Officials warn school sex ed classes can backfire

October 12, 2022

Ray Carter

Although sex-education instruction in schools is touted as a way to reduce teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), officials told lawmakers the courses often have the opposite effect and suggested they can even lead, indirectly, to children not recognizing the emotional results of abuse.

Audrey Werner, a longtime public-health nurse in Texas, worked for 14 years for a county health department and nine years at a clinic treating patients with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. During her career, Werner served five years as a school nurse whose duties included teaching sex education.

She told Oklahoma state lawmakers the intent of school sex-ed courses often contrasts with real-world outcomes.

“For the five years I taught sex ed in the schools, I believed what I was told in my training, that I would decrease the teen pregnancy and the STD rates,” Werner said. “However, when I moved to the STD/HIV clinic, I saw the opposite was true. More children were becoming sexually active and the rape of women and children was exploding.”

Werner was one of several speakers at a meeting of the House Common Education Committee during a study focused on sex education in schools and concerns over sexually explicit materials in school libraries.

Werner said many schools’ sex-education programs still have their foundation in the works of Alfred Kinsey, a professor and researcher at Indiana University whose 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and 1953 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female prompted a dramatic change in how sexual education was handled nationwide.

But Werner noted Kinsey claimed children were sexual from birth, and that incest and adult-child sex was not harmful to a child and might even be beneficial. Kinsey made those claims based in part on interviews with pedophiles, and claimed children had an orgasm if they cried, fainted, or fought the adult.

Kinsey’s work has come under fire in recent decades for facilitating the abuse of children, including infants. Yet Werner said Kinsey’s research, despite a lack of scientific validity, continues to influence how sexual education is handled in schools.

“Bad data has led to devastating results for children,” Werner said. “For the past 50, 60 years, we have treated children as sexual from birth, which has contributed to the public-health crisis we now have today.”

“The sex-education curriculum that is being created today to be used in our schools, is that still being created off of Kinsey’s research?” asked state Rep. Sherrie Conley, a Newcastle Republican who is a former teacher and administrator.

“Yes,” Werner responded.

David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas, told lawmakers that individuals do not choose to feel they are transgender or same-sex attracted, nor are those feelings a sign of insanity.

But Pickup also said those feelings are often tied to family trauma and those feelings can and do change over time, particularly if individuals receive therapy to address the underlying trauma. He noted research has not identified any genetic cause for such feelings.

“There’s enough evidence to believe—both anecdotally and in research—that there are emotional-developmental causes deep in early childhood that affect these issues, and it’s not an inborn issue,” Pickup said. “And, to create a very long story short, of course, when those issues are resolved, feelings tend to change, sometimes drastically, completely, sometimes somewhat, over time.”

However, some school sex-education programs indicate that gender dysphoria and similar conditions are permanent.

Materials used for sex-education instruction in Tulsa Public Schools in recent years have informed students they may be “pansexual” individuals who are sexually attracted to virtually anyone, as well as transgender, nonbinary or agender. The Tulsa materials informed students that if they are pansexual they may be “sexually attracted to people who are male, female, agender, transgender, or gender nonconforming.”

Pickup said sex-ed lessons that tell children such feelings are permanent and unremarkable can cause harm because that makes it less likely an individual pursues therapy to address underlying problems.

“The world, mainly through LGBT activists today, are saying that change is impossible, because it supports their worldview,” Pickup said. “And that worldview is being told to your children—my guess is, pretty educated guess—but your children in Oklahoma schools are being told that even as we speak.”

He said there is a strong correlation with childhood sexual abuse and transgenderism or same-sex attraction.

“Sometimes the families are so chaotic that child—let’s say for instance a boy—he might automatically gravitate towards female identity when he’s two, three, four, five, because being a male is too scary,” Pickup said. “Being a male is too dangerous.”

Democratic lawmakers accused Pickup of engaging in “conversion” therapy, a catch-all phrase often used to describe allegedly traumatic abuse of LGBT individuals committed under the guise of therapy.

Pickup said that is not the case, saying that label is a “made up term” used for political purposes, and said his work with LGBT individuals aligns with treatment given to other individuals seeking therapy for reasons such as “depressive issues, anxiety issues.”

“This is not a behavioral program,” Pickup said. “It’s just plain, good therapy. This is the same kind of therapies that people use for any issue which involves trauma.”

The views of the presenters at the study align with the findings of independent research. A 2019 report by The Institute for Research and Evaluation found that many schools’ sex-education programs are ineffective or worse.

The Institute’s researchers reviewed 120 prior studies of school-based sex education, including 60 U.S. studies and 43 non-U.S. studies. The review showed only six rigorous studies found evidence of effectiveness (defined as improvement on a protective outcome such as abstinence, condom use, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases, without other negative effects, measured 12 months after program completion).

In contrast, the review found that school-based comprehensive sex education programs that attempted to show effectiveness “failed 87% of the time.” In the United States, 12 percent of studies even found negative effects following school sex-education programs, such as decreased condom use or increased sexual activity, number of partners, oral sex, forced sex, STDs, or pregnancy.

In her years as an educator, Conley noted that some well-intentioned programs had unintended, adverse effects, pointing to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program.

“As an educator, one of the things that I did every year was take my fifth graders to their DARE education classes,” Conley said. “And DARE education was canceled because one of the arguments that they were making is that when we started the DARE program it was to try to curb the usage (of drugs), and to try to educate kids on the dangers of it. But what it actually did was, according to their research and their reporting, is that it actually made drug use worse and drug experimentation worse.”

If school sex-education programs lead youth to think feelings that spring from abuse are unremarkable, the failure to help those youth identify and address their emotional problems can have long-term effects, noted state Rep. Danny Williams, pointing to his volunteer work with a Celebrate Recovery group for individuals addressing addiction challenges.

“Half of them have had a very traumatic, negative sexual experience when a lot of them were preschool age, and it has carried tremendous harm, difficulty, throughout their lives,” said Williams, R-Seminole. “And they didn’t know how to deal with it.”