05/20/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Science and Storytelling in Sex Education

Getty Images

Last week, in response to a Room for Debate column in the New York Times that asked when sex education should begin, I suggested that a more fruitful debate would focus on the how and what, and less on the when, of sex education.

Most of the time, when sex education is presented in schools, or is presented to parents as something they should do with their children, it is treated like a science lesson. Sometimes, we call it a health lesson, a distinction without a difference, since the contemporary dominant frame for understanding health is science (as if science is the only or best way for us to understand what it means to be healthy).

Using the imprimatur of science is appealing. Using a scientific approach gives the appearance of pulling a complicated concept like sexuality out of the messy worlds of culture, belief and value, so that we might better understand it for what it is. Science is supposed to be truth gleaned from an objective distance. Sex education, when thought of as a science lesson, is about illuminating the truth of sexuality for kids, of making it easily intelligible.

But consider this: Sexuality is barely intelligible to most adults, including those who have spent decades trying to figure it out through trial and error in both theory and practice.

I know one sex educator who encourages her young students to think of themselves as scientists. It's a cute trick that helps them go from "eww, that's gross," to "hmm, very interesting." I think it also makes teachers and parents feel better. Science really cleans it up.

But sex education as science lesson is delivering a false promise.

If we were scientists, our goal would be to section off small parts of experience and examine them, as if under a microscope. But sex and sexuality are about connections and context. They're about confusion and the ineluctable uncertainty of experience. In other words, what if we don't want to feel taken apart in order to be understood?

The debate I would like us to have is this one: What is the best way of understanding both the content of sex education and also its form? And what is it that we're doing when we're doing sex ed?

When I wrote What Makes a Baby, a book that re-imagines how we talk with children about reproduction, gestation and birth, I chose to use the metaphor of stories to describe DNA, and more generally the biological interaction of sperm, egg, and uterus that go into making a baby.

I did this because I believe storytelling is always part of all the ways we come to be in the world and know about it. Certainly baby making is storytelling, at least as much as it is science.

When it comes to things related to our bodies and sexuality, we have a tendency to think of them as somehow "natural" and fixed, more true than, say, our opinions. But they aren't. Our bodies, even at the cellular level, are influenced by our environment, our communities, our culture and our planet.

One way we 'sciencize' sexuality and reproduction is by teaching our children and ourselves that it's something in our bodies and separate from the rest of life. I don't see it that way. I want kids to grow up knowing that the world is full of stories, and they are full of stories, and they have a right to hear stories that reflect their experience and write their own stories. Stories that are tied to their histories, to the places where they live and where they are from. Stories that tell them something about what makes them unique as well as something about what connects all of us to each other.

One of the powerful things about shifting to the idea of telling stories is that it becomes much clearer that there are multiple stories to tell.

When the lesson is about science, it carries the (false) idea that it is a universal lesson, true for everyone. The genuinely messy nature of statistics and methodology is lost in a classroom and what is left is presented as pure and simple facts. Condoms protect you against this. Healthy relationships are that. Neither of these statements are immutable, nor are they based on a pure or simple observation of some universal nature of human sexuality. They shift under the weight of race, class, gender, culture, geography and more.

When we are telling stories, we may find it easier to ask "whose story is that?" "Who else has a story to tell?" "How would that story sound if it were your other parent telling you, or your best friend telling you?"

The shift to telling stories accomplishes another important goal, one that most sex educators struggle with: getting more teachers, as well as families and communities, to incorporate sexuality into everyday conversations and lessons.

When we stop talking about sex education as this sliver of an experience and start talking about it as telling stories, we open up possibilities for everyone to play a part. Everyone can tell stories.

Thinking about sex education as telling stories isn't the end of the debate, of course. It's a paradigm shift, but it still leaves us with questions like: What stories do we tell? Whose stories? How much do we tell, and in what order?

I don't have grand answers for any of these questions. I'm still formulating the questions. If you have any (questions or answers, that is) let me know. In the meantime, next week I'm going to share some of my experience in trying to tell stories about gender in new ways.