The sex-ed hoax

October 25, 1994|By Mona Charen

THERE IS only one thing wrong with comprehensive sex education, writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in this month's issue of the Atlantic Monthly -- it doesn't work.

Belief in the efficacy of sex education is so widespread as to be uncontroversial. Everyone simply knows that giving children and teen-agers the facts about human reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception will enable them to cope better with the rush of hormones at puberty. Ms. Whitehead quotes opinion polls in New Jersey showing that 88 percent of Catholic parents and 84 percent of Protestants favored teaching teen-agers about sex, including topics such as contraception, homosexuality and "safer sex." Sixty-one percent of New Jersey parents favored the distribution of condoms in schools.

The sex educators couch their approach in terms of "realism." It would be nice, they concede, if young people would postpone sexual activity, but in the words of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, "get real." The little rabbits are going to romp, so we might as well protect them from the worst consequences of their behavior.

There are two problems with this approach. In the first place, as Ms. Whitehead notes, it should rise or fall on the empirical evidence. If young people are having illegitimate babies and getting sexually transmitted diseases because of ignorance of the facts of sex, then sex-education programs ought to reduce those problems. They do not. One analyst of data compiled by Planned Parenthood concluded that "a knowledgeable 13-year-old is no more likely to use contraceptives than is an uninformed 13-year-old."

The other problem with the "why don't we just give them the facts" approach is that it is deceptive. As Ms. Whitehead documents, sex-education curricula are hardly the value-neutral transmitters of data they are touted to be. Instead, comprehensive sex education is highly imbued with ideology. The ideology is pro-sex for teens. There is no other way to put it.

Ms. Whitehead examined the sex-ed curriculum in New Jersey, a fairly typical program (17 states have adopted mandates for comprehensive sex education, and 30 more support it). Here's what "Learning About Family Life," a textbook for sexual education in grades kindergarten through three, says about masturbation: "Grown-ups sometimes forget to tell children that touching can also give people pleasure, especially when someone you love touches you. And you can give yourself pleasure, too, and that's OK. When you touch your own genitals, that's called masturbating."

When the kids get into middle school, New Jersey's sex-ed emphasis switches to condoms, abortion and the option of "protected" and "non-coital" sex.

What the sex educators will never acknowledge is that all of their "non-judgmental" talk about masturbation and safe sex is actually quite loaded. Because when it comes to something as enticing as sex, only a very strong, consistent societal message saying "No" is going to work. A condom is an invitation. And when you combine the happy talk about safe sex these kids get in the classroom with MTV and "Basic Instinct" and the rest of the rot from popular culture, you have a recipe for sexual promiscuity, which is what we've got. The sex educators are not the solution. They are part of the problem.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead performs another service by looking a bit more closely at the brave new sexual world the sex educators and their allies have created. Kids are having sex at younger and younger ages -- Ms. Whitehead calls it the "second sexual revolution." But it is not the mutually satisfying, loving kind that the sex educators imagine.

A great many young girls who begin their sexual activity before the age of 15 are forced into sex by boys several years older. Sex among young teen-agers, writes Ms. Whitehead, tends to be "nasty, brutish and short." Moreover, a significant percentage of the girls who begin their sexual lives early will get pregnant (with disastrous results for them and their children).

Far from preparing kids for real life (most girls tell pollsters that they'd like more help in saying no without hurting a boy's feelings), comprehensive sex education seeks to preserve and expand the sexual revolution.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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