Twelve-year-old Alexis Perry sings at her family’s church on Sundays, dances at a local studio and is thinking about trying out next year for the West Junior High School cheerleading squad.
Alexis, with her dark eyes set off by eyeliner under the bill of a trendy John Deere cap, says dating is pretty routine in her class. She’s dating, she says, but that pretty much means you sit next to each other at lunch, go to the movies and talk on the phone.
“It’s not too big,” she says. “And it’s usually over in about a week.”
But she’s aware of relationships that involve more than hanging out en masse in front of the movie theater on a Friday night.
The Smithton Middle School seventh-grader echoes what many youths in Columbia say about talking to parents about sex — it’s difficult and awkward, and it’s not how they get most of their information.
Alexis says she gets most of her knowledge about sex from her friends, then from school and finally from her parents. Other Columbia teens feel the same way.
Friends ranked first, by far, as a source for learning about sex in a 2002 survey conducted by the Columbia-Boone County Health Department. School was second, and parents came in third. Television and movies ranked fourth.
The teens surveyed also said they wanted more parental involvement in their sex education, easier access to contraceptives and sex education in school at a younger age.
But it’s the thought that friends come first as a source of sexual information and support that troubles Maureen Coy.
Coy, a social-services specialist at the city-county health department, describes a cycle in place in which the community passes the buck on sex education.
“We’ve got parents that don’t want to talk about it, schools that say it’s the parents’ responsibility and are overworked anyway,” she says. “And it’s just a hard thing. We’ve got to go bit by bit and do the best we can.”
Jean Perry, Alexis’ mother, says Alexis and her friends talk to each other about sex, but their parents are often left out of the loop.
Alexis’ parents have done their part, sitting down with her to watch educational videos and answer any questions she might have. Alexis usually covers her eyes and says, “That’s gross,” Perry says.
Perry says she believes she has done what she can to prepare her daughter and that what Alexis has learned about sex in school has been helpful.
Moral and religious differences keep Columbia Public Schools stressing abstinence, teaching about contraceptives and diseases and encouraging students to ask at home if they want to know more—or talk more.
“If students ask questions, many times it’s, ‘Talk to your parents,’ ” says Sara Torres, science and health coordinator for Columbia Public Schools. “Parents are the number-one teachers.”
Hickman High School senior Jubilee Raymond says she learned a lot about contraceptives and diseases in ninth-grade health class at West Junior High. Her teacher had an offbeat sense of humor that made class easier and encouraged discussion, she says.
But she describes the graphic videos about sexually transmitted diseases they watched as “horror movies.”
“I don’t think many people paid attention,” she says.
Robyn Comer of Rocheport, a mother of two teenagers, says her own mom and dad didn’t talk to her about sex at all. She learned from friends instead.
“My husband and I wanted to be more open with our own children,” Comer says. Her daughter, 15, and son, 16, students at Hickman, are more embarrassed to talk about sex than she is, she says.
“I don’t really want to know if they’re having sex,” she says. “But I want them to know if they are, I’ll take them to buy condoms, get birth control, whatever they think they need.”
Research shows parents are more powerful than they realize when it comes to shaping their children’s attitudes about sex. A nationwide survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 2003 revealed a striking difference in the way adults and adolescents view parental influence.
Thirty-two percent of adults said they believe parents have the most influence, compared with 53 percent of students ages 12 to 14. Youths and parents overwhelmingly agreed it would be easier to postpone teen sex if they could talk openly and honestly about it with each other.
For the past several years, the city-county health department has been working to do just that by sponsoring workshops and other initiatives.
“I think we’re trying to get parents to think about how they learned about it,” Coy says. Many parents, she says, need to face this question: “Don’t they want to do something different with their child?”
Health advocates say some of the best advice for parents is to keep communicating with their children as they grow up, rather than having one “big talk.”
“Start really early in terms of feeling comfortable in talking about the differences between boys and girls, how we feel about each other, how we feel about our bodies,” says Avis Kopcha, an adoption counselor with Catholic Charities.
Kopcha says she wishes she had talked about sex earlier with her own children.
“Kids these days are being asked to make very adult decisions, approach things from a very mature perspective,” Kopcha says. “Now kids are asked to make a value judgment; it’s like throwing them in the water and asking them to swim.”
Some scientific evidence suggests children today are developing physiologically earlier than they did 50 years ago. Tom Berger, a human-development specialist at the MU Extension Center for Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy and Parenting, says girls’ menstrual cycles and boys’ sperm production are starting earlier.
Ever-changing definitions of sex also are changing the social landscape. Some young people who take pledges of abstinence are still having oral or anal sex, says Tracey Allen-Ehrhart, education director for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. This means educators are facing an added challenge of addressing new ways of thinking about sex.
Chris Edwards watches intently as his son, Nathan, 17, leads his section of the Hickman marching band during a Friday-night football halftime show.
Edwards, whose daughter Ella, 14, attends West Junior High, says sex was a subject his parents didn’t address when he was in high school.
Edwards graduated from Hickman in 1970. “That was a tough time. The slogan was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and I was in a rock band,” he says.
Those times guide the way he deals with his children. He talks to Nathan and Ella separately, he says, because they’re facing different issues. When watching television with Ella, he says, he sometimes feels the need to object.
