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NARRATOR: You might remember, with some awkwardness, learning about sex in school. 



In middle school, i feel like, i was like, gross.

My mind was blown, it was like terrifying, i was like no way

And I’m thinking ooh wow! is that how that works?


NARRATOR: Adults get weird when we talk about sex ed.



Oh gosh, ummm…


Oh, interesting.
I’m out!

Oh gosh. You wanna get deep! Haha.


NARRATOR: But that’s probably because the adults who taught us were kinda weird about it, too.



our parents didn’t talk about anything

my mom was like, don’t knock somebody up, that was kind of it

a lot of the things they were saying more so scared me

they separated the boys and the girls into different rooms and had somebody walk through it with these weird slides


NARRATOR: Today, on Ethics & Education, we don’t have any weird slides for you…


VOX: I think there was like a special group that came in and handed out pamphlets and maybe we saw some movies and stuff


NARRATOR: But we are going to talk about sex education.



Oh, I am excited!

Anna: That gets me excited!

I love taboo subjects.

Anna: [Gasp] Yes!


NARRATOR: We’ll explore why being so bad at talking and thinking about sex ed is a problem. And why we need to include students in the conversation. And in fact why it’s ridiculous to keep students on the outside of the conversation about sex ed.



Anna: When did you learn about sex and who did you learn it from?

Kathy: We were just playing, swinging on a swing set. And she said, But Kathy, Don’t you know, that’s where babies come from. And it was amazing. It was like the heavens opened up. It’s like, ah, oh, it all makes sense now, why people would want to do that disgusting thing. Really? Okay. I felt that I had finally the information that everybody was whispering about.


NARRATOR: So, why all the whispering? What should kids know about sex? And how can we think better about sex ed – so we can do better by kids, by ourselves, and by each other? Today, we have a philosopher and a historian to guide us through these questions. One of our teachers and guides for today’s lesson is Lauren Bialystok, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto.


Lauren Bialystok: Yeah, it was schoolyard. I don’t remember the specifics, but there were a few stages of, you know, of, you know, understanding body parts. And then having a question about conception, and then, the last pieces falling into place. And the horror that ensues. Like, that can’t be right. That just doesn’t seem like that could be right. But I don’t have a better explanation.


NARRATOR: Our other guide is Lisa Andersen, a professor of history at Juilliard.


Lisa Andersen: So the first time that I knew sex existed, I was around seven. And my mom and I were sitting on the sofa watching an afternoon movie, when they were still on TV. But there was a cutaway scene in which it was clear that two people had just gotten naked, and that they were doing something. And I was like, What are they doing? And my mom said, Well, they’re having sex. And I looked at my mom, and I go, do you and dad do that? And she was like, yes. Do you have any other questions? And I was like, not really. No, that was, in fact, sufficient.


NARRATOR: We’re talking with Lauren and Lisa today because they’ve thought a lot about sex ed.


Lauren: But I think sex is a big deal for humans, you know, I think that it brings up feelings, and it taps into different forms of embarrassment and excitement and power. And that’s probably common to all human cultures. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about whatever message our kids are getting.


NARRATOR: Lisa and Lauren have thought about not only what gets taught in the classroom, but how. And about how very out-of-step most sex ed is with what students actually need to know. 


Their ideas for a good sex ed curriculum have way less to do with what ends up on a test or whether you put a condom on a banana and way more to do with the approach, how it’s taught and talked about. They want students–and their teachers–to think better about sex. But how do we do that if it seems like we disagree so much on what and how sex ed should be taught?


Our student producers, Anna and Teresa, talked to a lot of people who wondered the same thing.



It’s a touchy subject for a lot of different people.

That’s like the title of our episode!

There ya go.


NARRATOR: Lisa and Lauren’s book is (aptly) called Touchy Subject: The History and Philosophy of Sex Education – and it’s a pretty fun read.  


Carrie Welsh: I found myself actually laughing at some sections, which I wasn’t really expecting. I feel like your decision to bring lightheartedness and humor into it was intentional. Because sex ed seems like such a serious thing. Why did you write the book in this way?


Lisa: I think I speak for both of us when I say sex is just absurd and funny. I mean, like the idea of talking about sexuality as something which is only to be taken seriously, is completely counterproductive. And it reads false right from the get go. Lauren, and I, we don’t disclose anything about our lives, we’re not the subject of the book, right? We kind of appear as these floating brains that are assessing and looking gleefully at the strange things that humans do throughout the book. But we think from that you get a certain foundation and hope, right, we get a certain foundation that is realistic about how peculiar sex is, how different it might be than other things, about how strange humans are to want or to desire it. And also a sense that it must be possible to do this better than we’re doing right now.


