Going too Far?
The primary subject of the District 150 school board meeting last August had been school discipline, but the Peoria, Ill., residents queued before the microphone at the open forum had something altogether different on their minds. As they spoke, one after the other, the school board members looked on wearily. They had heard the same statements intoned time and time again, often by the very same people, ever since an advisory committee had proposed a new comprehensive sex education curriculum--a curriculum that would include the topics of birth control, homosexuality, masturbation, and sexual fantasy.
The proposed curriculum had been a big story for several weeks, and a number of locally prominent people had weighed in with their opinions in the city newspaper, The Peoria Journal Star. In an article headlined "Ex-school chief condemns plan for sex studies,'' former Superintendent Harry Whitaker was quoted as saying, "Unwed mothers and illegitimate children are due to a lack of morality, not of education. My gosh, kids know what causes babies.'' Jerry Klein, a longtime Journal Star columnist, attacked the program as "value neutral,'' writing, "Sex education ought...to scare those who fool around with [sex], just as driver education, with its pictures of graphic wrecks and dismembered victims, scares kids out of driving crazily or drunk.''
To the program's critics, Peoria Superintendent John Strand replied that the proposed curriculum did indeed stress abstinence and that parents always had the option of withdrawing their children from all or any part of the course.
As a Peoria resident and education writer, I initially followed the story more out of duty than interest, for I suspected that it was much ado about nothing--one of those interminable conflicts in which nervous school officials were caught in the middle. Although the curriculum committee had included a mix of people, from a Roman Catholic priest to the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic, it was undoubtedly impossible to please everyone. Nodding to one side, officials pushed for a curriculum that sensibly stressed abstinence; acquiescing to the other, they agreed to include a handful of topics that would inevitably offend some. I had no strong feelings on the issue but generally sided with Superintendent Strand: Most of the curriculum did, as he had said, stress abstinence. Furthermore, while I wondered about the appropriateness of such topics as masturbation, it seemed hard to argue against the inclusion of birth control when Peoria had a teenage pregnancy rate that surpassed Chicago's.
Most of the speakers at the school board meeting read rather manufactured-sounding statements, and I was about to leave when a woman, in a surprising burst of enthusiasm, stood up and praised the committee for its wisdom in proposing comprehensive sex education. She had raised five daughters in District 150 schools and was distressed by the fact that the abstinence-minded people apparently wanted to "impose their moral codes.'' Too much education, she continued, could never be a bad thing, and the schools should be teaching "the only values that really count--personal values.''
Another woman took the microphone. Introducing herself as Kathy Leiby, she said she hadn't planned on speaking this night but now felt compelled to do so. It was absolutely essential that the board understand the viewpoint of parents like her. "Knowledge isn't enough,'' she said, because teenagers have the mind-set that bad things are not going to happen to them. "I know,'' she added, "because I was once an unwed mother.''
There was something both urgent and pleading in her manner that captivated me, so I called her a couple of days later. As small children screamed in the background, Leiby told me that she had been campaigning against the proposed curriculum virtually nonstop, having started out by calling total strangers out of the phone book.
"We object,'' she said, "to the whole notion of telling students, 'You make the decision, you know what's best'-- the whole 'information only' context. 'Here's a bunch of choices,' the school board is saying, 'abstinence, condoms, or nothing. You choose the best option. We're going to give you all the information, but we're not going to include guidelines, parameters.' ''
Leiby continued: "You say the word 'abstinence' in this community, and they say you're trying to legalize morality, to encourage ignorance. But we must address why these kids are sexually active in the first place. Just what are the pressures they're dealing with? I look at these teenage girls and think that was me 10 years ago. We've got to be more personal in our approach. It's not just a matter of condoms, statistics. There's a whole emotional aspect we have to deal with.''
