Commentary Magazine


Teaching Sex by Jeffrey P. Moran

Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century
by Jeffrey P. Moran
Harvard. 288 pp. $27.95

Sex and the middle-schooler? Apparently so, according to the New York Times. In certain circles, we learn from a recent article, seventh-graders are now casually engaging in oral sex; some are even having intercourse. Perhaps worse, these encounters among the barely pubescent tend to be as impersonal as ATM transactions. The “kids don’t even look at each other,” reports one psychologist, describing their practices as mere “body-part sex.”

Fortunately, the experts consulted by the Times know precisely how to deal with such disturbing precocity: more sex education. And the earlier, the better. As Jeffrey P. Moran reminds us in Teaching Sex, this now virtually automatic response to the dilemmas of adolescent sexuality does not come out of nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of a centuiy-long effort to bring scientific and medical expertise to bear on the world of youthful eros.

For Moran, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, this rationalistic project, whose various permutations over the decades he traces in useful (if sometimes tiresome) detail, has been misguided from the start. In that judgment, he is certainly right, though for entirely the wrong reasons.

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Sex education got its beginning in America at the turn of the 20th century, largely in response to an epidemic of venereal disease in the country’s burgeoning big cities. Led by Prince Morrow, a New York patrician and a doctor of genito-urinary diseases, a new breed of “social hygienists,” as they called themselves, proposed a fresh approach to combating sexual license. Though in many respects as proper as Mrs. Grundy herself, these reformers rejected what they saw as the Victorian “conspiracy of silence.” Believing that ignorance was the problem, they were convinced that, by using an “impersonal” scientific language to dispel the mystery and confusion surrounding sex, they could lead men and women down a moral path.

Within a generation, World War I had brought about a profound shift in sexual mores, a development symbolized by a letter from the French premier Georges Clemenceau encouraging the American government to let doughboys on leave avail themselves of Paris’s famed prostitutes. Concerned by the open sexuality of the flapper generation, Congress created the venereal-disease division of the U.S. Public Health Service in 1918. For their part, sex educators, though still insisting that sex should take place strictly within the confines of marriage, began to speak a new, more modern language of personality, social adjustment, and sexual fulfillment.

The Depression and World War II forced sex educators to regroup once more. In response to the country’s longing for a return to domestic stability and normalcy, they now invented something called Family Life Education. Though there was not much sex in this new model of sex education—an occasional film on venereal disease for boys, cautious descriptions of menstruation for girls—it did not, Moran emphasizes, mark a retreat to tradition. But it did do something else: during the 1950’s, as he points out, Family Life Education “expanded the principle of public intervention,” giving public-health experts still broader authority over sexual attitudes and encouraging parents to defer to these experts.

Then came the 60’s. In a largely forgotten Pearl Harbor of the culture wars, the first modern sex-education curriculum was introduced in the schools of Anaheim, California. Though the program did not directly promote premarital sex, it provided seventh graders with detailed descriptions of sexual intercourse and briefed seniors on the particulars of birth control. Guidance from a teacher gave way to coeducational discussion groups, meant to encourage students “to question adult beliefs” and “to examine the reality of adult behavior.” Although many parents were aghast, and the responsible officials were quickly ousted, the future had arrived.

In recent decades, Moran documents, sex educators have gone farther and farther in their determination to be “realistic rather than moralistic.” This has meant accommodating not only increased sexual activity among teenagers but also new attitudes toward divorce, sex roles, and cohabitation. Public-health crises have also played a major role in expanding the reach and explicitness of sex education. Feminist and gay-rights activists, along with groups like Planned Parenthood and the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, have seized upon the AIDS problem to argue, as a matter of life and death, for instructing students in everything from tolerance of homosexuality to the merits of masturbation.

True, not everyone has stood still for this. “Traditionalists”—a term that Moran applies to everyone from the John Birch Society to ordinary parents opposed to teaching eighth-graders how to put condoms on bananas—have succeeded in overturning a number of local curricula, and have even introduced their own alternatives, like the popular “Sex Respect” program. Moreover, their conservative allies on Capitol Hill have redirected federal funding so that it now favors “abstinence-only” programs. Supporters of what might be called the Anaheim model are therefore increasingly on the defensive, though the model itself is still commonplace enough.

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What unites this long and rather varied history? In Moran’s eyes, it is the unrelenting “instrumentalism” of sex educators—that is, their tendency across the decades to present sex education as nothing more than a tool for fighting disease, or as a form of public-health program. From turn-of-the-century “social hygienists” to the creators of “Sex Respect” who point to herpes and AIDS as primary reasons to avoid premarital intercourse, sex educators have always spoken the supposedly value-neutral language of science, attempting to tame the impulses of youth with appeals to enlightened self-interest.

The problem, as Moran at least partly recognizes, is that sex education cannot be separated from values, and that its proponents, despite their air of scientific detachment, inevitably give voice to the changing attitudes of American society. Even more damning, in light of its pretensions, there is little evidence that sex education has ever had much effect on actual sexual behavior, whether one considers contraceptive use or rates of intercourse and pregnancy.

Had Moran simply stopped at this point, his history would have performed a useful service. Sex education has been a flop, whether because of its supposed reliance on the mere “facts of life” or, more likely, because it merely serves as a handmaiden to social attitudes—attitudes that at least since the 60’s have been increasingly latitudinarian. But in the spirit of Michel Foucault, the great postmodernist guru of sex, Moran feels the need to go farther, challenging the very idea that “adolescent sexuality” should be viewed as a “hazard” at all, let alone that it needs to be “regulated.” As he sees it, the sheer maturity of today’s young people—a point he establishes primarily by quoting several fourteen-year-olds who complain that their parents treat them like children—should lead us to question “whether ‘adolescence’ is still a useful category.” What is needed, he suggests, is a new form of sex education, one that will jettison the faux-scientific and regulatory approach and frankly recognize “the diversity of desire in different ages and different places.”

Would this entail giving a green light to the “body-part sex” of the thirteen-year-olds featured lately in the Times? Unfortunately, such increasingly common scenes do not figure in Moran’s account—which may explain why his own prescriptions seem so utterly ungrounded in contemporary reality. For what such scenes make unmistakably clear is that the issue today is hardly the pervasive “regulation” of youthful sexuality but rather the opposite. Our adolescents live in a world in which families, religious organizations, and other institutions of civil society have largely ceded the job of shaping sexual mores to a marketdriven popular culture that is all too ready to treat the youngest of teens as “mature” adults—and to sex educators who are that culture’s willing collaborators if not its advance scouts.

In short, just as Moran suggests, sex education is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And so, in the end, is he.

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About the Author

Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal, writes frequently for COMMENTARY on social and cultural issues.




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