Marline Pearson knew something was wrong with her daughter's high-school sex education class. “I was disgusted with what's out there, the wooden penises,” says Pearson, a sociologist in Madison, Wis., who specializes in teen sexuality. Basically, Pearson recounts, the sex-ed teachers said, “ 'Abstinence is a good thing, wink, wink. We know you're going to do it,' and then spent 90 per cent of the time on prevention. They brought in a whole barrel of condoms, and the kids were shooting them off the ceiling.”
Today's sophisticated youngsters, she says, are “bored with the health discussion. They roll their eyes.” Instead, the teens — particularly the girls — want “a roadmap” for navigating the tricky shoals of relationships. “Girls want to know, 'How do I tell him I like him, how do I get his attention?' ”
But sex ed classes offered little or no discussion about relationships or the importance of emotional connections between boys and girls, Pearson says. And the abstinence-until-marriage classes, she argues, ignore the fact that people today marry much later in life than they did in the 1950s — often not until they are in their '30s — and it is unrealistic to ask them to wait until they're that old to have sex.
So Pearson decided to develop her own curriculum, aimed at broadening the framework so kids get more than just the public health message — regardless of whether it's abstinence or contraception. She is among a growing number of teachers and specialists who bemoan the “simplistic” emphasis on the health message that they say dominates most sex ed curriculums.
Stacy, a sex-education teacher at a small, independent school in Washington, D.C., includes a unit on relationships. “We discuss all types of relationships and how they proceed and how they work. Sometimes we play Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus — the board game,” she says. Or they will talk about the consequences of dating someone who is in your classes at school. “What do you do when you break up with your boyfriend and then have to go to math class and be around him every day? Who is talking about that, and how to deal with it?”
She continues, “Relationships that are sexual at an early age can be really hurtful to both girls and boys, yet relationships can also be wonderful. I want the kids to hear that kissing, hugging and holding hands are still a part of all of this and can be a really important part of romantic relationships.”
Pearson and her colleague, social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, serve on a task force at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and are set to deliver a paper on their program in September. Sex education needs to be placed in a larger framework, says Whitehead. “We need to break the logjam and create a new conversation about the ethical and emotional climate in which sex occurs,” she says. “What sequence should there be in a teen's love life? How can they identify sexual relationships that are demeaning?”
Pearson's sex ed curriculum for teens in grades 8-12 is now being used in some 500 schools. Titled LoveU2 (www.buildingrealtionshipskills.org), the curriculum has four units: Relationships, Sex Smart, Communication and Pregnancy Prevention. The unit on pregnancy prevention approaches the subject from a unique perspective: It looks at the needs of babies. The goal is to give teens a good, scary idea of what life with a small baby is like.
The sex smart section describes 17 steps to physical involvement. “Every step you take,” says Pearson, “involves a little more of your emotions and also a health risk. There's a difference between a gentle kiss and open throat.”
Pearson says LoveU2 also addresses how to “fall in love with your brain turned on, what you are looking for, how to trust before you rely on someone, and how to be sex smart.”
So far, the curriculum has not drawn grenades from either the abstinence camp or the comprehensive sex ed folks.
Abstinence-ed can do a better job of addressing relationships and love, says Robert Rector, senior research fellow of the pro-abstinence Heritage Foundation. William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) calls the LoveU2 curriculum “well intentioned” but argues that his group's sex ed guidelines “are all about healthy relationships. The comprehensive folks are right where she is.”