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Kids aren't hearing our sex lessons

Early this month we asked north Pinellas high school students to tell us why record numbers of teenagers are getting pregnant and having babies despite all the lessons, lectures and pleas they hear to abstain from sex or use birth control.

A variety of fascinating responses came back, some of them from students with first-hand experience: They are, or have been, pregnant.

Most answers to our question fell into three broad categories:

Students don't put much stock in birth control or think it is dangerous and therefore choose not to use it.

They get into intimate situations without planning for them and proceed even though they don't have birth control.

They make a conscious decision to take part in unprotected sex because they are trying to win love and acceptance that they don't get at home.

I was surprised by the number of students who dismissed the subject of birth control with an offhand, "It doesn't work." These students clearly placed no confidence in existing birth control devices. I wondered if they never had considered how their parents successfully avoid having more children.

More than one student also had the impression that birth control can be dangerous to a teenager and even result in damage that would prevent them from having babies in the future. They apparently have decided that if some birth control methods may be harmful, they won't use any birth control at all.

A few students complained about the cost of birth control devices being out of range of teens' budgets. Those students often called for condoms to be distributed free at schools.

The problem of teens getting drawn into an intimate situation and being unable to stop it or embarrassed to do so certainly is not exclusive to the '90s. But it is discouraging, nonetheless, that the lessons we bombard our children with in the '90s _ lessons designed to teach them to have the confidence and the wisdom to "just say no" _ are not always working.

In fact, many of the teenagers who wrote indicated that it may be more difficult to say "no" today than ever before. That's because the presumption today is that teens will have sex before marriage, the students wrote. Virginity is something to keep secret in this environment _ a "problem" to be solved at the earliest opportunity.

Most disturbing to me, though, was the number of letters that said teens are being promiscuous or are intentionally risking pregnancy to fill an emptiness in their lives brought on by problems at home.

Many of the letter writers said that teenagers don't get hugs, kisses or acceptance from their parents, so they seek to fill those basic human needs through the opposite sex. Several students urged parents to spend more time talking with their teenagers and making them feel loved and whole. Those teenagers, they said, will be stronger and better able to resist a come-on that could get them in trouble.

Letter writers speculated that those girls who get pregnant deliberately may think a baby will love them the way no one in their family did. Others get pregnant because they are trying to hold on to a boy who seems ready to leave, or because they want to rebel against parents or grow up faster, the students said.

Interestingly, not a single student of the 109 who wrote letters mentioned AIDS or the need to use condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

You can read a selection of the students' letters on this page. The next Teen Opinion topic will be printed Nov. 1.

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