WHEN CHICKA MERINO, a sex education teacher in Minneapolis, gave me the chance to meet with one of her classes, I couldn't resist asking the teenagers a question: What has been the most memorable part of sex ed for you? The first hand to go up belonged to a Somali-American girl in a gray hijab whom I'll call Amina.
"For me," she said, "it was probably the day when Chicka made us play with condoms. I'd never seen or touched one. We opened them up, took them out of their packages and blew them up like balloons. Then we tossed them around the room.... I learned that a condom is just a thing. I'm not scared of it anymore."
Amina continued: "I always thought that if I talked about sex, people would think I was having sex.... Or [I thought] that talking about sex is encouraging it. But it's the opposite."
Since I had been reading about the controversies over sex education, I could imagine how some uneasy parents or legislators might react to Amina's story. Hearing about students playing with condoms might reinforce their worst fears about frivolous treatment of sexuality in public sex education. But when I heard Amina's enthusiastic and articulate response to my question, the argument for comprehensive sex education seemed even clearer to me; Amina, armed with information and confidence about condoms, appeared to be in a better position to make informed decisions.
In fact, though sex education makes some people nervous, study after study shows that giving teens information about sex and engaging them in open conversations about issues of sexuality is effective. It helps reduce teen pregnancy and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It helps them to analyze their own behavior and sometimes even to critique the culture that gives them bad or misleading information all the time.
In 2008, Douglas Kirby, a researcher with ETR Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm, reviewed 115 programs nationwide and concluded that comprehensive sex education helps reduce risky sexual behavior and that it is more effective than abstinence-only education--an approach in which methods of birth control besides abstinence are not mentioned (let alone played with). Kirby's conclusions were corroborated by Mathematica Policy Research, which conducted a nine-year study of abstinence-only programs and concluded that teenagers who had studied under such programs were no more likely to abstain from sex than those who had not had such education. But it also found that teenagers who had had an abstinence-only education were not more likely to have unprotected sex, as some critics had claimed. Mathematica and Kirby's studies are part of a broader attempt on the part of sex educators to undergird their work with comprehensive and rigorous studies, in part because of their field's controversial nature.
A sort of schizophrenia seems to lie at the heart of American approaches to sexuality. On the one hand, movies, TV shows and advertisements are drenched in references to sexuality, and children encounter sexual messages at a very early age. On the other hand, many Americans are deeply anxious about addressing sexuality in public settings. In situations where genuine information rather than provocative advertisements might be useful, many people prefer to change the subject. The fear of controversy has prohibited many school districts across the country from implementing any kind of comprehensive sexual education program. "When it comes to sex education," said Oeb Hauser, executive director of Advocates for Youth, "fear of controversy plays a far greater role than actual controversy."
But support for comprehensive education may be gaining ground. In January, the largest advocacy organizations, Advocates for Youth, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. and Answer, released the first-ever attempt to articulate national sex education standards for grades K-12. Hauser said that demand for these standards far surpassed her expectations. …