A Calm View from the Eye of the Storm: Hysteria, Youth and Sexuality
The Spanish Inquisition. The Salem Witch Trials. The Red Scare and the McCarthyism that followed. Widespread allegations of ritual abuse and child abduction. The purported existence of huge quantities of child pornography. Reputedly rampant pedophilia (used incorrectly as a euphemism for child molestation). Teenagers reportedly having untrammeled, promiscuous, prolific sex, resulting in huge numbers of unmarried youth pregnancies, skyrocketing STD rates, and countless ruined young lives. Many sensible people can look at the first three or four items in that list and see they were based in fear, stereotyping, political powerplays, and plain old hysteria. Somewhat more savvy folks will look at that list and recognize that all of those issues, right down to the feverish headlines in your evening paper, are coming from much the same place.
Yes, we're serious. There's just no evidence that says otherwise. In fact, there is a clear lack of evidence that things like ritual abuse and abduction, child porn, and pedophilia are taking place at anywhere near the rates that have been claimed for them. But just as there have been those who'd have reported their own mothers to the John Birch Society for joining a neighborhood barter circle - if Mommy is a commie, then you gotta turn her in, you know - many people are buying into our current hysterias about sexual abuse and youth sexuality with a similar fervent desire to rid the world of perceived threats, coupled with a similar absence of critical thought.
Hysteria vs. History
When we look in the mirror as a culture, our tendency toward hysteria always seems to hover in our communal blind spot. We're not very good at seeing when groups with a political or social agenda are manipulating us with fear, often the unreasonable, irrational fear of the taboo. During the Salem witch trials, it's quite clear that the members of that Massachusetts community felt that their fears - and their actions - were completely reasonable and sensible in light of the threat they perceived themselves to be facing. With hindsight, we think that burning people at the stake is just a little extreme, and that the threat of witchcraft is perhaps not quite so significant as all that. These days, we find ourselves facing a similarly pitched level of hysteria and carefully-inculcated terror in regard to youth sexuality... and similarly, we may be in grave danger of seeing our misperceptions and extremism only in hindsight.
As we should all be aware from thousands of years of human history, youth sexuality - and by this we mean sexuality of those under what is the current legal age of majority in the United States, in other words, eighteen years of age -- poses no real threat to us when it is entered into and developed responsibly and compassionately. It is, in fact, biologically inevitable that we develop sexually at puberty in physical ways. Historically, the advent of sexual activity, both masturbatory and partnered, has generally been assumed to be a natural adjunct of this physical development. Almost all cultures, whether primitive or modern, devise social structures and meanings around both the physical process of sexual maturation and around sexual activity.
Some cultures, at some times, do this well, with an eye toward self-determination, individual sexual desires and wills, and an acknowledgement of the power, responsibility, and, yes, pleasures of being sexual. Others don't do as well. Right now, ours is doing a pretty piss-poor job... and we're betraying our own shortcomings via the smoke and mirrors of hysteria.
The Current Status Quo
When we stigmatize, manipulatively hamper, misunderstand, mistreat or intrude upon the flowering of anyone's sexuality for our own aims, we create real problems. When we attempt to define what any individual's sexuality "should" be, rather than creating a context of informed choice based in an awareness of cultural issues, biological facts, and our knowledge of tendencies and patterns of human development, we create a poisonously Procrustean bed. When, out of an interest in furthering religious or moral agendas, we force our children into this bed, not only do we do so in direct violation of their best interests, but in direct contradiction to the kinds of education, support, discussion, and understanding our children are telling us very clearly that they want and need, we create real problems.
When it comes to America, a large segment of our culture is clearly doing just that. All of it potentially affects those under the age of legal majority; some of it is targeted specifically at them. Here are a few examples:
• Since 1996, there has been no federal funding for non-abstinence-only sex education teaching or curriculum development in the public schools. Only abstinence-only (or, as SIECUS calls it, 'fear-based') sex education is permitted if the school is to receive federal funding for its health education programs, and tax payers have been paying hundreds of millions of dollars for these programs.
