The Failure of Sex Education

September 30, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For more than 30 years, those who favor a certain kind of sex education in public schools have told us that by giving younger and younger children information about how their sex organs work, and then handing them contraceptives and abortion information, society can reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Now, in a searing cover story in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes that the curriculum known as ''comprehensive sex education,'' mandated in 17 states, has failed children and society. It has neither reduced pregnancy nor slowed the spread of venereal diseases.

Ms. Whitehead avoids the moralizing often associated with the subject, but she does explode a number of myths about sex education. The biggest one is that simply by giving children information and removing their inhibitions, their behavior can be modified in a way that will produce ''positive'' results.

Ms. Whitehead's model is New Jersey. In 1980, it adopted one of the nation's first required comprehensive sex-education courses, beginning in primary grades. The program enjoys widespread support among politicians and parents. It contains a number of assumptions common to most sex-education curricula.

First, children are ''sexual from birth.'' Sex educators reject the notion of a latency period, or time of innocence. They want kids thinking about their sex organs as soon as possible.

Second, children are sexually miseducated, and parents are incompetent to do the job, so they need ''professionals'' to do it for them. Discussions about morality are to be avoided because they confuse the issue and bring in guilt factors which, it is contended, are the cause of so much sexual dysfunction.

The curriculum, known as ''Learning About Family Life,'' discusses divorce, HIV, masturbation -- the usual litany -- but there is little about what used to be considered normal, or at least desirable, such as marriage, self-control and virginity. The assumption is that everybody is either doing it or will soon do it. So, New Jersey's official sexual position is grounded in condoms, abortion and the advantages of ''protected sex.'' Abstinence is given short shrift because it is not based on ''reality.''

The closest the state gets to promoting abstinence is a $l discussion of noncoital sex, known as ''sexual expression without risk.'' Rutgers education professor William Firestone, who conducted a study of New Jersey's sex-education curriculum, says this approach offers ''real opportunities to reduce dangers to many teens who engage in sexual behavior, despite recommendations for abstinence.'' Ms. Whitehead writes that teaching teen-agers to explore their sexuality through noncoital techniques has only ''perverse effects,'' since it is likely to lead to coitus, and that it ''comes close to educational malpractice.''

Since these comprehensive sex-education courses were implemented, sexual activity and its unwanted consequences have increased. In New Jersey in 1980, 67.6 percent of teen-age births were to unmarried mothers. By 1991, the figure had increased to 84 percent.

At some point, if the advertised results are not produced, prudent people might look for another way.

Ms. Whitehead writes, ''It is hard for advocates to claim that the state with the nation's fourth-largest percentage of unwed teen-age births is a showcase for their approach. As it is typically taught, sex education has little effect on teen-agers' decisions to engage in or postpone sex. Nor do knowledge-based sex-education programs significantly reduce the incidence of teen-age pregnancy.''

Ms. Whitehead concludes, ''Formal sex education is most successful when it reinforces the behavior of abstinence among young adolescents who are practicing that behavior. Religiously observant teens are likelier than others to refrain from early sex, while the highest level of premarital intercourse occurs among teens with no religious affiliation.''

That would seem to offer an often neglected opportunity for churches and synagogues to begin or expand their instruction about sex within a moral framework that has demonstrated considerable success in achieving the goals the state has failed to produce.

What makes us think that children, who are forbidden to drive cars in most states until they are 16, can handle sex at even earlier ages? The state ill serves the public by attempting to put children in the sexual driver's seat before they are ready.

5) Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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