A Reality Check on Teen Sex

Even in liberal, cosmopolitan New York City, sex education is controversial—at least in the media.

Last week, the New York Post published a breathless article about the city’s new comprehensive sex ed curriculum, which will be rolled out this spring for middle and high-school students. According to the Post, some unspecified number of “parents” are feeling “furor” at the following “bawdy” homework assignments:

· High-school students go to stores and jot down condom brands, prices and features such as lubrication.

· Teens research a route from school to a clinic that provides birth control and STD tests, and write down its confidentiality policy.

· Kids ages 11 and 12 sort “risk cards” to rate the safety of various activities, including “intercourse using a condom and an oil-based lubricant,” mutual masturbation, French kissing, oral sex and anal sex.

Regarding this last assignment, an October 18 New York Times op-ed by two authors affiliated with the hard right American Principles Project borrowed the “parental rights” rhetoric of the Tea Party to claim that teaching seventh-graders that kissing and petting are less risky than oral sex or vaginal intercourse violates parents’ right to control what their children hear about “sensitive issues of morality.” Although the city plans to allow parents to opt their children out of lessons on how to use contraception, parents should be able to remove their kids from any part of the sex ed curriculum they choose, the authors argued.

The research consensus on sex ed is clear: the vast majority of abstinence-only programs, which tend to portray all premarital sexual activity as sinful and unhealthy, have no record of delaying sexual intercourse. The one abstinence program that does successfully delay sexual initiation has little in common with its peers; instead of portraying sex in a negative light, it focuses on teaching kids about sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and herpes. Meanwhile, students who receive comprehensive sex ed, which includes lessons on how to obtain and use contraception, are more likely to use protection when they do have sex, and less likely to become pregnant.

But the never-ending sex ed wars aren’t really about what “works” in terms of keeping kids healthy and preventing teen pregnancy. As sociologist Kristin Luker demonstrates in her excellent book When Sex Goes to School, a person’s position on sex ed is a proxy for a deeper set of questions: whether or not one supports the changes in gender and economic norms that have brought women into the workplace, delayed the average age at marriage and allowed couples to experience sex without the burden of pregnancy, through the use of hormonal birth control. “Abstinence-only education,” Luker writes, “rejects the core principle on which the harm-reduction model is based: that each individual should decide for himself or herself what is proper sexual behavior. Instead, it substitutes a single value for everyone, namely, no sex outside (heterosexual) marriage.”

The problem with this ideology is that it is based on a fantasy. Ninety-five percent of Americans have premarital sex, and the average age of sexual initiation is 16 for boys and 17 for girls. These numbers have remained remarkably consistent since the early 1960s. What has changed is the particular risks facing our inner-city youth. According to the Guttmacher Institute, since the 1980s, the number of urban, minority youth reporting sexual initiation before the age of 15 has increased. In one 2001 study, 31 percent of urban minority boys and 8 percent of urban minority girls reported having sex in seventh or eighth grade. By the end of tenth grade, a majority of both the girls and boys reported that they had sex.

It is exactly this population that the New York City sex ed curriculum was crafted to reach. And though teaching middle-schoolers about safe sex is eternally controversial, the evidence suggests that for a significant portion of our urban youth, seventh grade is actually too late to begin having these conversations, since they are already sexually active.

A sex ed curriculum based in reality acknowledges these risks and attempts to mitigate them. And since there’s no evidence at all that comprehensive sex-ed hastens children’s sexual initiation, there is little downside. After all, even the most progressive sex ed curriculum teaches kids that delaying sex is the only 100 percent effective method for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

cross-posted at The Nation

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