By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, October 17, 1986
This is probably a no-win column, because sex is a no-win subject. But I’m moved to write it because of the strong smell of hypocrisy and mental blindness that is wafting out of the great controversy that has erupted in New York City over sex education and pregnancy prevention in the high schools.
I have no easy answers, for there are none. But I am a parent and I do know that simply telling kids that sex is wrong, sex is dirty, you’re not ready for it yet, it’s only for grown-ups, etc., etc., etc. is a prescription for failed guidance and ultimate pain.
The issue is not whether sex advice or contraceptives should be dispensed by clinics in the schools — i.e., whether the schools are the appropriate setting for such activities. The issue rests, instead, on how and why we got to this critical pass, how we got to the point where high school teenagers are getting pregnant by the thousands every year and worried school officials thus set about trying to do something about the crisis they are living with, day in and day out.
Families obviously weren’t doing anything about it or at least not succeeding at it — if indeed families existed for these young women either physically or spiritually. Many voices have cried out that family values are undermined by allowing schools to teach sex education or write prescriptions for contraceptives; these critics say that parents should be consulted, should have veto power. As a parent, I couldn’t agree more that parents should be part of this critical growing-up process, but I would be blind not to notice that one of the main reasons why high school kids are seeking answers from their schools, are trusting their schools, is that they either have no one else to turn to or no one else they trust to understand their feelings and their predicament.
Saying no to kids about sex isn’t an answer. They can sniff the falsehood in it. They see grown-ups in Hollywood making “family” movies with explicit sex — movies that parents can and do take their teenage kids to. In newspapers and on television, they read and see stories about people in the leadership and celebrity class having extramarital sex, taking drugs, getting divorced, breaking up families. There are advertisements everywhere for books and courses that say they’ll help you get more out of sex — get a richer life, live longer, avoid depressions, improve your digestion.
Kids are smart. They can see that promiscuity, sexual and otherwise, is the national game. And then they hear the preaching of the family-values experts — and they become rightfully suspicious. What family? What values? If kids could find guidance in their homes — and I’m not talking just about ghetto kids — would they be falling back on their schools? If so-called grown-ups hadn’t abdicated their role as value-setters, would the children in their lives be looking elsewhere for help and haven?
There are questions, not answers. They shed light on but do not satisfactorily explain the level of sexual activity or the pregnancy rate in our high schools — or the alarming suicide rate, for that matter. But they do tell us we’ve failed at home. And they also tell us that fulminating against a school system because it has tried to pick up the pieces is shooting at the wrong target.
“They’re screaming about family values,” said a principal of one of the high schools with a health clinic. “We’re doing what we’re doing because somebody has to jump into the breach that’s been left by the family values everybody says have disintegrated. We have to deal with the reality of teenage pregnancy. I’m taking everybody’s failure and I’m making them work.”
No one is claiming that family-planning clinics in school are the solution to anything. Board of Education President Robert Wagner Jr. and other supporters of the idea are simply saying that they’re trying to deal with actuality, not myth. “Maybe it’s the best thing in a bad situation,” said one community leader this week.
And the situation is that in 1984, the latest year for which Board of Education figures are available, 35,042 teenagers became pregnant. Over 14,000 of these young women were under 17 and 1,559 were under 15 — and the figures are rising. Some students are giving birth at 12 or 13.
Yes, there should be more parental and community involvement in the curriculum process of the school system. But what about involvement on the fundamental level — in the lives of these children?
The long and the short of it is that we have, over time, asked the schools to do the job of the home, to take the place of absent or working parents, poor and rich, black and white. And then, when the schools try to deal with the result of this adult delinquency, this adult abandonment of responsibility, some of the adults find the reality appalling — and try to erase it with rhetoric about restoring family values.
If we want to restore family values, if we want to discourage causal sexual activity by our teenagers, if we want to give them a moral education, if we want to build character, we have to do it without hypocrisy. And we can’t leave it to the schools.
You cannot get away with telling young people that sex is dangerous and bad when they can see that you keep buying sex manuals at a page that regularly puts them on the best-selling list. You’ve somehow got to put your values where your mouth is.