It was true that the recommendations for the new sex education curriculum lacked "an emotional aspect,'' whatever that may precisely mean. The proposal, which I had picked up at the superintendent's office, had the exaggerated, somewhat fatuous neutrality of all such committee reports, listing objectives such as, "The student will understand that abstinence outside of marriage is the expected norm in society and is a positive and valuable life force.'' But while abstinence is emphasized, the reader is never told outright that it's the best choice; instead, we're told that it's "an important value to be taught.''
The report, then, is in tone and in content fastidiously nonjudgmental and morally unobtrusive--the very things that people such as Leiby find so objectionable. The stated goal for the new curriculum is simply "to provide students with the knowledge and skills with which to make responsible decisions about their social relationships and sexual activity.'' In keeping with this air of reasonableness, we're told that "homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual people are alike in many ways,'' that "sexual feelings, fantasies, and desires are normal,'' and that "some boys and girls masturbate; others do not--either is normal.'' In fact, much of the report is concerned with normalcy, as if the curriculum committee's overriding but unspoken goal was to reassure students that their sexuality was normal, however it may manifest itself. But the problem--as the school board and school officials were beginning to find out--was that what is "normal'' to one person is morally abominable to another.
Leiby posed a question that circled back to this normalcy issue: If the committee's mission was to reduce sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, why did the committee include in its curriculum masturbation, homosexuality, and sexual fantasies? Leiby said she had asked Marilyn Ketay, both a school board and committee member, this very question. "She said, 'Do you realize that we have children coming to school right now who feel different from other children because their parents make them feel guilty about masturbation?' The key word she used is 'parents,' as if we parents aren't allowed to effect a certain kind of behavior in our homes. 'Who are you,' I asked her, 'to say what's acceptable?' She said, 'Masturbation is a natural human act. Don't you think it's normal, natural?' I said, 'Well, then we don't need to teach it.' ''
I reached Marilyn Ketay at her home and asked her about the inclusion of the controversial topics. She first suggested that I contact the school district's lawyer but then tried to answer the question. "Because we might save someone from committing suicide,'' she said. "I mean, kids have problems their parents don't talk about. There are people who do not believe that homosexuals and lesbians are normal. Do you kill yourself if you are? And as far as sexual fantasies are concerned, you tell me a kid or adult that doesn't have them. Should they think it's a disgrace? It isn't; it's a normal thing.''
Ketay sounded perturbed with critics of the new proposal. The same six people, she said, spoke at board meetings over and over again. "One of these people is against us using the word 'penis' or 'vagina' in primary school. I have a problem with that. How can it be trouble to call something by its right name?''
Another committee member, Cindy Marvin, director of epidemiology at the Peoria Health Department, shared Ketay's viewpoint, saying it was important for adolescents to understand that feeling attraction for samesex individuals is normal and did not necessarily indicate that one was homosexual. Then she added a reason for the inclusion of the controversial topics that seemed, upon reflection, logical and even obvious. "AIDS has really changed the face of things,'' she said. "There was a time when you'd never think of talking to a kid about sexual fantasy or masturbation. Now, if you talk to teenagers in programs where you're also teaching AIDS prevention, you teach them that fantasy and masturbation are ways to express sexuality without contracting AIDS.''
I asked her if others on the committee had felt this way; others had, she said, although it was not unanimous. Perhaps, Marvin added, the committee should have included a dissenting minority report.
Looking back through the sex education proposal, I found an instructional objective I had somehow passed over: "The student will understand that some couples may engage in mutual masturbation as a way to express sexual feelings while avoiding or decreasing the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.''
This mutual masturbation is often referred to by sex educators as "outercourse'': a neologism denoting sexual activity that is satisfactory--that is, leading to orgasm--and yet non-coital. Organizations such as SIECUS, the powerful New York-based Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, sometimes suggest outercourse as a way for teenagers to satisfy themselves sexually while circumventing the hazards of sexual intercourse. "Young people can understand,'' a SIECUS newsletter states, "that there are ways to give and receive sexual pleasure and not have intercourse.''
