Monday, December 12, 2011

Sex Education in Philadelphia Schools: An Ounce of Prevention

Every so often, along the brick pathways that go through the University of Pennsylvania campus, there are stone panels with quotes from Benjamin Franklin etched into them.  Every Tuesday, on my way to statistics class, I pass one that reads, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  This idea is very important to the HIV/AIDS situation, especially here in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s HIV infection rate is five times the national average, affecting 1.3% of the population.[i]  Young adults are the most at risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in general, and for HIV in particular, infections have increased by 40% over the last three years.[ii]  According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, almost 18% of reported AIDS cases in the United States are people ages 20-29.  Because AIDS usually takes 10 years to develop after HIV infection, these young adults probably contracted the virus as teenagers.

Psychologists believe that the part of the brain responsible for evaluating long-term consequences is still immature during adolescence.[iii]  For this reason, teens often engage in risky behaviors such as becoming sexually active at an early age, using drugs, not using protection, or having sex with multiple partners,[iv] all of which make HIV infection more likely.

If you are a teenager living in the Philadelphia area, you face a major challenge in getting information and skills useful for prevention.  In Pennsylvania public schools, sexual health is rarely taught until high school, at which point you or your peers may already be sexually active; a 2009 survey from the CDC found that 15% of Philadelphia teens lose their virginity before age 13.[i] 

Public schools in Pennsylvania are required to teach STI and HIV transmission, but not as part of a comprehensive sex education curriculum.[ii]  Last year, the Healthy Youth Act (HB 1163), which would have made schools offer age-appropriate sex ed,  covering both abstinence and contraception, failed to pass.[iii]  Instead, individual districts are left to decide whether sex ed will be offered and what will be included in the curriculum.[iv] 

Many of the health classes that are taught are not very practical.  The trend seems to be focusing on anatomy and physiology rather than real-life applications and decision-making.  As Brenda Green, executive director of Concern for Health Options: Information, Care, and Education (CHOICE) said in a Philadelphia City Paper article, “When you’re 15 and someone is pressuring you into something you may not want to do, knowing what your fallopian tubes are won’t help.”

Some community-based programs have arisen to (partially) make up for these shortcomings. CHOICE is based in Philadelphia and provides services throughout Pennsylvania.  The organization teaches sexual health through formal presentations, local events and community outreach. They also operate a hotline where teens can call in with any questions about health, relationships, or related subjects [v] Another movement called Take Control Philly, which offers STI testing at health centers and allows teens ages 13-19 to pick up or order free condoms.[vi]

Factors other than education influence adolescent sexual behavior.  Some things that predict less sexual risk-taking are close relationships with parents, strong religious affiliations, and involvement in school and community activities.  On the other hand, riskier sexual behavior corresponds to sexually irresponsible parents, sexually active friends and peers, romantic relationships (particularly with older partners), alcohol and drug use, and gang involvement.[vii]

Ultimately, however, sexual responsibility is an individual choice.  Teens, your parents may not have been great role models to you.  Your school may not have educated you properly.  Your friends may be pressuring you.  But you still have the power to do what is right for you.  Becoming sexually active is a big decision that you shouldn’t rush into or make for the wrong reasons.  If you are sexually active, HIV (as well as pregnancy, and other STIs) can happen to you.  If you use protection consistently, the risk of HIV can be reduced by 80%.[viii]  You should know your partner, your partner’s sexual history, and you should both get tested for HIV.  Make sure your partner is someone you trust to tell you the truth and to support you if the worst should happen.  Respect yourself, protect yourself, and remember the words of Ben Franklin: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

For more advice on dealing with peer pressure and sex, go here:

For more information on your body, sexual health, and relationships, check out or call 1-800-84-TEENS

To find an HIV Testing Site near you, follow this link:

--Melanie Pino-Elliott
GET DOWN Youth Blogger

[i] Daniel Denvir, 2011.  Avoiding the Subject: Philadelphia Schools are Failing When It Come to Sex Education.
[ii] Christina Long, 2011.  Urgent Need for Sex Education in Philly Schools.
[iii] Brian Wallace, 2010.  Bill Would Require Sex-Ed Classes in Public Schools.
[iv] Christina Long, 2011.
[vii] Douglas Kiry & Gina Lepore, 2007.  Sexual Risk and Protective Factors.
[viii] World Health Organization, 2011.  Condom Effectiveness in Reducing Heterosexual HIV Transmission.

[i] Nick Powell, 2010.  City Council Tackles HIV/AIDS epidemic in Philly.
[ii] WHYY Radion, 2011.
[iii] Salynn Boyles, 2007.  Teens Are Hard-Wired for Risky Behavior.
[iv] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004.  Children, Adolescents, and HIV/AIDS.


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