The New Sexual Revolution

Kitchen Militia moms storm the stage, AIDS activists howl in the wings, born-again virgins recite their vows, and the fight over sex education in school turns into the hottest ticket in town

The statistics, they say, are horrifying: The most recent Minnesota Student Survey, conducted in 1997 by the Minnesota Department of Children Families and Learning, found that by the time kids reached their senior year in high school, exactly half reported having had heterosexual intercourse. And while teen birth rates in the state have actually fallen (14 percent) since 1991, along with incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in outstate Minnesota, the numbers still, say those opposed to current sex-ed programs, demand drastic action. In 1997, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, 1,918 girls in the state between the ages of 15 and 17 gave birth, along with another 3,664 young women between the ages of 18 and 19. Close to 2,500 females between the ages of 15 and 19 had abortions. One in five Minnesota teens reported having contracted an STD before leaving high school. Kids in the Twin Cities were four to seven times more likely to contract a venereal disease than their out-state counterparts. And, according to the Minnesota AIDS Project, 40 percent of newly reported cases of HIV and AIDS during the past year in Minnesota have been among young people in their teens and twenties.

By replacing comprehensive sex ed with classes that teach abstinence and only abstinence until marriage--or, at the very least, a curriculum giving parents that option--a growing minority of vocal parents, Christian activists, and conservative politicians have come to believe they can save the nation's children from falling victim to their own promiscuity.

On the other side of the sexual divide, teachers' unions, health educators, publicly funded organizations such as SIECUS, and the like-minded Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP) argue that the public schools' health curricula first need to be uniform (in Minnesota, for instance, no state-level mandate exists requiring any sex education at all). Beyond that, a "comprehensive" program is in order, one which would educate students about their options, including abstinence, so that no matter what they decide, there will be safeguards against unwanted pregnancies and STDs. They say teaching kids to be scared of sex, as circa 1950, or telling them to "just say no" may seem like common sense, but scientific study suggests otherwise.

In 1997 the World Health Organization reviewed 35 sex-ed programs and found that those most effective in changing young people's risky behavior not only addressed abstinence, but taught contraception and discussed STD prevention in detail. The National Institutes of Health's Consensus Panel on AIDS concluded in February 1997 that the abstinence-only approach "places policy in direct conflict with science and ignores overwhelming evidence that other programs are effective." In particular, those in favor of comprehensive education stress that it's the kids who are most at risk (inner-city youth, minority kids, and gay teens) who would most likely be left unprepared if abstinence were the sole message delivered in the classroom.

As with most social issues of the day, from abortion to affirmative action to gun control, there is a middle ground. In this debate, though, gray isn't part of the color scheme. The battles over sex ed, now being fought at school boards and among lawmakers across the state, are between white hats and black hats; left and right; righteous and wrong-headed. And no matter who is left standing after round one, there's sure to be a sequel.

 

Act One: Condoms in a Candy Dish

Eyes blurry, squatting and standing like a big-league catcher stretching his legs, Bob Tracy is running on fumes. Still, after spending a ten-hour day lobbying legislators for funding in the wide marble halls of the state Capitol, the director of community affairs and education at the Minnesota AIDS Project feels compelled to testify at tonight's marathon school-board meeting in St. Paul. Besides being tenacious, Tracy, dressed in blue blazer and gray pants, is also gay--which, in the eyes of a majority of this crowd, marks him as it would Hester Prynne.

Two days ago, in the April 18 edition of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Lawyers for Life, the Catholic Defense League, the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Total Life Care Centers, Knights of Columbus (the Roseville Council), and the Minnesota Family Council took out a three-quarter-page advertisement encouraging right-minded parents to pack the school district headquarters on Colborne Street for this meeting. And so they have. "Your Rights Are Being Ignored," the notice read. "On Tuesday evening, the St. Paul Board of Education will take a final vote on the proposal to begin dispensing birth control prescriptions and contraceptives on school grounds--once again without parental consent or knowledge....Speak out for your right to protect the moral and physical health of your children!"

Health clinics in Minneapolis schools began distributing condoms and birth-control pills directly to students a year ago, to little fanfare. The St. Paul schools' desire to entertain a similar strategy, coming near the tail end of the 1999 legislative session, has become a cause for conservative lobby groups and religious activists who believe standing up for abstinence can be a powerful, across-the-board consensus builder, a representative rallying cry akin to "No new taxes!"

"The culture is shifting in this area," Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, says. "The whole safe-sex message in areas of sexuality is an abysmal failure. It's left nothing but sickness, death, and unhappy people in its wake. What's most striking is how parents have been cut out of the process. There's an elitist attitude at work out there."

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