Schools can’t do sex ed alone

New York University education professor Jonathan Zimmerman’s new book looks at the history of sex ed and how schools can use technology and connections with community groups to give students the information they want about healthy behaviors.

Last fall, the tiny town of CaÁ±on City, Colorado, was the focus of unwelcome national attention when more than 100 of its high school students were caught in a “sexting” scandal, trading naked pictures of themselves and one another.

In fact, so many football players were among those suspended after the scandal that the team had to forfeit the final game of the season. Public reaction inevitably focused on why the school hadn’t done more to educate students about sexting.

“Schools are an easy target, but the wrong one,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University and the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton University Press, 2015).“Public ambivalence about youth sexuality limits what the schools can do; nor do we have strong evidence that schools can affect teenagers’ behavior, in any event.”

Why is sex education taught in schools in the first place?

Historically, the answer has been to prevent negative social outcomes, specifically unwanted teen pregnancy and teen STDs. Sex ed began in this country about 100 years ago during venereal disease outbreaks in large cities like Chicago and New York.

Very simply, middle-class men were patronizing prostitutes and then going home and infecting their wives. This created a panic—a very racialized one I should add, because there were white middle-class Protestants doing this. It was the era of eugenics and of “race suicide.”

The worry was that all these immigrants would have eight or nine kids, but white people would have fewer and would eventually be overtaken because STDs do sometimes lead to sterility. I would say that history has been pretty constant. With most sex ed programs in our public schools, the goal is still to keep people safe from certain dangers.

According to the CDC, the teen pregnancy rate is at a record low.

Oh, yeah. It absolutely is. But, here’s the problem. To attribute the decline in teen pregnancy to sex ed in the schools is incredibly difficult and problematic. There’s so little sex ed in this country that we can’t connect the two.

Let’s remember that education happens everywhere, not just in schools. When you survey kids and ask, “Where do you get your sexual knowledge?” they almost never say schools. And we’ve been doing this, by the way, for 100 years. What do they say? They say peers, family, media institutions.

So just because the teen pregnancy rate has declined to historical lows, we can’t say that it’s because of schools. And given how little sex ed there is, it’s probably not because of schools.

Many people support the idea of sex ed, yet they balk at the content.

This is one reason there has been so little sex ed in the schools. It is such a controversial subject. Everyone agrees that the school should teach math. With sex ed it’s more complicated and much more contested than that.

I would go further. Sex is an inherently divisive subject. It addresses our most intimate ideas of ourselves as human beings. It is intimately tied to our ideas of ourselves. So we’re going to disagree about it inevitably.

And what that means is it’s going to be very hard to create a consensus about what to teach about it. As a result, the safest course for school officials has usually been to focus on so-called “plumbing lessons” and to avoid anything controversial.

But when we have a sexting scandal as took place in Colorado, there’s almost a knee-jerk reaction asking why the school didn’t do more to educate the students.

That’s consistent with yet another theme in the last 100 years of education history—when society gets an itch, school is supposed to scratch it. So, when anything goes wrong we’re supposed to come up with some sort of curriculum in our schools that will correct it.

If the kids are drinking too much, we have alcohol education. If they’re using illegal drugs, we have drug education. If they are in gangs, we have anti-gang education.

We ask our schools to do way more than they are able to do, and this is a good example. Let me be clear. I’m not saying schools shouldn’t address this subject. What I’m saying is we should all be extremely realistic about what school-based sex education can accomplish.

So where should this education come from instead?

You know what? The kids are in front of screens more than they are with us. You add up the amount of time kids are in front of screens and you compare it to the amount of time they are in school, there’s no comparison anymore. Screens win.

We know that, especially when it comes to sex, they get much of their information—or disinformation—from screens. So why not try to use the screens in a constructive way?

Lots of sex ed organizations are trying this approach. If you have a question about sex, instead of asking the kid in your locker room or the gym teacher in your sex ed class, you text an outfit like Planned Parenthood: “Can I get pregnant the first time? Can I get pregnant when I’m having my period?”

And then someone will text you back privately—someone who actually knows what they are talking about. This is sex ed. It’s not sex ed in the public school classroom setting. It’s sex ed that comes through a private outlet and is individuated.

I think our best hope right now is that, because we know the screens are so ubiquitous, we can harness them in truly educational ways.

Is there an online clearinghouse to validate this information?

There are some. There are also some state education and health organizations that have created these text-messaging services, such as in North Carolina and Texas. These are an interesting mix of public and private. It’s a public enterprise, but it’s delivered in a private fashion and, most of all, in a voluntary one.

To bring this full circle, should schools partner with these programs and educate parents and students about them?

I think so. And the other thing I would say is that schools need to keep experimenting. Let’s remember that there are 14,000 school districts in this country, so there’s enormous variation. At the same time, however, we shouldn’t expect too much from schools.

Why can’t we expect too much?

Simply because there has been so little sex ed in schools, frankly, that we don’t know a lot about it or what it “does.” A journalist will call me and ask, “Does sex ed in schools work?” If by work you mean does it make kids behave in more sexually responsible ways?

You know what the answer to that is? We don’t know. Think about it. If a kid is getting nine hours of sex ed in a year, how could you show, as a matter of social science, that those nine hours were what affected the kid’s behavior?

Because we don’t know, I take a kind of thousand flowers bloom approach. Let’s try as many different things as both our citizens will accept and our teachers can handle and let’s see what they do.

What can a school administrator do?

There are a couple things. The first is to partner with some of these private and quasi-public enterprises that can provide sex ed to kids outside of the classroom. That’s No. 1, because we know that’s where they are going to get their sex ed anyway.

The second thing I would say is, as much as possible, try to bring different members of the community together to figure out what it is that they want. It may well be that you as a principal are assuming certain things about community sentiment that aren’t true.

Or, on the other hand, it may well be that you are right. But the only way to find out is to talk to the community.

Since they are going to shoulder the responsibility anyway, this is how they should approach it?

Yes. Meet the kids where they are. You interview kids about school-based sex ed—and we’ve been doing this for a long time—and they say it’s a joke. It doesn’t address anything they really want to know. What they want to know is, “When is the right time to do this and with whom? And why?”

In general, there’s too much disagreement among American adults about whether kids are sexual beings for most public schools to engage in that dialogue.

Tim Goral is senior editor. 

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