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In Memory of Dr. Tiller

June 3, 2009

“A doctor who performs abortions shot in a church. Isn’t that terrible?”

“They got the baby killer. Isn’t that great?”

Sexuality educators may have heard these types of statements from students in their classrooms this past week after the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller, who was one of a handful of doctors who perform late-term abortions in the country, was gunned down in the Reformed Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, and his story has circled the globe.

How to respond to students? I don’t envy you: Abortion is one of the toughest issues to discuss rationally and reasonably. But after what happened on Sunday, it seems to me that it desperately needs to be discussed with young people—right now.

Yet many schools simply forbid its discussion. If a student asks about abortion, many teachers are instructed by the administration to say, “I can’t discuss that. Go home and ask your parents.” My reaction to that dictum is that if kids felt like they could ask their parents about sexual and other controversial issues, they wouldn’t need to ask their teachers.

Many schools shy away from including abortion in their health and sexuality education curriculum, because administrators are afraid of igniting adult controversy. If a student goes home and reports having had a discussion about abortion, administrators—and, to some extent, teachers—shake in their shoes waiting for a parent to pick up the phone and demand to know what was said about abortion, whether the teacher gave his or her personal opinions, and whether he or she favored the pro-life or pro-choice side.

Between the rock of silence and the hard place of controversy, our students’ need for intellectual and emotional catharsis about this issue gets lost. Because of adults’ fears, many young people cannot speak about the topic or work together to find common ground on reducing the need for abortion, which our president has challenged us to do.

We once held a roundtable on abortion with our Sex, Etc. teen editors here at Answer. I was fascinated because the teens—who were pretty evenly divided between the pro-choice and pro-life sides—came up with exactly the same arguments for their respective points of view that I had heard from adults. The discussion confirmed for me that it makes good sense to high school students the opportunity to tackle even the most controversial subjects about sexuality and morality in classrooms. Their wisdom is often equal or superior to the adults around them.

I hope that in the next couple of days and weeks you’ll take one of those questions you’ve heard about Dr. Tiller, suspend the lessons you have planned for the day, and let the discussion rip. (As a way of preparing, you can Google the following topics: late-term abortions, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which are all mentioned in this New York Times story.)

As discussion closers, you might ask your students to take up President Obama’s challenge and brainstorm ideas for increasing common ground to reduce the need for abortions. The United States has the highest rate of abortion in the Western industrialized world. Countries such as Sweden, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands have much lower rates. Students might want to research reasons for the discrepancies between these countries’ rates and ours.

The work you do this week in your classroom might in the future prevent a zealot with a handgun from walking into the sanctuary of a church and murdering a doctor in cold blood.

Questions Matt Lauer Didn’t Ask

May 8, 2009

I may have been lulled into a state of complacency by the conversation on The Today Show on May 5th between Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its Chief Medical Editor, and Ann Curry, a host of the show. It occurred the day before Bristol Palin, the Governor’s daughter, was interviewed on Today by Matt Lauer.

Snyderman discussed the prospects of a contraception injection for men that might be approved within five years. It was a very mature discussion in which the two women showed no fear of using the words “contraception,” “intimacy” and “sperm count.” They were talking about sex honestly.

My expectations were high, therefore, when I tuned in the next morning to hear Matt Lauer, normally a tough questioner, interview Bristol Palin (and her dad) about her unplanned pregnancy and the birth of her son, Tripp, whom she cradled in her arm throughout the interview (see video below). Bristol, with the support of The Candie’s Foundation, has become their national teen ambassador, for teen pregnancy prevention.

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The Today Show piece with Bristol opened with a background segment on teen pregnancy that featured clips of interviews with Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé and father of baby Tripp, in which he hinted that the couple had been practicing safe sex and “it had failed.”

In the interview, Lauer gave Bristol several opportunities to explain her commitment to teen pregnancy prevention: “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said. He listened attentively while she described how tough life is as a teen mom. Bristol’s father chimed in with praise for “the great job” his daughter is doing: “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he assured the listening audience, adding that Bristol has no time for friends.

It was the next part of the interview that gave me a sinking feeling: a question about the kind of sex education young people should receive in school. Lauer approached the topic carefully. He asked Bristol about a statement she once made that “abstinence [education] is not realistic at all.” But Bristol backed away emphasizing the long-held line long endorsed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that “abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way of preventing pregnancy.”

