I gave my college students a test this week which included, among other things, questions covering basic anatomy and reproduction. Let’s kindly call some of their answers “surprising.” That is to say, they included words I had never heard of, biological processes that are unknown to life on Earth, and then just a few pieces of utterly made up bunk. Even my grandmother, who is relatively conservative on these matters, was horrified by their lack of knowledge. When I sent her one of the answers, she responded: “What happened to education??????? Is this for real?” I confirmed its realness, and she said: “Is it too late to turn this around? Thanks to you for trying. We need more people like you.”
Now, I know my grandma is proud of me in a general sense. She may sometimes be confused by me, but she loves me. When I told her I was going to make my living in life as a sexuality educator, I think she was less than overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of telling her friends and social circles how her newly minted Ph.D. granddaughter would be putting her education to use. But over the years I think she’s become more broadly aware of what a sex educator does and I hope she’s proud to tell her friends what I do.
Regardless, she is absolutely right. The state of sex education in the United States is unreal.
I live in the great state of Texas, where the state mandates that sex education be abstinence-only-until-marriage. On the ground, this means our students are learning things along these lines (from a recent article in The Daily Beast):
“Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be,” one abstinence speaker warned her classes. Students in another program were told to pass around a leaky balloon to illustrate the danger of using condoms. The teacher was instructed to tell the student left holding the deflated balloon at the end that “if he had been the one to get a leaky condom it could have meant he was at high risk or even death.” … An abstinence-only program used in three districts assures them that “if a woman is dry, the sperm will die”—which harks back to Colonial-era theories that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant unless she enjoyed the sex. … A video used in three Texas districts has a boy asking an evangelical educator what will happen if he has sex before marriage. “Well, I guess you’ll have to be prepared to die,” is the response.
Horrified yet? No? Then take a look at these videos from Advocates for Youth that describe real sex ed programs used in real schools in Texas:
(If you’re viewing this via e-mail, you will probably have to jump over to my actual blog to view the videos. It’s well worth it, I promise.)
Scary stuff. Sure everything is bigger in Texas, but did you know that everything was stupider too? (See here for the recent Texas GOP statement against teaching higher order and critical thinking in our schools. And yes, you should watch the Colbert clip on that page, it is well worth it. I’ll refund your time personally if you don’t LOL at least once.) It should not be surprising to me that my students are so severely confused about the basic aspects of sex and biology that they have a difficult time learning the real information.
But this is not a problem exclusive to Texas. We do happen to have the fourth highest teen birth rate. At 52 births per 1,000 teenage girls we are behind Arkansas, New Mexico, and Mississippi, in that order. (Mississippi has 55 births per 1,000 teenage girls.) New Hampshire has the lowest teen birth rate in the US (16 births per 1,000 teenage girls). I wonder how they do it? Oh - wait - that’s right - they actually teach young people how they get pregnant and how not to get pregnant. (Don’t get me wrong, New Hampshire has its issues, just not on the same scale as Texas or Mississippi.)
But even in states with far lower teen pregnancy rates like New York (ranked 9 with 16 births per 1,000 teenage girls), there are still problems. These problems were recently brought to light in a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (Birds, Bees and Bias) and are bad on an almost Texan scale. One key finding of the report:
Lessons on reproductive anatomy and basic functions were often inaccurate and incomplete; pervasive factual limitations reflected gender stereotypes and heterocentric bias. For example, nearly 2-in-3 districts excluded any mention or depiction of external female genitalia from anatomy lessons. One district defined the vagina as a “sperm deposit.”
Sperm deposit? Are they kidding, my grandmother would surely ask, is this for real?
Yes, and The Buffalo News reports that it doesn’t get better, it gets worse.
Sex ed materials we studied often contained negative gender stereotypes. For example, a worksheet used in the Yorkshire-Pioneer District describes women as “hazardous material” while another instructs students that “woman = problem.”
Sadly Gramma, yes, this is the state of sexuality education nationwide. At least in New York City teenage girls are given access to contraception, including Plan B. While this doesn’t make up for the utter lack of honest and respectful education about their bodies and their sexuality that all young people have the right to, at least it allows New York’s teen birth rate to be substantially lower than Texas’.
(Confidential to my college students: Yes, I know some of you are probably reading this. I don’t generally write about students when I think they might be reading, but tough cookies. I’ll be posting your test grades as soon as I can.)