Health educators teach OKC teens about their bodies, and communication
The questions scrawled silently and anonymously on index cards cataloged their writers' fears and confusion about their changing bodies.
How do you know if you have AIDS?
Why do girls' periods sometimes stop when they aren't pregnant?
Can you have twins with different fathers, as seen on Maury Povich's talk show?
And, over and over: Is sex going to hurt?
Kathy Harms flipped through them, setting aside a few that wanted specific guidance on how to make love as that went beyond her mandate to teach teens how their bodies work, and how to be in a relationship.
It's information she wishes someone had taught her at their age: she had her first child at 16, and while both she and her daughter are doing fine now, those early years were tough.
Harms, a health educator, roves from school to school around Oklahoma City, teaching primarily middle school students. She'd already encountered many of the eighth graders who had written their burning questions last year, while she taught the seventh-grade curriculum, but several myths still came up in their first afternoon together on a Monday in early May.
Nearly all the class agreed that a woman couldn't get pregnant during her period, because the egg had already left the body. That's not quite right, Harms said. Sperm can remain viable for up to a week, meaning they could still fertilize an egg if the woman released another egg shortly after her period.
“While it is not as likely, it can happen,” she said. “That's not a good birth control method.”
The numbers suggest many Oklahoma teens could use more information on preventing pregnancy. The state had 38.5 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. The national average is 24.2 births for every 1,000 girls in that age group. Oklahoma ranked 48th out of the 50 states when it came to births to teenagers.
The co-ed sex education classes are an attempt to change those statistics.
And while it's difficult to measure cause and effect in something as complicated as sexual behavior, some indications suggest the classes are working.
Kelli Johnson, an eighth-grade science teacher at Taft Middle School who hosted Harms' lessons, said the school generally has had only one or two pregnancies a year since sex educators started guest-teaching. There had been 14 in 2007, the year before the school brought in the educators.
Having volunteers come in ensures that all students are getting the same information, and that it's medically accurate — unlike much of what they've seen on the internet, Johnson said. Some students also are more comfortable asking questions of someone they won't have to see every day for the rest of the year, she said.
“They need someone to ask these questions,” she said.
Laura Lang, CEO of Thrive, an organization that coordinates efforts to prevent teen pregnancy, said about 3,000 students in 44 area schools received lessons about sexuality and relationships in the last school year.
Clinics are developing teen-friendly policies to encourage youth to come for sexual health services if they need them, Lang said, and the collaborative created a referral guide for teens that goes over what services they can consent to for themselves and which need a parent's permission. The members also are reaching out to leaders in the faith community and places where youth might go, so they feel comfortable talking to young people about issues in their lives, she said.
“Some of the very best protective factors, according to research, are trusted adults,” she said. “We'd like to foster healthy communication between adults and kids.”
Learning to talk
Laying the groundwork for open communication is one of the key goals of Harms' classes.
Boys and girls take the class together to encourage them to feel comfortable talking with their partners when they become sexually active in the (hopefully not-too-near) future, Harms said. It also reinforces that boys need to understand reproduction and contraception, she said.
“It's not just a female's responsibility to make sure she doesn't get pregnant,” she said.
It's an idea she tries to gently lead the students to when she asks them why the boys are learning about the menstrual cycle.
“You might have a wife,” a boy in the back volunteered.
You might be a single dad raising a daughter, another proposed.
While Harms certainly doesn't talk up sex, and urges the students to wait until their brains are more mature, she doesn't deal in scare tactics. She answers the questions about pain directly: it could be uncomfortable the first time, but if it persists, see a doctor.
“I'm not going to come in here and tell you not to have sex. That's not my role,” she said. “It's me saying, consider all the responsibility that comes along with it.”
And while the first day is focused on anatomy, most of the course talks about the responsibilities you have to yourself and others in relationships, whether romantic, platonic or familial. To do that, Harms brings in some younger back-up the day after her presentation.
Lexi Pogue, of Del City High School, and Kaya Millirons, of Harding Fine Arts Academy, are two of the volunteers who applied, went through a training period and took a day away from their classes to speak to the younger teens. They went to Taft on a Tuesday afternoon wearing matching T-shirts whose fronts read “Know your L.I.M.I.T.S. because … ,” with the back completing the thought “Life Is More Important Than Sex.”
Millirons said she wanted to push back against some of the messages students have gotten about relationships from the entertainment world. Pogue said she felt lucky to receive a comprehensive education and wanted to help share that with others.
“I didn't realize until I started talking to my parents (about the lessons she received) that they didn't get the same opportunities,” she said.
They started by asking the middle schoolers to name characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and suggesting examples of each they'd see on TV shows or played out in celebrities' lives. Most students had an easier time thinking of unhealthy examples than of functioning couples or families, and that can influence their views of what's acceptable behavior in a relationship, Millirons said.
Then the students broke into small groups to debate whether the scenarios printed on cards represented healthy or unhealthy relationships. They quickly determined that it wasn't healthy to blame your partner every time the two of you are running late, and that calmly talking through your disagreements was a good omen for your relationship, though they got stuck on whether the girl reacting calmly to her boyfriend breaking their plans was healthy or a being pushover.
From there, they moved on to consent, and the need to seek it not only for sex, but for kissing, hugging and other touching. It's not enough if the other person grudgingly agrees, just to make you happy or get you to go away, Pogue said.
“If it's not a clear, enthusiastic ‘Yes,' it's probably a no,” she said. “If you're kissing somebody and they don't want to kiss anymore, you have to stop.”
The students then filled out a plan for a healthy relationship, which included fun alternatives to sex. Suggestions included watching a movie, going for a walk, eating ice cream and “getting to know each other.”
“Woohoo! Great answer,” Harms said.
At the end of the class, they received a sheet with an activity to ask a parent or other trusted adult about their views on relationships. Youth may be uncomfortable asking their parents about sex or relationships, because they believe their parents will overreact or think that they are sexually active, Harms said. Talking about what they learned in school makes it easier to open the conversation, she said.
Many adults assumed teens instinctively understand what makes for a healthy relationship, but that's not the case, Harms said. Some youth have never had role models to show them what healthy relationships look like, others believe they can “save” or change someone with a history of unhealthy partnerships, she said.
“I know from a personal perspective that I didn't understand I was in an unhealthy relationship,” she said. “I've had students say, ‘Really, Ms. Kathy?'” when she tells them her husband has never called her names in 18 years of marriage.
Avoiding teen pregnancy is important because having a baby young increases a person's risk of dropping out of school and living in poverty, Harms said, but learning skills like communicating calmly and setting boundaries will benefit the students long after they've graduated.
“A lot of people assume that sexual health is about condoms, and that's part of it, but there's much more to it, about the responsibility that goes with a sexual relationship,” she said.