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What Arguments About Sex Ed Are Really About

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Esteemed colleagues! We’ve gathered here to discuss what we’ve learned from our exploration of sex education over the past few days. First we discussed what we know about whether sex ed “works,” and whether certain kinds work better than others. Then we explored what to do about the parts of sex ed that aren’t about intercourse, especially as kids are going through puberty earlier than they did in the past.

But to pull back the curtain a bit … We had planned a lot more! And then we ran into all sorts of issues about what we know and don’t know about sex ed, and we’re here to discuss some of that.

So let’s take a step back. The country has been fighting about sex ed for decades. But when we fight about sex ed, what are we fighting about?

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): What aren’t we fighting about? It covers gender roles, religion, politics, morality, social status, racism …

christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer): I’d say that a lot of the arguing is really about how we should think about sex.

cwick: Isn’t it also about more than how? When should kids think about sex? What should kids think about it? Why should kids think about it?

maggiekb: Turns out that the way we talk and think about sex is a proxy for a bunch of other stuff in society. Who knew? (Other than, like, every sociologist who ever studied sex in American society.)

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, lead health writer): Which is weird partly because we probably have the most sexualized media on the planet.

Try though we might, we can’t really get away with not dealing with sex ed, because kids are going to learn about sex one way or another, probably at ages much younger than most parents and teachers are comfortable with.

cwick: Reminds me of the idea that movies with sex get R and NC-17 ratings more easily than movies with violence. Puritanism Dies Hard! (A PG-13 movie starring Bruce Willis, coming soon to a theater near you.)

maggiekb: As the parent of a 4- and 3-year-old who has had to answer questions about where babies come from while merging into rush-hour interstate traffic: Can confirm.

christie: So what’s your approach Maggie?

anna: And was it informed by all your recent research on evidence-based sex ed!?

maggiekb: It mostly revolves around tamping down my anxiety and only answering the exact question I was asked. So when I am asked, “Where do babies come from,” I don’t launch into, “OMG I GUESS WE’RE GOING TO TALK ABOUT INTERCOURSE NOW.”

Instead, it’s been this kind of slow progression, sort of backward up the reproductive tract.

My girls did, though, finally happen to ask, “How did the information from dad get inside you?” while I was driving and trying to merge. That was exciting.

cwick: Really trying hard not to follow that “information” comment with a message that will get me fired.

christie: 😜

maggiekb: Same, Chad.

anna: ➕

maggiekb: Or divorced.

christie: But sex ed isn’t just about sex. It’s also about bodies and how they function and move and touch and boundaries, right?

anna: Yeah, that was one thing that was really striking in the reporting — the missed opportunities that have resulted from the political complexities of sex ed. Sex ed is sexuality education, not sex education, in the eyes of sexuality educators. There’s a lot that goes into sexuality that has nothing to do with sex.

maggiekb: Right, Christie and Anna. And it’s also about relationships and setting boundaries and establishing personal confidence necessary to protect yourself. It has been WAY more awkward for me to try to have conversations with the girls about consent and “hey, you know it’s not OK for somebody to touch your vulva, right?” than to tell them what a vulva is and how it works.

anna: So, Maggie, that makes me wonder — a lot of sex educators I spoke to talked about how parents want basic information taught in school. A conversation I had with Elizabeth Schroeder, who has written or worked on many national sex ed curriculums, was really striking to me. We were talking about what elementary school-aged kids should be learning. She said that values don’t belong in the classroom — those should come from parents — but that kids deserve to get education about this really important part of humanity from people who are trained and that being a parent doesn’t give you training in sexuality education. She said she’d be terrified if she were the primary source of information about math for her son.

I’m curious if that’s part of what you’re getting at?

maggiekb: It is. Though I also think “don’t teach values in school” is kind of hilarious. How do you even talk about sex without also talking about values around it?

We ended up killing the story I was working on for FiveThirtyEight’s sex ed series, but it was supposed to be about how the sex ed that kids get differs depending on their class, race and other factors. The story kind of died because there hasn’t been a ton of research published on the topic. But there’s enough to see that our values and beliefs get embedded into how these classes are being taught. Even if we don’t think they are. That has to do with both resource access and with the stereotypes that specific teachers hold about the sexuality of their specific students.

