Today I read a post by Matt Walsh detailing his views on sexual health education in schools. I could not disagree more with the position he takes. He doesn’t believe that schools should be teaching sexual health topics except perhaps anatomy in biology class.
He says “Instead of arguing about WHAT the schools should tell kids on the subject of sex, let’s contemplate the possibility that a collective, government-controlled, mass produced and disseminated “curriculum” about sex and intimacy isn’t necessarily the best way to handle such a profound and personal subject.”
I recognize that he is writing from the perspective that sex before marriage is a sin and that we should not in any way encourage children and young people to learn about or engage in sexual activities before marriage. He feels that sexuality is a moral issue. I’m not using the word sexuality here to denote sexual preference. I mean sexuality as that part of ourselves that is sexual.
All humans (and animals for that matter) have sexual and reproductive organs. Most people are born with one set and are biologically male or female. As people develop some will discover that they have a sexual preference for the same sex or that they didn’t get assigned the right biological sex to match up with their gender identification. Regardless of our identifications and attractions, we all have body parts related to sex and reproduction.
Certainly I would agree with Walsh that our bodies are a personal subject. I also agree that sex and intimacy are personal and can be profound for many. Of course sex is not always a positive experience and it is not always consensual.
At its core sexual health education is about health. It is about learning the names of our body parts. If a boy knows the that the thing attached to their shoulder is called an arm, it also makes sense for him to know that the thing between his legs is called a penis. It is the first step to being comfortable with his body. Children have a right to know that their bodies will change, that puberty is normal and natural. Girls shouldn’t be afraid when they menstruate and for that matter should not feel ashamed of their bodies when they are menstruating. Boys and girls, women and men need to understand fertility and how it works. Our bodies are not mysteries. We know that women produce eggs and men produce sperm and that if you introduce them to one another, a baby could be the end result. There is no reason to hide any of this information from children and youth. All humans deserve to understand how their bodies work.
This is not a moral issue. It is a health issue. Ignorance will not prevent pregnancy or Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s). Likewise, knowing how an egg is fertilized will not cause a woman to get pregnant. Anatomy and physiology is not a question of right and wrong and therefore there is nothing moral or immoral about this knowledge.
The decision on when to start dating, who to date, engaging in sexual behaviours, whether to get married (if it is legal) before engaging in those behaviours are all framed by some religions as moral issues. I would argue that morality is decided by the individual and is informed by their faith, the values taught by their parents and the facts they learn in and out of school.
Walsh makes some claims about the evil effects of sexual health education. He says:
“Out of wedlock birthrates continue to climb, now pushing 40 percent as a national average. 110 million men and women have STDs. The divorce rate remains tragically high, tempered only by the increasing number of young people who have sworn off marriage entirely. Kids turn to porn at younger and younger ages. People in general are less capable of finding and maintaining healthy romantic relationships. Over 250 thousand people are raped or sexually assaulted every year.”
I could write a post in response to this paragraph alone, but I won’t. There are a few things to address here. I understand that he and others see children born to parents who are not married as a moral failing. I don’t think it is a valid measure of sexual health education whether or not a 30-something couple decides to live common-law and have kids. As he points out marriage is no guarantee of stability.
There is another measure we can look at to determine the value of sexual health education. A subset of those “out of wedlock” births are to teen parents. I think we can agree that many teens are not prepared to parent and don’t intend to get pregnant. As someone who became a father at 16 I write with some experience here. The teen pregnancy rate (not the birth rate) hit a historic low in the US in 2008. Slightly less than 7% of American 15-19 year olds get pregnant each year. Nowhere near that 40% number claimed and un-cited by Walsh In fact “the 2008 rate was a record low and represented a 42% decline from the peak rate of 117 per 1,000, which occurred in 1990.” Those who have read his post will note that is not a comparison with stats from 70 years ago.
The same report provides a comparison with Canadian teen pregnancy rates. “Despite having declined, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate continues to be one of the highest in the developed world. It is more than twice as high as rates in Canada (28 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006) and Sweden (31 per 1,000).”
Since STD’s are not actually diseases we now more accurately refer to them as Sexually Transmitted Infections or STI’s. I’m not sure where Walsh gets his number from and so I won’t challenge it. Certainly teens – again in the US represent a significant portion (nearly half) of new STI cases per year. Canada is not immune from rising STI rates. Parents and educators need to do a better job ensuring that 1) people understand what STI’s are and 2) how to avoid getting them – abstinence, contraception. Of course abstinence means different things to different people…
I’m not aware of any evidence that correlates divorce rates to sexual health education. There are so many potential reasons for marital breakdown that it is a bit unrealistic to tie it to the quality/morality of sexual health education.
His statement about youth accessing porn at younger ages actually reinforces the case for sexual health education. Research suggests that teens are seeking out porn in lieu of sexual health education. Porn is not real life. Porn involves actors chosen for bodies that are not average. The sexual activities in porn are not reflective of what most people can expect to experience in their relationships. Doesn’t it make sense for someone to let kids and youth know that. Young people will not stop watching porn online just because they don’t get sexual health education at school. With education they can have a forum to process what they are watching and build some media awareness about what they are watching.
I will say only one thing about his last sentence. Rape and sexual assault are not sex. They are about power and abuse. Sexual health education teaches people what it means to seek and give consent for participation in sexual activities. It is about teaching people that sex without consent is rape.
Providing sexual health education in schools is not about framing parents as bad at their jobs as Walsh suggests. It is the recognition that not all parents are experts on sexual health. Not all parents are historians, mathematicians, tradespeople, literary scholars or scientists and so those subjects are also taught in schools. Many of us parents did not receive good quality sexual health education when we were growing up so how can we be expected to know all the ins and outs – no pun intended – of sexual health. We don’t have the time to keep up to date on STI’s, contraception, fertility and tools for educating our kids about all the issues related to sexuality. Our job is to teach our kids about our values and how to function in society. Where we have expertise we share that and for everything else there is Wikipedia and school. The role of educators is to teach facts and evidence. Then our kids can take those values and facts into account and make decisions about their own lives. We have to trust them and give them space to make those choices. Sometimes they will make mistakes and they will learn from those experiences.
Sexual health education is important. It reduces risks and helps teens to have healthier outcomes in their lives. “Teens who receive formal sex education prior to their first sexual experience demonstrate a range of healthier behaviors at first intercourse than those who receive no sex education at all.” They delay the first time they have sex, they are more likely to use contraception and … they have healthier relationships than those who received no formal sexual health education or abstinence-only education.
Parents need to be engaged in the process and education. We need to include education throughout our children’s lives. Sexual health education is not a one time thing. There is no such thing as having “the talk.” It is an ongoing conversation. Parents often lack the tools due to our own lack of education while we were growing up. We have a cultural fear of talking to our kids about sex and sexual health.