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The Answer Blog

Archive for April, 2009

April Showers

April 24, 2009

Sometimes references to sexuality education and sexuality issues in the daily newspaper are as ubiquitous as April showers. But even I was startled by what I saw in the April 15th edition of the New York Times: obituaries of two women who not only died far too young, but whose lives were shaped to a great extent by their personal and professional experiences with human sexuality.

These were the headlines: “Judith Krug, Librarian Who Fought Ban on Books, Dies at 69,” and “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58.”

What immediately attracted me to Judith Krug’s obit was the reference to banned books.  As we know, many books are banned from libraries and school libraries, in particular, because of their sexual content (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies immediately come to mind.)

Krug spent her professional life fighting efforts to ban books, no matter how offensive they might be to a particular audience and no matter the political persuasion of their authors.  She became director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and then executive director of its Freedom to Read Foundation, which raises money to promote First Amendment issues in court cases. She helped create Banned Books Week, which occurs annually, and fought the banning of sex manuals among other books.

In a 2002 interview with The Chicago Tribune, she recounted a childhood experience that inspired her life’s work. She was 12 years old and reading a sex education book under the covers with a flashlight: “It was a hot book; I was just panting, when my mother suddenly threw back the covers and asked what I was doing. I timidly held up the book. She said, ‘For God’s sake turn on your bedroom light so you don’t hurt your eyes. And that was that.’”

Think of what might have happened had her mother snatched the book away or berated her daughter for trying to educate herself about sex and sexuality. Her child might never have gone on to lead the fight against censorship on the Internet and, as principal organizer of civil liberties groups, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

If Krug had been paralyzed by the incident, she might not have earned a note of appreciation for her life’s work from the Times editors, which appeared on the same day as her obit.

According to her obituary, Eve Sedgwick’s critical, academic writings focused “on the ambiguities of sexual identity in fiction [which] helped create the discipline known as queer studies.” She pioneered new thinking drawing on feminist scholarship, “teasing out the hidden socio-sexual subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James.”

Like Krug, reports the Times, Sedgwick did not shy from controversy, “most notoriously” delivering a paper, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” at the annual meeting of Modern Language Association. “In it, she argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood could be better understood in relation to contemporary thought about the evils of ‘self-abuse.’”

In an earlier interview with the Times, she explained the function of queer theory: “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”

Given her academic work, some people were surprised that Sedgwick was married to Hal Sedgwick, also a professor. They questioned how a seemingly straight, married woman could devise queer theory. In reply, she said she disliked the term “straight,” because it ran against her notion of sexual orientation “as a continuum rather than a category.”  Struggling at the end of her life with repeated bouts of breast cancer, Sedgwick wrote A Dialogue on Love, addressing her feelings about death, depression and sexual identity after having a mastectomy.

I feel sadness for our profession at the loss of these two accomplished women, dying so close to each other in time. Each in her own way made a contribution to the study of human sexuality and each highlighted its importance in their lives and in the world.

The showers of April give way, according to the old adage, to the flowers of May. I hope that the many contributions and valuable lives of Judith Krug and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick will continue to blossom and bloom.

Unsung Helper

April 15, 2009

“Ever heard of Daniel J. O’Hern?” my husband asked over breakfast last week. Before I had a chance to respond, he added, “He was a justice of the Supreme Court in New Jersey and he died on Wednesday.

It took me a second to respond. “Oh, yes, of course, I remember Dan O’Hern, but I remember him best when he was serving as the chief counsel to Governor Byrne.” After a pause I said, “We might not have family life and sex education in New Jersey public schools if it weren’t for Dan O’Hern.”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Dan O’Hern since the early 1980s, when I was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education, which under law sets policy for the public schools. In late 1979, a committee of the State Board recommended a statewide mandate requiring family life education in elementary and secondary schools.

A furor erupted with health officials. College faculty and K-12 educators supported schools’ providing instruction to help young people make informed decisions about their sexuality, and state education associations, conservative organizations and religious groups opposed it, claiming that discussing sex in classrooms would promote sexual activity and that the state was usurping local control of education and parental responsibilities. (See The Struggle for Sex Education in New Jersey, 1979-2003: Policy, Persistence and Progress, by Philip E. Mackey, Ph.D.)

I remember the year 1980 as one of almost constant controversy about the mandate. It was filled with open public meetings, newspaper headlines and revision after revision of the policy in order to meet concerns of opponents. Hanging over the heads of the Board was the distinct possibility that the legislature would pass a law negating the State Board’s mandate, which was its right under the Constitution.

Enter Dan O’Hern.

One morning I received a phone call from Paul Ricci, president of the Board, who said that he and I, as chair of the committee that had recommended the mandate for family life education, had been summoned to the Governor’s office. When we arrived, we were ushered into Dan O’Hern’s office, where for next half hour we made our case for the State Board’s action and policy.

O’Hern didn’t say very much. We touched on all of the important points, particularly one that we thought might be particularly persuasive: The policy was supported by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a lay group representing the bishops. Church leaders backed the State Board, because they wished to mandate family life education in parochial schools and felt that the statewide policy in public schools would advance their case.) (To show that the conflict over teaching family life education in public and parochial schools never ends, log on to the most current controversy in Perth Amboy, NJ.)

At the end of the 30 minutes, O’Hern said something like, “It’s okay; the Board can go forward.”

