Thursday, February 26, 2009

'Conspiracy of silence' on sex ed

Imagine if a study found that jaw-dropping numbers of Texas math students had no clue about multiplication.

SWAT teams of experts would be dispatched. Heads would roll. State-assigned campus masters would arrive by air, by sea, by pack mule.

We can't have our children ignorant of multiplication.

That is, unless it's human multiplication: ovum, sperm, menstruation, conception, contraception. Then . . .

We can afford to have children fully ignorant, except to be preached at about the evils of following the urges associated therewith.

Basically, that's the state of sex education in Texas, according to a new study that painstakingly has gone through what schools are teaching children, and what they are not.

Texas State University health education professor David Wiley and assistant professor Kelly Wilson have prepared a "state of sex education" report for the Texas Freedom Network. Per its title, Just Say Don't Know, it is scandalous. It also is no surprise.

More than nine of 10 Texas schools basically punt away sex education in favor of federally funded abstinence-only approaches. Said the researchers, too often abstinence-only is more of a dodge than a means of educating young people about basic biology.

"The most troubling thing is how adults have failed kids," Wiley said in a phone interview. "This is an adult problem. We have refused to address this as a public health matter. Instead, we've addressed it as a morality issue."

While personal discretion — abstinence outside of marriage — should override all other issues, leaving things at that is a disservice to those we hope to educate.

Wiley has this challenge to abstinence-only disciples: "If you think what we're doing is working really well, I'd like you to show us the data."

The data: Texas has a teen pregnancy rate of 63 per thousand. The national average is 42 (2006 figures). Heckuva job.

This problem has two dimensions: (1) what Texas isn't telling its children; (2) what it is. The problem with (2) is that a lot of it isn't backed by facts. It simply fits the template of abstinence-only.

For instance, Wiley found many abstinence programs telling students that condoms fail 20 percent of the time. That's false, if you're talking about the actual failure rate of condoms. The real issue related to condom efficacy is user error, he said. That's a big difference.

Regarding effective means of birth control and guarding against sexually transmitted disease, Wiley assailed a "conspiracy of silence."

Yes, abstinence is the only safe sex. But what about those who aren't going to abide by the abstinence pledge?

Lost in this whole debate, emotionally charged because of the issue of teen promiscuity, is the fact that sex education is about life skills and matters that come into play throughout one's adulthood.

"I thought I was no longer capable of being surprised by the ignorance among our students," Wiley wrote in the report. "Then last year a sincere male student asked aloud, 'What is my risk for cervical cancer?'" Um, and when might this young man have learned the difference?

The Texas State researchers don't just express condemnation about the bereft state of sex education. They have reasonable suggestions, too.

Topping the proposals is this: to have one certified health professional or educator on the health education councils that the state mandates for each district.

How any "health" council could whistle past issues of AIDS, STDs, contraception and the whole of holistic sex education is beyond me. But as Wiley points out, often people are dissuaded by administrators who don't want controversy.

Texans should demand real biology education, meaning real sex education. Do the math and see that our kids have shown they can multiply — all too well.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

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