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Information, not Ideology, Should Be Framework of Sex Ed

by Alex Coccia | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: August 16, 2011
headshot alex coccia Alex Coccia

It was announced on August 9th, that New York City’s public middle and high schools will teach required sex education to students, a course that will cover the usage of contraception and the appropriate age to begin sexual activity.  The New York Times reports, “The new mandate is part of a broader strategy the Bloomberg administration announced last week to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers. According to city statistics, those teenagers are far more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases.”

The Archdiocese of New York quickly lodged its complaint about the program’s inclusion of teachings about contraception, saying that the Archdiocese will advise parents to withdraw students from the classes in which those topics are covered.  Parents would be utilizing the opt-out option, which is part of the program, allowing them to be the sole educators of their children on the topic of contraception.  Although the program will teach that abstinence is the only one hundred percent effective option, the lawyer for the Archdiocese, Edward Mechmann, compared the presentation of methods of birth control to cigarettes: “We don’t say that about cigarettes.  We don’t say, here’s a filtered cigarette — it’s better than Camel.”

If it were true that parents provide better sex education at home that responds to the questions of their own children and issues they may experience, then the New York Archdiocesan disapproval of the New York City public school system’s new sex education curriculum plan would be acceptable.  This, however, may be the exception, not the rule.  With sex education taught in schools that gives pre-teens and teenagers information about their own bodies (information, not ideology), whatever parents decide to teach at home – whether it is abstinence-only, a particular stance on homosexuality, or that sexuality is a freedom that should be expressed as long as it is consensual – can act as a supplementary course for their children’s development alongside the school-structured approach to anatomy, puberty, pregnancy, birth control, and sexually transmitted disease.  The fault lies in thinking that all parents who would withdraw their pre-teens and teenagers from the opt-out classes will provide an appropriate education for their sons and daughters.

However, Mechmann’s cigarette metaphor falsely portrays what the New York City educational system is attempting to do.  To respond using Mechmann’s own metaphor: the New York public school system is not giving students the filtered cigarette and saying that it is ok because it is better than Camel.  The system is telling the students that these things called cigarettes exist, and that if a student were to choose to use a cigarette, here is how one would use it, and here are the possible consequences of using it.  However, if you simply change the c word to contraception, the metaphor is an unfair one.  Contraception, unlike cigarettes, does not hurt people.  The approach of the New York educational system is to provide information (i.e., that contraception exists, what the proper usage is, what the possible consequences are), not ideology (i.e., that contraception is more appropriate than abstaining from sex, that it is completely fine to have sex as long as you use protection).

Inevitably, however, these pre-teens and teenagers will enter social groups that give their own version of sex education.  Whether the Archdiocese of New York likes it or not, teenagers will receive lessons in sex in the community outside of the “abstinence-only” protection of their own homes.  The education that occurs within society, when teenagers hang out with their friends, when they watch television shows, or even when they have some alone time with their own bodies, is going to conflict with the information some teenagers are going to be given in a home that focuses on religious morality as the arbiter of all things sexual.  Now, if teenagers find themselves in situations where the information and peer practices around them conflict with the “uneducation” of abstinence-only, then the consequences of unsafe sex will become more likely and more drastic.  Dr. Janet Elise Rosenbaum, in her study on teenagers who took virginity pledges (fortified by abstinence-only education), concluded that “The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex. Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.”

Abstinence-only education (at home, with no education at school), which the Archdiocese of New York advocates, places the pre-teens and teenagers in a position of ignorance, which cannot be the framework of any education.  The goal in any school should be to provide the resources for students to understand their options as they grow to be independent young men and women, even if these options conflict with what is being taught inside the students’ homes.  There is no ideological bent to telling teenagers the facts – that abstinence is one hundred percent effective, and that condoms and contraceptives if properly used are effective but come with risks.  But telling a teenager that abstinence is the only option or telling a teenager an exaggerated failure rate of other methods of contraception is completely ideological and harmful to the development of the teenager.

Parents may argue that keeping hidden certain information about sexuality, such as the use of contraception and the practice of safe sex, is part of the teenager’s moral formation.  If history has shown anything, it has shown that people, including teenagers, are going to have sex (even those who take virginity pledges).  But with sex education that addresses multiple options as well as risks, the students who will decide to have sex can not only have condoms available to them (as they are in New York City public high schools), but they will also know how to use them.  So when a teenager takes a sexual step for which his parents never prepared him, then he can know how to take precautions to do so as safely as possible.

The fact that it is a religious opposition to the mandatory sex education in schools, makes the argument – not more complicated, but – more foggy.  I would love to argue that if we lived in a society which was completely accepting of pre-marital sex, which teaches the younger generations about different practices of safe sex, which teaches about sexual preferences which are considered disordered by a portion of the population, which teaches that one’s sexuality is nothing of which to be ashamed nor to be taken lightly, then not only would the number of teenage pregnancies go down, but so would the number of STDs and STIs.  Not only would acceptance of alternative lifestyles increase, but also so would the number of committed relationships.  Not only would poor choices regarding sexual activity decrease, but so would the number of unwanted pregnancies which end in abortion.  I would love to make that argument, but it would do no good in this debate, because the type of society which I have described is the type of society which the religious opposition dreads – a society of sexual liberty, where the facts are given, not the threat of sin and of being ostracized.

Nonetheless, the New York City mandate is a good decision, even if long overdue.  Unfortunately, the teenagers whose parents will withdraw them from certain classes of the sex education curriculum are the ones that should be reached.  They will have the most questions and confusion when they realize that what happens outside the home may not seem to match what is being taught in the home.  Luckily, society is on the right way.  From the strides of progress within gay rights to the new health standards requiring insurance companies to cover women’s birth control, the country is doing something right.  The new mandate in New York City is just a small part of that larger movement.  Unfortunately, as long as the religious opposition continues to consider the spread of information as something as harmful as a cigarette, then the arrival of true educational liberty may be a long time coming.

Alex Coccia Alex Coccia Alex Coccia is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame and is majoring in Africana Studies and Peace Studies.

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