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Republicans want sex ed out of schools. That's a huge mistake.

Republicans are hoping that putting sex education for teens in the spotlight is a winning move.
Photo illustration: An elephant head emerging from a ripped part of a red paper with a photo of a banana.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

For someone who has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment, Charles Herbster sure has a lot of thoughts about how to teach proper sexual behavior. “We’re going to take sex education out of the schools and put it back in the homes where it belongs,” Herbster, who failed to win the GOP nomination for governor in Nebraska on Tuesday, declared at a rally with former President Donald Trump this month.

Herbster may have lost, but judging by the cheers in that video, his was clearly a message that resonates with supporters. That isn’t entirely surprising. Herbster’s attack on sex education in schools joins a snowball that’s been gaining in size and speed as conservatives draw disparate areas of fearmongering into one giant moral panic.

The attack on sex education in schools joins a snowball that’s been gaining in size and speed as conservatives draw disparate areas of fearmongering into one giant moral panic.

Like so many elements of that panic, the attacks on sex education are framed as an issue of parental choice. Though Herbster’s comments got the most attention, they are pretty much in sync with the views of his opponents. Agribusiness owner Jim Pillen, who won Tuesday’s primary election against Herbster, wrote on Facebook last year that “Nebraska should have no state sex education standards — these are decisions that should be made by parents, not bureaucrats.” Earlier this month, his campaign told Omaha’s KMTV that Pillen “believes sex education should be up to parents, not the government.”

That isn’t to say that this conservative strategy is new in the way that attacks on critical race theory are. The war against sex education has roots in the 1960s when the fringe-right seized on it as yet more proof of the communist threat lurking in America’s schools. In 1990, the American Civil Liberties Union warned about right-wing groups “opposed in principle to comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. They argue that such education usurps parental rights and encourages ‘immoral’ premarital sexual promiscuity in the young.”

Despite their ongoing efforts, as of 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “most teenagers received formal sex education before they were 18 (96 percent of female and 97 percent of male teenagers.)” This leads us to three major issues with the demand that schools leave the teaching of sex education to parents.

First, rather than igniting an orgy of teenage decadence, sex ed courses appear to have had an opposite effect. With an acknowledgment that correlation isn’t the same as causation, since the 1990s, the rate of teen pregnancies has plummeted nationwide. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the National Center for Health Statistics, births per 1,000 American teens ages 15- 19 dropped from 61.8 in 1990 to 17.4 in 2018.

Rather than igniting an orgy of teenage decadence, sex ed courses appear to have had an opposite effect.

Likewise, we’ve seen a drop in unmarried teens who are having sex: In 1988, 60 percent of boys and 51 percent of girls said they’d had sex at least once, according to the CDC’s reporting; in its 2017 report, 38 percent of teen boys and 42 percent of teen girls said they’d had sex at least once.

Second: For the most part, conservative parents have already won this fight. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive rights think tank, “40 states and DC require school districts to involve parents in sex education, HIV education or both, and of those, “25 states and DC require parental notification that sex education or HIV education will be provided.” Thirty-six of those states allow parents to pull their kids from those classes, and another five states require affirmative consent from parents for students to opt in to sex ed classes.

If anything, the battles that conservatives have won likely prevented the number of teenagers having sex or giving birth from falling further. The push to promote abstinence-only materials has continued apace, KFF wrote in a 2018 analysis, despite evidence that “youth who received information about contraceptives in their sex education programs were at 50 percent lower risk of teen pregnancy than those in abstinence-only programs.” Likewise, teen birth rates are much higher in states that have the most abortion restrictions and have abstinence-only sexual education.

Finally, the moral aspect of this crusade is misguided at best. The concern that children are being encouraged to have premarital sex is a lie. So is the accusation that sex-ed teachers are “grooming” children to be abused. As writer Talia Lavin has artfully explained, leaving teenagers purposefully ignorant about sex is the more fertile groundwork for grooming and abuse.

Herbster in his speech was tapping into a shared fear among parents about the general lack of control they face over their children’s lives. Homing in on public schooling offers the mirage of control. But in the end, shielding kids from the concept of sex isn’t the panacea that conservatives want it to be. And arguing that it’s sex education that brings about negative consequences isn’t true. The best parents can hope for is that their kids have the information they need to make the best and the healthiest choices when they do begin exploring sex — an outcome that’s less likely if they start from a place of ignorance, shame and fear.