News Sexuality

Elected Officials Speak Out Against NYC’s Sex Ed Mandate

Martha Kempner

Calling the program "graphic and explicit," three local politicians spoke out yesterday against the city's sex ed mandate at a protest rally (or maybe it was just a press conference) in Brooklyn.

See our other reports on New York City’s sex ed program here.

It looks like last week’s Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Robert George and Melissa Moschella argue that sex education undermines parental rights and authority, seems to have fueled a new controversy over New York City’s mandate for sex education which was announced in August.  Yesterday, three local politicians spoke out against the mandate at what has been alternatively described as a a rally or a press conference in Brooklyn. 

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) joined Representatives Bob Turner (R-Queens/Brooklyn) and Michael Grimm (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island) today in calling the program “explicit and graphic” and demanding the school system provide an abstinence-based alternative.  In a written statement, Malliotakis acknowledged the need for sex ed but argued that this particular curriculum is being forced on children by the New York Department of Education.  Turner added that parents had no say in the mandate and that, “The Archdiocese of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups, Muslims, many are saying this is a sensitive and delicate subject, and they want more say in what is taught.”

The event yesterday was largely informed by a group called the Parents Choice Coalition, which is adamantly opposed to the mandate.  The group’s executive director is a former Democratic Assemblyman from the Bronx, Michael Benjamin.  He argued: “New York is a multicultural city whose residents hold a variety of deeply held beliefs and social traditions. It’s wrong to force them to choose between what the city is planning and no sex education at all.” 

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While his argument sounds reasonable and I applaud him for realizing that all young people should have some sex education, his coalition is spreading misleading information about the materials that have been suggested for use in the city’s schools.  For example, his website includes a video showing a condom being put onto a model which it describes as “the kind of condom demonstration your child will experience,” when in fact young people in middle school and high school will not see condom demonstrations as part of the sex ed course.  Instead, they will be given verbal instructions on how to use them.  Condom demonstrations (and condoms) are available to students in resource rooms as they have been for a number of years.

The group has also posted scanned copies of activities related to abortion and condom use that it calls explicit and railed against certain websites, in particular Go Ask Alice, that the suggested curriculum include as additional resources. The coalition’s financial backer, Greg Pfundstein of the anti-choice Chiaroscuro Foundation, argued that these activities are inappropriate: “You don’t have to be some religious fanatic to not want your ninth-grader comparison price-shopping for condoms at the local store.”

Benjamin suggests that parents just want a “traditional abstinence-based program” for their children.  In many ways, the program that is in place, however, is just that. In fact, I would argue that any good sexuality education program is abstinence-based as it should help young people see the benefits of remaining abstinent and explain that abstinence is the best and most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  But programs can’t just discuss abstinence – as research on strict abstinence-only-until-marriage programs show them to be ineffective at best and potentially harmful at worst. 

School Chancellor Dennis Walcott points out that “abstinence is a very important part of the curriculum, but,” he adds, “we also have a responsibility to ensure that teenagers who are choosing to have sex understand the potential consequences of their actions and know how to keep themselves safe.” He explained that this is why the school chose a comprehensive curriculum, and went on to say:  “Abstinence is the only way to be 100 percent safe, but one-third of the new cases of chlamydia in NYC are in teenagers and a significant percentage of our teenagers have had multiple sexual partners, so we can’t stick our heads in the sand about this.”  

It’s unclear how many people turned out for the rally/press conference yesterday but given the Chancellor’s reaction to critics it seems unlikely that this new round of protests will have any impact on the city’s long-in-the-works and long-overdue decision to require sex education. 

It looks like last week’s Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Robert George and Melissa Moschella argue that sex education undermines parental rights and authority, seems to have fueled a new controversy over New York City’s mandate for sex education which was announced in August.  Today, three local politicians spoke out against the mandate at what has a been alternatively described as a a rally or a press conference in Brooklyn. 

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) joined Representatives Bob Turner (R-Queens/Brooklyn) and Michael Grimm (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island) today in calling the program “explicit and graphic” and demanding the school system provide an abstinence-based alternative.  In a written statement, Malliotakis acknowledged the need for sex ed but argued that this particular curriculum is being forced on children by the New York Department of Education.  Turner added that parents had no say in the mandate and that, “The Archdiocese of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups, Muslims, many are saying this is a sensitive and delicate subject, and they want more say in what is taught.”

The event today was largely informed by a group called the Parents Choice Coalition, which is adamantly opposed to the mandate.  The group’s executive director is a former Democratic Assemblyman from the Bronx, Michael Benjamin.  He argued: “New York is a multicultural city whose residents hold a variety of deeply held beliefs and social traditions. It’s wrong to force them to choose between what the city is planning and no sex education at all.” 

