Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Abstinence Without Morality

Various people have been writing about the issues with some of the content in abstinence-only sex education programs in public schools. (Calah Alexander kicked things off. Elizabeth Duffy has, to my mind, the most balanced and sensible take..)

One of the main things being critiqued is that some of these programs (not having been to or sent a child to public school, I honestly haven't studied the question of how many) take an approach to describing the undesirability of premarital sex which suggests that once you've had sex, you're "damaged goods" and there's no way back, so you might as well do whatever. Examples cited include: Once a stick of chewing gum has been chewed, no one else wants it. If someone takes a drink from a glass of water and then spits the water back in, no one else will want it. No one wants an oreo cookie that's already been chewed. Etc.

The basic message of these is: Keep clean, save sex for marriage. At some very basic level, that makes sense, but the examples represent such a simplified view they get a lot of things wrong. For instance, there's no room for conversion or repentance in these examples. If a stick of gum gets chewed, it becomes worthless to anyone else. However, no person is worthless. No matter what we've done in the past, it's always better to do the right thing in the future, and we're always capable of making ourselves more like the divine by rejecting evil and pursuing virtue.

One can say all sorts of things about how a shame culture or a dualistic view of morality is at fault for these things, but I think there's something even more basic we need to keep in mind. I'm sure we'd all agree that a discussion of sexuality should cover the whole topic: What sex is for. The nature of the human person. The purpose of marriage. Etc.

But here's the problem: Addressing the topic that way in public schools is illegal according to the current interpretation of the law. Sex education is supposed to talk about health (physical and mental) but not morality.

Since abstinence programs aren't allowed to say that sex outside of marriage is wrong, they instead try to come up with way to say that it's icky -- which most people will go and mentally convert to "wrong".

So while all these suggestions about how the topic should be addressed are great, none of them would pass muster for what's taught in public schools. They can't talk about the moral meaning of sex. They can't talk about how the end of sex is procreation and the proper context for it is marriage. Theology of the Body is verboten.

Given all this, and the fact that the enforced secularism of our public schools is unlikely to change, there are basically three options:

- Support abstinence based programs which will be restricted to making some sort of (necessarily flawed) case that having sex outside of marriage is somehow un-hygenic.

- Support "comprehensive" programs which will explain in loving detail how to "safely" insert very possible protuberance of the human body in every possible orifice.

- Support simply pulling behavioral sex-ed out of schools entirely and just coving questions of how the human reproductive system works in biology class -- which could probably use a little spicing up anyway once everyone is done dissecting frogs.

Of course, my ideal would be that we abandon the absurdity of trying to enforce "neutral" public schools at all and simply allow public funding to be spread around to any school of the family's choosing (religious or secular) so that people can pick schools that fully express their cultural and moral preferences. However, short of that, the third option seems to me by far the best.


BettyDuffy said...

Thanks for the shout out, but i think you nailed it.

bearing said...

I'm with you on the third option, too. I'm a fan of the First Amendment. Moral instruction is not the government's role, period.

Part of the problem, from the Christian p.o.v., is an impoverished understanding of what "purity" means. Confusing it with virginity -- well, actually, a sort of extra-virgin virginity, since I'm getting the idea that it excludes a history of nongenital sexual activity too -- is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me be the first to admit that I don't have my mind entirely wrapped around "purity" very well myself, and it would probably be instructive to unpack it from various definitions that have been put forth over the years.

There is an interesting counterpoint to our objections, though, which is that -- while affirming that all people have equal worth no matter what their past, and all sinners are redeemed by the blood of Christ -- virginity is still recognized by the Church as a state which has significance. Cf. the case of that rare jewel of a vocation, that of "consecrated virgin," still very much a part of the Church and still only open to women who assert that they have *never* had consensual sex.

So virginity signifies, and virginity is something that *can* be forfeited forever by choice. But at the same time we're bound to recognize that something else can *never* be forfeited by *any* choice. The world has trouble with this kind of thinking. No small wonder, as nothing in it is really countable.

Literacy-chic said...

Sex ed just wasn't that bad. I support the biological function model rather than "how-to"--that's essentially what we got under the umbrella of "sex-ed." No putting condoms on bananas--more's the pity. Abstinence-only in schools is ludicrous for the reason you mention and more--it would simply turn into a joke for those who were not psychologically scarred. I *would* like to see a MORE detailed description of how the female reproductive system works, and some inclusion of Fertility Awareness Methods of child spacing (secular NFP). That would be a good service to young people. But as a Catholic parent, I don't object to having my child learn about contraceptive methods from a textbook, or about STDs. It is for me to put the information into context. I definitely draw the line at promoting behaviors, but that can happen in English and social studies as well.

Jenny said...

I went to public schools and our version of sex-ed was very basic biology. No behavior addressed at all. This was in the buckle of the Bible Belt but also in a city, whatever that's worth.

All the behavior education was left to the parents, for good or ill. My local parish had non-existent moral education.

The big Protestant churches were very big on True Love Waits and the like. I don't remember hearing about used-up gum analogies. They talked about sex being the greatest thing ever that was only for your spouse. If anything they erred on the side of false expectations of fireworks on your wedding night.

Amber said...

Whenever I read discussions of sex ed in public education I always slightly regret ducking out of the sex ed rallies when I was in high school. We covered basic bio info quite well in science classes (well enough for me to puzzle out a basic NFP sort of thing years before even knowing NFP existed) but the moral behavior part was left for yearly rallies for the upperclassmen. A friend and I dodged the various powers that were and ducked off campus, deciding in advance that they would be stupid. I'm sure we were right, but still I kind of wish I was there, if for no other reason to be able to make fun of it.

I think the third option makes a lot of sense, and I think there's room to cover the mechanics of NFP there too. The biology of it all is quite fascinating, I think!

Bob the Ape said...

Of the three options given, the third is the only acceptable one.

That said, I'm afraid recent history has shown Darwin's ideal (which, once upon a time, was also mine) to be impractical - State money will inevitably result in State control. My own, more radical, ideal is to abolish all State-funded education and trust to private initiative and private charity.

Crude said...

My own, more radical, ideal is to abolish all State-funded education and trust to private initiative and private charity.

I'm sympathetic to that. Honestly, as someone who went to Catholic school from grades 1 to HS graduation, I'm not sure it's all that much of an improvement.

I cheer on the autodidacts and the home schoolers.

JMB said...

My children attend public schools. Two are in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary. Our sex education starts in 4th grade with basic hygiene and moves into menstruation/puberty in 5th and 6th grade. By the end of eighth grade, they know the rudimentary biological aspects.
I've reviewed the material before my children were in class - it is open to all parents and there is an opt out which some people use. I don't have a problem with the materials.

Theodore M. Seeber said...

My public school taught chastity, and a healthy chastity at that, through the STARS program. What ever happened to Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex?