Most people have come to believe that sex education has a place in public schools. But many Christian parents dissent because they fear that crucial moral and religious principles will be excluded from consideration. Since religion seems to have no place in today’s secular classrooms, how could the subject be handled in a manner respectful of Christian attitudes yet consistent with the Constitution? And if sex education is primarily a vehicle for teaching birth-control techniques while minimizing the ethical and religious factors, would it not be better to skip it altogether?

But there is an alternative. Why not teach public school students how to think about the hard realities of teen-aged sex while insuring that their own religious beliefs—whatever they may be—are brought to bear on the subject?

Much more than a religious perspective would be involved, of course, but religious principles can find a wholly legitimate place in shaping student activities without offending any reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment. Here is what I propose:

Beginning in the earliest teen years, students would be encouraged to discuss openly and fully in the classroom the relevant facts and arguments surrounding this subject. After an opening session in which students air their initial views, the teacher’s job would be to make sure all of the relevant facts, issues, and questions were covered and discussed. At the conclusion of sessions, students would make a final evaluation of the issue in the light of all they had learned. The process would almost certainly be a sobering and salutary one.

Factors, statistics, and questions to be covered would include:

1. The physical hazards involved in teen-aged sex: unwanted pregnancies; possible abortions; and disease risks associated with homosexuality and promiscuous heterosexual behavior.

2. The emotional hazards: the frequently unsatisfying nature of initial sex experience, especially for girls; the furtiveness surrounding the experience and its aftermath; the guilt feelings many kids will experience; the anguish of parents if pregnancy occurs or if sexual activity becomes known; the termination of normal adolescent activities and the premature arrival of adult cares and burdens if pregnancy occurs; and the probable abandonment of the mother by the teen-aged father.

3. Economic hazards: a pregnancy that could compel a girl to drop out of school, thereby damaging her education and future career prospects; the $80,000-$120,000 cost of rearing a child (incurred by a few minutes of sexual pleasure); and the possibility (probability for many) of living in poverty while rearing a child in a single-parent family.

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4. Moral considerations: What does the Christian or Jewish (or Muslim) faith (for students with these heritages) say about premarital sex? What do these traditions say about the morality of abortion? Other concerns: Do young males have a responsibility to support children they father? Does self-restraint bring self-respect? If a child comes, is it fair to subject the child to the circumstances that will attend his or her birth and early years? Are students letting down their parents by going ahead with sex?

5. Dating issues: How do students feel about a dating partner who asks them to take risks and do what they may prefer not to do? What dating practices or circumstances often lead to intercourse, even when the partners had no plans to go that far, or perhaps did not really want to? How does one recognize when this danger point is approaching? How can one deal with it? What alternatives to sex provide dating satisfactions? How important is the freedom from tensions and uneasiness that comes when young people are sure the evening will not culminate in sex?

6. Common assumptions: How factually true and logically sound are the rationalizations for teen-aged sex? Here are some to be discussed: “everybody does it”; “pregnancy can’t happen to me”; “sex is a natural activity and we’re only doing what nature intended”; “if you love me, you’ll let me”; and “if I don’t say yes, I may lose my boy/girl friend.”

7. Misconceptions about when sex is safe, and about precautions that are supposed to prevent pregnancy. For example, the erroneous ideas, held by some young people, that a girl cannot get pregnant if the couple has intercourse standing up, or if the girl is having sex for the first time.

8. Moral issues related to birth control: Do the precautions of birth control make teen-aged sex okay? If not, why not? What effect do students’ religious and moral beliefs have on the issue of birth control? Is there a moral difference between birth control that prevents conception and birth control that causes a very early abortion? What does research say about the likelihood of sexually active kids not using birth-control pills or condoms (even if they approve of their use), or not using them soon enough or correctly? If used, will sexual restraints tend to decline and promiscuity follow? If so, is this desirable? Should sex involve more than sheer physical desire, even if birth control greatly reduces the likelihood of pregnancy?

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9. Other considerations: Does early sexual activity cause people to overrate the importance of sex in choosing a mate, and to minimize factors (such as a good family background) which contribute more significantly to a lasting and happy marriage? How can kids give support to those who want to abstain but fear to do so? If someone a teenager “loves” will not refrain from irresponsible sex now, could he or she trust that person to be faithful after marriage? Students should also wrestle with this: Responsible parents and teachers almost all oppose teen-aged sex; are they simply not very bright? Are people wisest about sex in their teens only to lose that wisdom as they live longer and become more experienced?

How many parents cover this enormously important question with their kids nearly as thoroughly as this program would do? A sex-education program of this nature would encourage children to discuss sexual behavior and sexual morality with their parents, and at a time appropriate to the pressures and temptations teens face. And would not most parents, reflecting on questions like these, be better prepared to give their offspring wise guidance? This development could be the most beneficial by-product of the entire program.

Challenges Along The Way

Two likely objections to this proposal deserve special consideration.

First, its constitutionality. Obviously, religious and ethical considerations are not ignored in this deliberative process. But surely it would be absurd to exclude them from an issue as heavily freighted with moral significance as this. While teachers would be in no position to tell their students whether their religious beliefs were valid or not, they would encourage students to bring whatever religious beliefs they may have into the discussion. That in turn would oblige parents, pastors, priests, and rabbis to make sure that students’ religious heritage in this area was clarified, so students could accurately take it into account while formulating their views.

Of course, the entire process would be intended to promote sexual restraint, but the result would be achieved not by exhortation but as a natural by-product of the teacher leading students in considering all the relevant elements. Only persons hostile to religion per se could oppose the entry of religion into the classroom in this fashion. The Constitution gives them no veto power.

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Second, its practicality, especially given the importance of finding the right teachers. Finding well-qualified teachers to direct these discussions would be indispensable to their success. They would need to be fair-minded and mature persons whom students respect and with whom they would feel comfortable talking about delicate matters. Teachers must make sure that pertinent questions are discussed without simultaneously creating an atmosphere that intimidates those with minority opinions. It would be a demanding assignment but not beyond the capacity of some conscientious and judicious instructors.

Whatever the challenges, this could be an extremely valuable exercise for helping students think about an area of interest to them, and of surpassing importance to society. Would it not be far better, uneasy though parents will be about having this issue addressed so frankly and fully, for kids to think hard about these things before the sexual urge becomes too powerful and peer pressure becomes too strong? To wait until some youth may have already plunged into sex is to wait too long. The perils of introducing the subject prematurely are far less than those of postponing confrontation with the kinds of issues we have outlined here.

Is it not almost certain that helping young people give serious thought to these questions would both strengthen youthful resistance to premarital sex and promote more responsible sex for those who won’t abstain? Certainly the process of learning how to think in a disciplined, integrated, and comprehensive manner would have been given an invaluable demonstration. And Christian parents could be comfortable with a sex-education program that gave adequate scope to vitally important religious principles.

By Reo Christenson, adjunct professor of political science at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

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