Obama’s Twist on Sex Ed in the United States (Or How the Status Quo Never Dies)

The rise of Obama to power in the US was supposed to represent a new direction in US domestic and international policy, shifting away from Evangelical Christian based morality. Unfortunately, those hoping for more progressive and innovative policies have been sorely disappointed. Which leads me to this lovely commercial recently released (in Fall 2009) by the Obama administration (in specific, the US Department of Health and Human Services).

One of the Obama government’s early changes after taking over from the Bush regime was to address the status of America’s abstinence only sex education, supposedly putting a stop to faith-based curriculums and bringing back a more comprehensive programme for youths. Commercials like these, however, throw suspicion on just how far this administration is willing to go.

Now, let’s deconstruct just how terrible a commercial this really is in light of our supposedly fledging comprehensive sex education. The spot opens with the image of a father and his daughter. Already this should be triggering a critical eye since the idea of a father controlling his daughter’s sexuality until marriage has been a controversial issue plaguing the United States (and the world for that matter) for years. Admittedly, any combination of parent and child in this type of ad would be questionable, but the use of such an image historically laden with problematic connotations is the first problem I have with this spot.

The ad continues by showing the father struggling mightily to get to his sweet little daughter, dramatic music sounding in the background. A narrator cuts in telling us that “we know it’s hard to talk to your kids about sex”. Cue another round of displeasure from me. It’s hard to talk to your kids about sex? Why is that exactly? What makes sex such a scary, embarrassing issue for ADULTS to address? Why is the thought of merely explaining a biological function to another human being enough to trigger distress, fear and the need to take up miming as a pastime?

Well, fear not never coming to an answer for our narrator tells us that “it’s embarrassing”. Sex is that icky thing that we’re not really supposed to talk about. Well, not supposed to talk about seriously. The fact that media is supersaturated with sexual talk is fine, but serious discussions on the matter, particularly with people under the magical age of eighteen, will cause mass breakouts of flushed cheeks and stuttering.

Despite such a devastating effect talking about sex can have on people, the fact remains that children must be educated, so adults must break through their invisible glass walls and talk about the issue anyway. Yet, how can one properly approach the issue? Why, “you don’t have to be explicit about it!” No! Clear information is another very bad thing that will lead to higher levels of embarrassment, levels that you might NEVER recover from. So, “you don’t have the talk about the parts”. Anatomy and biology are subjects that only scientists should concern themselves with, not your average American. Why would your everyday normal person need to understand their own sexual functioning? Remember, it’s ICKY and EMBARRASSING. Even words such as genitals, sexual organs, penis, and vagina will cause your tongue to swell and giggles to erupt from your throat madly. Especially the word vagina.

So what is a parent to do? You have to talk to your child about sex, but you don’t really want to confuse them and embarrass with a discussion of their parts. The solution is “to just tell [them] how you feel”. However, the topic of sex makes adults feel embarrassed and lustful so perhaps telling them about the latest porno you’ve watched is the wrong way to go about things. Besides, to explain what a double ended dildo is you have to tell them all about vaginas and that would mean having to talk about TWO of them, a fate that a father cannot survive. So you need to tell your kid to “wait to have sex”. Cue the flashing of a website promising to make this talk easier (with flashcards maybe?) and the end of the commercial.

As it stands, we already have a really problematic parent/child combination, unneeded anxiety over basic health information and the idea that children must be told to “wait” to have sex. What does wait mean, however, in this commercial? Is it wait until marriage, wait until you’re eighteen, wait until you’re “ready”, wait until you’re in love or wait until prom night? The commercial leaves us hanging on this rather important definition so it’s time to head to the website to find out the answer!

The website given at the end of the ad is http://www.4parents.gov/ and the very first line of text emblazoned across its page tells us that waiting involves abstaining until marriage. Now, the website is filled with a large amount of additional ads (see Gadget for further eye twitching material), information and general stupidity that could be covered, but I am going to concentrate on the “waiting until married” message.

According to the section on talking to your pre-teen/teen about sex, marriage is awesome. Waiting until marriage to have sex will guarantee that your child will stay safe, have good relationships and lead a sexually fulfilling life without regrets. Furthermore, according to 4parents, marriage is the best situation to be in, whether you are an adult or a child! Marriage benefits supposedly include longer life spans, improved physical and emotional health, greater happiness, higher earning potentials, better sex lives and better financial savings. All of these so-called benefits have citations but anyone who’s been around the progressive blog sphere, gone to university or simply read a few newspapers can contest several of these facts. While I will concede that human beings in stable relationships do tend to live longer, this does not imply that marriage is the only option. Recent studies in concerns to married couples and their emotional stability show that traditional families with children are significantly less happy than their less traditional child-free counterparts (http://www.newsweek.com/id/143792 or google “happier without children”). Higher earning potentials for married couples are cited by many researchers, but this is often linked to discriminatory practices rather than the inherent benefits of having a spouse. As for better sex, orgasms aren’t affected by legal documents, but by good relationships, something that isn’t relegated solely to the marriage sphere. All in all, marriage doesn’t make for a good life, but having stable and healthy relationships and confidence in oneself. These traits can be present in marriage, but are not necessarily and can exist without the social construct.

