Lots of great, thoughtful people like to use anti-drinking and driving messages as a metaphor for sex education. It usually goes something like this:
Teaching about safe sex is like teaching about drinking and driving. We know kids are too young to drive, but we start talking early about the dangers of drinking and driving so they know how to be safe when they’re older.
We don’t want teens to drink. But if they drink we don’t want them to drive. Similarly, we don’t want teens to have sex – but if they do, we want them to be safe.
The folks who use this metaphor are trying to communicate a few important things:
- It’s completely normal to address risky behaviors that youth could engage in – we can talk about sex just as we can talk about drinking or smoking or safe/unsafe driving;
- We can talk about a topic without condoning it; and
- There’s something going on with the circumstances of the situation that makes a certain behavior okay or not okay.
The problem of the drinking and driving metaphor has to do primarily* with that third concept – circumstances.
So where’s the danger? It’s twofold:
The first danger is that the metaphor equates something that is never okay with something that will be okay at some point, it’s just not okay right now.
Drinking and driving is never okay. We would never say to a young person, “Drinking and driving is really great if you wait until you’re ready.” Or, “Drinking and driving is something you should save for your wedding night.”
On the other hand, sex becomes okay at some point. Depending on your personal values, “okayness” could be based on age, relationship status, or some other factor entirely.
The comparison also continues a shameful and dangerous American tradition of treating sex as a bad thing. Bad feelings about sex lead to poor communications, poor relationships (including doctor-patient and parent-child), and risky behaviors.Conversely, positive attitudes about sex, protection and communications can reduce sexual activity, as well as potential negative consequences of sex.
The second danger is that when advocates (assuming we’re the leaders we claim to be) use the drinking and driving metaphor, it gives people permission to communicate about sex in a very simplistic, “just don’t do it” way.
Abstinence-only education is the most common manifestation of “just don’t do it.” Abstinence-only education has, of course, proven both ineffective and dangerous – reviews show participants are just as likely to become sexually active as nonparticipants, but less likely to protect themselves from STDs. (To tease the bad metaphor a bit: all that energy telling them not to drink and drive led them to drive without seat belts.) We also see the simple “don’t do it” repeated in homes, churches, and community groups.
Beyond denying young people basic health information, simplistic sex education fails to provide the skills to navigate and investigate the nuances of sex.
One of the most frequent questions we hear from young people is essentially this: How do I know when sex is okay?This isn’t a question about permission; it’s a question of readiness, safety, relationships, trust, knowledge, consent, lifestyle, and self. And “just don’t do it” isn’t the answer.
So, what’s a better metaphor? I haven’t quite gotten there myself, but this is my favorite comparison:
Sex education is most similar to the civics education we provide throughout a young person’s education. Our schools teach the importance of community participation, knowledge of our legal and political systems, and good citizenship – complementing lessons learned at home – well before a child is able to vote. Similarly, comprehensive sex education provides the biological information, decision-making skills, and understanding of relationships needed to put values into practice and build a lifetime of healthy, safe, fulfilling relationships.
I’d love to hear your metaphors.
*That second item – how talking about a topic isn’t the same as condoning it – is very often the crux of public debate on sex education. To cover this, I refer you to this great piece by Elizabeth Schroeder of Answer on how talking about sex in a comprehensive and positive way is both healthy and wise: How Do You Solve A Problem Like the P-Word? Should School-Based Sex Ed Address Pleasure? I might add that condoning sex is fairly important to the survival of the species. Just sayin’.
Also, my apologies for not appropriately crediting the authors of sampled drunk driving metaphors. I thought you’d appreciate the anonymity here.