Abstaining from the truth

Feb 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I was in the sixth grade when my regularly scheduled Catholic elementary school curriculum was temporarily interrupted for a painfully awkward experience.

For an hour a day, for five days in a row, my classmates and I were subjected to sex education. Or rather, “Family Life,” as it was more modestly called.

By the end of that week, I could define “menses,” “nocturnal emission” and of course “abstinence,” along with a collection of other anatomical terms that induced fits of giggling. There might have been a passing mention of “contraception,” but there certainly were no specifics. The moral of the story: Just say no to premarital sex, get married (to someone of the opposite sex), procreate early and often, stay married.

Granted this was a Catholic school, so I suppose they had every right to withhold crucial details about sex (like how to do it safely) that don’t jibe with church teachings. I was lucky to get the minimal amount of information I did. Whatever was left out I could always learn from my public school friends, right?

Well, not necessarily.

In 1990 — the year I was learning the made-for-Catholic-school version of the birds and the bees — a state law requiring that sex education be taught in public schools was repealed.

Since then, the state has left it up to individual school districts to decide whether they will teach students about sex. If they opt to impart some knowledge about human sexuality on the pubescent masses, there are no guidelines dictating the curriculum.

And while the more urban and/or progressive districts — including Jefferson County Public Schools — offer relatively comprehensive sex education programs, students in some of the state’s more conservative rural areas are either a) not learning the first thing about sex or b) learning that abstinence is the only answer.

“That’s the ostrich approach. It’s believing that if we don’t talk about sex, it won’t happen,” says state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-34. The Louisville lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that would require public schools that teach sex ed to use a comprehensive approach based in scientific fact.

House Bill 119 would not force public schools to teach sex ed, although that’s something Marzian, a registered nurse, would like to eventually see happen in the commonwealth. Instead, the measure would simply ensure that if schools tackle the topic, they do not relay an abstinence-only message.

“Why can’t we educate our young folks — when their hormones are raging — to say no, but also give them the tools and knowledge necessary to protect themselves in case they do decide to have sex,” says Marzian. “Our young people are smart and can be responsible.”

Sounds reasonable.

But Marzian fully expects the proposed legislation — now pending in the House Education Committee — will spark controversy simply because it deals with sex.

It’s unclear how many of the state’s 175 public school districts teach students about sex and, if they do, exactly what they are teaching. “We don’t collect data on how many districts might be providing sex ed or what kind of sex ed they’re teaching,” says Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Anecdotally, it is widely accepted that many schools in rural regions are either forgoing sex ed altogether or advising students that abstinence is the only safe bet, meaning teens aren’t learning that contraceptives can prevent pregnancy and deadly diseases.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Drexel University revealed states with the highest populations of conservative Christians also have the highest teen birth rates. While we are successfully teaching kids that birth control is bad, teenagers are still having sex — more than half of high school students will have sex by the end of their senior year, and nearly half them will do so at some point without using protection.

According to a 2007 Pew Forum study, Kentucky ranks ninth in the nation when it comes to conservative religious beliefs. Conversely, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate Kentucky also ranks ninth when it comes to teen birth rates, with the number of 15- to 19-year-olds having babies here hovering 19 percent above the national average.

So it turns out teens will have sex, even in the Bible Belt. Perhaps it’s time we remove our heads from the sand and start providing them with the knowledge they need to protect themselves.