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Education, Health, and Safety

Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex

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No, it’s not 1950, but public school parents are once more at odds over what to teach kids when it comes to the birds and the bees. Here we go again….


Illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Photo via Getty Images

On a frigid January night, a group gathered on Zoom for a teacher-training seminar on Worcester Public Schools’ brand-new K–12 comprehensive sex education curriculum. Ziray Dejesus, a 2020 graduate of Worcester North High—who’d never taken such a class at school—was there to address the group. “Being queer,” Dejesus said, “I didn’t know anything about myself.” Even in elementary school, Dejesus felt like “the odd one out all of the time.” By middle school, Dejesus said, “it was so difficult and so lonely.”

Dejesus’s sentiments echoed those of their hosts that evening, the YWCA Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Youth Deserve Coalition, and the nonprofit group Advocates for Youth, which also developed Worcester’s new sex ed program, called the 3Rs: Rights, Respect, and Responsibility. “I’m so glad that folks are here recognizing how…potentially lifesaving sex education can be,” Nora Gelperin, AFY’s director of sexuality education and training and one of the 3Rs authors, offered in welcome.

To say that most people are in favor of sex ed is an understatement. According to an array of polls, some 80 to 90-plus percent of Americans support it in middle and high school. Scores of health institutions support sex ed that is termed “comprehensive,” meaning age-appropriate, medically accurate, inclusive, and evidence-informed. They include the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2020, a paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health surveyed 30 years of research demonstrating that comprehensive sex ed—known as CSE—works. According to the paper, it helps to prevent child sexual abuse as well as dating and intimate partner violence, and also improves reporting of abuse. It increases bystander intervention, fosters healthy relationships, improves communication and media literacy, and reduces homophobic bullying.

Worcester’s 3Rs is one example of a CSE curriculum, but there are many. Milton sixth graders, for instance, participate in “Puberty: The Wonder Years,” a program developed in Michigan for grades four through six, as well as “Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works,” a medically accurate, age-appropriate middle and high school curriculum created by Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. It emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement.

Despite access to programs like these, despite robust public support and research, “The demands for scientifically accurate medical information about sex have repeatedly run into a brick wall of moralizing,” writes historian Courtney Shah, author of Sex Ed, Segregated: The Quest for Sexual Knowledge in Progressive-Era America. Even in Massachusetts—considered the most liberal state in the nation.

That very same January night, while parents, teachers, and other community educators discussed Worcester’s 3Rs, an altogether different group gathered in-person in Worcester at a party hosted by the Wakefield-based Massachusetts Family Institute. The cause for celebration? “Over 3,000 (and counting) students have been opted out of pornographic sex education in Worcester and beyond!” read the invitation. “Come meet other advocates who are successfully working with MFI.” MFI’s director of community alliances, Michael King—who has plans to expand his group’s so-called “opt-out” efforts to Millbury, Franklin, Medway, Milton, Bedford, Dedham, Sharon, Westford, Woburn, and Burlington—welcomed his guests. “We are thrilled about what’s going on in Worcester,” he said. “It’s really been the shot that’s been heard around the world.”

Massachusetts might not seem like the most natural spot for an ideological battle over sex ed because we are known to be a progressive state; the headquarters, in fact, of the country’s first-ever lobbying group dedicated to getting comprehensive sex education into schools nationwide, says Jaclyn Friedman, author, educator, and founder and executive director of EducateUS. “As you know, the hard right’s new focus on school boards has put kids in danger, and the danger is manifold,” Friedman wrote in an email. “What small scraps of decent sex education are being taught in public schools are now in the crosshairs.”

Earlier in her career, Friedman spent years speaking on college campuses about consent, healthy sexuality, and sexual violence. Over and over, she heard students, regardless of race, religion, identity, or gender, say, This is amazing, but I wish I’d had this information six years ago, eight years ago. “So many of them had already suffered,” she says. And when you talk to girls, especially girls of color, and to LGBTQ+ kids, “even more so.”

This is why, when Worcester’s school committee voted to adopt 3Rs last year, Dejesus was thrilled. It’s also why Dejesus, who today serves as a health ambassador to Worcester State’s Latino Education Institute, was happy to join January’s 3Rs training. When a mentor at Worcester State’s Encouraging Latinos to Achieve Excellence (ENLACE) program recommended Dejesus join a group called Teen Circle, which offered CSE, “It was a revelation,” Dejesus told those gathered for the training in January. “Finally, I was getting medically accurate information, and talking to people about healthy relationships”—something that had never happened while Dejesus was in school. Slowly, Dejesus’s isolation and fear melted away, replaced by a strong sense of self and belonging.

Nelly Medina, a Worcester parent, a board member of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, and an organizer for Massachusetts Jobs for Justice, said that CSE is particularly important for students of color. Studies show Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools for both harassment and reacting to being harassed. Medina has children and foster children of color in her family, she says. It’s important that the foundations of healthy relationships are taught “in class, together.” This way, she says, everyone learns that they are responsible for their own and their community’s health.

Cara Berg Powers, a visiting lecturer in the education department at Clark University, said that her third grader had loved learning these foundations in her five 3Rs units—making a timeline of her life; learning why teasing, harassment, and bullying are wrong; how to give dignity and respect to all; the concepts of consent, personal boundaries, and bodily autonomy; and how to ask for help. One afternoon, after the class that covered consent, Powers overheard her daughter and a friend talking while roughhousing. “I said I don’t want you to do that, and you are still doing it anyway,” her daughter said.

“Okay,” the friend replied. “I’ll stop.”

And into the afternoon the two played happily together.

Not everyone is happy. A vocal minority of parents and activists, who have waged a campaign complete with lawn signs and social media, are opting out of CSE and spreading the word. Led in part by MFI, King, its director of community alliances, said via email that many parents feel their concerns about the sex ed curriculum were too quickly dismissed by school officials. “Parents were outraged,” he said, adding that “as parents in other communities are learning about this, they have begun using their statutory right to opt their children out of classes they find highly offensive and wildly inappropriate as a means of protecting their children and pushing back against a system that either ignores their concerns or treats them with
condescension.”

So far, Boston and Worcester have adopted CSE from kindergarten to high school. They are the only two public school districts that appear to have implemented this comprehensive approach. The suburbs, on the other hand, remain up for grabs.

In Milton, several parents report seeing an uptick in anti–sex ed organizing: signs mimicking Pornhub’s logo and alleging pornography is being taught in Milton’s public schools; social media posts; and text blasts, one recently recruiting for a book group discussing “the transgender pandemic targeting our children,” for instance. “Attention Milton Parents,” reads one post on Facebook. “[Planned Parenthood] grooms children to become sexually active. They shouldn’t be anywhere near children.”

MaryAnn Dakkak, a family doctor and mother of a fourth-grade student in Milton, who made a point of saying that she was raised by a Greek Orthodox father and a Catholic mother, says there was a recent “uproar” after a school survey asked students how they identify themselves. Another Milton mother, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Jennifer, said via email that she opted out her 12-year-old daughter “because [the class] was too graphic in nature. I didn’t feel it was appropriate or safe for my preteen daughter to be taught how to pleasure herself. In fact,” she added, “the Get Real curriculum used by the school feels more like a tool to groom young children into thinking that being sexual is what all of life is about.”

Positions like these, supported by an upswing in partisan-funded messaging, are part of why opposition to CSE is spreading. “Parents should be in control of their children’s education, not state bureaucrats or Planned Parenthood activists,” King said via email. “Concerned parents are constantly reaching out to us for help.”

As a doctor living in Milton, Dakkak says she frequently sees the need for CSE firsthand: kids coming into her practice pregnant, with STDs, or having experienced sexual violence, child sexual abuse, or sex they thought they’d wanted because they’d seen it on the Internet. “They have had no accurate information,” she says, “and no one to talk to about healthy relationships and how their bodies work.”

