- Bronwen Pailthorpe
Sex had and forever been a philosophical issue. Distilling all of the conversations present in society about our cultural values, gendered power dynamics and interpersonal relationships, discussions around sex hold ethics at their core. The knowledge applies useful for sex education too. Perhaps even more so: when the topic also includes consideration of what values and information we want to pass to the next generation, looking at the subject through an ethical lens can provide a massive amount of insight. At the heart of discussions around sex education is the issue of cultural norms and values. The knowledge imparted to students in school is often symptomatic of the broader social context; for instance, lessons concerning consent only became standard once the issue had gained cultural traction. Similarly, relics from sex education courses in America and Britain in the '50s demonstrate a clear focus upon 'purity' culture, discouraging adolescents from any forms of sex. This mirrors the culture in these countries before the 'sexual revolution of the 1960s. Therefore, when discussing the content of contemporary sex education courses, we often find ourselves discussing our cultural ideals for attitudes towards sex in general. It is evident that educators hold a responsibility to teach students competently in academic areas. Where the conversation becomes more interesting, however, is with moral topics such as sex education. Rather than being centred around preparing students for the working world, these topics focus upon more general "life skills" and instilling morality. It seems clear that when schools provide the bare minimum in terms of biological education rather than more comprehensive discussions, they are labelling sex education as a lower cultural priority. Indeed, would it seem rational to leave the teaching of complex topics such as engineering to the next generation's parents? If not, we are forced to accept that the learning of issues like sex is considered secondary to academic preparation and that this says something about our society's values. But these are simply observations- sex education being under-considered is a normative statement, laying out what is already the case. It might, perhaps, be more interesting to think about what should be the case. The issue of whether sex education should be taught extensively in schools plays into a broader conversation of whether moral issues at large should be conducted. Some might argue that moral instruction is not the purpose of education- many would like moral guidance to be left entirely to parental discretion. Others, such as Michael Hand in his book 'A Theory of Moral Education, believe that moral teachings are ideally suited to a classroom environment and that objective teachings such as essential consent should be taught to
Children in a standardised way. The central tension between two opposing viewpoints in this conversation is between the obligation of schools to nurture positive contributors to society and the autonomy of parents in deciding what sort of information their children receive.
On the one hand, it seems clear that teaching consent to students from an early age will have a positive effect upon sexual violence and harassment: the recently discussed ‘97%’ statistic in the UK provides grounds for a massive overhaul of teachings of respect, as well as concerning rape statistics in America calling further attention to the problem. In a recent study, Goodman found that comprehensive sex education helped to protect college students from being sexually assaulted, while abstinence-only education did not have an effect. The question is, therefore, whether it is the school's responsibility to deliver these results.
Alternatively, the rights of parents and guardians to determine what information their child receives could be argued to override this. In the last few years, the backlash against government sex education curriculums from conservative Christian communities and other organisations has effectively demonstrated this tension: many find teachings about potentially taboo topics such as contraception, masturbation and LGBTQ+ relationships to be inappropriate. Here, religious freedom is a philosophical issue. Spinoza argued that freedom of religion is politically valuable, preventing the state from imposing its views on minorities forcefully.
However, the question here then becomes whether being allowed to deny sex education to children is indeed freedom or a lack thereof.
This conflict is a complex one, involving deeply ingrained religious convictions and beliefs about the good of society. It may seem straightforward to many that sex education is a vital aspect of education, teaching adolescents to respect each other and themselves and allowing them to navigate the world with the tools to avoid harmful sexual situations. However, integrating this effectively requires active conversations with those organisations which are more reluctant- an understanding of the root conflict can help to facilitate these discussions.