Aug. 24, 2011 at 3:36 PM ET
New York legislators have renewed a national debate about sex education by passing a law that requires—for the first time in twenty years—detailed sexual health instruction for middle school and high school students. While many New York schools have been distributing condoms for decades, the new curriculum actually teaches children as young as eleven how to use them.
Abstinence vs. public health vs. Teen Mom
I’m torn. While I like comprehensive sex education in the abstract, I’m not sure I want my eleven-year-old daughter practicing with latex and bananas. No worries here in Arkansas. So far, she has only seen The Video (probably the same one I saw at her age). Next year she will participate in a week long abstinence-only sex-ed class that relies on STD scare tactics and a not-so-subtle implication that premarital sex is a VIP pass to Hell. (Your separation of church and state means nothing here.) Two years ago my son came home from the same class having taken The Pledge. No sex before marriage. We will affix his signed purity contract to the dashboard of his first car.
Where is the balance, the middle ground between an unrealistic ideal of a sexless teen and model penis fondling? Perhaps required viewing of select episodes of Teen Mom would be the most effective deterrent to too-young sex.
Sex is subjective
The trouble with sex education, no matter how it is mandated, is that it is subjective. The New York law requires lessons to be “age-appropriate” and “medically accurate.” No gray area there. In my high school (in the dark ages of the 1980s), human reproduction was the domain of the biology department. Our teacher spent weeks on the sexual lives of the planarian, fluke, and fruit fly, but the human functions were allotted approximately three minutes of class time. I eventually learned how to apply a condom, among other skills, but not in a classroom. Credit goes instead to movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and my best friend’s older sister, who also gave us directions to Planned Parenthood.
Improving the lives of teens
Giving teens options is not just about their bodies. Kids need something to look forward to. A girl who envisions a successful future is more likely to use birth control, even if her parents don’t let her access this new and improved education. (Yes, that is allowed.)
Let’s also acknowledge that not all teenage girls having sex are consenting. Everyone seems fixated on the condom instruction, but the suggested curriculums also teach students how to abstain from and delay the onset of sexual activity. Teach kids to respect themselves and they may just avoid abusive and controlling relationships, sexual or otherwise.
I’d like to think I am teaching my children well, putting aside my own discomfort in the interest of their needs. But a part of me wishes they would learn about sex the old fashioned way—from older sisters and adolescent movies.
What do you think? Does comprehensive sex education make life better for America’s children, or just harder for American parents?
Lela Davidson blogs about marriage, motherhood and keeping the evidence of aging at bay at After The Bubbly. She shares more humorous observations on family life in her new book,"Blacklisted from the PTA."