Opt-Out is Irresponsible: Time to Rethink Sex-Ed


In 2007 I happened to see a sign in the State Bureau of Vital Statistics that listed the 2005 facts I mention below in my article. The NC legislature was beginning to consider the comprehensive sex ed bill( Healthy Youth Act H88/S221 ) at the time. As I began to think about that bill I sensed a kind of link between that issue and the driver's license as a universally accepted rite of passage. I struggled to organize a coherent argument. This year, when I heard Rep. Ty Harrell, a leading sponsor of the bill, in an interview on WPTF (of all places) make an offhand comment about the driver’s license during the discussion, my concept finally clicked. I.e. sex ed is more important to the public good than are teen drivers licenses.

A few weeks ago I attempted to submit my piece to the N&O Op-Ed Point of View page. After a couple of weeks had elapsed and there was no response to the first version, I decided it could be improved. Also, by then the story about the newly proposed opt-out option had appeared in the N&O. I then used this angle to redesign my POV. Long story short, still no response. So I called the page editor who said to resubmit it. And still not even at least a form e-letter of any kind.

Since the issue is so timely, I decided I might find a more receptive place here in BlueNC., especially after reading the friendly invitation to test the waters of blogging.

Now that the house bill has made it to the senate, I hope my article might offer a fresh look at the issue that might invigorate the debate toward passage of a more effective sex ed program.

So without further ado, I present my first blog.


Opt-Out is Irresponsible: Time To Rethink Sex-Ed

By Nell Steelman Whitlock

When your kid hits puberty, just toss him or her the keys to the family car and say “ Here, Kid. Take a ride. You’ll get the hang of it eventually. Especially if you don’t get into a wreck. So, just say no to car wrecks before you are married.” No sane adult would allow ignorant (as in “uninformed”) adolescents to drive without lessons, insurance, and license. But isn’t that what we’ve been doing when it concerns their reproductive systems?

The N&O reports lawmakers now propose an opt-out provision in the new comprehensive sex ed bill. Opt-out is irresponsible unless parents agree to provide comparable comprehensive sex ed at home.

North Carolinians must rethink the sex ed issue and examine why so many adults are determined to keep our younger citizens ignorant about how their own bodies work. After decades of inadequate programs, NC public health and taxpayers’ pocketbooks have suffered. It’s way past time to try something different. Ignorance about sex is no less dangerous and costly to kids and the public than are uncertified drivers. However, there’s a big difference. We can legislate qualifications and licensing age, but we can’t tell Mother Nature to hold the reproductive plan until the kids are 18. It’s a real bummer that she enabled our bodies to reproduce at the most inconvenient time of early adolescence before kids are even old enough to finish high school, much less college. We’ve been telling them “Just Say No!” No to what, they might well ask. Thus, we get fun facts like these from 2005, posted in the NC Bureau of Vital Statistics lobby:

Marriages 63,384
Divorces 38,684
Total births 123,040 (out of wedlock 47,248 (white 26,048 minority 21,200)
Youngest mother 10
Youngest father 14

These statistics have helped North Carolina achieve its startling rank as #14 in the national teen birth rate chart in a recent CDC report (U.S. News and World Report, January 8, 2009,) just behind South Carolina. One in four teenage girls has an STD; presumably quite a few boys do, too. Some track record for futile abstinence only programs produced by private contractors for 1.3 billion federal tax dollars through March 2008!

Perhaps the two things parents of adolescents most dread are the driver’s license and sex education. Parents can control access to the family car easier than they can the behavior of their teens with surging hormones. Actually, they can forbid their kids from even learning to drive before they are 18.

Most cultures have some sort of ritual, generally within a religious context, that celebrates puberty as the beginning of adulthood. Our secular, culturally diverse nation has one nearly universally agreed-upon such rite of passage: the driver’s license.

With the model of the driver’s license in mind, I suggest developing a standardized test for adolescents to demonstrate competent, comprehensive knowledge about how their reproductive systems work. It should include facts about behavioral consequences on their own lives, family and society. Passing it earns adolescents a comprehensive sex ed certificate that’s far more important to the public good than is the driver’s license.

Kids aren’t born with an owner’s manual for their bodies. But they’re eager to learn. Either they learn by trial and error or someone has to teach them. No problem showing them how to use their brains in school or eyes and legs to cross the street safely. But mention the reproductive system, then many adults freak out. Is it a power thing? Perhaps these adults subconsciously feel somewhat threatened by the rising Generation Next. Knowledge is power. Many adults seem reluctant to relinquish to adolescents knowledge about reproduction because it means having to confront their own mortality. So to “protect the children,” adults throw up defenses of morality, religious tradition and legal restrictions about the amazing bodies we live in. This makes the mysterious forbidden fruit even more alluring to inquisitive, passionate adolescents. Nature has seen to that. Facts, however, can help diffuse and control the passions.

Adults owe adolescents timely, practical information about sex. But first, adults must get over their sex education hang-ups, especially concerning who should instruct their kids. Parents can choose: school, home or other parentally approved person, just as long as their kids can pass the test. There is no excuse for ignorance-based sex ed.