Lauer moved into more dangerous territory by asking Bristol if she and Levi had practiced “safe sex,” (a vague term at best). Again, Bristol pulled back saying, “I am not here to talk about my personal life.” I heard her answer somewhat incredulously, because I thought that she had been invited to be a teen ambassador exactly because of her personal life. Bristol answered, “If you are going to have sex, I think you should have safe sex,” but then she beat the drum again for abstinence-only.

Lauer failed to ask Bristol Palin tough questions about teen pregnancy and sex education programs in the U.S. So, I thought of some questions which I would have liked him to ask Bristol:

  • Why do you think teen pregnancy rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other Western developed countries?
  • Why do you think the rates have risen lately after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage?
  • Did you talk to your parents about having sex before marriage?
  • Did you have a sex education class in your school, before you began to date Levi Johnston?
  • Did you learn only the about the failure rates of contraception in your sex education class?
  • Do you wish you had learned about the effectiveness of condoms, the Pill and other forms of contraception in your sex education class?
  • In what grade you do think teens should first learn about contraception?
  • As a national spokesperson will you only talk about abstinence or will you talk about the importance of using contraception should teens decide to have sex?
  • What will happen if Congress fails to fund abstinence-only education in the next budget cycle?

Bristol needs to answer some tough questions to convince me that she has the courage to really make a difference in the struggle to reduce teen pregnancy. Perhaps as she travels around the country and listens to other teens, she will decide that young people need much better sex education and more honest information than many of them are presently receiving in schools.

In the meantime, 225 of Bristol’s fellow Alaskan high school student leaders aren’t waiting for her efforts. They are calling for more sex education. “During its recent spring conference in Sitka, the Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution requesting “a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course for all high school students statewide.”

Maybe her fellow students will embolden Bristol Palin to change her message and be ready to answer more hard-hitting questions—that is, if Matt Lauer decides to ask her some.

Remember Carl and Jaheem

May 6, 2009

After writing “Remember Larry” in December 2008, I fervently hoped that I would not have to return to this subject: the suicide of a young person caused by homophobic bullying at school.

My post suggested that parents and teachers read “Young, Gay and Murdered,” the Newsweek cover story about the tragic killing of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate in a junior high school in Oxnard, CA, with a teacher and other students looking on.

Surely, this story would not have a sequel, I thought.

But another tale so close to the first one that it could be its relative surfaced recently. This story has many of the same features as the Newsweek cover story, particularly the core point: children die because of the homophobic behavior of other children with whom they attend school.

In this second story, two African-American children—both 11 years old and living in different areas of the country—committed suicide because they had been bullied, taunted and called homophobic names by their classmates. Let me give you the details: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who lived in Massachusetts, wrapped an extension cord around his neck and hanged himself because of the “relentless taunts of his classmates,” and Jaheem Herrera, who lived in Georgia, hanged himself with an extension cord and died because of the “relentless homophobic taunting of his classmates.”

You can learn more about Carl and hear about the increase in school homophobia from this ABC World News segment:

You might also want to get a copy of the report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, which was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. The report’s bottom line is that “students are more likely to be subject to homophobic bullying than any bullying for most other reasons.”

But it wasn’t until this past Saturday when I was watching a rerun of a Barbra Streisand concert on CBS that I felt the full weight of the horror of the deaths of the two little children. Streisand sang two songs whose messages spoke directly to where and from whom our many young children may be learning how to bully, how to taunt and how to be homophobic: in their own homes and from their own parents.

The first song Streisand sang was the tender “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Although the focus of the song is on racism, the message is about teaching about hate in all forms to children:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Then Streisand sang the haunting “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. This is the song’s refrain:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen.

As a memorial to Larry, Carl and Jaheem, I would like to suggest that elementary and middle schools invite the parents of students to view and discuss It’s Elementary. This is a 37-minute highly honored educational film designed for PTA meetings on how to address lesbian and gay issues with children in positive, age-appropriate ways.

The film, directed by Academy Award winner Debra Chasnoff, goes inside first- through eighth-grade classrooms to hear what young students have to say about a topic that either leaves their parents mute or permits them to pass on ugly messages and language for which they have never been corrected.

To order, click here.

