Safe Sex?

I came across a quote about safe sex, today, from Wendell Berry, and was reminded of this article I wrote for the National Post about 14 years ago. I might change the tone and style slightly today, but the basic argument is one that I think is worth repeating. 

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Sex-education and school children can be a volatile mix when parents believe the curriculum offers more detail than their children need to know. This perennial debate arose lately in New Brunswick, where parents have vowed to fight for changes to a new sex-education program they consider too explicit. In Marysville and Woodstock, concerned parents have gathered in recent weeks to ask whether their middle-school children need to know the details of erection, vaginal secretion, ejaculation and masturbation.

The new program, based in part on a University of New Brunswick study of parental attitudes toward sex education, introduces abstinence alongside such issues as sexually transmitted disease, masturbation, birth-control methods, teen pregnancy and the nature of a healthy relationship. That isn’t good enough, however, for those parents who want their children’s understanding of their sexuality to be governed by the conviction that abstinence is the best choice, the right choice—dare we say, the only choice—for their sexual health.

Beyond the explicit nature of the New Brunswick’s Human Growth and Development curriculum, there is also a concern that it gives abstinence short-shrift. While abstinence certainly isn’t ignored, a number of parents in New Brunswick want to see advocacy for it given a place of prominence in the curriculum.

We probably aren’t surprised to hear that this debate has arisen in one of the more conservative regions of the country, a place where traditional morality remains strong. Indeed, the New Brunswick Minister of Education, Madeline Dube, confirmed this conservatism when she clarified that the middle-school curriculum of New Brunswick presents abstinence as the “best option.”

However, we are justified in asking whether provincial health curriculums such as that introduced in New Brunswick,can offer an honest advocacy of abstinence when they are implemented in the classroom. The basic trajectory of such programs is toward the prevention of sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy and toward the making of “healthy sexual choices”—which may or may not include abstinence. The doctrine of safe sex prevails and casts a long shadow over any endorsement of abstinence, even when it comes from the Minister of Education. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the doctrine of safe sex is antithetical to the moral framework assumed by abstinence.

Contemporary orthodoxy about the need to protect oneself from sexually transmitted disease and from an unwanted pregnancy involves an assumption that it is “safe” to engage sexually with any number of partners. Indeed, the emphasis on “safe” sex is only logical if monogamy is excluded at the outset. In place of the traditional conviction that one life-long sexual partner (i.e. a husband or wife) is the ideal, modern educators and social scientists declare that the new pattern of multiple sexual partners and of sexual exploration from a relatively young age is appropriate. They have observed a change in social mores and have pronounced these changes good, and safe. But is sex ever safe?

To engage in a relationship with another, even without sexual contact, is to open oneself to risk, to make oneself vulnerable. There is a chance that you will love but will not be loved in return. There is a chance that you will sacrifice for the other but will only be taken for granted. Love might be wonderfully reciprocated, but the lover might be taken from you. Relationships are risky—they are not safe.

When you add sex into the mix, things only get more complicated. And abstinence-based sex education acknowledges this reality and suggests that decisions about such intimacy are best reserved for the maturity of young adulthood.

Perhaps the central failing of those who advocate for the doctrine of safe sex, however, is the way in which they treat the body as an instrument, disengaged from the core of one’s being. The body is like a tool that may be used here and there, for personal fulfillment, without too great an impact on oneself. Increasingly, then, the paradigmatic figure for contemporary sexual life is none other than Don Juan. Today it is not only a few licentious men who are offered the boon of such a life—we all are.

But the body cannot be so easily disconnected from the soul. Our sexual activities cannot be so easily disengaged from the heart of our being. Sex is not safe. And that is why parents in New Brunswick are right to oppose unnecessary changes to their schools’ sex education program.

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