Do better: The dangers of misinformed sex education


Photo Credits: Marco Verch

The desk is shaking beneath her as she begins to speak; her knee knocking rhythmically against the desk. 

“It’s really embarrassing,” she says. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll be referring to her as Sarah, her middle name. 

Her voice is low as she begins to explain her story.

“It didn’t feel like it could be someone like me. I’m a good student, I’m young, I’m smart and I’m not careless. So it didn’t feel real that I was spending my Saturday morning at an abortion clinic.”

Last May, Sarah woke up and lept out of bed with a bout of nausea. It wasn’t the first time this week, and she was beginning to think she was coming down with something.

“I don’t get sick easily, so it was so random,”she says, with a note of disdain. “I finally ended up checking my Flo [period tracking] app and [I] saw that I was three weeks late.”

An irregular period is normal for people who menstruate, especially if they are in the first two or three years of menstruation, like Sarah. But three weeks is a considerable amount of time. 

“I wasn’t celibate. [But] I also wasn’t in a relationship.” She starts to laugh, saying, “The guy wasn’t a soulmate.” 

Sarah took a pregnancy test, and sure enough, found it to be positive. 

“My heart stopped,” she says, her voice breaking. “I was 15. Who can handle that at 15?” 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-off issue. 3 in 10 girls will become pregnant before turning 20. 12 in 1000 girls will have an abortion every year. So why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?

The National Library for Medicine writes, “It is estimated that by the end of high school, nearly two-thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education.”

Sarah’s NYC Public High School doesn’t provide sex-ed until 11th grade. And her parents expected abstinence from her. 

“[My parents] didn’t know.” She notes this as if it was a given in her situation. Without any support, teens like Sarah are left to fend for themselves. This leaves room for issues in every corner of their sex lives. 

The key issue is that sex education is hardly mandated in many states. In Sarah’s state, New York, comprehensive sex-ed is not required. In fact, New York holds practically one standard, and that is the coverage of HIV education in sex-ed classes. 

This is hardly unusual for the United States. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 17 states require program content to be medically accurate, 35 states and DC allow parents the option to remove their child from instruction, and 4 states prohibit the program from promoting religion.

Without strict standards for what is a substantial sexual education, schools often disregard the practice altogether. And what is most alarming is that only 28 states and DC mandate sexual education. This leaves 22 states completely unregulated on the issue. 

Kristen Brown, a science teacher at the NYC iSchool, says, “I think sex-ed in NYC can vary widely from school to school because we do not currently have sex ed standards that are comprehensive or inclusive. In NYS, the only thing that is mandated is that we teach about HIV/AIDS and it is up to the teacher to decide the rest of the curriculum, which leaves a lot of room for misinformation and bias.”

Further, even in the 28 states which mandate sex-ed, there are countless other standards. For example, three states mandate that only negative information be provided on homosexuality. 28 states mandate abstinence be stressed. So even when sex education is mandated, it isn’t required to be even vaguely accurate.

For teens like Sarah, the expectancy of abstinence coupled with a lack of knowledge on the matter can mean things much worse than just ignorance. And in the states that don’t allow abortion, pregnant teens may just have to stay that way.

However, not every story is the same. At the NYC iSchool, students receive two years of formal sex education and are offered two other sex-ed classes to fill their health requirements.  

Ms. Brown notes, “I think we have a strong sex-ed program that tries to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. We are constantly working to improve the 9th and 12th-grade advisory sex-ed programs.”

The iSchool is constantly making strides to improve its health classes, from mandated classes in two years of school to a health requirement that many schools don’t have.

But the system isn’t perfect, even at a school with a myriad of health classes. When surveyed with four sex-ed questions, only 72% of 43 iSchool students scored 4/4. Despite this, 100% of students had taken a sex-ed class in school before, and 70% had taken more than 1 year of sex-ed. A majority of these wrong answers were on question 2: Can you get pregnant on your period? The answer was yes, and over 10% of students answered incorrectly. While this may be chalked up to a simple mistake, it also points to a larger-scale issue with general information about sex. And sometimes the difference between a wrong and right answer on a question like this can end up as something much worse.

Even in questions that may appear more low stakes, education matters. Each question except the latter had on average four wrong answers. This matters especially because they were inquiring about menstruation, asking about reasons for different tampon sizes, the average length of period, and the average length of cycle. 

Columbia professor Dr. Marni Sommer noted that “Fathers, uncles, brothers, and male cousins appear to have very little factual information on menstruation. They understand it as a mysterious weakness of women rather than a biological and normal recurring experience of life for post-pubescent girls and women.” 

Communities, especially in low-income areas, do not have a full understanding of menstruation, and it creates a gap between men and women.  

Sommer continues, “From a very practical perspective, girls who lack adequate sanitary materials may miss school each month during their period. If girls attend schools which, as many do, lack adequate latrines and water supplies for girls to comfortably change sanitary pads and wash themselves in privacy, they may be unable to remain comfortably in class during their menstrual cycle.” 

The real problem here is that this is not a solutionless problem. It is very easily solved. With the mandating of sex-ed and menstruation education, we can support women in these areas and across the states. 

Even in schools like iSchool, we could see improvements in sex-ed knowledge with the regulation and guidelines of topics discussed.

When asked about the efficiency of the sex-ed program, one junior, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “We don’t learn everything.”

According to this student, “I feel we’re missing big parts of how sex works. … Like, if I’m a lesbian, how can I learn about my needs?”

Respondents of the survey previously mentioned suggested having a more extensive sex-ed curriculum. One senior suggested, “More specific classes.”

But, how attainable is a wider sex-ed curriculum? After all, Ms. Brown is currently our primary health teacher. What would broadening the scope mean for the teachers required?

