• U.S.

How Should We Teach Our Kids about SEX?

20 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

SOME INGREDIENTS IN THE STEAMING HORmonal stew that is American adolescence:

For Prom Night last week, senior class officers at Benicia High School in California assembled some party favors — a gift-wrapped condom, a Planned Parenthood pamphlet advocating abstinence and a piece of candy. “We know Prom Night is a big night for a lot of people, sexually,” senior Lisa Puryear told the San Jose Mercury News. “We were trying to spread a little responsible behavior.” But administrators confiscated the 375 condoms, arguing that the school-sponsored event is no place for sex education.

Fifty students in Nashville, Tennessee, stand in front of a gathering of Baptist ministers to make a pledge: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship.”

Tonya, 17, began having sex when she was 12, but rarely uses a condom. “I know a lot of people who have died of AIDS,” she says, “but I’m not that worried.” Every six months she gets an AIDS test. “The only time I’m worried is right before I get the results back.”

Last Wednesday the student leaders at Bremerton High in Seattle voted that no openly gay student could serve in their school government. The goal, they stated, was “to preserve the integrity and high moral standards that BHS is built upon.”

Teenagers in York County, Pennsylvania, celebrate the Great Sex-Out, a sex- free day to reflect on abstinence. Among activities suggested as alternatives to sex are baking cookies and taking moonlit walks. Since the event was held on a Monday, it wasn’t much of a problem. But Friday, said one student, “that would be harder.”

Owen, 19, of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, carries a key chain bearing the inscription, A TISKET, A TASKET, A CONDOM OR A CASKET.

Just Do It. Just Say No. Just Wear a Condom. When it comes to sex, the message to America’s kids is confused and confusing. The moral standards society once generally accepted, or at least paid lip service to, fell victim to a sexual revolution and a medical tragedy. A decade marked by fear of AIDS and furor over society’s values made it hard to agree on the ethical issues and emotional context that used to be part of learning about sex. Those on the right reacted to condom giveaways and gay curriculums and throbbing MTV videos as signs of moral breakdown. Those on the left dismissed such concerns as the rantings of religious zealots and shunned almost any discussion of sexual restraint as being reactionary or, worse yet, unsophisticated. “Family values” became a polarizing phrase.

Now, however, the children of the sexual revolution are beginning to grapple with how to teach their own children about sex. Faced with evidence that their kids are suffering while they bicker, parents and educators are seeking some common ground about what works and what doesn’t. It is becoming possible to discuss the need for responsibility and commitment without being cast as a religious fanatic and to accept the need for safe-sex instruction without being considered an amoral pragmatist.

In one sense, the arrival of AIDS in the American psyche a decade ago ended the debate over sex education. Health experts were clear about the crisis: By the time they are 20, three-quarters of young Americans have had sex; one- fourth of teens contract some venereal disease each year. About 20% of all AIDS patients are under 30, but because the incubation period is eight years or more, the CDC believes a large proportion were infected with HIV as teenagers.

In such a climate of fear, moral debate seemed like a luxury. Get them the information, give them protection, we can talk about morality later. There is a fishbowl full of condoms in the nurse’s office, help yourself. While only three states mandated sex ed in 1980, today 47 states formally require or recommend it; all 50 support AIDS education.

; But as parents and educators watch the fallout from nearly a decade of lessons geared to disaster prevention — here is a diagram of female anatomy, this is how you put on a condom — there are signs that this bloodless approach to learning about sex doesn’t work. Kids are continuing to try sex at an ever more tender age: more than a third of 15-year-old boys have had sexual intercourse, as have 27% of 15-year-old girls — up from 19% in 1982. Among sexually active teenage girls, 61% have had multiple partners, up from 38% in 1971. Among boys, incidents like the score-keeping Spur Posse gang in California and the sexual-assault convictions of the Glen Ridge, New Jersey, jock stars suggest that whatever is being taught, responsible sexuality isn’t being learned.

Beyond what studies and headlines can convey, it is the kids who best express their confusion and distress. Audrey Lee, 15, has taken a sex- education class at San Leandro High School in California, but, she asserts, “there’s no real discussion about emotional issues and people’s opinions.” The program consists mostly of films and slides with information on sex and birth control. It lacks any give-and-take on issues like date rape and how to say no to sexual pressure. “The school doesn’t emphasize anything,” she says. “If you have a question, you go to your friends, but they don’t have all the answers.” As for her family, “sex is not mentioned.”

“Adults have one foot in the Victorian era while kids are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic,” complains pediatrician Karen Hein, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who has seen too many teens infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases come through her hospital. She laments the fact that sex ed is only “about vaginas, ovaries and abstinence — not about intimacy and expressing feelings.” Kids, she says, “don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, and adults are really not helping them much.”

