WASHINGTON -- An old-fashioned idea -- about sex, of all things -- is making a comeback in high schools and middle schools around the country.
The idea: Students should be taught that it is wrong for them to have sex.
Textbooks that promote abstinence and avoid how-to information about contraceptives have become increasingly popular in recent years, partly due to the growing involvement of conservative Christians on local school boards.
"We want to make the positive assumption that all the kids can succeed at abstinence and deal with individual cases if they can't," says LeAnna Benn, co-author of one of the leading abstinence-based textbooks.
The abstinence movement has sparked strong objections, however, from critics who say it is irresponsible not to make teen-agers familiar with condoms and other precautionary practices in an era of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and high teen pregnancy rates.
"Half of American teen-agers, whether adults like it or not, are having intercourse. This denies them information they need to be sexually healthy," said Debra Haffner, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.
Later this year, the Clinton administration is expected to join the argument -- in opposition to those who favor teaching abstinence only.
A federal program that spends $2 million a year on the development of abstinence-only curriculums is expected to be revamped to promote sex education, including detailed information about contraceptives.
"There are likely to be some changes," said Jerry Bennett, acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services. "I expect there will be far more emphasis on comprehensiveness in sexuality education and not a focus on abstinence alone."
Draft legislation circulating in the department would "replace the existing program goals of abstinence until marriage with more realistic and credible public health prevention goals."
In addition, Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's choice for surgeon general, favors the distribution of condoms in schools. Dr. Elders, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate this summer, intends to make teen pregnancy prevention her top priority in office. A Clinton administration initiative on teen pregnancy may be announced this fall.
No one is sure how many schools are using abstinence-only sex education programs, but both supporters and critics agree that the number is growing.
Kathleen Sullivan, head of Project Respect, which publishes abstinence-only curricula called "Sex Respect" and "Facing Reality," estimates that about 3,000 schools now use the texts, compared with 2,000 two years ago.
Ms. Benn, co-author of an abstinence-only text called "Me, My World, My Future," said that her company, Teen-Aid, sold 100,000 sex education booklets for parents and teens last year, compared with about 3,000 a year in the mid-1980s.
The increased involvement in school boards of conservative Christians, sometimes called the "religious right," has helped fuel the emphasis on abstinence, but the appeal clearly extends beyond fundamentalists and evangelicals.
"A lot of the pressure is coming from mainstream parents who have kids of sexually aware ages," said Kathy Christie, who tracks sex education trends for the Education Commission for the States, a nonpartisan resource group. "They say, 'I want my child to know that the status quo is not necessarily having sex in high school.'"
In some schools, the emphasis on abstinence is being coupled with sex education that includes information about contraceptives. In other schools, the focus is on abstinence.
While the abstinence-only texts vary, they typically revolve around the idea that sex should be saved for adulthood or marriage. They often include lessons designed to enhance self-esteem and teach students different ways to cope with peer pressure to have sex.
The abstinence-only texts also prominently feature the potential emotional and physical consequences of having sex. They tend to put more emphasis than more traditional sex education materials on the risk that condoms and other contraceptives will not always work.
L Here are some sources for more information on sex education:
Education, Training and Research Associates
P.O. Box 1830
Santa Cruz, Calif. 95061
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
810 Seventh Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10019
P.O. Box 97
Golf, Ill. 60029-0097
Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.
130 West 42nd Street, Suite 2500
New York, N.Y. 10036
723 E. Jackson
Spokane, Wash. 99207