Across America the approach to sex education in schools insists on abstinence until marriage is the only acceptable choice.
Contraceptives don’t work and premarital sex is physically and emotionally harmful.
Abstinence is usually best, but if you must have sex, here are some ways to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease.
The latter has been called “disaster prevention” education by sex educators who wish they could teach more. A dramatic example of the former comes in a video called “No Second Chances,” which has been used in abstinence-only courses.
In it, a student asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” To which the nurse replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”
In settings outside schools, the constraints typically aren’t as tight. Sex educators are usually given the most freedom with so-called high-risk youth, those in juvenile detention, or who live in poor neighborhoods with high teen-pregnancy rates.
I wish I could say it was for positive reasons, but it’s almost as if society has just kind of thrown up their hands and said, ‘Well, these kids are going to have sex anyway, so you might as well not hide anything from them.’
Sex education in America was invented by Progressive Era reformers like Sears, Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University.
Eliot concluded that sex education was so important that he turned down Woodrow Wilson’s offer of the ambassadorship to Britain to join the first national group devoted to promoting the subject.
Eliot was one of the so-called social hygienists who thought that teaching people about the “proper uses of sexuality” would help stamp out venereal disease and the sexual double-standard that kept women from achieving full equality.
Proper sex meant sex between husband and wife (prostitution was then seen as regrettable but necessary because of men and their “needs”), so educators preached about both the rewards of carnal contact within marriage and the hazards outside of it.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the pill, feminism and generational rebellion smashed the cultural consensus that sex should be confined to marriage.
For a “brief, fragile period” in the 1970s and early 1980s, opinion leaders of almost every stripe believed sex education was the best response to the twin problems of teenage pregnancy and H.I.V. AIDS.
It was around this time that the Unitarian Universalist Association started its famously sex-positive curriculum, About Your Sexuality, with details about masturbation and orgasms and slide shows of couples touching one another’s genitals.
The classes are still going strong, though in the late 1990s, the program was replaced with another one without explicit images called Our Whole Lives, a joint project of the U.U.A. and the United Church of Christ.
Back then, even public schools taught what came to be called “comprehensive sex education,” nonjudgmental instruction on bodies, birth control, disease prevention and “healthy relationships”.
They were all geared to helping teenagers make responsible choices, one of which might be choosing to become sexually intimate with someone. But by the end of the 1980s, sex ed had taken its place in the basket of wedge issues dividing the right and left.
This created the opening for abstinence instruction (the word “abstinence” wasn’t part of the sex-ed vernacular until the 1980s) to bulldoze any curriculum that didn’t treat sex as forbidden for teenagers.
We’ve been stuck in the ‘not permitted’ category ever since, thanks to moral crusaders, conservatives and religious zealots who often come in packs of all three.