AS BEFITTING AN ARTICLE about schools, here’s a pop quiz taken from the sex education website Teenwire.org: In 1937,
studies claimed that nine out of 10 children caught masturbating were: a) severely punished; b) told they would go insane or blind; c) threatened with having their penises cut off or their vaginas sewn closed; or d) all of the above.
The answer? d) all of the above.
Now, before you start laughing at the absurdity of life in the 1930s, consider this contemporary statement from the “guardyourself” website of the abstinence-only organization Women’s Clinic of Kansas City/Life Guard, which has received almost a million dollars in federal funds for sex education: “Being able to have sex does not make you any different from a rat in a warehouse. They have sex too. Is that what you want to compare yourself with?”
For the last decade, schools around the country have been badgered and bribed into pumping these sorts of ideas into students’ heads through abstinence-only programs—that is, those relatively few schools that teach sex education in the first place. Beginning under former-president Bill Clinton and escalating under President George W. Bush, more than $1.5 billion in federal and state money has been poured into abstinence-only
education. These programs, by law, have as their “exclusive purpose” teaching about the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity; prohibit schools from talking about contraceptives and condoms; and define healthy sexuality as “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage.”
Over the past year, this surging abstinence-only education movement has finally shown signs of retreat. Numerous studies have proven it to be ineffective, even harmful, and a growing list of states have turned down federal money when it comes with abstinence strings attached. But as abstinence fades, the increasingly pressing question is this: What will rise in its place? Sex education in public schools has never been a resource priority and has rarely been described as forward thinking. So will the half-hearted sex education that preceded abstinence return in coming years? Will there be anything at all? Or are this country’s policymakers prepared to embrace a comprehensive sex education that goes beyond fear tactics and acknowledges that sexuality is a normal part of life, even for teenagers?
Schools’ failure to help students understand and embrace their sexuality has particular consequence for kids of color, who represent vast majorities in many public schools around the country. Sex and race have always formed a volatile brew in America. Racist stereotypes of hypersexual men and women compete with restrictive mores, coming from both inside and outside of communities of color, to circumscribe sexual expression. Too many young people are left to sort through this maelstrom with little or no guidance, and too many don’t find their way. Blacks and Latinos account for 83 percent of teen HIV infections. Similar disparities exist with nearly every other type of sexually transmitted infection—Black girls are more than four times as likely to get gonorrhea as their peers, and syphilis is skyrocketing among Black teenage boys and slowly climbing among Latino boys. Late last year, federal health monitors announced that teen pregnancy went up in 2006 for the first time in 15 years. The largest spikes were found among Black and Native American girls.
“In essence, our country has viewed youth as hormonally driven accidents waiting to happen, so we give them sex ed that censors information,” frets James Wagoner, head of the Washington, D.C. group Advocates for Youth. “We adults tell them not to have sex until they’re married, and never mind that none of us ever followed that advice.”
Whatever adults are prepared to do, a growing number of teenagers and sex educators are taking matters into their own hands, logging on to the Internet and rabble-rousing in their classrooms to elbow out space for a more honest conversation about sex. They’re fed up with adults’ 1930s sensibilities about their sex lives, and they’ve gone in search of their own resources.
Maya Patitucci, 19, remembers her sex ed classes at Curie Metro High School in Chicago mostly because they were incredibly boring. “The videos they showed us, they were like from the 1970s, with stereotypical roles and bad music,” she said. “And so you’d go to sleep during the videos. Everyone knows that during health class, that’s the time you sleep.” And yet she considers herself one of the lucky ones. While the textbook focused on abstinence until marriage, “we had a good teacher,” she says. “He was conscious enough to go beyond abstinence.”
When she was a senior at Curie, Patitucci realized just how bad sex ed was in the Chicago Public Schools, which, with about a half-million students, is the third largest district in the country. As part of a leadership program, she and a group of students researched teen pregnancy and sex ed across the city. “We did a survey of physical-ed teachers and found out that they taught whatever they liked,” she explains. At the same time, the need for comprehensive information was undeniable: statistics showed that 50 percent of the city’s high school students were sexually active and that 6,000 babies were born to teen parents in Chicago in 2003.
Patitucci and other students at Curie—where 81 percent of the students are from low-income families, 62 percent are Latino, 22 percent are Black and 6 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander—first focused on their own school and organized until it bought more up-to-date videos and adopted an improved sex ed syllabus. After that, working with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health based in Chicago’s Loop, they started a citywide campaign demanding that comprehensive sex ed be required in the district’s middle and high school grades.
“We believed that the entire school system needed to make a commitment to providing lifesaving information to Chicago schools,” Patitucci says, “so we took our cause to the top.”
As is common across the country, Chicago’s required curriculum had focused only on disease prevention. Following the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, states began requiring public schools to teach about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), in particular HIV. However, fewer than half the states require a broader sex education. Of those that do, most stress abstinence, according to the Guttmacher Institute in New York City.
