The Pill Goes To School Sex Battle Is Lost - Front-line Issue Is Pregnancy

Posted: December 09, 1986

WASHINGTON — The latest outrage of American life: the pill goes to school. There are now 72 "comprehensive health clinics" in or near the nation's public high schools. Very comprehensive. More than a quarter dispense and more than half prescribe birth-control devices.

When the New York City Board of Education found out that two of its clinics were in the dispensing business, it ordered them to cease and desist.

Secretary of Education William Bennett has waxed eloquent on the subject. He is surely right that birth control in the schools legitimatizes sexual activity and represents an "abdication of moral authority." Clinics are not only an admission by adults that they cannot control teen-age sexuality, but also tacit consent, despite the "just say no" rhetoric.

Unfortunately, there are two problems: not just sex, but pregnancy. As in all social policy, there is a choice to be made. Is it worth risking the implicit message that sex is OK in order to decrease pregnancies? (Clinic opponents sometimes argue that birth-control dispensaries do not decrease the number of pregnancies, a claim that defies both intuition and the evidence.)

Bennett is right about the nature of the message. But he vastly overestimates its practical effect. Kids do not learn their morals at school (which is why the vogue for in-school drug education will prove an expensive failure).

They learn at home. Or they used to. Now they learn from the culture, most notably from the mass media. Your four-eyed biology teacher and your pigeon- toed principal say don't. The Pointer Sisters say do. To whom are you going to listen?

My authority for the image of the grotesque teacher and moronic principal is "Porky's," the wildly popular teen sex flick that has spawned imitators and sequels. My authority for the fact that teen-age sex-control is an anachronism is Madonna. "Papa don't preach," she sings. "I'm gonna keep my baby." The innocent in the song is months - nine months, to be precise - beyond the question of sex. Her mind's already on motherhood.

Kids are immersed in a mass culture that relentlessly says yes. A squeak

from the schools saying no, or a tacit signal saying maybe, is not going to make any difference. To pretend otherwise is grossly to misread what shapes popular attitudes. What a school can credibly tell kids depends a lot on whether they grew up on the Pillsbury doughboy or on a grappling group of half-nudes frenzied with Obsession.

Time to face facts. Yes, birth-control clinics are a kind of surrender. But at Little Big Horn, surrender is the only sound strategy. Sex oozes from every pore of the culture and there's not a kid in the world who can avoid it. To shut down school birth-control clinics in order to imply the contrary is a high-minded but very costly exercise in message sending. Costly because the message from the general culture will prevail anyway, and sex without contraception means babies.

The sex battle is lost. The front-line issue is pregnancy. Some situations are too far gone to be reversed. They can only be contained. Containment here means trying at least to prevent some of the personal agony and social pathology that invariably issue from teen-age pregnancy.

Not that the sexual revolution can never be reversed. It can, in principle. In our time, the vehicle might be AIDS. The association of sex and sin elicits giggles. The association of sex and death elicits terror. Nevertheless, the coming counterrevolution, like all cultural revolutions, will not be made in the schools. It will happen outside - in movies and the newsmagazines, on the soaps and MTV - and then trickle down to the schools. As usual, they will be the last to find out.

I am no more pleased than the next parent to think that in 10 years, my child's path to math class will be adorned with a tasteful display of condoms in the school's clinic window. But by then it will be old hat. The very word condom has just this week broken through into the national consciousness, i.e., network TV. It was uttered Monday for the first time ever on a prime- time entertainment show "Cagney and Lacey." Condoms will now find their place beside bulimia, suicide, incest and spouse murder in every child's mental world.

If the schools ignore that world, it will not change a thing. Neglect will make things worse. In a sex-soaked culture, school is no shelter from the storm. Only a monastery is, if it doesn't have cable.

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