WARNING: This post mentions sex. I use the word a lot in this post. If that makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the post for you.
Over the summer, the Bloomberg administration announced that, for the first time in two decades, public school students in New York would be required to take sex-ed. The curriculum the administration recommended—HealthSmart (middle school and high school) and Reducing the Risk—include, among other things, lessons on abstinence and birth control.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has been controversial. It seems like sex-ed is one of the culture-wars topics that never gets old. But I’m not really a culture-wars person, and the real or purported controversy of New York’s most recent foray into sex education wouldn’t have really interested me except for one thing: the Bloomberg administration’s purpose for making this move. Specifically, the move was part of its strategy to “improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers.”
Sex-ed isn’t usually justified, in my experience, as a tool to achieve social justice, or an anti-poverty measure. New York, though, tied its sex-ed to improving kids’ economic potential.
How? In Creating an Opportunity Society (which I’ve mentioned before), Haskins and Sawhill say that families headed by a person who (1) graduated from high school, (2) works full-time, and (3) doesn’t have children out of wedlock has a 98% chance of escaping poverty.[fn1]
And comprehensive sex education seems to be fairly effective at achieving (3). And not just because it teaches kids how to have consequence-free[fn2] sex. Recent research suggests that teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education are 60% less likely to become pregnant or impregnate somebody than teenagers who receive no sex education.[fn3] Moreover, comprehensive sex education slightly reduced the the likelihood of teenagers having sex in the first place.[fn4]
So what does this mean to us as Mormons? The Handbook of Instructions says that parents are responsible for their kids’ sex education. But it doesn’t end there: it says that, if sex-ed is offered in the schools, parents should ensure that the instruction is consistent with “sound moral and ethical values.”
So we’ve got a moral responsibility to engage with schools’ sex education. And, I’d argue, our sound moral and ethical values at least force us to consider supporting comprehensive sex-ed. Note that I don’t mean this as a blanket endorsement of anything that flies under the rubric of comprehensive sex-ed.[fn5] But the numbers indicate that including information on contraception in a well-designed curriculum substantially reduces teen pregnancy, marginally reduces teen sex, and doesn’t cause kids who wouldn’t have had sex to suddenly have it. Even if we’re convinced our kids won’t have premarital sex (and I think that assuming that all kids will have premarital sex is condescending; some certainly will, but my personal experience suggests that it’s far from inevitable), supporting good instruction can potentially improve the economic and spiritual and emotional lives of the teenagers around them.
* I know that the phrase “social justice” riles some people up; I assume sex-ed gets a different group. If I included tax here, I’d have the perfect storm.
[fn1] Haskins & Sawhill p. 70.
[fn2] I don’t, of course, mean “consequence-free”; among other things, there are emotional and spiritual consequences to sex. But using contraception can significantly decrease the risk of pregnancy and, in some cases, STDs.
[fn3] Teens who received abstinence-only sex-ed were 30% less likely to become pregnant or impregnate somebody, but, apparently, this number was statistically insignificant.
[fn4] I should note that this makes some intuitive sense to me: I can’t imagine anything making sex seem less sexy to a teenager than a required high school class. I also can’t fathom how teaching about how to use contraception could possibly be useful to anybody: using a condom, for example, isn’t rocket science. But, on the other hand, I was once helping a home teachee move and, in the course of packing, we saw a couple wood phalluses on her shelf. Sheepishly, she explained that, in the course of her job as a social worker in prisons, she taught prisoners how to use a condom. So maybe condom use is not as intuitive as it seems.
[fn5] Although, frankly, from looking at the websites, the curricular subjects aren’t nearly as offensive as the HealthSmart website; seriously, what is it about public schools and horrible web design?