Sex education has been an issue for me recently and it bears directly on the issue of the right wing’s war against women. I’d like to ask the opinion of the smart women and men here.
There’s an excellent diary by nyceve at the top of the rec list at the orange place right now, about the must-read lead article in the New York Times Magazine by Russell Shorto this morning. It took my breath away to read about the expanding, and increasingly successful focus of the anti-woman lobby from anti-abortion to anti-contraceptives. Well we knew it was coming and I confess I should have realized before now that they have made so much headway. It’s pretty damn depressing.
And parenthetically I find it amusing, in a sad way, that the diary’s hundreds of comments appear to be exclusively from pro-choice women. The voices of the (mostly) men who think women’s control over their own bodies should be somehow curtailed, are strangely silent, at least at this writing.
I am an abortion absolutist. I think any restriction on safe and legal abortion (or, of course, on access to birth control) is an assault on fundamental civil rights of approximately half the population.
But I want to bring up a piece of the argument that’s more problematic, from my point of view.
All parents struggle with how to shield their children from the excesses of popular culture, and not surprisingly, surveys show that most want teenagers to delay first intercourse. But by wide margins they also say kids should be taught about contraceptives. A poll released in 2004 by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found, for example, that 95 percent of parents think that schools should encourage teenagers to wait until they are older to have sex, and also that 94 percent think that kids should learn about birth control in school.
I am solidly in the camp of all these parents. And that has been troubling me these days. I have a problem with the way school kids are taught about birth control and disease prevention but not about the possibility of resisting pressure to have sex if they don’t want to have sex. Oh my god, am I channeling Nancy Reagan?
My daughter attends a very progressive, community-oriented K-8 school that teaches sex ed every year beginning in the very young grades. At this point the eighth graders are very well informed about anatomy, biology, STDs and birth control. But in their zeal to treat boys and girls equally, or in spite of it, the teachers haven’t talked to the class about the ways sexism plays out in gender relations with kids this age. The teachers reason that the kids have gotten the anti-sexism message and the rest is gravy. They’re blind to the pressures the girls are already feeling from their classmates and of course from the dominant culture to engage in sex acts in order to fit in and be cool. As my daughter put it to me, they’ve all learned to put a condom on a banana with their eyes closed but they haven’t learned how to recognize and deal with the pressure of having sex before they’re ready. They don’t have a clue about love and lust and dealing with urges and how to feel good about saying yes and how to be heard to say no. How to recognize and respect what they want for themselves. And that’s what I wish they would talk about more, before these kids go off to high school. (Yes I’ve raised this with the teachers, who agreed with me somewhat but I doubt they’ll go back to their “sex ed” unit when they have so much else to squeeze in during the race to the end of the school year.)
I’m having a hard time expressing what I think about this as usual. I hope I’m not coming off as an anti-sex prude. I’ve talked with my daughter about all this, and try to keep talking although she sure doesn’t want to listen at this point in her independent life. I’m pretty sure that she will have sex in high school — and that she will not tell me about it — and that’s OK with me. I just don’t want it to be because she thinks she has to. Like all parents I don’t want to see her hurt! I learned the hard way that confusing sex with love can turn out to be harmful on many levels. Is this something kids have to learn entirely on their own? Shouldn’t sex education for teens deal with emotional and gender issues, not just fucking, pregnancy prevention, and disease? I think we should somehow do more to emphasize both, in the schools and in the public discourse. It could help combat the anti-woman agenda.
The black-and-white approach to sex education feeds into the abstinence-only crowd’s propaganda. Their “intellectual force” says in the NYTimes article:
abstinence programs can’t properly be combined with other elements in a comprehensive sex education program because the message is lost when a teacher says: “One option you might want to consider is abstaining. Now let’s talk about diaphragms.”
Surely this isn’t true?