In today's schools, sex education focuses on family values and decisionmaking
''The big trend in sex education is . . . thinking!'' A no-nonsense trainer of teachers in the field of sex education, Peggy Brick of Englewood, N.J., rolls her eyes with a laugh at the simplicity of her own statement. But for a half-dozen of her colleagues from around the United States who have joined her for an informal discussion of trends in public school sex education, Ms. Brick's words describe a welcome development.Skip to next paragraph
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''Today when we talk about sex education, we mean the broad picture: We're talking about self-esteem, responsibility, values, and, really, what we mean by femininity and masculinity,'' says Bill Stackhouse, director of the a program for parents at the Sex Information and Education Council of the US in New York City. ''We want people to think.''
Studies by the Urban Institute and researchers at Johns Hopkins University suggest that fewer than 10 percent of all students are involved in this sort of comprehensive sex education, or ''thinking'' course, even though about three-fourths of American students receive some form of sex education at school.
Yet, according to sex educators, the last few years have witnessed a slow shift away from purely ''informational'' courses to ones that encourage children , at steadily younger ages, to consider such brow-knitting topics as love, morality, decisionmaking, and aspirations.
As this transition has taken place, schools have done more to include their neighbors - religious leaders and public-service organizations such as the YMCA, Boys Clubs, and Scouts - to help develop programs that best reflect community concerns. Perhaps most important, more schools are encouraging parents to work with them in clarifying a topic that many mothers and fathers still find difficult to discuss with their children.
One result is that fewer school districts are experiencing the opposition to sex education that was prevalent in the 1970s. After years of concern that such classes teach children how to become sexually active, the general feeling today is that young people do need some training to deal with all the information about sex - often misleading, confusing, or exploitative - they receive from peers and the media.
According to Scott Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, courses covering reproduction and the obligations of marriage and family face little opposition now - although topics such as contraceptive use, homosexuality, and abortion remain controversial.
Parents express even greater support than the general public: In a 1981 Gallup poll, 79 percent of parents said they favored sex education; 66 percent of nonpar-ents were in favor. Says Ms. Brick, whose state mandates sex or family education for all grades (starting in kindergarten with the concept of home as the center of love): ''The media and child sexual abuse - both are factors that make parents very much in favor of family-life education. They want their children to know how to handle the messages they're constantly receiving.''
Just how well adolescents are dealing with those messages is open to debate. But the facts of adolescent sexual activity are not.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, about half of all boys aged 15-17 and one-third of all girls in the same age group are sexually active. Studies done by the institute show that sexual activity among unmarried women aged 15-19 rose by two-thirds during the 1970s.
As a result, about 4 in every 10 become pregnant before they turn 20. For the great majority, these are unintended and unwanted pregnancies. In 1981, of some 1.1 million teen pregnancies about 434,000 were terminated by abortion. The birthrate among teen-agers has actually dropped by almost half since 1960; abortion, in part, but also the availability and use of contraceptives, are responsible for the decline.