Barbara Bayardo

In the past, men and boys, if they so chose, could engage in unprotected intercourse and flee the scene with no serious or lasting consequences--or at least with no potentially lethal consequences. With the emergence of Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), however, the previously peaceful horizon of male sexuality became more like women's in the sense that pleasure and danger are now inextricably linked. Still, the responsibility for contraception, and now for practicing safer sex, continues to lie on women's shoulders. Current research indicates that this assumption is made by scholars and activists in the fields of sex education. Men do not see themselves as responsible for practicing safer sex measures, let alone for using contraception; [nor are they seen as responsible for this by women.] The dominant views in the debate over sex education encourage men and women to protect themselves by avoiding sex altogether, an ineffectual suggestion.

In this paper I will discuss the ongoing debate on sex education in school curricula in two widely disparate societies and discuss the different approaches that shape the debate. I will argue that the increasingly pervasive focus of sex education that promotes a "just say no" to sex strategy is unrealistic. It also places the burden of avoiding unprotected intercourse solely on women, denying the cultural and gender constraints to which they are subject. Although there is unquestionably a place in sex education for the prevention of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies, these are not the only reasons that the debate over sex education should be resolved in a more open and progressive discussion of the topic. The relative failure of safer sex campaigns has its roots in the contradictory messages on sexuality that women receive, the uncooperative behavior of males, and the lack of knowledge and communication skills that characterize contemporary male and female heterosexual relationships.

In many countries around the world, teenage pregnancy has attracted widespread scholarly concern and exaggerated media attention, but most young women do not get pregnant during their teenage years and so the problem, even though serious, is limited to a relatively small population. The threat of AIDS, however, has brought female adolescent sexuality to the front burner as unprotected adolescent intercourse in general, for both young men and women, is now potentially lethal. Today, many more teenagers have sex and the statistics show that nearly one quarter of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)-infected people worldwide are in their twenties, which suggests that many were infected during their teenage years.

The need for sex education is a worldwide concern. Some developed countries, such as Sweden, are highly advanced in their comprehensive approach to sex education. Paradoxically, in the area of sex education, being a developed country does not necessarily translate into enlightened acceptance of the need for sex education in the public schools. Nor does it guarantee a highly sophisticated content or modern instructional methods. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparatively slow progress that sex education has undergone in the U.S. public schools. Cross-cultural analyses of such disparate societies as Mexico and the U.S. may shed some light on the relationship between economic development and the sometimes paradoxical underdevelopment of education in general, and sex education in particular. If nothing more, a comparative focus offers a useful exercise on the possibilities and obstacles for sex education across borders and spanning different cultural settings.

Mexico and the U.S. both subscribe to the principles of a democratic society and of equality but in practice, the poor, the homeless, blacks, indigenous people, older people, and women are often excluded from the benefits of these modern democratic societies. Because these sectors have the least educational, social, and health benefits, the incidence of problems such as AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies are highest among the most underprivileged sectors, both in Mexico and in the U.S. That these problems occur in such large numbers in the younger adolescent women and men is even more tragic. But poverty only partially explains the negative consequences of early teenage sexual activity because the incidence of these problems crosses different economic sectors.

Focusing on such disparate countries as the U.S. and Mexico raises the images of a modern, developed country and a traditional, underdeveloped one. A closer look shows, however, that the U.S. can exhibit unlikely traditional characteristics, while the predominantly traditional Mexican society is not unknown to waver between tradition and modernity, many times favoring the latter. Tradition seems to be a double-edged sword. For instance, while teenage pregnancy is a serious problem in both Mexico and the U.S., lower birth weight, which is one of the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy worldwide, is avoided altogether in Mexico because the family takes on the responsibility for the unborn child. Teenage girls are often taken care of while they are pregnant and babies, on average, are born quite robust. By the same token, for the pregnant teenager, the family safety net is likely to become a mixed blessing as her future financial and educational independence is dimmed by the new and premature responsibility of raising a child. Tradition is tricky because it may serve both to buffer the consequences of a social phenomena and at the same time to prevent change. Modernity is also a two-sided coin. Societies are often characterized as modern or traditional; yet, it is more likely that modernity and tradition co-exist, each tending to predominate at one time or another.

The following section shows how the values of modernity and tradition are debated in an attempt to dominate the type of sex education that young people ought to receive. In this process, it will become evident that much more is at stake than simply the notion of whether or not teenagers should have sex.

Sex Education in the United States

Compared to Mexico, sex education in the United States is characterized by a longer history and greater public debate over the content of sexuality courses. In fact, it is no longer debated that sex education should take place within the public school system. As of 1994, 47 states had laws or policies requiring or recommending some level of sex education between kindergarten and twelfth grade. In addition, all states require or encourage instruction about HIV and AIDS. However, unlike Mexico where education is nationally mandated, educational policies in the United States are locally interpreted by school-board members and parent committees. It often happens that school authorities decide that students will not receive sex education until the junior years. As far back as 1981, researchers Kirby and Scales found that out of 50 states, only 7 prohibited sex education (1981). Again, these figures are deceiving since sex education depends on local sensibilities and because these numbers say nothing about the approach and scope of instruction. Indeed, some studies report that sex education in U.S. public schools is usually limited to 10 hours per year. In terms of content approach, it has been established that only 10 percent of all public school students receive comprehensive sex education (SIECUS 1993). Researchers have concluded that sex education in American public schools provides only a fraction of the sexual knowledge that students acquire.

Adolescents in the U.S. acquire their understanding of sexuality mostly by informal means such as mass media, parents, religious authorities at schools, and peers at various sites including the school bus, the bathroom, and the lockerooms. Despite countless obstacles, efforts to offer comprehensive sex education in the schools has been constant and vigorous. The main barrier has been a large and vocal opposition of political conservative groups and some Christian fundamentalists. Since 1980, these national conservative groups, such as the Eagle Forum headed by Phyllis Schafley, have vocally protested against specific curricula. The "Just Say No" philosophy which calls for practicing abstinence until marriage has been the essence of these groups. The chastity approach was enthusiastically endorsed by the Reagan administration, creating a formidable enemy to comprehensive sex education in the schools.

Then, in 1986, with the public recognition of AIDS, United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who had previously been strongly critical of sex education programs and was thus highly regarded among conservative circles, issued a report that spurred the debate and balanced the scales in favor of comprehensive sex education in the schools:

If we have something that threatens life, you just don't back into a corner and say let's not tell kids that when trucks hit them it kills them. This is the way life is and you've got to protect kids against those things that they don't understand and until they are mature enough to make their own decisions. People just have to get over the idea that you can't educate children about sex and still do it morally and in the framework that parents will appreciate. There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it must include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships. (Pacifica National Programs 1994)

The report lead to the establishment of new curricula all around the country and became a serious setback for advocates of abstinence and the supporters of the chastity philosophy. While the abstinence approach may be easily debunked at the national level, these increasingly persuasive groups have recently acquired many supporters within local communities.

One of the more common effects of adolescent sexual activity has been the growing incidence of teenage pregnancy, which has received widespread media attention and has been inappropriately labeled the "epidemic of teenage pregnancy." In fact, some studies have reported that in the past two decades teenage pregnancy and venereal disease have been much lower than we have been led to believe (Lees 1993, 189). In the U.S., the rate of adolescent pregnancy and childbearing is higher than in other industrialized countries. Voydanoff and Donnelly report that, in 1981, the pregnancy rate was "twice that of England and Wales, France and Canada, three times that of Sweden and six times that of the Netherlands" (quoted in Lees 1993, 190). The American Association of University Women (AAUW) states that: "Just under one-half million babies were born to women under age twenty in the United States, giving this country the highest rate of teenage childbearing in the Western industrialized world" (AAUW 1992, 37). But the report also states that: "Overall, the number and rate of births to teens continues a downward trend begun in 1975" (AAUW 1992). The numbers that have increased are those which indicate that teenagers are having sex more frequently and starting at a younger age. The AAUW cites data from the National Survey of Family Growth indicating that "the number of fifteen-year-olds with sexual experience increased from 17 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 1988 (AAUW 1992). Much more serious is the fact that high numbers of teenagers fail to use any contraceptive or other protective measures. In a national public opinion poll investigating the incidence of teenage pregnancy in the United States it was estimated that almost 30 percent of teenagers never used contraceptives (Wattleton 1988, 16).

While conservatives in the United States wage a battle against sex education, growing concern over unprotected adolescent sexual activity has made the general population relatively more open in dealing with sex education. When asked specifically whether students should receive sex education in the public schools, 80 percent of North American adults responded positively (Harris and Yankelovich cited in Fine 1988, 43). Another organization has estimated that at least 9 in 10 parents support the idea of their children receiving sex education within the school curriculum (Siecus 1991). As some authors have noted, "Resistance to sex education, while loud at the level of public rhetoric and conservative organizing, is both less vocal and less active within schools and parents' groups" (Hottois and Milner cited in Fine 1988).

Despite the numerous studies that show the increasing openness of the American public, government policies and media images lag behind general social acceptance of sex education. It is only recently that the Clinton administration has reversed the policy on condom advertisement on television, more than 10 years after HIV was detected. This lag in using the powerful mass media as a channel to promote condoms and safer sex is unique in the history of AIDS prevention that characterizes developed nations and even developing countries. Most countries moved very quickly to promote condom use. Also relatively recent is the allocation of new funds to the Office of Adolescent Health which is intended to fund programs providing comprehensive health education.

Almost behind the scenes and at the margins of national debates, many non-governmental institutions in the U.S. are part of a vast network of non-formal sex education efforts that watch with dismay the slow pace of mainstream sex education. One of the most highly regarded institutions among sex educators and conversely, increasingly controversial for conservatives, is the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). In 1990, SIECUS organized a task force which brought together representatives from the medical professions, educators, the Planned Parenthood Association, sexologists, and experienced school-based sex education teachers to develop what is now known as the SIECUS guidelines for comprehensive sex education for kindergarten through twelth grade.

Sex Education in Mexico

On the Mexican side, sex education in the formal curriculum has been limited, too. Sex education in Mexico operates mostly at the fringes of the formal school system, in informal networks and non-governmental institutions, on radio programs, and in street theater. Many of these institutions are supported by international funding agencies, some of them of a philanthropic nature. Sporadic efforts to include sex education in the public schools are constantly taking place but, in general, inclusion in the curriculum has been lacking. In fact, more of the impetus for sex education has come from non-educational or health sectors of the government, specifically from the Ministry of Health. In 1975, there was an important attempt to revise the curriculum but the issues were so controversial that the revision has never seen the light of day.

While there are many negative consequences of unprotected early adolescent sex, teenage pregnancy in Mexico is perhaps the most dramatic. Young people aged 10 to 19 account for 25 percent of Mexico's population. The Ministry of Health estimates 7 of every 10 women that become pregnant for the first time are younger than 20 years old. This means that of the group of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19, there are 430,000 who become pregnant every year (Lugo 1991, 2). There is also evidence that it happens very fast. One Mexican study reports that the period between girls' first sexual intercourse and pregnancy is, at most, five months (Ehrenfeld 1994).

Family planning projects in Mexico have a long and ambitious history. The government and international agencies have invested an enormous amount of time and effort to reduce the fertility rate in Mexico by promoting and educating the population on increasing contraceptive practices and policies. While there are few studies in Mexico that evaluate the impact of these efforts, there is some evidence that, at least in the adolescent sector, these programs have not had the expected impact. One study that sought to evaluate the impact of a hospital project with pregnant adolescent women found that as many as 88 percent of the women and their partners had not used a contraceptive method during their first sexual intercourse (Ehrenfeld 1994, 7). This evidence is not a question of unavailability or scarce resources. Contraception, or at least several contraceptive measures, are free in Mexico through government health agencies. Clearly, there are other reasons that the supply of contraceptives is higher than the demand for them.

Mexico has its own counterparts to the Republican Policy Committee and the Citizens for Decency that lobby against sex education in the U.S. in the religious elements and political organizations that work to block or eliminate efforts towards sex education in the schools. In Mexico, conservative groups tend to wield more power because the majority of the population claims to be Catholic. Abortion, which is illegal in Mexico, is a controversial subject and one that the powerful Catholic Church rigidly opposes. Not everyone agrees with the Church, however. A 1991 study on abortion found that 68.4 percent of Mexicans believe that the opinion of the Catholic Church should not matter in a woman's decision to have an abortion. In the same study, 57 percent consider that even if a woman has an abortion she would still be considered "a good Christian." While almost 87 percent of the interviewees declared knowing that the Catholic Church prohibits abortion, only about 30 percent agreed with this prohibition (see Pick de Weiss and Givaudan 1991). Echoing similar trends in the United States, an estimated 85 percent of the population in Mexico agrees on the necessity of offering sex education to adolescents (Rivera Marín 1991).2 It is apparent that Mexicans are not willing to blindly follow their spiritual leaders' mandates. At least with respect to sex education in the public schools, Mexican society seems similar to that of the U.S..

Every social phenomenon in Mexico must be viewed in the context of a tension between tradition and modernity. The fact is that Mexico wavers between modernity and tradition and this dialectic has been an important factor guiding many of its educational and social endeavors. Contrary to the United States, education in Mexico is regulated by the national government. As with all governments, the Mexican state is not a homogenous entity. The old conservative hard-liners in the educational system, many of whom are linked with the conservative wing of the ruling party, the PRI,3 and with religious groups, have joined to create a formidable enemy to the advocates of the modernization of education. They have been particularly instrumental in keeping sex education out of the school curriculum, as is evidenced by the several attempts which have been sabotaged. These conservative groups claim to be on guard from the imposition of U.S. values and education, a fear that is at times legitimate and at times not. Sometimes it is a genuine concern for preserving national autonomy and cultural identity, but at other times it is a deep-rooted nationalistic sentiment shared also by religious and conservative groups, a convenient excuse for inaction. This nationalistic sentiment is not always echoed by the general population. The formal educational system, and thus the possibility of introducing sex education into the curriculum, is caught, as one Mexican scholar so aptly put it, in "the endless tension between traditional morality and Mexico's traditional identification with modernity."

