Many years ago, I taught sex education as a high school biology elective. A student arrived for my class ahead of her classmates. “When I get home from school,” she said, “my mother wants to learn all the things we learn in this class today. And then Mom tells me, ‘Don’t tell Father what you learned.’”
I have always remembered her dilemma. Today, I teach biology teachers. And when it comes to sex ed, my student teachers must be young ladies and gentlemen: be respectful, be accurate, and most of all, watch their language. When a parent has trouble with sex education, it is usually with the language the student has brought home. All words are theory laden, and scientific terms are associated with the medical doctors and scientists who use them. Divorced from romance, from social norms...they sound so “sterile.” Yet they provide accurate, detailed, precise communication.
Not like street slang. We don’t use slang in class. Why? One problem is that its meaning is often fuzzy and varies from region to region. The bigger problem is that slang reflects an attitude of selfish pleasure. No commitment. It is the language of the playboy philosophy and the Marquis de Sade. If a student only knows to ask a question in slang, the teacher immediately translates it into “correct” terms.
So let’s return to my student whose mother said “Don’t tell Father what you learned in class today.” I was using scientific terms, not slang. Well, there are still other ways of looking at sexuality. Some religious traditions do not discuss the topic at all. And then there are romantics, the readers of Danielle Steele and Belva Plain novels. A sexual encounter, often critical to the whole book, is couched in terms of the “the waves came crashing....” Any usage of anatomy terms would break the spell of love that is being woven. And that leaves a teacher no terms to work with at all.
But a compassionate society needs accurate communication and many religious and romantic folks have integrated science terms into their vocabulary. We speak more openly about sexuality today than ever before. And to the extent that we speak more accurately, it is a reflection of better sex education.
Now, state universities in Kansas have just completed writing their policy on use of media, teaching about pedophilia, and sexual harassment in the sex ed classroom. I do not worry about this issue because at the university level, we have the academic freedom to discuss all of these issues in a responsible way. College students are young adults. And college faculty do not stand “in loco parentis”–in the place of the parent.
The situation is different for public school teachers who do function “in loco parentis.” In 1987, Kansas was the third state in the nation to mandate sex education. Comprehensive programs were required. And parents were given a right to opt their child out of sex education, and a few do that.
Opt-out serves as an important safety valve. As a teacher, you know that the students in your biology or health class can learn about sexuality with their parent’s blessing. And that is why I did not worry about the mother who told my student “Don’t tell Father”–because my course was an elective course and the parents had approved the enrollment. Mom was ready for her daughter to grow up. Father...maybe not.
But when the new Kansas high school graduation requirements go into effect, they will replace the sex ed mandate of 1987. There will be no requirement to have comprehensive programs on file. Sexuality becomes just one standard among many hundreds in science and health. And there will be no requirement to notify parents and offer an opt-out.
With the growing list of concepts you have to teach for the state assessments, and no opt out to provide cover for teaching sex education, it is likely that when future Moms ask their daughters “What did you learn in school today?” ...the answer will be “Not much interesting”... and that will be quite okay to tell Dad.