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Opinion | Margery Eagan

Looking for accurate sex education? You won’t find it in Mass.

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In ancient days, “The Living Fossil” — as we called our high school teacher — warned us not to take a bath after our fathers or brothers. A rogue sperm might be lurking, and we could get pregnant.

The Living Fossil also warned us to keep out of the YMCA pool. A rogue sperm might be lurking, and we could get pregnant.

If we dared sit on our boyfriend’s lap, The Living Fossil advised us to put a three-inch thick copy of the Yellow Pages between us lest — you guessed it — a rogue sperm, like a heat-seeking missile, could get us pregnant.

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This was the 1970s, before the Internet, Google, and fact-based sex ed. It’s back when parents tossed sex pamphlets at our heads, then ran from our bedrooms. “You’re a Young Lady Now” was the pamphlet for girls, brought to us by Kotex.

The Living Fossil’s rogue sperm theories did sound whacky even to my 15-year-old ears. On the other hand, girls at school were disappearing. I went to more than one quickie wedding. Brides wore forgiving empire waists and came down the aisle to scratchy recordings of Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song.” After one harrowing ceremony — the groom’s mother wailed throughout — we returned to the bride’s parents’ house for an awkward and depressing wedding feast of coffee and donuts.

Confused, bewildered, and in a state of perpetual, if low-level, pregnancy panic, I opted to take no chances. I switched from baths to showers and never swam at the YMCA again.

Fast-forward 25 years, when my eldest child came home from her sixth-grade sex ed class thoroughly revolted. “I can’t believe,” she told me, “that while I was sleeping, you and daddy were down the hall doing that.”

What a relief.

The beauty of well-taught, comprehensive sex ed? Children get the facts. Squeamish parents like me are off the hook. Parents who want to do the birds-and-the-bees talk themselves — then find they can’t — have a fall-back option. Parents who think they know it all — but don’t — find it harder to spread bad information. Numerous studies hail sex ed’s wonderful benefits in reducing disease and pregnancy. And in 2019, when teenagers and even young children can get free-access pornography on their phones, fact-based sex ed counters pornography’s awful influence.

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But here’s what I was stunned to learn this week: Only 24 states in the nation mandate sex ed in public schools, and Massachusetts isn’t one of them.

Worse, our state can’t even pass a bill requiring school systems that do teach sex ed to use a medically accurate curriculum, leaving individual systems to teach anything they want and kids to look online for not necessarily accurate information. Bills to insist on that bare minimum — accuracy — have languished for years on Beacon Hill.

One such bill passed the Senate last year, but not the House. Speaker Robert DeLeo said he “looked forward to hearing the Education Committee’s recommendations” on it after a June 3 public hearing — not exactly a strong commitment.

And nobody’s close to mandating sex ed in all our schools, including Governor Charlie Baker, that rare Republican social progressive. What he does support, he told me in a radio interview last week, “is age-appropriate, medically accurate comprehensive sex education as long as it comes with pretty significant notification and parental opt out.”

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Why do I suspect the kids of “opt-out” parents need the straight story most?

So here we are, in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts, with backward-thinking, even negligent political leaders, failing to act in the midst of #MeToo, a nationwide epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and assaults on abortion and birth control.

True, The Living Fossil of my high school years would no longer give girls nightmares about rogue sperm gone wild. But 40-plus years later, our lack of progress is not just pathetic, but also dangerous.


Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.