Education for Interpersonal Relations, Family Life, and Intimacy

Task Force on Interpersonal Relations, Family Life, and Intimacy

Amitai Etzioni, Chair


From a wide variety of backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences, we have come together to examine a complex set of issues that deeply affects our entire society: the rise of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual exploitation, and the related moral, social, and psychological factors. Instructed by different religious and secular perspectives and by divergent political and social philosophical persuasions, drawn from academic and practical backgrounds, we join here to focus our examination on what is commonly referred to as "sex education" in public schools, our task as part of a broader communitarian project on character education. Our purpose is not to review data for research purposes or to spell out specifics for classroom implementation. Rather, our goal is to chart a morally sound course and design a moral framework for programs that are too often constructed in the absence of such concern.

We offer these thoughts and recommendations as a part of the communitarian movements ongoing dialogue about the society in which we live and the rights and responsibilities we have as members of it. Specifically, we seek to answer a basic question: What virtues, values, and principles should guide the development of programs on interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy for public schools?

The Basic Program Outline

Education for interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy ("intimacy," in short) should occur in all public schools, at least in junior high schools (or middle schools) and high schools. The program should include discussion of human nature, an examination of human beings as social creatures who require one another; who find deep satisfaction, longer and healthier lives, when they are part of lasting social relations; and who have transcendental needs for meanings and moral values. The program would explore the responsibilities that we have for one another as members of a community, and ways we can strengthen our relations with one another, as co-workers, neighbors, friends and potential family members. This topic includes teaching ways to work out differences, by techniques such as improved communication skills and conflict resolution. Discussion of family life will explore matters such as the nature of the commitments involved in marriage; sharing decision-making in such matters as relocation and forming and adhering to budget; and the issues raised by intimate relations, ranging from the avoidance of exploitative relations to the use of contraceptives.

Schools now cover a good part of these topics in a variety of classes such as social studies and home economics, while ignoring other topics. Our main recommendation is to combine some of these elements already in place with new ones, to provide a comprehensive and morally sound approach to interpersonal relations and to provide the needed context for teaching sex education.

We call for the abolition of value-free sex education, but oppose those who would bar education about sexual topics from public schools. Instead of approaching the discussion of sex in public schools as a matter of health and safety bereft of moral content or forbidding discussion of sex out of traditional moral concerns (seeking to rely exclusively on the family and religious institutions for this purpose), we stand forthrightly for a new approach. We favor a program of education that provides our children with the facts they need to know, within the context of values that responsible and moral persons seek to affirm and embody in their lives. Hence, we maintain that sex education should not be taught as a chapter in human hygiene or human biology, akin to dental care or car mechanics. We can find better sources and role models for teaching this subject than what the birds and the bees do. Nor should sex education be treated as if it is, was, or could be value-free.

Specifically, a public school program of sex education should be folded into a much more encompassing treatment of interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy, to be developed by taking into account the premises and principles here articulated. We provide only a general outline of such program. Working out the details of the suggested approach and adapting it to various age groups, remains to be carried out.

The Context of Character Building

Developing a strong character needs to be at the core of all education programs, and particularly of programs dedicated to interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy. Persons of weak character cannot take responsibility for their actions, abide by values they themselves believe in, be good partners in a relationship, or be upstanding members of a community. Character development is essential both because without it, all other educational efforts will be undermined (as we see in disorderly class rooms), and whatever education is imparted will be woefully lacking.

Two personality capabilities stand out as leading the agenda of character building: First, a person of good character is able to restrain his or her raw impulses by channeling them into socially constructive and morally sound avenues rather than mindlessly yielding to them. Such a person can express affection and commitment in socially and morally appropriate manners. Second, a person of good character can empathize with the other person involved who may have different needs or be in a different stage of sexual and social development (Etzioni 1993: 89-116).

Underlying Orientation: Is Sex Healthy or a Sin?

