A Multi-Targeted Approach
By its very nature, sex education is an emotional subject. Infuse it with politics and cultural values, and you get a sense of what schools face in defining their role in an increasingly high-stakes undertaking. Recent federal funding for abstinence-only education has many communities questioning whether students are being short-changed on information that could literally save their lives.
A national task force of health, education, and sexuality professionals believes that an issue as multi-faceted as sex requires a multi-targeted approach. Teaching abstinence is a significant piece of the puzzle, but "just say no" may be lost on students who are already sexually active. "Teens don't all behave the same way," says Claire Brindis, an internationally recognized expert on adolescent sexuality. "We have to give all kinds of kids all kinds of information."
Character and Condoms?
For most professionals, "all kinds of information" means a comprehensive health-education program that addresses all aspects of sex. Such a program would provide accurate information about human anatomy. It would review reproduction and contraception, along with protection against disease. Whether it's called "abstinence-plus" or "comprehensive," this approach raises questions: "Character and condoms in the same context?" asks one parent of an eighth-grader. "What kind of mixed signals does that send?"
"Developing a strong character needs to be at the core of all education programs," says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University. There are ways, he says, "to strongly urge young people to defer sexual behavior and still provide information for those who proceed anyhow, without making these two messages cancel each other out. In dealing with other topics -- divorce, for instance -- religious groups have found ways to extol the importance of preserving marriage, and still counsel those who divorce. The same can be done for sex education."
Some parents feel that giving kids detailed information about safe sex will encourage promiscuity and drown out the abstinence message altogether. "Do you go out and wreck your car just because you have insurance on it?" former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders once said. "Why do we feel that children are so stupid? Just because you talk to them about condoms, does that mean they're going to go out and have sex?"