History + Timeline
1800s- pamphlets about venereal diseases, overall good hygiene, and the evils of prostitution and masturbation were widely distributed outside of schools.
1913- Chicago attempts to formally introduce sex-ed into their school systems. The Catholic Church helps shut it down. (9)
1914– The American Hygiene Association was founded to teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. They would later be involved in creating school curriculums.
1916– Planned Parenthood is founded in New York.
1919– A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau was released that suggested soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school. (9)
1920s– resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. (9)
1930s– The U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers.
1964– The medical director at Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in part to challenge the American Social Hygiene Association.
1968– A pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” is widely distributed by Gordon Drake and James Hargis framing sex ed as a way to indoctrinate children into communism. Thus began the scary rhetoric that sex-ed was teaching students to be homosexuals and that teachers were having sex in front of students. (9)
1980s– The AIDS epidemic takes hold. Religious groups use this public health crisis to push their own agenda and convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.”
1981– President Regan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (aka the “Chastity Law” –yikes!). This law allowed federal funding to go to abstinence-only programming. And abstinence-only sexuality education (AOSE) and abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programming became the norm in the US.
2004: Study is published showing the harms of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs and the importance of investing in comprehensive sexuality education. There are plenty more studies that have been published since reaffirming the same results. (It’s possible there were studies earlier than this, but this was the earliest one we could find. Know of an earlier one? Please get in touch!)
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (1). More federal funding goes towards pushing these programs.
And on to New York…
New York is a state known for its fast-paced city life, semi-hated baseball team and the beautiful Niagara Falls. It is not, however, known for its inclusive, medically-accurate, comprehensive sexual education. Unfortunately, New York falls under the surprisingly large list of states that have very limited, if any, requirements for delivering sexual health education to students.
As of now, HIV prevention education is mandated, yet guidelines fail to include medical accuracy or cultural sensitivity (1). This leaves the state of sexual health education in New York inadequate at best. Without access to proper information and resources, students are missing fundamental knowledge and support for decision making when it comes to their sexual health and well-being.
How did we get here? Glad you asked. The New York Civil Liberty Union (NYCLU) produced a report in 2012 highlighting the many ways in which sexual health education is falling short of acceptable. Sexual education in the state was found to be “inaccurate, incomplete, stigmatizing and shame-based” (2). Sparse anatomy lessons and gender-stereotyping occurred in the majority of classrooms. A school in Buffalo was using the term “sperm deposit” instead of “vagina” (wtf?!) (2).
This sort of inaccurate, vaginas-are-strictly-for-male-use tone has a major influence on shaping the beliefs and identities of students from a young age. Many districts excluded LGBTQ+ topics due to the heterocentric dominated curriculums, marginalizing a significant portion of the population. The majority of the current sexual health education programs being taught throughout New York are leaving students without appropriate information and resources to feel comfortable and educated on their sexual health. This has a dramatic impact on the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of students’ lives.
On the main front, Senator Jen Metzger presented a bill in 2018 to mandate comprehensive sexual education for K-12 students in New York that “addresses age and developmentally appropriate physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions of human sexuality”. WOO go Jen! Although this bill wasn’t passed, it is currently ( 2019) in the senate committee waiting to be put to a floor vote (8).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Health education is mandated in New York to the extent of one semester in middle school and one semester in high school (3). This includes HIV/AIDS prevention education but fails to include sexual education. Interestingly enough, the state policy database includes “abstinence-only education curricula” and “comprehensive sexual education curricula” for New York. However, both consist of the exact same guidelines for abstinence-based teachings of HIV/AIDS prevention, with no mention of sexual health (4). (How you can possibly talk about HIV/AIDS prevention without talking about sexual health it unbeknownst to us.)
Schools are required to provide a certified health educator, but NYCLU’s report showed that many schools aren’t complying with this standard. The state details a specific process for providing condoms to students who have completed the AIDS instruction, but this is optional and rarely done. Parents are able to opt their children out of the HIV/AIDS prevention education program with “assurance that they will provide such instruction at home” (4).
Local school districts are expected to develop and implement their own curriculum, with sexual health as an option, leading to drastic differences across the state. The educational “toolkit” for teachers provided by the New York State Education Department outlines a curriculum that reinforces abstinence as the ONLY way to prevent AIDS (5). Literally. It states: “abstinence is the only way to prevent contracting HIV through sexual contact.” Geez!
Not only is this curriculum dominated by shame-based scare tactics to promote abstinence, but it also ignores fundamental concepts such as consent, gender identity, and general body knowledge.
What the kids are actually learning
So what is driving the small percentage of New York schools that provide accurate, comprehensive sexual education? Passionate educators and dedicated nonprofits around the state.
Wisebodies is an organization that teaches sexual education “in a radically new, breathtakingly fresh, age-appropriate, honest and uplifting way” (6). How good does that sound? They have been doing the wonderful things they do in Chatham, New York, for eight years.
The Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City consists of students, teachers, parents and community-based organizations passionate about improving sexual health education in the city (7). They advocate for proper instruction that is inclusive, culturally appropriate and medically accurate.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
The work of organizations and individuals in delivering and advocating for comprehensive sex ed is undeniably valuable, however, foundational change is in the hands of the “big dogs”. It is a policy change and legislative efforts that will have a significant radical effect on the state’s sexual education status.
In May of 2017, Mayor De Blasio appointed a sexual education task force to assess and improve sexual health education standards in New York City (3). This task force includes students, health experts, parents, educators, and members of the Department of Education. They came out with a report in 2018 that unfortunately reinforces NYCLU’s findings and provides a foundation for Health Ed Works – a 24 million dollar initiative to provide much needed comprehensive sexual education to NYC students (3).
Productive steps are being taken to ensure that the students have a fundamental understanding of the physical, emotional, social and mental aspects of sexual health in an inclusive, culturally appropriate way, making them better prepared to make informed decisions. We’re getting there.
If you’re a New York resident and interested in sharing your support for Bill S4844 (Jen Metzger, comprehensive sexual education) you can follow this link: https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s4844 (click ‘aye’ in the ‘do you support this bill’ box)
Written by: Michaela Ouimet
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, November 1, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(2) “Report: Birds, Bees and Bias (2012).” New York Civil Liberties Union, January 30, 2019. https://www.nyclu.org/en/publications/report-birds-bees-and-bias-2012.
(3) Sexual Health Education Task Force. Accessed November 14, 2019. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/genderequity/health/sexual-health-ed-task-force.page.
(4) “New York – HE K-12 Curriculum-Comprehensive Sexual HE (HS): Curricula.” NASBE. Accessed November 14, 2019. https://statepolicies.nasbe.org/health/categories/health-education/he-k-12-curriculum—comprehensive-sexual-he-hs/new-york-he-k-12-curriculum—comprehensive-sexual-he-hs-curricula.
(5) “Middle-Level Toolkit: Guidance Document to Assist Schools in Creating an Instructional and Supportive Framework for HIV/AIDS Prevention Education,” n.d. https://www.schoolhealthny.com/cms/lib/NY01832015/Centricity/Domain/85/3. Middle School.HIV_AIDSFinal 2.20.19.pdf.
(6) “About WiseBodies.” WiseBodies. Accessed November 14, 2019. https://www.wisebodies.org/what-i-do.
(7) “The Sexual Education Alliance of New York City,” n.d. https://staging.nylpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/SEANYC-1-pager.pdf.
(8) “NY State Senate Bill S4844.” NY State Senate, September 11, 2019. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s4844.
(9) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.