Since the 1960's, a sex education war has waged in school districts and state legislatures around the country. Schools seeking to be responsible in helping students learn how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections established medically accurate sex education programs. But almost immediately, they experienced a backlash from religious organizations who wanted no sex education in public schools. The fear usually voiced was that information about sex would tantalize students and encourage them into early sexual experimentation. The solution they voiced was for sex education to be done in the home and church, where values could be the central theme.
Half a century later, there is a great deal of research that shows what kind of sex education programs actually influence behavior and the winners are programs that teach both abstinence and contraception (see http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/press/press-release.aspx?releaseID=11). But some of the religious voices in the debate are not convinced.
The Vatican's most recent document on the subject (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0027.html) says that Catholic parents should remove their children from any sex education programs that do not support the doctrines of the church, and chastity appears to be the most significant doctrine. "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality" directs parents to teach their children that "Chastity is the spiritual power which frees love from selfishness and aggression."
"True Love Waits", which is popular in conservative Christian churches is famous for its "chastity rings" and "chastity proms", identifies itself as a "chastity-empowerment program (http://www.lifeneteducation.org/truelovewaits2.html) It teaches girls that they are to be modest and boys that they are to be masculine. It teaches all students that sex before marriage is dangerous, that condoms do not work, and that abortion will damage you forever.
Research shows that religious teens are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse before age 18, but that those teens are also less likely to use any protection in their first sexual encounter. (http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/SS/SS20_ReligionandExperience.pdf) Although critics of "abstinence plus contraception" programs denounce them for sending mixed messages, the "True Love Waits" chastity program does include information on what to do if you get pregnant (have a baby).
The Quiverfull Movement also deserves mention. Not specifically a sex education program, it is a Christian movement of homeschoolers whose aim is to "trust the Lord for family size". (http://www.quiverfull.com/) It teaches chastity before marriage and the woman's role as a breeder of many children. It teaches that the birth control pill is unsafe and causes abortion, and that vasectomy will cause a "blowout". (http://www.quiverfull.com/birth_control/dangersofvasectomy.html)
These unscientific ideas would be laughable if it were not for the many young lives that they mis-educate. But these conservative groups do not speak for all. There are many religious groups who take seriously their duty to offer accurate and effective sex education programs and who gladly partner with their communities to be sure students receive sound instruction.
Jewish groups have consistently shown strong support for sex education in public schools http://www.ncjw.org/content_3304.cfm), have offered sex education in Jewish schools (http://jta.org/news/article/1999/09/23/4389/Jewishethicsshould), and have developed their own research and curriculum (http://jat-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/jat_research_final4.pdf).
Jewish teachings do not focus on abstinence, but on healthy bodies and relationships.
A number of organizations offer outstanding religious resources in sex education. The Religious Institute for Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing offers study guides for adult congregants to consider the importance of sex education. (http://www.religiousinstitute.org/issue/sexuality-education) The National Black Church Initiative of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice offers a variety of short curricula for youth and adults who belong to communities of color. (http://rcrc.org/programs/blackchurch.cfm) The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy has research studies to help religious groups plan their sex education programming. (http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/religion/default.aspx) And Faith Aloud (www.faithaloud.org) works directly with congregations to create personalized youth retreats about sex, sexuality, and gender.
Possibly the most comprehensive faith-based sex education curriculum, "Our Whole Lives" is a creation of the Unitarian-Universalists and the United Church of Christ. (http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/ourwhole/index.shtml) Based on the guidelines of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (http://www.siecus.org/), "OWL" offers age-appropriate lessons from kindergarten through adulthood that focus on healthy, respectful relationships. Going beyond the standard information on sex, pregnancy, and contraception, "OWL" includes progressive teachings on more controversial subjects such as same sex relationships, orgasm, and abortion.
Across the country, wherever school districts have dismantled their sex education programs because of controversy or because of following the "abstinence-only" craze, new options are needed. Progressive faith communities can lead the way and become important community partners in teaching positive values about sex, sexuality, and gender roles.
First published in http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/cafe2/article/103