How Much Sex Is Too Much for Kids?

What should teenagers be learning about sex?  It is a perennial question at the center of our educational culture wars.  A recent controversy from California’s Bay Area shows how this old battle has changed, and how it has stayed the same.  This time, parents in Fremont, California objected to a sex-ed textbook they found too racy.  After parent protests, the district pulled the book.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

As I note in my upcoming book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the pattern seems familiar: A textbook includes explicit information about sex.  Parents object.  The administration buckles, allergic to any whiff of controversy.  Progressives lament the parents’ Victorian attitudes toward sex. Conservatives crow that their children are being pimped by an educational establishment that does not respect their values.

That script certainly seems to be playing out in Fremont, but there are some wrinkles.  The textbook, Your Health Today, contained a twenty-page section on sexual behavior.  As the parent petition protested, this section included information about more than just the mechanics of sex.  It told students about

sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13 and 14 year-old youth.

And, as in similar controversies in the past, the protesting parents quickly reached out to national conservative activist organizations for support.  In this case, Fremont parents contacted the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute for back-up.

But the “conservative” parents made clear that they did not oppose sex ed in general.  What they did not like was the inappropriate college-level sex ed this book contained.  Parent activist Asfia Ahmed told the Christian Post that the problem was not sex ed as such; the problem was that this book in particular “speaks to adults; it does not speak to teens and adolescents.”

Predictably, progressive commentators accused conservatives of being trapped in the past.  As one writer noted, “It’s frustrating that this is still controversial.” I personally agree. I’m a teacher and parent. I want my students and daughter to have frank, explicit information about sex. And I think that such information needs to include some sense of the wide variety of sexual behaviors that are common in our society. It needs to include the basic fact that sex should be pleasurable and should never be coerced.  Perhaps most tricky, I think that public schools have a duty to convey this information.  After all, with pregnancy and HIV on the line, these are literally life-and-death subjects.

But the notion of some anti-conservatives that these issues have been resolved in the past demonstrates the dunderheadedness of my fellow progressives. Some progressive commentators seem to think that these debates have already been settled. Whether the issue is sex ed, school prayer, or creationism, progressives often express surprise that these questions are “still” controversial. Such attitudes demonstrate the ignorance of progressives.

Conservative notions about sex ed in public schools have always had a decisive influence on the goings-on in those schools. In this case, for instance, we see how quickly the administration caved to parent protests. Here and elsewhere, the notion that there is some healthy connection between kids and sex is a very touchy one in our society. Conservatives need only say that a book goes too far to have that book quickly yanked by the district.

Perhaps the hard-hitting journalists of the Today Show made the most salient point about this story. They interviewed some of the young teenagers who would have read this textbook. As one told them, “Like ewwww. . . . I don’t really feel like I need to know about that right now.”


Sex Ed: Letting Molesters Have Their Way with Our Kids

Sex ed means giving over our children to theories oozed out of the warped minds of pedophiles and child molesters.

That’s the accusation made recently in the pages of Public Discourse by Miriam Grossman.

It’s no secret that conservatives have long opposed sex ed.  As historians such as Jeffrey Moran and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela have explored, sex and children have always been a touchy combination for Americans.

It’s not surprising.  Sex is a touchy subject for anyone.  Talking about sex with young people has always been fraught with awkwardness, at best.  Even more so when the decisions about what to say and how to say it have become political footballs in educational culture wars.

Grossman’s essay pulls no punches.  She identifies the roots of sex ed in the perverted sexuality of early leaders of the movement.

She calls Alfred Kinsey, for instance, “afflicted at his core. . . . a depraved human being.”

John Money, according to Grossman, formed part of the “incest lobby.”  His career followed a path dictated by the fact that he was “troubled, and he molested young boys.”

What can we expect, Grossman argues, from a field pioneered by such sexual deviants and predatory perverts?  It is no surprise, she says, that sex ed has become a moral horror show.

Talk of using sex ed, or “health” education, to fight disease and reduce teen pregnancy, Grossman believes, is a red herring.  In fact, she insists,

Sex ed is not about preventing disease, it’s about sexual freedom, or better—sexual license. It’s about changing society, one child at a time.

For those of us hoping to understand conservative attitudes about sex education, Grossman’s essay is worth reading in its entirety.  Certainly, she does not speak for all conservatives on this issue, nor does she claim to.  But her vision of the roots of sex ed offers conservatives an understanding of sex ed as a sinister and malicious entity, one that must be opposed root and branch.

After all, if conservatives understand sex ed as a ploy to lure young people into the embrace of leering sexual predators, they will be are understandably reluctant to compromise on the issue.


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.