355. "Tired of Fights Over Sex Education? Try This." USA Today (June 26, 2001), p 13A.


U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher says he wants to promote "responsible sex conduct."

You might think that this approach is a safe one; who could possibly stand for irresponsible sexual behavior? But Satcher has reason to worry.

For 2 years, his staff has been working on a report on sexual activity in America and the importance of sex education. He plans to release that report soon.

But "responsible" for liberals translates into favoring the use of contraceptives and urging youngsters to behave safely. This position is anathema to social conservatives, who strongly favor abstinence-only education and deferring sex until marriage, which also happens to be President Bush's position.

Meanwhile, many on both sides insist that sex education stay out of the "morality" business, arguing that kids should pick up values at home or in church. As a result, sex education continues to be less effective than it might be because states can't agree how to teach it.

Sex education in public schools (which still hold about 89% of all children) often focuses on the birds and the bees, on biological facts, with little attention to the values involved. Indeed, in many schools, sex education is part of human biology classes.

There's a better way.

A task force of educators and experts from a wide variety of backgrounds, put together by the bipartisan Communitarian Network (which I founded and which is dedicated to the remoralization of America but not necessarily along traditional lines), has called for replacing sex education with classes on "interpersonal relations, family life and intimacy."

In these classes, youngsters would be taught how to communicate better with one another and how to resolve conflicts, including how to say no. They would find out that many acts, sex included, have long-lasting consequences for oneself and others, and that one must assume responsibility for these effects. They would also learn that meaningful relationships are truly satisfying and last long after the rush of hormones subsides.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a communitarian and author of a definitive essay on sex education, has stressed this, writing that sex education could more usefully devote itself to the neglected topic of love.

In the new course, sex education would be folded into moral education and character building.

Youngsters would be instructed -- after the general moral background is carefully prepared -- that deferring sex until you can handle the consequences is the way to go.

And they would be taught what to do if their struggle to control their urges fails.

It may at first seem that there is a built-in contradiction in this approach. Teaching how to have safer sex seems to undermine calls to defer it. But a second look at many moral texts shows that they follow such a two-step approach.

For instance, books about marriage strongly urge young people not to tie the knot until they are ready to make a considered and strong commitment, and to draw on counseling before they even think divorce.

However, these texts also plead with them that if they must divorce, it should be civil for the sake of the children. The record shows that one can explain to young people that a good person does not rush into sex at a tender age -- and show them what to do if they fail to heed their better self.

In the trade, this two-step approach is known as abstinence-plus. It has been successfully championed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Project, launched by Isabel Sawhill, currently a Brookings scholar. As a result of its efforts (coming on top of other social developments and efforts), teen pregnancies have declined significantly during the past 7 years.

Moreover, while diehards on both sides demur, the approach has won support of many in both the liberal and the conservative camp; indeed, the board of the National Campaign includes people from both sides of the ideological divide.

Satcher (and Bush) could do much worse than issue a report calling for doing away with stark sex education, and favoring the inclusion of education for interpersonal relations, family life and intimacy (into which abstinence-plus is folded) in the curriculum of all public schools.

Amitai Etzioni is the founder and director of the Communitarian Network and author most recently of The Monochrome Society. He is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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