Emory Report

February 28, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 23

Sterk studies habits of Rockdale's children

By Paul Thacker

When Claire Sterk heard the news about Rockdale County, she was assisting the Georgia Department of Public Health to integrate Fulton and DeKalb counties' sexually transmitted disease, HIV and tuberculosis programs. A nurse from Conyers, Ga., had contacted state Health Director Kathleen Toomey to report an outbreak of syphilis among high school females.

Sterk, associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education in the School of Public Health, was intrigued by certain aspects of the outbreak. "The main reason why the outbreak got attention is that there were 15 young, white middle-class women with syphilis," she said. "If you look at all the statistics and map out where syphilis is an issue, it tends to be in inner-city neighborhoods where most residents are poor and of color-like Atlanta-[and] primarily African-American."

Sterk interviewed some of the girls in hopes of uncovering their stories. What she discovered was later shown in the PBS special, "The Lost Child-ren of Rockdale."

Sterk constructed a chart of the girls' peer groups, both to track the transmission of the disease and to find the initial source that infected the group with syphilis. However, the girls' sexual behavior later overshadowed the research; a small number of them had sexual histories that included 50, 70 or even 100 partners, as well as a wide variety of sexual practices, including group sex.

After initially being diagnosed with syphilis, some of the girls acted as if the sex had been something they had not wanted. Later interviews revealed that they were not as passive as they had claimed, nor did they appear to have as much control over the situation as they had wished.

The girls explained that they were merely responding to peer pressures. They felt a need to rebel against parental control.

"So here you had a group of adolescents who had started doing something, which could have been smoking pot or drinking beer, but for them it was sex," Sterk said. "And they all felt pushed to go along because of the group pressure. But, as individuals, that's not really what they wanted to do--they didn't have the power or the skills to speak up.

"We give adolescents very mixed messages," she continued. "On one hand, we tell them, 'You have the responsibilities of an adult, but you have the rights of a child.' That's a pretty tough place to be in, because when it comes down to the rights, you have none, and when it comes down to the responsibilities, you have it all. That sets adolescents up to revolt to challenge the rules of the adults."

The fact that Rockdale's teens chose sex as their tool for rebellion is not that bizarre when the behavior is placed in context. Drugs and alcohol aren't always easy to obtain; however, sexuality is something the teens carry with them.

Still, people who watched the PBS special and a recent Oprah show highlighting the study were shocked. So what led to this sort of behavior, and what can parents do to stop it from happening with their kids?

"If there was one common element, it wasn't being a single parent because some [kids] had both parents and some had older siblings as role models," Sterk said. "The one common element was that the parents all wanted the best for their kid--the best often meaning material stuff. Many worked long hours and emphasized the 'stuff' they could afford to give their kids--a TV, an audio system. But what the alienated and struggling kids wanted was attention, somebody to relate to, somebody who can step in and provide guidance."

Perhaps the most troubling issue about the incident remains the question of how many "Rockdale Counties" there are across the country. With disconnected suburbs as the neighborhood of choice for raising children, Conyers is probably not unique.

"The only reason this got the attention of the adults is because of the syphilis outbreak," Sterk said, pointing out that it just as easily could have been HIV instead of syphilis. "Part of me wants to say that the [incident] was extreme, but honestly, I have to acknowledge that I don't really know that."

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