Making sex safe - and boring

Posted: Apr 27, 2005 12:00 AM

In the history of unseemly trends, surely the current battle among adults over the intricacies of teen sex ranks near the top. Just reading the words "teen sex" sends me rocketing through wormholes of ennui.

I mean, really. Can't they just go outside and play? Not just the kids, but the grown-ups who refuse to leave them alone.

Perhaps this is just the wife in me talking, but surely no one thinks about sex as constantly as sex educators assume kids do. (If you disagree, please resist the urge to share.)

When it comes to the riveting issue of how we should teach kids to practice sex - safely, or not at all, or some combo thereof - it seems it's the adults who are consumed with sex, projecting their own obsession onto children, who have been denied the right not to know.

What was for other generations a mysterious and wondrous thing is now the equivalent of learning to change a tire in driver's ed. Only bureaucrats - and the world's increasingly wealthy condom vendors - could manage to make sex boring.

The latest addition to our nation's growing cognitive dissonance is a new study from Yale and Columbia universities that produced this nugget: Kids who pledge abstinence are more likely to have unsafe sex (when they finally give into the relentless societal pressure to canoodle).

Researchers report following 12,000 students in grades 7 through 12 for six years. They found that when those who had promised sexual abstinence did fall from grace, they were more likely not to use condoms than other kids. Ta-dum. Get it? If you want your kids to practice safe sex, better keep them away from those wacky abstinence programs.

Perhaps giving up abstinence for a roll in the hay is like abdicating Atkins and scarfing several supersized orders of fries. Whatever the other confounding factors, the message seems clear: abstinence bad, condoms good. The subtext, of course, is that America's children can't control themselves, they must have sex, and therefore, they have to learn the nitty-gritty of the down 'n' dirty. Whether they want to or not.

One does not have to be a hung-up, sexually repressed prude to feel nauseated by the triumph of Technos over Eros. Is not having sex ever an option for some who may prefer - oh, I dunno - an actual human relationship that leads to long-term commitment, perhaps marriage, wherein sex is an expression of spiritual intimacy rather than a mechanical engineering feat involving anatomical widgetry?

The Yale-Columbia study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, has been released as Congress is reauthorizing abstinence-until-marriage block grants to states under welfare reform. Abstinence educators swear by their programs, which teach the emotional, psychological and spiritual merits of postponing sex. You know, like parents used to do.

In fact, a vast majority of parents (90 percent) approve of teaching kids to wait to have sex at least until they get through high school, according to a recent Zogby poll. But some 75 percent also think that schools should teach both abstinence and contraception. Abstinence-only programs mention condoms only in terms of failure rates. At the same time, 56.4 percent think that abstinence and contraception shouldn't be taught in the same class.

Those who find abstinence education woefully inadequate given assumptions that kids can't get through a day without sexual release prefer the comprehensive sex-ed curricula, which focus on contraception and protection against disease. Though abstinence is mentioned as an option, emphasis is on how-to, not how-not-to.

Permit me to paraphrase Goethe: "Treat a child the way he can and ought to be, and he will become as he can and should be."

Recognizing that there's nothing new under the sun - and that sex is both pleasurable and a necessary human drive - could we nevertheless stop panting long enough to ask whether any of this is sane? Since when was it decided that children need to be fluent in sex? And why is it government's job to teach it?

There are a hundred different arguments with the latest-breaking stats to match both for and against sex ed in school, but undergirding all the studies, curricula and rhetoric is another assumption that deserves closer scrutiny.

That is, that parents can't do a proper job of teaching their children values, morals and what we used to call the Birds 'n' the Bees, and that government bureaucrats are the last word on human intimacy.

 Our children should fire us for dereliction of duty.