Sex Education Is Improving, Causing Right Wing to Panic

On this episode of Reality Cast, I discuss how sex education in some states has improved, and the right wing's response to those changes. In another segment, I chat with Stephanie Zvan, associate president of Minnesota Atheists, about the fight to end sexual harassment in the atheist/skeptic movement.

Related Links

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Huffington Post on sex education

Tulsa schools expanding sex education

The winner in the “dumb things said about Miley Cyrus” contest


On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be diving back into how the secular movement still hasn’t resolved tensions over the role of feminism. And school’s back in session, so I have not one but two segments looking at the changing face of sex education as the country gets over the obsession with abstinence-only.

Pat Robertson blurted out the sort of thing that I’d usually reserve for the Wisdom of Wingnuts on this show, claiming gay men in San Francisco are a bunch of serial killers who run around giving you HIV with secret rings. But I thought I’d highlight Anderson Cooper’s response.

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Cooper went on to point out that Pat Robertson thinks being gay is a result of demonic possession and complains that you don’t have a “vomit” button on Facebook so you can taunt gay couples who post pictures on the social networking site.


School is starting back up and there’s an exciting new development for Chicago area schools this year. Schools in the area are starting a new sex education program that will require instruction in every year of school, starting in kindergarten. It’s the largest sex education program in the country, and the hope is not only that it can reduce STD and unintended pregnancy, but also child abuse and dating violence. Indeed, the child abuse component is a major reason to start sex ed in kindergarten. While kids won’t be taught things like what sex is at the youngest ages or contraception or abortion or anything like that, they will be taught the difference between bad touch and good touch and how to report people who are molesting them. This is something I want you to keep in mind when I play some of the right wing responses to the news, because whatever they are saying about this, let’s be absolutely clear: They are prioritizing their sex panic and other concerns over making sure that kids have the language and means to turn in pedophiles. Which is why my blood boiled to see that this video from Fox News was making the rounds of right wing YouTube again, after its initial debut in March.

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May I take a moment to point out that Michelle Fields just basically said that the people who are in charge of your child’s safety and education are no-good, worthless leeches who don’t deserve to be paid a decent wage? I know this is a common right wing stance, but I never fail to marvel at how, on one hand, we’re supposed to swoon to talk about how children are the future and our most precious resource, but then, on the other hand, are supposed to assume anyone who actually cares for them is undeserving of basic respect and decent working conditions.

Anyway, the point stands: The policy is there in no small part to teach kids how to report pedophiles, but Fields clearly thinks preventing sexual predators from attacking children is a less important priority than undermining teachers unions. You must really, really hate teachers to be more worried that they’re getting away with being paid than to worry that pedophiles are getting away with rape.

So what’s actually in this scary, scary sex education? Huffington Post Live had Dr. Stephanie Whyte, the Chief Health Officer for Chicago Public Schools, explain the policy.

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Research-based and age appropriate? They are just learning the names for their bodies, the fact that cats have kittens, and now, again this is critical, how to report pedophiles? Gosh, that sounds awful harmless and it is. That’s why the other part of Fields’ rant, about how the “birds and the bees” should be taught at home makes no kind of sense. If a parent freaks out at the name of his or her own body parts or the fact that cats have kittens, that parent is not going to be in a good, healthy mental space to give that lesson. If you’re so backed up that telling kids to report pedophiles is too much for you to handle, then the odds that you’re going to be able to handle more complex discussions of what sex and contraception are when they are older are around nil. You may even be one of those parents who “forgets” to tell your daughter that her period is coming. You are failing your child and should be grateful the schools are saving them from what could be very serious trauma.

But screw all that healthy children nonsense! Let’s have a little more sex panic.