The underlying orientation of the intimacy program to sex is that sex is inherently neither good nor evil, neither pure nor sinful; the context makes all the difference. Sex is somewhat akin to nuclear energy: properly contained it is a boon to the world; let loose it can be a highly destructive force. As Kevin Ryan, professor at the School of Education at Boston University, put it:

"Sex is strong stuff. It is a powerful force in peoples lives, and as such, it can be a strong force for individual happiness and family stability. On the other hand, selfish and uncontrolled sex can be a raging cyclone, making havoc of those in its path." (Ryan 1995)

We find throughout history extreme attempts to control sex through barbaric acts such as genital mutilation, stoning of prostitutes and summary executions of adulterous princesses. And we find cultures that seek to "free" sex from its moral and social context, tolerating forcing children to marry old men and accepting child prostitution. The facts that need to be shared with the young generation are, as we learn from both historical and contemporary experiences, that both attempts to repress sex as well as to let it roam freely, cause much human misery.

Sexual exploitation, for example, is far from unknown, even in our society. A high proportion of teen pregnancies are caused by men who are not high school boys, but who are at least five years older than the girls they impregnate. Frequently, these are men who hang around the mothers of the girls involved and sex is non-consensual. (Seventy-five percent of teenage pregnancies and youth-affected STDs would still occur if all teenage boys refrained from having sex; fifty-one percent of pregnancies in junior high school would still occur if teenage boys refrained from having sex, according to one study [Males 1993].) Incest is also all too common. Strategies for dealing with those who pressure children to have sex should be included in all intimacy programs.

Several studies and surveys of teenage girls have found that, more than information about contraception, STDs, HIV, and pregnancy, what girls seek most is information on how to refuse to engage in sexual acts without hurting someones feelings. Better communication skills are also necessary for boys, particularly relating to rape and sexual harassment prevention, and how to relate better to fellow human beings. These skills make people into better friends, employees, neighbors, and community members. They are particularly significant in the context of sex education.

Even much less severe expressions of sex are matters of serious concern. Making sexual advances to someone committed to ones friend is a quick way to lose that friendship and to offend ones community. The same holds for continuing to make sexual advances to those who indicate that they do not appreciate being approached.

In contrast, sex properly contextualized is a precondition of our future. Sex can be an appropriate way to cement relations that have properly matured, and it can be a source of much joy.

In short, sex should always be viewed, treated, and taught within the context of values and relations.

Implications for Sex Education

Specifically, when the general orientation of the program is brought to bear on sex education, the program should stress that bringing children into the world is a moral act, one that entails a set of personal and social responsibilities. We all need to appreciate that sex is not a merely biological act, sex is much more than "recreational." It is an act that can carry with it serious consequences including loss of life. Responsible persons weigh the moral issues involved; they take into account that yielding to impulse in this area can lead to dire consequences for the child to be born, restrict the life chances of the parents, and corrode the values of the communities in which we are all members.

Education for intimacy seeks to encourage children to refrain from having children. Children born to children often suffer considerably physiologically, psychologically, and otherwise. These babies are more prone to illnesses, anxieties, and other afflictions. They often become public charges in a society that is increasingly disinclined to attend to children properly.

Children who have babies often find their life opportunities seriously constricted. They are much less likely to complete their studies, find work, and otherwise develop their own life, economically, socially and otherwise.

When educational programs favor that young people defer engaging in sex, the question is raised, should sex be deferred until a person is 18? 21? married? The question is often raised by those who argue that sex is only proper within marriage. While much is to be said for deferring sex until two people have made the kind of permanent commitment and mutual responsibility implied by marriage, marriage does not provide the only criterion. We would urge young teens to defer both sex and marriage on the ground that they are likely not to be ready to make a responsible decision in either department. And we are less troubled by intimate relations between mature adults than between children. Maturity is measured by behavior rather than chronological age, but it is more common among those who are older than those who are younger.

"Responsible Sex" or Abstinence?

Many discussions of sex education start with the question of which sex education methodology to follow. We deliberately delayed addressing this issue to emphasize that if proper values and interpersonal skill development are included in the intimacy education program, intercourse is no longer the only issue or main focus. At the same time we maintain that programs that deal only with values or relations but exclude specific sex education are insufficient for reasons that will become evident shortly.

