Sex Miseducation

In 1993, the Atlantic Monthly made waves with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's well-argued cover story puncturing the conventional liberal wisdom that parental choices such as divorce, single parenthood, and two working parents don't affect children's well-being.

Last October, Whitehead repeated the formula with an Atlantic cover story attacking sex educators. But this time, she seemed to tailor the evidence to fit a pre-established format.

Whitehead paints a picture of P.C. technocrats teaching teens how to "do it" rather than why they shouldn't, and claims that the sex educators ignore scientific evidence that their programs don't work. But our follow-up interviews with two of her key sources call her facts and conclusions into question.

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For example, Whitehead begins by attacking what she implies is a typical sex ed program in New Jersey, using it to suggest that the state's programs are anti-family and imposed from above by state-level educators. But Susan Wilson, an educator who is Whitehead's primary New Jersey source, explained to Mother Jones that the program cited was not typical, and that the state's 600 programs are very diverse and are all locally controlled; furthermore, one uniting factor is their focus on parental involvement. "Parents are the primary sex educators," says Wilson, adding that "all institutions--families, schools, churches, and social service agencies--should help teenagers become loving, caring, responsible adults."

What about studies showing the failure of sex ed programs? Whitehead's main source is social scientist Douglas Kirby. But Kirby, like Wilson, believes the Atlantic author misrepresented his work. "Her article might have been relevant 5 or 10 years ago," Kirby told us, but now researchers are beginning to get a clearer picture of sex education programs that work, despite tremendous obstacles. Here, Kirby explains how Whitehead got it wrong:

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead raises some good questions concerning sex education programs, and points to some past mistakes. However, her claim that sex education in general has failed is incorrect, and is based on a selective citing of the evidence. In fact, sex education programs can and do make a difference, as Whitehead knows from research of mine that she ignored in her Atlantic piece.

In a balanced review of the research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that current programs do not hasten the onset of intercourse or increase its frequency (contrary to claims by "abstinence-only" advocates). Overall, sex education programs modestly increase the use of contraception; some programs reduce unprotected sex by 40 percent or more. Some programs also help delay the onset of intercourse and reduce the number of sexual partners.

The programs that work are based upon established theories proven effective in other risk-taking areas, such as substance abuse. They provide accurate information in ways that allow students to personalize and retain it. For example, a class might examine lines people use to get someone to have sex, and then suggest responses to them.

Perhaps most importantly, effective sex education programs provide a clear message that is both age- and experience-appropriate. For younger, sexually inexperienced youth, an effective message is: "Wait until you are older to have sexual intercourse." For older kids: "Avoid unprotected intercourse--the best way to do this is abstinence; if you have sex, always use protection." For high-risk youth, most of whom are having intercourse, an effective message is: "Always use condoms; otherwise you might get AIDS."

No, seven hours of sex education per school year (the average length of programs, contrary to Whitehead's implications) will not alone offset the innumerable other factors affecting teen sexual behavior (peer pressures, lack of parental interest, the media, etc.). But they are a start. Inaccurate critiques such as Whitehead's only delay further progress.

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