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The Answer Blog

Archive for July, 2009

Bringing the Dreaded “P-word” into Sexuality Education

July 21, 2009

“In case you didn’t see this,” read the subject line of an e-mail from my friend forwarding the story “The joy for sex—for teens!” from Salon’s “Broadsheet.”

The story was indeed eye-popping by any standard. It covered how the National Health Service in the United Kingdom had recently published a pamphlet for young people telling them, among other things, that orgasms feel good. Its title: “Pleasure.” The “finger-wagging moralists” were outraged, reported Broadsheet.

To give you some perspective on the brouhaha in the U.K. over the pamphlet, consider what would happen if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, or any of state health departments across the U.S. published such a pamphlet.

What’s that expression?: “All hell would break loose.”

In America, the P-word draws lightening whenever you join the topics teens and sex. Many people here—as I’m surprised to learn in the U.K., too—think that any mention of the word “pleasure” in a talk about sex with young people sends the wrong message, whether the talk is taking place between parents and their kids or between students and their teachers using a classroom curriculum. That message? That talking about pleasure encourages young people to have sex.

Americans tell pollsters that of course they talk to their children about sex and support sex education programs in public schools. But there’s always a caveat to that support: These discussions must emphasize the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The thinking goes something like this: If we shroud sexual behavior in fear and shame, then we shall discourage young people from engaging in it at too early an age.

If the conversation is about sexual pleasure, many people think we’re sending the opposite and inherently wrong message. The powerful abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, on which the U.S. spent more than half a billion dollars, is predicated on instilling fear and shame into young people by telling them only about the drawbacks to having sex as a teenager or outside of marriage.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has removed this funding from its 2010 budget, but that doesn’t mean leaders are going to suddenly endorse instruction about pleasure.

The U.K. pamphlet encourages “parents and educators to add a dose of honesty about carnal delights to traditional sex talks.” A spokesman for the conservative British organization Family and Youth Concern called the pamphlet and approach “nothing less than child abuse.”

My hunch is that if such a pamphlet were to ever see the light of day in the U.S.—and I think it would be a long time coming, if ever—a slew of groups and politicians would use the same words, doing their best to ensure that the pamphlet would never appear in any public school or library.

This whole controversy reminds me of a comment I once heard from a 15-year-old teen awaiting the birth of her first child due to unplanned pregnancy. “I sure hope,” she said, “that giving birth won’t hurt as much as having sex.”

Obviously, the first and perhaps only time this teen had had sex before getting pregnant was far from pleasurable. I thought to myself at the time that probably no one in her life had ever told her that sex was supposed to be a mutually pleasurable experience. I doubt that anyone had ever mentioned the word “orgasm” to her, or told her about attraction, stimulation, lubrication, foreplay, intimacy, and enjoyment.

Had she been able to read a pamphlet such as “Pleasure,” she might have realized that she could delay losing her virginity until she was more knowledgeable about sex and the pleasure it’s supposed to provide. She might have also learned that sexual behavior is a two-way street, and that she deserved to feel satisfaction when engaging in it. She might have learned that she and her partner could have used protection, it would not have detracted from that pleasure, too.

My hunch is that if we talked to many young women who starting having sex at 13 or 14 years of age, we would find them abysmally ignorant about sexual pleasure, orgasms, and all the good stuff about human sexual response. Of course, they see sexual behavior on TV, the Internet, and in movies all the time—yet I wonder how many young heterosexual women ever get a chance to talk to anyone about the fact that sex is supposed to feel good for them as well as the guy.

For far too long, we have focused on the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The outcomes of this approach are none too good. The U. S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world and, according to the latest statistics, one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease.

Enough of the dire warnings about sex: Let’s take a new approach in a new century. Let’s use the P-word with young people. I’ll take any bet from any reader that if we adopt a positive approach and communicate honestly about sex’s delights, then we can raise a generation of young people who are more careful and more caring about their sexuality.

If young people understand that there is something precious about the gift of human sexuality, they might treat it with more respect than they presently do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments in more progressive states like New Jersey, for starters, should publish pamphlets similar to “Pleasure.”

It would take a lot of courage to step up and speak honestly to young people about the pleasurable aspects of sex—but what a gift they would give them.

