New Mexico: 49th in education, first in teen pregnancy.
Those were the rankings in 2010, when the Guttmacher Institute showed the state had 80 teen pregnancies per 1,000 women at a time when the rate in the United States reached its lowest point in over 30 years.
Flash forward to 2015. The teen pregnancy rate was down again around the nation, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still found alarming rates of sexual-risk behaviors practiced by young people. Among U.S. high school students surveyed that year, over 40 percent had experienced sexual intercourse, 30 percent had intercourse within the last three months and, of that group, 43 percent said they did not use a condom.
Of those who were sexually active, some 14 percent said they did not practice safe sex, and 21 percent said they had consumed alcohol or drugs before the last act of intercourse. And only 10 percent of all students said they had been tested for HIV.
“I think part of it just comes not necessarily from not knowing the consequences, but from not thinking the consequences are going to apply to them,” said Haley Komer, a junior at Santa Fe High School and a member of Planned Parenthood’s Peer Educators, a volunteer-based sex education program that was recently defunded.
She thinks one way to combat these depressing rates is to play it safe and smart.
“Practice safe sex,” said Komer. “Know the risk. Know what you’re doing. And
be aware that what you’re doing could have consequences that could be irreversible.”
Her fellow peer educator, Santa Fe High School junior, Vivienne Harris, agrees.
“Abstinence has proven to be very ineffective,” she said. “People are going to do what they’re gonna do. Knowing measures to take for your and your partner’s safety is important, knowing the repercussions of STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and unplanned pregnancies is important.”
Despite having access to an infinite amount of information on the internet, a lot of teens still don’t understand practicing safe sex or the repercussions of unsafe sex, Harris said.
Ella, a Capital High School student — who did not want her real name used for this story — is an individual who learned to live with those consequences the hard way. The 17-year-old has spent the last 9½ months experiencing the trials, joys and tribulations of teenage motherhood all while staying enrolled in school.
The young woman, who refers to her pregnancy as “totally unplanned,” made the decision to keep the baby. She did not turn to Planned Parenthood or other resources to discuss options.
“I just decided to keep her.”
Ella, who describes herself as religious, had the support of her family. “They were in shock but they were supportive. They’ve been supportive up to this point. They still help out a lot.”
Ella believes — as does Harris — that there’s a primarily religious component tied to teen pregnancy and STI rates in Santa Fe and the state. Catholics believe abstinence is the only 100 percent guaranteed approach to avoiding pregnancy and mostly oppose abortion. In regards to pregnancies, she says, “I think people believe God will want to send the kid [to you] for a reason.”
She said that prior to her pregnancy, she received adequate sex education but also admits to growing up in an environment where teenagers in her circle routinely practiced unsafe sex.
For her, the hardest part of the whole thing has been judgment from strangers and being treated like a statistic. In 2015, the CDC stated that some of the most significant contributors to high school dropout rates among girls were pregnancy and giving birth. Despite those figures, Ella said she is more motivated to graduate because of her child.
She said she thinks that emotional — not just physical — safety should be taught as part of sex education. Lex Morris-Wright, another peer educator and a senior at the New Mexico School for the Arts, agrees.
“We talk a lot about consent and how important that is,” Morris-Wright said. “To know how to check in with your partner … that’s equally important as being physically safe. It has a lot of impact on our health and that’s something people don’t talk about as much.”
In fact, Morris-Wright said, adults are often uncomfortable talking about all aspects of sex with teens.
“It’s taboo,” Morris-Wright said. “People are like, ‘We don’t want to talk about sex with teens. If we talk about sex with teens, they’ll start having more sex.’ It leaves all this room for people to be misinformed, instead of having the room to have real conversation.”
Morris-Wright, who identifies as gender-queer or nonbinary (neither male nor female), believes that an important part of the conversation that is missing is LGBTQ inclusitivity.
“[The sex education system] really only talks about penis and vagina sex, which is not the only sex out there,” Morris-Wright said. “I work with the LGBTQ community, there are a lot of misconceptions. A lot of people don’t know you can get STIs from oral sex.
“The sex education taught in schools is not very trans-inclusive. There are all kinds of bodies and ways of experiencing gender. … That’s a really important thing to change.”
Morris-Wright and other safe-sex advocates stress that there are other resources still available to teenagers, including Planned Parenthood, La Familia Medical Center and ICYC, which functions as an anonymous text message-based program, where a question can be sent to a registered health professional who in turn will answer your question within 24 hours.
Morris-Wright reminds teens to be careful about drawing information from social media.
“I would encourage teens to think about where they’re getting their information from and whether or not they’re getting their information from sources that are credible,” Morris-Wright said. “Sometimes you hear things — myths that people have about STIs — that can overtake teen communities very easily. It’s important to educate yourself about these things, and go to sources like Planned Parenthood, where you know they’ll be telling you the right things.”
And teens and adults need to start figuring out how to talk to one another about this still difficult topic: “When adults can find it in themselves to respect youth and listen to youth … that’s really powerful.”
Acacia Burnham is a senior at New Mexico School for the Arts. Contact her at email@example.com.
Source: Santa Fe New Mexican