Imagine your 9th-grade daughter coming home from school one day and announcing that she has to go to a local reproductive health clinic: Planned Parenthood, say, or Choices Women’s Medical Center. She has to fill out a form indicating the clinic’s address, phone number, and hours, and noting whether the clinic offers birth control, pregnancy tests, emergency contraception, prenatal care, and sterilization. She will have to find out what it costs to have a consultation about birth control and write down the clinic’s confidentiality policy. Finally, she will have to map out the bus, train, or walking route she would use to get to the clinic. Not the route from home, mind you, but the route from school. This is your daughter’s homework.
This dystopian future is now. Many New York City children are already completing this outrageous assignment every year as part of the Reducing the Risk sex education program recommended by the NYC Department of Education. The program, currently offered at the discretion of the principal of each school, is in use in somewhere between 60% and 80% of schools. But starting next year, it will become even more common, thanks to a new mandate from the Bloomberg administration that every school teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade and another in 9th or 10th grade.
The new mandate requires that the curriculum teach kids how to use condoms. But the recommended Reducing the Risk program does much more than that: another homework activity involves a shopping trip to a local condom vendor to list the brand names of the condoms sold there and to indicate whether they are lubricated or not, reservoir or plain. The program mocks common sense and the wishes of the majority of parents by asking these fourteen-year-old students to decide which method of preventing pregnancy “seems best for you.” Here we find abstinence listed along with condoms; foam, jelly, cream; condoms plus another method; birth control pill; birth control patch or ring; Depo Provera; Implanon; and IUD. Most parents have a pretty clear idea of what “seems best” for their 9th-grade children.
But the recommended programs are “evidence based,” supporters will say. It’s true; the initial study in California showing a moderate delay in sexual debut after 18 months was replicated in two other studies. The program was also selected over 29 other possible programs by a panel of stakeholders. Only so-called “comprehensive” risk-reduction programs approved by the Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS) and Advocates for Youth were considered, however, and abstinence-only risk-avoidance programs were deliberately excluded, so the program is ideology-based as well.
There are other programs that are also evidence-based, and that don’t offend the values of a substantial segment of New York City parents like the Reducing the Risk program does. A program developed and tested by Dr. John B. Jemmott III of the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, showed that more students in an abstinence-only program had delayed sexual debut after 24 months than students in the three control groups, which included students participating in a comprehensive program, students in a safer-sex-only program, and students in a health program with no sexual health content. Nor did the abstinence program have any negative effect on condom use among the students who did initiate sexual activity.
More importantly, Dr. Jemmott’s study was conducted in urban public schools in Philadelphia among African-American middle school students. Since the Bloomberg administration’s new mandate is purportedly part of an effort to help poor and minority students, why would the Jemmott program, tested on northeastern urban minority students, be verboten in favor of a program tested in California and Arkansas?
All of this led the Chiaroscuro Foundation, where I work as Executive Director, to host a press conference on the steps of City Hall yesterday to call on Mayor Bloomberg to allow at least one abstinence-only curriculum under the new mandate. Dr. Miriam Grossman of the World Youth Alliance spoke about the flaws in the City’s recommended curricula, detailed in a report she released yesterday. Dr. Nanci Coppola of Program Reach spoke about the shortcomings of a risk-reduction approach to sex education and about the successes of a risk-avoidance approach. She quoted Douglas Kirby, author of some of the evaluations of the Reducing the Risk curricula recommended by the city, who said that “it may actually be easier to delay the onset of intercourse than to increase contraceptive practice.”
Ed Mechmann, assistant director of the Family Life Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, spoke strongly about the necessity of parental involvement in deciding what is appropriate in sex education: “Who would think that the government knows better than parents what to say to children about sex and when? … No one would think that, because it is crazy.” Pastor Michel Faulkner of New Horizon Church in Harlem and Clergy for Better Choices spoke about the process used twenty years ago to get parental feedback on the question of sex education in schools, a process that has been completely short-circuited by a unilateral mandate from City Hall. We were helped by a report in Crain’s New York, referencing an op-ed in El Diaro La Prensa by the president of Planned Parenthood of New York, who was advocating for sex education in every grade and at every age. Not even the New York press would embrace such an extreme idea.
