Tweeting About the Talk

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When Alice Dreger sat in on her son’s high school sex ed class, she was appalled by what was being presented by a couple of guest teachers — but her public outrage sparked a wide-reaching and much-needed conversation.

By Alice Dreger

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Shoppers at Walworth Road Market in South London at a market stall displaying copies of a sex education book called Learning to Live With Sex, on April 13, 1972. (Photo: A. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

I never thought I would be thrown out of high school at the age of 49. But after I live-tweeted my son’s high school sex education class on the day Christian pro-lifers came in to teach “the abstinence lifestyle,” I got a call from the principal telling me I would have to ask permission to visit again.

To be perfectly honest, I still don’t completely understand why the tweets went viral — so viral that by the time my son came home from school, the story was plastered on Vox and Salon and headed across the Atlantic to become fodder in various national sex ed debates.

I suppose a lot of it had to do with how outrageous the two guest teachers were that day. There was the man brought in to tell his miserable story of doing drugs and getting two girls accidentally pregnant. He explained to the class that — after all this messing up — he had finally found a “good” girl who wouldn’t give him sex until he married her. What did he tell the boys?

Vigorously pursue the girl who says “no.” That’s what I want my son being taught.

There was also the “expert” guest who wanted to make sure the kids did not trust condoms. “Safe sex,” she told the class, “is kind of a misnomer.” Forget teaching kids how to put on a condom correctly; she was there to instill fear:

She had the class play a “game” in which each student was assigned a number from one to six. She explained that that is about how often a condom fails (but didn’t explain you can reduce that rate if you learn how to do it right — if only someone would teach this). In this “game,” if your number came up on the roll of a die, your condom failed and you got pregnant — because every time a condom fails, pregnancy results, right?

Whenever a student’s number came up, she handed out a paper baby. Not surprisingly, she rolled the die until every number came up.

At this point, I was kind of losing it, tweeting the sort of thing that was probably destined to get the principal’s attention eventually — if getting calls from USA Today didn’t do it.

The lessons being taught were clear: Sex outside of marriage is shameful and makes you — especially if you’re female — a slut no decent person should want to date or marry. Condoms fail so often, why bother? Finally, there is no sex except between one man and one woman, and they’re only allowed to use the one approved key-lock system.

This was old-fashioned terror-based sex ed, the kind we know doesn’t work to stop kids from having sex. In fact, the class period had started with my son trying to present evidence showing that abstinence education doesn’t reduce unwanted pregnancy or disease transmission.

But the guest teacher told my son you can find anything on the Internet, and brushed him off. She did not want to hear about studies like those by the Guttmacher Institute that consistently indicate that educational “strategies that promote abstinence-only outside of marriage while withholding information about contraceptives do not stop or even delay sex. Moreover, abstinence-only programs can actually place young people at increased risk of pregnancy and STIs.”

That’s because abstinence-based programs tend to teach that sex outside of marriage is deeply shameful — exactly what these guests to my son’s class were teaching. Shame-based sexual relations end up being furtive and virtually impossible to talk openly about, not the sort of sexual relations where partners think carefully in advance about disease protection, pregnancy prevention, and appropriate consent practices.

“That’s what you get for living in the Midwest,” a number of people commenting on this scene said to me later. But the thing is, we live in a solidly liberal science town, namely East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University, a top-ranked research institution. And yet our tax dollars were being used to pay these guest “educators” — people who, if my tweeting hadn’t received a lot of attention, would have been pushing virginity pledge cards on the same kids when they returned the next day.

As it was, they didn’t come back. The principal held an emergency meeting at which many other parents showed up to express outrage at what was going on in our health class. The district’s sex ed advisory committee met for the first time in years, and we finally started inching toward a better curriculum, including one that acknowledges the existence of LGBT people. (As I said to the principal, if you actually care about health risk, you’ll realize the substantial dangers in pushing the implicit message that every teenager in our school must be straight and cis-gendered.)

But through all this, I learned to my dismay that state law requires that our school district “emphasize abstinence.” This includes a requirement that our teachers “advise pupils of the laws pertaining to their responsibility as parents to children born in and out of wedlock.” Mind you, I don’t mind my son knowing his legal responsibility to his children — what I find creepy is the shame-based teaching of abstinence and the implication that there is some difference to children born “in and out of wedlock.”

I also learned, through this event, that sex ed has become so political, it’s also come to be about money. Just as textbook publishers make healthy profits off of the controversy over teaching evolution, so is there serious money to be made if you can create enough controversy around sex ed such that district administrators are too afraid to do anything but to farm it out to hired hacks for whom they will never really look fully responsible. The plot of my own district’s situation thickened when I discovered the individual counseling our sex ed advisory committee on how to navigate the choppy waters also sells her own “neutral” curriculum to our district.

What’s a parent to do? As a result of all this, that’s a question I got from lots of parents who are equally worried or upset about their children being taught shame-based, unrealistic sex ed. One thing to do is to go to class and find out what’s really being taught. Another is to get involved in school district conversations about reform.

But until major changes are made, the main thing you have to do is commit to homeschooling when it comes to sex ed. I’m not suggesting taking kids out of classes, but rather teaching them at home to know the facts — including, most especially, that sex should be about mutual pleasure, not shame. Doing that on a regular basis with our son inoculated him against the messages he was getting not only in school, but also in our culture at large.

To help other parents learn to do this, using my background as a parent, an advisor to clinicians working with sexual minority youth, and a historian of sexuality, I’ve written a short new book: The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World. The book gives parents a methodology for talking with their kids about any difficult subject — sex, cancer, family fights, job loss — while also teaching the basics of how sex development, gender identity, and erotic feelings and behaviors vary a lot in the human population.

Talking with our children about sex is always going to be challenging. As I said to my son, when I turned purple explaining intercourse to him when he was five and asked me exactly how his father’s sperm got to my egg (gulp), sex can be a very intense experience, so it can be hard to describe to a child without getting a little emotional in one way or another.

But we have to do it. Because the odds are that our children are going to have sex some day. And condoms can fail, especially if you use them incorrectly. And babies aren’t made of paper, nor are our lovers. The real world calls for reality-based sexual education.

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