Sex Ed. in the Brave New World

Most of us make the mistake of thinking that the world doesn’t change much. Fashions change, we suppose, but the fundamental things still apply. I grew up in the 1980s, my parents in the 1950s. We had Axl Rose, AIDS, and crack. They had Elvis, VD, and reefer. With apologies to Elvis, these were differences of degree, not of kind.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But if we think that kids today are growing up in a skinny-jeaned version of the 1950s or 1980s, we make a terrible mistake. The Internet has revolutionized childhood. Unlike generations that came before, including my own and my parents’, kids no longer have to wait to hear a song on the radio. They no longer have to go to the library. They no longer have to ask an adult…well, they no long have to ask an adult anything, really.

Imagine that. Imagine never having to go to your parents—or even an older sibling—for the answer to a single question. If you’re over the age of 25, you probably can’t do it. But anyone who grew up with the Internet in the house doesn’t have to imagine it. If you were a teenager with a question in the decade just passed, your first step was Google or Wikipedia, not your parents. Your parents for the most part don’t know anything anyway, thanks to the American educations system’s insistence on teaching social rather than academic curricula.

When I was in middle school we had a regular lesson called Family Life that was taught by a Very Brave Old Lady. Family Life was poorly named. It should have been called Puberty 101, because the only mention of family was when the Very Brave Old Lady told us, “You’re probably too shy to ask your family about this stuff, but don’t worry, you can ask me.”

Let me tell you we asked her everything we could think of just to see how outrageous we could get. That Very Brave Old Lady never blushed once. And she won our trust by inviting us into an implicit pact: Your parents will never find out about the stuff we talk about in here. I’m a parent now myself, so this pact no longer seems reasonable or inviting, but what teenager could resist?

In high school, Family Life gave way to Health class. This, too, was poorly named. Health class wasn’t primarily devoted to the four food groups or the evils of smoking but rather to anatomy, intercourse, and the particular horrors of certain non-fatal sexually transmitted diseases. Most of it was pretty tame—at least by today’s public school standards—and some of it was downright quaint. But if memory serves, a lot of it was squirm-inducing talk about bodily fluids. The rationale, as usual, was: We’ll tell you what your parents won’t.

I know for a fact my parents didn’t have a clue what was going on in those classes. Probably they thought they were all about abstinence and basic biology. I certainly wasn’t running home to tell them all I was learning about condoms, coitus interruptus,  and other pregnancy-prevention techniques vital to the healthy physical and emotional development of every 15 year-old boy.

My parents were pretty open minded, but my guess is that, had they known, they would have said those classes went too far. Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey recognized that there were certain areas that were properly the responsibility of the family and that, in theory at least, there was a line beyond which the school system shouldn’t reach—at least not without asking.

Looking back, the debate in those days was exceedingly narrow: whether teaching kids about sex would cause them to do it. The current conventional wisdom—at least in progressive education circles, and let’s face it, what other circles are there?—is that kids are going to have sex no matter what adults tell them, so it’s best to equip them with the tools necessary to do it “safely,” and if that means we have to reach across that line and into the family’s domain, well, so be it. The stakes are too high.

Now, this doesn’t happen to be a philosophy I agree with, but I give teachers like the Very Brave Old Lady partial credit for at least having a philosophy. The Very Brave Old Lady thought she was doing something good for society by standing up in front of a room full of pimply teenagers and answering our grotesque questions. If my parents had a problem with it, they could have called her and complained.

Who do you call to complain about the Internet?

A little bird told me recently that the middle school in our town supplements its health curriculum with a website, TeensHealth.org, which, according to the local public library, “provides teens and families with accurate, up-to-date, and jargon-free health information they can use.” This is a website that helps teens finds answers to such questions as: How Can I Get on the Pill Without Telling My Parents? and How Do I Get Checked for STDs Without My Parents Knowing?

While certainly jargon-free, it’s hard to imagine families using TeensHealth.org together. (Seems like that would sort of defeat the purpose.) Did I mention that this is the middle school?

The folks who developed the curriculum for my high school “health” class were probably well-meaning. They thought, “There are public health problems here—AIDS, teen pregnancy—that are not being addressed because kids can’t or won’t talk to their parents about sex.” And they thought they could solve things with just a little straight talk. (At least that’s the charitable interpretation. The uncharitable interpretation is that their goal was social change—a complete restructuring of societal norms about sex and human relationships achieved one young mind at a time through the public education system. Given the way the last 30 years have played out, it seems clear that the uncharitable interpretation was closer to the truth.)

But what no one could have predicted—not my parents, not the Very Brave Old Lady, and not me—was that the Internet would moot all the time-worn public debates about whether and how to teach kids about sex. Teachers and librarians and parents and peers are pushing teenagers—young teenagers—to look for answers to questions about their bodies, their moods, their relationships, and their impulses in the most inhuman, inhumane, and untrustworthy place possible: the Internet.

My how the world has changed.

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