Education: Sex and Schools

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

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It took only a single paragraph (four sentences, 91 words) to change the course of an ancient debate. "There is now no doubt," said Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in his grim report on AIDS last month, "that we need sex education in schools and that it must include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships." With characteristic bluntness, Koop made it clear that he was talking about graphic instruction starting "at the lowest grade possible," which he later identified as Grade 3. Because of the "deadly health hazard," he said later, "we have to be as explicit as necessary to get the message across. You can't talk of the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes."

Some people would clearly prefer not to talk about poison at all. Sex educators face a powerful array of detractors and doubters: Fundamentalist and Roman Catholic leaders, antiabortionists, opponents of the gay lobby, psychologists worrying about the impact of AIDS messages on the young, blacks who consider sex education racist, and even a few capitalists who think that school clinics offering birth-control information should be turned over to private enterprise.

But Koop's speech has thrown the naysayers on the defensive and increased the odds that comprehensive sex education will at last overcome its critics. For years, surveys have shown that about 80% of Americans favor sex education in the public schools. In the wake of Koop's dramatic report, a poll for TIME by Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman found that instruction is now favored by 86%, perhaps the highest number ever; 89% want such courses for children age 12 to deal with birth-control information, and about three-quarters say homosexuality and abortion should be included in the curriculum (see box). "AIDS will definitely change the nature of sex education as we know it," said Harvey Fineberg, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. "It will lead to more open, explicit discussions about condoms and other strategies for safe sex." Though some people will be shocked, he said, "we are at a point where sex education is no longer a matter of morals -- it's a matter of life and death."

For opponents of sex ed, that is precisely the problem: the recommendation to students that they use condoms as an anti-AIDS measure helps erode moral opposition to premarital sex and contraception, just as the impartial listing of "options" such as homosexuality and abortion undermines other traditional teachings. Critics of abortion fear that its mention in classes will make it seem like an easy solution to an offhand mistake. "The way sex education is taught in the schools encourages experimentation," says Right-Wing Crusader Phyllis Schlafly. "It's the cause of promiscuity and destroys the natural modesty of girls."

Since President Reagan and Koop have strongly opposed sex education in the past, the Surgeon General's report was particularly galling to conservatives. So was the spectacle of Koop's virtually writing off the family as a reliable source of sexual guidance. Though he insisted that parents stay involved, he said, "Most parents are so embarrassed and reluctant, you can't count on getting the message across at home." Most Americans seem to agree: the TIME poll showed that 69% believe parents are not doing as much as they should to educate their youngsters about sex.

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