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The Eternal Allure of Judy Blume, a Jersey Girl

May 12, 2010

Author and literary celebrity Judy Blume will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters at the Rutgers University commencement on May 16. Blume, a New Jersey native, spent her childhood in Elizabeth making up stories inside her head, she once said.

I’m too old to have read Blume’s books growing up, but I spent last week reading through the ones that form the basis for this prestigious honor. Like a lot of people who can’t stop eating popcorn, I found it very hard to stop reaching for the next book.

I only read five of the 25 books for young people that Blume has written over the past 40 years. Reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; Double Fudge; Blubber; and Forever doesn’t exactly made me an authority on her enormous appeal — but it gave me some good ideas about why Blume has millions of fans around the globe.

Blume published her first book in 1969; one year later her first novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was selected as one of the Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. From that moment on, Blume published books at a prodigious rate and raked in the honors, including the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.Numbers underscore the power of her reach: More than 75 million copies of her books have sold worldwide; her work has been translated into more than 31 different languages; and thousands of readers’ letters arrive in her in-box each month. Blume has also written novels for adults, all three of which — Wifey, Summer Sisters and Smart Women — rose to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list.

Despite all her achievements, Blume’s work has not been without controversy. She is willing to tackle tough subjects that young people find deeply interesting, including bullying, divorce, friendship, racism, religion, and sexuality. And she has drawn the ire of conservative groups, who feel she is a “moral relativist,” because she does not condemn young people’s sexual feelings and behaviors.

Naturally, I read three of her books that feature sexuality to determine if topics once considered controversial in the ’70s continue to be so today. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the Bible for adolescent girls awaiting the arrival of their first period. Menstruation is the topic of the day for Margaret and her small group of friends. Each wonders if she will be the last to experience this significant milestone on the path to womanhood. Margaret is so concerned that her friends will precede her that she calls on God to help her in the race. There is nothing in this delightful story that could possibly be considered controversial, and its health information is still accurate.

Blume picks up the pace in Deenie, where she brings up masturbation. Deenie, the protagonist, is an eighth grader who has to adjust to a recent diagnosis of scoliosis. One day, she drops an anonymous question in the box of her gym teacher who reads it out loud to a circle of girls during class. “Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep, and is it all right to do that?” Of course, Deenie is asking about herself.

Fortunately, Blume gives Deenie and her classmates a sensible and knowledgeable teacher who not only gives her female students the correct name for this activity, but responds, “First of all, it’s normal and harmless to masturbate. The myths some of you have heard aren’t true…. It’s very common for girls as well as boys, beginning with adolescence.”

Although talking openly about this topic may have been controversial in 1973, when the book was published, it certainly shouldn’t be now, when masturbation is more readily accepted for kids and adolescents. But the topic does often draw the lightening.

It is with Forever that Blume’s critics struck pay dirt. I suppose the words on the back jacket of the book can immediately raise hackles: “Awkward, sweet, passionate, innocent, secretive…Do you remember your first time?” That is just the beginning. The book tells the story of a high school senior’s first love and first sexual experience. Katherine’s relationship with Michael is told thoughtfully and sensitively, and their relationship grows over time until they decide they want to have sex with each other.

Forever may have been controversial in 1975, but it seems surprising that it was banned as recently as 2005 and made it onto the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. It seems strange to ban this little book, given the fact that kids as young as 13 and 14 are “hooking up” today without knowing each other for very long. (The average age of first intercourse in the U.S. is 16.2 years of age, and the media in our hyper-sexualized society constantly reports on the sexual misdeeds of prominent politicians and sports figures.)

Besides writing honestly about issues vital to kids, Blume’s great appeal is her intuitive understanding of young people. It’s clear that she really likes and respects them, and I’m certain that some of her readers feel that she knows them better than their own parents and teachers. Because she respects them and helps them figure out the world, they have honored her with their trust and loyalty.

