THIS WEEK the Kaiser Family Foundation released its biannual report about sex on television, which found, to no one's surprise, that there was more of it, even during the sacred family hours. But the report had another interesting finding: More shows than ever mentioned safe sex; most significantly, in half of all the shows most popular with teenagers, the risks and responsibilities of sex were discussed half the time sex was mentioned. The networks don't deserve too much praise for this public service: We're talking about shows where sex talk is ubiquitous and then occasionally laced with angst, or maybe a condom joke. But if the findings don't prove networks to be social activists, they do offer a social barometer.
No one is yet sure why, but the late '90s brought an unexpected blessing. Teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest since the 1970s. Sexual activity by teens is down and contraceptive use is up. The number of college students who say it's "all right to have sex if two people have known each other for a long time" has plummeted to one-third. A conservatism seems to be creeping in, a certain sobriety on the part of this nation's worldly wise teens.
All this might serve as an anthropological lesson to President Bush as he puts forth his message on sex education. In his welfare reform proposal, Mr. Bush increases money for very few programs, but he doubles funding for abstinence-only education. There is no sustained study showing that this type of sex education is effective. In Texas, where Mr. Bush instituted it statewide, teen pregnancy rates are above the national average, reports The Post's Ceci Connolly. There is solid and sustained evidence, however, that a different kind of program works. Conservatives call it "abstinence first," others call it "abstinence plus." These are programs such as Teen Outreach Program or Pathways/Senderos in Connecticut. They emphasize abstinence before marriage but also provide medically accurate information about contraceptives. They target high-risk populations in after-school settings and have proven success rates. They would not be eligible for money under Mr. Bush's proposal; in fact, they would lose money, because Mr. Bush has proposed a 40 percent cut in after-school programs. They are the kinds of programs that make policymakers uncomfortable, because much like the television networks, they send mixed messages. But at least they meet teenagers where they are naturally headed, which these days is not such a bad place.