A Battle Over Teaching Sex Ed

How should schools teach sex education? There is the wrath-of-heaven (or points south) approach, there is the silent treatment; in some precincts, there is even full disclosure. Now come jingles. Don't be a louse, wait for your spouse! Do the right thing, wait for the ring! Pet your dog, not your date! These are the pro-abstinence messages of the junior-high-school textbook, "Sex Respect," used in 1,600 school districts nationwide. They're "catchy slogans designed to trigger memory," says author Coleen Kelly Mast, "no less corny than commercials on television but much more important."

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees. So much so that its Wisconsin affiliate has demanded that the state remove the book from all public-school courses. "Sex Respect," according to the ACLU, stereotypes boys as "sexual aggressors" and girls as "virginity protectors," mischaracterizes AIDS as nature's way of making a "statement on sexual behavior," frowns on birth control and presents two-parent heterosexual couples as "the sole model of a healthy, 'real' family." All of that, argues the ACLU on behalf of parents in the East Troy School District who object to the curriculum, amounts to discrimination based on gender, marital status, sexual orientation and religion--all barred under Wisconsin law.

The state has yet to indicate how strongly it will defend the localities using the controversial material. The workbooks are arresting. They include concepts such as "secondary virginity," which calls for sexually active teens to abstain from future premarital relations. "Sex Respect" was developed six years ago (with federal grant money) by Project Respect, based in Golf, Ill. Its director, Kathleen Sullivan, accuses the ACLU of "book banning" and pushing a "hidden agenda" that condones teen sex. Mast says the ACLU "is violating its own most cherished principles" by asking the state to suppress the curriculum because "they disapprove of its content."

Typically, courts and state agencies have given educators great latitude in making choices about course materials. "It is not illegal for public schools to teach from a certain point of view," says Prof. Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago law school. This dispute "raises a philosophical and educational issue--not a civil-liberties issue." If conservative parents launched an appeal against a liberal curriculum, he asks, "who would be the first group to complain?"

Even so, given Wisconsin's broad definition of discrimination--which includes stereotyping--the ACLU might win its novel challenge. Some of the group's supporters nevertheless wonder about its priorities. They prefer to stand behind Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous dictum that the First Amendment encourages Americans to defend thoughts they hate. Is the ACLU following that admonition, or looking for an excuse to excise the thought it hates? For the ACLU, then, this case may turn out to be as much about examining its own values as the textbooks of Wisconsin.