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What are your kids learning about sex?

As a Catholic youth minister in the 1960s, Patricia F. Miller found that her discussions with teens always led back to the same topic: sexuality. "I realized that for kids, there was no place for them to learn about it in Catholic-school curriculum," says Miller, now a well-known sexuality educator, consultant, and trainer in St. Louis.

And when Miller advised students to talk to their parents, she says the answer was always the same: "My parents are uncomfortable talking to me about sex. They overreact and say, `You must be doing something.'"

More than 30 years later, little has changed, according to Miller, herself a mother of three young adults. And although progress in the field of sex education slowly is taking root in dioceses, parishes, and schools across the country, getting parents comfortable in their role as sexuality educators in the lives of their children remains a stumbling block.

In 1989, Miller designed a sexuality curriculum, "In God's Image: Male and Female," now used in more than 2,000 parishes in seven English-speaking countries. Her book, Sex is not a Four-Letter Word! Talking Sex With Children Made Easier (Crossroad, 1995), is specifically geared toward helping parents talk to their children about sex. "Until we get a generation of adults comfortable with their sexuality and ready to talk," she says, "we're not going to see a change in teenage behavior."

But many parents are unprepared for this responsibility. When they think back on their own sex education, they cringe. At best they may have received the much-dreaded "talk" about the "birds and the bees," a one-time ordeal where they sat shifty and red-faced as their parent, equally shifty and red-faced, tried as quickly as possible to convey the basics of human reproduction.

More common, however, their questions went unanswered. "My parents were not at all open about sex, and that affected me in many ways, and it will affect my son whether I like it or not," says Maria Roche, the parent of a 2-year-old son and the associate director of a Catholic lay-volunteer program in suburban Chicago. Roche says she is trying to take a different approach with her son by answering his questions about sex as soon as he asks her.

Others relate tales of denial and misinformation: "When I was a girl and asked my mother to tell me about the facts of life," recounts a Chicago parent, "she said, `And what facts would you like me to tell you about, dear?'" Another parent remembers her father telling her that if she sat too close to a boy, his sperm could pass through his jeans, and she could get pregnant.

These parents, raised without healthy, informative discussions of sexuality in the home, are struggling to learn how to talk to their kids in a culture where skyrocketing teenage pregnancy rates and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS make silence on the topic a dangerous option.

Studies show that programs focusing solely on abstinence programs--refraining from sex to prevent pregnancy and disease that are centered mostly in religion and health classes in Catholic schools--are not enough to change teen behavior substantially. Miller says teens today scoff at a "thou shalt not" approach. They respond better to holistic programs that involve parents and incorporate key elements like building self-esteem and communication skills and talking about the place of sex in a loving, caring relationship.

"Sex is not just what you do with genitals," Miller says. "It's what you do as a person. It involves all of you." Sexuality education is a lifelong pursuit that begins at home, Miller adds. "Good family communication is the best ingredient for success."

Finding the right words

Parents say they yearn to instill in their children a sense of the sacredness of sexuality and the goodness of the body, but feel awkward trying to find the words to do so. "I get a sense from parents that they're desperate," says Kathleen O'Connell Chesto, a family-life minister at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Oxford, Connecticut. "They say they don't know how to do it, and they can't find the time."

For Chesto, the problem is more about basic communication and less about finding the right way to talk about sex. In her parish, she developed a program devoted to healthy parent-child interaction and raising "moral, nonviolent children in a violent world."

Chesto says Catholics need to slow down and simplify their lives. Parents have to be intentional about finding family time. "We're just not talking to our children," she says. "Watching them play soccer--that' s not quality time with a child."

As she and her husband raised their three children, Chesto says they kept dinner hour a sacred family time. And that ritual opened up regular opportunities for conversation--on all topics. "I can't think of anything that hasn't been discussed over the dinner table," she says. "Sex will come up; it always does."

Chesto also suggests parents find time to be alone with their children. Driving in the car, for example, often provides a private place to talk. "In the car, they know you're not going to stare at them, and they'll tell you things," she says.

Some teens and parents have learned to conquer their nervousness about the "sex talk." Kelley Rompza, a senior at Regina Dominican in Wilmette, Illinois goes to her mother for answers to questions about sex, but for her peers who can't talk to their parents, she says, "I don't know where they turn. That's why there are so many having unprotected sex; they don't know where to get the information.

