Searching for accurate information in sex education

Posted: Jun 06, 2005 12:00 AM

Last month, a federal judge found the Montgomery County School Board's sex-education pilot plan in Maryland so flagrantly in violation of the First Amendment that he had to hand down a restraining order. (Either that or hand in his gavel forever.) With the sex-ed plan's legal route blocked, the school board ditched the whole idea for now, along with the citizens committee that waved it through in the first place, despite plenty of flapping red flags.

OK, there were two really big red flags. Judge Alexander Williams Jr. called one "viewpoint discrimination" because, as he wrote, the new curriculum for 10th graders was supposed to teach that "homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle -- to the exclusion of other perspectives." Also outrageous was the way the curriculum promoted certain religions to the exclusion of others. In touting "the moral rightness of the homosexual lifestyle," the judge wrote, the curriculum suggested that "the Baptist Church's position on homosexuality is theologically flawed," and reminiscent of the racial prejudice of the segregation era. At the same time, the curriculum applauded Reform Jews, Unitarians and Quakers for promoting an activist homosexual political agenda. If you're wondering when religious prejudice or favoritism became a subject fit for the public schools to preach -- I mean, teach -- the answer is never. And that's what the court ruled.

But imagine if the school board had been smart enough to reel in those First Amendment red flags on which this particular sex-ed course was hung out to dry. Would Montgomery County teens be sitting down to become both "informed" and desensitized by the course's instructional video on how to apply a condom to a cucumber? Would these kids be reflecting on their curriculum's no doubt scholarly treatment of all manner of sexual experimentation? In this hyper-sexualized culture of ours, I'm afraid the answer has to be yes.

But kudos to the parents in Montgomery County who banded together to stop this sex-ed train on its way out of the station. After it retools, the same basic train will undoubtedly chug away in the fall. My question is, do we like where it's going, and, if not, how do we get off?

It's a track we've been stuck on for a long time -- since 1930, in fact, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals "forever changed the course of obscenity law," writes Rochelle Gurstein in her illuminating book "The Repeal of Reticence" (Hill and Wang, 1998). It was then, in an acclaimed case, that the court ruled that sex-education material could no longer be considered illicit. According to Judge Augustus Hand, "accurate information, rather than mystery and curiosity, is better in the long view and is less likely to occasion lascivious thoughts than ignorance and anxiety."

But, as Gurstein points out, "accurate information" did more than remedy "ignorance and anxiety." After all, she explains, "ignorance and anxiety" were only part of the human condition. "Equally important," she writes, "were considerations of the inherent fragility of intimate life, the tone of public conversation, standards of taste and morality, and reverence owed to mysteries. These defining characteristics of the reticent sensibility had been lost."

"Lost" isn't the word. Something more forceful (pulverized? mutilated?) is in order to describe the, well, fallen condition of a world in which -- just to take a random example -- a new Simon & Schuster teen title, "Rainbow Party," that recounts a tale of an oral group sex party for the "young adult" set. (Thanks, Bill Clinton.) I'm both happy and resentful to report that so-called rainbow parties -- reportedly a real-life trend -- are a new one on me: happy that I've lived multiple decades without an inkling; resentful that I'm now and forever stuck with the knowledge. Who needs it?

More important -- what does making such berserk sexual adventurism a mass-cultural commonplace do to the individual human psyche? Are we better off so limitlessly coarsened? Are our children? Certainly, the publishing industry is better off.

According to The New York Times, publisher Judith Regan, among others, has capitalized on sex-in-the-citified sensibilities to inaugurate a "growing and increasingly racy genre of how-to sex books ... extolling the excitement that could come from oral sex, anal sex, fetishism and S&M."

So glad to hear what now constitutes "racy." What we really need, though, are some new definitions of pornographic, obscene, lewd -- categories the courts told us decades ago don't really exist. I think they do. And I think we've wallowed in them long enough.