On sexual education

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “On sexual education”

  1. Amen to all that.

    I did this program when I was in high school. I can’t believe what an amazing source of good this was. And I also can’t believe the number of middle-school-aged girls who approached us after the show to ask if we could help them find out if they were pregnant.

    If only the Catholic school would have let us visit…

    PS: We were the year of the Masturbation Macarena song, sung across the school board. At least one principal sang it on the air during morning announcements.

  2. If only the Catholic school would have let us visit…

    Isn’t trying to manipulate behaviour by spreading ignorance and fear basically their modus operandi?

  3. I entirely agree. At my school we had excellent sex education at 11. In science class with a teacher who was happy to answer non-curriculum questions. Though there was a certain amount of embarrassment, at least it was before pubescent hormones came in to muddle up the issues and I certainly don’t think any of my contemporaries experimented any earlier than they would have otherwise. None suffered from being better informed. The class didn’t include condom application practice and could have done with a bit more on the risk of cervical cancer, papillovirus, clamydia (though maybe those weren’t as apparent to my then teachers) and other STDs and treatable minor ailments (though its references to gonorrhoea have sadly become more relevant) but it was good on disease transmission pathways, pregnancy and the differences between effective contraception and folk legends.

    Nice photo – I was also trying to snap orchids this week but hadn’t tried b/w.

  4. Loss of funding kills sex-ed program
    Planned Parenthood blames move on end of United Way support
    Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen

    Despite skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted infections in the area, Planned Parenthood Ottawa has had to shut down a major sexeducation program for young people after the United Way unexpectedly cut funding for the workshops.

    The agency has funded Planned Parenthood’s Community Education program, which has offered information sessions to children and youths on everything from puberty to contraception and sexually transmitted infections for more than 35 years.

    “We are very disappointed. . It’s a challenging blow,” says Heather Holland, executive director of Planned Parenthood, adding that the agency was already turning down requests.

    The program, which brought specially trained volunteers into schools and some public venues, has been funded by the United Way since 1975. Last year, the program’s specially trained volunteers reached more than 3,800 young people, Holland says.

    The funding cut comes just as public-health officials are raising the alarm about a spike in the rate of sexually transmitted infections.

    In January, Dr. Isra Levy, the city’s medical officer of health, warned that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections in the area was at a 10-year high, including a 4,900-per-cent increase in infectious syphilis and a 89-per-cent increase in chlamydia. He pointed to a trend of young people abandoning safe-sex practices as one of the main causes of the increase.

  5. Planned Parenthood is struggling to work around Canadian politics
    By Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen April 21, 2011

    In 2010, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper was getting kudos for putting maternal health on the international radar screen, Canada, for the first time in 40 years, provided no money to support an organization which is one of the world’s biggest health providers to vulnerable women.

    As a result, International Planned Parenthood Federation was forced to draw on reserve dollars and had to make cuts to some technical services to make up a $6-million shortfall, officials at the organization’s London office confirmed. “It was quite sad for us,” said Matthew Lindley, senior adviser for resource mobilization at IPPF, “but these things happen from time to time.”

    What happened was the politicization of foreign aid in Canada, something that has long been the case in the United States, and whose dubious path the federal government is now following, especially when it comes to family planning. In both countries women can legally obtain abortions, but the governments don’t allow foreign aid dollars to be used to pay for abortions, a policy that one think-tank says contributes to more abortions.

    IPPF is back in talks with the Canadian government about continuing its funding as part of the Muskoka Initiative, the federal government’s $1.1-billion commitment to improve maternal health around the world that came out of last year’s G8 summit -at least it was in negotiations before the federal election was called. But, if approved, that involvement, Planned Parenthood officials acknowledge, would come with strings attached.

  6. I also have to say: puberty would be scary to go through without good sexual education. The changes to a person’s body are pretty dramatic, and could easily be incomprehensible to a young person of that age. Explaining what is happening, why, and that it happens to nearly everyone has a lot of importance when it comes to the child’s ability to understand their own life and body and avoid the anxiety that could accompany radical changes in the latter.

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