Supporters of CSE roundly acknowledge that parents are important teachers of their children. In the words of one study, parents are “the single largest influence on their adolescents’ decisions about sex.” Yet research also shows that not all parents teach medically accurate information. Some parents don’t want to talk about sex at all. Critically, not every child grows up in a home with a caring adult or guardian, and many children don’t even have a home, parent, or caregiver, a number that has only increased during COVID.

Megara Bell, director of Partners in Sex Education, a Newton-based organization that offers sex ed, has taught the subject, she says, in some of the “most conservative” schools in the state since 1999. “I believe we’re all on the same page about our young kids,” she says. “We want to educate our young people, to have them make better decisions, to have self-esteem, to understand their bodies, to respect boundaries, to be safe, to respect themselves and each other.” Lately, though, she has been meeting more parents who, after learning what is in fact taught in their schools, regret opting out. “‘I want this for my child,’ they say, ‘I just didn’t want this other thing I’d heard about,’” Bell says. “If a family doesn’t want comprehensive sex education, they should be supported to opt out. I just don’t want parents opting out because they are being flooded with misinformation.”

Angélique Bouthot, a Worcester Youth Deserve Coalition member who helped organize January’s teacher training, says misleading information on lawn signs and T-shirts is taking hold in her former town of Millbury. “The opt-out campaign that was in Worcester, they just copied and pasted everything when they came over to Millbury,” she said. “They had a few key players in Worcester, now they have a few key people in Millbury and Milton.”

For instance, charges that Milton’s Get Real program teaches students how to masturbate or oversexualizes children are inaccurate, says Jen Slonaker, chief strategy officer at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, one of Get Real’s authors, and a parent of two students in the Milton Public Schools, including the middle school. The curriculum “does not teach kids how to masturbate, but rather that masturbation is normal human behavior, from an age-appropriate, medical, and research-based perspective,” she says. More so, research—including a literature review of 83 studies worldwide published by the Journal of Adolescent Health—has debunked claims that CSE oversexualizes children, demonstrating that students who receive CSE are more likely to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, and to use protection if they do have sex. Meanwhile, reads another report in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “[Abstinence-only until marriage] programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other behaviors.”

EducateUS’s Friedman sees the increasing intensity of the opposition’s organizing as a sign of progress. “The far right has known the political power of this issue for a long time. The rest of us have been very squeamish. What’s changed is that now we’re finally showing up for it.”

Despite the rising tension between the two sides, a piece of legislation called the Healthy Youth Act (HYA), first introduced in 2011, has bipartisan support, including from MassEquality, the Massachusetts chapter of the Association of Social Workers, and more than 100 faith leaders, among others. At January’s Opt Out Celebration in Worcester, the MFI’s King expressed concern. “Your state of Massachusetts wants to pass a law which they call the Healthy Youth Act,” he said, “and it is anything but healthy. And basically, if this were passed into law, the only sex ed curriculum your school could choose would be from Planned Parenthood…. We believe that every school should have the right to choose.”

“This is just not accurate,” says state Senator Sal DiDomenico of Everett, who, along with state Representatives James O’Day of West Boylston and Vanna Howard of Lowell, refiled HYA in 2021. O’Day has been working on the legislation for a long time, yet “without fail, every year, there is misinformation circulated about Healthy Youth and what comprehensive sex education is,” he says. “Comprehensive sex ed is not a ‘how-to.’ It is an education that provides students the tools and resources they need to make safe, informed decisions.” Additionally, he says, “Healthy Youth is not a mandate.” HYA does not require schools to teach comprehensive sex ed but, rather, requires schools that do teach it to use best practices. HYA also maintains the current opt-out law and strengthens parents’ rights, O’Day says, by bolstering transparency and requiring schools to give parents ample notification, something currently not required. This way, parents can review the curriculum in a timely manner and make informed decisions.

We are living in a moment in which, studies show, child sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, and other mental health issues are spiking. Meanwhile, emerging evidence suggests that the Internet may be outpacing parents in influence when it comes to information about sexuality—and that its influence can be devastating. In this kind of an environment, sex ed becomes even more essential. As Dakkak put it during a recent conversation with her kid’s elementary school principal, “Early sex ed—working on inclusivity and belonging—it saves lives.”

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