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The Answer Blog

Archive for June, 2009

Wedding Bells

June 19, 2009

When I examined sex education curricula back in the 1980s, the topic of marriage—heterosexual marriage—got a lot of attention. As the grand finale to courses, some schools held mock wedding ceremonies complete with bride and groom, vows and a multi-tiered wedding cake.

The marriage theme recently resonated with me again when I read the New York Times “Modern Love” column “First Comes Marriage,” by Farahad Zama. Farahad, a South Asian now living in London, recounts in a most delightful way how his marriage was arranged over the course of a few days to a young woman he had never met.

He writes that during a visit to his family in Vizag, a coastal city in South India, his mother asked him, “What kind of a girl do you want to marry?” A well-brought up son, he responded:  “Whoever you choose.”  His mother explained that he should marry a local girl from Vizag.

“Your job [in the software industry] will grow and take you around the globe. You will come to India for two weeks each year, and it is only natural that while you want to spend time with us, your wife will want to visit her own parents. I don’t want your limited holidays split between two towns and wasted in traveling from place to place,” she said.

Farahad, seeing the logic in these words, replied that his only requirement was that his wife be a college graduate who could speak English. His mother and his sister said that they knew just the girl—“the niece of their neighbor.” A half hour later, he meets Sameera and they have a brief conversation in the presence of her relatives. The next morning, he leaves for Bombay; two months later he returns and they marry.

Farahad and Sameera have been married for a little more than 10 years and have two sons.

In thinking about the differences between his arranged marriage and marriage customs in the U.S., Farahad muses: “Most American couples know a lot about each other before they tie the knot. They’ve been on dates, fallen in love, fought, made up, had sex and most probably even lived together before going down the aisle.”

Then he adds: “Our story is different. That 45-minutes meeting was our only contact before we were husband and wife. We went to the movies and the beach, fought over important and trivial things, made up and fell in love —all  after our wedding.”

The students in our classrooms are more multicultural than ever before, with young people from India, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. They represent all the great religions of he world, most of which have varied marriage and wedding customs. We have many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in our classes, many of whom grow up with different ideas about the institution of marriage. We also have gay and lesbian kids in the mix, who are fighting for the basic right to marry.

President Obama in his speech in Cairo asked us to learn more about our Muslim neighbors, so we can all grow more tolerant of differences in ourselves and others. Perhaps the topic of love and marriage offers a pathway for sexuality educators to follow his suggestion.  I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps this is a good time to put marriage back into the curriculum, but in a much more holistic way, to bring out its many traditions, differences, and relative strengths and weaknesses. In the course of these discussions, different religions’ views of sexuality and gender would emerge to enrich understanding and respect for difference. Farahad’s story might be a good place to start.

As for a multi-tiered wedding cake finale: I think I’d skip it. The discussion on global marriage customs should be sufficiently rich and satisfying.

In Memory of Dr. Tiller

June 3, 2009

“A doctor who performs abortions shot in a church. Isn’t that terrible?”

“They got the baby killer. Isn’t that great?”

Sexuality educators may have heard these types of statements from students in their classrooms this past week after the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller, who was one of a handful of doctors who perform late-term abortions in the country, was gunned down in the Reformed Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, and his story has circled the globe.

How to respond to students? I don’t envy you: Abortion is one of the toughest issues to discuss rationally and reasonably. But after what happened on Sunday, it seems to me that it desperately needs to be discussed with young people—right now.

Yet many schools simply forbid its discussion. If a student asks about abortion, many teachers are instructed by the administration to say, “I can’t discuss that. Go home and ask your parents.” My reaction to that dictum is that if kids felt like they could ask their parents about sexual and other controversial issues, they wouldn’t need to ask their teachers.

Many schools shy away from including abortion in their health and sexuality education curriculum, because administrators are afraid of igniting adult controversy. If a student goes home and reports having had a discussion about abortion, administrators—and, to some extent, teachers—shake in their shoes waiting for a parent to pick up the phone and demand to know what was said about abortion, whether the teacher gave his or her personal opinions, and whether he or she favored the pro-life or pro-choice side.

Between the rock of silence and the hard place of controversy, our students’ need for intellectual and emotional catharsis about this issue gets lost. Because of adults’ fears, many young people cannot speak about the topic or work together to find common ground on reducing the need for abortion, which our president has challenged us to do.

We once held a roundtable on abortion with our Sex, Etc. teen editors here at Answer. I was fascinated because the teens—who were pretty evenly divided between the pro-choice and pro-life sides—came up with exactly the same arguments for their respective points of view that I had heard from adults. The discussion confirmed for me that it makes good sense to high school students the opportunity to tackle even the most controversial subjects about sexuality and morality in classrooms. Their wisdom is often equal or superior to the adults around them.

I hope that in the next couple of days and weeks you’ll take one of those questions you’ve heard about Dr. Tiller, suspend the lessons you have planned for the day, and let the discussion rip. (As a way of preparing, you can Google the following topics: late-term abortions, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which are all mentioned in this New York Times story.)

As discussion closers, you might ask your students to take up President Obama’s challenge and brainstorm ideas for increasing common ground to reduce the need for abortions. The United States has the highest rate of abortion in the Western industrialized world. Countries such as Sweden, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands have much lower rates. Students might want to research reasons for the discrepancies between these countries’ rates and ours.

The work you do this week in your classroom might in the future prevent a zealot with a handgun from walking into the sanctuary of a church and murdering a doctor in cold blood.