NARRATOR: I love this idea of taking the position of a gleeful floating brain – it opens up our curiosity so we CAN think better about sex, and sex ed. And it helps crowd out some of the other baggage we might usually bring to the conversation. 


Lisa: Grudgingly, right, as the tone with which sex educators talk with young people. I think that that actually characterizes so much of the discussion about sex education. The fact that this conversation even needs to happen at all. It’s always been something that has been grudgingly accepted as a necessity.


NARRATOR: But we’re not just grudging – when we talk about sex to kids, we’re also kinda cagey and secretive. And kids learn from that. 



When we’re young we’re told like where’d I come from and your parents are like oh you came from the stars. They wouldn’t really tell you about sex.

The birds and the bees, that’s how you make a baby, that’s how you prevent a baby. And it was kinda left at that.


Lauren: Part of what children figure out at a very young age, no matter who their parents are, is not only details about the birds and the bees, but that there is a thing that is the birds and the bees The stork – We have euphemisms because this is a stigmatized topic. So they’re picking up on the anxiety and excitement around it as much as they’re picking up on particular facts or particular falsehoods.


Lisa: It does feel rather unfair, right? Like it feels unfair, that other people know where you came from. And you don’t. Right?!I mean, it seems like if there’s any piece of information that should be shared early, that’s probably it.


NARRATOR: So – way before a sex ed curriculum in school, or getting “the talk,” kids are learning about sex from our collective adult awkwardness. But I don’t want kids to someday inherit that same awkward legacy of shame and embarrassment. Especially because our reluctance to talk about sex impacts each other–it can lead to worse sex and harmful decisions. So we need to get better at not just talking, but thinking about sex. But thinking about sex can be really tricky, especially as a parent. 


Lauren: Of course, we want to celebrate whatever women find empowering, this is a long standing debate in feminism. But as a mother of two girls, there are things I am not comfortable with them doing. And I might, as they get older, suggest that they think twice about–not because they’re wrong, not because it might not be  agentic, or empowering for them. But because I know what kind of world we live in. Raising children in this world requires you to kind of work within really nonideal conditions, and sometimes tilts a little more conservative than you otherwise would, because your overall priority is protecting your kids.


NARRATOR: Ah, the non-ideal world. I’m constantly thinking about how to reckon between the world I want to live in and the world I’ve found myself in. This is a whole concept in philosophy–and understanding this distinction between ideal and non-ideal can really help our thinking here. When we do ideal theory, we’re thinking about the kind of world we hope to create. And non-ideal theory helps us think about the world we actually live in, the world we inhabit now, with all of its injustices.


Lisa: And this is part of it, that the difference between those individual decisions and the structural conditions. So you can imagine as a parent, you feel torn in two directions, and one of them is about how to help your child or help your partner survive in an unjust world. Right? And then the other part of you wants to change that world, right? And it’s very difficult to balance those two responsibilities at the same time. And most of us flip them


Lauren: Absolutely.


Lisa: Right. We vacillate, we go back and forth. And so we don’t have any kind of clear pathway. And I think that that’s always been the case.


NARRATOR: Accounting for the world we live in is a tall order.  One way that parents try to manage it is by dancing this two-step between ideal and non-ideal. And that dance – it’s part of why we have sex ed in schools! 


Lisa: One of the things families do, and one of the responsibilities of schools is to swing in a way that gives a person a total education. So whatever the schools are doing, the parents need to do something different. And whatever society is doing, parents need to compensate for that. And the messages that each of our children get are different based on who they are. Society is going to respond to them differently. And as parents, we don’t want to double down on those messages. Most of the time, our job is to compensate for them, to regulate them, to manage them. We have to find ways to make up for those deficits.


NARRATOR: Okay, let’s get this straight. Parents often mess up talking to their kids about sex. So schools HAVE to teach sex ed to cover–or correct–what parents miss. But this gets complicated when schools and parents don’t trust each other. Sometimes parents stop letting schools compensate. And that often shows up at school board meetings. Maybe you’ve heard about debates that have gotten pretty angry, pretty messy.


Lauren: What everybody knows to be this ongoing standoff that reliably produces public protests, and sometimes really ugly public discourse and puts kids in harm’s way.


NARRATOR: Conveniently, Lauren is a philosopher. And in the book, she uses philosophical methods like slowing down, using reason, and picking things apart to help us understand what’s actually going on in these debates. But the thing is – those ugly disagreements aren’t the whole story–they don’t really represent how most people actually feel about sex ed. 


