Along with many others children, teens, and adults, this week I went back to school, too. I started teaching Introduction to Human Sexuality at a local college, something I haven’t done in about six years. In an effort to gauge what my students had already learned and what they wanted to know, I gave them an anonymous questionnaire which, in part, asked them to describe their sexuality education up until this point. At least five of them said that they’d had the “standard” or “usual” high school sex education. Unfortunately, this wasn’t particularly enlightening to me because as a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) highlights: when it comes to sex ed there is no such thing as standard; every district or even every classroom is different.
A survey of school systems across New York was conducted by NYCLU to determine what, if anything, they were teaching students about sex. Schools in the state are not required to teach comprehensive sexuality education, and while they are required to teach about HIV and certain other health topics, most of the lessons do not address sexuality or relationships. Schools do have to teach about alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; the prevention and detection of certain cancers; child development and parenting skills; and interpersonal violence. They do not, according to the new report, Birds, Bees, and Bias, How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York Students, have to teach about “healthy relationship skills, STI and pregnancy prevention, puberty, [and] anatomy” or “other core aspects of effective, comprehensive sex education.” In 2005, the Department of Education issued state standards for health education, which included many topics related to sexual health. However, these standards are voluntary, and school districts do not have to comply with them. The authors also mention the National Sex Education Standards, which were released early this year by a number of national organizations. These set minimum content requirements for concepts in sex education but are also not binding. The report concludes:
“The current legal and policy climate permits schools in New York to decide what, if any, sex education they will teach beyond the mandated HIV education. As a result, whether New York’s teens graduate from high school with the information and skills crucial to making lifelong healthy and informed decisions about sex and relationships rests in the hands of each individual school district, principal and health education teacher, with little guidance and even less oversight.”
To determine what students are learning, NYCLU sent questionnaires to a sample of school districts across the state making sure to include small, medium, and large districts. New York City was excluded in part for efficiency purposes. Since the surveys were sent out, however, the city passed a sex education mandate that went into during the 2011-2012 school year. NYCLU says: “We look forward to reviewing New York City data and instruction at a future date.” In total, 108 school districts were included, representing 542,955 students or nearly half of all students enrolled in districts outside New York City. In addition, the authors reviewed the most commonly used textbooks in the state.
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The study found major gaps in the education young people should have been receiving, as well as numerous factual errors and biases in the information they were actually given.
Outdated HIV Information
This handout fails to explain HIV/AIDS treatment options or how to reduce transmission. the headstone as an inevitable endpoint exploits outdated fears without providing students with additional information.
As the only sexuality-related topic that is mandated, HIV is one of the subjects most likely to be covered by school districts in the state. In fact, 93 percent of districts surveyed provided information on this topic. Unfortunately, many of them used outdated information on “prognosis, drug therapies, prevention and transmission.” Some of the outdated and inaccurate information includes districts telling kids:
- “Once you have AIDS you will live from 6 months to 3 years.”
- “[HIV] kills an individual.”
One district mentions AZT, the earliest antiretroviral drug, which was introduced in 1987, but does not discuss any of the newer available therapies. Another provides students with a handout that gives an illustrated timeline of what happens when you become infected with HIV. The timeline explains that one goes from being asymptomatic to having HIV symptoms within 12 years (without mentioning available drug therapies), that the individual then goes from HIV symptoms to AIDS and opportunistic infections within two years, and from there they go to a tombstone that says RIP within two more years.
Anything with a tombstone is clearly trying to instill fear in young people, which is bad enough, but this illustration is troubling in other ways as well. It misses many opportunities to talk about how people are now managing to stay healthy longer with HIV, and it misses all opportunities to mention how to prevent the spread of HIV. In fact, the person in the timeline gets tested for HIV and finds out he’s positive before going into the stage where he is asymptomatic which is described as “feeling healthy but still spreading HIV.”
Young people should know that HIV is preventable through both abstinence and the use of condoms and that it is possible to have it without spreading it.
Incomplete Information about Anatomy
I’ve always thought of anatomy as one of the more innocuous subjects in sexuality education. Everyone in that classroom has a urethra, so why is it such a big deal to teach them about it? But apparently, if New York schools are any indication, it is. According to the report:
“Of the districts sampled, 69 utilized some illustration of male and female genitalia and reproductive organs. But nearly two thirds excluded any mention or depiction of external female genitalia.”
In fact, in many places, women were defined solely in relationship to men or the birth process. The Holt Lifetime Health textbook, which is used in five districts in the state (and many more across the country), defines the vagina as the “organ that receives sperm during reproduction.” One district takes it even further and defines the vagina as a “sperm deposit.” Seriously? As the owner of a vagina, I find that deeply offensive. It’s even more offensive when you think about how it’s not just sexist (women count only for what they do for men), it’s hetero-sexist (the idea of the function of vaginas being for men completely discounts women who have sex with women).
A handout showing rudimentary illustrations of reproductive “tracts” demonstrates the lack of medically accurate and complete information students learn in basic anatomy lessons.
But don’t worry, ladies. We’re not made just for men, we’re for babies, too. Many districts define the vagina as the “birth canal” and the uterus as “where the baby grows.” The best illustration of this is a picture called “after birth” which shows a full-term baby still attached by the umbilical cord to half of a woman’s body depicted from the waist down with one leg and a uterus but no external genitalia—just a gaping hole from the uterus. I suppose since the external genitalia of women are mainly for women, it is not that important for students to learn about—with the clitoris being the only organ in the human body that has no other function than pleasure and all. Or maybe they just couldn’t find any good male-centric language to use for the definitions.
The Virgin/Slut Dichotomy
One of the things that I’ve found most upsetting about abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula is their not-so-sensitive treatment of sexually-active students. Most of these programs use messages of shame to suggest that those who have had sex are somehow less worthy of love or respect than those who are waiting (presumably until marriage, though let’s face it, few get there). Though many of the districts are not using strict abstinence curricula, a lot of students in the state are getting these kind of messages. One district uses a 1997 pamphlet that says:
“Maybe you think your friends will say you’re cool if you have sex. Well, just wait until you catch a sexually transmitted disease. Every year, thousands of teenagers do. And the sex that was supposed to make them so popular, turns them into the school’s biggest outcasts overnight.”
Ten districts use a book that says:
- “Waiting until marriage to have sex preserves traditional marriage … Actions that preserve traditional marriage preserve the family. Actions that weaken traditional marriage lead to the breakdown of family life and much unhappiness.”
- “Being sexually active interferes with your values and family guidelines.”
- “Having sex outside of a loving, committed marriage increases your risk of feeling rejected, being compared to someone else, and feeling used by a partner.”
- “When you practice abstinence, you will not be guilty of having sex with an unwilling partner. You will not be accused of date rape.”
- “Character is a person’s use of self-control to act on responsible values. When you have good character, you uphold family values and practice abstinence from sex.”
With more than 63 percent of high school students having had sex, it’s particularly unfair to suggest that those who have never been sexually active have some kind of lock on morality, while those who are not virgins lack character. Moreover, while most parents do want their children to postpone sex until they are ready to be responsible, not everyone believes that pre-marital sex is wrong. Saving sex until marriage is not, contrary to what these districts are suggesting, a universal family value.
Everyone, and We Do Mean Everyone, is Heterosexual
The report also focuses on the messages that these districts are sending about sexual orientation to those students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning their orientation (LGBTQ). In fact, more than half the districts surveyed provide no instruction on this topic at all. They do not even mention gay men, lesbians, or bisexual individuals.
