A Conservative in Liberal’s Clothing
When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex Since the Sixties
By Kristin Luker
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 360 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Janice Irvine
Americans have been duking it out over sex education for the past four decades. Sociologist Kristin Luker estimates that there were upwards of five-hundred controversies in the early 1990s, and my source at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States told me she had tracked more than eight hundred during that period. In Luker’s new book When Sex Goes to School, she argues that competing worldviews about sex, gender, and marriage fuel these national debates over what to teach our children about sexuality. She concludes that "there is a chasm, wide and getting wider, between the sexual right and left—between people who hold liberal sexual values and those who hold conservative ones."
Luker, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is one of sociology’s most prominent scholars of gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Her 1975 book, Taking Chances, challenged conventional wisdom that unwanted pregnancy is the result of either ignorance or unresolved psychological conflicts. It argued that women exercise their own subjectivity and power through the strategic decisions they make about using—or not using—birth control. Since then, she has written about abortion and adolescent pregnancy. A careful researcher, she bases her new sex-education book on archival data, field observations in four different communities, and more than one hundred interviews conducted over the last two decades with mostly white, heterosexual parent-activists. The result is an analysis that won't ruffle any feathers, will surely win her plaudits for being “balanced,” and unfortunately won't advance our thinking about sexual politics.
Writing in a folksy, trade-book style, Luker predicts (somewhat belatedly, it would seem, even by her own estimates) that there is "a conflict brewing" over sex education "in small towns and large cities all over the country." Luker describes herself as surprised, even "flummoxed," by what she discovers while talking to parents such as "Mrs. Boland" (a pseudonym) in their own living rooms:
My own thinking over the years had been based on the assumption that sexuality was mostly benign, a source of pleasure rather than of danger and harm. It's not that I hadn't heard horror stories about sexual abuse and exploitation, but somehow I had always assumed that these examples were the exceptions, the disturbed acts of disturbed people, rather than at the heart of what sex was. What I was hearing from Mrs. Boland, backed up with terrible details, was the belief that sexuality, especially in men, was by its very nature destructive and needed to be contained….Increasingly, sex is becoming, if not the kind of dreadful danger that Mrs. Boland encountered, something that many women feel they do not own or control.
It turns out that not everyone has the same values about sex that Luker does! She suddenly realizes that "sex can mean very different things to different people, and that those differences can be shaped by social circumstance."
Luker organizes these differences into "two camps”: sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. Once upon a time, we were all sexual conservatives, her story goes. Then came the sexual revolution. For some, it was enormously liberating; but it ruined the lives of others, who now seek to “reestablish the rules about sex that were overthrown in the 1960s.” Luker uses “sexual revolution” as a catch-all term for the social and political changes of the sixties—including those in gender relations and women’s cultural and legal status that feminists, who appear infrequently in this book, might have thought their activism had brought about.
The terms “sexual liberal” and “sexual conservative” come from her interviewees, Luker notes. The conservatives view sex as sacred; the liberals view it as natural. Seeing sexuality as dangerous and individuals as weak vessels, conservatives want to enforce boundaries and hierarchies to control unruly desires and bring about a well-ordered society. In contrast, liberals believe in the fundamental goodness of the individual and abhor the discrimination inherent in hierarchies. Sexual conservatives want to confine sex within marriage, while sexual liberals view sex within marriage as simply one among many viable lifestyle choices.
Not surprisingly, Luker’s conservatives and liberals vehemently disagree about the hot-button issues in sexuality education: contraception, homosexuality and masturbation. Sexual conservatives want information to be tightly controlled by parents. Liberals want their children to receive comprehensive education so that they can make informed sexual decisions. Disregarding the protests of liberals—and, I would emphasize, the empirical evidence—sexual conservatives believe that education about sexuality encourages kids to have sex. Because of their radically different views of sexuality, marriage, and gender, Luker suggests that the two separate moral camps "will never agree because each side gives priority to something different."
