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Over the years, the nature of sex education in our schools has changed quite radically, but a controversy between approaches still rages on. It probably all began with a scientific (and short) discussion of the birds and the bees, perhaps in a biology class—or no discussion at all--and it has evolved into the offering, in some states, of in-depth comprehensive sexuality classes wherein pleasure, desire, and emotions are addressed, along with birth control, homosexuality, and the avoidance of STD’s and HIV/AIDS. The teaching of total abstinence until marriage is still very prevalent too, though this approach has been challenged by many educators, doctors, and politicians, as fear is not usually a great motivator, and abstinence does not seem to be a very viable option for hormone-driven pre-teens and teenagers. Our youth will be having sex, no matter what we teach them. The best, it seems, are frank and honest classes wherein almost anything having to do with sex may be discussed, with as little embarrassment as possible—what is called comprehensive sex education.
Progressive Era reformers like Julius Rosenwalk, president of Sears, and the president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, developed as a group the original concept of sex education. Only sex between husband and wife was viewed as “proper” and “moral,” so educators strongly promoted both the rewards of marital sex and the dangers inherent in pre-marital sex. Many of the instructional materials used seem to have been designed to try to encourage abstinence bu instilling fear and dread in young people. For example, “The abstinence-only curriculum Me, My World, My Future likens use of condoms to playing Russian roulette: ‘Condoms do not prevent STDs or AIDS,’ the curriculum states. ‘They only delay them. The more often that the [sex] act is repeated, the more opportunity there is for condom failure.’" (Donovan.)
In total, the Federal Government has, over the years, spent well over one billion dollars to support sex education based on abstinence-only programs. In spite of this massive investment, teens are not delaying the initiation of sex or protecting themselves from pregnancy or STD’s when they do have sex even if they have gone through an abstinence-till-marriage program. Pubescent youth have the fundamental right to be introduced to comprehensive and truthful sexual practice information, although, until recently, our government has ignored this.
The New World Encyclopedia states that,
In the United States in particular, sex education raises much contentious debate. Chief among the controversial points is whether covering child sexuality is valuable or detrimental; the use of birth control such as condoms and hormonal contraception; and the impact of such use on pregnancy outside marriage, teenage pregnancy, and the transmission of STDs. Increasing support for abstinence-only sex education by conservative groups has been one of the primary causes of this controversy.
In different geographic areas of our country, sex education may be delivered in significantly different ways. In the Northeast, sex education is much less likely to be based on abstinence only in order to prevent pregnancy and STDS than in the South and the Midwest. Students in these states are more likely to be taught about the ineffectiveness of birth control methods that are “non-natural” —or not taught about them at all-- than in the Northeast. This leads to great inequality of the information that is conveyed to students all over the country—and perhaps to massive confusion when these students hit college age and begin to interact with students from other regions.
The origin, of course, of the abstinence-only philosophy is religion. Many religious conservatives believe fervently that sexuality should not be taught at all in the schools. There is a false belief that if teenagers are kept in the dark about sexuality, they are less likely to engage in it. Sexuality before marriage is immoral in most conservative religions. The desire to teach sexuality based on abstinence in the schools has traditionally come from other religious conservatives who believe that sexual curiosity and activity is unavoidable among teenagers, so moral sexual behavior must be taught in order to ward off trouble.
In December 2004, United States Congressman Henry A. Waxman of California released a report that provides several examples of inaccurate information being included in federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs. This report bolstered the claims of those Americans arguing that abstinence-only programs deprive teenagers of critical information about sexuality. (New World Encyclopedia.)
Planned Parenthood takes a different stance on the matter of sex education. The organization states that it believes that parents and/or guardians should be the primary transmitters of sex education to their children. But it does admit that parents may need outside support from the schools and other organizations in the form of resources and expertise. A further problem that is likely to arise is that not all families are equipped to teach these important concepts to their children accurately. Planned Parenthood states that, “Educators can help families by providing culturally meaningful learning opportunities in safe and nonjudgmental environments so that young people can learn about sexuality in a healthy and positive context.” Planned Parenthood goes on to discuss many resources that it has available for educators and families, and its article goes into comprehensive sex education in some detail, distaining abstinence-based programs as wholly ineffective. Barbara Dafoe Whitehorse, in her interview in the Atlantic Monthly, adds that: “I think there must be full sharing of information about the curriculum. Perhaps parents and kids could check out a sex ed video and watch it together. Do their ‘homework’ on sex ed together. Parent should not be viewed as adversaries in this process.”
