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15 June 2000
Dirty Little Secret About Sex Ed
by George Atkinson

Whether public schools teach sex education or not, history shows it neither prevents nor promotes sex for teens, says Jeffrey P. Moran, University of Kansas assistant professor of history.

Moran is author of "Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century," the first and only history of sex education, published this month by Harvard University Press.

"The dirty little secret is there is no evidence that sex education encourages kids to jump in the sack or prevents them from jumping in the sack," Moran says.

With or without formal sex education in schools "people get sex information from all over the place--books, programs, siblings, TV," Moran says. "Some information is helpful probably. Some is very very unhealthy."

His book questions whether sex education's practical and intellectual weaknesses have made it irrelevant for safeguarding public health.

In a recent interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Moran says, "Ever since the beginning of the movement for sex ed, people have been interested only in whether it will make young people stop doing what they're supposed to stop doing. Sexuality education should be a much richer experience. Given that we have no evidence that sex ed has any effect on behavior, maybe we should talk more about what effect we want it to have on emotions. Or taste."

Moran notes that sex education has always been controversial because it represents public authority attempting to shape private behavior. He traces the history of sex education beginning in 1905 with fears of venereal diseases, through the baby boom years to the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, to the 21st century, when fear of AIDS has prompted conservatives to support sex ed.

Moran argues that "adolescence itself is more a social period, really created by American society." In the 19th century, children were considered, in a sense, less knowledgeable adults and their teen years were not regarded as a separate stage. In the end, Moran questions whether the concept of adolescence is valid in today's America.

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