To the Editor:
Your provocative headline on Gilbert T. Sewall’s “Common Sense for Sex Education?” (Commentary, Feb. 16, 2005) may be an oxymoron. In pondering my personal experience over half a century, I see little that makes good sense.
As a 6th grader in the mid-1950s, I went to a school program just for girls that required my parents’ permission. Amid nervous twittering, we were told briefly how our bodies would be changing, and given a small pamphlet with common questions and answers. The boys had a similar session geared to their needs.
When I married a decade later, I was, despite a college degree, totally ignorant of the human body and reproduction. Having grown up in the era of Elvis Presley, my friends and I never studied sex education. Today it is hard to grasp how different the social mores and pop culture were then. It was considered safe to be ignorant.
My daughters attended a private girls’ high school during the 1980s. Their health classes covered everything from nutrition and the dangers of substance abuse, to preventing sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy by various methods—including abstinence. These college-bound students were taught how to protect their own health and well-being. Our son had a comprehensive health and sex education program at his coed high school. Separating students by gender may be preferable, but everyone benefits from knowledge.
In 1996, we moved to a small Ohio city of 2,300 students where the school board supports an abstinence-only sex education program for middle and high school students. Each graduating class of about 150 contains several students who are expecting or have had babies. Little is taught about preventing pregnancy and disease except for abstinence, even as our students clearly are not abstaining.
Being curious, I went to a high school assembly where a young pop star touted abstinence-only behavior. Her message about safe-sex spread misinformation.
She insisted that there is no safe sex, that condoms are useless, and that dreadful diseases result from so-called “protected” sex. Hundreds of impressionable teenagers heard that day that only abstinence works. If you can’t “just say no,” don’t bother trying to protect yourself. Student surveys showed that many in the audience were already, or would soon become, sexually active. Ignorance puts them all at risk.
Mr. Sewall is right when he says, “The federal government should get out of the abstinence-only business.” But I disagree with his call to “turn sex education back to districts and schools.” We expect all of America’s children to be proficient in reading and math. They all deserve to learn the truth about protecting their bodies and minds. Their futures depend on it.
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Retired Los Angeles Teacher
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as With Sex, It’s No Longer ‘Safe to Be Ignorant’