Blume’s young characters are memorable, her parents are smart, capable, and loving, and her grandmothers take the cake. In years past, when I read the books to my youngest daughter, I never paid any attention to the grandmothers — but this time I read about them with great interest. Most not only adore and are adored by their grandchildren, but they are hip, funny, sharp, and often sexy. At least two of them, widows at the beginnings of the book, find new love by the books’ end. In Forever, Katherine’s grandmother — who after meeting Michael assumes her granddaughter is going to have sex-cautions her to be careful about pregnancy and disease. These grandmothers are my new role models.

Cheers, then, and lots of them, to Judy Blume for her enduring talents. She made up stories in her head and then wrote them down forever touching the lives of millions of children and young people. I know that someday my great, great, grandchildren will be enjoying her stories and that gives me a wonderful feeling of touching the future.

Saved by a Nose: A Recent Book Recounts a Flight from Genocide

April 21, 2010

“In the face of nightmares born of surface distinctions—of power exercising all of its destructive prerogatives—the seeds of mankind’s survival lie in unexpected acts of kinship and kindness.”

—Ron Suskind in his review of Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, The New York Times Book Review.

The remarkable book I am about to share with you is not for the faint of heart. It describes human violence on a scale that’s hard to believe, understand, and accept. But like so many things in life, it also tells about the saving graces some can bestow on others.

Strength in What Remains, by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, published last year, recounts the modern odyssey of 24-year-old medical student Deogratias (Latin for “thanks be to God”), known as Deo, who in 1994 escaped to New York City from the genocide in the central African countries of Burundi and Rwanda.

Deo, who was born a Tutsi, grew up in a large and loving family that raised milk cows and had to walk across three mountains every day to attend elementary school. An exceptionally bright student, he decided to become a doctor. He had completed three years of medical school, where he studied along with Hutus, and was doing an internship in a hospital when the brutal civil war erupted. It went on to claim at least one million lives of Tutsis and Hutus and came very close to claiming his.

On the surface, it is difficult to tell the physical differences between members of the Tutsis and Hutus tribes. As Ron Suskind writes in his favorable review of Strength in What Remains, “Through Deo’s eyes, we see how the all but indiscernible differences between Tutsi and Hutu make a harrowing mockery of the supposed distinction of ethnicity. Hutu and Tutsi begin to slaughter one another, farm to farm, house to house…”

For six months, Deo was on the run—traveling from Burundi to Rwanda and back again—hiding deep in forests, fording rivers red with blood, pushing through piles of corpses, and witnessing the massacre of other refugees. He struggled to survive, moving from one location to the next in the countryside, struggling to avoid the weapons of mass destruction, machetes and bows and arrows.

Along the way, Deo saw the aftermath of a dreadful act of sexual violence. After the massacre of an entire village, he crept up to one of its small mud huts and peered into a hole in the wall. There inside the hut, he saw the dead bodies of a family; the husband’s genitals had been cut off and stuffed into his wife’s mouth.

Yet Deo survived because of others small acts of kindness and courage. A Hutu woman pulled him from the brush in which he had hid and saved him from a beheading by telling a Hutu border guard that he was her son. The guard didn’t believe her and instead measured Deo’s nose to see if it was broad enough to make him a Hutu. With his narrow nose, Deo failed the test. The guard tied a black piece of cloth around Deo’s arm and pointed him toward a group of other Tutsi refugees marked for decapitation.

The woman led Deo away. Under the protective cover of her shawl, she untied the cloth and pushed him to a group of Hutu refugees going in a different direction. Deo was saved by the kindness of a stranger whose name he will never know.

This was not the last act of kindness that came his way. The wealthy father of a medical school friend bought Deo an airplane ticket to the United States and gave him $200 to start life anew. An African baggage handler at the New York City airport befriended him and found a place for him to sleep in a decrepit Harlem apartment frequented by drug addicts. Way led onto way, and Deo moved on to sleep in a leafy bower in Central Park, because it reminded him of Burundi’s forests.

