“In case you missed it, Chicago public schools are set to begin teaching sex-ed to Kindergartners,” Family Research Council head Tony Perkins tweeted earlier this week. Adding his voice to a growing chorus of right-wing fearmongering, Perkins is referring to the fact that the city’s Department of Education approved a new policy requiring public schools to teach age-appropriate, LGBT-inclusive sexual health instruction at each grade level. The youngest students — the primary subjects of the recent concern trolling — will learn about anatomy, reproduction, healthy relationships, and personal safety.
It comes as no surprise that Perkins and his fellow conservatives, who are still stubbornly clinging to failed abstinence-only education policies, would be up in arms about comprehensive sex ed (especially when it acknowledges the existence of the LGBT community). But the thought of the country’s third largest school district teaching, in the school district’s words, “accurate information…[so students can] make healthy choices” still makes a lot of people outside of Tony Perkins’ circles squeamish. Mainstream media outlets were quick to raise alarm about 5-year-olds learning how to identify their genitalia, with headlines like “Chicago Passes Sex-Ed for Kindergartners,” “Sex Ed For Kindergarten Students,” and “What Age Should Kids Start Learning Sex Ed? In Chicago, It’s Kindergarten.” The popular parenting blog Babble quoted a mother who revealed the panic behind these headlines: she “just doesn’t think it’s appropriate.”
The unfounded fear that young children will somehow become “impure” if they learn about a dirty subject like sex is deeply rooted in American culture. Our society assumes that human sexuality is dark, dangerous, and shameful — something we need to protect teens from, rather than teach them about. Teens consistently learn that it’s not okay to talk about sex because it’s supposed to be totally off-limits to them, constrained to the bounds of a traditional marriage. But this attitude has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished. Americans desperately need to overhaul our outdated approach to sexuality, replacing our puritanism with an open, honest, nonjudgmental, sex-positive attitude that we work to instill in our kids from a young age.
Today’s fights over what’s “appropriate” to teach our children about sex are largely symptoms of the United States’ long history of sexual conservatism, which can be traced back to our Puritan roots. There have been a few more sexually liberated periods in U.S. history, like the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, but attitudes about sex remained largely conservative until the women’s and gay rights movements turned everything upside down. Those movements coincided in the 1970s to challenge preconceived ideas about heterosexuality and gender roles, working to normalize sex outside of marriage, sex outside of procreation, and homosexuality as equally valid human experiences.