I like to think I’m the kind of New Yorker Michele Bachmann sees when she closes her eyes and dreams presidentially. So when I heard that New York City was requiring public schools to teach sex-education classes to students from sixth grade through high school, the news to me was that it was news. This is the city that never sleeps, after all. We were talking secession long before Rick Perry made it fashionable, and we have the “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kerry” buttons to show for it.
My boiling blood returned to room temperature when I learned the majority of public school students in the city had been receiving sex education for years. The real news was that the city was hoping to exert more influence over the curriculum by making the classes compulsory. To a New Yorker like me, that’s a no-brainer. In the absence of such content controls, students could attend a high school where they could (literally) get their hands on a condom without ever learning how—or why—to use one. (High schools in New York have been distributing condoms for over 20 years.)
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most every American teen that’s seen a condom application demonstration up close and personal has wished sex educators might find a better less mortifying way. But let’s face it, beyond the very practical life-saving purpose the demo serves, there may be no better visual to convey one of the less popular facts of life: sex can be very unsexy. And not just because you may have to wrestle with an unruly condom.
The response to the mandate has been predictable. The National Organization for Women, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have hailed the decision; while the Catholic Archdiocese called the ruling “troubling” with officials promising to advise parents against letting their children participate. (Parents are free to have their children opt out of the lessons on birth control.) I take it as a sign of progress that the Catholic Church is framing its objections as a defense of parental authority. Even here in Gotham the Church is opposed to birth control of any kind other than the “rhythm method” just as it regards any non-procreative sexual activity outside of marriage immoral. But at least when being interviewed by the New York Times, Catholic officials are reluctant to come right out and say so.
This may be the real news, and I feel like it has everything to do with the way the city presented the mandate. Now I am asbolutely exaggerating when I say that for once ”the problems” of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are not being laid at the feet–or the wombs–of women. But I’m not exaggerating by much–and not by nearly as much as I’d like.
The initiative is part of the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers because statistics indicate “those teenagers are far more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases.” Maybe my inner New Yorker is showing, but I do think the plan’s opponents would have a much easier time marshalling their forces if it meant coming out against free love feminists and pregnant teens and not against an effort to level the proverbial playing field between white teens and their black and Latino age mates.
Do I long for the day when taking a sexist stance is as politically dangerous as taking a racist stance? Absolutely. But in the meantime, I take solace in the fact that sex education and birth control is always about men and women–and it can always bear repeating.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.