Boston Globe (USA), November 11, 2004
By Ellen Goodman
HERE IT is, just days after the red states gave
their presidential seal of approval to the
man from Texas, and we've already been treated
to another skirmish in the culture wars. The
Texas Board of Education has given its educational
seal of approval to what may soon be dubbed
Red Sex Ed.
The big news is the state's successful demand
that textbook publishers change the description
of marriage between "two people"
to marriage between "a man and a woman."
They also ordered that marriage be defined
as "a lifelong union between a husband
and a wife."
Frankly, I found the "lifelong" description
charming, considering that the Lone Star State
has one of the highest divorce rates in the
country. Massachusetts, by the way, has the
lowest divorce rate in the country. We are
so fond of marriage that we want everyone to
But never mind all that. The real heart of the
textbook controversy is whether Texas students
should learn about contraception. And the answer
Texas has now officially gone to abstinence-only
textbooks. The students are learning the ABCs
of sex ed without the C. And as Texas, the
second-largest book buyer in the country, goes,
so may go the nation.
Only one of the four approved books even mentions
contraceptives. The altered lessons teach students
how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases
in many ways -- including "getting plenty
of rest" -- but not by using condoms.
One actually suggests using latex gloves to
avoid contact with blood but says nothing about
using latex . . . you get the idea.
Ironically, the state curriculum for health education
still mandates that students "analyze
the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier
protection and other contraceptive methods."
But the books have expunged the information
they're required to learn.
In some ways, this Texas story is proof of how
the abstinence-only lobby is flexing its muscle.
But Americans are nowhere nearly as polarized
over sex education as it appears in this public
Americans have come to some sort of uneasy understanding
that sex education is not just about health
but also about values. It's not just about
biology but also about relationships.
As Samantha Smoot, an opponent of textbook censorship
who heads the Texas Freedom Network, says:
"Everyone agrees that abstinence is the
best choice for teenagers. And everyone thinks
books should give kids real negotiation skills
and information that helps them make responsible
decisions." Last summer, some 90 percent
of Texans surveyed said they wanted teens to
learn about both abstinence and contraception.
Americans, especially parents, believe that teenagers
should delay sex, even if we have trouble answering
the next question: Until when? Some believe
sex should be postponed until that mystical
age called maturity and others until marriage.
Everyone seems to hope that their own kids
will wait till they're no longer under our
But it turns out that most parents are pragmatic
as well as worried. We have rules and fallback
positions. We don't want our kids to drink,
but we want them to call us for a ride home
if they do. We don't want them to have sex,
but we hope they'll use protection if they
do. If that's a mixed message, it's a safety
message. And it's working.
Over the past decade, teen pregnancy and births
are down by about 30 percent. As a Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention scientist
showed, just about half the decrease in pregnancy
comes from abstinence and half from increased
Nevertheless, in Texas, which has the highest
teenage birth rate in the country, an ardent
minority is pushing abstinence-only information,
or lack of information.
Sarah Brown, who runs the National Campaign to
Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says that the public
argument is out of step with private reality.
"We know that young people spend more
time engaged in the media than in school, let
alone in Mrs. Schmidt's health education class,"
A lot of the deeper worries, she adds, are really
about the popular and crude culture. "You
don't know what to do about trash TV or stresses
on the family or the latest story about hooking
up or oral sex in middle school," she
adds, "but you can go down to the school
board and say, `I hate these two pages.' "
So this is where we are. We have a shared agreement
on the importance of teaching both abstinence
and protection. We have as well a shared opposition
to the culture that sells sex like doughnuts.
But in politics we see only the most polarized
debate in which we're told that we have to
choose between A for abstinence and C for contraception.
In this class, Texas gets an incomplete.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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