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Campaign invites uncomfortable conversations

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has launched a campaign to get young people, parents, schools, policy makers and community groups to start talking about something likely to make many of them squirm.

Dubbed Youth Sexual Health in Colorado: A Call to Action, the campaign hopes to encourage youths to delay sexual activity and to use condoms and contraception consistently and correctly if they are engaged in sexual activity.

But beyond that, organizers hope it ultimately results in giving more Colorado teens access to supportive relationships that will allow them to finish their educations and achieve their economic and career goals.

“Youth. Sex. This topic can turn off a lot of people,” said Anne-Marie Braga, director of adolescent health initiatives for CDPHE. “I can’t say enough about our department really taking leadership on this. It’s time to normalize this issue and do something about it.”

CDPHE has released a 64-page booklet summarizing the state of youth sexual health in Colorado and providing specific strategies for young people, their families, their communities and state policy makers to follow to have a positive impact on the issue.

Developing the Call to Action involved convening informal focus groups of parents and of youth around the state. The youth were asked to share their experiences about what they want regarding their sexual health, what works and what doesn’t. Parents and adult mentors were asked for their perspectives. In addition, more than 700 people responded to a statewide survey.

The young people expressed a strong desire for comprehensive ongoing sex education in school that would help them figure out how to access appropriate information and resources. Parents indicated that they weren’t always sure they had the most reliable information, and even if they did, they weren’t always comfortable sharing that information with their children.

The interviews also underscored the need for young people to have trusted adults to whom they can turn – parents, yes, but other adult mentors as well. Failure to provide that can have devastating long-term consequences.

“Teen pregnancy and sexual health is dear to my heart,” said Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat and a physician practicing at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center, who spoke at the Oct. 27 kickoff for the Call to Action, held at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

“I know firsthand what a difference it can make to be educated about sexuality and to be able to take control of that. Teens don’t want adults telling them what to do, but they need information to make their own decisions,” she said.

“If someone has uncomfortable situations happening around sexuality, it can lead to depression or suicide,” Aguilar said. “An unwanted pregnancy can change the trajectory of your whole life. Teens who get pregnant are more likely than others not to finish high school and to live in poverty, as are their children. So this impacts not only you now, but future generations.”

“Thank you for this groundbreaking work,” she told organizers, “and thank you for pushing those lazy adults into talking about things they don’t want to talk about,” she told the young people gathered at the kickoff.

Rep. Cindy Acree, an Aurora Republican considered one of the legislature’s experts in health care policy, was unable to attend the kickoff on Saturday, but she sent greetings and shared her own experience with teen pregnancy. Her daughter is a single, teenage mother who lives with Acree. “She works two jobs, has little social life and no money to do extra things,” Acree said in her prepared remarks. “Suddenly she is grown up and dealing with all these issues.”

Youth sexual health involves more than simply avoiding pregnancy or catching a sexually-transmitted disease, say organizers. A sexually healthy person is able to decide for himself or herself when to engage in a sexual relationship, free from oppression, exploitation and abuse. A sexually healthy person knows how to access information and can talk comfortably with health care providers, as well as family and friends.

In Colorado, teen birth rates have fallen steadily over the past decade, down nearly 37 percent since 1992. This mirrors what has happened nationwide. In addition, sexual activity among young people is slightly less than the national average. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 40 percent of all Colorado high schoolers report having had sex at some point.

But not all the news is good. Condom use is spotty, rates of chlamydia are increasing and sexual violence is on the rise.

“On average, 17 babies are born to teenagers in Colorado every day – about one baby every 84 minutes,” said Scarlett Jimenez, a senior at Aurora’s Hinkley High School, and one of the young people serving as advisors to the Call to Action campaign. Jimenez said she’s also witnessed hate and bullying around sexuality, and she called on schools to provide more comprehensive sex education, which she said would decrease bullying.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education, said that lawmakers can pass enlightened, well-meaning policies, but unless those policies are implemented, little will change.

“We have a comprehensive sex education policy in this state,” she said. “Is it being implemented in every district? Absolutely not. We need to hold districts’ feet to the fire to make sure they’re implementing these standards.”

Berman suggested that it might be possible to tie youth sexual health to initiatives related to childhood obesity, an issue around which there is tremendous interest and funding. “Maybe there are ways we can combine the importance of nutrition, physical activity and health into comprehensive sex education. We need to be creative as policy makers,” she said.

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