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The Answer Blog

Archive for July, 2011

Abstinence Only Until Marriage? Basta Cosi…

July 28, 2011

Back in 2008 when Bristol Palin “lost her abstinence,” her mom Sarah was a staunch supporter of abstinence-only-until-marriage “education.” So when unmarried Bristol turned up pregnant, her mother did a very effective job of denying the reality that not only do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs not work, but they also are, as Bristol herself said, “unrealistic.” Now, Palin’s son Track has a wife of two months, who is visibly pregnant, which means that she became pregnant before the wedding. (Clutch the pearls!) Yet Grandma Palin remains strongly opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. And she is not alone in her denial, her resistance or her hypocrisy.

Palin's views on sexuality education

I don’t know what is more troublesome: the idea that social conservatives continue to push for the propagation and funding of these programs that have absolutely no research demonstrating any long-term effectiveness; the fact that the federal government continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs (over $1 billion to date); or the “holier-than-thou” attitude that empowers conservative politicians to publicly and unapologetically tell the country how we should live our lives (until they or a member of their family contradict the party line and suddenly, conveniently, the entire issue becomes “a matter of privacy”). It makes me think of a young child being told by her parent, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That doesn’t fly with young people about anything, especially something as significant to them as sex and sexuality. And by withholding life-enhancing, sometimes lifesaving, information from young people, we are setting them up for unhealthy interactions with unpredictable outcomes.

What if we were to acknowledge the reality that some people choose to wait to have sex until they are married, and some do not? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, because in acknowledging that, we would need to acknowledge some concepts that alternately terrify or are irrelevant to social conservatives. For example, we’d need to acknowledge that not everyone who is in a sexual relationship is heterosexual and therefore “until marriage” is an exclusionary time frame. We would need to acknowledge that young people can and do make decisions for themselves, including decisions about sexuality. We would need to acknowledge that, as parents, one of our most important jobs is to talk with our children about sexuality from the very youngest ages and keep talking about it with them through their lives—and that means talking about much more than telling our kids to “just say no.” And we would need to acknowledge that, since far too many parents feel uncomfortable with or unprepared to discuss sexuality, they need the support of educational professionals to teach comprehensive sexuality education at school. That means teaching not only about abstinence, but also about contraception, safer sex and much more.

Enough excuses. Enough faux moralism. As my late grandmother would say, “Basta cosi.” Enough is enough.

Summer’s Eve “Hail to the V” Ad Campaign: It Stinks

July 22, 2011

Last Sunday, I took my almost-9-year-old to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. As the pre-movie advertisements and coming attractions began, we saw one clip that really caught my eye, and that I assumed was a preview for another movie.

The voice-over began with a woman’s deep, British-accented voice:

“It’s the cradle of life,” she told us, as we watched a woman from prehistoric times lift her newborn up to the night sky. “It’s the center of civilization,” the voice continued, as an ancient Egyptian queen looked out over and greeted her people, who cheered passionately for her. “Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it,” the voice said, as two Samurai swordsmen fought and a woman walked by sultrily. We then saw a jousting tournament from Arthurian legend. “Battled for it,” the voice asserted. “And died for it,” she explained. “One might say,” the voice posited, “it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”

You’ll see that the “it” she is referring to is… the vagina. And in that moment, an entire theater full of children were given a handful of ridiculously sexist (women only have power because they have a vagina), inaccurate (the only reason a girl or woman would care about her vagina is because men want to fight over it) and age-inappropriate information. Judging from the reactions of the adults in the room, most of whom were laughing and responding to the children’s chorus of “What did that mean?” with “You wouldn’t understand” or “Nothing,” this was far from a teachable moment we sexuality educators usually hope for.

Now, I do have a sense of humor, and were there not a lot of children in the room, I’d probably have found it pretty clever, too. So I decided to give Summer’s Eve the benefit of the doubt and went to their Web site, where they purport to be all about the vagina. Voila, the root of the problem: This company tries to make it look like they care about women and female empowerment, when in reality, they are still simply a company that only cares about selling its products. Their “Vaglossary” includes terms that have nothing to do with vaginal care or health, as well as incorrect information. The site is heterosexist, as seen in the ad and most of the other Vaglossary definitions (such as a “spotter” who is “a guy who knows how to stimulate the G-Spot.”) The site is racist, as demonstrated by the abhorrent videos demonstrating how an African-American vagina would speak, as opposed to a Caucasian or Latina vagina. And for all their attempts at progressive attitudes and language, they don’t seem to want to use the word “orgasm,” it appears simply as ******. These are only a few examples of the problematic content on the site.

But above all, if Summer’s Eve is all about the power of the vagina, why do they continue to market products to girls and women that are unnecessary? How can they perpetuate the lie that having a vagina makes women powerful, while simultaneously giving the message that their powerful vaginas are dirty?

At Answer, we have to spend an enormous amount of time reassuring young people that they are normal-and that their bodies are healthy and beautiful just the way they are. We spend a lot of time correcting misinformation about sexuality, like the myth that douching after unprotected vaginal intercourse will help prevent pregnancy and/or disease, which is just not true. Unless prescribed by a health professional, douching is not needed. The vagina has its own cleaning system built in, and douching can actually upset the natural balance in the vagina, increasing a girl’s or woman’s risk for developing an infection.

With this ad campaign, Summer’s Eve has spent millions of dollars supporting a culture of misinformation and poor body image for countless girls and women. And if you ask me, that really stinks.

How Do We Solve a Problem Like the P-Word? Should School-Based Sex Education Address Pleasure?

July 20, 2011

No, not that p-word. These days, that one is-forgive me-no big thing. The p-word to which I am referring is “pleasure.” And, its role in school-based sexuality education is among the hottest topics being debated among sexuality educators today.

For some who read this, the idea of including pleasure within sexuality education is a no-brainer. For others, it is the forbidden subject-the Voldemort of sex ed that should not be named under any circumstance. But is the inclusion of pleasure necessarily an “all or nothing” issue?

Those who advocate proactively teaching about pleasure will ask, “How can one teach about sexuality and not acknowledge the pleasurable aspects?” After all, sexuality education is about providing medically-accurate information, and the medically-accurate fact is that sexual behaviors can (and should) produce pleasure. But we also know that far too many people’s introduction to sexual behaviors is negative. If one’s baseline experience is coercive, assaultive or negative in other ways, the expectations for future sexual relationships will reflect that baseline. Including pleasure in teaching sex ed can provide a more positive baseline and help to correct misinformation learned through negative life experience.

Unfortunately, sexuality education has always focused on the prevention of, rather than the promotion of, something-STD and HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention and so on. This, along with the decades of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, has hammered into young people’s heads that “shared sexual behaviors only result in bad things, and therefore sex is bad.” It is confusing for a young person to receive a barrage of negative messages about sex accompanied by the reassurance that, miraculously, when one is in an adult, long-term, committed relationship sex will morph into something positive.

The age-old concern has been that if young people know that sexual behaviors are pleasurable, they will want to engage in those behaviors. But guess what? Most young people already know that sex is pleasurable, whether shared sexual behaviors or masturbation. Failure to acknowledge that sexual behaviors can produce pleasure can significantly reduce our validity with young people, which in turn can reduce the effectiveness of our work with them. In addition, research has shown that the more young people know about sex and sexuality, the more likely they are to wait to be in a sexual relationship until they feel ready, and to practice safer sex with their partner. Further, health behavior theories reinforce that people engage in particular behaviors for a reason. Without addressing the benefits a person gets from engaging in particular behaviors, sexual or otherwise-including unhealthy behaviors-it will be impossible to support healthy practices relating to those behaviors.

Having read that, it would appear that I am pushing for including pleasure in the school curriculum-but I actually am not; or, at least, not necessarily. What I am advocating for is that we think about the rationale behind what we propose teaching at particular age levels. I am also advocating for us all to acknowledge the reality in which schools operate today and realize that this often does not match the ideal for which we strive. And while it is only by pushing the proverbial envelope that we can make social progress and change, if we press that ideal without acknowledging reality, we are only setting ourselves-and the young people we serve-up to fail.

The latest School Health Policies and Programs Study is a good example of this. This data showed that, on average, the amount of time devoted to sex ed in high school is 8.1 hours per year. How likely is it, therefore, that the concept of pleasure, beyond acknowledging that people do sexual things because they feel good, will be a part of any school curriculum?

Ideally, schools should both offer sex ed classes and integrate healthy sexuality messages throughout the entire school curriculum. Ideally, sexuality education should be about physical, emotional and psychological health promotion, rather than about the prevention of pregnancy and disease alone. But if all the time we have to teach young people is 8.1 hours, is pleasure among the most important topics to include? In a culture that is conflicted about adult sexuality and that would prefer to ignore (or that blatantly fears) young people’s sexuality, is it realistic to think that most parents would get behind a curriculum that taught about sexual pleasure? I imagine that some would say yes, some no and some remain in between. Thus, the debate continues.

For those of us who call ourselves “sexuality educators” and who address sexuality-related issues every day, we understand how vitally important it is for this topic to be addressed with young people at the earliest ages and throughout the lifespan. But we also have to remember that the vast majority of professionals teaching sex ed in schools do not self-identify as “sexuality educators.” They are health teachers, school nurses, school social workers, counselors and others who have been charged with teaching about sexuality. Their school and community climates vary across a wide spectrum of politics and levels of support. Their personal comfort varies across a wide spectrum as well. In some school districts, where teaching about reproduction is considered controversial, proposing that sex ed include pleasure could make the difference between whether the program continues or is cut.

We must pick our battles wisely. And any efforts to support curricular change and improvement in school-based sex ed must acknowledge the reality of that school community, and recognize whatever efforts they have made as potential building blocks for future progress.