Sex-Ed and Social Justice*

WARNING: This post mentions sex. I use the word a lot in this post. If that makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the post for you.

Over the summer, the Bloomberg administration announced that, for the first time in two decades, public school students in New York would be required to take sex-ed. The curriculum the administration recommended—HealthSmart (middle school and high school) and Reducing the Risk—include, among other things, lessons on abstinence and birth control.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has been controversial. It seems like sex-ed is one of the culture-wars topics that never gets old. But I’m not really a culture-wars person, and the real or purported controversy of New York’s most recent foray into sex education wouldn’t have really interested me except for one thing: the Bloomberg administration’s purpose for making this move. Specifically, the move was part of its strategy to “improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers.”

Sex-ed isn’t usually justified, in my experience, as a tool to achieve social justice, or an anti-poverty measure. New York, though, tied its sex-ed to improving kids’ economic potential.

How? In Creating an Opportunity Society (which I’ve mentioned before), Haskins and Sawhill say that families headed by a person who (1) graduated from high school, (2) works full-time, and (3) doesn’t have children out of wedlock has a 98% chance of escaping poverty.[fn1]

And comprehensive sex education seems to be fairly effective at achieving (3). And not just because it teaches kids how to have consequence-free[fn2] sex. Recent research suggests that teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education are 60% less likely to become pregnant or impregnate somebody than teenagers who receive no sex education.[fn3] Moreover, comprehensive sex education slightly reduced the the likelihood of teenagers having sex in the first place.[fn4]

So what does this mean to us as Mormons? The Handbook of Instructions says that parents are responsible for their kids’ sex education. But it doesn’t end there: it says that, if sex-ed is offered in the schools, parents should ensure that the instruction is consistent with “sound moral and ethical values.”

So we’ve got a moral responsibility to engage with schools’ sex education. And, I’d argue, our sound moral and ethical values at least force us to consider supporting comprehensive sex-ed. Note that I don’t mean this as a blanket endorsement of anything that flies under the rubric of comprehensive sex-ed.[fn5] But the numbers indicate that including information on contraception in a well-designed curriculum substantially reduces teen pregnancy, marginally reduces teen sex, and doesn’t cause kids who wouldn’t have had sex to suddenly have it. Even if we’re convinced our kids won’t have premarital sex (and I think that assuming that all kids will have premarital sex is condescending; some certainly will, but my personal experience suggests that it’s far from inevitable), supporting good instruction can potentially improve the economic and spiritual and emotional lives of the teenagers around them.

* I know that the phrase “social justice” riles some people up; I assume sex-ed gets a different group. If I included tax here, I’d have the perfect storm.

[fn1] Haskins & Sawhill p. 70.

[fn2] I don’t, of course, mean “consequence-free”; among other things, there are emotional and spiritual consequences to sex. But using contraception can significantly decrease the risk of pregnancy and, in some cases, STDs.

[fn3] Teens who received abstinence-only sex-ed were 30% less likely to become pregnant or impregnate somebody, but, apparently, this number was statistically insignificant.

[fn4] I should note that this makes some intuitive sense to me: I can’t imagine anything making sex seem less sexy to a teenager than a required high school class. I also can’t fathom how teaching about how to use contraception could possibly be useful to anybody: using a condom, for example, isn’t rocket science. But, on the other hand, I was once helping a home teachee move and, in the course of packing, we saw a couple wood phalluses on her shelf. Sheepishly, she explained that, in the course of her job as a social worker in prisons, she taught prisoners how to use a condom. So maybe condom use is not as intuitive as it seems.

[fn5] Although, frankly, from looking at the websites, the curricular subjects aren’t nearly as offensive as the HealthSmart website; seriously, what is it about public schools and horrible web design?

30 comments for “Sex-Ed and Social Justice*

  1. In 6th grade our school offered an “experimental” sex ed class. So my parents covered the subject with me ahead of time. Somehow that didn’t turned me into a sex offender or mess up my sex life.

