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Teens Get Some Straight Talk About Sex

June 17, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In a setting usually reserved for youthful revelry, the subject was a sobering one: teen pregnancy. Amid the depressing statistics, though, came word that at least one program aimed at better educating teen-agers about sexuality is making small but definite inroads across the nation.

But first, the statistics:

Every 2.1 minutes in the United States, another adolescent conceives. This translates to more than 1.1 million unintended teen pregnancies each year. Since about half these pregnancies end in abortion or miscarriage, more than 500,000 babies are born to teen mothers in this country each year.

More than 50% of pregnant teens are unmarried, and 93% of teens bearing children choose to keep their babies rather than give them up for adoption. Seventy percent of pregnant teen-agers fail to finish high school.

One in 10 American teen-age girls becomes pregnant each year; by age 20, 40% of today's 14-year-olds will be pregnant. In the United States, the teen pregnancy rate is twice that of Canada, England or France; seven times that of The Netherlands. In fact, the United States is the only developed country where teen-age pregnancy has been increasing. A 1985 study by the Center for Population Options revealed that teen-age childbearing cost the nation $16.6 billion that year alone.

Not at all coincidentally, the musical background for these facts and figures was "What's Love Got to Do With It?" The tape blared through a popular teen hangout here, the Hard Rock Cafe, where one day recently, the videoscreens were not filled with rock groups or teen idols, but with teen parents.

"It was one time," said a girl with long blond hair, "and that's all it takes."

And from another young woman, a girl maybe 16 years old: "Nobody actually sat down and explained it to me, so I had to find out for myself."

Although 85% of Americans told a 1985 Harris Poll survey that they believed sex education should be taught in schools, Roberta Nusim told this early morning gathering at the Hard Rock, only 10% of this country's schools actually offer such a program.

"Finally," said Nusim, announcing "Straight Talk," a classroom education program on sexuality and contraception, "we have at least a beginning."

Former New York City-area high school teacher Nusim is president of Lifetime Learning Systems Inc., a Fairfield, Conn.-based concern that creates educational materials. With funding from the Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., the firm has launched the country's first nationwide program on sexuality and contraception. Offered free and on a request basis beginning this spring, the seven-installment, multimedia program is geared toward tenth through twelfth graders. Along with sexuality education and discussions of contraception, the course also features an examination of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. The program is "frank," Nusim stressed, but "not sexually explicit." Already, "Straight Talk" has appeared in 650 schools in 11 cities.

'Pressures of Growing Up'

"Interactive" in nature, "Straight Talk," Nusim said, "addresses teens' risk-taking behavior, the glamorization of pregnancy and the pressures of growing up in the '80s," and "aims to involve the community directly in helping to solve this problem."

"Telling teens to stop having sex isn't going to work," said Allison Smith, a 16-year-old TV actress recruited to help publicize "Straight Talk." Said high school junior Smith: "We desperately need information."

As Jennie on "Kate & Allie," "I spend most of the time talking about one of my favorite subjects, boys," Smith said. In real life, she said, "many of the guys in my school think that protection is not their problem.

"I'd like to remind all boys," Smith went on, "that it takes two to make a baby."

Early in her practice, said Dr. Nancy Banks, an obstetrician-gynecologist in suburban New York, "I delivered the child of a 17-year-old girl. This was not so shocking," Banks said, "except that it was her fourth child."

Banks was quick to sign on as one of 40 physicians involved in this pilot teen sexuality education effort.

"Part of teen-agers' unwillingness to use contraception comes from misinformation and fears about what's available," Banks said. "The whole point of the physician visit is to let them know what's available to them, and how to get it."

Teen-agers are confused about this issue, Banks said, and "we can help convince teens that no one is going to make fun of them or put them down because of their confusion."

To date, Nusim said she had heard of no opposition to the program from the communities where it has been employed. As to the argument sometimes voiced by opponents of sexuality education--that telling teen-agers the facts about sex may encourage them to try it--"The statistics already prove that the students are involved," Banks said, "so I don't think we're encouraging it."

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