Sexual Education was introduced to the American Public School System in 1913, at the beginning of this century. Superintendent of Schools, Ella Flagg Young promoted the teaching of sex education, and implemented sex hygiene lectures in the Chicago, IL, school system. The goal then was to reduce social problems such as venereal disease and prostitution by educating the public about sex.
Now, in the last year of the 20th century, goals are different, but the conflicting opinions on sexual education are still going strong. Health promotion goals for teenagers include postponement of sexual activity until psychosocial maturity and consistent use of condoms by those who do engage in sexual intercourse. Most people agree with these goals to a certain degree. However the tension arises when methods of meeting these goals are discussed.
The following report explains some of the biggest issues dwelling around how public schools should teach sexual education. The two main options discussed are teaching abstinence, and condom distribution. Throughout the United States, school districts and states are basing their policies around these two ideas.
The importance of this issue is very significant. Over the last century, our statistics for teen health and sexuality problems have been getting worse and worse, and this is the time for change. The decisions that we make now will decide if we:
- educate and inspire our youth and the sexual health status of our youth improves for generations to come,
- overexpose the youth, and they get out of control, or
- suppress the youth, denying them knowledge and resources, and our situation continually worsens for generations to come.
Our youth today face horrible odds in the area of health, and almost everyone, regardless of political positions, or religious standing, agrees that the problem needs to be addressed.
The average age for initiation of sexual intercourse is now middle to late adolescence. As of 1992, 54% of all U.S. high school students were coitally experienced, and since then the rate has risen steadily. Unfortunately, studies also show that the majority of these kids do not use condoms consistently. The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed nation, and worldwide, more than one million teenagers become pregnant each year. Approximately 3 million 13 to 19 year olds are infected with STD’s, not including HIV/AIDS. This disease infects 10,000 13 to 21 year olds yearly.
The dreadful statistics just go on and on. Many people have been working to find a solution, through schools, that will help reduce these problems. However, an agreement has not been found. It is yet to be decided whether we should be teaching abstinence, or teaching more about contraception, and making easier ways for students to get it.
Many organizations and individuals feel that teaching abstinence is the best way to improve teen health problems. It is thought that if we can teach the youth to abstain from sexual activity until marriage, or until psychosocial maturity, then many of the problems can be greatly reduced.
Abstinence is clinically proven to be the only 100% affective way to prevent pregnancy, avoid STDs, and avoid HIV/AIDS. It is also widely believed that abstinence is the only way to prevent the emotional, social and mental damage that can be cause by pre-marital or pre-psychosocially mature sex.
However, it is also strongly believed that teaching abstinence promotes naive thinking pertaining to sex. It neglects the necessary teaching of birth control and contraceptive methods. It is argued that only teaching abstinence cheats youth out of knowledge they deserve to have, since they are physically capable of intercourse, and many of them do choose to be sexually involved. Abstinence methods are usually ineffective to students who are already sexually active. We know that teens are doing this, so how can we not teach them how to do it safely?
Teaching abstinence seriously offends some parents, and their students. One school that implemented an abstinence only curriculum had major objections by members of the community. As a matter of fact, one mother withdrew her student from the school, and found the child education at another facility. She then threatened to take court action against the school if it does not drop its abstinence-promoting program, “Sex Respect.”
People are also offended when sex education besides abstinence is taught (like contraception) to the youth. It is said that this wrongly interferes with parents’ right to guide their children’s moral upbringing. Currently, there are no laws protecting parental-rights and family rights, but congressional conservatives are pushing bills to cover this issue. Some states have also passed laws saying that their schools will teach abstinence- promoting sexual education classes. The policies have various requirements for exactly how this issue may be approached in a classroom environment.
The second controversial option for school sex-ed solutions is distributing condoms in schools. Many districts have already begun to do this. Many different methods of condom distribution have been tried, from anonymous, unlimited supply, to special handouts after discussing your situation with a school counselor.
Studies show that condom distribution does increase condom use among sexually active students, and that it neither hastens initiation of sexual activity nor results in greater frequency of intercourse among students. Results were particularly good for higher risk students, which are those who have had 3 or more partners in the last 6 months. The use of condoms at last intercourse was two times higher than a similar school that does not have condom distribution.
Proponents claim that condom distribution lets students know that the community cares about their total health and well being and that there are adults who are prepared to deal with the reality of their lives rather than maintain a position of denial about adolescent sexual behavior.
However, this solution isn’t as easy as it may sound. Taking the issue all the way back to the founding purpose of education, distribution of contraceptives does not comply with the reasons that we have schools. The government is funding most condom distributions, so some people think that they should fund this activity, but do it somewhere besides public schools. They could use the money for expanding health services to better meet the needs of students, including the need for available contraceptives.
Sexual education is a process of learning about sexuality, but the families of these students need to have some say in what their children are taught and what they have access to. A majority of parents feel that it is not appropriate to hand out condoms in school. The parents want the opportunity to help their child decide whether or not to have sex, and how they should go about protecting themselves. When it comes to safe sex, there is a lot more than just using a condom.
However one school passed a policy that they would distribute condoms in school, and parents didn’t seem to care to put effort into keeping them out of school! Letters were mailed to the parent of every student, expressing the school’s hope that the parents would like to deny their child access to the distribution, and sign that they, as a family would deal with this issue. Surprisingly, only 2 % of the parents even bothered to return the card.
It can be decided, after intense study of the issues and both sides of argument, that there is surely no easy or simple solution to this problem. The best approach would most likely be to find a way to integrate the efforts of parents, families, schools, religions organizations, health departments, community agencies, and the media, and teach appropriate things in appropriate places. There is no single approach, whether utilizing sexuality education, abstinence programs, condom availability programs, or others, that can alone eliminate the high rates of STDs and pregnancy among sexually active adolescents
Education’s role is to provide adolescents with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that they need to refrain from sexual intercourse, or to use contraceptives and condoms effectively if they choose to have intercourse. Parents and family have the role of teaching their children values, and morals, and discussing sexual issues with their children voluntarily, so that the children in return, can come to the parents when they need to. Health facilities’ roles are to provide health care for students, and publicize the options they offer in the schools, and in places where students can be made aware of how to maintain the resources and assistance that they need.
A comprehensive community-based alliance of parents, health professionals, and schools is imperative to positively influence adolescent behavior. Unfortunately, at the present time most of the pressure is on the schools to take action. However, if people can pull together, and help be part of the solution, it is likely that we can make a difference, and help our youth make good healthy decisions.
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