Can Sex Education Be Universal?

Liberalism and Choice Around the World

Health workers show the proper use of a condom during a family planning session in Manila, August 2012. Erik De Castro / Courtesy Reuters

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.”

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