Moral panics, not lax values, are what’s hurting our youth

By Ellen Friedrichs

As a kid, I discovered a copy of 1971’s, Go Ask Alice, shelved in the nonfiction section of my school’s library. With an editor’s note vouching for the book’s authenticity, Alice is told as a series of diary entries, purportedly written by a teen girl whose bright future gets derailed after she is slipped LSD. Within days, the anonymous author has taken her first puff of marijuana, and almost overnight she is shooting, then selling drugs and supporting her habit with sex work. A graphic rape, psychosis, and long-suffering parents also feature heavily before the narrator dies of an overdose a few short months after the book begins.

Positioned as a real life cautionary tale during the heyday of the war on drugs, Alice was eventually revealed to be pure fiction.

These days, horror stories about drug-addled teen runaways aren’t making headlines like they once were. (And for what it’s worth, neither are the concerns over satanic messages in heavy metal or D&D). But, false narratives, many which draw on moral panics of the past, are still being used to justify many of the current attacks on issues like sex education and supports for LGBT+ youth. 

Sometimes the claim is that sex educators are “grooming” children for sex. Other times it is that classroom teachers are sneaking in a dangerous agenda via the consent movement, something that detractors believe is, “less about avoiding assault and more about promoting sex and sexual rights.” Then there is the charge that a nefarious LGBT “indoctrination” program is at work on our kids.

These attacks have emerged from adult anxieties over a changing culture and then have been justified using recycled moral panics about gay men or pedophilia rings. But not only are such claims utter fabrications, they also willfully ignore the fact that far from harming kids, decades of research has demonstrated the benefits of comprehensive sex education, the importance of LGBT+ representation in curriculum, and the protective nature of sexual orientation and gender-affirming care.

And those benefits had real world outcomes. During the first two decades of the 2000’s, as more and more schools adopted LGBT+ supportive policies and programs, we saw a real drop in the harassment and abuse of LGBT+ youth. And since the 1990’s there have been significant  declines in teen sexual activity, increases in condom use, and a dramatic drop in teen pregnancy. Those are things that were impacted by things like the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance companies cover contraception starting in 2012, the 2014 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that sexually active teenagers be offered long-acting reversible contraception, and comprehensive sex education programs, which have been found time and time again to reduce the rates of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors, sexually transmitted infections, and adolescent pregnancy. 

But instead of celebrating the positives, those opposing comprehensive sex education (not to mention reproductive rights) are focusing on the imagined, and rather unclear risks of programs that “glamorize” sex, or “promote gender confusion.”

As a result, over a dozen states have introduced legislation like Florida’s, “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Others are forbidding a range of gender-affirming forms of care that include everything from medical treatment to social supports, like using a person’s accurate name and pronoun, allowing them to play sports on the team consistent with their identity, and providing a safe bathroom. Schools around the country are also banning books and doubling down on disproven abstinence-only curriculum, not to mention the fact that something my own kids loved, namely drag story hours, are under actual assault at libraries around the country. 

The impact of all the pushback is already becoming clear. In its 2022 school climate survey, the LGBT+ youth advocacy organization GLSEN reported that between 2019 and 2021, there had been a decline in the availability of school resources for LGBTQ+ youth, and an increase in homophobic and negative remarks about gender expression by teachers and staff. The survey further found that LGBTQ+ students who experienced identity related discrimination at school were nearly three times as likely as those that hadn’t to have missed school, have lower GPAs, and higher levels of depression.

We also know that in many places comprehensive school sex education is becoming a thing of the past. As a result, many teens have to go online to get their questions answered. Though some will get accurate information, a whole lot of others won’t. As a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, cleverly titled, Let’s Tok About Sex reported, “Although sex education on TikTok may fill critical gaps in school-based curricula—and do so unencumbered by politics or bureaucracy—teenagers may not be well-positioned to tell fact from fiction. For example, teens may encounter videos characterizing pubic hair as unhygienic and be encouraged to remove it.” It seems pretty clear that the erosion of sex education, combined with increasing restrictions on reproductive healthcare, mean that we will lose many of the gains that have been made around sexual health.

The current round of moral panics are less about protecting youth and are more about a resistance to change and the promotion of a particular set of values. Claiming the moral high ground, often through the use of moral panics, can make it hard to stand up for what we know keeps young people safe. But not standing up means doing those young people a real disservice. 

Drug panic meant that it took decades for Go Ask Alice to be revealed as the fabrication it was. Let’s hope that our current panics won’t make it take anywhere near that long to expose the falsehoods being spread about sexuality and identity today. 

Ellen Friedrichs is a contributing writer for Motherwell. She is a health educator and mom of three based in New York. Find her at

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