A cursory glance over the bibliography used by 4parents to back up their claims shows us a rather biased and self-selected representation of sources. Whoever put this list together obviously didn’t learn that having sources from each side of a debate makes for a stronger argument as almost all of the pieces come out of the US, a nation not renowned for its fantastic research involving sexuality. Comparative literature would have shown greater attempts to present well-rounded and accurate material, but that does not seem to be this website’s goal!

Of course, no website talking about abstinence until marriage is complete without a segment on the queer community (remember, those people in America that aren’t allowed to get married because their relationships simply aren’t legitimate enough?). According to 4parents, “your son or daughter is certain to hear about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons at some point” due to the media primarily. Obviously, they will not discover this potential for human beings to love other human beings of the same gender by actually knowing someone who is gay because that possibility is simply too scary to list on this website. The site advocates a calm discussion between parent and child, taking into consideration that the child may be confused, having heard things that simply do not make sense. As a parent, you must be clear about your own “beliefs”. The entire segment on talking with your child about their sexual orientation is subtly littered with hints that you can talk them out of it, explain such a phenomenon away. Admittedly, the article ends with telling parents to accept their gay children, but this is only after attempts must be made to change them.

During this entire segment on talking to your child about waiting for marriage, the idea of birth control or STI protection does not come up once. In fact, if your teen/child is having sex, you are to tell them that you wish them to stop and to convince them, you must give them many scary statistics about young girls who had babies in their teens or adolescents with terrible STIs. It is only in the “Dealing with Risky Behaviours” section (covering drugs, emotional risks of early sexual activity, mental health and other such “related” risky issues), that birth control is discussed, making sure to mention that it’s never fail-proof as many times as possible. They also make sure to mention that depression and teenage sex are linked though we don’t know how or why. This, my friends, is bad statistical comprehension. CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, THIS IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD HAVE LEARNED IN ANY BASIC LESSON ON LOGIC AND DEBATE!

Moving on…

So, thus far 4parents has told us to wait to have sex until marriage, that birth control is risky and being gay is probably just a sign that you are confused. They really have lived up to their avoidance of talking about parts. The actual ins and outs of sex aren’t really discussed. You can read about puberty, how boys and girls develop, how babies develop, how pregnancy occurs, but sex is defined simply as “a term that includes vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Specific risks for these different types of sex may vary. It is important to talk with a health care provider for more information.” I’m glad to know that sex involves different types of sex that you do not define, discuss or approach in any manner other than to associate them with risk, 4parents. After all, if you even merely mention the realities of sex, your children will run out and have it! That or they assume that all parents are already fully knowledgeable about sex and do not need additional help. Considering they expect parents to believe this website, I highly doubt such an assumption is a good idea. So what is sex? What are we refraining from? What is too far? Not providing children and teens with this information will simply cause confusion. Instead of having open, honest discussions with parents and trusted adult figures, we leave our kids to struggle through pop culture, the internet and peer-to-peer “information”. The images of sex that are inherited from such a learning style do not tend to be healthy, but inspired by ignorance and pornography, violence and degradation. Sex becomes taboo, but valued. A “sinful” endeavor that is not enjoyed, but stolen, hidden and shamed.

What ways can you show your love?

In the world of 4parents, children would never think to actually go to other sources for information about sex so obviously they shall remain pure and innocent until the day of their marriage. When, however, is it appropriate to educate our youth about sex? If the average age of people getting married is on the rise, is it really a good idea to assume that abstaining is possible, desired and positive? Are we to push our children into marriage while they are young, simply to avoid the dangers of pre-marital sex? Or is it okay to experiment as long as you are above the age of majority? What makes the age of majority a good benchmark for sexual maturity anyways? As can be seen, the questions this site doesn’t answer are numerous and the silence on these issues is dangerous. Furthermore, the idea that marriage suddenly makes sexuality perfect and problem-free is ridiculous. For instance, what guarantees are there that one’s spouse will never stray and bring an STI back into a relationship? Why does the site refrain from talking about abortion (aside from two sources with abortion in the title and a couple of “sad” statistics) when it is an issue that both youth and adults should be informed about? What about alternative sexualities? Polyamory, BDSM and Queer issues certainly create problems for the theme of 4parents.

The current American administration has failed in its goals of healthy, comprehensive sexual education with this commercial and website. They are spreading inaccurate and dangerous information to children and teens who have the right to access to this knowledge in order to make mature decisions about their own sexuality. My suggestion to all parents out there is to make sure you provide your child with an open and safe environment in which any question can be asked. Remember, embarrassment is temporary but the trust you will lose with your children when you hide such an important part of life away from them will be forever. Besides, no one ever died from spontaneous mime death upon saying the word vagina.

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