January 23, 2001

Cornell Scholars Question Sex Ed

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Two Cornell scholars are using a First Amendment clause to back their scrutiny of a controversial sex education curriculum in secondary schools.

According to Prof. Gary Simson, law, and Erika Sussman law ’95, teaching abstinence-only sex education can be viewed as endorsing the beliefs of the Christian Coalition and the “religious right.”

In an article they co-author, “Keeping the Sex in Sex Education: The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses and the Sex Education Debate,” Simson and Sussman argue that curricula teaching only abstinence until marriage violate the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment.

This clause states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The article criticizes a curriculum known as “Sex Respect,” which teaches that abstinence until marriage is the only morally correct sexual behavior.

It also teaches that contraceptives “do nothing to protect you from the emotional and psychological consequences of premarital sex.” Also considered to be immoral in “Sex Respect” are other types of contraceptives, abortion, homosexuality and masturbation.

Simson and Sussman site a particularly controversial statement in “Sex Respect:” “If premarital sex came in a bottle, it would probably have to carry a Surgeon General’s warning, something like the one on a package of cigarettes: THERE’S NO WAY TO HAVE PREMARITAL SEX WITHOUT HURTING SOMEONE.”

According to Simson, “Sex Respect” is not even the most conservative curriculum. “There is even one curriculum that tells kids that if they have sex, they would have to spray their genitals with lysol. This is truly incredible. These teachings can cause kids to permanently damage themselves,” Simson said.

Simson also stresses that he is not suggesting that schools not teach abstinence. But he feels that teenagers are receiving skewed or false information.

“Abstinence-only-till-marriage is not at fault just because it teaches abstinence. It is at fault because it is a really slanted curriculum and teaches that this one belief is the only proper one,” Simson said.

According to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, abstinence-only sex education classes have increased in number by eleven times since 1988. This is partly because of arch-conservative forces and a federal grant that gives $50 million for such programs each year, the article states.

Simson noted that the same person who wrote “Sex Respect,” also wrote “Love and Life: A Christian Sexual Morality Guide for Teens.”

Many parents are pushing for a more multi-faceted approach to sex education. Simson cites a Nov. 4 article in The New York Times, which states that an overwhelming majority of parents want schools to provide more, not less, sex education. These parents called for instruction about birth control and AIDS.

Having a curriculum that favors certain religious beliefs and political viewpoints has caused many democrats to be alarmed. “Some methods of teaching abstinence-only are so absurd that it has to be from some kind of agenda. There is no evidence that this method of scare tactics work,” said Michael Moschella ’02, president of the Cornell Democrats.

“Teaching all aspects has shown to work. People pushing this agenda say that this is the way everyone should live and act. They are basing public policy on controversial viewpoints,” Moschella said.

Conservatives argue that it is difficult to remove religion and morals from sex education. “Religion and morals have always played a part in people’s actions. I believe contemporary America thinks Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s view of life is exceptional, not typical. Most parents do not want their sons growing up to be Bill Clinton. They also do not want their daughters to be hurt,” said Prof. Jeremy Rabkin ’74, government.

Simson and Sussman also confront a popular school district policy which allows parents the option to decide whether their children will take sex education.

“Withholding children from sex education is not fair to the children. They have a right to know about this,” Simson said.

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals decided Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, which found that a school district was not at fault for requiring students to attend a sexually-explicit presentation.

Simson believes that legal challenges to these conservative teachings will soon rise; he has already been contacted by several groups requesting advice on this topic.

“I think the challenges could hold up in court. It all depends on Justices Kennedy and O’Connor. O’Connor has been very strong on establishment clause cases,” Simson said.

Simson stresses that it is best for government to remain separate from religion. “The less government is involved in religion, the better it is for religion,” Simson said.

Archived article by Seth Harris