The only job Deo could find was delivering groceries to wealthy apartment owners on the Upper East Side for $15 a day. Eventually, he met a nun, who introduced him to an older couple, who offered Deo a room in their SoHo apartment. They eventually paid his way through Columbia University’s School of Graduate Studies and supported him while he took classes at the Harvard School of Public Health. There he met Dr. Paul Farmer, who runs Partners in Health and helped Deo get accepted to Dartmouth Medical School, in New Hampshire.

After his incredible ordeal, Deo needed to reconcile both the extreme human cruelty he experienced and the acts of kindness he received. To help accept the inexplicable gulf, he decided to drop out of medical school and return home to Burundi to build a health clinic in Kayanze which he names Village Health Works. Since its opening in 2007, 28,000 men, women, and children, many of whom have traveled great distances for help, have been treated for a variety of illnesses.

Surface distinctions—like those measured by the length and breadth of a nose in central Africa—can lead to horrible human disasters or cause pain on a smaller scale. Just look at what’s happening right around us: kids bully other kids on the school bus; teens hurl insults like “faggot” and “dyke” at other teens.

Yet small acts of decency and kindness persist, even on a national scale. Just this week, President Obama signed an executive order requiring hospitals that receive public money through the Medicare and Medicaid programs to permit the same visitation privileges for same-sex partners that they offer straight couples.

Unlike this policy or Deo’s clinic, most of us cannot hope to perform acts of kindness on such a grand scale. But, perhaps, we can up our number of acts of random kindness on a smaller one.

Pity the Kids in Texas and Elsewhere, Too

March 24, 2010

I have a particular interest in the recent actions of the Texas State Board of Education because of my five years of service on New Jersey’s State Board of Education. Last week, the Texas board voted to revise the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum based on right wing, conservative ideology and not sound facts.

The board’s actions were antithetical to the educational welfare of students; they put their own ideological views about issues ahead of young people’s right to receive unbiased information in the classroom.

State education board members across the nation are entrusted with setting policies for public school students. It is a challenge and responsibility to get it right for the kids. I personally found it challenging to keep kids’ needs in the forefront when making decisions. Many adult groups constantly put pressure on board members to keep their needs at the forefront, ahead of the needs of students.

My service on the board introduced me to the topic of sexuality education, or family life education, as we referred to it then. In 1982, we passed a policy that required local districts to develop their own family life education programs, but did not provide a single curriculum for the entire state. Before passing the policy, we consulted with experts and studied polls showing that the majority of New Jersey residents favored it.

My colleagues and I believed that we were helping young people lead safer, healthier, and more responsible lives when we required family life education. The mandate has been deemed a success in the 30-plus years since its adoption.

But I am not so sure that what just happened in Texas will benefit students. The statewide K-12 social studies curriculum covers history, economics, and sociology. The 15 board members – all of whom were elected to their positions – did not consult any historians, economists, or sociologists about their changes. None of the members were professionals in these fields. Experienced teachers and professors in the disciplines submitted a series of recommended changes, but these were brushed aside by board ideologues.

The majority rejected their suggestions as products of “liberal teachers and academia,” and instead passed curricular changes based on their own strict brand of conservatism.

The majority passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum. The more egregious changes in the history portion included insertion of such dubiously important, Republican-loved topics as the Moral Majority, Contract for America, Phyllis Schlafly, The Heritage Foundation, “the conservative resurgence during the 1980s and 1990s,” and the removal of passages on the separation of church and state.

In place of the latter, it added St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone and eliminated Thomas Jefferson, our Declaration of Independence author and champion of the separation of church and state. It also inserted the statement that our country’s leaders were “guided by Christian principles,” to downplay the Founding Fathers’ credo on establishing a secular nation.

The changes to the historical portion of the Texas curriculum affected black and Hispanic youth. According to news reports, a Hispanic board member “stormed out” of the meeting when the all-white, all-Republican majority refused to add even one Hispanic role model to the changes.

