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Teen Parents Illustrate the Need for Better Sex Ed

Teenagers are still being kept in the dark about their sexual health, with life-altering consequences.
 
 
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Julia keeps the remnants of her brief adolescence in a shoebox under her bed.

In it, a jumbled pile of photographs of a trusting young woman, with painted lips, trendy clothes and neatly blow-dried hair lie haphazardly among faces of the characters that inhabit the parables of her high school years.

Now an 18-year-old mother of a 2-year-old girl, Julia rarely revisits the photos.

One picture shows her sitting on the precipice of a carnival ride, waiting with bated breath for the cart to plummet toward the Sunrise Mall parking lot below.

Today, Julia, who asked that her name be changed for this article, wears a massive black sweatshirt and plain jeans that drown her heavy frame. She has reached the bottom of a brief, jarring ride and lacks the momentum to pick herself back up.

She tells of growing up under her mother’s unflagging gaze. The photos from the carnival capture a momentary respite, where she could be with friends, laugh and act her age.

Despite the hours and years of time she spent with her mother, being ushered between school and home, Julia says they barely communicated. They never spoke about growing up, about education or career, about love and especially not about sex.

Her sheltered childhood left her feeling defenseless. And at the moment when she most needed courage, it betrayed her, she says.

At 14, Julia was visiting family in Matamoros, where she was to attend a soccer game. She walked to the stadium with a relative in his 20s, who she knew most of her life. She had always felt uncomfortable with the way he looked at her and touched her, but she walked with him anyway. On the way, her untested instinct proved true.

“He told me he used to watch me through the window of my house. Then he pulled me into an abandoned house and raped me,” she said.

A couple of weeks later a store-bought pregnancy test read positive.

Her friends laid out her options on a table at school. In front of her were capsules and liquids from Mexican pharmacies, rumored to terminate pregnancy. Julia was scared and confused.

“I said I would take the drugs but I decided not to,” she said.

“Another girl, she took them, and then she had to go to the hospital,” Julia said. “When the police investigated what had happened, they said the pills she took were not for humans, they were for an animal.”

Julia does not know what drugs her friends offered her. It’s likely they included misoprostol, a prescription medication used to treat ulcers that’s available over the counter in Mexico.

Taken in certain quantities, the drug is known to induce contractions in a woman’s uterus, signaling a miscarriage. Too much of the drug later in pregnancy can be fatal; too little earlier in pregnancy may fail to induce miscarriage and risk birth defects.

Along the border, the pills are accessible for women who might not know that safer, legal abortions are available, and for teenagers who won’t or can’t tell their parents about an unwanted pregnancy.

Her friend survived the ordeal. And it turned out Julie wasn’t pregnant after all.

Julia eventually filed charges against the man that raped her and he was sent to prison for a few months, she said. The incident tore her family apart.

“We couldn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral in Mexico,” she said. “We can’t see that part of the family anymore.”

Soon after, she started dating a boy from high school. Within a year, she was pregnant -- this time for real.

She hid her pregnancy for eight months, afraid of further dividing the family. In her ninth month, she told her mother about the baby. Until the day her water broke, Julia says her father was in the dark.

She married the baby’s father and the young family lives with her parents.

Now a wife and mother, what Julia knows about sex, rape, and even abortion, she learned from television and her few disastrous firsthand experiences. Without television, she might not have known that this kind of thing happens to other girls.

But unaccompanied by practical conversations about safe sex and violence with her parents or a guidance counselor, television’s flair for the dramatic can be psychologically toxic.

“She sees these shows on television and it makes her so afraid,” said Letty Coronado, Brownsville’s Planned Parenthood teen advocate. Coronado had been visiting Julia’s home for four months, teaching her about how to care for her child, before the two were alone together and Julia finally told her about the rape and her persistent fear.
“I know I trust my husband,” Julia said, “but I saw this show Casos de la Vida Real (Real life stories), and now I’m really scared about, like, leaving my daughter alone with him, he might molest her or something.”

Today, Julia rarely leaves home, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and parents in a small house in Brownsville. She completed high school at Lincoln Park School, a campus for pregnant students and new mothers, and worked at McDonalds until her daughter was born last year.

She doesn’t feel safe, even at home. Each night before she goes to sleep, she ritualistically checks the locks on all of the windows and doors.

Her greatest aspirations are regaining her desire to fix her hair and leave the house once in a while, to socialize with the joy she used to have, to be a good example of a strong person for her child.

When she talks about her life, she separates it into two chapters, two identities.

First, there is the girl she used to be. The pretty girl who liked wearing nice clothes and socializing in school clubs. Then there was the rape. Now, there is the young woman who cannot move.

Julia loves her daughter. She loves her husband. But she isn’t completely present when she sees them.

Looking through the photos, there is a flicker of recognition in her eyes.
“There I am,” she says. “The pretty girl.”

MIXED MESSAGES

According to Terri Lievanos, director of Community Affairs for Brownsville’s branch of Planned Parenthood, generations of women in the Valley learn lessons similar to those Julia endured, but never pass them on.

Aside from abuse, of which there is a great deal, Texas has the second highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation.

“It’s overwhelming when suddenly you become a parent and you realize that you are always responsible for another human being,” Lievanos said. “There is a rush to grow up and a sense of urgency and desperation that girls feel to make it go faster and change things, but they can’t.”

