You remember what it was like, sitting in a special classroom, maybe one with couches instead of desks. The boys typically congregated to one side and the girls to the other. And the teacher—not your regular teacher—went around the room and made everyone say the words “penis” and “vagina” without laughing, while your best friend sat across from you flicking his tongue between two of his fingers.
Yes, that adolescent rite of passage known as the school-sanctioned sex ed class will arrive in New York City schools next year, albeit with stakes far more serious than misspelling “fallopian”: it comes accompanied by the kind of media maelstrom reminiscent of the culture wars of 20 years ago. (Jocelyn Elders, is that you?)
At issue is a new directive from the Bloomberg administration mandating sex ed for all seventh to 10th graders. The measure is part of the Bloomberg administration’s “Young Men’s Initiative,” a much-ballyhooed, $127 million program—$30 million of that from the mayor’s own pocket—that aims to boost the career and life prospects of several hundred thousand black and Latino young men.
“Some of the figures I have seen are figures we should not be tolerating,” said schools chancellor Dennis Walcott, citing in particular rising rates of chlamydia among teens. “We have to systematize the process of teaching this in schools and the negative impact it’s having on teenagers.”
“Now we are actually going to teach them how to have sex,” countered Chris Slattery, the president of a crisis pregnancy center. “There will be exposure to different types of sex. Discussion of oral sex and anal sex, I’m sure. There will be some coverage of homosexual sex, no doubt. How to put on condoms. And we don’t know the extent of it because of course there is a lot of freedom given to teachers.”
Asked if he is able to make this assertion due to first-hand knowledge of the curriculum, Mr. Slattery demurred.
“Others have. People I know. And the New York Post has reported on what is in the curriculum.”
Indeed, the Post did report that now city schools will be forced to cover “readin’ ’ritin’—and rubbers,” and an editorial in the paper accused Mr. Walcott of foisting a “how-to manual” on unsuspecting school children.
Around the same time, a number of elected officials joined up with conservative and religious groups, and brought on ace local Republican messaging guru William O’Reilly—the man behind Bob Turner’s upset win in a special election for Anthony Weiner’s former House seat—and took the case to the people. They were led by Michael Benjamin, an ambitious former Democratic state legislator who has been making noises about running for Congress, and Michael Faulkner, a Harlem pastor who last year ran on the Republican line against Charlie Rangel.
“It really cuts to the core of what rights parents have,” said Mr. O’Reilly. “It’s federal law that parents have the right to know what their children are being taught about in social studies. Why should it be any different with sex ed? This is getting railroaded through and it’s not right.”
There was a rally on the City Hall steps. Another in front of an elementary school in Bay Ridge. A meeting with Department of Education officials was demanded. When that demand was met, a further demand was made that the D.O.E. host town halls around the city to explain the new curriculum. Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in an op-ed that the new program was “horribly misguided” and “shockingly graphic.” The story got picked up by all of the major dailies, Yahoo News—which expressed surprise that such a controversy could occur even in permissive Gotham—The Guardian and CNN. Sean Hannity noted the city schools’ relatively low graduation rates and said, “They are falling down on reading, writing and math, but in the older grades, then they get into S.&M., oral sex with braces, fetishes, porn stars, vibrators and bestiality!”
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” sighed Natalie Ravitz, a spokesman for the Department of Education. “People are upset by elements that aren’t actually in the curriculum.”
She sat in the bullpen of the former Tweed courthouse, the century-and-a-half-old Italianate marvel that now houses the D.O.E. On a table were arrayed some of the workbooks and lesson plans that are a part of the new curriculum. The overwhelming impression of it is that its authors went through an extraordinary effort to keep it gender neutral.
Sample, from the middle school workbook:
Lee: No, Lee, stop.
Lee: I’m not ready for this. And besides, we don’t have protection.
(The odd use of the same name for both characters mainly serves to give the impression of a masturbating schizophrenic.)
Or, Scenario 1: Birthday Present
Kelly and Chris have been going out for almost a year. Kelly does not want to have sex. Tonight is Chris’s birthday and they are alone, kissing and touching. Chris wants to have sex but Kelly isn’t so sure.
Chris: What’s wrong?
Kelly: I don’t know. I’m not sure about this
Chris: Come on! It’s my birthday. This will make it special.
Kelly: I know it’s your birthday, but I don’t think I’m ready.
(The lessons include an area where students can write in a potentially better response from Kelly.)
City officials point out that one third of the new chlamydia cases were reported in teens age 15-19 years old. They say that over a quarter of male Hispanic teens, and even more male black teens, reported having had multiple sex partners, and that a substantial number of those say they did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
And, most important, they note that there is in fact no set curriculum. All the new initiative is doing is mandating that some form of sex ed be taught in schools. The curriculum that everyone is harping on is merely what the city is recommending and is providing free of charge to teachers who take one of their training sessions.
“That is even more disturbing!” said Mr. O’Reilly. “The city is now saying they don’t have any clear curriculum to be taught so it is up to 500 different schools and principals to give their ideas about sex and sex ed!”
Opponents of the new measure who actually have read the curriculum have harped on three elements—first, what may be known as the Great Condom Treasure Hunt, second, the Abortion Clinic Mapping exercise, and a third known as Explicit Web Sleuthing.
In the first, students are asked to go to a bodega or drug store and compare prices and styles of condoms. In the second—in which opponents like Life Center of New York volunteer Fred Trablusi say, “They are talking about taking our children from schools down to abortion mills”—students are told that many people avoid going to a clinic because they don’t know what to expect, and so students are instructed to find out what services are offered at a local family planning clinic and asked to rate their comfort level while there (and yes, they are asked to describe the way to get to the clinic).
In the third, a supplement for teachers points them to a website called Go Ask Alice operated by health services at Columbia University, where members of the N.Y.C. Parents Choice Coalition say “lessons in sadomasochism, group sex and bizarre sexual fetishes are taught.” (Yesterday, the website had five stories on the top of its page—“Help! I’m a feminist and becoming prejudiced against men!”; “I lost my voice—Now what?”; “Sore Sex?”; “All Torn Up Over Stretching”; and “Getting an erection after ejaculating—the full story.”) D.O.E. officials say that the website is merely for teachers who want more information, and not necessarily a part of the curriculum.
However, the curriculum does include some abstinence training. Ms. Ravitz pointed The Observer to a section of the workbook called “My Abstinence Plan:”
Trying to Slow Down—Effective Version:
Person 1: Why are you stopping now?
Person 2: This feels good, but let’s not have sex now.
Person 1: It isn’t my birthday every day, you know.
Person 2: Yea, I know, but I don’t think we are ready
Person 1: I’ve never had sex before and want to have it with you first.
“But what it doesn’t talk about is abstinence being the only way to save lives,” said the Rev. Faulkner. “‘Do it at your peril.’ That kind of message really resonates, rather than, say, sending a mixed message that sexuality is healthy expression of who we are. Well, it is a healthy expression of who we are, but it is also very risky for young people.”
Mr. Walcott said that he was not surprised by the upheaval, despite the fact that it had been 30 years or so—back when the city first began distributing condoms in schools—that there has been a similar uproar in New York City.
“To be honest with you, I expected more,” he said. The reality is that this is a topic that is a very sensitive one for religious institutions and some parents. But we have a responsibility as a school system to not let that interfere with what we think is good policy.”
They have begun, in Mr. Walcott’s words, “responding to some of the misinformation out there.” He met with the bishop of Brooklyn and Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Their communications team has begun to write op-eds of their own. They are trying to make the actual curriculum more available to the curious.
“It’s New York City. I expect a backlash,” he continued. “Our responsibility is to make sure we respond to them with fact. Our bottom line is that we have the health of our students to protect.”
Mr. Benjamin and his allies, though, remain unconvinced, and their latest tack is attacking the mayor with some of the initiatives he holds most dear.
“We can’t have trans fats in our food, we can’t smoke in public, because these things are bad for our health. Yet we know that teens having sex and having children is bad for their future. Why don’t we pass out to kids nicotine patches, or pass out to them filtered cigarettes? There is zero tolerance for that kind of risky behavior, and there should be zero tolerance for this, too.”
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