Abstinence programs face real challenges in addressing peer pressure and the communication gulf between parents and adolescents. Testimony from youth about their perceptions of what is going on among their peers reflects, among other things, the extent to which they have been inundated with media messages, images, and thoughts about sexual activity at a very young age. Youth are observing, thinking about, and using sexual activity as a system for peer classification.
Student Reports of Peer Sexual Activity
I think there are three different groups… in our school. We have divided into the popular people, the kind-of-popular people, and the not-popular people, and the kind-of-popular people are like maybe they’ll give a peck on the cheek, but then the popular people are already like touching.
It [depends] on the person… because there’s some people who, you know, our age now maybe don’t want to be so fast, but it is some fast people our age who, you know, do whatever, whenever, however.
Most people I know, if they’re… being pressured, they’ll just do it. They won’t — I don’t know anybody who would say, like, “You know what? I can’t do this,” or “You know what? We need to talk about this.”
My school, it’s like they hang out a lot outside of schools. Our relationships tend to be the kids, not the seventh grade, but the eighth grade they are really, really close and they go past kissing a lot.… Either you’re in the don’t-do-it, you-want-to-do-it, or you-are-doing-it crowd, and a lot of people fall into that are-doing-it crowd, and those would be the popular kids in our school.
They’ll like go home on the bus, they live in the same neighborhood, and they know their parents aren’t coming home to like six. They come over, one of them goes over to their house, and she said they have oral sex… most of the time it’s just oral sex. It’s not like hardcore, real sex.
SOURCE: Focus groups held in Rochester, New York, for the Not Me Not Now program, conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. Sessions were held separately with boys and girls, and included youth in grades 5 and 6, and in grades 7 and 8, from a range of urban and suburban schools.
Constructive activities, particularly during after-school hours, can be an antidote to peer pressure, but such activities are not always available to youth. During focus group sessions, youth acknowledged that sexual activity takes place during unsupervised hours after school, as well as at large parties and on “dates” or in small gatherings of friends on weekends. When asked about what they usually do after school, many said they are bored. Many go home and watch television, talk on the phone, do homework, or baby-sit siblings. In one community, parents and their children both said, “We just don’t have anything here,” indicating few options or places for youth to go after school. In another community, there is a youth recreation center, but not within walking distance of the school.
Good communication between parents and adolescents can also counter peer pressure (Miller 2001; and Blum and Reinhart 2001). Recognizing this, many programs try to bridge the gap in parent-child communication in any of three ways. First, they often try to help youth feel more comfortable discussing with their parents issues related to sex. Second, they may try to engage parents actively in the programs, inviting them to program events with their children. Third, many have special parent-focused components that aim to strengthen the parents’ ability to interact more effectively with their children.
Both the Abstinence Education Initiative (AEI) Coalition of Equipping Youth in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Not Me Not Now program in Monroe County, New York, report increases in parent-child communication as a result of homework assignments requiring parent participation. Testimony from parents during focus groups confirms that programs are experiencing some success at improving parent-child communication. In focus groups, parents report that youth are becoming more comfortable talking about sensitive topics, “asking questions that they didn’t ask before” and “opening up conversations.” One parent commented that she is “embarrassed to talk about some of these things, but [her son] talks and makes [her] more comfortable.” Another parent said, “My son has calmed down a lot; we talk to each other more.” Particularly in the intensive programs, parents generally agree that the program is having a positive effect on their children by giving them some important skills, or “building blocks,” with which to have positive interactions and communication with others, including themselves.
Program efforts to involve parents in special program events with their children often succeed in bringing parents to the events. For example, parents attend weekend rallies held by the FUPTPprogramin Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Heritage Community Services program in South Carolina, and by ReCapturing the Vision in Miami, Florida.
On the other hand, promoting and sustaining active involvement in parent education and enrichment programs has been difficult. Despite widespread parent enthusiasm for programs, getting more than a small fraction actively involved has proven to be a major challenge for virtually all programs. In the Not Me Not Now program in Monroe County, New York, and the Youth Abstinence Education Program in Tooele, Utah, workshops on parent-child communication have been widely advertised, but attendance has not measured up to the extensive outreach campaign. Free pamphlets and videos have been made available to parents in local supermarkets, but these too have not been taken at the rate expected. The Not Me Not Now program is now considering ways to work within existing parent groups, such as those convened by local churches or local adult education programs.
Even when a program includes a focus on the whole family, engaging parents can be a struggle. In FUPTP, staff members often register students for the program through a home visit, during which they explain the importance of parental involvement. The program holds monthly meetings for parents for which they provide food, transportation, and child care. They send home a regular newsletter and provide parents with progress reports. The curriculum uses take-home handouts for parents. Despite these efforts, parent involvement remains low.