If you went through sex ed when you were in school, you likely remember it as a somewhat awkward affair. Hell, that sort of thing might even seem awkward now, but it's even trickier for school-age children to receive important, tactful information about human reproduction and sexuality. But a trio of esteemed former medical officials came forward to urge the public in just that direction, and it made some headlines — three former surgeon generals want more focus on sex education for America's children, citing incidences of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
The three — Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher and Richard Carmona, who presided as surgeon generals in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations — laid out their case in a compelling op-ed for the Washington Post last week, describing how one of them having "called for sex education for our nation's youth" 20 years ago ignited a "political firestorm," and how "difficult to fathom" that kind of a response now seems. The op-ed specifically criticized ongoing federal funding of abstinence-only education, which has a woeful track record as far as preventing pregnancy and disease is concerned, and called for teachers and parents to work collectively to responsibly inform children about sex.
... Perhaps most distressing is that our national response continues to misunderstand the challenge. In fact, just last month Congress increased to $75 million a year funding for programs that promote sexual abstinence until marriage. The United States has spent billions of dollars on these “just say no” programs even though a federally funded evaluation shows that they have no impact on delaying sexual initiation or reducing the risk for unintended pregnancy, HIV or other STDs. Never mind that, by law, these programs must withhold lifesaving information about the health benefits of condoms and contraception.
It's all stuff that sounds rather sensible and non-controversial these days, at least to a reasonably liberal-minded audience. But it's worth taking a look back at that first, mid-'90s "political firestorm" the authors mentioned. Even though it's easily forgotten nowadays, it was a striking example of just how fraught an issue sexual education can been, and it ultimately ended Elders' time as surgeon general.
Back in 1994, while at a United Nations AIDS conference, Elders voiced an opinion about childhood sex education that went too far for some — she theoretically endorsed teaching children about masturbation in schools.
As detailed by The New York Times, she was actually responding to a question by a psychologist also attending the conference, who asked her whether "a more explicit discussion and promotion of masturbation" could help slow the spread of AIDS. Her answer:
As per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics.
It wasn't a definitive endorsement, exactly, but it was definitely enough for the Clinton administration's conservative critics to seize on. Within days, Elders was given the axe — according to the Times, she was effectively forced to resign.
So, fast-forward a couple decades, and here we are: a little cooler-headed and more even-keeled, perhaps, but still nowhere near the level of commitment to sex education that Elders or her colleagues would like to see. As the op-ed details, the figures on teen sexuality in America are still worrisome, even though they've improved since the '90s, and it's clear that these three's advice has not yet been heeded.
... quality sex education can go beyond the promotion of abstinence or even the prevention of unplanned pregnancy and disease to provide a lifelong foundation for sexual health.
Fourteen years ago, we called for a thoughtful discussion about sexuality, for the recognition that sexuality encompasses more than sexual behavior and is a fundamental part of human life. We were largely ignored.
We called for providing education about sexual health and responsible sexual behavior that is thorough, wide-ranging and begins early. It did not happen.
It's clear that these three aren't going to give up, however — both Elders and Satcher were interviewed to Minnesota Public Radio on Friday, before an event at the University of Minnesota.
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