What should we teach youth about sex?

This past month a friend sent me an e-mail regarding sex education. In following a link and clicking on an unfamiliar term, I was immediately taken to a page with graphic illustrations of the sex act that term referred to.

It is at times like this that I wish it were possible to wash out a portion of one’s brain.

The unfortunate thing is that these graphic illustrations are included in “sex education” in some parts of the nation.

As I consider the young people I most care about, I am prompted to ponder what I wish they would learn about sex in a school setting.

1) I would like for them to be taught that they have reproductive “bits,” the age at which it becomes biologically responsible to use those bits, and the age and circumstances when use of those bits become correlated with happiness and joy (e.g., not poor, not diseased, not dead, not abused).

2) I would like for them to be taught what happens when bits are used casually and without protection (poverty, disease, death, abuse).

3) I would like for them to be taught that the reason their “bits” bring great pleasure and urgency is because we evolved to reproduce, even when there wasn’t going to be sex education, literacy, or any social safety “net.”

4) I would like for them to be taught the reasons why society developed marriage as a way to protect the rising generation.

5) I would like for them to be taught that it is possible to thwart nature, so long as the teaching included information about the risks attendant with thwarting nature (e.g., abortion, birth control, fertility treatment).

6) I would like for them to be taught that one’s sense of sexual identity (intensity of desire, category of desired mate) can be influenced by biological factors beyond their control.

7) I would like for them to be taught that sex is profoundly impactful, and casual sex can be disruptive to their sense of self, independent of religious belief. Perhaps in that context, I would like for them to be taught why there are laws that designate sex before the age of [insert local legal age] as rape.

I would not want young people I most care about to learn the following:

1) The fifty ways to use their bits to titillate themselves and others for the pure purpose of titillation. That’s what the Internet and porn magazines are for, should the individual be so inclined. Though I wouldn’t mind the young ones being informed which Internet activities and purchases would be considered criminal.

2) The myriad ways their bits can be used to facilitate sexual satiation in non-traditional unions. Again, that’s what the Internet is for. I wouldn’t be adverse to student groups that help ensure sexuality in non-traditional unions is informed (e.g., protecting youth from predators in the non-traditional union they are considering).

I’m sure my lines in the sand aren’t exactly where everyone else would wish to draw the lines, and I am influenced by my milieu, which includes employment by a federal agency where non-traditional unions are celebrated and protected.

Assuming you would draw the line in the sand differently, what would you change and why?

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

17 thoughts on “What should we teach youth about sex?

  1. This might be very unpopular, but I think I only take issue with this quote (#6):

    “category of desired mate) can be influenced by biological factors beyond their control”

    I think this hurts more than helps. It would be better to teach that we don’t actually understand why the sexual preferences seem to be fluid. It can most definitely be beyond their control at the start, but giving a reason like this, when it is much more likely to be false, is probably detrimental in the long run and would be used to justify bad behavior. Instead we should teach choice and accountability like alluded to in your other bullets.

    I don’t think the combination of ‘category’ and ‘biological’ is true and I expect it to be much more environmentally driven. Th biological idea is definitely pushed by the culture more than science (speaking of biological science and not social science). At what point does it become environmental instead of biological (e.g. when pollution affects a child in the womb, which is it?) I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: any trait that fails to replicate itself (like if homosexuality were a DNA gene) dies out unless there is a future mutation that brings it up again.

  2. You seem to have no problem with pornography. Thats one of the leading problems in society. Pornography takes lives. It was the cause for taking one of my best friends last week.

  3. Hi Rob,

    I do have a problem with pornography being taught in schools as part of “sex education.” As to the damage pornography (and Internet-based sharing of pornographic content) can do, that is why I would be completely OK with the schools teaching the legal ramifications of porn.

    For example, rather than teaching my particularly loved young ones about the fifty ways to titillate themselves and others, I would prefer that the school taught young ones about where the law prohibits and punishes porn and abusive sexual behavior.

  4. Hi Fort,

    I can’t rightly recall what I myself was taught in school as formal sex ed curriculum. My mother took an active role in teaching her children about sex. I remember one session where we kids were all gathered around in the laundry area and my dad, who found the topic of sex embarrassing to talk about with children, yelling at her to stop.

    Years later, when Mom got her degree in anthropology, those willing to listen got an earful about the sexual practices of humanity – fascinating stuff and often far outside the North American norm.

    I believe I was in college when I first learned that maternal stress during pregnancy can reliably produce homosexual offspring in rodents. That was gleaned from an anatomy professor as an aside, not in a social science class. There are other instances where sexual impulses are based on biological factors (e.g., DUB). An understanding of the biological origin of undesired urges can help separate what in Mormon parlance we call the natural man part of ourselves from the the desires of our heart, when we would will to be other than what our biology might suggest. At least, that has been my experience. A knowledge that these urges and preferences are not one’s essential being can help one achieve sexual mindfulness, as it were, allowing the thoughts and urges to be observed without feeling a need to be driven by those thoughts and urges.

