A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a book called Female Chauvinist Pigs (see here), a book about how modern feminism has imposed on girls and women a view of sex and sexuality that is utterly devoid of self-respect and love. It was a profoundly depressing book. What's stayed with me since reading the book is the chapter on sex education. The author, Ariel Levy, is hostile to abstinence only programs, pointing out (correctly) that graduates of those programs have a very low success rate when it comes to preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. She therefore believes in sex education that teaches about birth control and disease prevention — in other words, that acknowledges that teens are going to have sex — but (her twist) that also includes lessons for the girls in self-worth. That is, she wants to teach girls that sex is not a commodity for popularity (which, sadly, is how it's viewed now amongst teenagers and young women), but something that should be engaged in for mutual pleasure.
Much as I hate to say it, I have to agree with her, at least up to a point. I don't think abstinence only education — which I believe in as a matter of principle — is a viable option in today's society. You simply can't teach kids to save themselves for marriage, and throw in the dangers of pregnancy and the horrors of STD's, at the same time the kids are living in a dominant culture that is absolutely sex saturated. In an article in which he describes his disgust with adultery, Bert Prelutsky accurately describes the world in which our children are being raised:
Another reason that people risk destroying their marriages, hurting their children and damaging their reputations, is because their lives are so darn boring, and I’m not even referring to their sex lives. The truth is that most people live lives, not necessarily of quiet desperation, but filled with tedious activities spent with boring, mind-numbing, dullards. What makes it even worse is that every time they turn on the TV or pick up a magazine, they’re confronted by gorgeous celebrities, male and female, living the way they’d like to — a mad whirl of parties and premieres, vacations in exotic locales, private jets, limousines, servants, and, yes, tacky affairs. Well, chum, with your income, your humdrum job and your ordinary looks, you can forget about everything on the list except that last item. But even you can meet George or Helen the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at the Bide-a-While Motel.
And aren’t you, for about an hour or so, every bit as sexy and glamorous as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Sure, if you say so.
That, of course, is precisely the same world our kids live in, where Brad and Angelina, or Tom and Katie, or whomever and whomever, are celebrated for broken relationships and illegitimate children. They also live in a "girls gone wild age" where popularity isn't measured in terms of charm and friendships, but in terms of the number of sexual notches on each girl's thong. In which part of this popular culture is there any room for a celebration of chastity?
All of this is not to say that I'm impressed with the alternative pro-sex education programs offered. It's pretty clear that they've turned into how-to classes that help kids familiarize themselves with condom use in a fun and exciting way and introduce them, when they're still very young, to all sorts of alternative sexual realities, such as homosexuality (not that there's anything wrong with that).* The goal seems to be to prepare kids for pop culture — sex, sex, and more sex, in all different varieties. So modern sex education is also something I don't believe in, especially to the extent that, insofar as it teaches about alternative approaches to sex, I believe it's interfering with a parent's rights vis a vis the beliefs he wants to inculcate in his children.
In many ways, I think that the best sex education model was the one from the 1950s. That model had a dominant culture that opposed teenage sex, and a sex education curriculum that was more science than anything else — it familiarized kids with their bodies, and it had a healthy, albeit old-fashioned respect for the integrity of a girl's body. Of course, this model isn't perfect either. Teens still got pregnant, and gay children were miserable. But the teens didn't get pregnant out-of-wedlock in the numbers they do today (there were lots of teen pregnancies, but the girls were married) [rough info about 1950s rates here, and about rates through the end of the 20th century here]; sexual diseases were way less prevalent (a conclusion I draw based on the fact that they've increased dramatically since 1950); and I don't have an answer for a lonely, scared gay child's unhappiness — I'm not sure any system will truly help there.
I don't want to paint too halcyon a picture of 1950s sex education here. I know it had huge limitations, and there is no doubt that, while the numbers of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and STDs were lower, they still existed. Girls will always get pregnant, boys and girls will always get STDs. There is no system, no morality, no anything that will achieve the perfection of total chastity. But to get back to the original point of my post, real sex education takes place, not in the classroom, but in the world at large. What made the 1950s system work better than our system, therefore, was what went on in the movies, on the TV, and in books — and what went on, as far as teenagers were concerned, was nothing. Romance was a chaste kiss and a pin. Sure, that ignored some realities, but in a way, this intentional innocence created its own reality — which is that the majority of teenagers didn't feel, as they so clearly do now, obligated to have sex.
*I need a little disclosure here regarding my own views about homosexuality. I am not a homophobe, in that I do not believe that gays are evil, or that they should be discriminated against. I have no problem with civil partnerships, with full economic benefits and burdens, but I do have a problem with gay marriage, which I think is a construct society is rushing into against the weight of thousands of years of history. I feel especially strongly about this because I firmly believe that a mom/dad home is absolutely the best we can do for our children — and that's despite knowing several same sex couples who are wonderful, loving parents. The fact that gays and lesbians can make good homes for their children, and that straight couples often make lousy homes for their children, isn't enough to convince me, without a lot more evidence, that the gay couple paradigm is one we should blithely embrace.
I also believe that there is a spectrum of sexuality. This says that some people are entirely straight, and some entirely gay, and some in the middle can go either way. And it is this middle group that I don't think should be sold homosexuality in school. The homosexual lifestyle is not a happy one — it's a population with huge risks for drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and physical abuse within a relationship. That is, despite all the positive press about gays, the gay lifestyle is not a happy one — and I doubt it will ever be as long as gays are a small subset of the population, no matter how much you try to normalize homosexuality in society's eyes. Therefore, if my child is one who can go either way, I want all the social markers to pull him/her to heterosexuality, not homosexuality. That's my long explanation for what was almost a throwaway clause in the main part of my post.
UPDATE: A few hours after I wrote the above, I found this article:
Sexually charged music, magazines, TV and movies push youngsters into intercourse at an earlier age, perhaps by acting as kind of virtual peer that tells them everyone else is doing it, a study said Monday.
"This is the first time we've shown that the more kids are exposed to sex in media the earlier they have sex," said Jane Brown of the University of North Carolina, chief author of the report.
Previous research had been limited to television, said the study which looked at 1,017 adolescents when they were aged 12 to 14 and again two years later. They were checked on their exposure during the two years to 264 items — movies, TV shows, music and magazines — which were analyzed for their sexual content.
In general it found that the highest exposure levels led to more sexual activity, with white teens in the group 2.2 times more likely to have had intercourse at ages 14 to 16 than similar youngsters who had the least exposure.
The effect was not as pronounced for blacks, the study said, perhaps because the black youngsters in the study were already more sexually experienced than the whites were when the research began and thus were less influenced by media exposure over the two-year period.
The teenage pregnancy rate in the United States is three to 10 times higher than that found in other industrialized nations, making that and exposure to sexually transmitted infections a major public health concern, the study said.
At the same time parents tend not to talk about sex with their children in a timely and comprehensive way, leaving a vacuum in which the media may become a powerful sex educator, providing "frequent and compelling portraits of sex as fun and risk free."
"Interestingly one of the strongest predictors of risk for early sexual intercourse for both black and white teens (in the study) was the perception that his or her peers were having sex," the report said.
Youngsters "may begin to believe the world view portrayed and may begin to adopt the media's social norms as their own. Some, especially those who have fewer alternative sources of sexual norms, such as parents or friends, may use the media as a kind of sexual superpeer that encourages them to be sexually active," the report added.
I love it when my common-sense conclusions are immediately backed by more formalized scientific research.
UPDATE II: On a related point about the goals of sex education, check this out.