On Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Political Reason: Individualisation and Totalisation
How sincere motives drive the growth of the biopolitical state
[T]he global community has come to embrace a bold and transformative development agenda to achieve a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met and where no one is left behind.
-Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO
The International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: An Evidence-Informed Approach (UNESCO, 2018) [available in English here] does not sound like a particularly interesting document. But it is one which should be read by anybody who wishes to understand the way in which the world works. This is because it almost perfectly embodies our predicament in microcosm: we have become enslaved by what Michel Foucault referred to as ‘political reason’, and we do not have the foggiest idea that this is even the case, let alone that we need to escape from it.
Let’s start with the document itself. For the last decade or so, a head of steam has been building within the United Nations behind something called Comprehensive Sexuality Education or CSE (which I also mentioned in my previous post). What this means defies easy summary, but here is the World Health Organisaton’s definition:
[CSE] gives young people accurate, age-appropriate information about sexuality and their sexual and reproductive health, which is critical for their health and survival.
So far, so good; when put in this way, it sounds like something one would be hard pressed to oppose. It sounds indeed like the type of sex education that you or I probably encountered in school - this is where babies come from; this is what happens when a woman gives birth; there are these things called STIs, so watch out. And CSE does naturally include such information. The trouble is that it includes a great deal else. From the introduction to the Technical Guidance:
Many young people approach adulthood faced with conflicting, negative and confusing messages about sexuality that are often exacerbated by embarrassment and silence from adults, including parents and teachers. In many societies, attitudes and laws discourage public discussion of sexuality and sexual behaviour, and social norms may perpetuate harmful conditions, for example gender inequality in relation to sexual relationships, family planning and modern contraceptive use.
A significant body of evidence shows that CSE enables children and young people to develop: accurate and age appropriate knowledge, attitudes and skills; positive values, including respect for human rights, gender equality and diversity, and, attitudes and skills that contribute to safe, healthy, positive relationships... CSE is also important as it can help young people reflect on social norms, cultural values and traditional beliefs, in order to better understand and manage their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, other adults and their communities.
This, you will not have failed to notice, is considerably more ambitious than giving young people ‘accurate, age-appropriate information about sexuality and their sexual and reproductive health, which is critical for their health and survival’. Ignore the softness of the language and focus on what is at stake: ‘attitudes and laws’, ‘social norms’, ‘cultural values’ and ‘traditional beliefs’. Observe what is being proposed: that school teachers (and also ‘trained social workers and counsellors’) take it upon themselves, armed with CSE, to not only - as an academic might put it - help children problematise social norms and values, but also help them ‘better understand and manage their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, other adults and their communities’.
Let’s leave aside the most controversial element of CSE, which is its insistence - at times seeming almost deliberately designed to peturb conservatives - that ‘sexuality is present throughout life’ and that ‘education is a major tool for promoting sexual well-being and preparing children and young people for healthy and responsible relationships at the different stages of their lives [emphasis added]’. This is not what I wish to focus on here, which is rather the extraordinary scope of what is being advocated. CSE, to use the Technical Guide’s own terms, is ‘transformative’. It:
contributes to the formation of a fair and compassionate society by empowering individuals and communities, promoting critical thinking skills and strengthening young people’s citizenship [and] provides [them] with opportunities to explore and nurture positive values and attitudes towards Sexual and Reproductive Health and to develop self-esteem and respect for human rights and gender equality.
In short, it envisages the role of the school as being not just to educate children in the traditional sense, but to transform society, and especially ‘attitudes and laws’, ‘social norms’, ‘cultural values’ and ‘traditional beliefs’. And it founds itself on the notion it is appropriate to use compulsory state-run education to teach children how to ‘manage their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, other adults and their communities’, rather than the parents, other adults and communities themselves. In essence, it does nothing less than bring the entire sphere of human relationships - including the most elementary of all: sexual relationships and familial relationships - within the scope of interest of the state. One could even say that it its chief function is to render transparent to the state the field of human relationships in the round.
The subtext (sometimes it becomes a supertext) to all of this, of course, is that the ‘managing’ of relationships is something that human beings cannot be trusted to do spontaneously and naturally; that it is not something that children will necessarily learn from the adults around them, because those adults are not competent to teach or demonstrate it; and that the solution to these problems is always for the state to insert itself into the private sphere - in this case through the mechanism of teachers and trained social workers, and advised by international global governance bodies like UNESCO.