  5. I think your plan sounds appropriate. I believe the biggest hurdle in LDS sex Ed is that far too many people equate ignorance with innocence. They are not the same, & appropriate knowledge does not destroy innocence, but ignorance makes our children targets for predators. When I was growing up in Ohio, we had a sex ed curriculum 1-12 (K was optional then). The portions with which my parents disagreed, they made sure they taught us first. Of course, there were only 7 sexually transmitted diseases way back then, instead of the hundreds that now exist, & HIV was not yet on the scene.

    I find it revealing that the maturation film I saw in 5th grade ( that was shown multiple years after that) was shown in a required attendance class of my Anatomy & Phys course at BYU. Another girl from my home ward & I began to laugh & headed for the door. The TA stopped us & said we were required to watch the film. We explained we had seen is MANY times. He did not believe us, so we stood on either side of him & began to narrate the film, & the action, from the part with the bunny in the snow. “The bunny will take 3 hops to the left…” & after about 10 minutes, he let us leave. I was appalled that a 5th grade film was “required””in a BYU class. I still am.

  6. I don’t remember a maturation film when I took Anatomy at BYU – but then I was taking the anatomy class where we were in lab with four cadavers in all their unclothed glory. I was lucky enough to be taking the class in the first portion of the cadavers’ stay, when they started out intact and only started getting dis-assembled in pursuit of science over the course of the semester. I think the next semester got to experience the easier learning of seeing the cadavers sectioned in the manner that allows such drawings as seen in the old Gray’s Anatomy illustrated book (not the Grey’s Anatomy TV series).

    Human sexuality is like any other topic – I don’t find it cute when a mature person doesn’t understand basic financial math and fails to understand fundamental physics. But I wouldn’t expect to learn financial math from the people who have scammed $1.5M from “Riley,” nor would I expect to learn physics from watching almost any recent action flick. Similarly I wouldn’t want my loved young ones learning about human sexuality from materials written by those vested in creating a post-family future where anything goes.

  7. Anthony Esolen has corrected pointed out that education must address modern miseducation. As he put it:

    “The modern world has made itself ignorant about sex—in particular that there are two of them and they’re profoundly different. We must restore manhood and womanhood.”

  8. I appreciate Dr. Grossman’s comments (I found a relatively short Q&A).

    She commented “I guarantee that by your child’s wedding night, they will know…”

    So here’s the reason I don’t object to some level of sex Ed in schools – my parents couldn’t figure it out until a couple of nights after they got married. My mother has told me what she knew about sex before she got married, and I think it boiled down to a comment from her brother that it was something like putting a penny in a gum machine. I understand my father had been sexually abused by a male pederast, but that did nothing to prepare him for marital intimacy.

    My husband tells me the only sex Ed he got was his father obliquely leaving an instructional book or pamphlet in the open after hearing my then-child husband make a comment that betrayed his complete ignorance regarding reproductive facts. Comparing notes with friends in later life, he learned that by leaving out this instructional pamphlet, his father had done more to educate him than the parents of any of his friends had done.

    In another interesting twist, a friend of my grandmother had a choice between two suitors and eventually chose the bachelor who was wealthy and kind over the widower with several kids who made her heart sing. Turned out the bachelor didn’t actually want to do sex, and this had never come up in pre-marriage conversation.

    In our modern age, it is unlikely a child would reach the age of marriage without some rudimentary knowledge of what sex entails, but even amongst my children’s peers I have become aware of stories where there was gross ignorance that made sexual intimacy painful, and the embarrassed partners didn’t know it was wrong enough to seek medical help.

    So I get that modern sex education in schools can be grossly inappropriate. But I don’t believe lack of any education is the answer.

    I’ve told this story before, but there was a day when a daughter was seven or possibly even eight. She meant to say “sheet” but the “ee” sound came out as an “i” sound. I suggested she be more careful in pronouncing that word, and she asked, “Why? What does shit mean?” When I explained that it was a relatively crude term for fecal matter, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh. Alright.”

    In another instance a daughter asked me one day if I was going to have the child I was pregnant with scraped out. I inquired what she meant, and she didn’t know the term “abortion,” but gave a pretty graphic description of how an abortion might be performed. I have no idea where she picked up this information, as she clearly didn’t have any of the terminology down, as she was a new-minted 6 at the time. So we proceeded to have a conversation about the sacred nature of life and why it is rarely appropriate to intentionally terminate a pregnancy.

    All of which is to say that I clearly feel it is appropriate for some information to be taught in school. I don’t think Dr. Grossman and I are likely terribly divergent on this matter.

  9. I grew up learning about sex. My defining lessons were in 5th grade when we received the first ‘official’ sex ed lessons at public school (which were general sex health and allowed us to asked questions such as ‘What color does a period look like?” and given that this was also the year that the news was inundated with the scandal of Bill Clinton and his intern, it eventually led to an enlightening, (and embarrasing) conversation with my step-dad about condoms, protection and exactly what the President had been doing that wasn’t sex, but was.

    My husband grew up in a home that did not teach any sex education. His mother felt that it was a conversation between a boy and his father and his father was possibly too embarrassed to relate anything. My husband’s family are wonderful people, but family stories and personal anecdotes have led me to conclude that it was a great disservice to individual family members. My husband for a long time did not see anything amiss with his lack of sex education until a family vacation where male and female cousins were spanking and wrestling each other. There was no acknowledgment that their play could be inappropriate given gender differences.

    I am still far more liberal in my tenancies toward sexual education, but when I talk to my 16 month old daughter about her labia and vagina when changing her diaper, but husband has followed suit. (Using correct terminology has been stated as extremely important in alerting ourselves to predators who prefer to use ‘cutesy’ names for genitalia. It allows children to learn about their bodies in a positive, non-shameful, way. Finally, using the correct terms for respective genitalia, i.e. penis, testicles, labia, vagina and ovaries” teaches our children the wonderful differences in our bodies. I nannied for a few years and was dismayed to find that two different families used the exact same ‘cutesy’ term to describe the gentialia of their children. One was a girl and the other was a boy. If we do not use distinct terms, we risk confusion at a very young age.

  10. I should have been more clear. I don’t believe that Dr. Grossman is against sex education in school. She is against what is, generally, currently being taught in sex education classes in schools.

  11. From what I have observed, sex education in the public schools has been hijacked by the opposition to morality and chastity with none if any gain in real information. When I came home from fifth grade after viewing the film on menstruation with a page of printed questions I was supposed to ask my father, he blushed and told me to take it to my mother. She thought she could escape ‘that conversation’ by handing me a book called ‘The Pregnant Woman’, which bored me into stopping long before I got to the relevant section. It was the sight of rampant stallions chasing mares that brought me to the point of further inquiry and I didn’t believe what I was told until it was shown to me in the book. We are in an era when young people volunteer for extreme treatments including the excision of sex organs because of political correctness and random confusion. Human reproduction is sacred but it has been demeaned into mere recreation and self gratification. Reading Jacob reminds me of how seriously God regards abuse of this great gift. Teaching titillation and encouraging experimentation is apparently the norm. There is a real need for parents to teach their children correct anatomy and morality. It is too important to be left to strangers.

  12. The reason I cast this as a discussion of what schools should teach is that there are so many homes where the parents/guardians either can’t or won’t discuss sex in a responsible manner. That is both from the standpoint of knowing the science, having the guts to advocate for science rather than fad, or having the guts to discuss sex in the first place.

    Obviously the best place for a child to learn about the processes for forming families (and the folkways and mores associated with forming successful families) is within the family that they were raised in. But when that family abdicates its responsibility, the school system has a responsibility to provide a minimum level of responsible instruction for the benefit of society at general.

    The problem appears to be (in my experience as well as seeing reports) that sex education in schools has been identified as the method to normalize non-traditional unions, the “legitimate” vector LGBTQIA advocates can use to rectify what they see as bigoted mores and folkways of the past. LGBTQIA advocates are already having great success in ensuring that LGBTQ individuals are showcased in films, TV shows, advertizing, etc. I don’t see much about intersex and asexual folks in the media. And I don’t think the advocacy in public school sex education does much for intersex or asexual folks, though I suppose opening up boundaries would allow intersex folks to have greater space to operate without being considered weird.

    I am an engineer. I would prefer that our children be taught facts (what behaviors are correlated with outcomes) rather than indoctrinated in the hopeful fantasies of those who believe a post-heteronormal world would be rainbows and flowers that would make all society better (in cases where that has not yet been demonstrated by any data).

