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The Lessons of Gloucester, or It’s About Gender, Stupid

A 'pregnancy pact' among high school sophomores suggests conventional sex education has some explaining to do. An international consultant on adolescent sexual health offers direction for where changes should be heading.

Gloucester, Mass., which proudly calls itself one of the nation's "Preserve America Communities," made headlines this week. Seventeen girls at the local high school are pregnant, many of them by what can only be called "unintelligent design."

According to Gloucester High Principal Joseph Sullivan, a group of sophomore girls at the school formed a "pregnancy pact," committing themselves to get pregnant and raise their babies together.

The experts are rushing in to explain this phenomenon.

Explanation No. 1: Sex education at the school is inadequate, ending after freshman year. 

Young people do need the kind of information that sex education programs offer; heaven knows such programs are light-years ahead of the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have wasted well over a billion dollars of our tax money. But hey, the girls who hatched this plot were sophomores, recent graduates of the school's sex education program. Clearly, such programs did not speak to them.

Explanation No. 2: Gloucester High refused to distribute contraceptives, leading the school's doctor and nurse to quit in frustration. 

(Apparently, some schools still have a nurse and a doctor. Who knew?) Gloucester High's former doc is right: those teenagers who are sexually active need access to contraception. But as Greg Verga, Gloucester School Committee chairman, reasoned, "Even if we had contraceptives, that pact shows that if they wanted to get pregnant, they will get pregnant. Whether we distribute contraceptives is irrelevant." It doesn't sound pretty, but the man has a point.

Explanation No. 3: The Gloucester girls are isolated individuals who needed counseling. 

Sure, these girls are immature and lost. But these mommies-to-be are not exactly salmon swimming against the current. The fact is that teenage pregnancy rates are rising again. Every day, more than 2,000 girls in America become pregnant — on purpose, accidentally, and everything in between.

There is a deeper problem at work here: Stubborn gender norms are perpetuating girls' sense that their worth is tied to their sexual and reproductive roles. Sadly, by and large, even the most "comprehensive" sex education programs fail to address gender issues in any meaningful way.

Limited sense of opportunity has always pushed girls into the mommy track. For example, the pregnancy rate among Hispanic girls aged 15-19 translates to 50 pregnant girls in a high school the size of Gloucester. (What kind of attention would the pregnancy pact have generated if the Gloucester Cluster were in East L.A.?)

Culture plays a role as well. From Britney Spears' little sister to movies like Knocked Up and Juno, popular culture typically romanticizes pregnancy while demonizing abortion. The press never tires of glorifying educated stay-at-home moms.

Gender leaves a heavy footprint on all aspects of adolescent sexuality. Research shows that girls who are submissive to male partners or who agree that males should "have more power in the relationship" are less able to negotiate condom use or to refuse unwanted sex. Middle-schoolers report pressure to give boys oral sex (developing intimate bonds with other girls and with babies starts to look more comprehensible). Boys learn to equate masculinity with physical and emotional toughness, proving their heterosexuality, having multiple sexual partners and fathering a child.

The result?

Young people who hold conservative attitudes about gender roles actually have worse sexual health outcomes than their peers. Studies from around the world suggest that they begin having sex at an earlier age, have more partners, and use condoms and contraceptives less. They are at greater risk of pregnancy, report more sexually transmitted infection (STI) symptoms and have higher rates of HIV. And their relationships are more likely to be characterized by violence.

Indeed, adolescent pregnancy rates are not the only worrisome indicator on the rise. This year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent parents and educators reeling with the news that more than 1 in 4 girls aged 15 to 19 has a sexually transmitted infection. (Since the Gloucester girls obviously had sex without protection against HIV or other STIs, let's pray that a baby is all they got.)

The Gloucester schools have the right idea. Their curriculum policy articulates the competencies and qualities that the curriculum aims to foster, such as: an understanding of the major influences on the development of our culture and society ...; [the ability] to apply the knowledge and skills of social and emotional intelligence that form the basis of effective personal, social, and working relationships; a basis from which to make informed and realistic choices and decisions at all stages; [an understanding of] the need to advocate the basic rights of others, particularly those who are not well placed to promote their own needs; and [an understanding of] the causes of inequality of opportunity and treatment afforded to many people on account of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class or disability, and the need to remove such discrimination.

To help achieve these goals, we must reinvent sex education — as something perhaps more akin to social studies than to conventional "health" class. Policies and programs must emphasize young people's critical thinking skills, particularly about gender issues.

For example, Scenarios USA (which asks teens to think and write about the question "What's the Real Deal about Masculinity?") has successfully promoted attitude change about what it means to be a man. And a consortium of agencies convened by the Population Council is about to publish guidelines and lesson plans for curricula in this vein, offering a resource package that goes beyond the commonly accepted plumbing and communications aspects of sex ed to include discussions of gender, rights and even civic participation.

We can and must do better by the young people in Gloucester and across the country. Let's make all of our towns and cities "Preserve America Communities."