Sex Education, Abortion, Puberty, and Saturday Mornings



When the issue is sex education in school, there are at least three groups: abstinence education, birth control education on the assumption that teen sex happens, and a third group that prefers to deal with the subject at home.

All three came to mind Saturday when I drove to the Memphis Board of Education for a parents and staff meeting on sex ed or family life curriculum as it is also called. The target audience was parents, and the letter to them on the handout table began thus:

"Your child is about to begin, or may have already begun, a period of rapid growth called puberty."

It continued, "By teaching children about the wonderful ways they are maturing, adults can promote a positive attitude toward sexuality that helps children grown into healthy, responsible adults."

Puberty was not much on my mind on this beautiful October morning, possibly because my children are, thank goodness, well past it. But I expected to see at least a modestly energetic turnout of parents at a meeting to explain the new "opt in" as opposed to the old "opt out" policy for students entering those wonderful years of hair, breasts, zits, muscles, Tampax, and dirty jokes among other things. Instead, there was no crowd at all, unless you count the handful of presenters and MCS staff.

There was however, a turnout of about 40-50 people outside the Planned Parenthood office on Poplar Avenue near East Parkway that I drove past on my way to the meeting. They were mostly students from St. Benedict High School carrying anti-abortion signs. Their sponsor, Sharon Masterson, said they were members of Teens For Life and "October is the month when we focus on right-to-life issues."

At the meeting, Planned Parenthood representative Barry Chase told me opt-in, opt-out "is my personal big issue." The Society for Sex Education, he said, "says the opt-in policy presents a barrier that opt-out does not."

"We have a real problem with parental participation," Chase said. "Why require more of it when you don't have enough now?"

Witness, he said, the tiny turnout.

Cassandra Turner, speaking for MCS on the issue, said the non-turnout was not surprising considering that it was a beautiful Saturday morning with lots of other things going on.

"We want the parents involved," she said. "But parents feel more comfortable in their school."

She said opt-in as opposed to opt-out is "only a big deal to people who don't have faith in parents."

The so-called Michigan Model Family Life Curriculum has been adopted by MCS as part of its curriculum in grades 4-9. It will, according to the handout, "promote appreciation and respect for the amazing changes experienced by self and others" as well as "equip children with the skills they need to postpone sexual intercourse."

I was educated in public schools in Michigan long before AIDS and oral sex and Roe v. Wade entered the national vocabulary. As I remember the Michigan model in that era, in sixth-grade the boys were herded into one classroom and the girls another for separate sessions with gym coaches that proved to be disappointing on the sex front as far as pictures, stories, and specific information. I can't speak for the girls, of course.

As a parent, I wound up in the libertarian, we-will-take-care-of-this-at-home camp. I recall my MCS-educated children taking a Health class they considered an immense bore some time around ninth grade. A woman promoting abstinence came to a PTA meeting and told her personal story of unwanted pregnancy and later enlightenment, which was later shared with students, possibly on an opt-in basis but I can't say for sure.

Faced with writing an essay on, say, condoms as homework and sharing it with my parents, I would have felt strange as either a student or a parent. But that is the new world in which we live. I am well aware of the personal and social costs of unwanted pregnancy and am a strong proponent of family planning, etc. But it's Saturday. Now I am going into the other room to watch football.

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