“If You’re Planning to Have Sex…”

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.



Anti-Evolution IV: Minority Rights



Finally, the bar of proof here should be very low.  Anti-evolutionists these days are not trying to ban the teaching of evolution. Rather, they usually argue that both evolution and creation should be taught as viable explanations of the origins of life.  Even if all the arguments above leave you cold, even if you find the science of creationism ridiculous, you can still
admit that it makes you uncomfortable to have public schools force children to agree to an idea that their parents find religiously intolerable.

Consider the same argument from the 19th century.  Catholics in America’s big East coast cities often objected that the public schools ought not to force their children to read from the King James Bible.  In spite of the arguments of their Protestant enemies, it was not because they did not want their children to hear the truth.  Rather, the version of the Bible that was
being used contained disparaging commentary about Catholicism and the Pope.  In Philadelphia, New York, and
Boston, these disagreements led to riots in the streets.  From a twenty-first century perspective, it seems a matter
of simple bigotry.  The public schools of those cities should not have forced Protestantism and anti-Catholicism on their
students.  Many Protestant school leaders at the time did not see this as religious indoctrination.  They argued that the Bible was simply being read without comment.  The Bible itself, they believed, was not a religion per se but simply God’s book.  There could be no legitimate complaint against it.

There are other examples. Consider the spate of boarding schools for American Indian children that proliferated at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th.  Children at these schools were expected to be educated out of their Indian ways.  As
the founder of one of the most famous of these schools put it, they hoped to kill the Indian to save the man.
Students were forced to speak only English, to wear only Euro-style clothes, and to adopt Euro culture enthusiastically.  Some did. Some didn’t.  But the relevant point here is that such cultural indoctrination belongs in a bygone era.  American schools should be as pluralistic as American society.  The children of creationists should not have to abandon their beliefs in order to attend a public school.  They should be allowed to sustain their home culture even while learning about mainstream culture in the public schools.

Those who are not being hurt by the forced inclusion of some idea in public school curricula should not be the ones who decide if it is hurting other people.  Short hair for boys and use of the English language seemed like obvious requirements for Anglo teachers in American Indian boarding schools.  Reading from a Bible that mocked Catholicism and the Pope seemed
unobjectionable to early Protestant school leaders.  They did not see these things as offensive.  To protect against this
danger, we should offer people a low threshold of proof to claim that they believe an idea is hurting them or their children.  Otherwise, schools will continue to force majority culture down the throats of students and families who feel threatened
by it.

Consider one opinion of the US Supreme Court in this regard.  In 1981, the Court heard thecase of Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division.  The plaintiff, Eddie Thomas, was a Jehovah’s Witness who had been denied
unemployment benefits from the State of Indiana.  Thomas had worked in a sheet metal factory and had been transferred to a division that made tank turrets.  Thomas requested another transfer, or to be laid off.  Those requests were denied, so
he quit.  He did not believe he could ethically build weapons.  The case is not a perfect parallel, since one of the deciding factors for the Supreme Court was that Indiana could pay his unemployment benefits without itself supporting his
religion.  But one line of Chief Justice Burger’s majority decision is telling.  “It is not for us to say,” Burger wrote, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”

The same is true with evolution education.  Those who do not find it dangerous or offensive should not be dictating that those who do find it offensive are being unreasonable.  Such ideas are often invisible and utterly inoffensive to those who share them.  But they can be literally damning to others.  The decision should be left to those who feel threatened.



Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1999); David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995).