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South Bronx , Sex Ed.


Paulo is getting beat up at home because his mom thinks he’s gay.  Tonya Green’s belly grows daily, due to a few encounters with the thirty year old homeless guy who sleeps on her stoop and sometimes in her bed.  Maria is sporting a gash down the side of her face, the result of an encounter with a broken bottle wielded by another girl bitter over Maria’s alleged behavior with her man. Brandi is trying to find a place to live because she can’t stay at home anymore with a grandfather who keeps touching her.  And me?  Me, I’m standing in front of these kids, plastic package in one hand, banana in the other looking for volunteers to demonstrate the proper way to put on a condom.

I teach sex ed. in the South Bronx at an after school program.  None of my kids get sex ed. at school.  A few have had health classes.  But even fewer have learned anything in them.  This isn’t surprising as sex ed. in public schools in this country is becoming a thing of the past.  That’s not to say that the government won’t give you a significant amount of cash to teach what they claim is sex ed.  But most sex educators I know don’t buy that telling kids to pledge virginity and abstinence to a very Christian sounding God is actually sex ed.  Neither is denying that kids are queer and need condoms and have orgasms and masturbate and will do these things whether they learn about them in school or not.  None of my kids come to the program for the sex ed. of course. Some come because it is free and they get dinner.  Some come because their parents are hoping it will help them stay away from the gangs that they walk ten blocks out of their way to avoid, and some are court ordered to be there.   My kids are all Black and Latino.  I’m white and Jewish and even more alien to them, Canadian.  To stay in the program they have to attend the sex ed. class once a week and meet with me one on one.  During meetings they sit sullenly, they doodle, or they talk.  When they do they say things like: “Last week I had sex in a closet at my cousin’s birthday party.”  “My brother’s in Rikers, I think they’re fucking him up pretty bad in there.”  “How do you give a guy a hand job?”  “That movie you showed about the kid with AIDS, I’m sorry Miss.  That was mad homo.”

 Mad homo. It applies to a lot of things. The fact that I told them they couldn’t call each other fag or gay as an insult, for example, is mad homo.  So is the fact that I kick them out if the guys call the girls bitches or if the girls punch each other in the arms and say, “Shut the fuck up!” when they disagree.  “Miss,” they explain when I intervene. “Miss, that’s just how we talk together. We’re just playin’. You don’t understand.”  I tell them fine, you’re right, I don’t. But, I still make them do an exercise where they have to compliment the person sitting to their left and wait patiently as they mumble though: Maria, I like your shirt; Anton, you’re a good basketball player; Philip you’re a nice friend.  

Forcing compliments out of these kids has its merit but it doesn’t immediately change the social and sexual interaction of the group. I come into class one day as the kids are hearing about the blow job Manny recently received. Manny is a huge, towering kid who’s 16 but looks 25.   He’s explaining how he needs head but would never reciprocate on a girl. “Dick ain’t nasty like pussy,” he concludes. All the guys agree noisily, with commentary.  I debate jumping in. It’s not the language. The kids know my rule.  Use slang as long as you can show me you know the real word.  You want to say dick? First prove you know penis, scrotum, and testicle.  You want to say pussy? Only if you explain the different parts of the vulva without forgetting the clitoris. I don’t feel like making Manny run through the drill again, but I decide the conversation warrants at least a perfunctory interjection. So I tell them, “Nobody’s genitals are nasty and there definitely isn’t anything gross about the vulva. Oral sex is just a matter of personal preference.” 

Chaos ensues.  The boys practically jump on top of each other trying to tell me just how wrong I am, just how homo it is to go down on a girl, just under how much duress they would need to be to ever consider doing that.  But they want me to understand, if a girl ever refused them head, that’s it, they’re through. I know some of it is posturing.  But I also know a lot isn’t. As Jefferson puts it, “If a girl I’m with don’t give me head, I say see ya, take her cellie and erase my number.”  I’m busy organizing the lesson but I look up again to say, “This might work for you now, but no grown woman is going to put up with that.  Good luck in the future.” I hear one of the girls, maybe Carmen, say, “Awww shit! Jefferson , you got burned!” I don’t actually know if my statement is true or not and if these girls will grow up to demand oral sex, but I figure it can’t hurt to make them think that.