Author Robie Harris Talks Candidly to Children About Sex

July 8, 2009

If Robie H. Harris looks like a grandma, it’s because she is one. But unlike almost every other grandma in the United States, Harris is an award-winning author of picture books about sex, sexual health, and safety for young children, school age children, preteens, and adolescents.

The books—It’s Not the Stork!: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, for ages 4 and up; It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families, for ages 7 and up; and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health, for ages 10 and up—have sold millions of copies and been translated into numerous languages. It’s Perfectly Normal, at last count, has been translated into 27 languages. They feature the charming illustrations of Michael Emberley.

I happen to think that Harris’s delightful and informative books belong in every elementary and middle school library, public library, and home in America. I once somewhat jokingly suggested that all new parents should be given Harris’s books for free when they leave the hospital with their first baby and told to put them on a shelf and retrieve them when their kids reach certain ages.

I recently interviewed Harris about the new, updated, 15th anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal, which her publisher, Candlewick Press, will release in early September. The edition includes a new chapter on young people’s fascination with and use of the Internet.

Susan N. Wilson: What is the main purpose of your books about sex and sexuality for children and preteens?

Robie Harris: My overall purpose is to give information to help kids stay healthy from their early years through puberty and adolescence. Kids today are swamped by sexual words and images. The media sometimes gives accurate information, but sometimes it gives inaccurate and even dishonest information and that can lead to unhealthy behaviors and risks.

Our kids must have the most up-to-date and accurate information, so they can make healthy decisions, not risky ones. That’s why I consult with many experts in the field of sexuality when I’m updating my books. I have great respect for parents and teachers and hope that the books Michael and I have created can help them to talk with and educate children about sexual matters.

SW: You’ve updated It’s Perfectly Normal for the 21st century as the banner headline on the new edition proclaims. Since you wrote it 15 years ago, the Internet has come of age and kids find it very exciting.  How have you addressed this new technology and what it offers children in the way of information, good and scary, about sex and sexuality?

RH: Children accept the Internet’s presence 100%, but parents need to help their kids navigate and use it in a safe way and let their kids know the risks it can pose. I tell older kids that while the Internet is a great place to look up topics about sexual health and keep in touch with friends through e-mail, instant messaging, or social networking sites, there are still things they need know to ensure that their own personal health and relationships stay safe and healthy.

I tell kids of all ages that what makes good sense is to ask a grown-up you trust to help you to find sites where you can get responsible information. I also tell them that talking with a trusted adult is a great way to get the information they want. We all know that our children live in a world of sexualized images, and they need to be guided through it by trusted adults.

SW: What do you call the chapter on the Internet in the new edition?

RH: With older kids, ages 10 to 14, I acknowledge the Internet with a new chapter called “Helpful, Fun, Creepy, Dangerous.” The purpose of the chapter is to help kids get information while at the same time stay safe. Some of the information they can get on the Internet will be helpful, some will be fun, but some could be creepy, confusing, and make them feel very uncomfortable. I suggest ways for them to find responsible sites that have helpful and age-appropriate information, so they can make good decisions. I also suggest what to do if they end up on a site that makes them feel upset or creepy.

SW: How would you define the word “pornography” and do you use the word in your revised book?

RH: I think the best definition of pornography is, “You know it when you see it.” I think kids know it when they see it, too. They can’t quite explain it, but they know it, and it can make some feel creepy and upset and others feel excited. I define “puberty” and many other terms in the book, but while I talk about pornography, I do not define it, as I could not come up with a definition I felt would make sense for kids.

But having a conversation with kids, when needed, is something that can happen over time and over many days. There is nothing wrong with using the word if a parent needs to talk with their child about it. Parents and kids can even try to define the word together to help them understand the perfectly normal reactions they may have if they do see it.

SW: Do all children have the same reaction to what you call “creepy” sites?

No, I think that while some find these sites by pure accident, some intend to go to them and find them sexually exciting.

SW: What advice would you give to children or students who come across upsetting information online and are frightened by what they’ve seen or “grossed out” by creepy images?

RH: If they have seen upsetting information online or meet someone online they don’t know, like a stranger who tries to meet them in person, my immediate advice is to quit the site and immediately talk to a trusted, responsible older person about what they have just seen. I also hope that the responsible, older person will assure them that they haven’t done anything wrong in finding the site, and that they are just curious. And being curious about sexual matters is not bad; rather, it’s normal and healthy.