• Increasingly, federal, state, and local healthcare initiatives and policies are based in, and used to promote and enforce, anti-choice policies. Examples include restrictions on public funding being used for abortion, private health insurers' refusal to cover contraception and/or abortion services, restrictive parental consent laws for minors seeking abortion, and so forth.
• The concerted efforts of the conservative right to overturn Roe v. Wade in the USA have even extended to an imperialist effort to control freedom of speech and freedom of information worldwide: the infamous January, 2001, 'global gag rule.'
• Millions of public school students are, with full federal and state approval, being taught transparently biased, manifestly inaccurate, and medically unsound information about their own and others' sexuality. Sex Respect, a popular abstinence-based sex ed text used in many public schools, states that premarital sexual activity results in such simultaneously vague and foreboding problems as: 'Increased incidence of cervical cancer, risks associated with use of contraceptives and abortion, guilt, doubt, fear, disappointment, self-hatred, stunted growth in personal identity and social relationships, and being fooled into marrying the wrong person.' (Sex Respect Student Workbook, pp. 36-37; Teacher Manual, p. 42.) Sex Respect's information is likewise inaccurate and offensively biased in the extreme on many other subjects, for instance, homosexuality, bisexuality, and AIDS: "AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the STD most common among homosexuals and bisexuals, kills by attacking the system that defends the body against infections." (Sex Respect Student Workbook, p. 41.) "Research shows that homosexual activity involves an especially high risk for AIDS infection. In such activity, body openings are used in ways for which they are not designed. During such unnatural behaviors, additional damage is done to blood vessels and other body parts." (Ibid., p. 52.)
It is apparently by such methods that we are as a culture purpose to save ourselves from the perceived threats and evils of sexuality - and particularly, our children's burgeoning sexual maturity, awareness, and desires.
Not too surprisingly, whenever an effort is made to resist or even rebut these kinds of maneuvers, the response - loudest and longest from those trying hardest to shove their control, disinformation, and manipulation down our collective throats - is a shocked, horrified hue and cry, replete with calls for censorship and rallying against freedom of the press. Public libraries have been threatened with having their funding yanked if they do not filter Internet access. And the recent outcry against the publication of Judith Levine's book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press), complete with demands by right-wing protesters that the book be pulled prior to distribution and that the press be given a thorough administrative audit (or was that shakedown?) to assess whether the Press was utilizing sound judgment in accepting the manuscript for publication, certainly smacks of something decidedly more rabid and less rational than civil or intellectual good-citizen concern.
Our culture is well into full-fledged hysteria mode when it comes to sexuality, and particularly the sexuality of those under the age of eighteen. Even liberals and progressives, who tend to at least try think about such issues separately from issues of political dogma and religious propaganda, can sometimes be heard saying that while they disagree with some or all of the various ways in which our sex lives are being forcibly molded and censored and our reproductive freedoms challenged, we do have to deal with "the real problems," swallowing whole the FDA-approved concoction that insists there genuinely is a problem with youths knowing about and experiencing their sexuality and/or engaging in sexual activity.
In the realm of sex "education" disinformation, we're currently in a very similar place to where we were back during the First World War. As part of a WWI "chastity campaign," 'social hygienists" pushed the military to ban condom distribution among US troops, while all other countries involved in the war freely provided their soldiers with condoms. Guess whose troops had the highest rates of syphilis and gonorrhea of all those in Europe? Guess whose troops brought the disease back to their wives? Guess whose ideas -- that condoms weren't helpful and could be replaced by abstinence, and that marriage provided a safe haven from sexually transmitted disease -- were proven, without a shadow of a doubt, to be both fallacious and deadly, providing our young nation with its first serious nationwide wave of sexually transmitted diseases and infections? That's right, baby, Uncle Sam's.
