SAN MARCOS — Almost overnight, a renewed interest in sex education was displayed in this quiet, unpretentious San Diego County community.
One of the counselors at the town's only high school reported that 20% of the school's girls admitted to her that they were pregnant during the 1983-84 school year. A disproportionately large number were freshmen.
The startled school board swiftly ordered principals to change their sex education programs. Something had to be done, they said.
At the junior high school, a committee of parents, teachers and clergymen was formed. Among the issues they have yet to resolve is whether contraceptives should be explained to eighth-grade boys and girls.
In the neighboring town of Vista, the school board in May decided that contraceptives should be included in discussions in the seventh-grade sex education curriculum, despite a petition signed by 1,000 people opposed to the course outline.
Proponents argued that it is about time that such subjects are discussed in American classrooms, given the nation's virtual preoccupation with sex and sexuality.
Indeed, sex education has come a long way since the picture of the human body's reproductive system first appeared in high school science books. Uncomfortable teachers went through their "organ recital," as instructors called it, and students giggled nervously.
For years, children learned about sex, but not about their sexuality. They learned how babies are made, but not how to deal with passion and peer pressure when confronted with sex in the first place. They learned about baby care, but not the consequences of being a teen-age parent. But today, slowly, sex education curriculums are changing around the country.
In New York's Staten Island, kindergarten children are taught that animals and people reproduce themselves, and that it starts with an egg being fertilized. They talk, too, about how members of their families show love in different ways.
In Falls Church, Va., Mary Lee Tatum's eighth-graders discuss orgasm, sexual feelings and the "goodness of their own sexuality." They also talk about homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.
Public high school students in St. Paul, Minn., visit a public health clinic on the school campus to talk to a nurse about which contraceptives are best for them. If a girl chooses to use birth control pills, she is given a prescription on campus, to be filled at an affiliated clinic down the street.
In community meeting rooms and church basements in Detroit, parents and their teen-age children meet for a six-week, federally funded program to learn--with the help of specially trained counselors--how to more openly and honestly talk to each about about sex and sexuality.
And throughout the country, teachers are attending special seminars to learn how to better and more comfortably teach sex education in order to win the trust and the attention of their students.
The impetus for more effective sex education is clear, and tragic: 40% of all teen-age girls will become pregnant before they turn 20, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
66.8 Abortions Per 100
And the National Center for Health Statistics reports that in 1981--the most recent year for such figures--the pregnancy rate for girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 19 was 110.3 per 1,000. Of those, the center estimated that there were 66.8 abortions for every 100 live births.
By comparison, five years earlier the pregnancy rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 101.4 per 1,000, and there were 54.4 abortions for every 100 live births.
Put another way, a greater percentage of teen-age females got pregnant in 1981 compared to 1976, but a greater percentage also had abortions. In fact, while today's teen-agers are more sexually active than their predecessors, and starting at earlier ages, the birth rate among teen-agers is going down.
But if the primary goal of sex education is to reduce the number of teen-age pregnancies, it may not be working.
Neither Up Nor Down
Researcher Douglas Kirby, in the most extensive evaluation yet conducted on the effects of sex education, concluded that the variety of educational programs he studied neither promoted nor reduced sexual activity among the students.
The youngsters know more about sex, he found, but the courses generally do not change their behavior in sex--no more than a civics course necessarily makes good citizens, a driver's education course makes good teen-age drivers, or a class on nutrition reduces the consumption of potato chips and candy bars.
Of the programs he studied, the one with the greatest effect in reducing teen-age pregnancies was similar to the program in St. Paul, Minn., where an on-campus health clinic improved student access to contraceptives.