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Olson Reacts to Recent Study

Ginny Olson

CHICAGO, IL (March 13, 2008) – The results of a study that found one in four teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted infection is only mildly surprising and serves as a wake-up call to churches, says Ginny Olson, co-director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies at North Park University and the author of Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them.

"I'm surprised but not real surprised," says Olson. "We've been heading in this direction for some time."

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study released Monday found that an estimated 3.2 million girls in the United States between the ages of 14 and 19—about 26 percent of that age group—is infected with at least one of the most common STDs: human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, herpes simplex virus, and trichomoniasis.

According to the CDC, the infections could prove dangerous to the girls as they get older, leading to health issues that include cervical cancer, infertility, and pelvic inflammatory disease. The diseases also can affect unborn children. Chlamydia, for example, is the leading cause of infant pneumonia and conjunctivitis (pink eye). For more information on each of the diseases, visit the CDC web site.

Olson says the problem is frequent among teens who attend church as well as those who do not. Churches and parents will have to broaden their approach to dealing with sexual issues and discuss them more frequently to keep teens safe.

When the church talks about sex, it must talk about more than just the moral implications or the dangers of getting pregnant, Olson explains, adding, "We need to be broadening our definition of sex, which is different from our teenagers’ definition."

Olson notes studies have frequently shown that many teens do not consider oral sex to be sex. "There's not the sense that they've crossed any boundaries,” Olson says. "It's not at that level."

The practice has become so prevalent, teens often view the practice as "first" or "second base," Olson says. Teens don't realize STDs can be contracted through oral sex, she adds.

Parents also must talk with their children about sex "early and often," says Olson. "One conversation is not enough. It's got to take place at different times."

Olson says she understands that parents often feel uncomfortable discussing sex with teens. She suggests that parents consider talking with their daughters about how the girls can help keep a friend from engaging in sexual activity. "That makes it easier to discuss." Churches also can connect reluctant parents with parents who are able to discuss the issues easily with their children in order to learn ways of communicating with teens.

When teens do contract an STD, churches can lead in offering grace, Olson says. "Girls can feel like they're condemned for life, that they can never be forgiven. That's just not true."

Olson is concerned that the study focuses only on girls. "Yet again, we're making the girls out to be the 'bad ones,'" she says. "Where are the boys? The girls are getting these from somewhere."

(SF)