While this--along with the attempt to make teenagers feel "normal''-- explained the presence of certain topics, it didn't make them any less controversial. For if public school educators are to talk about outercourse as a kind of sexual-relief valve, they would not only be in jeopardy of appearing to move away from their claimed emphasis on abstinence, but they also would be entering with their students into a new discourse--a discourse of sex as pleasure that is light years removed from the age-old sublimations of high school clubs and athletics.
I was on the verge of looking beyond the Peoria situation into what was going on with sex education on the national front when I received a phone call from Kathy Leiby. When I had spoken with her earlier, she had felt rushed and disorganized, and she wasn't sure that she had gotten her point across. Now, she had something she wanted to tell me. "I got pregnant when I was in high school,'' she said. "My boyfriend, a medical school student, kept telling me, 'Have an abortion, have an abortion.' It was something I really didn't want to do, but, the more I thought about it, the more logical having an abortion seemed. I was, after all, completely unprepared to have a child. So that's what I told my mother--that I would have an abortion. A few days later, I was lying on the couch, waiting for my sister to take me to the clinic. 'Let's go,' my sister said when she walked in. But my mother said, 'No, she's not going. She's not having an abortion.'
"This is what the school district ignores: real people in real circumstances. We need to talk to students as human beings. Giving them knowledge just isn't enough.''
The more controversial aspects of the District 150 proposal, I learned, were modeled after the SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a 52-page document that outlines, in mind-boggling detail, a supposedly ideal K-12 sex education curriculum. Since the guidelines were published in 1991, SIECUS has distributed more than 12,000 copies, many to school districts that have, to various extents, used them to formulate their own curricula. Those who agitate for an abstinence-based curriculum, or for the elimination of sex education altogether, think of SIECUS as the Reagan administration once thought of the former Soviet Union--the great evil empire, its guidelines indicative of a moral bankruptcy that is infecting the entire public school system.
Kathleen Sullivan heads Project Respect, a Chicago-based organization that publishes a high school curriculum and text called Facing Reality and a middle school curriculum and text called Sex Respect. One of Project Respect's typical messages to students is, "Sex on credit: Play now, pay later.'' Echoing others I spoke with later, Sullivan told me that "homosexuality and masturbation are all part of [the SIECUS] philosophy, namely that sex is strictly recreational, no big deal, and that if sex is recreational, then any kind of sex is OK. SIECUS has said in the past that one must separate pregnancy from sex and get rid of the whole idea of procreation.''
There are many things about SIECUS that its critics attack--including its generous federal funding--but perhaps nothing so much as its perceived "nondirective'' philosophy, a philosophy that encourages students to find and express their own values while resisting any so-called authoritarian attempts to impose values upon them. The nondirective approach, as its critics see it, is but a rehash of the influential values-clarification movement of the 1960s and '70s, which (in what sometimes seemed like a parody of bad psychotherapy) encouraged students to explore their feelings about any number of issues. Feelings are venerated; there is little talk in the values-clarification materials of the need to reason.
The once highly esteemed 1973 text Values Clarification asks students hundreds of questions, such as, "Would you approve of a marriage between homosexuals?'' and "Have you had problems so bad you wished you could die?'' Some of the questions are almost comically absurd, such as, "Which of these people would you have the most trouble introducing to your friend--[transsexual] Christine Jorgenson, a racially mixed couple, or the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan?'' In the valuesclarification scheme of things, the teacher becomes a facilitator, a kind of benign therapist. "The teacher must be careful not to influence his students' choices,'' the text admonishes. "A wide spread of opinion along the continuum usually means that the teacher has encouraged good thinking about the issue.''
While values clarification claims to esteem tolerance--"Please respect each other's right to live differently, feel differently, think differently, value differently''--it appears in fact to be a caricature of it. For reading through the values-clarification literature, one begins to see that tolerance is all too often confused with the granting of license--the ideal person, more than anything else, is acquiescent in all moral matters.
In some ways, it's true that SIECUS has taken on the valuesclarification language, if not position. An objective listed in the council's guidelines, for example, states that the learner should "identify and live according to one's values.'' In a recent issue of the council's publication, SIECUS Report, what the organization calls "fear-based curricula'' is criticized because "opportunities are not provided for students to explore their own values about premarital sexual behavior.'' Betsy Wacker, SIECUS director of public policy, told me, "We try to be nonjudgmental; we recognize that there are many different kinds of people out there, different expressions of sexuality. We are convinced that people need all the information, presented age appropriately. Our assumption is that people will bring the information back to their communities, their families. But it's not up to us to decide which people should get what information.''
Yet I question whether SIECUS is really as "value neutral'' as some of its critics charge. In the guidelines, we read that "sexuality includes physical, ethical, spiritual, and psychological dimensions,'' that "sexual relationships should never be coercive or exploitative,'' and that "premature involvement in sexual behaviors poses risks.'' There is in the SIECUS materials an earnestness about sexual matters that seems far removed from moral lassitude.
It seems to me, rather, that SIECUS has values to which its opponents simply object. Chief among these values, according to the group's mission statement and guidelines, is the importance of conveying sexuality as "a natural and healthy part of life,'' be it heterosexual or homosexual expression. The goal of comprehensive sex education, a SIECUS fact sheet reads, "is to assist children in understanding a positive view of sexuality....''
Expanding upon this viewpoint in a recent SIECUS Report article, SIECUS Executive Director Debra Haffner writes, "Adolescent sexuality is not by definition dangerous, harmful, sinful, or painful.'' To support her assertion, Haffner cites a study claiming that a majority of teenagers feel positively about their sexual experiences and that sexually experienced youth generally report higher levels of self-esteem. She concludes by suggesting that sex educators should concentrate not on limiting adolescents' sexual experiences but on reducing the incidence of unprotected sex, as "adolescents who are capable of forming healthy sexual relationships must be supported.''
The SIECUS emphasis on a positive view of sexuality is evident in its guidelines. Children in early elementary school, ages 5 through 8, the guidelines state, should learn that "both girls and boys have body parts that feel good when touched'' and that "some men and women are homosexual, which means they will be attracted to and fall in love with someone of the same gender.'' Older children, ages 9 through 12, should be told that masturbation is a common way to experience pleasure and that "homosexual relationships can be as fulfilling as heterosexual relationships.'' High school students should be informed that common sexual behaviors include "sharing erotic literature or art, bathing/showering together, and oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse.''
Regardless of how one feels about SIECUS and its guidelines, it is clear that a school district adopting certain aspects of the guidelines is going to find itself in the midst of unwanted controversy, as recently fired New York City schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez discovered when he agreed to let a number of schools distribute condoms. Parents are likely to continue to object to SIECUS-based curricula and the schools that offer them for two salient reasons: One, such curricula unavoidably feature a discourse of pleasure that emphasizes noncoital sexual activity, or "outercourse,'' and the meticulous use of condoms as ways to escape the hazards of pregnancy; and two, "comprehensive'' sex education, by definition, means exposing primary school children to information that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
A case in point is the controversial K-3 Learning About Family Life curriculum, published last year by Rutgers University Press and currently in use at more than 70 school districts nationwide. The classroom materials and texts, modeled in part on the SIECUS guidelines, frankly discuss topics such as masturbation ("It's OK to masturbate,'' a kindly male teacher tells a guilt-ridden boy in one section); anatomy ("Clitoris,'' a teacher explains to the children, "is a small sensitive part that only girls have, and sometimes it makes you feel good''); and sexual intercourse ("Together the woman and man place the penis inside the woman's vagina''). While the latter is discussed in a subtext of love and affection, it is not discussed in the context of marriage--something guaranteed to further vex those wanting an abstinence-only message.
Learning About Family Life is also comprehensive in that it encourages children, in the valuesclarification mode, to explore their feelings about everything from death and AIDS to racism and divorce. While the aim is to make children comfortable with their feelings, one also gets a sense that educators are taking sensitive subjects that were once within the domain of the family and institutionalizing them within the school. When a boy, for instance, says, "We never talk about that stuff [genitals] in my house,'' the teacher reassures him, "Well, you can talk about it in school, Brian.''
