Starting this year, students in New York City will receive state-mandated sex education. That's a change from previous years, when kids had to learn about HIV but not necessarily sex per se.
According to the Times, schools will now have to teach one semester of sex ed in sixth or seventh grade, and another in ninth or tenth grade. This is a change from previous requirements, instituted in 1987, that schools provide HIV education only. Schools were required to offer five classes per year on the topic, starting in kindergarten, which resulted in some oddities — young children received lessons on not touching wounds, while older ones learned about HIV prevention without discussing birth control. Now, kids and teens will learn about how to use a condom, as well as some ways to say no to unwanted sexual contact.
Much sex ed across the country still focuses on abstinence, and that piece won't be gone from New York City's new plan. The city recommends schools use the HealthSmart or Reducing the Risk lesson plan packages, both of which include discussion of abstinence. However, HealthSmart includes a workbook set for high school students that discusses "facts about birth control: what works and how to use it" as well as "STD and HIV and how to protect yourself." Reducing the Risk, meanwhile, includes "updated activities on pregnancy, STD and HIV risk perception; new emphasis on awareness of the risk of concurrent partners in STD and HIV transmission; new appendix on reproductive anatomy and physiology; specific steps for teaching about condom use and advice on adaptation if necessary."
In an ideal world, sex educators would help teens decide when sex is right for them, and then help them learn to communicate with partners about that decision. This approach wouldn't push abstinence, but it would give teens who weren't ready to have sex strategies for telling their partners about this fact — and for teens who were ready to be sexually active, it would provide birth control and STD prevention information. It remains to be seen whether New York City educators will take such an approach, but they will be teaching kids the basics of safer sex. And that's a big step in the right direction.
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