Obama or McCain’s National Sex Ed Program

Let’s just get this part of the discussion out of the way: The next president is going to have to don
a hazmat suit and a full-body condom to even begin to clean up the mess he’s
inheriting. Iraq, for starters. But I’m here to talk about sex and sex-ed – and if there’s one thing the next president and first-lady will need to deal with, it’s the young people of our nation.

Let’s not forget about the children, shall
we? You know, the ones getting pregnant and contracting STDs at jaw-dropping
rates and at younger ages than previous generations in spite of … perhaps, even
because of federally funded (read: "state strong-armed") abstinence education. In which "education" should always be in quotes.

Recently I was at Philz Coffee
with a 19-year-old friend who grew up in the South Bay. He was telling
me about the sex ed he very recently got in high school. They separated
the genders (um, that’s another column). The principal brought in a
locked – locked! – briefcase with tapes (tapes!). The students watched
cartoons about reproduction and puberty, and that was that. He told me,
"It was so dumb. Everyone already knew that stuff. It didn’t tell us
anything about what we were all really doing." I asked him where kids
went to get their questions answered. He said, "Well, I went to your
Web site."

Good thing he’s 19. But recently in Australian schools, researchers put
together a
groundbreaking sexual health program for 16-25 year olds
. Associate
Professor Moira Carmody from the University of Western Sydney’s Social Justice
and Social Change Research Centre did something totally shocking: She asked
teens what they needed from their sex ed programs. Carmody interviewed young
people about their sexual activity, experiences and concerns. Instead of
telling them that sex is bad or sinful or that you can catch AIDS from a public
library computer someone once used to look at porn, she used the kids’ feedback
to create a six-week program, subsequently run in six communities in Sydney and
regional New South Wales.

That’s quite a bit different than what our federal
government pressures public schools to tell kids – and this is certainly where Obama and McCain should be taking notes. Like I said last year, abstinence
education is a failure
, but at the 11th hour of 2007 it still got a huge
pile of federal cash. In most American public schools it focuses exclusively on
reproduction and marriage, and only shows students illustrations. Abstinence has
always been taught on one level or another, but when George W. took office, an
"abstinence-only" focus was aggressively pushed as the primary – the
only – way to give kids information about sex.

Here, no one asks kids what they’re experiencing
and what information they could use to help navigate decision-making in sexual
situations. What’s worse, according to the curriculum content guidelines for funding recipients, the required federal sex ed states that:

"Material must not promote contraception
and/or condom use (as opposed to risk elimination). A curriculum must not
promote or encourage sexual activity outside of marriage. A curriculum must not
promote or encourage the use of any type of contraceptives outside of marriage
or refer to abstinence as a form of contraception."


"The curriculum must have a
clear message regarding the importance of student abstinence from sexual
activity until marriage and must emphasize that the best life outcomes are more
likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage. Throughout the entire
curriculum, the term ‘marriage’ must be defined as ‘only a legal
union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife, and the word
"spouse" refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a
wife.’ (Consistent with federal law.) The curriculum must teach the
psychological and physical benefits of sexual abstinence-until-marriage for
youth. Information on contraceptives, if included, must be age-appropriate and
presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented.
Curriculum must not promote or endorse, distribute or demonstrate the use of
contraception or instruct students in contraceptive usage."

That sure goes a long way toward the real questions kids have about sex. The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and American adolescents are contracting HIV faster than almost any other demographic group. Texas, with
all those great abstinence-only textbooks, has
the highest rate of teen births in the nation. And, duh – abortion rates
are lowest in states where teens have access to accurate contraception
information. In April 2007, a 20-page
Columbia University study
exposed that abstinence curriculum statements
about condom use are medically inaccurate. The American Civil Liberties Union,
tired of the Department of Health and Human Services ignoring repeated warnings
about incorrect data, sent the department a letter
threatening legal action
. The ACLU is currently trying to get the DHHS to
stop disseminating incorrect information – because doing so violates
federal law

Wow, the U.S. government violating its own federal
law? Mr. President, Madame First Lady, your iPhones are ringing. Again. It’s some kid who
wants to know if she’s going to get AIDS because her boyfriend came on her leg.
Before that, she said they just let it soak so it should be all right. Should I take a message? Have an intern call her later?