Covering the Sun with a Finger

While there is widespread consensus among the general population on the need for sex education in both Mexican and U.S. public schools, its content and the proper approach to it are under intense debate. Different groups and institutions, governmental, non-governmental, national and international, religious or quasi-political, have assessed the negative consequences of early adolescent sexual activity differently and have suggested various tones and strategies to deal with the problem.

Basically, the groups have advanced three propositions with their corresponding strategies to eliminate teenage pregnancy and disease transmission. The first is colloquially referred to as "abstinence," a traditional view which argues that the negative outcomes of teenage sexual activity are due to overexposure to sexual themes and lack of moral beliefs and behavior among young adults. The preferred strategy of this group is to counter a "sex-drenched society" by encouraging young adolescent women--the emphasis is solely on females--to "just say no" and to delay sexual intercourse until marriage. Declarations by the Eagle Forum are typical: "A lot of people are using panic about AIDS to force offensive practices, facilities and instruction on public school children. We feel that it is urgent that the public schools teach sexual abstinence until marriage and fidelity to your spouse after you are married. There isn't any other healthy behavior that can be recommended by the public schools." (Pacifica National Programs 1994). This strategy has proven untenable. The popular Mexican saying "no puedes tapar el sol con un dedo" (you can't block the sun with a finger) vividly depicts the unrealistic position of the abstinence-until-marriage approach. U.S. researcher and sex educator Marianne Whatley dispels any expectations of adolescent chastity by reminding us that adolescent sexuality cannot be blocked from view through wishful thinking:

Students are sexually active in every way possible, with themselves and with others, feel sexual desires, are sexually exploited, become pregnant, cause pregnancy, have abortions, have babies, catch diseases, explore their own sexuality, explore and exploit others' sexuality, are sexually violent, wrestle with issues of power and control. What does a lecture on the dangers of premarital intercourse say to them? (1992, 80)

An opposing view argues that adolescents don't know enough and hence act out of ignorance. The so-called "contraception" or liberal approach argues that teenagers will engage in sexual intercourse no matter what grownups say to them and that the only realistic preventive strategy is to facilitate both information on and access to contraceptives--the emphasis is also solely on females--and letting adolescents decide for themselves. Thus, one of the more influential institutions advocates the acquisition of "sexual literacy"; the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSS) states that "sexual literacy" includes "the basic sexual information and skills to thrive in a modern world" (Scales 1989, 172). At its core, this view seeks to encourage a "guilt-free" sexuality and in general promotes a pro-sex attitude. While this approach has made its advocates easy targets for conservatives and religious anti-sex advocates who point to the lack of limits, others raise the more reasonable question as to whether adolescents are ready for and capable of making wise decisions concerning their sexual behavior.

A third approach encourages the development of skills and wise decision making. Its promoters, commonly known as "smart sex" educators, seek a more comprehensive focus of sex education, arguing that teenagers are vulnerable to exploitation and cannot be left alone to decide. But this view also advocates clear, honest and direct information on sexuality. It enlarges the concept of sexuality to encompass much more than sexual intercourse and includes values, relationships, and sexual responsibility as well as intimacy, body image, and a critique of gender roles as being crucial to the formation of healthy sexual adolescents. It is not directed only at females; quite the contrary. The view firmly places male adolescents at the center of adolescent sexuality and its dilemmas. While this view also sees the futility of covering the sun with a finger, it differs from the contraception approach in that it offers concrete guidelines, in symbolic language, for sparing adolescents the sunburn while allowing them to enjoy the positive rays of the sun.

The "Abstinence" Advocates

The "abstinence until marriage" view is moralistic in tone and is characterized by an extreme fear of the dissemination of knowledge about sexuality. Recently, one group in Mexico City denounced and demanded the immediate removal of a textbook on adolescent sexuality co-edited by a state branch of the Ministry of Education, a book that was scheduled to be taught in the public schools in 1994. The book, entitled Sexuality: All that Teenagers Should Know (Sexualidad: Todo lo que un adolescente debe saber), is a bold attempt to grapple with some of the most controversial sexual topics by presenting both the positive and negative consequences of engaging in sexual behavior in early adolescence. The content is presented in the form of letters written back and forth between adolescents and trusted adults and among adolescents themselves. In these letters, students are invited to explore the issues of contraception, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality in a direct, respectful, and succinct manner. Immediately after the publication of the book, one of the conservative groups most vocal on these issue,4 the National Union of Parents (Union Nacional de Padres de Familia), immediately denounced the textbook claiming that sexuality should be practiced "at the right time" and "within marriage", and that it was unwise to subject teens to the risk of contracting venereal diseases and AIDS. In a statement that closely depicts the reaction of this type of group to sex education in the public schools, one of its exponents argued that "It is we [the family] who have the right to educate our kids, in accordance with our own values" (Excelsior 1994). Some of the most influential Mexico City newspapers published the views of the parents' union and, without further debate or public airing, the book was never used or distributed among the public schools.

Many of the arguments used by anti-sex education groups are distorted and use inflammatory statements. In the article cited above, one of the members claimed that policy on sex education is imposed by international agencies who seek to "destroy the family and promote sexual promiscuity." Other examples of critiques which exaggerate and distort are often expressed in the U.S. through the Eagle Forum. Consider the charge recently delivered by one of its members evaluating new sex education curricula:

A typical sex education course will teach children that any type of sexual activity is socially acceptable so long as it doesn't produce a baby. Some courses teach these children that promiscuity is alright, that alternatives to marriage include group marriage, open marriage and homosexuality. We think such teaching is wrong for the schools to engage in and is a violation of the constitutional rights of those who believe that pre-marital sex is wrong. (Pacifica Radio Programs 1994).

In fact, today there are very few sex education programs in the U.S. that don't emphasize abstinence for teenagers and insist on the benefits of delayed intercourse. However, as sociologist Douglas Kirby points out, "most good sex education programs will then talk about the variety of different kinds of birth control, talk about relationships and talk about a much wider number of topics involving sexuality" (Pacifica Radio Programs). The reality is that any inclusion of contraception in sex education programs is decried, by conservative groups, as teaching "genital activity and likely to increase pregnacy" (Whatley 1992, 328).

Perhaps the most common appeals concern "invasion of privacy," parental rights, and (in the U.S.) First Amendment transgressions by sex education programs. Thus, the terms of the debate are posed as a battle between the rights of public school children against those of their parents. While some of the concerns of these groups are legitimate, it is important for those seeking to influence the content of sex education in the schools to separate the extremists and religious crusaders from those who raise reasonable questions (Scales 1981). Furthermore, in the United States, it has long been established that parents have the constitutional right to excuse their children from sex education classes or classes which they find are offensive to their religious beliefs.

In the United States, abstinence advocates have been increasingly vocal and have widely publicized their "Just Say No" campaign as well as the widely distributed "Sex Respect" curricular materials which, with their strategy of abstinence until marriage, have had increasing influence on the content of sex education in the public schools. The approach has gained momentum as its members have gone from vocally critiquing sex education programs to influencing their content. The result has been a steady increase in abstinence-until-marriage messages. SIECUS estimates that 85 percent of the state curricula discuss abstinence while only 9 percent offer appropriate information on safer sex. Another group of researchers concluded that state curricula on sex education in American public schools "place(s) greater emphasis on the negative outcomes of sex (such as STDs and AIDS) and on abstinence than on the prevention of pregnancy" (Kenney et al. 1989, 59).

