In the United States, a high school biology teacher is under investigation by an Idaho "professional standards commission" for using the word vagina. Meanwhile on a completely difference plane in Germany, parents are "irate," according to the international news site Spiegel, after a Berlin elementary school used a book containing illustrations of condoms and descriptions of orgasms for a very frank discussion about sex.
After the local press picked up the story and complaints from parents of the first-graders shown the book reached the Berlin Senate last week, the controversy has revived a debate over the evolving standards of what counts as "appropriate" -- one that's local to the city, but which resonates for all educators, politicians, and parents grappling with how best to teach kids about sexual health.
The book, Where Do You Come From? (Wo kommst du her?), depicts the sexual relationship of young German lovers Lisa and Lars. Fair warning, cartoon penises ahead:
Conservative politicians joined in the outcry over the school's use of the book, though to give them credit, their opposition was mostly focused on the book's "unnecessary zeal."
How "explicit" can we really consider depictions of genitalia -- and the things loving couples like to do with them -- to be? Actual studies have proven that six-year-olds' imaginations can be just as graphic as the images in Wo kommst du her?, only less anatomically accurate:
That's from a 2012 study that asked children in the U.S., the Netherlands, England, and Sweden to draw pictures explaining where babies come from. The Dutch boy who drew the above picture did better than most -- American kids got nowhere near as close to understanding what was going on, and invariably invoked God in their explanations. One U.S. boy said, "I think [babies] are made by a mom and a dad, but I am not sure how; maybe during special time when they are alone."
The study's authors concluded that it is possible for kids that young to understand the concepts of conception and birth, and argued that "In these countries [like the Netherlands and Sweden] with more open attitudes toward sexuality and greater recognition of the need to educate young people, there are higher rates of contraceptive use by both male and female teens and lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion."
Where the depiction of contraception in a book aimed at such young children runs into trouble, of course, is that it equates sex primarily with pleasure. The other thing that high school teacher from Idaho is being investigated for is explaining the biological mechanisms of an orgasm to his students. That seems like something that can end up being a lot more damning than using the anatomically correct name for female genitalia. It's also a lot less common. I remember seeing lots of sex ed materials throughout adolescence that were filled with images and detailed explanations of how it all works, but I can't remember any of it talking about how it's supposed to feel: "So good that it can't get any better," according to Wo kommst du her?; then, in the afterglow, "nice and tingly and warm."
As the book's publisher explained to me on Twitter, "sexual education has changed somewhat" since the book was originally published in 1991. They sent me a PDF of the updated version of the book, Was I in Mommy's Stomach, Too? (War ich auch in Mamas Bauch?), which has completely revised text and illustrations:
The biggest change, so far as I can tell, is that Lisa and Lars are replaced by Mama and Papa, and condom use is no longer an issue. But even if it strictly equates sex with baby-making, at least the new version of the book keeps the passion, with extra cartoon hearts and eskimo kisses:
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