Friday, April 27, 2007
Second Thoughts on Sex Ed
[Sound: crying baby]
That, friends, is the sound of “Baby Think it Over,” a squalling infant android that is the latest gadget to hit school health programs. These multi-racial baby dolls are the electronic upgrade of the old health class exercise of carrying around an egg for a few days as an incentive not to become a teenage parent.
Last Friday, when my 7th grade daughter struggled to unload the car seat and hefty rubberized infant from the school bus for a weekend of punitive childcare, she looked every bit the prisoner of biology, sporting a locked electronic bracelet that recorded every encounter with the robot, timing her responses to programmed crying, and counting each time she failed to properly support the alarming telescoping neck. Two sleepless nights later of rocking, feeding, burping, and changing the diapers of this shrieking thing, I noticed a blissful pocket of silence. I tiptoed into the livingroom to find a surreal scene. My bleary-eyed daughter was reading, totally ignoring the robot doll next to her. The doll’s head was now draped with one of its special diapers. I could hear the eager electronic sucking sounds that, I am quite sure, were to be reserved for tender moments when the caretaker presses the electronic bottle to the baby’s stiff plastic lips. In her exhausted desperation, my daughter had figured out the sensors in the bottle and the diaper were one and the same. It was far less trouble to shut the baby up by letting it suck on a diaper than hold a bottle for an endless feeding.
Clever girl, yes? And clearly, she is not ready to be a parent. She came away convinced that she will never have a baby. Never. I came away convinced that this harassing exercise was no way to ensure she and her peers make knowledgeable choices about relationships and sexuality. For one thing, unlike the egg-carrying days in which every kid participated, at my daughter’s school, at least, Baby Think It Over is optional, which means only some of the kids bother, and verrrry few boys buck peer pressure to participate. So, somehow, in the 21st century we’re back to teaching girls that biology is fearful destiny, and the boys? Hey – have fun out there, guys!
In these scary times, hundreds of millions of federal dollars pumped into schools for abstinence-only education have left our students knowing less and less. Images of degrading sex are everywhere and young people must learn more and more in order to stay healthy ... and even to stay alive. A few weeks ago, the results were released of the first long-term study of abstinence-only education, showing these programs are no more successful at encouraging abstinence or raising the age of sexual involvement, though they do deprive teens of safe-sex information, often promoting misinformation. How can it be that my own children are learning less about sexual health than I did in the 1970s? Alarm bells should ring for all of us when knowledge is deemed dangerous.
Consider where we are now: Many insurance plans cover Viagra but not birth control. Pharmacies are denying access to Plan B. Wolfowitz promotes his significant other but restricts World Bank contraceptive funds to poor nations. Social conservatives block the HPV vaccine out of fear it will encourage girls’ promiscuity, even though doctors overwhelmingly argue it’s an unprecedented opportunity to eradicate a deadly cancer. So-called “purity balls” are springing up all over, in which young girls dressed as princesses pledge abstinence not to themselves and their self-respect, but to their fathers, who are to guard their purity until they are handed over to husbands. What century is this again?
Nearly 100 years ago, in a similar climate, Planned Parenthood was born, and today their “Prevention First” campaign offers concrete models for putting comprehensive sex education – which includes abstinence – back into our school programs. After all, even if our students succeed in “just saying no” to sex now – and we hope they will – at some point in their adult lives we know they will need this information to make wise decisions about sexuality.
Baby Think It Over succeeded in scaring the stuffing our of our daughter, sure, but I’d rather leave the freak-out factor to B-movie dolls like Chucky, and create school health programs fueled by knowledge, not fear.