In this, CSE epitomises the working out of what Michel Foucault referred to as ‘political reason’. What he meant by this was that type of reason that rationalises and justifies the existence of relationships of power - between, for example, the governor and governed. When we seek, that is, to justify the existence of the state and the right of the ruler to rule, we are applying political reason.
This is not difficult to understand, but worth spelling out. CSE, in postulating a world in which people are simply incapable of working out how to properly ‘manage’ their relationships between themselves, and in which parents and other adults can’t really be expected to bring up the children around them with the appropriate values, readily constructs a series of problems which require a state-based solution. And therefore the state, for obvious reasons, simply has to step in. The Technical Guidance sets out the logic in its very introduction, quite sternly:
[T]oo many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete or judgment-laden information affecting their physical, social and emotional development. This inadequate preparation not only exacerbates the vulnerability of children and youth to exploitation and other harmful outcomes, but it also represents the failure of society’s duty bearers [read: parents, faith leaders, extended families, etc.] to fulfil their obligations to an entire generation.
The message there is clear enough. The Technical Guidance is a dry document, and the authors are anxious to come across as level-headed. In other, less formal UN output we see things put in starker and more excitable terms: ‘comprehensive sexuality education is an effective means to address systems of patriarchal domination and toxic masculinity’, we are told, but is also essential (yes, essential) to realising the right to a ‘pleasurable, satisfying and safe sex life’. The inference is clear: without the state interfering and mandating CSE for all children and young people, not only will patriarchy and toxic masculinity run riot, but everybody will be having bad sex to boot.
What we are talking about, then, is really political reason on steroids. And it has two necessary consequences. Foucault’s assertion was that political reason was both ‘individualising and totalising’. Again, this is not difficult to understand, but worth spelling out. The state’s impulse is always to atomise the population, such that each and every individual first and foremost looks to their relationship to the state as the most important in their lives. And this is at the same time necessarily a totalising impulse, as it installs the state as the very essence of society, without which the latter simply cannot survive, let along flourish.
This is the basis of political reason, but why is it so? Regular readers will I hope forgive me for returning to Machiavelli, who made things perfectly clear: ‘[A] wise ruler…must think of a method by which his citizens will need the state and himself at all times and in every circumstance. Then they will always be loyal to him.’ Needing the state in order to address systems of patriarchal domination and toxic masculinity while ensuring everybody enjoys their right to pleasurable, satisfying and safe sex were probably not at the forefront of his mind. But the logic of CSE is impeccably ‘prince-like’ in character all the same. It is predicated on a construction of a vulnerable, benighted and ignorant populace, who simply cannot be expected to govern their own affairs, and must look to the state at every turn - even when ‘managing’ their relationships and even when having sex.
This leads us to two important closing observations. ‘The state’ of course does not have a will, and while speaking as though it does can be helpful, it often makes us overlook important aspects of its character. One of these (as Milan Kundera once wrote, it is always the most banal observations that shock us most) is that when we speak of the state, what we really mean is a group of individual people who like to gain positions of power and, once installed in such positions, like to keep them. When we think of the state’s imperative as being to secure the loyalty of the citizens, therefore, what we really mean is that there are many thousands of people who man the organs of the state (this could be extended to global governance bodies like UNESCO, of course) and each and every one of them derives their power and influence - and salary - from presenting themselves as fulfilling a need. At the ground level, this is how political reason has to be understood: the sum total of the individual decisions and ambitions that, taken together, give effect to the individualising and totalising nature of the phenomenon.
Seeing things in these terms also allows us to understand motives a bit more clearly. The economist Bruce Yandel observed that the state often acts under pressures from opposite directions which nonetheless work in concert. Prohibition in the USA, for example, was the work of both Baptist campaigners (who had pure, benevolent motives) and bootleggers (who profited from booze being illegal). The ‘bootlegger and baptist’ dynamic is very frequently at work in the genesis of political reason, as the example of CSE aptly demonstrates; it is hard to doubt the sincerity of the desire amongst those who advised UNSCEO in preparing its Technical Guidance to prevent discrimination, protect young people from STIs, and so on. The problem - the tragedy, indeed, if that is not too portentous a term - is that such sincerity is not at all inconsistent with the ultimate end, which is the state and its organs, advised at every turn by bodies of experts and global governance bodies, taking upon itself the mantle of regulating every sphere of human life - right down to the most elementary spheres of all, which are reproduction and child-rearing.