Denmark, South Carolina — a small town with a population of just over 3,500 — used to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. But over the past three decades, the rural and largely impoverished community has successfully reduced its teen pregnancy rate by more than two thirds. In a new profile of the town’s local initiatives to promote safe sex, NPR suggests that the rest of the United States has a few things to learn from Denmark.
So what is Denmark doing right? The town is employing a few common sense strategies to make sure teens have the tools they need to have healthy sexual relationships:
1. Teach kids comprehensive sex ed.
At the most basic level, kids need to receive sexual health instruction in order to make healthy choices about their physical relationships. Every student in Denmark now gets comprehensive sex ed beginning in middle school. In addition to classes, students can seek out individual counseling sessions. The curriculum covers self-esteem, setting sexual boundaries, and how to effectively use contraception.
2. Target messages at teen boys, not just at the girls.
Michelle Nimmons, who leads the comprehensive sex ed program, told NPR that Denmark’s approach recognizes that teen pregnancy is not just an issue for teen girls. That’s in sharp contrast to many teen pregnancy prevention campaigns in the U.S., which sometimes focus on blaming girls for their bad choices without putting equal weight on boys’ responsibility. “We have sessions where young men and young ladies are there talking together and learning the curriculum together, because it’s important for them to have those conversations,” Nimmons noted.
3. Get the whole community involved.
Denmark’s program is both school-based and community-based. In addition to making sure students attend sex ed classes, Nimmons also partners with local beauty shops, laundromats, barber shops, and churches to spread the word about safe sex. There’s information about birth control and pregnancy everywhere. “We try to involve everyone — the churches, the schools, the businesses, the parents… so that everyone is sending the same messages to the kids,” she explained in a blog post highlighting her work on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ website.
4. Make condoms widely available.
Since South Carolina’s public schools can’t pass out condoms, the Denmark community has found other ways to make birth control widely available to teens. Local business set out bowls of free condoms. Barbers hand out condoms to their young customers, telling them they need to use them to prevent both babies and AIDS. This policy has backing from medical professionals. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the nation’s largest group of doctors for children and teens, advocates for making condoms as readily accessible to teens as possible.
5. Encourage mentoring.
The older teens in Denmark are encouraged to serve as mentors to their younger peers, particularly since not every adult in the community is comfortable broaching the issue of sexuality at home. Students have the opportunity to meet together in smaller, one-hour focus groups to talk through topics related to teen sexuality and healthy relationships, and some are specifically trained to act as peer educators. Hearing messages about safe sex from peers is often more impactful than hearing it from adults.