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Does Sex Education Work?

An Online Conference with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

October 5, 1994

The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.

Hosted, with an introduction, by Scott Stossel

Imagine that you are a parent. It is autumn and your child has just begun first grade. You know it is likely that six or ten or fifteen years from now your child will become sexually active in a world fraught with perils--unwanted pregnancies and AIDS perhaps chief among them. How do you set about ensuring your child's protection from these dangers? Is your primary goal to teach the child effective contraception? Or to work towards making it fifteen years from now--rather than six years--that your child becomes sexually active? And now that your child has gone off to first grade, what is the school's role in this? "Comprehensive sex education" is mandated by 17 states. But does it work?

Tonight's guest has examined this last question carefully and determined that the answer is no. In her October cover story, "The Failure of Sex Education," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes that sex education as practiced today fails to speak to the grim reality of "the new sexual revolution." Whitehead writes that there is little, if any, empirical support for comprehensive sex education. Yet this does not discomfit its advocates who respond: criticize sex education and you contribute to the death of teens from AIDS.

Whitehead has already proven that she is not afraid to dispute the conventional wisdom if the conventional wisdom isn't supported by the evidence. Her first cover story for the Atlantic, in April, 1993, was "Dan Quayle Was Right," about the dissolution of two-parent families. The piece ignited a firestorm of controversy across the country, and was discussed in the most prominent newspaper columns and on talk shows.

Whitehead, the vice-president of the Institute for American Values, in New York, has a PhD in American social history from the University of Chicago. She is at work on a book about parents and children in a post-marriage society. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and has three children.

What do *you* think of sex education? Do you want your child in a sex education curriculum in school? Starting at what age? And what, exactly, should kids be taught or encouraged to do? Abstain from sex? Practice safe sex? Can we do better than merely providing sexual survival skills? How? These are the questions we'll be discussing tonight with Barbara Whitehead. Ask questions by using the Interact with Host icon on the left side of your window.

StosselAtl: Welcome, Barbara Whitehead. And welcome, audience.

WhiteheadB: Hello. I am looking forward to your questions and comments.

StosselAtl: A debate has sprung up on our messageboard around your employer, the Institute for American Values: what is it, what is its guiding ideology, and how--if at all--did it affect the writing of your article?

WhiteheadB: The Institute for American Values is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, secular research organization. Our principal interest is on applying scholarly research to understanding the nature of child and civic well-being. I am interested in every aspect of children's life -- family, education, economics. That was what led me to sex ed.

StosselAtl: Our first audience question is from Hermanaj, who asks: Doesn't sex ed also give the kids more awareness about how to have sex and somewhat encourage it?

WhiteheadB: There is no evidence that I could find that exposure to sex ed actually increases or encourages sexual activity. It doesn't seem to discourage it much either.

StosselAtl: Axel Heys asks: Could you elaborate on what you mean by a "post-marriage society"?

WhiteheadB: Marriage is still popular as a way of establishing a happy personal relationship, but it is less important as an institution which regulates sex and parenthood. High rates of divorce and escalating levels of unwed parenthood mean that marriage is less important as an institution of family life. Hence, a post-marriage society.

StosselAtl: Another question from Hermanaj: Do schools really teach about pleasuring other partners or just the basics of sex?

WhiteheadB: It varies enormously from school district to school district. In New Jersey, you will find both "pleasuring" education and basic education about the biology of reproduction.

StosselAtl: If the evidence against the efficacy of sex education is so strong (and your article argues convincingly that it is), then why does the health community continue to advocate it so strongly?

WhiteheadB: There is strong public pressure on the schools to "do something" in light of STD rates and unwed teen pregnancy, much as there is pressure on schools to "do something" about drug use, etc. This leads to an effort to pursue a "quick fix," or to adopt a fad before it is well tested and evaluated.

StosselAtl: Jennife49 asks: In reading your article, I was puzzled by the fact that while you (rightly) faulted the New Jersey curriculum for "duck[ing] the basic question of male responsibility" you yourself seem to focus only on how to "uglify teenage pregnancy" and how prevent *girls* from having sex. Are you, too, ducking the question of male responsibility?

WhiteheadB: I think this is a very good point. I confess to being more focused on the problem of teenage girls. I think we need to consider what incentives are most attractive to adolescent males in behaving responsibly. Thanks for pointing this out.

StosselAtl: Someone with the apt screenname "Kids and.." asks: Sex education for children must go hand in hand with education about sex education for parents. How can this be accomplished?

WhiteheadB: I think there must be full sharing of information about the curriculum. Perhaps parents and kids could check out a sex ed video and watch it together. Do their "homework" on sex ed together. Parent should not be viewed as adversaries in this process.

StosselAtl: PrfBC gets to the heart of the matter by asking: What is the purpose of sex ed as Barbara sees it?

