Teaching Fear

B. Lack of Success

Despite their rhetoric, by the 1980s these new political groups were experiencing little success in achieving the outright removal of sexuality education programs from public schools. Indeed, throughout the early to mid-1980s, the number of public school students receiving some form of sexuality education rose. In 1983, The Washington Post reported, "The vociferous opposition to sex education spawned by fundamentalist and New Right groups in the 1970s and early 1980s...has been submerged by quiet, grassroots alliances of parents, educators, clergy and lay people who believe courses in human sexuality have a place in the schools."

A major factor in the proliferation of sexuality education programs was the overwhelming approval of such programs by the public, particularly parents. A national poll in 1981 showed 70 percent of parents favoring such programs in public schools. A 1985 poll showed 75 percent of adults approving of sexuality education in the public high schools, with 52 percent approving of such programs in grades 4 through 8. Indeed, the polling suggested that support for sexuality education was growing stronger. More respondents in the 1985 poll believed that programs should cover a broader range of topics than in the 1981 poll. Such topics include teaching about birth control, the biology of reproduction, the nature of sexual intercourse, and abortion.

But the most important factor in the Religious Right's failure was the proven effectiveness of sexuality education programs. A study conducted in the late 1970s and released in 1982, concluded: "Young women who have had sex education appear less likely than those who have not to become pregnant." The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, also debunked the myth often repeated by sexuality education opponents that sexuality education leads to promiscuity. Investigators found no significant association between taking a course in sexuality education and being sexually active. A second, 1986 study also conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers, revealed that sexuality education courses work to delay sexual activity among teenage girls and to decrease the rate of teenage pregnancies.

Around 1983, sexuality education underwent an important change that reflected the evolving needs of young people. Educators developed a comprehensive approach that includes such topics as family finances, parental roles, communication, contraception and prenatal care. These new courses, introduced first in city school systems, were not just purely informational "sex education" courses anymore, but Family Life Education, or Human Development programs. They emphasized the core values of self-esteem, self-awareness, responsibility, and aspirations. They also discussed such topics as gender differences and roles, love, morality, birth control, homosexuality, masturbation, and child abuse. The courses sought to bolster young people's "thinking," decision-making, and interpersonal skills.

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