“My daughter’s one of those channel surfers, and sometimes she watches ‘The Real World,’” he says, referring to an MTV show that documents the sexual exploits of seven young strangers living together. “I won’t say ‘Turn it off,’ but sometimes I have to say ‘This is your old man, but this is so full of bull dung.’ ”
Edwards’ impulse to counteract “The Real World” reflects the corrupting influence many parents and teenagers sense television has.
A study the Rand Corp. research organization released this month supports this instinct. The study found that youths who watch a lot of television with sexual content are twice as likely to have sex in the following year as those who don’t watch as much television with sexual content.
Sexual messages are by no means limited to television. Jane Brown, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is conducting a five-year project called Teen Media Study. The researchers are following 12- to 14-year-olds, watching how they use mass media.
Brown says their research shows music has the most sexual content, followed by movies, magazines and television. In the “little media centers” bedrooms have become, Brown says, kids are learning that sex is important because there is so much of it.
They’re also learning that it’s recreational. Brown says the media messages include little talk about love and commitment and next to nothing about the real consequences of sexual activity.
“Parents should pay attention to what sexual media their kids are paying attention to,” Brown advises. “What media choices kids are making matter.”
Berger, the human development specialist, says there is more at stake than HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and crisis pregnancies when it comes to teenagers’ decisions about sexual activity.
Teens who initiate sex early, Berger says, tend to have more partners and are more likely to become victims of abuse. There is also a link between substance abuse and early sexual initiation, he says. The younger sexual activity begins, the higher the risks.
“In contrast to that, the risk factors decrease for adolescents who receive comprehensive sex education,” Berger says.
In addition to information on anatomy, sex, contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, Berger says, a comprehensive sex-education program teaches respect for oneself and others.
Although individual schools teach sex education, “to my knowledge, there is no systematic, comprehensive sex education offered in the Columbia school district,” Berger says.
Teen pregnancy and its associated risks have been a focal point of the local health department since 2001, when the state Department of Health gave Boone County federal funds to address the birth rate among 15- to 17-year-olds. The rate was slightly higher than the state average: 32.2 per 1,000 in the county, compared with 29.5 per 1,000 in the state.
Since then, the county’s teen birth rates have declined. In 1999, Boone County saw 65 births to 15- to 17-year-olds. In 2002, 34 girls ages 15 to 17 gave birth. That number rose to 43 in 2003.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition has tried to provide public schools with more support in educating teens about sex and risky behavior, Coy says, but it can be difficult to get into schools during class time to present the information.
This year, the coalition has determined that it needs to focus more on the northern part of Columbia. Of the 45 births to girls 17 and under in 2003, 24 were from the 65202 ZIP code north of the highway.
“These areas are more at risk because some families with a lower income have parents that have to work something like 60 hours a week,” Coy says. “In some cases, they are home less to supervise what’s going on with their kids.”
Nile Abele, executive director of the Open Arms Crisis Pregnancy Center, says pregnant teens come from all spectrums of the socioeconomic scale.
“We really get a wide variety of different racial backgrounds and economic social levels,” Abele says. “There is a stereotype that only low-income individuals seek out help at pregnancy resource centers. That’s not accurate because crisis pregnancy affects everyone at all economic levels.”
At Oakland Junior High, located in the 65202 ZIP code, crisis counselor Dana Harris runs after-school “girls empowerment” and “boys empowerment” programs for students. Parents must permit their children to participate.
Harris says the programs give students the chance to talk about issues they may not be able to bring up when they’re learning about “the nitty-gritty” in health class. Harris says giving kids this chance empowers them. This is her fourth year to lead the groups.
She hopes to have as much parent involvement as possible for the latest groups, which will start meeting in October.
“I don’t think parents are aware of how much sexual activity is going on out there,” she says.
Parents also don’t know how risky it is, says Lorraine Barnett, director of client services at Open Arms.
“So few adults know how bad it is out there, how at-risk our youth are,” she says. Barnett says she is overwhelmed by how many young people come into the clinic having already been treated for an STD.
Some health advocates believe it isn’t an education about contraceptives or the basics of sex that youths in the community are lacking.
Eileen Long of Lutheran Family and Children’s Services says the emotional aspects of sex figure more largely than a lack of information for the women and girls she helps through crisis pregnancies.
“None of the mothers I’m working with are telling me ‘I’m pregnant because I didn’t know,’” she says. “Sometimes birth control fails. Sometimes they’re depressed, and they let something happen.”
The girls she helps, Long says, often suffer from low self-esteem.
“They’ve been beaten down by their environment,” Long says. “Maybe they’re kids who haven’t done as well in school, and they don’t take care of themselves.”
More self-esteem building among children ages 10 to 14 might help, Long says. “That’s the time to take care of that,” she says. The age when self-esteem building is crucial seems to get younger and younger, she adds.
Dana Battison, executive director at The Intersection — a youth and family activity center at Garth Avenue and Sexton Road, says young people today miss a crucial aspect in their sex education.
“There is a whole component of the emotional self that is not educated,” she says. The focus is too much on “technicalities — insert tab A into slot B,” she says.
Battison says the community needs to support children more than in just educating them about the clinical aspects of sex. When they are looking for belonging, love and affirmation, she says, it’s not enough to just teach them to say no to sexual relationships.
Meeting the “whole person” needs of teenagers to prevent risky sexual behavior is not a message singular to the kids the Intersection serves, Battison says, but one that applies across the community.
“The same messages that apply to poverty culture apply across the board — challenging people to think about things and trying to engage parents in that dialogue,” she says.
Missourian reporter Greer Hitch contributed to this report.