Unfortunately, that may be as a good as it gets because other school districts acknowledge the existence of homosexuality but only mention LGBTQ individuals in a negative context. For example, one school defines “homosexuals” in its lesson on AIDS in the United States saying the epidemic “… Involved homosexual, or gay, men. Homosexuals are people who are attracted to and may engage in sexual relations with people of the same gender.” Another put its explanation of same-sex attraction under the heading “Taboo Definitions.” And yet another tells students that same-sex attraction is a reason to “seek counseling.”
Most schools, however, just seemed to refuse to acknowledge the existence of same-sex relationships by relying on examples that include only male-female couples and defining everything from dating to marriage as happening between a boy and a girl or a man and a women. Families in which same-sex couples are raising children are also completely ignored.
Such messages are dangerous to all young people and likely to alienate LGBTQ students from their teachers and the course messages.
Boys will be Boys and Girls will be Virgins
The report highlights additional lapses in information (such as how few school districts actually teach students how to use condoms) and other biases (such as telling teen parents how impossible it will be for them to be successful or raise healthy children). Many districts, it seems, also go out of their way to reinforce gender stereotypes. A number of districts have created very interesting handouts:
- One states that: “Most teenage girls believe that sex equals love; other teens—especially boys—believe that sex is not the ultimate expression of the ultimate commitment, but a casual activity and minimize risks or serious consequences.”
- One describes women as hazardous material discovered by “Adam.” The handout suggests that the uses of this new element include “highly ornamental especially when in sports car” and “can be a very effective cleaning agent.” The chemical properties include “reacts well to gold, platinum, and all precious stones.” And, the hazards include “turns green when placed next to superior specimen.”
My favorite, though, might be the brain maps. Apparently, the male brain includes an area for “crotch scratching,” a gland for “lame excuses,” and a pea size spot dedicated to “attention span.” The female brain, in contrast, has an “indecision nucleas,” (sic) and a “need for commitment hemisphere,” as well as areas dedicated to talking on the phone, shopping, and jealousy. Oh, and in case learning about such ridiculous stereotypes which are demeaning to both genders wasn’t enough to fulfill the “gee men and women sure are different” quota, the brains show that men have two big areas for sex and women have only one tiny little one. Yes, let’s once again tell girls that they shouldn’t really want sex and remind boys that there is something wrong with them if they’re not actively trying to get into every girl’s pants.
Where to Go From Here
The report makes a number of suggestions for how schools, legislators, and others can rectify the situation in New York. Here are some examples:
Steps for the State Legislature
Pass legislation. The Legislature could also pass legislation that requires voluntary sex education to meet certain minimum content requirements.
Steps for Local School Districts
Evaluate curricula and textbooks. Make sure the materials in use in your district are up-to-date, accurate, comprehensive, and inclusive of all students. Help educators select quality materials for their classes.
Steps for Teachers
Supplement textbooks. Because textbooks are written for a wide audience—including states with abstinence-only decrees—they can be limited in scope and contain religious overtones. Consider supplementing textbooks with quality commercial curricula, materials from local reproductive health care providers and qualified guest speakers. Keep in mind that information enshrined in a textbook may seem more credible in students’ minds; think about how you can present other information in a way that makes it stand out.
Steps for Parents
Speak up. Let your child’s teachers and principals know if you think they are teaching bad information. Going over lessons also gives you a chance to discuss what your child learns at a school—and an opportunity to talk openly about sex, health, relationships and identity issues.
Steps for Students
Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to seek information from a trusted adult or health care provider, especially if your sex-ed class left you with questions. Medical providers, including your school nurse, are bound by confidentiality. They can’t tell anyone about your conversations. (The only exception is if they suspect, or you reveal, that you have been a victim of abuse.)
These pieces of advice are good, not just for the people of New York, but for elected officials, educators, parents, and students across the country. Though this report is just about one state, it gives us cause for concern about the gaps in and problems with sexuality education throughout the nation.
I’m also going to take this advice because when I’m done with this article I have to start planning my lecture for Monday which is on anatomy and physiology. And even though my students are all over 18 years of age and in college, and many said they’d had sex education before, I’m not going to assume they learned even the simplest information.