BEYOND THE STATISTICS When sex gets scary

t starts so simply: a boy and girl, or two boys or two girls.A giggle here, a smirk there, the adolescent awkwardness of exploring another person for the first time.It seems so innocent at first. But then things go further, and suddenly a statistical epidemic is unleashed.
Results of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 1999 show that 32.5 percent of ninth-grade girls and 44.5 percent of ninth-grade boys have had sex.
The study, commissioned by the Centers For Disease Control, says almost 9 percent of students initiated intercourse before age 13. The study covered 14,000 students in 41 states.
Parents can claim their children are in the abstinent pack. Children can say their friends don't partake in dangerous sexual practices at young ages.
But professionals -- nurses, counselors, educators -- don't rationalize away teen sex. Every day, they must face the consequences of the age-old excuse: It won't happen to me.
Mahoning Valley: Local professionals confirm that the numbers apply here.
Eleven-year-olds needing abortions are a rarity, but they exist in the Mahoning Valley. Area teens, they say, know more than many parents hope they do. Maybe because of media saturation, maybe because of a society more accepting of frank sexual talk.
Some teens have no problems with turning that knowledge into first-hand experience.
"A lot of them, it's their first time having sex or their boyfriend talks them into it, saying it won't happen to them," said Marilyn McKelvey, a medical assistant at May We Help You in Youngstown, a private doctor's office that provides abortion services. "A lot of them are gullible and believe it."
"Some are very emotional; others don't think about what they're actually doing. Later it may dawn on them," she said. "But some don't care one way or another. Those seem unfeeling all the way around. Those are the ones that upset me the most."
Jaded kids growing up too soon is a reoccurring theme with those who work with youths. As a result, local educators have had to tweak their messages.
Questions: Linda Kostka, who supervises the education department of Youngstown's Planned Parenthood, consistently is surprised at the maturity of the questions her educators get from seventh- and eighth-graders.
"What could be printable?" she wondered, while mulling a list of examples:
What's the best kind of condom?
If you use two condoms at once, will either burst?
Is sex fun for women?
"Oh, these are mild," she said.
Some teens, Kostka said, are curious about terms they've overheard. For the others, only blunt honesty could stave off unsafe practices. That's where the questions and answers become all-important.
"They don't have any qualms about asking," Kostka said of teen-agers. "They just want to know."
Abstinence: On the other end of the sex education spectrum, Patty Greco, prevention director at Care Net Pregnancy Center of the Mahoning Valley, calls condoms virtually useless in her abstinence-based education programs.
Yet, she sees eye to eye with professionals such as Planned Parenthood's Kostka about the importance of acknowledging teen sexuality, of speaking to them honestly.
She can't help it. Girls as young as 13 have come into the center for its free pregnancy tests.
"Society has done a job on our youth. They have put sex on the face of our youth for years. It's blatant," she said. "They've been told there is such a thing as safe sex. There isn't."
Her proudest moments come from girls who've changed promiscuous behavior because of "that sex lady who came in."
Yet, Greco said, 15 to 20 girls still request tests each month.
"And that's just who comes here."

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