By Johanna Miller
Many of our region's public schools are leaving our teens unprepared to make informed and healthy choices about sex and relationships.
The New York Civil Liberties Union recently performed an extensive analysis of sex education textbooks and materials used in 82 public school districts across the state. We found that school districts throughout the western region, including Buffalo, Hamburg and Olean, have provided sex ed instruction that is inaccurate, incomplete and biased.
These pervasive shortcomings underscore the urgent need for New York State to require comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex education in its public schools.
The Buffalo School District - one of the state's largest - uses a textbook that teaches abstinence-only strategies for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It does not even mention condoms or contraception, let alone teach students about them. Students did receive materials on HIV prevention, but the abstinence-only textbook deprives them of crucial information and skills.
Further, with few exceptions, sex ed instruction either ignores or stigmatizes LGBT students. School districts provide little instruction on sexual orientation, same-sex couples or gender identity. Several districts mention gay people only in the context of HIV lessons. For example, materials used in the Lake Shore School District instruct students that "most [HIV] infected people are homosexual men and drug users who used unsterile needles."
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."
When students don't receive quality sex education, they are more likely to become sexually active without the knowledge that responsible sexuality requires. The consequences can be severe and include unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Nearly 45 percent of New York's male high school students and about 40 percent of female students are sexually active - but one in three boys reported that they don't use condoms and four in five girls say they don't take birth control pills. New York's teen pregnancy rate is the 11th highest among the 50 states. And about one in three cases of new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in New York each year occurs among residents 19 and younger.
We must reverse these disturbing trends. Requiring comprehensive, effective and bias-free sex education in all public schools is a necessary first step.
Johanna Miller is the assistant advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and an author of the new report, "Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York's Students."