Equally insulting to minority students was the majority’s decision to achieve curricular parity when it came to discussion of the civil rights movement. It insisted that the curriculum include not only the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the “violent philosophy” of the Black Panthers, a very small and extreme radical group.

When it came to economics, the majority insisted on removing the word “capitalism,” because the phrase “capitalist pig” has negative connotations. In its place, they inserted “free-enterprise system” – not because it was more correct, but because the majority didn’t want to show that our system has any weakness.

As I read about the changes in the history and economic sections, I wondered if there would be any references to sexuality education in the sociology section. Sure enough, I found one. Board member Barbara Cargill shepherded through an amendment insisting on teaching “personal responsibility for life choices-teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use, and eating disorders” (emphasis mine).

This coupling of sexuality with socially negative topics sends a not-too-subtle signal to educators that they should teach sexuality from a fear- and shame-based perspective, an approach that is not supported by research.

If these changes go through – and the consensus is that they will be passed again in May – we can pity Texas public school students about what they will and will not learn. But the Texas vote may cast a longer shadow on what children in other states will learn, too.

Nationwide, 20 states vote to adopt textbooks for all schools districts, the largest of which are Texas and California. Textbook publishers develop books based on the curricular requirements of these state boards, because of the large numbers of public school students in the states.

Fortunately, such decisions do not have the same effect that they once did. Advances in digital publishing have minimized the outsized influence big states once had on textbook purchases. But the danger still lurks that books designed for kids in Texas will also be read in many other states. (New Jersey’s state board does not purchase textbooks for school districts.)

We can prevent travesties like the one in Texas by creating national standards in education. Last week, a panel of education experts led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers made recommendations for national standards in reading and math for K-12 students.

If accepted by states, national standards would greatly diminish local and state control of educational policy, and children from the most affluent to the poorest school districts would learn from the same high standards. These would be educationally sound, rigorous, apolitical, and developed by experts.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the first news stories about the panel’s recommendations reported that educational policymakers in Texas are among those in only a couple states likely to refuse to adopt the proposed national standards for reading and math.

As a former state education board member, I see a much brighter future for national standards. Once state policymakers and board members see how reading and math standards improve educational outcomes for children in their own states, they will adopt national standards in other subjects.

And wonder of wonders, in the fullness of time, states may even adopt national standards in heath and sexuality education. Then students in Texas – and elsewhere – will learn about the positive aspects of human sexuality.

I can dream, can’t I?

Image by Rishabh Mishra.

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.

On John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” After N.J.’s Same-Sex Marriage Vote

January 12, 2010

Our state Senate could have made political and civil rights history in New Jersey this past Thursday—but it didn’t. It could have brought luster to our reputation as a progressive state that cares for all of its citizens—but it didn’t. It could have shown that a clear demarcation between church and state exists here—but it didn’t. It didn’t do any of these things, because Senate members defeated the same-sex marriage bill.

Instead of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to happiness, as stated in Article 1 of the State Constitution (”All persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which [is] … obtaining … happiness”), a majority of senators gave in to the powerful impulse of fear of the unknown, fear of retribution at the polls by constituents, and acceptance of religious dogma to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.

For reasons beyond my understanding, 20 senators voted against the bill based on the general argument that “gay marriage would weaken the social fabric.” Only 14 voted for the bill, following Senate President Richard Codey’s prophetic words: “One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and ‘What were they so afraid of?’ “

The day before the vote occurred-and with the rights and lives of so many New Jersey citizens hanging in the balance—I thought of the Democrat from Bergen County Senator Loretta Weinberg’s words: “[Senators] can’t be hesitant anymore … they have to come to the realization that we were elected to take sometimes difficult stands, but we were not elected to only worry about the next election.”

Weinberg’s words immediately reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which I hadn’t reread in years. I picked up a copy and leafed through it.

