Should Public Schools Teach 13-Year-Olds About Grinding?

The challenges of creating a sex-ed curriculum that's both informative and non-controversial
Romana Klee/Flickr

In Shawnee, Kansas, 13-year-olds at Hocker Grove Middle School are exposed to an educational poster in sex ed that says the following: "How do people express their sexual feelings? Oral Sex. Sexual fantasy. Caressing. Anal sex. Hugging. Touching each other's genitals. Kissing." Whatever else it is, the poster is accurate. 

But is it appropriate? And does it matter that, according to one of the middle school's administrators, it is but a small part of a larger, "abstinence-only" sex-ed curriculum?

A parent at the school was sufficiently shocked by its contents that he aired his grievances to the local Fox affiliate. Alerted to the story, Rod Dreher, a "Crunchy Con" blogger who has thought a great deal about adolescent education by virtue of his family's decision to homeschool their children, felt outraged too. "What kind of institution exposes middle schoolers to this kind of thing?" he asks. "To be clear, nobody is objecting to sex-ed per se; it’s the specifics of the content here that appall."

The comments at the local news site include several specific arguments against this curriculum:

  • "Teaching someone how to do something properly at an age that it is socially unhealthy to engage in is legitimizing the activity and normalizing it... People want to fit in and be accepted. If you are teaching children that their peers are doing something, they themselves will feel more compelled to do that."
  • "If and when I feel my children are ready to learn about it, then it is MY responsibility to teach them! NOT the school’s! They are paid to teach READING, WRITING and ARITHMETIC!! PERIOD!!" Along the same lines: "As a parent, it is my responsibility to teach those things to my children. If the school wants to teach those things, they need to seek the approval of parents before ever doing anything. Have we sunk so low as a society that we will give up our responsibilities to someone else for our own convenience?"
  • "It seems dangerous that a parent is no longer allowed to parent their child according to what they believe is best for their son or daughter. How easily so many have given up this freedom to raise their children according to their own decisions. It is NOT the place of a public school to make such important decisions in terms of influencing a child’s thoughts and actions regarding something so important and influential as sex, especially without a parent’s knowledge or consent. This is foremost a question of freedom to parent."

I am not unsympathetic to those arguments.

This controversy nevertheless leaves me conflicted. On one hand, I believe that, on the whole, parents are the least bad judge of what is in their particular child's interests, and that the ideal age to teach kids about various aspects of sex varies by community and individual, making it particularly ill-suited to state curriculum standards. In my ideal world, parents would be able to make these decisions in accordance with their informed assessment of their child's best interests.

On the other hand, there is actually no "neutral" position for educators to take here, especially when most parents seem to concede that sex ed of some kind should be taught. Some of them favor more comprehensive sex ed than others. Inevitably, the school is going to transgress against parental preferences in many instances. 

As well, we live in a world where many parents abdicate their educational responsibilities. Should their children be consigned to ignorance, in order that the school doesn't transgress against the rights of more responsible parents to decide exactly when their kids should be educated? Or do the needs of kids whose parents neglect to ever talk to them about sex count for just as much as the others? 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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