A friend of mine works for an organization that teaches sex education classes in high schools. After a recent presentation, there was a barrage of complaints from parents who were offended that their high-school-aged children were being told how to put on condoms, and that masturbation is a risk-free alternative to sex. I can somewhat understand the psychology of parents, insofar as I can recognize the signs of people struggling desperately to retain control of something they feel as though they own. At the same time, I think their complaints should be dismissed completely.
Human bodies are incredibly complex things, which is why medical school is one of the most challenging intellectual undertakings people can take on. At the same time, every human being possesses such a body and has a right to understand at least the most important things about it. Those include understanding their own nature as sexual beings (and, yes, twelve-year-olds are already sexual beings), as well as knowing the facts about human sex and reproduction. They have the right to know about the risks associated with different sexual acts, and the mechanisms that are available for reducing those risks. They also have the right to know about the psychology and sociology of human sexuality: that being gay isn’t a sign of being unhealthy, that there is a whole spectrum of preference when it comes to sexual acts and partners, and that standards of sexual morality vary across time and space.
There is an especially insidious argument made sometimes that suggests that children should be made fearful of sex, in order to keep them from trying it. Firstly, this argument fails on a factual basis. Keeping kids ignorant will not stop them from experimenting. What it will keep them from doing is taking precautions like using barriers and contraception, talking with their parents and doctors, and generally making informed choices. This argument also fails from a moral perspective. For one group of people to decide that a thing should not be done, then agree to use misinformation to trick everyone else into acting that way, is insidious, paternalistic, and duplicitous. By all means, if you can use logic and evidence to convince people to agree with your views, do so. If you need to lie to them, however, there is a good chance that your perspective is actually incorrect.
Parents obviously have a role in keeping their children safe and in shaping their views about the world. At the same time, they have no right whatsoever to keep their children in ignorance about something as important as their own health and safety, or the functioning of their own bodies and reproductive systems. When schools cave to parental pressure and intentionally maintain the ignorance of some children, they are making the same kind of ethical mistake as fundamentalist governments make when they ban heresy or censor the news. One person’s patronizing impulse doesn’t create a valid justification for the suppression of important knowledge and information. Children should be educated about sex, and it should be done by taking the best scientific evidence we have available and making it as comprehensible as possible for people who have their level of general education.
More controversially, I think it is appropriate to tell students that sex is a natural and joyful part of human life, not something they should be fearful or ashamed of. It can be argued that this steps outside the bounds of science and objectivity, but I would question that on the basis of Sam Harris’ general argument about science and ethics. It is possible to distinguish between societies that enable human flourishing and those that suppress it, and those distinctions are valid in a way that can be demonstrated scientifically. Societies that treat sex exclusively as something shameful, dangerous, and secret seem likely to be comprehensively worse than those that treat it as something positive with risks that can be managed in intelligent ways.