Influential figures have fueled and strengthened religious and conservative groups when they have coincided with the right's moralistic stance on sexuality. William Bennett, Secretary of Education during the Reagan government, argued in 1988 that sex education in the schools should be conducted in the "old fashioned way" by teaching children sexual restraint, upholding the institution of the family, and speaking of sex in the context of the institution of marriage: "We should speak of the fidelity, commitment, and maturity of successful marriages as something for which our students should strive" (Bennett 1988, 11). This position has, of course, a longer history in Mexico as the Catholic hierarchy has always held such a stance, perhaps even using the same language. The Mexican Bishop Felipe Aguirre Franco is perhaps most illustrative of this position when he is asked whether he agrees with the use of contraceptives: "The goal is not sexual satisfaction. Sex should be a function of a more noble goal, larger and transcendent." He argues that men and women cannot decide on their own what is good for them and use contraceptives.

All that brings with it a sexual chaos, a crumbling of customs and we are going to live, no doubt, in a place where the only thing that is sought after is the enjoyment of pleasure and not the transcendental values which are what give value to society and to the person. (Pick de Weiss 1991, 21)

Few sex educators would disagree with the benefits of delayed sexual intercourse for adolescents. The point is that positing abstinence as the single-minded goal to be achieved by putting a brake on sexuality is difficult to accept. It is especially difficult when media images and peer pressure constantly urge adolescents to use their sexuality. Given all the attention bestowed on abstinence it is pertinent perhaps to ask: exactly what does abstinence mean? And abstinence from what? If it is abstinence from sex, what part of sex are teenagers to abstain from? Intercourse, fondling, kissing, hugging? What are the limits and the criteria that are being used in defining these limits? Indeed, at what point in a relationship is it time to "just say no?" The fact is, abstinence is posed as a monumental and transcendental goal with no alternative to intercourse or variation possible.

Many authors have questioned the pervasive assumption in sex education literature that equates sex to intercourse. Joseph Diorio comments that, "By failing to consider sexual activity as anything but copulation, sex education literature and programs reinforce not only the tendency to think of sex in those limited terms, but the survival of arguably oppressive political practices and structures as well" (1985). The tone of sex education programs has focused primarily on avoiding intercourse to the exclusion of all other forms of erotic behavior. Solomon comments that:

Sexuality, while having a certain structure that confines it, can take any number of forms. It is a language we first learn on the borderlines of sex, in shaking hands, standing with our hands on our hips, letting a cigarette droop from our lips in junior high school... Like dancing, sexuality is an extension and fine development of everyday movements, capable of open-ended refinement and individual variation, as poetry of the body. (1975, 281)

When viewed in this more ample light, sexuality takes on an altogether richer meaning.

Because of the contradictions inherent in the abstinence-only approach, it is difficult not to suspect that, as Michelle Fine has argued, at the heart of these conservative movements is the intent to suppress exploration of sexuality and desire. Fine asks:

If these programs were designed primarily to prevent (adolescent) pregnancy... wouldn't there be more discussions of both the pleasures and relatively fewer risks of disease or pregnancy associated with lesbian relationships and protected sexual intercourse, or of the risk-free pleasures of masturbation and fantasy? (1988, 42)

While the move to suppress sexuality may not be always a concerted effort nor a well thought-out conspiracy, it shows a close association with powerful religious and fundamentalist groups.

The "Contraception" Advocates

The dominant view has not gone unchallenged. The "contraception" approach promotes contraception information freely, assuming that teenagers will have sex no matter what grownups want or tell them. While also supporting abstinence for teenagers, the contraceptionists realize acutely the futility of covering the sun with a finger. The wide spectrum of contraception advocates runs the gamut from family planning experts and psychotherapists to curriculum specialists and health professionals. These sex educators are strongly influenced by a movement that began in the 1980s advocating a non-judgmental, individualistic type of sex education with a strong emphasis on individual growth and sexual fulfillment, and the teaching of the range and types of sexual behavior, contraception, and alternative lifestyles. In essence it sought to promote guilt-free sexuality. The methods utilized differed significantly and challenged traditional ways of teaching by promoting student discussions and role playing (Pendland 1981, 305). The contraception approach has been less dominant in the public school system and, although it has been influential as a movement, the approach has taken place primarily in the non-formal and non-governmental sectors. In the U.S., sex education has been influenced mostly by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSS) whose membership is dominated by scholars from psychology, psychiatry, and medicine. This academic vein of the contraception movement uses scientific theories in an attempt to rationalize sexuality. While it is highly debatable whether the language of science can be used to describe pleasure, pain, and intimacy, it is nonetheless important to see the emergence of this movement in the context of the existing view dominated by the conservative religious and quasi-political groups such as the Eagle Forum and Citizens for Decency or their conservative counterparts in Mexico. A prominent non-formal and activist organization influenced by the "sexual literacy" effort of the SSS is the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which is very influential at the policy level. In Mexico, as in other developing countries, IPPF works mostly through non-formal education channels.

In Mexico, there is a much weaker connection between the formal and non-formal sectors. Within the non-formal sector, perhaps the most intellectually influential center has been the Instituto Mexicano de Sexología (Mexican Institute of Sexology), a non-formal non-profit institution that, while academically inclined, has also actively targeted diverse groups including medical schools, teacher institutions, and has offered continuous courses directed to adolescents and children. Other groups have emerged or broken off from the main branch of this institute.5 Throughout their existence, these groups have waged a continuous war with conservative groups and have significantly advanced the understanding and study of sex education in their national contexts. "Gente Joven" (Young People), a program for adolescents which emerged from Mexfam (the Mexican Family Planning Foundation, an affiliate of IPPF), has been instrumental in disseminating information on contraception and sex education. For the contraception advocates, dispensing "sexual literacy" and contraceptives in an objective way is the cornerstone of sex education.

In Mexico, the contraception movement has made less of a dent, but its presence is apparent nonetheless. The recent curriculum reform, "The Modernization of Education," begun during the Salinas administration and fully implemented in 1994, is couched in strict scientific language. My review of the primary and secondary curricula in Mexican public schools shows that only until the seventh grade, and included as a sub-section on human evolution and genetics, human reproduction is elaborated with its similarities and differences with the animal world. Sexuality is limited to its reproductive function and heterosexual copulation is seen as the natural essence of human sexual practice. An important addition, however, does include a chapter on contraceptive methods and a discussion on the social importance of these measures.

An important point to stress is that state curricula, as well as state educational authorities shy away from openly and directly addressing sexual abstinence for adolescents which shows how today the curriculum in Mexico has indeed been influenced by the contraception approach, at least by its scientific vein. In several interviews with Ministry of Education officials, it became clear that any mention of abstinence was directly correlated with religious groups. Officials went to great lengths during the interviews to distance themselves from this position. This is probably due to the turbulent history of church-state relations in Mexico, which have only recently been modified. At the same time, there is no corresponding effort in the curriculum to counteract the social impact of the extremist religious groups on society, and on adolescents in particular. Public school curriculum in Mexico, by opting for silence on issues such as safer sex, masturbation, and homosexuality, is ceding its position to the conservative religious groups.

