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Sex Education Plan Would Counteract Media Images


Sex Education Plan Would Counteract Media Images

Review by Judith Forman, Globe Staff Correspondent, The Boston Globe, November 17, 2002, Globe South, p.1.

Four years ago, Sharon Maxwell’s 7-year-old son told her about a video game steeped in sex and violence. It was the start of a passionate pursuit for the Canton-based clinical psychologist. She started dissecting the connection between adolescent sexual activity and what she considers the media’s manipulation of desire.

Maxwell decided that she and other parents “cannot fight the culture and the media… [We] will not win.” But she thought it was possible to help teach children how to deal with desire, self-discipline, and the energy of blossoming sexuality. On Nov. 26, Maxwell will speak at a Parent Teacher Organization meeting at Sharon Middle School. The topic is adolescent sexual activity, which some in town say is a growing problem. The 7:30 p.m. meeting is open to the public.

Maxwell’s visit is not meant to send shock waves through Sharon [Middle School], said Debbie Saperstein, PTO copresident and the mother of two middle school students. She said the goal is to “raise consciousness …and to get a dialogue started about where our community stands on this issue.”

But, Saperstein said, concern about some teen behavior in Sharon [Middle School]—after school, and at parties and dances—is legitimate.

“It’s really scary,” she said. “These kids are in way over their heads. The kids already know the facts… the piece missing is some tools to deal with this culture they’re drowning in.”

Maxwell said she can help. In her Canton office last week, the mother of two explained that parents need to give their children guidance to cope with feelings of desire. Sex is everywhere, she said, and parents who try to keep it “in a separate box” don’t realize the overpowering media and peer influences on their children.

Maxwell, who speaks to area groups and religious organizations, urges parents to help their children transform their sexuality and its energy into something productive. If left without guidance (or just their friends and the messages of MTV), she said, children can be governed by their desires. Adolescents need to feel empowered to shun the sexy media messages—from barely dressed pop singers to jeans advertisements to magazine covers.

“Sex is a huge energy… like any other energy, it’s very necessary for self-defense,” Maxwell said. “The issue is, who is teaching us how to use that energy in a way that actually furthers our own goals.”

Two years ago, she developed a new sex education curriculum for Canton’s fifth-graders. She said she realizes the topic is not always easy for parents.

“Nobody talks about any of this. People are embarrassed. Nobody really wants to talk about desire. That’s what parents really ought to be doing.”

But adolescent sexual activity is getting more mainstream attention. In May, Oprah Winfrey aired a program on the nationwide oral sex “epidemic.” Children as young as 12 are engaging in the activity, it said.

A group of Sharon Middle School students – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – said some of their peers are participating in similar activities.

“There’s always a group of kids who think it’s OK,” said a 13-year-old girl in the eighth grade. A female classmate added, “I think people have sex so they can talk about it with their friends and joke around about it.”

Others said some of their peers don’t think about what they’re doing, or do not consider the consequences.

“You just want to [have sex] sometimes,” said an 11-year-old female sixth-grader.

According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey – a national school-based survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – 6.6 percent of students nationwide have had sexual intercourse before the age of 13. The survey was conducted from February through December last year. Nationwide, the study reported, 45.6 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse.

Despite concerns about sexual activity at a young age, teen pregnancy is on the decline statewide. According to a report issued in March by the Department of Public Health, the adolescent birth rate in Massachusetts (25.8 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19) for the year 2000 was the lowest in three decades, and 47 percent lower than the 2000 national rate (48.5).

In 2000, 5,395 Massachusetts women under age 20 gave birth, 193 fewer than the previous year.

“This topic has become . . . timely as a result of a number of things that have happened in larger society,” said Claire Jackson, superintendent of the Sharon schools. “People locally have been talking about the whole issue of young people and sexual mores. [Maxwell] seems to have a way of speaking to parents that is comforting, straightforward, and to the point. Frankly, I think none of us as parents, or few of us, are confident that we do a good job on these topics.”

Sharon does not have a formal sex education curriculum. Starting in fifth-grade health class, Jackson said, students are exposed to issues relating to sexuality and their changing bodies. Health class runs through high school. No student can take a class that deals with sexuality without parental permission.

Jackson said, she is “very cautious” about identifying sexual activity as just a high school or a middle school issue.

“This, in my view, is a social, parental, religious, community topic,” she said. “This is not the primary responsibility of the schools. If the schools can be supportive to the community, then I am happy to participate.”