Two major abstinence-based sex education programs-- the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) Prevention program, and the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) grant program-- were eliminated by the Obama administration and Congress in 2010. There is now only one remaining federal abstinence-based sexuality program in the entire US—called the Title V Program. So the walls are crumbling on this archaic and ineffective approach to sexuality education. The debate may still rage on, but the federal government has made its position quite clear. Abstinence-only programs have proven themselves to be ineffectual.
Also making themselves clear as to their position have been the most important psychological and medical associations in the country. These include the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Public Health Association. All of these powerful organizations have stated their official support for comprehensive—as opposed to abstinence-based-- sex education.
So what is comprehensive sex education?
The organization Advocates for Youth addresses this issue in their article, Effective Sex Education, by presenting a list of the critical characteristics of effective comprehensive education in human sexuality, and pregnancy and STD/HIV prevention programs. These characteristics are (paraphrased) to: create a safe environment for all participants, and offer age-appropriate sex information; develop these programs in cooperation with young people themselves; help youth to identify their community, family, and individual values; provide medically accurate knowledge about contraception, including the use of condoms—and also information about abstinence; help youth to develop skills in refusal of sexual advances and requests, open communication, and negotiation; respect the values of the community; express clear goals for the prevention of teen pregnancy, STD’s, and HIV; address the risks and protection factors involved in each sexual activity and offer alternatives; and “rely on participatory teaching methods, implemented by trained educators and using all the activities as designed.” (Advocates for Youth.)
According to many experts, a good comprehensive sex education program would begin in the schools at an early age, teaching children about the changes that their bodies are going to go through, and what they mean. There is no question that youth are having sex now at a much earlier age than they used to—ten to twelve-year old mothers are now more common than they used to be in this society--so providing some basic information to pre-pubescent children, and then building upon that education as the years go by, seems an excellent method for transmitting accurate information. Children do retain what they are taught about sex and can employ that knowledge much later on when the need for it arises. Parents, of course, are given the choice to have their children opt out of such educational sessions, since ultimately, what their children are exposed to in school is the parents’ decision.
Really comprehensive sex education is modeled by Al Vernacchio, who teaches at the private Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania. His unusual methods were profiled in the New York Times by Laurie Abraham. In Al Vernacchio’s sexuality classes, almost anything goes. An example of the kind of discussion that takes place in Vernacchio’s classes is the following:
“You know there’s grass, and then it got mowed, a landing strip,’ one boy deadpanned, instigating a round of laughter. While these kids will sit poker-faced as Vernacchio expounds on quite graphic matters, class discussions are a spirited call and response, punctuated with guffaws, jokey patter and whispered asides.” (Abraham.) Vernacchio keeps the “whispered asides” to a minimum though, as he stays in control of his classes and wants the material presented to be taken seriously, even if it engenders embarrassed humor at times.
In its frank acceptance and depth of discussion of sexuality as what “Vernacchio calls, a “force for good” — even for teenagers” (Abraham), this sex-education class might indeed be virtually the only one of its kind in the country. Vernacchio treats every question the kids ask him seriously, and with respect. He is a very gifted and highly educated instructor, and there has been no concern about parents’ reactions, because no one has ever complained, outrageous as the material presented may sometimes seem to be.
Obviously, the mainstream public schools in the US are not likely to adopt a program as frank and open as Vernacchio’s curriculum and approach. But there is great latitude in the field for developing original programs that teach our youth, in-depth, about relationships, values, difficult choices, how to avoid getting hurt, how body parts actually do function during sex, homosexuality, and a myriad of other topics that were definitely not in the curricula of the abstinence-based programs. The state of New Jersey, which has long been in the forefront of progressive sex education programs, has instituted a very successful program called The New Jersey Teen Prevention Education Program (Teen PEP). This program is offered state-wide, and is a peer education program that allows older students to help younger students learn to make healthy sex and relationship decisions. This sexuality and health class is an elective class that requires parental approval for carefully selected older high school students to choose to enroll.
The students who participate in the Teen PEP program become a consolidated team of highly trained peer educators who become role models and health advocates--effective, very knowledgeable, and capable of transmitting their knowledge to other students.
They attend the Teen PEP class daily (or the equivalent) where they receive the information about sexual health and the skills needed to facilitate innovative prevention outreach workshops on a variety of sexual health issues, including: unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), homophobia reduction, dating violence, date rape, sexual harassment and related issues. (New Jersey Department of Health.)
The peer education classes are taught by skilled and experienced teachers, and this peer counseling approach seems to be a very effective way to transmit accurate sex and relationship information in an atmosphere of trust and easy identification between students.
Most schools seeking to establish a comprehensive sex education program will probably not go to the extremes that Vernacchio and New Jersey have. There may not be the funding or state support (or the motivation) to create a really innovative program, but there is certainly room for improvement in most sexuality classes. The days of abstinence-only sex education are clearly coming to an end, although there are still pockets of schools across America—most notably in the South—that are still fighting the coming changes vociferously. So the battle still continues, even as the federal government is pulling out its support for such programs, and most of the major national health and wellness associations have endorsed the concept of comprehensive sex education.
Sexuality is a natural, enjoyable part of human life, and there are many who believe that informed pleasure should be available to teenagers who choose it, as well—because they are going to choose it whether they have been educated about it or not. A well-rounded program that provides extensive, in-depth, accurate information to children, starting at an early age, and progressing on into the teenaged years, can only be of benefit in making sex and relationships more enjoyable. Teenagers are going to have sex. Shouldn’t we be preparing them as well as we can for pleasurable and healthy experiences, on into their adult years? Many adults might admit that they entered into sexuality without having a clue as to what it was all about, and that their ignorance has seriously impacted the quality of their later sexual lives, in and out of marriage.
Love and intimacy are, and should be, a private domain, but just as one can’t make a garden flourish without a lot of knowledge about gardening, it is hard to make relationships flourish without a lot of advance information too. The US has one of the highest rates of teenaged pregnancy in the world. Teen pregnancy and the transmission of HIV and STDs is epidemic in this country, and they needn’t be. Armed with accurate information, there is no doubt that teenagers—who are very smart, after all—can reduce the spread of these epidemics. Our youth are humans too, and they have a right to be supplied with what they need to know in order to really enjoy their lives now and in the future. The “basic principles of human sexuality are universal and integral to what it means to be human. Sex is related to the very purpose of human existence: love, procreation, and family.” (New World Encyclopedia.)
Our youth will pick up information on sexuality from many other sources: parents, other kids, movies, books, magazines, the streets. The world is rife with sexual misinformation, and it is easily available to children with the advent of the internet, and situations where children’s use of the net is not controlled. Pornography is more accessible to pre-teens and teenagers than some people would like to believe. The youth years are years of total fascination with all things sexual, and this is a society that has commercialized and denigrated human sexuality to an unbelievable degree. Denigration of women has been particularly prevalent. Let’s try to ensure that the majority of what children learn about sexuality in school is true, and really serves them well, now and in the future.
Abraham, Laurie. “Teaching Good Sex.” New York Times Magazine. 16 November, 2011.
AVERT: AVERTing HIV and AIDS. “Sex Education That Works.” Web:
Donovan, Patricia. “School-based Sexuality Education: The Issues and the Challenges.”
Guttmacher Institute. Family Planning Perspectives, Volume 30, Number 4,
“Effective Sex Education.” Advocates for Youth. Web: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/component/content/article/450-effective-sex-education
“Implementing Sex Education.” Planned Parenthood. Web: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/educators/implementing-sex-education
Kehily, Mary Jane. Sexuality, Gender and Schooling: Shifting Agendas in Social LearningLondon and New York: Routledge, 2002
Mueller, Trisha, Gavin, Lorrie, and Kulkarni, Aniket. “The Association Between Sex Education and Youth’s Engagement in Sexual Intercourse, and Birth Control Use at First Sex,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Reproductive Health, Atlanta, Georgia,17 July, 2007.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “State Policies on Sex Education in Schools.” 13 February, 2015. Web: http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
New Jersey Department of Health, HIV, STD, and TB Services, New Jersey Teen Prevention Education Program. Web: http://www.nj.gov/health/aids/teenpep.shtml
New World Encyclopedia. Web: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sex_education
Whitehorse, Barbara Dafoe. “The Failure of Sex Education.” The Atlantic Monthly Online. October, 1994
Xiong, Cindy Yayang. “Single-sex education: Pros and Cons.” National Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. U.S. Department of Education, 2005.
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