Moral Panic Monday: This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory, But . . .

I was hoping to continue my reading of You’re Teaching My Child What? by Miriam Grossman this fine Monday, but the computer on which I’ve stored my notes has crashed (possibly permanently) and the notes are inaccessible (possibly permanently). One of these days, I will learn to back up my writing . . . and actually follow through on that lesson. Until that day, and until my computer gets fixed (which should be as soon as my tech-savvy boyfriend finishes gaming, so we’ll be waiting a while), that series is on hold.

However, the Internet holds no shortage of Moral Panic, so I will continue to write these blog entries as often as I can. Today I’m delving into the world of LifeSite News, my favourite source for anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-contraception news articles, and the only site on the Internet where I have been banned from commenting with literally every social media platform and e-mail address I possess. In terms of Moral Panic, at times they offer almost an embarrassment of riches.

It was easy to choose a single article to narrow in on today, though. One of the unwritten rules of blogging about moral panic is surely, “Thou shalt not pass up any article that contains the phrase ‘THIS IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY’ in its headline”. 

Game of Thrones screen shot, with words superimposed over it that read: "Brace yourself, the conspiracy theories are coming".

Image via Lady Business.

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Boy Skates, Girl Skates

A collage of black-and-white images in which children are skating or learning to skate. Front and centre, we see a boy in black hockey skates and a girl in white figure skates.

Boys’ and girls’ skating styles? Think about it. Image via Cool Sports Knoxville.

I was having a conversation with my Dave today about how hard it is for me to learn to rollerblade because I grew up using skates with toe picks, and rollerblades don’t have those. I’m working on developing the muscle memory to use the edge of the blade to push off instead of the toe pick that isn’t there. I mentioned the possibility that I might get men’s ice skates during the winter so I could practice that movement. But, he pointed out, that wasn’t exactly what I meant.

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Moral Panic Monday: The Purpose of Marriage Is Cruel

A wedding-cake topper featuring a groom in a wheelchair carrying his bride over the threshold.

Actual Catholic teaching: this wedding may be illicit. Image via Magical Day.

I guess I might as well comment about this for Moral Panic Monday, because my head is going to explode if I keep silent.

Sometimes I listen to certain select episodes of Catholic Answers Live in podcast form. I’d say the show was a big help in demonstrating to me why I could not remain Catholic, why I had to reject the Church. A lot of its theology seemed to make sense to me, insofar as it seemed to work alright with the Bible and such, but the real-world practical stuff turned me off majorly. I couldn’t condemn the gays nearly as much as they wanted me to, and I was frankly offended by their stance on contraception for reasons I’m sure I’ve discussed in the past.

I still like to listen, though. It helps me keep up to date on what’s happening in the Church, where they appear to be headed, which is a big part of my work for Friendly Atheist. It also amuses me frequently, though I admit I spend a lot of time yelling at the computer screen, especially during their “Why Are You Pro-Choice?” segments. (Somebody, please! Call in and use the word “consent” as either noun or verb! You have to consent to carry a pregnancy! Intercourse is not automatic consent!) Other segments I enjoy (without accepting their content) include “The New Age Deception”, “Bioethics for the Rest of Us”, and “The Church in the News”. Anything about the evils of gayness or porn also usually merits a listen.

An image of apologist Trent Horn, wearing a suit and speaking at a podium with the words "Catholic Answers" on its front.

Trent Horn, a reliable source for Catholic teachings that make me facepalm. Image via FOCUS: Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

Well, they’ve just come up with another gem of a segment, guest-starring apologist Trent Horn, entitled “Why Do You Reject Catholic Morality?” (so many reasons . . . ) and the inaugural segment was just . . . damn. I don’t even.

A woman (with an unspecified disability) called in, telling apologist Trent Horn that she was ready to leave Catholicism over the belief she’d been taught that disabled people are not permitted to marry if their disability prevents them from having sexual intercourse. No, really. Somebody told her that. Somebody actually said to her that she’s not allowed to ever marry if her disability makes her unable to have intercourse.

