The International Conservative Opposition to Sex Education
The Washington Post has a good piece today by NYU History and Education Professor Jonathan Zimmerman that points out a big problem. The article is about sex education and the way that it has reached a certain point and faltered, but there is a much bigger story.
In 1994, 20,000 delegates from 179 countries met in Cairo to discuss how to deal with the coming world population explosion. The convention ended up endorsing sex education for girls as well as boys, and reproductive rights to contraception and information for adolescents of both sexes.
I am skipping the set-up and will jump to the meat of the story:
In most countries, children and adolescents receive a smattering of information about their reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings against putting them to use. Whereas the Cairo meeting envisioned preparing youths to be autonomous sexual beings, most contemporary sex education simply admonishes them against sex itself.You hear the term "American Taliban" used to describe a certain kind of sex-loathing American religious fanatic. The label evokes an image of the turbaned, bearded man wading into a crowd with his whip to punish a woman who has carelessly let part of her face become visible. The fact is, religious conservatives in the US have more in common with fundamentalist Muslims than they do with secular Americans.
And that’s not because certain parts of the world are “conservative” or “traditional” on the topic. Instead, conservatives around the globe have united across borders to block or inhibit sex education. On issues of sex and reproduction, it’s not East vs. West anymore. It’s liberals vs. conservatives, each of which often have more in common with their ideological soulmates in other parts of the world than they do with people next door. Sex education is a global dividing line between liberals and conservatives
The resolution was also condemned by the Vatican, which had sent a papal envoy to Tehran earlier that year to coordinate its campaigns against the Cairo accords. The resolution caught the attention of growing Muslim immigrant communities in Europe, who joined hands with native white conservatives against sex education. On most issues, including immigration itself, these groups were at loggerheads. But on sex education, they saw eye to eye.What a strange thing. All human beings have physical bodies and physical needs, and each of us has to learn how to manage those needs responsibly, including sex. Why would anybody oppose learning about that?
Meanwhile, a burgeoning network of international organizations bound conservatives together. Born a year after Cairo, the World Congress of Families united Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews who opposed abortion, same-sex marriage and sex education. It received a letter of praise in 2004 from President George W. Bush, who had declared that one-third of U.S. foreign assistance for HIV/AIDS prevention would be devoted to abstinence-only education.There is a broad syndrome that is sometimes called "rape culture" or patriarchy, that includes a wide range of beliefs and behaviors which serve to keep women in a dependent and unequal state relative to men. These beliefs have to do with decisions about reproduction, have to do with norms regarding sexual presentation and behavior ("slut-shaming" being one manifestation of it), sexual identity in general -- for instance sanctions against homosexual and transgender persons, and extending to resistance to equitable treatment of women in the workplace, including equal pay and equal consideration in hiring. The idea that men should seek consent for sex is laughed off in some circles, the idea that a woman takes birth control pills makes her a slut in some groups, some people do not think a woman is qualified to determine when she should be pregnant and when she should not.
But the global right was not simply a product of conservative U.S. support, as liberal critics too often assume. When U.S. delegates condemned a reference to “reproductive health services and education” at a U.N. special session on children in 2002, the other opponents of the language were Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria. On sex education, one observer wryly noted, the United States had united with the “axis of evil” that it otherwise reviled.
Luckily there is an alternative way of thinking of women as human beings with the expectation of fair treatment and equal opportunities, same as men. Predicated on those assumptions, it follows that it would be best if young people -- male and female -- were educated about their bodies and how they function, so they can make responsible decisions about their own health and behavior.
You might have the feeling that the world is making progress toward freedom and equality for all. And you would be wrong.
To be sure, some Western European countries still provide sustained attention to adolescent sexuality in their schools. But they have also come under fire from growing Asian and African immigrant communities, which are repulsed by schools’ rhetoric of sexual autonomy and choice. Emphasizing “modesty and obligatory innocence,” as one Dutch observer wrote, these newcomers do not see sex outside marriage as a “choice.” It’s a sin, instead, and it’s scandalous for schools to suggest otherwise.It is a constant battle and we must remain vigilant, or we will be dragged back into the Dark Ages. Don't think it can't happen.
“How can a sexuality, reproduction and health perspective based on individual rights become a global norm?” a Swedish educator wondered in 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the Cairo conference. Ten years after that, we’re no closer to a global norm on sex education. We might even be further from it.