Sensible sex ed

Kathy Harms
Credit: Mark Hancock

“My cousin was a myth believer,” one student shared. “She believed that if it’s the first time you have sex, you couldn’t get pregnant. Yeah, she’s pregnant now.”

It’s clear to Harms that more and better sex education is the most effective way to counter misinformation.

“We teach car safety, but more people have sex than drive cars,” she said.

Ignorance comes at a cost.

Oklahoma has the fifth-highest rate of teen births — not pregnancies — in the U.S., with 50 births for every 1,000 teen females, dwarfing the national average of 34. In 2010, one in five of more than 6,000 teen births in Oklahoma was to an adolescent who was already a parent. Ninety-eight were to girls between 10 and 14 years old.

Harms founded her nonprofit, Teen emPower!, in 2006 to create a space where adolescents can discuss sex without judgment, shame, blame or guilt.

Besides units on biology, reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases, the two-week curriculum includes guidance on coping with social pressures and assertiveness training, which are taught by high school peer educators.

“Many teens have sex for the first time because they didn’t know how to put on the brakes,” Harms said.

As a teen mom herself with a baby at age 16, she said she knows all too well the difference postponing pregnancy for a few years can make for both mother and child.

“A teen mom is usually single and in poverty,” she said. “It’s hard to give a baby the time and attention it needs.”

One of the first things Harms tells her classes is her story.

“I share the information so they understand that I have been where they could be,” she said.

The effectiveness of her methods is evidenced in part by the positive comments she receives on surveys distributed at the end of the course. 

“Before I took this class, I thought sex was just for fun,” wrote one teen. “Now I know that sex really isn’t worth all the risks. I know it’s gonna be hard to resist, but all I have to do is look them in the eyes and say, ‘No!’” Teen emPower requires parents to sign consent forms to opt their children into the course. Despite controversy over comprehensive sex education, which includes teaching abstinence as an option, attendance is nearly always 100 percent.

“I was led to believe there’d be all kinds of opposition, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Harms.

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