Some who gathered with us were people of faith who object to the view of human sexuality underlying the recommended curricula. Others were medical professionals and experts on the risks associated with sexual activity. It was a diverse group that, for diverse reasons, is concerned about the new sex education mandate. We all agree, however, that, at a minimum, an alternative program must be allowed under the mandate for parents and schools that prefer a different approach to sexuality education.
We are not opposed to providing young people with medically accurate information about the risks associated with sexual activity. On the contrary, we are concerned that the City’s required curricula inadequately describe the risk associated with sex, even protected or so-called “safe” sex. We believe that we do our young people a disservice when we teach them how to reduce their risk when we should be teaching them how to avoid it. As Dr. Anne Nolte of the Gianna Center said in the New York Post yesterday, “If we had the courage, we’d challenge our preconceived ideas about teenage behavior and sexuality and would go back to the drawing board.”
Dr. Miriam Grossman’s report helpfully summarizes what is wrong with New York’s approach:
We cannot expect teens to succeed at avoiding pregnancy and genital infections while telling them that sexual activity is a positive force in their lives, and that all they need to avoid, essentially, is “the exchange of body fluids.” We cannot expect them to delay intercourse, while teaching them that with condom use, they’ll avoid pregnancy, STDs and HIV. And surely we cannot expect all this while instructing them that, “only you know when you’re ready.”
It is the nature of adolescence to feel “ready” for just about anything.
The programs make promises, but fail to deliver the goods. They promise to provide students with all the up-to-date, accurate information they need to avoid risky behavior. They promise comprehensive, accurate information about condoms, and the transmission and prevention of HIV and other STDs. They claim to be on the same page as parents.
This report has documented the many ways the programs fall short. The efficacy of condoms is overstated, in some cases vastly so. The quantitative data about their use is absent. Sex is seen as risky only when it’s “unprotected.” Chlamydia is incorrectly described as “easily cured.” If STD test results come back ok, that means you don’t have an STD. These messages, and others, are repeated over and over, but the information is not accurate, comprehensive, and up-to-date. Even worse, critical life and death information is distorted or ignored. Students are left misinformed, and with a false sense of security. Surely, this is the last thing we want.
We must make teens understand that sex is a very serious matter and that a single encounter can change their lives forever. Our message must be consistent and firm: the only responsible choice is to delay sexual behavior until adulthood. We must provide students with an ideal to strive for, one that offers them the healthiest option physically and emotionally. The healthiest ideal is to postpone sexual activity until adulthood, and, ideally, until marriage. Of course, students must be told, it’s not easily achieved. You, or some of your peers, might make mistakes. But just as in other areas of education, where the ideal is presented as the point of excellence towards which we encourage young people to strive, the same holds true with our sexual activity and choices. Keeping the ideal in front of young people and supporting them in achieving this should be the first priority of sexual education programs.
Adolescents look to adults for authoritative guidance. It is our responsibility to do precisely that—guide them with authority, firm rules, and high expectations. That is not accomplished by telling them “only you know when you’re ready.” When we provide that message, we fail young people. When we teach them to rely on latex, we fail again.
At some point, perhaps, we arrive at irreconcilable philosophical differences, between the sexuality-ism of the likes of SIECUS, Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood, which holds that all sexual expression is good just because it is, and a more traditional understanding of sexuality embraced by many Americans, which values self-control and prefers to reserve sexual activity for committed relationships. Those differences won’t be resolved any time soon. But why must those of us who embrace a more traditional view of human sexuality be forced to submit to the sexual agenda of a handful of powerful organizations that exercise undue influence on the political process here in New York City? What if we don’t want our daughters cataloguing the condom inventory of the local drug store or visiting an abortion clinic for homework? What about our freedom of choice, our right to privacy? Keep your mandates off our children’s innocence.
Greg Pfundstein is the Executive Director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.