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Apologetics? You *Should* Apologize!

I’ve been working on a post where I want to discuss a specific call recorded and played during a specific segment of Catholic Answers Live – a segment entitled “Why Do You Reject Catholic Morality?” This answer horrified me enough that I thought it was worthy of more than just a mention, so I transcribed it for my readers, who can listen to the original show here. This call starts around the 13:45 mark and lasts until about 25:00.

If you’d rather have the tl;dr version, it’s this: if you have a disability that makes you unable to have penis-in-vagina intercourse, that’s tough luck. But no other form of sexual activity counts, it’s all a sinful misuse of human sexuality, and you shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

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No More Pencils, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks . . .

. . . and yeah, I was getting a few of them across that last semester. I’ve never been great at being quietly respectful when I think a teacher is wrong about something, and I’ve discovered that I no longer automatically assume the teacher deserves my quiet respect. I chalk this up to a combination of increased self-confidence and heightened skepticism; I no longer automatically assume I’m the one who’s wrong.

Logo image: a tattoo-style illustration of a  heart labelled with the words "School's Out", pierced by a sword. Across the heart, a yellow banner reads "Alice Cooper".

Image via Rock-A-Gogo.

While I search for work, an apartment, and a plan for my future that includes maximum enjoyment and minimum stress – things I’ve only just started realizing are allowed to be part of my life plan! – I intend to keep on writing, not super-frequently, but hopefully at least a couple of times a week. I want to continue my series of chapter-by-chapter close looks at You’re Teaching My Child What? by Miriam Grossman, hopefully as part of a long-term series of Moral Panic Mondays, because moral panics amuse me. I may have a related fiction book on the topic (of moral panics generally, not of Miriam Grossman’s book specifically) simmering away on the edge of my radar. All I can really say is that I draw my inspiration from RWNJs‘ visions of America’s future (Canada’s RWNJs aren’t nearly so interesting), it’s a bit on the satirical side, and that it’s NSFW.

I have other ideas I’m toying with, too, but I don’t want to commit to them just yet. Here’s the thing: I’ve just finished cramming two years worth of schooling into one year, and it’s been hectic. I’m about to move, so I’m packing boxes every day. I need to find a job and save up some money, which means I’m on a hella tight budget. And I’m tired. This is a moment in my life when choosing to lean in could cost me what remains of my sanity. 

So I’m planning on coasting for a while. It’s a little scary because it’s something I’ve never deliberately chosen to do. There have been times when I’ve been striving really hard to achieve, pulling myself in six different directions at once, and there have been times when I’m so broken-down from all that striving that it’s been a serious effort to get out of bed. But there’s never been a time when I’ve just gone to work, put in a fair day, come home, and said, “Hey, if I feel like working at one of my goals, I’ll do it, but if I feel like kicking back and watching reruns, that’s cool too”. There’s never been a time when I’ve told myself, “I could do more, but I don’t have to.”

That was how I was raised – damn Protestant work ethic! (I was only Catholic on my mother’s side; my father was raised in a United Church family and, though atheist, still appears to hold some of those hangover assumptions.) I’ve spent most of my life trying to please everybody but me. My mental health struggles have taught me that, if I keep judging myself by such strict standards, wherein I must be all things to all people and never allow others to see me as imperfect, I’m not going to make it. The best way to succeed at my goals is not to push myself; it’s to pace myself. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

So you’re not going to like me much if you expect me to die of embarrassment from a messy house, or to approach my job like it’s my only passion and purpose in life, or to see raising children as the most valuable thing I will ever do and put my whole identity into those choices. I’m looking to be more balanced than that. I’m looking to be mellow about what matters to me and fit it all into a balanced life. I can’t be and do everything . . . but maybe I can be happy. Maybe I can do living well.

 

YTMCW? Chapter One: Who’s Teaching Your Children? Or, If You Don’t Have My Values You Have No Values At All

 

A Time magazine cover depicting two teenagers, a boy and a girl, in black and white. Text reads "Kids, Sex, and Values".

Whatever adults tell teens about sex, it won’t be values-neutral. There’s no such thing. Image via Time Magazine.

In this chapter of You’re Teaching My Child What?, Miriam Grossman attacks the idea that sex-ed classes are values-neutral and agenda-free . . . and I agree with her.

The idea of a values-neutral sex-ed class can never really be more than an idea. It’s pretty much unattainable.There are values embedded in every choice you make: what you present, what you leave out, the teaching methods used, the amount of time devoted to each subject and kind of presentation. If you choose to restrict your teaching to biological systems and the development of the fetus, that’s not values-neutral. If you decide to talk mostly about disease prevention, that’s not values-neutral. (The Walrus recently described the Canadian approach as “heavy on talk of disease and date rape, as though foreplay should include disaster preparedness plan”.) If your approach only talks about pregnancy prevention and other concerns of hetero sex, that’s not values-neutral.

Every single one of those examples communicates a message about what sex means and what it ought to be, who gets to have it and how and why, who gets to be accepted and who should be judged and shunned.

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YTMCW? Chapter One: Who’s Teaching Your Children? Or, Information Is A Sin

(Author’s note: Happy Victoria Day to my Canadian readers. To everybody else, Happy Moral Panic Monday!)

It’s time to clutch your pearls and make sure you have your smelling salts handy. I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole and introduce you to something you never realized before.

TEENAGERS ARE INTERESTED IN SEX.

A cat posed with one paw at his throat. Caption reads "Invisible Pearl Clutching".

Image via I Can Has Cheezburger. Because moral panics are better with kittehs.

I’ll give you a minute to recover from your attack of the vapours.

In fact, it’s more than that. Not only are teenagers interested in sex, but some adults even think that’s okay. It’s natural to be curious, normal to seek and enjoy sexual pleasure, and each person’s individual choice how they want to prioritize relationships, friendships, health, and exploration.

If you were not shocked by that, you’re evidently not Miriam Grossman, author of You’re Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child, whose views can basically be summarized in this introductory quote:

Make no mistake: this is a battle, and the battleground is our kids’ minds and values. [. . . Sex educators] must respond to this catastrophe by declaring war on teen sexual behaviour. Yes, war – just as we’ve declared war on smoking, drinking, and transfats. Stop foisting the ill-conceived notion that sexual openness and exploration is healthy.

Don’t expect her to acknowledge the roots of our sexual-openness ethos: a historical level of repression so puritanical and so vicious, sex was not even available as a topic for discussion or learning. Ignoring it instead lets Grossman conveniently ignore the suffering that approach to sexuality caused: marital rape, child sexual abuse, forced marriages or total social rejection and destitution just for spending one-on-one time in the company of the opposite sex. It lets her pretend that sexually transmitted disease wasn’t rampant in the past, pregnancies only happened within happy and sanctified marriages, and sexual minorities just plain didn’t exist, instead of existing in closeted misery.

“[Sexual behaviours] are personal choices, and judgments are prohibited,” Grossman complains. “At all ages, sexual freedom is a ‘right’, an issue of social justice.”

And this is by far the strangest part of reading the book: Grossman says things that I really believe, that are true and deserve to be celebrated, but she says them in a spirit of complaint, like they’re horrible social problems. People get to choose what kind of sex they want to have! They think they have the right to be free! What is the matter with this modern world?

A screen shot from the film Hairspray!, in which a smiling, cardigan-wearing mother ties her blonde, curly-haired teen daughter to her bed with a length of sturdy rope.

Ms. Grossman’s preferred parenting technique. Image via Flare.

I want to clarify something: the title may question what we’re teaching children (not teenagers or young adults) and the cover may depict fourth-graders, but Grossman’s moral panic is over the sex lives of teenagers. They might be old enough to get a job, choose a career, open a bank account, sign up for a credit card, drive a car, or vote. But they still need to obey their parents in matters of sexuality.

Grossman bemoans sex education programs because “they do not give young people the same message as parents”.  But she’s making a hell of an assumption about parents. “You must understand,” she insists, “that these curricula are rooted in an ideology that you probably don’t share.”

Says who?

Not every parent will be sexually conservative. Some parents, especially if you take a globally diverse view, are fully open to the knowledge that their children are probably going to be sexually active. Some might be personally uncomfortable with their children being sexual, the same way most people are uncomfortable with awareness of their parents’ sexuality, but they recognize something important: that’s no justification to prohibit children from discovering and exploring their sexuality as they see fit, just as you wouldn’t try to prevent your parents from whatever sexual shenanigans they choose for themselves.

And that’s where the power dynamic comes in, isn’t it? I don’t have the power to force my parents to stop having a sexual relationship or prevent them from gathering knowledge about sexuality, but I would have that power over my children. Even as children become old enough to make their own relationship decisions (including decisions about sexual relationships), too many parents treat their children like objects they own rather than people in their own right, entitled to their own points of view. Too often our child is seen as your child in a way that you just wouldn’t view your spouse, your parents, or your friends – in a way more akin to your pet or your slave. Parents have all the power.

It’s in this context that Miriam Grossman launches this panic-stricken question at any parent concerned enough to be drawn to this title:

Do you want instructors, whose personal values might be at odds with yours, to encourage your kids to question what they’ve been taught at home and at church, and to come up with their own worldview?

In other words, don’t you want to prevent your children from developing their own beliefs and views about the world and life?

Yikes.

That’s not a power anybody should have over any other person. It goes too far.

You don’t own your children, and you don’t get to prohibit them from getting exposure to ideas you don’t like.

In this upside-down, inside-out world, children are victims – not when they’re prohibited from questioning received wisdom, forming their own values, or making decisions for themselves, but when they’re taught about sexuality. Grossman plays a particularly twisted game when she catalogues the sexual suffering of teenagers who come into her medical practice: “I lied to my parents. My girlfriend gave me herpes. My stepfather raped me. I want to die.” Did you catch the bait-and-switch there? Being raped by an authority figure is not caused by sex ed. Nor is suicidal ideation. In fact, sex ed can alleviate these problems in some cases (like a gay kid who learns he’s not Satan for what turns him on, or a girl who learns enough about consent to seek protection from her abuser). But that’s not a distinction Grossman makes when she paints a dramatic picture of how tragic and abused these poor, educated children are.

Of course, Grossman and other conservative hand-wringers are victims, too: “Point to the science that discredits their beliefs,” she says of sex educators, “and, well, you know the names you’ll be called.”

But as far as she can tell, the science she’s pointing to is not exactly solid. I’m far from a scientist, but I know a few things relatively well . . . and I know an awful lot about early childhood development, which she happens to make a few sweeping claims about in this book, one of them in this very chapter.

While SIECUS informs kids that culture teaches what it means to be a man or a woman, neuroscientists identify distinct ‘male brains’ or ‘female brains’ while a child is still in the womb.

She doesn’t actually bother to cite this claim, so I can’t touch on which “neuroscientists” she means, what they actually claim, or what is either mistaken or misrepresented in their claims. But my studies have spent a lot of time on early cognitive development. And I can tell you that developmentally, male and female brains are relatively similar in the womb and at birth. They’re relatively undeveloped. The brain grows a ridiculous amount in the first weeks and months of life as babies learn constantly and shape their neural structures based on their experiences and exposures. And of course, one of the things they’re exposed to? Gender cues based on whether their parents present them as “boy”, “girl”, or “ambiguous”. (More on this later, to the extent that I’ll probably get sick of writing about it.)

Also factually incorrect? The examples of how preschool children are getting taught about sexuality. Grossman has a horror story about how educators (like me) are instructed to approach the matter:

Don’t wait until children ask questions, parents are told [. . .] Teach preschoolers that each of us is sexual, from cradle to grave, and that ‘sexual expression’ is one of our basic human needs, like food, water, and shelter. Encourage their “positive body concept” by expanding games such as ‘Simon Says’ to include private parts (Simon says point to your ear, ankle, penis). Explain intercourse to preschoolers; tell them they have “body parts that feel good when touched”.

Well, not exactly. As someone who has been trained in early childhood care and has experienced preschool environments, this is incorrect to a level that I doubt can be explained by American/Canadian differences alone. Let’s just take this one at a time:

  • Don’t wait until children ask questions: This is a half-truth.The best practice is to wait until children ask questions or demonstrate a need to know on any topic. Children who are playing with their privates during naptime or chasing after their classmates to give them kisses on the play-yard may not have asked questions, but they’re still demonstrating a need for information. And the level of sexuality in the media means children are learning and drawing conclusions about sex long before it occurs to them to ask a question.
  • Teach preschoolers that each of us is sexual: Are we not? But no, we do not have a poster in the kindergarten room that says “Everybody is sexual” – this is mostly a corrective to the sexual shame that many adults will remember from the past, where kids get scolded for talking about sexual topics or led to believe that only really weird and freaky people think about this sort of thing.
  • . . . and that sexual expression is one of our basic human needs: again, we’re not going to list human needs as “food, shelter, water, and sex”, but nor are we going to pretend like sex doesn’t exist and scold children for failing to play along.
  •  . . . expanding games such as ‘Simon Says’ to include private parts: Well, this is just silly. If somebody suggested it – and Grossman isn’t great about providing sources for us to follow up – they’re misguided. You would never include “Simon says point to your ear, ankle, penis” for the simple reason that half the class wouldn’t be able to complete that direction, not having any penis. I think the general idea here is about using the proper, matter-of-fact words to identify body parts because kids notice if there’s certain things we won’t discuss.
  • Explain intercourse to preschoolers: Sure, if it comes up. It’s not in the preschool curriculum and it’s not something children are expected to demonstrate within the developmental rubrics.
  • Tell them they have “body parts that feel good when touched”: This is also covered on a need-to-know basis, but the chances that children will need to know are pretty high, because touching those body parts during public or family time is relatively common and developmentally normal. We’re taught to accept this as natural and gently explain, in non-shaming language, that reaching into your pants is something to be done in private.

Pretty much everything Grossman cites can be explained by one simple sentence that’s a pretty good child-care maxim: “If children ask, give them an honest answer”. Thing is, toddlers and preschool children may not have the language to formulate questions related to everything they need or want to know, and they may have learned from another adult’s harsh reaction that we don’t ask questions about this subject. That’s not necessarily limited to sexual issues. For this reason, early-childhood educators are trained to observe children’s behaviour and activities, and to notice if the children express an interest non-verbally or act out a question they don’t know how to directly ask.

A black-and-white picture of a child, eyes tinted blue, finger over lips in the "shhh" gesture.

Children learn from our reactions if something’s not okay to talk about. Image via Naturally.

You have to wonder whether Grossman maybe got that we don’t ask questions about this message when she was small, because she’s horrified by the idea that sex might be a normal or important part of life. She talks with disdain about a reverend who refused to marry a couple who had shared absolutely no sex, an approach that only makes sense if you think sex is something normal people neither like nor want. Why not go into a lifelong commitment without any information about your sexual compatibility, if sex shouldn’t actually matter to anybody?

Suffice it to say that Miriam Grossman is not reporting from the real world.

Next stop: Chapter One, where Grossman poisons the well. This serves her purposes nicely; when we start to question the statistics we’re fed later on, she’s disqualified all recognized experts on the subject, and we can only look to organizations with a conservative agenda for answers.

Shaken

So I’m at the moment when my early-childhood placement in an Aboriginal childcare centre in Toronto draws to a close, and I am returning to school. In theory, this should mean I’ll be able to spend more time on my blogging, but in actual fact, who knows? School keeps me busy all the time. Work kept me tired all the time, but then it wasn’t just work: it was the strain of having to work a full-time job while still having all my down-time flooded with homework assignments. I love placements, but that’s something I really dislike about them, and it’s kept me from writing as much as I had intended.

I had meant to publish a chapter review for You’re Teaching My Child What? each week as a “Moral Panic Mondays” feature, but this placement really made it hard to care about American busybodies freaking out that children might learn the truth about sex. I loved being a part of the community and participating in cultural activities, but the struggles upon struggles I saw piling on some of the families I met gave me a jolt. Working in a poor area of the city – my partner semi-jokingly called the place where I worked “the ghetto” – I encountered conditions almost completely alien to how I grew up. At times, fully one half of the children in my classroom were homeless. One Monday I listened to the news on the radio, heard about two violent altercations that happened over the weekend, and discovered that both had taken place amongst the community where I was working. The children I was caring for might easily have met or known the people who died these violent deaths, reduced to news headlines. Virtually everyone was struggling financially, unemployed or underemployed. There were people living in poor health and in sub-optimal environments. Then I would go home for a weekend to environments where the trappings of wealth – access to healthy food, a spacious and well-constructed home environment, a vehicle to run errands, appropriate new clothes when needed, working plumbing and electricity, training and education options, flexibility and mobility . . .

I adored the children I cared for and I would be pleased and proud to work for that centre as a full member of the staff. But I also found it shocking that a country where we see ourselves as so much better, more equitable, and less prejudiced than the Americans condones the levels of poverty I saw, not just on the reserves but in big cities as well. I come from a culture that loves to blame people for their own circumstances, but I can’t accept it. The homeless infants in my class have been born into circumstances vastly different from what I was born into. I’ve had rough patches in my life over the past few years, but I always had people around me who had enough means to bail me out. But what if you were born – as these children were – into a community where everyone is poor? Where you’re born one parental illness, family crisis, or broken-down truck away from absolute disaster? What if there was nobody who could help you through the rough patches because everyone is in the same dire straits?

I’ll try to post some “Moral Panic Monday” stuff in the next week or so, but it’s hard to keep my heart in it during this sort of experience.

You’re Teaching My Child What? An Ongoing Review

Two-tone image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, captioned: 'Abstinence - Ninety-nine point nine nine percent effective'.

Not entirely related to the book’s content . . . but it amused me, so here it stays. Virgin births aside, abstinence is actually somewhat less than 99.99% effective under typical-use conditions. Image via This Is Your Conscience.

As promised, I’m going to get started reviewing You’re Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child, by Miriam Grossman.

I can’t even remember how I found out this book existed, but once I did, I put it on my list of “books I want to read”. (It is a list with many pages.) Not because it sounded wise and important, but because it sounded panicky and pearl-clutching

Call it my guilty pleasure: I like reading about the wacky things fundies think. I enjoy their moral panics and their narrow-mindedness. Linda Harvey, Tony Perkins, Ken Ham: they’re scary and awful, but I still find them amusing. It’s probably not good for me – I get so outraged by their ignorance, even though it was predictable – but it also feels good to sharpen my thinking against theirs, to consider their arguments critically so I can understand where they’re coming from and why I disagree.

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Frozen: A Story of Sisterhood in Balance

Warning: here be spoilers.

 

From inside a snowflake-patterned frame, Disney sisters Elsa and Anna (from Frozen) smile at the onlooker.

Are you Team Elsa or Team Anna? Image via Fanpop.

I spent last weekend celebrating my niece’s fifth birthday – Ciocia loves ya, Kitten! – and the movie Frozen came up in conversation more than once, since it’s the kids’ current favourite obsession. It rather evolved into an ongoing debate happening between my brother-from-another-mother and me. Simply put: Team Elsa or Team Anna?

He’s very strongly Team Anna. He thinks her optimism and get-‘er-done attitude have been tragically undervalued because everybody’s too busy focusing on how she almost married a man she just met — and unfairly so, because who in the Disney Princess family hasn’t made that mistake? I see where he’s coming from, absolutely. But I also get kind of frustrated by it, not because I’m anti-Anna exactly, but because I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Elsa and the way her personality has been shaped by her secret burden.

But for some reason, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that conversation over the past week, and I’ve come to reject the entire premise of the question.Forget Team Anna and Team Elsa. Why aren’t we looking at Anna and Elsa as a team together?

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