I want to make you think differently about sex education.
Whether you are for sex education, against it, or somewhere in-between, is not what I want to make you think differently about.
Instead, by the time you are finished reading this paper, and forever after that, whenever you are thinking about sex education, I also want you thinking about racism.
The Gold Standard
Sex education comes in many forms, comprehensive, abstinence-plus, abstinence-only, and no sex education at all. But only comprehensive sex education is based on science. Comprehensive sex education’s purpose is facilitating the development of sexually healthy people. It covers a variety of topics at age-appropriate levels, including anatomy and physiology, communication and goal-setting skills, language and consent, relationships, sexually transmitted infections, safe-sex, pregnancy, violence and abuse, and accessing valid information about sex and sexuality.
When compared to the other forms of sex education, comprehensive sex education is the gold standard because of its empirically demonstrated benefits: It increases students’ self-efficacy while decreasing their potential for discrimination, stereotypes, prejudices, unplanned pregnancies, abortions, maternal deaths, high school & college dropouts, and sexual assaults. For example, John Santelli and his colleagues at Columbia University found comprehensive sex education serves as a protective factor from being sexually assaulted.
Ironically, most Americans do not receive comprehensive sex education. And this is especially true for Black Americans. According to researchers at Washington University, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and the Guttmacher Institute, Black Americans have significantly fewer opportunities for taking comprehensive sex education courses than White Americans have. Because comprehensive sex education wards off discrimination, stereotypes, and prejudices, societies lacking comprehensive sex education tend to have higher levels of racism.
Stereotypes → Prejudices → Discrimination = Racism
Racism stems in part from discrimination. Discrimination is an action against an individual because of their group affiliation. As humans, we are not born to discriminate. Repeat: We are not born to discriminate. Discrimination is learned from stereotypes and prejudices.
We naturally hold and use stereotypes because stereotypes save metabolic energy. It takes less energy to think about a group of people than about each of the individuals composing the group. Stereotypes are the beliefs we have about people because of their group affiliations. But stereotypes are mostly false.
Prejudices come from stereotypes. They are the feelings we have about people because of their group affiliations. Prejudices are often negative.
Racism completely stems from the cyclical combination of discrimination and stereotypes and prejudices. Racism costs Black Americans, when compared to White Americans, more physical illnesses, less employment, more incarcerations, less happiness, more sexual assaults, less healthcare, more violence, less education, more single-parent households, less marriages, greater poverty, and shorter lifespans.
What Racism is and What Racism is Not
Although it is often presented as being about real biological or psychological differences, racism is not about a race’s genetics or traits or intelligence or motivation. In fact, there is little scientific evidence for there being any more than one race within the human species. The so-called human “races” are more than 99% genetically alike. And you are more likely to find biological and psychological differences within the human “races” than between them.
Racism is about overpowering and controlling and subjugating a group of people.
Because racism is based on often-false stereotypes and negative prejudices, racism is maladaptive for us as a species. Obviously, racism is costly for the people being discriminated against, and surprisingly, racism is costly for the people doing the discriminating too. For example, Khanh Dinh of the University of Massachusetts found people holding racist views are physically unhealthier than people holding non-racist views.
The Moral Authority of Education: Reinforcing or Eliminating Racism?
Racism is fueled within vicious cycles by stereotypes. Governments, religions, economics, laws, and education — the moral authorities of the American culture built these stereotypes (see Figure 1). Only when these stereotypes are destroyed can racism be eliminated. Education can build or destroy stereotypes: When rooted in traditions and beliefs, education builds stereotypes; when rooted in data and science, education destroys stereotypes.
Comparing Comprehensive Sex Education’s and Racism’s Outcomes
Comprehensive sex education is rooted in science and has been empirically shown to destroy stereotypes. Furthermore, the outcomes of racism appear to be canceled by the outcomes of comprehensive sex education (see Table 1). For example, one of racism’s costs for Black Americans is a higher potential for being sexually assaulted; and one of comprehensive sex education’s benefits for its students is a lower potential for being sexually assaulted. Thus, comprehensive sex education can decrease the potential for a Black American to be sexually assaulted. In other words, comprehensive sex education decreases the potential of racism’s costs for Black Americans from occurring; and the absence of comprehensive sex education allows racism’s costs for Black Americans to go unabated.
Well, how did I do? Are you thinking differently about sex education? Are you thinking about how important of a tool comprehensive sex education is for combating racism and its costs?
Until the United States stops reinforcing the barriers created by the moral authorities to decrease people’s opportunities for comprehensive sex education, I am afraid racism, its costs, along with sexual illiteracy, will continue to pervade the American culture.
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Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.
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