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The number of California teens having babies has dropped over the past decade. Still, more than 50,000 teens—nearly 5 percent of all teens aged 15 to 19—gave birth in California in 2001. That’s according to a study by the Public Health Institute. But after a decade of decline, the study predicts there will be a jump in the teen birth rate. It says that’s because of a rise in the poverty rate and the growing number of Latina teens (who as a group have a higher birth rate than the overall state). Three L.A. Youth writers discussed the study, teen pregnancy and sex education.

Do you believe the Public Health Institute is accurate in its findings?

Brynn Holland, 18, Cleveland HS graduate: "At my high school there were girls who were pregnant. We have a day care center on our high school campus too, which I think is wonderful. Of course, it would be more ideal not to have teenage pregnancies, but since there are I appreciate what my high school does for that. Yeah, I guess [pregnancies] are down but I don’t know how much I’d attribute to sex education. From my experience, I haven’t had very successful sex-education programs."

Why is that?

Brynn: "First of all, I have barely had any [sex ed] at all. I think the only time that I have ever had a class was in sixth grade and it was run by high school students."

Where are you and your friends getting your sex education from?

Brynn: "I’m lucky enough, and I think I’m also very rare, that I have a very open environment with my family. I have an older sister and I have parents that I can talk to. But I know a lot of my friends don’t have that and I think where they get it from is we try and talk to each other about it. But I’m sure it comes from movies or the media or places that it shouldn’t be coming from."

Bianca Gallegos, 19, Marshall HS grad: "In high school I didn’t get any sex ed. But it’s so funny because I did get in when I was in elementary. I thought the sex ed at that time was a good benefit because that age is when a lot of the students begin to learn about sex and hear rumors and begin to have questions on sex."

Where are you getting the messages of how to prevent pregnancy and how to have safer sex?

Bianca: "I’ve been getting my messages from books. That’s because I’m interested and I want to know. Friends talk about it. But my parents have talked about it with us. Sometimes I get kind of shy to bring up some questions. I know what questions I can ask them and I know I won’t feel uncomfortable, but there are some questions where I will be shy to ask it."

Chris, have you had a sex ed class yet?

Chris Palencia, 16, Torrance HS: "Yeah, I’ve actually had several. At Torrance High School, part of their requirement is that in ninth grade you have to take a health class. Apart from that, so far in each grade we’ve had people from Planned Parenthood come in during a two-week session to talk about sex education. In middle school too, during seventh grade we had Planned Parenthood for a week or two. I think in my experience that information is out there."

Have you gotten much out of the sex-ed classes?

Chris: "Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of information that I probably wouldn’t have gone to look for myself. I think even the kids who don’t pay attention … get something out of it."

Have you noticed fewer pregnancies while you’ve been in high school?

Bianca: "At least people are informed. At least compared to my mom’s experience. She tells me that it’s good that we’re learning this in school because at her time nobody talked to her about sex and that’s why I’m here, because she had me when she was 16.
     Sometimes people are ignorant about this issue because they believe that if you talk about this with teenagers, they believe that oh, you’re going to entice them into wanting to have sex and you’re going to get them curious. But in reality, it’s education, you’re educating them and you’re letting them know how to protect themselves and how to have safe sex. If you’re a religious person and you’re waiting to have sex until marriage, it’s still important for a person to learn about sex ed because you never know, it’s nature you know."

What are your thoughts on the safe sex versus abstinence debate?

Brynn: "I don’t think sex can be encouraged any more than it already is in the movie and TV shows that basically just focus on sex. I watch my peers and there are some people who hold off because that’s what they believe in and they want to wait. But the growing majority of people want to have sex and they’re interested in it. That’s just something that I think we need to deal with, rather than just blinding ourselves and saying, ‘OK, let’s just teach abstinence,’ because the feelings are still going to be there. It’s the truth that if you just teach about abstinence people are still going to have sex. They’re going to have no idea what they’re doing then. I think it’s a lot better to have sex education, expose kids and have them be able to use birth control and condoms, to know that there is abortion, to know that there are people out there that you can call, that people understand that other people go through this. Because you can’t have young children thinking that these feelings they’re having are not natural."

Chris: "Ideally you wish that if the abstinence message was there it would work, but it doesn’t. I think sex is going to be out there, the kids are going to be having it, so you might as well be teaching them about how to have safe sex."

Does the abstinence message get through to you?

Bianca: "I wouldn’t buy abstinence. I don’t think any teen would buy abstinence, and if they do it’s like acting like an ostrich. They duck down their head because they’re scared. That’s being ignorant."

