Let’s just get this part of the discussion out of the way: The next president is going to have to don
a hazmat suit and a full-body condom to even begin to clean up the mess he’s
inheriting. Iraq, for starters. But I’m here to talk about sex and sex-ed – and if there’s one thing the next president and first-lady will need to deal with, it’s the young people of our nation.
Let’s not forget about the children, shall
we? You know, the ones getting pregnant and contracting STDs at jaw-dropping
rates and at younger ages than previous generations in spite of … perhaps, even
because of federally funded (read: "state strong-armed") abstinence education. In which "education" should always be in quotes.
Recently I was at Philz Coffee
with a 19-year-old friend who grew up in the South Bay. He was telling
me about the sex ed he very recently got in high school. They separated
the genders (um, that’s another column). The principal brought in a
locked – locked! – briefcase with tapes (tapes!). The students watched
cartoons about reproduction and puberty, and that was that. He told me,
"It was so dumb. Everyone already knew that stuff. It didn’t tell us
anything about what we were all really doing." I asked him where kids
went to get their questions answered. He said, "Well, I went to your
Good thing he’s 19. But recently in Australian schools, researchers put
groundbreaking sexual health program for 16-25 year olds. Associate
Professor Moira Carmody from the University of Western Sydney’s Social Justice
and Social Change Research Centre did something totally shocking: She asked
teens what they needed from their sex ed programs. Carmody interviewed young
people about their sexual activity, experiences and concerns. Instead of
telling them that sex is bad or sinful or that you can catch AIDS from a public
library computer someone once used to look at porn, she used the kids’ feedback
to create a six-week program, subsequently run in six communities in Sydney and
regional New South Wales.
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That’s quite a bit different than what our federal
government pressures public schools to tell kids – and this is certainly where Obama and McCain should be taking notes. Like I said last year, abstinence
education is a failure, but at the 11th hour of 2007 it still got a huge
pile of federal cash. In most American public schools it focuses exclusively on
reproduction and marriage, and only shows students illustrations. Abstinence has
always been taught on one level or another, but when George W. took office, an
"abstinence-only" focus was aggressively pushed as the primary – the
only – way to give kids information about sex.
Here, no one asks kids what they’re experiencing
and what information they could use to help navigate decision-making in sexual
situations. What’s worse, according to the curriculum content guidelines for funding recipients, the required federal sex ed states that:
"Material must not promote contraception
and/or condom use (as opposed to risk elimination). A curriculum must not
promote or encourage sexual activity outside of marriage. A curriculum must not
promote or encourage the use of any type of contraceptives outside of marriage
or refer to abstinence as a form of contraception."
"The curriculum must have a
clear message regarding the importance of student abstinence from sexual
activity until marriage and must emphasize that the best life outcomes are more
likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage. Throughout the entire
curriculum, the term ‘marriage’ must be defined as ‘only a legal
union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife, and the word
"spouse" refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a
wife.’ (Consistent with federal law.) The curriculum must teach the
psychological and physical benefits of sexual abstinence-until-marriage for
youth. Information on contraceptives, if included, must be age-appropriate and
presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented.
Curriculum must not promote or endorse, distribute or demonstrate the use of
contraception or instruct students in contraceptive usage."
That sure goes a long way toward the real questions kids have about sex. The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and American adolescents are contracting HIV faster than almost any other demographic group. Texas, with
all those great abstinence-only textbooks, has
the highest rate of teen births in the nation. And, duh – abortion rates
are lowest in states where teens have access to accurate contraception
information. In April 2007, a 20-page
Columbia University study exposed that abstinence curriculum statements
about condom use are medically inaccurate. The American Civil Liberties Union,
tired of the Department of Health and Human Services ignoring repeated warnings
about incorrect data, sent the department a letter
threatening legal action. The ACLU is currently trying to get the DHHS to
stop disseminating incorrect information – because doing so violates
Wow, the U.S. government violating its own federal
law? Mr. President, Madame First Lady, your iPhones are ringing. Again. It’s some kid who
wants to know if she’s going to get AIDS because her boyfriend came on her leg.
Before that, she said they just let it soak so it should be all right. Should I take a message? Have an intern call her later?
Contrast our sex ed failures to Australia, where, according to
Carmody, the new brand of teen sex ed is "really about what they’re doing
because a lot of programs tend to focus just on biology and safe sex, but they
don’t. They don’t tell us how to work out how to do consent, how to communicate
with people. Those sort of things were what they were interested in." As part
of her sex ed curriculum, the students did role-play (not that kind of role-play), learned how to interpret body language,
practiced asserting themselves, and were coached to think about their sexual behaviors and expectations.
Here’s how the next President can put an
end to the war on public school sex education and the sharing of accurate
sex information to people of all ages:
- Kill the abstinence programs. Period. Think of them as
creationism in schools: optional to include in curricula but privately
funded only. Fire the f- out of anyone with a religious agenda in a
position of power in relation to public health. We are a nation of many
faiths – most of which are not being served with this nonsense.
- My best friend’s daughter is 5, and brags that she has a
boyfriend. Craft programs that are age appropriate so kids understand
what they’re doing every step of the way. Take a cue from England,
where the Sex
and Relationship Education program centers on "All About Us: Living and
Growing" videos for 5-7-year-olds, 7-9-year-olds and 9-11-year-olds,
with workbooks about healthy sexual relationships for kids (and adults)
with learning disabilities.
- Require all sex ed programs to include practical
information about reproduction (including a woman’s right to choose and
male responsibilities of parenthood), contraception, STDs and STIs,
sexual pleasure, masturbation, consent, homosexuality, sexual
tolerance, and gender identity. Kids are dealing with all this stuff;
adults need to stop lying to themselves and have honest discourse with
kids about it.
- Set aside federal funding for a teen sex ed counselor to be
on school staff at all times, exclusively for hotline-style accurate
sex information, and completely confidential. Our kids’ health and
futures depend on it. Require that they are tech- and Internet-savvy.
- Create a task force to research and implement outreach
programs that visit schools for presentations on relevant and current
sexual issues. This could include the Gardasil vaccination
(HPV shot), presentations on transgender issues, workshops on sexual
consent, rape prevention and self-defense for girls, age-appropriate
sex ed books, religious faith and sexuality, and sexual questions
around – yes – political scandals.
So, Mr. Next President and First Lady, you need to get what young girls and boys are going through. We need this change more than ever.
Republished and altered with permission of The San Francisco Chronicle