If one were to look at the dispute over sex education through the lens of the mainstream media, one would get the impression that it is a battle between progress and backwardness, modernity and medievalism, science and Catholic ideology. What is it really like?
There are three areas that we can distinguish in this dispute. The first concerns the value of basic sex education, its structural principle. The second – its educational ideal, that is, a set of normative models. The third – the way in which classes are organized at school, that is, among other things, the name of the subject and the rules of participation.
At the first level, the contentious issue is the following question: what should be the core value of sex education? Two alternative answers are given here: family or pleasure. The first emphasizes that lasting marriage and children are such great values that they should be the context and framework for sex, that sexual pleasure must be subordinated to the good of marital love and family. The second emphasizes that in the name of sexual pleasure, all barriers must be removed on the way to achieving it. Sex must be detached from the context of marriage and offspring – and thus liberated from the restraining framework of the family.
At the second level, the question at issue is: What should be the educational ideal of sex education? Where the core value of this education is the family, it is about raising people who value lasting marriage, fatherhood, and motherhood. The right place for sexual activity for them is marriage, because it is the only institution that builds the family. They treat children as a value and therefore accept natural methods of family planning. They control their sexuality so that it serves the permanence and happiness of the family. They identify with their gender – male or female – because it takes a man and a woman to make up the family. Where pleasure is the principle of this education, it is about raising people who are open to “diverse relationships” formed by “partners” and to “non-stereotypical,” “family” relationships. They accept any sexual activity (e.g. masturbation, use of pornography, casual sex, prostitution, homosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic sex, etc.) if its parties consent to it. They treat the possible conception of a child as a source of danger. They avoid this “danger” with contraception or abortion. They do not try to control sexual impulses, because there is no reason to do so. They are ready to define their gender according to what they feel, because this will give them new opportunities to seek pleasure. Thus, the dispute over the educational ideal is, in some simplistic terms, a dispute over whether young people entering adulthood should be able to enter into marriage or contemporary practices of sexual pleasure.
At the third level, the contentious issue is: How should sex education classes be organized in schools? On the one hand, we have a subject currently being implemented from the fourth grade of elementary school, which indicates a core value in its name: “Education for Life in the Family” (ELF). The school is obliged to organize classes in this subject, but the child’s parents (or adult students) decide on participation. For the other side of the argument, the bill on sex education, brought to the Parliament in 2013, raises some questions. According to this bill – rejected at the time – the subject “Knowledge of human sexuality” should be compulsory from the first grade of elementary school. The layout and scope of the content should be based on the “Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe,” called the WHO Standards for short. Thus, in the dispute over the organization of classes, we have the following alternative: either voluntary ELF or compulsory “Knowledge of Human Sexuality” according to WHO Standards.
The essence of the dispute is de facto the first issue: what should be the basic value of sex education: family or pleasure? This is because the answers to questions about the educational ideal and the organization of classes are only a logical consequence of this fundamental decision.
Arguments and counter-arguments
Proponents of family-serving sex education argue in favor of it as follows: it has great preventive significance, which is confirmed by scientific research (it prevents early initiation, underage girls’ pregnancies, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases), it promotes a holistic vision of sexuality placed in the context of the family; the ELF classes are well conducted and young people are satisfied with them, the will of parents is respected in these classes. At the same time, they put forward such counter-arguments against pleasure-based sex education: it is demoralization, depravity, sexualization of children and adolescents, it is in the interest of pedophiles, its effect is many negative social phenomena (including early initiations, abortions, diseases); knowledge of sexuality is fragmentary and devoid of the context of marriage and family, it is ideological and an element of radical reconstruction of culture and social life, it violates the rights of parents to raise children in accordance with their own beliefs.
Supporters of pleasure-based sex education argue as follows: it is scientific, it is reliable and modern, it protects children from pedophiles, knowledge of contraception is already necessary for children, knowledge of sex is more important than parental rights, parents are incompetent in these matters, it is the only alternative to deriving knowledge about sex from pornographic websites, and opposition to this education is borne only by fundamentalists and fascists who are dangerous to society. At the same time, this is how they counter-argue against ELF: it is not sex education at all, because it does not give students knowledge about sex (especially about contraception), ELF classes spread myths and lies about sex, ELF reinforces sexual shame, prudery and inhibitions in students, ELF is medieval, it is a very poor course taught by incompetent people, ELF is the imposition of the Catholic Church’s concept of sexuality.