We've been here before. We know the kind of head-in-the-sand attempts to eradicate problems through misinformation and censorship or by pretending we can just moralize them out of existence doesn't work. Just as smart people learn from their errors; cultures and countries that have wisdom and real care for their populations shouldn't make these kinds of deadly mistakes twice.
Listening To Youth and Looking At Ourselves
At present, neither of us have children of our own. We're honestly too busy working with thousands of other people's children, attempting to provide sexuality information for which there is a dire and volubly evident need. But we do see many of the effects that abstinence-only sex education and the general cultural messages being sent to today's youth about their sexuality can generate. What's more, we see them in a far more candid arena than most folks who aren't high school students get to see on a regular basis.
What do we see when we look at the thousands of teens who've populated the Scarleteen discussion boards and sent us thousands of e-mails for the past three years? Well, for one thing, we see an enormous number of teens having what we call "everything-but sex.' This means exactly what it sounds like: "dry" sex or frottage, manual sex, oral sex, anal sex, partial vaginal penetration: anything and everything one can think of that is not transparently penis-in-vagina intercourse to orgasm, which is what these youths' abstinence-only sex ed curricula tell them qualifies as 'sex.' Much of this sexual activity -- and let's face it, this is a hell of a lot of sexual activity -- takes place without any safer sex methods in use whatsoever. Nor are most of our youth getting regular sexual healthcare or STI testing, often because they have no access to this kind of healthcare without their parents being involved. Most of these teenagers and young adults don't initially perceive the risks inherent in what they're doing, because school and other sources repeatedly tell them that if they are monogamous (as they are led to believe all married couples are... again, despite very clear evidence to the contrary), which they interpret as not having more than one partner at any given time (despite the fact that many youths have multiple partners in a succession of fairly short-term relationships), and if they or their partner have not and do not engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse, that they have no STI or pregnancy risk.
That's the tip of the iceberg. We see youths either contemplating or sometimes actually performing genital mutilation on themselves because they are not informed as to the range of what the human sexual anatomy can actually look like, and furthermore, short of surfing porn sites online, they have no real way of finding out. We see all too many teens whose body-image and self-image is based almost entirely on whether or not someone else currently finds them sexually attractive. Sure, we can blame Britney's bellybutton, the ad industry, and Hollywood for some of that... but perhaps it's also worth considering that when we as adults obsess endlessly about teen sexuality, and turn it into the only teen issue on which we focus, that we might be telling young people in a rather direct manner that sex really is the only thing that matters in their lives, and that their sexuality really is just about all we notice when we notice them at all?
We see young adults in emotional pain because their budding relationships are dismissed by the adults in their lives as juvenile and thus worthless, immature, and undeserving of support, counsel, and care. We see thousands of sexually active adults who receive none of the sexual health care they need, often because their parents are under the illusion that their immaculate offspring are somehow miraculously asexual (one wonders: do these parents not remember what life was like when they were in high school, at the very least what their own desires were like?). Most of these teens also do not use reliable birth control methods, but not because they don't care, think they're immune to pregnancy, or can't be bothered. No, they aren't using reliable birth control because they're terrified of what might happen to them if they get caught using birth control, if their families discover that they are having (or even thinking about having, or intelligently planning for) sex when they're supposed to be abstinent, waiting for marriage, or simply 'too smart for that sort of thing at your age.' For similar reasons, we also see queer youth becoming more and more isolated despite the fact that culturally, we are supposed to have begun becoming more accepting of numerous orientations and sexual identities.
Of course, this kind of thing doesn't only happen in the realm of sexuality. Efforts to manipulate teenage thought and behavior have backfired on us in other ways. For instance, so many teens have had "Just Say No" pounded into their heads growing up when it comes to illegal drugs that many of them are convinced that legally sanctioned toxins alcohol and tobacco are naturally safer than those which are presently illegal. Many youths are condescended to, belittled, and told they're 'too young and too immature' so much of the time that they've fully accepted the debilitating notion that in their mid-teens, they are incapable of anything beyond (and have no reason to look for more in live than) some boring, unchallenging homework, a few sullenly-performed household chores, and hanging out at the mall. For lack of alternatives, many teens buy into the ultimately destructive values we hand down to them as a culture: mass consumer consumption and object accumulation, unhealthy and codependent relationships, low expectations of themselves and their achievements, and self-absorption. Massive sexual shame and misinformation are, in some ways, just another part of the heritage we've handed down along with our supposedly venerable 'Family Values.' Abstinence-only sex education is a great education -- if your goal is to assure that today's young people have the same endemic sexuality problems, sexual health crises, lack of reproductive freedom, distorted body image issues, homophobia, sexism, and crappy sexual double standards that their grandparents' generation did.
'But wait,' we hear you stammer. 'What about what we're told are the "real problems" of escalating teen pregnancy and STI rates, permissive sexuality without morals or ethics, sexual molestation and abuse of minors, and the 'breakdown of the family?''
Well, what about them?
Teen pregnancy: In 1960, pregnancy rates for young women were as follows (and given the stigma placed on unmarried pregnancy, greater then than it was now, reported rates may have been significantly lower than actual rates): 175 births per thousand for women aged 18 - 19, 80 births per thousand for those aged 15-19 and 40 births per thousand for women aged 15 - 17.
In 1997, unmarried pregnancy rates for the same age groups were 80 births per thousand in the 18 19 age group, 55 births per thousand for women ages 15 - 19, and 30 births per thousand for women aged 15-17.
The Centers for Disease Control, whose figures are cited here (and these figures are representative of those found by a number of similar studies) note that the decline in those rates came from a combination of decreased sexual activity plus an increase in the use of condoms.
Teen unmarried pregnancies are not at a record high, but quite the opposite. We are at a record low for unmarried teen pregnancies, and save a small upsurge in 1990 that momentarily broke the steady decline (a blip that never even came close to flirting with 1960 rates), we've been on a clear downward run for the past 50 years. While a good part of that decline can accurately be attributed to the advent of longer-lasting birth control methods like Depo-Provera and Norplant, and to greater use of condoms, it can also be attributed to delaying some forms of sexual activity.
Delaying certain forms of sex, or delaying partnered sex entirely, is not necessarily a bad thing.** In fact, freely chosen celibacy can be a very positive experience. Unfortunately, some of the reason teens may choose celibacy now is simple fear.
There is the valid fear of STIs, including HIV, yes. Fear of disease is quite rational and sensible. But disease fears are often more extreme than they need to be when young people are not furnished with accurate and comprehensive information about disease transmission, risk, infection, and prevention. Current sex ed is in no way designed to combat unreasonable fear, but to inculcate and nurture it.
Beyond fear of infection, there is also a resurgence of the gutwrenching fears that were familiar to our mothers in the 1950's, when many women married out of fear of being known to be sexually active outside of wedlock: fears of pregnancy and of social stigma. These fears are not simple things, and their fallout is not simple either: rushing into marriage simply because it provides an outlet for sexual desires and feelings or because of an unplanned pregnancy, high anxiety levels causing stress-related illness (such as ulcers or anxiety attacks, usually seen primarily in older adults), poor body image, feelings of sexual shame and guilt, and appallingly low incidences of seeking out good sexual information, advice, and health care are all some of the consequences of this kind of fearful relationship to one's own sexual self. This kind of thinking also creates an inevitable and hurtful dichotomy for those who do not wish to marry (or who do not wish to marry young). And it creates an insurmountable wall that casts out anyone, gay, lesbian, or transgendered, for whom fully-sanctioned married heterosexuality is not an option.
In all honesty, teen pregnancy is not, in and of itself, a problem. Female bodies in mid-to-late adolescence are perfectly capable of -- and in some ways better suited to -- healthy pregnancies and births than women in their later twenties, thirties, and beyond. For centuries, teen pregnancy was not only not a problem, it was the norm. There used to be a word for women who were still childless in their late twenties, and that word was 'barren.'
