July 25, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #11: Sex Education?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Whitehouse
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Sex Education?

Dear Mrs. Whitehouse:

Thanks for your e-mail about your son Steve's literature critique. His final draft was a great improvement. I only showed him what he needed to do; he did all the real work, and it paid off very well.

I was also glad that you sent me this link about the Massachusetts middle school forcing 7th graders to take a sex survey without parental knowledge or permission. As you requested, I checked with our middle school and our central office. We are not planning anything remotely like that, and we have never done anything remotely like that. In fact, in the Anytown Independent School District, all such things require parental permission, in advance. If you have any additional questions about that issue, I recommend that you speak with April Summers, who handles that portion of the curriculum for us. I'm sure she can answer any questions you might have.

As to your question about my opinion of sex ed. for high school students, I'm honored that you would ask, but please understand that my answer is probably not going to perfectly match the official position of the Anytown ISD, whatever that position is. I speak only for myself, which is probably just fine by the Anytown ISD anyway!

I suppose I'll be taking bits and pieces from both of the commonly known sides of the issue, but I'm probably going to be talking more about human nature and process than precisely what should and should not be taught. I hope that will answer your question as completely as possible, or at the least, provide a bit of insight.

A great many people suggest that there is no need for adults to teach kids anything about sex. They seem to believe that kids already know far more than they did at that age, and likely more than they do as adults! The truth is, most kids know only enough to know at what they should snicker. Like a great many adults, they really don't know much, and what they do know is just enough to get them into real trouble.

I'll give you two quick examples. Last year, while the kids were working on a writing assignment quite unrelated to sex, one of my brighter girls, a pretty and popular girl, a girl most of the other kids would automatically assume knew a great deal about sexand everything elselooked up from her paper and asked: "Mr. English Teacher, do Muslims have belly buttons?" I have no idea why that thought popped into her head, but the rest of the class immediately perked up to see what I would say. Only one or two were trying to suppress laughter; the rest really weren't sure of the answer. Before I could speak, the single Muslim boy in the class stood up, grinned at me (I nodded permission), he turned toward the girl, lifted his shirt, exclaimed "Muslim bellybutton!" and showed her his bellybutton. Ten minutes later, I was finally able to get them back on trackit was, by the way, the best laugh we had that week--and the redness was finally beginning to fade from the face of the poor girl who asked the question.

The second example started innocently enough. We were working on a favorite assignment of mine I call a dictionary poem. I give the kids a sheet with ten groups of ten numbered lines. They have to open a dictionary to ten pages at random and choose ten words from the opened pages and write them in the blanks. When they're done, they use those words, and those words only to write a poem. It's great fun, and it forces the kids to really think about words in unfamiliar ways. The kids find all sorts of interesting words and realize that dictionaries are actually pretty interesting.

In this case, a very smart, popular and social girl suddenly spoke up and asked: "Mr. English Teacher, what's an areola?" About five of the kids started to snickerthey'd heard the word and had some inkling it had something to do with breasts and therefore, with sex, or something. In these cases, the kids will model their reactions on yours, so it's important to calmly deal with such questions. So I explained that the word has several meanings, but that most commonly it referred to the area, usually circular, surrounding something, such as the nipple in men and women. Several more kids were snickering now, and she was immediately embarrassed and blurted out that she always thought that the whole thing was the nipple. That did it; the whole class cracked up and suddenly became much more interested in looking for similarly interesting words. I simply clarified that the nipple was the smaller part that protruded in the center of the areola, and after another five minutes, the laughter died down, but the kids were showing new fervor in searching their dictionaries! Whatever works.

The point is that many would think that contemporary teenagers know far more than we did as teenagers, but in truth, they're nearly as uninformed as most of us were. Only after they were given a graphic example and an explanation, did the kids put two and two together and realize that all human beings had to have belly buttons. Only after the embarrassed young lady talked about areolas in a way that they'd never forget, followed by a simple explanation (many of them immediately looked up the word too) did they actually know what a word they'd heard and somehow exclusively associated with sex meant.

Should we be teaching high school kids about human sexuality? It's not an easy question. Human beings are hard wiredto use computer terminologyfor reproduction. They're driven, particularly young men, to pursue that biological imperative. It's a powerful drive. At the same time, human beings, apart from all other animals, have the ability to make conscious, moral choices. We know that kids will inevitably be driven to experiment, yet there is no question that abstinence is by far the smartest thing for them to observe. So I suspect that it's reasonable to provide a certain amount of the right software, delivered in the right way.

Let me provide one more example that might help to suggest at least a process, if not a solution. A few years back, we were discussing a novel, and during that discussion, a particularly thoughtful, but shy, young lady raised her hand and asked a question. She was a very good student, and rarely participated in class discussions due to her shyness. Coincidently, I noticed earlier that week that she appeared to have a boyfriend, as I later learned, her first.

In any case, during that discussion of theme, characterization and the elements of novels, she raised her hand and asked "Mr. English Teacher, do you like sex?" The half of the class that knew me grinned, waiting for my reply, and the rest simply stared in shock, waiting for whatever calamity they were sure would befall them.

I could have ignored her or told her that it was an inappropriate question, but instead I gave a slight grin and asked: "is this a trick question?" That broke up the class and allowed me to acknowledge, quietly that I was, in fact, relatively fond of sex, but that it was a very complex subject and not easily understood. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that she was struggling with what to do about the possibility of sex, but instead of asking whether she should have sex, she asked my opinion. My answer let her relax and she asked what I meant.

At that point, again, I could have simply said that it was a better topic for another time, but when you have every kid in a class listening that intently to your next word, it's not to be wasted. I explained that the most important part of human sexuality was not the physical element, but the emotional, the spiritual element. I explained that it is the intellectual intimacy, the absolute trust, the willingness to give fully of yourself that is far more satisfying that a few minutes of mere physical pleasure. It is that which is lasting, only that which sustains us for a lifetime, that reveals the great joys of being human. I closed by pointing out that only when one is older, wiser, when one is independentessentially a responsible adult--able to give what is necessary to another in every way is that kind of bonding and true love possible. Until then, sex is very often harmful, damaging and painful. It's simply best to work hard at becoming that responsible adult, which means not engaging in sex at its weakest and least fulfilling

That took all of five minutes from the novel. The kids seriously thought about what I said. I can't guarantee that half of the class didn't engage in sex at its weakest and least fulfilling that very night, but at least they thought about it, and as teachers, we know that we can never know exactly who we influence and how deeply. I do know that it was the right message and five minutes pretty well spent. The novel was waiting when I finished.

Should we teach kids, whose parents agree beforehand, about the issues of human sexuality with which we all have to deal? Sure, but it can't be a how-to class. And we can't be so simplistic as to teach little more than "just say no" in a variety of different ways. As with everything else we teach, our goal should always be to help kids become smarter, stronger, wiser, and more capable adults, adults who are honorable, self-sacrificing human beings determined to treat others with sincerity and honor.

I hope that's a helpful answer. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at July 25, 2011 10:58 PM

Out here in california the toilet state, our logical and honorable state has declared it law that we must teach k-12 about homosexuals. As if people merit were based on if they "book whammers" or not.

Seems logical to me that peoples accomplishments were solely based on their sexual orientation.

This whole country has gone mad, There is no shame or integrity anymore.

Posted by: KeplerTheSovereign at July 27, 2011 02:35 PM

Imagine that - talking about integrity in relation to sex!

Posted by: Conservative Werewolf at July 27, 2011 06:57 PM

This is a wonderful article and explains how to handle various questions which pop-up in classrooms across the nation.

Teaching young people the biological aspects of reproduction is a 10 minute lesson. Teaching them the importance of the consequences of engaging in sexual behavior at a young age takes far longer. The importance of teaching the biological and the consequences of sexual encounters should be taught in a biology class as it was done many years ago. Learning about diseases that are transmitted, the difficulty of raising a child when the mother and father are children themselves should be a large part of the classroom discussion. Education is giving young people tools to live and learn by. Once that is done, let them go and hope that they will make good decisions. Let them explore and learn on their own and perhaps with a good education about the consequences of poor decisions, they will make wise ones. It truly is impossible to stop sexual exploration of many young people. Their hormones are raging, and with knowledge, perhaps they will explore with caution and safety!

Posted by: carol at July 27, 2011 09:59 PM