U.S. SURGEON GENERAL David Satcher said recently that more sex education is needed to help prevent AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
President Bush and most politicians reacted as if Satcher's recommendation were radioactive.
Satcher, whose term ends in February, got an icy response from the White House. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stressed that Satcher had been appointed by President Clinton and that Bush would make his own choice for the nation's top public health post when Satcher departs.
Satcher's recommendations came in a report titled "Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior." The report summed up a two-year study and recommended many things that upset Bush and his conservative supporters.
Bush has no intention of reading it. Fleischer said his domestic policy advisers briefed the president on the 16-page report. They probably told him it's a political "no-no."
That's too bad, given that the AIDS pandemic knows no borders.
The study calls for an "honest, mature and respectful" national dialogue on sexual health and sexual behavior and on the need for sexual education.
The study complains that a "code of silence" cloaks sexual issues.
"Society's reluctance to openly confront issues results in a number of untoward effects," the report said. The silence impedes sexual health and stands in the way of communication between parents and children and between sex partners, the report said. Ignorance, the report adds, may encourage high- risk sexual practices.
Fleischer said Bush believes that the "best way" to prevent pregnancy and to avoid disease is sexual abstinence. The president also believes that these matters should be decided at the local level.
"Few would disagree," the Satcher report said, "that parents should be the primary sexuality educators of their children or that sexual abstinence until engaged in a committed and mutually monogamous relationship is an important component in any sexuality education program."
For the president and his conservative following, that spells marriage, of course, and nothing else.
The controversial report, commissioned by the Clinton administration, deals with the real world, not the fictional world where every young woman and young man falls in love, gets married and lives happily ever after. Some will -- but some won't.
The report also urges tolerance for homosexuals and rejects the theory that homosexuality is a reversible lifestyle.
Such views are anathema to religious and social conservatives.
Satcher said he strongly believes in sexual abstinence but that people should be educated so that when they make a decision about sex, they have the information to protect themselves and others.
That's why he believes that contraceptives should be distributed at schools when students learn about sex.
The human cost of sexual activity among Americans over the past few decades is frightening. This includes about 40,000 new cases of HIV each year; 45 million people with genital herpes, with one million new cases every year; 1.4 million abortions since 1996; 100,000 children who are sexually abused each year.
There is bound to be a litmus test for the next surgeon general on attitudes toward sex education. Whoever gets the job will do fine if they think education means only the safe subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic.