Check out my Blog post that was published via Care Net for all the Pregnancy Centers across the country.
Back in 1992 I started as a client advocate at a local Crisis Pregnancy Center, often referred to as a CPC. During my early days as a volunteer, I recall the Executive Director consistently asking me a specific question: What was it about the cases I was covering that really broke my heart? What made me lay awake at night? My response: the cases involving teenagers. I wanted to talk to the teen girls before they walked in our door. I wanted to eliminate their need for our services. The Executive Director smiled and said, “Talli, I think you just found your calling!”
Since those days, I’ve taught sexual health to over forty thousand students. I’ve trained thousands of health teachers to implement their sex education curriculum in the classroom. I’ve presented the message of the dangers of at-risk sexual activity to a multitude of parents.
In all of these settings—whether it be a counseling room, the classroom, or a parent gathering—it’s becoming more and more apparent that as leaders in the medical pregnancy center arena, we need to do a better job of tackling the constantly evolving reality of at-risk teen sexual activity, and we need to do so with up to date terms and strategies that the sexually active teen community can relate to.
At a time when “dating” often gets equated to “hooking up,” teens need practical help understanding how to counter the message that casual sexual contact is not a big deal. Well before they start dating, they need to know how much physical affection is appropriate in a dating relationship, and what might end up hurting them or compromising their physical and emotional safety.
Teens need help understanding that “hooking up” makes things more complicated. It can create relationship ties that the teen didn’t mean to make, commitments they can’t back up, and emotional pain that doesn’t magically disappear. Teen sexual activity can lead to lies, secrets, guilt, and pain, not to mention children and STIs. The problem is, teens don’t know this and adults often do a poor job communicating it.
INTRODUCING AT-RISK SEXUAL ACTIVITY
Do you know how to explain at-risk sexual activity to a teen patient that walks through your door? Do the volunteers working at your center know what words to use, and what words to stay away from? Do the parents in your community know how to define at-risk sexual activity for their teen sons and daughters? When many of us begin a conversation with a teen about their sexual choices, we use words like “worthy” and “purity” and “abstinence” and “secondary” or “renewed virginity”. We also present concepts like “abstinence until marriage”. But, the reality is, these words and the concepts no longer resonate with a teen audience.
Twenty years ago, when I first started teaching in classrooms, I spent a lot of time helping students understand why they were saving their sexual experiences for their future spouse. I spent most of my time talking to students about what they couldn’t or shouldn’t do. Today, the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds I speak with give me blank stares when I mention marriage. Sure, every season The Bachelor proposes to someone, but we eventually see the tabloid headlines that report that it never lasts.
Teens see twenty- and even thirty-somethings waiting to get married, relying on “hooking up” and living together to “test the waters” before settling down. A recent study shows that almost half of Millennials, now between eighteen and thirty-four, would support a marriage-like partnership that involved a two-year trial—at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, with no divorce or paperwork required.
In our current society, just 20% of adults between eighteen and twenty-nine are married. The average American man is almost twenty-nine when he marries for the first time, and the average American woman is almost twenty-seven. For a fifteen-year-old teen, marriage seems like a thing of the past, and as the divorce rate continues to grow, the teen community continues to look for alternatives to committing for life.
In addition to marriage happening later or not happening at all, many of the ninth graders in my classes know more about sex than I knew when I got married. They’re savvy about experimenting with boundaries and are comfortable talking about these topics. Today’s tweens and teens are more interested in talking about what they can do—how far can they push things and still be safe?
So, instead of asking questions like: “Have you ever considered abstinence?” “Do you know you’re worth the wait?” or “Are you having sex?”, we should be opening up dialogue that includes conversation starters like:
- “Can we discuss what puts you, your health, and your future at risk?”
- “Do you know what at-risk sexual activity is?”
- “Are you engaged in at-risk sexual activity?”
- “Do you know what the potential consequences of engaging in at-risk sexual activity are?”
- “What could be the benefits of not engaging in at-risk sexual activity during the teen years of your life?”
- “What environments lead you to engage in at-risk sexual activity?”
- “Who leads you to engage in at-risk sexual activity?”
- “Why do you engage in at-risk sexual activity?”
At-risk sexual activity starts well before intercourse and obviously includes intercourse. It’s a medically accurate term that isn’t fluffed with pro-life, pro-abstinence terms that make Christians feel comfortable and makes sexually aware young people want to turn and run the opposite direction.
At-risk sexual activity is simply defined this way: any time body fluids come into contact with body openings, there is a risk. And, any time there is skin-to-skin contact in the area of the body that is normally covered by underwear, there is a risk.
Refraining from at-risk sexual activity runs against much of what teens hear at their school and see in the media, but it’s still indisputably the healthiest choice. And thankfully, a well presented message that is up-to-date, and truly connected to today’s cultural trends can impact our teens to make a healthy choice. Such a message, grounded on evidence-based education, presented with the understanding that our culture has changed, could decrease the number of teens engaging in at-risk sexual activity.
By teaching and reinforcing these ideas with the teen community, we’re not only helping them to avoid risky sexual behavior now, we’re also setting them up to be healthy, strong adults who are capable of lasting commitment in the form of marriage.
Yes, our end-result goal is to help the teens in our community, who, statistically, are still many years away from saying “I do”, choose not to engage in at-risk sexual activity until marriage. But, at this point, helping them choose not to engage in risky sexual activity during the teen years is the first step, and an important challenge. Most of us would agree that we desire to promote healthy dating relationships, wonderful marriages, and great sex (in that order), and we believe that saving sex for the commitment of marriage is the best relationship choice for all individuals. But how we present the message will greatly determine whether or not we even have a chance at reaching this ultimate goal.
Talli Moellering is a wife, a mom, a speaker, and a sexual risk avoidance specialist with fifteen years of experience working with teens, parents, and public school educators. She is also the executive director of a women’s clinic in the Atlanta area that specializes in unplanned pregnancies, and author of “Let’s Talk About S-E-X: Equipping Parents to Tackle Sex and Dating with Truth and Tenacity,” available on Amazon.