As I mentioned in the previous post, I spent a lot of time on the road this past weekend. Twenty-six hours in a car on one’s own affords plenty of time for listening to things, and when I wasn’t preparing for the concert by going through U2’s entire catalogue, I listened to a number of podcasts. One of these podcasts, in particular, stood out to me. It was an episode of q—a Canadian culture/current affairs radio program—and the topic under discussion was whether or not love should be part of the sex education curriculum in public schools.
The general consensus offered by the two guests—a philosopher and a sex educator—was that the best approach to sex education for the young was to leave love out of things entirely. Why confuse the children? Instead, we should present all the different “options” out there and simply focus on three criteria: consent, safety, and pleasure. This, evidently, is the extent of what our teenagers need to know about the purpose, meaning, and context of sex. Do you have permission from your partner, will you avoid disease/pregnancy, and will you have fun?
There are many things that might be said about this approach to sex “education.” But the one that occurred to me almost immediately was how this seems to represent an almost total abnegation of responsibility on the part of those tasked with educating our young.
There was a time, in distant, dusty bygone eras, when older people would have had the brazen temerity to inform the young—to educate them, to offer wisdom—about human life and how it should be lived. They weren’t always right, of course, but there was this assumption that older people had seen more, experienced more, and knew more. And that they had a duty to pass this on to the young. Those days are, evidently, long gone. Now we older, “wiser” people couldn’t possibly say if there is a connection between love and sex. Or if there ought to be. That would probably be oppressive. And if there’s anything we don’t want to be, it’s that!
In The World Beyond Your Head, philosopher Matthew Crawford devotes a chapter to the concept of being “led out.” In it, he discusses the importance of belonging to a community of wisdom and learning and maturity and growth, about how learning a craft (i.e., building an organ or repairing a motorcycle) requires patiently learning from those who have gone before, immersing oneself in their methods, paying attention to habits and practices which existed long before we arrived on the scene, and will endure when we are long gone.
As I read this chapter, and as I thought about this conversation about “sex education,” I wondered if we have, as a culture, pretty much given up on the idea that the “craft” of living requires paying careful attention to those who have gone before us. In most cultures throughout history, the wisdom of elders was a starting point or something to be respected, honoured, listened to, even obeyed, to use an archaic term. Virtually every sane culture throughout human history—indigenous cultures, most obviously— has had some idea that there was wisdom to be passed down from the old to the young about the best way to live.
And yet we in the post-everything West seem to be perpetually bowing down to the new, the novel, the young, the tantalizing and entertaining, the untried and the exciting. Now, our elders are institutionalized and ignored. We don’t look to them for anything resembling wisdom. They represent a primitive past to be unshackled from—a past full of archaic and arbitrary moral prohibitions that we are glad to be rid of. We wouldn’t dream of looking to them for advice about sex! We’ll take our sexual cues from Miley Cyrus and Adam Levine or the delights served up by the pornified Internet, thank you very much.
Given our cultural context, the sex “education” discussed above of course makes perfect sense. But it shouldn’t. We should instead ponder just how shockingly irresponsible this is. As if there is nothing we could possibly say as a culture, as if there is no wisdom we could give about things we’ve learned over long generations about the deep and profound connection between love and sex, as if there was nothing we could do for our children beyond turning them loose in the playground of preference and desire and impulse and saying, “well, just pick for yourself.”
(This is, come to think of it, roughly our approach when it comes to religion, too… But that’s another post for another time.)
Yes, this is where we live. And so, the public sex “education” our young will be presented with will continue to look something like, “You know, there’s just this bewildering array of options out there when it comes to sex, and they’re all equally valid and wonderful and ways in which you can demonstrate allegiance to the highest value of all human life (personal preference and individuality, of course), so, you know, just choose for yourselves.”
Is casual sex with multiple partners in your early teens a good approach to sexuality? Well, some people seem to think so. So, sure. Maybe. If you think so.
Is sex mostly about exploration, self-discovery, and personal pleasure, with no inherent connection to things like procreation or the producing and sustaining of families? Well, some people seem to think so. So, sure. Maybe. If you think so.
Is sex mostly about the chasing after instinct like a herd of unreflective animals? Well, some people seem to think so. So, sure. Maybe. If you think so.
Should love and commitment factor into how and with whom we choose to bare ourselves (body and soul) in a deep expression of vulnerability and trust? Well, some people seem to think so (or to have thought so). So, sure. Maybe. If you think so.
But only if you think so.