In August 2005, more than 50 students and adult allies rallied outside of Chicago’s school district headquarters to demand sex ed that included instruction on contraception. In December, despite cold weather, twice that many demonstrated. Eventually, district administrators invited the youth organizers to help shape a new policy, and by the following April, the board of education passed a policy requiring comprehensive sex ed.
Today, Patitucci works with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and is helping organize campaigns in other parts of the state. “My plan is to develop a core group of both youth and adults to organize the community to work with the schools and change policy,” she says.
Chicago is not the only major public school district being rocked by youth-led movements for better sex ed. In December 2007, teen activists in New York City—the country’s largest district—testified before their city council to demand a comprehensive curriculum and a new policy that doesn’t merely allow schools to offer sex ed but requires them to do so. “There has been no mandatory sex education in New York City public schools for as long as anyone can remember,” complains Nancy Biberman, president of the Bronx-based anti-poverty group The Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp.
What people do remember is that in the mid-1990s the school chancellor was fired after religious conservatives and then-mayor Rudy Giuliani went ballistic over the proposed Rainbow Curriculum, which advocated tolerance toward gays and lesbians and the distribution of condoms to high schoolers. After that, comprehensive sex ed became a taboo topic for the New York schools.
Today’s youth were born after the uproar over the Rainbow Curriculum and don’t remember that controversy. What they do know is that teens need reliable information on sex. About half of New York’s ninth graders are sexually active, and about 10 percent of all young women become pregnant before age 20.
Latinos and Blacks account for more than three-quarters of new HIV cases in New York, which has one of the highest concentrations of HIV/AIDS in the country.
The youth organizing started in 2005 with a group of teenagers at a Bronx middle school taking part in an after-school program sponsored by the Women’s Corp. Before long, they had launched a website (sexed4u.googlepages.com) and a MySpace page demanding comprehensive sex ed (myspace.com/sexed4u). As their website says, “We realized that in a society where the media is often our only means of sex education, we should have the
opportunity to obtain accurate and impartial information.”
The group’s approach is summed up by their “quote of the month” from an eighth grader posted on their website: “We don’t want lectures,” the girl writes, “we want conversations.”
While most associate abstinence-only education with the current Bush administration, such policies go back to 1981, when Congress started funding so-called “chastity education.” The Supreme Court ultimately curtailed the programs because of their close association with religious proselytizing, but conservatives didn’t stop organizing.
In 1996, abstinence-only found new footing when then-president Clinton signed welfare legislation onto which conservative activists had tacked abstinence-only education funding. Before long, abstinence-only efforts dominated school sex ed, even though no research had established the curricula as scientifically sound. Bush expanded the programs and ratcheted up annual funding for them and then exported the idea by tying abstinence to foreign aide for HIV/AIDS initiatives.
Last year, that tide turned. The movement had always been controversial, but in April 2007 it was severely wounded when a comprehensive report found that students in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have sex. An October report by the Government Accountability Office added that not only are the programs ineffective, but in many cases they give kids inaccurate information. That study reinforced a previous one by California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, that found several federally funded abstinence-only curricula were not only giving students inaccurate information, but were also pushing gender stereotypes—one program listed “financial support” as a “major need” for women and “domestic support” as one for men. And still more bad news came in December: While pregnancy and birth rates for U.S. teenagers had been falling since about 1991, there was an unexpected jump of almost 4 percent in 2006, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The cavalcade of bad press emboldened states already uncomfortable with the programs. As of this February, 16 states had said they would no longer take federal funds for abstinence-only programs, which mandate states to partially match the federal dollars.
But that hasn’t stopped the abstinence-only movement, which has grown into a nationwide industry of hundreds of politically connected groups receiving public dollars to push their scientifically suspect information on public schools. In an era of budget shortfalls, a disturbing number of schools say “yes” when the groups offer their abstinence-only curriculum for free. And while the abstinence movement may be wounded, Wagoner of Advocates for Youth warns that it is far from defeated. Powerful Democrats in Congress such as Dave Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have shown little concern about changing the abstinence-only approach.
“Politicians, including Democrats like Obey, are hypocritical when they demand responsible behavior from youth and then shut off all access to the information—access and support that they need,” Wagoner argues. “That’s not morality—it’s irresponsibility and rank hypocrisy.”
And what has been President Bush’s response to the raft of information disputing the merits of abstinence-only education? His proposed 2009 budget calls for $204 million in abstinence-only funding, including an increase of $28 million for the largest program, which is distributed through community-based groups.
Paul Zettel is a health education teacher at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where more than 60 percent of the students are African American, 17 percent are Latino, and 8 percent are Asian. Special education students account for more than 15 percent of the students, there’s a sizable group of English language learners and most of the students are from low-income families. In other words, Riverside is a typical urban public high school.
Zettel teaches sex ed as part of a semester-long health class for sophomores, and his primary goal is to teach students the skills needed to make healthy decisions about their emotional, physical, intellectual and sexual health. A comprehensive sex ed approach that talks about contraception is only the first step, Zettel emphasizes. His students need far-broader support in developing healthy sex lives than just information on preventing STIs.
