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Assessing Right-Wing Opposition to
Sex Education

RAYMOND J. NOONAN


Copyright © 1979, 1999 Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D.

Paper presented at the IV World Congress of Sexology in the Plenary Session, “Sexology, Religion, and Politics,” on December 19, 1979, 9 a.m., at the Centro Medico Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico.


This is an important enough topic that I wanted to address this meeting about how to deal with the opposition we run into in sex education programs, as well as other programs involving human sexuality.

First of all, I’d like to talk about the kinds of opposition generally we run into. They can be divided into several categories—the most notable of which are either religious or political opposition. (I’ll only be speaking of the United States, because in the United States there is no official government opposition, no official censorship. It exists, however, but it is unofficial. It grows out of extremist, right-wing, or conservative, elements in American society.) The main categories, however, that I will deal with here, are those of irrational opposition and rational opposition.


The irrational opposition can best be summed up with the statement: “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” What we need to do is get out the facts, because the facts are the only way to deal with any opposition. Of course, with your irrational people, you will not get anywhere with the facts, because you are both arguing on different levels; you cannot reason with facts with people who are arguing emotionally, because they will not be heard, and the opposite is true also. The main point here is that you have to stand up and be heard, that you will not settle for their usurpations of your right and obligation to educate with the facts. The beneficial side effect of asserting yourself that way is that you will be able to influence those people who have not made up their minds, the rational people who will respond to the facts if they are presented.

Most polls in the United States show that the majority of the people support sex education. To a great extent, these are the rational people who are aware of the problems caused by the lack of adequate sex education, even though a lot of them are confused because they don’t have a background in sexuality and don’t know who to believe when the very vocal opposition try to distort the facts. Our main program, therefore, has to be to educate, for these people we can convince with the facts.

Both irrational opposition and rational opposition have as their main component—fear. For nobody (this is a new field) knows a lot about sexuality. I spoke with Dr. Lester Kirkendall who gave me several examples of the different ways different school districts he’d been involved with over the years handled the problem. The first one I will outline is the experience of the school district in Anaheim, California, which was attempting to set up a sex education program in their schools. They had a polling organization query the parents in the district and found that 90% of the parents supported sex education. However, when it was implemented, the John Birch Society, which is a radical right-wing organization in the United States, began attacking the program—and the parents backed down; they did not support the sex education program. So what had appeared to be strong support in the community had faltered because the parents did not have a background in sexuality; they didn’t have the information about who or what to believe. The opposition thrives on ignorance. Again, we need to educate.


How do the opponents accomplish their goals? What do they say? One of their main points is that if we start teaching children and teenagers about sex, they’ll start doing it; we’ll be putting ideas into their heads that they wouldn’t ordinarily have, and they’ll start taking advantage of each other. Thus, we as sex educators will violate the innocence of children. Of course, the research has shown that ignorance, not knowledge, stimulates inappropriate behavior and irresponsible actions.

Why do they do it? The main reason that I’ve ascertained is that they do it to promote their conservative ideals. Issues that these people rally around are those that would decrease the influence of government in matters of everyday life. Thus, they oppose the regulation of business and private enterprise in general; they also oppose programs benefiting the general public welfare, such as the Social Security program. They are also interested in cutting school budgets and gaining control of the schools, for they fear that today’s educators are enticing their children away from the virtuous life of the stereotypical nuclear family and the trappings of material success. In international politics, they disagree with the concept of the United Nations—they want the United States out of the United Nations. In short, they want their own people running the school boards and the elected offices of the different cities and states, and soon all evil would disappear.

Let’s contrast the Anaheim experience with that of Hayward, California, which is a suburb of San Francisco. What the Hayward School District did when they were beginning to implement their program was to bring the parents in and they told them exactly what they were going to do: They were going to integrate the sex education program into the social studies curriculum. They thus emphasized that sexuality was an integral part of life as a whole. They then formed the parents into groups and said, “If we’re going to have trouble,” and they anticipated that they would, “we want you to stand up and back us and fight back.” Soon they needed to do just that. The local newspaper had just been bought by the Hearst newspaper chain and the editor took an anti-sex education stand. The parents went to the editor and said, “We support sex education,” and the editor finally backed down and stopped the anti-sex education crusade. When asked later why he had started it to begin with, [according to Dr. Kirkendall], he said, “Sex and sex education is a hot issue; it’s a good way to recruit people for our conservative ideals.”

