Conor Friedersdorf wrote on the debate over sex education in public schools in The Atlantic last week, in a piece titled (sure to get readers’ attention) “Should Public Schools Teach 13-Year-Olds About Grinding”. In it he looks at objections from parents, and while sympathetic, finds himself for school education:
If real-world outcomes matter, it can only help the case for more comprehensive sex education that teen ignorance about the subject, or misinformation from peers, does far more harm to adolescents than premature classroom exposure to explicit truths (especially when blended with the value system inculcated by involved parents). One never knows how one’s attitudes will change after having children. But I imagine that, if parenting a 13-year-old, I’d neither rely on the public schools to convey anything of importance, nor would I protest public school attempts to fully inform the subset of young people whose parents abdicate that job.
One reply from his article warranted a follow-up article. A 16-year-old girl responded to Friedersdorf’s article about her sex education classes (through the Unitarian Universalist church) at ages 6, and again at 13. She described what she remembered, and admitted to the awkwardness of the year long program for the 8th graders, but then had this to say:
But now, at 16, I consider those sex-ed classes incredibly valuable. I am aware that I still have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, but I am also aware that my knowledge of sex and sexuality far outstrips that of many of my peers. I feel confident in my ability to make responsible sexual decisions for myself, and I left the class with nuanced views on issues like gender equality and relationships (romantic and platonic alike). What many more-conservative parents need to consider is that the dissemination of information is not inherently dangerous. It is highly preferable, in fact, for children and teenagers to receive accurate, complete information from a reliable source than to spread the gossip and half-truths of their friends or the Internet.
I am aware, of course, that many parents do not believe their children are prepared for the more emotional, subjective parts of a class like the one I took, and that their children may truly not be ready. But it is crucial to protect the right of purely scientific knowledge to remain in the classroom, which must remain a bastion of learning what is true and not what is comfortable. With restrictions on the information considered acceptable for school, students leave the class with curious gaps in their knowledge: my school system, for instance, has established abstinence-only education until high school, with the result that a sex-ed teacher was once allowed to inform my class that condoms prevent the transmission of STIs but could not answer a question about whether they also prevent pregnancy.
I do not believe that the federal government is in any way within its rights to dictate a curriculum to a public or private school, and if states, localities, and school administrators choose to censor or neuter (literally) their sex-ed curricula, so be it. However, I think that making such a decision would be doing a monumental disservice to their students. Even if they feel uncomfortable facilitating frank, sometimes emotionally charged discussions on more subjective topics, schools should provide to their students as much objective information as possible.