The University Record, June 5, 1995

Teens want to know more than just plumbing, Hacker says

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

They don't want a class in "plumbing," says Sylvia Hacker, associate professor emeritus of community health nursing and of population planning and international health, who spoke at the Workplace of the '90s Conference in May. Teens want to know how much masturbation is normal and at what age it is o.k. to have sex. These are some of the questions Hacker answers with frankness and truth laced with a bit of humor when she addresses groups of young people ranging in age from 14 to 19.

"Recognizing that young people are going to be sexually active whether we like it or not," Hacker says, "it is simply not sufficient to merely deliver biological facts, or such preachments like 'Just say no' to drugs and sex. Kids are not interested in anatomy. They want to know about relationships. Girls want to know 'How do I know I'm really in love?' More than 60 percent of teens will have had intercourse before graduating from high school, and almost 50 percent of those will have had three to four partners. They're doing it, but they don't know what they're doing."

Yet sex education classes across the country are still "naming body parts," Hacker says. Acknowledging that unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases have reached epidemic proportions among teens, Hacker proposes what some would call a revolutionary approach to teaching about sex and sexuality.

"At present, with the advent of AIDS, it is no longer acceptable to tolerate society's ambivalence about sexuality. The gravity of this health problem must, I believe, supersede certain community sensitivities," Hacker says. "It seems imperative, therefore, to propose working toward a new sexual norm, no longer one of denial, but one of acknowledgement that we are indeed sexual beings."

Hacker proposes that the pre-World War II norm of "Sex is bad, except in marriage, but parenthood is good" needs to be brought up to date with "Sexuality is good but unwanted parenthood is bad." In recommending such changes in behavior norms, Hacker emphasizes that "learning about the range of sexual behaviors that human beings engage in does not mean having to do them." Education is not indoctrination, she says. By admitting that a whole range of possible sexual activities exists, and examining them for their appropriateness, their harmfulness and their potential exploitation, responsible decisions about whether or not to engage in them can be made.

The frank and open discussion of the full range of sexuality could cause conservative families a degree of worry, Hacker admits. But she reiterates that "in providing knowledge, we are not imposing values, but rather exposing the multiplicity of views and practices in our pluralistic society. The aim is to be able to have our own set of values, based on learning and reason, but to simultaneously respect another's point of view."

Hacker's conversations with teens have convinced her that there is a thirst for knowledge about sexuality, and with that conviction comes a "need to wrestle with the issues surrounding it."

One of those issues is AIDS, viewed as everyone's concern. Transmitted primarily via drugs and sex, Hacker finds that it is easy for people to talk about drugs. But it is not easy for them to talk about sex. Therefore, she says, "sex needs to be taken out of the dark closet and aired. From this will come a fresh perspective and the courage to make a crucial change toward expanding our narrow concept of sex into the broader concept of sexuality."