What About the Other Kids?

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)

  • TracyE

    Well said, Calah. It’s a another viewpoint to use with kids and their friends, especially since this age group is often struggling not only to find their own way but to find their own faith and while turning a deaf ear to “sin talk” can relate more readily to real-world consequence if nothing else.

  • Slow Learner

    “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?”
    Well said. It’s good to see someone writing from a Catholic perspective recognising this. I could wish you would go a bit further in two respects which I will detail in a moment, but even this much is great to see.
    1) In hearing of the harms of abstinence-only education programs, I have never seen any suggestion that the non-religious are harmed more than Christians, so your division between how Christians and the secular respond seems unnecessary.
    2) As far as I can tell there is no real support for the claims of oxytocin de-sensitization. It may well cause a greater emotional connection due to sexual contact (and thus be partially responsible for the trope that there’s “no such thing as no-strings-attached sex”), but that doesn’t make someone any less capable of a deeply committed relationship in the future.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I completely disagree with #2 from my own experience, which I refuse to go into further in a combox.

    • Catherine Seiwert

      http://waitingtillmarriage.org/book-review-hooked-new-science-on-how-casual-sex-is-affecting-our-children/

      http://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/parenting/challenges/sexual-purity/hooked-the-bonding-power-of-sex#.Ubtl4vmsiSo

      See ‘bonding basics’: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201211/oxytocin-fidelity-and-sex
      I think it is common sense that having multiple partners would have some effect on your future relationships. With that being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a quality relationship in the future, but it does mean you’ll have more hurdles to deal with psychologically and spiritually.

      • Calah Alexander

        I actually agree with the oxytocin thing. It makes sense biologically, and it lines up with my experience. Catherine, I love how you put it here. “it doesn’t mean you can’t have a quality relationship in the future, but
        it does mean you’ll have more hurdles to deal with psychologically and
        spiritually.” That is a perfectly honest and pretty logical thing to tell teenagers, and I would support that 100%. I’ll tell my own kids that, and back it up with my experience (once they’re old enough to get it, you know). But the sticky-note thing carries with it an idea of ruination. It’s not like a sticky-note can overcome psychological and spiritual hurdles and get its stick back, you know? I think that’s really the issue I have with all these metaphors…they directly imply a point of no return. Gosh, I don’t want my kids to have to struggle with marriage because of pre-marital sex the way their father and I have, but I also don’t want them to think it’s a struggle they can’t overcome, you know? Love is a choice. Sometimes our actions make that choice harder. But it’s always something we can choose.

        • Catherine Seiwert

          We agree on something!! lol
          Now I’m going to ruin the moment: When you talk about the Trinity to your kids, or anyone for that matter, do you use analogies? Have you ever used the 3 leaf clover one? How about the egg (shell, white, yolk)? The water, ice, and steam? Mother, father, child? Now, none of these actually explain what the Trinity. Take the H2O one, that is actually a heresy of Modalism if you say that is exactly what the Trinity is. But what is an analogy? Is it saying that something is EXACTLY this other thing, that there is no difference? No, not at all. Analogies are our way to take the concepts that we are trying to portray and use something that our audience understands better to parallel similarities.

          So yes, are there weaknesses in the tape, dirty water, etc. Sure. But that’s the nature of an analogy. Its not as though we are just saying sex before marriage is like x,y, and z. Period. Full Stop. No, what most of these programs that you’re criticizing actually give are the facts and figures, the reasons based on the actual content, and then use analogies (as all analogies are supposed to be used for) to help kids understand the concepts. We also, at least all the ones I’ve seen, talk about starting over after mistakes. Like I said in one of our emails, if that wasn’t the case, then how do you explain all the ‘secondary virginity’, ‘born-again virgin’, etc. type concepts? That is doing almost exactly what you are saying isn’t happening. Those concepts exist to help kids have some sense of redemption, another chance. There’s an easy solution: One says after explaining the tape analogy, “but of course we’re not just pieces of tape, we’re complex, living creatures. Just as our bodies naturally heal themselves, so to can we heal ourselves emotionally and psychologically. Just like to heal physically though, sometimes we have to see a doctor. So to with emotional damage, sometimes we need help by a counselor, etc. ”

          So, if using an analogy as a supplement to our teaching and NOT leaving it at, ‘you are exactly this dirty water/used tape, you can NEVER change”, but putting it within the entire context that, “here are the ideals, here’s the likely negative reality if you break those, but here’s also how you can overcome past mistakes”, if that is still wrong and unacceptable….Then I hope you never use an analogy to explain anything as serious as the Trinity. Being one of the pillars of our faith and all. I mean, you wouldn’t want to damage someone’s theological understanding so that they actually find out that they believe heresy later, but then they have that image stuck in their head and they can’t seem to explain the Trinity any other way! (I’m sorry for the sarcasm, please appreciate it for sarcasm and not a personal attack).

