Today’s teens don’t have to search too hard for information about sex. From movies and television to magazines and the Internet, sexual images and messages are everywhere.
More often than not, kids cobble together their own understanding of sexuality from a mix of popular culture, schoolyard lore, and personal experience. Not surprisingly, misconceptions abound.
Bronx public high school teacher Ilana Garon wrote about 10th grade boys at her school who believed that a carbonated drink nicknamed “Nutbusters” rendered males temporarily infertile if consumed 30 minutes before intercourse. The students talked about drinking soda as an alternative to using a condom.
So whose job is it to set the record straight and teach kids about the birds and the bees? Should parents be held entirely responsible? Or should schools be expected to incorporate sex education into their curricula?
STATE OF THE UNION
Currently in the United States, whether students are taught sex ed in school, and what specifically gets taught, depends on where they live.
As of January 2011, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex and H.I.V. education in schools. An additional 12 states required H.I.V. education only.
According to a Guttmacher Institute policy paper, between the years 2006 and 2008, one in four teenagers nationwide were taught an abstinence-only curriculum without any information about contraceptive methods.
Nationally, 72 out of every 1000 teen girls becomes pregnant. That’s far above averages in other countries like Sweden (31 per 1000) or Canada (28 per 1000).
The question of whether sex education should be taught in schools recently came to a head in New York City when Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that starting this upcoming school year, all middle and high schools will be required to include sex education in their health curriculum.
The city’s mandate called for schools to teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade. They recommended the use of HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk, popular out-of-the-box curriculum sets.
“We must be committed to ensuring that both middle school and high school students are exposed to this valuable information so they can learn to keep themselves safe before, and when, they decide to have sex,” Walcott wrote in an email to school principals. “…I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy.”
The news set off a powder keg of controversy, with various stakeholders weighing in on whether and how sex education should be taught.
A MATTER OF DEBATE
Mariana Sanoh, a Brooklyn mother of a rising 8th grader, told the New York Daily News that she supported the sex education mandate. "I'm for it," she said. "Girls who are younger and younger are getting pregnant. I've seen the boyfriends, the kissing and the drama. I want my daughter to know right from wrong. The more knowledge the better."
Jamillah Salahuddin, another Brooklyn mom, openly opposed the policy. "I'd prefer that schools stick to academics," she said. "They have a lot to cover beside sex ed." Salahuddin planned to opt her 9-year-old daughter out of sex education classes once she reached middle school.
Many parents agreed that teaching children about sex is their job, not the school’s. During Mayor Bloomberg’s weekly radio show, one caller raised that objection, to which Bloomberg replied: “You just can't say, ‘Well, the parents should do it,’ because the parents aren't doing it. The evidence is there. You have a lot of young men who father kids and then don't realize it's their responsibility.”
When TakePart contacted Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union, she said that parents in her organization were most upset about being left out of the decision-making process, and wanted to have a say in what their children were being taught. Davids shared the organization’s official statement:
“Mayor Bloomberg's announcement of mandatory sex education in our schools without consulting parents is unacceptable. Moreover, Mr. Bloomberg puts the cart before the horse by announcing the new requirement without first developing the curriculum.… We hope Mr. Bloomberg will now consult with parents, religious leaders and community stakeholders in developing the curriculum, and ensuring parents are informed that they can opt out their children from some of the classes.”
“Similar programs have been in place for nearly 30 years in many schools and cities throughout the country, including New York City,” she began. “Some studies show only small decreases in teen sexual activity. Some studies show actual increases in teen sexual activity…. The bottom line is that despite access to both education, contraception and condoms, teen pregnancy and STD rates remain unacceptably high.”
Nolte pointed to two reasons why sex ed curricula did not accomplish desired outcomes. “First, the focus is on risk reduction, not risk avoidance,” she explained. “Ultimately, teens are getting the message that having sex with multiple partners has no consequences—as long as you practice ‘safe sex.’ They are not getting the message that behaviors have consequences, including sexual intercourse, whether or not you use a condom every time. You can still get pregnant, and you can still get sexually transmitted diseases.”
Secondly, she added, lessons are taught “without a deep reverence and respect for the dignity of the human person and the proper role of sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse is a powerful physical act, with intense emotional effects.”
Nolte concluded that sex education should stress risk avoidance, abstinence, and responsible behavior. “Teach teenagers about the importance of treating others, especially their boyfriend or girlfriend, with respect.…These teens are longing for authentic love—and settling for sexual intercourse. In the process, they never learn what to look for in an authentic lover and potential spouse.”
And so the sex ed debate rages on. Where do you stand?