Education: Sex and Schools

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

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One technique at the school is to raise animals in the classroom. When they mate, the children understand that they produce babies of the same species -- a smooth introduction to sex education known to every farm child. Nurse Mary Tang teaches anatomy to fifth- and sixth-graders and answers explicit questions, but she does not bring up subjects like abortion and birth control. That is the only formal part of the instruction; most of the rest of the sex- ed time is spent in rap sessions, fielding questions about sex and trying to build personal responsibility.

Good or bad, adequate or not, is some better than none? Does sex education work? So far, studies on the subject have been fragmentary, unconvincing or massively inconclusive. A six-volume 1984 analysis by Mathtech Inc. of nine programs around the country came to the deflating conclusion after a seven- year investigation that sex-ed courses had almost no effect on contraceptive use, views about premarital sex, or such social skills as assertiveness and , self-understanding. The only significant changes in behavior and attitude came in the two programs with strong backing from parents and the local community. And the only increased use of birth control came when the sex-ed program was combined with ready access to a health clinic. The study offered a nugget of hope to conservative parents: graduates of sex-ed programs were less permissive about premarital sex than control groups.

After studying 3,600 students at six high schools in Indiana, Texas and Mississippi, the Center for Population Options found little discernible impact. "Formal sex education appears to have no consistent effect on the subsequent probability that a teenager will begin to have intercourse, neither postponing it nor hastening it," said Douglas Kirby, the head researcher. "Typically, students who take sex-education courses report more tolerant attitudes toward the sexual behavior of others but little change in the values that govern their own personal behavior."

The Surgeon General's intervention brought new doubts about sex education. Some critics who spoke out reacted angrily at the prospect of explicit teaching about homosexuality and anal sex. "Where do we draw the line?" roared Joseph Casper, an outspoken member of the elected Boston school committee. "The gay community would love to come in and say theirs is an alternative life-style that's really O.K. But then what's next? Do we bring in people who want to talk about safe bondage too? Chimps making it with chickens? It's insane." A few people talked as if AIDS were ushering in a new puritan era in which sex-ed courses would be used as a bully pulpit for abstinence. "As awful as it sounds, AIDS is almost a blessing in disguise," said Mary Ann Briggs, a health teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder. "Many kids are very scared by AIDS, and it makes it easier to say, 'Do you really want to get involved with sex?' "

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