"What if our kids really believed we wanted them to have great sex?" This is the question asked by Al Vernacchio, the subject of a fawning cover story in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. There are those who will tell me to just stop reading pieces like today's (which is titled "Teaching Good Sex: A Frank, Fearless Approach to the Birds and the Bees") because they are such absurd excuses for journalism. But if America's cultural elite read one long piece about sex education this year and "Teaching Good Sex" is it, the effects will deeply harmful.
So back to Al. Vernacchio is the teacher of a class called "Sexuality and Society" at Friends Central, an affluent high school outside of Philadelphia. He believes that students need to embrace sexuality "as a force for good." To that end, he encourages students to talk about, well, anything they want. He shows pictures of male and female genitals, which are according to the piece, "intended to show the broad range of what's out there." He describes the process as "desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they'll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner's." And why wouldn't we want everyone to just be more comfortable with their bodies and know more about how to enjoy their sexual experiences?
Al also wants us to understand that many of the problems we have with our sexuality come from gender bias. One girl in the class talks proudly about how she likes sex just as much as boys do and sometimes she's just not interested in a relationship. Another girl in the class says her eyes are opened by this experience."Before I took this class, I probably would've thought she was a whore, but she knows what she wants. That's not something I want, but it doesn't make her wrong, it doesn't make me wrong."
The truth of the matter is that this same article could have been written 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. In fact, about 20 years ago my former high school decided to institute an AIDS curriculum, which the teacher turned into an excuse for lots of open, honest discussions about sex. It lasted for one titillating year before parents started to get a little bit annoyed, as I recall. (According to Al, by the way, the parents at Friends have never complained about his class). I guess the parents are just cooler today.
So let me get to the point. First, I don't think sex education belongs in schools. There's so much schools don't manage to do well -- like teaching math and reading -- that I can't think they'll have a much better track record with sex education. People like to justify sex education as a way to "save lives," by helping students learn how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases or how to prevent pregnancy. But no one needs a class for that. Putting a condom on a banana doesn't require an entire curriculum. The goals of classes like Sexuality and Society are much broader. They are first to desensitize. Sex is not just something that is not shameful, according to advocates of this sort of sex education. It is also something that is casual, public, and detached, if you'd like, from personal relationships.
Great news, of course, if you're a teenage boy. Last year I reviewed a book called Premarital Sex in America for Commentary (subscription required). The book was an amazing collection of the social science research on sex outside of marriage. Here was the takeaway:
Ultimately it is women who are getting the short end of the stick. “Having more numerous sexual partners is associated with poorer emotional states in women, but not men.” Indeed, a number of studies have shown “a linear association between both lifetime and recent partners and indicators of poorer emotional health, and women who report the greatest number of partners display the clearest symptoms of depression.” Despite decades of feminists telling women they can act like men when it comes to sex, it simply hasn’t worked out that way. Men exhibit no detrimental emotional effects from having multiple partners or short-term relationships. As the authors correctly note, “To call the sexual double standard wrong is a little like asserting that rainy days are wrong. We may not like them, but they’re not going away.”
People like Al Vernacchio would like us to believe that girls' unhappiness with casual sex is all the result of societal bias. He is part of the cultural elite who believe that gender is a social construct and that men and women are, underneath it all, just the same. Despite decades of working to chip away at this bias problem, girls are still just as unhappy with casual sex as they were 50 years ago. The only difference now is that they are under pressure from parents and teachers and friends and boyfriends to just get over it. To know that what we want for them is just "to have great sex."