Apology: Sex Education

There’s been a lot of controversy about sex education in the past decade or so.  I remember it firsthand: when I was in elementary school and high school, my mom was helping to bring in groups like Chastity Challenge to talk to teens about saving sex for marriage.  We billeted them at our house a few years in a row; nice kids.  She did this because at the time the sex ed course had a small, offhand mention of sexual abstinence as the only 100% successful method of birth control and safety from STIs (STDs back then).  I remember being in high school sex ed, and I think I heard that mentioned twice, maybe three times, in a semester.  The rest of sex ed was instructions on how to use condoms, vague talk about discovering your sexual identity, brief talk about anatomy, lots of talk about childbirth options (like abortion, and an off-hand mention of adoption), and most of the time spent on looking at pictures of disease-riddled sexual organs.  Sex-ed assumed that everyone was having tons of sex, and found it better to scare us with the realities of disease and pregnancy while still providing us the means of having sex, albeit in a more safe manner.

That’s a stark contrast to the abstinence-only sex education that has caused so many waves since the Bush administration brought it into being in the US curriculum – and, more controversially, in African AIDS prevention programs.  The typical argument of those against this is “people are having sex anyways – fear can’t match hormones – so we should give them the means to do so safely.”  The mainly Christian argument for abstinence only curriculum is that abstinence is by far the most effective control on disease and unwanted pregnancy, and is also morally superior – that is, if you give your kids condoms it seems like you’re encouraging them to have premarital sex, which is morally reprehensible to Christians (see previous post regarding premarital sex).

The core of this issue is practically the same issue as safe-injection sites, which have been proven to save lives by giving junkies clean needles but leave us with the notion that we’ve somehow encouraged junkies to keep using drugs.  How do we save someone from their vices without driving them away?  Obviously we can’t just tell people not to have sex at all, because people tend to have sex anyways; I was an idiot teenager once too, and in spite of my mom’s involvement with Chastity Challenge…well, the message just didn’t penetrate (no pun intended).  Come down hard on people on the issue of sex, and they simply ignore or evade you; but can we really give them the means to perpetuate an unfortunate situation?

An interesting point about this argument is that it isn’t inherently a religious issue: abstinence really is the best way to not get pregnant!  It becomes a religious issue because people on both sides love to make it one: Christians are against premarital and extramarital sex, while secular people have a wide variety of sexual ethics, many of which encourage it at best and at worst become utter hedonism.  Both sides love to bring the debate about sexual ethics up, and the topic of sex ed is a great excuse.

I’m sorry if you had a sex ed class that told you that sex is evil, and didn’t prepare you to actually have safe sex, leaving you to pick up the pieces.  I’m also sorry if you had a sex ed class that completely endorsed you having premarital sex, and leaving you to pick up the pieces.  And I’m especially sorry if you live in Africa and have some American white guys forcing a Western sexual ethic on you under the guise of foreign aid!  What I’d really like to see in sex ed curriculum is a balanced approach.  Most programs that I’ve seen or heard of are either all one way or all the other, with the worldview of the program and/or the instructor showing up more than any actual teaching.  I’d like to see a sex ed program that covers both sides of the argument accurately.  Because ultimately, people are held responsible for their own actions, even if they do not have the information to act responsibly; so let’s give them all the information we can.

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