Sex education shouldn't be done halfway

Sunday, September 30
My formal sex education didn't begin until I entered high school. The classroom was the corner of Linden Street and Francis Avenue where the group I hung out with discussed such important matters on a regular basis.

Neither my mother or father ever attempted to explain such pertinent information with me, nor did my older brother or sister.

Many of the myths I had absorbed were exculpated in college and some pertinent facts were added to warn me against tragic mistakes and horrible diseases. But it wasn't until I entered the army in World War II that the sexual world was amplified during the army's classic sex movie, the warnings by sergeants before we were let loose in towns and cities, and the campfire discussions during training exercises. I was a wide-eyed listener because I had little experience on which to declaim and was awed by the exploits of my fellow soldiers.

The reason all this has come to mind is the controversy between the federal government and several states over grants for sex education courses. In 1998, it was decreed under President Bill Clinton that federal money would be used to promote abstinence-only sex education. This law has been amplified under President George W. Bush. Because of this restriction, a dozen states have decided to forgo the federal money, the most recent one being New York State.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard F. Daines said that several studies, including one by the federal Government Accountability Office, have shown that abstinence programs are not effective and that the courses had given teenagers incorrect medical facts about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

There have been scores and scores of studies on the differ ences between abstinence-based and comprehensive approaches to sex education, and while the comprehensive approach is definitely a winner, opponents can also point to some studies that show how abstinence is a better approach.

A recent op-ed column in this newspaper by conservative Republican Matt Kinnaman cited some of the studies that have shown abstinence can have positive reactions from young people. However, there is a list of 64 studies cited by the AVERT organization, an international charity based in the United Kingdom that is working to avert HIV and AIDS worldwide, which show that comprehensive sex education is the best way to go.

A lot of people cannot understand why any state should turn down substantial federal grants. The problem is that the states have to nearly match the government grants with their own funds to augment the programs. There was a hue and cry from some quarters when Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick also said he is going to reject the federal funds, but there are also many who consider this the right way to go.

The major problem is that most of the people who reject comprehensive sex education do this on a religious or moral basis rather than objectively considering the facts of the case. Most of these people are also against same-sex coupling and abortions. They feel that if you tell young people about condoms, it is the same as an invitation to pre-marital sex.

  • On the other hand, the people for comprehensive sex education, such as the AVERT organization, feel that it "provides young people with the means by which they can protect themselves against abuse and exploitation as well as unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/ AIDS." Most of the studies show that abstinence-based programs may help young people in the short term, AVERT says, but places them at greater risk later.

    The ones it helps the most are those who also have a very strong religious bent to back up their resolution. In our society today people marry much later than in the past and also a fifth of marriages break up within five years. But while marriage ages have risen, sexual activity has started at a much earlier age, 16 being the age most cited.

    Something like a half billion dollars have been spent on abstinence programs during the presidency of Bush, but sex is still a hot topic among teenagers. According to AVERT, "a recent major survey (of teachers, parents and students) found overwhelming support for sex education in school and little local controversy. However, the survey did find some parental differences on the focus it would have with 46 per cent preferring an abstinence-plus approach, 36 per cent a comprehensive approach and 15 per cent abstinence only."

    I now have only grandchildren in school but I personally would favor the comprehensive approach. This would give children a rounded picture of what is out there, and those families that are abstinence-only adherents could emphasize their philosophy through home and church counseling. And it doesn't have to cost a half billion dollars in tax money for private organizations. It should be just another course in school.

    Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.


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