The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 21, 2016

Rethinking sex ed: Meet youth where they are

January 21, 2016

Remember being a teenager and thinking the adults of the world were jaded and out of touch? Remember thinking you knew more about relationships than your parents?

Many of us now realize: it wasn’t what our parents were saying that was “uncool,” it’s how they were saying it. For teens, source and delivery of information is critical in how they process content. When it comes to relationships and sexual health, there is little room for error.

For decades, the United States has had the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. While national teen pregnancy rates have been steadily declining over the past decade, these improvements do not apply to all youth. In our nation’s capital, teens that experience significant socioeconomic disadvantage are especially at risk for becoming pregnant. In Washington, D.C., teen birth rates are 1.6 times the national rate.

It’s time to redesign sexual health education for teens.

Urban’s Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) program is one such attempt to teach youth about sexual health in a relatable way. Sisters Rising, the workshop series for adolescent female PASS participants, is a sexual health and safety program for girls ages 13-18 in Benning Terrace, a public housing development in Ward 7 of DC with the highest rates of teen pregnancy and HIV in the district. The Sisters Rising curriculum teaches girls to think through and challenge gender norms, helps them build healthy relationships, and introduces them to local health experts and clinics.

Teens need more than just the facts

Currently, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. Even in those states providing sex ed, students often receive the same information in the same way, regardless of backgrounds, learning styles, and level of sexual activity. To reach youth with the highest risk of teen pregnancy and other undesirable health outcomes requires more than the basic facts provided in school.

In 2010, DC required standardized testing in high school to assess student understanding of health and human sexuality, the first test of its kind in the nation. The results from the DC standardized test highlighted that students knew a fair amount about disease prevention and reproduction but didn’t know how to access health resources. For youth living in underserved and under-resourced communities, that risk is amplified. Providing community-based programming is one way to meet the needs of adolescents who need sexual health information that acknowledges and incorporates the context of their daily lived experiences and neighborhood context.

Place-based pregnancy prevention shows promising signs

In a socially isolated place like Benning, connecting teens to community leaders and resources is key to equipping them with the necessary tools to practice sexually healthy behaviors. Sisters Rising reimagines sex ed curricula by integrating social, cultural, and lived experiences specific to the community in a way that a school-based curriculum cannot. Its facilitators are neighborhood residents who can relate to the day-to-day experiences of the youth. It provides hands-on activities to provide a depth of knowledge beyond what parent lectures or classroom lectures can offer.

In a role-playing exercise, the teens lined up in pairs and practiced going into Unity Health Clinic (the closest clinic to the neighborhood), assertively and unashamedly asking for an STI test. There was a wave of giggles, but by the fifth pair, the girls were standing a little more upright as they sensed they were empowering themselves to be safer and healthier. 

On another occasion, resident co-facilitators asked the participants to consider expectations of young girls in Benning, including where people their age usually hang out in the neighborhood and what they do at these gatherings—an important topic that only a community-based program can tackle appropriately. The girls began deconstructing the different power dynamics and the consequences of boys and girls spending unsupervised time in the various hang out spots in their community.

In these two moments, the advantages of a place-based program were clear. Sisters Rising provided the youth an opportunity to really dig into the relationship between physical space, empowerment, and sexual health in a way that made sense to them.

Comprehensive sex ed must meet youth where they are, literally and figuratively. The curriculum needs to be written in their language and delivered by trusted adults. It needs to address lived experiences, particularly for youth living in areas with high rates of teen pregnancy and STIs where the risks look different than in other communities. Bringing sex ed programs directly to these neighborhoods will better prepare youth to develop healthy sexual behaviors.

In this photo taken June 27, 2012, Natrussa Williams, an HIV tester and counselor, right, explains how the results of the oral HIV test will show up to Katherine Tapp, 26, inside the HIV Testing Room at the Penn Branch of the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles, in southeast Washington. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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