Q&A: Dr. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, Educator and HIV Expert

Dr. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, Ph.D. John B. Jemmott III, Ph.D., and his wife, Loretta Sweet Jemmott, Ph.D., both professors at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), wouldn't in a million years call themselves media darlings. But that's what they felt like in February when their new study was released. The Jemmotts' research showed for the first time that an abstinence-only education program helped delay sexual initiation in middle school kids more than other kinds of sex education did. Quick as a finger snap, their phones blew up with calls from The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe, CNN and NBC.

Weirder for the couple, who have been studying sex education and related issues for more than 20 years, their study became a lightning rod for political controversy. Right-leaning organizations, whose beliefs the Jemmotts do not share, hailed it as a victory for the abstinence-only sex-education programs that the George W. Bush administration forced into schools and communities. Activist group Abstinence Clearinghouse proclaimed that the study proved "comprehensive sex ed a big flop."

The Jemmotts have been careful not to get sucked into the political fray. In their study, which appeared in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 662 sixth- and seventh-graders in Philadelphia who attended abstinence-only classes were less likely to become sexually active than their peers who went to sessions emphasizing condom use exclusively or to classes combining lessons on abstinence and condoms. Unlike Bush-era abstinence education, however, the program that the Jemmotts created for their research sidestepped judgmental hectoring -- which kids tune out anyway -- and didn't depict sex outside of marriage as wrong.

The Jemmotts' study hasn't ended the back-and-forth over how best to help teens and tweens avoid sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and how to keep girls in this age group from getting pregnant. But in the midst of the firestorm, adults need to know what to say to the young people in their lives to keep them safe and healthy -- beyond "just say no." We asked Dr. Loretta Jemmott, 54 -- director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at Penn and the mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 13 -- for advice:

Please explain how the abstinence-only program you used in your study is different from the ones that George W. Bush advocated during his terms.
Those programs tell kids that they should be abstinent until marriage -- which feels like a moralistic put-down if you want to have sex. We didn't say anything about marriage at all. What 12- or 13-year-old is thinking about marriage anyway?

So what did you say?
In the beginning stages, it was more about listening than talking. After years and years of this, we've learned that our interventions work because we take the time to listen to the voices of children and also to meet with their parents, teachers and counselors. You can't design a good study sitting in your office in Penn. We needed to hear what kids this age were thinking and feeling. What were their hopes and dreams and goals, their worries and stresses? So we spent a lot of time hanging out with kids this age even before we got started.

In your study, did you tell kids not to have sex?
We let them figure it out. We had very targeted discussions. We talked to the kids -- and let them talk -- about stuff like, why are you having sex? What would your parents say if they knew? Close your eyes and think about what you'd like to do in the next five years. How would a baby or an STD change your plans? The kids came to their own conclusions about their own lives, instead of us telling them, "Don't do this, don't do that."

As school systems try to figure out the best ways to teach sex ed, it's up to parents to do the work. What are we doing wrong?
Not having the conversations at all.

True. What else?
Not sitting down and listening to kids is the biggest problem. Then too many parents ask door-closing questions, like "Do you have a boyfriend?" One word -- yes or no -- and the conversation is over. Instead, you get a dialogue going by asking a question that opens the door for the child to explain, like, "Tell me about the boys in school. Who likes you?" See the difference? ">

What are some of the door openers you have with your own daughters about sex?
In general, I try to be a friend to my daughters. I want my kids to understand that, yes, I'm your mommy and I'm gonna be in your stuff, but I also want to be your BFF [best friend forever], someone who's in your life forever, and who you can always talk to. I might say something like, "I just read that girls your ages are having sex. Do you think that's going on with girls in your group? I'm just trying to understand what makes girls your age have sex early -- why do you think?" That gets a dialogue going.

Any other advice?
Along with the information and discussions, give them the specific skills that they need to abstain. There's a lot of peer pressure at these ages. So teach them how to say no without losing someone's friendship. Try some role-playing to teach kids how to negotiate.

What are your personal feelings about abstinence?
I'm just trying to get my daughters to wait. My message, and the message of the program is, take your time. You've got goals and dreams; focus on them, not on sex.

As for HIV specifically, what should parents say to kids?
The clearer you are, the better you are. It's best to provide kids with the facts. But first you have to make sure you know the facts. There hasn't been a big educational push to teach adults about HIV prevention, so sometimes kids know more than their parents because they've learned about it in school or from their friends.

So once the parent gets up to speed…
Explain what it is, without being too scientific, and how it gets into your body: through body fluids. But remember that knowledge alone doesn't change behavior -- otherwise everybody would always wear a seat belt. So once you've provided that framework, let your kids know that their job is not to let the virus get into their bodies. That's when you can then move naturally into the discussion about sex and abstinence.

Journalist Linda Villarosa is the co-author of Finding Our Way: The Teen Girls' Survival Guide and a number of other books.