“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 Americans desperately need to overhaul our outdated approach to sexuality, replacing our puritanism with an open, honest, nonjudgmental, sex-positive attitude that we work to instill in our kids from a young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.
Since then, social norms about sex have been rapidly evolving, but our sexual education hasn’t kept up — thanks in large part to the Religious Right. After the HIV/AIDS epidemic spurred schools to begin teaching information about sexually transmitted infections, religious conservatives spearheaded a hugely successful state-level campaign in the late 1990s to replace those sex ed classes with abstinence-only programs that lack any information about condoms, birth control, healthy sexual relationships, or sexual orientation. Now, the country is a patchwork of varying state-level sex ed policies, and the majority of states don’t hold the information in their public schools’ health classes to any kind of standards for medical accuracy.
Now, some lawmakers are attempting to combat the abstinence education programs that ballooned under former President George W. Bush by putting forth initiatives to expand comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed classes. But even the most well-intentioned sex ed legislation often remains somewhat stuck in our shame-based past. The Responsible Education About Life Act — a sweeping comprehensive sex ed policy that Democrats in both chambers of Congress have repeatedly pushed — still defines adequate sex education as a course that “stresses the value of abstinence.” Across the country, 37 states require that abstinence be taught in sex ed classes, and 26 states require that abstinence must be stressed as the best, safest option.
This backward approach to sexual education means that American sexual attitudes, particularly as they relate to teens, retain our puritanical past’s unhealthy emphasis on abstinence. Teens are divided into two moral camps: the “good” ones who are abstaining from sex, and the “bad” ones who aren’t (and are shamed for it). Feminist author Jessica Valenti, who’s written a book on the topic, calls it our society’s “purity fetish.” Valenti argues that this preoccupation with purity is especially harmful to young girls, who are held to different “virginal” expectations than boys are. “Virginity and chastity are reemerging as a trend in pop culture, in our schools, in the media, and even in legislation. So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they’re simultaneously being taught — by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less — that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain ‘pure,’” she writes.
Tying young girls’ worth to their purity ultimately teaches them, as Valenti explains, that “their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality.” Equally problematically, telling teens to “save their virginity for marriage” is a concept that totally fails to acknowledge some important realities of the LGBT community — since many of those individuals have no context for society’s heteronormative concept of “virginity,” and continue to be denied marriage equality in many parts of the country. Four decades ago, gay rights and women’s liberation activists worked to move us beyond these limited approaches to sexuality. Nonetheless, our obsession with abstinence endures.
But whether or not we teach young adults that their worth is dependent on their ability to remain abstinent, they’ve proven that they’re still going to experiment with their sexuality. By their 19th birthday, seven in ten American teens will have had sex — very similar to the rates in Europe. The only difference is that European teenagers have higher rates of contraceptive use, partly because they’ve grown up in a culture that doesn’t have the same qualms about giving young adults the resources they need to have safer sex. Of course, it isn’t hard to see some of the direct consequences of our tendency to simply “look the other way” and pretend teens aren’t sexual beings: compared to the rest of the developed world, the United States has particularly high rates of both unintended teenage pregnancies and STDs.
And that’s not the only potential consequence of our misguided approach to teenage sexuality. As the American Prospect’s E. J Graff points out, purity culture is also rape culture — a societal construction that devalues consensual sex and blames rape victims for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. As Graff puts it, rape culture “lives anywhere that has a ‘traditional’ vision of women’s sexuality. A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure.”
The moral divide between the “pure” and the “impure,” the same messages we’ve been feeding to young adults in health classes all over the country, pops up again. Purity culture teaches youth that, once young women have defiled themselves by engaging in the depraved act of sex, there’s nothing else they won’t consent to. An “impure” woman is an active participant in whatever assaults may be committed against her; she “asked for it”; she deserves what she got; she drank too much alcohol and wore too short of a skirt; she’s already had sex with so many guys on the football team, how could she object to another one forcing himself on her? When we think of rape, we don’t think of that girl. When an emphasis on purity remains inextricably tied to attitudes about sex, the only violations that count as “real” crimes are the ones committed against sweet, pure, virginal girls.
Just like we haven’t been able to escape purity, we also haven’t escaped rape culture. This is a country where a Fox News commentator received racist rape and death threats after suggesting that our society should play a role in teaching men to not rape, where high school football players can hire a lawyer to argue that an unconscious girl consented to her rape and abuse because she “didn’t affirmatively say no,” where prestigious universities do everything they can to sweep sexual assault under the rug, where a rape survivor might be expelled from college for speaking about her case, where many local law enforcement offices don’t handle sexual assault cases correctly and can even dissuade survivors from reporting crimes, where elected officials have made so many offensive comments about rape that they were required to undergo a PR training on the subject.
Obviously, these deeply-rooted issues don’t come with easy answers. But as our society marches forward, we don’t want to keep leaving our children’s sex education behind. National policies to standardize comprehensive sexual health information across every state — and to prevent school districts from using instruction materials that “stress” harmful messages about abstinence, contain medically inaccurate information, and ignore or stigmatize LGBT experiences — would be a good start. If our children grew up in a world where discussions of sex were honest and open, rather than learning about their sexuality solely within the context of shame, they might come to understand that they are more than their bodies. In grade school, that doesn’t have to be the type of “inappropriate” sex ed that parents are so worried about. It could be as simple as making sure authority figures explain that kids have nothing to be ashamed about, that they should never be scared to ask questions about their bodies because no information is off-limits, and that they — and only they — have the right to decide how they want to be touched.
We need to go back to the beginning and find a way to totally reorient our approach to human sexuality. Ideally, our citizens should grow up learning about healthy relationships, about self-respect and respecting others, about their bodily autonomy and their right to consent, about taking steps to perserve their sexual health — and especially about their value as a human being regardless of their sexuality. We might want to start in kindergarten.