LOPEZ: Miriam Grossman’s recent report on New York public schools’ mandated sex-ed program suggests that it’s no help, but a muddled mess. Conversations about sex ed or the dreaded “abstinence” word are rarely constructive. How can that change? How can New Yorkers lead the way?
PFUNDSTEIN: Five years ago this conversation was really tough, because there was very little evidence that abstinence education works, mostly because such programs were very new. Now there are a good number of published studies showing abstinence-centered education working, often better than so-called “comprehensive” sex ed. Here again I think there is an opportunity for data to settle the question. Why don’t we let the two approaches duke it out over time on a level playing field? Many parents find the content of the city’s recommended curricula very offensive (take a look at nycparentschoice.org for a few tidbits), so why not let schools offer an abstinence-centered, evidence-based program as an alternative? Over time we can track the kids in each program and figure out which one works better. I think this would be a very scientific approach. We aren’t asking the city to stop teaching condom-based sex ed in schools; we are just asking them to allow an alternative. If they would track the effects of the different programs, they would be doing everyone a great service. Unfortunately this is another matter of religious orthodoxy on the left. But a certain prominent politician not long ago talked about restoring science to its rightful place in public policy. The science here says there is no reason to exclude abstinence-centered curricula as an option if parents prefer; despite the talking points, it works.
LOPEZ: On this issue, you recently wrote about protecting children’s innocence. Is that just way too quaint for a place like New York City in times like 2011? Fine, try to drive this mess out of public schools, but what about outside the classroom? You drive in from upstate or New Jersey and see the Hustler Club. And that’s tame. Take a walk with a kid in SoHo and good luck . . .
PFUNDSTEIN: The innocence of children is a simple fact, and one so obvious as to be almost universally acknowledged. Almost no one who doesn’t work for Planned Parenthood thinks it is appropriate to talk to first graders about sex in school, and even they make ovations to the notion that the sex ed they want in first grade should be age-appropriate. (Lest you think I am making a joke, consider that on the morning of our press conference in August, the day we released Dr. Grossman’s report, El Diario published side-by-side op-eds from the president of Planned Parenthood of NYC and the state policy director of the National Abstinence Education Foundation, Ann Marie Mosack, on the New York City sex-ed mandate. The PPNYC president lauded the new mandate as far as it went, but said it wasn’t enough: We need to teach kids about sex in first grade on up, she said. That any sensible person thinks she is crazy proves my point about the innocence of children.) This is why we think sexual abuse of children is the worst of all crimes and perversions and why we are careful what our kids watch on TV. Even Hollywood stars like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore recognize the innocence of children with their “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign.
Of course, there are many influences in our culture that militate against the innocence of children that many rightly lament. We can only do our best to help our children navigate those influences. But to have a person who is an authority figure in the life of our children, a teacher, tell them that, at 13, no one can decide when is the right time to have sex but themselves is substantially more deleterious than any invasive television advertisement.
Consider a recent article in Essence magazine, “Our Teens’ Secret Sex Lives.” In it, young African American girls discuss with researchers how frequently and intensely they are pressured to engage in sexual activity by their equally young boy peers: “The friends [two 13-year-old girls] say sometimes the boys at their middle school — who for the most part live in comfortable homes with professional parents — confront girls with graphic sexual requests and rumors designed to embarrass.” Imagine a young girl is trying to protect herself from such advances. Do you think it will help her case that Ms. Smith just told them in “health” class that only they can decide when they are ready to have sex, and that if she is afraid she may have gotten pregnant because she didn’t use any protection she can head down to the local clinic for some emergency contraception any time in the next few days, all without her parents knowing about it? Seems to me those are a few more arrows in the impulsive and obnoxious little boy’s quiver. Imagine, on the other hand, that Ms. Smith just told them in no uncertain terms that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and disease and that it is the choice most likely to keep them on track toward their goals. Isn’t that an arrow in the girl’s quiver?
Whose side are we on? Parents are on the side of their children’s success, and the vast majority of them think that includes abstaining from sex at least until they are adults. While Mayor Bloomberg may think he knows better, I don’t see how that gives him the right to work against the wishes of parents who are the primary educators of their children. Parents’ rights need to be defended, and children’s innocence needs to be defended. And all you libertarian readers who are reflexively opposed to this position because you think sexual morality is anti-libertarian, just remember that this is statism at its worst. I find nothing more annoying than a libertarian who opposes the rights of parents to make decisions for their own children.