Kennedy presents his theme in the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues-courage.” Our late president is not speaking of physical courage. Rather, he speaks of “acts by men of integrity, who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion” and “on national issues, on matters of conscience defying the angry power of the very constituents that control [their] future.” Kennedy applies this test to eight U.S. senators from different periods of American history and concludes that each passed it.

This book is not a polemic; it is nuanced, thoughtful, and balanced. Kennedy understands the tug of war that most politicians engage in to balance the views of opposing constituents. He mentions the specific pressures that most politicians face: the desire to be liked, the desire to be re-elected, the conflicting demands of constituents, the requirements of party obligations, and the inherent tensions between serving both state and national interests.

Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.” He suggests that politicians are reluctant to show political courage, because they have too little faith in the people and need to have greater faith in them-because trust in their power is the essence of democracy.

Kennedy knew that political courage comes with a price. Most of the eight courageous U.S. senators he profiled endured “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”

Certainly the political courage it takes to vote in favor of same-sex marriage never entered Kennedy’s mind as he wrote his classic work. Yet I believe that had he been alive today, Kennedy would have sent this message to the state senators as they prepared to vote: “The nation is watching what you do. Act in behalf of its highest ideals and values and not necessarily in behalf of the citizens in your own legislative district, or even the entire state of New Jersey.”

He might also have used these words from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce his point: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When talking to senators about why they planned to support or opposes same-sex marriage, I heard only the most parochial and personal reasons. I never heard any reference to the Constitution of New Jersey or the Declaration of Independence. No one mentioned “the right to happiness” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.

Happiness for many gay and lesbian couples means the ability to marry. If most citizens believe in the concept of marital happiness, then how can those who can marry deprive others of the same right to seek happiness through this institution?

I wish more of our senators had reread (or at least skimmed) Profiles in Courage before they voted last Thursday. Perhaps it would have helped them understand the meaning of political courage in our society and how their vote affected not only people in their own district, but in the nation and even across the world. Perhaps it would have inspired them to seek a larger vision for our society-one based on the right of all people to find happiness.

If they had had the time to reread Profiles in Courage, perhaps last Thursday’s outcome might have been different.

In the final passages of the book, Kennedy includes a message that applies not only to politicians, but to all of us:

“To be courageous … requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstances. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”

Tiger Woods’ Holiday Gift to Parents: Making It Easier to Talk About Sex

December 30, 2009

Dear Parents:

I don’t believe that you can find any more excuses to not talk about sex with your preteen and teenage children. Tiger Woods—by committing serial infidelity and having his appalling sexual behavior splashed all over the media—has handed you the perfect opportunity to talk about sex with your children, draw lessons, and offer your opinions and values about the scandal.

This opportunity is almost too good to be true. Who would have thought that Tiger—the seemingly perfect American Idol and man of impeccable morals—would help parents break the ice about sex, a topic they often avoid. Well, Tiger’s transgressions have given you a great chance to finally have “the Big Talk,” and also talk with your children about what constitutes really bad behavior by a husband and father.

I know that many fathers—and mothers to a lesser degree—may have knees of jelly and suffer from mouth-stuck-to-the-palate syndrome when they know that the subject is sex. But this conversation does not have to be about the S word. It should primarily be about the V word: Values. This may make it an easier conversation than you think, but talking about values with your children also requires courage.

I learned the importance of the V word in conversations about sexuality from Richard Cross, a wonderful medical doctor, professor, and sex educator who lived in Princeton until his death some years ago. Dick, who specialized in community medicine, had a distinguished career as a professor at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. He believed that all conversations about sex should include discussions about personal and societal values and not only focus on the clinical aspects of sex.

