The NYC sex education “scandal”

Is this how we want to educate our children?

I live in New York state and, lately, the news has been all abuzz with stories about the new NYC sex education law which is, apparently, controversial. A never-ending parade of news articles with varying levels of truthiness, along with opinion pieces either for or against the measure have been popping up on my Google News page (Just do a Google news search for “sex education” to get a taste of this, if you haven’t experienced it already).

While I generally use this blog for letting people know about awesome science related to sex, I just couldn’t resist adding my own two cents about this issue.

Before I get started, I should say that I am definitely pro-sex education. The more info the better, and I applaud NYC for finally addressing the problems of teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases head-on.

The anti-sex-ed articles I’ve seen have two common themes: kids don’t need all this “explicit” information about sex, and parents “have the right” to teach their kids what they think their kids should know about sex. It’s these two ideas that I have a bit of a problem with.

Premise: Sexually explicit information is not suitable for children

“Children” in this case is kids 11 and up. I advocate talking to your kids about sex well before that age (I learned about the birds and the bees at 7, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t harm me), but the new law will specifically affect middle school and high school students.

My first question when I see claims like “this information is too racy for middle-schoolers” is: how do you know? What facts are you basing your claim on? In particular, how do you know that this information is going to harm the students? And how does keeping information from them help them?

The truth is, these kids probably know a lot more about sex than their parents want to believe. I have 13- and 15-year-old nephews and, believe me, they’ve known about some pretty “racy” stuff for many years now. I’m pretty sure they didn’t learn it from their parents, or from a sex-ed class.

Kids are getting more and more of their information from the media, and sex is no exception. Don’t believe it? Read this policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics which sites many studies about the role of the media in “informing” adolescents about sex.  The statement concludes with a number of recommendations about how to best address the problem. These range from pediatricians asking kids about their media consumption at their check-ups, to encouraging the entertainment industry to incorporate more responsible sexual content. But I found this one most pertinent to the current issue:

Pediatricians should urge schools to insist on comprehensive sex education programs (to counter the influence of sexually suggestive and explicit media) that incorporate basic principles of media literacy into their sex education programs. Studies have shown that effective media literacy programs can be protective against unhealthy media effects.90,91 Federal money should be spent on comprehensive sex education programs but not on abstinence-only programs, which have been found to be ineffective.35,65,,68,92,,94 

That’s right: comprehensive sex education programs. They’re already seeing raunchy sex on TV, reading about donkey punches and the dirty Sanchez online (NSFW!), and probably starting to engage in sexual acts themselves, whether you want to think about that or not. Aren’t these kids deserving of some real information? Shouldn’t they know how to protect themselves from risk? Don’t they deserve to learn from a trusted authority that sex is not just a casual sport without any meaning or consequence? And even though most 11-15 year old kids aren’t having sex yet, it’s probably best for them to get the info BEFORE making a mistake.

Okay, you may say, other people’s kids are learning all this stuff about sex before I think it’s appropriate for them to, but not my kid. My kid doesn’t know ANYTHING about sex, doesn’t even want to have sex, because I control EVERYTHING he/she watches on TV or reads online. Shouldn’t I be able to control what he/she learns in school, too? This brings us to the second argument:

Parents have a right to control what their children learn about sex

This strikes the same nerve with me as the idea that parents have a right to keep their kids from learning about evolution because they personally choose to disagree with it. I find it morally reprehensible. This argument has a basic premise that, I hope, most people would find, well, wrong: parents have complete ownership of their children and a God-given right to fill their children’s empty heads with whatever they want.

Yes, you have a right to raise your children as you see fit, within certain boundaries, and teach them your particular moral values. But you have no right to dictate what facts they should learn or not learn. Children are people, too, and have a right to factually-based information.

Now, I don’t advocate teaching toddlers about sex, because they have no context yet in which to understand sex. I also don’t think toddlers need to know about nuclear fusion. But once a child is old enough to understand a concept, you have no right to stick your fingers in their ears and chant “La la la la la la”. Your responsibility, as a parent, is to explain your views on these matters, and why you think certain things are wrong or right. You don’t have the right to filter their education to fit how you think the world should be. (For this reason, I’m against the opt-out measure for the contraception portion of the NYC curriculum, but baby steps, baby steps).

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks deliberately keeping information from your child that could affect their health is wrong. A review of sex education in the U.S. (PDF) written in 2006 came to the same conclusion:

We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.

And in 2007, a ten-year national study came to similar conclusions, as reported in this Washington post article:

Brown said Mathematica’s results underscore what other, smaller studies have shown: “The most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about.”

An official at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States agreed.

“Comprehensive education means teaching about abstinence and a myriad of other topics,” said spokeswoman Martha Kempner. Among them, she said: “contraception, critical thinking, one’s own values and the values of your family and your religious community.

“Abstinence-only was an experiment and it failed.”

But you may still think I’m insane. That kids should only see, hear, smell, touch, and taste sanitized versions of the world. And you think you can make this possible for your child. Furthermore, you may think that telling kids about how to avoid pregnancy and STIs may even encourage them to have sex at a young age. Is that true?

First, the idea that we can’t tell teenagers “wait to have sex” and “be safe if you do” at the same time without confusing them may not be as logical as it seems, as pointed out by the aforementioned pediatrics policy statement:

Telling teenagers, “Wait until you’re older to begin having sex, but if you can’t wait, use birth control” is a double message. But, it is a double message that every teenager in America can understand and benefit from, and it is consistent with normal adolescent psychology, because it acknowledges that adolescents do not always listen to their elders.2

(By the way, I highly recommend finding a full-text copy of reference 2 online. It exists, I promise.)

There has also been at least one study looking at the effect of teaching comprehensive sex education on sexual activity. This paper (pdf) found, among adolescents 15-19 years of age:

Teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of adolescent sexual activity or STD. Adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education.

And what about the effect of abstinence-only education? A recent paper in PLoS One looked at the correlation between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy nationwide. They found a positive correlation, even after adjusting for socio-economic background of students and other potential factors. While these data certainly don’t prove that abstinence-only education causes high teen pregnancy rates, they do show that these types of programs are not preventing teen pregnancy. And it’s certainly not the only study of its kind, as I’ve pointed out from the reviews and national studies already mentioned here.

Who would have guessed that telling teens DON’T DO THIS might actually not work?

The big problem here is that students taught “abstinence only” may be at a lower risk for engaging in sex, but if they do have sex, they’re unprepared. This highly publicized study suggests there may be a benefit to teaching abstinence-only in the classroom, though I think more studies of this kind, with longer interventions and different age-group students are needed.

In the study, 33.5% of 6th to 7th grade students (average age: 12.2 years) given an 8-hour abstinence-only lesson had sex in the 2-years following the lesson. This was lower than the 48.5% of students in the no-sex-ed-at-all group, and that’s great.

But what about the kids that still had sex? What about those 33.5%? They weren’t given any information about how to protect themselves. Might those be the kids that end up with an STI or get pregnant? Shouldn’t we care about them, too? (In case you’re wondering, the study didn’t address the difference between abstinence-only and other forms of sex-education).

I certainly hope that New York continues with the planned sex-ed curriculum, despite pressure from some groups. And I’m hoping the rest of the country is soon to follow.

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