          • Calah Alexander

            Yes, Catherine, all analogies are essentially flawed. You can falsely equivocate between analogies seeking to explain mysteries of the faith which cannot be understood by a human mind, and analogies attempting to explain facts of biology and human life, which very much can be. There’s a difference between an analogy that fails to fully capture an idea and an analogy that so fundamentally misconstrues reality that it does more harm than good. If you can be creative enough to be this snarky on my blog, I’m certain you can come up with better analogies.

            On a personal note, I’ve been pretty open in these posts about my struggles with feelings of worthlessness that have arisen from these types of sex ed. These struggles continue long past my conversion, confession, more confessions, and spiritual direction. Yet, as evidenced by your self-righteous dismissal, for some reason you seem to think this kind of pain is beneath your consideration. Maybe you should evaluate your understanding of Christian charity before saying anything else… you know, that whole beam in your own eye that Christ talked about. As I understand it, he considered that a lot more important than abstinence-only education.

          • Jenny

            I didn’t get that at all from her, Callah. We need to recognize sin in ourselves. We need to recognize it, ask forgiveness for it, recognize how it has damaged us and move forward in life. This whole notion that we shouldn’t tell girls this is ridiculous and proud. I had premarital sex myself. I’ve also committed other sexual sins that I’m not proud of. But, I went to confession and have resolved to live a chaste life according to my state in life (married with children). It takes humility to be able to look in the mirror and say “Wow. I really was acting in a manner that was not pleasing to God. My actions did make me dirty. Yuck! With God’s grace I’ll never sin like that again!”

          • Calah Alexander

            What you and a number of others keep missing is a very simple problem, to wit that you recognizing your sin, asking for forgiveness, and resolving to commit that sin no more (or even attempting to help others do the same) is not the same thing as decrying others’ sins and/or trying to lead them to change through telling them they’re dirty or used up. No one, least of all me, is suggesting that we stop trying to teach people to recognize their sins or to avoid sins if they haven’t already committed them. It is the how that is in question. And if the shaming via certain metaphors I keep mentioning is the best we can come up with in terms of that how, then we have a problem.

            I appreciate you and everyone else commenting, but lets keep the focus on the problem I raise, not any others.

          • Catherine Seiwert

            Calah, I’m sorry that you’ve taken offense at my tone. It was not a rude snarkiness, but honestly lighthearted banter mixed with a some frustration.

            There is no fundamental flaw to the analogies. In previous statements, you have elluded that the point they are trying to make about bonding e.g. is based on real scientific occurances, but continued that it is actually the limitations and lack of regeneration or renewal possible with tape that is what makes it flawed. That is very different than being ‘fundamentally’ flawed. If the analogy didn’t relate at all to the things being compared, than THAT would be a fundamental. A mere limitation doesn’t equate to fundamentally flawed. It doesn’t misconstrue reality in anyway more than the faith analogies do. Who’s to say that kids would understand the impact without the analogies? I’m sure they might understand in on some theoretical level, but analogies are meant to make it personally relatable, whether faith or science.

            If my effort could be better used to to find different analogies (which I have been trying to, but I still don’t agree with your opinion in the first place, but as you know have been very open to other suggestions), than you maybe you should consider that over a handful of blog posts, many response to comments, and correspondence over email, as well as a radio show, you have yet to come up with some solid replacements. Yet I go to work ever day, working on this stuff 40+ hours a week. In addition, may I ask how much training you have had in counseling, psychology, sexual risk avoidance, and public health, research methodology, or any other area that is directly related to this? Even TOB, have you had any formal education in that? What are your credentials beyond emotion, personal, and biased secular research claims to base you VERY strong and adamant arguments on? I know this sounds like a personal attack, but its not meant to be. I wish you would recognize that there are a lot of people spending a lot of time and energy, with a lot of substantial credentials in related fields that disagree with you. Maybe there is something to that you’re too proud to admit. Does is mean we’re ignoring you, no, and you know that I have been very open to you. I gave you, for free, curriculum to review, despite you actually having no legitimate credentials to merit that. You do have literature experience, so I assume that you are somewhat creative when it comes to written things, so I’m honestly anxiously awaiting your suggestions. You’re very adamant about your opinion on how negative these are, yet it is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and your own experience. I was told that ‘good girls’ don’t have sex, and many of the other stereotypical things that you speak of. I was also promiscuous at times, having my first experience quite young and made many more mistakes along the way. So I’m not self-righteously dismissing you, nor Christian charity (anymore than you are). I’ve had my share of pain in regards to sex, because of my past, but especially since my husband abandoned me after only a year of marriage and the things that happened to me throughout that ordeal. So please consider your own self-righteous claims and reliance on the old ‘beam in your own eye’ deflection.

