Sex is all over the news up here in New York City, and not just because the newly-wedded Kardashian is divorcing. Between the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recent recommendation that 11- and 12-year-old boys be vaccinated against the Human Papalloma Virus (HPV) and the reaction to the city’s mandatory sex ed program set to begin this spring, even a reasonably polite, mild-mannered adult like myself can be forgiven for thinking about the sex lives of strangers. Even if they’re underage strangers. Hopefully.
Not for the first time, I’m wondering how people manage to do the whole parenting thing. As a licensed therapist once told me, cultures have taboos for a reason. And let’s face it, how many taboos do we have left besides those having to do with S-E-X? I have serious doubts as to how many adults can really have an adult conversation about sex with other adults. So, to put it mildly, I do not envy anyone having to have “the talk” with their kids. But part of parenting—and part of being an adult in a mostly-functioning society—is to put the well-being of the most vulnerable above our own feelings, icky as they may be.
From my cozy armchair quarterback position, some of the calls are easy. HPV causes cancer in adult men and women. The HPV vaccine prevents those cancers by preventing the spread of the virus. But only if children receive it before their first exposure. End of story. This is a lifesaving measure, and in my book, lifesaving is the bare minimum of parental responsibility. Like all vaccines, it is insurance against a future threat. I cringe along with parents who can’t help but dwell on how this particular disease is spread because, as I said above, sex makes all but the most well-adjusted among us hinky. But look at it this way—polio and diphtheria and Hepatitis B aren’t spread very glamorously either.
I’m of the same mind when it comes to sex education. Like the majority of people in New York, I think it has to be mandatory. (See Andrea Miller’s article about the current NYC system. What class would a student have to drop in order to take sex ed as an elective?)
I am old enough to shudder at the thought of what my friends and I were talking about when we were in our ‘tweens, (a word that wasn’t even invented then) but at the time, you couldn’t have convinced me that we didn’t outsmart and out-sophisticate my parents and teachers. (Judy Blume and Dr. Ruth were the exceptions.) Umpteen years later, I’m not surprised that my ideas about what information about sex is “age appropriate” have grown more grown-uppy.
At first blush (and I do mean blush), the assignments that opponents of the program have cherry picked from the curriculum are provocative. They’re meant to be. Does an eleven-year-old need to research a route from school to a clinic that provides birth control and STD tests? Not if that’s the only assignment. Do I worry that it might make birth control and STD tests seem less scary? Yes, but when did fear stop a kid that was fearlessly determined? Do I love that we live in a world where kids need to learn about sex acts from flash cards? No. Mostly because I wish we lived in a world where sex acts—including those that in my day could quaintly be called “fooling around”—weren’t deadly. But they are.
Adults make stupid decisions about sex every day. And I am all for adults finding ways to help their youngsters not make them. But frankly, I wish that opponents of the sex ed program concerned themselves more with the feelings of the children they claim to be protecting and less with the bruised egos of the adults bemoaning their lost parental authority. That authority is not absolute. When a parent is failing, the state can step in and rectify the situation. Thankfully, most parents aren’t absolute failures at teaching their children about sex. But they aren’t experts, either. The NYC sex ed program has been developed by professionals who have spent years working with students and their parents. The least we can do is help ensure that this generation of children lives to make new and exciting mistakes in their own adulthood.
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.