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Article in USA Today, September 8, 2004

Now more than ever, kids need effective sex ed

By Laura Berman
(Director of the Berman Center, a women's sexual health facility in Chicago.)

Sexuality, for teens in particular, occurs at the intersection of biology and society. Caught between messages of abstinence and the highly sexualized images on TV and film or in music, our kids are often left to fend for themselves when it comes to figuring out sex.

A survey this week found that TV shows with sexually oriented conversations might encourage teens to have sex earlier. The researcher called it "social learning: 'monkey see, monkey do.'"

What students need now is learning of another kind: progressive sex education in schools. Kids have returned to class armed with their assignments, perhaps a list of supplies and certainly the dress code. But when it comes to life-or-death issues, such as sex, schools don't give proper guidance. And the confusion teens experience biologically is only compounded by this vacuum in public schools, particularly those that teach abstinence only (about 25%).

In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush vowed to double federal funding of abstinence-based programs, which in 2003 was more than $50 million. Normally, one would applaud such an increase. But not when it prohibits these programs from providing any information or answers to kids' questions about contraception, pregnancy, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Little education at home
Though some parents are more proactive in their approach to sex education, they are the minority. A recent national survey showed that eight in 10 parents want schools to teach their kids about contraception. In an indication that kids aren't learning at home, only half of adolescents reported a "good talk" about sex with their mothers in the past year, and fewer than a third reported such a discussion with their fathers.

For the children whose parents are unwilling or unable to teach them about sex, the schools should be a backstop. Sex education is a public-health issue that should trump "conservative values" and uninformed parents.

Not that there is anything wrong with conservative values. It's just that keeping kids in the dark is not the most effective way to keep them from having sex. Besides, talking to children about sex is not the same thing as giving them permission to have it.

In fact, an in-depth study by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS found that sex education did not increase sexual activity among teens, and in some cases, actually delayed it, reducing the number of sexual partners. This undercuts a key, yet misguided, argument against sex-education programs in schools: That such courses will be seen as a stamp of approval by these students.

Dangerous numbers
The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States estimates that each year, more than 800,000 adolescents in the USA become pregnant, a rate nearly twice that of any other industrialized nation, and at least 3 million American teens acquire a sexually transmitted disease.

Add to these disturbingly high numbers a culture laced with sexuality, even beyond the expected venues of television and music.

Teenage girls run around in halter tops and miniskirts with the words "juicy" on their behinds. Oral-sex parties have replaced spin the bottle in some circles, with kids believing in the Clintonian truism that "oral sex is not sex. And then there is the teen subculture of instant messaging in which sexual innuendo and invitations fly back and forth.

Schools need to provide proactive, continuing sex-education programs that start early and continue throughout high school. Education should be age-appropriate, providing the necessary information in a gradual, natural way that corresponds to each stage of development. All teachers not just the health teacher should be trained in how to deal with the subject of sex. And schools should help parents by providing educational programs for them as well.

We can eliminate neither the choices nor the risks inherent in our kids' sexual development. We can, however, tackle the ignorance.

Information does not have to mean permission, even when it comes to sex. Our children are capable of grasping that concept. It's time that our public schools grasped this concept, too.

(end of article)

Footnote:
For a long, detailed discussion of how you as a parent can take responsibility for the sex education of your child, see:
For Parents Only: Providing Sex Education for your Children.

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