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

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

I thought back to “Becoming a Man” because of anger from conservative lawmakers over New Jersey’s new sex-ed standards, with criticisms ranging from “not age-appropriate” to “abuse.” I wonder what Senator Michael Testa – he leveled the “abuse” accusation – would think if the new standards included a book for eighth graders with an entire chapter on masturbation.

I also wonder what Senator Holly Schepisi, another standards critic, would say if I told her what I learned in sixth grade when Mr. Ferrari, our gym teacher, gave some boys-only lessons about our bodies. and what was would happen to them/would happen to them. If his lessons were spelled out in the new standards, I don’t think Schepisi would approve.

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

But read the standards. It’s pretty standard sex ed stuff, and a lot of the language is unchanged from the previous iteration. Here’s what the standards – I mean the standards approved by the State Board of Education, not the sample lesson plans distributed by Schepisi that no school district has claimed to have adopted – say about this 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 promote well-being
  • List medically accurate names of body parts, including genitalia
  • Define reproduction
  • Explain to friends healthy ways to express their feelings for and about each other

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

Here is where the catch is:

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

The word genre has become a boogeyman recently, so it’s no surprise to see it raising a few hedgehogs. But read this sentence. Is it worth the statewide panic? Is it worth filing a child abuse charge?

The rest of the standards go in this direction. Here is probably the most controversial item for students before the end of fifth grade:

  • Explain common human sexual development and the role of hormones (eg, romantic and sexual feelings, masturbation, mood swings, timing of onset of puberty)

Many lawmakers objected to discussing masturbation in fifth grade. But that’s around the time the average child begins puberty. When should this conversation take place – in seventh grade? High school?

The most infuriating thing about all of this is that parents can tell their school district that they don’t want their kids in those sex ed classes, and I’m sure every lawmaker who’s spent the last two weeks ranting about the new standards know this. Think fifth grade is too early to learn about masturbation? Disable your child. Would you rather teach abortion to your eighth grader than have his health teacher talk about it with him? Tell the school, no thanks, we’ll take care of it.

The sample lesson plans distributed by Schepisi do indeed go further than the new standards, and some of the material on offer is obviously more graphic than some legislators and parents would like. But it’s hard to get an accurate sex education without being graphic, whether it’s the book I read the summer after eighth grade or the masturbation cartoon these lesson plans suggest.

I don’t know when this fever will break out, or if it will. New Jersey Republicans looking at last year’s legislative election results in New Jersey — and this year’s polls for Democrats around the world — know it’s a smart move to fast-track their base for coming years. What better way to do that than to trick Fox News into tricking its viewers into believing that Murphy is going to introduce anal sex to kindergartens? That’s not true, of course, but why let a well-constructed crisis go to waste?

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