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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What We Teach When We Teach About Sex

I have a foolproof way of getting out of boring party conversations. This method either reinvigorates the conversation, or brings it to a mercifully swift end. The only requirement for this ploy is that the person with whom I'm talking has to be the parent of a student at a public secondary school.

My secret is simple: I ask how they feel about the school's approach to sex education. At that point, there may be a lot of sputtering or muttering. Or there may be a sudden passionate advocacy for -- or against -- how the school is treating what may be education's touchiest subject.

Occasionally, the question sends my conversation partner rushing for the canapés, and I'm free to seek out someone who wants to talk about motorcycle racing (as if!) or something safe, like politics or religion.

Risky Business

Sex education has been on my mind lately because of certain provisions for funding more or less buried in the minutia of the health care bills coming out of Congress. According to a report in EdWeek, the House of Representatives bill eliminates all funding for what's known as abstinence-only sex education -- a move favored by the Obama administration.

The House provides $50 million for more comprehensive programs. While these may entail helpful if not entirely convincing suggestions that saying no and meaning it may -- more than diamonds -- be a teenage girl's best friend, there's also teaching about the full range of contraception methods. (And never mind that some of the demonstrations with condoms will elicit rolled eyes and barely stifled giggles.)

The Senate bill is another story entirely, however. It authorizes $50 million to fund abstinence programs along with $75 million for more inclusive programs. I don't know, frankly, whether this provision to continue the "Just Say No" approach that is a vestige of the Bush/Cheney years was pushed by the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, or may have been an attempt to convince a few Republican senators to break ranks and vote for the bill.

Either way, the Senate version perpetuates one of the silliest education policies in recent times. When hearing politicians and pastors promote abstinence as the only sex education young people need, I wonder how they've managed so completely to forget their own teenage years. As good old Fred Rogers might have asked them, "Can you spell hormones?"

Reality Rules

I hit my teen years in the pre-Pill days (please don't do the math), and when I was in a public high school in suburban New Jersey, the proper young women of our proper old town were deeply afraid of getting pregnant -- and rightly so.

Teenage unwed girls who got pregnant were stigmatized. The social disaster couldn't be waved off casually, as Sarah Palin -- a strong advocate of abstinence-only sex education -- did during her vice presidential campaign when her 16-year-old daughter's pregnancy was revealed.

In my day, there were no special provisions for pregnant girls to continue attending school, no motherhood classes for teenagers, and only illegal, dangerous, back-alley solutions to ending pregnancies. The fear of being socially ostracized was a powerful defender of virginity -- but not all powerful. We boys spent much of our considerable energy trying to get our girlfriends to abstain from abstinence -- measuring our progress in the smallest of increments over the longest periods of time.

Though mistakes were rare, a few unlucky girls in my class of 300 or so did get pregnant. They left school and were not seen in cap and gown on graduation day. And this even in a time incalculably less openly sexual and erotically charged than our society is today.

Back then, we didn't have a lot of sex education; our parents were often reluctant to have the Talk, and at my school the boys were instructed cursorily by the football coach on the dangers of what our Mr. Freeman called "messing around."

I suppose we were pointlessly schooled in something that resembled abstinence-only principles, but the stony stoicism of our girlfriends was what saved us from being married fathers at 17 and forsaking college for a job at the local filling station.

Nature Beats Nurture

But that was then, in a galaxy far, far away. Today, abstinence-only sex education is a dangerous game, and one that taxpayer money shouldn't be gambled on. In a recent New York Times interview, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg said, "We know from our lab that adolescents are more impulsive, thrill-seeking, drawn to the rewards of a risky decision than adults.

"In the last five years," he added, "there have been dozens of new studies of adolescent brain development. These show that the brain systems providing for impulse control are still maturing during adolescence."

Bring together this natural impulsiveness and lack of caution with that 800-pound gorilla known as the sex drive -- one of biology's most formidable instincts -- then add the pervasive sexual imagery of our culture, and you have a combined force that reduces the teaching of abstinence to the moral equivalent of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

If teenagers were, say, amoebas, we could forget about trying to figure out how best to be effective sex educators. But we're mammals, programmed by nature to reproduce early and often. Imagining we can ask young kids to resist this force is a toss of the dice at best. Sometimes that will work, but let's not call it education.