            Your struggles and weaknesses are not dismissed, but not only are they not the same thing that every other person has experienced (some, yes), they are also not all solely because of your sex-ed. It is undeniable that there were many other factors, probably much more contributive to your struggles than a few analogies given. I’m sorry that you’ve struggled so much, I really am. And I’m sorry that when people gave you the analogies that they left it out of context of the big picture so you were left with half truths, if that’s what happened.

            These anaologies can, I admit, be used to shame people, but just because they can, doesn’t mean they are. The same analogies can be used as strong and effective imagery that encourages students to make better decisions. Then, when taught in context, as I’ve said again and again, they will also, as well as is possible, account for the limitations with whatever caveats or debriefing is needed.

            I also hope that you can be as patient and humble as you ask others to be when you submit your suggestions and we pick them apart for all their limitations and possible bad reactions.

          • Jenny

            Very well said. I agree completely. I think pride is an issue here as well.

          • CS

            Hm. I find it interesting that the two commenters arguing for the use of the analogies that Calah finds shame-based and potentially harmful are utilizing shame and sin-judgements as their tactic for arguing.

          • CS

            If we don’t use analogies to explain God’s nature, there isn’t much left. And God is not a dependent creature looking for understanding and identity. Children and teens are.

            I am soooo glad that you are free from the burden of personally identifying with the dirty duct tape/glass of water/rolling in manure (that’s one on modesty I just saw). The question is: are most men and women likely to be so free after hearing these “analogies”? I mean, if you can’t ever plumb the infinite mystery of the Trinity past that clover, then who loses? Nobody. If you never move past your soiled, dirty soul then Satan is winning in your life.

      • Slow Learner

        So I tried to reply to this on Saturday, but apparently my comment didn’t post; probably my phone’s fault.
        I went through your three links, and found that while two of them do discuss the working of oxytocin in the body, none of them offer any evidence for oxytocin de-sensitisation – or for remaining “hung-up” on previous partners. I’m still interested in where you get that idea from, besides “common sense”.

        It is certainly common sense that having had multiple partners would have an effect on your later relationships – it should make them better. Practice makes perfect, after all.

        In the case of the marriage I have seen most closely for the longest, my parents (happily married for 32 years and counting), their prior experience of relationships prepared them for their marriage; it allowed them to explore what they needed and wanted from a partner and a relationship. Without that practice, they would not have had a marriage as strong and lasting as they do.

        I’m not going to claim that no-one can have a happy marriage with their childhood sweetheart; I know two people who have just that. But they are rare; the vast majority of people don’t find their spouse in their first relationship, or their second; and infantilizing all relationships before the “real” one makes people rush into a lifetime commitment, often either with someone who is wrong for them, or when they are too immature to manage it.

        Scare stories using unsupported scientific claims about the body’s response to oxytocin* are not helpful, any more than abstinence education in general.

        *I checked, I can’t turn up anything relevant on Google Scholar or Web of Science either.

      • Slow Learner

        As a further update, I have done my own research, contacting the researchers behind a recently published study on oxytocin; they are unaware of any effect of oxytocin desensitisation and say that it is “implausible” on the fact of it given the dosages involved and the extent of natural variation.

        The article, with details of the researchers involved, can be found at the link below.

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2348304/Treatment-using-cuddle-hormone-help-lift-cloud-depression.html

  • bearing

    There is a program called Teen STAR that is in the research stages (see teenstar.org) spearheaded by Hanna Klaus. It might be worth looking at; unfortunately I cannot seem to find any actual teaching materials online. The STAR stands for something like “Sexual Teaching in the context of Adult Responsibility” – don’t confuse it with a Planned Parenthood program that has a similar acronym. It involves, believe it or not, teaching fertility awareness techniques to adolescent girls in order to facilitate understanding of the purpose and meaning of all the confusing emotional and physical changes of adolescence.