“People don’t understand that our youth at Riverside are living in multiple health crises,” Zettel says. “More than 30 percent are clinically depressed; one out of every two has been sexually assaulted by age 16. More than 15,000 students in the Milwaukee schools have a parent in prison or in jail on any given day, and kids come into class grieving because a friend was shot, or an uncle died. These epidemics are weighing our children down.”
Milwaukee is no stranger to social problems. It consistently ranks in the top three of cities with the highest percent of births to teens and the highest child poverty rates. And then there’s the staggering level of sexual assault in both the city and state. Juveniles accounted for the majority of sexual assault victims in 2001; almost half of girls younger than 15 said their first intercourse was nonconsensual; and about half of teenager mothers were sexually molested before their first pregnancy, according to a report last year from United Way of Greater Milwaukee.
One of the limitations of almost all sex ed, whether comprehensive or abstinence-only, is that it is based on fear: do this or else you’ll get a disease, be careful or else you’ll get pregnant and your life will be ruined. But there’s another, often unmentioned, problem. Young women are rarely given the skills they need to resist unwanted sexual advances, especially from older boyfriends. Few sex ed classes teach students—either young men or young women—how to understand the difference between flirting and harassment, or that the right to say “yes” to sex must also include the right to say “no.”
“The entire paradigm, given the expectations within a sexist society, has to be challenged,” says Ellen Bravo, the Milwaukee-based former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, who has been involved in anti-sexual-harassment training for more than 20 years. “We need to challenge the double standard that men with a lot of sexual experience are cool [but] women with a lot of experience are sluts and whores. Being sexual beings does not mean women have to be pressured into giving sexual favors, but that they have the right to a sexual relationship among equals.”
But whether a Milwaukee sex ed class may invite Bravo in to discuss these issues is a matter of chance. While district policy nominally calls for comprehensive sex education, what does or doesn’t happen in a particular school varies wildly—a confounding reality in school districts around the country.
“Overall, sex education in Milwaukee is definitely on the back burner,” notes Jennifer Morales, a school board member who has two teenage sons in the public schools. She cites a number of factors for the haphazard nature of sex ed in Milwaukee’s schools: the out-of-control emphasis on testing; the year-after-year budget cuts; and the impossibility of teaching all the various curriculum mandates, whether from the feds, the state or the district. “I don’t see any motion one way or another, either for more or less comprehensive sex ed. We’ve decentralized to the point where nobody is responsible for moving it forward and we’re in a morass.”
And like many school districts, educators have little incentive and every reason to avoid becoming trailblazers. “There’s a very real fear of public backlash if we push too hard on sex ed issues,” Morales says. “We’re not at the point where we have accepted that teenagers are sexual beings, and if you talk about that too much it’s a one-way ticket out of teaching.”
Terica Gant is a busy woman. She’s getting a master’s degree in social work from Louisiana State University, works in a group home for teenage girls in foster care and is involved with a big buddy after-school program. Yet for about five hours every week, she sets aside time to answer e-mail questions from young women across the country on a variety of sexuality topics, from emergency contraception, to how soon one can have sex after an abortion, to how one can deal with being abused by their partner.
To many, Gant’s work is the future of teaching kids about sex: online peer education. She works with the site MySistahs.org, which is run by Advocates for Youth. MySistahs.org is designed to connect young women of color with older, trained women of color who can answer their questions about sexual and reproductive health. It is one of a growing number of Internet-based resources available to youth (see thesidebar), each of which boasts a critical advantage over school-based sex ed—no question is too outrageous, and privacy is guaranteed.
The 22-year-old Gant is sometimes surprised at the questions she gets—basic information that she got during high school about contraception and how women get pregnant. Mostly, however, she thinks it’s a privacy issue. “Especially if you’re coming from a small town, you might not feel comfortable talking to your parents or your doctor,” Gant says. “So the Internet is a great way [for youth] to get the answers they desperately need, but not be judged, or worry that someone is going to tell on you. Being able to ask questions anonymously is really important.”
MySistahs.org has seven peer educators, ages 17 to 24, located across the country. The website provides pictures, ages, locations and brief biographies about the educators, allowing women to choose whom they might feel most comfortable talking to.
Above all, Gant stresses, it’s important to be non-judgmental and help young women make the decision that’s best for them. “Every person is different and needs a different approach,” she says.
“Nobody should have sex if they don’t want to, and so sex ed should have a component of abstinence for those who want to wait. But for those who don’t wait, they need to know how to protect themselves, as well as information about the ‘morning after pill.’ If we don’t give them this information as teens, who’s to say they will get it as adults?”
Gant’s site is one of several initiatives by Advocates for Youth tapping into Web-based technology. While much of the society’s broader conservation about youth, sex and the Internet is filled with talk of pedophiles and pornography, Wagoner stresses the Web’s positive potential. “The web is buyer-beware, and young people have to be careful,” he says. “But youth are fighting for respect and for their rights, and we’re just in the early stages of seeing how the Web makes that possible. Its significance is enormous.”
Barbara Miner is a columnist for Rethinking Schools magazine and writes frequently on social issues.