Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey




login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

Archive for November, 2010

A Thanksgiving Grace for Sexuality Education

November 28, 2010

sexmatterslogo_opt

Dear Readers: I wrote the following blog post last year, but I hope that the words and feelings expressed in it will still be fresh and meaningful to you. I know that the thoughts expressed in it are as strong and accurate as they were when I wrote them down this time last year.

The Thanksgiving I remember most vividly and with the most fondness occurred in November 1980, almost 30 years ago this week. Five families, including mine, who lived along a stretch of road in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, decided to share the holiday meal together. Each family brought certain foods to the feast. I think we numbered around 25, and “we gathered together,” as the old hymn goes, in our family’s house, because everyone could sit at round tables in our living room when it was cleared of furniture.

I remember standing in my kitchen while my neighbors walked in the door with their steaming contributions (no microwaves back then), thinking of the first Pilgrims who brought their heaping platters of wild turkeys, ducks, geese, venison, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, other fruits and vegetables, and possibly a suckling pig, into a common house on that first celebration of the holiday. I felt a true bond with those first celebrants.

I cannot remember who came up with the idea, but we decided on the spot, as we sipped our cider and wine, to write “A Community Thanksgiving Grace.” We asked each adult, teen, and child to write something special for which they were particularly thankful. All the children were old enough to write, so everyone from the oldest grandmothers to the youngest boys and girls contributed words to the common grace. One adult and one teen sorted the slips of paper and compiled them into a prose poem. When we had gathered around the tables decorated with fall leaves and what flowers remained in our gardens, one of us rose and read the Grace.

Much as I would love to list all the contributions, I will only list a few to give a flavor of the thanks that were expressed that day: my 13-year-old daughter was thankful “for horses and pomegranates,” a young adult said she was thankful “for those who play soccer and football with those who can’t,” and the one most moving to me came from a young woman still in high school who said she was thankful “for this blue-green earth that had room for elephants, flies, whales, and humankind.” We chorused the last line together: “We are thankful.”

In keeping with the spirit and precedence of “A Community Thanksgiving Grace,” I am offering a list below of what and for whom I am thankful in the field of sexuality education this Thanksgiving 2009. The list is certainly not nearly as poetic as the original, and it contains only my ideas rather than those of a group. It is as follows:

For the children, teens, and adults who seek information about sex and sexuality;

For the parents who answer their young children’s questions without flinching. Questions such as “how are babies made?”—which are often posed without warning in strange locations, like the back seat of the car;

For parents who go beyond “the big talk,” and talk early and often with their teens about sex and their personal values about respect and caring;

For the excellent books by Robie Harris, especially “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies,” “Growing Up,” “Sex and Sexual Health,” which celebrates its 15th year in print this year and makes it much easier for parents to talk to their 10 to 14-year-olds about sex;

For other adults-teachers, school nurses, social workers, nonprofit personnel, counselors, therapists, librarians, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, ministers, priests, friends, and others—who provide the answers to people’s questions and concerns in a variety of venues;

For members of state school boards who pass policies requiring K-12 family life education and sex education programs;

For state legislators and members of Congress who support funding comprehensive sexuality education and not funding abstinence-only programs;

For the school districts that provide K-12 sex education programs that are comprehensive and do not shy away from controversial topics;

For the professors who teach or administer sexuality education programs that prepare the educators of the future;

For the exceptional websites for teens, including Sexetc.org, Scarleteen, Teen Voices, and Teenwire, who give young people reliable, honest, and accurate information and answers to their questions about sex;

For teens and adults who use contraception faithfully to avoid unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV;

For teens who understand and practice “Double Dutch,” the use of both the Pill and a condom whenever they have sex;

For the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender teens who seek information that helps them feel more comfortable with their sexual orientation and gender identity and who have the courage to come out to their families and to classmates;

For the many teens who are abstinent during high school and for those who choose not to have sex until they marry or are in a long-term partnership;

For the national, state, and local organizations that promote sex education and work to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;

For members of religious denominations and congregations that support sex education;

For those who work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and worldwide through programs that offer clean needle exchanges, condom distribution, and low-cost generic drugs, and support research to find a vaccine;

For those who are involved with organizations devoted to lessening the trauma of rape, incest, and sexual violence;

For those who see comprehensive sex education as the sensible common ground between those who oppose abortion and those who support the right to choose;

For all the leaders in the fight for sex education in America on whose shoulders I stand and for my colleagues in the field-past, present, and future;

For the opportunity to write about sexuality education on this website and for those who read this column; and

For the great gift of human sexuality, its never-ending story, and for the opportunity to help others, including myself, understand, appreciate, respect, and enjoy it,

I am truly thankful.

Some Truths about Teen Pregnancy

November 17, 2010

The-Gloucester-18-2009

We’re told that we have notoriously short memories. So I wonder, do you remember the infamous “Gloucester 18”? Here’s a hint: Gloucester is a small town in Massachusetts that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seaport.” Doesn’t ring a bell? Then how about the words “pregnancy pact”?

“Bingo,” I hear you say, “that’s the place where all those girls in one high school made a pact and got pregnant on purpose, right?”

No, you would be wrong—not because you aren’t up on your facts, but because until very recently no one took the time to try to get to the bottom of the story.

