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Sex education helps save the world

Fear-based, 'Just Say No' programs don’t decrease drug use over the long term, and they don't change teen sexual behavior, either.
By Cynthia Kuhn
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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illustration by Robert Neubecker

(Robert Neubecker)

I was discussing a case about contraception with my first-year medical students recently and had just launched into a tirade about how latex and polyurethane condoms are the only kinds that protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Looking around the table, I was taken aback to see blank stares. These brilliant, accomplished adults knew less about condoms, I realized, than the seventh graders in the sexuality-education class I teach at my church.

Forty years ago, when I was coming of age, I remember embarrassing my own mother into a sex talk by asking her the purpose of the “emergency kit” that my seventh-grade gym teachers had told me to bring to class. I got a good biological explanation about menstruation to go with the sanitary pad and belt, but the sex part was so vague I had to go to the public library to figure it out myself. As I grew up in the 1960s, I learned more open ways of approaching sexuality than my mother’s generation had ever imagined. But over the past ten years, I have found that the attitudes of openness and honesty I embraced during my coming of age are increasingly foreign to my students. That worries me a lot, and it should worry you.

In my public school district in North Carolina--as in 35 percent of school districts in the country--“abstinence only” is the only sex education. Discussion of any other form of contraception is not allowed. That explains in part how I found myself with a roomful of medical students who were new to discussing sex frankly and objectively. Many of them may never have had such a conversation with an adult as they were growing up. Certainly few had the kind of family discussions on topics like school condom policies that regularly took place at my house. As a scientist, a parent, and a religious educator, I believe that this ignorance is a dangerous thing for our society.

From the moment I first heard about Our Whole Lives (OWL), the comprehensive sexuality-education program that the Unitarian Universalist Association published in collaboration with the United Church of Christ five years ago, I knew I wanted to teach it. Like its predecessor, About Your Sexuality (published by the UUA more than thirty years ago), owl teaches seventh and eighth graders about dating relationships, sexual feelings, sexual behavior, contraception, and STDs. It teaches sexuality the way I believe it should be taught--using age-appropriate, accurate information; providing practical skills; and discussing attitudes and behavior, not just plumbing. (OWL programs have been developed for younger children, older adolescents, and adults, too.)

The science of this information is part of my daily life as a pharmacologist who studies how addictive drugs affect reproduction. In my work, what matters is the truth. The search for the truth is a core part of my personal ethical system as well. The idea of misrepresenting the truth to kids or scaring them into behavior that adults think is good for them is antithetical to my values--in my work, my parenting, and my spirituality. Research shows that fear-based, “Just Say No” programs like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) don’t decrease drug use over the long term, and that approach doesn’t change teen sexual behavior, either.

The OWL program’s honest approach to sexuality, rooted in both values and science, aligns with my personal ethics and my work on adolescent issues. I was also attracted by its tolerant approach to sexualities of many kinds, irrespective of gender, sexual identity, or culture. Providing an honest, tolerant environment for my children was a strong motivator for my husband and me to become Unitarian Universalists. At the parental introduction to the curriculum, we adults were asked us to come up with as many slang terms for male and female genitals as we could--something, I admit, I excelled in. As I have so often felt at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I knew I was in the right place. I wanted my children to hear this message of honesty and openness about sexuality and to be able to talk to others about it. In the process, I got better as a medical educator as well.

I see the success of owl in the responsible, caring adults my children have become. They respect themselves and their partners. To my great amazement, my daughter chose to discuss sex with her boyfriend--and with me--long before she had it. As an owl teacher, I now hold out that kind of sexual responsibility as my goal for all my young students.


This year one of my owl students brought to class a book the public school had passed out. One of its “top ten reasons” why teens have sex was participation in sex-education classes. Another section stated that condoms do not halt the spread of HIV/AIDS or even effectively prevent pregnancy! In fact, as I had just been teaching my medical students, condoms are 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and significantly decrease the transmission of HIV when they are used properly, according to well-designed, peer-reviewed research studies. A colleague and I tried to get the local newspaper to address these falsehoods being taught in our schools but failed to spark any interest. We live in frightening times when scientific truth is suppressed in our public schools and forums.

Abstinence-only programs do not accomplish their goal of delaying sexual intercourse until marriage, ac­cording to a review of such programs in eleven states conducted by Advocates for Youth. Eighty-eight percent of young people in such programs have sex by the time they leave high school. And when they do have sex, they are less likely to use contraception and more likely to engage in dangerous sexual practices than children in programs that teach about contraception. The majority of scientists who specialize in children’s health, as well as the American Medical Association, Planned Parenthood, and the U.S. Surgeon General, have all endorsed comprehensive sexuality-education program--programs that advocate abstinence for teens but also provide complete and accurate information about contraception and STDs. The OWL program epitomizes that approach.

UU parents should certainly feel proud that their kids, by participating in OWL, are the smartest kids on the block about these issues. But our responsibility doesn’t stop at our church doors. Those of us with the expertise need to advocate for all kids, especially the ones who get only the little book about the ten reasons that teens have sex. We need to show up at school board meetings and talk to teachers, principals, and superintendents about curriculum, armed with facts. (Planned Parenthood, the National Institutes of Health, and Advocates for Youth all have excellent, up-to-date, and scientifically accurate information.) We need to bombard our state legislatures so that they can have the courage, as the state of California did, to turn down federal “abstinence-only” money and develop effective programs instead.

In our religious-education program we have a slogan: “Nothing less than saving the world.” I believe that is exactly what we do with OWL. Our children can grow up to enjoy healthy relationships, have a sexual life without contracting disease, and bear their children when they are adults and not children themselves. Teaching our kids about safe, mutually respectful sexual behavior in the context of our value system, I believe, is indeed nothing less than saving the world.

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