They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I was rendered speechless upon discovering this gem in a new report on the state of sex education in New York.
But this is not the only ridiculous handout being circulated in New York public schools.
“Who would ever use these in a health class?” I asked myself, distraught. “Seriously! It’s not even a very good pariodic table.”
To be fair, the New York Metro reports that "When called...Principal Heath Georgia of Owego Free Academy said that the sheets were tongue in cheek and were meant to open a discussion about sex-based stereotypes."
But a larger point — that teachers can use whatever materials they deem appropriate, without much supervision, to send whatever messages they want about sex — remains.
Cards on the table: I’ve co-taught high school and middle school sex education classes myself. (In New York City, no less.) And to be fair, I actually learned a lot from my students.
For instance, I learned about “blue waffle disease.” (NOTE: Googling “blue waffle” will turn up results that are definitely NSFW. Do so only at your own risk.) Blue waffle, according to the ninth graders I taught, was the result of having so much sex that your vagina got bruised, or “being a ho.”
I also learned that if you get the shot (Depo Provera, a high dose of hormonal contraception administered once every three months), your booty gets bigger.” That if you crush up birth control pills and put them in your shampoo, your hair grows faster or get shinier. And that more teenagers than anyone thought are barren — they must be, they told me, because they’d been having unprotected sex and haven’t gotten pregnant from it yet.
Of course, almost everything I learned was empirically false.
But alongside those myths, I heard a host of ideas about what relationships between sexual partners look like – ideas that it now appears they may have been getting from their friends, but from their schools.
The report, written by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in conjunction with the HIV Law Project, and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, examined sex education materials in 82 districts across the state. (New York City, which imposed mandatory, co-ed, comprehensive sex education for all public middle and high schools in 2011, was excluded from the report.) It found that because New York does not require sex education in public schools, the sex education that is provided is ill-monitored and highly variable in its content and quality. Much of it promotes ideas which the researchers call “heterocentric” and “gendered.”
For instance, “one district used the definition ‘sperm deposit’ for the word ‘vagina.’” Another defined the penis as “sperm gun.” The uterus is described equally vaguely, as “where the baby is.”
(…And we’re surprised about Todd Akin and his ilk.)
Unsurprisingly, the researchers believe that circulating this information is negatively impacting young Americans.
“Many of our region's public schools are leaving our teens unprepared to make informed and healthy choices about sex and relationships,” said Johanna Miller in her Buffalo News op-ed.
The problem, according to the report, is that there is basically no oversight in implementing sex education programs on the part of state departments like the Department of Education, or on the part of administrators of individual schools. Public schools are not bound by either state or federal guidelines for health instruction, which means that most sex education is taught on a teacher-by-teacher basis, often by teachers who are not trained in health education.
Currently, 20 states mandate both sex and HIV education, while 13 states mandate HIV education only. But according to the Guttmacher Institute, a mere 13 states require that “the information presented in sex education classes be medically accurate and factual,” and even in those states, many abstinence-based curricula contain “incorrect, misleading, or distorted information.”
And the quality of sex ed in New York, it seems, is much like the sex education provided in Mean Girls.
I am well aware that sex education in schools is a contentious issue. While most parents support some form of sex education in schools, they have radically different opinions about what counts as appropriate sex education. And this, in part, has to do with radically different ideas that parents have regarding what sex is, and what it means to young men and women.
A 2004 study conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that 72% of parents of high school students supported sex education in schools. However, the same study finds that 48% of parents believe that “When it comes to sex, teenagers need to have limits set, they must be told what is acceptable and what is not.” 48% believe the converse: “Ultimately teenagers need to make their own decisions, so their education needs to be more in the form of providing information and guidance.” Further divisions are evident when parents were asked about what kinds of topics should be covered in schools, and how they should be covered.
In her book When Sex Goes to School, sociologist Kristin Luker “argues that the fight over sex education is no mere bread-and-circuses distraction from the so-called real issues. Nor are our differences of opinion minor fractures in the social body. We can’t agree about sex education because we can’t agree about sex, and the way in which we disagree about sex has everything to do with how we’re breaking apart as a nation."
The reason why the pamphlets highlighted in the NYCLU’s study are disturbing are because some teachers — and probably some parents — may still agree with them. Sexism is alive and well in the classroom, and it is affecting both our young men and our young women. It is clear we still have a long way to go before Americans can talk about sex without being purposefully or unintentionally sexist.