Schools Shape Sexual Culture

Spencer Wharton

Illustration by Luke Hampton
Illustration by Luke Hampton

Dear Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association:

Earlier this year, the Chicago Board of Education voted to overhaul its public schools’ sex education curriculum and begin teaching age-appropriate sexual health lessons in kindergarten. You, in response, criticized the board as “pushing an extreme agenda across the board, both to normalize sex and begin the conversation earlier.”

I’ll admit that, as a leftist atheist sex columnist from the Pacific Northwest who enjoys premarital sex on a rather regular basis, I’m probably not your target audience. But still, I’m having one hell of a time trying to wrap my mind around how your two points, “normalizing sex” and “beginning the conversation earlier” are bad things.

We’re both adults here, so let’s be frank: People fuck. They make love. They have sex. The vast majority of people will have sex during their lives, and most will do it more than once! And contrary to what some people seem to think, sex isn’t some new development in human history. I’m not a historian, but I feel it’s pretty safe to say that, broadly speaking, sex has been a favorite pastime of humans for, well, ever.

I bring this up because you seem to be under the perplexing impression that sex is not “normal.” It’s as if you want us to teach our children that sex is like pink eye––a weird, disgusting rarity that only happens to the miscreants who don’t wash their hands. But sex isn’t pink eye. It isn’t a rarity. And as long as we keep our children in the dark about this fact, we’re setting them up to feel shame and guilt when they begin to develop their sexualities, as they almost inevitably will.

After all, classrooms are where we forge the culture of our future. Today’s teachers shape tomorrow’s society. The lessons we teach our children about their bodies––both what we say (or don’t) and how we say it––will follow them for much of their lives. For generations, sex education has saddled our children with incomplete information and shame. We can do better than this.

You’re worried that we’re trying to “begin the conversation earlier.” But that’s what we need, because we’ve spent too long saying nothing about sex at all. In every other subject, we expect our schools to teach our children fundamental, age-appropriate, evidence-based facts. This, after all, is how we empower our children to become informed, intelligent teenagers and adults. Yet when it comes to sex, we hold an entirely different set of standards, as if we’d rather keep our children ignorant. This is not the purpose of education.

I know you’re afraid of the potential consequences of early sex ed. Supporters of abstinence-only sex ed often fear that giving students information about sex will make them more likely to have it. But the evidence shows the contrary: Comprehensive sex ed makes students more likely to delay first sex. Similarly, teenagers who receive comprehensive sex ed are 50 percent less likely than abstinence-only students to experience pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education is the best way to help our youth stay healthy.

Instead of consequences, think of the potential benefits. The next generation of Chicago’s schoolchildren will grow up unafraid, unashamed and unapologetic. When they choose to become sexually active, either as teenagers or as adults, they will do so from an empowered, knowledgeable position. Comprehensive sex ed, after all, doesn’t tell students they should have sex; rather, it gives them information and encourages them to make decisions in line with their personal values.

They will have the skills to build healthy relationships founded on mutual respect and consent. They will be healthier, more responsible, less likely to get pregnant––and, god forbid, comfortable with their sexualities.

This should not scare you the way I know it does.

-Spencer Wharton