  2. It’s a tricky issue. Largely you have a group of people who aren’t being taught at home so the state wants to teach them in school. But then what they teach them won’t be the same that all want taught. The utilitarian in me wants to say what counts are results and lots of parents for whatever reason (just or unjust) aren’t doing a good job. The kantian in me wants to say results don’t matter and the state shouldn’t be deciding arbitrarily what public morality is on these issues. New Yorkers would justifiably be angry if schools were say teaching how bad homosexuality is. Yet that’s a position that through most of the 20th century was held by the majority of people. Public morality is just very difficult to deal with precisely because of issues like that.

    Now I suspect in New York it won’t matter because there’s consensus on what public morality should be. However I bet in large swaths of Texas there’s consensus on what public morality is also. And I bet most of those in favor of this in New York would oppose what Texas would want to do. The only justification seems to be the utilitarian argument but I bet many of those supporting this in New York would oppose a lot of other types of public morality justified with an ends justify the means type mentality. So how do we decide what to do?

    I oppose school prayer because it seems to me most of those who want school prayer want one version of prayer. They’d be pretty uncomfortable with a Wiccan youth praying the way they would. So why do we reject that sort of thinking in this case?

    Don’t get me wrong – I completely understand the utilitarian argument. It’s just that this sort of public morality seems to have implications I don’t think proponents have thought through.

  3. When I was going through school we had a comprehensive sex ed course. Two weeks of every school year from 4th grade to senior year. Our parents could opt us out, if they wanted, but I was lucky enough to go through it.

    It covered practically everything, from STDs, to Biology, to Contraception, to pregnancy, and puberty. That information has been a boon to me right from the start. That knowledge has been especially invaluable in my married life. We had such an intense program because for a long time we had some pretty abysmally teen pregnancy rates. Those rates improved dramatically when they put this program in place.

    The thing that was interesting to me was how very little overt moralizing there was. No one ever once said that xyz was good, or bad, or dangerous, or wrong, or great, or fun. The only place that sort of moralizing entered in at all was in discussions of consent, and even that was focused more on legality- more along the lines of “you can go to jail,” rather than “this is wrong.”

    Certainly there was plenty of implications of what the ‘best’ choices are from the sorts of information they presented and how it was presented (I’m not going to argue that there was no moralizing), but there did seem to be a concerted effort to limit what was taught to demonstrable facts.

  4. Clark, This is not a moral issue except for the result. Recently there was a blog comparing Dutch and US rates for teenage pregnancy, abortion, age of first sex. This is relavent because Holland has good sex education, and an all round healthier attitude to sex.

    The dutch rate of teenage pregnancy is 5/1000 compared to 33 for all US but 40 for non white US. Abortion rate was also 6times higher in US, but age of first sex was the same at 17.

    The rates are not just a few perce t differentbutfactors of 5 or 6.

    Which is a more moral situation, the Diutch or US?

  5. Great post. Ironically, Rick Santorum used the same Haskins & Sawhill statistics this last week to argue for his anti-birth control views. I know–I was confused too.

  6. Great post. Sex education deserves a place at the side of basic hygiene, public health, and DARE programs. Our family home evenings, our conversations with our children, our church programs can all explain why we believe that sex should only occur between married couples, but the basics, ranging from anatomy to biology to various methods ought to be taught in age appropriate ways at age appropriate times. Most Mormons, I think, would delay it to an age older than most designers of curriculum would recommend, but the experts are probably right, and our kids need the information much earlier than we might think. Curiously, the early introduction likely works more strongly into our hands as parents, because it allows us to discuss things with our kids when they are younger and more likely to hear us. The connection to poverty, to disease, to marriage, etc ought to be part of the curriculum as well.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Julie, it’s not flame-proof, but at I’m pretty sure what I’m wearing is at least flame-resistant.

    clark, I’m not entirely clear why sex-ed is an issue of public morality. It has become politicized, in the same way the teaching of, e.g., evolution has become politicized, but that’s entirely different. That is, the curricula I’ve seen does not say, You should have sex. Rather, it says, This is birth control, and this is how it’s used. To the extent it’s value-weighted, it actually leans toward, You probably shouldn’t have sex, at least not yet, and provides kids with actual practice in saying no, which leans toward your stereotypical Texas public morals, rather than the stereotypical New York version (and I take issue with both stereotypes, though that’s not really here nor there). What’s more, if I, as a parent, truly have a problem with what’s being taught, NY lets me take my kid out of that class (as did CA when I was in school).

