What is iMAD?
What exactly are those people teaching our kids? Why do we need sexual health education in Highlands County? Why is it important that we start teaching the young people in our community about STIs, unintended pregnancy, and risky behaviors? I will address these questions and give statistics for Florida and Highlands County to show why there is a need for this type of education in our community.
First and foremost, I want to express my belief that it is the responsibility of the parents to teach their children what can happen from risky sexual behaviors. I applaud every parent out there who takes on this responsibility. As part of our program, we encourage the young people we speak with to open those lines of communication with their parent or trusted adult. However, we realize that not all young people in our community have a parent or trusted adult that they can get this information from. That is where we come in. To give them information that is medically correct and provide statistics for our community as well as on a state and national level.
There are several components to our program. There is a misconception that iMAD is a “sex education” program. This is not entirely true. In fact, there is little discussion of “sex” in our program. The iMAD Program focuses on making sure young people have an idea of how they want their life to be in the future, how to accomplish their goals, and how risky behaviors can affect their life path. We encourage students to set boundaries but do not teach values because those are taught at home. Values are what help a young person know where they want to set their boundaries. The values and morals parents teach their child at home will help them decide where they draw the line with risky behavior and how to refuse or stand up for their choice and not give in to pressure. We also discuss where this pressure comes from, how it is not always clear-cut, and how they can even pressure themselves by thinking that “everyone else is doing it.”
Another significant focus of the program is healthy and unhealthy relationships. We begin with having them identify the qualities of a healthy relationship. We stress that these relationships can be family, friends, peers, etc. We then move on to romantic relationships and why it is important to have healthy relationships. We stress that if someone in the relationship is not respecting boundaries that the relationship can quickly become unhealthy. These topics teach them how to make sure they are not crossing their boundaries and remind them to keep their future in mind when making decisions. During this time, we also discuss consent. We want to make sure that young people know that consent is permission and that if they do not have a definite and clear “yes” the answer is always “no.” To demonstrate this we use a short video from the UK about consent. It can be found here.
And now for the sensitive information that makes people uncomfortable. We do cover STIs. We cover which ones are the most common among young people, how they are transmitted, and the symptoms. We use only medically accurate information and terminology. We stress that the number one symptom of any STI is no symptom at all. We also explain the modes of transmission, that STIs can be transmitted through the exchange of body fluids and that some are exchanged through skin to skin contact. We ALWAYS stress the fact that the only way to 100% prevent an STI or unintended pregnancy is abstinence. We do, however, tell them that if a person chooses to participate in risky sexual behavior that they can reduce that risk with the use of a latex condom. During this portion we stress that a condom acts as a barrier to reduce the exchange of body fluids, but is not 100%. We also make sure to tell them that a condom, while reducing some skin to skin contact, does not eliminate it and therefore there is still a risk for skin to skin transmission.
And now for those pesky little facts and statistics that I promised earlier. According to the CDC, there are 20 million new STI cases annually in the United States. Of those 20 million cases, half of those are young people between the ages of 15-24. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016) This alone is an astounding number. But when you take into consideration that this group only represents 25 percent of the sexually active population, this number becomes even more concerning.
How do STIs impact our rural community? Here are some charts that can be found here.
As you can see based on the data for our county, more than half of all cases of bacterial STIs were young people ages 15-24. These reports are based on three types of bacterial STIs: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis. They do not include three other STIs that are common among young people, which are Trichomoniasis, Genital Herpes, and HPV. The reason is that these three are not bacterial. Genital herpes and HPV cannot be cured, and both are skin to skin contact. So, when educating young people on these STIs, we encourage them to think about how it will change their life and future to have an STI that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Our educators stress that both are skin to skin and therefore condoms, while reducing the risk for STIs that require an exchange of body fluids, are not as effective for these type of STIs and that the only 100% effective way to avoid contracting an STI is abstinence.
I would like to end by saying that knowledge is power. With knowledge comes the ability to make responsible decisions. We do not assume that the young people we are talking to about these topics are engaging in risky behavior. In fact, I assume most are not. The purpose is so that when and if they feel that they may be ready, they have this knowledge, they know what the risks are, and they are armed with information to make the best choice for their physical and mental health. If we can get the information out there, maybe we can help young people to eliminate the risk completely by practicing abstinence, or at the very least, reduce the risk if they do not choose abstinence.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, October 19). 2015 STD Surveillance Report. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2016/2015-std-surveillance-report.html
Florida Department of Health, Bureau of Communicable Diseases. (2017, November). Bacterial STDs. Retrieved from Florida Health: http://www.flhealthcharts.com/charts/OtherIndicators/NonVitalSTDDataViewer.aspx?cid=0145