Monday, June 20, 2005

The Post: Many Teens Have Already Heard About Sex

The Washington Post had a front-page article this morning that highlights a feature of the sex-education debate that is not often brought out. The reporter talked to students, and came away with the conclusion that sex is not such a big deal to the kids themselves. They talk about it in the hallways, see it on TV and on the Internet, and talking about it in health class is really just ... no big deal.
This is what teenagers at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School tell you: They talk about sex.

In the hallways. At lunch tables. Who's doing it. Who's not. Girls talk to their girlfriends. Boys talk to boys. Girls talk with boys who are friends, or their boyfriends.

People talk about sex all the time," said 16-year-old Claire Davey-Karison. "It's casual [conversation], you know. You'll hear gossip. It's no big deal."

But sex education has become a big deal in some Montgomery County schools -- a deal that involves lawyers, organized parent groups and a federal court. Although students like Claire talk about sex in the same casual manner they might discuss last night's homework or the hijinks of Marissa and Ryan on "The O.C.," some adults are less than comfortable with them learning about it -- or certain aspects of it -- in class. Teens' Take: Sex Is All Around Them

Our times -- and here I mean the era inhabited by us antediluvians who crawled out from under rocks in the middle of the twentieth century sometime -- are typified by change. You could almost make the case that nothing is the same now as it was a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago, cars were a big deal, fer cryin' out loud, light bulbs were a big deal. A hundred years ago, telephones were new. Never mind television and computers and all that stuff that still feels new to us all.

And social norms have changed. A hundred years ago, women couldn't vote. Blacks had to use separate facilities from whites. Irish needed not apply. Ankles were titillating.

Tides roll in and out, and norms change. Hemlines go up and down, "cool" becomes "groovy" and then "radical" and then "tight" and then "cool" again. Birth control pills liberated sexual behavior, herpes and AIDS put a lid on it. Kinsey and Elvis, Miss Sherry and Liberace, put sex in the news. Gays were always an important part of the entertainment industry, but you never saw gay roles -- when did Rocky Horror Picture Show come out, or Victor/Victoria? In advertising, what is it that sells? What do you think TV channels like MTV and E! are about? Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson ... It's all about sex.

Like it or not, it's everywhere. The most basic behavioral feature of all species higher than protozoa is no longer a secret. Teenagers know it's there. And they don't see the big deal.
With summer break a few days away, about a dozen students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High recently offered their take on the sex education debate. The teenagers said they are fortunate because they feel comfortable talking about sex with their parents. They worried about youths who don't have adults they can turn to.

"I know it's a big deal to adults," said Laura Brewer, 15. "Adults fear that if we're learning about it, we'll be more influenced to carry it out. But not teaching it isn't the way, because one day kids are going to have sex, and they're going to need to know how to protect themselves."

Laura and the other students said they realize that some of their peers hold different views, that not everyone talks about sex in hallways and lunchrooms, and that some adults prefer to keep discussions about sex within the family. Still, they said, it's important for parents to understand that teenagers these days are bombarded with sexual images.

"People act like they're dropping some bombshell on us," said Brandon Corbin, 16.

Brandon, who will be a junior in the fall, said many teenagers know what condoms are (and some have known since elementary school because of older siblings or classmates). They know people who are gay, might have friends who are gay and, even if they aren't themselves, have classmates who are sexually active.

Look, back when I was a kid in high school, shortly after my family moved from a cave to a brick house -- believe it or not, we didn't know about any gay kids in high school. Kids didn't just walk into class and say "I'm gay."

And what's changed? It's a simple thing, really, though hard to handle sometimes. Norms have changed. In my youth, slightly post-Adam-and-Eve, being gay was just something you didn't talk about. Those people were perverts, weirdos, and you didn't know any of them. Well, of course, actually you did, you just didn't know you knew any. Now it's changed. A gay teenager today doesn't have to keep it a big secret. Oh, it's hard, I don't doubt that. One of my kids has a gay friend with a Xanga site that documents his life day-to-day; I read it several times a week, just to see how it's going. At least for him, it doesn't seem to be so much bullying and outright hatred, but mainly misunderstanding and strange assumptions. But as the truth comes out more and more in the open, the assumptions will become more correct.

I think most of us (leave that word "us" to be defined as you prefer) think of the anti-gay reactionary movement as a kind of desperate attempt to stop inevitable change. In Montgomery County, the anti-gay forces argue that the sex-education curriculum that was proposed would "normalize" homosexuality. Well, people, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but ... it's already been normalized. People don't really think it's that strange any more. Between Will and Grace and Queer Eye, and Elton John and all those guys up in the top ranks of the Republican Party, between Melissa Ethridge and Rosie O-Donnell, it's just become a fact of life. Some people are gay. They're not all monsters. Get over it.

In another hundred years people will look back, and this stuff will be impossible to comprehend. There are people alive today who can remember when a company could (and would) fire a woman for getting engaged, or worse, for getting pregnant. But kids growing up cannot imagine it. They'll ask, Why didn't they sue the company? The answer is, because there wasn't anything wrong with it. Now there is. Times change.
The statistics speak for themselves: By the time they have reached their senior year in high school, three out of five young people in the United States have had sex, and one in five of those has had sex with four or more partners, according to the 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance.

"You can take the sex out of the curriculum, but it's still going to be in society," said Laura, who just finished her sophomore year and would have been in the class introduced to the contested sex-ed curriculum.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the media habits of young people found that on average, 8- to 18-year-olds watch nearly four hours of television a day and devote nearly two hours a day to listening to music. Another Kaiser report released two years ago said that in a sampling of programming from the 2001-02 television season, 64 percent of the shows included some sexual content, 32 percent had sexual behavior and 14 percent featured strong suggestions of sexual intercourse.

Yeah, sex is out there. Teens see it, they hear about it, they talk about it ... they do it. You can fight it, but you can't turn back the hands of time. What's needed now is education that teaches the facts, that tells teenagers honestly what the issues are. Because they already know it's out there, they just need the correct details.

Norms come and go, but some things evolve in a positive direction. One of those things is knowledge. I don't remember if hemlines went up or down this year, but I know that science knows more this year than it did last year, and more last year than the year before that. More and more of reality, including human nature, is being brought into the light of knowledge. Human sexuality will be one of the last things, to be sure, the mystery is part of it and many people will fight to keep it secret. But it's happening, and it will be necessary for the school district to adapt to that truth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today has been a good day. There were two articles about smart teens published in the Washington Post. This article on the front page pointed out that teenagers aren't overexcited by their sex-ed classes. Over in the Metro section there is an article about a very successful high school where students are expected to take responsibility for their own behavior. What happened when the founder of this highly-sought-after public school threw out the rules? The teens thrived as academics and as citizens. This paragraph is near middle:
"'We trust kids,' [principal Frank Haltiwanger] said. 'We teach them about choice...and making judgements about themselves that are beneficial to them.' As they spend time at the school, he said, they begin to hold themselves to the expectation that they will be trustworthy.'"

What a concept: Expect young adults to be trustworthy and they rise to meet your expectations. What if we send a clear message to our teens that we expect them to make wise personal choices based on scientific data? What if we talk to them honestly and make it clear that we think they are worth our time and attention? What if we act like they are not too young to know about their own bodies and minds? Are we willing to let them rise to the occasion?
Or do we prefer to tell them that if they get accurate information they will be unable to resist making unhealthy choices, and wait for them to sink to meet that expectation?

June 20, 2005 4:53 PM  

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