I keep reading all this discouraging news about teenage pregnancy rates, HIV infections etc. and was wondering why sex education in the schools seems to be so ineffective at preventing these problems. To my astonishment, I discovered that, at least in Canada and the US, they still seem to be teaching the subject the same way they did forty years ago — i.e. incompetently and inefficiently. There is still, I am told, no discussion of alternative methods of sexual gratification other than intercourse. In some jurisdictions instructors are equipped to answer questions about the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases or pregnancy from these alternative methods, but other than that they aren’t part of the curriculum. In some parts of the US, they aren’t even allowed to answer the questions, because in these ‘abstinence only’ areas it is illegal to even mention them. This is absolutely frightening, an indication of the stranglehold right-wing extremists and ideologically rigid religious groups have on education in many parts of the continent. I had heard that Clinton had sacked the first US woman surgeon-general back in 1994 because she had advocated including alternatives in sex education, because this had been misinterpreted as advocacy for actually teaching and demonstrating such alternatives in schools, but I figured this was just an anomaly, a politically expedient act to deal with an issue that had been blown out of proportion. Apparently the opposition to any kind of healthy sex education information in some parts of the continent is absolute, unconditional, unrelenting, and politically successful.

Let me put this more plainly:

  • Oral sex and masturbation are healthy, lower-risk alternatives to intercourse. It seems to me obvious that any sex education program should recognize this, and explain what these alternatives are and their consequences to young people. Every young person should be given a pamphlet with more detailed information and FAQs on these alternatives as well. Those FAQs should not only talk about the low risks of these alternatives, but also the health benefits and the social/relationship benefits of learning to do them. I’m not advocating encouragement or demonstration of these alternatives in the schools, just providing facts and reassurances. I don’t even have a problem with teachers telling students that some religions consider these practices sinful. But pretending they don’t exist, or that parents somehow are well suited to provide factual information about these subjects while teachers are not, or that providing these facts is encouraging experimentation or promiscuity, is just silly. Worse, it’s asking for trouble, tragedy, unwanted pregnancies, and tacitly encouraging higher-risk sexual behaviour.
  • Information and aids about all forms of healthy sexual behaviour (excluding only coercive and physically painful or damaging acts) should be accessible (not forced on, but accessible) to young people of all ages. The idea that young people would be traumatized by witnessing sexual activity, or that vibrators and erotica shouldn’t be made available to minors, is simply ludicrous. The challenge, of course, is to allow young people to explore and discover their own sexuality on their own terms as their curiosity arises, while at the same time protecting them from sexual predators, violence, exploitation and coercion. That’s a difficult and important balancing act, but it can be done, and making more information and aids available to the young doesn’t make it any more difficult, and could actually make it easier. I was stunned to discover that in Alabama even the sale of sexual aids to adults is illegal, and that illegality recently survived yet another constitutional court challenge.
  • From what I’ve been told, and what I can find online (the best source, not surprisingly, being the good folks at Planned Parenthood), indicates that no where in school sex education programs are students told that all healthy sexual activity is fun. This seems to me an absurd, Victorian omission. This is an important message. It’s a fact, not a moral judgement. Not only would this message make it easier to teach the subject, it would go a long way to erasing many of the stigmas and guilt feelings that impede healthy sexual development.

Both Glenn Parton and James Prescott make compelling arguments that sexual repression, and the social stigma attached to alternative sexual behaviours not blessed by the religious orthodoxy, contribute greatly to emotional and psychological illness, and that this illness, further aggravated by our society’s tolerance for sexual violence, coercion and abuse, is epidemic in our society, seriously impeding our ability to build healthy relationships and to live happy, rewarding lives that contribute in positive ways to that society.

Providing the facts about alternative sexual behaviours, making information and aids available to young people looking for them, and telling people that healthy sex is fun. This isn’t a difficult or radical prescription, and it only threatens parents and religious groups who are afraid of their children learning the truth. So why aren’t we doing it? Geez, it’s like the dark ages never ended.

[Oh, yeah, the picture at top: Nothing to do with the subject, really, just there to grab your attention. It’s from the animated film Final Fantasy, a movie with a terrible plot, terrible voice-overs, and achingly real drawings and animation. This movie is the start of something big.]

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6 Responses to WHAT’S WRONG WITH SEX-ED?

