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The Answer Blog

Archive for May, 2009

Domestic Violence and Sex Ed: What’s the Connection?

May 21, 2009

Domestic violence has been on my mind recently.

I attended a fund-raising event for Womanspace, a local organization that gives shelter, counseling and care to women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands and partners, and I learned that more than 5,000 women had sought counsel and shelter from this community nonprofit during the past year. I also learned that the total annual cost of domestic violence nationwide runs in the billions of dollars.

By coincidence the day after the event, I went to my local Verizon store to recycle a cell phone. The salesperson directed me to a bin on which was written in large letters: “Help Prevent Domestic Violence: Recycle Wireless Phones.” I looked puzzled, so he explained that a local phone number is put into the old phone and if it’s pressed by someone who is being battered or abused, a call goes directly to the police, who can locate the place where the abuse is occurring. He added that this is a national effort.

Sexuality educators may ask: Is there a connection between domestic violence and sex education, and, if so, what is it? Are sex educators in the business of trying to prevent and lessen this scourge through our work with young people in middle and high school?  Do we even talk in class about the prevalence of domestic violence?

Let me try to answer this question by looking at some of the conclusions in the book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, by Jessica Fields, which received the 2009 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Race, Gender, and Class section. In her book, Fields talks about three distinct curricula in the type of sex education given in schools:

  • the formal curriculum—the official planned course of study;
  • the hidden curriculum—the disparities in educators’ expectations for students across social differences of gender, race and class;
  • the evaded curriculum—the lessons that are ignored, stepped around or simply omitted.

My hunch is that a lot of educators would admit that the topic of domestic violence is placed in the evaded category. But it occurs to me that it belongs in the same area of instruction and discussion as sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and date and acquaintance rape—the dangerous aspects of human sexuality. 

Our very first issue of Sex, Etc. (Winter 1994) included one teenager’s first-person account of a date rape that occurred when she was 15 years old. She writes:
 
 “He took me into the bedroom so I could pass out [I had been
 drinking]. I was in the bed and I heard him lock the door.  I
 asked him why he did that and he said, ‘So no will bother
 you.’ He lay in the bed next to me and told me to go to sleep
 and I would feel better. I remember falling asleep and being
 woken up by him pushing me and saying, ‘Put this in your
 mouth.’ I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m tired, leave me alone.’
 Then I felt him take off my underwear. I told him to stop. He
 wouldn’t. He started to get on top of me and I started to scream….
 He put his hand over my mouth and raped me.”

This teenager’s story plus lesson plans that we’ve developed can be used by sexuality educators in their discussions with teens about sexual violence. Date and acquaintance rape and domestic violence show a shocking disregard for the bodily integrity of human beings. It is my hope that sexuality educators can see the connections between them and join customers at Verizon and supporters of nonprofit organizations like Womanspace to tackle the horrific social problem that is domestic violence.

Questions Matt Lauer Didn’t Ask

May 8, 2009

I may have been lulled into a state of complacency by the conversation on The Today Show on May 5th between Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its Chief Medical Editor, and Ann Curry, a host of the show. It occurred the day before Bristol Palin, the Governor’s daughter, was interviewed on Today by Matt Lauer.

Snyderman discussed the prospects of a contraception injection for men that might be approved within five years. It was a very mature discussion in which the two women showed no fear of using the words “contraception,” “intimacy” and “sperm count.” They were talking about sex honestly.

My expectations were high, therefore, when I tuned in the next morning to hear Matt Lauer, normally a tough questioner, interview Bristol Palin (and her dad) about her unplanned pregnancy and the birth of her son, Tripp, whom she cradled in her arm throughout the interview (see video below). Bristol, with the support of The Candie’s Foundation, has become their national teen ambassador, for teen pregnancy prevention.

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The Today Show piece with Bristol opened with a background segment on teen pregnancy that featured clips of interviews with Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé and father of baby Tripp, in which he hinted that the couple had been practicing safe sex and “it had failed.”

In the interview, Lauer gave Bristol several opportunities to explain her commitment to teen pregnancy prevention: “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said. He listened attentively while she described how tough life is as a teen mom. Bristol’s father chimed in with praise for “the great job” his daughter is doing: “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he assured the listening audience, adding that Bristol has no time for friends.

It was the next part of the interview that gave me a sinking feeling: a question about the kind of sex education young people should receive in school. Lauer approached the topic carefully. He asked Bristol about a statement she once made that “abstinence [education] is not realistic at all.” But Bristol backed away emphasizing the long-held line long endorsed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that “abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way of preventing pregnancy.”

