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Chelsea Now
June 13-19, 2008

Talking Point: After 30 years, Teen Choice still talking about sex

By Christina Alex

Sixty teenagers celebrated sex education last week at the LBGT Community Center on W. 13th St., as the comprehensive sex-ed program Teen Choice marked its 30th anniversary of educating thousands of teens throughout the city through changing political tides.

Once serving 14 schools citywide, the program offered by Inwood House is offered in eight middle and high schools and three community-based organizations. This is mostly attributable to the federal government's exclusive support of abstinence-only education, which Inwood House teaches its fifth-grade boys but not its older students, some of whom are already parents. As Teen Choice social worker Karen Stradford of Bedford Stuyvesant Prep High School said, “I’m not going to tell a 19-year-old parent not to have sex.”

With proposed cuts of $3.3 billion in Medicaid funds for family planning over five years in the 2009 federal budget, and six in 10 high school students saying they’ll have sex before they graduate, Inwood House executive director Linda Lausell Bryant characterized the event as a “call to action.” New national data indicate that the declines in sexual activity among young people are leveling off, with New York City experiencing a 1.8 percent increase in its teen birth rate. “Things are not going in the right direction,” Bryant said.

Teen Choice arms teens with information and tools to make the best choices for themselves regarding relationships and sexuality. “If teens are allowed to practice communication and refusal skills, they will get the confidence to set life goals and resist peer pressure,” said Teen Choice’s program director Pat Maloney. At the heart of the program are the small groups, where young people learn and share with each other, as well as spread their knowledge to peers.

Though Teen Choice focuses its limited resources on high-risk areas, “Every kid in New York City is susceptible to the same types of dangers, no matter what neighborhood you are from,” said counselor Eddie Reyes of New Day Academy in the South Bronx.

Opponents of sexual-education programs assert that teaching teens about birth control and STDs encourages them to initiate sexual activity, but Stradford simply quotes her students. “Now that I know where to get tested, and I know STDs are out there, I’m not going to run out and do anything.” The program also gives “kids the confidence to talk to their friends and partners and say, ‘I’m not going to have unprotected sex. I’m not going to sleep with you the first night we meet,’” she added.

Bedford Stuyvesant Prep senior LaShawnn James joined Teen Choice after giving birth to her son three years ago. Back then, testing negative for STDs was enough for her to declare condoms unnecessary. “Pregnancy was not on my mind,” she said. “I didn’t know about birth control.” Now she is familiar with birth control options, and though she’d like to have another child, her first priority is completing a culinary arts and pastry certificate at the Arts Institute in Manhattan.
“She’s a fantastic mom,” said Stradford, who is awed and sometimes saddened by the issues her teens have to face. “They’re dealing with issues people who are 35 can barely deal with.”

Older students, like James, find improved communication skills to be the most valuable asset gained from Teen Choice.

“Before I had my son, I kept everything to myself,” she said. James then began opening up to Stradford about relationship problems. She’s found that having the “guts to have [the conversation] is hard, but “if I let my feelings out then and there, I won’t get mad about the situation” at a later date.

Similarly, Paul Cooper, 18, was interested in the open discussion. “In normal settings, certain topics don’t come up,” he said. He saw his own prejudices about certain classmates refuted as they talked honestly. “I saw who they were. It made me be more open to people.” He also believes it allowed the opposite sex to see another side of him. “They thought I was tough,” he added.

Former Teen Choice peer leader Jessica Perez, now a sophomore at John Jay College, found helping her peers “make important choices” to be the most rewarding aspect of the program. “What I learned stays with me to this day.”

Christina Alex is a freelance writer and social worker who led Teen Choice groups this past year as a consultant to Father Billini Association in Corona, Queens.

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