Beware the “Science” in Sex Education

Miriam Grossman, M.D.
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Posted: Aug 04, 2009 12:01 AM

The House of Representatives has approved an addition to the healthcare reform package. It calls for the creation of a “Healthy Teen Initiative”, and allocates $50 million to so-called “comprehensive” sex education.

“This was a vote to bring science back into government”, said James Wagoner, president of Advocates For Youth and a leader of the coalition that promoted the amendment. The committee, he continued, “has taken an important step toward ensuring young people get the critical sexual health information they need to make responsible decisions about their lives.”

Mr. Wagoner’s statement is astonishing, because Advocates for Youth’s sexual education curricula and websites are notable for their lack of scientific content.

Consider what this national group, one of the nation’s flagship sex ed organizations, teaches kids about being male or female. Gender identity, they’re told, is completely separate from anatomy. Your identity is a feeling – something experienced internally. Others can’t determine if you’re male or female; only you know.

Newborns are designated male or female, wrapped in a blue or pink blanket, and socialized to fit cultural expectations. Messages from their environment teach them masculine or feminine behaviors, interests, and ways of relating.

Usually anatomy and feelings match, students learn, but sometimes they don’t, and that’s a normal variant. Sometimes a boy insists he’s a girl or vice versa, and that should not be a concern, says AFY; it is “as normal as being alive”.

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Furthermore, the premise that there are only two genders, male or female, is inaccurate. This “traditional” meaning of gender is wrong and does harm, says AFY, by restricting our freedom of gender expression. There are many genders, kids should know, including but not limited to: male, female, transgender, genderqueer, genderless and gender ambiguous.

Gender can also change. A ten-year-old might be certain she’s a girl, but at twenty she might realize she’s a man. People can realize their gender at any point in their lives, young people are told.

Is this the “science” Mr Wagoner referred to? Or perhaps instructing children that they could be male, female, both, or neither is an example of “the critical sexual health information they need to make responsible decisions about their lives”?

Advocates for Youth’s lesson plan on gender is not only unscientific, it’s a departure from reality. Here’s what real science in this century says about being male or female.

Cell biology indicates the Y chromosome – previously considered a “genetic wasteland” – is teeming with units of DNA that are unique to males. There are distinct male and female blueprints from the moment of conception.

Embryology provides evidence of the earliest activity of those genes. At eight weeks post-conception, when the embryo is the size of a kidney bean, the Y chromosome directs the testes to produce and secrete testosterone. The hormone travels to the brain, enters the neurons, and propels the development of a distinct “boy brain”.

Neurobiology research is mapping out the structural and functional differences in male and female brains. Functional MRIs create color images that highlight distinct boy and girl patterns of thinking and feeling.

Infant Development studies reveal that at one day of age, presumably before children have been socialized to meet society’s expectations, girls show a stronger interest in the face, while boys look longer at a mobile. At one year, girls are drawn to a video of a face moving; boys to a video of cars moving. And the typical toy preferences of children are also found in juvenile monkeys. The females like dolls and the males prefer vehicles and balls.

Male and female are “culturally assigned”? Gender is a feeling, separate from hormones and chromosomes? I don’t think so. Advocates for Youth’s lesson plans are based on last century’s radical social movements. Anyone following this century’s hard science - what’s observed under microscopes or on brain scans – knows those moth-eaten theories have been discredited.

Mr. Wagoner and others in his coalition may choose to disregard advances in neuroscience, but when members of Congress endorse their attitude, thereby institutionalizing it, it is a sad day for the children of this country. The “Healthy Teen Initiative”, if based on the ideology of those groups that promoted it, will, as Mr Wagoner said, bring something back into government. It will bring extreme agendas like we’ve never seen before. It will bring groups who encourage young people to question what they’ve been taught about sexuality at home and in church. It will introduce them to radical ideas that have no basis in reality. It will bring many things, but science is not one of them.