by Susie Wilson
[To lead off Let’s Talk Month, we’re reposting a column about sex ed in New York City from Susie Wilson’s Sex Matters. In October, we’ll be sharing ways to talk to your kids about sex. Parents are the best sex ed teachers for our young people!
To schedule a parent program or a teacher training, contact The Center for Family Life Education at The.CFLE@ppgnnj.org.]
As most East Coasters need no reminding, this is hurricane season. It is also the season for state and county agricultural fairs. I went to the annual four-day Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair in Martha’s Vineyard, where the products of “farm, field, pasture, workshops, and kitchens are celebrated.” (The president’s daughters also took in it delights, although on a different day than the one I took my three grandchildren.)
The center of the 150-year-old annual fair was a giant barn filled to the rafters with exhibits of all kinds—from a contest to see who had raised the largest zucchini to who had created the tiniest flower arrangement. There was a sea of blue ribbons attached to entries that judges had viewed, patted, smelled, weighed, and, when necessary, tasted, and deemed worthy of first prize.
I know how prized that blue ribbon was when my 10-year-old granddaughter received one in the Dog Show for her Brittany spaniel. (Her dog beat out one other entrant, and she was thrilled.)
To carry on the thrill of blue-ribbon prizes, I am awarding a first prize for the most significant recent sexuality and public affairs event. The winner of the coveted blue ribbon is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wins the blue not for his sensible decision to evacuate of hundreds of thousands of people living in New York City and low-lying areas in the five boroughs during Hurricane Irene—but for his boldness in mandating sex education for students in New York City’s public middle and high schools starting this school year.
Bravo, Mr. Mayor: You will look good with a blue ribbon pinned to your lapel. You showed courage in taking on the tough subject of requiring sex education, which most politicians run away from at considerable speed. You demonstrated your concern for the poorest young people in your city by offering them the information and skills they need to protect them from unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Mayor Bloomberg placed his decision to require sex education for all middle- and high school students in the context of a new strategy “to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers.” He cited the facts that we have heard repeatedly—that these young people “are far more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases,” which can weaken their life chances and keep them mired in poverty.
He did not choose abstinence-only programs—often the fallback favorites of many politicians forced to take a stand on sex education. Instead, he recommended programs that “include lessons on how to use a condom” as well as discussion about and “the appropriate age for sexual activity.”
Sex education isn’t a magic bullet, but it is an essential first step to helping all young people—especially those about whom Mayor Bloomberg cares—lead healthier lives. Wisely, too, the program will permit families to “opt out” of the courses rather than having them “opt in.” The latter is a cumbersome, paper-heavy procedure that isn’t easy to administer and often hamstrings instruction.
When the New Jersey State Board of Education mandated sex education for all public elementary and secondary schools in 1980, parents were also given the “opt out” choice. If I remember correctly, very few parents chose it, somewhat to policymakers’ surprise. My hunch is that—despite the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s opposition to the Bloomberg program —most New York City parents will follow in the footsteps of New Jersey parents.
Mayor Bloomberg really doesn’t have to worry about any substantial controversy to his plan. He already has great support for his mandate: A NARAL Pro-Choice New York 2009 survey found that 81 percent of city voters thought that sex education should be taught in public schools.
Were I personally able to pin the blue ribbon on the Mayor’s lapel, I might whisper one suggestion in his ear: “Mr. Mayor, M & M.” I don’t mean the popular candy, but rather an “M” for monitor and an “M” for motivation. Sex education programs, by and large, are not monitored, and they are rarely part of any accountability process. Once they become a part of the education curriculum, officials breathe a sigh of relief and move on.
If teachers knew that their programs would be scrutinized and evaluated, and changed if they were ineffective, they might keep them fresh and more interesting. Students might pay more attention to the content if they knew that officials were evaluating what they were learning and assessing if they had gained information that led to better attitudes and behaviors. If students could be part of the evaluation process, they might feel even more invested in the instruction.
Mayor Bloomberg could become an Ambassador for effective sex education and motivate other big-city mayors to follow his lead and take an interest in the subject.
As I write, I think of how he might influence Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, Mayor Tony Mack of Trenton, and Mayor Dana L. Redd of Camden to take a look at the sex education programs in their respective cities. Because there is a statewide mandate for sex and family life education in New Jersey, these mayors won’t have to struggle to start programs. They could ask young people themselves about their effectiveness. If students have complaints, the mayors might take the lead in improving the programs.
Who knows, maybe Mayor Bloomberg’s mandate in New York City will start a movement for improved sex ed all across the nation, especially for poor minority students who are most in need of it.
And if more inspiration is needed, I have a cache of blue ribbons under my bed just waiting for me to award them.
Reposted with permission from Sex Matters at