Sex Sells, but Who’s Buying?

The kids are alright. And if they’re not, all of our culture-war fuss ‘n’ stuff over sex in schools is not making too much of a difference. Thanks to the inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman, Binghamton University last night enjoyed a mind-blowing discussion of sex education worldwide. Among the many takeaway lessons, Professor Zimmerman argued that culture-war fulminations about sex ed generally have only a very tenuous relationship to what children actually learn about sex.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex education has long been a lightning rod for controversy in the USA. Liberal activists insist that this is literally a life-and-death matter, with the rise of HIV and unplanned pregnancies. For their part, conservatives have blasted liberal efforts as something akin to child pornography. Or even as a scheme by sex predators to loosen up the victims.

In his talk last night on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Prof. Zimmerman shared some of his work from his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. Over the course of the twentieth century, sex education has spread around the world, led in many ways by pioneers in the United States. What people have wanted out of sex ed, and the shape sex ed has taken, have continually been subject to withering debate.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Sex ed—and fights over sex ed—have a long history, back to about 1914. But things changed radically with the introduction of HIV. Since that time, everyone involved has agreed that sex ed is a drastic necessity. But there have been bitter disagreements about what sex ed should look like.

Two distinct types of missionary outreach have competed for global influence. On one hand, we have what might be called the “health and autonomy” position. Advocates of this type of sex ed—which, for the record, is generally something your humble editor supports—want children to have maximum information about sex. This might be touchy, but children need to learn how sex works. Perhaps more important, children need to learn to assert control over their own sexuality. Coerced and risky sex are the twin scourges against which effective sex education should be designed to fight.

On the other side, conservatives have preached a moral approach, something we might call the “just say no” school. Around the world, activists have insisted that the best offense in the case of sex is a good defense. If traditional courtship patterns can be preserved, if sex can be something done only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage, then the blights of disease and exploitation can be eliminated.

From New York to Auckland, Dhaka to Copenhagen, these sorts of culture wars over sex education have raged for a generation. During that time, leaders and organizations have come and gone. Buzzwords and strategies have mutated and metastasized.

One thing that has not changed, according to the good professor, was that the sex education curricula in public schools has not had much direct correlation to the ways young people learn about sex.

First of all, activists tend to debate official curricula, not actual learning. In other words, as with other educational culture-war issues such as evolution and school prayer, adults tend to fight over the official standards for what should be taught in public-school classrooms. In practice, there is a vast and unmeasured distance between official learning standards and real classroom learning.

Also, even if we take official sex-ed curricula as our guide to what kids are learning, in the USA we don’t find much. At most, Professor Zimmerman explained, students in US public schools get about six hours per year of sex education.

It might be no surprise, then, that students don’t learn much about sex in school. Since the 1920s, Professor Zimmerman told us, students have put school near the bottom of their lists of places they learn about sex. Consistently, students respond that they glean about five percent of their knowledge about sex from their classes in school. Five percent! That means that almost all of their sex education takes place outside the classroom walls.

Yet time and again, both sides in our tumultuous sex-ed culture wars have issued dire warnings about the importance of public-school sex-education programs. Do such programs matter? Certainly. But too often, culture-war activists make cataclysmic claims about the positive or negative effects of school programs. And too often, these claims are about building political careers and establishing public profiles, rather than helping kids learn.

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2 Comments

  1. The sex ed controversy has probably reached its end. The vast majority of kids have always gotten the bulk of their sex ed from their friends, siblings, and popular culture. Now that the internet has engulfed us all, it’s become impossible even for older generations not to up their sexual literacy and accept that the cat is out of the bag. You can no longer avoid certain topics or wait until the mid or later teens to do so. This is a good point to have reached. Given the proliferation of criminality, violence, and abuse associated with internet porn, there is now a growing body of scholarship and activism of an ethical nature about it that transcends the old secular/liberal vs. religious/conservative polar identities. I predict there will be convergence between feminists and religious people across the lib-con spectrum on this issue for simple the reason that the dignity and welfare of women and children is paramount to both, and this is an area where not even the most conservative male will take the contrary position.

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  1. The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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