In our current culture, teen pregnancy is a serious issue due not to what human bodies do quite adequately, but because of social and economic factors: a lack of medical and other care and support for young mothers and mothers-to-be (especially if they are unmarried, poor, non-White, or all three), the stigma laid onto to teen pregnancy which makes women less likely to seek out or expect any care or support at all, and a lack of economic and social support for young women who, married or not, become mothers (where is the affordable daycare so that young mothers can complete schooling in the same percentages as older, wealthier mothers go back to work and continue their white-collar careers?).
Lest we be misunderstood, we're not saying teen pregnancy is an ideal that should be promoted. But it doesn't have to be made the ordeal that it is. Part of that is providing adequate services and supports to women who choose motherhood. And part of that is also ensuring that women have the ability to choose whether to become pregnant, and should they become pregnant when they do not wish to be, that they have the ability to choose whether or not to bear the pregnancy to term. As sub-optimal as the conditions may be in many ways, we in this country do (for the time being, and technically if not always in actual fact) have the right to reproductive choice. And we should be protecting that right and encouraging its use -- in terms of contraception availability, abortion access, and prenatal and child care and support.
There's no real reason not to. We can go over and over the old tired cant about teens not being emotionally ready for sex, let alone childbirth, but very young women have not only had sex but borne and reared children competently for thousands of years. Certainly, if we insulate our youth and treat a 16-year-old like a 4-year-old, with similar levels of responsibility and expectation, we are going to rear children who do not have the emotional maturity either to parent their own children or to lead their own lives capably in other ways, like making sensible decisions about sex, contraception, or abortion. But this is not necessarily those children's shortcoming, and it is not necessarily their fault: we're the ones who raise them and educate them. Besides, preparedness for sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing aren't issues that are limited to those under 18. We all know people, even in their thirties and forties, who are far less ready for these things than one might hope... and some of us might even, in our heart of hearts, be willing to admit that they might sometimes be us.
The real concern conservatives have with teen pregnancy is not a concern for teen health, general well-being or for the children teens may be having. It is instead largely a concern about abortion that is grounded in religious and political beliefs and issues of social control. It is a frightening thing for parents to realize that their children are growing up and may make decisions for themselves that the parents wouldn't have chosen for them. And while those feelings are normal, and religious and political beliefs are often a part of who we are as social and cultural creatures, it is not the place of public policy or public education to create and enforce these agendas. It is not helpful, it is not ethical, and, moreover, it is not what is, in actual fact, desired by those whom it most directly affects. Numerous polls and studies show that the majority of adults, parents, teens and educators prefer comprehensive, fact-based sex education, and numerous studies and history show that that is the type of sexuality education which works most effectively on every important level, both globally and for the young adults individually. *
Sexually Transmitted Infections: The STIs for which youth are presently at greatest risk, and which are most prevalent in US youth today, are not the STIs that are transmitted solely or primarily via exposure to semen. Herpes, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and Chlamydia -- the most prevalent STIs with the fastest growing rates in Western youth -- are transmitted by skin-to-skin and mucous membrane contact, so simply abstaining from sexual intercourse or even using condoms does not provide adequate protection to anyone regardless of their age. Certainly, where skin-contact transmission is involved, it would actually be prudent to inform youth and others that abstinence from many different types (but not all types) of partnered sex would afford them the greatest protection.
But that is not the information teens are given. Instead, they are given the blanket answers that monogamy and marriage protect you from the risk of STI infection. Condoms are still mentioned, but the effort to encourage safer sex practices like barrier use often seems pro forma; in fact, in current abstinence-promoting curricula, condoms are given far shorter shrift than 'just say no' and 'wait until you're married' rhetoric, and the efficacy of safer sex is often challenged or described as dubious. At Scarleteen and on Planned Parenthood's Teenwire, we see the 'oh, but there are microscopic holes in condoms' myth repeated ad nauseam, relict of precisely such faulty information being passed on in abstinence-only sex ed classes. Teens are also told that condoms regularly break or fail... which, of course, they very well can if one does not know how to use them correctly. Other barrier methods, like dental dams and latex gloves, are rarely covered at all in most sex education curricula now. This is true despite the fact that repeated research shows that barrier use offers a fairly high level of protection from STIs for those who opt not to abstain. But if you're being taught that the only sex that really qualifies as 'sex' is potentially procreative, penis-in-vagina heterosexual intercourse to orgasm anyway, it rapidly becomes an article of faith that oral, manual, anal or "dry" sex should -- logically! -- be risk-free.
