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It is a strange phenomenon. In many traditional societies, youth's initiation into the mysteries of sex and life is the awesome duty of family or tribe. Yet in the West, and particularly in Puritan America, parents rarely perform a major conscious role in this respectalthough their unconscious attitudes profoundly influence their children. Parents are apt to feel strained, embarrassed, inadequate to the task. Many psychiatrists agree that parents are too often beset by their own sexual problems or guilt feelings to make good sex teachers. They can hardly imagine their children as anything but innocent, while the children can hardly imagine their parents engaged in sexual intercourse. Urbanization deprives children of what used to be learned through simple observation on the farm; middle-class life often keeps them from the rough-and-ready expertise "picked up in the gutter." Given the alarming statistics about rising venereal-disease rates and unwed teen-age pregnancies, it is no wonder that parents increasingly feel that they cannot cope with the situation and turn to the school for help.
Teachers, of course, are not free of sexual problems and prejudices, either: while psychiatric folklore is full of case histories of complexes and inhibitions acquired in the home, no one has any idea about what psychological problems may be created in the classroom. Still, a reasonably well-prepared and well-balanced teacher can usually explain things in an atmosphere less emotionally charged than that found in the home. The big questions in class are when children are to be taught, how and with what aim.
What goes by the name of sex educationor the popular euphemism "family living"covers a wide range. For boys, it may simply be a session in the gym conducted by the coach and consisting of little more than health hints or superficial biology. For girls, it may be what one educator impatiently calls the "rainy-day phys-ed-movie bit"frequently Walt Disney's well-worn Story of Menstruation. Only fairly general physiology is taught even in more ambitious programsknown to professionals as "plumbing courses." By modern standards, such courses are hardly considered sex education at all. The new insistence is on dealing with every facet of sex: biological, emotional, sociological.