One of Dick’s claims to fame was the development of the first-ever sex education course for medical students and other health professionals offered as part of a medical school curriculum. Still called Sex Week at UMDNJ in New Brunswick, it remains an annual 40-hour course to “prepare students—regardless of their planned specialty—to deal with patients’ sexual concerns and…how to take a patient’s sexual history.” During Sex Week, students met in small groups and spent a lot of time discussing their values about the topic.

Dick would probably smile to know that I am pairing him with Tiger Woods since, to the best of my knowledge, I never saw him with a golf club in his hand. But I think he would endorse the idea that the golfer’s sudden free-fall from grace offers a great moment to discuss such values as honesty, respect, faithfulness, loyalty, trust, and love.

I believe Dick would want to tell you, as parents, to be completely honest and tell your children the truth about Tiger Woods’ behavior: Tiger Woods—a married man and the father of two young children—had a series of sexual affairs with a surprisingly large number of single women almost from the beginning of his marriage. Of course, Dick would say that parents should be prepared to answer their children’s specific questions, including “what is sexual intercourse?” and “what is an affair?”

Dick would also recommend that you say how you feel about Tiger’s infidelity and dishonesty. This requires getting your own values straight about sexual behavior within and outside of marriage. Here’s a father-and-son scenario that helps make my points:

Son (who is around 10 to 12 years old): Dad, what’s a cheetah?

Father: A cheetah is a wild animal, like a leopard or tiger. Why do you ask?

Son: Well, some guys at school were talking about a newspaper headline that said, “Tiger is a Cheetah.” I think the Tiger they meant is Tiger Woods.

Father: Yes, the use of the word “cheetah” is a play on words; what they mean is that Tiger is a “cheater.” It is spelled differently.

Son: So, Tiger Woods is a “cheater” the way someone who plays football or any sport can cheat during a game? How did he cheat at golf?

Father: Tiger Woods didn’t cheat at golf. He cheated on his wife, Elin, by having affairs with other women while he and Elin were married.

Son: What does “having affairs” mean?

Father: In Tiger Woods’ situation, having affairs means that he was having sex with women other than his wife. We call this “extra-marital” sex, or sex outside of marriage. When Tiger got married, he most likely took a vow to remain faithful to his wife, which meant that he promised not to have sexual intercourse with any other woman. He was unfaithful to her.

Son: When you married Mom, did you take the same kind of vow?

Father: Yes, I did. Your mom took the same vow saying that she was going to remain sexually faithful to me during our marriage, and I vowed to remain sexually faithful to her. Most of your friends’ parents took the same vows when they got married. Sadly, some adults do not remain faithful to their partners, despite the words that they say to each other. Tiger is definitely one of these people.

Son: How do you feel about Tiger Woods now, since he had affairs with other women?

Father: I still admire his prowess at golf. He is and probably may always be the best golfer in history. But I do not approve of his behavior at all and am disappointed by his lack of honesty and fidelity to his wife and his lack of respect for his little children and his marriage vows. Since I believe that a person’s character and values are as important as his or her accomplishments in life, I shall never have the same respect for Tiger Woods I once had. He is no longer a hero to me.

Son: I think I’ve got it straight. Thanks, Dad.

Father: We’ll talk more over the coming years about values, like honesty, respect, caring, love, and responsibility. But it makes me feel good to know that you can ask me tough questions about subjects like sex. Anytime you have another question, I will do my best to answer it.

Ideally, Dads and Moms should bring up Tiger Woods before their kids do. His story cannot be avoided: it’s on the cover of every magazine, and he’s the endless subject for commentators on cable news networks, late-night talk shows, and the Internet. Your kids must be itching to talk about Tiger, and have their questions answered and confusion wiped away.

I don’t think that Tiger’s behavior, reprehensible as it is, should be the only aspect of the scandal in family discussions. The women who had sex with Tiger were not, by and large, innocent bystanders. They were part of the problem, and they caused pain and suffering by their willingness to have affairs with Woods.

