Dan Savage on Sex Ed

I’ve introduced Dan before – he’s my favorite sex advice columnist. Here’s another short intro: Dan talks about sex and tells things like they are in a way few advice columnist (or people, for that matter) are willing or able to do. He’s the go-to-guy for everything from freaky to vanilla sex or relationship questions. He’s also exceptionally politically minded. He’s also a dad.

So I approached Dan to see if he would answer a few questions by e-mail about sex education. Here’s what he had to say:

KR: What should a twelve-year-old know about sex?
Dan: Well, hopefully before 12 a kid is familiar with basic reproductive biology — where babies come from, how babies are made, and how babies can be prevented. Kids also need to be aware of the non-reproductive aspect of sex; the pleasure of sex, the intimacy. Babies are great — had one myself, thanks — but adults don’t have sex primarily to make babies. Adults only rarely have sex to make babies. Adults have sex for fun, and to create, cement, or shore up partner bonds. You can’t leave that info out.

Kids live in a sex-saturated environment, and it’s not because Disney is in cahoots with the Gay Mafia to make perverts out of all of our sweet innocent children. Children live in a world that’s filled with adults, and adults are interested in sex, and have sex, and talk about sex, and sex is naturally present in media that is created by and for adults, media that children are exposed to — just as children are exposed to adult conversations about sex, conversations that many adults assume go right over the heads of their kids. They don’t — they go right into their ears, because kids are mystified by adults, by how irrational we seem, and tormented by their absolute reliance on us for everything. They observe, they learn. And absent real information about sex, kids make up their own theories based on the incomplete, distorted information that they gather from the media, from adult conversations, and from their observations of adult relationships.

KR: What should parents do to help their kids get that knowledge?
Dan: Talk to them, of course, matter-of-factly about sex. Those conversations will be hell for all involved, of course, so I also recommend that parents identify one or two people — trusted adults, aunts or uncles or friends — that their kids can go to with questions about sex or relationship problems that they don’t want to discuss with mom and dad. Here’s the hard part: those trusted adults have to swear not to tell mom and dad what their kids asked them about, and the kids have to know that their secrets will be kept.

KR: Finally, what do you think parent’s response should be to abstinence-only sex education?
Dan: I think it’s time for reasonable lefties everywhere to swipe the old right-wing refrain: “No sex education in the schools! I don’t want no teachers talkin’ to my kids about sex. Kids should learn about sex from their parents, in the home!” So much of the sex ed that’s out there now is harmful — guilt-tripping abstinence-only crap; religious indoctrination masquerading as sex education — that we should just oppose it, all of it. Even the stuff we think of as good, comprehensive sex ed isn’t much more than basic reproductive biology — sperm, eggs, fallopian tubes, zygotes. That can be covered in literally ten minutes.

Real sex ed, useful sex ed, isn’t about reproduction at all. Sex ed should be about the stuff that’s actually complicated, the stuff that’s hard, the stuff that trips people up and gets ’em in trouble. Sex ed should be primarily about just one thing: how you talk people into having sex with you. That’s the hard stuff, and it’s the stuff that people need the most help with. Who is and who is not an appropriate sex partner? What is consent? How do you ask for consent? What are you interested in doing, or consenting to, or asking for consent from your partners to do?
Anyone doing that kind of sex ed, of course, would be accused of encouraging sexual activity — as if. Our bodies and hormones were designed to encourage sexual activity, and we’re going to be sexually active whether we’re informed or not; the only question is how much danger are we going to place ourselves or others in? The only way to minimize the risks — of pregnancy, of disease, of sexual assault — is to dispel ignorance about the mechanics of sex but also the mechanics of negotiating sex.

Back to Karen again.

I really like Dan’s approach to abstinence-only sex education. Why aren’t we pitching a fit because our kids are getting false, contorted sex education? Why do we just roll our eyes and figure we’ll supplement or teach the right answers at home? Just say no to sex-education by the religious right!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. “Adults only rarely have sex to make babies. Adults have sex for fun, and to create, cement, or shore up partner bonds. You can’t leave that info out.”

    Amen! People who call themselves liberal-minded continue to tell their kids that sex = making babies, IMO because they’re uncomfortable with the full power of sexuality.

  2. I have a slightly different take on that last little bit of the interview with Dan. I agree that as young teens kids should know the mechanics and need help dealing with the social aspects of having sex and acknowledging those drives. I also think it is important for them to have support for open, honest discussions about the difference having sex makes in their relationships, the way it changes how others view them, how it relates to issues like respect, the difference it can make in their lives related to their personal goals and how the possible results (illness, pregnancy, abortion, rejection, etc.) can affect their lives, sometimes forever. I always hoped that discussions such as that with my children might lead to a choice to delay sexual activity without actually expecting that result. One of my favorite religious educators says that the sexuality education in the Unitarian Universalist Association curriculum “Our Whole Lives” can save lives through just such discussion. Thank you so much for keeping the possibility of life saving conversations alive!

    I wish that I had done a better job of finding trusted adults for my kids to talk to, though. I think one of the best things was to have them be involved in YRUU (YOung Religious Unitarian Universalists) with advisors I trusted and respected (as colleagues) to treat my teenagers and their concerns with respect.

  3. What a refreshing interview! I wish this interview could be sent to every school board, church, parent, and teenager!

    Joan Price
    Author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty (Seal Press, 2006, http://www.joanprice.com/BetterThanExpected.htm )

  4. “Real sex ed, useful sex ed, isn’t about reproduction at all. Sex ed should be about the stuff that’s actually complicated, the stuff that’s hard, the stuff that trips people up and gets ’em in trouble. “


    I especially appreciate his comment that this conversation will be excrutiating for all involved.

  5. I don’t think the conversation has to be excruciating if the groundwork is laid early.

    I think parents should overcome their own discomfort early, knowing that those conversations are coming.

    Conversations about matters of sexuality ought to begin early on whatever level the child is receptive to. Opportunities for such conversations abound in our society and can start in response to social activities and events, nature hikes, pet activities, zoo outings, TV programs and commercials. If such conversations are started early in life, parents and their kids should be able to talk about th really hard stuff when the time comes.

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