Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey




login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

Archive for February, 2010

Oprah Winfrey’s Words of Wisdom about Sex

February 17, 2010

I’m grateful to Oprah Winfrey lately and here’s why: She saved me from writing another column about John Edwards by interviewing Bristol Palin about her recent vow of chastity until marriage.

I first wrote about Edwards in August 2008. Back then, he admitted to his affair with Rielle Hunter while his wife recovered from breast cancer. As is old news now, Edwards’ fathered Hunter’s baby, although at the time he denied paternity. (He also gave an improbable excuse for his behavior: that his wife’s cancer was in remission!) I used his affair as an example of how educators can use current events to discuss sex, love, relationships, contraception (or lack thereof), values, and morals as impromptu lessons, if they have the courage to depart from the prescribed curriculum.

Edwards recently finally came clean and admitted that Hunter’s child, Quinn, was his daughter. I figured that, once again, I had to write something more about his shoddy behavior, perhaps this time encouraging parents to use his sudden reversal as a way to talk about sex, and pregnancy and its lifelong consequences with their preteen and teen children. But I didn’t really want to give Edwards more attention.

Then, mercifully, along came Oprah and her interview with Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah Palin, now a brand-new Fox News commentator. On the Oprah show, teen mom Palin—now 19 and the mother of year-old Tripp—again promised in front of millions of viewers to abstain from sex until marriage. Winfrey asked Bristol, “I am just wondering if that’s a realistic goal.”

Oprah told Bristol that she was “going to give you a chance to retract or ease that statement if you want to and not say categorically, ‘I’ll never have sex until I’m married.’ But if you want to hold to that, may the powers be with you. So, you’re going to hold to that?”

Bristol did not waver.

Oprah is on to something: Abstinence before marriage is no longer a viable option for almost everyone, if it ever has been. In the 2007 study “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” which appeared in Public Health Reports, Dr. Lawrence B. Finer, author and research director of the Guttmacher Institute, concluded that “premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans and has been for decades.”

In fact, my generation may have been the last to follow the stricture “don’t have sex until after the ceremony” along with the words “you are now man and wife.” In my era, the early 1950s, young women were supposed to be virgins on their wedding day—although there was no such prohibition for young men. Most of my friends and classmates got married immediately after graduation, and a friend once confided, “We’re getting married so we can finally have sex.” I often wondered how fulfilling many of these relationships turned out to be, as they focused so relentlessly on this one aspect of marital life.

Oprah—wise woman that she is—really pressed her point when she said to Bristol, “Why set yourself up that way? It may be ten years before you get married. Why set yourself up so that everybody you go out with, you date—the media is going to be looking at that person, trying to get that person to sell you out, to say, ‘Did you have sex or not?’ It is nobody’s business when you chose to have sex.”

Dr. Finer also showed wisdom when he wrote that because of his findings, our society should stop focusing relentlessly on preventing premarital sex and promoting chastity. Instead, we should ensure that young people like Bristol get all the information they need to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease when —not if—they have premarital sex.

I would also add that we need to discuss sexual intercourse as just one aspect of many that make up an intimate relationship, and perhaps not the overriding one. True, sexual compatibility is an important ingredient in relationship and durable marriage, but it is often learned over the course of many months and years. This is a fact that young people need to know before they rush headlong into a sexual relationship-set up as the be-all and end-all of teen relationships—after knowing someone for a scant three months.

Sex is a primal force in human relationships, but other attributes are important, too. A recent eHarmony ad talked about the importance of intelligence and values in relationships. That’s more like it, I thought. We should concentrate on these attributes and not exclusively about sexual intercourse. It was, after all, the lack of both intelligence and values that brought John Edwards’ political career to an end and untold pain to his wife, mistress, and four children.

But to get away from the singular act of sexual intercourse and focus on relationships would take a sea change of huge proportions in our society—since we all know how fixated our culture is on sex. (And I write this just as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue hits the stands.)

As for politicians, I would like to see them relax, take a deep breath, and drop their concern about wiping out premarital sex among older teens. Rather, I would like to see them shift their thinking—and funding—from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs to comprehensive sex education, which gives young people complete information about the elements of healthy relationships plus knowledge about unhealthy relationships, sexual abuse and violence, and the latest information about pregnancy and disease prevention.

Bristol Palin was in a tight spot when Oprah interviewed her. Her mother sat right next to her, which must have been intimidating. Sarah Palin is the darling of the dwindling abstinence-only movement, and her daughter certainly couldn’t have spoken against the effort with her mom sitting cheek by jowl.

But I hope in the years to come, she will remember and take Ms. Winfrey’s wise words to heart. I wish her luck in forming her own conclusions—free from political ideology—about when and why to have sex in the future.

Perhaps we should name Oprah “Sex Educator in Chief of the U.S.,” and have her talk more about this tough topic. Perhaps she should invite Edwards on her show and try to knock some common sense into his head. But on second thought, maybe she shouldn’t, because then I would have to write another column about yet another male politician behaving badly—and I really don’t want to do that.

Taking Issue with “Sex Ed in Washington”

February 4, 2010

My phone rang more than usual yesterday, and my e-mails were filled with rallying cries. The reason? “Sex Ed in Washington,” a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Friends who know my history in sex education urged me to “write a letter to The New York Times,” “write an op-ed,” and “please just do something to answer him back.” In fact, one friend simply wrote, “GO GAL, GO!” (The last time I heard those words was over 12 years ago when I was at the 19-mile mark of the New York City Marathon.)