They strike me as women who hunger for celebrity and money. Some were naive to think that Tiger might leave his wife and small children for them, and some fancied he was in love with them, even though he was recently married. I found their stories and denials on the talk shows disheartening, even pathetic. They had so little self-esteem. Why, I wondered, couldn’t one of them have said no to Tiger and sent him packing? If you have teen daughters, you need to talk about why these women were so needy and willing to do whatever Tiger asked.

The Tiger Woods story is the surprising holiday gift of the year. It can help us all think more deeply about our values and sexual behavior. Perhaps if Tiger had had the chance to talk and think deeply about sex and values earlier in his life, things might have gone differently for him.

Best wishes, parents, and let me know how your discussions go. Happy new year, too.



From N.J. to D.C.: How – and Why – I Lobbied to Stop the Stupak Amendment

December 11, 2009

Some women like to go shopping when they want a break from their busy lives; others like to lunch. Not me. I like to lobby. In particular, I like to lobby my Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., on causes I care about.

I love the give and take of reasonable argument and discussion; I like learning facts; I like testing my ideas; I like to plant the seed of change in another person’s mind or heart; I like to understand the reasons why they oppose my views; I like to try to make a difference in the formation of public policy.

Last week was a banner one for me. I went to Washington, D.C., with eight friends to participate in National Lobby Day to “Stop the Abortion Coverage Ban,” organized by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and other women’s reproductive health and rights groups after the passage of the House of Representatives’ bill containing the Stupak amendment.

The amendment would prohibit millions of women from purchasing health insurance coverage that includes abortion in the new exchanges, even with their own money.

The day’s purpose: for women across the nation to lobby their Senators to “Pass Health Care and Stop Stupak!” and to ensure that language similar to the Stupak amendment would not be included in the Senate bill.

The organizers didn’t want anti-choice groups to use abortion coverage as a way to hijack health care reform. They wanted to counter with their own overwhelmingly female lobbying force. (After all, women do hold up half the sky.)

As we sat on the early morning train from Trenton to Washington, my friends and I agreed that we supported the passage of health care reform legislation to cover the millions of Americans who have no insurance and to reduce the ever-growing health care cost burden on our economy.

But we also agreed that we did not want this bill hijacked by anti-choice forces and new restrictions placed on a woman’s right to choose.

The energy in the auditorium of the Dirksen Senate Office Building could have lit the White House Christmas tree without a switch. The room was brightened by Planned Parenthood staffers’ pink T-shirts proclaiming “Health Care for Every Community.” We picked up a packet of papers, pasted “Pass Health Care! Stop Stupak!” stickers on our chests, and attended one of several Lobby Day trainings. We learned the essentials of lobbying in a nutshell: “Be Concise, Compelling, Relevant, and Credible.”

Cecile Richards, the friendly, low-keyed president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, thanked us all for coming. She told us that we represented every region of the nation and that busloads had come from as far away as Maine, Wisconsin, and “the deep South.”

The morning speakers were diverse: African-American women, Latina women, old women, young women, and even a smattering of men. I most appreciated the fiery Billie Avery, a longtime grassroots organizer for black women’s health, who urged us to tell our legislators that “women demand to have control over our own bodies. … If they turn their back upon their female constituents, you tell them, ‘You are in danger of losing your base.’ ”

Luckily, we caught Senator Frank Lautenberg as he left his office for a meeting on the health care legislation; he stopped and greeted us warmly. He knew why we were clustered outside his door: our stickers spoke volumes. Always a friend of reproductive choice over his many years of public service, he didn’t have to tell us his position on the bill. But he said that we would meet with his aide on health care and she would pass along all our ideas.

The First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Lessons “Double Dutch” Can Teach Our Youth

November 10, 2009

Let me start with an admission: I share a birth date with First Lady Michelle Obama and am therefore a special fan. Like me, she is a Capricorn (the Goat), but oh, so much more. Before I read that her birth date is January 17th — albeit some 34 years after mine — the only two people with whom I shared a birthday were Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Now I don’t want to sneeze at either of these two gentlemen; I am proud to be in their company. But I feel a strong, indescribable bond with the First Lady because of the January 17th connection.

