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Column 41
Just the facts, Ma'am

What young people need from sex education

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 798 words
Publication date: November 20, 2005

Let me repeat the statistics although you should know them already. The United States has one of the world’s highest rates of sexually transmitted infections among adolescents. It also has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the industrialized world. This is not good news.

Only sixty-nine percent of US school districts have a policy to teach some form of sex education in the classroom. The rest leave decisions on sex education to individual schools or teachers. Of the districts which have a sex education policy, thirty-five percent either provide no information on contraception, including condoms, or they teach that contraception is ineffective. (Source: Advocates for Youth)

In other words, more than fifty percent of American school districts do not provide their students with comprehensive information about sex, contraception and disease prevention. Given that most students will have sex at some point in their lives, if they have not already begun to do so, this is like allowing drivers onto the nation’s highways without insuring that they know the rules of the road and understand the meaning of road signs. Accidents – some fatal – are bound to result.

Even giving students a modified set of rules, in the form of abstinence-only sex education, does not work. Compared with others of the same age, students on such programs do not delay intercourse or reduce the frequency with which they have sex.

Most school districts are at odds with the American public. Parents know that adolescents are sexually curious – and most adolescents become sexually active adults. Over eighty percent of Americans support comprehensive sex education in middle / junior schools, including contraception and disease prevention techniques – ie abstinence, informed mutual monogamy or condoms.

So far, so good, but healthy sexual behavior involves more than knowledge of intercourse and condoms. Love, pleasure and same-sex attraction are often ignored or touched on only obliquely.

And schools should not be the only forum for discussions on sex. Most parents’ concern for their children’s well-being includes their moral well-being. And many adolescents, while eager to demonstrate their independence from their parents, want to be able to talk to them about issues arising from their increasing interest in sex.

Altogether, there are four clearly identifiable components in sex education – reproductive biology, emotions and pleasure, repercussions (pregnancy, disease and safer sex), and morality. Students deserve to learn about each of these at appropriate moments in their physical and intellectual development. 

Human reproduction should be taught before puberty as part of a biology curriculum that covers all forms of reproduction. Most ten year old children today have some idea of sexual intercourse. Simple biology lessons disabuse them of misconceptions – such as the circumstances in which pregnancy can occur – while not encouraging them to participate in an activity for which their bodies and minds are not ready.

Puberty and experimentation with their own bodies brings an awareness of the pleasure that can come from sex. Intense emotions also develop at this time. Young people who are attracted to their own sex face stigma rather than celebration of their sexuality. Images of sexuality in popular culture reflect only a small part of reality.

These are all complicated issues and for young people’s well-being they cannot be ignored. This is the moment to initiate discussions around why people have sex and who they have sex with. It is also the time to teach about the consequences of sex – including pregnancy and disease – and the means of protecting oneself.

Pregnancy and disease should be taught in an impersonal classroom setting. So too can the consequences of teenage pregnancy and the reduced options in life it brings to both mother and baby. The emotional aspects of sex, however, are best brought up in groups where one or two adults can contribute but where the discussion is driven by the concerns of the young people themselves.

We know that adolescents who have basic information on reproduction and who understand their own minds and bodies are less likely to rush into sex than those who have had no sex education or who have only been taught abstinence. Knowledge encourages restraint. It is ignorance which leads to early sex.

Mothers and fathers should talk with their children about sex, but the conversation is worthless if the parents are burdened by prejudice or know less about the subject than their offspring. Comprehensive sex education would benefit adults as much as adolescents, but don’t hold your breath that such a development will come soon.

That leaves morality, a much misused word which refers to appearance as much as to substance. Abstinence-only sex education claims to promote moral behavior, but its failure to provide young people with the information and skills they need to protect themselves is highly immoral. Comprehensive sex education for all young Americans is the only moral option.

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