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Birds, Bees and Bad Information: The Deplorable State of Sex Education in the US

(Photo: romana klee / Flickr)

Although we know what works and what doesn’t in sexual education, the US fails its young adults and their families, providing inadequate, inconsistent, medically inaccurate and socially biased information.

Depending on where a child grows up, he or she might – or might not – attend a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) class in school – a several-month-long discussion of anatomy and physiology, puberty, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, healthy relationships, personal safety and saying “no.”

According to a March 2012 report released by the National Conference of State Legislators, only 21 states and the District of Columbia require schools to teach sex education. And, in a finding that should jolt parents and teachers out of their chairs, only 18 states require that the information be medically accurate.

Birds, Bees and Bias, a 2012 New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) study, evaluated 108 school districts in New York state – the City of New York was excluded because the Department of Education put a revised CSE protocol into effect in September 2012, making it too new to appraise – and came to some disturbing conclusions. Among the findings: “Lessons on reproductive anatomy and basic functioning were often incomplete and pervasive factual limitations reflected gender stereotypes and heterocentric bias.” The survey also found explicit moral overtones regarding sexuality, the value of abstinence, teen pregnancy and family life in many of the curricula.

Johanna Miller, assistant advocacy director of the NYCLU, told Truthout that since the early 1990s, all New York school districts have been mandated to offer lessons about HIV/AIDS – but not CSE. “Some use materials that are outdated,” she says. “Most simply tell students to use condoms if they are having sex, but only one in three offers instruction on the proper way to use them. What’s more, few teachers make mention of sexual orientation, emergency contraception or abortion. They also rarely explain what they mean by sex. Is it only intercourse? What about anal and oral sex?” Miller asks. “When you offer HIV education without Comprehensive Sex Education, the context is missing and the program does not meet the actual needs of students.”

And New York is far from the worst state in the union.

The Abstinence Clearinghouse – a 20-year-old national network founded by anti-abortion activist Leslee Unruh to push an abstinence-until-heterosexual-marriage agenda – evaluates materials and makes recommendations on books, films, and web sites that promote what Unruh calls “purity.” A perennial Clearinghouse favorite since 2003, AIDS Prevention for Adolescents in School is a six-session lesson plan that is sold to educators and community organizations for $280. Among its chestnuts is the following shame-inducing narrative, clearly meant to inculcate anxiety and fear in young men who are trying to do the right thing and use protection:

• Q: How can you minimize your embarrassment when buying condoms?

• A: Take a friend along; find stores where you don’t have to ask for condoms (e.g. stocked on open counter or shelf]) wear shades or a disguise so no one will recognize you; have a friend or sibling who isn’t embarrassed buy them for you; make up a condom request card you can hand to the clerk.

Another curriculum touted by the Clearinghouse is called, “Why Am I Tempted?” Better known by the acronym WAIT Training, the study guide describes men’s brains as waffles – allowing for compartmentalization – and women’s as spaghetti – allowing everything to be connected – and advises teachers to affix a piece of tape to a young man’s arm at the start of a workshop. “The tape represents the girlfriend,” the materials instruct. “Once clear, it is now covered with bits of dry skin and hair. Each time the tape, or the girl, pulls up more debris and she loses more of her ability to make a tight bond to a spouse later in life.” The curricula also teach that “fireworks sex” can happen only if one is in a monogamous heterosexual couple – state sanctioned, of course.

There are literally dozens of abstinence curricula out there – all of them implying that sex outside of marriage has harmful, long-term physical and psychological consequences. Among the messages: Since neither condoms nor other forms of birth control are 100 percent effective – why use them? Worse, information on contraceptive methods – and the proper way to use them – is nowhere to be found in such lessons, and even comprehensive curricula are largely deficient in this area. Additionally,, another abstinence proponent, teaches students that premarital sex has been linked to an elevated risk of divorce. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

Then there’s the notion that marital status – or the lack thereof – dooms some children. Heritage Keepers, for example, creators of a curriculum used in 23 states, warns that the children of divorced or never-married parents are at a marked disadvantage, receiving lower grades and dropping out at much higher rates than the children of married couples. Not surprisingly, “sexual self control” is put forward as a magic bullet. “You can be anything you want to be,” the Heritage Keepers promise. “By using self control, working hard, studying and abstaining from risky behavior, you can be successful.”

If only.

