Unless the middle school in Shenandoah, Iowa, is training junior gynecologists, it is unclear why its eighth-graders need to be taught how to perform female exams and to put a condom on a 3-D, anatomically correct male sex organ.
The representative from Planned Parenthood, which provided the instruction, justified the curriculum by saying, “All information we use is medically accurate and science based.” For them, sexual education can be denuded of all moral content as long as research studies and reams of statistics back up their claims.
The advocates of “comprehensive sex education” want teenagers to “just wear a condom.” Planned Parenthood’s amoral appeal to “science” shows why that fails: medically accurate and science-based information doesn’t give children any idea how to use that information, while it makes them think they can do what they want if only they practice the “safe sex” techniques they’ve been taught. But I don’t think the abstinence advocates’ “Just say no” is always an improvement.
Both types of programs are equally flawed and flawed in the same way. Each indoctrinates the children in a particular viewpoint and tries to inoculate them against the negative results of sexual behavior. Neither school of sex educators is primarily concerned with providing an education.
The instruction that each provides is directed toward preventing social ills and the physical consequences of sexual intimacy (teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases) than with teaching children how to think for themselves about human sexuality. Let us assume that everyone wants to help children learn to live a life that is good, just, beautiful, and true, and that helping them understand sexuality is an important part of doing so.
For a program to be truly educational, it must teach critical moral reasoning—an element curiously missing from both approaches. Before they learn the best techniques for conducing pap smears and putting on condoms, children must be taught teleology, values clarification, and information acquisition. A program must not impose views implicitly through slogans, no matter how good the advice the slogans provide.
Let’s take them in order.
First, teens should be taught the teleology—the purpose or end—of sex. Is sex mainly for pleasure? For bonding? For procreation? For all three, and if so in what proportion? Which is primary? Is sex a gift from a benevolent Creator or merely blind evolution's way of tricking us into passing on our genetic material? Students must be helped to ask these types of questions before they begin the other discussions.
Once the purpose of sex is clarified, the students should be able to determine what the purposes mean for sexual behavior. This is the use of “values clarification”: helping students to think through their usually very confused beliefs about sexual morality and to see what the various purposes require.
If, for example, we are nothing but gene transmitters, do we have a reason to value monogamy? Do other evolutionary imperatives, like the maintenance of a stable community, require certain restrictions on sexual behavior? If one of the main purposes of sex is procreation, must we accept responsibility for any children that might be conceived as a result of our behavior, and are we limited in the number of people with whom we can bear children?
Answering these kinds of question will help teenagers understand more clearly what they believe about sexuality. It should also show them how their behavior fits into a broader moral universe that involves more than just them, their paramour, and their hormones.
Students should also be able to clarify which values take precedence and how they affect our motives. For instance, are their reasons for remaining abstinent based on pragmatic personal justifications (e.g., to avoid getting pregnant) or is because we want to honor a holy God? Or is it simply a lack of opportunity to give in to temptation?
Teens must also be free to openly discuss how their associative groups—whether religious or secular—answer these questions. They should be helped to understand what their commitments to such groups mean and to understand the group’s answers in terms of its understanding of sexuality’s purposes—not encouraged to reject them as “unrealistic” or “impractical” or “imposed” on them. They should not be taught to think of themselves as moral free agents.
In other words, they should be encouraged to acknowledge the view of their parents and churches and consider how it affects their decisions. They should be allowed to explore how their beliefs (religious or secular) affect their views of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. Rather than being pushed into debating such controversies, they should be taught how to translate these beliefs into behavior that is consistent with their understanding of the purposes of sexuality and their value systems.
I admit, providing such an education would be well nigh impossible in the public school setting. Even if such a program can be implemented, the tendency of public school administrators to usurp the role of parents and churches would make the school the improper environment for instruction on something as intimate and life-changing as sexuality.
When such education is provided in a public schools (and it is usually mandatory), students must have the freedom to decide for themselves how much information they want. Our culture will force them to become unduly familiar with a broad range of salacious concepts and practices. But teenagers should not be forced to learn more about such extraneous sexual topics than they want to know.
Why should a modest young woman or young man be forced to learn how to put on a condom or be exposed to intimate details about homosexual practices? Modesty is not a vice and should not be treated as one.
The best alternative is for sex education to be taught in some form of church setting, like Sunday School or youth group. Too often even the churches think such instruction the province solely of the parents. But how are our children supposed to gain a robust Biblical understanding of sexual ethics, one they will hold against the counter-messages they hear in school and in the popular media, when they hear them only from their parents, especially when so many parents themselves were never provided such guidance by the church?
The third area that must be taught is how to acquire information on topics of sexuality. Because of the natural desire we have to protect a child's innocence, many parents may find such a suggestion cringe-worthy. But we can not adequately shelter them, nor can we expect society to help us shield them, from exposure to sexual imagery and conversation.
We cannot completely shield them, but we can inoculate them. The best way to prepare them is to teach them how to acquire information about human sexuality on their own. They need to be taught not only where to find the information they seek, but also how to discern whether a source is reliable, what agenda the source might have, whether such information is proper for their level of maturity, and whether such information will edify them.
They should be taught that there is much knowledge that they do not need to have. (I'm not prudish or especially demure about sexual topics. But there are certain sexual practices that I wish I had never heard about.)
Teenagers should be provided with the critical thinking skills necessary to make their own determination of whether the data they receive are trustworthy. But for this they will need to have been formed in virtue, and that, of course, must necessarily precede this stage.
While prurience should be discouraged, mature teens should be given the freedom and guidance to find the answer to the questions they have about human sexual behavior. Restricting access to such knowledge will not stymie their curiosity. They will instead to turn to unreliable sources such as their peers, the Internet or —perhaps even worse—their sex ed teachers.
There is a danger, of course, in allowing teens to explore such topics without oversight. While such concerns are not to be dismissed, we also must not overlook the effect such knowledge can have in dispelling society's unquestioned axioms.
During my freshman year of college, I commented in class that the sex lives of the average gay man was hardly different than that of heterosexuals. Though my professor did not consider homosexuality immoral, he politely pointed out that I was mistaken and suggested I perform some independent research on that topic. A few hours in the library dispelled my illusions and taught me a valuable lesson about believing the conventional wisdom passed along by well-meaning adults who are trying to instill a sense of “tolerance.”
Critics of this tripartite method of inculcating moral reasoning may point out the many ways it could fail. They can claim, with much justification, that the intellectually lazy students will not do the work necessary to find accurate information while the ethically challenged will find rationalizations for their morally suspect behavior. Focusing on critical moral reasoning, they could argue, will not reduce the rates of teen sex, pregnancy, or STDs, because teenagers will engage in sexual behavior no matter what their values.
Such a complaint is certainly valid, though it applies equally to the current curricula. But if we want to provide an education for living a life that is good, just, beautiful, and true, then we must actually offer a program that has at least a modest chance of help them understand sexuality more deeply and coherently than they will do under either the “Just use a condom” or “Just say no” programs.
The reality that some students will not take advantage of such guidance is not a weighty enough reason for denying it to all. The foundation of any sex education program—in school or church—must be to teach students how to apply critical moral reasoning in order that they may make informed decisions. Anything less is merely well-intentioned sexual propaganda.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.