Why do we do this, anyway?

When we saw the headline, “D.C. gave away 200,000 condoms at public high schools last year – 16 per student,” we have to admit – we were impressed. For one thing, it’s indicative of a job well done on the part of all our Wrap MCs. And it reminded us that we hope to do even more next year – distribute more condoms, teach more students how to use them properly, and do more to fight the stigma that still surrounds condom use.

The tone of the article, however, was not exactly celebratory (to say nothing of the comments). To this reader, the piece seemed to emphasize two things: the author’s perceived lack of appropriate barriers to students’ accessing condoms and the fact that taxpayer dollars go toward this program.

For a news organization that concerns itself so overtly with addressing “bias by omission” in the media, it allows the article to be slanted by leaving out something pretty important: why the Wrap M.C. program exists in the first place, and why condom availability is so important for young people in D.C.

Just the facts, now:

  • Almost 1/2 of DC’s cases of chlamydia and over 1/3 of its cases of gonorrhea are in people under 19 (HAHSTA Annual Report, 2010).
  • The city’s School-Based STD Screening Program, which screens students who opt-in for chlamydia and gonorrhea, finds an average positivity rate of 9-14% (HAHSTA Annual Report, 2010).
  • Nearly 60% of DC high school students are sexually active (YRBS, 2009).
  • In the year 2000, the United States spent an estimated $6.5 billion on treatment of STDs in youth (ages 15-24) who were newly infected with an STD that year (Chesson, et. al., 2004).
  • Condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective at preventing chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV (UNAIDS, WHO & UNFPA, 2009).
  • “The main reason that condoms sometimes fail is incorrect or inconsistent use, not the failure of the condom itself” (AVERT).

There are many other reasons, but we’ll stop here for now. To those who were quick to judge the Wrap M.C. program harshly, we hope this sheds a little more light on why we think it’s so important for young people to know how to use condoms correctly. It’s true that reasonable people can disagree, and when we talk about young people’s sexuality in this country, it tends to become less of a conversation and more of a shouting match. I think it’s important to point out, though, that for us, this isn’t ideological – this is about promoting and protecting the health of D.C. residents every way we can, to curb the city’s high rates of STD and HIV infection, and to create a healthier place for us all to live.

So, thanks, Wrap MCs. We’re looking forward to kicking off another great school year with you!

(And, for the record, “peers” has always been spelled correctly on our About page.)

We can’t stop talking about H.U.S.H.!

Last month’s post about boys got us thinking – the classroom isn’t the only place where young men can be left out of sex education. Most online sex ed resources seem to tailor their content to young women, especially those that are run by organizations dedicated to teen pregnancy prevention. This can leave young men feeling doubly left out. How can they get their questions answered if no one speaks their language? These guys might not want another interactive birth control chart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want any information at all.

That’s why we like H.U.S.H. – it stands for Hooking Up and Staying Hooked, and it’s one of the few resources out there that was actually created for teenage guys, by someone who was recently one of them.

And it shows – H.U.S.H. mixes safer sex info, dating advice, and relationship problem-solving in a way that’s actually fun. The site is sort of like the cool, smart, successful older brother that you can always send your students to when they have a question about the many changes they’re going through on their way to manhood. And while you may roll your eyes at the intermittent penis jokes, remember: it’s not for you, it’s for them! And that’s the beauty of it.

[Full disclosure: the author is a friend of the blogger.]

Ever wonder what the rest of the country might think about Wrap MC?

Here in the District, where our Wrap MC program is in its third year and condom availability in public high schools has been the law for years, it might seem like this is the norm. After all, you might think, it makes sense to make condoms accessible to young people when the average age of first sex in D.C. is about 15 and almost 3,000 cases of Chlamydia are reported each year in young people under 19. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as we’ve been reminded by this list of 11 facts about sex education in the United States. We’ve come across it a few times recently, so we thought we would share, in case you missed it (via the sexed4everyone Tumblr):

  1. More than two thirds of all public school districts have a policy to teach sex education. The other 33% of districts leave policy decisions up to individual schools or teachers.
  2. Of all public school districts, 86% require that abstinence be promoted in their sex ed programs.
  3. Only 14% of public school districts with a policy to teach sexual education address abstinence as one option in a broader educational program to prepare adolescents to become sexually healthy adults.
  4. Over half of the districts in the South with a sex education policy have an abstinence-only policy, compared with 20% of such districts in the Northeast.
  5. More than 90% of teachers believe that students should be taught about contraception, but 25% are prohibited from doing so.
  6. The majority of Americans (including three quarters of parents) favor more comprehensive sexuality education over abstinence-only education.
  7. There are currently three federal programs dedicated to funding restrictive abstinence-only education, requiring programs to teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and harmful for people of any age, prohibits them from discussing contraceptive use except to emphasize their failure rates. These programs had a total annual funding of $102 million in 2002.
  8. About 35% require abstinence be taught as the only option for unmarried people and either prohibit the discussion of contraception altogether or limit discussion to its ineffectiveness. 15% of Americans would prefer an abstinence-only education.
  9. There is currently no federal law program dedicated to supporting comprehensive sexuality education that teaches young people about both abstinence and contraception.
  10. About 51% have a policy to teach abstinence as the preferred option for teens and permit discussion of contraception as an effective means of preventing pregnancy and STDs.
  11. Recent research shows that abstinence-only strategies may deter contraceptive use among sexually active teenagers, increasing their risk of unintended pregnancy and STDs.

Sources: Guttmacher Institute, Advocates for Youth, NPR, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

Sometimes it’s important to just recognize the context in which the Wrap MC program exists. In a lot of places, as you can probably tell from the statistics above, policies would prevent the whole program from existing, even if, on an individual basis, people thought it was a good idea.

