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Sex Education Curriculum Debated in US

  • Alena Mikhailova

Is teen sex on the rise in the United States? In June, 17 Gloucester, Massachusetts’s high school girls under the age of 16 revealed they were pregnant. Actress Jamie Lynn Spears gave birth to a baby girl. New data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that by every measure the decade-long decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007, and the rise in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003. However, the survey found hints that teen sexual activity may have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging downward. The issue of sexual activity by teens and how information about sex is conveyed to them is most controversial. More on the story by VOA's Alena Mikhailova.

"There's something profoundly wrong in a culture that preaches and funds abstinence-only 'til marriage when 95 percent of the American people have sex before marriage, says James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth.

Shelby Knox, also of Advocates for Youth adds: "The majority of scientific evidence shows that abstinence 'til marriage programs do not work at all."

"Teenagers' brains are not fully developed. They do not have the ability to understand the consequences and the reality of what can happen when making poor choices, especially where sexual activity is concerned," explains Michelle Turner of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum.

"No more movies, no more going out to dinner with friends. No more parties, no more going out to the mall with friends," says a teenage mother, living in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The teen mother lives in a working class fishing village on the Atlantic coast. Her words follow the revelation that 17 of her school friends became pregnant this school year. It is a story that brings home the issue of sex education in U.S. schools.

Teaching sex-ed to teens is one of the most controversial subjects in American education. There are two major points of debate: First, that basic sex-ed should primarily be a discussion of abstinence-only and its benefits. And, the other, called comprehensive sex education, talks about abstinence but with a stronger emphasis on contraception and the use of contraceptive devices.

In the 1980's the HIV / AIDS epidemic brought the controversy front and center. The question was and still is: what kind of sex-ed information should be made available to schoolchildren?

Enter Shelby Knox. This 21 year-old young woman, who testified before Congress this spring, comes from a very conservative, religious home in Lubbock, Texas. Shelby is now a spokesperson for Advocates for Youth, a think-tank that believes in a comprehensive program. Here is how Shelby was introduced to sex education in school.

"The city I grew up in, Lubbock, Texas, had an abstinence-only policy. And, as part of that policy they would bring in a local pastor who did a religious version of an abstinence-only program and he would bring the secular version of the program into the schools," she explains. "That's what we got on our junior and senior prom day. I guess they thought that would help the night before. So he would come into the schools.

"He would give a lot of misinformation: like you can get an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) by shaking hands with someone; that half of all young gay males had AIDS," she adds. "He had a special toothbrush demonstration, where he would pull out a toothbrush but looked like it was used to scrub toilets. It was brown and disgusting. He would pull up a girl on-stage and say: 'would you brush your teeth with this? And she would say: no, of course not. And he would pull out another toothbrush, this one in a box and pristine and say 'would you brush your teeth with this?' And when she answered, 'Yes,' he would turn to the audience and say 'young people, if you have sex before marriage you are the dirty toothbrush!'"

Shelby's high school years were documented in the film, The Education of Shelby Knox. It was during this three-year period that Shelby said she changed her thinking about life.

Shelby Knox's views changed and so did that of many school districts across the United States.

Change came in Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, when a comprehensive sex education curriculum was introduced in 2007. But not all parents are happy with the content.

A group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum (CRC) said the curriculum emphasis was misplaced.

Michelle Turner, a parent, is spokesperson for CRC. Michelle believes the comprehensive program in Montgomery County is misguided.

"They are more or less telling the kids that birth control, condoms, will protect them at a greater rate than is actual from pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases," Turner says.

Echoing Michelle Turner are the National Abstinence Education Association and the Family Research Council. Both believe comprehensive sex education is a green light for sexual activity and the American culture tells teenage girls to be cool by dressing provocatively and having non-marital sex is normal.

"Now people, don't take this lightly,” a clergyman tells a group of teenagers. “ What we're gonna do: I want you to look into the eyes of your parents, declare the commitment that you are making before God, before your parents, before your future husband. Use those words!"

There are American parents who insist that abstinence-only be ritualized. Special chastity or purity ceremonies, similar to this one in South Dakota, are still practiced in America, with the goal of no sex until marriage. It has all the hallmarks of a wedding with vows, a cake, even a first dance, but instead of giving their daughters away, the fathers are holding on tight.

"Today's day and age, if the daughters are sexually active before they're married, that (wedding) ceremony really is meaningless because the father's not giving anyone away," says Brett Markle, a parent.

One of the key congressional supporters of abstinence-only is Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. A father of five, he says, "I'm like most parents in this country, I want them to abstain from sexual activity until they are married."

"I think giving the abstinence pledge means giving up your sexuality to your father or your husband - letting someone else make that decision. How can you have personal autonomy if you give up those decisions," Shelby Knox counters.

Her concerns about abstinence-only, are supported by Deanne Keagan, a counselor for the United Church of Christ youth program.

"I could see it winding up in more teenage pregnancies and that type of thing because they don't know everything that they need to know," Keagan says.

Columbia University's Institute for Social Research's study on abstinence shows that nearly 90 percent of those who make an abstinence pledge break it. Why do most break the pledge?

James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth says "Young people globally are the same. They are looking for connection. Relationships are the gateway to sexuality,” Wagoner said. “Yes, there's a strong sex drive in teens, that's the way they are created biologically. But to assume that's all that's at play is to miss the holistic nature of youth."

The issue of sex education is an ongoing debate in America, Russia and many parts of the world. Let us know what is happening in your country. We'd like to hear from you.

Some video courtesy of Cine Qua Non, Inc.

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