The Values of Comprehensive Sexual Education

I originally wrote this while thinking about Comprehensive Sex-Ed and how it related to educational reform and my previous stated aims of education. I ended up posting this at Amplify Your Voice, a blog specifically for youth activists interested in comprehensive sexual education reform and the mission of Advocates for Youth.

Tuesday night, my new radio show, Civil Discourse officially launched.  What stared as an offhand idea about a fun podcast a friend and I could create to talk about politics from a youth perspective somehow got picked up by a professional radio station, and I now have a producer, a sound guy, and a live Ustream videocast.   The show is an attempt to stop the real-world meme of “Whoever Yells Loudest Is Right!”  and the violent rhetoric that has so distracted politicians of their goal of, you know, helping solve the problems faced by people of the US and through our involvement in the world.  Kat, my very Conservative Republican friend who is highly involved with the party and president of our County’s Young Republicans Chapter is my co-host.  I, of course, am this progressive democrat inspired by liberation theology and Marxist critiques of commercialism. Somehow, despite our inability to agree on anything, we’re pretty good friends.  But we do agree on how we should treat each other, and that is with respect.   Civil Discourse is a rebuke to the Tea Party (which, while Kat was originally involved with, has since left due to the personal ugliness involved as well as the political haziness) and it’s a rebuke to some of the Liberal Bloggers or Media who think it’s okay to respond to hate with hate.

So last night we talked about education reform, a big issue in Texas considering our State Board of Education, the Race to the Top funding, and well, the honest problems we’re facing.  While far from thorough, we hit on some interesting problems.  Kat and I have different beliefs about what education should do.  I failed at articulating convincingly why I was opposed to her on air, so I blogged about it yesterday in an order to sort through my thoughts. To summarize: Kat believes education is primarily about producing skills, specifically those that aid employment opportunities.  While I agree that employable skills are a part of education, I believe education is about teaching the whole person.  Education also involves character development through our culturally shared morals and values as well skill development.

The problem I see with Kat’s attempt to create a morally neutral-value education centered on economically productive skill development can really be fleshed out using the example of sexual education.  Her sex-ed involves learning the parts of your body in order to keep yourself physically healthy, and depending on local community approval, teaching of contraceptives in order to prevent teen pregnancy, which has a negative correlation for economic gains.  If abstinence all your community wants, then keep kids abstinent using any program that shows it prevents sexual behaviors that cause harm to productivity.  There is however, not to be any discussion of values or morals, especially federally mandated ones that  “instill one set of morals into all children”.  Kat is logically consistent and against any possible disenfranchisement by teaching the viewpoint of one group of people in an attempt to delegitimize others.  She may be more afraid of “Obama Socialists” than she is the Religious Right, but she’s intellectually honest enough to know it goes both ways.

But here’s my problem: Students are not value-neutral robots meant to be filled with “productive” skills and sent on their merry hard-working ways. When we teach something so integral to ourselves as values and morals to our youth, it’s a lot more than simply telling someone to do something.  As youth, we question and talk back.  The many times I’ve told my younger siblings to share and heard them quickly respond “but you’re not sharing!” is just one of the many proofs that values are shaped by our experiences and how we see others act. Those actions may simply be putting on a seatbelt or throwing away trash in a bin, or something more damaging like witnessing domestic abuse.  The way we hear about and experience these things in our daily lives impacts how we think about them, and we cannot simply pretend that certain values aren’t being taught in schools simply by because we cannot qualitatively measure them.  Comprehensive sex-ed is filled with values: respect for the autonomy, personhood and dignity of others, self-discovery, self-respect and integrity by teaching healthy relationships, individuality through the expectation of individual autonomy in making sexual choices, and personal responsibility by giving students all the possible tools they can have while figuring out their limits.  In a skill-focused education, it is impossible to quantify these values and therefore they have no way to be taught or measured.  We cannot measure a “Yes Means Yes” approach to intimacy the same way we measure typing skills.

In my original post, I used the example of honesty, which very much applies to every part of comprehensive education reform.  While we may believe in honesty (we say), how do we teach that as a “skill”?  If the end goal is employable skills, then what do we say about plagiarism and cheating?  “Congrats, you technically got the assignment done, good job for working the system to your immediate individual advantage”?  We’ve seen a lot of ugly examples of that mentality in our commercial society: Enron, the greedy and indefensible mortgage practices and the housing market collapse.  In our homes, we have divorces due to adultery, a culture of gossip, juicycampus, and online bullying.  What lesson plans create “integrity” or “respect”?  Or are these our shared values anymore?

I’ll agree with Kat that when it is age appropriate, every teenager needs to know where and how to find contraceptives and how to properly use a condom.  But if that’s it, we’ve not taught youth how to decide when they need to do this.  We’ve not taught them that they are whole human beings deserving of that same respect no matter what their choices or their mistakes.  That is what is so desperately important about comprehensive sexual education.  It teaches that all of us are equally capable of making healthy life, relationship, and sexual choices given the right coaching and tools.  That capability means that healthy life choices do not have to be the same for everyone, an equally affirming belief of autonomy and relational responsibility.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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