Dirk Mathison
November 10, 1986 12:00 PM

The statistics are serious, the projections alarming: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has already claimed the lives of 15,000 Americans, and by 1991 the number may total 180,000. The threat has prompted the Reagan Administration to rethink its long-held opposition to explicit sex education in public schools. In a 36-page report describing the spread of AIDS, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop urged parents and teachers to warn children about the disease, starting when they are in elementary school. “We can no longer afford to sidestep frank, open discussions about sexual practices—homosexual and heterosexual,” said Koop. “Education about AIDS should start at an early age.”

Counselor Marcia Quackenbush, 32, heads the Youth and AIDS Prevention Program of San Francisco’s AIDS Health Project. She has lectured widely on the disease and has designed the first nationally distributed curriculum on AIDS education in the schools. She spoke with correspondent Dirk Mathison about how teachers and parents can instruct children about the dangers of AIDS.

Why should parents be concerned about AIDS education for their children?

Even if your child is not in a high-risk group right now, can you be sure that in a few years he or she still won’t be? With more than a million teenage pregnancies every year, and an estimated one in seven teenagers carrying some form of venereal disease, we’re talking about a very sexually active part of the population. Despite what parents would like to believe, teenagers today are very experienced, and the same activity that leads to pregnancy and VD could conceivably lead to AIDS. There is also the danger of kids using drugs intravenously. There are more than 7 million teenagers who have experimented with cocaine, heroin or stimulants, and if only a small percentage use needles, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of kids who could be exposed to the AIDS virus. In short, teenagers have the potential of becoming a very high-risk population. Many of the AIDS cases now diagnosed are young men who were teenagers when they acquired the disease. It’s a very frightening thing to comprehend. So far we can’t do a lot about the disease itself once someone is infected, but changing behavior through education will help immensely.

How great a threat does AIDS pose to heterosexuals?

The important thing is that we do have documented transmission from men to women, and from women to men. Now is the time to really exercise caution in sexual practices.

What should teachers tell young children about AIDS?

In my opinion, you don’t need to go into details about anal and vaginal intercourse, or condom use: With young children those warnings just don’t apply. They wouldn’t be able to comprehend the discussion. What you can discuss, and what most kids would understand, is the nature of communicable diseases. Teachers should try to get the point across that AIDS is very, very difficult to get. The main risk for small children in terms of sexual transmission comes from sexual abuse. There have already been cases of molested children testing positive for the AIDS antibody, so educating them about their right to say “no” if someone is touching them in an uncomfortable way is very important. I would simply say that AIDS is a very serious disease and that some people have died from it. This is the sort of AIDS education that 5-and 6-year-olds should be receiving. If a slightly older child of, say, 7 or 8 expresses anxiety about AIDS, it might be a good time to explain sexual intercourse and then say, “This is how you get AIDS. Have you done any of these things before? You haven’t? So you don’t need to worry about it.” You might then tell them that if they start thinking about sex again, that they should talk with you again.

What would you recommend that parents tell older children about AIDS?

Parents should sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk. I’ve talked to parents who have even given their boys condoms, and I think that’s wonderful. You have to explain the difference between safe sex and unsafe sex so that they will know the difference. Some of the kids get embarrassed and say, “Aw, Mom, I’m not doin’ that stuff.” But that’s okay, because what the parent has done is send a message: Be careful. Obviously some parents won’t do that because they don’t approve of their kids having sex. But it is still essential to sit down with your children and at least say, “I don’t want you doing this because I don’t approve. But I want you to know the risks because you’re old enough now to do things without telling me. I’m not in control of your life anymore, but I want you to know how to protect yourself.”

When should teachers go into detail about AIDS transmission?

By the time kids reach junior high, there is enough sophistication about sexual matters so that teachers can go into detail. A lot of kids have already begun to explore their sexuality, so you can begin to introduce a discussion of what is safe and unsafe sex. For example, teachers should stress the use of condoms and outline the dangers of anal and oral sex. They should tell kids not to have intercourse involving an exchange of bodily fluids—either semen, vaginal secretions or blood. And it’s important to explain that people can carry and transmit the AIDS virus without showing any symptoms themselves. Finally, they should discuss the danger of sharing hypodermic needles.

How do we avoid having these kids grow up fearing sex?

I don’t think we’ve done enough of this type of education to know what the effects will be from teaching kids about AIDS. I think it will be important to stress that safe sex can still be plenty of fun. If we focus on the positive side of sexual behavior, then I think our kids will develop a healthy attitude.

What do you say to parents who have traditionally opposed sex education in our schools?

I think that there will always be certain people who feel that teachers should not discuss AIDS in the classroom. I regret that. I think all children deserve an explanation. I’ve worked with many clients who were raised with fundamentalist beliefs, for example. I’ve found that those people are just as likely to be gay, engage in unsafe sexual practices or use needles as any other group. I think that if parents decide to withhold information from their children, they’ll be taking a risk. We’re talking about human lives, and right now education is the only way we have of preventing the spread of this disease. If they care for their children, I would hope they would want them to get the information they need to protect themselves. If I were a parent I would prefer for my kid to hear about AIDS at home first, from whichever parent is most comfortable discussing the subject.

How do you think AIDS will affect the nation’s sexual mores over the next 10 or 20 years?

The sexual revolution is being slowly reversed because we are in a more conservative era, and in part because of herpes and now AIDS. I don’t necessarily think that people will give up sex or have sex with fewer partners, but it might alter the type of sexual activity they engage in. In high-risk groups like the gay community, the change has been drastic already. Some children of the sexual revolution have found out that they’re not necessarily any more fulfilled than earlier generations. What I hope is that their children will be encouraged to approach their sex lives responsibly and make safe, conscious choices.

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