Then I hand out worksheets and announce that today’s session is on values and morals. The kids prefer classes that involve condom demos and pictures of sexually transmitted infections and games where they have to scramble to answer questions like: how many hours after unprotected sex can a woman take emergency contraception?  However, sometimes I like to make them actually talk to each other. So, now they must debate the merits and drawbacks of sex without commitment and whether a girl is a slut if she carries condoms and should gay teens be allowed to take same sex partners to school dances.  “Miss we don’t even get art class, you think we’re going to get a dance?” says Tina. It’s a good point, so I tell her, “In theory then, just in theory.”    

Of course most things for these kids aren’t theoretical. Like Amelia Gonzales’ pregnancy.  That is pretty real.  “Amelia,” I say when she tells me, “You came to all my classes.  What happened?”  And, 14-year-old Amelia who is heavy and wears baggy overalls and whom I have heard the boys refer to as Austin Powers’ “Fat Bastard,” just mumbles through her braces, “I dunno.”  But eventually it comes out.  Amelia is in foster care.  She lives with a woman she calls her grandmother and two of her seven siblings.  Her mom has drug problems and is not allowed to see her.  The grandmother hates her.  She calls her ugly.  And she hasn’t done Amelia’s hair since she was seven. The boy is older, 16.  He’s from down the block.  “So,” I say trying hard not to come off as the condescending teacher I am pretty sure I sound like, “You kind of wanted this baby?  You think a baby will love you and be cute and cuddle with you when you’re sad?”  Amelia looks at me and says, “No, I don’t. My doctor just says I can’t have an abortion.” 

Then she tells me how her doctor has explained abortion. According to him the procedure is physically excruciating and often results in fully grown babies descending into the toilet piece by bloody piece after the inevitable botched operation. And even if this does not occur, the screams of infants being ripped limb from limb will echo in the head of the forever damaged mother.  I tell Amelia this is not the way abortions work and ask her why she thinks her doctor would give her such misinformation. Amelia explains that the doctor is mad at her for getting pregnant.  He thinks she should have the baby and has told her if she has an abortion she will feel such guilt that she will no doubt end up on drugs like her mother. I tell Amelia that if she wants to have an abortion she can do so and explain that she won’t be expelling bloody chunks of baby. That abortion is confidential for teens in New York .  That she can go to a different provider. That she doesn’t have to tell her doctor, her grandmother, her social worker, or the boy. That she can get it covered by emergency Medicaid and that I will go with her if she decides to do it and is nervous.  But I am not surprised the next week when she chooses to continue the pregnancy, explaining that the 16-year-old father promises to support her. 

At the end of the year we get a grant.  I can train ten kids to become HIV peer educators and pay them to do so.  I pick Manny and Brandi and Tina and Jefferson .  I also pick Amelia, whose grandmother tells me on the phone, “You really want Amelia? She’s no good at anything.”  I pick LaToya James who is amazingly quiet and wears her Catholic school uniform to program everyday despite the fact that all the other kids mock her mercilessly. I pick Rina Lee who bursts with energy and thinks sex is gross but who regularly asks what it feels like to kiss a boy. I pick Paulo who came to school last week with a broken tooth after being jumped once again.  I pick Jenny Estrada who is scared to take the subway alone to her dentist appointments in Manhattan . And I pick Jose Mendez who wants so badly to be hard and tells me about all the gang members he’s friends with but who talks really quietly when he explains that he can’t remember his sister’s name because she lives with his dad whom he hasn’t seen in five years. I take this group of kids from my sex ed. classes and tell them, “You guys are going to be the teachers. You are going to go around to other schools and teach kids the way I teach you.  Think you can handle it?”  And Manny and Brandi and Tina and Jenny and Jefferson and Latoya and Amelia and Jose and Paulo and Rina all look skeptical.  But after some coaxing they decide that they can indeed get up in front of a group and talk seriously about a subject that they normally only encounter as a punch line.  They decide that they can explain that not only gay people get AIDS, that casual contact won’t pass the virus, that getting tested in important, that condoms work. They decide this and then they deliver.   And, watching them in action kind of makes up for the fact that Marcy is pregnant again, and Raymond got busted for selling drugs and Monica’s mom won’t let her come back to program because a boy called her house.   And, it kind of make up for the fact that even if teaching sex ed. in this country is an uphill battle, sometimes it’s a hill with climbing.


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