Unapologetically walking the DMZ of teen sex wars

THEY INVITED me to speak to parents at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and Notre Dame Preparatory School.

Then they called to tell me not to come.


The reason given was my outspoken support for protected sex and, particularly, a column I wrote praising Olympic athletes for having the good sense to use the condoms supplied in the Olympic Village last summer.

As I understand it, protests by parents were carried to the parish level, where it was decided to rescind the invitation, and that decision was carried to the Baltimore Archdiocese, where it was "agreed to and supported," according to a spokesman.


While my feelings were hurt, these decisions have less to do with me, I think, than with the fact that the two sides in the teen sexuality debate still cannot speak, and do not want to listen, to each other.

I find myself in the Dead Zone between those who believe in preaching abstinence until marriage and those who believe in comprehensive sex education.

And there are millions of teen-agers trapped in this angry silence with me. This debate has been kidnapped by the extremists on both sides, yet it is the kids who are held hostage.

On the one hand are groups that oppose the discussion of sex in any concrete, detailed or descriptive way in the classroom or any other public setting. Joining them are those who do not believe in sex before marriage, or birth control after.

On the other side are those who believe in a values-neutral discussion of human sexuality. They believe sex is natural and good, but that participants should behave responsibly and protect their health.

Somewhere in the middle are those of us with some common sense.

We want to say to our teens: "We don't want you to have sex. You are too young, and it can hurt you in a million ways. But if you choose not to take our loving advice, make sure you protect your health and your future."

We don't think that is a mixed message. We don't think that sounds like we are throwing up our hands: "We can't stop you from having sex, so here is a condom." Or urging them on: "Go ahead, have sex. And here's a condom to get you started."


We know teens look for loopholes and the fine print in our admonitions, but we don't think they are too stupid to understand us when we say it plainly and without rancor.

To those who would simply try to forbid their children to have sex until marriage, I ask: Will your children know what to do if they decide not to listen to you?

It is certainly the right of private or parochial schools to provide education consistent with their core values. And Catholic schools have actually been doing a pretty good job on "family life" instruction, and they've been doing it longer than public schools.

But sex education is more than physical changes during puberty, dating dynamics, healthy family relationships and dire warnings about sexually transmitted diseases.

It is also about contraception, condom use and abortion and homosexuality and sexual pleasure. Abstinence-based sex education, though better than none at all, is only half an education. What is it we want them to abstain from?

"If we intend to give advice about it, we need to be clear about what we mean," writes Baltimore sex educator Deborah Roffman in her new book, "Sex and Sensibility."


"Abstinence from intercourse, oral sex, genital touching, kissing on the first date? With someone they just met, a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, a fiance? Until they are in high school, while they're still living at home, when they're away at college, when they're married?"

Abstinence by itself is an empty concept, Roffman writes. And the proof of that is the fact that most teens - and most adults and sex educators - think oral sex qualifies as abstinence.

This is not just a polite difference of opinion.

There is something like $500 million in government money available for those who teach abstinence-only curricula, and President Bush has said he will add more to the pot.

Schools, churches or community groups who want to teach anything more comprehensive have to twist their message like a pretzel to qualify for a dime of this money.

The popular culture - hyper-sexualized as it is and reaching for our pre-teens - has inflamed the fears of parents, who believe the only way to protect their children is by not exposing them to the topic of sex at all. Writing in the New York Times Magazine in January, Susan Dominus said it right.


Dominus, editor of Nerve, a magazine about sex and culture, wrote: "Fighting excess with privation: it's a particularly American foible, like ordering a Diet Coke with your fries, in the hope that one might cancel out the other."

I believe there is common ground between the parties in the teen sex wars: None of us thinks it is a good idea for teens to have sex. Yet none of us wants our teen pregnant or infected with HIV or some other dreaded sexually transmitted disease.

And, I wager, we all believe that human sexuality is a gift (possibly from a higher power) and that it should be treated with respect and reverence.

If the parents at Cathedral and Notre Dame Prep don't want to listen to me, that's fine. My own kids don't want to hear me on this topic.

But for the record, this is what I would have told them:

Talk to your spouse first and see if you are on the same page when it comes to your children's sexual development. Don't assume that you agree.


Decide what your goals are for your children: abstinence until marriage or abstinence until college? Then tell your children what you believe, what you want for them. Don't assume they know.

Tell them, too, that if they can't abide by your wishes, they can talk to you, and you will help keep them safe.

That is the only kind of sex talk that matters.