Soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens are adding urgency to the debate over sex education. Conservatives claim the alarming statistics illustrate why abstinence should be the single mantra when it comes to sex ed. Liberals counter that the increase in disease is the strongest case for more detailed information. Caught in the middle are America’s kids, who are more vulnerable than ever to potentially deadly diseases.
In the debate over sex education, one thing is undisputed: The average kid today is immersed in sexual imagery. A generation that has grown up on the sordid details of the Starr Report, watched thong-clad teens gyrate on Spring Break cable specials, or read the cover of nearly any women’s magazine in the grocery check-out line is familiar with the facts of life.
But young people face a barrage of confusing messages. Along with titillating images from the media, some kids are told to “just say no” to sex. In school, others are taught how to put condoms on bananas in preparation for the real thing, and still other children receive no information whatsoever.
Transcending the cacophony of mixed messages is a host of alarming facts.
Kids are becoming more sexually active at an earlier age. Sixty-six percent of American high school students have had sex by their senior year.
And these same teens are paying the price by contracting dangerous — and sometimes deadly — sexually transmitted diseases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 65 percent of all sexually transmitted infections contracted by Americans this year will occur in people under 24. One in four new HIV infections occurs in people younger than 22.
“There’s a disconnect somewhere. Someone’s not getting the message. We need to find out why and help our kids be more responsible,” said Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.
But what message should be given to young people is the subject of intense debate.
How much to teach?
One side in the debate favors comprehensive sex education, including detailed information about sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and abstinence.
“Young people are going to learn about sex and our question has to be where do we want them to learn? From the media? From their friends? Or do we want them to learn from an educated, responsible adult?” said Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a leading advocate of comprehensive sex education.
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The opposing side pushes for an abstinence-only message that advises teens to wait until marriage.
Since there is no federal law that requires public schools to teach sex education, let alone one that specifies what should be taught, these decisions are left up to states and individual school districts.
Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia require schools to provide sex education and 32 do not. In some states, such as Louisiana, kids might learn about HIV/AIDS, but not about any other STDs or how to prevent pregnancy. In other states, like Washington, teens receive information on everything from birth control pills to homosexuality.
A key issue in the battle over sex education is whether giving kids more information about sex actually leads to sexual activity.
In a study of 35 sex education programs around the world, the World Health Organization found there is no evidence that comprehensive programs encourage sexual activity.
The study also concluded that abstinence-only programs are less effective than comprehensive classes that include abstinence and safe-sex practices such as contraception and condom use.
Related nationwide studies by the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood came to similar conclusions.
But abstinence-only groups dismiss these studies as biased and skewed. They argue there is a fundamental flaw in giving kids more information about risky behaviors that they should simply be taught to avoid.
“We believe it’s an inconsistent message,” said Lori Cole, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative lobby group founded by Phyllis Schlafly. “If you say, ‘don’t do it, it’s not healthy for you, but if you’re going to do it, do it this way,’ that sends mixed signals to kids.”
Cole argues that teaching teens about contraception and STDs only provides “a means for them to live an unhealthy lifestyle.”
Looking for a balance
Despite all the disagreement, there is some middle ground in the debate.
Advocates of comprehensive sex education say the abstinence-only message ignores information critical for teens to protect their health. But they are not against the abstinence message itself.
“Programs in abstinence are very valuable,” said Catherine Weiss, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “It’s programs that don’t provide any information that we’re against. ... It’s as if you’re trying to prevent kids from riding motorcycles by forbidding them to wear safety helmets.”
Scott Phelps, a researcher and public speaker with the abstinence program Project Reality has heard the arguments of both sides and tried to find a balance.
Project Reality, which provides curriculum and support to districts across Illinois, including 140 public schools in the Chicago area, teaches teens about STDs and contraception, but tries to encourage abstinence by emphasizing the physical and emotional risks of teen sex.
“We recognize the problems of STDs and teen pregnancy, but there are also other risks, such as links to depression and suicide,” said Phelps.
Not all comprehensive education proponents are pleased with Project Reality’s approach. Some say it puts too much negative spin on sex and may frighten kids. But others say it is at least a step in the right direction.
Parents vs. public schools
While activists argue over the right balance, reports show that American parents want some sort of sex education taught in public schools.
A 1999 survey conducted by Hickman-Brown Research Inc. found that 93 percent of all Americans believe sex education should be taught in high schools, and 84 percent believe it should be taught in middle or junior high schools.
Jodi Hoffman, a Florida mother who successfully sued the Broward County public schools, claiming the district’s sex education program was too explicit, represents the minority view among parents. Hoffman said information about sex should only be taught at home, where parents can impart their own values to their children.
She was outraged that the comprehensive sex education classes taught in her three children’s schools included information about contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
Hoffman said the courses clash head-on with her religious values. Waiting until marriage to have sex “is the way God intended it to be. That’s how it’s taught in the Bible and those rules were not written for no reason,” said Hoffman.
Fight brews over funding
With both sides so far apart, there are few signs that a compromise over sex education will be reached anytime soon. In fact, the battle is only likely to become more heated in the coming year.
In 1996, former President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act, which allocated $250 million over five years to be matched by state dollars — a total of $500 million — for abstinence-only programs. During the first year of the program, 48 states accepted the federal money.
The five-year program expires in 2002 and will once again be up for review. Both sides are revving up for an intense and bitter lobbying effort to lock in future financial support for their agendas.
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