As you may have noticed, we don't ignore hot button topics, even when they involve sex, sexuality and the sex lives of politicians. There are many places where sex and religion coverage intersect. One of those places is in the arena of sex and values education -- a topic which traditionally was the province of families and religious communities.
But be warned -- in the interests of media coverage, this post may get a little too explicit for the tastes of some readers. Good. Now that I've got your full attention...
Did you know that Great Britain has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western Europe? It seems as though England faces a real crisis in that area. The National Health Service has apparently been looking at new strategies for sex education in general, and they've come up with a new one: sex can be good, and good for you.
Here's the lede from the story on the Timesonline.co.uk website:
A National Health Service leaflet is advising school pupils that they have a "right" to an enjoyable sex life and that regular intercourse can be good for their cardiovascular health.
The advice appears in guidance circulated to parents, teachers and youth workers, and is intended to update sex education by telling pupils about the benefits of sexual pleasure. For too long, say its authors, experts have concentrated on the need for "safe sex" and loving relationships while ignoring the main reason that many people have sex, that is, for enjoyment.
A story by Daniel Martin on the Mail Online site does address, near the beginning, the notion that not everyone is going to think this way of educating teens (news flash: sex can be fun!) is a way to help them become responsible about sex.
Like Martin, the writer of the Associated Press story also clues in readers that the approach by the Sheffield branch of the NHS is coming under fire:
Britain's National Health Service has a message for teens: Sex can be fun. Health officials are trying to change the tone of sex education by urging teachers to emphasize that sexual relations can be healthy and pleasurable instead of simply explaining the mechanics of sex and warning about diseases.
The new pamphlet, called "Pleasure," has sparked some opposition from those who believe it encourages promiscuity among teens in a country that already has high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Apparently, it is the position of the pamphlet's author, NHS employee Steve Slack that knowing that sex can be fun will encourage young people to delay it until, as the Mail article says "they are sure they will enjoy the experience." Critics quoted include Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, Berkshire, and Dr. Trevor Stammers of a group called Family & Youth Concern.
In the Martin story, Stammers is quoted comparing underage sex to child abuse. The AP story, by Gregory Katz, does have an interesting, longer quote by Seldon questioning whether this way of viewing teen sex might foster more casual sex rather than the other way around and that it's "medically and emotionally wrong."
Why don't the writers of these stories both to dig deeper here?
One huge hole in the articles is that while the pamphlet is meant for teachers, not students, there is no interview with a teacher as to how she or he might put it to use one-on-one or in the classroom. And what about reaction from parents?
There is little to no discussion in any of the articles of the whole idea of sex as a part of a larger commitment, no discussion of abstinence as a value, and no quotes from religious leaders of any stripe. How would a teacher working in a largely Muslim area, for example, approach this subject?
C'mon. How can you teach sex education without talking about values? Western democratic countries, even those grappling with pluralism, have their own fundamental morality -- or moralities. And whether religion explicitly informs those values or not, it still is a player.
I suspect that the writers thought about the values question, even it wasn't clear what answer they came up with. The relentless media focus on the controversial bits in the pamphlet doesn't give readers any sense of the focus of the curriculum as a whole. The lack of articulate voices representing religious traditions, of moral voices in general, leaves readers wondering who is representing the ethical and spiritual interests of the most important and unquoted part of this story-- the teenagers themselves.
The end of this 1948 clip from an animated advert for the National Health Service seemed, well, a bit ironic to me