As a parent or an educator, what's your take on this important issue? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cindy Ashe's picture

I am employed by a Public Health Department in a large somewhat rural area in Southern California as a Health Educator. It is my job day after day to enter into classrooms grades 7-12 and discuss the consequences of early sexual activity, birth control, STDs, dating violence, and relationship building. California through Family PACT all adolescents 12 and up can access Birth Control without parents permission and yet we still have some of the highest teen birth rates in the US?

Teens say they feel these rates are in part due to teens that engage in the use of drugs and alcohol, as well as clinic hours are not set to meet with school hours. In a classroom of 34 students questioned as to if they talk to their parents about sex maybe on a good day 4 will respond yes. Yet, in our very conservative community parents often voice that sex education should be done at home, and I agree, however, if these discussions are not happening, students need medically accurate, unbiased information about these issues. Another complaint from students it that this information is provided one time a year in grades 7,8,and 9 and there should be constant information provided.

While many youth will choose abstinence, it is important for those that do not to have valid information, for those students who truly maintain abstinence for moral,family, or religious values hearing valid medical information will not change their minds.

The main problem with abstinence only is that when they do make a choice to be sexualy active they have no information on protection and quickly end up pregnant or with an STD. Billions of dollars every year is funneled into teen pregnancy programs and I think it would be better spent for the teens, babies, and society in general to put that money into prevention education.

Dr. David W. Cash's picture

I have been a teacher, principal AND a school administrator for many years now. Before that I was law enforecement officer for 14 years. My experience is drawn from observing students and interviewing parents. I have raised 5 children of my own. Sex education will NEVER work in its current form. We always talk about educating this group and educating THAT group, like that will make their problems OR tendencies go away. RUBBISH!! The reason sex-ed in public schools WILL not and CANNOT work is the absence of VALUES. Until you have the freedom to teach children right from wrong (like they did when I was in school), these programs are doomed to failure. Anyone who works in the public school environment knows exactly what I am talking about

Sharon Staples's picture

I work in guidance with middle school students and understand that kids have raging hormones and will feel the strong pull of sexual activity. But, that being said, I believe that it is important to give good information on the risks involved in teens having sex. Teach them the wisdom of waiting, as children, until they are closer to adulthood, more stable in their relationships, further along in their own self development, and able to support themselves and live responsibly. True, hormones are strong, but a neutral truckload of information and the attitude of 'whatever you decide, we'll support you with whatever you need to be successfully sexually active and bail you out if you get pregnant or an STD" is not fair. Give the information, but make the message a strong abstinence one. Many people like myself, who were firm in our own resolve to wait to have sex when we were faced with plenty of opportunities to go ahead, did not because of the accurate understanding of risks and foolishness of it. Kids are able to wait, we need to give them accurate reasons to, and to let them know they can wait. This is all part of maturing, learning good decision making, and impluse control. Those skills will serve them well once they are married and tempted at the office too.

RSmith's picture

Dr. Cash, I completelly agree with your assessment. I am a middle school science teacher and parent of grown kids with children. I am also a teacher charged with teaching abstinence only through a leading program our district supports. For those who doubt that instilling strong values of abstinence and positive decision making will reduce teen pregnancy, stds and frankly life failure, then I would suggest they please read Dr.Jean Twenge's latest book, "The Narcissism Epidemic." Consider after reading if you really believe that public education should support all choices and no boundaries in making decisions based on reality and facts. By not telling our kids to wait, and clearly defining that these are choices, we are condoning their opportunity to cripple and even destroy their lives, and others, for the sake of "hormones" and "choice." Look what happened with free love in the 60's! Wow. How quickly we forget in the spirit of fairness to all. Come on, all of us have to learn discipline. Controlling hormones is not different from controlling drinking, gambling, smoking, taking drugs, being true in your relationships, etc. It boils down to choices based on consideration for other people, not choices based on what feels good or what we want to do. Sadly, we cannot make such commentary to help our kids for the law says that is wrong. What is wrong is not being able to say what is wrong based on facts, not emotions.

Matthew Johnson's picture

Hi all,

I just thought I'd mention that Media Awareness Network has recently added to our lesson library a lesson for Grades 7-9, titled "I heard it 'round the Internet: Sexual health education and authenticating online information," that teaches kids how to find and authenticate sexual health information online. (http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/lessons/elem...) It also comes with a backgrounder for teachers and parents titled "Online Sex Education Resources: Challenges and Opportunities." (http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/teaching_bac...)

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Thank you! Totally using it throughout the curriculum.

Sex is the variety on the smorgasboard of natural selection. That's the angle I like to use to integrate it into 7th bio. And so true :-) Makes it a natural drive. More later. Have to get to school!

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