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Politickin’ me off: Missouri sex education law should focus on teaching consent, not abstinence
“Men, do you think women want you to win twenty minutes in a bed with her, or do you think she wants you to win her heart?” a presenter asks. “By having sex before marriage you remove the motivation to commit. Love in its truest form is not simply a feeling but a decision.”
These questions sound like they belong in religious marriage counseling, but according to the Riverfront Times, they’re from the presentation script of a sexual education program taught in Missouri’s public schools.
This is the rhetoric of Thrive, the Christian anti-abortion group which has snuck its messaging into Missouri public schools under the guise of a sexual education program called Best Choice. My own school district, Parkway, is among those currently using the program.
When I attended Parkway South High School, sex ed wasn’t ideal – it was geared towards an abstinence-only framework and left out any mention of LGBT topics – but at least it didn’t push an agenda quite so obviously as Thrive’s curriculum does.
Sex ed classes didn’t seem to make much of an impact on Parkway students’ sexual behavior – or pregnancy rates – when I attended, and Best Choice seems even less likely to succeed. The curriculum characterizes “making out” and “touching above the waist” as “danger zones,” which is both disturbing and absurdly removed from teenagers’ social realities.
This program is delivering high school students something they don’t need any more of – feeling shame about sex.
But this isn’t just a singular aberration; it’s codified into Missouri law. The laws of the state demand that sexual education programs emphasize abstinence. A side effect of sex that Best Choice mentions is “the emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity.”
This, of course, takes for granted that being sexually active in one’s adolescence must be traumatic. Perhaps sexual education classes should aim a little higher, and actually try to address why that is.
The fact is, modern sex ed programs need to address a wild variety of topics: birth control, online dating and hookups, sexually transmitted infections, LGBT sexual health and most importantly, consent.
Students already know that reserving sex for marriage or at least for a committed relationship is an option, and there’s nothing wrong with mentioning in sex ed classes that it’s a good way of avoiding many relationship complications. But it doesn’t avoid all of them, and for many students it’s unlikely to stick. Humanity has tried every possible method of preventing young people from having sex with each other, and it hasn’t worked so far. There’s no reason to believe that Thrive, or Missouri, will suddenly make it work now.
Instead, we need to focus on teaching students the thing that no high school currently does: consent. We need to teach young boys that they are not entitled to the bodies of girls they are dating, and we need to teach girls there is no shame in telling an adult that someone has violated their boundaries. We need to teach young people of every gender and sexuality that whether or not to have sex is a decision you should make with your eyes open, and for when you feel ready, not one you save for an arbitrary point in a relationship without a deeper exploration of what you want or need.
A sexual education that focuses on abstinence, as Thrive does, only leads to problems down the road. It’s why colleges like Webster find themselves with the task of attempting to teach students about consent – their parents and high schools have both failed to address it. It’s often in college that this lack of education collides painfully with the reality that most young adults do, inevitably, have sex.
It’s time for Missouri law to recognize that reality. When we finally understand that we can’t prevent sex from happening, we can start figuring out how to teach young people to approach it in a way that’s physically and emotionally safe.