Superman & Sex Ed in Mississippi

Superman004Why is it so difficult for people like me to understand entrenched opposition to sex ed?

Part of the problem must come from cartoonish journalism like that of Andy Kopsa in a recent Atlantic article.

Kopsa investigated the meanings of a sex-ed law in Mississippi, House Bill 999.  This law mandates abstinence-only or “abstinence-plus” sex ed in Mississippi schools.  According to Kopsa, Mississippi schools now need to choose from two approved programs, Choosing the Best and WAIT.  Districts may also add information about contraception.  This makes up the “plus” in abstinence-plus.

Always eager to find out more about conservative attitudes and beliefs about sex education, I read the article right away.  To my disappointment, I didn’t find out much.

What does any of this have to do with Superman?  Kopsa’s sort of writing about conservative ideas reminds me of the early years of comics.  The villains in early Superman comics did not need any explanation; Lex Luthor tried to control or destroy the world because he was the bad guy.  That was the sort of thing bad guys did.

In real life—and in more interesting comic books—things are not that simple.  One of the most important things sex-ed supporters like me can do is try to understand the conservative opposition.  Not only mock or attack them, but try to get inside their heads to see their motivations and desires.

Unfortunately, that was not Kopsa’s goal.  Her article paints the opposition to effective sex ed in black-and-white tones.  Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant doesn’t educate teenagers, he only prays with them.  According to Kopsa, Bryant used public money and strong-armed the Department of Health to fund an abstinence-only “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Summit.”  Why does Bryant do these things?  Apparently because these are the things Lex-Luthor-style conservatives do.

Kopsa describes supporters of more effective sex ed, on the other hand, in glowing terms.  Kopsa met with six “experts” who pushed for more sex ed in Mississippi.  One of them, Betti Watters, was a “tiny powerhouse of a lady in her 60s with perfect white platinum hair and pearls. . . .”

Such heroes had battled for decades to improve sex ed in Mississippi.  While Kopsa makes a convincing argument that the sorts of abstinence-only programs now on offer in Mississippi schools are devastatingly inadequate, she gives us no sense of why they are the best Watters can produce.

Doubtless Watters could have provided us with some insights into the ideas of her conservative opponents.  We could have learned about the religious and traditionalist notions that make real sex ed such anathema to conservative Mississippians.

Such questions do not seem to interest Kopsa.  It is a shame.

I think Mississippians deserve effective sex education.  I think young people deserve to learn about condoms and contraception.  I agree with Kopsa that this is a life-or-death issue, with high HIV infection rates and pregnancy rates among Mississippi’s young population.

But hagiography doesn’t help.  In order to understand conservative policies, we need to understand conservative thinking from the inside out.


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  1. Excellent post. I’m starting to think your entire approach to the culture wars is better than mine, which has largely resulted in a mass of conservatives refusing to speak to me. Which is difficult, because I do genuinely want to understand them and know what they think (and represent it fairly in my research), but they assume now, not entirely without reason, that I am out to do a hatchet job.

    I wish I could give insight to the resistance to sex education, but my parents allowed me to attend sex ed classes when I was in a state school. The opposition isn’t so entrenched in the UK, although there was no sex ed at my ACE school.

    Not understanding something is a good way to be afraid of it. In ACE, we were told frequently that extra-marital sex, communism, and evolution were terrible things, but it was never explained to us what they were. That made them all seem scary and strange. I have no evidence that this was intentional on the teachers’ part, though.

    • Thanks, Jonny, and I’d be happy to claim credit for a bold new approach. But I think the field of academic history, like that of anthropology these days, forces people to take this approach. For example, if we want to understand why people owned slaves, we can’t just say “racism.” Slave-owners were definitely racist, but that is only the beginning of an answer, not the end. Not that conservatives, traditionalists, or fundamentalists these days are anything like slave-owners. I am not making that comparison. But I am saying that trying to understand ideas that are very different from our own forces academic historians to sympathize with our subjects of study, even if the ideas seem uncomfortable.

      • That’s true. Of course, in my case, I’ve held the ideas I critique very dearly, but in some ways this has made me a less, rather than more, sympathetic observer. Sometimes the ideas I critique are ones that I spent years struggling to shake off, so it’s difficult not to feel I’ve already given them more than enough consideration.

        Also, having held the ideas myself doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like for someone else to hold those ideas. I’ve also experienced the death of a parent, but that doesn’t mean I really understand what someone else feels when they go through the same thing.

  2. This is an excellent critique of how a person might approach the debate over conservative and liberal issues. While you credit others for coming up with this approach, it still is really inspiring to see you so carefully try to understand the views of the side you don’t sympathise with.

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