Many parents are bound to see this sort of thing as intrusive. Whether in Peoria or New York City, comprehensive sex education, with its emphasis on pleasure, contraception, and expression of feelings, is almost certain to further alienate large numbers of people from the public schools, redoubling the all too common charges of moral relativism.
If advocates of comprehensive sex education see sex as a "natural and healthy part of living,'' proponents of the abstinence-only movement see sex, outside of the realm of marriage, as invariably destructive, causing what one abstinenceonly instructor called "jagged edges''--physical, emotional, and spiritual traumas. In the high school text, Facing Reality, published by Project Respect, the student is asked in the very first chapter to "list as many possible harmful consequences of premarital sexual activity as you can. Don't forget to include the effects on personality.''
In Project Respect's middle school text, Sex Respect--the most popular of all abstinenceonly curricula--students are asked to list the differences between animals and humans, the point being that people don't have to act on their sexual drives. "As humans,'' students are told, "we are able to practice self-control.'' The text is also full of advice ("Keep all of your clothes/ All the way on/ All of the time''), pep talk ("Be confident, be a virgin''), and less-than-memorable slogans ("Don't be a louse, wait for your spouse'' and "Pet your dog, not your date'').
The essence of human nature in these curricula seems to be defined in terms of self-control-- a self-control that nondirective approaches, with their desensitizing techniques, supposedly break down. This, at least, was the claim of Onalee McGraw, executive director of the Educational Guidance Institute, founded in 1983 to "promote directive, abstinence-based, family-centered prevention education programs.'' A SIECUS publication lists the institute as one of 15 far-right, fearbased, abstinence-only programs.
A national lecturer and former policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, McGraw told me that SIECUS believes that people have inevitable sexual needs and desires they are incapable of leaving unfulfilled. "So you have,'' she said, "Deborah Haffner arguing that we must encourage kids to embark upon 'outercourse' because she believes that the individual cannot contain the sexual urge. What we're arguing, on the other hand, is that human beings have free will so that they can control themselves and decide that they won't go out on a date to have sex. But SIECUS argues that these drives are inexorable; they then actually argue that these young teenagers can lie together with no clothes on and not bring things to a natural conclusion.''
McGraw continued: "Mary Calderone, who once ran SIECUS, was a disciple of the Kinseyian view of sexuality--the whole idea that you have to give kids information, that if a kid in the 2nd grade doesn't know he has a penis and it's spelled p-e-n-is, he'll be distorted, unhappy, unable to make good choices. But our own guidelines say you don't present anything dealing with human sexuality before the 7th or 8th grade. Below that level, you're dealing with diverse variables, and, if you present explicit sexual messages, you disturb other normal social-psychological parts because the child cannot yet integrate his or her sexuality. I can give you an example of a very precocious girl in the 4th grade who saw one of those films in which sperm is swimming up the canal of the vagina. The little girl, precocious as she was, perceived that these things were in the water and that she could no longer go swimming in a pool. She thought sperm in water would swim up her vagina and get her pregnant.''
McGraw told me that SIECUS, in part, trains sex education teachers by showing them pictures of the female and male genitals and by having them say the words "penis'' and "vagina'' over and over again until they feel comfortable. These teachers, in turn, train students not to laugh or become embarrassed when they are presented with sexually explicit material. "They aim to make students comfortable,'' McGraw said. "But we view this as desensitization.''
It is true that in many of the curricula I looked at, there is an almost stubborn insistence on having students state over and over "correct'' terms for body parts. Sometimes this is more or less unavoidable, as in ETR Associates' Reducing the Risk, which teaches students an array of details about contraception and ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. But in other materials, the aim is clearly to have children speak as clinically and matter-of-factly as possible about the body and its functions. In the Learning About Family Life materials, for example, the following exchange between a teacher and a girl is presented after the girl has said "tummy'':
"You know, many children and grown-ups, too, say 'tummy' for the front part of us between our chest and the top of our legs. But all of that is really your abdomen. One thing in your abdomen is your stomach-- and that's why people say 'tummy.' '' "Like tummyache,'' Julie says. "Right. But in school we want to learn the most accurate words for our body parts, and so you should say...'' "Stomachache,'' Julie smiles.
