DES MOINES, IOWA—The question was not about the billionaires ruining democracy, the greenhouse gases destroying the planet, or the “bigotry” of Donald Trump.
It was about something presidential candidates aren’t often asked about: teaching sex in schools.
“Sex education in American schools is abysmal,” charged a 16-year-old student at Theodore Roosevelt High School here. “What will you do to get rid of government-funded abstinence-only education and replace it with comprehensive sex ed?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old used to railing against oligarchs, had an answer this morning.
“Here’s the issue. Everybody knows sexuality makes people uncomfortable, right? It’s not an issue everybody talks about,” Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent running in the Democratic primary, said.
“Let me tell you something. It is a reality of human life. Either we can ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist and we can live in ignorance with regard to sexuality or we can look at it scientifically and seriously,” he added, recalling a meeting he had a “number of months ago” with a girl who said her school didn’t provide much sex education.
“They received virtually no sex education and it turned out … seven girls in her graduating class were either pregnant or had babies. That’s what happens when we don’t discuss sexuality frankly,” Mr. Sanders continued. “It’s a part of human life, it needs to be discussed. Frankly, an abstinence-only is certainly not the only answer.”
Mr. Sanders’ response drew loud applause from the auditorium of students and teachers, where Mr. Sanders took questions after delivering an abbreviated version of his usual progressive stump speech. Justin Long, a movie and television actor, introduced him, joking about the senator’s likeness to the actor and comedian who impersonated him on Saturday Night Live, Larry David. (Both wild white-haired men are Brooklyn natives.)
While Democratic candidates, not courting evangelical voters, are far more likely to call for more comprehensive sex education like Mr. Sanders has, the senator’s past words and writings about sexuality have drawn scrutiny before. As a young journalist in the 1970s, he wrote in a satirical essay that a woman “fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously.”
Last year, Mr. Sanders’ campaign called the essay “dumb” and not “reflective” of his views on women, though he insisted at the time, as he did today, that Americans need to talk about sex more honestly.