Good News About Adolescent Sexual Behavior Never Seems to Make the Headlines

Many teens can be helped to rethink their decisions about sex. But not all of them. And that's where the Portland school board got it right.
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The articles and TV news stories on the Portland school board's 7 - 2 decision to provide prescription contraceptives at school based health clinics in middle school have featured alarming headlines like "Kiddie Birth Control," "Birth Control for Kids?" and "Birth Control Pills for 11-Year-Old Girls." What most have failed to mention is that only five students seen in the middle school clinic reported that they were having sexual intercourse, and they were all 14 and 15. They also don't mention that parents have to give permission for their children to be seen in the clinics.

The debates rant about the sexualization of the culture, but they have also ignored the fact that 94 percent of middle school adolescents have not had sexual intercourse [PDF, page 20], and that fewer young teens are having sex today than did 15 years ago. This is good news about young adolescent sexual behavior that never seems to make the headlines.

No one thinks that 11- and 12-year-olds should be having sex of any kind, not even 11-and 12-year-olds. As a minister, as a public health professional, and as a parent of two teenagers, I strongly believe that middle schoolers are not physically, emotionally, or spiritually ready for mature sexual relationships. I also know from the research that when young teens are having sex it's often with people who are much older than they are and that these teenagers are most often not doing well in other parts of their lives. Sexually involved early adolescents are often disconnected from their parents, doing poorly in school, and engaging in other high risk behaviors like drinking and drugs. In other words, they are troubled young people and they need our help.

And our support. I'm hoping the protocol in those middle school clinics requires offering these young teenagers extensive counseling about the risks of sexual behaviors and encouragement for involving parents and other adults in their decisions. Based on my own 30 years experience counseling teens, I know that most young teens will involve their parents if they are encouraged to do so and many can be helped to rethink their decisions about sex.

But, not all of them. And that's where the Portland school board got it right. For surely if we don't think young teens should be having sex, we also know that those who are, should be protected from pregnancy and STDs. We agree as a society to say to our young people, we don't want you to drink, but if you are going to drink, don't risk your lives by driving under the influence. Scary headlines aside, can we agree to say, we don't want you to have sex, but if you do, don't risk your health and your future?

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