(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.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
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.