Reforming Sex Education

When my first son Owen was an infant, I often got together with a group of moms to participate in a playgroup. Truthfully, the group was more for the social benefit of the moms and less for our infants, since they were too young to crawl and their playing involved nothing more than pulling each other’s hair. Nonetheless, it was important for us moms. We talked about parenting philosophies and had lively debates over when to talk to our children about issues such as homosexuality, puberty, and sexual intimacy. One of the moms insisted that she wanted to protect her child from such conversations as long as possible because she believed in the concept of “childhood innocence.” As a new mom, I had not heard the term before and was intrigued. Are children really innocent about issues like sexuality? When does that innocence end?

Fast forward several years. Owen now is a young boy, and I have since become very interested in sex education, as I teach a course on sexuality and gender to college students. Often my students relay their experiences of sex education from their parents, schools, and churches. Consistently they express disappointment at the lack of accurate information they have received. “I don’t know how it was for other people,” one student told me, “but a lot of my first information about sex came from school bus rides. I started getting information about sex as young as eight or nine and very little of it was accurate. For a long time, I believed certain myths about intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation, simply because these topics were so rarely addressed. This isn’t because my parents were shy about discussing difficult topics, but I don’t think they thought to discuss the subject of sex with us at a young age.”

In the United States today access to sexually explicit images is insidious. Our children are continually confronted with incorrect and detrimental messages about their own sexuality. Many Christians react by shying away from the subject entirely. For example, one concerned mother was interviewed by our local newspaper after being appalled by an enormous billboard for the HBO show “Sex in the City.” In her interview she complained that the innocent eyes of her children saw a billboard so blatantly encouraging sex. Instead of taking this as a teaching moment for her children, she staunchly defended their “innocence.” An understandable response, given how contradictory the onslaught of sexually explicit and promiscuous images is to Christian traditions of chastity and modesty. But it is precisely because of this inundation that Christians ought to take a primary role in disseminating accurate information that encourages healthy attitudes and behavior, and not just revolt against the subject entirely.

Churches are a key venue for this education to take place, not only for our children and youth but also for parents and leaders who feel ill-equipped to teach children about sexuality and are anxious about this responsibility. Developmentally appropriate, comprehensive sex education should include information about positive and healthy attitudes toward sexuality, abstinence, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), media discernment, and moral and ethical decision-making. A communal discussion that affirms the goodness of sexuality while teaching management of sexual desires and drives could play a vital role in reclaiming the beauty and decency of sexuality in a culture that does much to ruin both.

A Historical and Global Look at Sex Education

Modern sex education began in 1964 when Dr. Mary Calderone co-founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). It was established in response to developments in sexual health technology (e.g., the birth control pill). SIECUS endorsed sexual discussion in public schools and believed that open attitudes toward discussion would help to encourage socially responsible sexuality. Calderone’s efforts met with widespread criticism and contempt, especially from conservative Christian groups. Ironically, Calderone had founded SIECUS as a forum to discuss issues of sexuality and religion, to embrace the goodness in sexuality, and to unravel the ties between sexuality and religious guilt.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision in Roe vs. Wade opened the door to even more passionate arguments. Staunch opponents of abortion feared that inclusion of comprehensive information about sexual behaviors and birth control would lead to an increase in teen sexual activity, pregnancy, and abortion.   A communal discussion that affirms the goodness of sexuality while teaching management of sexual desires and drives could play a vital role in reclaiming the beauty and decency of sexuality in a culture that does much to ruin both.   Meanwhile, supporters of the pro-choice movement insisted that comprehensive sex education was realistic and responsible given the rates of sexual activity among young people. To this day, standards of sex education in school systems vary widely across the country. American educators have achieved little consensus about the appropriate forum or content for sex education in public schools. In contrast, other developed countries have reached consensus, with remarkable results.

Sweden is one of the most progressive countries regarding sex education attitudes and policies. Responding to elevated rates of teenage pregnancy, it was the first country in the world to determine the contents of a nationwide sex education curriculum for its schools. The provision of highly effective birth control methods and broad information about sexuality and safe-sex practices has, since 1975, contributed to a sharp decline in teenage pregnancy rates to one of the lowest levels in Europe.1 A similar trend is apparent in other countries that support comprehensive sex education programs and provide widespread access to effective birth control methods–notably the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France. Furthermore, in none of these countries has increased access to information been associated with earlier first intercourse or higher rates of abortion. The United States, which provides less comprehensive education about sexuality than these countries, has similar rates of sexual activity and the highest proportional rates of teenage pregnancies, births, and abortions.2

Not all political leaders in the United States–even morally conservative Christian ones–have held restrictive views on the appropriateness and scope of sex education. In 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a well-known conservative, released a report in response to the AIDS epidemic that called for comprehensive sex education at the earliest age possible, including information about condom use and other protective measures in the event that sexual intercourse occurs. This report was an implicit admission that something more than a message of abstinence was necessary to combat the potentially dangerous consequences of unprotected sexual behavior.

