Sex Education Essay

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Progressive, comprehensive sex education encompasses the myriad issues related to human sexuality, including birth control, disease prevention, sexual orientation, gender roles, relationships, and intimacy. Such programs provide age appropriate information throughout primary and secondary education and support student exploration and development of emotions, attitudes, values, and identity as well as interpersonal communication and decision-making skills.

Sex education developed in the early 1900s, most prominently out of crusades against gonorrhea and syphilis and spurred by a sense that the youth of the day were morally and physically endangered by loosening mores. Then as now, sex education faced the tension between its potentially immunizing effects against the dangers of sexuality and the possibility that such education would itself dangerously arouse those being educated. While most educators presented sex negatively, focusing on danger and fear, a few— such as Mary Ware Dennett—rejected this stance and emphasized the joy and beauty of sexuality.

The years following World War II brought a resurgence of Victorian prudery and new devotion to a sanitized ideal of the nuclear family. While the production of penicillin reduced fears of sexually transmitted disease (STD) infection, the Kinsey reports on sexual behavior gave evidence to some of society’s slide into moral depravity. Though few, if any, of the study’s participants had received formal sex education, detractors vilified such programs. In the 1950s, sex education largely yielded to family life education, which focused on dating etiquette and home economics more than anything sexual. Reacting to this reconstituted void in education, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) emerged in 1964. SIECUS remains the only national organization dedicated solely to sex education and, with a membership that reads like a who’s who of expert and professional organizations related to the field, it has become the clearinghouse for research and policy in the area.

Overwhelming public support exists for comprehensive sex education programs. The percentage of public approval varies with the contentiousness of the particular topic in question, the age of the students, and the specific population surveyed, but it ranges no lower than 60 percent and reaches near unanimity for junior and senior high school programs. The current U.S. debate centers on “abstinence-only” programs narrowly restricted to the biological basics that teach that the only acceptable sexual activity is within the context of heterosexual marriage, emphasize the dangers of any deviation from this norm, and exclude all information on birth control or STD prevention. While several laws specifically prohibit federal prescription of sex education curriculum, conservative Christian influence has enabled exclusive funding of abstinence programs since 1981. Renewed and expanded in the 1990s, this funding topped $100 million at the turn of the new millennium and exceeded $241 million in 2007.

In assessing sex education, mounting evidence reveals that comprehensive curricula both delay onset of sexual activity and increase the likelihood of the use of safer sex techniques. In contrast, few studies indicate that abstinence-only programs affect rates or timing of sexual activity, and some indicate that they decrease the use of safer sex techniques. A comparison of U.S. statistics with those from Western Europe, where comprehensive sex education dominates, supports the utility of the European programs. However, sex education is far broader than classroom activities, and the more positive, healthier attitude toward sex and sexuality found in Western Europe might be an even more important factor.

Bibliography:

  1. Chen, Constance M. 1996. The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education. New York: New Press.
  2. Moran, Jeffrey P. 2000. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (http://www.siecus.org/).

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