When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex Since the Sixties by Kristin Luker (Norton, 416 pages, $25.95)
From a parent's point of view, it's easy to see how sex education would be a disaster: How can a teacher standing in front of 30 embarrassed pubescent boys and girls do justice to the complicated and personal issues around sex?
From a policy point of view, however, sex education is a necessary evil: It offers information that young people need but often don't receive from their parents (who would impart their own values in the process) because too many parents -- by message, example, or default -- teach their children that unprotected and non-monogamous sex is OK, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases notwithstanding.
Kristin Luker is right, then, when she argues in her new book When Sex Goes to School that values are at the heart of the debate over sex education. The central purpose of sex education, however, is not to teach values but to cut down on the social costs of unwanted pregnancy and sex-related illnesses. And it is here that Luker and I part ways.
As Luker shows, much of the history of sex education in this country has, in fact, been an attempt to teach not about sex but about values -- specifically values regarding marriage and the role of women in society. In a couple of engaging historical chapters, among the most interesting in her book, Luker takes us back to a little-discussed sexual revolution at the turn of the 20th century. That earlier revolution, spearheaded by prominent Progressives, was the first to introduce sex education into America. The movement was overtly feminist -- it sought to do away with prostitution and the exploitation of women. And it was overtly feminine -- the early sex-ed activists promoted a single standard of sex behavior that was essentially female. In place of the imperious, hotheaded, and hard-to-control male sexuality of the previous century, Luker writes, the social hygienists proposed a tender, intimate, comradely, and feminized sexuality modeled on existing notions of how women experienced their own sexual drives. At root, the first wave of sex education was about sex as a tool for romantic monogamy, a new model of marriage-as-intimacy, as Luker describes it, then emerging among the middle and upper classes.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s reflected other values. Yes, this sexual revolution was, like its predecessor, feminist in its pursuit of a single standard of sex behavior. But that standard, argues Luker, was not what the first sex educators had hoped: Women began to conduct their sex lives in much the same way that men did. Faced with an apparent explosion of nonmarital sexual activity, the new sex educators realized that values in the traditional sense would no longer speak to the needs of the students in their classrooms. So many kids (and adults) were going to have sex outside marriage that the sex-ed teachers focused on risk reduction. It's true that certain values accompanied this education -- a belief that the best tool schools could offer young women and men dealing with the new sexual climate was information. But perhaps the most significant moral step was sex ed's acceptance of sex outside marriage, albeit on pragmatic grounds.
Today, the fight is between those educators and others who would reintroduce the moral vocabulary of marriage back into the classrooms. As Luker shows, the fight is still on the liberal turf of risk reduction: Both sides claim the efficacy of their programs in reducing teen sexual activity, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. But Luker isn't too interested in this research because, despite her moderately liberal tone and her inclination to buy in to the value of comprehensive sex education, she also would like to see values back in the conversation.
It doesn't become clear until the end of her book that Luker has a values agenda. After eight chapters in which she carefully straddles the moral fence, she makes a rather sudden, and to me genuinely awful, leap toward policy. She declares that because the debate over sex ed gets its passion from disagreements about equality, those disagreements need to be part of sex ed. Young women and men, she asserts, need to know that the women's movement has not delivered on all of its promises and that men and women rarely share full equality in all realms of life. And, she says, we are still debating whether the gender and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s have not entirely fulfilled their promises or were based on empty promises to begin with. & [S]exual liberals and conservatives will surely continue to differ as to whether treating women as fundamentally equal to men or treating them as fundamentally different contributes more to social and personal flourishing & So why not tell adolescents this?
Why not, indeed. As a woman, albeit a grateful 20 years out from my own sex education, I cannot think of a worse idea. Imagine yourself 14 years old, female, just over the edge of puberty, sitting in class with your peers. You barely understand how to fasten your own bra, let alone imagine yourself as part of the whole history of women in America. You certainly think that your whole life is ahead of you. In sex ed, you learn about human biology and pregnancy. You learn that to prevent aids and other diseases, plus pregnancy, you should always use contraception, specifically condoms. And then &
Your teacher suggests that reasonable people can disagree about the role of women in society. Some, she says, believe that women and men are equal, and that women -- because fate has dealt us the hand of potential pregnancy -- are owed the dual tools of contraception and abortion to level the playing field. But some others believe that women and men are essentially different. This takes us back to a time before the first sexual revolution: As Luker's own telling of history shows, such views are rooted in the belief that women and men have different spheres, talents, and places in society -- as well as different sexualities.
To teach that reasonable people can disagree over whether men and women are equal or different highlights equal and different as opposites. And in this discussion, difference -- despite the efforts of self-styled difference feminists -- reflects notions of sex and gender that cannot be decoupled from truly archaic visions of what women deserve; it denies those gains that the feminist, not the sexual, revolution won for us. (Luker herself relates that some abstinence texts already show gratuitous pictures of women doing housework.) Quite a lesson for our 14-year-old girl to take home from school that day.
Of course, Luker is right that the debate about sex education gets its passion from deeply felt ideas about gender, and women's roles in particular. The question is whether we should allow the passion behind those values to drive our decisions about what to teach our teens. The point of public policy should not be to finesse the value question to try to please all sides, as Luker does. Troubling abortion trends notwithstanding, we can no more go back to a pre-sexual revolution, pre-contraception world any more than we can go back to a pre-industrialized world. There will be risk, and the point of sex education should be to reduce it.