Saturday, January 3, 2009

Abstinence-Only? Try the Fact Method

You've probably read about the latest study showing that abstinence-only sex ed does not lower the rate or timing of teen sex, but actually increases the rate of unplanned pregnancy and STDs. It's only common sense: if you don't know what you're doing, you're probably going to do it wrong.

And if you're a teenager, you're likely going do it sooner rather than later.

This got me thinking about the unusual sex education program in my coed Catholic high school, in the late 1970s, in our sleepy Pennsylvania town. It was a multi-week component of our daily religion class. We'd gotten the basic facts of life in freshman-year health class, but this sex ed course took place in our junior or senior year.

On the first day of class, we were handed an aromatic, freshly mimeographed sheet with a double column of vocabulary words. The first word was "abortion, followed by "anal sex." Further down we had "bestiality," "condom, "cunnilingus," "diaphragm," and "dildo," as I recall, along with "fellatio," "fetish," "gonorrhea," homosexuality," "masochism," "sadism," "syphilis," "transexuality," and, at the bitter end, "zoophilia." I think most of the relevant anatomical parts were listed as well, but I'm not positive.

Then the teacher said we had to shout out the list in unison at the start of each class, to get us over any embarrassment and enable comfortable discussions despite our being a coed group. After some initial eye-rolling, I remember us shouting, day after day. We wondered what the underclassmen still heading to their classes outside our room thought upon hearing us.

I remember that vocabulary list, but I can't recall our teacher. Priests and sisters taught us religion, but for this class I think they brought in a "lay teacher" (no pun intended) from some other subject. It may have been our math teacher. He was married and a devout Catholic, presumably with more hands-on experience than those who'd taken vows of chastity. But he was painfully shy. He stuttered and turned bright red when teaching algebra. If it was him, it was a heroic effort. 

The class's raison d'ĂȘtre had to be that knowledge is power. They didn't want us to be misinformed, but to know precisely what we were being warned against, and exactly what not to do until we were married. In the Catholic Church, premarital sex is always a sin. But they were also very careful to explain that, when we did marry, sex would be a beautiful thing. There would be almost no limit to the kinky fun we could have with a consenting spouse — without birth control, of course. Yet they made sure we learned quite a lot about that, too.

That class was strange. Many of us were still at an age where even the idea of sex seemed disgusting. Imagine feeling like that and having to study specifics, plus the details of perversions like bestiality — and on top of that, the gory symptoms of STDs (we watched these film strips . . . yech). It was enough to scare many of us off sex until well into college or beyond, I'm sure. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of my classmates never fully recovered.

Yet this class also made us extremely cool. We knew everything, and we'd even been graded on it, so we had a jaded confidence when it came to demolishing other kids' mistaken ideas. To this day, I suspect we're all unusually comfortable using those "dirty" words in mixed company. I haven't been back to any reunions, but I like to imagine that they buzz with quietly racy conversations that incorporate our vocabulary words as blithely as other alums discuss sports.

I doubt many sex ed curricula were as comprehensive or sophisticated back then, let alone now. Our class couldn't have been more educational without showing porn films or having a "practice" element. But there were plenty of pregnant girls in my high school. Among my friends who had babies, many felt it was a foolproof way to hang onto their boyfriend and eventually marry him. There was rarely shock, shame, or sorrow; they knew what they were doing. Of course, their lives changed far more than they ever imagined with the baby's arrival. And not all of them succeeded in marrying the father.

No one will ever convince me that comprehensive sex education is a bad thing. If I learned all that in the context of a Catholic religion class more than 30 years ago, and successfully avoided becoming a teenage mother, there's no reason why today's kids couldn't handle something similar. And at a certain tender age, that much knowledge can be downright repulsive. These days, the right time might be much earlier than the last years of high school. It might even be best for 12- to 14-year-olds.

Another component of our religious education, in our sophomore year, was learning about "the existence of evil." We spent months studying serial murderers and the Holocaust, watching documentaries about the concentration camps. In my memory, we saw those gas ovens, the rooms filled with human hair, and the mass graves over and over again, week after week. Every class began with Father B. reading us a true-crime story about some horrible psychopath who ate his victims or sexually tortured them. (He was also obsessed with Evel Knievel — especially the revolting antics of his motorcycle-gang followers — although the educational aspect of this continues to elude me.)

A component of senior-year religion class had a title that was something like "Real Life." We were given various scenario: we were engaged, then newly married, then expecting a child, and always earning a certain realistically low salary. Early on in the class, we needed to plan an affordable wedding and set up our household. We learned about buying or renting a house, purchasing furniture and appliances, and setting up a budget. We learned about mortgages, taxes, bank accounts, insurance, installment plans, and balancing checkbooks. It was grim, and in some ways even scarier than the sex ed class. But it was equally enlightening and useful in the long-term.

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