Perhaps at the end of the film and discussion, parents might sing or read the lyrics to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” and “Children Will Listen.”

April Showers

April 24, 2009

Sometimes references to sexuality education and sexuality issues in the daily newspaper are as ubiquitous as April showers. But even I was startled by what I saw in the April 15th edition of the New York Times: obituaries of two women who not only died far too young, but whose lives were shaped to a great extent by their personal and professional experiences with human sexuality.

These were the headlines: “Judith Krug, Librarian Who Fought Ban on Books, Dies at 69,” and “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58.”

What immediately attracted me to Judith Krug’s obit was the reference to banned books.  As we know, many books are banned from libraries and school libraries, in particular, because of their sexual content (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies immediately come to mind.)

Krug spent her professional life fighting efforts to ban books, no matter how offensive they might be to a particular audience and no matter the political persuasion of their authors.  She became director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and then executive director of its Freedom to Read Foundation, which raises money to promote First Amendment issues in court cases. She helped create Banned Books Week, which occurs annually, and fought the banning of sex manuals among other books.

In a 2002 interview with The Chicago Tribune, she recounted a childhood experience that inspired her life’s work. She was 12 years old and reading a sex education book under the covers with a flashlight: “It was a hot book; I was just panting, when my mother suddenly threw back the covers and asked what I was doing. I timidly held up the book. She said, ‘For God’s sake turn on your bedroom light so you don’t hurt your eyes. And that was that.’”

Think of what might have happened had her mother snatched the book away or berated her daughter for trying to educate herself about sex and sexuality. Her child might never have gone on to lead the fight against censorship on the Internet and, as principal organizer of civil liberties groups, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

If Krug had been paralyzed by the incident, she might not have earned a note of appreciation for her life’s work from the Times editors, which appeared on the same day as her obit.

According to her obituary, Eve Sedgwick’s critical, academic writings focused “on the ambiguities of sexual identity in fiction [which] helped create the discipline known as queer studies.” She pioneered new thinking drawing on feminist scholarship, “teasing out the hidden socio-sexual subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James.”

Like Krug, reports the Times, Sedgwick did not shy from controversy, “most notoriously” delivering a paper, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” at the annual meeting of Modern Language Association. “In it, she argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood could be better understood in relation to contemporary thought about the evils of ‘self-abuse.’”

In an earlier interview with the Times, she explained the function of queer theory: “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”

Given her academic work, some people were surprised that Sedgwick was married to Hal Sedgwick, also a professor. They questioned how a seemingly straight, married woman could devise queer theory. In reply, she said she disliked the term “straight,” because it ran against her notion of sexual orientation “as a continuum rather than a category.”  Struggling at the end of her life with repeated bouts of breast cancer, Sedgwick wrote A Dialogue on Love, addressing her feelings about death, depression and sexual identity after having a mastectomy.

I feel sadness for our profession at the loss of these two accomplished women, dying so close to each other in time. Each in her own way made a contribution to the study of human sexuality and each highlighted its importance in their lives and in the world.

The showers of April give way, according to the old adage, to the flowers of May. I hope that the many contributions and valuable lives of Judith Krug and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick will continue to blossom and bloom.

Unsung Helper

April 15, 2009

“Ever heard of Daniel J. O’Hern?” my husband asked over breakfast last week. Before I had a chance to respond, he added, “He was a justice of the Supreme Court in New Jersey and he died on Wednesday.

It took me a second to respond. “Oh, yes, of course, I remember Dan O’Hern, but I remember him best when he was serving as the chief counsel to Governor Byrne.” After a pause I said, “We might not have family life and sex education in New Jersey public schools if it weren’t for Dan O’Hern.”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Dan O’Hern since the early 1980s, when I was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education, which under law sets policy for the public schools. In late 1979, a committee of the State Board recommended a statewide mandate requiring family life education in elementary and secondary schools.

A furor erupted with health officials. College faculty and K-12 educators supported schools’ providing instruction to help young people make informed decisions about their sexuality, and state education associations, conservative organizations and religious groups opposed it, claiming that discussing sex in classrooms would promote sexual activity and that the state was usurping local control of education and parental responsibilities. (See The Struggle for Sex Education in New Jersey, 1979-2003: Policy, Persistence and Progress, by Philip E. Mackey, Ph.D.)

