Sex Education for Our Children

Part: 
One
Chapter: 
3

Few problems have produced more genuine concern among more Americans than the sexual awareness, behavior, and victimization of children. Few, if any, dispute the need of children for knowledge about their sexual natures-its dangers and its promise, its mystery and its power. Yet few areas of public discussion have engendered more bitter, if often legitimate, debate over the means appropriate to achieving a desired end.

This Commission found itself in the middle of that debate, not out of choice but of necessity. We have seen and heard massive quantities of evidence concerning the abuse and exploitation of children by adults, both in the making and in the consumption of sexually explicit material. We have learned, as well, of the extraordinary extent to which sexually explicit magazines, films, video tapes, telephone recordings, and books are a part of the life of our country's children and adolescents. It has become increasingly clear to us that many children who escape actual sexual abuse are nevertheless receiving their primary education in human sexuality from a graphically inappropriate source, one which describes sexual fulfillment as conditioned upon transience, dominance, aggression or degradation.

We have seen, too, that in a society flooded with sexual imagery it is virtually impossible fully to "protect" children from becoming victims of misleading information about sex. Nor is it possible to expect that criminal and civil sanctions, however vigorously applied, will wholly end sexual abuse. Teenagers, and to a great extent even younger children, must learn to protect themselves-both from exploitation by others and from the consequences of their own ignorance and immaturity.

At the same time, however, they deserve an understanding of the beauty of sexuality, and its role as the foundation of family and indeed of human civilization itself. While our charge is limited to examining the nature and effects of pornography, we would be remiss if we failed to note our passionate desire for careful, humane, and explicit instruction of children regarding the nature and effects of sexuality itself.

Unfortunately that desire only leads us directly to a central dilemma of our nation's pluralistic democracy. The very importance of sexuality makes it a central focus of almost every system of religious and ethical values. Teaching children about sex inevitably involves instruction about its relationship with morality and human relationships. Any attempt to evade such instruction or underlying values only results in teaching one specific moral assumption-that no relationship exists between sex and morality. Presenting instruction on sex combined with discussion of the full array of opinions discussed would largely dilute the importance of all of them. While these problems could be wholly avoided if full instruction on sexuality were provided to children by their parents, it is a sad fact that many, if not most, parents ignore or fail seriously in this responsibility.

This dilemma is unfortunate in part because I think we all believe that there is a core group of values which can and should form the basis of instruction on sexuality. Above all, it seems to me we could agree that such instruction should be presented as one important, but not dominant, part of instruction on the family-its history, nature, and importance. The most important institution in human society, the family, is virtually ignored in modern education. That failing is particularly tragic because it is only within the context of exploring the meaning of the family that the meaning and role of sexuality can be understood.

The particular values that almost all of us think it important to emphasize in "sex education"-responsibility, commitment, fidelity, understanding, and tenderness-are precisely those which underlie our society's legal, social and moral assumptions about the family, and can only be effectively conveyed if the two topics are inextricably linked.

If a belief in the necessity of teaching those values with respect to sexuality were in fact shared by all Americans, it would be possible, I think, to devise a mandatory curriculum on human sexuality in the elementary and secondary public schools. Because it seems clear that no such consensus exists I have been forced, in thinking on this subject, to consider only the appropriate minimum action which is necessary and possible for federal, state, and local governments to take. As mandatory, explicitly value-laden age appropriate education in affective sexuality seems at present a task beyond the capacity of public schools, we can only center our hopes for providing such education on the willingness of families to undertake it. Within a voluntary framework, however, perhaps even within a released time context, we can urge the public schools to provide extensive opportunities for students to explore all the issues surrounding the creation and maintenance of families in the United States, with instruction on sexuality forming a substantial part of such a curriculum.

Finally, where children and youth need to learn how to protect themselves from exploitation by adults or manipulation by the media, we can ask the schools to take a strong, mandatory role in providing them the facts.

If this year confronting the products of the pornography industry has taught me anything, it is that we are all profoundly ignorant of the way electronic and photographic images can be used to manipulate viewers. We continue, quite rightly, to insist that our children learn how our novelists and poets use language to shape and redirect emotions and values. Yet with regard to powerful graphic visual images designed to produce handsome profits through sexual arousal of viewers, we have allowed our schools to remain almost completely silent. Teenagers should be taught not only how their emotions and instincts are manipulated by viewing pornography, but also how the pornography industry exploits and abuses the persons used in making it. Such instruction would present none of the religious or moral quandaries of sex education generally, and seems to me a vital protective measure for our young-who are simultaneously the biggest consumers of pornography and the most vulnerable to its vicious effects.