Enhancing Ethical Decision Making in Sexuality and AIDS Education

By Bailey, C. Everett; Piercy, Fred P. | Adolescence, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Enhancing Ethical Decision Making in Sexuality and AIDS Education


Bailey, C. Everett, Piercy, Fred P., Adolescence


Recently a group of high school boys known as the "Spur Posse" received national attention when they were arrested on rape and assault charges. The boys had competed with each other to see who could have sex with the most girls, and kept a running point total of their conquests. They showed little respect for their female partners and did not seem to regret their actions. One member of the Posse said, "Everybody likes sex. . . . I haven't done anything wrong." Another pointed out that his school teaches "safe sex" and gives out condoms, and that he used condoms. "So," he asked, "what did I do wrong?"

This paper makes a case for providing sexuality and AIDS education in a way that helps adolescents explore the ethical meaning of their sexual behavior. Principles from the moral development literature are used to provide an ethical framework. Also offered are several activities that sexuality and AIDS educators and parents can use to facilitate discussions with adolescents about sexual and relationship ethics, in order to help them make responsible decisions.

Sexuality and AIDS Education in Context

A little over a decade ago only two states and the District of Columbia required sex education (Kirby & Scales, 1981). At that time, however, most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as gonorrhea and syphilis, were curable. With the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the increase in teenage pregnancy, there has been renewed interest in teaching sex education in the public schools. Today almost every state mandates some type of sexuality or AIDS education (Engel, Saracino, & Bergen, 1993).

Historically, sex education has emphasized the health and biological aspects of sexuality, especially the health risks (Arizona State Dept. of Education, 1988; Bissell, 1987; Missouri State Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education, 1989). Topics have included anatomy and physiology, human reproduction, contraception, and venereal disease (Kenney & Orr, 1984; Kirby & Scales, 1981). More recently programs have focused on risk reduction and prevention of teenage pregnancy, STDs, and AIDS (Yarber, 1992). The goal has been to educate adolescents about sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS), and contraceptive use. Such interventions have also included making contraception more readily available to adolescents. Currently, some programs suggest teaching teenagers alternative forms of sexual behavior, such as mutual masturbation, genital stimulation, and oral sex. These interventions stress the avoidance of the negative consequences of sex, and responsible sexual behavior is interpreted as taking precautions to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. This is reflected in the comment of the above mentioned member of the Spur Posse who implied that responsible action consists of using a condom. Condom use, however, is not a sufficient ethical yardstick, and more emphasis needs to be placed on the emotional, ethical, spiritual, and psychological dimensions of sexuality (National Guidelines Task Force, 1993).

Impact on sexual behavior. Research on sexuality and AIDS education programs shows that what teenagers know about sex and what they do are two different things. Reviews of school-based sexuality education curricula report that while such programs increase knowledge about sexuality, there is little evidence that they change attitudes or behaviors (Engel, Saracino, & Bergen, 1993; Kirby, 1989; Welbourne-Moglia & Moglia, 1989). Kirby (1989) concludes that sexuality and AIDS education programs "can increase knowledge but, like most educational programs, have little measurable impact on behavior." (p. 170).

In light of the current statistics on AIDS and teenage pregnancy, the interventions that have been used are not sufficient. U.S. teenagers have the highest rate of pregnancy of any industrialized democracy - twice as high as that of England, France, and Canada, and nine times as high as the Netherlands and Japan (Miller & Moore, 1990; Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994).

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