If you’re like most people who attended public school in the United States, sex education evokes memories of being separated into boys and girls, giggling as instructors slipped condoms over bananas and flipped through highly detailed anatomical diagrams. Thankfully, you may have thought, it was over after one or two days.
Or maybe you didn’t have sex ed at all. Only 24 states plus Washington, DC mandate sex education in public schools, according to the Guttmacher Institute. New York is not one of them. Our state does mandate HIV education, but there’s no requirement that what is taught be medically accurate or culturally appropriate.
That has helped foster a situation in which “many public schools across New York provide sex ed curriculum that is inaccurate, incomplete, and stigmatizing,” according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. In 2012, the NYCLU published a report detailing a range of problems with public school sex ed curricula. Among them: Lessons on reproductive anatomy and basic functions were often inaccurate and incomplete; students weren’t learning the full range of methods to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; and LGBTQ students were being stigmatized or ignored as heteronormative biases shaped instruction.
It’s hardly better seven years later, according to Katharine Bodde, senior policy counsel with the NYCLU. “If anything, in this inflamed atmosphere, we’ve seen districts take a step back,” she says. Private, or independent, schools have more power to set better standards, but that doesn’t mean they always do.
“As our report revealed, sex ed is wildly different across the state, and that’s largely because the state has not adopted and required schools to reflect standards,” Bodde says. What would standards look like? According to Bodde, “Building a foundation so people can have a basis for healthy relationships, respecting each other’s bodies, and bodily autonomy.”
The issue of sex education feels more urgent than ever, at a time when abortion rights nationwide are imperilled, the Trump administration is cutting federal funding for family planning programs, and we’re having a national conversation about sexuality, harassment, and consent. In New York State, oftentimes whether or not a child receives quality sex education comes down to the prerogatives and passions of individual educators. Across the state, a number of teachers, consultants, lawmakers, and nonprofits are trying to fill the gaps in what kids are learning about sex and their bodies in schools.
The goal is comprehensive sex ed, which the advocacy group The Future of Sex Education defines as: “A planned, sequential K-12 curriculum that is part of a comprehensive school health education approach which addresses age-appropriate physical, mental, emotional, and social dimensions of human sexuality.”
In other words, sex ed that’s more than a couple of perfunctory lessons with props. Advocates say it’s important to start earlier, too. “That’s so we’re not just talking about the technical aspects of not getting pregnant and not getting STIs, but how to have a healthy relationship with another person,” Bodde says. “Which is so critical at a time in our culture where we’re trying to break down sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
Many schools, both public and private, are bringing in outside consultants and educators to teach sex ed to students. “Schools are not really including it in their curriculum, and then parents are contacting me outside of school,” says Susanrachel Condon, a sexual health educator based in New Paltz.
Condon mostly teaches group workshops to kids out of her home. Lately, she’s been working with 5th through 8th graders from the local Waldorf school. Her experience as a midwife helps her navigate the tricky terrain of talking about bodily experiences that someone might be going through for the first time.
“It’s about having a dialogue,” she says. “That’s what’s missing: finding out what people don’t know, what they want to know, and what they need to know, then helping them understand it in a way that is coordinated with their values, their level of understanding, and their health literacy.”
Condon’s approach is more robust and interactive than the typical pile-of-facts lesson that many students receive in school. She’ll have students roleplay specific scenarios in order to teach them how to resolve conflicts or declare personal boundaries in a clear, respectful way. One of the first things she does with each group is ask them to set guidelines to create a safe space, modeling a building block of healthy relationships. Most kids say similar things phrased in the negative (“don’t laugh” is a common refrain). Condon will ask them to rephrase each point in a more affirmative way.
“We usually end up with, ‘Listen respectfully. Consider others’ viewpoints,'” she says. “Then you realize, ‘Oh, this is how people relate to each other in a positive way.'”
Establishing a safe space helps bring marginalized kids into conversations they have historically not been included in, often to the detriment of healthy self-development. “There’s a good amount of research at this point showing that the LGBTQ students get left out entirely,” says Elizabeth Greenblatt, an educator who’s been teaching about sexuality for more than 25 years. “Teachers get thrown into teaching sex ed, and if you don’t have training in navigating and facilitating these conversations and holding space for folks that is non-judgmental, you’ll fall back on your own biases, which can really shut down questions and opportunities for growth.”
To Greenblatt, perhaps the main problem with sex education as it’s currently taught is that it’s often delivered as a couple of lessons too late in a child’s life, rather than an ongoing conversation tailored to specific developmental stages. We learn to count, then we learn long division, then we learn calculus. Why shouldn’t it be the same with sex ed?
That hasn’t been the norm because, as a culture, we’re still pretty uncomfortable with the idea that young people are sexual, according to Greenblatt. That’s why most sex education is preventative in nature. “Prevention should be part of a comprehensive curriculum,” she says. “But we do young people a disservice when we don’t talk about human sexuality as a normal, healthy part of life.”
Greenblatt thinks these conversations should begin as soon as kids start getting curious about their bodies—by the age of 5, if not earlier. “If we really want to build a world in which consent is part of how we understand and function with each other, we’ve got to start young,” she says.
That’s easier to do if educators look at sex education as part of a holistic social and emotional course. “There are some schools that are really interested in thinking about it that way,” Greenblatt says. “You can look at building out a very comprehensive program that also includes training with parents, training with school staff, looking at the school mission, vision, and values, and thinking about how are we incorporating these into who we are as a school.”
The Poughkeepsie Day School is among the local academic institutions rethinking how it teaches sex ed. The independent co-educational K-12 school, which was founded in 1934, has deep roots in the area, and in recent years, it has increasingly brought social and emotional learning into its core curricula.
Last year, PDS incorporated social and emotional learning into its existing health and human growth instruction that all kids receive from pre-K through fifth grade. The program was developed in consultation with experts (including Greenblatt) and has five major components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
“Adolescence is such a confusing time, and we want to build a foundation where there are trusted adults you can turn to with questions,” says Mary Ellen Kenny, PDS’s lower school head. “You will feel confused, but you don’t have to feel confused all by yourself. School is a place where you can get answers.”
The goal of the program is to normalize conversations about things that are often uncomfortable for kids to talk about. Lessons are done in groups, but students can ask questions anonymously via a question box. There are direct lessons, stories, and role-playing. For the little ones, Kenny says, it’s about instilling the truth that they can make decisions about their own bodies, and it’s the beginning of understanding what consent means, such as: not all friends like to be hugged. “They need to understand from a very early age that there are boundaries they’re in charge of,” Kenny says.
The fourth- and fifth-graders, meanwhile, get a more formalized program that includes social-emotional learning components with medically accurate instruction about the changes their bodies are beginning to undergo. PDS instructors also hold info sessions with parents, so the adults stay aware of what their kids are learning and can continue conversations at home.
Starting early means that these conversations become something kids expect to engage with in school, Kenny says, which makes building up to the more sensitive discussions around puberty and gender easier, and helps eliminate shame on the part of the kids. “Having a common vocabulary and common way of repairing situations has been helpful.”
On the public school side, the Kingston City School District is also bringing its sex education into a broader wellness framework. Students there get a semester of health in fifth, seventh, and ninth grade, with specific, age-appropriate sex ed units in seventh and ninth grade that also include discussions of mental health, rape, harassment, and consent. “Our thinking is to provide our students with a comprehensive wellness overview, to allow them to lead a healthy lifestyle for their future,” says Richard Silverstein, director of physical education, health, and athletics for the district.
Like many public and independent schools, KCSD supplements its in-class instruction with after-school workshops and presentations by guest educators and community-based professionals in the field. At the high school level, they’re one of many Hudson Valley schools that works with Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley.
Nonprofits Filling the Gaps
In the absense of strict statewide standards, there are a growing number of organizations like Day One (which serves New York City) and WiseBodies (based in Chatham) that teach accurate, appropriate comprehensive sex ed to kids, teens, and even adults. Shelter houses like Grace Smith House, in Poughkeepsie, are also picking up the slack. Planned Parenthood falls somewhere in between.
In addition to its work at Kingston High School, PPMHV leads one-off workshops and multisession programs at New Paltz High School, Poughkeepsie schools, and Newburgh High School, among other academic institutions. Last year, the chapter reached more than 28,000 community members through its education and outreach efforts.
PPMHV’s most common comprehensive sex ed module is the Be Proud! Be Responsible! program, a seven-part curriculum evaluated and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. It aims to help youth curb risk-taking behaviors, negotiate safer sex, increase their knowledge about pregnancy and STIs, and learn negotiation and refusal skills. Since the program is grant-funded, PPMHV is not allowed to change it, but when possible its instructors expand series to include holistic social-emotional instruction.
“We call it ‘adulting,'” says Jessie Moore, director of sexuality education for PPMHV.
Most of PPMHV’s sex ed efforts are free to schools, with money coming from the Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention program, a statewide initiative through the New York State Department of Health that funds evidence-based instruction in “high-risk” zip codes. Moore says that PPMHV has had to cut back on other programming that had been funded federally by the Title X Family Planning Program, which the Trump administration slashed earlier this year.
Still, PPMHV has maintained its commitment as best it can to provide instruction throughout the community. Its educators not only go into schools, they’re also in group and foster care homes, shelters, non-secure detention facilities, and Office of Children and Family Services facilities.
“I want to make sure that throughout the State of New York, everybody is getting comprehensive sex ed, that by the end of fifth grade, all students have learned the same information,” Moore says. “Look at the states that have abstinence-based education: Have you seen their unintended pregnancy rates? Their STI rates? More information creates better outcomes.”
Changes to Come
The fight to reform and modernize sex education is happening on two fronts. While the work of individual educators, progressive schools, and nonprofits is undoubtedly changing lives, that doesn’t amount to a solution for a systemic problem. The rising tide that will lift all boats is a law that mandates comprehensive sex education for all students in the state.
That may happen soon. This year, local freshman Senator Jen Metzger introduced a bill that would require schools in New York State to introduce sexuality education in grades K-12 that reflects national standards. (The primary Senate cosponsor, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, carried similar legislation as early as 2008.) The bill would empower the Commissioner of Education to develop a model curriculum and prescribe overarching topics to be included within a comprehensive sexuality education, while leaving implementation and local control with educators, administrators, and parents in each district, who best understand their kids’ specific needs. Local school boards would also establish an advisory council to make recommendations regarding the curriculum, content, and evaluation of the program.
Senator Metzger started working on the issue within a couple months of taking office. “For me, a surprising and deeply concerning finding was that most school districts do not include any information to help students access local resources if they, or someone they know, have been a victim of rape, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence,” she says. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. “There is a pressing need to address such realities as relationship violence, harassment, and bullying, which can harm a young person’s emotional and physical health as well as academic performance,” Metzger says.
The bill had widespread support from sex ed reform advocates, including the NYCLU and Day One, but it didn’t make it to a floor vote in this year’s session. But Senator Metzger is optimistic about its passage in the next legislative session.
“Right now, it is really hard to know what is happening from district to district,” she says. “What we do know is that, as a state, we can and must do better to ensure that students receive the high-quality, medically accurate, and age-appropriate sex education they deserve.”
Little by little, kids and teens in New York State are starting to get better sex education. But there’s still a long way to go. “It doesn’t have to be this way. In many countries, the right to accurate information about sexual health is deemed essential,” writes Andrea Barrica, the founder and chief executive of O.school, a media platform for learning about sexuality, in a recent New York Times op-ed that also included such sobering statistics as: 18 states require educators tell students that sex is acceptable only within the context of marriage; seven states prohibit teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people other than in the context of HIV or to condemn homosexuality; and only 10 states even reference “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex education curricula.
None of those things is true for New York State, but we’re nowhere near the head of the pack, either. To get there, a lot of changes still need to be made. “When the #MeToo movement started, educators got a lot of questions about how to incorporate it,” Greenblatt says. “But this has always been a core component of the work we do. It’s very hard for folks to talk about their experience. I do think there’s more conversation, but there’s more shutting down of conversation, too.”
This article was published in the August 2019 issue of Chronogram.
Phillip Pantuso is the editor of The River, and has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Yes! Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @phillippantuso.