LIMA — The numbers of Allen County youth having sex might seem startling.
Not to teacher Deborah Boedicker. She works with pregnant and parenting teens daily.
And not to Dr. Anthony Atkins. He knows a 13-year-old with six sexual partners. And he hears of parties where the entertainment is oral sex.
“Right now what we are doing is not working. That’s quite obvious,” said Atkins, of Allen County Health Partners.
The recently released Allen County Health Risk and Community Needs Assessment shows 46 percent of youth have had sex. It jumps to 63 percent for those over 17. Fifty-seven percent of high schoolers had sex, compared to 45 percent in Ohio and 48 percent in the U.S.
“When you see those numbers keep going up, it is disheartening as an educator. Obviously we are failing someplace,” Elida High School health teacher Nikki Benroth said.
School and health officials, and even teens committed to abstinence, struggle with how to bring the numbers down.
“They don’t think at all,” Elida sophomore Keaton Brenneman said. “They just act on impulse. It is kind of ridiculous.”
How bad is it?
The assessment comes from surveys done in Allen County middle and high schools. Bluffton and Bath did not participate. Shawnee Middle School did not take part in the sex portion.
Results show of those having sex, 41 percent have had one sexual partner, and 59 percent have had multiple partners. Seventeen percent of high school students had four or more partners, higher than the state at 14 percent and the country at 15 percent.
“I’ve had a 12-year-old come in and say, ‘I can’t get pregnant. I’m not having periods yet,’” said Becky Dershem, Allen County Health Department’s director of nursing.
They don’t think about contracting a sexually transmitted disease, or that Chlamydia could cause infertility later on. A 2008 study shows that 20.8 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds tested in Allen County were positive for Chlamydia. Two percent were positive for gonorrhea.
The survey showed 11 percent of Allen County youth are sexually active by age 13, as were 11 percent of high school youth, compared to 6 percent in Ohio and 7 percent in the country.
“The younger they are when they have their first pregnancies, the more apt they are to repeat in their four years of high school,” said Boedicker, Lima schools’ health education coordinator. “It’s harder for them to guarantee abstinence. It’s like quitting smoking. It is just really, really hard for them to do.”
The county’s teen birth rate jumped from 25.7 percent to 31.6 percent in 2007.
Allen County results for safe sex were better than elsewhere. Seventy percent used a condom the last time they had intercourse, compared to 60 and 62 percent in the state and country, respectively. Thirty-five percent used birth control pills, compared to 17 and 16 percent for the state and country.
Why they do it
Officials don’t have a clear answer why the numbers are higher in Allen County than elsewhere, other than the kinds of factors likely true throughout the country.
Sex in movies, television, music videos and music lyrics contribute to a constant exposure to sex, officials said.
“This is what our teens are seeing as normal behavior,” Dershem said. “Modeling is a big part of growing up, and so as these young folks attempt to model these behaviors, they find themselves in situations, putting themselves at risk for STDs and pregnancies.”
Officials could use television to their advantage, Elida sophomore Brianna Banks said. She suggests programming showing the risks.
Family and the economy play a part, with single parents and parents working more.
“Kids aren’t necessarily being supervised all the time,” said Lima schools Assistant Superintendent Jill Ackerman. “Or parents are overwhelmed, so sometimes kids look for relationships.”
Youth see mothers and grandmothers unmarried with multiple children, so they think it’s OK, Atkins said. Many have no plans, and getting involved in a sexual relationship brings acceptance.
“There is no respect, no self-esteem, so to make themselves feel accepted, they have a baby because everyone else is having babies,” he said.
Youth say there is nothing to do here. It’s an excuse Atkins doesn’t buy, but he can understand it for those who aren’t getting proper guidance.
Drugs and alcohol often lead to teenagers engaging in sexual activities. Like with many risky behaviors, teenagers think “it” won’t happen to them.
Some youth end up in sexual situations without maybe ever intending to.
“They don’t have the skills to get themselves out of it,” Boedicker said.
Boys tell girls they can’t get pregnant the first time, or that oral sex is OK, Dershem said.
“If boys are going to play games, we have to teach the girls to be good at it,” she said. “We have to talk about this stuff. We have to teach the girls defense mechanisms.”
Sex is more accepted today than the past, officials said, as is being pregnant at school.
