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Sex Ed in New York

August 24, 2011

By Frederick W. Schmidt

So, here is the cultural narrative that I often hear: Conservative Christians want to impose their values on our schools. Everyone else prefers an information-based education that relies on the power of knowledge to inform life choices, but those choices belong to the individual.

The narrative is simple, clear, and easily falsified.

To be sure, some conservative Christians (though not all) are interested in shaping the curriculum of our schools and with it the values our children are taught. And there are certainly others who advocate for a values-neutral environment.

The problem with this narrative, however, is that there are people out there advocating for values-based education who are not Christian conservatives. The best and most obvious example is also the most recent, because it has so-called liberals, as well as conservatives troubled: Sex education in New York.

Describing the new mandate that the children in the city's middle schools and high schools receive sex education, New York Times reporters Fernanda Santos and Anna Phillips describe it this way:

For the first time in nearly two decades, students in New York City's public middle and high schools will be required to take sex-education classes beginning this school year, using a curriculum that includes lessons on how to use a condom and the appropriate age for sexual activity. The new mandate is part of a broader strategy the Bloomberg administration announced last week to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers. According to city statistics, those teenagers are far more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases. "It's obviously something that applies to all boys and all girls," said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. "But when we look at the biggest disadvantages that kids in our city face, it is blacks and Latinos that are most affected by the consequences of early sexual behavior and unprotected sex."

The article goes on to note:

For the Bloomberg administration, which last week announced a three-year, $130 million initiative to improve the lives of young minority men in the city, the sex-education mandate joins a number of other public health efforts—like the mayor's push to reduce residents' intake of salt and sugary sodas—that have sometimes been criticized as interventionist. It is also unusual because the city does not often tell schools what to teach.

Note the language, wrapped around no small amount of racial profiling, "the soft bigotry of low expectations," white upper class condescension, and some good old sexist assumptions:

  1. The problem is one faced primarily by blacks and Latinos.
  2. Their lives need to be "improved."
  3. The way to improve them is to focus on "early sexual behavior and unprotected sex," in particular, the use of condoms. (I should note that according to the report that I heard, students will be referred to Columbia University's, which provides advice about a number of other topics, including descriptions of "male hotspots," purchasing vibrators, and "erotic movies with women in mind"—all of which seems to go well beyond the subject of safe sex.)
  4. The best way to accomplish this improvement may involve all of New York's children but the real targets, according to the mayor, are minority males—whose lives presumably really, really need to be improved (or wreak havoc with the lives of others).
  5. And, by the way, they should lay off of salty snacks and sugary drinks too.

So much for the prevailing cultural narrative. Plainly, there are no small number of people who aren't motivated by religion at all, but who have views of the world, social harmony, and human happiness. It is equally clear that many of the same people advocate for their views and make an effort to impose them on others. In fact, when the mayor of New York can tell you what to do in bed, how much sugar you should have, and what your sodium levels should be, it isn't even clear that conservative Christians have managed to corner the market on social control.

What does the program in New York say about the American spiritual landscape?

Read the rest of this article at Patheos here.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as the director of the Episcopal studies program.


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