The XX Factor

California School District Won’t Use Sex Ed Textbook Because It Shows Sex Can Be Fun


Fremont Unified School District, which is located in California’s Bay Area, has caved under pressure from conservative parents, at least temporarily, on the question of whether or not kids should learn about sex in sex ed. At issue is a textbook called Your Health Today, which was being taught to 9th graders in the area. The main objections center around the book’s forthrightness about the fact that people have sex for fun.

Asfia Ahmed, a mother who is one of the parents leading the charge, likened the book to pornography in her letter of complaint to the school board. The San Francisco Chronicle, however, has screenshots of the pages causing the most fuss, and let’s just say that the only way you’d mistake it for pornography is if you never logged onto the internet or walked through a gas station magazine section. The fact that people have sex for pleasure is indeed covered in the textbook, but the information is not packaged in a stimulating manner so much as in the dry, descriptive prose that you’d find in any textbook.

“I flipped through it and saw sections that mentioned bondage with ropes and handcuffs,” parent Teri Topham told the San Jose Mercury News. Yep, and it’s written in the most boring prose imaginable, describing bondage and discipline as a game in which “restriction of movement (e.g. using handcuffs or ropes) or sensory deprivation (using blindfolds or masks) is employed for sexual enjoyment.” Students are cautioned only to do what “they are comfortable doing,” suggesting that the practice is mentioned because students are going to be curious and need basic advice on how to experiment safely. 

Ahmed also objected to letting teenagers in on the secret knowledge that you might have sex with more than one person in a lifetime. “There’s a section that tells you how to talk to your prospective partners about your sexual history,” she complained to the Mercury News. “How does that relate to a 14-year-old kid?” Presumably it relates because the school believes, with good reason, that 14-year-olds continue to age into adults who will have multiple sexual partners. Indeed, if the subject was anything but sex, the argument that educators should only teach students what’s relevant in their life today and not prepare students for the future would cause people to think you’re completely bananas. 

It’s frustrating that this is still controversial, but: Sex education should discuss pleasure, and not just in passing. For instance, it’s nearly impossible to teach kids a healthy approach to sexual consent without centering pleasure in the discussion. Telling kids, “You should only have sex if everyone involved is having fun,” is a straightforward and easy lesson. It’s a far better strategy than what happens when you ignore the pleasure component and discourse about consent devolves into pointless and tedious debates over how far a man can push a woman who isn’t into it before it becomes legally actionable.

Talking about pleasure empowers young women in particular. Girls need to know that their relationships should, above all other things, make them feel good and be happy. If your right to pleasure is a central concern, it’s easier to say no to stuff you don’t want to do, instead of letting someone guilt-trip or bully you into it. 

It’s narcissistic of parents to put their own discomfort with their children’s emerging sexualities in front of their children’s need for useful and empowering information. Hopefully, the Fremont school board will let this parental tantrum die down and reinstate Your Health Today in classrooms. Fifty Shades of Grey is doing plenty to teach young people that bondage exists, but it’s up to responsible educators to tell them not to do that unless they like it.