The birds and the bees for boys

Should there be a sex ed double standard?

Published April 15, 2009 11:01AM (EDT)

When I heard that the New York Times had tackled the parental dilemma of how to make  The Sex Talk relevant to kids in this overexposed day and age, I thought: What a perfect response to Vermont's push this week to legalize "sexting." After all, the fact that kids are making their own porn should be as powerful a reminder there is that parents' puberty spiel needs a dramatic update. But the piece by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass actually hinges on a different, though no doubt interesting, question: Should boys be given a different lesson on the birds and the bees?

"There’s increasing knowledge of dating violence, including well-publicized celebrity incidents," says Klass. "And there’s always a new movie to see about how adolescent boys are clueless, sex-obsessed goofballs. Stir it all together, and you may get an official worldview in which boys are viewed as potential criminals and girls as potential victims." Unless you talk about it, these ubiquitous violent sexual images can be interpreted as no big deal, just an ordinary consequence of passionate love; but by talking about it, of course, there's the danger of simply reinforcing the perpetrator paradigm. Klass takes this Catch-22 to a number of doctor friends and, though there is some disagreement, the overall message is that we should teach boys to respect the opposite sex and to be aware of the fact that sometimes they will be sexually stereotyped.

Of course, the first part of that is best taught within the family, but doctors and teachers can always try chatting with boys about their respect for their mother, how they see her being treated by other people, and what that teaches them about how to treat other women and girls. The second part can be a bit trickier: "As a pediatrician with two sons and a daughter, I acknowledge the need to emphasize manners and respect as boys maneuver into adolescence and adulthood, and to help them understand the implications and obligations of their increasing size and strength," Klass writes. "And I acknowledge that for their own protection, boys need to understand that there are people -- male and female -- who will see them as potential predators, and judge them automatically at fault in any ambiguous situation." Presumably she's referring to cases of "date rape."

In theory, I agree with all of these ideas, but I can't help thinking: Why shouldn't girls learn these things, too? Thankfully, at the end of the piece, Klass gets beyond the question of how boys and girls should be taught differently: "I am enough of an old-fashioned feminist to want to teach daughters the same fundamental lessons I teach sons: err on the side of respect and good manners; understand that confusion, doubt and ambiguity abound, especially when you are young; never take advantage of someone else's uncertainty." I'd go as far as saying that it's more than sharing the fundamentals. Can't both sexes be warned about the range of stereotypes, the implications of both sexes' changing bodies and the dangers of "ambiguous" sexual situations?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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