Issue 64, Winter 1996/1997

by Susan N. Wilson
Executive Coordinator, Network for Family Life Education


There seems to be a strange campaign afoot to remove the S-word from our lexicon. Its perpetrators seem to believe that if no one mentions “it,” adolescents won’t know or think about it and therefore, won’t engage in it.

Consider this: Robie Harris is about to go on an Oklahoma radio station to promote her book, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, and to encourage parents to talk with their 10- to 14-year-old children about sexual topics. The show’s host asks her please not to mention the S-word on the air. Although Harris thinks the request “outrageous,” she complies and tells listeners that “this book is about the birds and the bees.” Once off the air she charges that avoidance of the S-word is “just one more example of how what is natural and normal gets distorted by our culture.”

Further evidence: a Texas educator calls our office about SEX, etc., our health and sexuality newsletter, written for teens by teens. She likes the publication, but explains that, in Texas, she couldn’t possibly distribute a newsletter with that title. I explain that the first editorial board of students chose the name to get teens’ attention, and we are presently distributing over 100,000 copies of each issue to 85 percent of New Jersey high schools, almost without controversy. She is not persuaded.

In North Carolina, teachers in one major city are forbidden to utter the words “abortion,” “bisexual,” “gay,” “homosexual,” “lesbian,” “masturbation,” “orgasm,” “transsexual,” and “transvestites.” Below grade 8, they are also forbidden to say, “birth control,” “condom” and contraception.” The theory behind these prohibitions seems to be that the words themselves will encourage students to have sexual intercourse or become homosexual.

New Jersey, too, shows signs of head-in-the-sand mentality. At the recommendation of Department of Education professionals, the State Board of Education recently decided that fourth graders were too young to learn about puberty and reproduction, because teachers might have to explain intercourse. The policymakers felt more comfortable requiring that the topics be covered by the eighth grade, long after most students will have achieved puberty. “By eighth grade,” one astute newspaper columnist snorted, “a lesson on puberty is a history lesson.”

Fear of S-words can also result in bad education. A New Jersey health educator took exception to a letter published on the opinion page of SEX, etc. in which a high school senior explains her decision to engage in protected sexual intercourse. The student editors believed that the letter could start classroom discussion on the risks and consequences of having sex as a teenager. But the teacher couldn’t see the value of having an open discussion with her students, many of whom, according to reliable national studies, engage in sexual intercourse in high school; she simply saw the letter as a lure to her students to engage in teen sex.

Adults’ fears and restrictions run contrary to what most young people say they want and need. At a recent focus group of students who had graduated from New Jersey high schools, most said that their family life courses were “too little, too late” and gave them a grade of “C.” But one student described a completely different approach. “We started to talk about these topics early, in fourth grade,” she explained. “By high school, my teacher was able to answer all our questions without restrictions. She made a real difference in my life. Without her openness, I would have gotten into lots of trouble.” This student gave her program an “A.”

In my opinion, the campaign to expunge the S-word and avoid conveying vital health information to young people deserves an “F.”