Protecting the Birds from the Bees

Sex ed presents a conundrum in a city like Oakland, where sheltered kids sit alongside those with too much life experience.

‘Tis the season to talk about sex, awkwardly. In schools in thirty states, including California, fifth-graders have just finished squirming through a few days of state-mandated sex education, in which they learn that their bodies are about to go through some changes, and despite what they might be thinking, it’s perfectly natural. In the Oakland school district, the rationale is a little more ominous than in the middle-class suburbs: Hundreds of ten- and eleven-year-old girls, many of whom hail from broken homes and impoverished, dysfunctional neighborhoods, are about to enter middle school, where they will walk the halls alongside fourteen-year-old boys with more than Georgia on their minds.

Administrators at Montclair’s Thornhill Elementary School recently learned just how awkward this process can be. One Friday afternoon three weeks ago, Thornhill parent Lynn Matejczyk got a notice that starting the following Tuesday, a representative from Planned Parenthood would spend three days teaching sex health education; unless she objected by Tuesday, her son would attend the classes and learn a little something about the subject. Just what he might be learning began to gnaw at Matejczyk, so she and her husband logged onto the Planned Parenthood Web site and found “Teenwire,” a special section devoted to teaching adolescents about puberty, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, and the verisimilitudes of sex. Matejczyk, who had one business day to pull her kid from the class, worried that her child just barely escaped being taught subjects far too graphic for a ten-year-old. “My husband is in advertising,” she says, “and he says he’d never seen sex sold so hard.”

State law requires school officials to notify parents of sex-education classes at least fourteen days in advance, an obligation Thornhill administrators clearly failed to live up to. Matejczyk spent the next few days asking school officials for a sample of the curriculum, but claims that neither the principal nor her son’s teacher knew what Planned Parenthood’s representatives would teach in detail. Eventually, she got a sample of the reading material, which included a brochure that included the URL to the Teenwire site.

Teenwire’s approach is so frank that it seems doubtful Planned Parenthood officials mean for ten-year-olds to peruse its contents. The site offers complex, nuanced advice about spousal abuse, cutting, and the aftermath of rape. In its Q&A section on sex, the organization provides answers to questions such as “Is it okay for females to use dildos on each other?” “How do I get rid of blue balls?” “Does swallowing sperm make you fat?” and “What’s a rim job?” Matejczyk diplomatically says she became “concerned” about the curriculum and asked to sit in on the class — after all, she says, her son’s friends would be discussing the class with him during lunch, and she has two younger children who might attend this class in the coming years — but officials denied her request. So Matejczyk got a lawyer, who wrote to district officials sternly reminding them of their legal obligation to inform parents of sex-ed curricula well in advance.

Beth Nevins, the Planned Parenthood rep assigned to teach the class, did not return phone calls before press time. Thornhill principal Sally Ann Tomlin refused to be quoted for this story and was clearly exasperated by the fuss.

Matejczyk’s worry that Teenwire material could be used in class seems unfounded. According to Adam Cohen, whose daughter has attended the Thornhill class, Planned Parenthood’s fifth-grade program bears little resemblance to the Teenwire Web site. “The goal of our program at fifth grade is puberty education,” he says. “It’s primarily about changes in the body and body image and things like that.” What’s more, letting a parent sit in on the class could prove counterproductive; having a strange adult in attendance would likely inhibit free discussion of an awkward topic. But that doesn’t mean the mother’s concerns aren’t valid. In fact, they illustrate a maddening dilemma: How to create a uniform approach to sex education in a country — a single school, even — where some children are just learning how to flirt when others are being raped by their neighbors.

Call me naive, but I doubt many Montclair girls are working as prostitutes. The same can’t be said for Oakland at large: Tribune columnist Brenda Payton recently reported that the Oakland police have arrested more than three hundred underage girls — some as young as twelve — for prostitution in the last six months. In some impoverished local neighborhoods, county social worker Olis Simmons says, it’s increasingly common for girls as young as twelve or thirteen to date men in their late twenties and early thirties, and many young people believe douching with Mountain Dew will abort pregnancies. Yes, you read that right.

In 2003 Simmons and a few other employees brought three Oakland teenagers to a conference center in Pacific Grove, where they worked for weeks planning the program for Youth Uprising, a teen center that recently opened next to Castlemont High. “After a day and half of work, we decided as a team to do check-ins,” Simmons says. “You know, ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ And these young people went around and told their stories, which were devastating. One young man told about how his mother and grandmother were both prostitutes, and the shame and humiliation that caused him. The next young man talked about there being ten people living in his house, that there were just so many people, and never enough space and never enough food. And the only girl in the group talked about her uncle coming home from prison and raping her, and her mother’s dilemma in not calling the police for raping her daughter. And these were high-functioning young people.”

Although Thornhill has a sizable white, middle-class contingent, a significant number of its students hail from working-class parts of the city. Thornhill’s administrators have an obligation to anticipate that some of their students could conceivably encounter sexual dilemmas most middle-class students would never face. They have to find a way to arm these students with survival skills for a dystopian urban landscape. But in so doing, they will inevitably subject sheltered young girls, and boys, to hard life lessons they don’t need.

Nationally, there appears to be little guidance from education leaders. According to a recent New York Times report, the same sex ed film — “Always Changing,” produced by Procter & Gamble — is used in up to 85 percent of schools nationwide, regardless of their racial, cultural, or economic profile. But frankly, can there really be an institutional answer to such a problem? Teaching pubescents about their impending sex lives is always fraught with controversy, and questions such as whether schools should provide condoms or teach abstinence-only programs are commonplace. But Oakland’s real dilemma is far worse.

Lynn Matejczyk has a right to protect her child, and thousands of Oakland children have the right to be protected from rape, incest, teen pregnancy, and other terrible social problems associated with poverty. Graphic sex talk may be the only decent option. There are two kinds of students in Oakland’s elementary schools: those who need to know what a rapist is, and those who don’t. Unfortunately, they sit in the same classroom.

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