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Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

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“Education,” “innovation,” and “infrastructure” were among the most often repeated words from President Obama’s measured, thoughtful, and at times powerful State of the Union address. Many commentators praised the president for using them to set a new path of investment for our country.

I agree with the importance of each of them, and I want to apply them to sex and health education. A recent letter writer in the New York Times worried that the president’s recommendations about upgrading education was limited to math, science, and technology. She then made a pitch for “history, political science, literature, and…foreign languages.” Her point was that in order to “build a robust, humane, aware-of-the world society, we surely need a more broadly educated population.”

I would add health and sex education to the mix; they need to be upgraded and even conceptualized differently as we redesign our education system to help students be more competitive in the world. Along with more respect for their crucial importance, we need to revamp these subjects through “innovation,” because as we all know, the Internet has changed the way young people communicate and learn.

To start, we need funding to survey graduating high school students to learn what they liked and didn’t like about their schools’ sex and health education programs. This idea came from reading Sam Dillon’s Times piece “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” which discussed a $45-million dollar research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to find ways of using students to identify good and bad teachers.

I’m intrigued by the idea of developing a different, and much less expensive, research project to help us design future health and sex education curricula. Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who developed the questionnaires for the Gates’ project, said that “few of the national 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences.”

“As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts,” he said.

I wish a foundation would fund the design of a national questionnaire surveying students on what they like or didn’t like about their sex and health education programs, and how they would redesign their courses to help them make smart decisions about sex. Dr. Ferguson should design that questionnaire, perhaps with the help of a cross-section of students around the nation.

More respectful attitudes can be to health and sex education what new roads and new forms of transportation can be to our national economy: “infrastructure.” We need to be more understanding of the powerful, often irresponsible, or even hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality promoted by the media. Take MTV’s new controversial series Skins, about the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.

Alessandra Stanley, writing on the Times‘ ArtsBeat blog, voiced her concerns when she wrote: “Skins is a remake of a British drama about misbehaving teenagers that stars real teenagers — the youngest is 15. Monday’s episode [the second], which included a shot of a boy standing naked with a cloth over his pill-enhanced erection, generated a lot of complaints in advance and drove several sponsors to pull their ads from the series.”

MTV executives — concerned that the racy show may violate federal child pornography statutes — ordered its producers to tone down the segment, but in the end, the “offending material” stayed in the show. What is particularly disquieting to me about Skins is that its first episode “drew 1.2 million people younger than 18,” despite the fact that it was seen after 10 pm, Eastern.

Many viewers feel that Skins crosses the line between acceptable depictions of teen sexuality and pornography. I wonder if it gives impressionable teens — many of whom believe “everyone is doing it” — the entirely wrong idea about acceptable sexual behavior. I think most people believe that sex is a mature behavior and that it is better for younger teens to wait until they are sure that their sexual relationship is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutual pleasurable and protected. What Skins seems to emphasize is that teen sex should be casual, furtive, drug and alcohol induced and unprotected.

Much as I believe in giving teens honest, accurate information about sex, I worry that a lot of MTV’s content isn’t helpful to young people. I might feel differently if some of that racy content would actually be discussed by parents or teachers in age-appropriate sex ed classrooms. We need better sex education programs that incorporate what teens see on TV.

Yet, we don’t have that type of sex ed across the country. So, at the moment, I wish MTV would tone down its sexual content and put young people’s well-being ahead of profits.

The president’s speech included other phrases that can be applied to the idea of investing more heavily in our kids’ futures: “Winning the Future” and “This is Our Sputnik Moment” are two of the media’s favorites. I know they seem like sound bites, but we’re a society that likes to compress important ideas into two-second media clips.

Now it’s time to apply these phrases to sex ed.

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