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I was living in Ghana in February 2008 when U.S. President George W. Bush stopped by for a brief state visit. The local press was largely critical, especially regarding the U.S. war in Iraq. But there was one issue on which Ghanaians and the U.S. president clearly saw eye to eye: sex education.
At the time, Bush was trying to persuade Congress to boost funding for his campaign to fight global HIV/AIDS. There was just one hitch: one-third of the money would have to be earmarked for abstinence-only programs.
As a card-carrying Democrat, I had long dismissed this provision as a sop to Bush’s conservative Republican base back home. But living in Ghana, I started to see it in a different light. Whether it worked or not, an abstinence-oriented approach was much more consistent with mainstream Ghanaian values than was so-called comprehensive sex education, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and decision-making.
Since the 1960s, Americans have split into two camps on sex education: one side wants to teach kids how to make choices about sex, and the other wants to teach them to avoid it. That’s not an issue in most parts of the developing world, where the idea of youth as sexual decision-makers is simply anathema. Sex education thus embodies a central contradiction of trying to spread Western liberalism, which simultaneously celebrates personal and cultural autonomy. That won’t work if the culture on the receiving end rejects the individual freedom to choose.
Sex education began in the West about 100 years ago, when venereal disease epidemics swept through Berlin, Paris, and New York. Europeans responded with new laws to regulate prostitution, the central conduit of infection. Americans, meanwhile, turned to education. “The whole situation will never be improved until there is a change of attitude of the people, about sex,” one American told a teachers’ conference in 1922. “We cannot do much with the adults. The hope lies in the development of the next generation.”
By 1920, 40 percent of high schools in the United States taught some form of sex education. European countries soon followed suit, spurred in part by the famous Viennese psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Although children were naturally curious about sex, Freud wrote, parents too often dissembled or lied to them about it. Schools needed to step into the breach, teaching “the main facts of reproduction” that “man shares . . . with the higher animals,” he wrote.
In practice, however, schools taught animal and plant reproduction and avoided discussing the human kind. Despite Freud’s insistence on inborn eroticism, most people still saw children as sexual innocents. By describing the pollination of flowers or the fertilization of fish eggs, sex educators hoped, one could teach kids about sex—and, especially, about its dangers—without sparking an undue interest in it. “They start off with attempts to show that the phenomena of sex in the lower organisms—usually dahlias, herring or frogs—are beautiful and instructive, and they close with horrible warnings that the phenomena of sex in man are ugly and not to be maintained,” the essayist and satirist H. L. Mencken wrote, reviewing several sex education books in 1925. “First they describe romantically the mating of the calla lilies and the June bugs, then they plunge furiously into their revolting treatises [on] kissing games, necking, and the dance.”
After World War II, educators started to address human sexuality more directly. In the United States, sex education was rechristened “family life education,” which depicted sexual relations as a clean and healthy aspect of married life. (Sex acts occurring outside of marriage were, of course, dirty and taboo) In Europe, meanwhile, some countries started to teach about sex as a vehicle of individual expression and even pleasure. In 1956, Sweden became the first country to require sex education in all of its schools. “Exhaustive and correct sex education at an early age is imperative in order to eliminate ignorance and prejudice, neuroses and sexual disharmonies,” Swedish authorities declared. By stripping away myths and fears, in other words, sex education would help individuals develop and determine their own sexual destinies.
During the heady years of the Cold War, American state and voluntary agencies began projecting their vision of wholesome sex education onto the entire globe. As one American educator proclaimed, “Family Strength is World Strength”; by promoting stable families overseas, sex education would help steel countries against the menace of international communism. European aid groups promoted sex education as a route to individual liberation and improved public health. By the 1980s, this perspective had become the dominant one. Sex education was not simply a public good; it was a personal right, as the World Health Organization resolved in 1983:
"At present, it is not possible to define the totality of human sexuality in a form that would be acceptable to all countries, but every person has a right to receive sexual information and to consider accepting sexual relationships for pleasure as well as for procreation. Sexuality starts at birth, if not earlier in the fetus. Masturbation and sexual play in children are normal and healthy activities, but children in most countries suffer from sexual repression. . . . By 1995, in every country at least 80 percent of the people . . . will have an opportunity of leading an emotionally satisfying sexual life."
The 1980s also marked the birth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which struck with particular cruelty in the poorest parts of the world. By 2004, 80 percent of people living with AIDS were between 15 and 24 years old, and three-quarters of them lived in Africa, where nearly every country adopted some kind of sex education in response to the disease. With few exceptions, however, African sex education reflected an older tradition of continence and control rather than the choice-centered agenda of Western aid groups. It drew heavily from religious texts and themes and rejected the secular spirit of sex education in the West. In Ghana, sex education aimed “to vindicate the existence of the Omnipotent and Omnipresent,” as one textbook declared. “The religious restrictions are strict but they protect a person from a lot of problems,” the book added, citing biblical passages that indicted fornication, masturbation, and “homosexuality and lesbianism.”
Likewise, educators in Asia invoked Muslim and Hindu religious texts in their pleas for abstinence-based instruction in schools. And they brought these themes with them when they migrated to the West, sparking new and unexpected controversies over sex education. Muslim newcomers in Australia blasted lessons about dating, which violated the Islamic prohibition on unchaperoned male-female contact; in the Netherlands and Norway, they condemned schools for distributing contraceptives; and in Sweden, the proud pioneer of liberal sex education, an Islamic organization complained that the national curriculum taught “free sex” to children. “In Islam, extramarital sex is considered to be a dreadful sin,” explained an immigrant spokesman in the United Kingdom, where some Muslim parents kept their children home from school to protest sex education. “Adultery is condemned by stoning to death . . . and fornication among unmarried people is penalized by whipping.”
Most of all, these objectors denounced schools for teaching that sex involves individual choice, which insulted religious communities that did not leave such choices to the individual. Here immigrant groups often united with conservative Protestants, who had never warmed to so-called comprehensive sex education in the first place. On most issues—including immigration itself—these groups were at loggerheads. But on sex education, they made common cause. In the United Kingdom, one Tory leader and sex education opponent noted the “natural ties of friendship, common outlook, and values” between Muslim and Christian conservatives. Other observers offered a cheekier description of them: strange bedfellows.
I went back to Ghana in 2009, when a new American leader came to visit. Huge crowds lined the streets to greet Barack Obama, the first American president of African descent. Some Ghanaians likened him to the Prodigal Son, who wandered the earth for many years before returning to his rightful home.
Obama praised Ghana’s peaceful democracy and pledged more U.S. aid. But he also promised to remove the abstinence-only provision from U.S. HIV/AIDS assistance, which raised eyebrows in the Ghanaian press. So too did his support for reproductive rights: in a popular and otherwise positive song about Obama, one local rapper warned against “legalizing abortion in America.”
A few months later, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization released a new set of guidelines on sex education, Ghanaians joined a global conservative chorus against them. Declaring that “sexuality extends from birth to death,” the 2009 guidelines insisted that children should receive “correct information” on all aspects of the subject—including abortion and contraception. “This is like telling our kids not to smoke and yet providing them with cigarette filters,” said one critic in Singapore, where his comments appeared in a national newspaper. In the United States, meanwhile, right-wing opponents blasted the guidelines as culturally insensitive toward minorities. “It’s a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that’s damaging to cultures, religions, and to children,” said Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute, a Virginia-based antiabortion group.
For the past three decades, sex educators have tried to square liberal rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism with a universal commitment to personal choice. That’s become increasingly difficult, as people and ideas move rapidly around the world. “How can a sexuality, reproduction, and health perspective based on individual rights become a global norm?” a Swedish sex educator asked in 2004. Sadly, the Swede admitted, large parts of the globe continued to reject the idea of children and adolescents as autonomous sexual actors. In an age of diversity, a single shared standard of sex education might always remain out of reach.