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Report: Birds, Bees and Bias (2012)

Many public school districts across New York State provide sex-ed instruction that is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, according to Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York’s Students. This report examines sex-ed materials used during the 2009-2010 and 2010-11 school years from across New York State. Among the NYCLU’s key findings:

  • Lessons on reproductive anatomy and basic functions were often inaccurate and incomplete; pervasive factual limitations reflected gender stereotypes and heterocentric bias. For example, Nearly 2-in-3 districts excluded any mention or depiction of external female genitalia from anatomy lessons. One district defined the vagina as a “sperm deposit.”
  • Moral overtones and shame-based messages regarding sexuality, abstinence, pregnancy and teen parenting strongly pervade instructional materials in all districts – and textbooks in wide use across New York State. These materials, unlike medically-accurate, opinion-neutral information, risk alienating students from otherwise valuable prevention lessons.
  • Many students do not learn the full range of methods for preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Too few school districts provide students with information about how to access local health resources or their right to confidential reproductive and sexual health care. For example, while 80 percent of the districts we studied taught students about condoms, only about 1-in-3 actually taught students how to use them.
  • Most districts did not teach information about bullying (63 percent), and many did not teach about sexual harassment (42 percent), sexual assault or rape (28 percent).
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students are largely stigmatized or ignored entirely in health education classrooms. For example, more than half the school districts did not provide any instruction about sexual orientation.
  • Persistent heterocentric bias dominates instruction about dating, relationships, marriage, sexuality, and vulnerability to sexual assault and dating violence. For example, one commonly used textbook addresses only “traditional marriage,” defined as “an emotional, spiritual, and legal commitment a man and woman make to one another.”

Among its recommendations, the NYCLU calls on the State Education Department to amend the Commissioner’s Regulations on health education to require comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools – or set rigorous, binding standards for voluntary sex-education curricula –to ensure that young people have the foundation, skills and knowledge to support a healthy and productive future.

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