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Sex Education, Now More Than Ever

Breaking with a two-decade policy that allowed individual principals to decide if sex education should be taught in their schools, New York City will require students in middle and high schools to take classes designed to help them avoid disease and pregnancy ("New York City Will Mandate Sex Education," The New York Times, Aug. 9). The decision is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's program to address the needs of disadvantaged black and Hispanic youth, whose pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates are higher than other groups.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York immediately opposed the plan, arguing that "parents have the right and the responsibility to be the first and primary educators of their children." In anticipation of this reaction, schools will allow parents to opt out of classes on birth control. But this option may still not mollify parents who, for one reason or another, are uncomfortable with the entire subject.

They shouldn't be. Young people today mature much earlier than they did in generations past. For example, the age of first menstruation has declined at least two years since the beginning of the last century. Predictably, sexual activity has begun proportionately sooner as well.

In light of the facts, it's hard to understand why sex education is still resisted so vehemently. If the subject were math, would parents "complain that your child was learning too much in their math class?" ("Teaching Sexuality Education," The Nation, Aug. 17). But sex education beyond the basics taught in biology or health classes still arouses intense emotions. The only other topic that comes even close is teaching about evolution, as the controversy over intelligent design attests.

The decision in New York City took considerable courage. In 1991, a condom distribution program resulted in a lawsuit by parents. Even when the school district retreated by emphasizing safe sex over abstinence, it was subjected to the threat of another suit. As a result, the district finally gave up.

What New York City faced is not unusual. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 20 states and the District of Columbia require sex education. Even there, the curriculum varies so widely from one venue to another that it is nearly impossible to compare outcomes.

In California, for example, public schools since 1992 have been required to teach H.I.V / AIDS prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. But they are not required to teach what is known as comprehensive sexual health education.

Other countries that have addressed the issue with an open mind have not experienced any of the dire consequences that concern opponents of sex education in this country. In fact, they have lower rates of sexually transmitted disease, abortion and pregnancy than those in the U.S.

In Sweden, France and the Netherlands, for example, greater emphasis is placed on reducing unprotected sex than on trying to totally eliminate sex among the young. Their success is further reinforced by a sequential approach to the topic throughout the adolescent years.

Sex education, of course, has to be age appropriate. But the concern that teaching about sex will cause young people to engage in sex is not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, studies show that sex education properly taught delays initiation. Parents need to accept their children's natural interest in sex. It's nothing to be afraid of.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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