I have avidly followed Michelle Obama’s travels and accomplishments since she has arrived at The White House. I have watched as she dug into the historic soil of the South Lawn and planted a garden to encourage more children to eat their veggies (with the exception of beets, which the president doesn’t like). I laughed out loud when I read that on St. Patrick’s Day last March, she ordered the water in the White House fountains turned a brilliant shade of green.

It is fun and games wherever this lively, outgoing, stunningly chic woman puts her touch. She seems to be perpetually surprised and thrilled that she and her family are living in the People’s House and doesn’t want to miss a minute to enjoy the experience. Michelle — as we have never met, I hope she won’t interpret my use of her first name as a sign of disrespect-makes me, at an advanced age, feel young and ready for new adventures. She makes me smile.

My admiration for Michelle’s Peter Pan spirit was only reinforced last Saturday when I read that she participated in the jump-rope exercise “Double Dutch” at a recently held “healthy kids fair” on the South Lawn. For the uninitiated or those who haven’t thought about jumping rope in some time, Double Dutch is a routine usually performed by 10-year-olds, not women in their mid-40s. It involves skipping between two ropes swinging at the same time in opposite directions, and it is very difficult not to trip and get your feet entangled in one or the other of the ropes. (The First Lady did not miss a step.)

Apparently, Michelle has a keen eye for what’s the latest rage among preteen and teen girls, probably because of her own two daughters. Double Dutch has an interesting history among games young people play. It was first played by Dutch settlers on the shores of the Hudson River some 400 years ago. The British dubbed it “Double Dutch,” when they arrived in the New World.

During World War II, it became very popular with urban children living in Manhattan, who made up and sang rhymes as they turned the ropes. The first tournament was held in 1974 and drew nearly 600 children. Today, the Apollo Theater in Harlem hosts competitions that draw Double Dutch teams from around the world.

Recently, Double Dutch has gained further recognition as “the newest of 35 varsity sports” played in New York City, according to this New York Times piece. (New Jersey, are we there?) There is also a team called the Dynamic Diplomats of Double Dutch that performs internationally with members ranging from teens to adults in their 30s.

The fact that Double Dutch has become an international sport gives me the perfect segue, since I heard a different definition for the term about ten years ago from a group of sexuality educators. They had returned from a trip organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, a national organization devoted to the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents. They had visited the Netherlands and other European countries to study sex education programs and societal attitudes about sexuality that shape public policy for young people.

These educators told me that “Double Dutch” is a common slogan that most teens growing up in the Netherlands learn at home and in school. It reflects the deeply held societal belief that a good sexual relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility. Young people are taught that before you have sex, you must have a solid relationship based on honesty, equality, and trust (no “hooking up” or one-night stands). They also learn to use two forms of protection against unplanned pregnancy and disease each time they have sex: the female always uses the Pill and the male always uses a condom (the “Double Dutch” method).

Most young people and adults know the meaning of “Double Dutch” and practice it, giving the Netherlands the lowest rates of teen and adult pregnancies, births, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases of any nation in the western Industrialized world.

I do not expect Michelle Obama to take on the issue of adolescent pregnancy in the U.S. It would be too controversial and too difficult in her husband’s young presidency to get mired in the culture wars. Instead, I wish her the best of luck in her effort to encourage young people to eat well and to exercise. I hope she will continue to amaze us by participating in more games of Double Dutch without missing a beat, or a step.

But leaders in urban communities nationally and here in New Jersey, where teen pregnancy rates are stubbornly high, can teach young people that the term “Double Dutch” has a second meaning — and that integrating this meaning into their behavior can make a real difference in their lives. They can even hold Double Dutch events and work in important lessons about sexual health to teens.

Who says that teaching an important concept about sexual responsibility can’t be fun?

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.