Scare tactics about N.J. sex education standards don’t reflect what’s in them | Opinion

April 18, 2022 6:50 am

The statewide freakout over New Jersey’s new sex education standards does not appear to take into account what the standards actually say. (Getty Images)

When I was nearing the end of eighth grade, I was assigned a book to read over the summer before my first day of high school.

It was called “Becoming a Man: Basic Information, Guidance, and Attitudes on Sex for Boys” and, I assure you, it was graphic. There was an entire chapter on masturbation. I remember this because on the bus to school, upperclassmen would haze freshmen by making them read passages aloud to the girls.

I’ve been thinking about “Becoming a Man” again because of the furor conservative lawmakers started over New Jersey’s new sex education standards, with critiques ranging from “not age-appropriate” to “abuse.” I wonder what Sen. Michael Testa — he hurled the “abuse” charge — would think if the new standards included a book for eighth graders with an entire chapter on masturbation.

I also wonder what Sen. Holly Schepisi, another critic of the standards, would say if I recounted to her what I learned in sixth grade when Mr. Ferrari, our gym teacher, held a few boys-only lessons on our bodies and what was happening/would be happening to them. If his lessons were spelled out in the new standards, I don’t think Schepisi would approve.

Despite my Twitter snark about this topic, I sympathize with some parents who are confused or outright opposed to the new standards. While there was media coverage when they were first passed by the state Board of Education — this coverage included the thoughts of critics who said the standards go too far — the board’s action came in early June 2020. Lots of people had just lost their jobs. Schools were remote-only. Gov. Phil Murphy hadn’t lifted his stay-at-home order yet. The board did hold public, in-person hearings on this topic prior to pandemic shutdowns, but June 2020 was a terrible time to vote to change the state’s education standards, and it’s understandable many people didn’t know it was happening.

But read the standards. They are pretty routine sex education stuff, and much of the language is unchanged from the prior iteration. This is what the standards — I mean the standards the state Board of Education approved, not the sample lesson plans Schepisi distributed that no school district has said they’ve adopted — say about what children should learn by the end of second grade:

  • Use correct terminology to identify body parts and explain how body parts work together to support wellness
  • List medically accurate names for body parts, including the genitals
  • Define reproduction
  • Explain healthy ways for friends to express feelings for and to one another

Compare that to the scare headlines you’ve seen about what the standards do.

Here’s where the rub is:

  • Discuss the range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior

The word gender has become a boogeyman recently so it’s not a surprise to see it raise some hackles. But read that sentence. Is that worth a statewide freak-out? Is it worth throwing around an accusation of child abuse?

The rest of the standards are along these lines. Here’s probably the most controversial item for students before they end fifth grade:

  • Explain common human sexual development and the role of hormones (e.g., romantic and sexual feelings, masturbation, mood swings, timing of pubertal onset)

Lots of lawmakers have objected to discussing masturbation in fifth grade. But that’s about when the average child starts puberty. When should that talk happen — seventh grade? High school?

The most maddening thing about all this is parents can tell their school district they don’t want their kids in these sex education classes, and I’m sure every lawmaker who spent the last two weeks fuming about the new standards knows this. Think fifth grade is too early to learn about masturbation? Opt your kid out. You’d rather teach your eighth grader about abortion rather than having their health teacher talk about it with them? Tell the school, no thanks, we’ll handle this one.

The sample lesson plans Schepisi distributed do indeed go further than the new standards, and some of the proposed material is obviously more graphic than some legislators and some parents would like. But it’s hard to have accurate education about sex without getting graphic, whether it’s the book I read in the summer after eighth grade or the cartoon about masturbation suggested by those lesson plans.

I’m not sure when this fever will break, or if it will. New Jersey Republicans looking at last year’s legislative election results in New Jersey — and this year’s polling for Democrats everywhere — know it’s a smart move to rev up their base for the next few years. What better way to do that than to get Fox News to make their viewers think Murphy is going to make kindergarteners learn about anal sex? It’s not true, of course, but why let a good manufactured crisis go to waste?


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”