Lauren: And I think philosophy is the right way to go about this. So it helps us see what we actually disagree about, and maybe what are more, these illusory disagreements. Something that Lisa and I start the book with, and really try to flag throughout is: as polarized as we feel, and as toxic as some of the political stakes over this topic are, we’re really not that far apart on a lot of key issues. We are far apart on some issues, but what we think we’re disagreeing about is very often not what we’re actually disagreeing about. If we could just appreciate and build on the overlap that we already have, and the historical gains that have been made, that would be a really good improvement.


Lisa: Most Americans over time have, you know, in terms of sex education, wanted it not only in schools, not only in families, but also in clinics, and in places of worship, and at your local YMCA. And at, you know, name another place. This idea that Americans don’t want sex education has been proven false again, and again. In fact, what we really want is to have lots of sex education in lots of different places, to make sure that at some point, the right information sticks.


Lauren: The question is, what is the right information? And can you even successfully filter out the so-called “wrong information”?


Lisa: And it’s going to be different for every child. And that’s really annoying as a parent.


NARR: But there are some things we do pretty much agree on, and it’s taken decades for us to get here. One is that, well, sex ed should exist in schools.


Lisa: We are all very, very clear that people should know about sex before they have it. There is massive consensus and against survey after survey, not just now, but for decades, it’s been upwards of 90% of Americans believe that sex education should come in the classroom and that it should begin by middle school. Like and there just isn’t really disagreement about that.


NARRATOR: And two, that it should equip students for the real, non-ideal world.


Lisa: There’s huge amounts of agreement that public health issues should be at the front of how we measure success in, in sex education, and what kind of programs actually work,


NARR: And three, we agree on who should be teaching sex ed. 


Lisa: Namely that there should be people with training specifically to the area, and that those adults doing the education should at least listen to and include younger people and helping them design what curriculum is appropriate. And that’s massive, because each of those three points was in fact, the product of decades and decades of deliberation and argument among different groups of people before they came to those conclusions.


NARR: So – we agree on more than we realize, about sex ed. And still, in PTA meetings all over the country, those decades of deliberation and argument continue. Unfortunately, those arguments are where we tend to do some of our worst, sloppiest thinking about sex ed. It may not surprise you that in the US, this debate often falls along political lines.  But, taking the vantage point of those hovering amused brains, Lauren and Lisa help us see the pitfalls that both sides make. 


Lauren: So the abstinence-only or socially conservative crowd, have to take this kind of awkward stance with respect to the evidence. It is no longer really politically acceptable to say, “We don’t care what the data show.” What’s much more acceptable and commonplace is to cherry pick data or to frame data in such a way that it appears to support the position you want to support.


NARR: Of course, logical fallacies don’t only exist on the political Right. 


Lauren: The so-called progressives, who really do reflect the views of 80 to 90% of Americans have been forced to frame their aims and defend their methods in terms of, First of all, an excessively narrow health, public health and medical discourse that relies on facts which are supposedly impervious to values–which isn’t the case–but makes it seem like we’re on very firm ground here. ‘We over here on the Liberals are all about facts.’ I think that’s misguided. I think that it’s been a mistake for the liberal and Democrat leaning advocates of sex education, to paint them as crazy, irrational, out of touch, or worse. The question is, what values are they trying to protect? What is it that they’re going to the wall for?


NARRATOR: Sex ed is a perfect example of how so many things get packed into one issue. There’s this expectation that you should have a particular opinion about sex ed just based on your politics.


Lauren: Philosophy, among other tools, helps us ask, What is that issue? And who is telling me that I need to align with this dogmatic or simplistic stance? What do I actually believe?


There’s more going on here than arguments over evidence. But If you scratch under the surface a little bit for the most part, what you find are parents trying to do right by their kids, teachers trying to do right by their students, adults who are really wrestling with a sensitive and complicated subject and who are afraid–afraid of harms that might come to their kids afraid of losing a connection with their kids. Very human feelings that all of us can relate to even if we end up drawing different conclusions about education or policy.


NARRATOR: Lisa, with her historical lens, sees the disagreements as not so cleanly divided across political leanings.


Lisa: When it comes to managing disagreement, I think part of it is Lauren just pointed out this idea that people decide they already belong to a tribe, and they’re trying to figure out where they sit. But that the question isn’t, exclusively what do we disagree about? But how much do we really care? Right? And what we’ve seen change over time is this idea that sometimes people care passionately, and sometimes they care nowhere near enough to show up at a school board meeting.


