School-Mandated Sex-Ed: It's About Time!

During my first year in the New York City public high school where I work as an English teacher, some 10th grade students who were hanging out in my room after class taught me about "Nutbusters."

Nutbusters is the street-name of an imported carbonated beverage that's sold in the grocery stores around our school. It comes in plastic, grenade-shaped containers, in green, purple, or orange flavors. According to my students, if you're a guy and you drink Nutbusters within 30 minutes of sexual intercourse, it renders you temporarily infertile -- no need for a condom.

"Guys! That's just... total crap!" I cried, aghast at the implication that a whole slew of 15-year-olds were relying on Nutbusters for all their birth-control needs. "Have you all gone insane? This is a drink we're talking about! It's not a method of contraception!"

One of the boys, who had a rebellious streak, looked at me incredulously. "Prove it," he said.

"Prove what? That Nutbusters won't stop your girlfriend from getting pregnant? You'll see for yourself in nine months! I promise you, it just doesn't have any effect on your fertility, or sperm's life-span, or whatever it is you think is going on here!" I clasped my forehead in my palms exasperatedly. "And that doesn't even begin to deal with the issue of STDs! How the heck does Nutbusters solve that problem, huh? For Pete's sake, will you guys please just listen to me for once? Condoms are the only way to go!"

The kids mumbled that they understood, but they clearly weren't terribly impressed with anything I had to say. One of them swore that Nutbusters had worked for his "cousin" -- and according to our school's unwritten social code, any assertion of something having happened to one's cousin is pure, unassailable truth.

This week the city of New York announced a plan to bring mandatory sex education back to middle and high school classrooms for the first time in 20 years. The mandate comes in response to skyrocketing rates of teen pregnancy, which have put New York City -- where, according to the Department of Health, 83 out of every 1000 teen girls become pregnant -- far above the national average of 72 per 1000, according to a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute, and almost triple the averages of developed nations such as Sweden (31 per 1000) or Canada (28 per 1000).

Opponents of mandated sex education lessons, which will be taught by teachers such as myself, say that sex education doesn't work even in schools that offer such classes, and that distributing condoms in schools will only promote promiscuity among students.

These objections aren't well-supported. According to the aforementioned study by the Guttmacher Institute, American teens are different from their peers in developed nations not in their levels of engagement in sexual activity (age of onset, frequency, specific acts), but in their use of effective contraceptives and contraceptive methods; in other words, though contraceptive use has increased among American teens over the last 20 years, European teens are still more likely to have protected sex than their American counterparts. These findings suggest that teen sexual behavior is normative across developed nations, belying the idea that providing information would make American teens more or less promiscuous. However, the way nations with low rates of teen pregnancy address such behaviors in school settings is decidedly different from ours.

Sweden, for instance, provides mandatory sex education starting when children are 10-12 years old. Even without parental consent, students can get free condoms and other contraceptives, free health care, and access to the morning-after pill. In contrast, many U.S. states still require teens to get parental consent before purchasing birth control, and only 5% of public high schools distribute free condoms.

In other Western European nations, policies similar to Sweden's are in place, with little to no interference from religious groups, who are predominantly uninvolved in such decisions. Though more stigma is attached to teen pregnancy and teen motherhood, Western European countries are in general more socially accepting of sexual activity among teens, considering it age-appropriate behavior; instead of futilely telling students not to have sex, frank information about how to prevent pregnancy and STDs is prevalent in mass media such as commercials and movies.

My own experience as a teacher in the New York City public school system has only furthered my belief that a comprehensive sex education policy would be a life-saving measure. I've found students to be woefully uninformed about all aspects of sexuality, and plagued by shocking misconceptions, not only about ways one can get pregnant, but also about STD transmission and symptoms. Students will tell me straight-faced that no STDs can possibly result from oral sex; that herpes can be caught from a water fountain or a toilet seat; that only gays are susceptible to HIV/AIDS; that sex during menstruation is safe sex.

Since my first year teaching, I've had a policy that I will answer any serious question posed to me about sex (provided it's asked in an appropriate setting, and not as a stall-tactic to avoid taking a quiz): "If you're confused about something, I'd rather you ask me, and have us both be a little bit embarrassed for two minutes," I say, in the first week of school, "than for you not to ask anyone, and to make a mistake that will change your life." Information empowers; ignorance is corrosive on every level. Mandating sex education is a decisive move in support of the health and well-being of students; to provide anything less than a comprehensive sex education curriculum is to truly leave children behind.