The abstinence and contraception views also share another common characteristic. One author remarked that the "litmus test for an effective sex education program is its `effect' on the extent of adolescent heterosexual activity, STDs and pregnancies." Because of this instrumentalist approach, research abounds on evaluations to show the effectiveness of sex education programs implemented by the contraceptive movement. Kirby's evaluations in 1985 demonstrate that sex education increases the use and knowledge of contraceptives. Even under the limited definitions by educational conservatives concerning sexual activity (i.e., sex as intercourse), it has been shown that sex education does not instigate early adolescent intercourse. Those who receive sex education tend to postpone heterosexual intercourse (Zabin, et al. 1986). Rates of pregnancy do not appear to be influenced either way by exposure to sex education (Fine 1988).

The contraception approach has focused primarily on what is frequently referred to as "sexual literacy," defined by one group as "the basic information and skills to thrive in a modern world." It is a rational view that relies primarily on scientific explanations that envelope the study of human sexuality in a cloak of objectivity. Much of the focus is on anatomy and the development of skills and information. While page after page of the anatomy and physiology of reproduction may have served the purposes of both giving the study of sexuality a respectable scientific outlook and counteracting the moralistic tone of the abstinence approach, it barely begins to scratch the surface of the real issues involved in adolescent sexuality. One author argues that this type of instruction "turns out to be nothing more than a brief bout with a swimming-sperm and Fallopian-tube course that has put students to sleep for generations" (Leo 1987, 139). It is a language mostly devoid of sexual feeling, pleasure, and intimacy; it is also devoid of the language of ethics in sexual relationships and the consequences of sexual behavior.

The sole emphasis on facts is not an isolated phenomenon divorced from the general trend characterizing school curriculum, nor is it limited to sex education itself. Influential curriculum theorists in the United States have raised questions concerning the validity of using the scientific method, which rejects any normative stance under the assertion of being objective in nature. In his critique of the traditional curriculum model, Giroux notes that its pivotal force is the claim to objectivity.

"Objectivity in this case refers to forms of knowledge and methodological inquiry that are untouched by the untidy world of beliefs and values." Furthermore, Giroux talks about the futility of taking scientific objectivity to the classroom, "Schools embody collective attitudes that permeate every aspect of their organization. In essence, they are not things, but concrete manifestations of specific rules and social relationships. The nature of their organization is value-based" (Giroux 1988, 14).

While the contraception movement has made crucial advances in the field of sex education and in many ways has effectively balanced the pervasive and growing influence of conservative and religious groups, other scholars and activists have questioned the effectiveness of viewing sexuality through a purely scientific lens.

The "Values and Relationships" Advocates

The harshest criticism of the advocates of contraception has come from curriculum specialists, theorists of education, and experienced school-based sex education teachers and researchers in the field who, though acknowledging the need for a frank and honest depiction of sexual behavior and all matters of reproduction and disease transmission, believe that adolescents have an inability to perceive cause-effect relations. As sexologists, they advocate a guilt-free sexuality but, as education specialists, they are also deeply concerned with age-appropriate information and behavior. They charge that presenting adolescents with a range of possibilities and alternatives is not enough. In their zeal to balance out the highly prevalent sexual guilt so pervasive in both Mexico and the U.S., the contraceptionists have shied away from engaging their students in ethical discussions concerning sexual behavior. Even those educators who acknowledge the need for a frank and honest depiction of sexual behavior including birth control, abortion, homosexuality, gynecological examinations, safer sex practices, and contraception demand that adolescent sex education not drop these various choices and leave the decision-making process to unfold by itself within the adolescents' mind. Critical of the liberal/rational stance or "pedagogy of relativism" frequently followed by the contraception advocates, educational sexologists argue that students are left with a host of options all with equal value and weight. As Phillips and Fine have noted:

The notion of simply offering students `the facts,' or even `all choices,' as if they were evenly weighted options makes little sense to us when students and teachers confront institutional and social climates that privilege certain options and refuse to examine those privileges critically... The liberal strategy of giving students information and a sense of entitlement, and then leaving them alone to decide, essentially reifies an androcentric notion that development, decisions, and moral dilemmas are worked out within the minds of isolated, autonomous individuals, rather than in the context of relationships, responsibilities, conversations and consequences. (Phillipps and Fine 1991, 247)

Furthermore, offering a range of choices does not fully convey the dangers of early sexual activity. In sum, while agreeing with contraceptionists, the educationalists focus on the appropriateness of the material and the need for adapting the content to the different stages of cognitive and social development of adolescents.

Today's world privileges the notion of objectivity and it is extremely difficult to engage schools and curriculum experts in a debate on values. Values, and especially those related to the controversial topic of sex education in the public schools, conjure up the specter of an imposition of ideas which a democratic society is constantly on guard to prevent, but what are those values and can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate ones? Some authors have made an important distinction between moral and moralistic sex education that is perhaps important to address. Dogmatically imposing a point of view and leaving no room for disagreement and dialogue is clearly inappropriate for public schools. Guilgun and Gordon (1983) remark that when a teacher proclaims, "If you have sex before marriage, you will go to hell," he or she is imposing a moral belief that is more appropriate for religious schools. The same authors go on to say that in sex education "a central moral dilemma is, how can I exercise my individual liberty without harming another person or myself?" (30)

Teaching responsibility for one's decisions concerning sexual behavior appropriately belongs in the classroom and should not be subverted in favor of stating only facts and available choices. Researchers Sapon-Shevin and Goodman note that:

Sex education coursework reflects `scientific' orientation in which biological facts and social statistics dominate what is taught. Almost completely absent from conventional sex education is the study of social and psychological content within which young adolescents become sexual beings. Discussions of value laden topics such as criteria for determining acceptable types of sexual activities; feelings of sexual arousal, desires and pleasure; dynamics of power in sexual relationships; and reproductive control (among others) are almost totally ignored in middle and high school sex education classes. (1992, 99)

It is these issues that the values and relationship advocates believe should be woven into the fabric of sex education courses. As the sociologist Giroux would say, "to separate values from facts or social inquiry from ethical considerations is pointless" (1988, 14).

There are many aspects of sexual behavior and sexual relations, aspects that have to do with power and control, responsibility, and decision-making, skills that are crucially important to sexual relationships. In fact, sexuality is about relationships. The SIECUS guidelines developed in 1993 make a compelling case for developing personal and interpersonal skills with sexual partners and frank discussions concerning the consequences of sexual behavior. If, for example, delayed intercourse is settled upon as a value by an adolescent, this decision becomes a choice which entails rewards, but it also has to do with responsibilities. Choosing abstinence may be difficult because of sexual feelings and pressure from the partner and peers. On the other hand, if teenagers decide to postpone intercourse and at the same time decide to date, sex education needs to provide and develop communication skills for discussing sexual limits with dating partners. Furthermore, classroom discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of postponing sexual intercourse may mean that other forms of erotic behavior suitable for adolescents will need to be included, leading to discussions of self-eroticism and sexual fantasy which may prove embarrassing or controversial to local sensibilities and to teachers and students themselves. By the same token, teenagers who, despite the encouragement to delay intercourse, still decide to engage in it must also learn to make decisions about pregnancy, STD/HIV prevention, and other unwanted consequences (SIECUS 1993). This type of comprehensive approach to teenage sex education in both the Mexican and U.S. public schools systems is extremely rare.

