Commentary Magazine


Topic: John B. Jemmott III

On Sex Education

A front-page story in yesterday’s Washington Post reports:

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Only about a third of sixth and seventh graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active. The findings are the first clear evidence that an abstinence program could work.

“I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence,” said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who led the federally funded study. “Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used.”

For those of us familiar with the remarkable work of Elayne Bennett’s Best Friends program, this study, while encouraging, is not surprising. Abstinence education, done in the right way, can have an important and positive influence on teens. It rejects the fatalism that says they all do it, that nothing can be done, that we are powerless to shape the conduct of our children. Like the best abstinence education programs, Best Friends takes seriously the moral education of the young and their well-being.

Elayne Bennett’s husband, Bill, when he was secretary of education, gave a speech in which he laid out a few principles that speak to the task of educating children about sex, principles he believed should inform curricular material and textbooks. (Full disclosure: I worked for Bennett at the time.) First, Bennett said,

We should recognize that sexual behavior is a matter of character and personality, and that we cannot be value-neural about it. Neutrality only confuses children, and may lead them to erroneous conclusions. Specifically, sex education courses should teach children sexual restraint as a standard to uphold and follow.

Second, in teaching restraint, courses should stress that sex is not simply a physical or mechanical act. We should explain to children that sex is tied to the deepest recesses of the personality. We must tell the truth; we must describe reality. We should explain that sex involves complicated feelings and emotions. Some of these are ennobling, and some of them – let us be truthful –can be cheapening of one’s own finer impulses and cheapening to others.

Third, sex education courses should speak up for the institution of the family. To the extent possible, course should speak of sexual activity in the context of the institution of marriage. They should stress the fidelity, commitment, and maturity required of the partners in a successful marriage.

Bennett went on to say

All societies have known this [sex is a quintessentially moral activity] and have taken pains to regulate sexual activity. All societies have done so, sometimes wisely, sometimes not, because they have recognized that sex is fraught with mystery and passion, involving the person at the deepest level of being. As John Donne wrote, “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow.” Poets and philosophers, saints and psychiatrists have known that the power and beauty of sex lie precisely in the fact that it is not like anything else, that it is not just something you like to do or don’t like to do. Far from being value-neutral, sex may be the most value-loaded of any human activity. It does no good to try to sanitize or deny or ignore this truth. The act of sex has complicated and profound repercussions. And if we’re going to deal with it in school, we’d better know this and acknowledge it. Otherwise, we should not let our schools have anything to do with it.

That sounded right to me then; it sounds right to me now. And it appears as if the landmark study overseen by Professor Jemmott confirms the wisdom of those words.

A front-page story in yesterday’s Washington Post reports:

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Only about a third of sixth and seventh graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active. The findings are the first clear evidence that an abstinence program could work.

“I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence,” said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who led the federally funded study. “Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used.”

For those of us familiar with the remarkable work of Elayne Bennett’s Best Friends program, this study, while encouraging, is not surprising. Abstinence education, done in the right way, can have an important and positive influence on teens. It rejects the fatalism that says they all do it, that nothing can be done, that we are powerless to shape the conduct of our children. Like the best abstinence education programs, Best Friends takes seriously the moral education of the young and their well-being.

Elayne Bennett’s husband, Bill, when he was secretary of education, gave a speech in which he laid out a few principles that speak to the task of educating children about sex, principles he believed should inform curricular material and textbooks. (Full disclosure: I worked for Bennett at the time.) First, Bennett said,

We should recognize that sexual behavior is a matter of character and personality, and that we cannot be value-neural about it. Neutrality only confuses children, and may lead them to erroneous conclusions. Specifically, sex education courses should teach children sexual restraint as a standard to uphold and follow.

Second, in teaching restraint, courses should stress that sex is not simply a physical or mechanical act. We should explain to children that sex is tied to the deepest recesses of the personality. We must tell the truth; we must describe reality. We should explain that sex involves complicated feelings and emotions. Some of these are ennobling, and some of them – let us be truthful –can be cheapening of one’s own finer impulses and cheapening to others.

Third, sex education courses should speak up for the institution of the family. To the extent possible, course should speak of sexual activity in the context of the institution of marriage. They should stress the fidelity, commitment, and maturity required of the partners in a successful marriage.

Bennett went on to say

All societies have known this [sex is a quintessentially moral activity] and have taken pains to regulate sexual activity. All societies have done so, sometimes wisely, sometimes not, because they have recognized that sex is fraught with mystery and passion, involving the person at the deepest level of being. As John Donne wrote, “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow.” Poets and philosophers, saints and psychiatrists have known that the power and beauty of sex lie precisely in the fact that it is not like anything else, that it is not just something you like to do or don’t like to do. Far from being value-neutral, sex may be the most value-loaded of any human activity. It does no good to try to sanitize or deny or ignore this truth. The act of sex has complicated and profound repercussions. And if we’re going to deal with it in school, we’d better know this and acknowledge it. Otherwise, we should not let our schools have anything to do with it.

That sounded right to me then; it sounds right to me now. And it appears as if the landmark study overseen by Professor Jemmott confirms the wisdom of those words.

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