Is ignorance bliss? Does it preserve innocence, avoid temptation? Or does it allow ill-informed youngsters to blunder into relationships that may hurt, even kill them?
These issues are being emotionally debated at Malibu High School, where parents will decide if an hour of very frank talk about sex — no euphemisms or clinically sterile descriptions — will benefit or harm their children.
The voluntary discussion would be just a part of the school’s existing and developing sex education curriculum, which already includes instruction by biology teachers and licensed family counselors.
Most of what PTSA officers described last Thursday as the best-attended meeting in the school’s history was devoted to author and sex education speaker Suzi Landolphi’s presentation for middle school students, a considerably scaled-down version of her high school and college talks. But some parents of high school students, who had heard that program Oct. 8, were afraid it would not be modified enough for sixth-graders.
Tennis coach Forrest Stewart, whose children attend MHS, spoke before Landolphi’s presentation, warning that children shouldn’t have their innocence compromised, that parents should take responsibility for their children’s sex instruction.
Landolphi said she understands parents’ anger is based on fear. “We’re so afraid that if we teach them anything, they won’t be able to stop. . . . This is voluntary. You do not have to allow your children to go to this.”
California is among 37 states that require schools to provide STD/HIV/AIDS education; 23 states (not California) and the District of Columbia also require that schools provide sexuality education.
Principal Mike Matthews scheduled one preview of Landolphi’s talks last spring and the four current meetings to help parents decide whether or not to send their children.
Landolphi uses humor to dispel embarrassment. Even those parents who visibly blanched at the frank use of words laughed at the description of babies’ sexuality. “Everyone who ever tried to diaper a baby knows this. Where’s the first place their hands go? Right to their genitals. They grab on for dear life and their feet go right in their ears.”
The message is that sexuality is not bad, it’s natural. But the messages about sex on TV, in magazines and, yes, even in the Starr report, are confusing. People are being sexual for the wrong reasons: to boost self-esteem, to be cool, to make someone like you, even to punish someone, perhaps a parent.
“Is it normal not to be sexual, yes. Can you be sexual without intercourse, yes. I didn’t have sex in high school. I wasn’t more moral, just more informed,” Landolphi said. “My mother told me everything. Why didn’t I have sex? I didn’t need to. I didn’t have time. I went to a church where the minister believed that sex education belonged in the church.”
What seemed to strike a chord with most mothers was Landolphi’s emphasis on dispelling the mixed messages kids receive from the media. “We are all of equal value [girls and boys]. Women were not put on this earth to be a sex object or to sexually satisfy their partners.”
Landolphi winds up her talk with, “I hope what you got here today is some inspiration. . . . that you live the best life that you can, a life that makes you proud and your family proud and makes you happy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny who came from Los Angeles to oppose the presentation, was shouted down by parents when he condemned sex education as responsible for a lack of values in the black community and for teen pregnancy, and said parents had abdicated their responsibilities.
“Education is a key point in combating teen pregnancy” one parent countered. “We can choose what kind of education we give. By the time kids go to a doctor or clinic, 90 percent have already been sexually active for a year, 50 percent of the girls are already pregnant. That’s a scary statistic. What it tells me is kids made the choice before the school had a chance to get to them and let them talk. They made an emotional decision to have sex. Let’s help them make good decisions.”
The talk stresses having respect for oneself and for others, and recognizes that many parents feel ill equipped to talk to their children about sex.
Although there was some oposition, opinions at the meeting seemed to favor the presentation:
- “I have a 13-year-old son, and he’s having sexual feelings he needs to talk about. My mother didn’t talk to us about sex. We learned from rumors, from television. What I heard today was to abstain from sex. That you can be proud that you are a sexual human being, you don’t have to be embarrassed by it. You do not have to have sexual intercourse to be satisfied. That’s what I want my son to hear. And I also need him to hear that he needs to have respect for women.”
- “I don’t think God wants us to be judgmental of people’s choices. You need to go home and listen to what God says to you and your choice for your child, and you make that educated decision for your child if you can. And I think knowledge is power.”
- “I have an eighth-grade daughter. I think she’s going to hear things about the emotional side of this that she will not hear any place else, not in biology, hopefully from me, but I am not trained in this sort of thing. I will be very upset if this choice for my daughter is taken away from me by those who don’t want their children to hear her.”
- “I’m 46 and I learned something today. How scary is that? When I was growing up I was taught absolutely nothing. Now I’m thinking, how am I going to tell my son.”
- “We had sex education . . . body parts. But no one told us young women were valuable. It has to do with respect and values.”
- “My 13-year-old son has a lot of misinformation. That can be more destructive. The positive is that they’re all getting this at once.”
- “My daughter graduated last year. I wish they would have done this for her. I would have had a lot of opportunities to have a better relationship and a more open opportunity to talk to her had I been able to participate in something like this.”
- “I have a high school-age daughter. I have no problem with what I heard today, but they say the high school presentation has more explicit things. If that is true, it’s kind of sending a message that it’s OK to do everything but intercourse.”
One parent said she thought it would be better if the assembly was given separately to girls and boys, because the girls would be too embarassed to ask questions in front of the boys.
Two high school students voiced their perspective:
“We’re teen-agers and whether or not we’ve had sex, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. My friends can’t tell me. This woman has knowledge and she’s not afraid to share it. We have the right to hear it.”
“I expected it to be a little inappropriate for sixth-graders, but to be honest, I think it’s perfect for them. It’s not too graphic. Your children are probably doing a lot more than you think they are. You’ve got to give us some guidance.”
Matthews said Tuesday that written comments from parents are about evenly divided, and that some explicit material about oral sex, which Landolphi describes but labels “risky” behavior, will not be included in the high school talk.
Another informational meeting for middle school parents is at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Thursday) and one for all parents at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The student assembly is scheduled for Oct. 29.