Schools have become a battleground in the nation’s culture wars. In the fight over the hearts, minds-and libidos-of our nation’s teenagers, the latest skirmish involves sex education. The question is not whether education about sexuality belongs in the schools (there is well nigh universal accord on this score), but rather, how to approach the topic. “Just say no” is the answer, at least according to a growing number of champions of “abstinence only” curricula. Abstinence-only approaches include discussions of values, character building and refusal skills, while avoiding specific discussions of contraception or safer sex.

Comprehensive sexuality education begins with abstinence but also acknowledges that many teenagers will choose to have sex and thus need to be aware of the consequences and how to protect themselves. Such programs include instruction in safe sex behavior, including use of condoms and other contraceptives.

The abstinence-only sex education movement has been propelled by the persistent but mistaken belief that comprehensive sexuality education itself somehow seduces teenagers into sexual activity. By this reasoning it follows that schools should either ignore the issue or discuss sexuality only in terms of fear and disease. The casualties in this war are teenagers themselves, denied information about how to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases in the highly likely event that they have sexual intercourse.