At first glance, this exchange seems innocuous enough, but it soon becomes increasingly clear that it has a purpose--namely, as McGraw said, to make children comfortable with naming sexual body parts and functions. Two chapters after the above exchange, children are comfortably exchanging such words as "vulva'' and "vagina.''
This calls to mind a sex education class I recently sat in on at a middle school in Madison, Wis. During my visit, students were asked to match terms ("vagina,'' "testes,'' "semen,'' "clitoris,'' etc.) written on index cards with their correct definitions, also on index cards. As boys and girls walked around the room matching terms and definitions, I felt distinctly uncomfortable, even though I was only an observer. After class, I told the two teachers that I would find it very disconcerting to carry out such an activity in a mixedsex classroom. "You get used to it,'' one teacher said. "You desensitize yourself.''
Is the naming of sexual parts, then, an example of desensitization? It is if one assumes that students should remain ill at ease with such frank expression, that discomfort with sexual matters is a sign of moral strength. If one sides with SIECUS, however, one believes that easy familiarity is not so much a sign of desensitization as an indication of students finally becoming appropriately comfortable with their sexuality. Both sides, then, want to inculcate students with their own views regarding sexuality. If the SIECUS materials sometimes seem, despite proponents' claims to the contrary, to mechanize sex, to give it the heart and soul of an internal combustion engine, the other side, the abstinence-only forces, seems less than realistic in idealizing sex within the domain of marriage. Do adults, much less teenagers, truly believe that sex belongs only in marriage? Does such a claim have inevitable religious overtones, overtones that are inappropriate in the public schools? And what about the many teenagers--somewhere near 50 percent, according to most studies--who are already engaging in sexual intercourse? Is a "secondary virginity'' message--"You can do the right thing and stop having sex''--strong enough to protect young people from the attending dangers of pregnancy and AIDS?
Both the SIECUS and the abstinence-only approaches to sex education obviously have severe limitations that are bound to engender further controversy. As noted above, comprehensive sex education, in which the school takes on everything from perceived homophobia to gender inequality, will be unacceptable to many parents. And as more people become aware of what I have called "a discourse of pleasure,'' the more likely it is that public schools will be attacked for a supposed lack of values.
Abstinence-based education, on the other hand, while having obvious appeal to parents, is hampered by its near total avoidance of certain subjects. Its "we'll teach them abstinence or nothing at all'' attitude means that any relevant discussion of contraception will be omitted. While the emphasis upon abstinence makes good sense for younger students who have not yet been sexually active, the efficacy of the "secondary virginity'' approach for older and sexually experienced students seems highly questionable.
Between the nondirective and directive approaches, which encompass the comprehensive and abstinence-only programs, are a number of mostly newer programs that attempt to bridge the extremes. These programs are comprehensive in that they typically provide information on contraception and HIV but directive in that they make an especially strong case for abstinence.
A case in point is the "Postponing Sexual Involvement'' program offered at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, a program that evolved from a very different kind of sex education effort the hospital launched in the mid-1970s. The original program was centered upon a knowledge-based approach; students, mostly from the hospital's low-income population, were provided with comprehensive information on contraception and the steps involved in decisionmaking. An early evaluation of the program, though, indicated that it was ineffective in changing sexual behavior; students were no more likely to refrain from sexual intercourse or to use contraceptives than were students who had not participated in the program.
The hospital staff concluded-- in a finding that rather uncannily supports Kathy Leiby's intuition--that knowledge was not enough. Factual knowledge and information about how to make good decisions, the research revealed, had no impact upon students' behavior. The problem, the researchers surmised, was that adolescents responded not to knowledge but to peer pressure.
