Sex Ed Critics and Abstinence-Only Advocates Are Missing the Point

10/25/2011 1:42 PM |

This was sex ed at my school.
  • This was sex ed at my school.

Details of the Dept. of Education’s new, mandatory sex ed curriculum have been released, and since it acknowledges sex in any way other than “don’t you dare,” some parents are predictably freaking out. The new curriculum might feature “controversial” lessons like:

* High-school students go to stores and jot down condom brands, prices and features such as lubrication.

* Teens research a route from school to a clinic that provides birth control and STD tests, and write down its confidentiality policy.

* Kids ages 11 and 12 sort “risk cards” to rate the safety of various activities, including “intercourse using a condom and an oil-based lubricant,’’ mutual masturbation, French kissing, oral sex and anal sex.

The uproar is thanks in part to a NYT op-ed entitled “Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?” (spoiler alert: yes). The piece features the usual anti-sex-ed inflammatory language and complete lack of facts, for example claiming the curriculum described above “would horrify most parents.” Really? “Most”? Scientastic. Now parent groups are demanding a stronger opt-out and/or an optional abstinence-only class.

Their arguments always center around the idea that sexual education is a sacred rite of parent-child relationships. See, for example, in the NYT piece:

The right to parent is rather like the right to exercise one’s religion. Like parental duties, religious duties are serious and highly personal. This is why, absent the most serious reasons, it would be a grave violation of individual rights if the state prevented people from honoring what they regarded as their religious obligations.

And in the NY1 piece:

As a concerned parent, Patricia Salas thinks sex has no place in the classroom.

“I actually think it’s a parents’ job to teach a child about sex,” she said.

According to this tired argument, parents should get to decide at what age their children are taught about sex and what things they are taught. Nobody has to right to tell their kids anything at all about sex but them. It’s a matter of religion and morals and all that important stuff. This is deeply flawed thinking. Forget that abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t work, though it doesn’t, as study after study has shown.

The important thing these parents seem unwilling to accept is that they DON’T get to decide what information their kids get about sex, whether or not schools get involved. Children are people out in the world, exposed to television, movies, books, the internet, each other. Even back in the dark pre-internet days of my youth, nuggets of information about sex and sexuality, as well as old Hustlers, were traded furiously between my peers starting in about first grade. I knew what a donkey punch was before I had heard of HIV or condoms.

Now that the internet exists, you can’t possibly hope to put that toothpaste back in the tube. Make no mistake, parents, your kids know all about sex. I don’t care what kind of controls you’ve got on your browser or what kind of religion you’re raising them in, they have heard—and probably seen video—of the dirtiest thing you can possibly imagine.

You don’t get to decide whether or when your kids learn about sex unless you keep them locked in a basement somewhere, but you can influence how they process that information. It seems to me that whatever your moral or religious background, that should be your most important job: raising your children with the intellectual and moral tools they need to make decisions about their sexuality for themselves.

To honestly claim that the only thing preventing your eleven-year-old from having intercourse is not knowing where to buy a condom is absurd. It is in the best interest of all humans to be taught how to have sex safely and pleasurably, whenever they decide it is the right time for them to do that. Learning to assess the risk of mutual masturbation in school is not going to negate your teaching that sex before marriage is immoral, or whatever you and your religious background is telling your children about sex. Knowing what something is does not equal wanting to do it. The moral compass you have spent your time as a parent instilling in your child will come to bear in decisions about sexuality the same way it does in all the difficult decisions your son or daughter has to make every day.

And if your child does want to have sex in a way that you find morally incorrect? Well, too bad. Human beings are not helpless children to be owned and controlled by their parents until they turn 18, whereupon they magically morph into adults who can make their own responsible decisions. Of course there are all kinds of laws in place to protect minors from abuse, and of course there will never be consensus on when a person is “old enough” to have complete agency over themselves. But your children—everyone’s children—all people—are free, independent beings. If your son or daughter decides they want to have premarital sex, or gay sex, or unprotected sex, or never have sex, or never get married, or leave your religion, or become a religious leader, or anything, that is their decision and not yours.

Every person has the right to make decisions about his or her own body, and that right extends to people under the age of 18. To that end, it is imperative that we give young people comprehensive and factually correct sexual education, so that their decisions will be fully informed. And if we don’t, they can just go to Scarleteen anyway.