While his argument sounds reasonable and I applaud him for realizing that all young people should have some sex education, his coalition is spreading misleading information about the materials that have been suggested for use in the city’s schools.  For example, his website shows a video showing a condom being put onto a model which it describes as “the kind of condom demonstration your child will experience,” when in fact young people in middle school and high school will not see condom demonstrations as part of the sex ed course.  Instead, they will be given verbal instructions on how to use them.  Condom demonstrations (and condoms) are available to students in resource rooms as they have been for a number of years.

The group has also posted scanned copies of activities related to abortion and condom use that it calls explicit and railed against certain websites, in particular Go Ask Alice, that the suggested curriculum include as additional resources. The coalition’s financial backer, Greg Pfundstein of the anti-choice Chiaroscuro Foundation, argued that these activities are inappropriate: “You don’t have to be some religious fanatic to not want your ninth-grader comparison price-shopping for condoms at the local store.”

Benjamin suggests that the parents just want a “traditional abstinence-based program” for their children.  In many ways, the program that is in place, however, is just that. In fact, I would argue that any good sexuality education program is abstinence-based as it should help young people see the benefits of remaining abstinent and explain that abstinence is the best and most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  But programs can’t just discuss abstinence – as research on strict abstinence-only-until-marriage programs show them to be ineffective at best and potentially harmful at worst. 

School Chancellor Dennis Walcott points out that “abstinence is a very important part of the curriculum, but,” he adds, “we also have a responsibility to ensure that teenagers who are choosing to have sex understand the potential consequences of their actions and know how to keep themselves safe.” He explained that this is why the school chose a comprehensive curriculum, and went on to say:  “Abstinence is the only way to be 100 percent safe, but one-third of the new cases of chlamydia in NYC are in teenagers and a significant percentage of our teenagers have had multiple sexual partners, so we can’t stick our heads in the sand about this.”  

It’s unclear how many people turned out for the rally/press conference yesterday but given the Chancellor’s reaction to critics it seems unlikely that this new round of protests will have any impact on the city’s long-in-the-works and long-overdue decision to require sex education. 

News Politics

Black Women Speak Out Against Tennessee’s Extreme Amendment 1

Nina Liss-Schultz

Early voting in Tennessee has begun and many residents have already taken to the polls to cast their ballots for Amendment 1, a highly controversial and extreme anti-choice ballot initiative.

Read more of our articles on the Tennessee ballot initiative here.

Early voting in Tennessee has begun and many residents have already taken to the polls to cast their ballots for Amendment 1, a highly controversial and extreme anti-choice ballot initiative.

The Memphis-based reproductive rights organization SisterReach on Thursday held a conference on Amendment 1, its impact for Black communities, and the need for Black women to get out to the polls in the next week.

“We stand today because pending legislation has the potential to send women back to the back alleys where we died from unsafe and unsanitary abortions,” SisterReach founder and CEO Cherisse Scott said. “It has the potential to exacerbate not only the mass incarceration of our men and boys. We assemble today to impress upon Black women and women of color, many of whom are heads of households, to get out and vote.”

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If passed, Amendment 1 gives state lawmakers the power to enact, amend, or repeal state laws regulating abortion by writing into the state constitution language that includes, “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

A Tennessee Supreme Court decision in 2010 found that a law restricting abortion access violated the state constitution, which provides more explicit protection for abortion than the U.S. Constitution. By changing the state constitution to clarify that it does not protect the right to abortion access, Amendment 1 would likely open the floodgates for a wave of anti-choice restrictions, many of which other red states have already seen.

Though abortion restrictions affect everyone, women of color, and particularly Black women, are in a unique position: Black women in the United States are five times more likely to have an abortion than a white woman, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The evidence as to why this is the case is clear: It’s due to inequality. Lower incomes mean less access to health care and low-cost contraception, which leads to a higher rate of unintended pregnancy and in turn abortion.

Low-income women often have more unstable living conditions, which could contribute to lower contraceptive use; women who must focus on survival often can’t put contraception high on their list of priorities, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Black women are also the target of racist anti-choice campaigns, which use Black women’s decisions to get an abortion as a jumping-off point for arguments for “pro-life” policy.

At least one Georgia anti-choice bill was mobilized by printed billboards across the state with the slogan “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” The bill was eventually quashed by a coordinated effort, primarily on the part of SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective in the state.

“The voices of Black women are often demonized, marginalized and tokenized in many human rights discussions like abortion, mass incarceration, criminalization, sexual assault, domestic violence, and rape,” Scott said. “Our goal is to provide space for women most impacted to speak directly to the conditions we are expected to thrive in—conditions which have reduced us to mere survival instead of the ability to lead healthy lives, raise and provide for our families in safe and sustainable communities free from violence from individuals or the government.”

