Utah State Senator Stuart Reid recently floated a proposal that would create a program to educate parents about sexuality in the belief they would turn around and teach their children at home.
“My belief is the discussion really should be about parental responsibility,” said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who plans to sponsor the bill. “Our first instinct shouldn’t be to turn this over to the education community … It should first start in the home.”
Reid said it’s not that parents don’t understand sex, it’s more that they don’t know how to teach certain concepts to their kids or at what ages to begin. Reid said he envisions the State Office of Education holding training sessions across the state once or twice a year where parents would be given codes to access the online program. Reid said Monday he did not yet know how much it would cost the state to implement such a program.
There’s much to laud in Reid’s proposal. One of the major challenges facing parents is a lack of confidence and skill in discussing questions of sexuality with their children. Empowering parents with education and specific techniques is a good idea, especially since so few adults actually received good comprehensive sexuality education as young people. While I can foresee a host of problems in the way the adult program could be created and implemented (this being Utah with its attendant hangups about sexuality) nevertheless, the policy itself is a potential step in the right direction. Emphasis should be placed on the potential since Reid is operating from flawed knowledge of history and a serious misreading of current events.
The potential problem with Reid’s proposal becomes clear in an op-ed he published in the D-News on Friday. The simplest summary is that is Stuart Reid is engaging in conservative’s favorite sport – blaming all of society’s ills on the 1960s and supposed breakdown of moral and social order that took place during that decade.
Nonetheless, with the advent of the sexual revolution, government determined that parents were ill-equipped to manage the sexual education of their own children in their homes. Since then, many parents have conceded the point by fully abdicating the responsibility for sex education to the government. Not surprisingly then, the recent round of debates ended with the popular notion of maintaining the government controlled, sex education status quo. Once again, parental responsibility was shoved aside with most of the long-held principles that conflict with the sexual revolution.
Conservative cultural mythology says that sometime in the 1950s parents became irresponsible and permissive which led directly to the much hated sexual revolution of the 1960s and ever since then, government has usurped parental responsibility. Government is too permissive (complaints about government dependency are based on the idea that government is being too permissive by not forcing the poor to earn more money). In the area of sexuality, the conservative policy of abstinence only education in an attempt to force the permissive government to teach a strict moral guideline which, conservatives believe, parents should be teaching and which parents really want taught. Conservatives believe that parental responsibility – in this case having parents supposedly return to their traditional role of sexuality educators teaching children right and wrong – is the answer to social ills. (FWIW, yes, this is absolutely the same territory as Lakoff’s strict father model of parenting.)
Sifting through this passage, there are several key points. First off, as Kristin Luker discussed in her book When Sex Goes to School, the concept of formal sexuality education as a matter of public health policy and public good, got its start in the Progressive Era, 1880-1920. Reid is also mistaken in his claim that “government determined that parents were ill-equipped to manage the sexual education of their own children.” Huge majorities of parents repeatedly and consistently want schools to offer sexuality education and given the choice almost always opt for comprehensive programs (those that discussion both contraception and sexual abstinence). Reid is using hot-button right wing rhetoric of government control and parental rights for a reason. He’s not trying to engage in a reasoned discussion. He’s trying to push his readers buttons.
To persuade us of the evils of sexuality education in the schools, Reid has a handy list of horribles that have supposedly been caused by it:
Increasingly, children are being victimized by the morals of the sexual revolution and society is becoming more coarse because the once protective shield of parental responsibility is vanishing.
For example, since the emergence of government-controlled sex education and its promised benefits, there are now more children exposed to pornography and sexual activity at a younger age; there are more teen pregnancies and children born out of wedlock; there are more cases of sexually transmitted diseases and more abortions; and there are more non-traditional marriages, more not marrying at all or divorcing. Regrettably, under these trends, far too many children are suffering because adult self-interest is valued over parental responsibility and the interests of children.
Let’s just be honest – there are certainly facts available and Stuart Reid isn’t referring to them. This passage has one goal – to bemoan the moral depravity of the post 1960s world in which parents supposedly surrendered their moral authority as teachers of sexuality and a host of bad things have happened. The irony of course is that many of the outcomes Reid bemoans are nebulous and ill-defined. What exactly are the “non-traditional marriages” he bewails? Teen pregnancy rates as well as abortion rates had been trending downward until the widespread adoption of abstinence only programs so draw your own conclusions there. Among Utah teens there has been a worrying increase in STIs in recent years. Utah teaches abstinence only and forbids teachers discussing contraception. IOW, State Sen. Reid has spent a lot of time thinking about the issues, used bad history to reach ill-informed conclusions.
Reid’s hostility to the boogeyman of government education comes up repeatedly:
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who plans to sponsor the measure, said the idea grew out of discussions over HB363 last session, a controversial bill that would have scaled back sex education in schools that the governor ultimately vetoed. He said those discussions made him wonder why more parents aren’t teaching sex ed themselves in their homes and are instead relying on schools.
Reid said he learned that many parents simply don’t feel comfortable discussing the topic or don’t know how to broach it. He said a training program would give parents the confidence to tackle the lessons themselves.
“What’s happened is we’ve turned it over to educators to take that responsibility and teach what is the most intimate topic in the lives of our children,” Reid said. “I have a fundamental belief that that should … be taught in the home where as they’re teaching human sexuality they’re also teaching the values of their family.”
Reid has bought lock stock and barrel into rightwing tropes about the supposedly amoral world of public education and the golden-hued dewey eyed image of the home as an oasis of values in a world gone to hell.
In response to the general gone-to-hellness of the world, Reid offers this solution:
In an effort to help re-establish parental responsibility, new legislation was recently introduced designed to offer parents training and tools to teach their children about human sexuality in their homes. The legislation calls for instruction and publication development that can be taken home with the parent or guardian and used in a way appropriate for teaching their children. Additionally, it makes similar training instruction and publications available through the Internet that also can be adapted by parents to the benefit of their children.
Digging a bit below the rhetoric about parental responsibility, we get to Reid’s decent policy response. Let’s educate and empower parents to have these conversations. However, let’s not kid ourselves. I’d like to believe these wonderful conversations are taking places in homes all over Utah but they’re not. At the end of the day, parents can’t do it alone – and even with the program Reid is proposing huge numbers won’t do it at all.
And yet, for all the logistical and other potential problems, I find myself hopeful that the bill passes, that parents get a decent curriculum along the lines of Our Whole Lives that helps them sort out their own values and feel comfortable talking about sexuality with their kids. That comfort comes from knowing the correct terminology, from removing the stigma around the topic, and knowing where to get accurate facts. I can envision parents in communities around the state attending day long training sessions – “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexuality” – and getting those things.
I can already start picking out the Our Whole Lives sessions that I would use. The language session which puts all the words people have heard and sometimes use about sexuality on the table then helps them sort out medical, common, family and street language and feel comfortable with the correct terminology. The sessions on “With Whom Would You Do It” which envision sexual activity as a continuum of increasing intimacy both emotional and physical. The sessions on sexual minorities which put the otherwise controversial topic into a more neutral context in which they can be discussed. Sessions on abuse and assault. Sessions on reproductive choices. And of course, the sessions about contraception. Designed thoughtfully and well, a parental education program could reap huge positive rewards.
If we could convince Utah’s legislators that teaching kids about contraception won’t make them start throwing orgies and that teaching them about glbt people won’t turn them all into beautiful sparkleponies, we’d be making progress.