How Should We Teach Our Kids about SEX?

Bombarded by mixed messages about values, students are more sexually active than ever, and more confused

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For all the aggressive girl talk, some experts are worried that what the sexual revolution has really done for teenage girls is push them into doing things they may not really want to do. "The irony is that the sexual revolution pressured girls into accepting sex on boys' terms," argues Myriam Miedzian, author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. "If they don't engage in sex, they're not cool. At least under the old morality, girls had some protection. They could say their parents would kill them if they had sex."

As for boys, researchers are finding that among parents, the fear that their son will grow up to be aggressively promiscuous is nothing compared with the fear he will turn out to be gay. Manhattan social worker Joy Fallek has seen boys who fear that they might be gay if they haven't had sex with a girl by age 16. Parents have told Miedzian that they will not let their boys watch TV's Mr. Rogers because of his gentle demeanor. "This is a major barrier to parents' raising their sons to be caring and sensitive people," she contends. "Other parents have told me that they're afraid not to have their sons play with guns because they'll grow up gay. And yet there's not the slightest $ shred of evidence for this."

Schools are attempting to fill in where parents have failed. But it has been hard for educators over these past few years to know what to teach when society itself cannot agree on a direction. Absent any agreement over what is "proper" sexual conduct, teachers can be left reciting, word for word, the approved text on homosexuality or abortion or masturbation. The typical sex-ed curriculum is remarkably minimalist. Most secondary schools offer somewhere between 6 and 20 hours of sex education a year. The standard curriculum now consists of one or two days in fifth grade dealing with puberty; two weeks in an eighth-grade health class dealing with anatomy, reproduction and AIDS prevention, and perhaps a 12th-grade elective course on current issues in sexuality.

Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's nominee for Surgeon General, is leading the fight for a more comprehensive approach from kindergarten through 12th grade. As head of the Arkansas health department, she was one of the country's most outspoken advocates of wide-ranging sex education. "We've spent all our time fighting each other about whose values we should be teaching our kids," she complains. "We've allowed the right to make decisions about our children for the last 100 years, and all it has bought us is the highest abortion rate, the highest nonmarital birth rate and the highest pregnancy rate in the industrialized world." But Elders is no advocate of values-free instruction. "Proper sex education would be teaching kids how to develop relationships and about the consequences of their behavior. Kids can't say no if they don't first learn how to feel good about themselves."

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