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Teaching Kids About Sex

About half of high school kids in New York City have had sex. Roughly one in five female students admits she did not use protection the last time. Over 50 percent of students have never heard of emergency contraception. Given those numbers, it is hardly surprising that, according to the state, there were 23,000 pregnancies among young women aged 15 to 19 in 2004, with six in ten of them ending in abortion.

The statistics may sound like an alarm bell for policymakers and educators. Yet amid swelling evidence that sex is fact of life for many kids – and that many are making risky choices – New York State does not require schools to teach students about their sexuality.

Until recently, the state’s effort to fill that educational vacuum has been limited largely to telling teens not to have sex. The state and federal governments have poured millions of dollars into programs that promote abstaining until marriage. These programs exclusively push just saying no over any kind of safe sex or contraception.

But New York is rethinking sex education. Earlier this year, the state Department of Health rejected federal funding for abstinence programs, stoking a political debate over what to tell kids about sex and how. Progressive advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to focus not just on persuading kids to wait, but helping them make wiser choices, through full, broad-based sex education.

Knowledge Gap

New York City absorbed over $5 million dollars in abstinence-only program funding in fiscal year 2005, according to an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Nonetheless, community groups point to a persistent shortage of educational resources for teen sexual health. Currently, aside from abstinence-only education, youth throughout New York State sometimes receive sex-related information through community pregnancy-prevention programs or in school-based classes. But without a legal mandate, the state leaves it to individual districts and schools to determine how, or whether, to discuss sexuality with students.

Britta Ruona, a teen advocate with Planned Parenthood of New York City, says that when it comes to sex, her peers are not getting the guidance they need. In her outreach work in local communities, she said, it is not uncommon to find teens who think jumping up and down after sex can prevent pregnancy or that sexually transmitted diseases cannot be spread through oral sex.

“ A lot of teens, if they don't have a sex education class in their school, they'll get their information from another source,” Ruona said, “like the streets, and the media, and movies.”

The Bush administration has promoted chastity as the best way to fill the sexual knowledge gap and reduce unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Federal funding for abstinence-only education ballooned from about $80 million in fiscal year 2001 to more than $175 million in 2007. In addition to so-called Title V grants for states , the Adolescent Family Life Act and Community-Based Abstinence Education programs funnel money directly to local organizations, many of them religiously based. .

While New York State accepted this money during the Pataki years, Albany recently declined its Title V funding, which had provided about $3.7 million in federal grants. Health Commissioner Richard Daines said he now plans to redirect state funds toward more-comprehensive sex-ed programs.

New York follows several other states, including Wisconsin and New Jersey in shedding its federal chastity belt. The move reflects rising concerns as civil-liberties and family-planning advocates criticize the ethics of abstinence-only programs, and new research questions their effectiveness.

“ Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs censor critical information about birth control and condoms, and they are not effective,” said Galen Sherwin, director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “To focus exclusively on abstinence, to the exclusion of other critical information about prevention, is really just irresponsible.”

Teaching Chastity

“ Would you jump out of a plane if your parachute worked just sometimes? The truth is condoms fail.”

That’s the lesson on safe sex promoted by ProjecTruth, a federally funded abstinence initiative run by Catholic Charities in western New York. The program, which reaches thousands of young people each year in schools and community centers, teaches that a youth without premarital sex “is a richly rewarding lifestyle.” To warn students of the potential consequences of sex, the curriculum lists emotions it says many young people frequently feel after a first sexual experience: “used, dirty, lonely, confused, scared, ashamed, sad.”

“ We talk about children as holistic,” said ProjecTruth Director Judy Vogtli. “We're more than a sexual being; we're mind, body, spirit. So, there's no condom that protects the heart.”

Title V guidelines require grantees like ProjecTruth to stress “the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining” and the “harmful psychological and physical effects” of premarital sex, along with the idea that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” Under the latest rules for groups receiving grants grants under the community-based abstinence education program, curriculums cannot promote or distribute contraceptives, or instruct students about their use.

Critics say abstinence-only programs often use scare tactics and misinformation to deter teens from having sex–and still do not work.

The NYCLU recently examined 39 of New York’s abstinence-only programs, which collectively received about $11.5 million in state and federal funding in fiscal year 2005. The analysis found that over 60 percent of the funds went to curricula using biased or inaccurate information. Problems cited ranged from flawed or suppressed information about contraception to insensitive views on sexual orientation.

And according to a federal study released in April, youth who participated in abstinence-only programs reported about the same rate of sexual activity and the same rate of unprotected sex as peers who did not participate in the programs.

Civil-rights groups argue that the Bush administration’s abstinence focus marginalizes relationships that fall outside the traditional heterosexual, two-parent household and so excludes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth.

Inadequate sex education for gay youth may deepen troubling patterns outside the classroom. New HIV diagnoses among men aged 13 to 29 who have sex with men in New York City have risen by about a third since 2001.

“ Not only do gay and lesbian youth often have to go without the sexual health information that all teens need,” said Ross Levi, director of public policy and education with the advocacy organization Empire State Pride Agenda. “They are further oppressed in being invisible, and in worst cases, demonized by the abstinence-only curriculum.”Informed Decisions

Critics of abstinence-only say sex education should empower youth to negotiate sex and its risks on their own.

Progressive sex education may find a home in New York City. The Sex Ed Alliance of New York City, which includes the New York AIDS Coalition, Planned Parenthood NYC, and other community groups, wants to see mandatory sex education in all public schools, in every grade, supported by school partnerships with healthcare organizations. The coalition is pressing city officials to develop a comprehensive curriculum to cover all safe-sex and prevention practices, along with relationship skills, while including the perspectives of different cultures, sexual orientations and gender identities.

But ultimately, the future of sex education in the city’s public schools depends on whether Albany and Washington view it as a budgetary and legislative priority.

In Congress, the fate of Title V is in limbo, as lawmakers remain gridlocked over the reauthorization of the act. As an interim fix, the national advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States is lobbying for amendments that would enable states to use Title V funds for comprehensive programs.

Advocates of comprehensive sex education in New York, meanwhile, are pushing the Healthy Teens Act. The bill, which passed the Assembly but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, would establish a grant system for “age-appropriate and medically-accurate” programs encompassing a full range of safe-sex issues.

Jason McGuire, a lobbyist with the conservative Christian group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said the problem with comprehensive sex education is that “it assumes the teens will become sexually active.”

“ You don't take that approach in any other area in life,” he argued. “We don't talk about safer ways to snort cocaine.”

But Traci Perry, Planned Parenthood NYC’s vice president of public affairs, said, “Comprehensive sex ed is much more than simply pregnancy prevention. It’s about sexuality, it’s about relationships. It’s making good decisions. It’s being healthy in a number of ways.”

Jelani Addams Rosa, a 17-year-old peer educator with the NYCLU’s Teen Health Initiative, said sex education should reflect social realities. “The problem is not that teens are having sex,” she said. “The problem is the lack of knowledge of how to deal with yourself, and your significant other, once you’ve started to have sex.”

Michelle Chen is a freelance reporter in Manhattan and a native New Yorker.  


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