Professional Learning

What We Teach When We Teach About Sex

December 14, 2009

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.

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  • 9-12 High School

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