Enlightened opinion has long held that sex education should be nonjudgmental: teenagers are going to be sexually active anyway, so the only way to make sure they avoid pregnancy and disease is to instruct them about contraceptives. Thus, sophisticated commentators roundly denounced the New York City Board of Education a couple of years ago when it passed a resolution requiring that sex-ed programs stress abstinence. As one of his last acts as governor of New Jersey, Jim Florio vetoed a bill that would have imposed a similar requirement statewide. And Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, kicking off a new public service ad campaign for condoms, declared: “Young people need to know that the surest way to prevent AIDS is to refrain from having sex. But we need to be realistic. By age twenty, 86 percent of young men and 77 percent of young women report having had intercourse.”
Which leads to two questions. First, if it is unrealistic to think we can persuade teens to abstain from sex, why should we believe we will have better luck exhorting them to use condoms?
Second and more fundamental, is it really true that sexual activity is an unalterable fact of teenage life? There is reason to think not. For one thing, the incidence of teen sex has nearly doubled over the past two decades. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the proportion of 18-year-old girls who reported having had premarital sex rose from about 40 percent to nearly 70 percent from 1970 to 1988. Further, the pregnancy rate among students at New York City’s Jewish and Catholic high schools is minuscule.
Public schools, of course, must keep religion out of the classroom. But Jane Gross of the New York Times reports that some secular efforts to encourage abstinence have enjoyed considerable success as well. In 1985, Dr. Marion Howard of Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, who teaches sex education in public schools, added a segment to her curriculum that uses assertiveness training and role playing to give youngsters the skills to resist early intercourse.
“For many years afterwards,” Gross writes, “this approach was the butt of jokes in the family planning field.” But when the program was evaluated, it was found that students who had taken Howard’s course were more likely to postpone sex than those who received conventional sex education, and that those who were sexually active reported less-frequent sex and higher condom use than other teen-agers.
In California, 180,000 students are taking courses based on Howard’s model as part of a three-year pilot program. “The pendulum is finally swinging,” Jacqueline Jackson of the San Diego Urban League, one of 28 community organizations teaching the abstinence curriculum, told the Times. “It’s been on the other side for so long and led to the destruction of so many young people.”