Sound familiar? It should. “Two Americas” is a favorite theme of some mainstream sociologists, prominent neoconservatives, and the popular media. In his 1991 book, Culture Wars, sociologist James Davison Hunter argued that public culture was increasingly polarized into two distinct moral and ideological tendencies he called "orthodox" and "progressive." A year later, at the Republican National Convention, conservative religious activist Pat Buchanan told a cheering crowd that the culture wars were a battle for the soul of America. The idea that the ongoing trauma of the sexual revolution produced two moral camps echoes neoconservatives like Gertrude Himmelfarb, in One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), and William Bennet, in The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals (1998).
While liberals certainly invoke the idea of culture war, the "moral divide" formulation is enormously appealing to the right wing, as pundit Thomas Frank recently pointed out in his influential political critique, What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank debunks the "fantasy" of "the two Americas" as a product of a “backlash imagination" that overstates differences. Conservatives deftly deploy it to their advantage using caricatures such as "the latté liberal." As Frank puts it,
The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment's notice.
This narrative reached its apotheosis during the media frenzy over so-called values-voters after the last election: conservatives had values; liberals did not.
The "moral divide" idea is problematic in part because it constructs a false binary. In scores of studies responding to Hunter's book, sociologists challenged his culture-war thesis. According to Rhys Williams, it is "overly simplistic and masks as much variance as it illuminates." After the 2004 election, Frank and other social scientists argued that Americans are more ideologically similar than the easy red-state/blue-state gloss suggests.
The sexual conservatives and liberals “had more in common than they had differences," Luker herself admits. Indeed, although her interviewees used the terminology, they were unable to provide Luker with "details that would permit one to sort people unerringly into one camp or the other." The categories are "deeply meaningful" to those who use them, Luker insists, but "blurred." There are "lots of troubling inconsistencies." She admits that, although "probably in the minority, there are sexual liberals praying in the pews of the most conservative Christian churches, and there are sexual conservatives attending ACLU meetings." Regardless, she sticks to her narrative.
Although she seems to wish to be evenhanded, Luker’s sexual-divide thesis gives her book a distinctly conservative cast. For one thing, the “two moral camps” notion implies that the competing sides are equal in size and power. This is not the case regarding sex education. Ever since the 1960s, polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly support comprehensive sex education in the public schools. Local conflicts are often incited by small groups of conservative parents. Religious conservatives have wielded disproportionate power, especially during the administration of George W. Bush.
Yet liberals are disadvantaged in Luker’s sacred vs. natural, faith vs. fact dichotomies. Although she insists that liberals have moral values too, she describes their philosophy with the old cliché, "if it feels good, do it." She seems to have adopted this language from her conservative interviewees, since I would bet that none of the liberal parents actually used this phrase to describe themselves. When it comes to the highly charged topic of childhood sexuality, the "relaxed and playful," “natural” liberals sound reckless and self-centered compared to serious, sacred conservatives.
Luker admires the conservatives' penchant for order and hierarchies (including gender hierarchies), saying,
To be perfectly honest, thinking about that kind of a social structure inspires in me the same envy and admiration I have when I imagine Martha Stewart's well-ordered linen closets.
Initially I thought she was making comments like this in a bid to reassure readers that, despite being a Berkeley sociologist, she was not a biased liberal. Surely, I thought, the Kristin Luker who has written so insightfully about gender throughout her career, and in 1999 exposed the distortions of what she called the right-wing “shadow academy,” would not reduce sexism to such a benign analogy. But eventually I came to take seriously her suggestion that perhaps she had “gone native” in this book—that is, gone over to the conservative natives.
