The naked facts: More than half the high-school students in North Carolina have had sexual intercourse, 13 percent of them before age 13. Of those sexually active teens, 16 percent have had sex with four or more partners, 21 percent used drugs or alcohol before intercourse, and roughly half did not protect themselves and their partners by using condoms (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey).
Among the results: chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, genital warts, human papillomavirus, nongonococcal urethritis, trichomoniasis, HIV. Nearly half of all new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the state now occur in the 15- to 24-year-old bracket. And then there’s the matter of unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. North Carolina ranks ninth in the nation in teenage pregnancies, with more than 19,500 a year—and that rate has held steady for several years.
“I think [teens] think they’re invincible,” says Molly Keeney, who is CEO of the local Girl Scout council. Add to that a trend of believing that oral sex isn’t really “sex,” and you’ve got a pretty big problem that communities often do their best to sweep under the rug.
But in keeping with the Girl Scout motto—“Be prepared”—the topics of sex and STDs are being brought into the open at Playin’ It Safe, slated for Saturday, Sept. 27. Exclusively for girls eighth grade and older and their moms (or guardians), the event won’t focus solely on sex: The object is to offer information and discussion about healthy living in general. Sessions and activities will address such varied topics as stress relief, self-defense, hip-hop, assertiveness training, dating violence, healthy eating and more. There’ll even be door prizes (including that teen icon: a cell phone). And other Girl Scout groups around the state are already looking at it as a model they might follow.
“I’m really excited about this,” declares Sim Cross, who serves on the board of the Pisgah Council, Girl Scouts of WNC. Cross himself has two teenage daughters—one of whom worked on the conference’s planning committee. He sees the event as a chance to “educate and inspire young women and also moms” in areas where there’s “not a lot of opportunity,” he says. “In some cases, the daughters may be teaching the moms,” adds Cross. And the Saturday format, he notes, should be a better fit with the schedules of working mothers while providing a “wonderful outing” for them and their daughters.
Over breakfast in downtown Asheville recently, Keeney and some of her fellow planners discussed the conference’s origins—and their own reactions, as people over 60, to what they’d learned in the process of pulling it together.
The idea for the conference originated with a conversation about Gardasil, the heavily advertised vaccine for human papillomavirus, designed to prevent genital warts and cervical/vaginal cancers.
“I started asking what do y’all think of this,” said planning committee member Gwen Hughes, who chairs the Pisgah Council’s board. Hughes thought the problem was being exaggerated, “and a nurse practitioner told me, ‘You’re being very naive.’”
“Girls from all walks of life are experiencing STDs because of sexual activity,” Hughes said she quickly learned. “One in four girls in Western North Carolina has an STD.” Thus was born the idea for a health fair, in partnership with the Buncombe County Medical Society and a host of other local sponsors.
“We wanted to be really focused on the healthy pieces of it,” said Kathleen Balogh, another Pisgah Council board member who’s also the director of the WNC office of the N.C. Council for Women/Domestic Violence Commission.
In the process, however, the women found themselves getting their own education about teenage sex. “I’m still overwhelmed at how casual young teens are about hooking up,” Hughes admitted. Balogh, meanwhile, was still pondering the very term “hooking up,” which she’d just discovered is the contemporary teen term for casual or recreational sex.
Teens are equally casual, it seems, about the potentially devastating results. Again and again, the planners were told by a former Health Department doctor, kids come in with an STD—and with the attitude, “Just give me the medicine.”
“It’s like a cold,” Keeney remarked. “The nonchalance—[that] having an STD is no big deal. I’m surprised at adults, parents, educators—how little outcry we’re hearing from them. Whose responsibility is it to raise our kids? I think we’ve just abdicated our responsibility left and right.”
At this point, the waitress—herself the mother of a 20-year-old—stopped by the table to offer her own observations on the attitudes of her daughter’s generation. “Oral sex is OK; intercourse is not,” she said, adding that group sex seems to be fairly common during high-school drinking parties. Date rape is also a big problem, she added, and the authorities “don’t do anything—no prosecution.”
Her explanation for it all: “Parents are not close to their kids.” To help address that, one of the goals of the event is strengthening communication between mothers and daughters.
The vision, said Keeney, is to provide accurate information and create an opportunity to ask questions—both in mother/daughter sessions and in separate sessions for the two groups. “It’s just not an easy thing to talk about with a parent,” she noted, adding that they hope to foster that dialogue while giving both parties another way to obtain vital information.
As for the young girls attending the conference, said Balogh, “I know it’s not going to happen in a day, but I want them to feel better about themselves—to have confidence, knowledge.” The “you shouldn’t” approach, she added, can turn teens off. “But if you kind of turn it into a social-justice message, they get it.” The perception becomes: “You’re ruining your opportunities for life. You have the opportunity to decide where you’re headed.”
In addition to the group sessions, a number of local agencies and groups will provide both health-oriented information and products. Counselors will also be on hand.