“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.” So begins a well-known scene from 2004 teen comedy “Mean Girls,” where a coach lectures high school students on the dangers of premarital sex. Every time I see this scene, I laugh at the absurdity of how it depicts the abstinence-only approach to sex ed — the coach is clearly fear-mongering, and as his brief talk doesn’t delve into any details regarding sex, sexuality, relationships and consent, it can hardly be considered sex ed.
But while I laugh at this lecture and tell myself that deeply inadequate, abstinence-only sex ed like this isn’t commonplace in New York, the reality is that sex ed in the state of New York is still far from comprehensive — and in some districts, it’s far too close to the “Mean Girls” lecture.
The New York City Department of Education requires public schools to provide middle and high school students with sex education. This mandate places New York City ahead of other parts of the country — only 29 states mandate that sex education be taught in public schools, while 29 states require sex education to stress abstinence and 19 states require students to be taught that sex is only acceptable after marriage. However, the NYCDOE does not provide a curriculum for sex education; a 2017 study found that 43% of eighth graders at NYC public schools did not complete the required semester of sex ed in middle school.
Even more concerning is the lack of adequate sex education in New York State as a whole. While New York City requires medically accurate sex education in middle and high schools, the State of New York does not mandate sex education. As a result, the information taught in many public schools is inaccurate and exclusionary. A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that almost 2 in 3 school districts did not mention female genitalia, 1 in 3 did not teach students how to use condoms, and many did not even mention LGBTQ+ relationships or identities.
Sex education, like any other subject taught in public schools, shouldn’t be geared towards certain students and beliefs. Refusing to mention or to accurately name female genitalia — one district referred to the vagina as “a sperm deposit” — and presenting sex education through a heteronormative lens not only excludes some students, but it blatantly prevents them from receiving information that can help them stay safe and healthy, both physically and mentally. The abstinence-only sex ed that I received didn’t make me feel less curious about sex or more prepared to engage in healthy relationships. Instead, it just left me feeling ashamed and deeply confused about how to set boundaries and what healthy relationships should look like.
Moreover, inclusive and comprehensive sex education has benefits beyond ensuring that all students receive information that pertains to them. A study found that schools that employed LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula — including sex education — had lower rates of LGBTQ+ bullying, and LGBTQ+ students reported feeling safer in school than LGBTQ+ students at schools without inclusive curricula. Comprehensive sex education has also been linked to lower teenage pregnancy rates.
Regardless of there being a wide variety of viewpoints on sex, I don’t think that sex education should promote any agenda other than providing students with medically accurate guidance for how to engage in sexual activities whenever they themselves feel ready and prepared.
But sex is a normal part of the human experience, and as public institutions, public schools have a responsibility to provide students with information that is untainted by religious or cultural beliefs. Some students’ or teachers’ personal beliefs should not dictate the quality and content of information all students receive.
Of course, it isn’t realistic to expect a systemic issue like sex education to be solved quickly, and it is promising that New York City requires public schools to teach comprehensive sex education. It is also important to recognize that there are organizations that are working to promote secular and inclusive sex ed, such as Peer Health Exchange, an organization that educates college students to provide underresourced high schools with skills-based sex ed. But there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all students receive the information they need and deserve — state wide, nationwide and in New York City — and it is vital that we push for New York to adopt statewide standards for comprehensive and inclusive sex ed.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]