  1. David Pratt says:

    Very interesting and important Dave.One thing I would add, is the need for integration of sexuality into education in a holistic way.It doesn’t take long to notice that we do a very poor job of integrating sexuality with lessons about the complexities of human communication and relationships. Our culture, here in the USA, takes a predominantly pornographic approach to issues of intimate human communication. The predominant motivator in our pornography is the desire to overpower guilt and shame by dominating others through shared acts of power. In these acts of power we find a deeper affirmation for our learned hatred of ourselves. In effect, we realize and share our hatred of the naturally exploring children and young adults that we once were (before we were guilted and shamed by the influences of our adult teachers).This is a difficult cycle to break. It will take the teaching of an acceptance and completeness of being which few of us are equipped to know or to teach.

  2. Interesting that, in Iceland, where sex-ed is taught much better and more comprehensively than here, they lead the world in two thigns:1. Lowest first age of sexual experience2. Lowest rate of teen pregnancy

  3. Evan says:

    The only good thing I can say about Clinton’s idiotic decision to fire Joycelyn Elders for saying something similar ten years ago is that, as a euphemism, “firing the surgeon general” beats “choking the chicken” all hollow.

  4. J.D. Hollis says:

    Perhaps off-topic, but I just came across this article in New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996533) discussing the beginnings of an asexual community and their self-identification as asexuals. I suppose that proponents of abstinence would be against asexuality as much as anything, but the fact that sexuality in humans is assumed is fascinating in itself. Perhaps most of us take sexuality for granted…

  5. Dirtgrain says:

    Asexuality? Didn’t “The Smiths” try that?At the high school where I work, only sex-ed teachers are allowed to discuss sex in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not chomping at the bit to broach the subject. But the topic is key in much of the poetry and fiction that we read as a class. Our American literature textbook (from McDougal Littell) doesn’t mention the fact that Walt Whitman was gay. This was so significant in his life (obviously), in his poetry and in how others responded to his work during his life. Taboo topic.Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” should be must reading for every teenage girl before she gets in over her head. Teenage boys should read it too. But I’d most likely get lambasted for introducing this to my tenth-grade classes. Taboo.While our leaders and the people with a “righteous” anti-sex-ed cause are fighting to keep sex out of the conversation, our corporations (our leaders?) are sending exactly the opposite message. All kinds of music, music videos, TV shows and movies deal with the topic–and often in an insufficient and potentially misleading way. Corporations are encouraging our kids to have sex–at least that is what their marketing indicated to me. I just blogged about an ad for Mervyn’s that was in The Ann Arbor News a month ago that marketed sexy black and pink thongs with sexually suggestive messages and images on them to young teens (see Pinkie’s Palace Thongs, Evil Disney, and the Effect of Corporations on Our Culture). Talk about mixed messages, Dubya.Is there a word for this kind of hypocrisy? It reminds me of how the US makes all kinds of shady business deals with Saudi Arabian nobility. The Saudi leaders sell all off their country’s resources in exchange for great wealth–which they don’t share with the people of their country. In order to appease the people, the Saudi leaders allow them to focus on the US as the cause of all of their problems, drawing attention away from the fact that the Saudi leaders are ripping off the people as much as the US is. The Saudi leaders allow the rage to flow as Madrassas push “death to the evil US” agendas. Is this simply hypocrisy on the part of Saudi leaders, or is there a more specific word for it? Sorry for digressing.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    David: Agreed — although things are better in other countries, I think the guilt and shame are endemic to modern culture — the ‘snicker factor’ is everywhere.Renee: That correlation holds in many other countries, too. But the Icelandics still make weird movies ;-)Dirtgrain: The disconnect between the education taboos of sex and advertising’s saturation with it is remarkable, especially since corporatists really control them both. But then in both domains there is a lot of deliberate obfuscation of the truth. Remember, too, that the conservative message is that the world is full of evil and temptation, so maybe, like Dubya and terrorism, the corporatists feel obliged to create some extra temptation in order to better sell the school message of the need to subvert it. Create the demand and then fill it. As for the Saudi leaders, there was a great article in the New Yorker earlier this year that addressed this — the Saudis are really caught in a squeeze between fundamentalist fervor of their citizens and US military support to keep those citizens in line, and they hold on to power by playing one off against the other. It can’t last — it’s a powderkeg that can only end with civil war, overthrow, fundamentalist fanaticism, and yet another US invasion.

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