Will the United States ever reach a consensus on how to teach its youth about sex? It's hard to see hope through the dust storm kicked up when U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher recently released his "call to action" for comprehensive sex education in schools.
"He sought a middle ground, put the health and well-being of youth first, and still wound up taking fire," says James Wagoner, president of the D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, which had criticized the Clinton administration for not releasing the report last year.
"The surgeon general is to be commended for elevating to serious debate the epidemic of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and out-of-wedlock births," says Peter Brandt, spokesman for the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. "But once past that, it condones explicit sexuality messages for kids, offers no statement on the dangers of promiscuity, and serves as a living legacy of the morally and sexually bankrupt Clinton administration."
Says Wagoner: "Satcher ran into a wall of ideology and politics that has nothing to do with providing basic health information to youngsters."
Satcher, a four-year Clinton appointee whose term runs out in February, urged the nation in "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Behavior" to end the "conspiracy of silence" about sex. His predecessor, Jocylyn Elder, took a similar stance before she was forced to resign from the Clinton administration because of her outspoken views on such matters as masturbation and contraceptive use, which she categorized as healthy practices.
Satcher's 33-page report (at www.surgeongeneral.gov), compiled as a collaborative effort after two national conferences and scientific reviews involving health care professionals, policy-makers, academics, youth workers, religious representatives, teachers, parents and youth, wastes no time making its points:
- Five of the 10 most commonly reported infectious diseases in the U.S. are STDs, which accounted for 87 percent of the cases reported among all 10.
- Rates for gonorrhea are highest among girls 15-19 years of age.
- STDs are highest among women, adolescents and racial and ethnic minorities.
- Sexual orientation is usually determined by adolescence, if not earlier, and there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.
Among the report's recommendations: Provide access to sex education that is thorough, wide-ranging and begins early; develop and disseminate educational materials for sex-ed classes that cover the full continuum of human sexual development; and assure awareness of the best ways to protect against STDs and unintended pregnancy for those who are sexually active, while stressing that abstinence is the only infallible method of protection.
"To have people not be aware of how to best protect themselves and others when sexually active is just not fair," Satcher told Reuters news service. He said recent reports show that abstinence-only sex education does not reliably reduce pregnancy rates or cause teens to delay sexual activity.
The current White House resident and those who preside under the Capitol dome have other views. Congress has allotted some $500 million over five years for abstinence or abstinence-only education efforts. And the Bush administration has not only distanced itself from Satcher's report, it has proclaimed that it will promote abstinence-only programs over family planning and contraception efforts.
Despite that, Satcher said through a spokesman, "While the [report] has had its critics, the overall response nationwide has been overwhelmingly positive. We called for a nationwide [discussion] about sexuality, and it would appear a dialogue has begun."
Indeed, there's plenty of dialogue.
Both advocates and foes of comprehensive sex-ed claim that Americans overwhelmingly favor their approach.
Among the first out of the box with a congratulatory letter to Satcher was Sarah Brown, director of the D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "I commend you for grounding your findings and recommendations in the best research available, while at the same time being sensitive to the diversity of opinion about these issues," Brown wrote.
But Dr. John Diggs, a member of the medical advisory board of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based National Abstinence Clearinghouse (NAC), begs to differ. "That this report is described as 'balanced' is disheartening," he says. "Though the Satcher group claims to have sought a 'conservative opinion,' the panel is stacked with radical sexual laissez-faire champions."
Diggs, who contends that condoms do not curtail many STDs, rails against what he calls the "dual message" of the Satcher report. "It is just 'safe sex' in an abstinence wrapper. If a standard is not taught, why should youth elect abstinence until marriage?"
Diggs calls "egregious" the report's assertion that a person's sexual orientation is usually known by adolescence. "Thousands of people who used to practice homosexuality have told their personal stories to offer hope to those trapped in a self-destructive activity," he says.
On the matter of condoms, Advocates for Youth spokesman Bill Barker counters that "study after study has shown that condoms are the best weapon at our disposal in helping contain STDs. They are our best defense against HIV/AIDS."
Leslie Unruh, NAC president, brands the report "pretty discouraging" because it "preaches the same old Latex-only message." Her organization acts as a resource and referral service for some "700 abstinence and abstinence-only groups in 48 states and 18 countries." The Satcher report, she says, missed an opportunity to point out that "abstinence until marriage is about freedom for young people, not 'just saying no.'"
Gary Swant, who seven years ago quit a school teaching job to create, along with his wife Laura, the Deer Lodge, Mont.-based Sexual Abstinence & Family Education Inc. (SAFE Inc.), says the Satcher report's recommendations would "give youngsters a false sense of security with contraception."
Tmara Kreinin, president of the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says she is "very excited" that Satcher "has taken a stand." Regarding the report's stance on a broad array of sex-ed in schools, Kreinin says several studies show that "parents worry that they themselves can't do a good job." A study co-sponsored by SIECUS claims that "more than eight out of every 10 Americans believe young people should be given information about protecting themselves from unplanned pregnancies and STDs, as well as about abstinence."
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study buttresses SIECUS' claim by noting that there is a gap between what parents wish were taught in sex-ed courses and what is actually taught. More than eight in 10 parents, says the study, want their children to be taught how to use condoms and other forms of birth control, as well as how to talk about them with partners. Three-quarters of those participating in the national study also wanted abortion and sexual orientation to be among the sex-ed topics.
As of last year, according to the Satcher report, 18 states and the District of Columbia required schools to provide sex education. Three of the 18 required that abstinence be taught but did not require information about contraception. Of the 32 states that did not require schools to provide sex education, 10 required that if sex education was taught, it had to include abstinence. They did not require information about contraception.
A Kaiser study on teen sexual activity shows that half of all ninth- through twelfth graders have had sexual intercourse, reflecting a decline from 54 percent in 1991.
Renee Wixon, a mother of two who sits on the advisory board of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Family Council (MFC), believes that most parents want a "middle-of-the-road" approach taught in sex-ed. Aware that MFC is an avid proponent of abstinence-until-marriage polices, Wixon feels that the "realistic approach" is to offer "some sort of combination" of abstinence and contraception measures.
Kreinin of SEICUS says that despite all the rhetoric from both sides, "I believe we're not that far apart."