Since the advent of abstinence-only sex education, STI infections have indeed been rising in one very pertinent demographic: teenagers and young adults. This is no small thing, nor is it likely pure serendipity. The data directly supports interpretations that make it clear that the STD rate is growing not because of a net increase in sexual activities but because of unprotected sexual activities.
The Age of Consent: We have no data to show that our increasingly restrictive age of consent laws -- many of which will now make consensual activity between age-group peers a serious criminal offense that could end up slapping one partner with lifelong sex offender status -- are beneficial to our youth or to our culture. Age of consent laws do not provide a meaningful deterrent to rape, sexual molestation or sexual abuse. Given that most teens are not even educated about their state age of consent laws or what they might mean, they also offer no deterrent whatsoever to consensual sexual activity between teens and/or young adults, despite the fact that some of that activity is currently illegal.
Age of Consent laws originally had a very clear purpose. With sound reasoning, they were introduced during the Victorian era as an adjunct to child labor laws as an effort to keep youths of all sexes from being forced into prostitution. Presently, the only clear message Age of Consent laws send -- to youths and adults alike -- is that the passage of a particular birthday confers some magical ability to give meaningful and informed consent to sexual activity, whether or not they have actually had any educational or emotional support, parental or other guidance, or any preparation of any sort whatsoever. The implication of these laws is that those who are below the local Age of Consent are unequipped to handle their own sexuality, while those over it automatically are. Curious, but then again, we assume the same thing about people's fitness to vote, drive cars, fight in wars, and watch movies that have been given an R rating by the MPAA.
We have no evidence that Age of Consent laws assist in decreasing in teen pregnancy or STD/STI infection rates. Teen pregnancy and STD/STI rates in other countries Denmark and Sweden, for instance, or Japan, France, or Germany -- where comprehensive sex education, social and medical support for sexually active teens, and less restrictive age of consent laws, are far lower. It's astounding to us that the United States government can look at the facts and still keep pushing abstinence-only sex education and "child-protective" (especially given that young adults are not children) sexual laws as it does. We clearly care a whole lot less for the actual health, happiness, and well-being of our youth than we do for a given set of mores.
What If We Cared?
If we cared, truly cared, we'd look at what other countries are doing that we aren't; what is working elsewhere where we are very much failing. We'd allow young adults to complete high school earlier if they wanted to get out of grade school and into the workforce, vocational training, or higher education. We'd encourage them toward greater independence and agency, encouraging them to find real things to do with their lives and their very potent energy and talents rather than leaving them with nothing to do but hang out in malls and cruise around in cars. Being bored and underutilized didn't do teens any favors in the fifties, and it isn't doing them any now. Besides, busy teenagers certainly don't have as much time for sex as bored ones, and while our interests in furthering the stated aims of conservatives in that department are rather miniscule, we do contend that giving teens more agency and more opportunity would enrich their lives by allowing them to feel as competent and capable as they are. As it stands now, the resounding message we send our youth is that until the clock strikes 12 and they're 18, they are incapable of anything but making a lot of mistakes and killing a helluva lot of time.
And that really is the crux of the matter. On the one hand, people complain endlessly about our self-absorbed youth culture, about what we perceive as their apathy and carelessness. On the other hand, our culture has very carefully and purposefully molded them to be precisely those things, all in the name of ease of control. And you know, it's easy to pick out the conservative motives for all this -- it enforces religious doctrines, it entrenches traditional sexism, classism, looksism, ableism, and racism, it makes it easier to spend less money providing social services and devote more money to accumulating wealth and status -- it's a bit more complicated to assess why many moderates and liberals, like many of our readers here at Scarlet Letters, often find themselves unquestioningly accepting the very same paranoid rhetoric and baseless assertions about youth and sex.
