The Controversy Over Teaching Teens About Sex | Full Report | Retro Report on PBS

The Controversy Over Teaching Teens About Sex | Full Report | Retro Report on PBS


– What should schools
teach kids about sex? It’s a controversial subject, raising questions
about parents’ rights and religious beliefs. On one side, those pushing for
an abstinence only approach, which advocates no sex
ideally until marriage. On the other side, those who want more
comprehensive programs they say are better at
preventing teen pregnancy. – We’ve been debating
this issue for decades and today, thanks to the
internet and smartphones, the amount of information
on the subject has exploded. So as we look to the
future of sex education, what can we learn from
the conflicts of the past? (relaxing acoustic music) Deep in Southern
Georgia in a region that has long grappled with
the issue of teenage pregnancy, sits the small town of Cairo. For the past few years,
Daphne Melissa McClendon has been teaching sex
education at the high school. – We’re gonna talk about
contraception, okay? Ways to prevent pregnancy. Question, why do men
need that information? At the beginning it
was difficult for me. I did grapple with, you know, I don’t know that this is
what I need to be doing because I did feel like, “Hey, I’m a Christian. “I don’t know that
I believe in giving “this kind of information out,” and I also didn’t
want them to think that I was saying, “Hey,
it’s okay to have sex.” – [Narrator] The question
of what public schools should teach teens about sex has roiled communities around
the country for decades but the roots of today’s sex
ed conflicts lie in the 1990s, when the stakes of the debate
were brought into sharp relief after years of high
teen pregnancy rates and the spread of AIDS. – An emotional new battle over sex education in public
schools in this country. – How much should children
be told about safe sex and is this a case of the more
you know, the more you do. – Today, the U.S. Surgeon
General, Joycelyn Elders, called for comprehensive
health and sex education from kindergarten
through 12th grade. – I think I tick a
lot of people off that refuse to deal
openly and honestly about the predicament
of our children today. I feel that if you
don’t understand and can’t control
your reproduction, you can’t control your life. – [Narrator] While
working in Arkansas, first as a doctor and then
as the State Health Director, Joycelyn Elders came to embrace
comprehensive sex education, age appropriate, fact
based instruction on topics as varied as anatomy, relationships and contraception. – I always tell young
woman, you know, don’t ever go out on a
date with anybody you like without a condom in your purse. – [Narrator] But
backlash to Elders and the approach to sex ed she advocated for
mounted quickly. – With evangelistic fury,
she preaches that teenagers should have a love
affair with a condom. – They call them condoms because it’s a con
job and they’re dumb and we feel like that’s
what we’re telling kids. They’re being conned
into believing that they can have safe sex. They can’t. – [Narrator] A growing
number of people felt instruction
on birth control could prompt teens to have sex. Instead, they felt young people should only be
taught abstinence, no sex at all until marriage. – I think that abstinence
has been lacking in much of the education. – [Narrator] It was
an idea first funded under the Reagan administration and supported in the
years that followed by the increasingly
influential religious right. – [Announcer] The new curriculum says it emphasizes Christian
morality and chastity. – [Announcer] Teenagers are told there is no safe sex
outside of marriage. They are not taught
contraception. Instead, they are
taught slogans like, “Control your
urgin’, be a virgin,” and “Pet your dog,
not your date.” – They certainly were not
the appropriate programs for the young people that I
was accustomed to dealing with. – [Instructor]
It’s kind of like, you can think of it in
terms of Russian Roulette. What is it, one in six
that you’re gonna die? When you use a condom, it’s like you’re playing
Russian Roulette. – What if I wanna have
sex before I get married? – Well, I guess you just
have to be prepared to die. – Every mother I know,
every father I know, we all talk and
support abstinence, but also we need to make sure that we educate our young people on how to protect themselves. People will say, “Well,
condoms will break!” but always remember that
the vows of abstinence break far more easily
than does latex condoms. – This week, she went too
far even for the President. She said that children should be taught in
school about masturbation. – I think that that is something that’s a part of human sexuality and it is a part of something
that perhaps should be taught. – President Clinton
today, fired his outspoken U.S. Surgeon General,
Joycelyn Elders. Mr. Clinton demanded
and got her resignation. – If I had it all
to do over again, I’d do it exactly the same way. I did it right the first time. – [Narrator] The ousting of
Elders provided easy fodder for late night television. – If masturbation is
not taught in the home, then it must be
taught in the schools. – [Narrator] But
it also signaled a shift in the national mood. As a Republican majority took
control of Congress in 1994 and abstinence only
gained political ground. – The best thing of all
is for teens to avoid sex and I was hoping that
it would be possible to promote that by programs
in the high schools. I thought we oughta try it. I thought it was a
worthy investment. – [Narrator] When
President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act, it included a provision
on abstinence, which Ron Haskins helped draft. It provided federal funds
for states to teach programs under a strict definition
of abstinence only. – It’s a symbol of
this is something that the federal
government supports and we should support them on
the states and it could grow and that was what the people who supported this
legislature had in mind, to start a movement,
so to speak. – I told Bill Clinton, of all
the things that he’d done, that was the one thing that I
would never forgive him for. I was very upset about that. I’m still upset about it. – What you saw was a lot
of local communities that really wanted this education
for the very first time were able to implement it. – [Narrator] Mary Ann
Mosack ran an Ohio-based, abstinence only organization that received an
injection of federal funds as the political climate
grew even friendlier. – Abstinence for young people
is the only certain way to avoid sexually
transmitted diseases. (audience applauding) – That was a very
good time for us in terms of expanding our
message and our programming. – [Narrator] But over the years, researchers had been
evaluating abstinence only. One multi-year study,
released in 2007, compared students
who had gone through federally funded
abstinence only programs with their classmates
who had not. – When I first saw the
report, I was amazed. They would show the score
for the experimental group and the score for
the control group and those bar graphs were
just exactly the same height. – [Male] The study
found that students who took part in the programs, became sexually active at the
same age as those who didn’t and had about the same
number of sexual partners. – I would describe myself as
discouraged by abstinence only. Most of the evidence shows that the more comprehensive
programs are more effective. – There is a lot of evidence about what kinds
of programs work. The scientific consensus
is really there. – [Narrator] Leslie Kantor,
a sexual health researcher, and long time advocate
of sex education, points to findings that
have repeatedly shown that comprehensive sex ed has significant effects
on delaying teen sex, reducing sexually
transmitted infections and teen pregnancies and increasing the
use of contraception. – It turns out that when you
give young people information as well as the skills
that they’re going to need to navigate in relationships, those are the young people who are actually able to
wait longer to have sex. – [Narrator] Governors
began rejecting some of the federal
abstinence money. – [Male] Congress spent
more than $1.5 billion on abstinence only
sex education, an approach many
now call a failure. – [Narrator] And with
the Obama administration came a large scale effort
to fund the programs with the most scientific
evidence behind them. – [Leslie] It really
was the first time, in this area at least, when the government
was actually starting to bring science to bear. – [Narrator] But
sex ed is ultimately a state and local issue and there are
striking differences in what’s taught in
schools around the country and whether certain
topics are covered at all. – [Leslie] What you actually
end up seeing is that we are teaching less about
birth control as a country than we did before all of this abstinence only
money came into play. If we have increasing evidence of a body of
programs that works, then why wouldn’t we get behind those evidence based programs? – [Narrator] The
Trump administration has prioritized abstinence only, now being referred to as
sexual risk avoidance. And while some of these
programs now include some information
on contraception, they’re underlying message
remains essentially the same, teens should avoid sex,
hopefully until marriage. – We’re guiding you
toward risk elimination, risk avoidance,
to eliminate risk. So when I’m talking
about contraception, I’m giving you all
the information, but I’m also putting
it in the context that the only 100% safe
way to avoid pregnancy or STD is sexual risk avoidance. It’s interesting because
sometimes students don’t ever hear that message that
they don’t have to have sex. – The idea that abstinence
only is a fabulous idea it’s an ideology. It’s not supported by good data. I’m concerned that if
we have public debates that are based on ideology, that we’re not gonna
make public decisions based on evidence
and experience. That’s what we should try to do. – [Narrator] Cairo, Georgia
is trying to do just that. A group of women had
begun meeting regularly to discuss the issues
they faced locally. – We had religious people,
non-religious people, very Liberal, very Conservative, All come together to say,
what can we do as women to make a difference
in Grady County. – [Narrator] One night, the subject of teen
pregnancy came up. – One of us arrived late. She goes, “It’s been a day.” In a community I was in,
just Northwest of here, there are three 10
year olds pregnant. What can we do? As we got to talking,
everybody knew a story. Everybody knew
somebody affected. – [Narrator] Nationally,
since the 1990s, teen pregnancy rates have
declined dramatically. Teens are having less sex
today than in the past and more are using
contraception when they do. But some communities,
like Grady County, are still challenged by the
problems of teen pregnancy and sexually
transmitted infections and the Cairo women viewed
comprehensive sex ed as part of the solution. – When you put the
data on the table about what’s
happening to our kids, political barriers go away. – [Narrator] Teresa Gee Hardy, a school board member long
involved with the church, helped get pastors and
faith based organizations on board with the idea. – There’s a scripture that
talks about my people perished because of lack of knowledge. Teens suffer because
of lack of knowledge. Teen pregnancy rate is high
because of lack of knowledge. – [Narrator] Grady County
is now in the fifth year of it’s comprehensive
sex ed program and according to the
District Super Intendant, feedback from teachers and
students has been positive. – Let’s look at what we
talked about yesterday. Relationships, healthy and
unhealthy relationship test. I think my role is to
give them the information to make sure that
they understand that
I’m not judging them but I want them to be informed, and I want them to be empowered. – I think our community
can be a model in the sense that,
yes, this is scary. Yes, we’re very conservative,
yes, we’re very Christian, but yes, we’re looking out
for what’s best for our kids. (relaxing music)

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