No program is without its critics. Maybe you’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows from your friends or family if you’ve told them about becoming a Wrap MC. Condoms can’t solve every problem, but condom availability is about more than just restocking a fishbowl once a week. By taking the time to become a trained resource to them on these kinds of topics, you’re empowering your students and clients to make smarter, healthier choices. We hope you’re proud of the good you’re doing – we certainly are! Thanks for all you do.

Let’s talk about boys.

In case you missed it when we tweeted about it earlier this week, Canada’s Globe & Mail ran a great article over the weekend about a different kind of sex education program than what most of us are probably familiar with:

In 14 two-hour sessions offered once a week, the guys talk – yes, talk, without girls in the room – about everything from reproductive anatomy, sexually transmitted infections and birth control to relationships, values and the media.

WiseGuyz, run by the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (which gave Mr. Spence his training), isn’t just sex ed with an update. It’s part of a new wave of initiatives to intervene in a young, male culture that is giving many adults cause for concern. Long-term, the aim is to combat the rates of domestic violence and sexually transmitted infections. Short-term, the goal is to tutor young men in healthy relations with women and non-destructive masculinity.

That’s right – just for guys. In the context of the prevention-focused sex education models (i.e., STI-prevention, pregnancy-prevention) that predominate in the US, it might seem that if anyone were going to get extra sex education, it would be teen girls.

Sure, prevention will always be important, especially when our teen birth and STI rates (while lower than they have ever been), remain far higher than those of other wealthy countries. And there are certainly some “facts of life” that everyone could benefit from, but author Zosia Bielski brings up a good point: are we leaving boys out of sex education? Do we know what they’re thinking? Do we care? An educator of at another organization that does youth sexual health programming suggests we might not, so much:

In the male [sexual health programs], “it’s about looking at the male experience and helping them to redefine that for themselves,” Ms. Krause says. About sexist images in pop culture, for example, she says: “They don’t have an opportunity to explore what that means, or have values around it, because we’ve never said to boys, ‘What do you actually think of that?’ That’s what we want to do – start the conversation.”

The flipside of the culture Krause refers to – the one that helped bring hardcore porn, sexist jokes, and other forms of misogyny to the mainstream – is that it can be tempting for those who would change this culture to see young men as part of the problem. They’re the ones who won’t wear the condom, who abandon their pregnant girlfriends, who take advantage of girls at parties – right? But when we cast them in this light, we write them off without engaging with them. If we tell them they can’t come to us when they have questions, it sends them right back to that sexist culture looking for answers – a resolution that satisfies no one.

According to Frank Baird, founder of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes (in which men wear heels to raise money for domestic violence shelters), “men don’t often get a chance – many of them feel like they never get the chance – to say anything about gender. … What happens when men get beat over the head is they shut down. We need to do this in a way that doesn’t make men defensive.” Engaging with young men in a significant, empathetic way is essential. Let them talk and think in a way that helps them see what becoming an adult – becoming a man – really means to them. Encouraging teenage boys to explore this part of their identities will help them become better partners – and people – in the future.

What’s better than Googling “sex”?

As far as we’re concerned, the more resources you can offer your students or youth clients, the better. While we’re sure you’re executing your Wrap MC duties brilliantly, it’s next to impossible to answer everyone’s questions all of the time. Maybe they have more questions than you can handle in a short class period. Maybe they want to details about a topic that’s not your strong suit. Luckily, there are a lot of good sexual health resources out there – if you know where to look.

We like to think that’s where we come in. In an effort to help make your job as a Wrap MC easier, every so often, we’ll be featuring sexual health resources we like.

Let’s start with a classic: Scarleteen. Founded in 1998, the Scarleteen contains a truly encyclopedic amount of information about sex and sexuality, from changing bodies to STIs to sexual orientation. There are two things, though, that make it really special. The first is their content about the less straightforward aspects of sex and relationships – the stuff that concerns what’s between your ears more than what’s between your legs. Even among Wrap MCs, not everyone knows how to answer when someone asks, as a follow-up question, “How do I know if I’m ready to have sex?” or “What if I want to have sex, but my boyfriend doesn’t?” Communication, consent, relationships, and body image can all be difficult, intricate topics – hard to get into in class, but written about thoughtfully and expansively on the site.

The other thing that sets Scarleteen apart is that they don’t just put out information, they also answer questions (on their moderated message boards and through their SMS service) and provide a space for young people to learn about themselves – and advocate for what they need.

But don’t take our word for it – head over and check out Scarleteen for yourself. If you like what you see (and we think you will), make sure to recommend it to the young people you work with it (if they don’t know about it already!)

Want to get another sexual health training under your belt?

Amid the news that fewer students are getting sex education in schools, particularly in junior high, it occurred to us that a lot of Wrap MCs might be the only resource some students have when they need information about sex. Naturally, these questions extend beyond the training videos we offer as a part of the Wrap MC certification. Sure, we’ve got you covered for condoms, but we’re sure you already know that there’s a lot more to wonder – and sometimes worry – about than that.

That’s why we were glad to come across the California STD/HIV Prevention Center Training called “HIV Today: What Everyone Needs to Know”. The online training takes about an hour and includes instruction on the basics of HIV testing, treatment, and prevention, as well as more complicated topics, such as stigma and health disparities in the epidemic.

Most of their trainings are targeted toward health educators, but this one is, as the title implies, designed for everyone. It’s pretty good – take a minute to register and give it a try. You’re sure to learn something your students can benefit from.