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The Answer Blog

Archive for January, 2009

In or Out of Limbo?

January 28, 2009

The AP headline “Future of Abstinence-Only Funding Is in Limbo” gives sexuality educators hope that the winds of change presently sweeping the land will finally end our government’s funding of abstinence-only programs, which have cost us $176 million each year and $1.5 billion over the past decade.

Many hope that new policies and funding for comprehensive sexuality education will replace abstinence-only funding and policies. Comprehensive sex ed balances instruction about the merits of delaying sexual activity with medically accurate instruction about the benefits of using contraceptives.

Our hopefulness comes because President Obama is considered an advocate for comprehensive sex education. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the AP: “[Obama] totally understands the need for young people to have comprehensive sex education—they need information that protects their health. … I hope that will be the position of the administration, but when Congress gets involved, sometimes things get more complicated.”

An Obama spokesman refused to confirm or deny what the President would propose in his budget—keeping the funding issue still firmly in limbo and advocates on both sides of the issue on a tether.

Congress has gotten involved in a way that should warm the hearts of comprehensive sexuality education advocates. On the first day of Senate business, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Prevention First Act. This legislation would increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sexuality education and support programs designed to reduce unintended pregnancies. Congresswomen Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Diane DeGette (D-CO) introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives.

Slaughter, who strongly opposes any continued funding for abstinence-only programs, introduced the legislation by saying: “We can’t have both [comprehensive and abstinence-only programs], because abstinence-only doesn’t work. We believe the amount of money that goes into [abstinence-only] would be so much better used on things to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Slaughter is sanguine that when the Prevention First Act comes to a vote there will be enough support in the new Congress to pass it.

In his important work Emerging Answers 2007: Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., reviewed 115 programs and found “strong evidence” for the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education programs and “limited evidence” of the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

But before we start celebrating, Sarah Brown, the executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, offers a cautionary note.  She recommends that “science-driven” be applied to sexuality education programs, saying that this approach favors comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only, but that, in due course, researchers might find that some abstinence-only programs are effective. (This list of “science-driven” or “evidence-driven” programs is not long and can be found here.)

More and better research about comprehensive sexuality education can only continue to move it out of limbo and into the educational sunlight where we believe it belongs.

The M-Word: Past and Present

January 21, 2009

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.

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Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a People.com reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.


Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

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The Demise of Dating

January 5, 2009

Charles M. Blow is a favorite columnist of mine. The art director of National Geographic magazine, he also writes a regular column on Saturdays in The New York Times. I like his work, not only because he uses graphics and statistics in a compelling way, but because he writes boldly and informatively about sexual issues.

Blow devoted a recent column to what he called “The Demise of Dating.” It was about the shift from dating to hooking up by high school seniors and college students across the country. There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about this shift in behavior of students you may be teaching, because Blow points out that it “doesn’t mean they’re having more sex or having sex with strangers.” In fact, he cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that teens today are having less sex.

I recommend his column to educators as a way to get students talking about relationships and values—an important ingredient in high-quality sexuality education programs.

“Gay Marriage and a Moral Minority” is another recent Blow column that caught my eye.  In it, he quotes important data for educators and parents from a Guttmacher Institute study. The data shows the following:

  • Black teens are 26 percent more likely than teens of other races to have had premarital sex by age 18;
  • Black teens have a pregnancy rate that is twice that of white teens; and
  • White teens still have premarital sex, but they are better informed about pregnancy prevention and use protection more regularly than do black teens.

You know about the digital divide and the health care divide, but you may have not heard about the teen pregnancy divide. It could possibly deepen during the economic downturn, when in all likelihood poverty as well as a lack of opportunity among poor urban kids will increase. As always, sexuality educators need high-quality training to support them in their work with young people—and our trainings are top notch.

Thanks, Charles Blow, for your columns on sexual health issues. And, please, in 2009, keep writing about sexuality, sex education and teen pregnancy in our society. Many are grateful.