Teaching Sex

[Ross] So it turns out that abstinence-based education doesn't really have any effect on teen sexual habits, according to a preliminary study of the programs in question. This has prompted a fair amount of snark around the social-liberal parts of the blogosphere, which is fair enough - but it's worth pointing out that there's very little evidence that any other kind of sex education has much of an effect on teen sexual habits either. (That's the general conclusion of Kristin Luker's book-length treatment of the issue, and Megan McArdle's  epic blog series on the topic.) Which would seem, in turn, like a good case for having our public schools waste as little of their time on sex ed as possible. My own somewhat fuzzy view of the issue (developed at greater length here and here and here) is that except in areas where pervasive family breakdown requires educators to act in loco parentis more than one would like them to, public schools should take an, ah, stripped-down an approach to teaching sex, and mainly leave the whole "condoms or abstinence" issue to parents and kids to sort out on their own. Given the way the current battle lines are drawn, I suppose I'm on the side of the abstinence educators, since I'd much rather have my (hypothetical) sixth-grade kid's school telling him or her to hold off on sex than handing out Trojans after class. But I'd rather see those battle lines go away entirely, and take a lot of local culture-war sturm und drang with them.

This was the right's original idea, of course, and one of the various pillars of Grover Norquist's whole "leave us alone" coalition: Social conservatives didn't like sex ed's sexy side, and libertarians didn't like its nanny-statish side. This alliance succeeded in freezing funding for sex ed at 1970s levels - which were much higher than ever before, needless to say - throughout the 1980s, but not in cutting it; meanwhile, the whole "virginity pledge" movement gathered steam, and Bill Clinton, ever attuned to the political winds, embraced funding for abstinence-based education as a small part of his famous triangulation strategy, even as he ramped up sex-ed funding in general. Since then, social conservatives have tried to exploit his concession, expending most of their energy trying to change sex ed programs into abstinence promotion vehicles rather than phasing them out entirely. It's an understandable strategy but perhaps a misguided one: I'm not usually one for siding with libertarians on culture-war debates, but sex ed is a case where privatization seems to make more sense than any of the alternatives.