The Talk: Sex Ed at Us & Them

For a society so drenched in sexual imagery and innuendo, we have a surprisingly difficult time talking about sex.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, our American sex paradox leads to one of the most difficult and stubborn issues of our educational culture wars.  This week, Trey Kay explores the question of sex ed at Us & Them.  Is it too much to ask of schools to fix a wider culture that can barely talk about sex?

Can We Talk...?

Can We Talk…?

Kay describes a talk at his alma mater by conservative sex education activist Pam Stenzel.  Watch out, Stenzel yelled at the assembled teens.  If you get an STD, you could be ruined for life.

Kay also chats with a mother who wants kids to learn about sex in a rational, non-judgmental way.  Kids will be having sex, she thought.  It was criminal to leave students floundering without basic information about it.

Other conservatives such as Texas’s Don McLeroy weigh in, too.  If we really want to heal our sex-ed problem, McLeroy argues, we need to do more than teach a class or two about it.  We need to reform our whole society top to bottom.

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman might not agree with McLeroy on much, but he agrees that schools do not take the lead in sex education.  Zimmerman talks with Kay about his new book, Too Hot to Handle.  In that work, Zimmerman examines the history of sex ed and concludes that it has been most conspicuous by its absence in schools.  As Zimmerman explained in a recent talk here on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in the United States the problem of sexually transmitted diseases was treated first and foremost as a problem for the schools to fix.  In Paris, they changed the laws.  In the US, they changed the curriculum.

The assumption in America has always been that schools can fix any problem.  But, as person after person told Kay about their own real-life sex ed, almost nobody learned anything of importance about sex from classes at school.  Perhaps the real culture-war battle over sex ed needs to learn from these interviews and move out of school onto the streets and TV rooms where the real education seems to take place.

As usual, Trey Kay does a great job of including people with very different perspectives.  Want to know what smart people on both sides of our culture-war divide think about sex ed?  Check out the whole podcast.

Leave a comment


  1. Well that exaplains a lot. I’ve always wondered why people think it belongs in schools, and those who dislike public schools think sex ed still belongs in their choice of private schools. Do we suffer unusually from big generation gaps and extreme anxiety about intergenerational sex talk?

    • Dan,
      One of the striking parts of Jonathan Zimmerman’s multi-national study of sex ed is that it highlights the peculiarities of American attitudes about social reform. As he said in Trey Kay’s interview, in Paris or Berlin they passed new laws about prostitution in order to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In the USA, the plan was to introduce new sex-ed curriculum. To me, the real wonder is that in the US of A, there was NO debate about whether or not schools COULD be used to change social behavior, only debate about HOW they should, and IF this assumed power should be used.

      • Does he trace this naive faith in social change through education? The old conservative tradition of questioning experts and their centralized, rationalistic regimes stands against this idea. Today most conservatives are neo-liberals, so maybe that explains things. Libertarians and others have a true anarchic, anti-statist bent, but the rank and file are perhaps statists who just want a different state they control, or failing that, schools they control. Never questioned is the idea that educational institutions and content are formative. Of course they are, but maybe not equally in all subjects.

        And what about the public vs. private dimension? The idea of sexual mores being a “private affair” is a construct of the courts; initially sex was mainly a public issue and “public morality” was a major part of public discourse that no longer exists. In that context, public schools would have been the logical site for sex ed. and “social hygiene,” which came up even in grade school texts that connected personal health with social health (“clean living”) including the elimination of “vice” from the community. (e.g. “The Human Body and Its Care” from the 1930s:

      • Prof. Zimmerman talks about it, certainly, but a more extended discussion is Perkinson’s Imperfect Panacea.

      • Thanks! You should put together a bibliography page some time. 🙂

      • Hey, that’s a great idea. We could compile a list of the best, most relevant books and sources.

  2. I’m a woman and when my sister was young I asked about her sex education in school (we’re from Australia) and she knew a lot about the mechanics of sex and no one had spoken to her about the emotions involved, etc. Also, she didn’t have practical understanding about how to put a condom on, how to get the Pill, etc – I wasn’t going to leave it all up to the knowledge and fumbling of a teenage boy. So I showed her how to put on a condom and we talked about other forms of birth control. This was in no way a push from me for her to become sexually active, I just wanted her to have options and be able to protect herself. One of the best things I’ve ever done.

    • The banana+condom demo is not unheard of in sex ed classes in the States, but discussion of emotions and the relationship side — including the chemistry involved — may be rare everywhere. That’s probably a crucial area of ignorance to attack that might be as challenging for liberals as conservatives.

      • I suppose there is the argument that something as important as sexual/relationship education shouldn’t just be left to the education system. I think it needs more time than an hour between lunch and fourth period. Unfortunately, many parents are strangely hesitant to talk to their children about something that is so fundamental to life. I’m very grateful that my mother was open with me, but my sister and I don’t have the same mother… so I stepped in.

  1. Public Schools and Sex Ed | English Teaching Project @ Binghamton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: