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Sex Ed: Why We Opted Out

  • Mitali Perkins Crosswalk Contributor
  • 2007 18 Sep
Sex Ed: Why We Opted Out
I'm not usually the type to ban or censor or separate. My "ambassador" philosophy is to travel together with our teenagers into almost every arena of culture, listening, teaching, discussing, praying, discerning. That's probably why it wasn't an easy decision to opt them out of the freshman  health and sexuality class required by their high school. After all, several families of faith told us the class was "no big deal." As one parent said, the subject matter gave them even more opportunity to discuss issues relating to sexuality. But three realities informed our decision to opt out.

First, ninth grade is hard enough. During a developmental period when being like everybody else is a driving emotional need, how many fourteen-year-olds enjoy being in a context where their differences are underlined? By the time teens are juniors or seniors, we can expect the emergence of the strong sense of self needed to dress, act, and think independently. But the pressure on freshmen at school to conform is immense, and most fourteen-year-olds don't have the guts to go public with fledgling beliefs. Especially if a teacher or other students might label those emerging convictions as prudish or wrong. Why put our sons in a position to be challenged before they're mature enough to stand up for themselves?

Second, they're already informed. In my family of origin, where sex was never discussed, I was grateful for teachers who informed me about menstruation, pregnancy, human development. But that was twenty-five years ago, when the "facts of life" were still mostly spoken about in whispers and pseudonyms. Our sons were raised in a home where discussions about sex commenced at an early age, mostly in response to a sex-saturated culture. In music, on television, in films, in books, on the news, in our home and at church, different views of sexuality have been and continue to be the topic of conversations galore. The boys don't need to head to the local drugstore with their classmates to buy condoms (a course assignment); that aisle has already served as the venue of several spirited family discussions.

Third, one of the class goals is to alleviate discomfort in talking about sex, but the truth is that the subject matter is funny, and wonderful, and well, just plain strange. In our company, the boys could giggle about the names of the different condoms even as they raised questions. At school, they might not feel free to joke or chuckle over anything related to sex for fear of being perceived as "hateful" or "sexist." Let's face it, none of us could have invented the nuts and bolts of procreation -- the universal responses to discovering how babies are made have always been laughter, shock, and awe. Doesn't a matter-of-fact, academic approach strip away some of the wonder, shifting sex from the realm of the marvelous into the mundane and pedestrian? The course syllabus doesn't include Song of Solomon in the list of required reading. And embarrassment is a natural response, too, though perhaps not an ideal one. Humans throughout history and across cultures have tried to cover some or all of our sexual parts, and the few exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the church has been guilty of generating unnecessary, destructive shame, but the school's well-meaning attempt to eradicate it altogether is about as effective as a fig leaf.

In the course of making our decision, I stumbled across a New York Times article published in 1999 by Wendy Shalit, author of Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good (Random House, June 2007). Shalit, a self-described feminist whose Jewish parents opted her out of sex ed in elementary school and beyond, wrote these words when she was twenty-three years old:

In retrospect I can see that, more than anything else, it is the fact that I escaped sex education which separates me most from other kids my age. It doesn't matter whether they're liberal or conservative -- if they're around my age and they've had my generation's sex education, it's very hard for us to understand each other in some fundamental way ... The mindset that concerns me is not political but cultural. Anyone who's been through the mill of my generation's sex education has trouble understanding why I'm concerned about the things I'm concerned with -- indeed, to have my kind of concerns, I'm told, is "unhealthy" -- and I for my part cannot understand how they can be so unconcerned, so cavalier. When I hear the words that they use, "hang-ups," "hook-ups," "check-ups," for example, it's as if we lived in different worlds.

"Usually when adults start shoving condoms in our faces," Shalit concludes, "we would much prefer to giggle." By opting out of sexual education at school, we're giving our ninth graders the space to giggle, and marvel, and question. We're also not squirming out of the hot seat, which is the rightful place for parents whether we home school or enroll our kids in public or private schools. No matter how much they've learned before adolescence, it's our job to teach our teenagers about healthy sex -- and love -- in a society where people are trashed by abuse, lies, and exploitation. God be with us as we do.  

View other recent entries on Mitali's blog.

Mitali Perkins is the author of Ambassador Families: Equipping Your Kids to Engage Popular Culture. Mitali is married to the Reverend Rob Perkins, senior pastor of Newton Presbyterian Church, and they have twin sons. The Perkins family lived in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and California before settling in Massachusetts.