Promoting “Values” is Just Another Way of Lying to Teenagers.

Ross Douthat on the wisdom of federalizing sex education:

The debate might be less rancorous if the naturalists and sacralists didn’t have to fight it out in Washington. This is the real problem with federal financing for abstinence-based education: It drags the national government into a debate that should remain intensely local.

We federalize the culture wars all the time, of course — from Roe v. Wade to the Defense of Marriage Act. But it’s a polarizing habit, and well worth kicking.

If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy, the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa.

America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.

But as long as they are, it shouldn’t be Washington’s job to choose between them.

I’m of two minds on this. Given that we really haven’t come to anything approaching a consensus when it comes to sex education, it really isn’t appropriate for the federal government to be the main driver of public policy on the issue. Conceptually, it really does make more sense for the federal government to offer no-strings attached funding for sex education, with the actual content of the curriculum at the states’ discretion.

That said, this isn’t simply a case of “values.” It’s vitally important that teenage boys and girls learn about their bodies. Teens need to know how their bodies work, and they need to have accurate information about sex and contraception. There is a wealth of misinformation about sex — a lot of it spread by abstinence-only programs — and in the absence of any countervailing information, teenagers will turn to misinformation and distortions to inform their choices. The practical effect of de-federalizing sex education is that some kids will be given the truth about their bodies, and other kids will be lied to. And those kids won’t know enough about their bodies or contraception to protect themselves from STI’s and pregnancy.

Douthat says that “we should understand it [sex education] more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy,” but that is an incredibly one-sided view of things. Yes, communities have the right to make statements about their values, but teenagers have the right to accurate information about their bodies. Prioritizing “values” over information is another way of giving license to the ideologues and reactionaries obsessed with controlling teen sexuality. All we’d be doing is erecting thousands of little barriers, each one keeping teenagers from accessing the information necessary to protecting their health and saving their lives.

Update: You should read M. LeBlanc’s take on this, she goes mad hard on Douthat.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.