What should schools be teaching America’s young people about sex? This is a question that has snarled culture-war arguments about public education for decades. Sex ed proponents often insist that they can teach a morally neutral approach—just the facts. This attitude is ridiculously oversimplified. There is and can be no morally neutral approach to a subject that is so intimately wrapped up in religion and ethics.
Let me be clear at the outset: I personally believe public schools should teach a comprehensive curriculum in sexuality that includes discussions about both the mechanics and morals of sex. But the common argument that sex ed can be done in a morally neutral fashion relies on a woefully naïve self-understanding.
This liberal tradition begins with a powerful argument in favor of public-school sex ed. Many sex ed proponents make the strong case that sex is a potentially deadly game. Since kids are going to do it, they need information to stay safe and avoid unintentional pregnancies. With the prevalence of HIV and possible pregnancy, the argument goes, this is literally a life-or-death situation. Refusing to educate young people about sex in a frank and open manner would be a nearly criminal malfeasance on the part of responsible public-school educators. Yet due to dunderheaded conservative opposition, many sex educators feel, this vital information is often censored.
Perhaps the most famous example of this position was the beleaguered Mary Calderone. As historian Jeff Moran described in Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Calderone headed SIECUS, the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States beginning in 1963. The stated goal of the organization, in gendered 1960s language, was “to establish man’s sexuality as a health entity.” Calderone wanted sex to be understood as a positive thing. “We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled’,” she wrote in 1963. Rather, Calderone argued, “Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized.” In spite of the reputation Calderone gained as a wild-eyed sex maniac, Calderone remained relatively old fashioned. She believed sex ed should encourage the ultimate goal of healthy marriages, for instance. The SIECUS plan insisted it took a “moral-neutrality” approach. It promised to deluge students with information, not preaching, about sex and sexuality.
Like that of SIECUS in the 1960s, the rationale of sex-ed advocates in subsequent decades has often gone as follows: sex educators in public schools do not encourage young people to have sex. They merely suggest that if students are going to have sex, they must have the knowledge to do it safely.
For instance, as Laura Sessions Stepp has argued in recent days about a New York City program to provide the “morning after” pill to public-school students without parental consent, merely making information and even contraception available to young people does not encourage sex.
Whatever scientific evidence may suggest, however, proponents of sex ed in public schools often utterly misunderstand the thinking of religious conservatives. It is difficult for those of us who support public-school sex ed to wrap our minds around the conservative position. But if we are going to have respectful, productive discussions about sex ed, we must make the effort.
In short, for many religious conservatives, sex ed can never be a neutral message. Having an adult, perhaps a teacher, stand in front of a group of young people and say, “If you’re going to have sex, here are some ways to do it safely,” suggests that having sex is a legitimate and respectable option for young people. It encourages young people, some religious conservatives think, to think of themselves as people who might be having sex.
How can we make sense of this conservative position? We might start with a few analogies.
For example, imagine a parallel situation in Family and Consumer Science, the class formerly known as Home Ec. Imagine a teacher planned to inform students about the importance of kitchen hygiene. “If you’re planning on making a ham-and-cheese sandwich,” the teacher might say, “here are some ways to do it safely.”
It is not difficult for us to imagine that a student from a Jewish background might not want to make a ham-and-cheese. And, with our understanding of the goals and nature of public education, we can agree that such a student should never be forced to make a sandwich that breaks his or her religious rules. Such a student could make something else. Or he could be exempted from the class. No big deal. Simply because we do not share the student’s understanding of what may be offensive, we do not force the student to abandon that understanding.
In cases such as this, we should remember the words of former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger. In Thomas v. Review Board (1981), Chief Justice Burger argued that those who are not compelled by religious rules are not the ones who should decide whether or not those rules are reasonable. “It is not for us to say,” Burger argued, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”
Granted, the case was not about public schools, or sex ed, but the principle remains important. It is not the role of those who are not offended to declare whether or not certain ideas are offensive.
Perhaps another way to understand this case might be to imagine some permutations. Consider, for example, how we would feel if a teacher told a class, “Now class, if you’re thinking about killing someone, here are some ways to do it safely.” Clearly, when we agree that behaviors are beyond the bounds of morality, we agree that public-school teachers ought not be suggesting safe ways for students to engage in them.
That may be the position of religious conservatives. If an action is entirely beyond the bounds of morality, the notion that young people need to be taught how to do it safely makes utterly no sense. Simply broaching the topic implies that sex would be a legitimate choice for young people, a position their religion explicitly forbids.
So how can public schools provide information without offending conservative religious families? It will make a start to understand the complaints of conservative parents as legitimate. Just as we would not question a Jewish student’s aversion to making a ham-and-cheese, so we should not attack a religious student’s aversion to hearing about safer ways to have sex. For many sex-ed liberals, myself included, this is a difficult pill to swallow. It feels as if we are allowing some families to stick their heads in the sand, to restrict their children from hearing vitally important safety information. Nevertheless, if we honestly respect the home cultures of students from conservative homes, we must allow them to draw the lines between offensive and acceptable. We can never insist that our understanding of “morally neutral” must be accepted by those who disagree.