  13. I am not sure where your cutoff is for youth. As I have thought about what I wish my abstinence based sex ed had included (seeing it from the point of view of a middle aged married man in a sexless marriage, so all of that colors some of my view), here are some of the things that I have thought of. Because of where I am coming from, they are probably more for older youth:
    1) I was taught a lot about the dangers of sexual activity, so that I came to fear and mistrust it. I wish someone had also taught how sex can be a positive in a relationship.
    2) I wish someone had taught something about sexual pleasure — in particular something about female sexual pleasure. I am currently reading Sister Brotherson’s “Knowing Her Intimately”, which is all about how (stereotypical lower libido women) experience sexuality. I wish some of this had been taught to me earlier.
    3) I wish someone had taught us how to negotiate sexual differences. Part of this is acknowledging that differences exist, part of this would be suggesting that the more sexually adventurous is not necessarily “wrong”, and some is learning how to appreciate differences without needing to “fix” those differences.
    4) My abstinence sex ed really tried to make it a “self-control” thing — to the point that, as far as sexuality goes, self-control (or bridling if you want the BoM term) became synonymous with abstinence. I wish there had been a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between self-control and abstinence. One can exercise self-control without abstaining. Self-control can also include a “sexual awakening” (to use Sr. Brotherson’s term) aspect as well.

    I will agree with you about “preferring that our children be taught facts” part. However, I sometimes wonder if we as a religious community are going to like all of those facts. For example, I learned that sex before marriage made it significantly more difficult to have a good marriage later. A recent study out of BYU kind of came to the same conclusion, suggesting a negative correlation between “number of previous sexual partners” and “current marriage and sexual satisfaction”. However, the correlation coefficient is so small (~-0.15) that one might argue that it is only just barely significant. How shall we teach this “fact”?

    Just a few thoughts. I certainly think that there is room to improve our sex ed.

  14. Surely it would be good for young people to understand consent, when it can be withdrawn.
    What sex is and is not.

    It would be good also to have young people understand that if they send pictures of themselves, intimate or otherwise, the present partner might share them, and even if they dont, they might come up if a future employer does a search.

    Things like these are part of school sex education here.

    I believe teen abortions are greatly reduced when sex education is common.

  15. Sex is about procreation first. Uniting procreators second. In an ideal sense its of course both.

    Contraceptives have shifted the paradigm to sex being first about unity and love (at best case). But that’s not what God and nature intended. I’m not anti contraceptive any more than I’m anti washing machine. But we have to see how contraceptives fubdementally altered the way society approaches sex.

    About consent…Consent can be withdrawn after the fact. It’s why marriage is required. All sex outside of marriage is illegitimate.

    This doesn’t mean rape can’t happen in marriage but it raises to a higher threshold and there’s no question of consent in the vast majority of martial encounters.

    I feel no sorrow for a society or individual plagued by issues of consent when it’s merely experiencing the natural consequences of trying to make what is illegitimate and wrong into legitimate and normal.

    Fact is none of these consent issues we read about would be a issue if marriage first was the standard. The man or woman would rightly say, this is wrong we should get married first.

    Where is the Mormon equivilant of a feminist making the claim that all nonmarital sex is violent?

    If you have illegitimate sex and he/she says there was no consent, that’s just one of those life ruining moments that can come from selfishly acting illegitinately. It’s rape because they said so and you foolishly took no precaution to enter into a marriage covanent to prove otherwise. The burden shifts to you and you’re to blaim by default.

    Sex is about procreation first. Uniting procreators second.

    Society continually falls for Satan’s counterfeits in one instance after another. Even among the elect.

  16. Hi Agw47,

    I completely agree with what you say here.

    In the strategy of those promoting non-traditional unions, that was part of the impetus for obtaining the right to enter into marriage, so that the sex that occurs in non-traditional unions could be elevated to the same level of legal and societal acceptance as the sex that occurs in traditional unions. That plus there are myriad laws that apply to marriage (that don’t specify the genders of or numbers of participants in the marriage) that wouldn’t have to change or be challenged. As for the legal and societal literature that infers marriage is solely heterosexual and solely monogamous, these words are being challenged, as seen in the new books and texts and curricula and TV shows that normalize non-traditional unions.

    From the paradigm that non-traditional unions are like minorities of the 1960s civil rights era, this makes sense and folks can simply re-enact the same sorts of advocacy that effected useful change in that prior era.

    From the paradigm that marriage is first and foremost an institution to care for the biological get of sexual activity (a paradigm that has been diluted by a thousand years and more of meddling), divorcing marriage from the primary purpose of protecting the children engendered/conceived within the marriage is horrific. But people die, so children need to be adopted and step parents happen. And the Pope circa 1050 decided to break up the power of the Germanic tribes and began defining marriage between people whose cousins had married as void and prohibited. So we have forgotten an age where there were no acknowledged bastards and a man was expected/forced to husband all women who had borne children of his get, and a widow was taken up by her dead husband’s male relative to care for her and raise up children in memory of the dead man.

    You repeat that sex is about procreation first and uniting procreators second. I agree.

    I would also restate that prior to the advent of effective and acceptable birth control, sex was about procreation, and responsible people limited their sex to instances where the possible children engendered would not be a burden on the health of the mother and the family. So this idea of married people canoodling at will (much less unmarried people canoodling at will) is a recent phenomenon.

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