Summer is waning, and thoughts turn from the scent of the sea or cut grass, the whir of a lazy fan, the kiss of a breeze against damp skin, to the lockdown we call school. Hold that thought for a moment and direct your attention to Montana, where the Helena School District spent the summer in a contest over sex, over what children should and shouldn’t know and when—and what adults might gain from it. The occasion was a draft health curriculum covering everything from handwashing to carpooling, with just enough in between about love thyself and thy neighbor to set some people’s hair on fire.
Why should first graders learn that “human beings can love people of the same gender & people of another gender”? Why should second graders learn that “fag” and “homo” can be hurtful? Why should fifth graders learn that sexual activity “includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral, or anal penetration”? And why the hell should anyone learn that “some values are universal, others differ”?
Public meetings were impassioned. Fox News and national talk-radio jumped on the case, followed by Tea Partyers and the state Republican fundraising machine. Superintendent Bruce Messinger says he has received a few thousand e-mails. The school district has about 8,000 students. Striving to keep discussions local, he asks correspondents, “Where are you? Who are you?” Not atypically, someone will write, “I’m a minister in Missouri.”
Messinger says most middle and high school parents support the curriculum, just as nationally parents overwhelmingly want schools to deal with sexuality and what impinges on it. Montana teenagers’ rates of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy and alcohol, tobacco and meth use are up. Helena’s middle and high school risk surveys (limited as they are, being self-reports) show troubling rates of bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts, forced intercourse, violence and a significant amount of drugging and sex play among middle schoolers, 7 percent of whom said they were 9 or younger when they first had intercourse. The children could surely have been fooling with the grown-ups, but since budget cuts pretty much eliminated health education from Helena’s middle schools ten years ago, administrators and teachers don’t have a lot to go on, and they are feeling their inadequacy.
When the school board presents its curriculum revisions in September, we may hear further adult pangs over the theft of innocence, while the kids roll their eyes.
Yet some things are stripped away when sex goes to school. Sensualism, awe, funk, God or, if you prefer, the raw power that Charles Bukowski described as “kicking death in the ass while singing.” They are the same qualities that were stripped away when sex put on a suit and went to work for everything from pharmaceuticals to training bras; the qualities the grown-up world discarded on the short walk from the sexual revolution to the bank, dropping the kids outside the shop window and saying, “Just say no” or, among liberals, “The schools will handle it.”
If, as Helena’s school superintendent says, the messages being sent about sex are “an adult worry,” the logical conclusion is to let the children be and send the adults back for sex education. Let adults see the world they’ve created as a child might: the impossible bind they’ve set up, telling boys to be thoughtful and kind, then worrying they might be queer, handing them a vulgar electronic game, chuckling over Two and a Half Men or Family Guy or any other popular display of maleness as something stupid and mean; telling girls, “It’s too soon,” then treating them to Brazilian waxes or dragging them through stores where women’s dresses look as if they were designed for children and children’s clothes seem designed for hookers; telling the kids, “We want you to be safe,” then accommodating to about 14 million of them in poverty, the single greatest risk factor, as author Judith Levine notes, for every other risk against which sex ed is supposed to arm them.