—and more about that in a minute—but it’s the casualness of Sarah Palin’s remark that stuck a chord with me.

Neither Bristol nor her mother discussed just how Bristol ended up pregnant at 17, despite being raised in a firmly anti-abortion, pro-abstinence, conservative Republican home. Presumably, life just happened. And they dealt with it.

I note the lack of real discussion about teenage sex and contraceptive use because I’m an interested party: in my work as a high school teacher, I every day see my hormonally charged students try to make decisions about being sexually active without proper or adequate information. Their lives are just happening, but in many cases, there’s not much of anyone around to help them deal. I’m not the first high school teacher to feel frustration over this, nor the last of course. But when a 15-year-old student holds you breathless and terrified with her account of her miscarriage at 14, or a 13-year-old turns in an essay assignment that proves to be a heartrending good-bye letter to a baby she’s given up for adoption, it is difficult to understand why straight talk about teenage contraceptive use is not a national priority.

Evidence of the need for such a conversation is everywhere we look in the media. The country is still talking about the Time magazine report of a Gloucester (Massachusetts) High School pregnancy pact. The girls involved are currently finding out just what it’s like to be a teenage mother. (At least the school board voted to change its policy of not allowing contraceptives to be distributed at the school’s health clinic.) Tabloids rush to run photos of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears and other young mothers. Juno took a similar dilemma into movie theatres, and then to the 2008 Oscars. And one only has to flip on the soapy, silly and addictive “Gossip Girl” to see a glimpse of its unending portrayal of teens getting it on.

Yet, the most potentially valuable and life-changing aspect of this storyline is rarely presented or explored, whether by our news media or popular culture writers: teenage contraceptive use. Our country’s prudishness and fear of religious condemnation—not to mention how a frank conversation about condom use tends to put a damper on the heat of the instantaneous sexual coupling that movies and TV shows favor—keep us, and our youth, from seeing what such conversations might look like.

Except for the most starry-eyed idealists, we all know abstinence doesn’t work for most people, much of the time. Bristol Palin gives her fellow teens good advice: “You should just wait ten years and it’d just be so much easier.” But she also notes, “Everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all.” True, sex just happens—much as I would like to lock up my students and keep them out of each other’s pants.

Instead of catching teenagers between the rock of what they “should” do and the hard place of what’s realistic, we need a new perspective. Let’s be honest about what is actually happening in the lives of American teenagers. Gynecologist Rebecca Booth’s 2008 non-fiction book, The Venus Week, has the perspective I crave, in her matter-of-fact statements about the likelihood of teenage and young adult sex.

She describes the case of Julie, a young woman whose abnormal pap smear upset both her and her mother, as it revealed that Julie was sexually active with her boyfriend. “I tried to explain that even just a generation ago couples tended to marry at younger ages, and were not asked to deny their sexuality until after graduate school and beyond,” Booth writes. “Julie’s parents were married at twenty-one and have remained happily married. In wishing the same for Julie (celibacy until marriage), they are asking her to delay the normal tendency to pair up.”

Without advocating teen sex, Booth gives permission for us to rationally understand teenagers and young adults as sexual beings, not necessarily incapable of practicing abstinence, but instead unlikely to, since it goes against both their biological imperatives and human desire for romantic love and its natural expressions. Her approach takes emotion out of the equation.

Isn’t it time we took a good look at sex education in our schools and began to teach something rational? With the Obama Administration kicking off rollbacks of Republican policies, we can hope that the type of abstinence-only education favored by Sarah Palin will be thrown out along with the gag rule. Yet no one wants to just hand teenagers a pack of condoms, flip the channel to “Gossip Girl,” and call it a day. It’s time for a real Sex Ed curriculum—one that gets students and teachers talking about biological imperatives, moral consequences and realistic assessments of life-changing potential while minimizing the embarrassment and maximizing the openness. If we can watch movies and television shows, read books and listen to interviews about teenage sex, can’t we have real-life discussions that go beyond the superficial?

Governor Palin is right. Life does happen. Sex is a part of life. Our teenagers—my students, your children—deserve a full understanding of human sexuality.