SW: There is a lot of talk about the prevalence of cyberbullying. Do you address this issue?

RH: Yes, I definitely let children know that saying something mean, bullying someone, or spreading gossip—even sexy gossip—when they are communicating with others online can make a person feel crummy and hurt that person’s feelings. This is something all our kids need to know not to do.

SW: In this age of Facebook and other social networking sites, do you give preteens and teens any advice to follow in the new chapter?

In order to protect kids from danger, I include a list of rules for the Internet for them to keep in mind whenever they go online. Parents and teachers can reinforce that these rules are ways to ensure kids’ privacy and safety. Here are a few of the rules:

  • Never use your real name;
  • Do not post any personal details, such as your telephone number,
    street address, or the name of your school;
  • Do not say you’re a kid; and
  • Never give your password.

SW: If a child’s parents are unable to discuss unpleasant and confusing sexual images, what should the child do?

I recommend that the child seek out another trusted adult, such as the school nurse or psychologist or the child health care professional, to discuss what s/he has seen. Similarly, if parents are not able to discuss these Internet events—and some aren’t—asking another trusted adult in the family, a neighbor, or their health professional for help can often help their child.

SW: I hear you’re working on a new picture book for very young children. Could you tell me more about it?

It’s a picture book for very young children ages two-and-a-half and up about naming all the outside parts of their bodies. It is normal, healthy, and developmentally appropriate for young children to want to know “the science names” for all of these parts, so they will learn early on that having these parts—whether you’re a girl and have a vagina or you’re a boy and have a penis—is as normal and healthy as having elbows, chins, and other body parts. When young children can name these parts, they feel proud of the body they have—a feeling that will help them all through their childhood and as they go through puberty and adolescence.

Sex Education for Older Adults: Not an Oxymoron

July 2, 2009

The gray blue and pale green cover certainly doesn’t attract attention, but the words on it are eye-openers: “Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only.” They’re not written in scarlet, but some may think they should be.

Sex ed for adults?  Don’t we think that it’s best left to high school seniors or parents who have to deliver “the big talk” around puberty? The brave among us may have taken a course in college, but often only because we thought we’d get an A to bolster our GPA. What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that the authors of the manual—Peggy Brick, Jan Lunquist, Allyson Sandak and Bill Taverner, all nationally respected sex educators—wanted to provide guidance about sexuality to people in mid and later life, between the ages of 50 to 100.  The Center for Family Life Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey published the 258-page manual. It’s aimed primarily at educators and counselors, but can easily used by lay folks.

Here’s a sample of the contents:

•    What’s So Funny? Laughing at Ourselves—What Jokes Tell Us about Sex Over 50;
•    Sages Through the Ages:  Advice from the Past, Questions for the Present;
•    Skin Hunger: Everyone Needs Touch;
•    A “Touchy” Subject:  Masturbation in Mid and Later Life; and
•    Safer Cyber Sex: Exploring Online Relationships

These lessons are neither pornographic nor clinical. Rather, they are thoughtful, creative, and respectful of adult sexuality. As Peggy Brick writes in the Introduction, “Sexuality education aims to help people evaluate all the messages they receive from the media, advertisers and pharmaceutical companies and then discover for themselves what really can enhance their sexual lives.”

What are the settings for curriculum? Other than using all 30 lessons over several months in a graduate course in human sexuality in a social work program, a medical school or a seminary setting, I think it would be best to teach a selection of them—possibly 12 to 15 at a time—in a variety of settings, including a retirement community for adults age 55 and older; YWCAs and YMCAs; senior resource centers; adult evening schools and community colleges; adult classes in religious institutions; prison settings and any other venues where older citizens gather.

Whatever your age, I promise you’ll learn more than a thing or two, which you can use immediately in your own relationships, store in your head until you reach the magic number (50) or get guests’ attention at the next dinner party you attend, when you say, “Do You Know about Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only?”

Indeed, the cool blue and spring green of the covers of this powerful curriculum about adult sexuality are deceptive. Open the manual and settle down for an illuminating and mind-tingling read.