Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Family Life" education

A while back there was a bill proposed in Utah  that would have allowed school districts to opt out of teaching any sexual education and prohibit (if I recall) any mention of contraception.  After a great deal of controversy, it became clear via polls and public outcry that the plan did not have public support.  It was passed by the legislature, vetoed by the governor, and in the following election the man who introduced the bill lost his re election bid.

To put context on this, Utah law already bans encouraging contraception use (though not mentioning that it exists) and parents are allowed to opt their children out of sexual education as it exists.  The sexual education as it exists will depend on the school district, I believe my wife stated that the only sexual education done in her school district was a quick meeting where they told you to anticipate the development of secondary sex characteristics.  And that was it.  Not much to opt out of.

The debates on the subject of how much sexual education to put in school often seem to come back to the idea that we are afraid of "giving kids ideas."  The thing is, kids have dumb ideas all the time without any adult having to tell them about anything.  It reminds me of a job I had doing customer service for a cell phone company.  There were countless parents who called in shocked that there was an enormous charge on their bill showing that their child had been using text messaging.  They often tried to claim that their child didn't know how to text message because they hadn't taught them how.    My coworkers and I used to jokingly tell these parents that if their kids are in school, have friends, and have a phone they know how to text.  Nobody has to show them how for them to figure it out.  Similarly, teenagers have all the relevant anatomy, the correct hormones, and coed environments.  Even if nobody tells them "how" to go about getting pregnant reliably, teenagers inherently have all the ingredients necessary to have lots of clueless sexual interaction.  On top of that we live in a rather sexually obsessed and saturated culture.  Not talking about sex only makes it so that the doors of communication between the school or parents and the child on the subject are shut, it doesn't actually keep the child from receiving lots of sexual communication, much of it unhealthy and attached to negative social stereotypes and roles.

Certainly sex ed is awkward.  Even though I never attended it in public school myself (parental opt out), I had to deal with classmates who were trying to find a way to relate to all the new information that was dumped on them and in a poorly disciplined classroom this led to several awkward moments where students sat around discussing whether their bodies were mature enough to achieve ejaculation or drew pictures of penises (with smiley faces) on the blackboard.  The solution to awkwardness isn't to run away though, and in the situations in which I grew up, better discipline in the classroom could have solved most of the problems.

I tend to view sex ed for teenagers like drivers ed.  We expect children to grow up and probably use a car daily in navigating their world.  Learning to drive isn't automatic like learning to breathe, so we have drivers ed requirements where society does something to help make sure everybody knows the basics to help keep them safe.  Similarly we hope that children will grow up, form relationships, and have families (or shall we say it, we hope they will have sex) as part of a normal emotionally healthy life.  Overwhelmingly, the human goal in life isn't celibacy.  There is nothing automatic about learning to have healthy relationships with emotionally and physically satisfying sex in them.  There are plenty of parts the schools certainly can't help with, but plenty they can.  Just like we don't raise children with a goal in life that they should be unable to drive, we should stop talking about sex ed as if the goal for our children was for them to be celibate.  Sure there are limits on that.  We don't put toddlers in drivers ed and we don't include nascar driving or drag racing in the list of skills for teenagers to master for their drivers license.  Similarly, we can choose what information to give to teenagers in sex ed.  There is no reason we need or want teenagers to be able to recite the Kama Sutra or recite all the sex tips that were talked about in last weeks grocery store magazines.  But some basics are a good thing to help them form safe and healthy relationships that we expect some day will be sexually satisfying.  Since in our culture families and friends haven't been reliable sources of information (too scared, too embarrassed, too whatever it is) some teaching in schools can be a good thing. 

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