"Guys talk about trying to make their own condoms [using] Saran Wrap."
"They told me that the [Depo Provera] shot will make my bones weak. Like if you fall a little bit, you can break your arms or wrist. It will make your bones weak."
Those misguided quotes came from Memphis teens in a study organized by SisterReach, a grassroots nonprofit that works to empower women of color around issues of reproductive and sexual health. The study — "Our Voices & Experiences Matter: The Need for Comprehensive Sex Education Among Young People of Color in the South" — claims that Tennessee's 2012 law that promotes abstinence-only sexual education in public schools has negatively impacted teens of color.
"In Memphis, we're over 60 percent African American, and we have a higher number of folks of color, including Latino and immigrant populations. I think it's important to focus on the fact that these demographics represent some of the highest numbers of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies for both adults and teens," said SisterReach Founder and CEO Cherisse A. Scott.
Rates of chlamydia and HIV in Shelby County are twice as high as national rates, and the rate of teen pregnancy in the county is 30 percent higher than the rate statewide. According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System study, more than half of Memphis' high school students have had sex and a quarter of them have had sex with four or more partners.
And yet, these same teens aren't learning about sex in school due to a 2012 law that's become known as the "Gateway Sexual Activity" law. That law states that any "individual or organization that endorses student non-abstinence as an appropriate or acceptable behavior ... is not permitted.
In the SisterReach study, researchers gathered three separate focus groups — one featuring teens ages 11 to 16, one with parents, and another with teachers — to talk about how the law was affecting teen sexual behavior. All participants either lived or worked in one of the zip codes that has been identified as high-risk for HIV by the Shelby County Health Department.
The findings show that Memphis teens are getting misinformation about sex from their peers, as evidenced in the above quotes about homemade condoms and false birth control risks. Some teens believed there was an age limit on purchasing condoms. More than 80 percent of the teens interviewed said if they couldn't get condoms, they would probably have unprotected sex anyway.
At the time of the state law's passage, supporters of the law claimed it was the parents' responsibility to talk to their children about sex. But many parents in the SisterReach study said they didn't realize their kids weren't getting sex-ed at school, and only 30 percent of the parents in the study said they even felt comfortable talking about sex with their kids.
"We can't assume that parents know all of the things to say or how to navigate these conversations," Scott said. "And we can't ensure that if a child comes to a parent for support that they won't be punished in some way."
Scott said she believes state legislators didn't take into account Memphis' high poverty, teen pregnancy, and STI rates when they created the abstinence-only law. Several teachers interviewed for the study agreed.
"Those up there in Nashville — they don't know our people. They don't know what they need," one teacher said.
Scott commended Shelby County Schools for doing all they can within the framework they're given, but she said a change in state law will be required to make a real difference in sex-ed reform.
"Our babies are getting pregnant, and we keep trying to pacify it with legislation," Scott said. "We keep trying to legislate people into abstinence and morality."