There is a lot going on in New York right now, and I'm not talking about the Wall Street protests. In August of this year, the New York City government announced a mandate in which schools are required to teach a semester of comprehensive ("abstinence-plus") sexual health education in 6th or 7th grade and again in 9th or 10th grade.
Recently, the mandate has been criticized by more conservative elected officials and activists, despite the fact that public opinion studies have found that 82 percent of adults in the U.S. support abstinence-plus programs. Former Democratic Assemblyman from the Bronx, Michael Benjamin (who currently leads an anti-mandate group called the Parents Choice Coalition) argued that the curriculum involves "explicit, non-age appropriate" information.
But what is non-age appropriate about teaching teenagers how to properly use a condom? Or about targeting disadvantaged kids ages 15 to 19, who are disproportionately affected by teen pregnancy and STIs like chlamydia? Last week I heard a 20-year-old peer educator tell a group of doctors: "Wake up, people. Teens are having sex, and they may be having sex at even younger ages than you think. It's better to communicate with them than to leave them knowing nothing about their health."
Critics exaggerate the sexual health education program's emphasis on the non-abstinence pieces of the mandate. The executive director of the anti-abortion Chiaroscuro Foundation said: "You don't have to be some religious fanatic to not want your ninth-grader comparison price-shopping for condoms at the local store." Not only does this statement hyperbolize the teaching methods of the comprehensive curriculum, it also gives rise to concern. If your teenager is having sex, why wouldn't you prefer that he or she does so in the safest way possible? If this means comparing the prices of condoms, so be it. (P.S. Youth can get condoms for free throughout New York City, so "shopping at the local store" is unnecessary).
The bottom line, as NARAL President Andrea Miller indicated, is that New York City teens are not learning what they need to about sex and they are desperate for information. Sexual health information is just as important to learning and to health care as any other subject. And parents are not doing a good enough job teaching safe sexual practices on their own: only 60% of parents are comfortable talking about condoms and birth control with their kids, even if they'd like to have open discussions about sex.
In fact, the comprehensive sexual health education mandate should set the tone for communicating about sex in a more open, inclusive manner both at school and at home. We at Teen SENSE believe that such communication is essential to enhancing a young person's well-being and to building tolerance for sexual differences.
The debate around the NYC mandate emphasizes the need for laws and official policies regarding sex education (the official mandate can be found in the New York Codes, Rules, and Regulations at 8 NYCRR 135.1, et seq.; in particular, Sections135.3(b)(2) and 135.3(c)(2)). Without such laws on the books, entire generations can be left uneducated about sexuality and sexual healthcare. In fact, New York City had no official sex education curriculum in schools for the past 20 years. Laws and enacting regulations allow stakeholders to have a clear shared framework for enforcement.
The Center for HIV Law and Policy thus welcomes such a change in our local law. We can't wait for the positive changes that the comprehensive curriculum will bring to young people's lives, to their communities, and to our great City.
For another take on this, please see "Sex Ed in New York City Schools: The Facts."