Sex Drive and Gender-Based Burdens

Curriculum specialists and researchers argue that working to promote contraception and a guilt-free sexuality does not necessarily need to be separate from complex discussions of sexual feelings or sexual values nor from teaching skills for wiser decision-making in matters of sexuality. In fact, it is crucial to conduct discussion of the various outcomes, consequences, and responsibilities attached to sexual behavior, but can we really talk about responsibilities and consequences as if these affected everyone in the same way? Who is responsible when pregnancy occurs? Or upon whom is the responsibility enforced? Inevitably, addressing these issues brings up the unequal reality experienced by female adolescents. In a cross-cultural analysis of adolescent sexuality, one study shows a remarkable similarity among adolescent youths concerning attitudes toward responsibility and sexual behavior: women were held responsible for contraception by both males and females (Spencer 1984; Lees 1993). Marianne Whatley has also come to the same conclusion for North American youth. Both the abstinence and contraception advocates collude by placing the major responsibility for both delayed intercourse and contraception on adolescent girls.

In sum, the abstinence view situates adolescents in a contradictory crossfire: on one hand, the realities of peer pressure and media encouragement and, on the other, parents pushing to "just say no." The contraception approach freely hands out knowledge and information as well as contraceptives and stops there. This leaves the decision to the adolescent without helping them develop the skills needed to negotiate relationship limits, the knowledge of consequences for self and others, and the abilities needed to arrive at wise decision-making. Comprehensive sex education encourages adolescents to delay sexual intercourse while developing the necessary skills for future sexual relationships. At the same time, it seeks to provide honest and candid information on the physiological and intimacy aspects of sexuality as well as other pertinent information and free access to contraceptives. Both the abstinence and contraception veins of sex education share the approach that all campaigns and educational efforts be directed exclusively towards women.

While we may speak of differences in culture and values as well as gross asymmetries in wealth between Mexico and the U.S., it is more common to find similarities in the way early adolescent sexual activity affects young men and women. Both in Mexico and in the U.S., engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse at an early age has consequences for both sexes. However, some consequences are much more serious for girls than for boys. One sex educator and writer draws the distinction dramatically in reference to teenage pregnancy:

Boys are less likely to be ostracized as immoral, are not forced to leave school, are less likely to suffer the shame and cost of seeking a clandestine abortion and often bear little or no economic or social responsibility for childrearing. Therefore, from an early age, males take less responsibility for contraception, sometimes even blocking use by their female partners. In addition to these gender-based burdens, women suffer the physical risks of pregnancy and early childbirth. Further, when children beget children, rates of illness and mortality are significantly higher for both mothers and their infants than for most older mothers, especially when prenatal care is lacking. (Paxman 1993, 2)

Teenage pregnancy is not only a problem of significant proportion, but the problem is also skewed toward female adolescents. While this reality may be obvious to the adolescents themselves, it is surprising how sex education in general has failed to address these gender-based burdens. It is only very recently that institutions and schools have begun to analyze the impact of gender on sexual behavior.

In scholarly research, gender and sexuality often operate on "separate tracks" and are addressed by different specialists. In the United States, for example, sex equity and sex education specialists rarely coincide. Those authors who address gender and sexuality straightforwardly argue that the interaction between gender and sexuality is often detrimental to both males and females. One author notes that both society and schools tend to divide adolescents into a dichotomy of "womanhood" and "manhood": "Two separate but unequal sexual worlds--the male world of sexual power and prowess that devalues sensitivity and introspection and the female world of sexual passivity and shame that stymies sexual curiosity and inhibits sexual knowledge" (Sears 1992, 85). The contradictory social forces which girls must contend with in sexuality matters and the danger it entails to their lives and to those of others has been evident to activists working in the field with adolescents.

In Mexico, Mexfam (the Mexican Family Planning Foundation), concerned with the low impact of their contraceptive programs, carried out a study on AIDS prevention and found that gender variables played an important part in preventing the use of condoms. While girls acknowledged the need to protect themselves, they hesitated to suggest condom use to their partners because of the fear of seeming sexually experienced (Marques 1993, 16). Other girls assumed that they would be "taken care of" and that it was the male's role to prevent pregnancy.

Health and sex education programs in Mexico, the U.S., and other countries, in their zeal to protect youths from contracting HIV, tend to focus both programs and promotion campaigns exclusively on women, overlooking the meaning that contraceptive use has for women. Study in Mexico confirms that women would mention any contraceptive method except the condom since the latter insinuated the practice of occasional sex and promiscuous behavior; on the other hand, if the male brought the condom, his initiative would be viewed in the positive light of the sexually experienced male (Figueroa Perea 1993, 6). One author sums up the experience with adolescents:

Often, a girl fears even bringing the issue up: if she appears to be too familiar with and eager to use contraceptives, the boy may conclude that she is too experienced. (Bruce 1993, 23)

Here we see it clearly. Because girls are trained in passivity in sexual matters, they relinquish responsibility for practicing safer sex to the male partner who, at the same time, is under the impression that women will take care of contraceptive use. This is characteristic not only of women in third world countries; a scholar doing research on British youths and their failure to engage in safer sex behavior, particularly the use of condoms, sums up the double-edged sword that women must endure:

For young women to carry condoms around implies pre-meditated sex, which conflicts with popular ideas of romantic spontaneity and implicitly labels them as `slags' [sexually promiscuous]. The operation of the double standard condemns a girl as irresponsible if she does not use contraception and unrespectable if she does. (Lees 1993, 199)

Females across socio-economic lines will point to others, particularly their male partners, as reasons for engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse. Fine (1988) documents how young black U.S. adolescent females, in their quest to protect the egos of their male counterparts, refrain from using a condom: "If I ask him to use a condom, he won't feel like a man" (adolescent female, quoted in Fine 1988, 36). Some studies already suggest that the role assigned to female adolescents within sexual relationships is not limited to lower socio-economic sectors. Young Mexican women of high educational and socio-economic levels believe that male sexual needs are greater than women's (see Figueroa Perea 1993, 9). The same study reports that 75 percent of urban women, even those with higher levels of education and reproductive knowledge, expressed a belief that due to "nature" and the male "temperament," sexuality was "more necessary" to men and of lesser importance to women.

The myth that it is men who have the greater sexual needs and that these needs drive men to sometimes uncontrollable situations permeates large sectors of both modern and traditional societies. It should not come as a surprise, then, that this assumption is one of the strongholds of adolescent belief systems. What is surprising is that curriculum and sex education textbooks also portray this image. In her research of U.S. curricula, Marianne Whatley found that:

The recurring theme in [sex education] texts and curricular materials is that there is a powerful, innate, hormonally determined sex drive in men, with very little indication that there might be some equivalent in women. The message is that women, having little trouble overcoming their weak libidos, are responsible for saying `no' to men, who ideally should learn `proper control' but are often too strongly hormonally driven to be able to stop on their own. The responsibility for men's sexuality clearly falls on the woman, as she must be careful never to `lead him on,' to always resist his advances, and if unsuccessful, to ensure that contraception is used. Many teenage men and women readily support this view of women's responsibility for men's sexual behavior: if he is sexually aggressive, it is her fault for dressing, walking, speaking, or acting in a way that triggered his uncontrollable drive. (1992, 104)

Again, in most sex education programs none of this is explicitly talked about nor questioned.

