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Sex In The Public Square

Does Drivers’ Ed Undermine Parental Rights?

By Elizabeth Anne Wood and Ricci J. Levy

Wouldn’t that be a silly headline and a ridiculous debate?  And yet, we have the same debate about sexuality education.  In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, Robert P. George and Melissa Moschella took the position that a new sexuality education curriculum to be offered in New York City does indeed undermine parents’ rights.  They base this assertion on the fact that  sexuality education cannot be “value” free, and so parents should not be forced to expose their children to it.

The word “values” has become one of those words that the religious right has claimed for itself, just like it did with the word “moral.”  And those words are used to manipulate people into an “us versus them” mindset that is, at best, counter-productive and, at worst, threatening to the health and well being of individuals and their communities.

Do we insist on “value free” history classes for middle schoolers?  No, of course not.  As a matter of fact, we expect that public education is going to impart dominant culture values.  Many parents supplement or challenge their children’s curriculum with materials and experiences provided at home, and there are productive debates to be had around issues of updating curriculum to reflect new ideas and current thinking.  But we don’t expect parents to “opt” their child out of history or science class in public school because they object to the way that the Christopher Columbus story is told or because they want their kids to learn creation stories in addition to the theory of evolution.

Public education is supposed to prepare our children for healthy, productive, literate lives as engaged members of their communities. It is not “value free” nor should it be. We should not expect sexuality education to be value free either. In fact, why wouldn’t we want sexuality education to be guided by such mainstream US values as autonomy, respect for others, self control, personal growth, etc.?

Ricci can remember sitting in a health class and seeing pictures of lima beans and wiggly lines and having someone explain to her that those were her ovaries and the lines were the roads sperm would take to get to the ovaries and start a baby growing.  Fascinating.  As fascinating as that sideways picture of a man with the outline of a penis and matching squiggly lines through which those sperm magically emerge and somehow get into her ovaries. She knew was not taught, in school, anything about sex and sexuality, and, when she was in school, the only risk taught in sex ed was pregnancy.

Fast forward a few years to Elizabeth’s memories of one fifth grade lecture on maxi pads and plumbing and a middle school health class on Herpie the Love Bug and life-ruining pregnancies, and later, in high school, some hushed and terrifying references to the disfigurement and death that would come from HIV.  While we don’t want sexuality education to be all about the dangers of sex, young people are undeniably talking life and death risks with their own lives and with the lives of others, when they engage, uninformed and uneducated, in certain forms of sexual expression. They deserve better.

George and Moschella ask readers to picture themselves as the parents of child who is 10 or 11, and then they ask “How would you feel if, as part of a class ostensibly about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, he and his classmates were given ‘risk cards’ that graphically named a variety of solitary and mutual sex acts?” They presume that the reader, if the reader is like “most parents” will be horrified at the thought.

I don’t know about “most parents” but I know the answer we’d give.  We’d be thrilled and we’d know our child was in a good school that was teaching life skills.  We’re not talking about 5-year-olds here.  A 10 or 11 year old is probably in 5th grade and about to enter puberty. These are the same children the right is screaming about as being at risk from pornography, trafficking, pregnancy, and abusers. If they’re at risk from anything, shouldn’t we be educating them about those risks?

Many parents want to have a hand in teaching their kids to drive. But they also want our kids to take drivers ed from someone who is well trained to offer it. We want this because it keeps them safer, and keeps others safer as they experience new freedoms – freedoms which expand faster than their experience and maturity can expand. Sexuality education is much the same, and should be treated in a way that is comparable to other important life skills. It need not be value free to be non-judgemental and  it need not be value free to be age appropriate.

Unless you are willing to make the argument that school itself undermines parental rights, you can’t cherry pick the curriculum and make the argument against sexuality education.

  • Derek Diamond

    Great post and argument.  It’s funny how many people talk around in circles with this issue.  Parents should be well aware that in this day & age, children are learning at much younger ages about the birds and the bees, and should be supportive of educational systems supporting their concerns or questions.  Thanks for sharing.

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