Sexual Responsibility No Laughing Matter

ANY reporter whose name appears on media lists under headings such as ``social issues'' and ``lifestyles'' quickly learns to expect offbeat mail. The ``In'' box fills with baseball caps advertising sports books for children, videotapes explaining everything from abortion to ``parenting,'' and tiny vials of cosmetics promising eternal beauty. Products such as ``environment-safe washable diapers'' and ``carbonated bath tablets'' also provide a window on the world of new inventions. But even a veteran mail-opener remains unprepared for a press kit that bears the label ``Safe Ears.'' Inside a slick black folder, shiny foil earrings resembling gold coins contain a product not usually thought of as jewelry: condoms.

Billed as ``a breakthrough in utility fashions'' and ``the ultimate fashion lifesaver,'' these condom earrings supposedly ``bring the most publicized health product of the 90's to the world of haute couture.'' The press release calls them ``hilarious and, at the same time, very serious.''

``Hilarious'' is hardly the word public health officials in Massachusetts would use to describe an aggressive statewide condom-promotion campaign launched last month to stem the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Nor is humor the motive behind proposals in New York City and Easton, Md., to distribute condoms in public high schools. Pointing to a rising teen birth rate and a growing threat of venereal disease, school officials say the plans will encourage responsibility among students.

Religious leaders and conservative groups oppose the campaign in Massachusetts, which features billboards, posters, and public-service announcements. They argue that the state should encourage abstinence outside monogamous marital relationships, taking a stand against hedonism and promiscuity. Supporters counter that the government needs to educate people about the risks they take if they fail to practice safe sex.

Similarly, in a nation where school-based sex education remains an emotional subject, the idea of school-based birth-control clinics strikes many thoughtful people as inappropriate. Unlike school clinics in Chicago that require parental consent, the New York and Maryland plans would allow school nurses to distribute condoms at the request of students. Critics worry that the efforts will give sex a scholastic seal of approval. Many students insist schools are simply telling them to protect themselves.

Few parents would find much ``hilarity'' in the prospect of a teenage daughter wearing condom earrings as the latest fashion accessory. And few would relish the thought of a teenage son visiting the school nurse for contraceptives. Distributing condoms like pens or notebooks risks making a trivial thing out of sex.

Yet the social and economic costs of adolescent pregnancy are anything but trivial. Last year teenage childbearing cost the government nearly $22 billion in food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid benefits, according to a study released last month by the Center for Population Options. If housing subsidies, day care, and foster care costs were added, along with the money states spend for welfare and Medicaid, the amount would rise by billions. Approximately one-third of families that begin with a birth to a teenager receive public assistance, the study notes.

These sad consequences of the so-called sexual revolution serve as reminders that is hard to have it both ways - to live in a society where sex is used to sell everything from toothpaste to automobiles, and then to expect children to grow up oblivious to the innuendos and sultry messages teasing them at every turn. This exposure gives teens a pseudo-sophistication, leading them - and their parents - to think they know more than they do.

Parents who thought they would be freer discussing sex with their children than their parents were with them have confessed to their own reticence, their own neglect. Churches, schools, and other social agencies have been so anxious not to appear moralistic that they have frequently ended up offering little but displays of tolerance and lessons in know-how.

A silence exists at the heart of the matter where standards of behavior are the question. It is easier somehow to treat the issue as another crisis - ``Pass the condoms, no time for talk now ...''

But in the present silence, even young ears must be yearning to be filled with more than dangling condoms.

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