The narrative of two competing cohorts falsely implies that sex-education battles have remained static. Developments in sex education over the last several decades seem to matter little to her; only the irreconcilable cleavage supposedly wrought by the 1960s sexual revolution is significant. This problem is exacerbated because she fails to provide dates when she quotes from her interviews, which she conducted over a twenty-year period. We have no idea whether a statement is from 1986 or 2002. Yet the past twenty years have brought dramatic changes in political culture, governance, policy, and law as they relate to sex education. Access to sex education in the public schools has shrunk dramatically. For example, only two percent of public school teachers in 1988 taught that abstinence is the sole means to control pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, compared with 23 percent in 1999. By September 2003, a poll indicated a sharp increase to thirty percent of instructors who taught abstinence only and did not provide information about condoms and other contraceptives. Federal funding for abstinence-only programs has increased exponentially with the rise of religious conservatives to political power. Indeed, over the last 25 years, abstinence-only sex education programs have received more than a billion dollars of federal funding, although there is no evidence of their effectiveness.
This book’s biggest disservice to readers is Luker’s comparison of abstinence-only to comprehensive sex education programs. Although she accurately depicts many of the difficulties of evaluating educational programs, she conveys the mistaken impression that we know very little about “what works.” Both approaches, she implies, have something positive to offer, so perhaps it's a wash in the end. She declares herself "openminded" about abstinence-only programs, because she claims that, unlike comprehensive programs, they put "real muscle" into helping young people, “young women in particular,” resist peer-pressure to be sexually active.
Yet a researcher as attentive as Luker must surely know that she is omitting crucial information on abstinence-only curricula. For one thing, there is simply no empirical evidence that these programs actually work. Moreover, a 2004 report issued by California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, which evaluated abstinence-only programs funded by the federal government, found that over eighty percent of such curricula contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health. Some, for example, claimed that HIV could be transmitted through tears and sweat. An early version of one curriculum advised young people to use Lysol on their genitals after intercourse. Another curriculum described a fetus as a “thinking person.” In addition, education scholars charge that abstinence-only curricula promote race and gender bias. They are rife with stereotypic illustrations of men who are instinctually sexually aggressive and women who are passive and interested in mothering. Most of the gatekeeping messages are targeted toward girls, who are depicted as more vulnerable than boys to negative consequences such as loss of reputation. It hardly seems that young women are well-served by such programs.
Luker concludes with a few policy suggestions. She advises schools to poll parents on their views. This has been done for decades, however, and most parents overwhelmingly support comprehensive programs. In one of the earliest examples Luker mentions—the infamous Anaheim, California, conflict in 1968—over ninety percent of parents expressed support for a program that was dismantled the following year, after a small group of parents triggered a vicious conflict.
More worrisome is her suggestion that schools facing conflict should turn to parents "more assiduously than they consult people who want to use the school to make a larger political or moral point." For example, she says, school boards should ask everyone who wishes to speak at a meeting how many children they have and where they attend school. Is this a strategy to subvert the conservative church groups who are bused into meetings about schools in conflict? If so, why not say? Otherwise, this proposal establishes dangerous zones of privilege and marginality by implying that people without children have less at stake than parents in what the public schools teach about sexuality. As a childless, lesbian taxpayer, I care deeply about whether or not my public schools have gay-straight alliances and are teaching young people to respect the wide diversity of sexual lives and identities.
Finally, Luker endorses the two-track system, a strategy adopted by some public schools in which parents choose whether their children will receive comprehensive or abstinence-only education. However, this "solution" plays into the hands of conservative Christians, who want nothing more than to disregard educational standards and tailor public-school curricula to their own religious beliefs. Would Luker condone two-track science programs, with one track for evolution and the other for creationism? The two-track system suggests that abstinence-only and comprehensive programs are equivalent, and makes it acceptable to deny some young people accurate information about their bodies, reproduction, and safer sex. Instead of viewing access to sexual knowledge as a basic right and a social obligation, Luker establishes it as a parental prerogative. This is the problem with treating sex as an individual value, rather than as a fundamental element of citizenship.
Janice M. Irvine is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. She is also the Director of the Five College Women's Studies Research Center, and the author of Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States.