Sex education in high schools has failed

At some point in the past we seem to have collectively decided that sex education for the nation’s high school age (or lower) kids was a subject to be tackled in the classroom. There were obvious reasons for trying to do something, given the alarming number of teenage pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers and other, less tangible social problems. It was an effort always fraught with peril, particularly since it took one of the most sensitive and individual subjects imaginable – truly one best left for responsible parents to handle – and forced it into a one size fits all mold constructed by the government at various levels.

A recent example in California seems to have driven the problem to its ridiculous extreme.

In spring 2014, parents in the normally progressive Bay Area city of Fremont, California, started a campaign to get a book removed from the 9th grade curriculum for the five district high schools, arguing it was inappropriate for their 13 and 14-year olds. They hired a local lawyer and put together a petition with more than 2500 signatures.

Their target: Your Health Today, a sex-ed book published by McGraw Hill. It offers the traditional advice and awkward diagrams plus some considerably more modern tips: a how-to for asking partners if they’ve been tested for STDs, a debate on legalizing prostitution. And then there was this: “[One] kind of sex game is bondage and discipline, in which restriction of movement (e.g. using handcuffs or ropes) or sensory deprivation (using blindfolds or masks) is employed for sexual enjoyment. Most sex games are safe and harmless, but partners need to openly discuss and agree beforehand on what they are comfortable doing.”

“I was just astounded,” says Fremont mom Teri Topham. “My daughter is 13. She needs to know how boys feel. I frankly don’t want her debating with other 13-year-olds how well the adult film industry is practicing safe sex.” Another parent, Asfia Ahmed, who has eight and ninth grade boys, adds: “It assumes the audience is already drinking alcohol, already doing drugs, already have multiple sexual partners…Even if they are experimenting at this age, it says atypical sexual behaviors are normal. ”

While it may seem shocking at first glance, the real stunner is that it took this long – and the arrival of this one book – to spur a set of parents to action. The truth is that teenagers are more than just curious about sex. Many of them are obsessed by it. By the time I was 14 my friends and I had gotten hold of some ragged copies of Playboy and it was, without a doubt, The Best Thing Ever. But parents were still fighting to control access and slow the pace rather than letting wildly impulsive little bundles of hormones plunge headlong into a very adult subject fraught with complications.

And that was during an era when such “information” was still disseminated in the form of magazines and newspapers and televisions hooked up to rooftop antennas that only picked up a handful of channels. It was frequently a futile effort. But today we live in the age of the internet (which always seems to ruin as much as it improves), cell phones and all of the technology which children master in a matter of moments, opening up an amazing new world, much of which they are ill prepared to handle.

The Time report linked above quotes a number of interesting statistics. including the number of sexual references of very explicit nature which high school students are exposed to on a yearly basis. One example of this is the recent MTV show, “Faking It.” The story takes place in a fictional high school outside of Austin, Texas and it is almost entirely about sex. The children depicted in the show are engaged in a smorgasbord of relationships which comprise a ham handed attempt to squeeze every possible demographic into a dizzying array of sexual combinations. (Boy on girl, girl on girl, boy on boy, girl trying to be on girl who is pretending to like girls but wants boy, transgender, transfat, transdimensional and every other pairing imaginable.) Is there a market for this? Well, the show immediately won a Teen Choice Award for “Choice TV Breakout Show”.

How are parents supposed to compete with this? Yes, you might be able to limit their TV time (an excellent idea which would allow parents to actually participate in their kids’ entertainment choices.) But will you deny them the use of a cell phone, a laptop, a tablet? So much of the actually necessary information and tools these students will need moving into college and professional careers is based on these technologies that you would be putting them at a crippling disadvantage. And even if you took them away, dozens of their friends have them the moment they set foot on the school bus.

In the end, nothing will meet the challenges of raising and educating children other than responsible parents starting at a very early age and instilling good values, judgement and perspective in their children. But even that won’t shield them from the 21st century. Good luck to all of you facing this task.