For years, parents asked Danielle Howa Pendergrass to give their kids “the talk.” They worried that all the sex education bases weren’t covered in their kid’s classroom and didn’t know how to start the conversation themselves. Howa Pendergrass, a nurse practitioner who owns and runs a women’s health clinic in eastern Utah, would have one-on-one discussions with teenagers until she hatched an idea for a broader approach.
In late 2020 she launched a sex education program called Eastern Utah Teen Council out of her clinic to fill in knowledge gaps for local teens. Howa Pendergrass said, “I would never have thought of going into a community to start a program that no-one wanted.” “It was listening, hearing, and seeing the problems that arise when people aren’t talking, and that’s why I started something like this.”
Together with the program’s facilitator Tomi Lasley, she is trying to empower adolescents with accurate and inclusive information about sex and healthy relationships. Howa Pendergrass believes that this community-driven approach has provided a lifeline to teens who are otherwise kept in the dark about topics such as consent that are not covered in the state’s health curriculum, which stresses abstinence.
Utah’s teens seem to be in dire need of this lifeline. Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that occurs at a higher rate than the national average, based on the state’s Indicator-Based Information System for Public Health. Still, the state’s lawmakers have voted against updating its sex education curriculum to include more information about sexual assault resources and prevention strategies for the past two years in a row.
While practicing abstinence is theoretically an effective method to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy among consensual partners, abstinence education does not prepare teens to make informed decisions about their sexual health, researchers argue in a review paper published by the Journal of Adolescent Health. Utahans may soon have their options limited in the case of unplanned pregnancies. The state has a so-called trigger law in place that would ban nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
While debates about sex education and reproductive healthcare continue across the country, Howa Perdergrass hopes that her program will one day be obsolete due to a better permanent solution. “The whole idea behind Teen Council is to continue and support them until they are no longer needed–until they’ve made the bigger and more permanent changes to ensure that they get the education in schools,” she said.
This story was co-published with the Salt L