Notions of "manhood" and how it is constructed by society to present males as being at the mercy of biology is not only a burden for women but it is also stressful for many boys. The fact that males perceive themselves as being subject to "raging hormones" removes responsibility for self-control; it also creates feelings of inadequacy when the hormonal drive is not forthcoming. A few researchers have reported relatively high stress experienced by males as they are constantly encouraged to measure up against each other by comparing sexual prowess. Sex education until now has failed to address some of the most important and destructive aspects of the male ideal. As one author notes: "While progressive educators [seem] sensitive to allaying anxieties about appropriate erections, wet dreams and penis size, they [ignore] issues of power and control--exemplified in such recurring themes as sexuality as conquest and women as trophies" (Whatley 1992, 81). Notions of manhood also affect other areas of a boys' sexuality. Male virginity, for example, in both U.S. and Mexican societies is considered highly abnormal and is sometimes prematurely ended by a visit to a prostitute at a very early age. Furthermore, boys grow up with a fear of being feminized that is at times pathological. Being feminized is equal to being gay and gays are considered as having lesser masculine features or being more like women (see Whatley 1991, 119-43). If notions of manhood are acquired in opposition to females, it is no wonder that alienation exists between males and females. This alienation is reflected in the lack of communication between adolescents that is so essential to sexual health.

Overemphasis of male biological imperatives is coupled with an underemphasis of equivalent biological impulses in women. Many sex education researchers have reported how the female sexual impulse is rendered invisible. Concepts such as female eroticism and desire are ignored in sex education in the school curriculum. In her insightful study entitled Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire (1988), Michelle Fine uncovers the hidden meaning within school curricula which "represents females as the actual and potential victims of male desire" and "portrays males as potential predators and females as victims." Denying female desire to engage in sexual activity is not only negating a reality but it also reduces their sexual responsibility. Fine is perhaps most eloquent on the topic when she argues for widespread availability of family planning counseling, and/or contraception through school-based clinics that target adolescent women:

The availability of such services may enable females to feel they are sexual agents, entitled and therefore responsible, rather than at the constant and terrifying mercy of a young man's pressure to `give in' or of a parent's demands to `save yourself.' With a sense of sexual agency and not necessarily urgency, teen girls may be less likely to use or be used by pregnancy. (1988, 6)

While Fine's study is focused on finding strategies to avoid teenage pregnancy, her conclusions are also pertinent for adolescent sexual activity in general. The notion of sexual agency and the fact that women are denied this role in sexual relationships is at the very core of female and male heterosexual relationships. Sapon-Shevin recalls that, "Girls weren't supposed to get aroused; we were supposed to repress not only our own sexual inclinations, but also those of boys. And, most difficult of all, we were supposed to accomplish all of this with a minimum of sexual knowledge and explicitness (quoted in Sears 1992, 21).

The notions of manhood are more straightforward and less contradictory than the social messages that women are asked to juggle. In general, males are allowed to make sexual decisions more often than women but without the responsibility inherent in all decision-making. On the other hand, females lack this permission to decide and are raised to be passive, while being at the same time responsible for controlling male sexual behavior and for any consequences arising from premature sexual intercourse, particularly pregnancy. Accepting responsibility for others' behavior is not the only role assigned to women, however. The "I decide but you're responsible" message is transmitted to females and males at the same time as another contrary message: that being capable of eliciting desire in males is somehow powerful. One author comments perceptively on her own experience:

The power differential between boys and girls was... clear: boys did the asking, girls the waiting; boys did the leading, girls the following; boys wanted sex, girls were supposed to resist. Yet I was told that I was somehow powerful, since I could get boys 'worked up' so that they were out of control. I was both dependent and powerless, ignorant yet unwittingly powerful, and I was in charge of keeping things under control--a heavy burden to bear in ignorance. (Sapon-Shevin and Goodman 1992, 95)

A Body for Others

The reasons adolescent females decide to engage in early adolescent intercourse can be found in the different roles that women are assigned within their cultures. In Mexico, the common fear of being viewed as promiscuous may in itself be a reason for hesitating to use a condom on the part of young women. But this reason must be viewed in the wider context of women's future prospects, which in Mexico are closely linked to the prospects of motherhood. Teenagers correctly perceive that, for Mexican society, to become a mother is to become a woman (Ehrenfeld 1989). At the same time, mothers are portrayed, particularly in the media, as highly devoted to their families and almost asexual. In fact, motherhood images are frequently posited against promiscuous or "loose" women.

In the Mexican Ministry of Health study by Ehrenfeld cited above, the differences in perceptions, attitudes, and behavior concerning sexuality and reproductive health of adolescents explores some pertinent issues. The study suggests that young Mexican females react positively to having children and becoming mothers because motherhood is a sign of prestige in Mexico. By the same token, the childless woman encounters significant social stigma. As many as 28 percent of the women in one study believe that it is a legitimate reason for partners to leave women if they are unable to procreate (Figueroa Perea 1993, 11). But the research also indicates that one of the main reasons that women choose to adopt maternity early on was that they saw other options as being limited or closed. Indeed, the exclusive emphasis on motherhood and family leads women to organize their behavior to fit these expectations while experiencing frustration or marginalization when they fail to fulfill the role.

A striking pattern in the answers of the women interviewed for this study shows that women point to "others" as the reasons for which they became pregnant or practiced contraceptive use or, in general, made decisions over their own body. The authors of the Mexican Ministry of Health study cite Basaglia (1980) who has argued that the female body has been considered a "body for others" since the family, pregnancy, and childrearing are the most valued roles assigned to Mexican and, in general, Latin American women. Latin American feminists Lagarde and Basaglia have argued that "women's work continues to be a personal project as a function of others, beginning from others and constructed around others" (cited in Figueroa Perea 1993, 15). For example, one of the results of this study is that 54 percent of the women who did not work but who used to, cited the need to care for their children as the main reason for not working at the time. Also, almost half of the women interviewed (47 percent) interrupted their career at marriage. For all the numerous suggestions of this study to women and to policy makers to get women to "re-think" and "worry" about their own sexuality, there is no attempt made to question the understandings and belief systems of men and how these may possibly be subject to change.

Paradoxically, questioning gender assumptions may be an easier task in Mexico than it would be in the United States due to the fact that gender distinctions in Mexico exist more explicitly. The "division of labor" in which men take care of financial as well as sexual matters in heterosexual relationships and the concurrent female role of raising children is very strong and widely accepted among the population. Hence, the problems arising from this arrangement, exemplified throughout this paper, are equally acknowledged and made explicit. This additional step of re-focusing attention on males and their sexuality is scant but exists and has been addressed by some institutions. An example is evident in a project on sexual and reproductive health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This project was initiated by five non-governmental institutions6 and was begun in 1994. It seeks to target at least six thousand students between 15 and 18 years of age. Interestingly, one of their main goals is to: "reflect on masculinity, to revise gender, and investigate the construction of male identity that tends be linked to the exercise of power and violence" (Lagunes 1994, 6).