"Sometimes if I come home late at night, Mom will be asleep the couch, but I'll wake her to to her about my day," Kelley says. The two talk about everything rom schoolwork to STDS, and they discuss sexuality and relationship issues with ease.

But Kelley and her mother, Jean, haven't always related this way. "When I was younger, I saw her as an older person, an authority figure, and I didn't respect her as I do now," Kelley says. As she grew up, that began to change. "When I became a junior in high school, our discussions were more on a personal level. I always felt really comfortable talking to her. Now she's more my best friend than my mom."

For Jean, learning to talk openly with her children about sexuality was a process as well. She was raised in a traditional home where children "spoke when they were spoken to," and sexuality was never discussed, she says. Changing this as an adult was not easy, but with work she has done it because, she says, "I so strongly did not want that upbringing to impact my children."

Other experts say societal issues are creating new openings for discussing about sexuality. "We've got all kinds of sources for reflection," says Christine Gudorf, professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami, who has taught sexuality courses for 20 years. In many parishes and schools, she says, AIDS education has opened the door to deeper discussions.

"AIDS education has provided very good training in getting people to talk about their attitudes toward heterosexuality and homosexuality," says Gudorf. "Even in church groups you run into parents of gays who, in learning to deal with that issue in their kids' lives, have had to talk about sexuality."

Gudorf says the "rash of teenage pregnancies" also has provided families a chance to ask, "What's going on here?", as they come to grips with a teenage son or daughter about to become a parent. Studies put out by the National Center for Health Statistics show that by age 20, eight out of ten males and seven out of ten females have engaged in sexual intercourse.

Some experts say sexual promiscuity is on the rise because young adults are waiting longer to get married or because of permissive societal attitudes toward sex. Whatever the reasons, sex today has its risks. Every year, 2 1/2 million U.S. teens are infected with a sexually transmitted disease, with 27,000 new cases of STDs occurring each day. Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 constitute 25 percent of syphilis and gonorrhea cases, according to a 1988 study by the U.S. Department of Education.

As of February 1990, 50 percent of those diagnosed with AIDS were 29 years of age and under. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 14 million adults and one million children are HIV-infected. By the year 2000 between 30 and 40 million people will have contracted the virus.

Put parents to work

The increase in pregnancies, STDs, and AIDS among youth demonstrates the inadequacies of existing prevention programs. Churches need to develop their own sex-education initiatives "not because this is especially central to the church's mission, but because it's being dropped by other social institutions," Gudorf says. "The ideal place is schools, but they don't really involve parents. To be effective, sex education has to be connected with families."

The church's ability to reach both children and their parents through religious education is partly what prompted the 1991 publication "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Lifelong Learning," sexuality-education guidelines put out by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The guidelines cover issues from moral decision making to HIV and AIDS. They are aimed at helping diocesan leaders implement sex-education programs that directly involve parents.

The document states: "The participation of parents at every step in the process--planning, implementation, and evaluation--will foster the `family perspective' so essential to inculcating values and a deeprooted respect for one's own sexuality and that of others."

There's a "huge need for adult religious education in parishes," says Jackie Bohrer, chair of the religion department at LaSalle High School in Milwaukee, Oregon. "The more we can involve parents, the more likely sex education will be deeply integrated into their children's lives. I can't just do it at school; it's not going to last."

But because sexuality courses for adults may seem too threatening to parents, parishes can draw them in by offering practical workshops that seem to focus more on kids, with titles like "How to respond when your child asks you about sex."

"Parents will turn out for that," says Gudorf. "But in effect, they're going to be learning about their own sexuality." She suggests breaking the ice with techniques like role play where kids ask their parents questions about how they met, how long they courted, what they love about each other, and what role sexuality plays in their marriage. She highlights the importance of children witnessing loving marriages and relationships. "Kids that don't come from homes that furnish good parenting need to be exposed to loving parents in other homes," she says.

Church-based courses can also set the tone for sexuality education that explores the wider issues of gender roles. In the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, Alejandro Aguilera Titus, director of Hispanic Ministries, teaches sexuality courses to couples preparing for marriage and challenges set assumptions about male-female relationships.

When teaching in the Latino community, Titus says that there are a number of cultural barriers an instructor must understand. "The first thing I do is break the taboo of talking about sexuality," he says. "Many people have never talked about sex openly in their families; this could be their first time."

