No sex please, we're Texan

20th August 2004 at 01:00
UNITED STATES. As new textbooks advocating abstinence, not condoms, are set to enter classrooms across America, TES correspondents look at three countries' approaches to sex education, teenage sex and morality

The state board of education in Texas is poised to approve four textbooks that could remove the sex from sex education in classrooms across America.

The books will exhort students to "get plenty of rest" and "respect yourself" to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, but gloss over contraception.

The approval in Texas, America's second-largest and arguably most influential textbook market, is expected this autumn and will pave the way for the "abstinence-based" books to be marketed across the USA by leading publishers.

One book shuns any reference to contraception, two vaguely discuss the "barrier method", while one mentions condoms in passing. All say no sex is the only safe sex.

Students are being advised to rest up so they keep a clear head for decision-making about sex, explained Judy Fowler, president of Holt at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, one of the publishers.

"Just say no" is a pet project of President Bush. Earlier this year, he doubled funding for education programmes preaching this message alone,"so schools can learn this fact of life: Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases."

But critics say extolling abstinence exclusively is irresponsible, inadequate and ineffective. Texas has America's joint-highest teenage pregnancy rate, according to a 2004 survey, while the overall US rate is twice that of England and Wales.

The Texas panel will cast its final vote in November, but a spokeswoman said last week the books would almost certainly be adopted. They would become school texts for 10 years.

What Texas says often goes when it comes to textbooks. It is America's second-biggest purchaser after California and commands extra leverage from exacting content guidelines and a system of grilling publishers at public hearings.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston plan to use its Texas submission as a national US edition.

The publisher's book, which omits any mention of contraception, met state requirements that "materials present abstinence as desirable for unmarried students", said Ms Fowler.

Though Texas demands three references to contraception, these may appear in ancillary material like a supplement or teacher's edition. This is how Holt, Rinehart and Winston decided to handle things, saying that teachers can then choose to use them if education authorities and parents approve.

"It's better for us to separate the material," said Ms Fowler. "There are people who don't want sex education taught in schools and who would interpret talking about condoms as sanctioning that their child might be having sex outside of marriage."

But Danielle Tierney, of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, which has lobbied against the books, said publishers were "caving in to the religious right".

Ms Fowler said her firm used to offer a textbook with a lot of sex education in Texas, but officials banned it.

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