- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 8, 2009

First of two parts

Tucked inside the Senate Finance Committee’s gigantic health care reform bill are two amendments about sex education.

One would allocate $75 million a year for comprehensive sex education, which I will abbreviate to “sex ed.” The other would allocate $50 million a year for abstinence education. (Yes, this is a revival of the Title V abstinence program Congress let expire this summer.)

Sex-ed proponents are urging members of Congress to jettison the $50 million for abstinence education, which won’t be news to anyone who has followed the sex-education battle.

To my knowledge, though, no one is calling for the $75 million sex-ed funding to be stripped out. So with specific funding, plus broad support in political, academic and medical health fields, it’s quite likely (if the health care bill passes) a sex-ed program will soon be in schools and communities near you.

WETZSTEIN: What’s missing in sex education

What is sex ed? This week, I would like to review some descriptions of a good sex-ed program. Next week, I will offer a sex-ed critic’s list of essential items she says are omitted in sex ed.

First and foremost, sex-ed advocates say their approach is intended to help children grow up with a full, detailed and comprehensive understanding of sexuality, both as it affects them personally and as it affects others.

Studies, including those by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Public Policy Institute of California, repeatedly show that most parents want schools to teach sex education to their children.

“Parents see such courses and content as supplementing, not supplanting, their discussions at home,” says Advocates for Youth, a leading sex-ed proponent.

Moreover, AFY adds, parents want their children to be taught “about delaying the onset of intimate sexual relationships until they are mature and responsible, and given the information and skills they need to use condoms and contraception when they do choose to become sexually active. It’s not either/or, but both.”

All sex-ed programs address unwanted pregnancy and disease transmission. The best programs also acknowledge sexuality as a part of life; are respectful of differences in family, religious and social values; reflect cultural, social and ethnic diversity; and encourage youth to discuss sex issues with their parents, AFY says.

The best programs are also nonjudgmental and encourage openness in class discussions.

Sex-ed materials should be age-appropriate and in sync with children’s developmental stages, says AFY. They should only contain information that is “honest, medically accurate, and based upon verifiable scientific and behavioral theories” — and be available for parental review.

A core sex-ed theme is to promote responsibility and respect in intimate relationships. Other goals are to avoid making children feel shame, fear or guilt when discussing sexuality; promote gender equality; teach decision-making skills; acknowledge diversity of sexual orientation; and acknowledge the existence of sexual deviancy and resources to help people who are victimized, sex-ed proponents say. In other words, boldly end American children’s ignorance about this crucial topic.

Good sex education can’t happen too soon, sex educator Deborah Roffman says in her book, “Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex.” Knowledge and education are cornerstones of American life and yet “one vast and essential area of knowledge — sexual knowledge — has [been] kept from children as long as possible,” she writes.

The need is urgent, says Dr. Lynn Ponton in her book, “The Sex Lives of Teenagers.” Puberty arrives earlier, sexual debut happens earlier, there are more sexual diseases and sexuality has become more explicit in media, writes the University of California-San Francisco psychiatry professor. “If we want adolescents to be healthy, we have to promote their learning to act in their own best interests.”

Next week: One doctor’s list of sex-ed omissions.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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