There are black, purple and wooden dildos on the tabletops of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the iconic D.C. eatery. At its H Street location on Thursday night, high school students excitedly demonstrate the proper way to apply a condom, racing each other to get the condom on, off and tied away.
This exercise happened at the launch of the D.C. Department of Health’s “Sex is …,” campaign, a project aimed at engaging young people and their parents or a trusted adult in having open and honest conversations about sex.
“Our goal is to empower and equip young people to make healthy choices about sex that are safe,” said Mr. Michael Kharfen, the senior deputy director of DOH HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration.
“We’ve seen more than three years of straight increases of STDs in the city, and they’re heavily disproportionate among young people,” he said. “This gives us a new way to communicate and particularly with adults. … The young people want trusted adults in their lives, and they want to have an open and honest conversation. Young people don’t want to get shut down.”
Despite research pointing to teenagers engaging in sex later than previous generations, STD rates reached a record high in 2016, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with youth ages 15 to 24 making up the highest number of infected individuals.
Yet, the teen birth rate continues to decline, with 24.2 births for every 1,000 individuals in 2014, compared to 26.5 per 1,000 the previous year.
Mr. Kharfen further said that the DOH supports school health clinics, providing them with free condoms and the tools so that students can get STD testing. There are also close to 140 sites around the city where people can get free condoms.
Thursday night’s event had kids from high schools all around the city who are part of a range of youth groups that train young people as educators and ambassadors to talk about difficult subjects, whether it is sex education, drugs, alcohol, homelessness or others. Among the groups represented included the Young Women’s Project and the D.C. Youth Advisory Council.
Sixteen-year-old Genia Bryant was one of the sex education ambassador’s on hand to demonstrate how to appropriately put on a condom. She came to the “Sex is …” campaign through her involvement with the Young Women’s project. Once a week they provide training sessions to teach young people how to talk to other teenagers about safe sex.
“Everything was new to me,” Genia said of the sex education she received from the Young Women’s Project, and that it took her a year training with the group to get more conformable talking about sex in general.
“Anything can happen, it’s important to know how to protect yourself and where to go,” she said of the advice she gives her peers.
The “Sex is …” project was a year in the making and was built out of multiple focus groups with teenagers to better understand how they wanted to engage in talking about sex.
A lot of the message of the campaign is to acknowledge sex as a normal, healthy, fun and pleasureful experience and, from there, help talk to youth about having a physically safe experience — using condoms and contraception, the dangers of STI’s and HIV — but also to engage in dialogue about the emotional aspect to physical intimacy.
“We’re done with scare tactics,” said Veronica Urquilla, the STD programs manager at the D.C. DOH, addressing everyone at the event. “There’s a reason people have sex. It should be physically enjoyable but emotionally safe and supportive. … We want you to take care of your sex life.”
A large part of the campaign is engaging the parents or caregivers of these children to have open conversations.
“They didn’t want to be accused about having sex as soon as they asked about it,” Ms. Urquilla continued. “They wanted judgment-free answers. They told us we needed to retrain the adults … to tell the adults: Don’t let your past dictate our future.”
Shakeea Briscoe was one of the open-minded mothers who attended Thursday night’s event. She said it wasn’t a difficult subject for her to broach with her daughter because she works in the medical field and says she’s always been open about discussing sex.
“It’s important to educate your children so they can answer the questions for their friends,” she said. The most important thing she tells her daughter is to always use a condom.
“There’s no reason not to use protection. It’s everywhere. It’s free,” Ms. Briscoe said.