Getting sex ed too late

It's swell if college professors can fill in where many school districts fail, but shouldn't students know this stuff before they start having sex?

Published October 11, 2006 2:00PM (EDT)

At the University of Maryland, students are getting college credit for what most teenagers spend hours a day doing anyway: talking about sex. According to Tuesday's Washington Post, public health professor Robin Sawyer has taught human sexuality to 16,000 students over the past 22 years, with a curriculum that sounds like it could have come straight from "Our Bodies, Our Selves."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the class has a waiting list -- often of more than 100, according to the article -- made up of students eager to hear Sawyer lecture on the effectiveness of condoms vs. Norplant or answer questions about whether anal sex "causes AIDS." And the class isn't just about modern sex -- students also learn historical tidbits, like how crocodile dung used to be a preferred form of contraception for women.

I'm not sure what bugs me most here: the fact that the demographic that is growing up with "The O.C." hasn't learned that the rhythm method is not a reliable form of birth control, or that sex education -- resisted by parents and school districts horrified by the concept of artistic nudes -- is being put off until after most of the students have become sexually active. (The class's lengthy waiting list means that most of Sawyer's students are seniors.)

I remember a moment in a high school sex ed class taught by my English teacher in which he put his entire hand into a condom, stretched his fingers and said, "Don't let anyone tell you they're too big." It was an uncomfortable moment, but at least I understood the mechanics of birth control before I started precalculus. We didn't get school credit for our sex ed class, but there was no reason to. Giving students a chance to listen to lectures on sex is like leaving a straight teenage boy alone in a room with a Victoria's Secret catalog -- one is definitely going to seek out the other. Our responsibility should be to provide this education early in students' lives, before they start having sex on their own.

Don't get me wrong -- every American student should have the chance to put a condom on a banana at least once in his or her life. But it shouldn't have to be for college credit.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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