Typical health sex education curricula include factual data about how bodies function, reproduction, contraception, pregnancy, disease, and more.  Some contain information about abuse, victimization, and sexual decision-making. This curriculum, is in a broad sense, an applied philosophy curriculum; it is philosophy applied to the topic of sex.  Its aim is to use philosophy to help teens to think about not only themselves and their own development, but also about sex in the world around them.  Rather than taking a social skills approach—that is, an approach that teaches kids skills they can bring into the world in sexual encounters—we take the perspective that good thinking and reasoning about such issues produces good behavior.   School districts are encouraged to make their own decisions regarding the kinds of health-related lessons on contraception, sexual decision-making, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases they want to be taught in their schools.  While this course aims to create better sexual citizens, it may not prevent pregnancy or disease.  There are many other courses that specifically address those concerns.  This being said, it is our hope that reasoning about sex in terms of justice, human rights, consent, benevolence, and caring will encourage sound decision-making and subsequently prevent pregnancy, disease, abuse, and victimization.

It’s fairly clear to anyone who has turned on the TV or gone to a PG-13 movie that the world around teens today is full of sexual material.  Today’s teen has most likely viewed internet porn, seen “how to catch a predator”, viewed very sexily dressed dancers on music videos, and heard lyrics describing all sorts of sex acts and equipment to go with them.  Many of the police shows they watch on TV depict bizarre sexual practices.  And on college campuses, “pimp and ho” culture has become a party theme.  Those are some of the reasons why a sexual ethics curriculum is necessary.  Students are exposed on a daily basis to narratives, myths, and information about what sex is and what it means to people.  But the narratives they get are fairly narrow and don’t regularly address confusion, longings, fantasies, and questions about right and wrong in the broader world of sex and sexual relationships that the media presents.

Most curricula tell kids what to do or offer them exercises through which they develop and practice the social skills to “do the right thing.”  This “right thing” might be obtaining consent before sex, asking to use birth control, or, in cases of abstinence curricula, learning how to say “no.”  While most curricula do not tell kids the reasons for doing what they need to do, some, like the religious-based sex ed curricula, do.   Findings in the field of moral development suggest that children and teens need to develop their own reasons for what they do.  They need to develop critical reasoning skills to come up with the reasons for saying “no” or saying “yes.”  Only then does the morality become their own.  But, not all reasons are justifiable, and therefore this curriculum does not advocate an “anything goes” morality.  What it does advocate is the need for students to justify—through reasoning, religious beliefs, and/or universal moral principles—the acts they think are right and wrong.

Why This Is Not a Health Curriculum

Typically, a health version of sex ed needs to occur early in a student’s career, perhaps even during their first year in high school.  Such courses aim to be preventative with regard to dating, early sex, and contraception.  This course is designed for any age teen, with material that is complex and more suited to a junior or senior in high school. We think that all high school students can understand philosophy and use the philosophy of ancients and moderns to help them wade through the waters of sexual reasoning.  We have found that even 9th graders can talk about sex without embarrassment in the classroom and challenge and support peers’ reasoning about sexual behavior.  High school students can and do develop ethical standpoints from which they can judge behavior, sex in the media, and sexual dilemmas of our time.

Our Ethical Standpoint

This course is designed to help students develop their own ethical standpoint about sex and sexual behavior.  They are discouraged from developing a relativistic perspective that “anything goes” or that leaves them saying “I can’t judge anyone else.”  They are taught that making judgments is different than acting “judgmental” towards their peers or others.  Units on sexual abuse of children and prostitution push them to develop ethical viewpoints rather than remain in the comfort of a “who am I to judge?” position.  In this sense, this course is unlike many courses that ask students to develop tolerance.  Tolerance for others’ behavior can only be justified through reasoning that students develop about human rights or virtues of character.

Students who come to the course with ethical viewpoints that are somewhat established are urged to explore the foundation of their stances. Rather than treating a religious perspective as one of many viewpoints available to be chosen from a menu, students whose morals are embedded in religion are still asked to examine the foundation of those morals in terms of the rights and virtues therein.

Integrating Your Own Views

For this course, it is very important for teachers to not share their personal perspective.  In order to engage students in a kind of Socratic questioning that is necessary for them to understand their own moral viewpoints, teachers need to keep their own ethics to themselves.  That is not to say that the teacher must keep quite about universal ethical principles and how they might apply to dilemmas and discussions.  But the teacher’s primary role is to help students to work out their own positions and to justify them well.  As students attempt to justify their positions, the teacher is a source of moral theory that can be used or which challenges the student’s point of view.  What the teacher needs to do also is to model respect for all views and to help the students to live up to their own goals of behavior in the classroom that they lay out in the first week of the class.

There are a few teaching methods that work well. One is simply asking questions for clarification as a student begins to work out her or his reasoning on an issue.   Another is creating a hypothetical or a case that tests the idea. A third is asking the student what virtue or rule might be universalized from his or her perspective.  If a teacher follows these three guidelines, he or she will be teaching from a philosophical perspective.

There are two reasons not to share one’s own opinion. The first is a solid pedagogical one in that it’s distracting to the student’s own thinking and carries more weight and power than any student’s opinion.  Students need to challenge and learn from one another.  It’s also important for a teacher to model inquiry without proclamation; that is, he or she presents as curious, as a learner without the need to assert his or her ethical view.  A second reason has more to do with the delicate nature of teaching sexuality and the worries parents have.  To preserve such a course in one’s school, it’s important for a teacher to be a good advocate for it.  What one needs to advocate for is a space to consider in a reasoned and educated way dilemmas that involve sex and sexual behavior.  If parents or school personnel are worried that the teacher is trying to influence teens regarding ethical matters, they can get quite upset and thus put the whole course in jeopardy. To preserve this space where students can play out certain ideas and develop their own ethical standpoints, it is thus really important for a teacher to be an advocate for that space and not for any one ethical position.

A final very important role for the educator is to monitor class level of stimulation. While you don’t want a class falling asleep reading ancient philosophy, you also don’t want the class making dirty jokes, hopping out of their seats, and speaking in a way that shows just how stimulating the topic is.

Some ways to modulate the level of stimulation in the class is to suddenly ask students to focus on writing a paragraph or two on a topic of discussion. Another is through a group self-reflection exercise, where a teacher stops the group and asks them to consider why all of a sudden the class is louder and more boisterous.  If the answer describes increased interest or increased anxiety, the teacher can ask the students why they suppose there was such increased interest or anxiety over that topic.

Selling the Course

  • Many researchers have shown that sex education programs increase student knowledge about sexuality and make students more tolerant of sexual practices of others but do not change students’ values or sexual behavior (Leming, 1993).
  • Peer group norms continue to challenge values education in sex ed.  What better way to empower students to resist peer group norms than by helping them to justify and provide a rationale for what they believe?
  • In an ethics course, all sexualities and sexual behaviors are not considered equally ethical.  While parents may worry about “anything goes” courses, an ethics course evaluates the underlying ethical principles for sexual behaviors and beliefs.  This means that religious beliefs are as welcomed as non-religious belief systems.
  • In creating and maintaining the rules of discussion in the course, students become better democratic citizens and learn to practice respect and caring, the very values that will make them better sexual citizens in the future when they engage in sexual activity.

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