Imagine you have a 10- or 11-year old child, just entering a public middle school. How would you feel if, as part of a class ostensibly about nutrition, your child was given "risk cards" that named and graphically depicted a variety of animal body parts that had been cut up, butchered for human consumption? Or if, in another lesson, your child was encouraged to disregard what you have taught them about cruelty and violence, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?
Imagine you are a vegetarian or anyone who is committed to reducing violence and cruelty in the world. What are your rights as a parent to protect your child from the indoctrination of a public school education that teaches about the nutritional value of meat and the social value of farming animals for slaughter?
I'm guessing that most people, vegetarian and omnivore alike, would say that information about nutrition is important to children's health. And that vegetarians (and pacifists) can still raise their own, even (or perhaps especially) if they learn the facts about meat.
But this is ostensibly the same idea being trashed by Robert George and Melissa Moschella in their New York Times op-ed "Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?". The paragraph above is copied precisely from the first paragraph of their article, except where they talk about "a variety of solitary and mutual sex acts" I talk about the kinds of illustrations children are routinely shown to teach them about healthy eating.
The switch is a pedagogical tool that I use daily as a sex educator. It's necessary when teaching about sexuality, a topic whose construction is so rigid and reactionary in our society as to make the excessively conservative and controlling laws, social norms and expectations invisible to most of us. As a result most of us (including, it would seem, Robert George and Melissa Moschella) come to think and talk about sexuality (arguably the most complex and interdependent experiences in human phenomenology) as if we all obviously share a common language and common values with very little up for reasonable debate. One can almost feel the nudges and see the winks on the page as George and Moschella presume that surely we must all agree on the (excessively conservative) obvious when it comes to sex, especially when children are involved.
To illuminate the invisible hand at work in such assumptions, assumptions that would never fly, with say, eating meat, sex educators try to point out the ways that sexuality is artificially compartmentalized and isolated from its context in human experience in order for such control and silencing to be effective.
Consider the arguments made by George and Moschella.
They suggest that teaching about sexual behaviors is a form of indoctrination, and a tacit acknowledgement that engaging in these behaviors is okay. The crux of this argument suggests that talking about something makes it okay. But we teach our children about slavery in public schools, and it isn't something Americans condone.
They make the ultimate gesture of erasure by presuming that all parents would be horrified by the idea of their children knowing the names of adult sexual activities including, mutual masturbation. Not only, they simply, does talking about it amount to recommending it, they argue that acknowledging the very existence of mutual masturbation belongs a particular sexual ideology. They don't say it, but of course they mean a liberal ideology.
But as educators themselves, surely they know that the adoption of sexual behaviors does not align with religious, ideological, or party affiliation. In fact what little survey data we have on the subject suggests that some activities (like watching pornography online) are more popular in the so-called red states, and others (like using vibrators) are more popular among observant Christians.
The comparison I began with, of eating meat, is a personal one. I'm a vegetarian for reasons tied to reducing pain and suffering on the planet. But it's also an apt one as an educator. I don't think as a parent I have the right to block my child's access to basic knowledge about food, including meat.
Schools can and should teach about the nutritional value of meat. That's what schools do.
At home I can and should teach about the ethical and moral weight of eating meat. That's what parents do.
These two systems may clash often, but they aren't antithetical and in fact the points of conflict are what will make our children stronger.
The same is true for sex.