The Plain Truth talked to Elizabeth B. Calleton, associate director of Pasadena Planned Parenthood. She is currently involved in educating both children and adults, lecturing and presenting material on health and family planning to high school classes and other interested groups.
PLAIN TRUTH: We understand you have a sex-education program for parents. CALLETON: Yes, we get a lot of calls for information on how parents can work with their kids. Only one out of five kids gets any kind of family-life education in schools, and since schools don't necessarily seem to be moving in the direction of more programs, I think parents are particularly concerned that they be able to provide that education at home. We try to run two or three sessions of five-or six-class courses a year' without tuition. We've been fortunate to get a teacher who is an expert in family communications, so that in addition to information, parents get a lot of techniques they can use to initiate discussion with their families. It's been a very successful program. Q. You also speak in schools. A. Most of our school presentations are to people in the tenth through twelfth grades, so they're between fifteen and seventeen generally. And by that time it's a little late if they haven't ever had any information at all beforehand. Ideally, this kind of program would start early in elementary school and just be a natural part of the curriculum. And that's what school administrators and teachers and PTA people would very much like to see eventually. But it hasn't developed. So most of what we do I feel is a one-shot approach — I think it does some good, but it may be too late. Q. Do you encourage parent involvement? A. If you're doing a program in a school, it's just tremendous if you can have parent involvement. For example, you can present the material to a PTA meeting beforehand, so that when the kids come home from the program at school the parents will have the same information and can start a family discussion. This is one of the super ideal ways of doing it — to get the parents interested. Q. Why do parents have such difficulty talking to their kids about sex? A. I think many of the problems parents have in communicating with their kids about sex are only partly a lack of information. They also have a great deal of trouble bringing the subject up and discussing it at all, because very few of us had role models in our families for this. Q. Back in the sixties there was a lot of opposition to sex education programs in the schools. Do you still get static from some groups? A. Traditionally there have been some problems from the Roman Catholic Church, which have lessened. The problems are still there — the Catholic Church is still adamantly opposed to abortion; it is, officially at least, not in favor of birth control. But I think the attitude in many parishes about sex education has become much more realistic. Q. What about the Right-to-Life League? A. Unfortunately, the Right-to-Life League is trapped in a position where they're opposed to abortion, opposed to birth control, and also opposed to sex education. Now that's where a major part of the problem comes from, and to me it's an indefensible position, because the only way to avoid the problems that necessitate abortion is to get people some information beforehand on exactly how one gets pregnant so they can make responsible decisions. Q. Do you have many problems with irate parents? A. A lot of static comes from parents who really don't understand and feel threatened. For one thing, they're afraid of what their child is going to be taught. If they don't involve themselves in PTA meetings and planning programs so they are aware of what's going on, they can get some very strange ideas. Also there are some people who feel that it inhibits the parents' influence or control over their family if any area as sensitive as human sexuality is handled in the schools. Q. What about those who really want to be their child's only teacher in this area? A. I always explain to people who have a strong religious or strong value system and really are handling it at home that they're very unusual, because there are so many parents who don't touch on the subject. They don't handle it; don't in some cases care much about their kids until the kids get in trouble. Many times concerned people have a hard time believing the neglect that goes on with other people's kids. Q. School programs usually don't touch on morality — right? A. The one thing that school programs seek to do is to keep things on a very neutral level — presenting information and getting people thinking about making decisions. But parents obviously want to discuss sex in terms of the family value system, and you naturally can't do that when you have people from families with divergent value systems in a classroom. Parents say that they would like to be the sex educators of their children, and yet so many of them feel inadequate to do this. Our course called "Sex Education for Parents" gives parents an opportunity to discuss sexuality and learn the kind of information many parents and people my age didn't necessarily know when we were growing up. Then they have a chance to present it to their kids the way they want to in their own value system. Q. Do you find the kids you talk to are pretty sophisticated? A. Well, they're sophisticated in the sense that they've been exposed to a great deal of sexual hype in the media, and they have the feeling that they must project an image that they know all about sex. But they really have very, very limited knowledge of the basic facts that are really important to them. In fact, there is abysmal ignorance; an abysmal belief in myths, and this is one of the things that disturbs me. Q. For instance? A. Many of them believe in kind of a strange system of rhythm. They feel that pregnancy can't possibly result if they have sex only around the time of the girl's period, because somewhere along the line they've learned in biology that in the classic menstrual cycle she is not fertile then. Of course, the problem is that teenage girls ovulate at odd times. It's very common for them to have irregular cycles. So many of them who believe this become pregnant. Also they believe some very weird things — like if you don't love the boy you can't get pregnant; if you don't climax you can't get pregnant; if you have sex in some odd position, like standing up, you can't get pregnant. And they genuinely feel that if they operate on these myths, they can have sex without running the risk of pregnancy. Q. What sort of material do you cover in your presentations? A. If we're asked, we go through the symptoms of VD and where you can get treatment. One thing we are always careful to remind people of is that in California we have a law that says anyone over the age of eleven who has VD can apply for his own medical care. One of the things that often happens is that kids go into a panic when they think they have VD. They feel they can't involve their families and then they don't get treated, and you know the consequences of that can be very sad. I think many times people are just knocked off their pins to find out that one out of five high school graduates in California each year has already had a treated case of VD. It's a real epidemic. And we have a million pregnant teenagers in the United States every year. Q. What do you tell high school kids about preventing pregnancy? A. Usually we go through the methods for birth control and where people can get birth-control services. And I stress that with girls, it's particularly important that they realize what an early pregnancy can do to their chances for finishing school, getting job training, having a career, having a decent chance of raising a family — you know, it can absolutely limit those choices and chances. Our aim is to try to get kids to at least consider that if they're going to be sexually active, they have responsibilities to protect against unwanted pregnancy and VD. And we try to get them to make conscious decisions. I think that one of the major problems is that people drift into sexual relationships; they get pressured into them. They think they have to because everybody else is, and they never sit down with themselves and think, "Now if I'm going to do something like this, I have to be responsible enough to take measures to protect against the things that can happen." Q. So you deal with the reality that these kids are going to be sexually active? A. I think the fact that even two years ago, when we were working with the Pasadena schools, they had forty to sixty pregnancies among high school girls in the first two months of school says something. People just don't realize the extent of the problem — that we aren't dealing now with what should go on, but with what is going on and how we can work with it.