“It (sex) is almost the popular thing to do nowadays,” said Cory Maag, who heads the Allen County Teen Pregnancy program.
Educating: abstinence vs. safe sex
Like with many things, schools are often expected to tackle teen sex and pregnancy issues. On the other end, some parents say they want to do the educating.
“But because it is an awkward subject, sometimes it never comes up,” Dershem said.
Educators say they wish it came from home.
Schools mostly teach abstinence. Lima schools’ Sex Can Wait fifth-grade curriculum focuses on positive choices, teaching goal-setting and refusal skills. Ackerman hopes it builds well-rounded individuals who make good decisions.
Boedicker believes the program is successful but questions whether it has long-term effects. The district continues to look at options, she said.
Freshman Anyssa Manley remembers taking the class and thinks it made a difference for her. Abstinence continues to dominate what is covered in high school health, along with some discussion of STDs and contraceptives.
Part of the issue is fitting more into an already tight, state-mandated curriculum, Ackerman said. Still, she wouldn’t want to move toward more safe-sex talk.
“I don’t know that there is such a thing as safe sex because every time you have sex you’re taking a risk of some sort, whether it is emotional or physical,” she said.
Boedicker delves more into safe sex in her GRADS class for pregnant and parenting teens. Students see various contraceptives and learn how they work.
Boedicker’s goal is to prevent a second pregnancy. She’s been successful. Of 35 students last year, only two got pregnant. Maybe more safe-sex talk needs to happen across the board in education, she said.
“They ought to be able to see the devices, manipulate the devices, ask very open questions and get the answers they need,” she said. “I don’t think we are real forthcoming with our information. We don’t make it accessible.”
Elida Middle School also focuses on abstinence, along with talking about STDs in the seventh and eighth grades, said Faith Cummings, who handles curriculum.
In her high school health class, Benroth talks about the consequences of having sex and mentions protection but continues the abstinence focus.
“I say abstinence is your only 100 percent guarantee of not getting pregnant,” she said.
The public would likely not accept more safe-sex curriculum or starting in earlier grades, many said. Some Elida parents send notes asking that their children be excluded from any sex talk, Benroth said.
Schools get help from the county teen pregnancy program. It offers various curriculums, including a “Dating for Real” program that talks about relationships and “Baby Think It Over,” in which students take a computerized baby home for the weekend.
“They tell me it was the worst weekend ever. They say they couldn’t wait to get rid of it,” Benroth said. “I try to tell them, ‘When you have your own child, you can’t just get rid of it Monday morning.’”
The program doesn’t pass out contraceptives in schools, but they are available at its YWCA office.
“In my opinion, we know that kids are having sex, so it is our job to protect them,” Maag said. “Abstinence is best, and of course we are going to introduce that, but we know that is not what’s going on from the statistics.”
The health department plans to look closer at the assessment to determine what it might do to help, Dershem said, but it has not had the time to yet.
Some students agree the conversation should be abstinence, while others laugh at the notion that it works. They disagree on whether contraceptives should be readily available.
“It is better safe than not safe,” Anyssa said. “They are going to do it any way.”
Other students wonder what kind of message that might send.
“I just think it kind of promotes having sex in a way,” Elida senior Betsy Ulrich said.
Elida junior Kayla Smith said students should have to buy their own condoms.
“If you want to have sex that bad, then that is something you have to be responsible for,” Smith said.
Students think educators and even speakers on the subject need to stop shying away from the issue.
“They don’t want to bring it up because they think it might make you do it, so they just leave it alone,” Alyssa said.
The lack of straight-forward talk might hurt the message, said Jason Upthegrove II, a Lima Senior freshman.
“Some just sugar-coat stuff a lot, and that is why kids are saying, ‘That’s not really going to happen,’” he said.
Health officials say it is a society and community problem. Atkins talks of the “if it’s not my child” mindset, where most people aren’t worried about rising teen sex.
“But it is somebody’s child,” he said. “I hope something tragic doesn’t have to happen for the community to say we have to do something.”
With other issues in the community, many say teenage sex is far from a priority. Until it is, the numbers will keep going up. Society must set higher standards when it comes to sex in movies, television and music, Dershem said, or better teach youth to put it in the proper perspective. That needs to start early.
“At what point do they start hearing the opposite messages?” she asked. “They are listening to music with these sexual connotations in the car. … They are saying some of the words before they know what they mean.”