Contrast our sex ed failures to Australia, where, according to
, the new brand of teen sex ed is "really about what they’re doing
because a lot of programs tend to focus just on biology and safe sex, but they
don’t. They don’t tell us how to work out how to do consent, how to communicate
with people. Those sort of things were what they were interested in." As part
of her sex ed curriculum, the students did role-play (not that kind of role-play), learned how to interpret body language,
practiced asserting themselves, and were coached to think about their sexual behaviors and expectations.

Here’s how the next President can put an
end to the war on public school sex education and the sharing of accurate
sex information to people of all ages:

  1. Kill the abstinence programs. Period. Think of them as
    creationism in schools: optional to include in curricula but privately
    funded only. Fire the f- out of anyone with a religious agenda in a
    position of power in relation to public health. We are a nation of many
    faiths – most of which are not being served with this nonsense.
  2. My best friend’s daughter is 5, and brags that she has a
    boyfriend. Craft programs that are age appropriate so kids understand
    what they’re doing every step of the way. Take a cue from England,
    where the Sex
    and Relationship Education program centers on "All About Us: Living and
    Growing" videos for 5-7-year-olds, 7-9-year-olds and 9-11-year-olds,
    with workbooks about healthy sexual relationships for kids (and adults)
    with learning disabilities
  3. Require all sex ed programs to include practical
    information about reproduction (including a woman’s right to choose and
    male responsibilities of parenthood), contraception, STDs and STIs,
    sexual pleasure, masturbation, consent, homosexuality, sexual
    tolerance, and gender identity. Kids are dealing with all this stuff;
    adults need to stop lying to themselves and have honest discourse with
    kids about it.
  4. Set aside federal funding for a teen sex ed counselor to be
    on school staff at all times, exclusively for hotline-style accurate
    sex information, and completely confidential. Our kids’ health and
    futures depend on it. Require that they are tech- and Internet-savvy.
  5. Create a task force to research and implement outreach
    programs that visit schools for presentations on relevant and current
    sexual issues. This could include the Gardasil vaccination
    (HPV shot), presentations on transgender issues, workshops on sexual
    consent, rape prevention and self-defense for girls, age-appropriate
    sex ed books, religious faith and sexuality, and sexual questions
    around – yes – political scandals.

So, Mr. Next President and First Lady, you need to get what young girls and boys are going through. We need this change more than ever.

Republished and altered with permission of The San Francisco Chronicle

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  • invalid-0

    Gee! Why should we change our position on “abstinence only”, when it has worked so well? Education is the only method to confront this problem, keeping our children safe and healthy.

  • invalid-0

    Simply appauling. I had known about the abstenence-only gov’t funding…. but the stipulations are simply and plainly shackles with weight too much for this country’s youth to bear. And the responses on the page of the ACLU letter are representitive of such a deeply-entrenched delusion that it frightens me.

    Perhaps it would be better to use a different metaphor. Not a hindering burden on young shoulders. A blight, perhaps. An orchistrated one.

    Gardeners attempting to raise an orchard of fruit trees in near-barren soil, covered and sequestered from any and all sunlight, and watering being left solely to the rare rain. All the while taking potshots at any person who dares trespass to give the desperate plants nutrients and water.

    These people, whose duty it is to watch over these trees, strong grown trees and wispy saplings alike, is willfully putting effort into depriving their wards of what they are in serious, lively-hood-threatening and life-threatening need of.

    And they have the gall to dismiss reality and solid scientific numbers to maintain their vast delusions.

    Verbose anger aside, the experience described by that 19-yo seems very familiar… To the human-ed I got almost a decade ago in elementary school.

    At least my own 9th and 10th grade classes were something of a hybrid, stating abstinence as the only 100% safe option, but discussing condoms and such as well. But I would say that most of what I know of useful, well-stated information cames from sites such as Scarleteen or Go Ask Alice–open-ended question-answering frank responses, written to help the writers and later readers. Blogs like RHRC here and Dr. Rayne’s and Rev. Haffner’s and many others I have stumbled upon have made me think about what it all means to me, and allowed me to refine my raw learning into my own opinions.

    Excellent post, Ms. Blue, and excellent excellent propositions. We can only hope that the next Exec. head of the US sees these, from one source or another.

  • invalid-0

    I think you’ve missed one crucial thing, which is to provide education about CONSENT. This is so badly needed in Sex Ed programmes, but they don’t even touch on it.

  • invalid-0

    You are very right, Cheese! Full support for this.

    I know there is one Austrailian(?) program that is entirely focused on this, and it seems, from what I have read, to be a signifigant success.