Many parents welcome their freedom from chauffeuring their kids. Perhaps, to incentivize reluctant parents, this sex-ed certificate could be a required prerequisite to the graduated driver’s license. It’s not essential that teens drive cars, but it is essential they acquire comprehensive, medically correct information about human reproduction in time to maximize the benefits---- before they are old enough to get behind the wheel. Then, at least, they have a better chance to make better decisions affecting their futures.



Thanks for writing this

Welcome to BlueNC. Today is the day. I've promoted this diary and another encouraging us to email our state senators.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Ditto. Thanks. And welcome.

This is a well-done piece. I like the idea that parents would have to contractually commit to providing their children with sex education if they opt out of school programs.

Hope to see you on Saturday now that you're a blogger!


What ever happened to being pro-choice on issues of reproductive health? Oh, I guess being pro-choice is a position reserved for special ideological occasions.

Edit: I don't mean to be a party pooper, and I think that the article makes a valid argument (and excellent points with respect to adult attitudes towards sex/adolescents), but I just don't understand why using coercion is such an attractive option.

"The natural wage of labor is its product." -- Benjamin R. Tucker
A liberal is someone who thinks the system is broken and needs to be fixed, whereas a radical understands it’s working the way it’s supposed to.

You're right, Dr. Q

Every parent should have the right to be stupid and sentence their child to sexual ignorance. I don't object to them having that choice.

It isn't attractive

Unfortunately, it's necessary. I think I"d rather force a parent/guardian to be responsible when it comes to educating their child about sex if they opt out of comprehensive sex-ed than have the child living with the results of the lack of that education. Does that make sense? I absolutely don't like the idea of forcing parents to raise their children in a certain way...unless the alternative presents dire consequences to the child.

Sometimes pushing for the extreme gets us where we need to be when we fall short of the extreme.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Not too sure

I guess I'd like to know what exactly parent's aren't telling their teens about sex that they should be, and how many are failing in this parenting respect. If, as the article suggests, children/teens are eager to learn - there certainly isn't limit to the amount of information availible to them. What don't kids know? How birth control works? Condoms? Sex = babies? Maybe I'm just extremely naive but I'm pretty sure kids understand these things generally regardless of what their parents/state does. Sex Ed class is just an opportunity to make jokes and zone out for the vast majority of students.

I'm not sure about how I feel about the idea of the state molding beliefs and views on sex. Uniformity in views about any subject is dangerous, and especially so when that subject directly effects who we are and how we view the world, life, relationships, etc.

What about parents who teach their kids that receiving life-saving medical treatment is immoral? What about parents that tell their kids that race X is inferior? How are you going to monitor whether parents are 'adequately' educating their teens about sex, much less determine what level of education is 'adequate'? More standardized testing? Smells like a juicy government contract. If a student fails the test, do they have to take a separate class? Will this be any more effective than safe driving classes you have to take as a result of getting a speeding ticket (ie, resentment and no real learning)? If the results of public education in the areas of history and economics are indication of the effectiveness of state sex-ed classes... well, let's just say I have my doubts.

"The natural wage of labor is its product." -- Benjamin R. Tucker
A liberal is someone who thinks the system is broken and needs to be fixed, whereas a radical understands it’s working the way it’s supposed to.

No, I don't think you're naive,

"Maybe I'm just extremely naive but I'm pretty sure kids understand these things generally regardless of what their parents/state does."

I think that you think the same thing a lot of others do: if a kid is not "sharp" enough to already understand these things, then giving them classroom instruction won't help.

Here's the thing: they have been receiving instruction about sex for years, but it's the wrong kind of instruction. They've been getting the "glam" version, that being sexy and attracting the opposite sex is the ultimate goal for personal success. It's so ingrained in them by the time they reach puberty, saying "no" or "I'm not ready" is tantamount to failure.

Whether they use the information or not, they have the right to know everything about sex, not just what marketing companies want them to know, or what the Moral Minority want them to know, either.

One of the pinnacles of the abstinence approach is to point out that condoms "aren't perfect" and the only way to guarantee no STD's or unwanted pregnancies is to not have sex. The result of this idiotic approach is not fewer kids having sex, it's more kids having unprotected sex, because they've been told that condoms aren't reliable (don't work). Which is about the same thing as saying seatbelts aren't reliable, because every now and then someone gets stuck in a burning vehicle because they can't release the lock. Forget about the tens of thousands who are saved from serious injury or death because they had their seatbelts attached; the only way to be 100% safe is to not drive at all.

Now, is that the kind of approach we should take when teaching children how to take care of themselves? No, of course it isn't. We need to provide them with information to fill in the huge gap between the advertiser's "Do it!" command and the bible-thumper's "Don't do it!" command. That middle ground is where the decision-making is going on, and we can't expect them to make the right decisions if we haven't given them the tools to do so.

Parents who don't want their children educated

about sex are playing Russian Roulette with more than the chance of becoming young Grandparents, they are spinning the wheel on the life of their child. If 1 out of 4 girls have an STD, why wouldn't some of those STDs be AIDS?

It should be the mission of public education to prepare young people for this facet of life precisely because there are parents who would "opt-out" of sex education.