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Did Sex Ed Go Too Far, Too Soon?

Public schools in this country have long had an uneasy attitude about sex education. When should it be taught, if ever, and how much should be taught?  Both questions are relevant to what is now taking place in Kansas in the Shawnee Mission School District ("Kansas Parents Are Outraged That a Middle School Sex Ed Poster References 'Grinding' And 'Oral Sex,' " Think Progress, Jan. 21).

The controversy arose when a poster listed various topics that would be part of a middle school curriculum.  These included such things as oral sex and grinding.  Apparently, such X-rated behaviors stem from a change in the state's approach in 2007 from abstinence-only to abstinence-plus. Although some parents were outraged by the poster, other parents were not.

I realize that students are maturing much sooner today than in the past.  For example, the age of first menstruation has dropped at least two years since the beginning of the 20th century. Predictably, the beginning of sexual activity has dropped proportionately ("Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood," The New York Times, May 17, 1999).  At the same time, students are exposed to sexual images and content through the Internet that past generations were not.

Therefore, a case probably can be made for the kind of sex education that the Shawnee Mission School District proposed.  But at the same time, it's important to remember that sex education is by its very nature a delicate and sensitive subject. That's why public schools allow parents to remove their children from class when instruction deals with controversial matter. I still think this remains the fairest way of addressing the issue.  What bothers me, however, is when one parent or a small group of parents demand elimination of certain topics and get their way.

Other countries take a different view of sex education. The Scandinavian countries treat it as an indispensable part of the curriculum.  For example, Sweden has made the subject mandatory since 1956, beginning between the ages of 7 and 10. I'm sure some parents even there are upset for one reason or another.  But I've not heard of the kind of outrage that periodically appears in the U.S.

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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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