June 14, 1995

Handling Pressure: Teens Rehearse Ways To Put Off Sex, Avoid Pregnancy

George Rodrigue Dallas Morning News
 

Several times a day, 17-year-old Delvecchio Finley might tell a vulnerable young girl, “If you love me, you’ll have sex with me.”

But the girl usually replies, “If you love me, why are you pressuring me to do something I don’t want to do?” Whereupon her eighth-grade classmates cheer loudly.

Finley joins the celebration. He’s just acting out a skit, part of what several experts call the nation’s most successful program for preventing teen pregnancy.

It’s called “Postponing Sexual Involvement,” and many analysts say it is the nation’s most effective teen-pregnancy program. According to one study, graduates are five to 15 times less likely than their peers to start having sex in the year after the course.

That has caught the eye of official Washington, where unwed teenage motherhood has taken center stage in the debate over welfare reform.

Unwed births account for 30 percent of all American children, almost half the children born to poor, uneducated whites, and 68 percent of black children.

That is expensive for the children and for society. Some 80 percent of the children born to unwed high-school dropouts grow up in poverty. Most welfare funds are spent on families started by teen mothers, and nearly half of all never-married mothers reported receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children 1993.

The program’s director, Dr. Marion Howard, said she began by noting the failure of one traditional remedy, the birth-control information in sex-education courses.

Youngsters might learn plenty about contraception, “but they aren’t any more likely to use it,” said Howard, an organizational specialist with Emory University’s gynecology school.

Then she learned of an anti-smoking campaign that used older teenagers as role models.

Younger children were more likely to follow a good example than to obey a lecture, she thought. And anyway, they couldn’t possibly imagine anyone her age knowing anything about sex.

Finally, Howard and her chief collaborator, Marie Mitchell, surveyed teen mothers. Their final question was, in effect, “What would you like to learn more about?”

Overwhelmingly, the young mothers wanted to know how to say “No” without hurting a boyfriend’s feelings or driving him away.

By the early 1980s, the staff of Emory University and Grady Memorial Hospital had put together a program in which teenagers helped other teenagers learn how and why to say “No.”

The program, which now reaches all Atlanta eighth graders, begins with the usual discussions of anatomy and contraception. Then come Finley and his fellow teen counselors.

With no realistic plans for college or career, those youngsters do not consider the costs of early childbirth, the teen counselors said. Indeed, some might view the baby as a way to gain love and show their maturity.

To expose those fallacies and help children take control over their lives, Howard and her colleagues devised a five-session program. It focuses on:

Risks of sexual activity, from AIDS to childbirth. Being a parent is not the same as being an adult, the children are told. Adults can take responsibility for their actions. And babies don’t give love, they demand it.

Sexual pressures in society, from sex in advertising to sex in movies, where the characters enjoy blissful relations and seldom suffer any harm.

The older teenagers, abstinence-prone and college-bound, steer discussions toward lessons such as “Real men don’t use women.”

Girls are reminded that they are more than sexual objects. They learn to tell themselves, “I have more to offer than that.”

Peer pressure, including discussion of some of the lines that boys and girls use to pressure each other.

When girls speak of hopes they’ll live happily ever after with the father of their child, they’re asked, “What has happened to other girls you know who had babies?”

Then, under the tutelage of co-ed teams like Finley and Tiffany Marsh, boys and girls alike practice saying no.

“If I had sex with anyone, it would be with you,” they might say. “But I’m not going to do it now.”

Many teenagers said the course changed their perspectives on themselves and on others.

“At first, I wondered if I had a right to say no,” said Marsh. “Afterwards, I knew that I could and that they should respect my feelings.”

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