I remember the year 1980 as one of almost constant controversy about the mandate. It was filled with open public meetings, newspaper headlines and revision after revision of the policy in order to meet concerns of opponents. Hanging over the heads of the Board was the distinct possibility that the legislature would pass a law negating the State Board’s mandate, which was its right under the Constitution.

Enter Dan O’Hern.

One morning I received a phone call from Paul Ricci, president of the Board, who said that he and I, as chair of the committee that had recommended the mandate for family life education, had been summoned to the Governor’s office. When we arrived, we were ushered into Dan O’Hern’s office, where for next half hour we made our case for the State Board’s action and policy.

O’Hern didn’t say very much. We touched on all of the important points, particularly one that we thought might be particularly persuasive: The policy was supported by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a lay group representing the bishops. Church leaders backed the State Board, because they wished to mandate family life education in parochial schools and felt that the statewide policy in public schools would advance their case.) (To show that the conflict over teaching family life education in public and parochial schools never ends, log on to the most current controversy in Perth Amboy, NJ.)

At the end of the 30 minutes, O’Hern said something like, “It’s okay; the Board can go forward.”

Safely back on the sidewalk outside the State Capitol, Paul and I exchanged views of the meeting. We decided that Dan O’Hern was going to tell the Governor that the State Board’s actions should not be overturned by the legislature, which was controlled by the Governor’s party, and that word would be passed to legislative leaders to let the Board proceed.

That is exactly what happened. The Board made some gentle changes to the policy to satisfy members of the Senate Education Committee, then the policy was passed by the Board and went into effect in all school districts in 1983.

But Dan O’Hern had one more role to play in the family life education controversy. In 1981, then-Governor Byrne appointed him to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. After the mandate passed, family life education’s opponents calling themselves the New Jersey Coalition of Concerned Parents sued the State Board, claiming that it had overstepped its authority in requiring family life education. In 1982, the Supreme Court heard the case, Smith v. Ricci, and ruled unanimously that the Board had the right under the New Jersey constitution to set the mandate.

Justice Dan O’Hern was one of the justices voting for the Board; I like to think that he was persuasive and supportive of the Board and family life education in conference with his fellow justices. He certainly had all our arguments up the sleeve of his long, black robe.

In Dan O’Hern’s obituary in The New York Times, the reporter mentioned that among his 231 majority opinions—he served for 19 years until his retirement in 2000—he helped to “define state policies on issues like the death penalty, law enforcement and homelessness,” mostly favoring the views of liberals, but sometimes bowing to the views of the conservatives. In other words, he tried wherever possible to be fair and balanced.

There is no mention in the obituary of the role that Dan O’Hern played in assuring that all young people in New Jersey have school programs in family life and sexuality education.  But those programs, which we take for granted now, might not have been developed or sustained without him.

Yes, I shall always remember Dan O’Hern, and with gratitude.

Spring Cleaning…and Condoms

April 3, 2009

“Spring cleaning” to me isn’t the kind of housecleaning that our grandmothers did come the first signs of spring: hanging draperies on the line, beating pillows within an inch of their lives, and dusting every piece of bric-a-brac in the house. I just clean up my desktop and delete old files that I haven’t opened in years.

As with all self-improvement ventures, sometimes you discover a “jewel” among the dusty remnants. This spring, my “jewel” turned out to be a still-relevant, four-year-old comment from a New Jersey high school graduate about her sex education course. The young woman, whose named I do not know, was responding online to “Bush’s Sex Scandal,” a 2005 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that roundly criticized the Bush administration’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

She wrote:

“I agree with you 100% when you advocate sex ed that includes, but is not limited to abstinence. I went to high school in Glen Rock, NJ, where the official stand was ‘abstinence is the safest policy.’ That is how my teacher would begin and end each class period. Then she would say: ‘but if you aren’t abstinent, then you can use…’ condoms, diaphragms, the Pill, etc.

It was amazing. We learned the effectiveness of every form of birth control, even those that are not widely used. …. My teacher taught us how to use a condom, and I can recite the instructions on cue if need be. … She taught us what prevents STIs and the symptoms that a person would have with each infection. We discussed the policy of ‘abstinence-only’ education in class, and even learned the international statistics that you mentioned in your column. I never realized how utterly complete my sex education was until I got to college.