NARRATOR: But showing up at a public meeting just isn’t feasible for everyone. And of course they’re not the only places where these disagreements are happening. Caring passionately is one thing–but that passion is often what prevents a productive conversation. People also need to care enough to be able to parse out the real disagreement. 


Lisa: And for me, you know, I think the biggest debates generally aren’t actually between liberals and conservatives. I think they’re between people who care passionately, deeply about sex education, and people who really don’t care all that much.


NARRATOR: Okay, let’s put these debates into context here. The average amount of sex ed instruction an American high school student gets – is 10 hours. Not 10 per year. Just 10!


And while each side has pitfalls in its thinking – the biggest mistake both sides make is that they fail to account for how students are thinking.


Lauren: Kids know coming into their first formal sex ed class, that this is a topic with stigma. Most adults very well meaning adults don’t understand the degree to which we’ve already been beaten to the punch. So they’re having these stale debates about literally the content on the curriculum, like, do we or do we not show them how to put a condom on a banana? Do we or do we not mention oral sex in the curriculum? And this is so laughably out of touch with the world that kids are growing up in now. It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, your kid knows what oral sex is. So how are you going to manage that?



  • Growing up, do you think your parents knew how much you knew about sex? No.
  • Do you think you know more about sex than your parents do? Yes. How come? I think I’m more experienced than my pops. What makes you say that? I just have a feeling.
  • I feel like with pop culture, maybe, you’re exposed to it so much more and it’s just more normalized probably, I just feel more educated than her. I feel like she was a little reckless so I feel like I know more about safer sex than her.
  • Honestly, I probably know more, because they don’t have TikTok and shit.


NARR: The fact that students already know a lot more than what gets covered in sex ed, doesn’t mean we don’t need sex ed. It means whatever we’re teaching now just does not meet students where they are. And thinking about what students really need allows us to ask new questions. 


Lauren: What we need to have on the curriculum these days, is to use a brilliant phrase that Lisa came up with in the book, the topics for which simple search terms don’t exist. Because search terms are how kids learn about the world. And often the terms come to them even if they’re not searching for them.


NARRATOR: That’s definitely true. Our student producers Anna and Teresa learned a few new terms themselves doing the interviews you hear throughout this story. 


Anna & Teresa:Let’s look it up right now. We might have to consult the urban dictionary.


Lauren: So we need to be talking about kind of softer things like human relationships, and ethics, and attitudes toward evidence and relationships with parents who may have different views from you. Things that are, like I said, very hard to quantify or assess, and aren’t going to show up in these large scale studies of the impact of abstinence only or comprehensive sex education. But what kids really need and what they tell us they want. And the kids are right.


VOX: I would say it’s maybe less anatomical…

Well it’s just people, it’s like, you have to know people, that’s all it is. We’re humans. monkeys know how to have sex, like it’s programmed, you kind of just figure it out. but then it’s like it’s up to you to build your own relationships with people. Some people are ready at different times. People mature at different ages. I feel like everybody’s kinda on their own journey, I would hope.


Lisa: Like, the idea of a one size fits all education, to be frank and a bit crude, doesn’t work any better than a one size fits all condom.


Lauren: We definitely want some things that are standardized and reliable in schools, because For the majority of kids, school is where they meet the world. Sex is not an independent activity; the hippies’ kids and the evangelical Christians’ kids will interact in the world, and you know what? They may have sex together. And part of what that requires is that they have some shared basis for thinking or reasoning about sexuality, that they both have an appreciation of what consent means, that they both have an appreciation of what sexual diversity means, even if their ideological commitments are different.


Lisa: What Lauren’s saying is, it’s not just about interpersonal relationships, right? That’s the foundation, that’s the first point where we need to find agreement. Right. But it goes way beyond that, because the schools are about educating citizens, right? People are not only going to make their own independent sexual decisions; they are, as legislators, as members of juries, as community members going to be informing other people’s sexual decision making process, too.


NARRATOR: So the issue isn’t actually about analyzing whether to put a condom on a banana. It’s about giving us all a better framework for our conversations and our curriculum. A framework that considers our relationships to ourselves and each other. 


Carrie: You say, you talk about Lisa, in the introduction about how, you know, history doesn’t really offer some kind of prescription.


Lisa: Yeah, that’s why I need a philosopher.


Lauren: I have no problem telling people what to do.


NARRATOR: In Lauren and Lisa’s book, Touchy Subject, they do offer, if not a prescription, then a suggestion, for how to teach sex ed more thoughtfully. They call this Democratic, Humanistic Sex Education – or DHSE for short. So, just to break that title down:


Democratic – because it’s about raising kids to be respectful citizens in a diverse world–people who understand how their decisions affect others. 