Chris: "As far as the study finding that Latino girls have more babies, I don’t know how to feel about that. I feel conflicted because I guess I kind of take offense to it, as if the study’s saying it’s my people’s fault. On the other hand I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true because, I’m not a particularly religious person, I hate going to church. So that part of the issue I don’t have anything to go with. But the other part of it, that people are more loving, yeah, I guess we go baby crazy. They’re so cute, this and that. Even my uncle when my cousin was pregnant, he was mad as hell. He was really uncomfortable with it. But now he’s the one that the baby follows the most. He’s closest with the baby."

You’re saying that the Latino community tends to be more supportive of babies being born?

Chris: "Yeah, it’s the miracle of life, babies. The family will be mad that the girl has been pregnant, but once the baby is born, it’s not the baby’s fault."

Do you agree with the study that as the Latino population grows, teen motherhood will grow?

Bianca: "Yeah, because abortion is not even considered. It doesn’t even cross their mind. That’s just not allowed to be considered at all because of religious reasons. Anybody can have a baby, but not everybody can have an education."

What are your attitudes toward sex?

Chris: "Ideally, abstinence is what you would strive for but I don’t think it’s a reality. It’s something that if someday [having sex] were to happen, I think it’d be great. Maybe not [waiting until] marriage but with somebody that you love. Because sex can be something that’s physical but I think it’s so much more than just the physical part of it. Because of the physical aspect, people can’t fight the urge to wait out and whatnot."

Bianca: "I believe that if a student is going to become sexually active, they have to be well informed. Not just about the physical and the STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and what your body goes through, but also the emotional part. For some reason, some teenagers take it like it was a joke, but there’s a lot of responsibility that can come from having sex."

Brynn: "I see sex as a big commitment. I see the physical aspect and the emotional or spiritual. I personally would like to wait for someone that means something to me. I don’t know how long that will be. STDs and stuff, they’re scary and they’re out there and that’s serious, and you wonder how to deal with that. I realize that if I decide to have sex with someone that means something to me, that I should be able to trust them and ask them if I want, ‘We need to go take blood tests together, we need to be tested because you might have something that neither one of us are aware of.’ I would hope that if I could hold out for whoever, that we could trust each other like that."

Chris, what are your friends’ attitudes toward sex?

Chris: "I guess a lot of us are horny or whatever. I get the feeling that a lot of them aren’t going to wait. But I think it’s just one of those things growing up. It’s an urge that you kind of have to fight. I don’t think any of [my friends] are getting laid. If the opportunity came up, I don’t think they’d pass that up."

Are attitudes different between young women and young men?

Brynn: "From my experience, no. It seems all of a sudden a lot of people are having sex and the people that aren’t are nervous because they want to jump on the bandwagon. It’s funny because people think women don’t have as much sexual drive and I completely disagree with that. I think that just in this culture we’ve been told not to express it as much. But my friends are very open with it. A lot of them already are [having sex] and the ones that aren’t are waiting for any opportunity to do it. Which kind of scares me, especially because being a female you have to worry about a lot more than just having sex and leaving and the STDs and stuff, which is huge, but you also have to worry about the pregnancy aspect and being left with a child by yourself. But I still see most of my friends wanting to do it now."

Bianca: "I have some friends who are already sexually active and some of them who aren’t. The interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that there are more virgin guys than virgin girls. It’s so funny because guys are the ones who are always talking about it the most and showing off if they are sexually active. I don’t think people should feel the pressure of having to have sex if they’re not ready."

What role do you think your parents play in all this?

Brynn: "In terms of educating me for sex, I think that they should play a really big role. Sex is something that we’re inundated with every day, images everywhere, yet it’s still kind of a taboo subject when it comes to the younger kids talking to their parents about it. I’ve never really had my parents come in and be like, ‘We need to talk’ and sit down with me. We have so many questions and we’re just waiting for someone to talk to us, and I think parents need to do that a lot more than they are."

Chris: "My parents have tried to start conversations about it before in the past. I just cover my ears. I don’t feel comfortable talking to them about it. I’ll blame it on society, that they don’t start teaching you about it when you’re younger. Had they started to talk to me about it when I was much younger, I’d be more accepting to let them talk to me about it. But it’s just really embarrassing when they start to talk about something like that."

Bianca: "I believe that parents play the biggest role when it comes to sex ed. Parents need to be honest too and treat us like adults when it comes to sex ed because it’s something very serious. It’s true that this is very hard to talk about, especially I’ve noticed with Latinos. I believe that it should start little by little. They shouldn’t want to give you all this information in one night."