Gloucester Daily Times Debate on Abortion (47), April 11, 1986

Confessions of a Sex Educator

My View

(invitational column)

(Tom Griffith of Essex is a house painter and free-lance editor)

Recent concerns about teenage pregnancy in Gloucester remind me of the time I taught sex education. I wasn’t supposed to. It happened at a local Christian school where I had charge of the combined 7th and 8th grades. The students were chafing at the old-fashioned curriculum: Why couldn’t they get what their friends got in public schools, thinks like, well, sex education? Of course it was precisely to avoid such subjects that their parents had sent them to a Christian school in the first place, but I said I’d think it over.

They nagged and nagged, so one day I put down my chalk and offered a challenge: If I gave them sex education, would they promise never to breathe a word of it to their parents? Astonished, but eager, they agreed. “Very well,” I said, “Today we have sex education, but it will be a short course. In fact, I can tell you all you need to know about sex in one, four-letter word.” And across the board, in massive letters, I wrote: “DON’T!” “When you’re ready for marriage,” I added, “I’ll tell you more.” Did they like it? Of course not. They protested, but the funny thing is that they didn’t protest very much. Naturally they would have preferred some details. Kids that age are hit with a consuming curiosity about sex that accompanies all their strange new feelings. On the other hand, some voice within — call it conscience, or an innate sense of propriety — told them I was right. What they needed to be able to cope with sexuality was not boundaries, but self-control.

This approach will strike many as archaic, simplistic and repressive. It may not even work. After all, society used to place great value on chastity and there were still plenty of mistakes.

True enough, but look at the alternative. Teenage pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions, and it’s no joke. Behind the statistics are individual tragedies — girls facing emotional and physical stresses for which they’re not prepared, pulled from school, kept from jobs, estranged from families, or pressured into the guilt-ridden option of abortion. A certain proportion might get pregnant no matter what. But how many who are on the fence, grappling with the temptations that assail teenagers everywhere, might be spared the tragedy if society held up a clearer moral standard?

Face it — whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. Every year we have more and more sex education, given at younger and younger ages, and every year the statistics get worse. The experts’ solution? More education. More facts on methods of contraception. Maybe some friendly advice to “cool it,” but never offered in a context of firm moral values.

It reflects a superficial view of the whole business of shaping the young, one that focuses on externals and ignores essentials, that stuffs the mind without training the will, that stresses knowledge at the expense of character. Character — that should be the paramount goal of education, especially as it imparts the ability to say no. A lot of life’s problems come down to this — you do or you don’t, you will or you won’t.

The problem is that an ideal of character requires agreement on how human beings ought to behave, and that’s lacking. The schools only reflect the moral confusion of society at large — no right, no wrong, only what works for you. Until we get back to the standards set by God and implanted in the conscience of all His creatures — until educators are willing to defy ridicule and say that sex outside of marriage is wrong, period, we can only expect the tragedy of teenage pregnancy to deepen.

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