Eight years later, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, acting U.S. Surgeon General and an outspoken activist on such controversial issues as welfare, abortion, and drug policy, made a statement about sex education that ended her career. In the question time after a speech she gave at a U.N.-sponsored conference on AIDS, she suggested that the topic of masturbation might be appropriate in a comprehensive sex education program to prevent the spread of AIDS. In the intense backlash this statement provoked, Dr. Elders was asked to resign as Surgeon General.

Surgeons General have continued to recognize the need for high-quality, comprehensive sex education. In June 2001, Dr. David Satcher called for education beyond abstinence, insisting that there is no good evidence to suggest that access to information about contraception and safe-sex practices leads to increased or earlier sexual activity. Satcher’s report, “The
Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior,” praised the value of teaching abstinence as the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and disease but nonetheless also promoted comprehensive sex education for all children and youth.3 Satcher nominated public schools as the most practical and accessible forum for educating young people toward making safe, healthy decisions about their sexual behavior. But he also emphasized that sex education is needed throughout a person’s life and advised that it be provided in homes, churches, and other community settings. The George W. Bush administration immediately shunned the report for not advocating the new official dogma of abstinence-only education in public schools.

Abstinence-only education promotes complete abstinence as the only way to avoid pregnancy and STDs. It emphasizes–indeed, exaggerates–the failure rates of birth control, rather than treat it as a reliable way to prevent such negative consequences. In contrast, comprehensive sex education typically teaches abstinence as the only one hundred percent effective means to avoid pregnancy and STDs, but also provides information about contraception and safe-sex practices. Parents overwhelmingly support comprehensive sex education. Most hope that their children will postpone coitus until marriage but want their children to be informed of safe-sex practices in the event that they do have a sexual encounter. The socialscientific evidence suggests they are on the right track. In particular, girls who receive such education before their first sexual experience are more likely to practice safer sex when that experience occurs.4

Why Christians Should Endorse Comprehensive Sex Education

The unwillingness of many Americans to discuss issues of sexuality openly and accurately is not only unhealthy but a sad commentary on how we understand and treat sexuality, both as a nation and as families. Parents who avoid talking about the subject give their children a negative message about sexuality, that it is something to be ashamed of or hide from. Positive, open communication has the potential to create a sense of trust and frankness that can lead to more accurate knowledge, informed decisions, and healthy practices. In the process parents can also convey moral guidelines to their children that other sources of information lack.

My students realize this. They want more from their schools and churches. “I believed that even having knowledge about sex and knowing how to talk about it was wrong,” one told me, “so I grew up confused and wondering, and unable to find answers anywhere.” Another said: “I know that I was raised to constantly think that sex is wrong, and I sometimes felt that my elders were more concerned with pounding that into my head than they were with talking with me about sex.”

Again, the research agrees. One such article on parents’ involvement with their child’s sex education states that “children whose parents talk with them about sexual matters or provide sexuality education or contraceptive information at home are more likely than others to postpone sexual activity…have fewer sexual partners and are more likely to use contraceptives and condoms.” They “are at reduced risk for pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases” than young people whose parents do not engage in open communication about sexual matters.5

The church provides a ready forum for people to discuss sexuality at all ages. Not only can adults still learn about their own sexuality, they can also be actively involved in their children’s sex education. An article in Time states that fewer than one-third of adolescents aged 13 to 17 learn most of what they know about sex from their parents.6 As one student stated: “The first time I talked about sex with my parents was in fourth grade and I had just begun sex education at school.   Our children are not innocent, and we may hurt them if we pretend otherwise. More likely, we are protecting ourselves from our own anxieties.   Our conversation went something like this: I came home with a pamphlet I had received at school and said to my parents, ‘They gave us this at school.’ I handed them the pamphlet, and they said, ‘Do you have any questions?,’ to which I quickly replied with a no. They then said, ‘Well if you do, you can ask us.’ That was it. That was my entire sex talk with my parents. I was in fourth grade and of course I didn’t want to talk about sex, especially with my parents. I do not think they really wanted to talk about it with me, either, so they didn’t push the subject.'”

