Monday, June 2, 2008

All parents are for truth

As Congress considers Abstinence-Only Sex Education funding, the Parents for Truth campaign has put out a video with dramatic music about comprehensive sex education. A startlingly well-coiffed blonde woman comes home to her daughter doing homework at the kitchen table and the kind of music in the background which cues the viewer that a red phone is about to ring in the white house. She receives a cell phone call from an African-American friend telling her about the content of the sex education course, which lists "showering together" as an activity that a couple can do together. The woman asks her daughter whether they learned in school that it's okay to shower with boys, and the daughter says yes. The woman retreats into indignant thought.

1. It violates the one rule of sex ed that Focus on the Family and Planned Parenthood agree on: parents should discuss sex with their kids. Instead of retreating into silence, the parent in the PFT video had a perfect teachable moment. She could have asked her daughter what they said about showering with boys --- I'm guessing it was on a list of "things to do instead of intercourse" --- and what she and her friends think about it. "Ick," seems like the most likely response from a 13 year old. The mom could then ask the daughter whether they could talk after dinner about the day's lesson, so they'd get to talk about the subject and the mother could convey her nuanced views. Parents don't realize how much influence they have on their kids' decisions.

2. Parents For Truth doesn't like the showering-together text, and they don't even quote the grape jelly lubricant sex ed text, but I find it hard to believe there's not a single comprehensive sex education curriculum that they'd find acceptable. Textbook companies produce different products for red and blue states/school districts. Reasonable people can disagree about the content of sex education, and they inevitably will. We don't need one national sex ed curriculum.

Of course parents who are upset by a specific sex ed curriculum should speak up, but there's no excuse to assert a national conspiracy theory. The campaign's main website says that comprehensive sex education folks are deliberately misleading parents in order to teach kids about sex. That's needlessly paranoid.

3. I would expect real conservatives to recoil from tying funds to curriculum content. Federal funding mandating a specific piece of school curriculum whose content meets eight distinct criteria is anomalous. There's no federal funding for private organizations and states to develop new statistics or calculus or physics curricula. Frankly, I think the federal government ought to create a $200+ million statistics education program, in which students are taught that evidence-based policy is the only right way: the abstinence slogan is that only abstinence is 100% effective; statistics would claim effectiveness with 95% confidence.

4. Abstinence is a life situation in which many adolescents find themselves, some unwillingly, so should be affirmed. Sex education should address the entire population of the abstinent, whether they're popular kids who have been dating since 6th grade and choose to be abstinent or geeks who don't find someone willing to hold their hand until well past high school graduation. Religion aside, it's a hard balance: sex education has so much to teach about sex --- mechanics, decision-making, motivations, alternatives to intercourse, condoms, birth control choice, and grape jelly --- and yet if it's not carefully worded, the socially marginalized might feel even more marginal. The painful cycle of hope and rejection is something we'd all rather forget, and debates about sex ed sometimes proceed as though it were obvious how you find a person to abstain from sex with.

It's an issue rarely addressed, except in the paper with perhaps the best name ever, "Smart teens don't have sex (or kiss much either)".

Making curricula be sensitive to its diverse audiences' beliefs and circumstances is common courtesy, and shouldn't require a federal mandate to accomplish. If there are curricula that aren't, they should at least remember the geeks.

5. The vast majority of even the most religious teenagers have sex, so are at risk for STDs and pregnancy. Adolescents who know accurate information about the effectiveness of birth control and condoms are more likely to use them, and there's no excuse in the age of google for presenting inaccurate or outdated information or any other type of propaganda. As Santelli says, it's unethical and a violation of human rights to withhold information or give misinformation that could preserve health and save lives.

There are ways to present accurate and comprehensive contraception information in a religiously-acceptable way. "Even if you don't plan on having sex, you should know this so you can teach those who are having sex." And they might. I had a case of condoms in my dorm room during my freshman year of college. I put them in a bag hanging on my room's door handle, and every night would hear rustling. I had no use for them myself, and (despite my liberal school district) I'd actually never seen one in person until I volunteered to be a peer counselor where they taught us how condoms were used.

Going back further, I remember at the beginning of AIDS when I was too young to know anything about drugs, my synagogue assembled all the religious school classes and taught us about HIV prevention. One of the things they taught us was that we should not reuse needles after injecting drugs, but if we did need to reuse the needles we should sterilize the needles in a solution of bleach and water. At this point in my life, I didn't even know what bleach was and I'd never seen it in person, or held a bottle in my hand. I remember the first time I bought and used bleach in my laundry, it felt so transgressive. A fortiori, drugs were completely off the horizon, and learning about needle sterilization didn't make them seem any more desirable.

If I could be Philosopher King for a day, I would let states and school districts go back to choosing their own curricula with no subsidies to any curricula. The curricula would be up to local control, but ideally they would (1) include accurate information on condoms and instructions on condom use (fortunately many states mandate review for accuracy), (2) affirm those abstinent whether willingly or unwillingly, and (3) have a few homework assignments in which kids have to talk with their parents about specific issues. Finally, I would direct the $200 million to a federal statistics curriculum.

That fantasy aside, no matter what the outcome of this Congressional vote is, the arguments and polarization will continue unless people learn to find common ground and agree to disagree on the rest.

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