According to a new government report, fewer high school aged teens are having sex, and when they do, they are more likely to use contraception. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that sexual intercourse among teens has declined after rates stabilized between 2002 and 2010. The new study shows that just over 40 percent of boys and girls reported having had sexual intercourse by age 18, a significant decline since 1988 when the number peaked at 57 percent of teens between the age of 15 and 19 reported having sex. The report on teen sexual activity and contraceptive use was released Thursday by the CDC.
An Alabama adolescent health organization is shifting its focus from teen pregnancy prevention to overall sexual health education as teen birth rates continue to decline across the country.
The group, originally founded as the Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 1999, will now operate at the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health. A new executive director, Christina Clark Okarmus, hopes to use the transition to partner further with Alabama public school districts, where sex education is not mandated.
“Our mission is to champion healthy adolescent development through evidence-informed sexual health education and services,” said Dr. Tina Simpson. “Fortunately, due to a combination of teenagers having less sex and improved utilization of birth control methods, teen births have declined across America, but adolescent sexual health remains a priority as adolescents continue to be disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections. There has also been increasing emphasis placed on the importance of developing healthy and safe relationships. We believe our new name more accurately describes our work.”
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, nearly 50 teen girls out of every 1,000 gave birth in Alabama in 2005. A decade later, the teen birth rate hovered slightly over 30 per 1,000. In 2017, the last available data, the rate had dropped slightly to 27 per 1,000 girls.
“That can only be credited to young people having the knowledge, skills and access to take care of their sexual decision making,” said new executive director Christina Clark Okarmus said. “Access to birth control, access to negotiation skills. We saw that decline nationally, and we saw that in Alabama, though we still remain a state with one of the higher teen birth rates.”
In 2017, the birth rate of 27 was well over the national average of 18.8. Alabama ranked ninth highest in teen birth rates, joining a swath of 10 states from West Virginia to new Mexico that recorded rates over 26.6 per 1,000 teens.
As pregnancy rates drop, there remain concerns about sexually transmitted illness among adolescents. More and more young people are using contraceptives like hormonal birth control and LARCs, long-acting reversible contraception. But research shows a slight drop in condom use.
“Young people are using birth control more and more, which is great for unintended pregnancy reduction, but not great for STI/STD reduction,” Okarmus said. “We’re finding there is still a lot of work to be done around sexual health education in general.”
Alabama law does not mandate sexual education in public schools. The state’s current sex education law, passed in 1992, says homosexuality “is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public” and tells educators to stress that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
Because the state doesn’t mandate sex ed and only provides general guidelines, it’s difficult to know who is teaching what, Okarmus said.
“We want to be supportive of schools,” Okarmus said. “We want to encourage them to adopt evidence-informed sexual education. That’s certainly the best way to reach young people are through schools, they’re a captive audience. To this point, we haven’t been able to fully integrate into that system.”
Republican Sen. Tom Whatley introduced legislation this session that would strike the homosexuality language in its entirety and update other guidelines.
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“If you’re teaching sex education, you’re going to be medically accurate when you’re doing it,” Whatley told a legislative committee earlier this year.
Whatley’s bill maintains the law’s emphasis on sexual abstinence, which the law calls “the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons.”
The legislation also changes language “self-control and ethical conduct” on sexual behavior to “delaying sexual activity” and discouraging risky behavior. The bill also strikes language that requires educators to discuss the “reliability or unreliability” of contraception while retaining an emphasis on how contraception reduces the chance of pregnancy and the risk of acquiring a sexually-transmitted disease.
In 2017, the campaign conducted a public study of sexual health education perception. Okarmus said results showed parents “overwhelmingly” supported sex ed that includes information about condoms and birth control.
For Okarmus, the priority is enabling young people to make the best decisions for their lives, not relying on an abstinence-only curriculum. Sexual health education should be “medically accurate, age-appropriate, inclusive of all young people and free of bias and shame.”
“We acknowledge that some healthy relationships will include sexual activity,” she said. “If that’s the case, we want young people to be prepared to have a healthy experience. We acknowledge that some healthy relationships will not include sexual activity, and we want that to be the choice of the people in that relationship. We want to provide them with the skills to negotiate that. ‘Say no’ doesn’t always work in the best way. …. It doesn’t matter if someone has sex on their prom night or their wedding night, they still need the same information to protect themselves and be safe.”
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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