Shakopee’s sex-ed program is a throwback to the 1880s

Should 11- and 12-year-olds be placed in a mixed-sex classroom where they are shown videos featuring images of naked males and females in various stages of development, a bra and a tampon, an infra-red demonstration of an erection, and a live birth?

That's what happened recently at Shakopee Middle School, some parents told the Shakopee Valley News. The parents said that their kids were embarrassed and confused. One boy pulled his shirt over his head so he didn't have to watch. A girl came home in tears.

Shakopee school authorities apparently view such explicit curricula as standard practice for sixth-grade sex education. But parents maintain that the information was too much, too soon; that boys and girls should have been taught separately; and that the school's clinical approach stripped sex of its larger context of meaning and beauty.

When arguments over sex ed arise, school authorities often dismiss objecting parents as woefully behind the times. Today's sex-ed promoters seem to view their work as cutting edge, bringing new openness to a previously taboo subject.

But could it be sex educators who are stuck in old, discredited ways of thinking?

The sex reform movement actually began in the 1880s, according to Rochelle Gurstein in her book "The Repeal of Reticence." Proponents of "sex hygiene," as it was called, started with the premise that the myriad problems related to sex -- venereal disease, prostitution, out of wedlock births, unhappy marriages -- were the result of a stuffy Victorian prudery.

To counter this, reformers embraced a radical new doctrine of "openness." They saw sex as a pure, natural act that religion and superstition had perverted, according to Gurstein. Sex would become wholesome again, they insisted, if people began to think of it in rational, scientific terms.

Reformers advocated using clinical terms to speak of sex. It was a bodily function, they said, which must be treated no differently than digestion -- "the slow churning of the stomach."

"When our thoughts and imaginations are used to the clean-cut precision of science," wrote one hopeful trailblazer, "obscenity will cease to exist among us."

Reformers also insisted on extricating sex from old-fashioned moral concepts such as love, modesty and fidelity. Viewed merely as a means to health and happiness, they maintained, sex would bring joy and delight, not stigma and shame, says Gurstein.

If extra-marital sexual relationships could be freed from restrictive social conventions, one reformer promised, they "will become candid, wholesome, and delightful."

It wasn't long before this grand vision of liberation lost its glow. By the 1920s, says Gurstein, some of the progressives who had spearheaded the new openness realized with dismay that they had opened Pandora's box.

They discovered, she writes, that love had become "disenchanted."

In 1919, the social critic H.L. Mencken, not exactly a sentimentalist himself, denounced with disgust the "deadly matter-of-factness" of the new way of thinking about sex.

Joseph Wood Krutch of the Nation magazine also lambasted his former colleagues among sex reformers. Scientific descriptions of the body -- such as two lovers "quietly sweating palm to palm" -- tend to dissolve erotic love into "a sort of obscene joke," he wrote in 1929. The poor modern lover knows so much about "the world of metabolism and hormones," added Krutch, that he has lost the ability to fall in love without feeling foolish.

Reformers' promises about the delights of emancipated love had also proven false. Walter Lippmann wrote sadly about the middle-aged men and women he knew who had been taken in by those promises. "Instead of the gladness which they were promised," he wrote, "they seem ... to have found the wasteland."

But "if you start with the belief that love is the pleasure of a moment," Lippmann added, "is it really surprising that it yields only a momentary pleasure?"

No blissful fulfillment

In 2008, the sex-reform movement has moved from Greenwich Village to our elementary schools. Sex without commitment has brought not blissful fulfillment but an epidemic of venereal disease and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

The clinical view of sex has also brought spiritual, emotional and psychological impoverishment. Instead of joyful, carefree, sexually emancipated young people, we have world-weary Cosmo girls -- "50 Ways to Get Him to Commit" -- and confused, unhappy 13-year-old Brittany Spears look-alikes.

Sex-ed programs have helped to trivialize sex, emptying it of mystery and romance. "Openness," we've learned, has all the erotic power of a nudist camp. It's about as sexy as the co-ed bathrooms on many college campuses.

Today, many young people view sex as "no big deal." Romeo and Juliet's transcendent passion? They can't imagine it.

In the words of philosopher Allan Bloom, our young people today have "flat souls," "souls without longing." We have taught them everything except the true language of love.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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