by Pia K. Hansen
There's an editorial cartoon pinned to Russ Hemphill's bulletin board. In it, one woman says to another, "I think sex education causes teenage pregnancies... " The other woman replies: "And I think driver's ed causes car accidents." Humor surely helps when your workday is centered around something as potentially blush-inducing as sex education.
Hemphill is the newly hired coordinator of the Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest's (PPIN) new comprehensive sex education program.
"It's called OWL, and that stands for Our Whole Lives," says Hemphill. "Until now, nationally, many educational programs have been focused primarily on teen prevention, this is more about life education." Classes are going to be held at PPIN's new education headquarter on East Indiana, but there are also plans for reaching out to the rest of the community.
"The men and women who use the services here get to know about OWL through the clinic," says Hemphill. "We are also reaching out to community groups and some faith-based groups -- and the response has been absolutely great."
The classes run for 12 weeks, once a week for two to two-and-a-half hours, with most of the time spent on discussion.
"The curriculum is set up to be coed," says Hemphill. "In the past, many programs have focused mostly on female prevention, but it takes two people to get pregnant. The male is involved, too."
So what can one expect to encounter in an OWL class? Hemphill says the program first of all focuses on postponing sexual activities, but it also provides correct definitions and information about sexuality, pregnancy and birth control.
There are no official statistics for when teens typically become sexually active, and Hemphill doesn't want to guess. But statistics compiled by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) show that by age 20, just 20 percent of males and 24 percent of females have not yet had intercourse. SEICUS also quotes studies that show only 6.9 percent of men and 21 percent of women aged 18 to 59 had their first intercourse on their wedding night.
"Things have changed. One of the things we talk about is how, especially younger teens define virginity and abstinence," says Hemphill. "Some teens think oral sex doesn't count as having intercourse or having sex, but as far as we are concerned, as long as there is exchange of bodily fluids, it's sex. You can still get an sexually transmitted disease (STD) or HIV, and sometimes you can get pregnant even if you don't think you can yet."
Teens still have much misinformation, especially in terms of the sexual process and the biology behind sex and pregnancy.
"They don't know when in the cycle a female can become pregnant. They don't know for sure when a male is old enough to impregnate a female or when is a female old enough to become pregnant," says Hemphill. "And that's the type of knowledge we'll try to provide. Some of these questions come from teens that are very young, and one of the things that has changed is that they can get deadly sick if they don't have the correct information." OWL also includes information about how to conduct breast and testicular self-exams.
Another new aspect to this sex education program is partnership building. "The curriculum is for intact families, meaning that youth who participate have a relationship with some primary parent," says Hemphill. "We want the parents to come into a parent session, and the youth need to get the parents' permission to participate. We do this because we want the parents to be resources when their son comes home from OWL and asks another question. We want the families to be involved, they have to be ready for that."
Teens who don't have primary parents due to circumstances in their lives have to find a way of working with a mentor or a friend about the classes.
"We want them to build a relationship with someone so once the class is over and they end up in these situations, they have someone they can go to when we are not around," says Hemphill.
The program serves heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals or young people who are still questioning their sexual identity, as well as people of all ages, races, genders, backgrounds, income levels and physical and mental abilities.
OWL's primary target group is teens in grades seven through 12, and since that's a time when many begin dating, OWL also addresses how to built healthy personal relationships.
"There are issues about power and control when it comes to relationships. How do you know if you are involved in an unhealthy relationship? We want you to get involved with your peers in a healthy way," says Hemphill. "We need to teach them some healthy refusal skills. The overriding goal is still to postpone sexual activity. Even if you already are in a relationship or are dating someone, we want to encourage people to wait."
Hemphill says that some of the curriculum in OWL may overlap with what's already provided in the public schools, but that PPIN's focus groups have shown teens still have many unanswered sex questions.
So, getting back to that cartoon, won't this type of detailed information just encourage teens to have sex?
"Well, no," says Hemphill. "This is education about sexuality and all its aspects, which is something they'll be dealing with every day for the rest of their lives. It's not a how-to manual.
"We prepare them to drive cars -- let's prepare them to take care of themselves when they become sexually active, too."
For more information about OWL, contact Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest, 123 E. Indiana, at 326-6292 ext. 104.