Let's Talk About Sex

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is a deep schism in this country, a schism between those many Americans who support comprehensive sex education in the schools and an equal number who believe that only abstinence should be taught, between those who want teenagers to be told about masturbation and HIV prevention and the like, and those who believe they mostly need to hear that true love waits.

It is one of those universally acknowledged truths that happen to be utterly false.

The poll results are astonishing. While respondents in some surveys are divided over whether more emphasis should be on contraception or on abstinence, nearly 90 percent of those sampled in several recent polls support the notion of sex ed in schools. I'm not sure that many people would agree about teaching long division.

But none of this is what you would hear if you put your ear to the ground in Washington, D.C. In yet another example of how things can go horribly awry within that zone of magical thinking, Congress has poured $1.5 billion into what is essentially anti-sex ed, abstinence-only programs, despite the following facts:

1: They don't work. A study conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services during the last Bush administration showed that teenagers who took abstinence-only classes were just as likely to have sex as those who didn't.

2: They're actually counterproductive. Other studies have shown that adolescents in abstinence-only programs were less likely to use contraception, perhaps because those programs emphasize only the failure rates of even the best methods.

3: Everyone understands this. A growing number of states are turning down federal funds for abstinence-only education. Yes, that's right: states are being offered money and saying no. (I wanted to write that in capital letters but restrained myself.) Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.

President Obama's budget seems to reflect the sentiment of most Americans, promising to "stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active." In other words, we can indeed walk and chew gum. But not in abstinence-only education, in which students must be taught little more than that married sex is good and unmarried bad. Homosex? Not even an issue. In the human-sexuality curriculum in Utah, for instance, guidelines say teachers cannot "advocate homosexuality," which if I were a teacher would translate as "leave well enough alone." Or well enough for all but the gay kid in the classroom, who is probably wondering how he's going to handle the waiting-for-marriage part, since Utah won't let him get married. The guidelines also forbid discussing "the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior." I'm not sure what that means, but I do love that word "intricacies." It sounds as though teachers shouldn't teach the Kama Sutra, or Cirque du Soleil.

In our current straitened economic atmosphere, there must be no more of what our grandmothers called "throwing good money after bad" for junk virginity pedagogy that emphasizes the eww factor with photographs of lesions. It's the eww factor that causes a lot of the problem here; it's remarkable how many parents think sex education should be handled in the home, then are so queasy they leave the teaching of it up to episodes of "The Real World." Even some of the comprehensive sex-ed curricula are incomplete. With their emphasis on HPV, STDs and problem pregnancies, they seem to ignore one critical point: pleasure. It's the equivalent of talking about salmonella and forgetting to mention that food tastes good.

Because we hear so often that there are two sides to an issue, we've become accustomed to thinking there are two equal sides to most of them, especially the ones on which people scream the loudest. You can see this reflected in coverage of demonstrations, in which tens of thousands can march against the war, or for gay rights, and a chunk of the story will be taken up by quotes from 11 people with American flags or verses from Leviticus on their signs.

In Washington this fallacy is taken as gospel because there really are two sides to every issue, and both of them belong to lobbyists. Even if they are arguing nonsense, as they once did when they said that tobacco didn't cause cancer, as they still do when they say cigarettes are not marketed to the underage, they do it in nice shoes, sometimes at a cocktail party. Good grooming and mini-quiches make their arguments seem plausible.

Perhaps this issue offers an opportunity for elected-official ed, too. It's worth looking past the dueling paid faces to actual public opinion about what appear to be contentious issues—but sometimes aren't. Common sense dictates that schools should offer a comprehensive view of sexual behavior, including a guide to those measures that can help sexually active students avoid visiting an abortion clinic or experiencing burning during urination. And elected officials might try a comprehensive view, too, before they use scarce resources on programs they've embraced mainly because they do not offer the inconvenience of complexity.