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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At least a dozen abstinence-based curriculums are on the market; one of the largest, Sex Respect, is used in about 2,000 schools around the country. What Sex Respect does not include is standard information about birth control, which prompts some critics to charge that purely abstinence-based programs are inadequate. Michael Carrera, who eight years ago founded a highly successful % teen-pregnancy-prevent ion program in Harlem, deplores the "ungenerous, unforgiving" nature of some abstinence programs. "The way you make a safe, responsible abstinent decision is if you're informed, not if you're dumb." Carrera attributes the success of his program to this more comprehensive approach: in a part of Manhattan with a 50% dropout rate, 96% of Carrera's kids are still in school.

Trust Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the high priestess of pleasure, to provide parents and teens with a middle ground. She has just published Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids, in which she writes for ages 8 through 14. Her thesis: teach kids everything, and then encourage them to wait. "Make sure even the first kiss is a memorable experience, is what I tell kids," she says. "I don't think kids should be engaging in sex too early, not even necking and petting. I generally think age 14 and 15 is too early, in spite of the fact that by then girls are menstruating and boys may have nocturnal emissions."

Above all, she says, kids need to have their questions addressed. Learning and talking about sex do not have to mean giving permission, she insists. "On the contrary, I think that a child knowing about his or her body will be able to deal with the pressure to have sex. This child can say no, I'll wait." In fact, Westheimer is a big advocate of waiting. "I say to teenagers, What's the rush?"


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 Americans teenagers (age 13 to 17) taken for TIME/CNN on April 13-14 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Sampling error is plus or minus 4.5%.

CAPTION: Where have you learned the most about sex?

Have you ever had sexual intercourse?

How old were you when you first had sex?

How many different people have you had sex with?

What are the reasons kids you know have sex?

How often did you use birth control when you had sex?

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