There’s another aspect to this whole sex ed question that no one is talking about. We all know what we want for our kids, even if we disagree about how to get there. But what about the other kids?
I’ve been coming at this whole thing from the point of view of a Catholic, naturally, since I am a Catholic. A Catholic parent raising Catholic children who is quite invested in teaching them about human sexuality in a positive, honest, morally sound way. To that end, I’ve expressed frustration with Planned Parenthood and the “anything goes as long as there is protection and consent” model of sex ed. I even expressed my desire to see sex ed programs at school replaced with simple biology, maybe with some facts about contraception failure rate, STI’s, etc., thrown in. Really, I want to teach my kids about sex and I don’t want them learning about it from someone else, even if that someone else believes exactly the same way I do. Sex is serious business, it’s a life-long thing, and my kids are important enough to me that I intend to take it seriously. Not just once, but whenever it comes up, no matter how old they are.
A few commenters brought up “all the kids whose parents aren’t willing to have these conversations” as a justification for comprehensive sex ed, specifically the kind that details types of birth control, proper condom use, and abortion as fail-safe. I’ll be honest, I mostly brushed off those comments. Not my kid, not my problem. I mean, I’m worried about my kids here, alright? The ones that matter. Questions of what sex ed is or should be for “those” kids weren’t something I was interested in talking about. I wanted to talk about sex ed for Christian kids.
It’s appalling, really. I am appalled by my own total lack of compassion.
It occurred to me a few days ago that no one was talking about the damage the idea of equating having pre-marital sex with being “dirty” does to kids outside the Christian belief system. For the most part, we live in a post-Christian culture. Belief in sin has largely slipped out of common experience, and with it has gone belief in forgiveness. Yet there are sex ed programs, largely abstinence-only programs, designed for a secular audience that still utilize this metaphor of the dirty water glass. Some are less offensive and rely on biology as justification: the sticky-note metaphor, for example. This metaphor explains that because of the release of oxytocin (a hormone that promotes bonding) that accompanies sex, the two people having it are bonded on a physical and emotional level despite whatever intentions they might have for their relationship, or lack thereof. Thus, every time a person has premarital sex this oxytocin bonds them to each new person, but loses its bonding strength each time as well, until they are like a sticky note that has lost all its stick.
So. What does the use of these metaphors mean for a secular society?
These metaphors, as many of my commenters pointed out, are rooted in the Christian idea of sin. In Christianity, the concept of sin is inextricably linked to the promise of forgiveness. Not so for a secular kid. If there is no sin, there can be no forgiveness. So what happens when they are dirtied, or chewed and spat out, or when they lose their “stick”?
They’re ruined, that’s what. If there’s no one around to explain sin, forgiveness, and redemption, there’s no one to explain the ultimate reality that these metaphors are trying to disclose. If there’s no one around to explain sex to them at all, if all they’re getting is a necessarily limited sex ed class, who will be around to reassure them of their self-worth if they do have sex? Additionally, as many of my commenters pointed out, pre-marital sex (especially the first time) is often accompanied by a sense of shame no matter what these kids have been taught. I think that’s evidence of an inborn moral conscience, others think it’s cultural conditioning, but whatever the case, these kids don’t have someone telling them about forgiveness. Many of them don’t even have concepts to explain what they’re feeling, much less a concept of how to remedy it. Saying “let’s just teach them all biology so my kids don’t get a bad message” just leaves these kids out to dry. You end up with teenage girls committing suicide after being pressured into sexting.
We must care about those kids too. The problems inherent with that are appreciably extensive, but we’re Catholic. If a Catholic could come up with the Big Bang Theory, I’m pretty sure a Catholic can figure out a way to approach sex ed from a secular, non-religious perspective while still conveying the simple truth that the best, safest, healthiest, and only truly loving way to have sex is within a marriage. Yes, we should say to these kids, sex is fun. But it must never be relegated to the sphere of pure recreation. The consequences are too real, too serious, too devastating, and too pervasive for us to worry only about our own kids and leave the rest to “someone else.”
I’d like to add a personal plea to all abstinence-only educators and proponents who have been reading this series, most particularly those who took offense at my characterization of abstinence-ed being nothing but the “dirty water” metaphor. Many of you have explained what you do and the thought that goes into it in ways that have left me truly grateful for the work you are attempting. Nevertheless, there has been a nearly unanimous admission that some of the programs or curricula do, in fact, use these metaphors. Some of you have defended them based on the concepts of sin and forgiveness. Others have said they might hurt, but they also help, so they should remain.
If nothing else I have said makes an impression, I would ask you to seriously consider the many cases that have come to light recently of young girls attempting or committing suicide following sexual encounters or sexual assaults that were photographed, recorded. and passed around. If you’re being honest with yourselves, you know that there’s more at work here than simple humiliation from bullying. And honestly, there are a million factors that doubtless play into the psychological torment these girls endured. But if the abstinence-ed programs being used are capitalizing on the idea of a girl being “dirtied” by pre-marital sex without being able to equally emphasize the mercy of forgiveness and absolution, isn’t it your duty to consider whether these programs are shaping the cultural language around sex in a way that is devastating to secular children? For better or for worse, the cultural narrative surrounding sex still puts the onus of responsibility on the woman. There are endless synonyms for “whore” but not a single word that describes a man in the same way. We can argue all day long about why that is and who should be blamed and get nowhere. What we can look at, though, is whether these “dirty water” and “used post-it note” metaphors are ultimately psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally devastating to non-Christian girls (and potentially boys as well) who do have pre-marital sex. Is one girl who might think twice before having sex because she doesn’t want to be a dirty water glass really worth more than another Rehtaeh Parsons? Wouldn’t it be better to utterly scrap metaphors that might do good, but certainly do harm, and start over?
We can do better than this. The children of today are growing up in a world of sexual turmoil like never before. (Well, maybe Sparta was worse.) They need clear, supportive, unyielding sexual education that will help them learn to respect and love each other in a selfless way. They don’t need psychological manipulation, shame, blame, or fear-based instruction.
I can’t give a road map for what such a thing would look like, but I have some good ideas for where we can start. As always, facts are our friends. The facts of life support the marriage-based model of child-bearing and rearing, and the facts of biology still insist that sex makes babies. I’ve always been more compelled to agree with the Church’s teachings on sex just by looking around than I ever have been by reading endless eloquent treatises on it. Kids aren’t dumb. They can do the same. They can read a history book and realize that 2+contraception=chaos, or that 1+15=the clap. Just give them the chance to see. Stop scaring them into submission. By all means, pass out the Planned Parenthood pamphlets. Just make sure you include the words of Margaret Sanger herself.
And in a turn of events I could never have foreseen, I find myself borrowing the words of the famed eugenicist to close this post. Words that I find myself agreeing with, though my agreement comes from such an opposite understanding of human sexuality that it must surely have Ms. Sanger writhing in her grave.
“Knowledge of sex truths frankly and plainly presented cannot possibly injure healthy, normal, young minds. Concealment, suppression, futile attempts to veil the unveilable – these work injury, as they seldom succeed and only render those who indulge in them ridiculous. For myself, I have full confidence in the cleanliness, the open-mindedness, the promise of the younger generation.”
-Margaret Sanger, Happiness in Marriage (Bretano’s, New York, 1927)