It’s been a long time since I was in middle-school sex ed. I haven’t retained much from that classroom back in 2000, but it’s an amusing exercise to reflect on those few memories I still have.
There was lots of giggling. There were diagrams of ovaries and urethras and the like, but they were too sterile to engage my seventh-grade brain. To be sure, I was very interested in sex, but the mechanics of reproduction, not so much.
My clearest memory is of a poorly acted video drama—our instructor’s preferred teaching tool—about two sexually active high school girls. We’ll call them Rosa and Jenny. For the purposes of the story, there were two key differences between them. Rosa was promiscuous (to put it nicely), while Jenny was in a committed relationship with her boyfriend and only lifetime partner. But Rosa was rigorous about using condoms in her encounters, where Jenny was less so.
You already know where this is going. (It’s stolen directly from the movie “Kids,” after all.) One day Rosa, the irresponsible one, suggests they go down to the clinic to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Jenny is sure she doesn’t need it, but goes along for support. Rosa, of course, comes back with a clean bill of health. Jenny doesn’t get so lucky. She has HIV. Womp, womp.
Even at the time, this tale struck me as morally askew. It was also, I now know, factually misleading. In reality, if you stick to heterosexual circles and, absent any intravenous drug use, your chances of contracting HIV are less than that of being struck by lightning. But our teacher knew not to let his students be led astray by inconvenient data.
I got an A in the class, and have thus far avoided HIV. Success! Yet somehow I still reached adulthood without full mastery over real-world sexual dynamics. There must be a better way to teach this stuff.
Sex Ed’s Brave New World
If only I’d come of age in California in 2016! Forward-thinking as ever, the coastal state recently passed a law, in effect January 1, mandating “comprehensive” sex education for all high-school students, to include recent discovery of “affirmative consent.” This, for the uninitiated, refers to the practice in which each step in a sexual encounter must include a specific affirmation. “No means no” is something rape apologists say. Modern millennials can only settle for “Yes means yes.”
The problems with affirmative consent are so obvious as to hardly be worth exploring, but let me try just for sport. How does one define the “next step” in a sexual encounter? Should this cover every body part and article of clothing? Millennial sex sounds a lot like the Verizon Wireless commercial: “Can I touch you there? Good! Can I touch you there?”
Does consent have to be “Yes,” or will “Okay, cool” suffice? Would an unenthusiastic “I guess” constitute sexual assault? How does alcohol change the equation? The kids are already asking some of these same questions, and their educators don’t have good answers for them. Even the briefest scrutiny of this approach reveals more problems than solutions. We should probably just skip right to the Dave Chappelle and Rashida Jones method.
All this absurdity dances around the real challenge of adjudicating sexual assault cases: it comes down to one person’s word against another. The battleground may shift slightly, from whether she said “No” to whether she said “Yes.” But the problem is the same. Surely we can do better for our kids than this.
Kids Need Informed Consent, Not Affirmative Consent
But there’s a more fundamental problem with the concept of “consent,” and it speaks to why our youth are so confused and desperate as to need parentified state intervention in the first place. A good sex ed program should teach not affirmative but informed consent. What matters isn’t how often someone says “Yes,” but whether they knew what they were saying “Yes” to.
When we sign up for Internet service, we don’t want a bunch of hidden fees thrown in. When prescribed a new medication, we expect to be informed of all the possible risks and side effects first. When we start a new job, we don’t like being assigned tasks that weren’t in the job description. When we buy a used car, we want to know if the engine is dying. Failure in any of these areas is at best dishonest, at worst merits a major lawsuit.
Somehow, we haven’t figured out how to apply this concept to sex ed. Instead we release our youth into the wild, armed with just a birth-control prescription and a “Yes means yes” lecture. Given our culture’s principled fear of teaching anything substantive about sex, our kids (and most of our adults) can’t possibly be informed of the full range of consequences that might await them.
