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When Sex Goes To School

When Sex Goes To School is a very enlightening and frustrating book. On the one hand it provides a well-researched description of the two very polarized sides of the national debate about sex education (and sex, gender, and sexuality in general). Of particular note are chapters 2 (“The Birth of Sex Education”), 3 (“Sex Education, the Sexual Revolution, and the Sixties”), 8 (“The Politics of Sex”), and 9 (“Sex Education in America and Whether It Works or Doesn’t—and Why That’s Not the Right Question”). One of the more interesting points that Luker argues is that the sexual revolution began not in the 1960s but early in the 20th century. This was the time when dating replaced courtship and dramatic cultural shifts were taking place concerning the relationships between men and women. The 1960s were just when the cultural undercurrents that had been flowing since earlier in the century exploded to the fore and pre-marital sex became embraced by the mainstream.

The frustrating aspect is that this study, as the author acknowledges, focuses solely on the people at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Therefore, people are categorized either as prudish sexual conservatives who would rather not speak about sex, who feel that to talk about sex to teenagers inevitably leads them to promiscuity, and who desperately desire to turn back the clock to the idyllic 1950s; or as sexual liberals who see sex as no big deal, who desire to teach all kids about sex from an early age regardless of the values of other families, and who believe that more information about sex will inevitably lead teenagers to make “good choices”. In short, the book describes those who see giving teenagers more information about sex as an unqualified bad idea, and those who see it as an unqualified good idea. The weakness here is that it misses the middle ground. I found myself disturbed by the sexual conservatives as much as the sexual liberals.

Does “comprehensive” sex education sexualize our culture and encourage premature sexual behavior in kids? Does “abstinence-only” sex education endanger those teens who do not share the Judeo-Christian worldview in which that philosophy makes sense and who are thus likely to abandon chastity sooner or later? Should the sexual mores of conservatives be forced upon the children of liberals, or should the sexual mores of liberals be forced upon the children of conservatives? Should there be a unified, one-philosophy-fits-all sexual education program, or should parents have options from which to choose?

Ultimately, When Sex Goes To School creates more questions than answers. However, it helps the reader better understand the sides of the debate, and maybe that’s the first step forward.

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