So for instance, one of the people I spoke to was Jessica Fields, at San Francisco State University. She observed sex ed classes at three schools in North Carolina: one private, mostly rich and white; one public, mostly poor and white; and one public, mostly poor and black. These schools were close together. The kids were often living close enough that they were going to the same parks and stuff. But they were all getting very different sex ed, based, it seemed to Fields, on what the teachers thought the kids needed to know.

Rich, white kids got this comprehensive course that was about growing up and discovering yourself and never told them whether or not to have sex. Poor, white kids got a lot of emphasis on violence in relationships. Poor, black kids got a lot of emphasis on how to not get pregnant.

christie: I see what Schroeder is getting at, but taking values out seems impossible when they are so crucial to even a simple question like what information young people should get. During the Clinton administration, Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign from her job as surgeon general for talking about masturbation, after all.

When you have some groups who think that touching your own body can be shameful or that loving a particular type of person is immoral, I don’t see how you bridge that kind of values gap.

anna: So that’s part of what’s really interesting about the tension with sex ed. Some topics are basic information to some people about things kids will know about one way or another. For others, they are fundamentally off-limits, and talking about them is normalizing things deemed inappropriate.

cwick: So say that I’m uncomfortable with my kid learning about condoms, or even just about puberty and, say, erections. Why shouldn’t each community set sex ed to its own standards?

christie: Well, that’s sort of what happens now.

anna: Before we get to standards … one thing that’s important to know is that most states have opt-out policies, as in, parents can opt their kids out of sex ed. Which is one way that states have dealt with varying beliefs among parents.

But to your question, Chad, standards are pretty haphazard. Some states have requirements, some districts do, but they vary a lot around the country.

christie: And even when there are standards, they’re not necessarily followed.

maggiekb: I think one thing that was particularly interesting to me was just how haphazard what gets taught is. Even within the same district (same standards, same curriculum), how you’re learning, what is being emphasized … that can all vary wildly. It can even change from year to year in the same school if the teacher changes.

This is one of the things that makes sex ed really hard to study. Especially if you want to know anything more qualitative than “were kids shown how to use a condom, check yes or no.”

christie: And some schools bring in outside instructors. A few years ago, my local school district brought in an abstinence-only sex educator, whose talks were sponsored by a faith-based nonprofit, to give presentations to students. A lawsuit filed against the district says the speaker compared girls who have sex before marriage to a dirty diaper. And in this video, she compares them to “used tape.”

cwick: That diversity of implementation makes sex ed hard to cover and study from both a journalism and science perspective, right?

maggiekb: Yep.

christie: Very much so.

anna: Si.

maggiekb: I think it also makes it hard from a parenting perspective. Whatever your beliefs about what your kids should be taught about sex in school, there are people telling you that you ought to be paying attention to this, ought to know what the standards are, ought to be engaged and doing activism around it.

But there’s not a great way to know exactly what’s being taught and how until your kid is in there hearing it. And I definitely get why that’s stressful for some people.

christie: As I was reporting my story, one feature that seemed to be common in many of the evidence-based programs was an attempt to create a safe space for kids to ask questions. This might mean giving them a chance to submit them anonymously, for instance.

cwick: The blockchain can save sex ed!

maggiekb: I’m not sure I want my kids being taught about the blockchain.

christie: Would you prefer Reddit, Maggie?

cwick: It’s a public health issue if they aren’t, Maggie.

anna: Many pediatricians I spoke with brought question-asking up as well and mentioned it as one reason they think school is an essential place for sex ed, in addition to conversations with parents, doctors and others.

christie: It does seem like a good idea for kids to have a trusted adult who is probably not their parent to ask questions of and get reliable answers from.

cwick: It sounds like you’re all more or less in agreement based on your reporting. But did your reporting also change your mind about anything? What surprised you once you picked up the phone?

christie: In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how hard it is to really measure what “works.”

maggiekb: I think I was most surprised by how hard it is to answer whether sex ed “works.” JINX, Christie.

christie: To start with, you have to define what you mean by “working” and that’s where it all goes to hell. You’re immediately caught up in the culture wars.

anna: Right, I didn’t realize how limited the metrics were on that. Only something like three things really get looked at! Teenage pregnancy, STDs and age when kids start having sex.

christie: Is the goal to prevent kids from discovering sex? To prevent pregnancy? Make them feel OK about their bodies?

maggiekb: I want my kids to know about birth control, to know how their bodies work, to be able to ask questions and navigate relationships, but the metrics for studying whether they get that still kind of suck. All we ever ask about are, like: “Did the kids learn about birth control?” “Did they learn how to say ‘no’?” “Did they learn about pregnancy prevention and STD prevention?”

