Last week the Boy Scouts of America abandoned its policy of excluding adults who are openly gay from leadership positions. Church-run troops, accounting for about 30 percent of participants, are permitted to limit volunteer leader positions to men who share their beliefs, even if that means that only heterosexual men need apply. This compromise appears acceptable to Catholic and Methodist leaders, but not to the Mormons. Mormon leaders will consider whether to withdraw from the Boy Scouts altogether in response to the policy change.
Robert Gates, the volunteer president of the Boy Scouts, was secretary of defense when openly gay soldiers were welcomed into military units. He has unique experience with the negative consequences of excluding gays, with culture wars over whether or not to include gays and with impediments to fully incorporating them into a male-dominated culture. The Mormon church’s opposition will lead to calls for him to slow the pace of this change. Instead, the Boy Scouts are perfectly positioned to do more.
The Boy Scouts’ brand is as a values-based youth development organization. It offers merit badges in more than 100 skills leading to adulthood. The Boy Scouts have sought to increase their appeal by adding merit badges in robotics, game design, sustainability and animation. Why not a merit badge in sexual ethics? Does anyone deny that sexual ethics is a needed competency for adults? Could such a merit badge spearhead a change in social norms about sex analogous to the changes in social norms about smoking, seat belts and women’s sports?
A merit badge in sexual ethics would teach a boy competencies in managing his sex drives, including the role of alcohol and drugs in sexual abuse, the emotional and physical dynamics of sex, and effective communications about consent. It could provide a forum for educating about a broad range of cultural values about sex. Overcoming confusion and paralysis when witnessing sexual abuse by others would be another objective. Strategies for being a good friend when seeing others risking physically or emotionally unhealthy sex can be taught. To become an Eagle Scout, fewer than 25 merit badges are required. Sexual ethics would simply be one of more than 100 options.
Whether a person is gay, straight, old, young, male, female or trans, ethical sexual conduct is hard to achieve. Sex drives are tough to tame for most people — and few abusers are evil. Neighbors, family members and friends are the source of the great majority of sexual abuse. No particular gender or sexual orientation has earned either the benefit of the doubt or a presumption of wrongdoing in this regard. Sexual assault among college students has our attention. But Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Jerry Sandusky, Gen. David Petraeus and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford are now public icons demonstrating that people at all stages in life are vulnerable to poor judgment in sexual matters. Reducing sexual abuse and sexual tragedy require broad-based strategies.
A Boy Scouts merit badge in sexual ethics would treat sex as a normal topic for boys who aspire to be responsible citizens. It could push change in the national conversation about reducing sexual abuse. Some argue that effective solutions to sexual assault lie in enhanced criminal-justice involvement or more predictable and tough institutional procedures and sanctions. While these help readjust social norms, the Boy Scouts have — ready-made — a key audience, a great brand and a values-inculcation system that has worked for more than 100 years. Opening their ranks to gay leaders is an overdue and welcome step. They can extend their leadership by helping change the social norms that allow sexual abuse to flourish.
Carolyn Chalmers, of Minneapolis, is a previous director of the Office for Conflict Resolution at the University of Minnesota and has been a consultant on sexual harassment and assault prevention to Carleton College.