The impact of parents being directly involved in their children’s sex education cannot be understated and raises the question of the appropriate forum for sex education. Accurate information about sexuality should be widely available in the institutions in which people are involved, given the pervasiveness of sexual images and innuendo in our society. Families can take this valuable information and combine it with a particular Christian ethic. Knowledge coupled with moral and ethical teaching can be a powerful tool, but dispensing either one without the other can be misleading.

Whether at churches or schools, educators need to deal pastorally with both parents and their children. Most are anxious. And most do not want to discuss precisely what they need to talk about. Churches have a wealth of underutilized resources that can and should be used to address sexuality in the media, the difficulties of living a sexually healthy life (whether single or married), the breadth of what sexuality involves (i.e., more than just having sex, and more than heterosexuality), and affirming the goodness of sexuality.

The authors of Authentic Human Sexuality, published by InterVarsity Press, state it well: “[If] parents are able to affirm sex as a good and integral part of being created in the image of God, their children will be able to do the same.”7 If parents and church leaders can learn to affirm healthy sexual development in their children, rather than unintentionally or purposefully teach fear and shame, our very culture could be transformed.

Childhood Innocence, Really?

Childhood innocence is a misnomer. In her novel, The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald exposes the self-deception in that notion.

Why do grown-ups insist on childhood ‘innocence’? It’s a static quality, but children are in flux, they grow, they change. The grown-ups want them to carry that precious thing they believe they too once had. And the children do carry it, because they are very strong. The problem is, they know. And they will do anything to protect the grown-ups from knowledge. The child knows that the grownup values innocence, and the child assumes that this is because the grown-up is innocent and therefore must be protected from the truth. And if the ignorant grownup is innocent, then the knowing child must be guilty.8

Our children are not innocent, and we may hurt them if we pretend otherwise. More likely, we are protecting ourselves from our own anxieties. I wonder how many of the mothers in the play group Owen and I went to likely would agree to this, now that their children are a little older and a little less innocent. When it comes to sexuality, the mass media will ensure that our children are exposed sooner than we can imagine to “comprehensive” sexual imagery. With this reality in mind, parents, teachers, and pastors can pave the way toward appropriate sexual knowledge for our children instead of taking a reactionary or passive stance to our culture’s messages.

If we don’t talk to our children about sex, they will undoubtedly search for information elsewhere, the most readily available sources being TV, movies, the internet, and misinformed peers.
As one of my students recalled: “[When] I was around ten years old, I got ‘the talk.’ Well, ‘talk’ may be a bit generous; it was really only a couple of sentences…. To be honest, those few sentences left me more confused than before…. Sex wasn’t really discussed in church, except in the context of ‘don’t do it.’ Even in middle school, my sex education class was only one class period, and it was pretty much just about puberty. I decided to look up certain words in dictionaries, encyclopedias, medical encyclopedias, and online, though finding such information online amongst all the porn is a dangerous task so I mostly avoided it. Throughout all this exploration, I really had no one to guide me. I was on my own in a sea of information with no map or guideposts. I felt I had no one to ask…. I couldn’t ask my friends, because I didn’t want to look ignorant in front of them and be ridiculed for not knowing. Because I took this journey on my own, I have to wonder whether or not I was really getting accurate information.”

Conclusion

If Christians want to reclaim, redeem, and restore sexuality, the church is in a key place to do so. Developmentally appropriate sex education materials are available to congregational members who are genuinely concerned about their own and their children’s accurate and healthy understanding of sexuality.9 This education needs to start at a very young age, before children are saturated with media images and with gossip from classmates and friends that is frightening and confusing. In talking with their children about sex they can model positive attitudes and healthy, life-affirming sexuality. Then public and Christian educators can be supported in teaching comprehensive sex education as churches and parents read through the information with a moral and ethical lens.

“I’d like to end with a question that I’m still not sure about,” one of my students wrote in a paper. “I condemned the media for false information, though praised it for at least dealing with sex, as opposed to not dealing with it. Which then is better: inaccurate but open information or not talking about it at all? Which one does more harm?” My response, here and in my classes: “I’m advocating a third way…accurate AND open information. Let’s start a revolution.”