Clueless in New York

Just before the end of the legislative session on June 21, the New York State Senate and Assembly engaged in a familiar routine: They scrambled to get lots of important legislation passed. Our representatives passed a bill to increase the criminal penalties for people who pirate movies by sneaking into theaters with camcorders. They also voted in favor of a bill to create an advisory council to review issues concerning children and video game violence. Yet those same senators failed to bring the Healthy Teens Act to the floor for a vote, even though the State Assembly has passed the act three years in a row. That act would provide funding for age-appropriate, medically accurate sex ed for young people through schools and school health centers, community organizations, and boards of cooperative education services (BOCES). Apparently, the members believe that people who make and sell bootlegged copies of Pirates of the Caribbean are far more dangerous than sexually active teenagers with no information about condoms. Or that kids buying violent video games are at much higher risk than kids having unprotected sex.

New York is legally obligated to teach students about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention, but no other sex education is mandatory. Individual school districts decide if sex ed will be taught and what the curriculum will be. Sadly, what most of the students in this state learn about sex comes down to one thing: money. And in this case, the money only pays for abstinence. In 2005, New York schools received $10.6 million from the federal government and $2.6 million from the state for abstinence-only education. That's the second-highest amount of money received for such programs next to Texas.

This state has no funding designated specifically for "comprehensive sex education." (It's no surprise, since no comprehensive sex education programs receive funding from the federal government either.) Advocates define comprehensive sex education as sex ed that teaches about contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and abstinence. I call it real sex ed. Certainly a school district's leaders can take it upon themselves to offer an alternative to abstinence-only, but without financial support or a law prompting them to do it, few if any will. So instead of talking explicitly about how STDs are transmitted, what activities are risky, and how to negotiate your sexual boundaries, New Yorkers get "Don't Do It Until You Get Married." Never mind that studies show that self-described virgins define it in their own way (they engage in unprotected oral and anal sex). Real sex education isn't a priority, and it shows: The state's teen pregnancy and abortion rates continue to rank among the highest in the country.

Abstinence-only education stresses that holding on to your virginity until (heterosexual) marriage is the only effective form of birth control and STD prevention. Contraception is only mentioned in order to discredit it. As for queer teens and their sexuality, they don't exist in this model. Maybe that's a good thing, because a 2004 congressional report found that abstinence-only sex ed programs contained misleading, incorrect, or distorted information about sexual health. Furthermore, Mathematica Policy Research, contracted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducted a multi-year study of two groups of teens: one that participated in abstinence-only educational programs and another that did not. The report, released in April, found that there was no difference between the two groups when it came to sexual behavior, including how many teens actually remained abstinent, the age they first had sex, the number of sexual partners, and whether they used condoms or not. While research shows that the majority of Americans support comprehensive sex ed over abstinence-only teaching and that the abstinence-only programs are ineffective, they still remain king.

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In 2007, $113 million was earmarked for abstinence-only sex education programs (which includes community-based abstinence education or CBAE programs, most of which are affiliated with conservative religious groups). President Bush proposed that the amount be increased to $141 million in his budget for 2008. On June 21, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted against the increase. Anti-abstinence-education advocates hailed the decision with snappy headlines like "Senate Committee Slashes Abstinence Education Funds." Actually, the committee didn't "slash" the funding; it just didn't increase it, which doesn't feel like much of a victory. One could argue that our state's predicament reflects what has happened on the federal level, but since when did New York just jump on the national bandwagon? This past April, Massachusetts became the ninth state to refuse abstinence-only sex ed funding from the government. How come New York hasn't followed suit? A statement from Planned Parenthood of New York City puts the blame on the shoulders of one man: "Yet again, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno has not represented our state's values and has killed common-sense legislation that over 85 percent of New Yorkers support."

According to one 2005 poll, 90 percent of parents say they don't know how to talk to their kids about sex, which is why getting unbiased, intelligent information is so important for young people. But as long as the right-wing "wait until marriage" gang continues to rake in the most government dollars, kids will be limited to information like this: "Couples who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate of about 15 percent in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms used as the birth control method." It's a direct quote from Choosing the Best PATH, an abstinence-only teaching guide by Bruce Cook; Cook's program is one of several approved by the federal government's abstinence-only guidelines. To a seventh-grader, that fucked-up manipulation of (incorrect) statistics must be scary and not very helpful at all. This quote is an example of how the government pays for students to hear misinformation or silence when it comes to safer sex—and an example of our tax dollars at work.

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