In the United States, questioning arbitrary gender arrangements may be more difficult given that gender roles are, at least cosmetically, interchangeable. Camouflaged in a cloak of equal opportunity for both sexes, the inequalities and power dynamics between men and women are many times rendered invisible. The meaning of being a woman in the United States is quite different from that which is encouraged in Mexican culture. Motherhood is less valued for adolescents, and media images and social pressure tend to propel girls toward feelings of inadequacy if their image contrasts with the slick and sophisticated ideal of a "liberated" woman constructed by the media. This result is aptly depicted in Byrne's article entitled "The Embarrassed Virgins" where the author depicts how "the teenage girl is pressured by her culture and peers to be sexy, to have a boyfriend (a measure of status) and `to do it' in order to become a woman" (1979, 28). A similar situation is also characteristic of British female adolescents (Lees 1993). Nonetheless, contrary to Mexico, there are a few outstanding examples of sex education courses in the U.S. that confront these issues directly and explicitly, and obtain high rates of success. Some of the more committed sex education advocates have exercised their influence to shift the focus from women, re-directing it toward the dynamics between males and females. However, they are controversial and frequently banned. One example of such curricular material is "Mutual Sharing, Mutual Caring" (Thompson 1987), which portrays a positive view of sexuality, advocates tolerance of different sexual preferences, and questions sex stereotypes. Some of the more successful programs address these issues from the point of view of the adolescent by using media images such as mainstream movies followed by discussions critiquing the received stereotypes and harmful clichés that usually go unexamined.

In both the Mexican and U.S. contexts, the reasons women have for engaging in unprotected intercourse are a result of social pressure--a "decision of others" and not arrived at through personal decision- making.

Lifting the Burden of Ignorance

The need for comprehensive sex education cannot be posited solely in terms of the dangers inherent in early adolescent sexual activity. While there is unquestionably a place in sex education for preventing teenage pregnancy, sexual disease, and HIV, this approach alone will be unsuccessful if other variables, particularly the deep-seated gender arrangement system that exists, go unaddressed. Furthermore, I have argued that sex education can and should be developed in school curriculum. It has been summed up bluntly that, as it is now, "The school leaves the discussion of sexuality to the family, because parents often find these subjects `controversial,' but parents usually do not deal with them, for the same reason" (Stromquist 1992, 72). Having said this, it is nonetheless true that sex education by itself is not enough. It has been warned that sex education "cannot become the dumping ground for problems the wider society has been unable to solve." Both the problem and the solution are multi-faceted and depend on many factors to effectively prevent the negative outcomes of early adolescent sexual activity. As several studies have noted, it is in "conjunction with material opportunities for enhanced life options...[that] sex education...can help to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy among teens" (Dryfoos and National Research Council cited in Fine 1988, 44). Indeed, increased options for adolescents, including access to education and employment, have been shown to be the most powerful contraceptives of all.

It is now widely acknowledged in both Mexico and the U.S., in spite of vociferous opponents, that there is a great need for sex education that provides solid biological and physiological data to educate teenagers in reproduction and disease transmission; but this is not enough. Sexual relationships are complex concepts involving social, cultural, and psychological factors, such as gender-role behavior and sex drive. And even though there are emerging efforts to conceive of sex education not only as biology but also as having to do with power dynamics between males and females, the interaction between sexuality and gender has yet to be fully incorporated. In sum, three important aspects have been emphasized throughout this paper.

First, sex education can empower women through knowledge as well as provide access to the necessary means for contraception and disease prevention. Insisting on the assumption of equal responsibility by men for contraception and disease prevention means that knowledge and access be made available to males as well as to females and that promotion campaigns also appeal to and compel males' sense of responsibility. This may mean that sex education will have to be made available in the location most commonly frequented by adolescents--the public schools. Fine (1988) has made a compelling case for incorporating information about and access to contraception as well as for sex education in school-based clinics.

Second, there is a great need for a healthy, frank, and honest depiction of the arbitrariness of gender arrangements. Questioning and challenging gender roles needs to take center stage in all sexuality courses. While today some courses have focused on women's beliefs concerning gender roles, there is almost a total lack of a concrete strategy to question the constructed meanings of adolescent males. This may mean surpassing what has been done until now, namely, going beyond biology. Challenging gender roles also may mean that there is a recognition on the part of males and females that female pleasure and desire are equal to and as valid as that of males. In this sense, insisting on male and female similarities may begin to lift the burden off of women by increasing the responsibility of males within sexual relationships.

Third, there is a need for promoting widespread communication between female and male adolescents. Mexfam's "Gente Joven" (Young People), evaluated its sexuality courses and decided to improve them. Finding that gender was important in shaping values and adolescent sexual conduct, the program now places special emphasis on communication between adolescent boys and girls. Acknowledging the difficulty of taking on this task, one of the directors at "Gente Joven" noted that in Mexico, "men talk to men, women talk to women, but when we ask them to talk to each other as couples, before having sex or to talk about prevention, it is as if you are demanding the impossible" (Marques 1993, 18). Nonetheless, sex educators in both Mexico and the U.S. have recognized the need for open and frank communication between the sexes as a crucial variable in attaining healthy sexual lives.


*Barbara Bayardo has a Ph.D. in international development education from Stanford University. She is interested in health education and does comparative research on sex education in schools. She has participated in workshops at the Institute of Sexuality in Mexico City and has done research on teachers' status and the politics of the teaching profession in Mexico. She is currently on the Board of Directors of the Hesperian Foundation in California.1


1. I am indebted to my friend Peg Sutton for her help and relentless encouragement. Many ideas in this article have resulted from an ongoing dialogue with my friend and co-author Mary Ann Burris. I am also grateful to Noemi Ehrenfeld in Mexico for her insightful comments and for sharing important information and sources.

2. This study was the result of a survey done in Mexico City and in several provincial cities conducted by the Mexican Institute of Research on the Family and Population-Instituto Mexicano de Investigación de Familia y Población (IMIFAP). The result of the 800 surveys was reported in Este País, November 1991.

3. The Revolutionary Institutional Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI) has been in power for almost sixty years in Mexico.

4. Some informal educational groups have sprung from the initial efforts of the Instituto Mexicano de Sexología. Among them, Asociación Mexicana de Educación Sexual (Mexican Asociation of Sexual Education) and GIS (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Sexología--Interdisciplinary Group on Sexology).

5. The five non-governmental institutions are: Women's Integrated Health (Salud Integral para la Mujer, SIPAM), Popular Action for Social Integration (Acción Popular de Integración Social, APIS), Interdisciplinary Group on Sexology (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Seología, GIS), Men's Collective for Humanitarian Relations (Colectivo de Hombres por Relaciones Humanitarias, CHRH) and Collective to Combat Violence Towards Women (Colectivo de Lucha contra la Violencia hacia las Mujeres, COVAC).


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