Please understand, I go to Vassar College…so we aren’t lacking in information about sex. Personally, I keep a box of condoms, lube gloves, and sex information outside my door for the people on my hall. Condoms are everywhere. But as a freshman, I met plenty of people who just didn’t have the background in sex education that I was fortunate to have. I found myself explaining things to my friends that they were never aware of. And it wasn’t just my roommate who went to an all-girls Catholic high school. People from Virginia, Connecticut, and California were just as uninformed.

I have come to value what my high school did for me in taking the progressive route with my education. I am a sophomore in college and a virgin (not by choice, really, it is just working out that way). When I do have sex, there is no question in my mind that I will use a condom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am thoroughly convinced that a complete sexual education is the only way to go, because when it comes to sex, options are the best weapon that you can have to protect yourself.”

Although four years old, Kristof’s column, with its arguments for teaching about condoms as well as abstinence, is still extremely pertinent. The Obama administration, while budgeting less funds for abstinence-only programs in 2010, is still not willing to bite the bullet and withdraw all funding from these discredited programs and replace them with comprehensive ones.

Earlier this week, I received several high priority e-mails asking me to make calls to the offices of the Democratic members of the Senate budget committee. The SOS appeals urged me to ask 13 Senators to vote “no” on the “Bunning [Senator Jim Bunning, R-KY] amendment” to restore full funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the 2010 budget.

I wish I could have e-mailed the New Jersey high school student’s comment to each of these senators. Her clear analysis of why young people need non-ideological, honest, accurate, and balanced sexuality education speaks louder than any words of mine about why adult legislators should listen to young people when they make decisions that affect their health and lives.

Too many legislators believe that their political careers will end if they vote against funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage. When Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out against using condoms to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa (see “The Pope on Condoms and AIDS”), he implicitly sent a message to Catholic legislators on this continent. That message? “Do not support school programs that include teaching about condoms, because this instruction goes against the moral teachings of the church.”

Catholic priests are not averse to rallying their congregations to oppose Catholic politicians who bravely take a stand against issues supported by the church. I understand the dilemma that legislators face when dealing with opposition based on religious doctrine, but what happens in public schools is a different matter.

I hope legislators pay more attention to young people like the thoughtful student who responded to Kristof’s column than to the Pontiff.

Why Can’t More Americans…?

March 25, 2009

In the hit Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings plaintively, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics came to mind recently as I found myself vexed by several national media stories that reveal our negative attitudes about sex. Yet my plaintive question is: “Why can’t Americans be more accepting of their sexuality?”

Story 1: Anna Quindlen on Abstinence-Only

If Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen might never have had to write these sentences in her March 16th column:

“Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.”

Quindlen writes a brilliant, perceptive analysis of Congress’ blindness to the failure of abstinence-only programs. If we, as a country, were more accepting of our sexuality and more willing to follow sound program evaluation, we’d have decided years ago that all young people deserve comprehensive sexuality education and be done with it.

Story 2: Obama’s Budget and Abstinence-Only

Sexuality educators learned that the new administration hasn’t removed funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Sure, it may have cut some of the money, but the Department of Health and Human Services section devoted to Preventing Teen Pregnancy states:

“The Budget supports State, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active.”

I call this budgetary decision a big waffle that divides kids into two groups: the sheep (the “good” kids who don’t have sex while in high school), and the goats (the “bad” kids who do). It denies young people equal opportunity to learn in advance of having sex about important ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Isn’t it useful for kids who decide to remain abstinent in high school to have knowledge about contraception, which they might put to use when they are in college or, as adults, ready to get married or commit to long-term partnerships?

If only Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, the DHHS would fund programs that offer balanced information about abstinence and contraception before most kids become sexually active. And it would support distribution of condoms and birth control pills to those who ask for them, as is done in many European countries with far lower teen pregnancy rates than ours.


Sex Education: Forgotten, or Ignored?

March 11, 2009

It always amazes me how frequently the phrase “sex education” is omitted from important articles or statements about reproductive health, family planning and abortion. Sexuality education plays a crucial role in prevention, and it deserves much more recognition than it receives.