The answer is really fairly simple. As adults, we can often be open to new ideas, exploring numerous concepts, even exploring beyond the traditional limits of sexuality in very positive ways. But being able to conceive of our own sexuality positively does not necessarily mean we are skilled at stepping outside of our culture, and it doesn't make us immune to hyperbole, scare tactics, skillfully-manipulated statistics, political railroading, and our own (often very genuine and very well-meaning) protective instincts toward the children and young adults we love and care for. Let's face it: some of the vistas that are conjured up before us are bleak as hell. They're scary. They're supposed to be. And even the staunchest progressive can fall into the trap of believing something because he or she is direly afraid it it might just be true. And so we step under the all-encompassing, all-suffocating canopy of fearful hysteria.
But prevention of access to information, scare tactics, and the insidious disinformation of abstinence-only sex education really aren't the answer. We assure you, as educators who have dedicated years of pro bono work to the sexual well-being of people of all ages that if we thought for a minute that preaching abstinence to the exclusion of all else would make every young person safe, if it would render them sexually, physically and emotionally healthy and help with the global problems of STD/STI infection, overpopulation, and infant health to boot, we would do so immediately. But we have at our fingertips -- as does anyone with access to the Internet, a public library or two, and a world full of teenagers -- a world of evidence, a lot of history, and plenty of very real youth to listen to and observe daily that tell us plainly that this is an approach that is both ineffective and dangerous.
If parents truly are serious about moral and religious sexual values needing to be taught at home and not at school, all they have to do is belly up to the bar. They can have the conversations, allow for those discussions, and give their children real facts (and in some cases, learn the real facts and sexuality basics themselves) so that they can have those discussions intelligently and soundly. Saying 'my child shouldn't be given this information because s/he will never need it' is simply silly. If a given student who learns about how to practice safer sex really doesn't ever need that information, well then, by golly, they'll simply never use it. It's not all that unlike algebra that way: if it doesn't prove applicable in your life, you are entitled not to use it.
Information itself doesn't pose a mortal threat to morals... and if it does, it might be worth asking why those morals are so delicate and easily fractured. Likewise, it might be worth asking if those values and the fear, hysteria, disinformation, and hypervigilant control used to enforce them on our youth are more valuable than the youth themselves, and the quality and integrity of those young people's lives, sexualities, and psyches... and our own.
These are good questions, good questions indeed. And like you, we're waiting for some good answers.
* Seventy-nine percent of adults in the US support the provision of sexuality education in schools (sixty-two percent are strongly in favor). Fifty-eight percent of voters agreed that abstinence may be an unrealistic expectation for adolescents, and that sexuality education is needed. Opponents of sexuality education tend to be Republicans, older voters -- who likely are not even in touch with youth sexuality on an intimate level, and who have no personal or vested interest in the consequences of such "education" -- and voters in the South (Lake Research. New Poll Shows Family Planning Services Are Overwhelmingly Popular. Washington, DC : Lake Research, 1996)
** In a review of 35 programs from around the world, the World Health Organization found that abstinence-only programs were less effective than programs that promoted the delay of first intercourse and safer sex practices, such as contraception and condom use (Baldo M, Aggleton P, Slutkin G. Does Sex Education Lead to Earlier or Increased Sexual Activity in Youth? Presented at the IXth International Conference on AIDS, Berlin, 6 - 10 June, 1993. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 1993) Studies on abstinence-based programs have thus far ONLY shown, in comprehensive data, to delay sexual activity WHEN combined with comprehensive human sexuality curricula (Kirby D, Korpi M, Barth RP, et al. The impact of the Postponing Sexual Involvement curriculum among youths in California. Family Planning Perspectives 1997; 29:100-108)