Overall, most students believed iSchool did a good job, at least comparatively, at giving us comprehensive sex education.

iSchool is an exceptional example of sex-ed in New York City, even if it has its flaws. Melissa Cortez, a sophomore at another public high school, said, “I think my school’s sex-ed curriculum is lacking. They just forget to mention things that could be super helpful.”

According to Cortez, these things can range from, “talking more about gay sex” to “non-abstinent teenagers.”

But, even when schools make an effort to have good sex education, the parents backing the curriculum need to consent. 

At Dalton, a private sex educator received backlash after a lesson at the school. Parents reached out, outraged that Justine Ang Fonte had shown such openness in her lessons.

The issue is that at any school, and especially private schools like Dalton, parents have a large voice in what happens. If a parent is unhappy with the education of their child, they have essentially veto power. 

Valeriya Safranova writes, “‘In a statement, a representative for Dalton said that Ms. Fonte ‘helped to develop an exemplary K-12 health and wellness program’ and that her work should not be ‘overshadowed by unwarranted misinformation and hateful rhetoric.’”

Fonte then chose to leave Dalton, as she felt her position was unsupported by the school. However, when inspected, her curriculum didn’t have the expected amount of out-of-pocket content. 

Safranova continues, “Multiple sex educators interviewed for this article said there was nothing inappropriate about her classes there or at Columbia. All of it was in line with current National Sex Education Standards and the World Health Organization’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. The national standards are also used in public schools in New York City, where students in grades 6 through 12 take lessons on sexuality as part of their health education. Parents can opt out of certain aspects of the program.”

Because parents have so much freedom to choose, they can opt kids out of sex education in most states. However, when a child lacks support not only at home, but at school, things get dangerous again. So the right of a parent to choose is not always beneficial to a child. That is when it becomes crucial for schools to step in, and make sure they blatantly support sex-ed, as Dalton failed to do.

However, the schools are not necessarily the only entity to blame. Right now it is up to the individual institution to determine the level of sex-ed offered. It shouldn’t be this way.

If the state or federal government were to mandate a certain level of sex education, we could almost certainly protect young people much better. However, pleas for better sex-ed don’t always come through.

Since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court precedent that legalized abortion was banned, there has been more pressure around sex than ever before. From the debate over the right to choose to the debate over the right to education, sex education is a risky topic. 

In Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” law originally banned conversation around homosexuality in lower grades. Now, Governor Ron De Santis has proclaimed he plans to expand this law.

AP News writes, “The rule change would ban lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity from grades 4 to 12, unless required by existing state standards or as part of reproductive health instruction that students can choose not to take. The initial law DeSantis championed last spring bans those lessons in kindergarten through the third grade.”

Part of the problem is intense political polarization. Americans are constantly pushed to one side of the debates, ending up in extremist politicians like DeSantis, who then push extremist agendas. This leads to greater differences in red and blue states, consequently defining the difference between having sex-ed and not having sex-ed.

But not all of the moves being made for sex-ed are negative. In New York State, Senator Brouk is championing a bill to make sex ed significantly more comprehensive. 

Senate bill S2584A, “Requires comprehensive sexuality instruction for students in grades K-12 which includes a model curricula for comprehensive sexuality education and at a minimum conforms to the content and scope of national sexuality education standards.”

By requiring that sex-ed is comprehensive we can insure a big change in the way sex-ed is taught in New York state. And, this will hopefully decrease the gap between schools like the iSchool and schools without sex education.

Eric Adams is also making strides for sex education, with a new task force to be launched soon. 

SI Live writes, “The task force’s new iteration will provide an annual report on its work implementing 11 of those recommendations including ensuring school staff have basic competencies around inclusivity while being able to link students to appropriate sexual health resources outside the school setting, and increasing broad community support of sexual health education through public awareness campaigns and information sessions.”

The introduction of this task force could have great consequences for sex-ed in New York, pushing the government’s role in sex-ed even further than it already is. 

But there is no doubt that New York still has work to do. 

As Ms. Brown concludes, “There are efforts to make sex-ed standards more comprehensive and inclusive in NYS and I think keeping up with the latest research and methods is the best way to keep a strong sex-ed program.”

Many schools still lack the basics. But if students, teachers, schools, and the government continue making strides toward comprehensive and inclusive sex education, we will see fewer teens like Sarah suffering from a lack of sex education. 

“I do wonder what would have happened if I knew more about having sex. I was a little blindsided,” says Sarah.

But you don’t have to be completely reliant on your own school’s sex education. There are hundreds of resources out there to help students with their sex education.

The Door, which is a resource for teens and adults, is located on Broome Street. They offer free classes, testing, and other sex education resources.

Planned Parenthood, which has locations in New York City and across the country, has similar programs, and many online educational resources. 

Other sites, like The Birds and the Bees, offer free sex-ed curriculums for those searching out their own comprehensive education. I Wanna Know offers a free link page of other trustworthy sites.

You don’t have to be on your own without formal sex education. Start by finding information you can rely on and then work to build your knowledge. There are ways for everyone to get involved in the pro sex-ed movement, and the best way to start is in your own communities and relationships. 

“I really regret not just googling things I didn’t know. But I learned from the experience. … It was terrifying. One of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. But I learned!” Sarah laments.

“I guess if I could give just one piece of advice, it would be to pay attention in sex-ed, and be careful,” she continues. 

But, Sarah also admits it isn’t her responsibility. “I wish I could [be an] activist for all the other girls like me. But it’s up to the people in charge to look out for us. I was just a kid. I AM just a kid.”

The people responsible for educating teens should not be doing so conditionally, or with an agenda. Sex education deserves to be accurate, and should never leave a 15-year-old girl in an abortion clinic.

“Do better,” Sarah concludes, pushing her chair out. 

And she’s right. We all have to do better.