Being a teenager nowadays is completely different than when I was making my way through my golden years (only 10 years ago). Our teens are facing sexual challenges and peer situations earlier and earlier in life. And, if we want to reach them, then we have to let go of our prejudices against them and set the lack of understanding aside. Too often, I hear older adults write off the teenage crowd with statements like “These young people are out of control,” or “We can’t help them because they just don’t want to listen.”
But, here’s the thing. Check out these statistics.
• In 2006, 34% of new HIV infections were reported in people between the ages of 13-29.
• Among US high school students, 38% of sexually active students did not use a condom the last time that they had sex (including 31% of freshmen and 46% of seniors)
• In 2006, teen girls represented 39% of AIDS cased reported among 13-19 year olds. Black teens represented 69% of cases reported among 13-19 year olds; Latino teens represented 19%.
Essentially, NONE of us can afford to dismiss this population solely because we don’t know what to say or how to say it. Recently, I attended a townhall meeting discussing “Barriers to HIV Treatment.” During the discussion, a gentleman, who works with teenage girls between the ages of 14-19, talked about his challenges with the girls. Some of the girls continually are infected with STDs, while others are involved with prostitution and low self-esteem. After he told us about a 14-yr old who was just diagnosed with HIV, he asked the room what could be done to reach out and save our young girls.
A woman responded, “We have to do a better job of understanding what they are going through.” Then, the discussion moved on to the Black gay male community, politics, and funding. As we jumped to the next topic, I remember feeling a little frustrated. Our kids are being gravely affected by a preventable disease, and THAT was all the discussion to be had? Suddenly, I had my own little thought. A thought that kind of disturbed me.
I wondered, “Have people written off our youth entirely?” Hard-headed or not, our young people do NOT deserve HIV. In fact, no one does.
There’s much to be said about the generational gap. We hear it in discussions from the pulpit to the beauty shop. Young people this, hip-hop that. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I get a little lost listening to 13 year-olds talk about “giving head” or “trying to steal her man,” but I’m also willing to admit that I just need to try harder when I talk to these young ladies. Preaching and being condescending will not move this show along. The cat is already out of the bag. Some of our youth are already practicing these behaviors, and if they aren’t personally, then they know someone who is.
The time for education and real talk is NOW. To my older adults, if you don’t know what to say or how to say it, then you need to find somebody who does. Period. Losing a young life is one of the greatest pains of society. And, losing a young life to a preventable disease like AIDS is even harder to swallow. Our young people deserve education, support, and honest conversation. What they do not deserve is AIDS.
Statistics: “HIV Testing and Adolescents.” Last Updated February 2009.