America has long wrestled with the tension between its Puritan and pioneer heritages, and its attitude toward sex has often seemed muddled. Victorian parents, fearful of their children’s sexuality, would try to delay the onset of puberty by underfeeding their children. By 1910 exploding rates of syphilis drove the crusade for sex education in much the way AIDS does today. In 1940 the U.S. Public Health Service argued the urgent need for schools to get involved, and within a few years the first standardized programs rolled into classrooms. But by the 1960s came the backlash from the John Birch Society, Mothers Organized for Moral Stability and other groups. By the early ’70s they had persuaded at least 20 state legislatures to either restrict or abolish sex education.

“There’s something wrong,” sex educator Sol Gordon once said, “with a country that says, ‘Sex is dirty, save it for someone you love.’ ” But families at least agreed on a social standard that preached, if not practiced, the virtues of restraint and of linking sex to emotional commitment and marriage. “It used to be easy to say it’s just wrong to have sex before marriage. You could expect churches to say that, adults from many walks of life to somehow communicate that,” notes Peter Benson, president of Minneapolis-based Search Institute, a research organization specializing in child and adolescent issues. “We went through a sexual revolution since the ’60s that poked a major hole in that. And nothing has come along to replace it. What’s responsible sexuality now? Does it mean no sex unless you’re in love? No sex unless you’re 21? No sex unless it’s protected?”

Nothing approaching a consensus has emerged to guide kids in their decisions. A TIME/CNN poll of 500 U.S. teenagers found that 71% had been told by their parents to wait until they were older before having sex; more than half had been told not to have sex until they were married. The teens were almost evenly split between those who say it is O.K. for kids ages 16 and under to have sex and those who say they should be 18 or older.

Some social scientists argue that there is nothing wrong with increased sexual expression among teens. “Feeling, thinking and being sexual is an endemic part of being a teenager,” says UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson. “Let’s say a couple has paired off, wants to be monogamous and uses condoms. I’d say that’s a legitimate part of their sexual expression as a couple in the ’90s.”

There are many factors, besides increased permissiveness, that make the trend toward increased casual sex among kids seem almost inevitable. Since the turn of the century, better health and nutrition have lowered the average age of sexual maturity. The onset of menstruation in girls has dropped three months each decade, so the urges that once landed at 14 may now hit at 12. At the same time, the years of premarital sexual maturity are much greater than a generation ago. The typical age of a first marriage has jumped to 25, from 21 in the 1950s.

School cutbacks and working parents have left teens with a looser after- school life. Many use that time for afternoon jobs, but less to pay for college than for a car, for freedom and the chance to socialize more with peers, who may pressure each other into ever greater sexual exploration. Sandra, 17, in Des Moines, Iowa, pregnant and due in November, says she has slept with 33 boys. She keeps count and doesn’t think her behavior is all that unusual. “A lot of girls do the same. They think if they don’t have sex with a person, that person will not want to talk to them anymore.”

In the inner cities the scarcity of jobs and hope for the future invites kids to seek pleasure with little thought for the fallout. “You’d think AIDS would be a deterrent, but it’s not,” says Marie Bronshvag, a health teacher at West Side High School in upper Manhattan. Their lives are empty, she observes, and their view of the future fatalistic. “I believe in God,” says student Mark Schaefer, 19. “If he wants something bad to happen to me, it will happen. Anyway, by the time I get AIDS I think they’ll have a cure.”

Nor is fear of pregnancy any more compelling. “The kids feel,” says Margaret Pruitt Clark, executive director of the Center for Population Options, “that the streets are so violent that they are either gonna be dead or in jail in their 20s, so why not have a kid.” Most striking, she adds, is the calculation that young women in the inner cities are making. “They feel that if the number of men who will be available to them as the years go on will be less and less, the girls might as well have a child when they can, no matter how young they are.”

Finally, there is the force that is easiest to blame and hardest to measure: the saturation of American popular culture with sexual messages, themes, images, exhortations. Teenagers typically watch five hours of television a day — which in a year means they have seen nearly 14,000 sexual encounters, according to the Center for Population Options. “Kids are seeing a world in which everything is sensual and physical,” says Dr. Richard Ratner, who this week takes office as president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry. “Even in this era of feminism, rap songs preach, ‘Take this bitch and f— her.’ Everything is more explicit. It’s the difference between wearing a bathing suit and walking around nude.”

