When U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher released a long-awaited report last Thursday urging American communities to offer complete, scientifically based sex education in schools as a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies, rapes and sexually transmitted diseases, at least one veteran sex educator lost a bet.
"I have to buy someone dinner because I bet that this report would never appear," said Debra Haffner, past president of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and author of four books on human sexuality. The report says that the movement to teach only abstinence to teens, supported by conservatives, is not effective in preventing sexual activity. It also urges communities to respect diversity in sexual values and sexual orientation, stating that orientation is "usually determined by adolescence, if not earlier" and that "there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed."
"I didn't think the report would come out because the public health science contradicts the conservative ideology of the Bush administration," said Haffner. She was one of hundreds of experts consulted over two years by the Department of Health and Human Services for the government's new sexual health report.
But given that the report came from a Clinton appointee who has only seven months of his term left, and that the Bush administration has taken issue with its contents, can it change the way America educates its youth about sex and sexuality?
"I don't think it is going to change anything at the federal level," said Haffner. "The report will bolster people's argument that comprehensive sexuality education is the most effective. But these debates around sexuality and school education are rarely made around scientific information or what parents want for children. They are political battles that forget what young people need."
Nevertheless, the report has great significance, said Deborah Roffman, a Sexuality and Family Life Educator from Baltimore. "I would say this is the most important thing that has happened in the 30 years I have been working in this field," said Roffman. "It is the first time government in any form has come out with a statement of support for various principles of human sexuality and scientifically supported findings about sexuality education."
Among the conclusions in Satcher's report, is that the few existing studies examining the efficacy of teaching abstinence until marriage have not shown that such efforts delay sexual activity among teenagers. Currently about one-third of the nation's school districts have "abstinence only" programs, which are federally funded. These teach teens that abstinence is the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy; condoms are discussed only in terms of failure rates.
Satcher's report endorses counseling abstinence to teens, but says that teenagers also need a thorough education regarding contraception and sexual disease prevention. The report finds no evidence that sex education in schools hastens the sexual activity of teenagers, but it cites several studies that found that students who have had sex education courses are more likely to use protection when they do become sexually active. "What the report does is confirm what we have known is true for some time, which is that science supports comprehensive sexuality education and the need for sexual health services for all and for the rights of all individuals," said Haffner.
"Anti-homosexual attitudes" the report goes on, are associated with psychological distress in people who are gay, putting them at risk for greater incidences of depression, suicide, low-self esteem and hiding sexual orientation.
"This report says more than any other that homophobia hurts people," said Haffner.
The report was lauded by Gwen Baldwin, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood, because it acknowledges that damage can be done by homophobia and the failure of therapies to reverse sexual orientation. It gives Americans a picture of sexual orientation grounded more in reality and less in myth, she said.
"I have to be optimistic," said Baldwin, that the report will also bring positive attention to the ongoing struggle with AIDS and HIV.
What is clear from recent opinion polls and surveys done by the Kaiser Family Foundation is that the majority of parents want teachers to discuss the use of condoms and contraception with teenagers, as well as what to do if they are raped, how to negotiate when pressured to have sex, and where to go to be tested and treated for sexually transmitted diseases. While almost everyone agrees that parents should be the primary sexuality educators of their children, many parents aren't comfortable in the role and want schools to do the instruction.
Nevertheless, it is primarily the voice of the conservative lobby that is being heard, says Sol Gordon, a professor Emeritus of Child and Family Studies at Syracuse University, who is widely known for his lectures on human sexuality.
"People say we want comprehensive sex education," Gordon said, "but what we have to do about it is work with parents and the PTA." He hopes parents who want comprehensive sex education in schools will use the report to lobby their district to get the sex education for their teenagers that they want.
Gordon said he was so impressed by the report that he wrote a letter of support to Satcher pleading: "Please don't resign under pressure ... don't do another Jocelyn Elders," referring to the surgeon general who resigned in 1994 after saying that "perhaps masturbation should be taught" to school children. "Stay with it and you will be a hero to the majority of Americans," Gordon wrote.
Haffner agreed. "I applaud the surgeon general for being the public health doctor of the country rather than a political voice," she said. "I am extremely interested how it was he was allowed to publish this report."
Haffner also proposed another wager. "I would be willing to bet another dinner that in terms of the federal government, nothing will happen," she said. "But what the report will do is provide support for people who advocate for sexual health and the sexual rights of all individuals."