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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SOME INGREDIENTS IN THE STEAMING HORmonal stew that is American adolescence:

For Prom Night last week, senior class officers at Benicia High School in California assembled some party favors -- a gift-wrapped condom, a Planned Parenthood pamphlet advocating abstinence and a piece of candy. "We know Prom Night is a big night for a lot of people, sexually," senior Lisa Puryear told the San Jose Mercury News. "We were trying to spread a little responsible behavior." But administrators confiscated the 375 condoms, arguing that the school-sponsored event is no place for sex education.

Fifty students in Nashville, Tennessee, stand in front of a gathering of Baptist ministers to make a pledge: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship."

Tonya, 17, began having sex when she was 12, but rarely uses a condom. "I know a lot of people who have died of AIDS," she says, "but I'm not that worried." Every six months she gets an AIDS test. "The only time I'm worried is right before I get the results back."

Last Wednesday the student leaders at Bremerton High in Seattle voted that no openly gay student could serve in their school government. The goal, they stated, was "to preserve the integrity and high moral standards that BHS is built upon."

Teenagers in York County, Pennsylvania, celebrate the Great Sex-Out, a sex- free day to reflect on abstinence. Among activities suggested as alternatives to sex are baking cookies and taking moonlit walks. Since the event was held on a Monday, it wasn't much of a problem. But Friday, said one student, "that would be harder."

Owen, 19, of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, carries a key chain bearing the inscription, A TISKET, A TASKET, A CONDOM OR A CASKET.

Just Do It. Just Say No. Just Wear a Condom. When it comes to sex, the message to America's kids is confused and confusing. The moral standards society once generally accepted, or at least paid lip service to, fell victim to a sexual revolution and a medical tragedy. A decade marked by fear of AIDS and furor over society's values made it hard to agree on the ethical issues and emotional context that used to be part of learning about sex. Those on the right reacted to condom giveaways and gay curriculums and throbbing MTV videos as signs of moral breakdown. Those on the left dismissed such concerns as the rantings of religious zealots and shunned almost any discussion of sexual restraint as being reactionary or, worse yet, unsophisticated. "Family values" became a polarizing phrase.

Now, however, the children of the sexual revolution are beginning to grapple with how to teach their own children about sex. Faced with evidence that their kids are suffering while they bicker, parents and educators are seeking some common ground about what works and what doesn't. It is becoming possible to discuss the need for responsibility and commitment without being cast as a religious fanatic and to accept the need for safe-sex instruction without being considered an amoral pragmatist.

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