Many girls are raised in a culture of silence when it comes to sex. Teachers are afraid to discuss it openly, parents don’t communicate about it with their kids, and peers alternate between bravado and ignorance.

“As a parent sometimes it’s difficult to decide how to talk to your kids about sex,” Lievanos said. “You worry if you tell then about it, it’s giving them permission. But sometimes you procrastinate too long.”

Lievanos laments that many girls lose the opportunity to choose their life partner and father of their children by having an unplanned pregnancy; potentially positive life experiences are converted into elements of a cycle of poverty and lost opportunity.

“I don’t want to go back to the days where being an unwed mother meant penalizing and ostracizing not only the mother but also the child,” Lievanos said. “But I don’t want to go to the other extreme where it is inevitable or the status quo to be a teen mother.”

It troubles Lievanos that after educating community members for decades, she still hears the same misinformation about sexuality from teenagers and adults that she heard at the beginning of her career.

Patricia Vasquez is 19. She had her son Anthony in August and is now earning her nursing degree at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.

Vasquez’s pregnancy was unintended and she has since learned that many of her teenage assumptions about sexuality were misinformed. Still, she’s not planning to break the cycle of misinformation that will inevitably reproduce the same results.

“In public, I wouldn’t talk about sex,” she said. “With my friends? No. Sex for me is not for talking about out loud.”

Lievanos routinely talks to teen boys and girls who subscribe to numerous hazardous myths about birth control.

“Girls think, ‘I’m gonna get fat, I’m gonna get cancer,’ if they take the pill. Or they think they only have to take it when they have sex, or they won’t be able to have children later,” Lievanos said.

The picture is even bleaker for teenage boys.

“They think that by ‘letting’ your girlfriend use birth control, it’s giving her permission to cheat on you.”

The Friendship of Women, Brownsville’s battered women’s shelter, confirms that 85 percent of the women they see say their partners force them to have sex without contraception.
“We hear women tell us ‘he says I’m his forever,’” said Elena Rangel, the legal advocate coordinator for the Friendship of Women. “She’ll think it’s love, but it’s only when it gets out of control that she’ll realize that’s not love, it’s machismo.”

Vasquez said one of her health teachers told her class that birth control pills can make women overly sexually excitable, give them cancer, and night sweats.

“You know that that’s not true now, right?” Lievanos asked Vasquez.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. And is she going to tell her classmates or friends that the information they have is incorrect? “No, I wouldn’t want to tell them anything. What if I gave them the wrong information?"

Planned Parenthood faces constant obstacles to simply provide truthful information on topics as simple as condom use and sexually transmitted diseases.

Texas public schools teach abstinence based education, meaning they emphasize abstinence and talk about contraception, but never show it in the classroom.

Lievanos says that stances toward abortion and religion isolate many community members from her organization.

She says that while a pro-life or pro-choice position may be connected to pregnancy in general, this distinction would be less crucial if individuals were educated about their safer sex choices.

“When people ask me, ‘when is a good time to have sex?’ I tell them when you’re conflicted about what you’re doing, you should re-evaluate. It’s OK to stop and step back and figure out what’s right for you.”

While abstinence is the only completely safe method to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, even individuals like Julia, who abstained from sex before she was forced into it, can be harmed by a lack of communication.

“I feel mad at my mother because if she had let me go out and be with other people, I could have known how to protect myself,” she said.

If she had more social contact growing up, Julia believes she would have recognized the inappropriate way her attacker touched her chest and stared at her as warning signs and that she might have avoided him.

But even social teens like Vasquez don’t necessarily learn realistic information about sex through peer interaction.

“When they’re younger, teenagers will reflect the views of their parents, echoing a message of abstinence,” Lievanos said. “But then when they get a little older the media and their peers glamorize sex, acting like everyone’s doing it, without talking about precautions or consequences.”

Caught between the options of sex without protection or no sex at all, receiving messages from their parents that sex is wrong, and messages from their friends and the media that sex is expected, many teenage girls end up in the same situation as Julia and Vasquez.

“When it comes down to it, there are only three options for a pregnant women,” Lievanos said. “Keep the baby, have an abortion, or give it up for adoption. No matter how you look at it, there are only three choices. Unless, of course, you practice safe sex.”

According to a recent summary of 115 studies on abstinence education by Dr. Douglas Kirby of ETR Associates titled “Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy,” abstinence-only education does not cause teenagers to delay sex or reduce the number of partners they have, it only causes them to use less protection.

Kirby says that while abstinence based education does work, communicating a message that abstinence is the only answer will seem unrealistic to many teenagers.

“Ninety-something percent of people have sex before marriage,” Kirby said. “If you tell people ‘don’t have sex until marriage’ they might not listen to that.”

Between 1991 and 2005, California had one of the biggest decreases in teen pregnancy, while Texas had one of the smallest.

“California did a lot to make contraception more available,” Kirby said. “Texas gives a strong abstinence message, but it also needs to give good information about contraception, or it won’t work.”

Julia hopes that as her daughter ages, she will be able to do a better job to prepare her for a different life.

“I didn’t know what sex really was,” she said. “Teaching my daughter will give her the information to protect her.”

 
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