Education: Sex and Schools

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

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Politically, Koop's statements last month came one step ahead of an AIDS study that might have proved embarrassing to the Administration: a National Academy of Sciences report warned that the AIDS epidemic "could become a catastrophe" without strong White House leadership and a campaign of education and research that would probably cost $2 billion by 1990. Whether Koop's motive was political or not, his report plunged the nation into a thicket of legal and moral questions. Is it unwise to tell third-graders about anal sex and the connection between sex, AIDS and death? Is it the proper function of a public school to push either abstinence or birth control? Is value-free sex education possible, and if not, whose values will be taught?

Sex education has been a program searching for a consensus since it arrived in the schools at the turn of the century, the brainchild of stern progressive-era reformers, mostly doctors and other upper-crust male professionals. The idea, the only idea, was to enforce sexual restraint. Reformers believed that enlightened mass education could help banish venereal disease, prostitution, masturbation and sex outside marriage. The notion of "scientific" sex education arose as a way of deflecting the curious from actual sexual behavior. Instruction, said a 1912 committee, "should aim to keep sex consciousness and sex emotions at the minimum." Then, as now, there were heavy implications that parents, particularly impoverished ones, could not be counted on to teach restraint to the young.

About 80% of public-school children in major U.S. cities now take some kind of sex-education course. As for national figures, no one knows for sure: sex education is strictly a local matter, varying widely from one community to the next, and few accurate statistics are kept. Only Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., require the subject in all schools.

In a number of schools, sex education turns out to be nothing more than a brief bout with a safely biological "swimming sperm and Fallopian tube" course that has put students to sleep for generations. Or, hardly more energizing, it may be a three-hour course taught by a gym teacher, followed by a display of condoms or foam brought along by a speaker from Planned Parenthood. In Kansas, the curriculums for phys ed, drivers' ed and sex ed are all overseen by the same state board of education official. "No matter what is written in the curriculum, there is not much going on out there," says Mary Lee Tatum, a sex-education consultant. "Under 15% of U.S. children get really good sex education. We are only beginning to institute adequate programs."

Many communities, of course, have outstanding programs, including Arlington, Va., Baltimore, and Irvington, N.J. Teaching can be impressively broad, running from kindergarten through twelfth grade and based on developmental psychology, emphasizing assertiveness training, the mechanics of decision making and assigned essays on topics like sex in the media.

At P.S. 42 on New York City's Lower East Side, Principal Anthony Barry takes the formal sex-ed curriculum "with a grain of salt": teaching the children of fairly conservative parents, most of them Chinese American and Hispanic, means playing things by ear. Says he: "We want parents to know that we're not undermining what they are trying to do."

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