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What New York's Teens Are Learning About Sex, Consent & Rape

The SAYA youth group discusses sex ed, harassment, and growing up with immigrant parents.
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The SAYA youth group discusses sex ed, harassment, and growing up with immigrant parents. NYC alliance Against Sexual Assault Project DOT

Back in September of 2017, the New York City Comptroller’s office released a report about the state of health education and sex ed in New York. It found, among other things, that 88 percent of middle and high schools don’t have a teacher licensed for health education, 28 percent of middle schools don’t have a teacher assigned to teach health, and a whopping 97 percent of middle and high school health instructors are not licensed. New York State requires one semester of health taught during middle school years, but only 57 percent of eighth graders had taken it, according to the report.

Similar surveys reveal the same pattern. The Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC) surveyed more than 300 students and found that only 64.5 percent of them had received any sex ed classes in school. It’s unclear how, if at all, this has changed sexual behavior of teenagers. Teen pregnancy in the city has gone down overall, but in the Bronx it is still 75 percent higher than the rest of the city. Meanwhile, rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia increased sharply in 2015-2016.

Sex ed is more important than ever in a time when Roe v Wade might be on the chopping block, New York doesn’t even have strong abortion protections, abstinence-only education is being shoved down people’s throats, and the Trump administration is cutting grants for teen-pregnancy education programs. But sexual education is also a political and cultural minefield, one that can be taboo and confusing.

Radiolab just released the last episode in their series about sex and reproduction, Gonads. The episode, about the history of sex ed, airs portions of their live show from back in May at the NYU Skirball Center. The show goes into the ways Mississippi health educators get around a law that doesn’t allow them to do condom demonstrations, the war between banana companies and PBS, and a university professor holding a live sex toy demonstration. And of course, lots and lots of questions. The show solicited questions from fifth graders, like: “Does breast milk taste like carton milk? How big can a penis get? Other girls have developed but I haven't — can I use a cream?”

Listen to the Radiolab episode below

The show also addressed the thorny issue of diversity and sex ed, which Jonathan Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania Professor of History of Education, and author of the book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, says is sometimes in conflict.

“If you look at Western democracies, what you find is that people who object to sex education now, they often cluster among two groups: white evangelical Christians and also recent immigrants, especially immigrants from the Muslim and the Hindu world. I mean, these are often groups that agree about nothing else.” he said at the show.

As cities diversify, and as people encourage diversity and immigration, Zimmerman says that it might push cities to become more conservative in their approach to sex ed. "Immigrant communities might not want their kids to learn about homosexuals, or abortion," he told Gothamist. He said that immigrant communities might want to suppress sexual education because “many communities believe that sharing of this knowledge is making them sexual at a time when they should be pre-sexual."

But this idea, that immigrant communities are the ones pushing for tamping down on sex ed in New York, is "a load of shit," said Ericka Hart, a sexuality and health educator. "That mentality is similar to: 'Black people are so homophobic.' Wait a minute, so are white people!" Hart told Gothamist. Regardless of race or ethnicity, Hart has found that adults have sometimes pushed back on her sex ed curriculum, especially with younger students. "The world is just going to shame them when they have any sort of sexual desires," she said. She has heard from other adults: "'Oh wait, let them just be kids.' They will still be kids, believe it or not, even if they have sex ed. They will remain young people."

Back in February, WNYC asked first generation Americans about how their families dealt with discussing sex and health at home. Safia Chowdhury, an 18-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, whose parents came from Bangladesh said: "A lot of times in Desi culture, it’s always like the girl's fault. No matter what happens, whether it’s consensual or not, it’s the girl's fault. I think a lot of it has to do with how people think that sex is only for men. Female sexuality in Desi culture is not really a thing." Joeann Mathias, 22, whose parents are from Haiti, said, "I feel like in the African-American community, it’s always, 'Shh, keep your mouth closed, don’t say anything, just pray about it.'”

Chowdry and Mathias were both part of a series of discussion groups led by the New York Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Saswati Sarkar is the organization’s Director of Program Administration and Finance, and she has come up with curriculums for the teen meetings for various immigrant communities and the African-American communities within New York, to help teens and adults talk about sex.

She told Gothamist that the way the city encourages prevention of sexual violence does not apply to these marginalized communities. Tips like "call the police" are just not realistic in many African-American or Latino communities, said Sarkar. And when she holds discussion groups about what teens are learning in school, she sees immigrant teens being pulled in so many different directions from their families, their schools, and their friends. While sex education in classrooms is incomplete, it’s a lot more education than they are getting at home, where any talk of sex and dating is being seen as too “American.” Meanwhile, there’s a “really strong peer culture at school. Within that peer culture, there’s a lot of pressure to have sex,” said Sarkar.

This is a dynamic that Gena Jefferson, Educator, Interfaith Minister, and 22-year veteran of the New York City public school system, sees firsthand in her workshops and coaching practice for teens, Just As I Am. The organization focuses on teaching teens about healthy relationships. While conducting these workshops, she has seen that teens are more educated than ever about STDs thanks to the internet—but they still can hold some very harmful notions about sex. “There’s still this need to please each other, and condoms … are the first thing to go,” Jefferson told Gothamist. “‘I’m a man, I need to be natural, I can’t have this synthetic thing between us’... It’s a big plus among the bros if you did it raw.”

Another big issue among teens is consent. “Consent is not happening,” said Jefferson. “The girls are feeling that the guy is supposed to know what to do, they’re following the guy’s lead…. And if they would say no in the middle, that would hurt the boy’s feelings and therefore make the guy mad, and mad at them… If he gets mad at you in the mix, he might never want you again, which means something’s wrong with you.”

For boys, the ideas of consent and rape are equally murky. For some of the teenage boys and young men, these workshops are the first time that they are examining past sexual behavior. “This one guy said, ‘It's not ‘till we’re here talking that I’m understanding that certain things are considered rape, or sexual abuse, assault. A bunch of guys taking a girl up to a room, that still happens at parties all the time….I’m listening to y’all talk, and I didn’t know that that was rape."

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