christie: And it’s really hard to measure most outcomes. The only way to know whether kids are having sex is to ask them. Researchers have some ways of getting around the problem of teenagers lying to adults about sex (for instance, they ask them a question like “how often do you lie?” and if the answer is “never,” they know they’ve got an unreliable survey taker). But at the end of the day, self-reported numbers aren’t going to be all that great.

maggiekb: And we also usually ask about this stuff really soon after the class. So almost no one is following up years later to find out what the outcomes were.

anna: And that’s partly because that kind of follow-up research is really expensive. So much of what’s studied is dictated by what there is funding for.

christie: Another thing that really surprised me is that the effects are pretty small even for programs that have been shown in studies to reduce, say, teen pregnancy or STDs. But on the other hand, you have to ask whether those are the most important metrics.

maggiekb: When you talk to people in the sex ed community, they often bring up OWL, Our Whole Lives — this fancy schmancy sex ed curriculum that’s used by the Unitarian church and that kids start taking through their Sunday schools at young ages all the way through high school. OWL is kind of presented as the best practice comprehensive sex ed. It’s been around for decades. But as far as I have been able to tell, nobody has ever done a longitudinal study to find out whether kids who went through OWL have any different outcomes (let alone “better” outcomes) than kids who didn’t over the course of their lives.

christie: Teen pregnancy has been on a yearslong decline, and no one is entirely sure why.

maggiekb: And it probably has nothing to do (or very little to do) with sex ed curricula.

christie: Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be something that any sex ed program can take credit for. It’s possible that the availability of very effective, long-term contraceptives like IUDs played a role, but that can’t explain all of the decline.

maggiekb: Which really affects the way I think about the culture wars debate part of it, right? Like, I don’t personally want my daughters taking abstinence-only sex ed. I don’t think it’s all that practical, and the way it has been documented as being done (the “dirty diaper” comparisons Christie mentioned, for instance) seem pretty damaging and, well, crappy. But I also can’t prove that shifting away from that and toward more comprehensive programs during the Obama years caused a decline in teen pregnancy.

christie: Well teens are having less sex. The latest CDC survey found that 39.5 percent of the high school students surveyed had ever had sexual intercourse. Which is down from previous generations.

maggiekb: The decline in teen pregnancies started around 1991 or so. So we’ve had some pretty big shifts in favored sex ed policy (the George W. Bush-era abstinence push and the Obama-era comprehensive sex ed push) … and the trend in fewer teen pregnancies seems to be chugging on independently of that. Meanwhile, rates of some STDs have been on the rise since 2000, again largely independent of whether the government was backing abstinence or comprehensive sex ed.

christie: I think what sex ed can do is make sure that young people have factual information about things like what kinds of activities can get you an STD or get you pregnant. But the decision-making itself has so many other influences.

And this is why a lot of comprehensive sex ed programs spend a lot of time on relationship-building and confidence-boosting and setting limits, etc.

anna: Let’s not forget the basics about body parts and such. Pediatricians have horror stories to tell about what young people don’t know about their bodies. Which speaks to the fact that we wouldn’t necessarily expect school-based sex ed to be the driver of all sexual behavior (which isn’t to say it’s not important).

maggiekb: Anna, arguably, the biggest factor for me as a teen was that nobody was offering me sex, but no school wants to buy my “let your child nerd themselves into involuntary abstinence” program.

cwick: More nerds is always the answer, Maggie.

christie: Well, if you think about it for two seconds, I think it’s easy to see how sex ed, as it’s taught in schools, is just one tiny influence on how young people think and behave.

maggiekb: Exactly, Christie! I’m pretty sure what I learned in sex ed played VERY LITTLE role in my choices about sex as a teen. In a way, this reminds me of the gun violence debate: We have these HIGHLY politically polarized arguments about what the right policy to reduce gun violence should be, and, meanwhile, rates of gun violence have been falling for decades and we don’t know why.

cwick: [[[ok, I think let’s end it there???]]

anna: Your last point about making sure kids have factual information is interesting Christie, cause that’s what Schroeder said that you gang, justifiably, thought was kind of impossible!! ‘What’s facts?’ is also value-based.

christie: [good point Anna]

anna: [nothing can ever be simple, can it?]

maggiekb: [not even chats]

cwick: [we don’t have to keep talking in brackets if you don’t want]

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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