Education: Sex and Schools

AIDS and the Surgeon General add a new urgency to an old debate

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A sex-ed solution, however, need not await or depend on the crumbling of the public school system. Some towns are evolving their own compromises. In Lindenhurst, N.Y., after a fierce conservative protest against an eleventh- grade sex-ed program, the school decided to offer three different courses. About 60% of the students attend the liberal "Family Life" course; 25% take the conservative option, "Sexuality, Commitment and Family"; and 15%, including those who make no choice at all, end up in a health course without sex ed.

Another promising answer to fundamental differences may lie in an emerging agreement on one basic. A number of cities are turning up evidence that most youngsters are looking for an excuse to abstain. In 1980 the teen services program at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital found that of the thousand or so girls under age 16 it saw each year, the overwhelming majority (87%) wanted to learn how to say no without hurting anyone's feelings. Grady responded with a program for eighth-graders called "Postponing Sexual Involvement." It is now taught in 23 Atlanta-area schools, focusing on decision making, assertiveness and how to articulate values and feelings.

Older teenagers, paid $8 an hour, are the teachers. "The girls who took the program see themselves differently," says Marion Howard, clinical director of the Grady teen services. "They didn't think having sex meant they were grown up. They didn't think it would earn them respect." And only 5% of them started having sex in the eighth grade, in contrast to 16.5% of girls outside the program.

Many educators think the prochastity movement is a pipe dream. "We can't fool ourselves into thinking that abstinence is the solution," says Mary Luke of San Francisco/Alameda Planned Parenthood. "These kids have made their decisions, and we're going to have to deal with the reality of it." But there is no doubt that the threat of AIDS and the need to defuse conservative critics have made the abstinence message politically popular to left and right alike. "Our preferred way to deal with sexual activity is to say no," says Patricia Davis-Scott, clinic director at two Chicago high schools. In the California school system, notes Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction, when a boy says, "If you love me, you will," a girl is taught to answer, "If you love me, you won't ask me." Illinois Governor James Thompson told a Republican meeting last month, " 'Just Say No' is a good slogan for drugs, and it is a good slogan for teen sex."

This popular fervor for abstinence, undreamed of just a few years ago, surely is no harbinger of a new puritanism. But it may open up some room for sex education to overtake its critics. In exchange for the abstinence message being treated with respect, many conservative opponents seem likely to follow Surgeon General Koop and accept sex instruction in the schools. As Koop himself seems to argue, there is really no other choice.

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