Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Sexuality Education: Sorting Fact from Fiction

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Sexuality Education: Sorting Fact from Fiction

Article excerpt

School leaders need to make good decisions about sexuality education - decisions based on reliable and valid information. Thus the authors present the 17 arguments most frequently put forth by groups that oppose comprehensive sexuality education, and they examine the scientific literature to determine the validity of those arguments.

School Officials are acutely aware that America is in the midst of a new civil war over values. While there are skirmishes regarding school prayer, diversity, and other issues, the longest-running and most heated battles involve sexuality education. Regardless of whether a program is labeled family life, reproductive health, growth and development, or comprehensive health ed ucation (which means it includes sexuality education), Bible-based traditionalists at the one extreme, secular humanists at the other, and those of every ideological shading in between vie with one another to influence policy and to define curriculum to suit their own ideological perspectives.

These conflicts are not new to principals, superintendents, and school boards. Over the years, school officials have taken measured steps and followed low-key approaches to minimize disruptions regarding the sex education curriculum. However, two new factors may force educational leaders to make precise, controversial, and high-profile decisions. First, all regions of the country are facing local lobbying efforts orchestrated by well-funded national coalitions of special interest groups. Second, parents and government agencies are increasingly pressuring schools to address adolescent health problems that involve sexuality, such as teen pregnancy, AIDS, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Given increases in teen sexual behavior and its negative consequences, groups that were totally opposed to sex education in the 1960s and 1970s now strongly support a new brand of sex education - "abstinence only." Because proponents of abstinence-only programs believe that dealing with any aspect of intimate sexual behavior sends children mixed messages, they vehemently oppose curricula that include such topics as condom and contraceptive use, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, and other matters of sexual behavior. The goal of abstinence-only education is to convince teens that the only morally acceptable sexual behavior takes place within marriage.

Other groups call for "abstinence-plus" sexuality education. While they encourage students to postpone sexual intimacy, they support a wider range of education, including coverage of the topics mentioned above. They also advocate for skills development - providing students opportunities to rehearse, with adult coaching and supervision, communicating appropriately and making sound decisions.

Finally, there are other groups that oppose abstinence instruction because it produces debilitating fear and shame. But these groups tend to be under represented in public meetings about sexuality issues. Consequently, most of the debate over sex education takes place between advocates of conservative and moderate positions, rather than between advocates of conservative and liberal positions.

As pressure groups have gained sophistication in their methods of persuasion, they have begun to cite research to substantiate their arguments. And the past decade has produced a bumper crop of well-documented scientific studies regarding sexuality education and the sexual behavior of adolescents and adults. Some of the most significant findings were derived from government-sponsored Title XX programs that examined the effectiveness of abstinence education. More recent studies, examining the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission from infected to uninfected partners, have come from Europe.

Special interest groups, however, tend to be myopic when examining scientific data. Results from credible research are taken out of context, misinterpreted, or partially reported. …

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