Nevada’s legislature has taken up the Big Topic — sex education, and of course all the denizens of the belfry have taken flight. Surely, if we give our progeny information about how they came into this world we’ll have kindergarteners watching sex tapes, fifth graders talking about abortions, and parents excluded from the moral education of their offspring and relegated to the sidelines while Planned Parenthood (the successor to ACORN as the prime target for the tin foil hatted) propagandizes their little angels. Not. So. Fast.
The Las Vegas Sun sets the record straight on the actual contents of the bill under consideration — for those who are actually interested in what the bill would really do, and not primarily fascinated by projecting their fears on the canvas of someone else’s proposal for addressing the fact that Nevada has the 4th largest teen pregnancy rate in the country.
There is just about as much misinformation as any sentient human being could every aspire to amassing in the comments on AB 230 at the Legislature’s input site.
Those against the bill seem to track along various lines: Sex is icky and should not be discussed; Sex is sacred and should be theologically framed and not discussed as a biological feature associated with human behavior; and it’s OK to talk about sex and we’re doing enough already. The last argument is at least a point we could discuss in rational terms. The first two are essentially religious in nature, and emotional in character.
The unavoidable and uncomfortable fact that we have the fourth highest rate of teen pregnancy in the United States of America ought to be enough to convince the public we’re not doing something effectively.
Those who advocate for total parental control over the content of sex education may want to remember that not all parents (or other family members) have accurate information.
For example, during a quiet conversation with an adolescent female a few years back, the youngster about floored me with the fervent assertion that “You can’t get pregnant if he’s drunk.” That would be only if “he” were intoxicated to the point of dead to the world unconsciousness….
Or, there was the young lady who assured me her grandmother was correct when she said, “You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up.” Uh, that would be a “no.” It doesn’t matter if the position you’ve assumed is the most uncomfortable imaginable — all the two little bits have to do is to get together and then the impossible becomes possible. The NCBI did a study published in 2009 regarding the sources teens use to find information about sex. The results really shouldn’t be surprising:
“Consistent with previous research, adolescents in this sample rely heavily on friends, parents, teachers, and the media for sexual information. There were several differences in source use by race/ethnicity and gender, but the only difference by age group was with regards to media. The older the adolescents, the more they relied on media as a source of information. Among those who cited the media as an information source, television was the medium from which adolescents reported learning the most about sex, which is not surprising in light of research showing that 70% of television programs in 2005 contained some form of sexual content.” [NCBI]
There’s a reason for the order given in that summary paragraph. Teens reported their sources of information as 74.9% from friends, 62.2% from teachers, 60.9% from mothers, 57% from the media, 41.4% from doctors, 32.8% from fathers, 29.3% from cousins, 18.1% from brothers, 17.7% from sisters, 13.5% from grandparents, and 12% from religious leaders.
If we adopt the policy that parents should be the only ones doing the sex education spiels with their youngsters then we’re accepting that the mothers are generally the ones doing the talking (at 60.9%) and only 32.8% of the fathers are involved in the “teachable moments.” However, we still have to deal with the fact that nearly 75% of the information the kids are getting comes from outside the home — from friends who may be as informed or misinformed as the sources of their information.
One of the controversial provisions of AB 230 is the matter of passive or active parental consent — does the parent have to actively permit the child’s instruction, or does non-action constitute tacit approval? Given the data indicating that 75% of the sexual information is passed along by friends — of possibly dubious veracity — if we truly want to educate children and empower them with the most accurate information possible then the tacit approval route would include more young people in the process.
If parents want control over the content of their child’s collection of information about human sexuality then the bill allows for that, parents can always opt out — and hope that the 75% outsourcing of education to “friends” works for them. Fathers may wish to note that they are responsible for an average of only 32.8% of the information the child receives?
Religious leaders, no matter how well intended, aren’t getting their message across if only 12% of our teens are reporting that those leaders are the source of their sex education.
If parents are fearful about the intrusion of the right wing bogey of the day — Planned Parenthood — inserting its messages about contraception (and horror of horrors “abortion”) into public school instruction, then they ought to be assuaged by the bill’s language giving local districts control over curriculum content. However much some parents may believe that Planned Parenthood and other health care providers are salivating at the prospect of propagandizing the progeny the statistics still indicate that information about the subject of contraception among teens who participated in sex education classes tends to be “superficial and often limited to condoms.” [Guttmacher pdf] This doesn’t speak well for the current curriculum or the level of instruction, whether parents opt in or out. Or, as one 17 year old participant in the study told researchers, “My Dad said turn the lights out and use a condom.” In short, what teenagers may know about contraception, either to avoid impregnation or to minimize the prospects of a sexually transmitted disease, is limited to “safe sex sound bites.” We could be doing better than this.
Further, if we truly want to prevent the possibility of abortions then the rate of teen abortions in Nevada could be reduced with more and better information about contraception. Recent statistics show Teenage abortion rates were highest in New York (41 per 1,000), New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware and Connecticut. [Guttmacher 2010 pdf] Someone isn’t “Just Saying No.”
Contraception, one the best ways to avoid unintended pregnancies, may not be on the educational agenda at all — only 14% of U.S. schools as late as 2002 had truly comprehensive sex education, 86% had policies on sex education curricula calling for the promotion of abstinence as a primary focus, 51% allowed the discussion of contraception as a way to avoid STDs, 35% required that abstinence be the only option. [UC SF pdf] The abstinence-only approach was effective in limited environments (religious schools, small groups) but there is little evidence that success rates can be replicated in larger, more diverse, groups such as public schools. The 2002 report concluded that most of the abstinence-only research was not peer reviewed, and tended to be isolated.
What parents could hope for from the Nevada Legislature is a bill that expands the scope of comprehensive sex education for all Nevada youngsters, with instruction appropriate to the age level of the students, and with a curriculum which emphasizes information over exhortation.
If we truly don’t wish to have students dropping out then we need to have the parents opt in.