Yuma groups promote the only safe sex as no sex
Two groups in Yuma are committed to putting the brakes on unplanned teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. However, they don't exactly see eye-to-eye on the best way to do so.
One accepts that teens are having sex and thus promotes prevention, while the other takes a harder line: promoting abstinence. The Yuma County Health Department is committed to the former position.
Although the results of a recent study by The Arizona Coalition on Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting indicate that the prevention campaign has made some headway - the Yuma County pregnancy rate for 2001 dropped 13.9 percent from the previous year - it's another trend that concerns abstinence advocates. The rate of Yuma teens infected with STDs has risen dramatically.
According to Cesar Reta, coordinator of the Yuma County Health Department's STD program, the number of STD infections in Yuma County for teens ages 14 to 19 increased by about 29 percent from 2001 to 2002.If the pace set in the first quarter of 2003 holds up, the increase from 2002 to 2003 will be about 91 percent.
"We need to try harder, refocus, do something," Reta said.
But that "something," at least for Reta, won't include promoting abstinence. "Bottom line is, (kids) are sexually curious," he said. "It's one thing to just tell them 'No,' and it's another thing to try to help them and inform them."
Ed Witherite, director of Young Life, a faith-based organization in Yuma promoting abstinence, said the problem with the prevention mentality is that while teen girls and boys are fixated on avoiding pregnancy, they often neglect the even greater danger of STDs.
"Some diseases can cause a woman not to be able to bear a child at all," he said. "I don't think those diseases are even known to students. They hear about AIDS being a major one, and gonorrhea, syphilis and other things like that. But the ones that can cause serious damage for future potential, I don't know if they're talked about as much."
According to Reta, not being able to bear children is only one of the risks that comes with being sexually active. Another is that some of these diseases, such as congenital syphilis and chlamydia, are passed on to the next generation.
"The syphilis doesn't just affect the parents," he said. "It affects the newborn. They're either dead or deformed."
Chlamydia, the most common of the STDs, is a silent disease, Reta added. "There are no symptoms. However, if you have it and you have a baby, your baby is either going to be blind or have respiratory problems or both."
Prevention advocates say condoms and prevention education are the answer to the problem. Sharon White, director of Crisis Pregnancy Services, however, says condoms are not always reliable.
"Condoms can be frozen, broken, heated and deteriorated to where the AIDS virus can go right through it and sperm goes right through," she said. "So you can't hold up a condom and say this is the answer."
The real and only answer, White said, is abstinence. She said the message of abstinence has remained constant over the years while the prevention campaign's catch phrases - "Safe sex," "Safer sex" and "Responsible sex" - have come and gone. "Abstinence has always been about self-control, chastity and modest dress, behavior and entertainment," she said.
Abstinence advocates say that the problems of unplanned pregnancies and STDs have to be addressed at the source. Why do teens become sexually active to begin with?
White said a major determinant is that there's so much publicity and availability of condoms and other birth control devices that it gives kids a license to have sex. "As long as it's publicized and promoted as the way to go, we'll have that problem," she said.
Tamara Bowman, director of Youth Forum Southwest, also a faith-based organization in Yuma promoting abstinence, said another contributing factor is that teens are bombarded with sex by the entertainment in- dustry.
"TV commercials, magazine ads, music, sitcoms, soap operas, rock 'n' roll music, music videos ... They all promote premarital sex and sleeping around," she said.
Other factors contributing to premaritalsex include low self-esteem, lack of long-term goals, parental indifference, peer pressure and a need for fulfill- ment, advocates say.
"They're not going to get that fulfillment from sex," Bowman said. "They might get sexual gratification for a moment, but they're still thirsting for some- thing afterwards."
Added White, "They're getting pressured into sex because it's a 'cool' thing to do."
Witherite said the teen pregnancy crisis boils down to a lack of accountability, respon- sibility and value for human life, which permeates today's so- ciety.
"If you don't want the baby, give it up for adoption, give it away, destroy it, kill it or pass it off to your parents," he said. "It also shows the value of life adults are portraying to them. If we're saying that that thing inside of you is not human, then you can do anything you want with it."
Bowman said another pro- blem is that parents have abdicated responsibility to the schools to raise their children. "Parents are their primary teachers, by example and by what they do," she said. "And if parents are dating and sleeping around ... Parents need to examine themselves and be aware of the image they're giving their children."
Restoring accountability and responsibility, building self- esteem and convincing teens that abstinence is the right choice begins with the family, advocates say.
"The family is the basic foundation for building self- esteem and the identity of who they are," White said.
Twenty-one-year-old Liz Tavarez, soon-to-be program director of the Silver Ring Thing abstinence program of Youth Forum Southwest, said that growing up in a household where her parents taught her morals and loved and nurtured her helped her to remain abstinent.
"Knowing that they loved us and supported us was enough to give us our self-worth," she said.
Witherite said parents can't do it alone. It takes parents, schools, churches and com- munity members to help raise our kids. "We have to take care of them because they're our future," he said.
Bowman said it's important to talk to your child and make a long-term plan for their life. "If they know that there's a future that child hopefully will be less interested in messing it up."
Matt Riehl can be reached at 539-6851 or firstname.lastname@example.org