The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
It used to be that with spring’s herald, a young man’s fancy turned to love. Now, he can celebrate April as STD Awareness Month. Clicking on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, he will find that there are “approximately 19 million new cases of STDs each year in the United States, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.” His fancy thus crushed, he turns away in disgust. The young man’s disillusionment is even more likely if he has been schooled in the kind of sex education that has been standard in most American public schools since the 1970s, the kind written by Alfred Kinsey’s disciples, who champion a faux science of sexuality that pretends to be both morally neutral and safe. Indeed, that faux science treats all human beings as simply animals, entirely controlled by their biological urges.
In that context, our young man would have been taught that he ought to indulge in any behavior that crosses his mind. He’d find further reinforcements for this do-what-you-will impulse at websites recommended by those same textbooks and earnest educators. The only ground rules given are that, wherever his fancy takes him, he ought to wear a condom. Most likely he would have received that instruction without his parents’ awareness of what this education contains. His world is the one that Miriam Grossman portrayed so brilliantly in her first book, Unprotected, based on her experience as a psychiatrist at a college health center. In her twenty years of treating students, she encountered young men and young women who believed without question what the sex educators taught them. Heartache, disease, infertility, psychological instability, and an inability to form lasting relationships were the inevitable result. She demonstrated clearly and concisely the emotional and physical harm that results from encouraging college-aged men and women to experiment with and upon one another. Each chapter was more devastating as she documented the numerous ways adult society has failed young people.
In You’re Teaching my Child What? Grossman turns her gaze to the root of the problem, which did not start in college. College is simply the first time that students are away from any real supervision for semesters at a time. Therefore they can experiment, so they think, without anyone being the wiser. The doctrines that encouraged them to experiment with each other were taught much earlier. They were taught to treat one another as objects of sexual pleasure beginning in grade school. Unfortunately, this latest volume of Dr. Grossman is not quite the book that Unprotected was. What made Unprotected so brilliant was her even-handed and careful tone. Whatever their bias, readers had to admit she had a point that college students deserve better. On the other hand, You’re Teaching my Child What? is not as carefully crafted, having instead the feel of a good first draft. Pull quotes are sometimes in the wrong section, chapters have been rearranged without straightening out footnotes, typographical errors abound. In short, the book is poorly edited, often leaving the reader confused. It’s a shame because her thesis is sound.
Admittedly, it is hard to strike an “even” tone when looking at what passes for sex education. College students are at least capable of reasoning through a bad argument. Society allows them to live on their own, to vote, to join the military. Whether or not they behave as adults, they are treated as such legally. But how do you alert parents to the fact that their daughter might be counseled to experiment with bondage at age 16 or 17 because her boyfriend is intrigued? That is pretty frightening stuff. Grossman can therefore be pardoned for sounding panicked at times because the advice young people are given is so appalling. Moreover, most parents are completely unaware of the websites their children are encouraged to check out. Those who oppose sex education in the public schools have been effectively portrayed as prudes who want to keep their children ignorant. So in providing a useful summary of sex education curricula, this book vindicates the critics.
Grossman is not afraid to name names and identify organizations that are not only the ringleaders of American sex education but are also generously supported by the federal government: Planned Parenthood, SIECUS, and Advocates for Youth. All three encourage a ideology repellent to most parents. This radical ideology, as Dr. Grossman demonstrates, rests on the assumption that human beings are sexual from birth and that sexual relations are as necessary as food and shelter at every age. In the words of Mary Calderone, SIECUS founder, “Mom and Dad must ‘accept and honor’ [their] child’s erotic potential.” Consequently, textbooks, pamphlets, and websites encourage teens to experiment, not restrain themselves. The only boundaries regarding sexual behavior imposed on young people today are a partner’s (or partners’) consent and “protection” from pregnancy, as if pregnancy is some sort of disease. Teens are told that they alone, and no one else, should determine how far they should go. Again and again, Grossman shows, the ideology of sexual liberation transforms each issue of sexual ethics into “a question only you can answer.” This, she writes, “is the overriding message given to your child. Adults—not necessarily parents—provide information; teens determine their ‘ready-or-not’ status. Educators describe a range of intimate behaviors, teens decide where to draw the line.”
