An interview with Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle A Global History of Sex Education
Why did you write this book?
My mother spent her career in international family planning and sex education. So she imbued me with the standard liberal American view of the subject: the United States was "behind" other Western democracies, which provide much more extensive, honest, and effective sex education than we do. And that's why their teen pregnancy and STD rates are so much lower, or so the story goes.
So was your Mom correct?
Not exactly. First of all, it turns out that the USA was the global pioneer of sex education rather than a laggard. Eventually, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands did develop more detailed sex education than the USA, especially on the subject of contraception. But sex education is limited in those countries by citizen and teacher resistance, just as it is here. And, more interestingly, it has a different set of goals.
In Scandinavia and Continental Europe, the stated goal of sex education is not to limit negative social consequences, but rather to help each individual determine and develop her or his own sexuality. I didn't understand the difference until I found an exchange in the Swedish archives between an educator in Ireland (where sex education was much more like the American version) and the leader of the RFSU, Sweden's national sex education organization. The Irish educator wanted to know how Swedish sex educators kept teen pregnancy and STD rates so low. The RFSU guy replies with a kind note that says he doesn't know whether sex education actually influences those outcomes, because there are so many other factors that affect young people's behavior. And then he says, that's not the point anyway! It's to help them lead healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.
So the Americans emphasize social consequences, and the Europeans emphasize individual rights? That sounds like a very different story than the trans-Atlantic comparative tale we usually tell, in which the Americans stress the rights of individuals and the Europeans attend to the common good.
And I don't imagine you could get elected to an American school board if you were pushing for a sex-education curriculum aiming to assist each teenager in developing sexual identity and pleasure.
Probably not. But there's plenty of resistance to that perspective in Europe now, too, especially among new immigrants Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have witnessed an enormous burst of immigration over the past two decades, mainly from Muslim and Hindu societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And many of these newcomers are angered and offended by a sex education stressing the "right" of each adolescent individual to engage in sex, which violates their communal or religious prescriptions on the subject. They also think that school-based sex education inhibits their own right to raise their children as they see fit.
What about their countries of origin, in the developing world? What does sex education look like there?
Until the 1980s, it barely existed. But the HIV/AIDS crisis changed all of that, especially in Africa. The question became not "Should we have sex education?" but "What kind of sex education should we have?" And in Africa and Asia, not surprisingly, it more closely resembled the abstinence-only or danger-centered approach that we see in many parts of the USA.
So would it be fair to say that an American-style sex education is more "culturally appropriate"—in many parts of the developing world—than, say, the Swedish version?
Yes, and that's one of the central ironies of my book. Many people in the West who support so-called "comprehensive" sex education also fashion themselves "multiculturalists," stressing the importance of diversity and the need for educators to respect it. It's hard to square that perspective with a commitment to adolescent sexual rights, which are simply anathema in many cultures. I realized that, too, when I was in the archives in Sweden, and I came across a comment by a frustrated educator who had been trying—without a lot of success–to promote his approach in the so-called Third-World. As he acknowledged, many people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America did not share his premises on the value of the individual, at least not when it came to sex. "It is hard for people to be autonomous in cultures where autonomy seems to be of such little use," he wrote.
What about conservatives? Wasn't there also an irony in the way they invoked their "cultural" rights and prerogatives?
Definitely! In the USA and the UK, especially, white conservatives since the 1960s have often resisted "multiculturalism" as a divisive threat to the body politic. But on sex education, they invoked their own cultural and religious rights and—increasingly—they united with ethnic and religious minorities who shared their point of view. So in the UK, for example, you see white Tories joining hands with Muslim immigrant organizations against sex education.
And these conservatives make common cause across borders, right, as more and more people move across them?
Exactly. I think many people on the Left like to imagine that "globalization"—the rapid circulation of people and ideas around the world—as a force for liberal-ization. But in the story that I tell, globalization actually inhibits the spread of sex education by allowing critics to share ideas and strategies. Sex education has been a global movement, to be sure. But the same goes for its opposition.
In the USA and elsewhere, some conservatives have resisted or rejected scientific claims regarding evolution and climate change. Isn't the opposition to sex education an example of similar behavior?
No. We simply don't have the same kind of scientific knowledge or consensus about sex education as we do in the realms of evolution or climatology. And part of the reason is that there is so little sex education in the first place! It's incredibly hard to show that something so brief and haphazard affects something as complicated as sexual behavior.
So maybe it's really a story about what schools can do, and what they can't?
I think so. The 20th century witnessed an enormous boom in formal schooling around the world, as well as new norms of sexual expression and behavior. Sex education brought these two trends together, but the marriage never really worked out. Kids get their messages and values about sex from other institutions, especially in the mass media. Schools just don't factor into the equation very often, or very well.