Sex education and family autonomy

On the ground that it promotes promiscuity, a learning module on sex education being piloted in public primary and high schools has come under attack by a group of parents and Catholic bishops.  A petition has been filed arguing that the teaching of matters pertaining to sexuality is a strictly family affair. The petitioners cite a State policy found in Art. II of the 1987 Constitution, which mandates the State “to protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution.”  This controversy is timely.  It compels us to reflect on the principles we have accepted as guideposts in the light of changes occurring in our society and the world at large.

What does the guarantee of autonomy for the Filipino family mean? Does it include an exclusive franchise on all subjects that may touch on human sexuality? The issue is now before the courts. But the questions it throws up may also be viewed from other perspectives. From a sociological standpoint, I think they mirror objective changes occurring in society that impinge on our way of life.  Such changes often lead to a re-drawing of institutional boundaries.

The protection of the family from “undue” State interference, for instance, is a value position that has been staunchly defended by the Catholic Church from time immemorial. In a sense, this has served as the Church’s way of protecting its own turf in the field of morals — for which certainly it cannot be faulted.  Historically, education was a prerogative of the family.  Today, except for a few who believe in the superiority of home-schooling, the assumption by the school of the function of learning is almost total.  As a result the educational function of the family has become residual, which is not to say it is insignificant.  The family remains an autonomous unit of society, as important as the State, and therefore not merely an adjunct of the State.

But autonomy is not absolute; it is always relative.  Parents do not own their children.  The State is equally sworn to protect the latter’s rights.  Sec. 13 of the same Article II provides: “The State recognizes the vital role of the youth in nation-building and shall promote and protect their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social wellbeing.  It shall inculcate in the youth patriotism and nationalism, and encourage their involvement in public and civic affairs.” The foregoing list of State concerns is one of the most encompassing I have seen in any constitution.  I can’t imagine any topic that cannot somehow be subsumed and justified under any of these domains.

Clearly, the Department of Education can invoke the same

Constitution to justify its inclusion of a learning module on sexuality in its curriculum.  Now, whether such a module unwittingly induces promiscuity among students — and thus, instead of promoting their well-being, undermines their growth – is an altogether different question.  That is a question best answered by scientists and educational experts working in that field.

But let us be clear: no one is preventing parents from exercising their obligation to teach their children the facts and norms of human sexuality.  Does the controversial sex education module pre-empt the exercise of this obligation? The answer to that depends on whether we ourselves as parents take any interest in what our children are learning or not learning in school.  Of the many influences in society that shape the thinking of our children in the course of their lives, the school system is perhaps the one most subject to regular scrutiny and review.  Reflexive processes are built into the educational system itself.  One cannot say this for the mass media to which young people are exposed all the time or the peer groups of which they are bound to be a part.

I believe this is where the real problem lies.  The Filipino family in the last 30 years at least has found itself under such tremendous economic pressure that it has often given up its primary nurturing functions in exchange for economic security.  This costly trade-off is very common especially among the families of overseas Filipino workers.

Countless studies on the social impact of migration have documented the effects of parental absence on the school performance of OFW children.  The psychological injury it inflicts is especially great among grade school and high school kids.  College students may do better, but the deep resentments they harbor tend to linger even after they are eventually reunited with their parents.  I have not seen any studies on teenage pregnancies and drug addiction among OFW children.  But I would not be surprised to see a high correlation between these behavioral patterns and the absence of parental supervision.

As a sociologist, I would be the first to assert that the family is indeed the primary school for love and intimacy. But, when the family drops these values in favor of other values like money or power, it quickly loses its distinguishing mark as an institution.  The resulting gap is never adequately filled by other institutions — not by the school or by the church. When the family fails to deliver on its basic nurturing functions, the impact on society is incalculable. Over the years we seem to have accepted this systemic assault on the family as though it were something we could do nothing about.

We are barking up the wrong tree, I think, when we demonize instead a learning module that informs children about their bodies, and teaches them how to protect themselves from sexual predation, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.