Lauer moved into more dangerous territory by asking Bristol if she and Levi had practiced “safe sex,” (a vague term at best). Again, Bristol pulled back saying, “I am not here to talk about my personal life.” I heard her answer somewhat incredulously, because I thought that she had been invited to be a teen ambassador exactly because of her personal life. Bristol answered, “If you are going to have sex, I think you should have safe sex,” but then she beat the drum again for abstinence-only.

Lauer failed to ask Bristol Palin tough questions about teen pregnancy and sex education programs in the U.S. So, I thought of some questions which I would have liked him to ask Bristol:

  • Why do you think teen pregnancy rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other Western developed countries?
  • Why do you think the rates have risen lately after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage?
  • Did you talk to your parents about having sex before marriage?
  • Did you have a sex education class in your school, before you began to date Levi Johnston?
  • Did you learn only the about the failure rates of contraception in your sex education class?
  • Do you wish you had learned about the effectiveness of condoms, the Pill and other forms of contraception in your sex education class?
  • In what grade you do think teens should first learn about contraception?
  • As a national spokesperson will you only talk about abstinence or will you talk about the importance of using contraception should teens decide to have sex?
  • What will happen if Congress fails to fund abstinence-only education in the next budget cycle?

Bristol needs to answer some tough questions to convince me that she has the courage to really make a difference in the struggle to reduce teen pregnancy. Perhaps as she travels around the country and listens to other teens, she will decide that young people need much better sex education and more honest information than many of them are presently receiving in schools.

In the meantime, 225 of Bristol’s fellow Alaskan high school student leaders aren’t waiting for her efforts. They are calling for more sex education. “During its recent spring conference in Sitka, the Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution requesting “a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course for all high school students statewide.”

Maybe her fellow students will embolden Bristol Palin to change her message and be ready to answer more hard-hitting questions—that is, if Matt Lauer decides to ask her some.

Remember Carl and Jaheem

May 6, 2009

After writing “Remember Larry” in December 2008, I fervently hoped that I would not have to return to this subject: the suicide of a young person caused by homophobic bullying at school.

My post suggested that parents and teachers read “Young, Gay and Murdered,” the Newsweek cover story about the tragic killing of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate in a junior high school in Oxnard, CA, with a teacher and other students looking on.

Surely, this story would not have a sequel, I thought.

But another tale so close to the first one that it could be its relative surfaced recently. This story has many of the same features as the Newsweek cover story, particularly the core point: children die because of the homophobic behavior of other children with whom they attend school.

In this second story, two African-American children—both 11 years old and living in different areas of the country—committed suicide because they had been bullied, taunted and called homophobic names by their classmates. Let me give you the details: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who lived in Massachusetts, wrapped an extension cord around his neck and hanged himself because of the “relentless taunts of his classmates,” and Jaheem Herrera, who lived in Georgia, hanged himself with an extension cord and died because of the “relentless homophobic taunting of his classmates.”

You can learn more about Carl and hear about the increase in school homophobia from this ABC World News segment:

You might also want to get a copy of the report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, which was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. The report’s bottom line is that “students are more likely to be subject to homophobic bullying than any bullying for most other reasons.”

But it wasn’t until this past Saturday when I was watching a rerun of a Barbra Streisand concert on CBS that I felt the full weight of the horror of the deaths of the two little children. Streisand sang two songs whose messages spoke directly to where and from whom our many young children may be learning how to bully, how to taunt and how to be homophobic: in their own homes and from their own parents.

The first song Streisand sang was the tender “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Although the focus of the song is on racism, the message is about teaching about hate in all forms to children:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Then Streisand sang the haunting “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. This is the song’s refrain:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen.

As a memorial to Larry, Carl and Jaheem, I would like to suggest that elementary and middle schools invite the parents of students to view and discuss It’s Elementary. This is a 37-minute highly honored educational film designed for PTA meetings on how to address lesbian and gay issues with children in positive, age-appropriate ways.

The film, directed by Academy Award winner Debra Chasnoff, goes inside first- through eighth-grade classrooms to hear what young students have to say about a topic that either leaves their parents mute or permits them to pass on ugly messages and language for which they have never been corrected.

To order, click here.

Perhaps at the end of the film and discussion, parents might sing or read the lyrics to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” and “Children Will Listen.”