Not wanting to lose friendships, I’m taking up the challenge of refuting Douthat’s subtle attack on sex education. He pretty much damns most sex education programs currently practiced in the U.S., calls for the end to federal funding streams that support them, and suggests shifting responsibility for deciding their content to localities and states.

First, Douthat claims that while federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have not shown any positive results in reducing teen pregnancies, neither have what he calls “contraceptive-oriented programs.” Comprehensive sex ed programs teach both abstinence and contraception.

This is his “a pox on both your houses” argument. But I think it is clear that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs should bear the brunt of what is wrong with many current sexuality education programs in America.

The federal government has funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for almost 20 years and only awarded money to programs that adhered to a strict set of eight guidelines, one of which is to teach only the negative features about contraception.

Some 14 states—including California, New York, and New Jersey—refused to take any abstinence-only money for their public schools, because state education officials believed that these programs lack integrity and are not in young people’s best interests.

The U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any Western industrialized nation. True, the rate has plummeted in the last decade—although rising again in the last two years—but researchers attribute the success more to comprehensive rather than abstinence-only programs and teens using contraceptives more consistently.

A half-billion dollars of taxpayer money has been spent on abstinence-only programs, and proponents have come up empty-handed when asked for research proving their programs’ effectiveness. Although comprehensive sex ed programs have never received federal funds and have had to rely on private research funding, prominent researcher Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., found that some programs that teach both abstinence and contraception are effective in reducing teen pregnancies, the number of sexual partners, and the onset of teen sex.

Douthat claims that what’s taught in the classroom takes second place to family values, culture, economics, parental examples, friends, after-school activities, and “the cross-cutting of wealth, health, and self-esteem.” He claims popular TV programs like MTV’s Teen Mom have a more profound effect on young people than what they learn in school.

This is a “throw up your hands and do nothing to improve school programs” argument. Of course young people’s sexual behavior is affected by out-of-school factors that school programs cannot totally overcome. Our kids grow up in the most sexualized society on the planet, and many adults are schizophrenic about sex. On the one hand, we use sex to sell every product in sight, and on the other hand, we refuse to give young people high-quality sex-ed programs that will help them make smart, responsible decisions. (This is not quite the case in New Jersey as in other states.)

Further, if students’ math scores are low, we don’t throw up our hands and toss the subject out of the curriculum. Instead, we convene experts to study the issue and implement their recommendations. We do our best to strengthen programs, because we understand that they’re vital to help young people succeed. Why can’t we do this for sex ed?

Douthat goes on to argue that Washington should no longer fund sex-ed programs, but if the federal government continues to do so, “the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached.”

This is a “change the rules that we used to like” argument. Taxpayers have already spent over half a billion dollars to support failed abstinence-only-until marriage programs and not one single penny on what Douthat calls “contraceptive-oriented education” programs. Now is the time for us to look at the efficacy of a different type of program—one with proven success in reducing teen pregnancy.

President Obama’s budget and the House of Representatives’ version of the health care reform bill include funds for comprehensive sex education programs for the very first time in the nation’s history—and none for abstinence-only programs. Change is in the air, and abstinence-only folks are needy and greedy for more federal dollars.

Proponents of abstinence-only programs may be feeling bereft. I don’t blame them. Perhaps they will now experience the same feelings of exclusion that proponents of comprehensive programs have felt for years. But at the height of the abstinence-only movement, no columnist—or anyone else, if I remember correctly —suggested that Washington stop funding sex education programs, or that programs be competitive with “no ideological strings” attached.

As to Douthat’s suggestion that localities and states should make decisions about the content of sex-education programs, I don’t think this is the moment to turn all programs back to the states. Historically, local and statewide controversies have often kept young people from accessing life-saving health education.

Douthat claims that there are “competing visions of sexuality” in the U.S.: “permissive and traditional,” and that they will “probably be in conflict for generations to come.” In other words, it’s his “no common ground” argument.

Many in the media like to paint abstinence-only and comprehensive sex-ed supporters in black and white. They fan the flames of controversy by using words that Douthat uses, like “permissive” to describe those who support comprehensive sex ed programs, and “traditional” to describe those who favor abstinence-only. Guess who loses when words like “permissive” are used?

There is a sliver of common ground to stand on in this culture war. Any sex education program worth its salt should cover abstinence and provide correct information about contraception. Programs should be balanced. Abstinence, last I looked, is a very good form of protection from unplanned pregnancy and disease. It is not if you teach about it, but how you teach about it that counts. Scare tactics don’t work, but intelligent strategies do.

Unlike Douthat, I do not believe the sex-ed battles will continue forever. I am frankly tired of them and ready to extend an olive branch to abstinence-only supporters in the spirit of conciliation that President Obama urges us to foster. Perhaps together we can develop new programs that use sound research and will put the health and well being of our children and adolescents first. For starters, we should ask kids themselves what they want to learn about and when, since they often report that their sex ed programs are “too little, too late.”

No, Douthat’s column has not changed my mind about the importance of sex ed and what’s needed in the future. Thanks to my friends for urging me to write a rebuttal.