Can there be a middle way? Or is the nation doomed to perennial battles over the subject waged in the name of virtue and vice?
In late 2004, the state of Texas approved health textbooks for the first time in 11 years, omitting birth-control information and promoting an “abstinence only” approach to sex education. This decision is likely to affect textbook content nationally for years to come. It is a dramatic move to shrink the subject’s scope.
Three of the four high school health textbooks approved by the powerful Texas state school board are abstinence-only. This means that they contain no other information about birth control. The textbooks also define marriage singularly as between a man and woman. This change infuriated gay activists. But caught in a no-win, potentially catastrophic financial bind, publishers, unlike in 1993, decided to obey the Texas board.
In the case of Texas, activists of two stripes battled over the adoption of health textbooks, using the hot rhetoric that marks sex education as it does no other curriculum.
Late in the selection process, members of the Texas legislature and board sprang demands for changes on publishers. These provisions reflected the educational idées fixes of Christian pressure groups that oppose any sex education other than abstinence. This position is a grave error, I think. Yet these religion-inspired advocates are convinced of the efficacy—and virtue—of their curriculum.
Abstinence-only sex education is naive and wishful. It spectacularly misunderstands adolescence and eros. It confuses sex and moral education, twisting human sexuality and reproduction into the foundation of character.
Unfortunately, leaders of broad-based Christian pressure groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council are making “abstinence only” a nonnegotiable educational demand nationwide. They are trying to use state and federal power to get their way, using laws, grants, and textbook guidelines as means.
Mandated by states, sex education has been the most controversial part of the health curriculum for years. The problem begins here, with a minefield of nonacademic lessons that involve mores and private matters forced into the classroom.
Health education may involve “education” about nutrition, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, physical abuse, sexual harassment, “lifestyle health choices,” birth control and parenting, handling stress, strengthening family relationships, acting to prevent violence, dealing with feelings, doing the right thing, and “asking for help.” A lot of this goes no deeper than media-fanned worries and preys on parental fears that parents themselves feel incapable of managing.
Much of the health lobby tacitly green-lights sexual activity. They’re all for “choice.” The prescribed view is laissez faire. Premises about teenage life—always couched in the dreary language of realism—sometimes verge on the wayward.
For its part, the health lobby is as zealous as any organized Christian group. Employing the rhetoric of fear, it claims that if children are deprived of full-service sex education, sexually transmitted diseases, high teenage-pregnancy rates, homophobia, and general social misery are on the way.
Abstinence-only education confuses sex and moral education, twisting human sexuality and reproduction into the foundation of character.
What is lost in all of this shouting and hand-wringing is the most important fact of all. While sex education is popular—a large majority of Americans want instruction in schools—aggressive sex education bothers many different groups and individuals. Resistance does not begin or end with the Christian right. Its lifestyle assumptions offend many liberal Protestants, Latinos and other Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims, as well as plenty of nonreligious Americans.
When it comes to sex education, can there be a middle way? Or is the nation doomed to perennial battles over the subject waged in the name of virtue and vice? Common sense would be a great help, but there’s no organized lobby for it.
Parents of most political views oppose condom distribution in schools. They expect their children to learn how to read and write at school, not how to behave sexually from an early age. Discussions among 13-year-olds or 16-year-olds—especially coed discussions—of fellatio, masturbation, anal intercourse, condom use, and sexually transmitted diseases disturb them.
In California, for example, aggressive sex education has been the first reason San Francisco and Los Angeles parents have deserted public schools since 1990, historian Kevin Starr reports in his recent book on contemporary California, Coast of Dreams (Knopf, 2004). When the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to pass out condoms in schools on the suspect claim that it would prevent the spread of AIDS, he notes, parents of all races and classes bolted.
Schools are not meant to be clinics or all-purpose social-service centers. Some health educators would have it otherwise, wanting to turn their concerns into a curriculum centerpiece.
Some propositions deserve a new look. Sex education should be “abstinence plus.” It should not deny what is on most every child’s mind from puberty. It should be age- and gender-appropriate. Its content should differ for boys and girls. Sex education does not do well in mixed classrooms. Instead, it can become a stage for tension, awkwardness, and violations of privacy.
In the future as in the past, much sex education will rely on siblings and friends. When it comes to formal instruction, an overwhelming number of communities will no doubt rely on schools. Churches, YMCAs, and community centers can also do the job. They may run abstinence-only programs or quite the opposite.
But these programs are voluntarily chosen outside of school by parents. They are not lessons and agendas imposed by the Christian right or the health lobby, wedged into classrooms and textbooks.
Sex education cries out for localism in content choice. The federal government should get out of the abstinence-only business. State legislatures should ink out sex education mandates. Turn sex education back to districts and schools, one by one. Everybody will be a winner.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Common Sense for Sex Education?