Here are a few topics that aren’t covered by California’s plan for “comprehensive” sex ed. Students probably won’t hear about the direct correlation between casual sex and anxiety and depression, especially for women. Nor how higher partner counts damage quality and longevity of future marriages. Nor the link between common but “minor and treatable” STDs like human papilloma virus and chlamydia, and cancer and infertility later in life.
Nor the relationship between the nearly universal male porn habit, erectile dysfunction, and degrading expectations for women in the bedroom. Nor the physical processes that put gay men at astronomically higher risk for HIV than heterosexuals.
To be sure, our kids will eventually face many of these realities. But not with their consent. They can’t agree to what they haven’t been taught.
There Is a Better Way
So just what do our kids need to know in order to make informed choices about sex?
Well, it doesn’t need to be that hard. They don’t need an exercise in progressive social engineering. They also don’t need “abstinence-only” approaches or religious dogmas. Allow me to offer a broad outline for a sex ed program that will actually inform our kids before they consent. Based in medical science and sociological data, it has the benefit of being both practical and accurate.
To start with, sex is always significant. It cannot be otherwise, for it involves powerful physical, hormonal, and neurological reactions beyond our control. Sex releases a strong dose of dopamine—the same feel-good chemical caused by eating, music, gambling, drugs, or other pleasurable activities. This makes people want to seek it out again (and again and again), especially teenagers yet to master life skills like impulse control and long-term planning.
Additionally, sex releases bonding chemicals—oxytocin in women, vasopressin in men—that attach a couple to one another. This process occurs even in casual encounters, between people who might be completely incompatible.
Sex immediately awakens a craving for continued intimacy, and with the same person. This can go one of two ways. One, the couple pursues an ongoing relationship, which further cements their bonding in that infatuated feeling most of us recognize. That can be a good thing, of course, and one of the primary purposes of sex.
That’s if the couple belongs together. But the feeling of attachment distorts our thinking, making it difficult to judge if a partner is right or not. The deeper the bond, the harder it is to break. This is why people get stuck in toxic “on and off” arrangements indefinitely, and why women stay in abusive relationships for years at a time. This is the source of all manner of relational turmoil.
Two, the pair may label their encounter a hook-up, which one or both of them don’t want to pursue further. No strings attached, they say. Still, the longing for intimacy is activated—and unfulfilled. This creates a powerful sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness, manifested in the anxiety and depression rampant in modern millennials. Subsequent hook-ups will come more easily, but the psychological effects will only get worse.
The more casually we treat sex, the weaker the bonding and pleasure effects become. The thrill will be less thrilling, the attachment not as strong. This is a mental desensitization process that occurs beyond our control. It’s not something we can turn off at will. We can’t simply decide to make sex meaningful and exciting again when we think we’ve found “the one.”
The memories of a thousand mistakes won’t be chased away that easily. Our physical, mental, and relational health are heavily impacted by our sexual choices, and no pill or patch can change that.
Also babies and STDs and all that other stuff.
Try Telling the Truth
Fill in some blanks here and you have enough material for an entire sex ed curriculum. Every point can be backed by scientific data and therefore be considered “value-free.” This approach addresses matters directly relevant to the day-to-day experiences of teenagers and should engage them easily. When they decide whether, when, how, and with whom they want to have sex, they would do it with something like not just affirmative but informed consent.
But telling the truth is not high on the list of California lawmakers’ priorities. Nor is the mental and relational health of young people. Like good progressives, they aim not to educate but to indoctrinate, to teach sex not as it is but as they think it should be.
We should only experience the consequences we choose to. What we do today shouldn’t have to matter tomorrow. Nobody’s feelings should ever be hurt. No preference or practice should have to go unaffirmed.
If they’ve learned one thing from the decades-long descent into family breakdown, “rape crises,” proliferation of STDs, and confused youth, it’s this: they haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe it’ll be the new crop of California youth, with their “comprehensive” sex ed, who will finally reach sexual El Dorado.
If not, well, they can always try again with the next generation.