Is it a mark of how civilized and/or progressive we are that our children learn about sex in school at ever younger and younger ages? By "in school," I don't mean via locker-room gossip but officially, in government-ordained sex-education classes. In Britain, plans are afoot to start teaching schoolchildren aged four about sex.
This compulsory program, set to start in 2011 and approved by Britain's Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls (I know, I know, but that's really his name), was created after the UK was shaken in February by headlines blaring that thirteen-year-old Alfie Patten had impregnated (while he was still twelve) fifteen-year-old Chantelle Stedman. Wanting to stem the tide of teenage pregnancies, in which Great Britain leads the Western world, educators rushed to expand an already comprehensive sex-education curriculum, and start it earlier.
Under the proposed program, students in their first year of school will learn at ages four and five "about different body parts" as preparation for "lessons about sex" -- that is, how those parts work -- starting at age nine. At ages eleven to fourteen, students "will learn about contraception, pregnancy, sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV." At age fourteen to sixteen, "they will continue to learn about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and same sex-relationships."
By age fourteen, that information could really come in handy. It's the earlier stuff, the way-earlier stuff, that sparks dispute. Kids are curious. But at what age should they be told what? And in how much detail, and by whom? The answers, and the debates around them, are shaping the minds and worldviews of whole generations. Is sex a subject for public study, on par with world history and grammar? Is it a secret to be revealed as part of some wonderful societal treasure trove, initiation-style, at some predetermined age or upon completion of a predetermined course of study, rituals and ordeals -- just as how, in many cultures and religions, "adulthood" is conferred upon the "worthy" via the b'nai mitzvah, scarification or the quinceañera? What percentage of kids' sexual knowledge should be taught them by their parents, what percentage should be taught in classrooms (between lunch, say, and geometry), and what percentage should be learned firsthand? And can we assign those percentages en masse, when no two nine-year-olds are quite alike?
In the comments section of one article about this program, a reader named Annette from Scotland complains: "They don't need to know about sex but are being sexualised with clothes and even high heeled shoes for babies. Childhood is wonderful let them enjoy it! This another crazy liberal way of destroying our culture etc."
A friend of mine attended public school as a child in Berkeley in the late 1960s and early '70s. He remembers how proud his teachers and school administrators were about the early and extensive sex-education program they had devised, of which my friend and his classmates were the first products: freckle-faced, Keds-clad guinea pigs taking turns applying spermicidal cream to a huge model diaphragm in fifth grade. In sixth, they watched an educational film showing, with real footage, paraplegics having sex. Also that year, the kids sat in circles, campfire-style, bidden to ask their teacher any sexual questions that came to their minds. My friend, a late bloomer who at age eleven was still into Creepy Crawlers and wouldn't feel the slightest sexual urge for another four years, was startled when the pigtailed girl beside him narrated an anecdote that ended with, "So could the sperm seep through my underwear and make me pregnant?"
They were lucky, those students were told, to be part of this avant-garde experiment. Soon, they were told, the nation and the world would follow suit.
It kind of has.