    Ben P, that is AWESOME. I really can’t wait to look and see how the stats could be used to argue against birth control.

  8. Clark, This is not a moral issue except for the result.

    For some people it is not a moral issue. That’s the point. I agree with you but frankly a lot of people don’t. To say what is or isn’t a moral issue often is a moral consideration.

    To ask which is more moral Holland or the US in terms of those results is simply to adopt the utilitarian perspective. And as I said I’m ridiculously sympathetic to that. However the fact also is that the same people who make your argument would reject utilitarian arguments in other contexts.

    To ask why sex ed is a moral issue is fine. I don’t think it should be. But why many – arguably most – Americans think it is seems fairly apparent given that nearly all religions treat sexuality as a moral issue. And most religions have taboos about various types of discussion of sexuality.

  9. If the word “sex” makes you so uncomfortable you can’t read a post about it, this might be the wrong century for you.

    Now, I will go back and read the rest of the post.

  10. Arguing against the concept of education generally is stupid. Period.

    Arguing against the concept of sex ed is stupid. Period.

    Arguing that schools and the government shouldn’t “have” to teach sex ed is a given. It should be the parents doing to the teaching. I get that – but it’s a non-starter in our actual society and is an argument of luxury (an elitist snobbery) that ignores those who aren’t in a position of luxury.

    Arguing that schools and governments shouldn’t educate about something as important as sex (with all its social impacts) is just as stupid as arguing against the concept of sex ed – especially given what I just said in the previous paragraph.

    The opt-out choice destroys all legitimate complaints about anything except content, imo – and most of the actual, real-world arguments about content also are stupid.

    I usually don’t write in such strong terms, without multiple disclaimers and modifiers – but with this topic . . . Too often stupidity reigns, and I’m glad NYC is taking this measure and recognizing the real social justice aspects of the issue.

  11. Yes! Now if only we could require all kids to go to boarding schools and have government enforced balanced meals, optimum sleep time, and daily aerobic exercise in their target heart rates!

    Studies have shown ALL those things to enhance quality of life and keep people alive longer. Don’t you love your children? Don’t you want them to LIVE?

    Now that I mention it, I have a workout regimen I’ve written up for all of you to follow. Arguing against it is stupid. It’s for your own good. Watch for my emails.

  12. Alison, I’m afraid I don’t see how you get from comprehensive sex-ed in public schools to boarding schools and mandatory exercise and rest[fn]; although you home-school your kids, I assume that you’re not opposed to public schools, right? I remember from my school days learning about balanced meals and aerobic exercise (and even doing aerobic exercise); would you object to schools teaching those things? Because it’s not like any sex-ed curriculum I’ve heard of involves the school forcing kids to have (or not have) sex, or to use (or not use) contraception.

    Or maybe you’re saying schools should only teach kids about things that are bad for them? That’s an interesting—and intriguing—idea, but I’m not sure how far it would get.

    [fn] Although honestly, I could use that mandatory rest . . .

  13. #13 – Nice hyperbolic, sarcastic extrapolation into a slippery slope argument I would never make. SOP, I know, but it gets really old, really fast.

  14. Hi Sam:

    I like the notion that talking about sex makes it less sexy, and heartily agree. I had never thought about it like that before. But your comment about condoms not being rocket science, well, I was a little confused my first time, I must admit. Although learning how to operate one at 11 when I didn’t get married until I was 23 would probably still have left me confused =).

    Allison, sometimes your snark is fun. Sometimes it’s….not? This is one of the latter. Exercise IS important. That is why school kids have such things like recess, gym class, sports teams, etc. While not forced on anyone (easy to opt out by playing sick, for example) it is available.

    Sleep IS important. Unfortunately (or rather, by actual design) schools are for learning, not for sleeping. So meeting minimum sleep requirements is the job of the caregiver, not the teacher. School is a daytime event; sleeping is a nighttime event. It is what it is.

    Sex ed IS important. And history shows that this discussion is a) NOT happening in a lot of homes, and b) can easily take place during the day (unlike sleeping) and therefore can be provided in schools to help better society by teaching kids things in a better environment than otherwise. Again, given the opt out clause, where’s the beef?

    If the government is the issue (which is seems to be with you a lot, even though, in our representative government, big brother=all of us, collectively), would you be happier having such an event sponsored by your local McDonald’s franchise?

  15. Now, for a more academic answer:

    When there are opt-out avenues for those who don’t need or want what’s being taught, and when what’s being taught really is important, #13 is irrelevant to the actual conversation – especially to the comment it didn’t even try to address in any way that reflected what was written.

  16. Sex ed in public schools is repulsive. I still have nightmares about the coitus video we were forced to watch taken from the perspective of some kind of grayed out fiber-optic electron scanning microscope shoved far up into the woman’s nether regions. It was produced, if memory serves, by Cthulhu.

    I had not hitherto suspected that making sex repellent was required by the handbook, but now that I know I’ll do the right things and post some pics of myself. Hey, hey, ladies, check out this belly hair.

  17. I actually don’t have a problem with contraceptive teaching in sex ed. But just exploring it from a different angle here.

    Is it “sound moral and ethical values” to teach someone how to do something you consider immoral and unethical? That is, does the handbook, and presumably the First Presidency, find it immoral and unethical to teach people how to have premarital “protected” sex?

    I would assume most of us would find it unethical to give drive by gangsters shooting lessons and laser sights, with the hope that they would find their intended targets easier and avoid fewer unintended targets being shot.

    Now please don’t get me wrong here, I’m not comparing the two, just trying to dig out the issue from a moral view point, since that was the crux of this post.

    We don’t teach drive by gangsters how to aim better, because it’s immoral to murder, full stop. So even though teaching them how to shoot more precisely may save some lives, we are teaching them to do something we abhor.

    Can’t a similar parallel in principle (certainly not detail!) be made for the moral case against premarital sex training? We find the action of 15 year old kids having sex to be immoral, so we won’t help them do it.

    Obviously, killing is forbidden (unless your a police officer/soldier, etc. in which case we teach you how to do it effectively) and sex is not (unless you’re not married from an LDS perspective?)?

    We can’t use the cop out that “they’re doing it anyway” and “it’s basic human emotions”, because gangsters are doing it anyway, and it’s all fueled by basic human emotions… hate, rivalry, etc.

    In spite of all pretense at high mindedness, I don’t have much of a problem with sex ed, but I do think it should be more appropriately designed. It is strange that we increasingly teach kids less how to balance their bank account or to cook meals, and more how to have more protected sex (but still get herpes, crabs, etc).

  18. Presumably sex ed classes could bracket the question of who is using the contraceptives and when. Let’s be honest too – there’s a lot of ignorance among the married but religious about such things. Some people are fine talking about it. (I remember being just off my mission in the locker rooms at the BYU gym and being shocked about what people talked about) Others don’t like to talk about it because they think it’s inappropriate and end up with a lot of stupid ideas.

    Anyway I don’t think we should assume talk about contraceptives is just so horny teenagers can go out seeing how well they can emulate James Bond or Madonna.

  19. Let’s be honest too – there’s a lot of ignorance among the married but religious about such things.

    I don’t believe this. I think this is an urban legend for the urbane.

  20. Good post. I’m just not sure what “sound moral and ethical values” are supposed to be. Are we talking Kantianism, Mill-style utilitarianism, Aristotelian virtue theory, divine command, or social contract theory? In absence of universal agreement, I vote we support the state in instituting an empirically proven program and fulfill our parental responsibilities by talking with our own kids, giving a religiously based context to the discussion as we see fit.

