"Somewhere between the ages of 13 and 20, most kids begin to have sex. Too early," he said, "could be 13 or 18 depending on whether the kid assumes responsibility for preventing pregnancy."
Wide Range of Programs
Currently, sex education programs in public schools are determined by state guidelines and are offered as electives by local school districts. Across the country, programs range from elementary reproductive charts to "telling them everything and providing contraceptives," said Beth Fredrick, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute. According to the institute, 36% of all U.S. public high schools offer a sex education course, compared with 38% of Catholic high schools and 24% of other private schools.
A pioneering chastity program, the Postponing Sexual Involvement Series, now being implemented in eighth-grade classes in Atlanta and Jonesboro, Ga., and Durham, N.C., is based on a given value: "You ought not to have sex at a young age," said the program's creator, Dr. Marion Howard, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.
The program is being disseminated to 60,000 Georgia youth through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will also test the results. The series also has been adapted by the Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood affiliate and selected by the Michigan Department of Social Services as a model for a statewide "say no" program.
The Sex Respect curriculum was written by Coleen Kelly Mast, a Kankakee, Ill., high school teacher, using a $300,000 grant from the federal government. Last spring, the program was tested in high schools in Fort Scott, Kan.; St. Louis; Chicago; Appleton, Wis.; and Bradley, Ill.
With workbooks for junior and senior high school students, their teachers and parents, the program promotes abstinence--even for the sexually active--with readings on dating, assertiveness and self-confidence. It includes exercises, tests, cartoons and charts and suggests that the topics of birth control, homosexuality and masturbation be covered at home. (Under proposed state guidelines, however, sex education teachers are urged to include such topics with a non-judgmental attitude.)
More than 2,000 copies of the program have been ordered nationwide, said author Mast. "The phone rings early in the morning to late at night," she said. In between teaching workshops and training Sex Respect teachers, she is forming a National Institute for Chastity Education, a clearinghouse to disseminate programs that "promote chastity for everybody."
'The Same Temptations'
Carol Sewell of Chino, chapel coordinator for the Southern California Christian School in Anaheim, said the curriculum will be used at the school this fall. "There's no difference between Christian adolescents and non-Christian adolescents. They have the same hormones and the same temptations. All they need is guidelines and someone to show them the benefits of how to avoid these situations."
Teens interviewed at random reacted differently to the possibility of chastity lessons.
"Most people wouldn't understand it," said one boy, a seventh-grader from Anaheim. "They'd say, 'What's sex?' "
"Some would look at it and laugh, but some would listen," his 14-year-old neighbor said. Both said they had received a lot of "say no" advice to drugs and alcohol, and would appreciate a similar program about sex.
"That's what I was always told--just say no," said a 17-year-old Santa Ana girl, who has been sexually active for four years. She said she didn't know whether chastity programs would deter teens from having sex. "Most kids want to see what it's like, to \o7 experience\f7 it. It seems like everybody's so into being like everybody else."
High school students surveyed about a script of the joint Office of Family Planning/Right to Life abstinence video also had mixed reactions.
"I feel there are unbelievable things in this film and they would make teens lose interest," wrote one. "It seems they (the actors) are almost all against premarital sex. That's a little unrealistic," wrote another.
But another wrote, "It will release some of the pressure. I know now I'm not the only one who'll wait."
"No one strategy is going to work," said Johanne Dixon, head of a federally funded sexual postponement project of the National Urban League, a social services organization for blacks and other minorities. Targeted to parents of young adolescents, the Urban League project focuses on improving communication and self esteem. It is now being tested in four cities: Colorado Springs, Detroit, Dallas and Tampa.
Parents are taught how to control their children's lives by teaching them to say no to several things including sexual activity, Dixon said.
Because most teens are unsupervised from 3 to 6 p.m., parents also are taught to offer alternatives to idleness such as church groups, music or dance lessons and volunteer work and they are encouraged to institute rules such as curfews, she said.
Parents need to be involved in all aspects of a child's life, she added. "For instance, how well they are doing in school and life has a relationship on whether or not they are sexually active. Kids who feel whole in other areas of life start out later sexually than those not that comfortable with themselves who feel unloved, unwanted and neglected."
"We're still at the point where it's not at all clear whether any of those (chastity) programs will have any effect whatsoever," said sociologist Furstenberg. Meanwhile, he warned that adolescents may end up being caught in the cross fire of the chastity wars.
"They're often just as confused as they can be by the way adults handle the issue."