Humanistic – because it pulls in more of the human experience than just biology, or science. It asks– what kinds of sexual choices are going to lead people to a life that they want?


And Sex Education – because that’s what it is.


Framing it this way is a refreshing expansion of what’s possible in the classroom.


Lisa: And in a lot of ways, the things that schools do really well are incompatible with the things we’re asking sex education to do.


Lauren: That’s where the humanistic side of DHSE is intended to complement the democratic side. And to open up more educational experiences, rather than telling students where it starts and where it ends.


Lisa: Well I think it’s absolutely consistent with what Lauren and I have suggested, to imagine a sex education classroom where the final assignment would be students deliberating what should be included in sex ed, right. Like that would be completely consistent with the way that we think of things.


NARRATOR: The point of DHSE isn’t just for students to learn about sex – it’s for them to think about sex. And to ask questions about it. 


Lisa: If I can make like a quick historian thing, is that the right to petition, which is ensconced in the Bill of Rights, is this idea that you shouldn’t get punished for asking. So it shouldn’t really be surprising that in some ways that would trickle into family life as well, right, that maybe you shouldn’t be punished for asking. And that our political life and our domestic life are actually really pretty closely related in a lot of cases. And I think that alarms parents, as well as being something that’s that’s valuable for it goes both ways. But, you know, that’s, that’s where I think it kind of comes from, I think it’s deeply held in American culture.


Lauren: That’s a wonderful point.


NARRATOR: We want kids to be free to ask questions, and it’s good to remember that we as adults have the same right. And asking good questions matters because we live in the same society. 


Lisa: Sexual choices aren’t–and non-choices, I mean, matters of identity–Like they aren’t things that we only have at home. Right? We carry those. And I mean, we could sit here and brainstorm a huge list of issues that are political issues that get legislated or matters of law that are attended to in courts that have to do with sexuality. And if you eventually want children to grow into people who sit on a jury and listen carefully, during a sexual assault trial, there’s certain pieces that have to be in place in order for them to do that work well, to come to it as a thoughtful citizen.


And that doesn’t mean they all do it the same way. It just means that they should be familiar with thinking about why other people besides you might be invested in your own sexual behavior. And that doesn’t mean you do what other people tell you. It just means acknowledging that those social ties are pretty thick.


NARRATOR:  So if our aim here is to think better, more clearly, about sex ed–Lisa and Lauren have some questions we could start with.


Carrie: And I’m wondering like, what is the next most elegant question that listeners can be asking themselves?


Lisa: What will bring you relief if it turns out that your student becomes a member of the House of Representatives? Doesn’t mean you have to agree, right? Like that’s not really a component there. It’s just that what makes you think that person will exercise good judgment, not just for themselves, but on behalf of other people.


Lauren: What would you want this person to know, if one of your children were going to become their partner?


NARRATOR: Our understanding of sex is always changing – at a societal level, and at a personal one too. 


Lauren: Because we ideally, keep learning and growing across our lifespans. You graduate high school at 18. Hopefully, that’s not the end of your education on most things, including personal relationships, including possibilities for pleasure and connection, and embodiment, and our bodies do change over our lives. So what works for us sexually at 18 or 30, will change when we’re 60. And I think building that in even just as a notion when kids are learning about sex is really important. Sexuality is ideally evolving, and kids should know that they have the right to grow and to experience different things and to continue learning and asking more questions, and that they should not expect, in sex as in most other things in life, for things to always stay the same.


Lisa: I would be willing to make all sorts of sacrifices in order to at least assure that people knew where babies came from. In order to get that information in the door, that question that really is actually a pretty fundamental question, because it’s really about where did I come from? It’s really about the self, to help people have a little less alienation from their own bodies.


NARRATOR: To me, sex ed that honors where we came from, and how we change, makes so much sense. But good sex ed doesn’t just make us feel less alienated from our own bodies –it  also makes us feel less alienated from what we owe each other. It matters that we’re thoughtful about sex ed–for ourselves and for the people we’re having sex with. And it matters because we share this non-ideal world with each other. What I want to remember is that we agree on more than we realize. But, even when we don’t agree, we owe it to students to think better, to think with more care, and to think with them about sex ed. 


NARR: Thank you for listening! We also have a teaching guide about this episode, which you can find on our Center for Ethics & Education website.


This episode was produced by me, Carrie Welsh, Anna Nelson, Teresa Nelson, and Jennifer McCord.

OUTTAKE: Urban dictionary, classic. P-A-W-G. Oh, it’s not that bad! Oh, okay. This is such a weird definition.