Everything You Always Wanted to Know . . .

Elizabeth Marquardt, Washington Post, 6/4/2006

As a child of the 1970s, I grew up in an era drenched in sexuality. An early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was coffee-table reading at my mom's house; our liberal church offered detailed sex ed even to pre-teens; around age 10 my stepsister and I were able to sneak a giggly, horrified peek at Playgirl in the local grocery store. My only real memory of sexual ignorance is, as a 5-year-old, puzzling over the meaning of "Afternoon Delight," the title of my favorite song.

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Subjects: Marriage, Family

More by: Elizabeth Marquardt

WHEN SEX GOES TO SCHOOL

Warring Views on Sex – and Sex

Education – Since the Sixties

By Kristin Luker

Norton. 368 pp. $25.95

As a child of the 1970s, I grew up in an era drenched in sexuality. An early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was coffee-table reading at my mom's house; our liberal church offered detailed sex ed even to pre-teens; around age 10 my stepsister and I were able to sneak a giggly, horrified peek at Playgirl in the local grocery store. My only real memory of sexual ignorance is, as a 5-year-old, puzzling over the meaning of "Afternoon Delight," the title of my favorite song.

Strangely, I remember almost nothing of my public school sex education curriculum: just one session with a red-faced male eighth-grade teacher who labored to explain facts that most of us already knew, and a high school health class in which we watched a scratchy cartoon featuring "Captain Condom." I'm not kidding.

Which is to say that, today, as a mother of two small children who remains blissfully in denial that the thought of sex will ever cross their minds, I think I'm in the dead center of mainstream America when it comes to sex education. I am utterly flummoxed about what this curriculum should contain. I want my children to have information that will help them be safe and fulfilled, but I also want to protect their fleeting innocence better than my era – with its often spiritually bereft "I get mine, you get yours" vision of sexuality – protected mine.

In this context I picked up Berkeley sociologist Kristin Luker's fascinating new book, When Sex Goes to School . Her argument is that our heated debates on sex education are not so much about practicalities (which methods of sex ed do and do not work, and why?) as about highly fraught values pertaining to marriage (is it the one sacred place for sex, or is it one of many equally viable kinds of sexual relationship?) and gender, in particular women's roles in society and in the bedroom.

The best chapter by far traces the social history of what she calls the "first sexual revolution" at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, young people were moving from farms to cities, which allowed them to fraternize without their elders and weakened the consequences of bad reputations. Fertility dropped precipitously, and sex, in many people's minds, became unmoored from reproduction (and threatened to become freed from marriage). In response, the "social hygiene" (a euphemism for sex ed) movement was born, led by reformers who sought to prevent harm from unbridled sexuality mainly by celebrating and teaching people about the pleasures of marital sex.

Their movement, led by progressive luminaries and funded by corporations such as Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel and Sears, Roebuck managed to get sex education into public schools across the country, as well as to millions in the armed forces, in part through grassroots organizations like women's clubs and the YMCA. Luker concludes that by their own standard the mission was a success: For 60 years, whatever people did in private, the vast majority agreed that sex should be saved for marriage.

In the 1960s, of course, this consensus came unglued, and we're still picking up the pieces. This could be an all-too-familiar story, but Luker gives it fresh purchase by seeking, with scholarly rigor, to explicate the positions of both sides in the culture war. She gets inside the hearts and minds of both evangelical Christians and secular liberals, showing why they make the arguments they do, what values they are rooted in and, most helpfully, how they are talking past one another. She notes, astutely, that, "conservatives look back to a sunny (and often idealized) past, one that conveniently airbrushes out of the picture many social problems (like racial segregation)" while "liberals look forward to a sunny (and often idealized) future, conveniently skipping over how hard it is to change human behavior."

Luker's proposal? That we come clean with today's students. Let's tell the kids that the debate about sex ed is really about the grownups' deep values conflict over marriage and gender, especially women's roles, and that this conflict is seen across the American spectrum, politics included. Addressing the conflict head-on will, she writes, empower "students – and their parents – with the kinds of information they need to make choices." In practical terms, Luker notes approvingly that at least one school is teaching comprehensive sex ed and abstinence side by side, letting students and their parents choose.

It's an intriguing idea, but here's the rub: It's not enough to offer the kids a broad menu and simply tell them we're confused about this, too. The plain truth is that in our homes and communities, and in our wildly diverse nation, the struggle to make sense of contentious values regarding sex, marriage and gender isn't going away – nor should it.

This article originally appeared here.

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