Kristen Grieco, a former Gloucester Daily Times reporter who first broke the story, has stepped up to clarify the charge against the girls and the town by producing a 67-minute documentary film, The Gloucester 18. Hers was a team effort with director and executive producer John Michael Williams, and associate producer/editor Joseph Provenzano. They created a moving, compelling film that reveals the real story about the supposed “pact” as well as more profound truths about teen pregnancy.

Grieco was the original person to break and investigate a suspicious spike in the teen pregnancy rate at the local high school in March 2008. She also had heard rumors that “a clique [of girls had formed] with the express purpose of getting pregnant.” Dr. Joseph Sullivan, the school’s principal, started the ball rolling and explained the spike in numbers by saying that some girls purposely got pregnant.

The first truth that the girls in the film reveal is that there was no pregnancy pact.

Teens and sex!!! Always an incendiary mix to delight and attract the media, which can play both the role of voyeur and disapproving adult. After Grieco’s story broke, the national press descended on the small, economically strapped fishing village to sensationalize what actually occurred. After all, 16, 17, or 18 girls in one high school getting pregnant on purpose—what could be juicier for the mainstream media?

A Time magazine reporter coined the phrase “pregnancy pact,” and it drew reporters from such faraway places as Brazil, England, and the Netherlands to every corner of Gloucester to report the lascivious details.

The media got the story mostly wrong. There was no pact, but 18 girls in the high school were pregnant, which was considerably above the average number for a given year.

To Grieco’s credit, she decided to “hear” as much as she could about the true story behind the spate of pregnancies. She interviewed almost half the girls who had become pregnant (of the 18, six chose to have abortions), some of their parents, and the high school health educators. She couldn’t exactly find what the reasons were for the troubling spike but she uncovered some truths about the problem of teen pregnancy in the United States.

The girls who attended Gloucester were white. Grieco expanded her research to Lowell and Springfield, MA, to tell the stories of pregnant minority teens to see if there were any similarities and differences within the populations.  The themes were very much the same. Poverty and teen pregnancy often go hand-in-hand, and these three towns have experienced hard times during the last decade.

The film introduces us to Kyla, Alissa, Brianne, Hallie, Tabitha, Sarah, Leslie—all of whom deliver their babies and try to adjust to their new situations as unmarried, single parents (only a few have steady live-in boyfriends). We also meet one intact family and several other single moms who are raising their teen girls alone. Not many men are in the picture, which is also an unpleasant truth about teen pregnancy.

Grieco shows us the commonalities that most, if not all, of these pregnant teens share:

The girls seem passive and unrealistic about the challenges of raising a child and staying in school. None have much self-esteem or any future goals; they seem to have drifted into having unprotected sex and rarely, if ever, used birth control. They feel that some adult, hopefully their parent or parents, will accept their babies and help raise them, and most have absolutely no sense of what it takes to raise a child in safety and dignity, or the financial and psychological costs of it.

We learn that a high proportion of the teen moms were born to women who were teen moms themselves, and that the cycle repeats itself. Most of the girls who have a first birth in the film are pregnant with a second within a very short span of time.

The most troubling commonality is that so few of the girls had a loving, protective, and helpful family. I doubted, too, that their parents had been given much advice about sexuality and pregnancy. Some had grown up in the foster care system desperately wanting a family of their own. Many were looking for love and thought a baby would provide it.

Leslie, a minority teen girl from Lowell, is the one whose words and face lingers. Her mom gave birth to her at 15 and her brother at 16. I might characterize her as a “throwaway child” for whom no adult had ever cared. She didn’t have a home and spent her time living in shelters and in the back of vans. She seemed to have a lot of unprotected sex, probably in order to secure a place to sleep at night.

Leslie also had spunk. She was more articulate than the rest of the girls in the film. She said that her pregnancy was unintentional, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” because she had been told that she had only one ovary. She rationalized her pregnancy as “perhaps the only opportunity to be a parent.” Her only source of income was money earned from braiding friends’ hair. Leslie, by film’s end, is pregnant with her second child, still with no visible signs of adult support.

Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the high school health clinic, and Kim, Daly, its former nurse practitioner, offered the best explanations for why so many of the girls in Gloucester became pregnant that spring. They knew that many of the high school girls were having sex, but they were not permitted to prescribe the birth control pill or distribute condoms in the health center. They crossed swords with the leaders of the local hospital that oversaw the clinic. Hospital officials publicly questioned the hospital’s liability if birth control prescriptions were written in the clinic. Despite Daly’s best efforts to inform officials that “being on the Pill is safer [for a teen female] than giving birth,” she was unable to change their minds.

Orr and Daly lost the battle and resigned. But the community uproar led the Gloucester School Committee to permit kids to get birth control prescriptions as long as their parents opted to enroll them in the program.
But this policy came too late for the “Gloucester 18.”

Greico is attempting to get funding for general distribution of her film, as in the case of the popular An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failing urban public schools. Presently, it is distributed primarily to education groups and community nonprofits through the Media Education Foundation.

I hope The Gloucester 18 will be distributed to a wider audience, since many more of us would really understand the roots of teen pregnancy. We would learn more about our responsibilities to the vulnerable teen girls who live in poverty and have little hope for the future. We’d also wise up to how the media sensationalizes teen sexuality to the detriment of those who are working to solve this serious societal problem.