Yet the good doctor makes it clear that most adolescents are not capable of making such decisions—particularly when encouraged to believe that they alone will know what’s right. Grossman shows what neuroscience has to say about brain development. The prefrontal cortex, where judgment occurs, is still developing into our mid-twenties. Teens have more than enough information on sex, too much really. What they don’t have is the ability to form judgments, particularly in dodgy situations. Thus, it is not shocking that teen condom usage is not at all what the sex teachers presume; effective condom usage among youngsters is even worse. Teenagers by definition lack prudence. Adolescent imprudence will surprise few of us, but when intensified by the misguided advice experts are giving them, average parents can expect such imprudence to cause trouble when teens collide with reality.
In exposing that reality, Grossman protects the reader from the worst of it. She offers glimpses of www.gURL.com, www.GoAskAlice.com, and other websites that are supported or endorsed by Planned Parenthood and SEICUS. She also provides skeptical readers with resources in the footnotes if they want to confirm her account, but the reader doesn’t have to check out those websites. For that she should be applauded. Too often whistleblowers like Grossman end up over-exposing readers in their well-intentioned efforts to alert parents and other responsible adults. More importantly, Grossman also offers far better guidance and insight than what is provided to answer various questions posed on such websites.
Grossman is at her best at making complicated medical material clear to the average layperson. As in Unprotected, much of her focus is on the damage inflicted by the sexual revolution upon girls and young women. Their fertility is impaired; they are the ones at high risk of cervical cancer. The section on the immature cervix and the increased vulnerability to health problems caused by use of the contraceptive pill is worth the price of the book. Young men are usually the asymptomatic carriers of infections and disease. But she does not ignore young men, particularly when she covers sexual experimentation. When it comes to high-risk behaviors, teens are told that condoms will protect them from disease. She dispatches this falsehood quickly and asks the sex educators how they can fail to provide adequate information to teenagers in need. She particularly challenges the misinformation teachers give those adolescents that might be inclined to engage in homosexual activity. In proffering this misinformation, the instructors assert that the health risks of homosexual behavior are the same as those of heterosexual behavior:
This equal-opportunity approach to infection sounds fair—all orientations face the same risk—so both teacher and student feel good. You might say that sex educators have, for fairness’ sake, rewritten the principles of virology, bacteriology, and epidemiology. The hard truth is that the playing field is not level, and in the long run, denying that reality has catastrophic results for the very population it was designed to help. Teens embarking on same-sex experimentation are on a road more perilous than their sexually active “straight” peers, and they need to know it.
Deep down, Americans know that we are living in an unsustainable schizophrenic illusion. We are hyper-protective of children at one level, never allowing them to walk to school on their own; we make them wear bike helmets and knee and arm pads if they skate. But at another, more serious level, we essentially give up and suggest that teenagers throw caution to the wind, preferring to mitigate the risk rather than provide good guidance. At both levels, parents are following the guidance of experts. They were right about bike helmets, so why would they be wrong when it comes to the sexual behavior of teenagers? They are, after all, the experts. But after reading Grossman, no parent can claim ignorance.
The timeliness of this book could not be better. The latest statistics from the CDC say that one in six Americans has herpes, hence our need to celebrate a whole month of STD awareness. A recent study on abstinence education shows that it is effective in stopping very young teens from engaging in sexual behavior. Teens can, in fact, say no to sex. Saying no allows teens the time “to build an acceptable, coherent sense of self” so that they can face the challenges adulthood brings. Grossman’s latest effort to challenge sex-education orthodoxy, therefore, could represent what Malcolm Gladwell might label a tipping point. Compared to Unprotected, it doesn’t measure up in terms of editorial quality. But I still plan to give this very effective book to my sister who has four children.
Dr. Orr is assistant dean for program development at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. She served the George W. Bush administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as director of population services and as associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau.