Education: Sex and Schools

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

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Some proponents of sex education had reservations about Koop's report. Stanford Education Professor Michael Kirst said schools are overburdened enough without becoming the official problem-solving arena for the nation's sex problems. Said Kirst: "Every time schools take on value-laden topics, they end up losing overall public support. It's a no-win ball game." The national president of Planned Parenthood, Faye Wattleton of New York City, offered Koop only cold praise. Reason: she wants upbeat instruction, not just education "within the context of preventing a deadly disease."

$ By far Koop's most explosive proposal is the idea of teaching eight-year- olds about AIDS. Only 23% of those surveyed in the TIME poll agreed with the suggestion. Most professional educators seem opposed. "If you brought up anal sex to third-graders, they would be in a state of shock," said Marilyn Huriwitz, a health teacher at South Boston High School. "How are you going to talk to kids that age about anal sex?" asks Al Wardell, a Chicago high school teacher and a gay activist. "I guess that's my teacher's prudishness." Young children's brains cannot assimilate such information, warns William Chambers, director of pediatric psychiatry at Manhattan's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. "For them, anal sex is going to the bathroom."

A few experts believe the Surgeon General's suggestion makes sense. Observes Harold Harris, a child psychiatrist at Duke Medical Center: "At four or five, they're playing doctor games. Sexuality is what that's all about. We should bring it out of the closet and talk about it in school and home." It would not be necessary to give third-graders the full hair-raising message, only a few basics. Child Psychologist Lee Salk would not favor including the subject as part of sex education, but he thinks that AIDS could be explained as a disease if care is taken to avoid raising undue fear. He would describe anal sex as well as drug use. "One of the ways grown-ups protect themselves is to avoid doing these things," he would continue. But, he points out, "notice I am avoiding alarming language and not saying, 'If you do this, you'll be dead in no time.' "

Pragmatically, Koop might be well advised to abandon campaigning for vivid AIDS instruction in the third grade. The delay of a couple of years would not greatly undermine his overall goal. But the largest problem entwined in sex-ed courses cannot be so easily evaded or resolved. The subject is impossible to teach without plunging into the question of values. Many educators assert that curriculums can be made value free, a dubious idea at best.

The difficulties of remaining value free show up clearly in an 18-minute anti-AIDS videotape prepared for the New York City school system and purchased by groups in 35 states. The narrator is the young movie actress Rae Dawn Chong. She discusses the two riskiest behaviors involved in AIDS, unambiguously advising viewers to avoid intravenous drug use but shying away from a similar warning on anal sex. Instead, she suggests use of condoms for vaginal and anal intercourse and adds offhandedly, "If you decide not to have sex, that's O.K. too."

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