The Sex Information and Education Council of the United States reports that each year, more than 750,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant, twice the rate of neighboring Canada. Nearly all of those pregnancies – 82 percent – were unintended. Far more alarming, 15- to 25-year-olds account for half of the 19 million sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) diagnosed annually; and those aged 13 to 29 account for approximately a third – more than 16,000 – of the country’s new HIV cases.

SIECUS’ conclusion? Comprehensive sex education needs to be the standard in every public school in the country since teens who receive it are 50 percent less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than those who receive abstinence-only or no sex ed. Likewise, STDS. Predictably, those who use condoms have fewer infections than those who do not. SIECUS also asks that we recognize reality: The average age of first intercourse is 17 for boys and 17.4 for girls – with more than six percent initiating sex before the age of 13 – making obvious the fact that time is of the essence in quelling undesired outcomes.

Most parents agree. Advocates for Youth, a 33-year-old agency that focuses on the sexual and reproductive health of youth throughout the world, has repeatedly studied domestic sex education programs. “Over the past 20 years, in survey after survey – local state, or national – 80 to 85 percent of parents indicate they want their children to receive comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education. Parents see such courses and content as supplementing, not supplanting, their discussions at home.”

Julia Fishman, an upstate New York parent, says that she and her husband have always been open with their 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. “When my daughter was three, I got pregnant and she had a lot of questions. How did the baby get inside me? How would it get out? Then, when she was six, she asked how the man’s sperm got to the woman’s egg. Every time she’s asked questions, we’ve told her the truth,” she said in a telephone interview with Truthout.

Last year, Fishman continues, when Rose [a pseudonym] was in 7th grade, she was taught about AIDS. “They discussed how the epidemic started and how people get it. The three kinds of sex – anal, oral and vaginal – were discussed, which was great since sex is not just one thing. When Rose came home she asked about anal sex because she was not 100 percent sure what it was. I was so appreciative that this was discussed in school, that the teacher was doing the heavy lifting so that specific questions could be addressed at home. I also appreciated that they used slang as well as formal terms.”

That’s a great start – exactly what should be happening – say nationally recognized sexuality educators and sexologists Dr. Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross, interviewed by Truthout in their NYC offices, but it is nonetheless inadequate. “No one teaches pleasure or orgasm,” Dodson begins. “We should be teaching teens about ‘outercourse’ as well as intercourse.”

“We should expand sex education to include excluded information such as porn,” Ross continues. “Everything should be on the table for discussion. This generation is the first to have 24/7 access to online technology. They can watch porn stars and see anal sex and double penetration with one click of a mouse. Almost all of them have a cell phone and can take pictures of themselves that mimic these actors and they can post these photos on Facebook. Telling them to abstain when sex is all over the internet is ridiculous. We need to teach them that what porn stars do – or how they look – is not typical, that porn is for entertainment and can be used for fantasy, but it is not how we have sex.”

The disjuncture between what teens see and what they actually understand is evident in the emails Dodson and Ross receive.

Can I get pregnant during my period? asks one. How do I know if I am a virgin? another wonders.

Then there are issues of lifestyle. “Children should be told that they can be heterosexual, homosexual, celibate or polysexual,” Dodson says. “They can be single, married, divorced, in a monogamous relationship, or not. We should tell children that their status will likely change throughout their lives, that their needs and desires will change, that they don’t need to follow one path for their entire lifespan.”

But sadly, that is not what they’re told. Whether out of fear of alienating the anti-sex right wing or out of Puritan squeamishness, few lawmakers have put the need for comprehensive sex education on the front burner. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to let states and localities decide what information they want to offer and how they want to present it. Worse, between 1996, when Title V of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed, and 2009, more than half a billion was spent – some would say wasted – on abstinence-only education. Although the Obama administration has reduced abstinence funding, Monica Rodriguez of SIECUS says that FY 2013 allocations include $50 million for Title V abstinence education and $105 million for teen pregnancy prevention.

We know what works and what doesn’t, the NYCLU’s Johanna Miller says, and it is high time to stop pouring money into abstinence programs that most kids laugh off. “Some districts in New York state use trained peer educators. We know that young people are more comfortable hearing from a peer than hearing from an adult teacher.” At the same time, it’s all about content. “No district in the state is a model in terms of how they talk about LGBTQ issues and most texts exclude queer concerns,” she says. “Furthermore, the gender stigmatizing in many books is horrendous and too many schools are using curricula with a ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus,’ mentality that positions women as gatekeepers and men as lustful and out of control. We expected that we would have moved beyond these ideas by now, but we apparently haven’t.”

Isn’t it finally time to do so?

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