  21. Adam,

    I don’t believe this. I think this is an urban legend for the urbane.

    Why? Notwithstanding my assertion that condoms don’t need instruction manuals, they apparently do. There’s nothing inherently human in knowing of the existence of, much less how to use, contraception.

    chris, I agree, your gangster example isn’t really on point, but let’s go with it: why not teach proto-gangsters (and others) gun safety? Like, how to clean a gun, how to avoid shooting oneself, to treat every gun like it is a real gun and like it is loaded, to pass the gun pointing up or pointing down, and that one should never shoot when a person is in front of the plane of the gun’s barrel? Because that’s what my dad and my grandfather taught me when I was younger, before they’d actually let me touch a gun. And even today, some 25 or more years later, I can’t point a gun—even a pretend gun—at somebody. Like clark said, the question of who is having sex and who is not can be bracketed; the knowledge you get in sex ed[fn]—not just about contraception, but about your body and health in general—can be as valuable in your later life as the trigonometry or music theory that you learn.

    [fn] Frankly, my sex-ed was horrible. I think it was a week-long unit in a health class that was taught by, IIRC, a history teacher who was not trained to do health or really excited to do it. I don’t remember if the class talked about contraception or not, or what honestly the class talked about, but I do know it didn’t make any of us rush out and have sex. At the same time, I doubt it delayed anyone from having sex, either, though the numbers suggest that a better-designed version would do the second without doing the first.

  22. “Let’s be honest too – there’s a lot of ignorance among the married but religious about such things.
    I don’t believe this. I think this is an urban legend for the urbane.”

    I agree with Adam here. Also, all sex-ed should include the fate of the man who pulled out and spilt it on the ground.

    I think most members’ problem with sex-ed is who is teaching it, so I think the handbook instructions are appropriate and more members should proactively take ownership of this important part of raising their children.

  23. Why? Notwithstanding my assertion that condoms don’t need instruction manuals, they apparently do. There’s nothing inherently human in knowing of the existence of, much less how to use, contraception.

    What’s the evidence for it? Believing things without evidence because they fit our world view has a not unmixed track record.

    Perhaps one would need some instruction on birth control pills (but don’t doctors usually discuss the particulars when they prescribe them?), but condoms are a classic example of form following function.

  24. As a parent, I would personally like to have sex-ed taught in school with an emphasis on birth control.

    Based on my own experience I would agree that many young marrieds in the church are ignorant about sex-ed. I remember many newly-wed acquaintances who had “surprise pregnancies” because their birth-control methods were either based on “timing” or “body temperature.” Many women I knew hadn’t even visited an OB/GYN before they were married for something as basic as a pap-smear.

    I think it makes for much easier parenting to supplement or counter specious sex-ed our kids receive outside of the home than to try to take its place. Do we want to take down the signs over the door that say “Return with Honor” and replace them with signs that “Don’t Get or Make Someone Get Pregnant”? Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I would feel much more comfortable teaching my children about sex and about the value of abstinence from a gospel perspective rather than having to roll a condom over a banana to show them how it works. Similarly, if my kids go to school and hear things about evolution that doesn’t gel with what they learned in Primary or Sunday School, I’d start a discussion about how I’ve reconciled the contradictions between science and faith.

  25. “Also, all sex-ed should include the fate of the man who pulled out and spilt it on the ground.”

    As long as it’s a private, religious school – and as long as the explanation isn’t butchered like it almost always is.

    That story (including the reason he was killed) isn’t about sex-ed in ANY way. (No, it’s not about masturbation, like most people think.) It’s about a man who refused to follow the law of the time and, in legal terms, killed his brother’s posterity because of his action. It also is an example of a barbaric, ancient custom that I am glad has been abolished since then.

    It’s totally irrelevant to modern sex-ed, no matter how many times it’s been mis-interpreted over the centuries – but if private, religious schools want to mis-use it, that’s their right.

  26. Even if you and your spouse are both virgins when getting married, once you get married you can begin applying what you learned about in sex ed. At the point it becomes a lot more relavent.

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