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.
And while adults are in remedial sex ed (starting with Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s persuasive bash-up of just about everything we think we know about “human nature”), let children begin at the beginning again, with their bodies.
Let the little ones appreciate the feel of sand through their fingers or a feather’s trace against their skin. Let them listen to the rain, keep a diary of sounds, of smells. Feed them a pear, a fig, a Concord grape, but not fear. Teach them to savor, and then teach them to cook. Teach them to read beautiful, complex things as they grow: “Song of Songs” and Hafiz; Dickinson and Whitman; Spring Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Let them think about how music makes them feel; confuse them about beauty with Michelangelo and African fertility totems, Giacometti and Japanese prints, Rodin and Rubens. Send them to the gym to stretch and sweat and shower, and have the phys ed coach instruct them on care of the body, from nutrition to drugs, sprained ankles to STDs.
Allow them a sensual education, and allow sexuality to be what it is in life, implicated in biology and history, ethics and culture—and, face it, in the secret play of children. Have stand-alone sessions not for what most sex ed now is—”disaster prevention,” says Monica Rodriguez of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States)—but for what a group of troubled girls told me they’ve never had, a place to talk about the real-life dialectic of desire and confusion, “the emotional part.” Try to love them. Hug them, touch them, because a kid who gets much physical affection from infancy through adolescence is the least likely to grow up to be a violent creep. And level with them that almost everything about sexuality is political, which is why almost none of the foregoing can take place anywhere but in exclusive experimental schools.
From the hubbub in Helena, and an intriguing curriculum item for high schoolers to “understand that erotic images in art reflect a society’s views about sexuality,” I had expected a far-out document. In fact, in the sexuality section, freedom and curiosity make only token stands on the familiarly scorched, eminently fundable curricular landscape of strangers, dangers, pathogens, abstinence and suffering. Still the right rallied. I asked Messinger whether the experience ever made him think about chucking sex ed and integrating the essential learnings into science, social studies, phys ed, etc.
“There’s a sensitivity to teaching health” among teachers for whom it’s not a specialty, he said; also, parents would protest because if sexuality were so embedded in other life subjects, how could kids opt out? So biology teachers are scared of reproduction, parents are scared of a classical education and all but perverts are scared of touching the kids.
In that mad trinity lies the abdication of the left. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that almost every state created mandates for sex education. “The right was ready,” Rodriguez says. “What they always wanted was to get sex; AIDS helped them do it.” And they wanted to get sex because they wanted power. Rodriguez isn’t giving up on schools, “but we can’t just rely on schools.” She works with Girl Scout troops, summer camps, churches, community groups. The unfinished business of the sexual revolution awaits. The alternative is more stumbling down the path of dumb and dumber.