Just consider these two recent examples from the national press:

The National Council of Catholic Women recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad reproduced a statement on the Freedom of Choice Act by Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Act, if passed, would ensure Roe v. Wade’s protections and guarantee a woman’s right to choose. The statement from the USCCB was a stinging attack on the Act, and it included no mention of efforts the USCCB would support to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.—not even a reference to abstinence-only programs. The USCCB focused on how the Act would threaten “prenatal human life,” rather than on ways that we, as a nation, can work together to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive sexuality education provides such a way.

The second example is the Times op-ed “This Is the Way the Culture War Ends,” by William Saletan. Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, presents his solutions on ending the culture wars that currently rage over abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.

On birth control, he writes:

“This isn’t [about] a shortage of pills or condoms. It is a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It is a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation—and the subsequent killing, through abortion—of a developing human being.”

Now you may consider me naïve, but I was certain that Saletan’s next sentence would be about the importance of high quality, balanced sexuality education in our pubic schools.  But, you guessed it, he simply moved on without mentioning any instruction that might help young people understand the concept of personal responsibility about sexual behavior.

Maybe Saletan hasn’t heard a crackerjack high-school educator instruct students about the need to use contraception each and every time they decide to have sex, or if they one day decide not to be abstinent. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that for years and years, young people in the majority of states have only been given negative or false information about contraception through federally support abstinence-only programs.

Perhaps what Saletan wants all educators to tell students is “abortion kills a developing human being.” He apparently won’t settle for educators saying, “Most people believe that abortion is killing a developing human being, but some people believe otherwise.”  A balanced statement like this wouldn’t detract from Saletan’s point that students need to learn about, discuss and understand the importance of taking personal responsibility, when or if they have sex.

To his credit, Saletan breaks with traditional Catholic doctrine by saying that a “culture of life requires an ethic of contraception” and that birth control offers people “a loving, conscientious way to prevent conception…” I just wish he had added, “Public schools with students of all different religious denominations should teach about birth control in their sexuality education classes.” Period.

That would have made me happy—that, and a land where the phrase “sex education” is as commonplace as Mom and apple pie.

A Panel of Palins

March 5, 2009

Let’s give credit where it is due: I am pleased that Bristol Palin and her mother, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan Governor and former vice presidential candidate, are speaking out about the birth of Bristol’s son, Tripp. Tripp was born two months ago when Bristol was barely 18. His parents are still in high school and, although engaged, have no immediate plans to marry.

Hurrah for Bristol and the governor for telling Greta Van Susteren of FOX that they are now opposed to abstinence-only-until marriage (AOUM) education in public schools.  (See video of the interview below.) Governor Palin calls abstinence-only “naïve,” and her daughter, although saying everyone should be abstinent, calls it “not very realistic.” These are small steps in the right direction.

It would be great if Sarah Palin and Bristol wrote to the president, their senators and congressperson and asked them to remove funding for AOUM from the federal budget. The unplanned pregnancy that brought little Tripp into the world is a perfect example of the results of incomplete sexuality education for teens.

Given her interview with Van Susteren, it’s clear that Bristol is willing to become the celebrity poster gal for preventing teen pregnancy. (The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among Western industrialized nations, although it has plummeted in the last decade.) Bristol told Van Susteren, “I’m not the first person that it’s happened to, and I’m not going to be the last.” Later, she added: “Kids should just wait. . . . It’s not glamorous at all.”

I combed a recent People magazine article about Bristol to see if she was going to say something more substantive beyond, “I hope that people learn from my story.”  She added that it was her decision to have the baby, not her mother’s, and that she wishes she had gotten an education and “started a career first.”

However, her message is contradictory, as are most messages when they involve unplanned births; she also told People, “He…brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all.”

I think Bristol should appear as part of a panel of teens who have been affected by teen pregnancy. For example, consider a panel composed of Palin and teens who’ve had the following experiences:

  • a teen girl impregnated by an older man;
  • a teen girl whose family is entirely supportive of early child bearing;
  • a teen girl who has chosen abortion with her parents’ support;
  • a teen dad who had to drop out of school to work in a dead-end job; and
  • a teen who is having sex but using reliable contraception.

This “panel of Palins” would represent different races, ethnicities and classes and would answer all questions put to it by a teen audience. Teens’ questions would be written anonymously and placed in a large Question Box on a table onstage. A trusted faculty person or student would read questions aloud, without embarrassment or editing, to the panel for answers.