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Oh yes, it’s so offensive to suggest that a 5-year-old should make healthy choices about social interactions. Healthy choices like, say, reporting a pedophile who is sexually abusing them. What’s clear here is that Fox News knows that the term “sex ed for kindergartners” is so titillating for its ridiculous audience that they won’t even actually hear what is really being taught or the justification for it. What kind of monster actually opposes teaching kids healthy interactions, especially when such lessons help them with difficult problems like reporting sexual abuse? I don’t know that they’re monsters per se, however, but just that they don’t even hear what they’re supposed to be opposing. They just think they heard “teaching sex to 5-year-olds” and are reacting to that instead of to what is actually being taught. Of course, that’s the audience. The actual hosts, commentators and producers at Fox are being completely awful here. They are the ones who actually read the materials and they know that it’s not at all what they’re pretending it is, but they are prioritizing getting their audience riled up over the safety and well-being of small children.


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As with the last segment, the big but extremely quiet story in sexual health in the past few years is the slow recession of abstinence-only programs, which are very quietly being replaced by more comprehensive sex education programs. Now, of all places, Oklahoma is actually starting to give in and realize that abstinence-only was a failed experiment and that, if you want kids to avoid unintended pregnancy, you’re going to have to give them actual information about contraception. The new program is starting in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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If you take a step back and really think about it, the objections to sex ed have always been a little bit strange. They may not seem like it, because that knee-jerk hostility towards sexual openness and liberation is something we’ve all grown up with and see as “normal,” but if you set that aside, it’s actually quite weird. The idea that people make better decisions with pertinent information being withheld from them would insult our intelligence if the topic were anything but sex. For instance, imagine I’m making a trip from Oklahoma to California, and it’s fairly open-ended how and when I choose to leave. Do you think I’m going to make better decisions if you refuse to share information with me about the condition of the roads, the availability of airline travel, and the weather conditions? Or will knowing more about how I get there and when is good to travel help me make a better decision? Obviously, the latter. It makes no sense to think sex is an exception to the general rule that knowledge is power.

Of course, anti-choicers never actually really thought they’d get better health outcomes by withholding information. The whole thing was rooted in the same old urge to punish young people for having sex—the thinking, even if they are often loathe to admit it is that if you disobeyed their rules, then you deserve to get pregnant. But while that may satisfy a Bible-thumper’s sense of dominance and control, it’s not very practical. Indeed, what Oklahoma has found out is that high teenage pregnancy rates have a bunch of unintended consequences, as this sex education activist explained.

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Right wing myth: Refusing to tell kids about contraception means that their overwhelming fear of pregnancy will largely cause them to avoid sex, and the few that do get pregnant will serve as a warning about the evils of sex to others. Real world experience: Refusing to tell kids about contraception means that they will have sex anyway, because kids tend to do it on their own timeline and not the one given to them by others, especially others who think sex is dirty and sinful. When high numbers of teenagers get pregnant, they often drop out because of their overwhelming responsibilities, leading to more poverty and more social chaos, which ends up hurting everyone, even people who thought a few pregnant teens would be good for morale.

So, it’s a good start, but it sounds like there’s a long way to go.

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Eventually, the plan is to get regular teachers well-trained enough that they don’t need the specialists to do it, which is something I have no opinion either way. My gut instinct is to say that having this incorporated into regular school work should be the end goal, both to make it feel more normalized and to build on pre-existing relationships between students and teachers. My school had an outsider come in to do contraception education and it felt all weird and disconcerting and I think we learned less that we should. But actual experts probably understand the issues more. What I do know is that it’s a problem having the program built on an opt-in structure instead of an opt-out. Parents who don’t want kids to get sex ed should be the ones who have to make an effort, not parents who want their kids to get it. Frankly, I tend to run strong on the idea that minors have human rights to an education regardless and think parents shouldn’t be able to opt out of sex ed at all, but if you can’t have that, at least making the opt-out people work for it.

All credit to the Tulsa news station for not wasting our time interviewing some conservative spouting clichés about leaving it to the parents. We all know that some parents have no intention of teaching kids what they need to know, and that’s why it’s so critical for schools to step in and help out.


And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, Miley Cyrus edition. While there were interesting commentaries out there about cultural appropriation, most of the critical reaction to Miley Cyrus’ performance at the Video Music Awards was the same old anti-sex harrumphing. It was hard to pick a favorite, but I kind of like Ray Comfort’s.

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I like how blunt they were about their belief that grown women’s sexuality is male property, specifically your father’s property. Presumably right until your husband takes ownership of it.