Section 7: Sex: tell the children
Tell children the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
How can we protect children from harmful sexual activity? The answer is simple - comprehensive sex education - yet for many people sex education is controversial and even immoral. Why is that the case?
Let us start with our basic moral principle: Do No Harm. How do we apply that rule to sex education?
In theory, we shouldn't need to ask the question. Omit the word sex and ask if education benefits or harms children?
Of course education is good for them. Maths, physics, geography, languages and every other subject help to develop young people's minds. Sex education is no different.
6.7a What are we talking about?
First, let's be clear what we mean by "sex education" - and let's not confuse it with "sex instruction".
Comprehensive sex education provides young people (and adults) with complete and accurate facts about reproduction and sexual behaviour.
That includes male and female reproductive systems, puberty, vaginal intercourse, conception, development of foetus and embryo and birth.
It also includes birth control options and disease prevention - including, of course, abstinence - as well as oral and anal intercourse and homosexual behaviour.
Some readers will be nodding their heads approvingly at this point; others will be protesting vigorously. Birth control? Anal intercourse? Homosexual behaviour? We can't teach these to our children!
What about morality? Isn't that the most important aspect of sex education?
Don't worry - we haven't forgotten. If you don't see morality in this part of the text, keep looking, it's there. And if
you still can't find it, we spell it out clearly further down the page...
6.7b The facts, ma'am
Why should we teach children things that some of us consider unnecessary, unpleasant or immoral? Because some of our children will need that information. We may not like the truth, but the truth is important and never inappropriate.
What happens if we don't teach young people topics that we do not like? What happens if a sex education class only covers vaginal intercourse, conception, pregnancy and birth? And if you use every means at your disposal to stop them having sex before they marry?
No matter how hard you try to discourage them, some young people in that class will become sexually active. If you have given them good information about birth control and disease prevention, they are more likely to protect themselves and their partners. But if you haven't given them accurate and comprehensive information, they are less likely to protect themselves and more likely to believe the misinformation they hear from other young people as ignorant as themselves - such as you can't get pregnant or a disease the first time, or if you do it standing up, or if the man doesn't ejaculate and so on.
Without comprehensive sex education, myth takes the place of information - and myth frequently leads to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
The same is true for all sexual activity, such as oral and anal intercourse (which, remember, is practised by some men with women as well as with other men). If you don't give people the basic facts - such as unprotected anal intercourse can lead to disease - you leave them at the mercy of myth. Denying people information makes them vulnerable; giving them information makes them strong.
Is it moral to deny young people the information they need? It may be religious morality, but to the rest of us it is allowing young people to harm themselves and others. Failure to provide young people with comprehensive and accurate sex education is immoral.
6.7c Sex instruction
Many adults confuse sex education with sex instruction. Some believe that to teach young people about sex is to encourage them to become sexually active. If you teach them about sex you are encouraging them to experiment - you are practically instructing them to start having sex.
That idea fits some people's prejudice, but it just isn't true. Comprehensive sex education encourages young people to delay first intercourse, and it reduces the number of teenagers that get pregnant. Repeated studies confirm that fact. Two of the most recent were reported in the United States in
Alternately, some adults believe that you should substitute comprehensive sex education with sex instruction. Instead of teaching young people everything about sex, you give them limited information and tell them not to have sex. Because you give them sex instruction - don't do it - you need little sex education.
The truth is that when young people have accurate information about sex they are more likely to postpone sexual intercourse and less likely to catch sexually transmitted diseases or to cause an unwanted pregnancy.
Again, that idea fits some people's prejudices, but it isn't true. A
showed that students in abstinence-only programmes did not reduce casual sex and discouraged some students from using condoms
- actually placing them at greater risk of harm. (More similar results are reported from the US non-partisan
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.)
Comparing these alternative approaches - tell 'em everything or tell 'em only what you want them to know - tells us what works. It may seem paradoxical, but the reality is: if you want young people to protect themselves from sex, give them comprehensive sex education; if you want them to practise inappropriate sexual behaviour, teach them abstinence.
This does not mean that abstinence is wrong. It isn't. In fact abstinence is appropriate for most young people at most times. But you don't achieve abstinence through sex instruction; you achieve it through sex education.
Where is the morality in all this? Some adults - those who prefer to instruct young people not to have sex - claim that facts about sex are less important than sexual morality. If you teach young people to have no sex before marriage, they won't need the other stuff.
We've already seen that sex instruction with limited information is less effective than comprehensive sex education. But the basic response to the accusation that "morality should lie at the heart of sex education" is that every single word on this webpage reflects a deeply moral point of view. If you've got this far and you still don't understand that point, let us spell it out clearly here...
True morality, sexual and otherwise, does not consist of imposing forms of behaviour which benefit some people and not others. True morality consists of enabling individuals to lead lives which make them and those around them happy.
Religious morality, by forcing people into strict patterns of sexual behaviour, brings happiness to some and misery to others.
The goal of sex education is to give young people (and adults) the information they need to lead sexual lives that bring themselves and their partners pleasure and happiness. Ideally, that information will encourage them to abstain from sexual intercourse until they meet the right partner. In practice, because few of us are lucky enough to meet the right partner early in our lives, most of us have several sexual partners. Comprehensive sex education helps us to protect ourselves and our partners from unwanted pregnancy, disease and other harm.
Nothing could be more moral.
Shouldn't parents be the ones to teach their children about sex? Or shouldn't parents have the right to restrict the information that their children receive about sex?
No, no, no! Firstly, because parents and children can never have a totally honest and open discussion about sex. Few parents can accept the reality of their children's sexuality and even fewer teenagers want to tell their parents about the ideas going through their heads or what they do, or want to do, with their genitalia.
Secondly, parents who veto the facts that their children receive at school or elsewhere are effectively disabling them. We have seen that young people need comprehensive sex education; denying them any information is equivalent to harming them. It is immoral.
6.7e The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
We have to recognise that young people are about to take responsibility for their own lives and decisions, sexual and otherwise. The only moral attitude towards their sex education is to give them the full facts. To give them only some of the information they need, or to insist that they behave according to inappropriate religious rules, is to harm them.
If we respect our children we must tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in sex and every other kind of education.
Are atheists immoral?
Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith,
apparently, keep us moral.
It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values
guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.
What's good for us?
6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired
6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual
6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be
6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control
6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect
An ethical approach
6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral
6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity
6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?
6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake
How do you live when you realize that religion is false?
Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and
The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live
moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.