How do they accomplish this? One of the main ways, which is illustrated by a recent article in Newsweek magazine, is through book and textbook censorship. Again there is no official censorship, but the large publishing companies, to a great extent, bow to the demands of large book-purchasing states like Texas and Florida who are very conservative. They are forced to tailor their books to the lowest common denominator.

One issue we should just touch on that we need to deal with is the issue of pornography. We do know that pornography distorts sexuality and gives false expectations to unsophisticated people. But when weighing the effects of pornography and other explicit sexual or contraceptive information, we need to contrast it with the devastating effects that official ideologies have had on unsophisticated people and the damage the opponents of sex education have caused. There is no censorship of their distortions of facts.

Other ways that they oppose sex education is to write letters to editors, and to call organizations to cancel talks by people prominent in the field. They also “misquote accurately” as Kirkendall once said: They’ve taken tape recorders into his speeches, and then have misquoted accurately, though out of context, from the tapes.

They also train people how to oppose sex education. The basic tenets are: Speak loudly and positively—sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you are refuted on one point, go to another point. But we find that fighting back is our best strategy and does foster our goals of education.

SIECUS, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, several years ago decided to ignore the opposition. The people who were most criticized at that time were Lester Kirkendall, Mary Calderone, and Isadore Rubin, and in retrospect, Dr. Kirkendall has noted, they should have fought back. In retrospect also, they now know you cannot ignore it, because it will not go away.


How do we accomplish our goals? How do we fight back and educate people? The first thing, as I’ve been constantly emphasizing, is that we have to educate. Secondly, we have to expose their motives, we have to refute their arguments, we have to let people know why they are opposing sex education.

The third thing, which was illustrated by the Hayward School District example, is to communicate with parents. As I’ve stated, if you involve the parents in the implementation of the sex education programs in the schools, you’ll get the support of the parents and the community.

I’m with an organization called the Alternative Marriage and Relationship Council of the United States (AMRCUS). We are a professional-interest organization involved in research and education in the area of alternative structures in marriage and the family. We emphasize that people have a choice in deciding what kinds of relationships they’ll be involved in. We are small and not well known at the moment, so we haven’t faced a lot of this opposition. I suspect that in the future we will, which is the reason I got involved with this issue to begin with. Sex education is also in my background with organizations like Planned Parenthood, so a basic awareness of the opposition has also been there for a while. Since we are dealing with the family, a stereotyped version of which is sacred to sex education opponents, we will be attacked for recognizing family forms not in line with society’s ideal.


I’d like to quote, in closing, from an editorial from a newspaper called Impact ’79, which is the journal of the Institute for Family Research and Education, 760 Ostrom Avenue, Syracuse, New York 13210 U.S.A. It was written by Dr. Sol Gordon, who [at the time was] the director of the Institute. It details actions we need to take to accomplish our work:

“. . . Write letters to newspapers—why have extremist ideologies developed a near monopoly on the editorial pages? Attend school board, state legislature, and city council meetings. . . . If you see an occasional good television program, write to the station’s director and say that you approve. Support students and teachers who want sex education. We particularly encourage the Parent Teacher Association, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers to reaffirm their strong position favoring sex education, and to declare publicly that they will support any teacher, tenured or otherwise, who in the course of teaching a legitimate course, is harassed or dismissed. Report all incidents of violations of free speech and press to the American Civil Liberties Union . . .” (I suppose there are other similar organizations in other countries). But we need to act now.

Perhaps the most important issue we who support sex education and other basic issues of choice have to see is that we have a legitimate right and obligation to accomplish our goals. We have to take some of those issues that are used against us and turn them around. A good example is the issue of “pro-life vs. pro-choice.” I think those of us who support pro-choice have to say, “Pro-choice is pro-life.” We can’t allow life, or God, or country—issues common to all of us—to be usurped by conservative elements. We have to emphasize and believe that one religious system or one political system does not definitively outline what’s moral or right for everyone. We have to fight the opposition with the moral justification that what we are doing and promoting is moral, just, and right. It is moral to teach birth control to teenagers who are risking pregnancy through unprotected sex. It is patriotic to protect the future of our nation by limiting our number of children or not having any at all. It is humanitarian and moral to encourage healthy exploration of our bodies and to allow the development of our potentials in relationships based on love, and respect, and the dignity of mankind. Most of us in this field have a sense of why we’re in this field. Somehow we know our work will ease a lot of suffering, that we will make the world a better place. This is our birthright. Pro-choice is pro-life; we need to emphasize this! Education does not foster inappropriate, irresponsible behavior.

 

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