WhiteheadB: I think that sex education should give kids a basic understanding of the biology of reproduction, the risks and consequences of sexual activity, and the ways to avoid these risks. And I think this information should be communicated at the proper age.

StosselAtl: Barbara, how do you respond to the following vehement assertion from JamesLoka: "SEX EDUCATION IS WORKING! It is kids' own decisions whether to have sex or not!"?

WhiteheadB: The evidence suggests that sex education is not effective in reducing incidence of teen pregnancy and STDs, which should be one of the outcomes if sex education were working.

StosselAtl: Hermanaj wants you to follow up on your response to his earlier question: After answering my question I have to disagree, some children go out and think that it is perfectly wonderful to have sex every night after wearing a condom. Are you saying this is right?

WhiteheadB: If you are suggesting that sex is okay if kids are using protection, I think that depends very much on the emotional maturity of the kids. Most kids are really not ready for sex at l5, l6, or l7.

StosselAtl: Here's a question from someone on whom sex ed policy could have a direct influence: I am 15 yrs old--do you believe that sex ed should teach NOT to have sex or teach how to do it safely?

WhiteheadB: I favor an approach that encourages kids not to have sex.

StosselAtl: Which is better: a faulty sex ed program in schools or no program at all?

WhiteheadB: I'm not sure what you mean by faulty, but again I think the basic idea is to make sure that kids are well-informed about the basic concepts.

StosselAtl: ArleanH asks: Why is teaching abstinence so shunned by our educational institutes today? It is more valid than other methods for protecting against disease and unwanted pregnancies.

WhiteheadB: I report in the article that one of the very best programs, as measured by empirical evidence and sound evaluation, does encourage abstinence and refusing sex through active role playing. It has worked among some high-risk teenagers in Georgia and it is being advocated by President Clinton's welfare reform group.

StosselAtl: Some Western European countries--Sweden, the Netherlands--have more-comprehensive sex ed programs than the US. At the same time, they have lower rates of teen pregnancy. With this in mind, how do you respond to ArchiMatt's question: Is it possible that we are not comprehensive enough with our sex education?

WhiteheadB: There are a number of reasons why we cannot adopt the approach used successfully in western Europe and Scandinavian countries. These nations have national school curricula, they are ethnically and racially much more homogeneous than our country, and they are more secular than the United States. Importantly, too, these nations have much stricter controls over the marketplace and media peddling of sex to teens. So we would have to change many things about American life and culture if we were to emulate western Europe.

StosselAtl: Axel Heys follows up his earlier question about post-marriage society by asking: What, if anything, has replaced or will replace marriage?

WhiteheadB: I think that we will see the evolution of very voluntary, contingent, temporary and easily dissoluble relationships. I do not think this is a good trend, but the signs are that we are already moving in this direction.

StosselAtl: Archimatt asks a broad question: Could you elaborate further on some of your earlier questions in answering this one: How do you suggest dealing with sexuality and safe sex?

WhiteheadB: This is a broad question! A couple of ideas. First of all, the schools should not be expected to carry major responsibility for teaching kids to adopt responsible behavior. Parents should understand that they have primary responsibility here and that their own personal behavior sets a standard. There should be some attention to the predatory commercial culture which uses sex to sell products to teens. And we should try to reach some kind of rough consensus about what we expect teens to do and how to behave.

StosselAtl: Earlier you talked about the appropriate age to teach a child about sex. What would you say is the appropriate age to begin teaching a child about it? Can you make a generalization like this?

WhiteheadB: Well, I think parents should begin at the time when children begin asking questions. Experts say the answers should be simple, accurate and direct. As much as possible, I think most of the "sex education" should go on in the home in the primary grades. By the middle school years, the schools can play a positive and effective role if they tell kids who are not yet sexually initiated how they might stay uninitiated and why this is a good idea. They reinforce that norm. It appears to work.

StosselAtl: Is it possible to talk about an appropriate age to begin BEING sexually active? Or does this depend too much on individual differences? There are certainly ages, I think, when sexual activity is inappropriate.

WhiteheadB: This is a tough question to answer. Obviously, it varies from individual kid to individual kid but I think it's reasonable to expect kids to try to avoid sex until after high school. At least we used to have a rough working consensus about sexual initiation, honored often in the breach, but nevertheless it served a useful purpose in letting kids know what was expected. Now we seem to have a general climate of confusion and normlessness about this issue.

StosselAtl: Do you have any thoughts on the following comment from JudeS776: "Male responsibility is an interesting issue. My childrens' father and I cautioned abstinence with both. Both were abstinent until mid-college."?

WhiteheadB: On the issue of male responsibility, I think we have to begin letting boys know that if they make babies, they will have to help raise babies. This message might be communicated in math problems that show how much money would go for child support.

