It isn't unusual for Iowa high school students Stacey Hoch and Venessa McDole, both peer advisors, to speak with their classmates about sensitive subjects. Thursday morning, however, they took their advocacy one step further by speaking in front of policymakers at a meeting hosted in Des Moines by FutureNet, an Iowa network for adolescent pregnancy prevention, parenting and sexual health. The goal of their talk was to request that Iowa youth be given adequate information to make informed personal decisions about sexual activity.
"[It was important to come today] just so we could keep adults informed," McDole, a junior at North High School in Des Moines, said. "There just aren't very many teen voices. We don't have a voice in the community. We don't have a voice for anything. Adults go and make decisions for us. So, coming here gives us a voice."
Hoch, a senior at Scavo High School in Des Moines, nodded her head as McDole spoke about the importance of allowing Iowa's youth a voice in the sex education policies that affect them.
"Also, there is so much more than just teen pregnancy prevention," Hoch said. "We also need to pay attention to sexually transmitted infection [STI] prevention. That's something that abstinence-only sexual education doesn't really cover, because it doesn't cover anything except 'be abstinent.' It's important for [Iowa teens] to know that there are STIs that can be really dangerous and really deadly."
McDole and Hoch spoke to an audience of advocates, policymakers, state elected officials and other interested parties.
When asked to provide an estimate on the number of their classmates who were already sexually active, both teens were hesitant to respond. McDole said she didn't think she could provide an accurate estimate. Hoch provided an estimate with a qualifier.
"I would say half, if not more, of our total school population," she said. "But, we have a lot of teen parents at my school also."
McDole nodded in agreement before adding, "At my school, there are a lot of teen parents, there's a lot of freshmen coming in and not knowing — there's a lot of everything at my school. You have some kids that will shy away from [sexual activity]. But then you have other people who are coming into this new environment and it's a big environmental shock for them. … Many of them end up doing what the crowd does without realizing that, as a teenager, they are making very crucial decisions. It's a decision of whether or not you're going to get pregnant, whether or not you're going to get an STI, or even whether you are going to college or not.
"Teens are making these very important decisions. When a wrong decision is made, unfortunately, they usually can't go back and reverse it. For instance, if you contracted HIV, you can't just go back and say 'Well, I shouldn't have done that and I take it back now.' So, when adults make these decisions for us, when they think they know what is best for us without asking us, it doesn't make any sense. We're the ones who are going through this. We want our own voice."
During their public remarks, the two young women encouraged adults to trust Iowa students with the truth about a wide variety of topics.
"We deserve to have all the information we can," Hoch told those in attendance. "We need that information — all of that information — if we are going to be able to make appropriate and good choices."
In addition to comments by the two teens, those in attendance were given an overview of a study completed by Doug Kirby, an adolescent health researcher commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Of the 48 programs included in his study, he said the only programs that had strong evidence for delaying sexual initiation were comprehensive programs.
FutureNet staff members now plan to work with various state agencies to encourage Gov. Chet Culver to make Iowa the 17th state to refuse Title V, Section 510 (federal) monies for abstinence-only sexual education. Currently, the Iowa Department of Public Health administers roughly $319,000 in matching funds from that funding stream.
The Feminist Daily News reports that Iowa Governor Chet Culver has agreed to reject federal abstinence-only funds.
- Lynda Waddington, Iowa Reconsidering Abstinence-Only Funding