It is no coincidence that states with the greatest respect for parental rights have the least interventionist approaches to sex education. Florida, for instance, has no requirement for sex education but does require its health education in grades six through twelve to emphasize “awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy.” In 2021, before the Parental Rights in Education Act, DeSantis signed a law requiring schools to notify parents of their right to have their child opt out of any sex education offered and to inform them of the curriculum and materials on the district’s website homepage.
To say that schools have a role to play in sex education isn’t controversial. But since the 1980s, there have been two competing visions about when and how schools ought to go about it. One view is that schools should play only a supporting role, sticking to the biological and physiological facts. First, what puberty is, later, how babies are made. And that anything beyond that ought to be about sexual risk avoidance, warnings about unintended pregnancy and disease, and the promotion of abstinence in youth as the only certain way of avoiding these outcomes.
Another view is that sex education ought to be more comprehensive. In addition to basic biology and abstinence, topics include contraception, abortion, consent, sexual orientation, pleasure, masturbation, and, most recently, transgender identity. The progressive Guttmacher Institute calls this “a rights-based approach” that “recognizes that information alone is not enough,” asserting that “young people need to be given the opportunity to acquire essential life skills and develop positive attitudes and values.” But whose values are these?