StosselAtl: Shin La asks: Is the argument that teaching just abstinence is teaching morality and religion a valid argument?

WhiteheadB: Abstinence has been taught as part of religious values but it has merit from a purely secular and practical basis as well. As I report in the article, early sexual activity carries the potential of causing serious, sometimes permanent, reproductive damage to girls. It also causes pregnancy which most teenage girls are not ready to handle and which can pose a health risk if girls become pregnant at very early ages.

StosselAtl: Speaking of religion, Curt R asks: Isn't the "failure" of sex ed due in large part to religious trappings and baggage that prevented the educational system from fully teaching about sex?

WhiteheadB: I don't know what you mean by "fully" teaching about sex, but religious norms and values did not contribute to the increases in STDs and teen pregnancy.

StosselAtl: MPenny asks a good question (though I think the last word should be "fare"): Decreasing school budgets and older, uninhabitable buildings makes it increasingly likely that our 7th grade girls will attend school with senior boys. If what is taught is explicit, how will the youngsters fair?

WhiteheadB: Interesting question. I think it might be feasible to teach separate sex classes when there are age disparities. It might also free girls up to ask questions they wouldn't want to ask in front of the boys and vice versa. Another interesting aspect is the sex of the teacher. I haven't investigated this dimension but it is noteworthy that most sex education is taught by women. Do boys take this instruction as well from women as they would from a man? I don't know.

StosselAtl: InfoBuff follows up on your response to an earlier question: In regard to your answer about the purpose of sex ed: Shouldn't a representation of the various moral outlooks on sex be included as part of sex ed?

WhiteheadB: I think it is probably a good idea to acknowledge that children come from many different religious backgrounds and that family teaching on sex is important and should be respected. There seems to be a bias in some schools against kids who have strict religious upbringings.

StosselAtl: Following up on a question you answered a minute ago, have you explored the differences between co-educational and single-sex schools in the ways they approach sex ed or the effects that sex ed has in these different environments?

WhiteheadB: I haven't but I would like to. I think it would make an interesting comparative study.

StosselAtl: ArchiMatt asks: Do you think there are other issues leading to high teenage pregnancy rates--what are they?

WhiteheadB: There are a number of issues involved. One of the most fascinating new areas of research focuses on the psychological incentives for young girls to get pregnant. Some girls actually seek pregnancy and early motherhood as a way of achieving recognition, of having someone to love them, and of securing the attention of the peer group. Obviously, we have to provide alternative incentives to these girls who have so few attractive life options.

StosselAtl: You've touched on this at some length already, but here goes again: Chu998591 asks: Shouldn't the goal of sex education be to reduce teen sexual activity, not just the unwanted outcomes of the activity?

WhiteheadB: I favor a reduction in teenage sexual activity on the grounds that early sexual involvement may distract kids from acquiring the interests, competencies and sense of self-mastery that we traditionally have looked for as one of the main activities of adolescence.

StosselAtl: An audience member asks: How would you teach kids not to have sex?

WhiteheadB: As I mentioned earlier, there are several clear messages teachers and parents can send and reinforce. Message one: You are too young to begin having sex. Message two: It is okay to refuse sex and this is how you turn down sex.

StosselAtl: Jennife49 asks: You argue that in the last decade we've moved from a society in which adults were "custodians of the moratorium" to one in which their chief function is to provide contraceptive training and tools. What do you think accounts for this change in adults' attitudes vis a vis teenagers?

WhiteheadB: I think we are looking at a generation that participated in the sexual revolution of the sixties and there is great ambivalence among middle-aged adults about what they want their children to know and do about sex. There is a reluctance to present messages that seem inhibited or repressed but at the same time parents want to protect their kids.

StosselAtl: You've already talked a little about the second part of Homschl21's question. How would respond to the first part: What do you see as an ideal base for the morality of society, and what do you feel about religious instruction on sex?

WhiteheadB: I'll take the second part first. I think that churches do have an important role to play and in a pluralistic society, we should encourage families and churches to be part of the instruction of children in this matter. I have even thought that we might be better off if we had a voucher system for sex education that would require children to seek an approved sex education program offered by community and church institutions. This would give parents stronger voice in influencing the messages and education on sex that their kids receive outside of the home.

StosselAtl: Sunsu asks: Are there unique teaching tools that have been developed to effectively meet the unique needs of inner city youth and high risk minority groups?

WhiteheadB: There has been major attention here because of course the problem is most severe among inner city and high risk kids. But one of the surprising findings of my review of the research was that inner city girls -- even those who have already had sex and some who have had babies -- still want help in knowing how to turn down sex without hurting a boy's feelings. So I think we should not be quick to assume that inner city kids do not have many of the same feelings about sex as more advantaged kids.

StosselAtl: How does the school voucher debate tie in with the sex ed debate? JudeS776 comments: You may have given an additional argument for those of us who want school vouchers. My kids went to private schools where parents were involved in issues of teaching values and morality.