Safely back on the sidewalk outside the State Capitol, Paul and I exchanged views of the meeting. We decided that Dan O’Hern was going to tell the Governor that the State Board’s actions should not be overturned by the legislature, which was controlled by the Governor’s party, and that word would be passed to legislative leaders to let the Board proceed.

That is exactly what happened. The Board made some gentle changes to the policy to satisfy members of the Senate Education Committee, then the policy was passed by the Board and went into effect in all school districts in 1983.

But Dan O’Hern had one more role to play in the family life education controversy. In 1981, then-Governor Byrne appointed him to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. After the mandate passed, family life education’s opponents calling themselves the New Jersey Coalition of Concerned Parents sued the State Board, claiming that it had overstepped its authority in requiring family life education. In 1982, the Supreme Court heard the case, Smith v. Ricci, and ruled unanimously that the Board had the right under the New Jersey constitution to set the mandate.

Justice Dan O’Hern was one of the justices voting for the Board; I like to think that he was persuasive and supportive of the Board and family life education in conference with his fellow justices. He certainly had all our arguments up the sleeve of his long, black robe.

In Dan O’Hern’s obituary in The New York Times, the reporter mentioned that among his 231 majority opinions—he served for 19 years until his retirement in 2000—he helped to “define state policies on issues like the death penalty, law enforcement and homelessness,” mostly favoring the views of liberals, but sometimes bowing to the views of the conservatives. In other words, he tried wherever possible to be fair and balanced.

There is no mention in the obituary of the role that Dan O’Hern played in assuring that all young people in New Jersey have school programs in family life and sexuality education.  But those programs, which we take for granted now, might not have been developed or sustained without him.

Yes, I shall always remember Dan O’Hern, and with gratitude.

Spring Cleaning…and Condoms

April 3, 2009

“Spring cleaning” to me isn’t the kind of housecleaning that our grandmothers did come the first signs of spring: hanging draperies on the line, beating pillows within an inch of their lives, and dusting every piece of bric-a-brac in the house. I just clean up my desktop and delete old files that I haven’t opened in years.

As with all self-improvement ventures, sometimes you discover a “jewel” among the dusty remnants. This spring, my “jewel” turned out to be a still-relevant, four-year-old comment from a New Jersey high school graduate about her sex education course. The young woman, whose named I do not know, was responding online to “Bush’s Sex Scandal,” a 2005 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that roundly criticized the Bush administration’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

She wrote:

“I agree with you 100% when you advocate sex ed that includes, but is not limited to abstinence. I went to high school in Glen Rock, NJ, where the official stand was ‘abstinence is the safest policy.’ That is how my teacher would begin and end each class period. Then she would say: ‘but if you aren’t abstinent, then you can use…’ condoms, diaphragms, the Pill, etc.

It was amazing. We learned the effectiveness of every form of birth control, even those that are not widely used. …. My teacher taught us how to use a condom, and I can recite the instructions on cue if need be. … She taught us what prevents STIs and the symptoms that a person would have with each infection. We discussed the policy of ‘abstinence-only’ education in class, and even learned the international statistics that you mentioned in your column. I never realized how utterly complete my sex education was until I got to college.

Please understand, I go to Vassar College…so we aren’t lacking in information about sex. Personally, I keep a box of condoms, lube gloves, and sex information outside my door for the people on my hall. Condoms are everywhere. But as a freshman, I met plenty of people who just didn’t have the background in sex education that I was fortunate to have. I found myself explaining things to my friends that they were never aware of. And it wasn’t just my roommate who went to an all-girls Catholic high school. People from Virginia, Connecticut, and California were just as uninformed.

I have come to value what my high school did for me in taking the progressive route with my education. I am a sophomore in college and a virgin (not by choice, really, it is just working out that way). When I do have sex, there is no question in my mind that I will use a condom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am thoroughly convinced that a complete sexual education is the only way to go, because when it comes to sex, options are the best weapon that you can have to protect yourself.”

Although four years old, Kristof’s column, with its arguments for teaching about condoms as well as abstinence, is still extremely pertinent. The Obama administration, while budgeting less funds for abstinence-only programs in 2010, is still not willing to bite the bullet and withdraw all funding from these discredited programs and replace them with comprehensive ones.

Earlier this week, I received several high priority e-mails asking me to make calls to the offices of the Democratic members of the Senate budget committee. The SOS appeals urged me to ask 13 Senators to vote “no” on the “Bunning [Senator Jim Bunning, R-KY] amendment” to restore full funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the 2010 budget.

I wish I could have e-mailed the New Jersey high school student’s comment to each of these senators. Her clear analysis of why young people need non-ideological, honest, accurate, and balanced sexuality education speaks louder than any words of mine about why adult legislators should listen to young people when they make decisions that affect their health and lives.

Too many legislators believe that their political careers will end if they vote against funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage. When Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out against using condoms to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa (see “The Pope on Condoms and AIDS”), he implicitly sent a message to Catholic legislators on this continent. That message? “Do not support school programs that include teaching about condoms, because this instruction goes against the moral teachings of the church.”

Catholic priests are not averse to rallying their congregations to oppose Catholic politicians who bravely take a stand against issues supported by the church. I understand the dilemma that legislators face when dealing with opposition based on religious doctrine, but what happens in public schools is a different matter.

I hope legislators pay more attention to young people like the thoughtful student who responded to Kristof’s column than to the Pontiff.