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Deborah M. Roffman Headshot

The Puritans are Dead: Long Live the Puritans?

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The time has come to face an embarrassing truth, America: It's 2010 now, and sex education in the United States is still rooted in the early 17th Century.

As a sexuality educator for nearly 40 years, I've grown suddenly impatient. I'm declaring a New Decade's Resolution: By the year 2020, families and schools in America will decide that it is probably best to raise children in the century in which they are actually living.

Twenty-twenty, I think, is beyond fair and a hugely symbolic choice, since it coincides with the four-century anniversary of the year the Puritans first came to America. I am almost certain they were lovely people, but enough is enough.

First, and in the spirit of full disclosure: When it comes to sex, the Puritans have mostly gotten a very bum wrap.

Despite what most Americans believe, the Puritans were not hopelessly "anti-sexual," or sexually "repressed." In reality, they actually had a very healthy respect for sexuality, and viewed marital sexual relationships as both a gift and a duty from God.

In short, the Puritans' views were not "puritanical" in the modern use of the word at all. Indeed, their ideas much more closely mirrored the remarkably sex-positive attitudes of the ancient Hebrews.

What the Puritans did disdained was public discourse about sex. Violations of their strict taboos could bring very severe consequences to the offending person. It is those rules that became the Puritans' most lasting sexual legacy: The dread fear of what might happen if the subject of sex "gets out."

Given the threat of public humiliation, banishment, or worse, this anxiety was certainly rational at the time. But, as the centuries passed, and as this and other religious and secular influences combined and evolved into a uniquely American brew of sexual beliefs and attitudes, this once reality-based fear morphed eventually into a wholly irrational one: Being direct and open about sex isn't bad just because it might be dangerous (as in, it might get you in trouble), but because it might be intrinsically dangerous.

I see evidence of this unchallenged presumption every day in my work. As common folk "wisdom" would have it, sex must be kept seriously under wraps.

A case in point: Not long ago I was asked to give a talk at an elementary school. Walking into the building, I saw a poster announcing the presentation. Well, sort of. While the title on the poster originally read, "How to Talk with Your Children about Sex," someone had covered over the word "sex" with a piece of paper with three dots on it instead!

I glanced over at one of the parent organizers, who said, "The principal decided that elementary school children should not see the word "sex" in a school building."

What's a child curious about sex to do, I wondered. Go home and Google it? (Now that's something I would definitely consider intrinsically dangerous.)

By the way, the following week I gave a talk at another elementary school nearby. Behind the refreshment table stood a father wearing a T-shirt sporting the message, "I Love My Hot Wife." I wonder if he got sent to the principal's office.

If you ask them directly, parents and teachers today won't say they consciously believe that sexual knowledge is bad or dangerous. But, if you listen to their deepest concerns and anxieties, especially about sex education for young children, there is palpable unease, even a sense of morbid dread.

You definitely don't want to teach them "too much, too soon," right? But what if they're too young, or they're not "ready," or they ask too many questions, or -- oh my God -- they tell other children at school? What if those kids don't already know? What will their parents say? They'll be furious! Is it really okay for them to know the word "uterus"? But won't they lose their "innocence"? Yes, but if they know about it, won't they want to -- you know -- do it??

And there it is, ladies and gentlemen! Just beneath the surface of all that angst is the space where the Puritans still call out to us from their graves: Beware sexual knowledge!! It must be given out in just the right way, and by just the right person, and in just the right amounts, and at just the right moment or... bad things will happen!!

Most teachers and parents of young children -- because they, too, grew up in the 17th century -- haven't a clue about what actually is the right time and the right way and right person and the right amount, so they approach the topic of sexuality with kid gloves, if at all. And, many do it with the gut sense that they are being prudent and protective, even though they hardly ever can articulate what it is, exactly, they're so afraid of.

So, what is there to be afraid of (nothing!), and what's the problem anyway if we keep children in the dark (plenty!)?

If we're ever to throw off our true Puritanical heritage -- as in, stop being afraid of the wrong things -- Americans need to recognize and eliminate the stunningly irrational double standard we apply to sexual learning.

After all, as a culture we virtually (pun intended) worship knowledge about practically every other aspect of human existence. Truly, all we really need do to bring sexuality education into the 21st Century is decide to apply the same standards to learning about sexuality -- Knowledge is good! Knowledge is the cornerstone of responsibility! Knowledge is the key to a fulfilling life! -- as we do all others.

Said another way, we have to stop thinking emotionally about this topic, and start thinking pedagogically. We need to recognize that all of that confidently spouted, misplaced-anxiety-driven folk wisdom about sex education is patently absurd.

In fourth grade math class, for example, the common admonition, "Wait until the child asks!" would be the pedagogical equivalent of instructing teachers to hold off -- say, until October, November, or even spring, if necessary -- until one of the children finally raises a hand to ask, "What's long division?"

Funny how trying to apply the same rules to other subjects that we apply to sex education never works. That should tell us something about what the Puritans have done to our collective common sense.

The very good news for us all, from a pedagogical perspective, is that the benchmarks for sexual learning, even for the youngest of our children, are already well established.

For example, it has been clear for decades, both from the study of normal cognitive development and from the anecdotal experiences of parents, teachers, and caretakers, that children as young as four, five, and six spontaneously ask a series of pointed and intelligent questions about how life begins. And, that they are able, easily, to process information about sexual intercourse as it relates to the concept of human reproduction.

It should be shocking to us that the typical American school is anywhere from four to seven years late in providing those very facts. Imagine the marching and picketing and shouting were a school district suddenly to decide to postpone teaching arithmetic until the eighth grade, and then on top of that, expected the students to start right away with algebra! When it comes to instruction about sexuality, though, most of us don't even know, really, what there is to rant about, or why. It is our ignorance, not our children's, that is astounding.

Of course, while we hesitate, and avoid, and abdicate, and pretend to ourselves that we still hold absolute control over what and when our children learn about sexuality, they are growing up in the parallel universe of America's 24-7, market and media driven, sex-saturated popular culture, a place that gets uglier and uglier for children, it seems, by the day. And what a mixed message that juxtaposition provides: The real live adults aren't available to talk to you about sex, but everybody else can't wait.

If we family and schools are to assume our rightful and duty-bound roles as the first and most important reference points in children's lives around this most vital of subjects, we'd better start now shedding all those old paradigms, and getting up to speed.

We just don't have another decade to waste.

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