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

By Conor Friedersdorf
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? 

For Dreher, sex ed of some kinds is appropriate for 13-year-old public school kids, but this particular poster strikes him as obviously appalling. I'd like to better understand his reaction. Would I include that particular poster if I were making sex ed curriculum? Perhaps not. But it doesn't appall me, and in fact strikes me as a defensible approach, in part because it states true facts without any value judgments. The facts in question may not be known to all 13-year-old in Shawnee, Kansas. But how long will any of them be kept in the dark about such matters? Until they're 14-year-old high school freshmen? Or 15-year-old sophomores? This strikes me as an impractical occasion for outrage and opposition if the practical upshot is "saving" teens from knowledge they'd quickly acquire anyway. 

And that raises more complicated questions.

In America, legal adulthood begins at age 18, and adults younger than 21 are prohibited from buying alcohol. Those two ages are the most widely accepted thresholds for independence and an attendant diminution of parental prerogatives. But there is no reason to believe that those arbitrary thresholds should guide us in all things. Perhaps it is the case that parents are due the most control over their kids when they are infants–but that, as they get older, the legitimate bounds of parental control diminish gradually rather than suddenly on their 18th birthday. Isn't it unfair or even unethical for the parent of a 6-year-old to prevent him from learning to read? Maybe it's also unethical to deny a pubescent teen factually accurate knowledge about sex and his or her own body. It would, I think, do more harm than good for the state to enforce such notions. But I still find some value in recognizing them culturally, uncertain as I am about their parameters. 

If real-world outcomes matter, it can only help the case for more comprehensive sex education that teen ignorance about the subject, or misinformation from peers, does far more harm to adolescents than premature classroom exposure to explicit truths (especially when blended with the value system inculcated by involved parents). One never knows how one's attitudes will change after having children. But I imagine that, if parenting a 13-year-old, I'd neither rely on the public schools to convey anything of importance, nor would I protest public school attempts to fully inform the subset of young people whose parents abdicate that job. 

One final thought.

It's interesting that parents get singularly upset about the subject of sex, as compared to other material that children are taught in school. Having grown up in U.S. culture, I understand, intuitively, why sex ed curriculum is particularly controversial. But it's interesting that no one believes in an individualized right of every parent to decide when their child learns about, say, the Nazi gas chambers, even though we might look askance at a school teaching that history to kindergartners. 

To return to a parental comment from Shawnee, Kansas, no one would ever write of their 8th grade child, "If and when I feel my children are ready to learn about the Holocaust, then it is MY responsibility to teach them! NOT the school’s! They are paid to teach READING, WRITING and ARITHMETIC!! PERIOD!!" And yet, learning about the Holocaust entails a diminution of innocence that is arguably far more profound than learning that grinding and oral sex exist. There may well be sound reasoning or intuitive wisdom behind this double standard, especially given how widespread it is. I'd be curious to hear that parent's thoughts, and the thoughts of interested readers on this subject generally.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/should-public-schools-teach-13-year-olds-about-grinding/283115/