Students (Photo: Ed Reed / Mayor’s Office)
As in many states, New York’s sex education laws are dizzyingly complex. Sex education itself isn’t mandatory in New York public schools (although many school districts choose to teach it), but HIV / AIDs awareness is – although parents can opt out of their children with the promise that they’ll teach the content at home . When sex education occurs, New York State law requires that abstinence be emphasized, but does not impose any legal requirements on medical veracity. Some individual school districts, such as New York City, mandate a comprehensive sex education (CSE) curriculum, while others have no such requirements.
Democratic State Senator Samra Brouk’s bill (S2584) would simplify some of this clutter by mandating comprehensive sexuality education for all K-12 state public and charter students in New York. It should be passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor as soon as possible.
CSE is supported by the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Public Health Association, and others. And with its commitment to “being age-appropriate, medically correct, and involving all students,” CSE should be the bare minimum of what we ask of sex education in schools, and Brouk’s bill should be a breeze.
But if history is a guide, there is no guarantee that our young people will be given what they owe. In New York’s legislative year 2020, there were six very similar bills to those in Bourk, all of which failed.
Despite widespread support from medical, public health, and education experts, opposition to CSE is fierce in New York and across the country. The Catholic Church and other conservative Christian denominations spoke out against a bill almost identical to Bourk’s in 2019 and will almost certainly oppose that bill, and the right-wing media are already working to misrepresent the project.
“Get ready for the latest wave of education,” began the New York Post in an article on the bill. The Christian Post proclaimed, “The New York bill could force schools to teach kindergarten teachers sex and second graders gender identity.”
Both viewpoints misrepresent the CSE project. First, the implication that comprehensive sex education is new is wrong. Sex education of some kind for students of all ages (including kindergarten teachers) has been in the United States since at least 1913, and “comprehensive sex education” is a term that has been used since at least 1981, if not earlier.
And while the term “sex ed” used in these articles is more reminiscent of a condom and a banana, in reality CSE encompasses a whole range of things that most of us do not consider exactly falling into that category.
SIECUS, a comprehensive sex education advocacy group founded in 1964, publishes guidelines for CSE that will likely be used to develop New York curricula when Brouk’s bill is passed. SIECUS outlines six “key concepts” for CSE: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture.
SIECUS ‘recommendations for the youngest grades are relatively tame and mostly have to do with families, friendship, body parts and emotions. The main focus is on teaching children that their bodies belong to themselves, a measure that serves to reduce incidences of sexual abuse in childhood.
The frank discussion of masturbation, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV / AIDS for the younger classes, and the information on contraception, abortion, and gender identity for the older classes may make some squeamish – but truthful answers, words, and names are better than the alternative.
And the alternative to CSE is rarely no sex education at all. While some school districts may forego the subject altogether, schools often choose to instead adopt an AOUM (Sexual Risk Avoidance Education) (SRAE) curriculum that is now renamed “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education” (SRAE).
AOUM / SRAE curricula are characterized by their refusal to teach (and sometimes even discuss) contraception. They were traditionally and consistently homophobic, racist, Christian and can be medically imprecise – all of this is correct for CSE classes.
The objectionable prejudice and misinformation in these curricula is enough to demand their immediate non-use, but the data also suggests that AOUM / SRAE classes simply do not work in a measurable way. CSE has a number of goals, some of which are more quantifiable than others. But one of the markers of a successful sex education curriculum should certainly be its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections – and in that regard, AOUM / SRAE have been shown to be less effective than CSE.
And preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy should be a priority everywhere, including New York. As of 2018, New York had the 10th highest rate in the nation for both chlamydia and syphilis, and 54% of all sexually transmitted diseases were diagnosed in people under the age of 26. The United States has one of the highest teen birth rates in developed countries.
These are important topics: real-world problems that cry out for real, data-driven solutions. CSE is one of those solutions, and we should no longer allow deliberate misinformation about it to cloud our perceptions or actions.
Margaret Grace Myers is a Brooklyn based writer. On Twitter @margaretgmyers.