- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Washington, D.C., has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates nationwide: 1 in 8 teenage girls get pregnant in any given year. D.C. also has the highest rate of new AIDS cases per 100,000 population: More than 14,000 cases have been diagnosed, and almost half have died. The Whitman Walker clinic estimates 1 in 20 D.C. adults is infected with HIV.

These statistics are directly related to the Department of Human Services (DHS) failure to provide a sound teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention program. As a result, the District’s youth suffer an epidemic of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Let’s look at middle-school students to whom I presented my classroom HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy prevention education program, called ULTRA Teen Choice. A slide show demonstrates the increased chance of contracting HIV when sexually active people are not monogamous but have multiple sexual partners.

A seventh-grade girl asks: “Are you supposed to have one sexual partner for life?” and, “If you get divorced, can you marry again?”

Young people do not know the expected standard of behavior, namely abstinence until marriage (according to federal guidelines drafted as part of the welfare reform bill of 1996). They will not respond to a standard that is not presented in a clear, directive way. Further, most are unaware of condoms’ limited effectiveness and are not getting a clear message about either issue from the DHS’ HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy prevention program.

For example, the DHS recently coproduced a CD titled “Cause ‘N Effect.” The lead song raps: “I tell you Safe Sex or No Sex! The best sex is no sex and if you having sex [sic] please use the latex.” First, youth do not respond affirmatively to mixed messages. The Family Planning Perspectives journal reported black teenagers in an urban area who (1) had good communication with their mothers, (2) received a clear, strong pro-abstinence message, (3) whose mothers did not promote birth control, were 12 times less likely to have had sexual intercourse than teens for whom none of that was true.

The second problem with the “safe sex” message is that “safe sex” is not safe. An eighth-grade boy during a classroom presentation frames this problem succinctly: “Why do people promote using a condom when it does not protect you from most sexually transmitted diseases?” Good question. Studies show condoms are as much as 85 percent effective in preventing HIV infection and about 80 percent effective in preventing pregnancy among teen couples. Calling condom use “safe sex” is false and misleading.

The news gets worse for the other more than 25 sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms are at most 50 percent effective in reducing transmission of syphilis and gonorrhea. There is no evidence the risk is reduced for sexually transmitting human papillomavirus, cause of almost all cervical cancers. Condoms do not prevent trichomonas vaginalis.

Condoms may be 40 percent effective in preventing transmission of genital herpes, an incurable viral infection that has infected 1 in 5 five adults in the United States. Chlamydia transmission is cut by half with 100 percent condom use.

Having Chlamydia increases the risk of cervical cancer and can lead to sterility if not treated. Yet many may not get treated, because only 15 percent of cases show early symptoms.

All the above statistics assume 100 percent condom use, which is extremely rare. This is hardly “safe” sex.

Some of the antagonists preventing a medically sound and directive approach to encouraging youth sexual abstinence before marriage are those promoting normalization of same-sex relationships. In September, I attended my local Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting to comment on a grant application for $1,875 to fund the ULTRA Teen Choice Service Club at Eastern Senior High School. The chairman, Joseph Fengler, sidelined the proposal without discussion.

Commissioners Fengler and Cody Rice told me they opposed the grant because ULTRA Teen Choice promotes abstinence until marriage and homosexuals cannot get married. Commissioner Jessica Ward also said she opposed it “because it is very exclusive.” What is the logic? There is none. What makes promoting abstinence before marriage harmful to those who think they are attracted to members of their own sex? Should we not refer to social norms cherished for thousands of years because it is thought a few cannot conform to them?

My attempts to find out how federal abstinence education funds were spent also have been brushed aside by those at the DHS Maternal and Child Health Administration, the offices of Sharon Ambrose, my city council representative, and Sandy Allen, chairman of the Health and Human Services committee.

DHS must stop treating HIV/AIDS infection as a political issue. Considering the statistics on condom effectiveness, is it conscionable to advocate this as “safe sex” to our youth? A sound approach must emphasize sexual abstinence until marriage. This will provide not only medical benefits but will also help young people avoid the many negative social and emotional consequences of sex outside marriage.

Mayor Williams should immediately launch a major education initiative for all D.C. youth of middle-school age and older and promote a directive message to abstain until marriage. Nothing else will stem the tide of HIV infection and teen pregnancy.


Executive director

Urban Life Training & Reality Assessment (ULTRA) Teen Choice


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