The content of popular culture has been a favorite target among politicians caught up in the culture wars, but kids themselves have their own criticisms of what they see. Many recoil at the sexual pressures they feel from Calvin Klein ads, MTV, heavy-breathing movies, all the icy, staged or oddball sex they see in books by Madonna and rock videos. “If you turn on TV, there’s a woman taking off her clothes,” says Marcela Avila, a senior at Santa Monica High, who was among a group of students who sat down with TIME’s Jim Willwerth to discuss the sexual landscape they face. “It makes you doubt yourself. Am I O.K.? You put yourself down — I’ll never be able to satisfy a guy.” Her classmate Elizabeth Young agrees. “The media doesn’t make it seem like it’s really about love,” she says. “Nowadays sexuality is the way you look, the way you wear your hair. It’s all physical, not what’s inside you.”

Many kids, who can be lethal critics of the sexual mores of their parents’ generation, say they are offended that adults have so little faith in them. “Not all teenagers have sex. They’re not all going to do it just because everyone else is,” says Kristen Thomas, 17, of Plymouth, Minnesota. “They kind of have a lack of faith in us — parents and general society.”

Traditionally, it’s been the role of parents to convey the messages about love and intimacy that kids seem to be missing in their education about sex. Although today’s parents are the veterans of the decade that came after free love and before safe sex, that doesn’t automatically make them any more able to talk about sex with their children; if anything, the reverse may be true. Hypocrisy is a burden they carry. “Do as I say,” they instruct their teenagers, “not as I did.”

As for those who sat out the sexual revolution, they may be too embarrassed or intimidated to talk to teens — or afraid of giving the wrong information. Phyllis Shea, director of teen programs for the Worcester, Massachusetts, affiliate of Girls Inc. (formerly Girls Clubs of America), recently ran a sex- education workshop for 12 girls and their mothers. In many cases, she says, mothers lag far behind their daughters in knowledge. Five of the mothers had never seen a condom. A mother who had been completely unwilling to discuss sex with her daughter told the group that she had been molested as a child. On the way home, she and her daughter drove around for two hours, deep in conversation.

Of all the mixed messages that teenagers absorb, the most confused have to , do with gender roles. The stereotypes of male and female behavior have crumbled so quickly over the past generation that parents are at a loss. According to the TIME/CNN poll, 60% of parents tell their daughters to remain chaste until marriage, but less than half tell their sons the same thing. Kids reflect the double standard: more than two-thirds agree that a boy who has sex sees his reputation enhanced, while a girl who has sex watches hers suffer.

That is not stopping girls from acting as sexual aggressors, however. Teenagers in TIME’s survey say girls are just as interested in sex as boys are — an opinion confirmed by recent research. “My friends and I are a lot less inhibited about saying what we want to do,” says Rebecca Tuynman of Santa Monica High. “A lot of the change is admitting that we like it.” Tuynman says that while she was taught that boys don’t like girls who come on too strong, her brother set her straight. “He said he’d like it if girls came after him. I’ll always be grateful to him for saying that.” Her classmate Tammy Weisberger notes that like so many boy jocks, girls on her soccer team brag about whom they’ve slept with — but with a difference. “The guys say how many girls they did it with. With the girls, it’s who they did it with.”

For all the aggressive girl talk, some experts are worried that what the sexual revolution has really done for teenage girls is push them into doing things they may not really want to do. “The irony is that the sexual revolution pressured girls into accepting sex on boys’ terms,” argues Myriam Miedzian, author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. “If they don’t engage in sex, they’re not cool. At least under the old morality, girls had some protection. They could say their parents would kill them if they had sex.”

As for boys, researchers are finding that among parents, the fear that their son will grow up to be aggressively promiscuous is nothing compared with the fear he will turn out to be gay. Manhattan social worker Joy Fallek has seen boys who fear that they might be gay if they haven’t had sex with a girl by age 16. Parents have told Miedzian that they will not let their boys watch TV’s Mr. Rogers because of his gentle demeanor. “This is a major barrier to parents’ raising their sons to be caring and sensitive people,” she contends. “Other parents have told me that they’re afraid not to have their sons play with guns because they’ll grow up gay. And yet there’s not the slightest $ shred of evidence for this.”

Schools are attempting to fill in where parents have failed. But it has been hard for educators over these past few years to know what to teach when society itself cannot agree on a direction. Absent any agreement over what is “proper” sexual conduct, teachers can be left reciting, word for word, the approved text on homosexuality or abortion or masturbation. The typical sex-ed curriculum is remarkably minimalist. Most secondary schools offer somewhere between 6 and 20 hours of sex education a year. The standard curriculum now consists of one or two days in fifth grade dealing with puberty; two weeks in an eighth-grade health class dealing with anatomy, reproduction and AIDS prevention, and perhaps a 12th-grade elective course on current issues in sexuality.

Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton’s nominee for Surgeon General, is leading the fight for a more comprehensive approach from kindergarten through 12th grade. As head of the Arkansas health department, she was one of the country’s most outspoken advocates of wide-ranging sex education. “We’ve spent all our time fighting each other about whose values we should be teaching our kids,” she complains. “We’ve allowed the right to make decisions about our children for the last 100 years, and all it has bought us is the highest abortion rate, the highest nonmarital birth rate and the highest pregnancy rate in the industrialized world.” But Elders is no advocate of values-free instruction. “Proper sex education would be teaching kids how to develop relationships and about the consequences of their behavior. Kids can’t say no if they don’t first learn how to feel good about themselves.”

But the issue of teaching kids about sex remains politically explosive. This week the results are expected to be announced in an unusually bitter election for New York City community school boards in which the religious right joined with the Catholic Church to try to elect more tradition-minded representatives. Earlier this year, the system’s highly regarded Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was ousted largely because of his effort to expand condom distribution and teach children about gay life-styles. The New York City Board of Education last week chose as its new president a conservative Queens mother who had cast the deciding vote against the chancellor.

If there is one point of agreement among all parties in the debate, it is that sex education has to be about more than sex. The anatomy lesson must come , in a larger context of building relationships based on dignity and respect. The message these programs have in common: learn everything you want and need to know, and then carefully consider waiting.

Some of the most innovative and successful efforts have been launched by private religious and social-service organizations. Girls Inc., with 165 chapters nationwide, launched Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy (PAP) in 1985 to help low-income teens avoid cycles of early pregnancy, poverty and hopelessness. The first section, called Growing Together, invites girls ages 12 to 14 to talk over issues of sexuality with their mothers. The second section, Will Power/Won’t Power, is designed to help girls develop strategies for postponing sexual activity and preventing pregnancy. “It’s our experience that kids this age really know it’s too early to be having sex,” says Heather Johnston Nicholson, director of the National Resource Center for Girls Inc., in Indianapolis. “But when you’re that age, you don’t want to be considered a complete dweeb. We’re establishing a peer group that says it’s O.K. not to be sexually active.”

In the third segment, Taking Care of Business, 15- to 17-year-olds are encouraged to focus on their goals. The final step, Health Bridge, helps older teens establish ties with a community clinic to ensure that they will have continued access to affordable reproductive health care. “It gives kids an opportunity to think through the reasons for not becoming sexually active,” says Nicholson. But she cautions that “this is not a Just Say No program. When kids ask questions, they get straight answers. While we’re focusing on postponement, we’re not doing it in a context of fear and scare tactics.”

That approach distinguishes PAP from the more hard-line abstinence programs that are gaining ground all across the country (see box). While both types of programs are designed to help teens make healthy decisions, there remains a fault line over whether to include detailed information on contraception or to focus on abstinence in a way that assumes that no lessons on applying condoms will be necessary.

At least a dozen abstinence-based curriculums are on the market; one of the largest, Sex Respect, is used in about 2,000 schools around the country. What Sex Respect does not include is standard information about birth control, which prompts some critics to charge that purely abstinence-based programs are inadequate. Michael Carrera, who eight years ago founded a highly successful % teen-pregnancy-prevent ion program in Harlem, deplores the “ungenerous, unforgiving” nature of some abstinence programs. “The way you make a safe, responsible abstinent decision is if you’re informed, not if you’re dumb.” Carrera attributes the success of his program to this more comprehensive approach: in a part of Manhattan with a 50% dropout rate, 96% of Carrera’s kids are still in school.

Trust Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the high priestess of pleasure, to provide parents and teens with a middle ground. She has just published Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids, in which she writes for ages 8 through 14. Her thesis: teach kids everything, and then encourage them to wait. “Make sure even the first kiss is a memorable experience, is what I tell kids,” she says. “I don’t think kids should be engaging in sex too early, not even necking and petting. I generally think age 14 and 15 is too early, in spite of the fact that by then girls are menstruating and boys may have nocturnal emissions.”

Above all, she says, kids need to have their questions addressed. Learning and talking about sex do not have to mean giving permission, she insists. “On the contrary, I think that a child knowing about his or her body will be able to deal with the pressure to have sex. This child can say no, I’ll wait.” In fact, Westheimer is a big advocate of waiting. “I say to teenagers, What’s the rush?”


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 Americans teenagers (age 13 to 17) taken for TIME/CNN on April 13-14 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Sampling error is plus or minus 4.5%.

CAPTION: Where have you learned the most about sex?

Have you ever had sexual intercourse?

How old were you when you first had sex?

How many different people have you had sex with?

What are the reasons kids you know have sex?

How often did you use birth control when you had sex?

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