For the last few months, there has been a debate going on in the community where I serve. Not in the congregation that I serve, but in the wider community. And it is a debate about the sex education portion of the eighth grade health class. It started with complaints about the textbook; it grew to include complaints about the teacher, the curriculum, and the very idea of comprehensive sex education. Parents have called the content, “filth.” They have claimed that the class is being used to, “manipulate and groom children.” Some have even gone so far as to proclaim that modern sex education was invented by “pedophile” Alfred Kinsey.
And some parents have called some images—images that they claim were shown to students in the class—pornography.
These parents’ claims cover the gamut. Some are dubious. Some are misinformed. Some are downright false. And I could spend more than one post dissecting the claims that these and other parents make about comprehensive sex education. But I only want to focus on one claim here: the claim that these images are pornographic. And I want to do that for two reasons. First, because the images that the concerned parents are focusing on are not pornographic. Second, because the fact that these parents can’t tell the differences between these images and pornography, is important.
Now, I understand that pornography is subjective. And I understand that some people might not want to see any image that even one other person might consider pornographic. So I’ve put the images in the toggle below. These are images that were attached to a petition about the class. And a handful of them were also presented as a school board meeting.
You can look if you want to. But if you don’t, it won’t affect how you understand the rest of this post.
Click to see the images
I can believe that one or two of the images in that collection might veer towards the edge of titillating. They might even be especially interesting to eighth graders. There are, after all, penises and vaginas. But here’s the thing: how an image is perceived depends on the context that it’s put in. And these pictures—shown in the sidebar of a textbook or as part of a lecture during a health class—strike me as… clinical.
To put it bluntly, even eighth graders can find more arousing pornography. To put it more bluntly, they can probably conjure more arousing fantasies.
And, again, I understand that pornography is subjective. Potter Stewart knew it when he saw it, and all that. But the fact that there are adults—that there are parents—who can’t tell the difference between these images and pornography is deeply troubling.
One of the key skills that we develop as we grow into our sexuality is the ability to tell the difference between the human body and the sexual human body. That skill is the reason that we don’t giggle when our doctor mentions testicles. It’s the reason that we don’t get embarrassed when someone accidentally catches us in our underwear. And it’s the reason that we can see someone in revealing clothing and not think that they’re asking for anything.
It’s the reason that we don’t sexualize everyone all the time. It’s the reason that we can see bodies—or parts of bodies that are normally thought of as varying degrees of private—and then move on with our day.
And these pictures are images of bodies allegedly being presented in an educational context. Students are learning about parts of bodies, and how they work, and how they change. And students are being taught how to look at a body—how to look at parts of bodies that are normally thought of as varying degrees of private—and then move on with their days.
And it might be a little unfair of me to say this, but I am worried about adults—about parents—who do not or cannot or will not understand that. Because these are the adults who convince young people that the private parts of their bodies are pornographic. They’re the adults who convince young people that certain parts of their bodies are dangerous. They’re the adults who wonder aloud if someone who happened to be wearing a certain outfit, or walking in a certain neighborhood, or hanging out with a certain person, was asking for it.
They’re the adults who do not, or cannot, or will not, see that our bodies are beautiful, and God-given, and ours. They’re the adults who do not, or cannot, or will not, understand that every body—and everybody—should be respected.
Not all of them, of course, but enough of them. And that does not lead anywhere good.