Monday, June 06, 2005

Sex Ed and the High School Mentality

Today's WaPo Outlook section has a variety of interesting topics but there was one article in there that drew my attention particularly. (And not for the reason some might think, either.) Titled, "Not Just A Family Matter," it's a ½ page editorial supporting the teaching of sex ed in public schools. The interesting part starts with the fact that the author is a high school senior graduating tomorrow from Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, MD. Paige Dearing, welcome to the adult world. Things are different out here, as you'll be learning over the next several decades. One of those things (a lesson sadly unlearned by many in the adult world) is that your opinions are 1) always subject to commentary when you air them in public and 2) expected to be based on solid ground, if your intent is to persuade someone. Might as well get started. Oh, and congrats on your graduation, by the way. Enjoy the day, honestly. You have no doubt earned it. Education, however, will be increasing in difficulty level from here on.

To summarize Ms. Dearing's position, she feels that public-school sex education is necessary and that teaching your children this topic at home is insufficient, particularly in this day and age. The primary motivation of any parent in opposing any sex ed curriculum is conservative, religious intolerace bolstered by the belief that if the kids aren't taught anything about human sexuality, they'll remain virgins and completely clueless about sex. (I can assume she means "any adult" when she says "parent", since not all adults opposed to sex ed courses are parents. I won't quibble over the term.) She is confident that the values held by our culture do not reflect such attitudes and offers her sources for that assessment. She recounts some positive learning experiences on the topic she's had and uses annecdotes as proof of the overly repressive nature of parents which public sex ed courses would circumvent. Let's get right to it, shall we?

::::::::I remember how I felt two years ago, in the spring semester of my sophomore year at Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, anticipating the unit we were about to study in health class. So far, we had learned about pedestrian safety and how to act in an emergency. But now we were getting to the good stuff -- sex education. I couldn't wait.

I'm not sexually active, nor have I ever been, but sex ed has always been interesting to me, as it is to my friends and other students I know. Perhaps that's because, despite all the TV programs, movies and jokes about sex, it's still considered a taboo subject. Yet it's hyped up to be this best-feeling-you'll-ever-have act. So why wouldn't teenagers want to learn about it, or maybe even try it? Let's face it: As premature and saddening as teenage sex might be, teenagers do still "do it."

That's why we need sex ed.

Forgive me for a moment, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that Ms. Dearing finds anything about teenage sex to be premature or saddening. Her whole opening statement here imparts an image of a person seriously looking forward to talking about sex - the more about it the better. The last thing she appears to be is sad about the topic or of the opinion that anything is starting too early. Remember, she says she "couldn't wait." Paying lip service to something is used an awful lot by people who are trying to cloak their reasoning or distract from their arguments' weak spots. To be effective, it's got to be a lot more subtle than this. As for the point she's made, it seems to me her suggested reason that we all need to have sex ed in the high schools is that it's titillating for the high school students. Well, no kidding. A lot has changed since I was in high school, but that's remained a constant. I'd bet if I could still ask my Dad about it, he'd say the same thing. Surely she's got more than that as her reasoning? Let's continue.

:::::::: I've thought about this a lot lately as a sex-ed controversy played out here in Montgomery County, where some parents succeeded in blocking a new curriculum that included a video using a cucumber to demonstrate how to put on a condom, as well as discussion of homosexuality and bisexuality. The parents argued that the course was promoting homosexuality and promiscuity, but to me it just seemed that the county school system was recognizing that more in-depth instruction on sex will make students better prepared for the world we will face as adults.::::::::

The other law of arguing a point is that you'd better know your material. The issue she's describing is one I've written about myself and (sorry to say) like a typical high school kid, her reasoning is an "all about me" kind of deal. First, the "parents" didn't block anything. They have no authority to do so. The one doing the blocking was US District Judge Alexander Williams, Jr., whose issue with the curriculum was indeed the promotion of homosexuality. The Judge wrote that Montgomery County Schools:

::::::::"open up the classroom to the subject of homosexuality, and specifically, the moral rightness of the homosexual lifestyle. However, the Revised Curriculum presents only one view on the subject -- that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle -- to the exclusion of other perspectives.

"The public interest is served by preventing [school officials] from promoting particular religious beliefs in the public schools and preventing [the officials] from disseminating one-sided information on a controversial topic,"

Promiscuity never once entered into the court case nor into the public debate, concerned about the topic as Ms. Dearing appears to be. The issue was the school's decision to 1) exclude the position that homosexuality is viewed by a significant portion of our society as flatly wrong, except by way of calling such a notion incorrent, and 2) that the specific religions that held this opinion were morally inferior to religions that didn't. This was the sum total of the Judge's ruling and nowhere within it is any concept of sex ed contributing to promiscuity. Ms. Dearing walks completely around the entire point of the people who stood in opposition to this sex ed curriculum. Either she just didn't know the facts of the case or she did and chose to hide it. The point she does raise about the class is the part about the video demonstrating condom use on a cucumber and this, she implies, is the primary point in getting the course blocked. Again, she's not speaking to the facts. The fact of the matter is that this video wasn't addressed at all. It was pulled by the superintendent of schools after Judge Williams' ruling against the morality judgements in the course. Virtually no one had any problem with that video and not a single soul I've discussed this with thought pulling the video was warranted. As I wrote previously, I think the superintendent did that both out of spite and to offer himself the chance to claim exactly what Ms. Dearing claims here.

Ms. Dearing also claims that the people who stood in opposition are motivated by religious conservatism, and.... well, let's just see what she said:

::::::::The protesting parents were mostly people with strong religious backgrounds or very conservative values. Many of them believe that sex education should not be taught in the schools at all, because teenagers shouldn't be participating in sex in the first place, and it's up to parents to talk to them about things like homosexuality. That argument might be valid if today's society were similarly conservative, but it doesn't seem to me that it is. Our culture's values, and the media's values, are nowhere close to the traditional values of yesteryear. Sex saturates the media, particularly shows aimed at the teenage market.

Take this example: A few weeks back, I was relaxing on a Thursday night with my parents, my 16-year-old sister and some close family friends. As 8 p.m. rolled around, we all gathered around our television set to watch the new episode of Fox's "The OC." The teenage drama picked up from where it had left off the week before, but then suddenly, the screen was flooded with pictures of teenagers making out, grinding and groping -- under shirts and up skirts. Those images were probably the closest the network could have gotten to airing soft-core porn. But the scary thing is that this picture of a wild, unsupervised party with sex and drinking sometimes is the reality of teenagers' nightlife.

I always love the implication that people with "strong religious backgrounds or very conservative values" aren't really worth listening to, anyway. I would say it's more accurate that some of those believe sex ed shouldn't be taught, rather than many, but I'll concede the point to Ms. Dearing. It's irrelevant to the rest of her argument. Her argument here is that society isn't conservative. Given the political landscape that has revealed itself in the last 5 years as evidenced by the candidates people are voting for and the State Constitutional amendments they're passing, I cannot understand how someone can rationally make that claim. There is far, far more evidence that society is, in fact, more conservative than not, taken as a whole, than the contention to the reverse. And, apologies again, her "evidence" in proof of this statement is laughable. She is using prime-time TV shows as her indicator of the real makeup of American culture. This is absolutely so ludicrous as to defy lucid thought process. Hey, when I was a teenager I made out, did the grind and grope and sought to defeat every clothing enclosure that stood between me and her... well, you get the idea. The fact that I did that - in real life, mind you, not in some scripted so-called "drama" - does not change the fact that my teenage world didn't reflect the values and culture of America at the time. It reflected high school. Some adults were more in tune with the reality that was going on than others, but it wasn't a cultural earthquake. My friends and I outgrew it and suffered the consequences of our actions.

The last part of Ms. Dearing's article that I had a problem with was her assumptions about the rest of the high school student body, even as she loudly proclaimed that the assumptions of others about her were way off base. It's a minor point, but it goes to the argumentational mentality, here.

::::::::In high school relationships, it's usually assumed that if a couple dates for four months or more, they're having sex. I was involved with a serious boyfriend for a year and a half. At one of my many varsity soccer games, a few of my young teammates were sitting on the bench guessing which players were virgins and which had "lost their v-cards." When they got to me, they automatically assumed that my boyfriend and I had had sex. When I corrected them, they were shocked. At my school, at least half the senior class is in or has been in a serious relationship -- that's a pretty big number of sexually active teens, if you go by the four-month rule. If you consider the number of parent-child relationships where there's poor communication on sexual matters, where teens can't ask their parents about protection or contraception, you should be thankful that Montgomery County schools offer sex education.::::::::

This is perfect. Literally side-by-side she tells us that her schoolmates assumed she was sexually active and she "corrected them" and then she goes right into assuming that the other students in her senior class are sexually active on the basis of the same criteria she just got done saying wasn't valid in her case. Oh, but it's valid in everyone else's, right? I mean, we can go ahead and assume that all those other seniors are bumping nasties because of the length of their relationships, but not Ms. Dearing.

That. Does. Not. Fly.

If it's an invalid assumption for Ms. Dearing, it cannot be held as a valid assumption for anyone else and any argument that depends on that assumption as a premise cannot be held conclusively - or even remotely - true. Logic is a difficult course, and I hope Ms. Dearing runs into a college major program that requires it. She can look back on this argument in the future and learn from her mistakes.

So, what do I think on the matter of sex ed? I think it's a better idea to have high school students watch videos of condoms on cucumbers and hearing in gory detail what behaviors are risky than to allow them to stand unarmored against the hurricane of hormones that is teenage life. On one point, at least, Ms. Dearing & I are in full agreement: kids will experiment in sex and some of those - many, perhaps - will carry that experimentation to its logical conclusion. As parents we seek to give our kids the necessary tools to make informed decisions in life, and we've got precious little time to do it in. Human sexuality is a lot more complicated than driving a car or evaluating a college. Teaching them the real facts about sex should be embraced as being as important as any of those things. Left to their own devices, they'll stumble along and maybe make the wrong decisions. That's not something we should allow. The floor is now open for discussion.