The staff then began to develop the current program, which is based upon the "social influence'' or "social inoculation'' theory. In essence, the theory proclaims that an inability to withstand peer pressures--not a lack of information--causes certain behaviors. As a result, students in the restructured program are taught how to resist social pressures--in short, how to say "no'' to sexual activity. Among other activities, the students watch a series of videos depicting ways to confront various kinds of peer pressures.
"Postponing Sexual Involvement'' is now 10 years old, and research indicates that the program has been effective, at least in helping girls who have not been sexually active remain so. (The program, unfortunately, has had no impact upon the behavior of students who had sexual intercourse prior to participation in the program.)
The "social inoculation'' model is prevalent in a number of other programs and published curricula, including Reducing The Risk, which makes intensive use of role-playing. Students, in staged encounters, practice resisting such entreaties as, "If you really loved me, you would do it.'' Still, Reducing the Risk, as a comprehensive approach that also emphasizes correct use of contraceptives, is likely to receive heavy parental criticism. Many parents will see as overly suggestive teacher demonstrations replete with such instructions as, "Hold the tip of the condom to squeeze out air and to leave some extra room for the semen.'' Furthermore, such programs seem somewhat of an imposition upon lessthan-enthusiastic students who are, after all, a captive audience.
It is risky to draw conclusions about the efficacy of various sex education programs, especially since research conducted by one group so often contradicts research by another. But if any conclusion can be drawn, I believe it is that knowledge indeed is not enough. What compelling research we do have indicates that information in and of itself does not alter youthful behavior.
Of course, the inefficacy of factual knowledge can hardly be surprising. Most people, especially impulsive adolescents, don't act after having carefully analyzed information. How one behaves or misbehaves sexually--empa- thetically or exploitatively, cautiously or impulsively--depends, as in all human activities, less on acquired knowledge than on character, something slowly acquired over years of education, both in and out of school. If teachers are to have a real impact upon their students--and not just in sex education--they must do so as more than mere providers of knowledge. They must somehow reach students on a moral and emotional plane as well as on an intellectual one. They must, as Kathy Leiby said, "talk to students as human beings.''
Sitting in on various sex education classes and studying various curricula, watching teachers and videos impart information about everything from human reproduction to the "normalcy'' of masturbation and homosexual desires, I couldn't help thinking of educator John Goodlad's landmark 1984 book, A Place Called School. Having compiled exhaustive research based on visits to countless schools and classrooms, Goodlad writes that "young humans come to be viewed only as students valued primarily for their academic aptitude and industry rather than as individual persons preoccupied with the physical, social, and personal needs unique to their circumstances and stage of life.'' Of classrooms, he later adds, "the emotional tone is neither harsh nor punitive nor warm and joyful; it might be described most accurately as flat.''
As I was finishing up my research for this story, I visited Peoria's nonprofit Hult Education Center, where bus loads of public school children arrive to receive health and sex education in accordance with state mandates. The center, with colorful displays and life-size electronic models, is a marvel of showmanship and efficiency--a kind of educational Disneyland. In one lecture hall, "TAM'' (Transparent Anatomical Manikin) "speaks'' of her uterus as "a special place where babies grow''; in another is "Mary the Mandible,'' a giant jaw with teeth. In yet another lecture hall are models of the male and female reproductive systems and a display in which sperm represented as flashing red lights blink their way through the fallopian tube. "Experienced staff,'' a brochure reads, "comfortably handles all issues in a factual, professional manner.''
There is nothing about the Hult Center that is the least bit offensive. It succeeds in carrying out its mission: to present sometimes sensitive information in an informative and entertaining manner. But there is something about the very efficiency of the center that makes me wonder if too much sex education is, as Goodlad might put it, "flat.'' Stripped of its emotion, mystery and allure, sex presented as supposedly objective knowledge seems harmless, even mundane. And that is a view of sex that may, in the long run, be doing our children an injustice.