The Centers for Disease Control released results of its 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey last week, showing an increase in risky sexual behaviors among Memphis teens.
The survey covered everything from condom use among teens (down 0.3 percent from 2009) to the number of teens who reported having sexual intercourse before the age of 13 (up 3.5 percent from 2009).
The results brought more disappointment than surprise for Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis CEO Barry Chase.
"We have the same results over a long period of time doing the same thing, and the results are not acceptable. Not acceptable for the children, not acceptable for society, not acceptable for families," Chase said.
The survey shows that 62.2 percent of Memphis teens in grades 9 through 12 have had sexual intercourse, up from 61.6 percent in 2009; 25.3 percent have had sexual intercourse with four or more partners, up from 23 percent in 2009; and 12.5 percent did not use any method of pregnancy prevention in their last sexual encounter, up from 9.7 percent in 2009.
If this last statistic seems low, it should be noted that both "withdrawal" and "some other method" were included in the survey's answer choices as potential methods of pregnancy prevention.
These increases in risky sexual behavior among teens in the city are of particular concern for a county already hampered by high teen pregnancy rates. In Shelby County, the birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds is 36.7 per 1,000 women; for 18- and 19-year-olds, the rate jumps to 107.8 per 1,000 women.
Lynda Sagrestano, director of the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis, devotes a large part of her research on gender and social inequality to the issue of teen pregnancy in Memphis and Shelby County. She says the failings of the sexual education system in Tennessee are largely to blame.
"Basically, [the CDC survey] is showing an uptick in everything from 2009 to 2011," she said. "When you look over time at what our policies have been, moving toward an abstinence-only education policy, it's not coincidental that years later we start to see upticks in teen pregnancy."
Chase agrees, adding that the recent passage of the state's "Gateway Sexual Activity" bill, which Governor Haslam signed into law in May, has only furthered the limitations placed on sex education curricula in public schools.
"It's a weakening of an already weak sex-ed system," Chase said. "It requires almost nothing from the school system. It is the state abrogating its responsibility to the children."
Both Chase and Sagrestano warn about the implications of limiting sex education in schools and transferring the responsibility to parents instead.
"Overwhelmingly, people believe that parents should be talking openly to their children about this," Sagrestano said. "The reality is that parents don't feel comfortable talking to their kids about sex. They don't necessarily have accurate or complete information."
Recent surveys conducted by the Mid-South Survey Research Center show that the majority of Shelby County residents believe children should receive more comprehensive sex education — including information on both abstinence and birth control — from the school system.
"We live in a culture where kids are exposed to more and more information about sexuality in every domain of their lives, and then we don't want to talk to them about it. We don't want to teach them about it," Sagrestano said. "We've got to find a way to get this information to them, because they're getting pregnant and they're having babies."