Only toward the end of a 300-odd page book about sex education in America does Kristin Luker permit herself a bottom line: it doesn’t matter what teachers say because it won’t change what students do. Only that’s not how she puts it. Luker, a sociologist, avoids bold assertion. She prefers to excavate her points with a fine brush. Does sex ed lead teenagers to have more sex or have it sooner, as critics insist? There’s no evidence that it does. Does sex ed increase contraceptive use, as defenders reply? Also hard to prove. American teenage girls start having sex later than they did 10 years ago and favor birth control more and get pregnant less than they did 20 years ago, but if sex education can claim credit for their caution, it can’t claim much. AIDS and virginity pledges are equally proximate causes.This is, of course, entirely unsurprising. Given that parents and peer groups, not the quality of schools, are the best predictors of whether a kid will learn the things that schools are designed to teach¯you know, the ABCs, long division, the structure of a cell and so on¯it’s hard to imagine that a few hours a week in a classroom talking (and mainly giggling, if memory serves) about gonorrhea and Trojans could ever make much of a dent on something as complicated and overdetermined as our youth culture’s sexual mores. As Shulevitz notes, there are lessons here for both sides¯the “sex-ed-as-panacea” crowd on the Left and the “sex-ed-is-corrupting-the-youth” crowd on the Right. I had a bloggy back-and-forth with Father Neuhaus on this topic, here and here and here , and I would generally stand by what I said then, which is that my ideal sex-ed curriculum would be as sparse as possible¯that it would urge students to be chaste (which, obviously, far too many high schools don’t), tell them the truth about birth control’s effectiveness (rather than relying on scaremongering and dishonesty, which I’m sorry to say many pro-abstinence curricula seem to do), and generally interfere very, very little with the moral instruction that students receive at home. Put not your faith in princes, or sex educators . . . What Luker’s bottom line definitely suggests, though, is the intellectual bankruptcy of the current “centrist” position on abortion¯the position of folks like Will Saletan, Slate ‘s sharp science-and-politics writer and the author of one of the better left-of-center books on abortion, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War . Earlier this year, he urged pro-choicers to recapture the moral high ground from pro-lifers by acknowledging that “abortion is bad, and the ideal number of abortions is zero,” and declaring a pro-choice war on the abortion rate. The weapons in this war? According to Saletan, pro-choicers should “give more money to Title X, the federal program that finances family-planning. . . . Expand health insurance and access to morning-after pills . . . [and] educate teenagers about sex, birth control and abstinence.” (You can find Saletan debating this notion with the resolutely pro-abortion Katha Pollitt here .) All of which sounds very nice in theory if you’re a centrist Democrat like Hillary Clinton trying to reassure conflicted-about-abortion moderates¯but in practice, the Saletan plan’s impact on the abortion rate would be essentially negligible. Nobody on the center-left (or the pro-choice center-right, for that matter) wants to admit it, but if your goal is to reduce the number of abortions in America, there’s really only one way to do it¯you have to pass legal restrictions on the practice. And all the free condoms in the world can’t get you around that persistent, inconvenient reality.
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)