It’s hard to determine what is more infuriating: the fact that now, in the year 2018, Worcester’s public school system doesn’t have anything resembling a comprehensive sex education curriculum in place; or that, as the school system makes tentative steps towards a modern education, there are still those who come out to protest against it.
School Committee member Dante Comparetto placed a benign-sounding resolution on that body’s Dec. 20th meeting agenda, item gb #8-369: “Request that the Administration provide an update of the Sex Education unit in the Health Education curriculum.” However, this request proved controversial, as someone – it’s not certain whom, but the rumor is that it was a grouping of school committee members and religious organizations – organized a small number of vocal community members to come to the meeting to protest modern sex education.
The WISH Coalition, Planned Parenthood, Greater Worcester Our Revolution, faith-based groups, and others who want the city to actually do something about the rise of STIs and other problems caused by a lack of sexual education, in turn, organized community members to come out. Despite the short notice, those supporting actual sex education far outnumbered their opponents.
Mayor Joe Petty, a supporter of real sex education who called for modernizing the curriculum in his inauguration speech earlier this year, limited the number of speakers to two from each side, noting that the issue would be debated often in the coming months. While the speaking limit was understandable, it could unfortunately give the impression that both sides were equally matched in numbers: they weren’t. The number of people for sex education dwarfed the number of people opposed.
What resulted was a meeting that seemed straight out of the 1980s, when things like sex education were actually controversial across most of America.
Argument: The cons
Speaking at great length on behalf of the no-to-educating-kids position was former School Committee member Mary Mullaney, who thinks that providing breakfast to kids at school opens up a Pandora’s Box (“There are some that would want to give them dinner,” she once said mournfully).
“If my kids were taught about how to use a condom, they would have been pulled out of the public schools so quickly their heads would spin,” she said. She was speaking in reference to one of the curricula under review, called “Making Proud Choices.” Despite Mullaney’s seeming confusion, MPC is simply one of the curricula the school system has looked at. What Comparetto did say in regards to which curriculum to use was simply that he wanted to find something better than the Michigan model, which has been criticized for several important shortcomings, such as information for LGBTQ youth.
Mullaney is, of course, free to raise her kids how she wants, but the facts are clear. Studies have shown the need for comprehensive sex education in the Worcester Public Schools. While zealots like Mullaney demur, Worcester’s school kids are paying the price of the ignorance imposed on them: at this moment, there are 55 middle school kids who are pregnant. Protip: If they’re having sex, they’re not too young to talk about it. Also, the city has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies in the state, the incidence of gonorrhea is more than twice the state average, cases of chlamydia are far more per capita here than statewide, and, anecdotally, one high school teacher attending the meeting told me that she recently spoke to a class of high school students who did not know what HIV/AIDS is.
As everyone knows, comprehensive sex education has been shown to dramatically reduce STIs, teen pregnancy, and even teen sexual activity. The curriculum Mullaney chose to rail against is used across the country, from Oakland to Brookline to Lawrence and has proven results. Mullaney’s response?
“I don’t care what the experts say.”
But the experts say important things, e.g. that nine out of ten children from ages 8 to 16 learn about sex from porn.
Pitting immigrant communities against sex educators
Mullaney went on to add that she doesn’t care what happens in Lawrence or other cities either. She then turned the floor over to a North High student, a recent immigrant from Africa, who said that a comprehensive sex education curriculum would be against his culture.
What a grotesque move on Mullaney’s part! She and those around her seem to be trying to blame their own bad policy ideas on immigrant communities, and to win what she and her ilk want by pitting immigrant communities against others fighting for sex ed. Here, Mullaney overlooked two important facts. First, immigrant communities are not monolithic, and there were many Black and brown people, including immigrant youth, ready to speak in favor of better sex ed. Further, the school department, months ago, already said publicly that parents would be able to opt their children out of sex ed if they so wished.
A racist, anti-immigrant, anti-poor outcome
Of course, it goes without saying that the desire of Mullaney and her allies to leave kids ignorant on choices that affect their whole future would disproportionately target those same immigrant communities, as well as African American, Latinx, and impoverished youth, as that is the majority of the student body of the Worcester Public Schools system. She – and an endless army of anti-sex ed extremists – boast of teaching their kids, and argue that it is the duty of parents to provide sexual education for their children. But what about the parents who aren’t like Mullaney, wealthy enough to be stay-at-home moms? Or parents who themselves aren’t sure how to deal with the question? Or who were educated in the dystopian-type of environment that anti-sex ed advocates dream of, and are therefore themselves not sure of the facts? Who knows, but at least Mullaney doesn’t have to have her precious children learning about condoms.
What is real sex education?
Also important to note is that comprehensive sexual education programs are not some sort of orgy training classes. They do talk about things like how to use a condom, but they also talk about abstinence, and provide education for youth, including and especially education about diseases like AIDS and gonorrhea – not exactly turn-ons. And by talking frankly about sex, these programs are able to teach kids about consent, and what that means. Anyone who’s watched the news over this past year of the #MeToo movement knows that Worcester, and America, are desperately in need of such lessons – would that we could mandate them for adults as well!
“There are also other important things that are everyday interactions, like consent: can I hug you, can I kiss you,” South High Community School student Shirley Acero said. “Students should know that they have the option to say yes or no, and they should also have guidance to speak to someone if they don’t know how to handle those situations. It’s also very important that we address healthy relationships.”
To sum up
I have spent a great deal of space reflecting on Mullaney’s statements, for a few reasons: first, there were only two speakers, and second, what she said was emblematic of the entire anti-sexual education movement. And third, she’s a former school committee member. Of course, Worcester is nowhere near as backwards as the anti-sex ed crowd, despite the amplified voices of the latter. A recent survey found that more than 80 percent believe Worcester kids should be given real sex education (not even 70 percent of high schoolers have had any sex education). Let’s hope they remember at the polls next year, ensuring that no one with Mullaney’s Victorian-era beliefs ever joins the school committee again, and also vote out anyone who opposes comprehensive sex ed in the schools.
Otherwise, the kids could just learn from porn. That is, after all, what they’re doing now.
Image: From the cover of the Worcester Wants sex ed toolkit, available at www.bitly.com/worcester-sex-ed or by clicking here.