In most cities, even cities with good health clinics available to women, few facilities reach out to teen girls. For the last three decades, a small but effective program in Chicago has been helping girls obtain birth control safely and privately. In the process, the Medical Unit has offered thousands of girls a rare opportunity to discuss and understand their own sexuality.
Amazingly, Jewish girls make up nearly half the clientele of this unit, which is located across the street from a Solomon Schechter Jewish day school and is under the umbrella of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago. A project of a center for adolescents called the Response Center, the “Med Unit” offers girls counseling, contraception, medical treatment and unusually explicit group chat sessions. For a yearly fee of $60, all of it is given confidentially by a team devoted to the idea that “teenagers who choose to be sexually active should be considered in the larger context of their psychological health, self-esteem and goals.”
There is a waiting list to join the program, which currently serves 77 young women. What makes it so appealing? Commitment. The young women who join, aged 13 to 23, make a one-year pledge to get all their gynecological care and birth control from the team. An opening group “rap” session sets the tone with frank discussions and practice putting a condom on a wooden penis. The girls may giggle, but they do it anyway. Girls are rarely virgins when they arrive, and generally come for birth control. If they go on the pill, they are initially required to come in monthly to pick up their packs of medication so members of the Med Unit can make sure they are using it properly. And every single time they come in for a medical reason, they are required to check in with a social worker as well.
“Their relationships are so turbulent,” says Mona Dugo, a social worker who coordinates the program, explaining the importance of these meetings. “A lot of girls don’t feel good about themselves unless they have a boyfriend. [Many] are so needy that they find themselves clinging to guys who are not so good to them.”
From a purely sexual point of view, Dugo believes there are “a lot of teenage girls who have sex but don’t get a lot out if it,” in part, she says, laughing, “because their partners are teenage boys.” In meetings, members of the team talk openly about girls’ bodies, lubricants, arousal and pain. Then the girls often open up. “They say, ‘Yeah, yeah, it does kind of hurt,'” Dugo says.
Jewish girls, Dugo reflects, seem to hide their sexual activity more from their families and seem to be “more giggly.” Some come from a local Orthodox school, and the members of the Med Unit team make sure to talk with them about their families’ condemnation of their sexual activities.
To contact the Response Center: (847) 676-0078.