The methodology we favor diverges from the notion that sex should be described simply as a natural, healthy act and that children should be taught how to proceed safely, but not be discouraged otherwise. Statements such as "sexuality is natural and healthy part of living" and "all persons are sexual" may be correct by some standards of psychiatry (which consider all erotic responses sexual) but are open to gross misinterpretation when given to children, especially without the proper normative context. To state that "the primary goal of sexuality education is the promotion of sexual health" is particularly unfortunate in this context. At the same time, we suggest that approaches which treat sex not tied to procreation as sinful, shameful, or dirty should be avoided. To confess, in this context, that "most merciful God, we confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves," may speak to some people with religious commitments (but surely offends others); provided as a part of a statement about "human sexuality" it sends a rather different message than the one we endorse here.

As we see it, sex should be viewed originally as a primordial urge. Like all others, it cannot be ignored and should not be suppressed but its expressions must be subject to self-control. What is needed is (a) that a person will form judgments before he or she acts and (b) that a person will channel expression of this urge into morally and socially proper, responsible channels.

We cannot embrace narrow sex education programs that favor sharing full information about safe sex with young children. These programs tend to assume that the resulting effects of encouraging sexual activity are minimal. We oppose programs that address contraception in "...a tone of value neutrality, focusing on clinical information to the exclusion of social, emotional, and moral aspects of sex," as some do (Mauldon and Luker 1996).

At the same time we are also concerned about programs that promote abstinence only and do not take sufficiently into account the moral issues that arise by the many (even those in highly religious groups) who do not adhere to the high standards involved, engage in sex, and hence risk exposure to AIDS and other STDs, or experience unwanted pregnancies. These effects can be significantly reduced, albeit not eliminated, if they are convinced to learn about safer sex.

We strongly urge educators, parents, community members and policy-makers to note that there are ways to strongly urge young people to defer sexual behavior and still provide information for those who proceed anyhow, without making these two messages cancel each other out or seem contradictory. We favor those programs that urge children to wait--at least until they are mature enough to deal with the consequences of their sexual acts--but also provide them with information on how to conduct themselves if they do not wait. Responsibility should include the notion of deferring sex and engaging in it in a responsible manner. We note that this position is advocated, among many others, by Bishop Albert Rouet, the chairman of the French Roman Catholic bishops social committee (Whitney 1996).

In dealing with other topics, divorce for instance, religious groups have found ways to extol the importance of preserving marriage, and still counsel with those who divorce. The same can be done for sex education. One can strongly advocate abstinence, but also provide youngsters with age-appropriate sex information and ways to proceed responsibly and more safely, lest they rely on misconstrued notions provided by much less wholesome and irresponsible sources. (This approach is sometimes referred to as "abstinence, plus".)

Facilitating and Inhibiting Factors

Merely relying on will power, "just say no," is psychologically naive and unrealistic. Educators should point out that (a) use of drugs and alcohol reduces our self-control; and that (b) other forms of intimacy than intercourse are also best deferred. Our grandparents had a point: Dressing eight-year-old girls with training bras, arranging "socials" with close dancing for nine-year-old children, and other such activities do not always lead to premature sexual experimentation but neither are they without any such effects.

Children need to be taught that the use of alcohol and drugs lowers a persons ability to deal with urges in ways that are socially constructive and morally responsible. They need to learn--and above all experience--the joy of living up to their moral values and social commitment by engaging in acts such as community service, peer mentoring, sports, successful completion of taxing assignments and sharing in the household duties. "Just say no" should be preceded, accompanied and followed by mores one finds reason or value for saying "yes" to. The sociological record shows that those positively engaged, are most able to resist yielding to their raw impulses. There are so many other meaningful and enjoyable activities to cultivate.

The School as a Total Environment

The program envisioned should not be limited to lectures and reading material. Role playing, role modeling, peer mentoring, school assemblies, plays, tapes and other educational techniques should be used. Acquiring communication skills allows people to fend off unwanted and premature sexual advances without feeling inadequate, guilty, or isolated. They enable youngsters to handle conflicts that arise when the pace of development of two or more young people vary. Assemblies, peer juries, and other such educational techniques help develop the moral voice of the school community.

Who is to be Entrusted with Intimacy Education?

