They were arranged in a circle on fold-out plastic chairs in the old Bunnell City Hall, 22 teens, most of them girls between 13 and 17, five of them wearing shirts that displayed the “Red Butterfly Project” logo. Those five girls for the next 100 minutes would lead the others in an educational discussion of sex—the sex organs, sexual acts, sexually transmitted diseases, sex’s place in relationships, and above all, the place of self-respect, self-awareness and clear knowledge’s place in any relationship.
That discussion at the old Bunnell City Hall on July 22 was more frank than anything you’d hear in Flagler County schools, and more frank and directly informative than anything you’d hear or see in mainstream media, for that matter. At one point one of the teens dropped the word “vajayjay,” the euphemism Oprah Winfrey coined to refer to the vagina, which prompted Leah Coughlin, an HIV/AIDS prevention and training consultant with the Volusia County Health Department, who was there to provide information if and when the teens needed it, to jump in and say: “No vajayjay. Everybody who leaves here needs to call a vagina a vagina.”
Point taken. From there on, a penis was a penis, a vagina was a vagina, just as lesions, genital warts, herpes and HIV were spelled out, explained, described and warned of against all masks of romance and forever-love they prey under.
The Red Butterfly Project is a local outreach movement, developed through the non-profit Focus on Flagler Youth Coalition, led by teens, for teens. Its goals: Prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, especially among young women of color, and reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy. Girls involved in the project go to public parks and beaches, speak with teens and distribute condoms. The subject matter is beyond blushing and giggling and beyond moral or prudish judgments. It’s beyond merely the talking stage, too, because Flagler County, like the rest of the country, is part of an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and premature pregnancies that are ravaging a generation, and that a decade of abstinence-only education has done little to improve.
The Red Butterfly Project is at the heart of a community forum this evening, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., at the Government Services Building (3rd floor), in Bunnell, where teens and their parents have gathered to talk about some of the same issues the group discussed at the Bunnell City Hall. It was likely the first time that a live demonstration of the right and wrong way to put on a condom (with a real condom but a wooden penis), including a female condom, was conducted in front of a large audience inside the youngish walls of the government building.
It is all part of a new trend in Flagler County, where even the school district is hoping to steer away from abstinence-only education and try something more effective. At a workshop earlier this summer, the school board agreed to set up a series of town hall meetings, one at each middle and high school, to gauge public support for renewed attention to health and sex education in schools, which has all but vanished, in order to better counter the spread of STDs, including HIV/AIDS, and the incidence of teen pregnancies.
There used to be a stand-alone health course that middle school students were taking and that was a required half-credit course in high school. No longer. The most “health” education students get is in PE. And calling what they do get “health” stretches the definition of the word. It’s more about nutrition and changing body shapes than about sex.
Board members were told that of 587 teenagers counseled by the health department in one recent stretch, 96 were either pregnant or were seeking to get pregnant, including one under 15 and 28 under 18.
“I don’t know why it’s fashionable to be young and pregnant,” was board member Colleen Conklin’s response to that.
“A lot of different reasons,” Board Chairman Evie Shellenberger said.
“We had a trend at one time that the guys were trying to see how many they could have pregnant at the same time,” Sue Dickinson remembered.
“Oh, yeah. That’s when we were both at FPC,” Shellenberger said. She and Dickinson in the 1990s, before they were board members, worked at the high school, Dickinson as a nurse, Shellenberger as the activities director. “One of them,” Dickinson continued, “got to six. We had six girls pregnant at the same time.”
Little has changed for the better. The advice from health professionals and Katrina Townsend, the district’s student services director: “If we really need to focus anywhere specifically, we need to focus on the middle school curriculum.”
“What this shows,” Superintendent Janet Valentine said, “is that if this board so directs, curriculum and the principals can get together with student services and decide how we want this taught, when, where, by whom. That’s what really needs to be done if we’re going to move into a program the way of doing this, because there’s been so many changes over the last, probably 10 years, in terms of what’s required at both the middle schools and the high schools, it’s probably gotten lost in the mix.” The two men on the board, incidentally—Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker—were silent for most of the workshop on the matter.
The irony of the school board’s discussion is the distance it revealed between what the district is doing in matters of sex education in its schools (which is to say, little to nothing) and what teenagers themselves, through the Red Butterfly Project, have been doing beyond schoolhouse walls.
By the time they were done, the teens had heard lessons in the ease and rapidity of sexually transmitted diseases. They’d heard the details of what’s involved—the symptoms, the pains, the incurability—of a range of diseases that, among them HIV/AIDS, are on the increase in Flagler County. They’d not only been told about condoms and how to put them on safely, but been shown, with two anatomically correct wooden penises (no euphemistic objects used, either) how to put them on and taken off. They were also shown how to handle a female condom, though without anatomically correct applications for that one. The girls were reminded that for all the promises of forever love, they’d be the ones left with a child every time, not the boy, “and if he’s working at McDonald’s,” Chantell Waters told them, “please don’t think you’re going to get a fat child-support check.”
Waters is the executive director of the Focus on Flagler Youth Coalition, the non-profit, independent agency that, because it’s not funded by the school district or controlled by its policies, can do what the district has, until now anyway, refused to do: provide sexual education to teens that lives up to its name, and that gives teens alternatives. Waters is also a former teen mother who spoke from experience as she and Coughlin reiterated the afternoon’s key massage: Having a baby is the easy part. Keeping one’s eye on the prize—on getting an education, moving to greater things, getting a career—is worth the moment it takes to think before engaging in sex, to discuss it, to consider the consequences, and always to take precautions.
“So keep those goals and those dreams in mind when you’re in the bedroom,” Coughlin told the group, reminding them of their future, “because if you do, that’s where you can go next, and a baby, an STD can put a stop to all that.”