A California school district has agreed to temporarily shelve a ninth grade sex education textbook after parents complained it included material that’s inappropriate for teenagers, including information about masturbation, orgasms, and erotic touch. The parents asking for the removal of Your Health Today have compared the book to porn.
The textbook made it into Fremont school district after health teachers unanimously selected it among about a half dozen options for sex ed materials. In June, the school board voted to adopt the book for the ninth grade classes at the district’s six high schools. But after more than 2,000 people signed onto a petition asking the Fremont school board to remove it from classrooms, it’s been placed under review. The school district will work with the publisher to amend some of the sections that have sparked controversy.
The petition describes the material as “college level” and says that parents are “deeply concerned” about ninth grade students being exposed to inappropriate subjects, like a section on sexual expression that references sex toys and bondage. Asfia Ahmed, one of the parents who is spearheading the push back, told reporters that those materials are essentially equivalent to pornography. “There’s a section that tells you how to talk to your prospective partners about your sexual history. How does that relate to a 14-year-old kid? I don’t see it at all,” Ahmed told the Oakland Tribune.
In addition to sections on nutrition, body image, stress, and drugs and alcohol, the textbook also includes anatomically correct drawings of reproductive organs, information about preventing unwanted pregnancy and deciding to become a parent, details about different types of sexual expression, advice for navigating “hook ups,” and instructions on how to use a condom.
Although Your Health Today is marketed as a college textbook, school district officials say it’s important to provide high schoolers with this type of accurate information about their sexual health before they leave home. Lara Calvert-York, the school board president, points out that internal student surveys have found that many of Fremont’s ninth graders are already sexually active, so information about practicing safe sex is relevant to them.
“Yes, it talks about masturbation,” Calvert-York said in response to the recent controversy. “We really want them to have a safe place to get facts about their bodies and how to handle things and how they need to be mature to deal with these things.”
Other school district officials have echoed those sentiments during previous discussions about the textbook. “I want to let everyone know, if you think sex isn’t happening with your freshmen, you need to take your blinders off,” Michele Hartmangruber, the campus supervisor at Irvington High School, said before the board’s recent vote to adopt the book in high school sex ed courses. “It’s happening, and it’s happening in the corners, in the bathrooms, in the cars, in the parks and even on the 50-yard line in front of everyone. You have to educate at the ninth-grade level.”
Comprehensive sex ed materials often spark controversy for being too sexually explicit. Earlier this year, a Kansas father went all the way to the state legislature with his concerns about a poster in his daughter’s middle school health class that referenced “grinding” and “oral sex,” convincing a lawmaker to introduce a bill to weaken the state’s sex ed standards. Tennessee residents complained when Planned Parenthood erected “racy” billboards depicting wrapped condoms. When Chicago implemented a health and wellness curriculum with age-appropriate materials for all age levels, opponents decried it as “kindergarten sex ed.”
But from a public health perspective, experts suggest that kids should actually learn accurate information about sexuality from a very early age. Research has found that most teens don’t receive formal sexual health instruction until after they’ve already started having sex, prompting officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to call for sex ed class to start earlier. Recent research recommended that sex ed should begin around the age of ten in order to decrease rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.
In a statement addressing parents’ concerns, the superintendent of the Fremont Unified School District noted that the sex ed textbook was initially selected because it “provides current, accurate, factual and relevant information our students need to make responsible decisions about their health.” Still, the school district hopes to strike a compromise with outraged parents by editing the textbook; Ahmed has threatened to sue if it isn’t removed from classrooms.
A spokesperson for McGraw-Hill Education, the publisher of the textbook, told ThinkProgress that it’s fairly common to work with customers to customize their products. The spokesperson also said that while Your Health Today was developed with a college audience in mind, it’s in use in several K-12 districts, and McGraw-Hill believes “that it is appropriate for some younger readers — but that it’s up to each district to decide if it’s the right program for their particular situation.”