Parents should be involved; they have both rights and responsibilities in this area. If parents would initiate, advance, and complete the education of their children in a socially and morally appropriate manner, there would be no need for schools to become involved in this subject. The fact, though, is that all too many parents are either unable or unwilling to dedicate themselves sufficiently to the education of their children. Indeed, throughout modern times, schools have supplemented parental education, and stepped in where parents were not available or their contributions to character education were inadequate. Public education for intimacy is no different.

The fact, however, that some of the responsibility for sex education is delegated to schools, does not mean that parents have lost their right and duty to be involved in decision-making concerning the education to which their children are subjected, especially with highly charged and normatively loaded issues. True, parents are not the only ones who have a say when it comes to education; the state, for instance, mandates both attendance and numerous subjects and other matters of education policy. The parents, though, should not be excluded both as a matter of right and because their involvement can greatly enhance the education provided in school.

Parents have a right to be informed and consulted about all school programs. Schools should actively reach out to the parents and keep them informed about their approach to teaching sex education and what issues they will discuss. The parents right is accompanied by a responsibility of the parents to inform themselves on the issues at hand before they act to curtail a program or urge the adoption of another or seek to remove their children from a given course.

Parents should have the right--and be afforded the opportunity--to opt children out of classes on intimacy, but not to block the whole program. This opting-out system requires notifying parents ahead of time about the material that is going to be covered in such classes, the methodology to be used, and other relevant matters. Children who are being opted out by their parents should be given some other assignments in the same period.

At the same time, an opt in system, according to which a child would only be enrolled in a course if his or her parents provided prior written approval, is not called for. Children should not be denied education of any kind just because their parents are not available or are indifferent to the point that they neglect to act. They should be given full opportunity to act on their values, but not to block education by inaction.

There is an exception to te above policy: The community may take the position that withholding certain kinds of information directly endangers lives. Similar to vaccines, the common good may take priority over parental objections under certain limited conditions (Etzioni 1993: ch. 6). If schools have evidence that in their jurisdiction a significant number of children die from AIDS, and they believe that there is no other way to prevent the spread of the disease among their students, they may require "inoculation" of youngsters against such dangers by sharing with them proper information and devices. This should be done only after the community discusses these matters with its elected bodies and following open hearings.

Schools Other Partners; Schools in the Societal Context

Schools are but one factor in the societal matrix that affects childrens attitudes toward sex. The media, families, adult role models, socio-economic forces, and numerous other factors affect young people. Educators should make it clear that they cannot single-handedly deliver all the desired outcomes. Educators need to act as agents who endeavor to activate other social agents, calling on them to discharge their responsibilities in this area, become partners of and with educators. For instance, educators should support efforts to improve the messages to which children are exposed on television. At the same time these "other" forces should not be used as a rationale for families or educators to not do their part.

* * *

We offer these thoughts and suggestions as part of a communitarian dialogue about shoring up the moral, social and political foundations of society. Within this context, these recommendations are a part of the need to build character and provide sex education within a social and moral context. We do not have "the answers" but suggest that the directions we indicate are a morally appropriate and socially constructive way to proceed. The next step is to review programs that approximate our approach to education for interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy.


Etzioni, Amitai. (1993). The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Males, Mike. (1993). "School Age Pregnancy: Why Hasnt Prevention Worked?," Journal of School Health (December): 429-432.

Mauldon, Jane, and Kristin Luker. (1996). "Does Liberalism Cause Sex?," The American Prospect 24 (Winter): 85.

Ryan, Kevin. (1995). "Character Education in Our Society," Newark News and Views, January.

Whitney, Craig. (1996). "French Bishop Supports Some Use of Condoms to Prevent AIDS," New York Times, February 13, A:5.

About the Author

Amitai Etzioni is the founder and director of The Communitarian Network. He has written extensively on educational matters, especially in The Spirit of Community (1993) and The New Golden Rule (1996).

The following people have endorsed this paper:

William DAntonio, Professor, Catholic University of America

Margaret Pruitt Clark, President, Advocates for Youth

Amitai Etzioni, Founder and Director, The Communitarian Network

Neil Gilbert, Acting Dean and Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and Social Services, University of California, Berkeley

Helen Liebowitz

Luigi Mastroianni, Director, Division of Human Reproduction, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center

David Meyers, Professor of Psychology, Hope College

David Popenoe, Professor, Rutgers University

Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow, The Urban Institute

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052