Just Don't Do It!
Are we teaching our kids way too much about sex? Or not nearly enough?
Joshua Linen was a high school freshman when he announced, "Hey, Dad, they gave me an ATM card in health class today!" The card can't deliver a dime in cash, but his parents see it as invaluable in terms of Joshua's moral development. ATM in this case stands for abstinence till marriage. Expiration date: wedding day. For the Anaheim, Calif., father and his wife and for Joshua, now a junior, the high school's emphasis on abstinence is exactly right.
But for parents Ed Gold and Amy Robinson, who split their time between Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C., the card and the class that went with it are an absolutely wrongheaded way to teach teenagers about sex. "What if they can't just say no?" asks Robinson. "What if they are overwhelmed, or think they are in love, or their bodies overrule their heads? The reality is that children are having sexual experiences younger and younger. I don't understand the concept of not wanting the child to have all the available information. I don't think that's any way to make a child whole."
Etiquette says that to avoid an argument, one should never discuss politics, sex, or religion. And sex education is chock full of all three taboo topics; few discourses have
made so many so mad. Still, the question remains: Are we teaching our kids too much about sex? Or too little?
The answer depends on whom you ask. Sex may be a private matter, but sex education is a public one, especially since it is taught in public schools with public funds. The debate over what to teach has ratcheted up in recent years, but the topic has been around for decades. The arguments have remained much the same, but the recommended curriculum has flipped, flopped, and flipped again. The passage of the Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981 gave money to educational programs that would "promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches." But during the '80s and early '90s, as AIDS became an increasing threat, sex ed became "comprehensive." Often taught by educators associated with Planned Parenthood, the classes covered contraception, disease protection, and much more. Then in 1996, as part of the Welfare Reform Act, Congress established a federal program to exclusively fund abstinence-only curricula. "The abstinence-only program really stirred things up," says Deborah Roffman, author of Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide.
End results. California, Pennsylvania, and most recently Maine have chosen to turn down the money and teach what they want. In Franklin County, N.C., the school board ordered that three chapters be sliced out of the ninth-grade health book, including pages that revealed more than the abstinence-only state law allowed.
But that doesn't mean sex ed is the same the state over. Because one man's (or woman's) fancy may be too broad for one and too conservative for another, curriculum decisions tend to be made locally, sometimes in favor of the majority and sometimes to grease the squeakiest wheels. Current sexuality education curricula vary from graphic to limited, ranging from in-school comprehensive presentations by Planned Parenthood to abstinence-only courses, which often rely on outside lecturers who, critics charge, sometimes present the subject from a Christian point of view. Course content doesn't just differ from "red state" to "blue state" but also from "community to community and ultimately from classroom to classroom," says Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an organization that promotes sexuality education. Time is another variant. Some schools spend a total of two hours on sex ed; others, a full semester.