Titus gives couples the "practical tools" to learning about the body. "We're telling them that it's okay to name body parts. We help them get over feeling very uncomfortable," he says. "We show them how the body works--fertility and how to chart cycles."

Titus' training gives participants a chance to look critically at their relationship as a couple. "Many times roles are assumed--that the men are the breadwinners and the wives take care of the house," Titus says. "These are getting challenged.

"We also begin to introduce questions like `Is it okay for a spouse to say no if he or she wants?'"

These questions touch on the deeper issues sexuality educators hope to pass on to youth and adults alike--that a healthy sexual relationship can only grow out of a well-established, loving friendship between equals. If spouses encounter sexual problems in their marriage, it is often less about sex and more about poor communication, stress, or power struggles.

Instructors say most teens are not ready to establish a relationship with the level of vulnerability, commitment, and trust needed for a healthy sexual relationship, and sometimes they are coerced into sex before they are ready, hoping intercourse will provide acceptance, affection, or love.

"Many kids don't want to engage in sexual activity but don't know a nice way of saying no," says Hanna Klaus, executive director of Teen STAR, an abstinence program in Bethesda, Maryland. "It's a high-risk activity when kids engage in sex, especially with partners who have already been having sex," she adds.

Teen STAR aims to inform youth about their bodies, so they will choose to abstain from sexual activity. "We feel that abstinence is the best way, but we don't come out and tell them, `We're going to teach you to abstain,'" says Klaus.

The program takes a comprehensive approach. It is a curriculum with 17 chapters, dealing with how the body works, the emotions, the social and spiritual aspects of sexuality, and the meaning of commitment, intimacy, and marriage. "We ask questions like `How can you give yourself fully without total trust?' and `What are you saying when you have sex without marriage?'" Klaus explains.

Teen STAR programs are for Catholic junior-high, high-school, and college students but can be adapted for public-school students as well. They currently operate in 20 schools in 12 states in the United States and in about 10 foreign countries.

Klaus, who conducts teacher-training sessions, suggests that teachers use the Socratic method when teaching youth. "We ask the teachers to answer questions with questions," she says.

Unlike some abstinence programs, Klaus says she does teach about birth-control methods. "We don't try to control people by controlling information," she says. "The right wing says `All a person needs is the virtue of chastity and a devotion to Our Lady.' That's fine, but it's not enough."

Other abstinence programs are even more directive. "We're telling kids they're better off to save sexual activity for marriage," says LeAnna Benn, director of Teen-Aid in Spokane, Washington. Benn's program does not teach kids how to use contraception, except to point out its failure rates. "Our approach is education and to have parents discuss values because values drive behavior," says Benn. "Adults can change what's happening with kids, if they have the courage to do so. They just need to set a higher standard."

But Gudorf says abstinence programs will only work if instructors steer clear of warnings and prohibitions that imply something is the matter with sex.

"Kids are not stupid, and if you want to sell them on abstinence, you need to begin with a concession: sex is pleasurable. It has tremendous power to bring people together and to meet some of our interpersonal needs. You may go on and say it doesn't automatically meet these needs, but I think you have to start with that."

Most Catholic schools favor sexual abstinence programs. But in some schools, where rates of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and the risk of AIDS are particularly high, this approach is ineffective.

"Many of our students already have children or conceive children while at our school," says Jennifer Luksich, a teacher at Seton Academy, a Catholic girls' high school on Chicago's far South Side. "According to the church, the only thing we're to talk about is abstinence; not a single word about condoms. It's obviously not working," she adds.

Parental involvement is made more difficult because in many cases, the parents are not available and teachers often find themselves in the role of parent. "Here you've got parents who are absent, children being raised by elderly grandparents, or students who go home and are mothers to their own children," Luksich says. "While I will offer it [abstinence] as the best protection and tell them it's the only way to be 100 percent sure, we are dealing with children who are already sexually active, they have kids already, and they are not going to say, `I think I'll stop."'

While faced with restrictions on what she can discuss with her students, Luksich says the need to talk about sexuality is a pressing one. "Sexual activity, sexual assault, sexuality in every way, shape, and form comes up every day," she says. "They ask us constantly to address this."

Jackie Bohrer, at LaSalle High School in Oregon, agrees. Although she supports the idea of abstinence, she says instructors are foolish not to teach about condoms and other forms of birth control. "I'm hoping that with the information I provide, they're less sexually active and will make responsible, respectful, healthy decisions."

