Sex Questions

On Survey Imprecise

I am greatly encouraged that the county is making an attempt to ask students what they know about sex ["Nine Questions Ask Teens for Details on Sexual Activity," Fairfax Extra, Jan. 30].

However, after spending 15 years as a pediatrician working in both inner-city and affluent communities in New York City, I have found that the wording of these questions raises assumptions and highlights our own expectations about what we believe teenagers understand. Often there is a subset of teenagers, including some of the brightest, that respond directly and honestly to words that are more concrete.

I have found that not every teenager is familiar with the terms "oral sex" and "sexual intercourse," even though they may be familiar with the specific action. Their terminology may be different. Those children whose experiences we most want to know about -- those who are more vulnerable, less educated and less experienced -- may be lost in the survey.

In addition, the questions do not address whether the child has been an active or passive participant in the sexual activities. Some children who have been molested or had sex forced upon them may not feel as if they participated at all. Likewise, some teenagers, if they are the passive one in the sexual act, do not feel as if they had sex at all since they were not the one "doing" the action.

I would be happy to help rephrase the questions if there is still time before the survey is printed and if these issues are pertinent to the purpose of the survey.

Lawrence B. Palevsky