Last week Democratic Senator Barack Obama made headlines by suggesting that public schools teach “age-appropriate," "science-based” sexuality lessons to kindergarteners. He later clarified that "age-appropriate" means teaching children how to avoid predators, not how to unroll condoms. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney tried to sensationalize Obama’s position —formerly Romney’s own position, but what isn’t?—saying, “We should be working to clean up the filthy waters our kids are swimming in.”
There are few statistics for how many of America’s young people are hooking up in filthy water—although as a teenager I did manage to get laid in a bathtub once or twice, which always leads to more pulled neck muscles than orgasms. Still, there’s just enough data for the government to consider itself a failure when it comes to horny teens. In Congress’ decade-long study on the efficacy of its own $1 billion pro-abstinence program, it concluded that the money was completely wasted. U.S. teen pregnancy rate remains worse than much of the Third World’s.
Obama tried to take a middle ground position on sex ed, but extremists – both left and right – have for their own reasons complicated an issue that demands pragmatism. Between religious injunctions to teach adolescents about the perils of premarital copulation and creepy, Boomer-esque homilies about loving your body, America’s current sexual lesson plan is tailored for either a nation of pious eunuchs or Bonobo monkeys.
Nothing besides the teaching of evolution, art, climatology and literature makes right-wingers nuttier than teaching how to not need an abortion. According to the American Medical Association, there is “no evidence” that communities with anti-sex education have lower rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission. And a 2004 Congressional investigation discovered that pro-abstinence curricula in 25 states erroneously claimed that “half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus,” fingering “can result in pregnancy,” a six-week-old fetus is a “thinking person,” “the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears,” and “[c]ondoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.” Never mind that condoms, when used properly, reduce by almost 100% the transmission of HIV, or that the actual number of HIV-positive gay male teenagers, while unknowable, is very likely less than 50%.
Federally funded abstinence curricula further inform teenagers:
- “We actively seek to eliminate terrorism from our land; please help us actively seek to eliminate this corruptive terrorism that is stealing our children’s future.” (Weapons of Mass Dick-Suction?)
- “While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation.” (Before sex? No. Before dinner? Yes.)
- “Sexual relationships often lower the self-respect of both partners—one feeling used, the other feeling like the user. …This depression may lead to attempted, or successful, suicide.” (That’s strange, I wanted to kill myself in high school because I couldn’t get laid.)
Even in the God-fearing red states, a zippered approach to sex ed has proved useless. In the president’s own home state of Texas, the Board of Education rejected textbooks for mentioning condoms and breast cancer, opting instead to tell students that the best way to avoid STDs was to “get plenty of rest,” “respect yourself,” and “go out as a group.” (Because group sex never leads to herpes.) Incidentally Texas has one of the five highest teenage birthrates in America, twice as many per capita as Heathen Massachusetts, although many Bay Staters do prefer the kind of sex that doesn’t lead to birthrates.
Muddling the sex ed debate isn't the sole province of religious reactionaries; there are the zealous bourgeois bohemians who would have kindergarteners savvy in the ways of the flesh. The Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, a liberal organization that wants five year-olds to learn:
- "Sexuality is a fundamental part of being human.” (And it's more fun than fundamentalism.)
- “Both boys and girls have body parts that feel good when touched.” (Or whipped, shocked, clamped, etc.)
- “Vaginal intercourse occurs when a man and a woman place the penis inside the vagina.” (Anal intercourse is when the woman wants something expensive.)
- “Touching and rubbing one’s own genitals to feel good is called masturbation,” which is something people do in “private.” (It doesn't feel good if you rub too much, kids.)
- Older students would learn, “Some sexual fantasies involve mysterious or forbidden things.” (Like masturbating in public!)
Another SIECUS publication suggests that nine-year-olds learn “[t]eenagers and adults often have several romantic relationships” and “[a] legal abortion is very safe.” Even more extreme, according to Floyd M. Martinson, author of The Sexual Life of Children, Scandinavian "preschool teachers… have on occasion instructed children in better masturbatory techniques." (Who needs the alphabet or coloring books anyway?)
Obama says that he “does not support teaching explicit sex education to children in kindergarten,” but “[i]f they ask a teacher ‘where do babies come from,’ [then] providing information … that it’s not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing.” (Correct Answer: they come from hell.) Parents should have the right, Obama believes, to opt their offspring out of sex education, which raises an uncomfortable but necessary question for Americans: should they?
Sweden mandated sex education in 1955—when rubbers were still illegal in parts of the United States—and currently has the second lowest teenage birthrate in the world with five times fewer babies (and 600 times less gonorrhea) than the U.S. After Sweden ditched abstinence education and distributed contraceptives instead, “its teenage birth rate fell by 80 per cent,” according to the Guardian. (Taxpayer-funded abortion—which Obama supports for U.S. clinics—didn’t hurt either, unless you happened to be a Swedish fetus, which you didn’t.)
The conservative philosophy “if you don’t teach it, they’ll never learn” is clearly dangerous and absurd. However, the SIECUS guidelines are crazy for two reasons: 1) puberty, not pre-school, seems like an appropriate time to discuss pubescent sexuality, and 2) we all know that sex isn’t for children; it’s for churchgoing Republican congressmen. It certainly makes no sense to teach the ins and outs of intercourse before students hit puberty, and Nordic-style educational totalitarianism is anathema to many Americans.
Obama is brave and foolish to search for a shade of gray on such a partisan, black-and-white issue. (If I were brave I would make a mulatto joke here, but I don’t want to appear foolish.) As the rhetoric from extremists on both sides fills the airwaves and litters the blogosphere, Americans should remember that whatever students learn in the classroom, no human being is either predictable or programmable, especially when gallons of hormones are added to the equation. Making our own mistakes is often the only way to learn the hardest lessons; that’s both a play on words and a fact of life.