Planned Parenthood Forum will talk about how parents can counter widespread sexual images
By RICK CLEMENSON, Staff writer
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First published: Friday, March 16, 2007
ALBANY -- Amanda Stahl is on the front lines of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood's sex education effort, so she's used to handling delicate issues.
But the health counselor was taken aback when a 13-year-old girl in her Teen Choices class said of the media's conflicting messages on sex, "They expect me to eat McDonald's during the day and look like Beyonce at night."
Those types of questions prompted Stahl to participate in UHPP's inaugural Media Literacy Forum on May 7 for parents, teachers and youth serving professionals. Call 434-5678, Ext. 137 for the location of the event, which has not been decided.
Kathleen Crowley, a psychology professor at The College of Saint Rose, and Mark Avnet, assistant professor of communications at Sage Colleges, are expert panelists.
Stahl is a Planned Parenthood soldier in the information war being waged by mass media and an underrepresented army of parents and sex educators.
Advertisers tell girls -- and boys, too, these days -- they can dress, act and smell sexier with their products, said Crowley, who teaches child psychology, gender development and parenting courses at St. Rose and is the mother of two boys Sam Long, 17 and Jake Long, 10.
"There is no doubt there is more sex in the media. More now than ever," she said.
Panelists believe a sexed up media and lack of proper sexual education in schools are party to blame for high teen pregnancy rates, sexually transmitted diseases and abortions. They are also concerned about what they see as an increase in violent messages toward women.
"The media is establishing what the norm is and what's acceptable behavior," said Blue Carreker, a UHPP spokeswoman who helped organize the forum and various workshops on topics like fashion and image and youth surfing the Internet. "I hate this passive absorbing of messages."
Panelists want parents to temper the racier culture with good, sound advice given in small doses beginning at an early age and continuing into adulthood.
One way parents can do that, they said, is by learning ways to talk to their children about the messages they see in the media. Rob Curry, UHPP senior vice president, encourages parents to explore the Internet with their children.
Children are increasingly turning to the Internet to supplement the sex education they receive in school and at home, Curry said. He believes while the Internet can be a great resource it can also open children up to society's underbelly.
The largest group of Internet porn viewers in 2005 were children ages 12-17, according to Family Safe Media, a company that helps parents filter Internet content.
Many parents might think talking to their six- or seven-year-old about sex is premature. Not so, Crowley said. She noted one high profile clothing retailer with a store at Crossgates Mall is selling thongs for 5-year-old girls with the word "sexy" on the tag.
Stahl said as many as 30 percent of sixth-grade girls in her Teen Choices classes are on a diet.
Girls are learning to dress sexier at an earlier age and boys are coming to expect that of them, Crowley said.
"Kids now have been absorbing these messages their whole life, so you can't start talking to them about sex when their 15," she said. "By then it's too late."
Carreker added, "You're not going to deliver a lecture and hope to change things overnight."
Stahl is the coordinator of Teen Choices, a self-esteem pregnancy prevention program she leads in four Albany middle schools. All 30 of her students said they wished their parents would talk to them about sex more often.
More than a third of students in one of Crowley's college classes never had "The Talk" with their parents.
Although sexually provocative images abound -- on TV, in magazines, on the Internet, at the movies, on the side of buses, etc. -- many parents are still hesitant to talk about sex.
Get over it, panelists said.
The mass media isn't going to relinquish their clutches on the hearts and minds of America's youth anytime soon, so it's up to parents to help their children separate fact from fiction, the women said.
Parents can try to block their children from going on to explicit Web sites or watching certain TV shows and movies, but the panelists believe parents play a key in using media as a useful sex education tool. "Talk to your kids even if they don't seem to accept it," Crowley said. "Tell them to think, then choose."
Clemenson can be reached at 454-5030 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.