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Joanna Weiss

Students find more sex than education

By Joanna Weiss
December 12, 2010

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IF TEENS AREN’T going to get sex education from their parents, and they aren’t going to get it from their schools, then they’re going to get it somewhere. From music. Or TV. Or each other. And so, according to high school students from Jamaica Plain, here are some things their friends think they know about sex: That you can’t get pregnant if you have sex in water. That if you have oral sex, you won’t get an STD. That there’s no point in wearing a condom because it will probably break.

Hear this, and some of the current statistics about teen health in Boston become a little clearer.

Teen pregnancy rates have dropped over the past decade — the result, public health officials believe, of the increased availability of chemical birth control. But chlamydia cases are rising at alarming rates, a sign that teens don’t understand that certain types of birth control — and certain types of sex — don’t protect you from disease.

In other words, the burden of contraception falls largely on girls. Acting alone leaves them vulnerable. And sex education, for girls and boys, is haphazard at best. Some kids happen to attend a school that offers a meager program. Some attend one of the handful of schools where the Boston Public Health Commission or some third party has a clinic. But many get nothing, or not nearly enough.

Now, students are asking for more; a coed group of teens from JP’s Hyde Square Task Force is lobbying for comprehensive sex ed, including information about healthy relationships and, yes, free condoms for all. Not a bowl of Trojans sitting on a shelf, but a couple of designated adults in every school — ideally, one male, one female — who could distribute condoms to kids who ask, without passing judgment.

The kids are committed; they’ve put together an honest, funny video that states their case. If politicians are willing to be just as brave, we’re in good shape.

And there are definite signs of hope. The Boston Public Schools recently created a new Health and Wellness Department. The school system is partnering with the public health commission to develop a systemwide sex ed program. City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has scheduled a hearing on sex ed and condom distribution.

But this kind of talk makes politicians and the public skittish. So it’s worth reminding everyone of the facts. According to the public health commission, nearly 70 percent of Boston teens report having sex by the time they’re 18. About half of sexually active teens have had three or more sexual partners by age 17.

Studies of condom distribution programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York schools have shown that making condoms easily available doesn’t increase the number of kids who have sex. It merely increases the number of kids who use condoms. And even kids who might use condoms, if they were close at hand, will tell you they won’t bother to ask a stranger at the drugstore to open a locked cabinet.

They might, however, ask an adult they trust. And while it’s easy to say they ought to be asking their parents, Massachusetts law does not require parental consent for access to to contraception or reproductive health, says Deborah Allen, who heads the health commission’s Child and Adolescent Family Health Bureau.

Besides, as teens from the Hyde Square Task force said, there are often giant barriers to talking about sex at home. Sometimes, it’s a matter of culture. Sometimes, it’s logistics: parents work two jobs, teens are caring for younger siblings, and there isn’t much time for sensitive conversations.

As Pressley and Allen point out, many parents have been asking for sex ed in Boston schools, too. They understand that kids need all the help they can get, combating a culture that makes sex look cool, or lets boys convince girls that sex is the best way to prove their love. As 17-year-old Samantha Brea said, “A lot of songs just talk about sleeping with all of these women. You don’t have a song saying, ‘Oh, let me put on a condom before I sleep with you.’ ’’

The music industry isn’t very good at education. That’s what schools are for.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com