    From the website I cited: “Other areas covered by the curriculum include:

    Psychosexual differences between men and women.
    Dating — boy/girl relationships — the purpose of dating, appropriate dating behavior, including assertive refusal techniques.
    Evaluating sexual attitudes presented on TV & other media.
    STDs.
    Consequences of premarital sex.
    The meaning of a totally committed relationship.”

  • Jenny

    Calah, the Catholic view of life isn’t just one of many acceptable views of life. It is the only acceptable view. We are all called to be Catholic. Every single one of us. If you truly believe that the Catholic Church is the church founded by Christ, why wouldn’t you want to shout that out from the rooftops ESPECIALLY to those who don’t know Christ? What is the one thing, the one remedy for those girls who are dealing with the horrible situations you wrote about above? Jesus Christ.

    What about the kids outside of the “Christian belief system”? Yes. Exactly. What do we do about them? We try to bring them to Christ, that’s what. We don’t water down our beliefs or secularize them to appeal to those who aren’t Christian. That is relativistic and, quite frankly, does more harm than good.

    Should we care more about a person’s self esteem or more about their eternal salvation? As a Catholic, I would hope you would answer with the latter and do all that you can to help with that not confirm them in their secular way of life.

    • Calah Alexander

      Jenny, respectfully, the law prohibits what you’re proclaiming as the only acceptable answer. Additionally, I am simply wary of arguments that “Jesus Christ is the one remedy.” On one hand you are absolutely right. He is the answer to sin, our path to forgiveness, etc. But he’s not a magic wand that fixes up your whole life and every issue ever. There are loving ways we can reach out to hurt and wounded secular kids that can help, and we should do that. We shouldn’t let our determination to evangelize at all costs end up becoming a barrier that keeps us from any contact with these kids (as it surely would be if you tried to proclaim Christ from the rooftops in a public school). Additionally, the type of overt evangelization you are describing is often more off-putting to secular kids than anything else. Loving them where they are is the best means of witnessing to our faith. Frank discussions about Christ and faith should come after true friendship and trust have been established, or you run the risk of doing more harm than good.

      • Jenny

        There isn’t a law that prohibits the expression of faith in the public square, including public schools. A Catholic student, for example, has every right to pray the Rosary in the cafeteria at lunch. The government is supposed to uphold its’ citizens’ rights to freely practice their faith, not suppress it.

        Yes, we need to meet secular kids where they are at. I didn’t suggest shouting about Hell and damnation or anything along those lines. But, that doesn’t mean that we should water Him or the truth down. The concern of being “off putting” is what has led many people AWAY from the faith, not towards it in my opinion. People, especially young adults, aren’t attracted to a watered-down, hippie-esque version of the faith. They want (and need) the truth in all its’ glory and splendor.

        • Catherine Seiwert

          Jenny, you’re partially right, but Calah is more on the mark. Some places there might not be, but many there are. What about those places where everything Christian has been banned from Christmas in schools? There are places in which faith is not allowed to be PUBLICLY displayed. Private matters of praying quietly to oneself is very different than requiring other’s to listen or take part.

          When it comes to curriculum though, more often than not, faith is not allowed to be part of it. You will have a very hard time getting into public schools if you plan to speak about matters of faith. Most especially if you are receiving government grants, you are absolutely not allowed to. It is so strict that an organization would have to keep even its administration of the secular version and faith based version somewhat separate.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    How do I stand up and cheer on here? I taught 7th grade–that’s 12 and 13-year-olds–for 9 years. Every year, I had at least one girl who was pregnant or became pregnant during the year. Most of these girls came from broken homes, many from homes I suspect were abusive. They had no education about sex, healthy relationships, valuing themselves, etc. These children need something, and providing it through the schools needs to happen before junior high. The teachers’ dilemma is how to teach this, along with everything else, and not step on anyone’s toes while doing it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The secular but religiously inspired STARS (Students Today Are Not Ready for Sex) abstinence program in Oregon used to include the concept of the “Born Again Virgin”- the idea that if you had already become sexually impure, there was always the possibility of making the promise to yourself and your parents that you would *from this moment forward* refrain from sex until marriage. It often included the rather hokey but touching mother/son, father/daughter signing of a promise to that extent.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I would point out that STARS in Oregon is quickly being replaced by TOP, a Planned Parenthood program that encourages sterilization.

  • GFPchicken

    Another reason to care about what other people’s kids are being told: those are the ones our kids will be marrying.

