Read these two books in tandem and you realize that Bob Dole’s role as poster boy for Viagra wasn’t quite logical: Jerry Falwell would have made more sense. Talk About Sex details how the Christian right in the past generation has made sure that adults who teach sex education in public schools can’t discuss sex with kids–unless they say what the right wants them to. A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems describes how drug companies these days are manipulating the national conversation that adults have with other adults about sex. With new orgasm bromides in the works–this time for women–don’t be surprised if the drug industry hires Phyllis Schlafly as its next celebrity promoter. After all, when it comes to talk about sex in the United States, there’s a growing connection between religion and medicine.
As Talk about Sex describes in grim detail, the Christian right since the late 1960s has virtually shut down meaningful public school sex education in grades K through 12. If this is bad for young people in school, it may be worse after they graduate and grow up. Adults these days–particularly women–tell therapists and researchers about sex without desire, sex without orgasm, sex with pain, sex experienced infrequently and sex had not at all. Pharmaceutical firms are excited about these reports. They’re eager to define women’s sexual complaints as medical problems rather than social, economic or psychological conditions. A furious effort is under way to develop pills, pumps, patches and gels: distaff versions of the enormously profitable Viagra. Will these climax elixirs make women (and men) happier? Or will they keep people ignorant about the all-too-human complexities of Eros as they reduce sexuality to hormones and chemicals–while pressuring consumers to shell out zillions to the likes of Pfizer? Contributors to A New View worry about the latter scenario. And the author of Talk About Sex implicitly lays some of the blame for this dismal possibility on the Pat Robertsons of the world–those who’ve used religious rhetoric to eliminate sex-ed classes.
But wait, you may be saying: My child and my friends’ kids do get sex ed. Yes, but have you checked the curriculum? In Talk About Sex, sociologist Janice Irvine reports that nationwide these days, about one in four US school districts require a sole approach: “Abstinence Only”–no sex until marriage. A raft of covertly religious lesson plans, many with innocuous titles such as “Teen Aid,” hammer home the message. Many are supported by Christian right groups like Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America. Abstinence-only curriculums teach the names of body parts used to make babies, but are silent on how those parts might be used for pleasure while avoiding problems like sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. Teachers obsessively instruct adolescents (girls especially) on how to say no to sex but never on intelligent ways to say yes. They offer no counsel on distinguishing love from lust, and purse their lips at the latter. Birth control is discussed only in terms of its failures. Masturbation is a taboo subject. So is abortion. If homosexuality is mentioned at all, it is typically derided as an AIDS-infected “death style.” Meanwhile, only one in ten classes teach what’s called “comprehensive” sex ed, which is supposed to include objective information on contraception, condom use and homosexuality. But even in these classes, emphasis increasingly is on abstinence only. Many students report getting no information about subjects like how birth control works and where to get it.
All this seems shocking, considering that most American parents consistently tell pollsters they want their kids to have sex education that teaches abstinence but also safe ways to have sex outside marriage. This is the sex ed many schools used to offer, starting in the 1960s. By the millennium, it was an endangered pedagogical species. What happened?