"I will choose friends who choose abstinence," urges a document used in one New York State sex education curriculum. "I will always stick to my sex role," the same curriculum continues. If you find these two recommendations alarming, or you cannot quite fathom their implications, you may believe that Mayor Bloomberg's mandate that all NYC public high school students learn sex education is progress, but not enough.
Bloomberg's August 9 mandate, which is currently going into effect, is the city's most significant with concern to health education since required HIV/AIDS curricula was introduced in the 1990s. Many organizations, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, laud it as a major step forward in teaching teenagers pregnancy and STI prevention.
But they also warn of the marked difference between demanding that NYC high school students receive some semblance of sex education, and demanding a program that actually teaches us what we need to know. As the NYCLU and other organizations work with the Department of Education to implement the new policy, it is crucial that the DOE listen to their well-researched recommendations.
Imagine a scale from one to 10. One marks abstinence-only-until-heterosexual-marriage education, while 10 represents safer sex-positive, LGBTQ-inclusive education. My high school's curriculum up until this year falls somewhere in the scale's middle, but tips precariously toward its lower end.
One student knew the curriculum would not meet her expectations from the moment she received two handouts on the topic of puberty. Smiling out from the "male version" of the handout was a muscular football player sporting a #5 jersey, chin stubble, cleats, and a football held under his arm. The "female version" displayed a stick-thin cheerleader wearing a tank top and miniskirt, and clutching pompoms. Even without the sex-specific details, you would know the intended gender of the figure on each worksheet. Why? The pictures engender flagrant stereotypes about what boys like to do versus what girls like to do. But the flaws go deeper.
"We would learn all about different STDs and what the symptoms are," remarked another anonymous student, "but not even how to use a condom." Furthermore, the curriculum mentions neither alternative methods of barrier protection (such as dental dams and finger cots), nor many hormonal methods of birth control. Course materials only truly acknowledge penis-in-vagina sex, and one student complained that when anal sex was discussed in her classroom, it was described as "unnatural." As the sex-education website Scarleteen puts it, such biased portrayals tend to "throw queer people under the bus."
Educators at my school do show the movie Philadelphia in health classes, in which a law firm discriminates against Tom Hanks' character, a gay man, for having AIDS. In the same movie, students see Denzel Washington's character react in a homophobic manner to a man who flirted with him, not realizing he was straight.
Some note with approval the minimal inclusion of gay content, while others remain dissatisfied. After all, gay men are not mentioned except through a movie associating them with HIV/AIDS, and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are erased completely from the discourse. No worksheets on what constitutes a healthy relationship includes LGBT relationships. And while the movie was thought-provoking, there is a broader discussion to be had in health class about homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism and cissexism.
In fact, there is a broader discussion to be had in health class about all kinds of oppression, including racism, sexism, faithism, and classism. What socioeconomic group has teenage girls getting pregnant and dropping out of school in dismaying numbers because they think that college is not an option? What religion has boys foregoing condoms because their churches taught them only the sanctity of abstinence and the sin of contraception?
Groundbreaking curricula do exist to address the gaping holes in most kids' education, holes that exist through no fault of their own. The textbook It's All One teaches health through a human rights lens; a resource called "Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH)" has unprecedented lessons addressing a range of gender expression and gender stereotypes, and not once exhibits heteronormativity. Needless to say, regardless of how the DOE rules, educators citywide should consider adopting similar lesson plans.
This summer, I interned at the NYCLU and spent much of my time there systematically cataloging the sex education curricula of multiple New York schools, whose materials we accessed via Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. I sat at my cubicle, noting what different districts included and omitted.
Quite a few worksheets supplied inaccurate information; for example, that condoms are most effective when coated in the spermicide Nonoxyl-09. Actually, that spermicide eats away at the condom, rendering it unsafe to use. Other worksheets would be ridiculously simplistic for middle school students, let alone high school students. One fill-in-the-blank worksheet prompts the student: opportunistic diseases arising from the weak, HIV-infected immune system "usually cause the person to..." die. "Die" is the contextually correct answer choice that students may select from the word bank at the top of the page. The accompanying illustration features a face with a downturned squiggle of a mouth, and exes for eyes.
Another disturbing trend is the tendency in the curricula to gloss over female sexuality. Teaching materials on the male reproductive system suggest that teachers "may want to trace the path of the sperm from the testicles, through the vas deferens, seminal vesicles, prostate gland, and urethra" to explain the complete process of ejaculation and orgasm. Meanwhile, the "equivalent" materials on the female reproductive system simply state that knowledge of their anatomy can help girls "better grasp what happens during the menstrual cycle."
There was no mention of vaginal lubrication or female orgasm, when two pages ago I skimmed dully over detailed explanations of erections, semen, and wet dreams. Every curriculum I examined had diagrams of the external male genitalia, while the vast majority of curricula supplied only internal diagrams of the female genitalia.
It is unimaginable that a girl could graduate from health class without knowing her uterus from her urethra. And in one rare external diagram of the vagina, the clitoris was redacted. Someone had literally taken a Sharpie and blacked it out so it could not be seen.
When a curriculum suggests 101 ways to stay abstinent but not one resource for STI testing, New York needs an overhaul. When a curriculum constantly depicts men as lewd and domineering, and women as prude and submissive, New York needs an overhaul. When a curriculum uses the word "sodomy" to describe anal sex, New York needs an overhaul. And when a curriculum defines the ovaries as "the woman's egg factory" and the vagina as "the penis fits in here," New York needs an overhaul.
That overhaul needs to cover its bases and beyond, and teach kids more than just first base, second base, third base, and fourth. Because when we close our books and head home for the night, bad sex education has consequences deeper than STIs and pregnancy.