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The Inescapable Ethical Grounds for Sex Education


Most sex education, however well-meaning, has failed to achieve its dual purpose: 1) Promote the understanding that personal growth, development, character, relationships and sexual interaction all relate to the quality of life most people long to experience; and 2) prevent negative, harmful, self-destructive choices which undermine the quality of an adolescent’s family relationships and future opportunities.

It is possible for a curriculum to address these two purposes. To do so requires a clear philosophy that being human is to have a sensibility regarding how to treat others morally, ethically and compassionately. This sensibility, along with the recognition that we do not always live compassionately gives each of us a starting point to help create relationships of high quality and fulfillment. The success of purpose #2 requires acknowledging there is no such thing as moral or ethical “objectivity” when it comes to preventing destructive consequences of an individual’s choices and behaviors. For example, preventing drug abuse and unwed adolescent pregnancy are goals immersed in value judgments regarding what behaviors are destructive and which ones are beneficial to the well-being of the individual. To insist that one be value-free or non-judgmental in such endeavors is itself a value position. The value-base of any curriculum does inform what is taught and sets the boundaries for what kind of knowledge, principles or practices are inevitably promoted.

Because adolescents are legal minors—still maturing in the understanding and wisdom necessary to make responsible decisions—intervention efforts must make it possible for students to identify clear boundaries of what constitutes ethical human conduct. This may include discussions of what is ethical. However, recognizing what is moral or ethical requires living true to one’s moral sensibilities. For example, when individuals betray or resist promptings of conscience regarding how to treat others, they are blind to their own role in creating their uncompassionate attitudes and actions that follow. They also rationalize in ways that make the wrongs they are doing seem to be right. Thus, the focus of the curriculum cannot be solely on providing information. It must include the idea that understanding what is ethical is only possible when one is living ethically. Students can draw on knowledge to make an “informed” choice, but without living true to an ethical foundation, such choices are not necessarily ethical nor understood. Ethical meanings become clear and meaningful only as students, living true to conscience, identify the difference between acting in one another’s best interests (rather than in mere self-interests), and acting in ways that are actually destructive of others. Examining general guiding principles of quality living only invite, and cannot dictate, whether adolescents will distinguish between positive and negative patterns of living.

So, as is the case with all education, approaches to ethical living will recognize that not all teenagers will act according to the knowledge or principles they are offered. Yet, the curriculum must unfold why certain decisions are in the best interests of the individual, knowing that individuals often knowingly and willfully violate their best interests. The best curricula do not attempt to help teenagers take responsibility for the consequences of their choices; rather, they teach them what it means to make responsible choices in the first place. For example, it is wise to focus on issues of family and personal responsibility before examining issues of human sexuality. This is precisely because sex cannot be fully understood independent of the family context or of concrete examples of what interests are “best.”

How we define what it means to be human is the best starting point for any curriculum designed to improve the quality of lives lived. Citizenship, character and sex education can be seen as concepts joined at the hip (so to speak) because they share a focus on what it means to be human. In delivering a Citizenship & Sex education curriculum in the public schools of several western states, Olson & Wallace made the following assumptions about the human condition:

1. Humans are inherently capable of being moral agents—even though they often think, believe and feel that they are inescapably helpless victims. To be a moral agent is to have the capacity to act in accordance with conscience, in an environment that offers possibilities. [This does not mean that people are not sometimes victimized, but that we have a moral sensibility regarding what is right and wrong, and can act in harmony with, or against, conscience.]

2. Humans are relational beings. They are connected to others in attitudes and actions that are either ethical or unethical—either by acting in each other’s best interests, or in ways that undermine or destroy those interests. (Wallace & Olson, AANCHOR, 1984)

3. Adolescents (and adults) have the capacity to see what it means to live responsibly.

4. When moral agents choose not to do what they personally feel is right, they become conflicted psychologically and emotionally (Warner & Olson, 1981; Warner, 2001).

5. It is possible for humans to rationalize & justify inhumane “values” and behavior. Such rationalizations are expressions of a refusal to act according to conscience. It is the price humans pay when they live in opposition to their own commitments.

6. In addition to a person’s personal capacity for moral understanding, families and societies are linked to each other by common ethical commitments—or destroyed through the lack of living true to those commitments.

For moral education or sex education to start right, it must be explicit about what philosophy of human nature informs what strategies are ethically defensible. That starting point grants the status of adolescents as legal minors, still developing in ethical understanding and responsible behavior. It can identify principles of ethical conduct, link teenagers to their families (of the present and future), show what it means to be a moral agent (rather than merely an organism totally acted upon by forces they cannot control), and examine what it means to live true or false to one another’s best interests. Thus, no sex or citizenship curriculum should expect that all members of the target audience are going to change their attitudes or behavior. But any curriculum should be constructed with the belief that such changes are realistic and possible—or why even create such curricula?


Wallace, C. M. & Olson, T. D. (1984). AANCHOR curriculum. Unpublished master’s thesis, BYU.

Warner, C. T. & Olson, T. D. (1981). Another view of family conflict and family wholeness, Family Relations, 26, No. 3, 493-503.

Warner, C. T. (2001). Bonds that make us free: Healing our relationships, coming to     ourselves. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain Press.