Sexual Health Roundup: Big Apple Edition

In this week's sexual health roundup, we take a close look at New York City: a new app for teens, a little-known regulation that prevents schools from teaching sex ed in buildings owned by the Catholic Church, and a new report that finds huge reproductive health disparities across the five boroughs.

In this week's sexual health roundup, we take a close look at New York City. Big city on a little planet via Shutterstock

Sexual Health Roundup is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

New App for NYC Teens

The New York City Department of Health has funded a new app to help teens find free condoms and sexual health services. The app, called Teens in NYC Protection +, includes information on clinics in all five boroughs that have been reviewed by teenage testers posing as patients.

The app is part of the department’s effort to lower teen pregnancy rates in the city. Rewire has reported on other parts of this effort, such as the CATCH program, which provides young people in schools with sexual health services, including pregnancy tests and emergency contraception.

Assistant Health Commissioner Deborah Kaplan told CBS News that the goal of the new app is to “make sure that no teen who’s sexually active doesn’t know they can go for services to protect themselves and stay healthy.”

CBS News also spoke to a number of parents and other community members who are concerned about giving teens direct access to sexual health services. Frank Russo, president of the American Family Association of New York, does not approve of the app because parents do not have to be consulted for teens to download or use it. “I’m a big proponent of parental consent,” he said, adding, “It’s going to lead to more sexual activity. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

It is important to note that these services existed before the app’s creation; the app just helps make sure teens know about them. More importantly, research has consistently shown that access to such services does not increase sexual activity. For example, students in schools with condom availability programs do not have sex more often or at a younger age than students without access to such programs; they do, however, use condoms more often when they become sexually active.

Other parents approve of the app. Joanna Bush told CBS News, “If it is to help teenage girls like my own daughter get the health services they need, I think that’s perfectly reasonable.”

As for the parental consent issue, Kaplan pointed out that not all teens have that option. “There are some teens who can’t or don’t feel they can talk to their parents, and yet they are sexually active, and they are at risk of unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said.

The city health department, which has consistently been an advocate for the sexual health of teens, is not responsible for the new teen pregnancy ad campaign that relies on fear and shame to disseminate its message.

No Sex Ed in Church-Owned School Buildings

Few people would be surprised to learn that Catholic schools do not teach sex education. Many would even argue that the schools are well within its rights on that matter, since parents send their children there knowing the that their education will be heavily influenced by church doctrine. However, some students who attend New York City public schools are also influenced by that doctrine, because their school buildings are owned by the Catholic Church.

I first learned about this situation from a friend who founded a charter school, which got its start in a rented parochial school building. As part of the lease, the school had to agree not to teach sex education on the premises. As the school’s students got older, my friend had to look for ways to get students important information about sexual health without getting in trouble with her landlord.

My friend was not alone. All 40 New York City public schools that are housed in parochial school buildings have signed similar clauses. The city pays more than $27 million to the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn for the use of these buildings, according to the New York Daily News. The arrangement, which has been in place since 2005, is mutually beneficial: public schools are short on classroom space, while Catholic schools are short on students. Still, it poses problems. New York City public schools have been required to teach about HIV and AIDS since 1987, and a new regulation passed in 2011 mandates comprehensive sex education lessons in sixth or seventh grade and again in either ninth or tenth grade.

In order to comply with both the public school and church mandates, the Department of Education finds other places for students to get their sex ed lessons. Students at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, for example, walk 15 minutes from their church-based school to El Puente’s main offices to receive lessons on HIV. Other schools take students to city-owned buildings or local non-profits.

The church’s “not under our roof” policy seems quite silly, knowing that the students will get the information anyhow. But a spokesperson for the Diocese of Brooklyn told the Daily News that it’s a policy the diocese has no intention of changing. “It is an arrangement that has been working well for both sides for years, and one we intend to continue,” said spokesperson Stefanie Gutierrez.

The city does not seem particularly concerned about it either. Chancellor Dennis Walcott told the Daily News that the prohibition has never caused trouble. “We have dozens and dozens of sites with the diocese and archdiocese, and that’s predicated on being responsible and following the tenets of the church,” he said.

Still, some parents and students think the policy is ridiculous. As one tenth-grader at El Puente put it, “It’s crazy. The church owns the building, so they call the shots. But I don’t see why they get to control what we’re doing at our school.”

Report: Huge Health Disparities Among NYC Women

The New York Women’s Foundation released a report this week that looks at the intersection between poverty, education, health, and wealth-being for women and girls in New York City. Among other things, the report found a number of disturbing reproductive health disparities based on race, ethnicity, and neighborhood in the city. For example:

  • The infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are highest for Black women in impoverished neighborhoods.
  • The infant mortality rate among Black women is nearly triple the rate for white women.
  • Infant mortality rates are highest in the Bronx.
  • Black women have a maternal mortality rate of 79 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 10 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women. The city-wide maternal mortality rate has increased by 30 percent in the last decade.
  • Brooklyn has the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses among women, followed closely by the Bronx. Black women have the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses.
  • In communities where the poverty rate is more than 20 percent, 39 percent of teen pregnancies end in live births, compared to 26.9 percent of teen pregnancies in neighborhoods where less than 10 percent of the residents are poor.

The relationship between poverty and health outcomes is sometimes forgotten in a city where extreme wealth can be found just blocks away from the poorest neighborhoods. However, as the group’s press release points out, “The day-to-day realities of women and girls living in the South Bronx compared to those living on the Upper East or West Sides of Manhattan are worlds apart.”