Experts: Emotional health, molestation must be addressed
The causes and solutions for Mississippi’s teen pregnancy epidemic differ based on who is asked. Popular complaints are the lack of general sex education, limited access to and knowledge of contraceptives and programs that teach abstinence only. Other experienced voices less frequently heard emphasize the negative emotional and psychological effects early sex has for teens and the failure to address child sexual abuse. Others point to a lack of economic opportunity as major cause.
One thing is for sure: Teen pregnancy is an economic problem. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, using 2004 statistics, teen childbearing in Mississippi costs taxpayers $135 million annually, half of which was paid with federal dollars. The Women’s Fund of Mississippi is set to release a report this week with current numbers. (Update: “Teen pregnancies cost Miss. $154 M a year”)
The state Legislature has passed a bill (House Bill 999) requiring public schools to adopt an abstinence or abstinence-plus curriculum by June 2012. While medically accurate education is needed, time will tell how much these programs will help. Will they address the major factors that lead to teen pregnancy?
Jackson OBGYN Dr. Freda Bush — who co-authored the 2008 book “Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children” examining how sex affects the brain – thinks sex education programs must send a clear message that teen sex is not healthy.
“We do not understand that our culture needs to be giving a consistent message to young people that having sex as a teenager is not best for their health – physical, emotional or spiritual health — or for society. There’s not a clear message from the government, the home or the church that is saying: Wait. They’re not capable as teenagers to factor all the consequences in. That’s what parents and caring adults are for,” she said.
Bush believes that availability of contraceptives without the right message attached can be harmful.
“It is my understanding some of the public schools have school clinics that dispense condoms and contraceptives … The problem with that is the young person has to be disciplined enough to use condoms and birth control regularly. The message they got is it’s OK to have sex, but they don’t have the maturity to decide about consequences. … We have disconnected sex from pregnancy. (We look at) sex as a right, and as long as we do not look at the full purpose of sex – which is not only pleasure but pregnancy and attachment to the person — we’re going to continue to get the same behavior,” she said.
Additionally, Bush said: “When you begin sexual activity earlier — You’re physically changing the brain so that it accepts that behavior as normal. The earlier you begin sex the more partners you’re going to have and the more likely you are to continue that. The later you begin sex the fewer partners you’re going to have and the likelier you’re going to be in a relationship with one person that is stable.”
This might explain why, in addition to the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, Mississippi has the highest percentage of children living in single-parent families, according to the most recent analysis of the Kids Count Data Center.
Dr. Edelia Carthan said that child sexual abuse must be addressed in sex education classes for them to be effective. She believes lawmakers need to spend more time listening to women who were teen moms. Experts estimate that approximately 25 percent of girls and up to 15 percent of boys are molested before they reach adulthood in North America.
Carthan was molested at age 8 by a family member, raped at age 11 at school in Tchula, and had a baby by the age of 15.
“I think if I hadn’t been molested or raped, I wouldn’t have been having sex at an early age. Someone took my choice away from me twice. I didn’t have the choice about whether or not I wanted to be (sexually active). The child is left with all these unanswered feelings and emotions they don’t know how to process,” she said.
Carthan, now 32, holds the title as the youngest person to graduate from Jackson State University with a doctorate, earning her Ph.D. in early childhood education in 2007. She conducts summer camps and mentors young girls and teens.
Particularly in small towns, Carthan believes programs and activities that challenge bored kids are important: “A lot of kids don’t have anything to do. So the only thing for them to do is fight, have sex, use drugs.”
Still others, such as the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, place emphasis on lack of economic opportunity, as opposed to cultural and emotional issues, as a major reason for teen pregnancies.
The Women’s Fund’s Director of Programs, Jamie Holcomb, said: “One of the biggest reasons for teen pregnancy is a lack of opportunity. If a child grows up in poverty and has never seen ‘success’ before, that young person will likely see his or her choices as severely limited. If that’s the case, why not engage in risky behavior? Teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if they have a future full of possibility. This means a high quality education, access to youth employment opportunities, affordable community college/college tuition, and a sense of a future.”
The Women’s Fund also emphasizes a lack of available contraceptives for women of all ages.