At the conference on Thursday, held in a church, reproductive rights activists were joined by faith leaders in the state, including the Rev. A. Faye London, who gave an impassioned speech.

“I stand here with Black women and declare that our voices do matter, our lives do matter, our stories do matter, our families do matter,” she said. “We must vote, because our lives matter, our lives are in our hands.”

Commentary Sexual Health

Yes, Camille Paglia, Let’s Put Sex Back in Sex Ed—But Not Fear, Shame, or Stereotypes

Martha Kempner

In a recent editorial, Paglia argues for moving toward a sex ed model in which young people learn reproductive biology in one class, study sexually transmitted diseases in another, and get a healthy dose of fear, shame, and gender stereotypes in yet another. But sexuality educators disagree.

In an editorial in TIME magazine’s Ideas Issue called “Put the Sex Back in Sex Ed,” writer Camille Paglia (a self-described “dissident feminist”) argues for moving toward a model in which young people learn reproductive biology in one class, study sexually transmitted diseases in another, and get a healthy dose of fear, shame, and gender stereotypes in yet another. What students should never get in school, according to Paglia, is “a political endorsement of homosexuality and gay rights causes” or a package of condoms.

Needless to say, as a sexuality educator, I disagree with most of her assertions here. And, not surprisingly, when I checked in with my colleagues in the field, they did too.  

In presenting her argument for separate classes, Paglia notes that sex ed classes are often taught by teachers without enough training and know-how. She writes, “Sex-ed teachers range from certified health educators to volunteers and teenage ‘peer educators’ with minimal training.” I agree that we need better training for those who teach young people about sex—a teacher who knows little more than his or her students will get nothing accomplished, nor will an embarrassed educator who blushes when trying to pronounce the word clitoris. I would argue, however, that peer educators are often the best trained, least embarrassed, and most informed class leaders around. I also question the wisdom of her solution, which seems to be dividing up the subject of sex into its core components, starting with reproductive biology. She writes:

First, anatomy and reproductive biology belong in general biology courses taught in middle school by qualified science teachers. Every aspect of physiology, from puberty to menopause, should be covered. Students deserve a cool, clear, objective voice about the body, rather than the smarmy, feel-good chatter that now infests sex-ed workbooks.

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I’ve reviewed a lot of sex education workbooks, as she calls them, and I’m wondering where she is finding all of this feel-good chatter. Personally, I’m more familiar with the ones that fail to draw external female genitalia, never label the clitoris, or describe the vagina as a sperm depository. But we can put that aside for the moment. Letting a biology teacher tackle the inner workings of the body is not unreasonable—some of the best sexuality courses I took in college and graduate school were straightforward biology courses, and I still refer to my notes from one of them some 20 years later. However, waiting until middle school—when biology teachers first appear—will mean the information about puberty is more of a history lesson for some students (the average age of breast buds, for example, is 9.96 for white girls and 8.87 for Black girls).

What Paglia misses are all of the things that we need to learn about our bodies that are not related to how they function, but instead encompass how we live with and in them for the rest of our lives. Sure, puberty education is going to tell young people where to find the vas deferens and how narrow fallopian tubes really are, regardless of whether it’s taught by a sex educator or a biology teacher. But without fail the biggest question young people of all ages have is “Am I normal?” And when they ask this, they are not talking about the plumbing and wiring systems hidden under their skin and between their legs. As Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) told me, “Providing biological information without helping young people figure out their feelings and values related to body image, relationships, gender, and a whole host of other issues is so limited it loses much of its value.”

And yet, that what’s Paglia wants to continue doing when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). She suggests that this portion of a teen’s sex life be taught by the same health educators “who advise children about washing their hands to avoid colds.” We could certainly treat STDs like colds—“This is chlamydia, it’s caused by a bacteria, it can infect the urethra and cervix”—though even this approach would fall short if Paglia has her way, since she says that schools have “no business” listing sexual behaviors like masturbation or oral or anal sex. Just as it would be tough to tell kids how to avoid a cold without mentioning handshakes, so would teaching them to avoid syphilis without discussing intercourse.

More importantly though, STDs are not like colds, and avoiding them is not just about washing one’s hands or even using a condom. Avoiding STDs requires decision making, communication, and negotiation skills, as well as an understanding of trust, and the ability to recognize and sustain healthy relationships. While I have no doubt that many health educators could take this on, that’s clearly not what Paglia has in mind. She’s talking just the facts, ma’am.

Well, just the facts, with a little fear and shame mixed in. She writes:

The liberal response to conservatives’ demand for abstinence-only sex education has been to condemn the imposition of “fear and shame” on young people. But perhaps a bit more self-preserving fear and shame might be helpful in today’s hedonistic, media-saturated environment.

I can almost get behind the idea of a healthy dose of fear. In fact, I credit a healthy dose of fear of herpes—obtained from a first-hand account of a woman living with outbreaks that was published in Cosmopolitan circa 1987—with my lifelong devotion to condoms. And I believe that an honest accounting of STDs does breed a healthy apprehension. What doesn’t work is exaggerating the consequences and suggesting STDs are the inevitable product of premarital sex, which is what most abstinence-only programs do.

I draw a hard line when it comes to shame, however. This is something we should never want our children or young adults to experience in association with their sexuality. Activities that suggest sexually experienced teens are less worthy of our love, trust, or respect—by likening them to a mint that has been passed around the room, a petal-less rose, or a pitcher of spit—run counter to all efforts to promote sexual health. (See reviews of the abstinence-only programs that invented these shame-based activities on SIECUS’s Community Action Kit website.)

As Lucinda Holt, director of communications for Answer, pointed out, “At Answer’s teen website Sexetc.org, we have seen over and over again that fear and shame do not serve young people. Fear and shame prevent young people from talking to their partners before they have sex about safer sex, whether they’re even ready for sex, sexual histories, and if they’ve been tested. Fear and shame prevent young people from getting tested for STDs or pregnancy. Fear and shame prevent young people from talking to their parents or other adults in their lives who care about them and want the best for them.”

SIECUS’s Monica Rodriguez adds that “today’s hedonistic, media-saturated environment” of which Paglia writes is exactly why we can’t rely on fear and shame: “I would argue that precisely because young people are growing up in a time where everything is sexualized we need to give them more information, not less and we need to help them practice looking at sexuality and the sexualized messages that they are getting with a critical eye.”

But Paglia does not want young people to be taught to use a critical eye in sexuality education. She seems to believe that there is too much liberal ideology in sex ed today, and some discussions are not appropriate:

The issue of homosexuality is a charged one. In my view, antibullying campaigns, however laudable, should not stray into political endorsement of homosexuality or gay rights causes. While students must be free to create gay-identified groups, the schools themselves should remain neutral and allow society to evolve on its own.

Acknowledging the existing of different sexual orientations is not political, nor is it an endorsement; it is an inarguable truth. Remaining neutral has meant ignoring sexual orientation—operating under the false assumption that all the students in the class, all of their parents, and everyone they know and will ever know are heterosexual. This is a political statement—one that dashes the hopes of some students for a happy, healthy relationship in the future, invalidates families, and perpetuates bullying.

Then there’s Paglia’s discussion of gender differences. Though she starts strong on this topic—suggesting young women should think about their future fertility and career aspirations at a young age—she quickly falls into stereotypes worthy of the most sexist abstinence-only programs. Women, she says, have far more to lose from casual sex and need to be taught that their fertility is fleeting while they are busy being “propelled along a career track devised for men.”

“Boys need lessons in basic ethics and moral reasoning about sex (for example, not taking advantage of intoxicated dates), while girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity,” she writes.

“Where do I even begin?” said Monica Rodriguez. “Her attitude is so disrespectful of young people and promotes the very stereotypes that limit both girls and boys as they make their way in the world and in their romantic and sexual relationships. And, I would argue, that this attitude directly contributes to rape culture.”

What’s more, without giving any reason, Paglia suggests that schools should not distribute condoms, leaving that to hospitals and social service agencies. This is the opposite of what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested in a recent policy in which the group argues that all obstacles to condom access for teens should be removed and that schools are a good place for condom availability programs. The AAP came to this conclusion after reviewing a great deal of evidence that suggests condoms prevent both STDs and pregnancy, and making them available to teens does not increase sexual activity but does increase condom use. (Speaking of pregnancy prevention, Paglia derides current liberal sex education programs for defining pregnancy as “a pathology for which abortion is the cure.” Yet her model of sex ed does not seem to make room for teaching about contraception at all.)

All of the sex educators I spoke with agreed with Paglia on one (and only one) point: “A national conversation is urgently needed for curricular standardization and public transparency.”

Sexuality education will never be completely standardized, because local school districts are and will remain in charge of what gets taught, but nonetheless there is a movement to improve programs across the country. As Advocates for Youth President Debra Hauser said, “The National Sexuality Education Standards, published in January of 2012, provide schools with a guide to the minimum essential content and skills young people need at each grade level to take personal responsibility for their sexual health as they mature. Schools across the country have begun using the standards to improve the sexuality education they provide to their students.”

In fact, all of the groups I spoke with for this article—Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS—along with other experts in the field, have worked on these standards for many years.

But my guess is that Paglia is not going to like what they came up with, because the standards certainly don’t follow her guidelines of separating boys and girls, sticking to the facts, adding shame and stereotypes, and withholding information about sexual orientation. Instead, the standards offer a guide to creating a comprehensive sexuality education program that can help young people develop critical thinking skills to help them navigate sexuality throughout their lives.