But she acknowledges that a teacher's freedom to discuss these issues has to do with the level of support from the principal, diocese, or religious order running the school. In her nine years of teaching in various Catholic schools, Bohrer says that open discussions about homophobia and gay and lesbian issues, for example, have been frowned upon.

At Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, Illinois, Sister Deborah Fumagalli, O.P. says the student-centered nature of her women's spirituality class allows controversial issues like contraception and homosexuality to come into the discussion of sexuality. Although she does not talk about birth control, she says students may do so. "We deal with helping to develop self-esteem for young women," she says. "And that is the best approach to sex education."

By discussing and critiquing negative cultural messages about women's bodies, Fumagalli's students develop self-worth and a positive self-image. "These emerging adult women are figuring out who they are," she says. "My experience is that these young women don't want to be sexually active; that's not where they're at."

Neither do many young men, says John Hyland, a religious studies teacher at Marist High School, an all-boys high school in Chicago, "but guys feel a lot of pressure about sex--it's the Monday morning locker-room talk about what happened on the weekend." Hyland says that in classes and as advisors, teachers at Marist try to help students understand that sex needs to be situated within the context of a relationship. "Physically you may be close," Hyland will tell students, "but if you're not close intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually as well, then the relationship is empty."

In dealing with students, who are naturally in an antiauthority stage, Hyland says that instructors don't dwell on official church teaching as much as they try to convey the overall wisdom of Catholic faith as it relates to self-respect, love for others, and the value of healthy, loving relationships.

Give them all the facts

But as Catholic students look around at their sexually active peers, many say they are not informed enough and need more explicit and detailed information. "The older generation is not really realistic about birth control," says Annie Ferguson, a senior at LaSalle High School. "At least they should educate us about it, even for when we get older and get married. We should not be deprived of that information."

In Sex is not a Four-Letter Word! Miller comes out strongly in favor of fully disclosing as much information to children as possible, including gay and lesbian issues, the reality of sexual abuse and date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and the use of condoms.

In the chapter "Ages and Stages of Psychosexual Development," Miller writes:

It is very necessary that teenagers have all the information available at their disposal. It is wrong for us to keep information we may disagree with from them. We are preparing them to live life on their own to be independent and mature, to make good and wise decisions and choices. To do this, it is essential that they are represented with both sides of every story. Only then can they make a choice that will reflect their acceptance of, and commitment to, the Christian way of life. To do any less would be to place their life in danger as they enter the world in which AIDS and other serious sexual diseases and abuses are prevalent.

In another chapter, Miller presents a scenario where parents explain to their child the life-threatening risk of AIDS and the right way to use a condom.

It may come as a surprise to many Catholic parents that doing so is in keeping with the teachings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Their 1991 sexuality guidelines state: "Considering the widespread ignorance and misunderstanding about HIV infection and its modes of transmission, educational programs about the medical aspects of the disease and legitimate ways of preventing it are also needed." The U.S. bishops' 1987 document, "The Many Faces of AIDS," allows for "accurate information about prophylactic devices for those who will not refrain from sexual activity or intravenous drug use that could put their life in danger."

Aside from these guidelines and statements, however, few parishes actually have implemented programs and found ways to bring parents and children together to talk. And in Catholic schools, many teachers are wary of sharing beliefs or allowing discussion on issues that run counter to church teaching, such as contraception, homosexuality, or premarital sex.

But there is hope. Change is coming from youth as more and more teens recognize that their education hasn't gone far enough. At school, "There's a wall we cannot cross," says Kelley Rompza, who volunteers at a local hospice for people living with AIDS and has worked to bring awareness of the disease to her high school. When she organized a lecture by two men with AIDS to talk about the importance of protected sex, Kelley says the school would not allow them to pass out condoms. This disturbed her, who says her peers are engaging in unprotected sex and running the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

Other young adults like Kelley say they appreciate being treated like adults. In his Christian Lifestyles course at LaSalle High School, senior Scott Hagedorn says his teacher speaks openly about sex, then lets students form their own conclusions. "I like that approach because it's not spoon-feeding it to you. It's accepting the fact that we are 17 years old, and we have our own thoughts and opinions.

"You have all the information you need. You know what the church says and what society says. It comes down to a question of your own moral responsibility."

By Mary Abowd, a freelance writer and editor for the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on consequences of premature sex; sex education
Author:Lickona, Thomas
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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