New York City Makes the Moral Choice: School Sex Ed

New York City has just mandated sex education in all public schools. Students in middle school and high school will get one semester each.

The city’s logic is pretty simple:

  • New York teens have an unacceptably high rate of unintended pregnancy and STIs;
  • These outcomes are clearly linked with poverty, domestic violence and adult health problems;
  • Comprehensive sex education is scientifically proven to reduce these outcomes.

As we say in school, 1 + 1 = 2.

Parents should be celebrating the city’s decision. Medical and mental health organizations should be supporting it. The juvenile justice system should embrace it. Advocates for black and Latino youth should feel gratified that their concerns are being addressed, as minority youth have much, much higher rates of pregnancy and STIs than their white peers.

From both a practical and moral perspective, helping young people understand themselves, make better decisions, and protect themselves from unwanted consequences sure looks like a win-win.

And so of course the Catholic Archdiocese of New York calls the program “troubling,” and some church officials are advising Catholic parents to prevent their kids from participating.

According to the New York Times, the Archdiocese issued a statement saying, “Parents have the right and the responsibility to be the first and primary educators of their children. This mandate by the city usurps that role, and allows the public school system to substitute its beliefs and values for those of the parents.” Further, Brooklyn bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said he planned to work with Catholic parents to “assert their parent rights on this issue.”

Which looks like willful misunderstanding and fear mongering.

First, no one disputes that parents are the primary educators of their children. Indeed, by the time kids are 10 or 15, they’ve had a decade of learning about sexuality at home. Families are continually sex educating kids, whether they do it consciously or not. It is precisely because so many families do a poor job (“we don’t talk about it in my family”; “they just tell me not to be a slut”) that they need the schools’ help. How do you think kids got into this mess in the first place?

Second, the goals of this city program are the same as those of any moral, responsible parent: protecting kids. Helping them make good decisions. Helping them to resist peer pressure, and to protect themselves no matter what they do.

In condemning this program, and framing its resistance as it does, the Church betrays the naked power grab that lies behind its opposition. The Church wants to run parishioners lives, particularly their sex lives. They don’t want any competition—not even from families themselves, who might choose enlightened, life-affirming, and practical education for their children.

As usual, the Church describes the issue as an adversarial dichotomy: “they” (the city, the school) want to take away parents’ rights; “they” have different values than “you” (believers). This is scandalous. The church is supposed to support the improvement of parishioners’ lives, not condemn them to poverty by enforced ignorance masquerading as superior morality.

Memo to the Church, and to all parents who aren’t paying attention: teens are interested in sex, whether we like it or not. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change this. And so we must choose: we can take our responsibility as adults seriously, and equip kids to deal with their interest (including teaching them how to say no), or we can abandon kids and prepare them for an adolescent life they will never have: a life in which they don’t fall in love, don’t have sexual feelings, don’t face sexual dilemmas.

In 1850, the average age of puberty and the average age of first marriage were roughly the same—about 15. This, combined with the lack of privacy and the lack of transportation, meant that most young people didn’t have much chance for “premarital sex.”

Today the average age of puberty is about 11, and the average age of first marriage is about 26. This creates a “premarital sex zone” of as much as 15 years. We can decry this, but we certainly cannot change this. It helps explain why the overwhelming majority of Americans (like people in every advanced industrial nation) have sex before marriage.

Sex education in New York schools? Even Imam Souleimane Konaté of Harlem’s Masjid Aqsa mosque is in favor of it. “I think it’s a good idea,” he says. “Imams aren’t supposed to talk about it. But if somebody is doing it for me, I would support them 100 percent.”

Welcome back to school, kids.