When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex Since the Sixties by Kristin Luker (Norton, 416 pages, $25.95)

From a parent's point of view, it's easy to see how sex education would be a disaster: How can a teacher standing in front of 30 embarrassed pubescent boys and girls do justice to the complicated and personal issues around sex?

From a policy point of view, however, sex education is a necessary evil: It offers information that young people need but often don't receive from their parents (who would impart their own values in the process) because too many parents -- by message, example, or default -- teach their children that unprotected and non-monogamous sex is OK, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases notwithstanding.

Kristin Luker is right, then, when she argues in her new book When Sex Goes to School that values are at the heart of the debate over sex education. The central purpose of sex education, however, is not to teach values but to cut down on the social costs of unwanted pregnancy and sex-related illnesses. And it is here that Luker and I part ways.

As Luker shows, much of the history of sex education in this country has, in fact, been an attempt to teach not about sex but about values -- specifically values regarding marriage and the role of women in society. In a couple of engaging historical chapters, among the most interesting in her book, Luker takes us back to a little-discussed sexual revolution at the turn of the 20th century. That earlier revolution, spearheaded by prominent Progressives, was the first to introduce sex education into America. The movement was overtly feminist -- it sought to do away with prostitution and the exploitation of women. And it was overtly feminine -- the early sex-ed activists promoted a

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