Story and photos by SHELLY GUILLORY
The Sorenson Unity Center, in partnership with Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, held a workshop in October 2011 to provide a comfortable setting for parents and teens to talk about sexual health and STDs.
“I think it’s uncomfortable for teens and parents to participate in a workshop together,” said Angela Romero, program coordinator for Sorenson Unity Center. “Sexual education is a difficult subject to discuss.”
Romero said the Sorenson Unity Center, located at 1383 S. 900 West, has worked with Planned Parenthood for the last three years and has offered two sexuality classes with the organization. The center has also partnered with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department and offered two workshops. The class in October — the fifth — was the first held for teenagers and their parents.
“The goal is to have healthy discussions about sexuality and health issues related to sexuality, and the risk you take when you become sexually active,” Romero said.
To market the class, Sorenson Unity Center sent e-invites to its community partners and also sent mailers to residents who live near the center.
Planned Parenthood planned three activities for the class, which included mini interviews for parents to do with their teens regarding friendships, media and dating, and one activity geared toward health care and education resources offered by Planned Parenthood and community agencies.
Romero said the goal is to create more awareness about sexuality and encourage parents to provide their teenagers information — information that cannot be found in health education classes in Utah schools — about sexuality in an age-appropriate way.
“We have to meet certain requirements,” Romero said. “With teens and parents being here, Planned Parenthood is able to answer questions that might not be able to be answered in schools.”
Lynn Beltran, STD and HIV program manager at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said in an email that laws in Utah dictate what can and cannot be taught in schools. Schools teach an abstinence-only curriculum 95 percent of the time.
“National research from the scientific community shows that abstinence-only education leads to higher rates of unprotected sex as well as earlier onset for sexual activity among youth,” she said. “Comprehensive sex education really allows for discussion about postponing sexual activity and how to protect yourself if you choose to be sexually active.”
Teenagers who have sex risk sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and unintended pregnancy. Without access to information, many teens do not understand the risks associated with sexual activity.
Beltran said STD rates in Salt Lake County have been increasing for years. She said chlamydia is the most common reported disease and is often a marker of how much infection is circulating in the general population.
“Youth aged 14 to 19 comprise the greatest proportion of our chlamydia infection and in small areas of Salt Lake, 1 in 4 teens has chlamydia,” she said. “So the attitudes of that subset of the population have a strong influence on our increase. It is very hard for public health to compete with cultural shifts when there is no effective comprehensive sexual health education in the school systems.”
An increase in the number of sexual partners a person has, a younger onset age for first sexual encounter, peer pressure and changes in attitudes regarding sexual activity all contribute to the increase, she said.
She also said research shows that youth want this discussion with their parents, even though they may act like they do not. But some parents have a difficult time talking about a subject that many consider taboo.
Annabel Sheinberg, director of education at Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in an email that parents are the most influential sexuality educators of their children. Sheinberg, who was responsible for facilitating the class in October at Sorenson Unity Center, said in her talking points that when teens have accurate information, they provide their peers with facts rather than myths.
“What is offered in school is not enough,” she said. “If parents don’t take the opportunity to talk, they are allowing the media to be the main educator of their children.”
Sheinberg also said teen girls between the ages of 15 to 19 in Rose Park and Glendale have a 1 in 100 chance of getting pregnant, which is 10 times higher than youth on the east side near the University of Utah.
But it might be uncomfortable for teens to talk openly about their sexuality with their parents.
Sorenson Unity Center’s Romero said although no one attended the class in October, about 20 teenagers attended the previous class — a class specifically aimed at teens. And not their parents.
“My child actually participated in [the last class],” Romero said. “He said he learned a lot of information. He didn’t really go into detail about things, but he said it made him more aware of risks.”
Hoping for a better attendance for Sorenson Unity Center’s next class, Romero said the center will focus on organizations that already work with populations who have an interest in the topic. She also said the class will cater to teens or parents, but not both.
The Health Department’s Beltran knows that teens are interested.
“They do actively engage in the classes and ask really good questions,” she said. “Our biggest challenge is simply getting people to show up for classes in the community.”