What is more important in our lives than learning how to have mutual, caring romantic relationships? Certainly gratifying, mature sexual relationships also rank high. Yet, while schools and many other industries in this country devote tremendous attention and resources to preparing the young for work, they do remarkably little to prepare them for generous, self-respecting sex and love.
The cost of this neglect is profound. Beyond teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, various problems including substance abuse, depression, and many types of school troubles often have roots in sexual and romantic anxiety and failure. Rates of sexual harassment in middle school and high school are startlingly high. One national report indicates that nearly half of students in grades 7-12 reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous year and 87% describe negative effects such as absenteeism and poor sleep, and misogyny is pervasive (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Words like "bitches" and "ho's" are stunningly commonplace in many school hallways across the country, and terms that boys and young men use to describe sex these days--"I hit that," "I nailed that," "I crushed that"--are unnervingly impersonal and violent. Some girls also have picked up these phrases.
Failure to prepare young people for healthy love and sex can reverberate destructively throughout their lives. Divorce (which ends nearly half of all first marriages), constant marital conflict or quieter marital misery, and the inability to even form a relation ship all reflect this failure. Troubled relationships breed alcoholism, domestic abuse, and workaholism. The countless therapies, mediation, and legal settlements charged with managing relationship failures take a staggering financial toll. Conversely, supportive, stable romantic relationships are associated with higher wages, fewer health problems, and gratification in many domains of life.
A high school student told New York Times reporter Laurie Abraham, "As a society, we always tell kids, 'Work hard, just focus on school, don't think about girls or guys--you can worry about that stuff later, that stuff will work itself out,' but the thing is, it doesn't" (2011).
Many Americans argue, of course, that this preparation is not school's responsibility. But then whose responsibility is it? The vast majority of American families simply can't--or won't--take on the task alone. Parents struggle with how to pass on wisdom about sexual and romantic relationships to their kids or don't see this guidance as their role. Many teens, of course, resist talking to their parents about love --let alone sex--in a way that begins to do justice to the nuanced layers of these topics or provides any kind of map for the vexing, subtle work of developing mature romantic or sexual relationships.
The lack of modeling and conversation creates a perilous void. Young people often wind up learning about sex and love from their peers, the Internet, or the media. The harm is not simply daily exposure to misogynistic songs, pornography, and other debased images of sex--serious as that harm is. The media also spawns all kinds of misconceptions and reinforces deeply ingrained cultural myths about romantic love--for example, that love is an intoxication, an obsessive attraction, and that "real love" is clear and unmistakable and happens suddenly. For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about love and sex to popular culture is a dumbfounding, epic abdication of responsibility.
The reality is that schools could do much more to prepare students for both romantic love and sex. Some of these forms of guidance will certainly meet huge resistance in more socially conservative communities. But the real travesty is that political morality wars about sex have obscured the very hopeful fact that young people want and need many uncontroversial, vital forms of relationship and sex education. …