August 1, 2005


I am so happy to have found a way to reach you. My daughter is in 9th grade. Because of your wonderful book on modesty, I had the courage to take her out of the sex ed class in middle and high school.

I would likely have been afraid of making her feel outcast if it had not been for you (and your dear mother who had the courage to yank you out when you were in school).

You will be pleased to know that one of my colleagues at work has a son in 7th grade. He has asked her if he can be taken out of sex ed when his health class covers it. He said he would feel uncomfortable having a female gym teacher talk about the subject in a mixed class.

Upon contacting the Guidance Counselor, my colleague learned that there are a minimum of six children in 7th that want out of that segment of the class.

I don't know if the fact that my daughter was the first one to be taken out in 8th grade had anything to do with it, but I am delighted that other children will be spared the embarrassment and the political slant on this sensitive subject.

It is of course very difficult anyway because the atmosphere is so saturated with sex in the schools.

As to the material, it is hideous. I have her taking the course at home with me, using their book and handouts. How can they even pretend that it is of help to show drawings of every detail of male genitalia (I suppose the female parts will come next) in a mixed class of teenagers.

I get so angry. When I suggested to the department head that they at least separate girls from boys and give them teachers that match their sex, he claimed they would be sued if they tried it. I do not believe there would be any grounds for a suit, but I have no time to look into the matter.

Would you happen to know? We live in Ocean County, New Jersey.

Best regards,
Bonnie Clark

Dear Bonnie,

Good for you for having the strength to pull your daughter out. I definitely think you can take credit for the other teens wanting out. No one wants to be the first, but once the taboo is broken, it gives others the courage to object to this uncomfortable classroom environment.

Let’s face it: sex ed is not about information. It’s about demystifying sexuality. It also affords new opportunities to be teased in all sorts of creative ways.

I certainly agree with you that it makes a lot of sense to separate boys and girls. Unfortunately, the legal proposition is not so simple.

Because of various legal challenges over the years, if you want to have an all-girls school or separate the sexes for any class, then the justification for doing so has to be compelling.

Let me backtrack, because the legal terrain here is extremely confusing. There’s Title IX, which is a federal statute, and then there’s the Constitution. What Title IX says is that if you have a coed school, you can’t have single-sex classes within that school. But there are exceptions: for single-sex choral groups, contact sports like football, and yes, also for sex education. Congress and the Department of Education can make an exemption under a federal statute stipulating that it doesn’t apply in certain cases, and they have done this with Title IX.

However, the matter of constitutionality is separate from Title IX. This is where things get hairy, for some groups might interpret the Constitution as forbidding something that Title IX permits. For example, Title IX doesn’t really restrict public school districts’ ability to have separate schools for boys and girls, but some groups have argued that this is a problem with respect to the Consitution. The trouble is that unlike with Title IX, there aren’t detailed regulations interpreting the Constitution. There are only a small number of cases which have taken up the question of single-sex education. The biggest of these, of course, was when Virginia Military Academy’s all-male policy was deemed unconstitutional in 1996.

But the Supreme Court's opinion in VMI did not "outlaw" single-sex public education—that is a misconception. It stipulated, rather, that comparable programs must exist for both sexes.

What does this all mean for sex ed? I took your question directly to the American Civil Liberties Union, because if anyone is going to be challenging the constitutionality of separate sex education, it would be the ACLU. Emily Martin, an ACLU lawyer who specializes in this area, was kind enough to talk to me and clarify things. “I think it would depend to some degree on the particular program and the rationale behind it,” she explained, adding that in general, “The ACLU is very skeptical of separating boys and girls in education. So I think we would look at [separate sex ed classes] skeptically.”

What’s their issue with separating boys and girls? “In most instances we believe that it leads to harmful gender stereotyping.” Moreover, until there is a constitutional amendment specifying otherwise, Ms. Martin said that, as far as the ACLU is concerned, separate sex ed. is “an unsettled question on the Constitution, and certainly I can imagine situations in which a sex education program wouldn’t meet constitutional muster.”

A key issue is: are the boys and girls taught the same material? If the lesson plans differ, Ms. Martin advised, “that would be very troublesome to us.”

So practically speaking, if the boys are learning how to put condoms on bananas, then we must have an equal-opportunity banana-dressing session for the girls. This is unfortunate, of course, since girls are perhaps better off learning how to say “no” to people menacing them with condoms and bananas.

But I digress. The bottom line, according to the ACLU, is this: if your school offers boys and girls an identical sex-ed program, and the justification for separating them is a sound one—i.e., to avoid harassment problems—it would most likely not be challenged legally.

And that is according to the strictest interpretation of the law. In fact, since March 3, 2004, when the US Department of Education published new regulations governing single-sex education in public schools—as part of the No Child Left Behind Act—coeducational public schools now have much more leeway in offering single-sex classes. (The regulations also gave a green light to single-sex public schools, of which there were over 161 in the school year 2004-5).

In the end, whether sex ed is coed or not, I think that pulling your kid out is the best way to go. Some of my best memories of middle school were of the hours I escaped to the library, instead of having to endure endless prissy lectures on why “there is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.” Ditching sex ed. bolstered my sense of independence and level of confidence. This a great lesson to teach your kids: that just because the majority is doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for them. But best of all, when the boys would tease the girls about what they’d just learned, I could pretend I had no idea what they were talking about.

Yours for a Banana-Free Classroom,

If you have a story about your experience with sex education, I would love to hear it.


Have a question for Wendy Shalit? Submit it here.

About Us | Contact |Thanks | Copyright 2005-2007. All Rights Reserved.