Sex Education

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to education… Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”  In my understanding, in order for human rights to be upheld, this education needs to be accurate and unbiased.  Sex education in the United States is an example of education that promises to inform and help students, but the effects of federally funded programs are quite counterproductive.  Billions of dollars have been funneled into abstinence-only sex education for decades.  It was not unless this past month, when Obama passed health care reform, that a new approach would be taken to teach students about healthy sexuality.  However, as much as a victory as these structural changes are, there are also many problems.

The cover of Time magazine, from over twenty years ago, asks the question that continues to be at the heart of the sex education debate.

Thanks to Orrin Hatch, a Senator from Utah, the new budget for health care set out over 250 million dollars for abstinence-only education.  These types of programs have proven to be ineffective and are often filled with false and/or misleading information.  The goal of abstinence-only education is to put off children and teen’s first sexual encounters, but it actually does not succeed in doing this.  On the other hand, comprehensive sex education which discusses contraceptives, abstinence, and sexual health, has been found to have the results that abstinence-only advocates would like to see.

I feel that one of the biggest problems with abstinence-only sex education is that it ignores reality.  In our society, sex is omnipresent: in the media, pop culture, and daily life; our bodies naturally experience sexual arousal and desire.  Being told to repress these urges while our lives are saturated with these images and feelings does not make much sense.  These mixed messages create two spheres of sexuality: the public sphere where sexuality is expressed openly and the private sphere where sexuality must be controlled.  The media pressures young men and women to be sexy.  For example, Axe commercials imply that if male viewers purchase their products, women will be wildly attracted to them.  The classroom should be a place that is able to confront and challenge these images in a healthy fashion.  Instead, it creates delusions about sexuality.

Abstinence only education teaches children and teens to abstain until marriage.  It is based on a “’one size fits all’ vision of adolescence that matches the true experiences of only a minority of youth” (Collins ii).  According to Advocates for Youth, “Many of the curricula commonly used in abstinence-only programs distort information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, misrepresent the risks of abortion, blur religion and science, treat gender stereotypes as scientific fact, and contain basic scientific errors” (“The Truth…” 3).  This brings up many valid points.  Sex education needs to be unbiased and treat all students equally.  First of all, sex education tends to be addressed from a heterosexist lens, whether it is abstinence or contraceptive based.  It also treats men and women differently because of stereotypes associated with both genders.  For example, “One curriculum teaches that women need ‘financial support,’ while men need ‘admiration’” (Waxman ii).

Another tactic that these programs use is fear.  Another technique used in abstinence-only education scares students into abstaining.  By providing false information about contraceptives and stressing the side effects of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies, and abortions, teachers frighten their students.  In 2002, Congressman Henry Waxman put out a report analyzing the content of federally funded abstinence education programs and found that the current curricula “contain[ed] false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives… about the risks of abortion… and contain[ed] scientific errors” (Waxman i).  For example, one curriculum states that “a pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use condoms” (Waxman i).  They also claim that the guilt and shame is overwhelming and that there are countless benefits to abstinence. Scaring children and teens so that they remain abstinent is the wrong approach.  Not only does it not work, but it is manipulative and based on fallacies.

The content of these programs is indicative of a greater social problems.  The material that is being taught has been carefully selected and planned.  Although there are many people advocating to eradicate abstinence-only education, it is crucial to understand why these programs are so popular.  One of the main reasons behind this is because of the blurred line between church and state.  It is important to separate education from religion in schools that do not have a religious affiliation.  The relationship between church and state is unclear in many parts of the government, including gay marriage, abortion, and sex education.  Many advocate for abstinence because of their religion.  Although this is perfectly acceptable in the private sphere, it is inappropriate to force these values upon someone that does not share the same ideology.  Politics tend to align themselves with the majority group (in this case, Christians).  However, the United States is a “melting pot” of different religions, nationalities, and cultures.  Aligning our education system with the wishes of a small group of people is unethical.  By law, Americans are guaranteed freedom of religion; this should apply in the classroom.

Advocates for abstinence-only education fear that openly talking about sexuality will encourage young people to become sexually active.  However, as Michael Kimmel explains, “It would appear that sex education enables people to make better sexual decisions and encourages responsibility, not less” (Kimmel 296).  Not only does comprehensive sex education delay the onset of sexual interactions, it leads young people to make better, safer decisions when they do choose to have sex.  This ultimately reduces the total of unwanted pregnancies (therefore reducing the number of abortions), sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS.  People are going to continue to have sex and it is much better to teach them to do so safely.  Comprehensive sex education is a logical solution to the ongoing debate between advocates on both sides because it teaches safe sex and abstinence.  This gives students the choice to decide what works best for them.

Ideally, students would be given accurate information about sexuality from multiple perspectives.  This would allow them to choose for themselves without feeling pressure to conform to any given standard.  Sexuality is a part of every person’s life, whether directly or indirectly, and it needs to be addressed openly and honestly.  If schools incorporated both ends of the spectrum, I feel it would satisfy both parties and serve as the perfect balance.  Ultimately, the most important thing is that students are able to make empowering choices.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Nathan Turowsky
    Apr 25, 2010 @ 15:58:32

    I don’t really have anything to say about the substance of this, Michelle, because I agree with most of it, but you did make one factual error: Orrin Hatch is a Senator, not a Representative.


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