Two points are worth making here. On the one hand, the arguments of both sides do not address the subject matter of the dispute. Proponents of ELF are not highlighting strongly enough that its greatest asset is precisely its family-oriented nature. In their criticism of the WHO standards, they fail to emphasize that they should be rejected in the first place because they are anti-family. On the other hand, supporters of the WHO standards do not point to pleasure as the main reason for adopting their proposals. Nor is the axis of their criticism of the ELF its pro-family nature. The argumentation of both sides focuses on the lower levels of the dispute: supporters of the ELF at the level of the dispute over the educational ideal, supporters of the WHO Standards at the level of the dispute over the organization of classes.
Moreover, the arguments of both sides are dominated by criticism of the rejected alternative, rather than pointing out the value of their own proposal. It would be better for the quality of the public debate if this dispute was about the fundamental value of sex education and if positive arguments – in favor of the choice of the proposed models – prevailed.
Who is right?
The dispute over the fundamental value of sex education is in the background of the public debate. If this topic were to stand at its center, one side could more strongly expose a broad, interdisciplinary argument to justify the superiority of family value over pleasure, and the other could emphasize the superiority of pleasure, because pleasure equals happiness. Then it would be clear that this dispute poses a fundamental question about man: What gives him happiness – the ability to love selflessly or the accumulation of pleasure?
At the level of the dispute over the educational ideal, many arguments are clashing together. Among them are “pedophilia” arguments. Proponents of introducing WHO standards into schools argue that this type of sex education teaches children to defend themselves against pedophiles, against a “bad touch.” Opponents argue that, on the contrary, it weakens their natural defense reflexes against pedophiles. If we turn to the WHO standards, we find there, among other things, recommendations that children from the age of six should be “helped to develop an understanding of the concept of ‘acceptable intercourse/sex’ (consensual, equal, age-appropriate, and context-appropriate, providing self-respect” (p. 42), and between the ages of 12 and 15 should be taught “negotiation and communication skills for safe and enjoyable sex” (p. 48). Both recommendations, as well as all WHO standards, make no mention of the so-called age of consent, the age from which sexual activity is legally permissible. In Polish law, the age of consent is 15. The condition of “age appropriateness” – present in one of the recommendations – is general and unspecific. Thus, both recommendations allow the interpretation that something good is sexual intercourse between, for example, a 30-year-old with a 12-year-old child, as long as it has been negotiated as “pleasant and safe” and both parties have agreed to it. Under Polish law, such a situation is pedophilia. The dispute over sex education thus confronts us with the question of child safety at school: does teaching six-year-olds the concept of “acceptable intercourse/consensual sex” and twelve-year-olds the negotiation of “pleasant and safe sex” help children defend themselves against pedophiles? Or, on the contrary, does it weaken their natural defensive reflexes and facilitates pedophilia?
At the level of the dispute over the educational ideal, arguments “from scientific research” are also clashing together. In the WHO standards one finds assurances that the normative standards present there are based on science, but no specific research is mentioned there. If anyone is interested in it, there are remarks on where to look for such research. Proponents of the WHO also refer to science in justifying their educational ideal. They expose, among other things, the results of Eurostat surveys on social phenomena having to do with the type of sex education implemented in various countries. So we are faced with the question of the reliability of the argument in this dispute: Who is more reliable – the one who cites the results of scientific studies in support of his concept, or the one who merely asserts that there are such results, but you have to look for them yourself?
At the level of the dispute over the organization of classes at school, among other things, arguments clash over their voluntary or compulsory nature. In the case of ELF, participation in these classes depends on the decision of parents (or adult students). The basic argument here is the right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs, guaranteed, among others, by the Polish Constitution. The state is supposed to help parents raise their children, not replace them. Proponents of the WHO standards want compulsory classes, enforced under state supervision. Children have a right to knowledge, and knowledge about sex is more important than parental rights. Therefore, parents should not have the right to refuse to send their children to these classes. The dispute over sex education thus raises the question of the foundations of social life: Who has priority in raising children – parents or the state?
This article was published in June 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine