Carnal knowledge: The sex and debate
By Molly Masland
Soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens are adding urgency to the debate over sex education. Conservatives claim the alarming statistics illustrate why abstinence should be the single mantra when it comes to sex ed. Liberals counter that the increase in disease is the strongest case for more detailed information. Caught in the middle are America’s kids, who are more vulnerable than ever to potentially deadly diseases. In the debate over sex education, one thing is undisputed: The average kid today is immersed in sexual imagery. A generation that has grown up on the sordid details of the Starr Report, watched thong-clad teens gyrate on Spring Break cable specials, or read the cover of nearly any women’s magazine in the grocery check-out line is familiar with the facts of life. But young people face a barrage of confusing messages. Along with titillating images from the media, some kids are told to “just say no” to sex. In school, others are taught how to put condoms on bananas in preparation for the real thing, and still other children receive no information whatsoever.
Transcending the cacophony of mixed messages is a host of alarming facts. Kids are becoming more sexually active at an earlier age. Sixty-six percent of American high school students have had sex by their senior year. And these same teens are paying the price by contracting dangerous — and sometimes deadly — sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 65 percent of all sexually transmitted infections contracted by Americans this year will occur in people under 24. One in four new HIV infections occurs in people younger than 22.
“There’s a disconnect somewhere. Someone’s not getting the message. We need to find out why and help our kids be more responsible,” said Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. But what message should be given to young people is the subject of intense debate.
How much to teach?
One side in the debate favors comprehensive sex education, including detailed information about sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and abstinence. “Young people are going to learn about sex and our question has to be where do we want them to learn? From the media? From their friends? Or do we want them to learn from an educated, responsible adult?” said Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a leading advocate of comprehensive sex education.
The opposing side pushes for an abstinence-only message that advises teens to wait until marriage. Since there is no federal law that requires public schools to teach sex education, let alone one that specifies what should be taught, these decisions are left up to states and individual school districts. Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia require schools to provide sex education and 32 do not. In some states, such as Louisiana, kids might learn about HIV/AIDS, but not about any other STDs or how to prevent pregnancy. In other states, like Washington, teens receive information on everything from birth control pills to homosexuality.
A key issue in the battle over sex education is whether giving kids more information about sex actually leads to sexual activity. In a study of 35 sex education programs around the world, the World Health Organization found there is no evidence that comprehensive programs encourage sexual activity. The study also concluded that abstinence-only programs are less effective than comprehensive classes that include abstinence and safe-sex practices such as contraception and condom use. Related nationwide studies by the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood came to similar conclusions.
But abstinence-only groups dismiss these studies as biased and skewed. They argue...
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