What’s the Best Way to Teach Kids about Sex?

Even in the late ’60s, with all the talk of changing social mores, our puritan roots still showed when it came to talking to kids about sex.

—from “Sex in the Schoolroom,” Editorial, June 29, 1968

“Everything that science knows about sex and sexuality, our children must have access to. … We must give full information. … The willingness to answer, to discuss any question no matter how distasteful, should be the emphasis.” So says the legendary Dr. Mary Calderone as she argues, in John Kobler’s article on page 23 of this issue, the most extreme viewpoint on sex education. And one is tempted to answer this series of imperatives, these “musts” and “shoulds,” with a simple question: Why?

We have all come a long way since those quaint days when legs were called limbs, bathing suits extended from wrist to ankle, and a lady never smoked a cigarette in the street. We have come a long way even from those quaint days when an obscene book or movie was banned as obscene. And yet, when it comes to making sex part of the public school curriculum, as has happened in about half of the nation’s schools, there is some reason to wonder whether we are really following the course of wisdom.

One comes back to the question: Why? What is the purpose of sex education? And why should it be taught in the schools?

Part of the answer — part of what is taught — is purely factual: The mechanics of sex, of reproduction and contraception. It can be argued that children learn all this on their own quite soon enough, or that it should be taught by the parents, but the argument for sex education is probably stronger here. Human biology is as legitimate a part of the curriculum as animal biology, and straightforward teaching of the subject may help to free it from snickering and embarrassment.

But if factual information about sex were the only purpose, there would be little controversy. Basically, our schools do not just teach children what sex is, but also why they should abstain from it. In this, their function is not one of education but of propaganda.

The apparent reason for all this lies in a widespread feeling of moral deterioration, documented by a series of statistics with which we like to alarm one another. Reported cases of venereal disease among teenagers of 15 to 19, to take one popular example, have increased about 70 percent in the last decade. It sounds terrible. But the number of teenagers has also increased, and the actual rate of increase in V.D. is 7 percent. Moreover, in terms of all people within that 15–19 age group, almost 18 million of them, the number who reported V.D. cases is approximately 0.4 percent.

Similarly, as more evidence of moral decay, it is argued that the number of unwed teenage mothers has doubled in the past two decades. So it has, but the rate of illegitimate births among girls of 15 to 19 is still lower — and the rate of increase has been lower — than in any other age group up to 40. And the actual rate of such births is 1.7 per 100 girls. Yet figures like these influence the way we plan to teach the other 98 percent.

In that teaching, we impose upon our children the same terrors with which we scared ourselves in the first place. We really do not know, in all honesty, at what age our children are ready for sex, or in what circumstances. We may not insist on virginity until marriage, but we cannot agree on any other set of rules. So we ask that sex “education” rely on the traditional threats, portraying the way of the transgressor as a rake’s progress through disgrace and misery. And this at a time when the old dangers are much less than they used to be. Drugs do, by and large, cure venereal disease, and the Pill does provide contraception, and yet this only makes us try all the harder to persuade our children, who do not believe us, that our technology will fail them.

Part of all the alarm is probably a matter of class and racial feeling. It is in urban schools, one suspects, in mixed and changing neighborhoods, that the demand for sex education is strongest — not so that one’s own child may be instructed, but so that those others will be taught to behave. Then, we hope, our own child will be protected.

It seems hard to believe that any such approach will work very well — no matter how fervently the parents want it to work — nor is this really the intention of the better teachers in this area. To an idealist, sex education is quite a different matter. “Sex is not just something you do in marriage, in bed, in the dark …” says Dr. Calderone. “Sex is what it means to be a man or a woman.” A commendable thought, but any teacher who can teach a classroom of teenagers, with all their differences and all their problems, “what it means to be a man or woman,” would be a teacher of a very high order.

There is nothing very wrong with sex education, of course. It may well do some good, in some ways, for some people. But as an experiment in attaining mass morality, its value is rather doubtful. And the danger — as with a patent medicine that falsely convinces a patient of his cure — is that we may think the schools have somehow achieved a solution we could not achieve ourselves, and assumed a responsibility that remains our own.

—“Sex in the Schoolroom,” Editorial, June 29, 1968