Is it appropriate for strangers to ask a thirteen-year-old girl whether she has ever had sexual intercourse? Should your answer be yes, would it be appropriate to follow up by asking her at what age this first happened, and whether or not she used condoms? And for older girls, say those of sixteen or seventeen years of age—is it, as a general rule, appropriate to inquire how many partners they have had, whether they are on the pill or whether their boyfriends simply “withdraw” at the crucial moment, and whether they have ever been pregnant?
To most normal human beings, the idea of strangers probing into a child’s sex life in this way is repulsive. But, hey, the great state of California doesn’t really approve of the concept of “normal human beings” anymore. For what I have just described are in fact the very questions that many of California’s middle and high school children may now be asked to answer, unless they or their parents choose to opt out. But it’s okay—California assures us that it is all for the sake of the children’s health.
Actually, it isn’t primarily about health. It’s largely about school priorities and government overreach. It is also, I would argue, a manifestation, and blunt imposition, of a number of the twisted pathologies of our current culture—or “anti-culture,” to use my preferred term.
The sexual behavior survey is a modular add-on to California’s Healthy Kids suite of surveys; other modules focus on alcohol and drug use, school violence, gang involvement, and so on. But the existence of a dedicated Sexual Behavior Module seems to confirm the notion that personhood in modern America is fundamentally sexual—and by “sexual” I mean “constituted by sexual activity.” There is no module in the Healthy Kids Survey focusing on how much poetry or philosophy these teens have read in the last year. Nothing about how much time they have wasted playing pointless games on cell phones. Nothing about whether mom and dad spent any time taking an interest in them—although, to be fair, the Sexual Behavior Module inquires whether their parents have chatted to them about birth control, HIV/AIDS, and “other sexually transmitted diseases.” No—the underlying assumption is that personhood is about sex, and health is therefore to be assessed relative to sexual activity.
The survey also is not meaningfully consensual. True, the Sexual Behavior Module is entirely optional—for schools. Students and parents may have a harder time opting out, especially where a policy of “passive consent” is employed. Such a policy, as the survey’s website says, will by design and intention “dramatically increase … response rates.” That is probably because if you ask most parents whether they want the sex lives, or lack thereof, of their fourteen-year-olds probed by government officials, they are likely to say no. By requiring them positively to opt out of such surveys, the content of which seems to be less than clear to the parents anyway, parental consent is made the rule, with conscientious objection being the exception. The assumption is that schools have the right to ask these questions. Parents thus continue to be downgraded in significance.
The survey involves a violation of privacy. Anonymous third parties here probe that area of life and personhood which once was private and personal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anything that should be more private and personal. Fortunately, we still recoil in horror at the idea of a private person asking these questions: That is clearly abusive. But perhaps this recoil is little more than the lingering effect of a moral folk memory, for we blithely allow anonymous representatives of government agencies to do the same.
The survey does not merely violate privacy; it plays to the modern urge to abolish privacy entirely. From the pandemic of pornography to reality T.V., to the insatiable urge so many feel to make the whole of life a performance on Facebook and Twitter, the distinction upon which civilization has depended—a careful demarcation between the public and the private—is dissolving before our eyes. The price to be paid is yet to be determined.
And it is almost redundant today to note that the survey divorces sex from any moral framework, not only through the studiously neutral wording of the questions but even by its mere existence. The questions in the survey assume no moral context for sex. In fact, the very process of asking the questions assumes no moral context for sex. Sex is divorced from family, from meaningful relationships, and thus from any larger moral narrative beyond the act itself.
The survey strips away privacy and the dignity that comes with it. It elides the difference between childhood and adulthood. It implicitly denigrates abstinence. And it denies that sex has any real moral or social significance, downgrading it by default to a mere recreational form of biological activity. Few parents, I suspect, would be happy about the person next door, or some random person in the street, talking to their children this way. Why should schools assume the right to do so?
Of course, this is California, not Kansas. But the golden state is not Vegas and what happens there never, ever stays there.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.