  • Cathy

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the misplaced and damaging priorities of certain (pervasive) forms of abstinence-only education, and I mostly agree with you when it comes to what I want my own children to learn. Where I think you go off track is in your confidence that providing “just the facts” is a viable solution to the problem of deeply entrenched disagreements about the ethics of sexuality — because what counts as a fact and, more pertinently, what counts as a relevant or essential fact, is enormously dependent on personal ideology.

    That’s not to say that sexual biology doesn’t exist, just that there are still huge disagreements as to how to understand and interpret it. For instance: science and history both attest to the fact that some significant minority of people experience sexual desire primarily toward others of their same sex. Now, if your primary moral concern is to raise children who will understand procreative heterosexual marriage as the ideal or the only legitimate sphere for the expression of sexual desire, you’re going to deal with that fact very differently than if your primary moral concern is to raise children who won’t either perpetuate or fall prey to homophobia. In the case of my own mother, her investment in Catholicism meant that she dealt with that fact simply by not mentioning it to us until we were well into our teens — in her view, mentioning it earlier would have introduced a dangerous element of confusion. In my own case, my daughters have never not known about gay people — the tricky fact I’m holding out on is that the Church we belong to understands their desires as disordered and their behavior as sin.

    I guess what I’m saying is that excluding a topic — homosexuality, masturbation, contraception — from the conversational agenda isn’t an ideologically neutral choice. People who fear, say, for the mental health of gay teens have as urgent a moral argument for including the fact of homosexuality in the conversation from the start as conservative Catholics would for excluding it. The very decision about what counts as universally recognized fact and what as controversial value judgment is shaped by our moral preconceptions.

    And the same, of course, goes for how you deal with the facts you do present: you want your kids to learn about contraception in terms of failure rates; others would want them to learn about effective use. The statistics are the same in either case, but the lessons learned would be very different.

    My own personal view about how we should reckon with all this is, in a sense, the opposite of yours: any sex ed program that does justice to the range of (conflicting) moral investments people have in the subject should be up front, from the start, about the enormously different stakes people have in almost every jot and tittle of factual information. Kids should know that all this stuff is bound up in deeply personal judgments, and they should be encouraged to notice and reflect critically on those judgments. Obviously this has to be handled in age-appropriate ways — but, as the example of my mom and me illustrates, even that determination will be bound up with personal values. I suppose I mean age-appropriate more in cognitive terms than anything else — I’m not handing my five year old Foucault, but I am training her to recognize the motives and the potential consequences that are embedded in a statement like “girls care more about pretty stuff than boys do.”

  • CS

    Again, I have yet to see any abstinence-only sex ed that goes into a
    school system that I would want my kids to be in. There has to be a
    wholistic moral universe, people. If there is no grounding, foundational
    reason for abstinence then the whole project looks funny to the
    children…even if they can’t figure out why at the time.

    Plus,
    since we are talking about intimate, potentially glorious and
    devastating things when we talk about sex, there is way too much room
    for baad teaching and even abusive crap to creep in! Just the huge
    lingering problem of how girls and women bear a disproportionate amount
    of the responsibility for sexual behavior is enough to make me stay far
    away from just about anyone who would want to talk to my kids about it.

    Is the problem that sex ed focuses too much on the mechanics of reproduction and sexual pleasure? Maybe. Maybe the issue is coming down to whether there is a larger context for sexuality, or not. Planned Parenthood-esque sex ed says, Not. But they certainly have a moral universe, and you can believe it is being communicated as clearly as the dirty-water-fundamentalist universe is.

    Our children deserve much better.

  • Katie

    I didn’t go through comprehensive sex ed, and although I attended catholic school, I never heard the dirty glass/chewed gum, etc. analogy until I was married, so I don’t have experience with that. I will say that one of the common sense things that impacted me most was having to watch an old Mary Beth bonnacci video (big hair and all). She explained about the hormones at play with sex and how when that comes outside of marriage, it can really cloud your judgement, maybe even prevent you at a young age for seeing a bad relationship for what it is. She talked about how if you love someone you woudn’t put them at risk, but if you’re engaging in sex outside of marriage, aside from the std, pregnancy, etc. risks, you’re opening them up to the potential for a lot of emotional baggage. This was such common sense stuff that really spoke to me (especially because I was already seeing this played out among my peers). This is actually something that puzzles me about our culture. We acknowledging the harm done to girls (or boys) through rape (and I can’t imagine the extreme suffering involved there) but not through so-called casual sex. If she is consenting, then the baggage later on is hers to deal with.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X