Education

Bennett Defends His Stance on AIDS

November 25, 1987 3 min read
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At a conference on aids held here last week, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett contended that his views supporting widespread testing for the disease and education programs that emphasize the virtue of sexual abstinence are becoming more widely accepted.

But Theresa Crenshaw, a California sex therapist who serves on the Presidential aids commission, argued that recommendations for abstinence and monogamy are not incompatible with information on “safer sex.”

She suggested that educators and other adults tell teen-agers that masturbation and having sex with fewer partners are possible strategies for avoiding infection.

The conference on acquired immune deficiency syndrome was sponsored by a group of physicians and Americans for a Sound aids Policy, a self-described “grassroots” advocacy organization based in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Va.

Homosexual-activist groups charged that the event was “stacked” with conservative speakers, such as Mr. Bennett; Gary L. Bauer, the chief White House domestic-policy adviser and former Undersecretary of Education; and Representative William Dannemeyer, Republican of California.

A spokesman for the president of a.s.a.p., W. Shepherd Smith, howev4er, said the group “tried very hard to put together a balanced presentation,” and noted that several scientists prominent in the field were on the program. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis Bowen declined to attend, he said, as did several liberal Congressmen who are outspoken on aids issues.

Ovation for Bennett

A variety of viewpoints were aired in the session on education. But a majority in the audience appeared to share the views of Secretary Bennett, who received a standing ovation, and Victor B. Cline, a psychology professor from the University of Utah, who was applauded for his remarks on research linking pornography to sexual assaults by teen-agers.

Mr. Bennett said his views on combating the aids epidemic, once greeted with “an outcry,” have become more commonly accepted.

“Take education,” he said. “When most people now talk about the first line of defense, the best line of defense, against contracting aids, they speak first of abstinence and fidelity--not condoms.” The Secretary reiterated his contention that teen-agers can be persuaded to abstain from sex, and compared this approach to aids education with counseling students not to smoke.

Aids is a “behavior-related” disease, and condoms provide imperfect protection at best, Mr. Bennett said.

“We do not have--and we will never have--the technology that makes irrelevant the demands of individual responsibility,” he said.

Ms. Crenshaw countered, however, that while she agreed that teen-agers’ sexual behavior can be changed through effective education, Mr. Bennett’s approach was too narrow.

“The views of the Education Department and the public-health [community] are coming closer,” she said, adding that critics of the department’s recently released booklet on aids education said it is “incomplete, not wrong.”

Teen-agers should be told that sexual abstinence is the surest way to avoid contracting aids, Ms. Crenshaw said. But, she added, they should also be told that using condoms and having fewer sex partners reduces the risk, and that masturbation is an acceptable alternative, “if your value system doesn’t prohibit it.”

“If you tell them the whole truth, they can make the right decisions,” she said.

Bombarded With ‘Messages’

Mr. Cline of the University of Utah argued that “the rational approach won’t do the job” because teen-agers are bombarded with sexual messages by the media and have easy access to pornographic movies and magazines. He cited a study in which more than 80 percent of junior-high students interviewed said they had been exposed to “hard-core pornography,” and noted several gruesome incidents in which such exposure was allegedly linked to sexual assaults by teen-agers.

Dr. Vernon H. Mark, a neurosurgeon and professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, argued that a widespread, random, anonymous testing program should be the first national response to the problem, as current estimates of the disease’s prevalence are not based on sufficient data.

More information is needed before anyone can determine what should be taught in aids education programs or how effective they are, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Bennett Defends His Stance on AIDS

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