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A number of disgusted parents also wrote in, wondering why sex education needs to be taught in schools at all. While a great deal of debate remains over what kind of sex education should be included in an average public school student's day, mounting evidence shows that information should be made available to young people outside of the home. The fact remains that many teens don't get ANY straight facts about sex at home. For example, rates of pregnancy among Hispanic teens have been slower to drop than among other population groups. This week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy released a survey showing just how much at risk that population remains: While 90 percent of Hispanics feel teen pregnancy is a problem in their community, only 48 percent of Hispanic parents said they had ever had in-depth talks with their children about sex. This information gap needs desperately to be filled most likely by the public schools. If honest information isn't made available, we risk the future of an entire generation of teenagers by denying them information about sex that their parents are too busy or too embarrassed to share with them.
Some readers are concerned that sex education programs serve as a de facto "green light" for teen sex, and feel these programs "push" the positive aspects of sex and ignore the moral weight of sexual decision-making. That fear is not borne out by facts. In fact, abstinence supporters may be comforted by the knowledge that the vast majority of sex education advocates even Planned Parenthood, the target of considerable ire in the flurry of recent e-mails do present abstinence as the only absolutely risk-free sexual behavior. Planned Parenthood's web site includes a chart detailing the risks and responsibilities of sexual activities. The text cautions, "Sexual relationships present physical and emotional risks. Abstinence is a very good way to postpone taking those risks until women and men are mature enough to handle them." If a person does choose to be sexually active, the site continues, there are ways to lessen the inherent risks, including condoms, the pill and other forms of contraception. This organization, like many others, places a great deal of emphasis on methods of preventing pregnancy and disease two of the most serious risks to the intellectual achievement and general health of teenagers today.
For young people who have no other source of reliable information about sexuality and even for many of those who do the public schools remain a primary source of facts about sex, contraception and abstinence. And given that two thirds of American public schools do teach a combination of abstinence and sex education, and that rates of teen pregnancy have reached their lowest point in two decades, it may be possible to draw the preliminary conclusion that the combination curriculum is working. Of course, as any statistician or social scientist will tell you, it's always dangerous to draw conclusions from a "snapshot," or a year or two of statistics. And, as in any heated debate, everyone is more than willing to take whatever information they can get and spin it into a success story for their side.
As school districts struggle with this volatile issue, they would do well to listen to what teenagers have to say about sex. Not because we necessarily feel they are capable of making adult decisions, or because we want to relinquish control over their education. But because for better or worse, they are the only ones who know what's really happening in high schools. We can speculate about their motivations and teach them about our expectations until we're blue in the face. But we're not out there in the schools every day, making tough decisions. The numbers and the anecdotal evidence are there to prove that teens are having sex, and we can dislike the statistics, but to deny or ignore that fact is nothing less than immoral. As adults, we have the responsibility to keep young people safe, and by now, we know that teenagers will exercise control over their own health and their own bodies. At the end of the day, they have two choices: They can choose to remain abstinent, which is a laudable and realistic goal. Or they can choose to have sex and in that case, we'd better hope that someone took the time to teach them how to find, choose and use birth control.
TIME Daily: Does Teaching Chastity 101 Really Work?