WhiteheadB: I threw out this as an idea. To the best of my knowledge, it has not been proposed anywhere but here.

StosselAt: You mentioned the insidious effect of commercial advertising on teenagers. Axel Heys asks: Do you favor censoring advertising?

WhiteheadB: I don't favor censorship of advertising but I do favor protests, boycotts, and other forms of parental and community pressure on advertisers.

StosselAtl: Where should a parent go for counseling/advice regarding teaching his or her child about sex?

WhiteheadB: There are a variety of resources and places to go, ranging from churches to YWCA to Girls Clubs of America to Planned Parenthood.

StosselAtl: DavidT404 says: This is the first time I've heard anyone in the media say the parents must assume the responsibility of teaching their kids about sex. I strongly agree! How does the word get spread? and Archimatt asks: Isn't it a contradiction that you say that on the one hand sex ed should be taught in the home, but on the other you say we need to come to a consensus nation-wide?

WhiteheadB: I am speaking about some sense of what we might expect of teenagers. The President recently embarked on a campaign that might establish the kind of consensus I'm talking about. He tells kids not to have sex until they are older and not to have babies until they are married. This reconnects marriage and parenthood, by the way, and tells kids that marriage should be a prerequisite to parenthood. This is what I mean by a consensus or norm on sexual conduct.

StosselAtl: Jennife49 asks tough questions! This time she wants to know: While it's true that parents *should* be responsible for setting a good example, in this "post-marriage" society kids often get a mixed message from parents. Who then is responsible for teaching these societally-agreed-upon standards, and how?

WhiteheadB: Parents have the primary responsibility as I've said, but I agree that parents seem to be failing in this task for a variety of reasons I might speculate about. I think that we haven't done a very effective job in reaching out to parents. The approach has been more one of going around parents or going over their heads. Of course, I am generalizing here much too broadly. Many parents do a competent job.

StosselAtl: There's a difference between when teens SHOULD start having sex and when they DO. Evan 3826 asks: What is the common age teens start having sex???

WhiteheadB: The most startling fact I came across in doing the research was the decline in the age of sexual initiation. Close to 25% of girls at age l5 have had sexual intercourse compared to about 4.6% a decade ago. Of course, that still means that most girls are not sexually active at age l5 but a growing percentage are. Moreover, girls are more like boys in their sexual experience than in the past. They begin closer to the time that boys report first intercourse. So the historic gender gap between girls and boys is closing.

StosselAtl: Here's a precocious question from AndrewW75: I am in 6th grade, and in health class, we started sex education. Almost all of my classmates couldn't handle it without laughing out loud. However, I think that my Health class doesn't cover enough. Which is better: less embarrassment or more education?

WhiteheadB: I think that embarrassment is quite natural and common and does not rule out good and accurate sex information. Teachers can often create comfort or diffuse the embarrassment -- sometimes with humor!

StosselAtl: Here's an interesting question--Chu 99859 asks (and we'll only have time for a few more questions after this one): Do you feel there are certain organizations and industries that benefit from high rates of teenage sex?

WhiteheadB: I can't think of any off the top of my head. I suppose there are some increased sales of condoms and related products but I am speculating. The more important issue is that the media and marketplace are using sex to sell a host of products to kids -- from T-shirts to tapes to fashions.

StosselAtl: BeYngHvFu asks: In our school district some want to include teaching gay sex education. This has caused quite a stir. What are your views?

WhiteheadB: I think this is highly controversial and difficult question. One of the most important messages is that there should not be any hostility or violence or aggression directed against gay students. But in many respects, there need not be special messages directed at gay students. The abstinence message is important for them to hear as well.

StosselAtl: AprilH675 (one more question after this one): Would the increase in sexual activity in young people, unmarried and still in school, be one byproduct of our society lessening its view of marriage and sexual purity as important?

WhiteheadB: I have heard some anecdotal evidence that children today have never been part of a family where there has been a marriage, that they have been to lots of funerals but never to a wedding, and that young girls have no idea what finger to wear the engagement or wedding ring on. So I think there are signs that the weakening of marriage as a way of regulating sex and relationships has an impact on attitudes and behavior.

StosselAtl: PrfBC asks the last question we have time for: Research claims that girls with goals tend not to get involved prematurely in sex. Why not emphasize the building-up of girls' goals more?

WhiteheadB: I completely agree. This should be one of the principal educational objectives even though it is not directly related to sex ed.

StosselAtl: Thanks, Barbara! We had great questions from the audience. Sorry we didn't have time to get to them all. We hope this discussion can continue in the Society folder of our message board.

WhiteheadB: Thanks for the very thought-provoking questions. You've given me a lot of things to think about.

StosselAtl: Good night.

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