A Real Sex Education Should Be Based in the Humanities

Terrence Moore

May 1, 2004

Sex education as now taught in the schools has been an abysmal failure except insofar as it has encouraged young people to have sex. A real sex education that aims at students’ virtue and happiness cannot be taught as some isolated part of human experience. Rather, just as war, politics, religion, and other human endeavors can only be thoroughly understood and evaluated in light of the wisdom our forefathers have bequeathed to us, so must a humane understanding of sex, one that does not regard sex as a simple act of pleasure, be grounded in the study of history, philosophy, and literature. To state it another way, fifteen-year-olds lack experience but are surrounded by temptations. The decisions they make in their youth will largely determine their future happiness. Somehow they must form a perspective on their own conduct that encourages them to reach for the highest standards of human happiness. MTV’s special Spring Break coverage and the incessant demands young males make of their girlfriends do not offer that high standard.

Any teacher of young people, or any young person who wants to explore these matters on his own, should therefore strive to put sexuality in its proper context. Sex in and of itself is neither bad nor good. The aim of the sexual encounter determines its goodness or its badness. Rape is certainly sex and is certainly evil because there is no love involved, and the sex is taken by force. Sex with a prostitute is certainly sex and is certainly abhorrent because there is no love involved, and the woman sells her body to satisfy a man’s raw lust. A one-night stand hardly constitutes “great sex” if the two parties involved do not even want to talk to each other in the morning. A married couple witnessing the miracle of childbirth, on the other hand, experiences perhaps the highest joy known to humankind. The extent to which the individuals love each other, then, establishes whether a given sexual encounter is bad or good. But what is love, and who is capable of love? Young people are not thought to be capable of driving until they are sixteen. They cannot vote until age eighteen and cannot buy alcohol legally until twenty-one. When do they become capable of loving another human being and living up to the responsibilities that come with love? Of this, our sexual educators have little to say. Fortunately, history and the classics have a great deal to say.

Judging from the perspective of the past, we are living in a weird world. In the past, young people’s opportunity to have sex was strictly limited. Throughout most of human history, relations between the sexes have been governed by a system known as courtship. Courtship as traditionally understood is a “collection of activities aimed at (1) finding and (2) winning (3) the right one (4) for marriage” (Kass & Kass, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar). The historian Beth Bailey has traced in her wonderful book From Front Porch to Back Seat the history of the decline of courtship in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, if a man wanted to court a young woman, he had to call on her at her home. At home the young woman was on her own turf, so to speak. She sat on her own sofa or at her own piano in her own parlor at her own home within hearing of her own family. The couple was never totally alone. Mother might enter the parlor to offer some lemonade or iced tea, or hot chocolate or coffee, depending on the season. Father might be reading or cleaning his shotguns in the adjacent room. Therefore the encounter had to remain seemly. Conversation, singing and piano-playing, games of chance, all were encouraged. As a result, young people really got to know each other. Necking and groping and making out were strictly verboten. Parents hardly had to lay down such rules. A girl never had to say “No” because she was never asked. Any man who tried to take liberties would have been shown the door. Word would have spread, and he would thenceforth not have been “received” in any respectable home. In the system of courtship the conversations that young people had with each other were not a prelude to satisfying some momentary passion but the foundation of a life together.

When I discuss this history of courtship with young people, they immediately recognize the wisdom of this system and the silliness and dangers of our own erotic free-for-all. Similar discussions can be had from reading the fifth book of Rousseau’s Emile or any Jane Austen novel. In short, the humanities offer compelling and lasting lessons and examples of the good, the beautiful, and the true. When will our schools figure this out and admit the poverty of their own “sex education”?

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.