My youngest son has a senior year project to write a research paper and a persuasive essay on a chosen subject. He has picked as his subject sex education in the schools, and this last weekend I went with him to the library to help him pick out some source material on this subject. Naturally, being me, I started reading some of this material, and what I gleaned from this is not pretty:
1. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of teen-aged pregnancy and STD infections of any developed country in the world, ten times higher than that of the Netherlands.
2. A huge amount of money is being funneled into ‘abstinence only’ programs, Mr. Bush’s pet favorite. But study after study has shown that this type of program does not work. Teens subjected to such programs have the same pregnancy rate as those in other types of programs, and at least some studies have shown that they have higher rates of STD infections (not too surprising, as the whole concept of ‘safe sex’ is never even introduced).
3. Retention of information presented in these classes is ridiculously low, with some 40+ percent of students, after attending a ‘comprehensive’ sex ed class that covers STDs and all forms of contraception, still do not know what HIV is or how it can be contracted.
4. A great many teens do not class oral and anal sex in the category of ‘having sex’. They will still consider themselves virgins even if they engage in such activities.
5. A great many parents still object to having any form of sex ed in the schools. These are probably the same parents who wouldn’t let their little Johnny or Jane cross the street unattended, as such activity is obviously too dangerous. But they will blissfully let their children proceed into one of the most turbulent periods of their lives without access to information that can warn them of the dangers of the activities that their hormones are urging them towards.
6. Few programs cover homosexual activities. Many don’t even mention it, and those teens who may be so sexually inclined are still left feeling like they are pariahs.
7. Even in the best and most comprehensive programs, there is far too little emphasis on the social aspects of sex: how to form and maintain relationships, how to resist peer pressure, what morality can or should attach to this activity, what the benefits and problems of marriage are, what the economic and career cost is for having children early.
Study after study has shown that to be effective, sex education must:
1. Start early. This means at least some information presented as early as 4th grade. Parents may not want to believe this, but kids can become sexually active this early, and a great many will be by age twelve.
2. Be a continuous input. A single class doesn’t cut it; the child needs to be exposed to the information multiple times.
3. Have input from multiple sources. This means that just because the school has a class in sex ed, you, the parent, are not off the hook. There needs to be a steady dialogue between parent and child on this subject, not necessarily any long discussions, but a free interaction that gives answers to the child’s questions as they occur (and they will certainly have questions).
4. Sex ed classes must be both frank and complete. All aspects of this part of human life need to covered. Risks, benefits, cultural viewpoints, basic biology, relationships (‘love’ as well as ‘sex’), gender roles, etc.
For those parents who violently object to having their child instructed in such matters by the school, they have the option of instructing their children themselves (most schools now allow the parents to keep their children out of such classes). Unhappily, far too many do a poor or no job at all in this area. But it is their prerogative in this country.
For the rest, let’s admit that ‘abstinence only’ programs are not worth the money being fed into them, and use that money to fund better, more comprehensive programs. And perhaps we can cut down on that teen pregnancy rate.