My hope is that such a panel would get to the heart of the matter about why and how teens get pregnant and have babies while still in high school. Bristol Palin can really make a difference if she tells the truth and doesn’t gloss over details. She will need to be exceptionally honest and not mouth platitudes such as, “I wish I had waited.”

Bristol needs to tell her peers about the failures of abstinence-only and the importance of using contraception. She can always make a pitch for remaining abstinent, since many teens choose this route. But she also needs to explain how important it is to talk to parents about sex and urge students to use good teen sexual health Web sites like

I don’t envy Bristol the role of becoming the nation’s poster teen for pregnancy prevention. But if she does it well, she could make a real difference. This coming May is teen pregnancy prevention month. Bristol and her potential panel members don’t have a moment to lose.

Darwin and the Swimsuit Issue

February 19, 2009

February 12th was definitely an auspicious occasion: the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. When I read about the contributions of each, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection caught my attention.

Nicholas Wade of the Times recently discussed Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and his fascination with the peacock’s tail: “Showy male ornaments, like the peacock’s tail, appeared hard to explain by natural selection, because they seemed more of a handicap than an aid to survival,” wrote Wade. Darwin’s worry about the “problem” of the peacock’s tail led him to “the idea of sexual selection, that females chose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring.”

Fast forward to the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, published each February. I picked up a copy by chance just before boarding a flight to Florida. As I put the magazine on my lap, I became uncomfortably aware that a boy about eight years old was sitting next to me. I looked down at the cover showing model Bar Refaeli on Canouan Island in the Grenadines, wearing the skimpiest bikini I have ever seen. Then I saw the cover line: “Bikinis or Nothing” and began to fervently wish that I could quickly slip the magazine into a brown paper bag. Since I didn’t have one, I compromised by holding the magazine at a 90-degree angle, so the eight-year-old could only see the back cover.

Darwin was on my mind, and I looked through the photographs only to discover that, in this case, he was wrong, wrong, wrong about who was attracting whom. Almost all the men in the issue were completely clothed in very conservative coats and shirts—even when on the beach—while the women wore nothing but the flimsiest coverings on their breasts and pubic regions. Now, I know this isn’t really about sexual selection; it’s about who’s getting paid to strip down to the bare essentials, but just stay with me here.

The women were gorgeous—make no mistake about it—and the cover headline kept its promise: “Bikinis or Nothing.” (In fact, if this was a contest between bikinis or nothing, I’m really not sure which side would have won.) The gals certainly won the peacock tail contest, though. They put the guys in the shade. Had Mr. Darwin seen the 2009 swimsuit issue, I wonder whether he would have had to go back to the drawing board with his theory of sexual selection. At the very least, he’d have to say that both women and men wear tail feathers to attract the opposite sex. What a difference 200 hundred years make.

Perhaps it was because I was sitting by the 8-year-old boy that I felt concerned about the swimsuit issue and its possible effect on preteens and teens. Millions of households must receive copies of this issue, and I wonder what parents say to their children about the way women are depicted. What messages do these images send to young people, who are just barely out of puberty?

For girls, is the message, be what I am? Is it, aspire to be a swimsuit model and make a gazillion bucks? Is it, if your body isn’t like those in the magazine, then you are seriously deficient? For boys, is it, only go after the girl with the beautiful breasts? Are the girls who are willing to bare almost all more desirable and worth pursuing than those who are covered up? Do the models have the ideal American female body (and did they achieve it through starvation, plastic surgery and Botox injections), and is anything less, undesirable? I could go on a long time with a lot more questions.

I wish school officials would allow sexuality educators to use the swimsuit issue to trigger conversations about the body issues that are so critical to self-esteem. But most teachers taking a copy of the issue into a classroom would have to fear for their reputations, particularly if they don’t have tenure.

I wish the models themselves would talk openly with young women about body image and how they developed the (high or low) self-esteem to be photographed with hardly any clothes on. More and more young men are struggling with body image issues as well, so there’s plenty of reason to have a group discussion. But since teachers or models will probably not be able to discuss the ramifications of this issue and its effects on body image, then parents should use the magazine as a vehicle for talking to their own kids.

In the meantime, Mr. Darwin, how would you attempt to explain sexual selection and the swimsuit issue of 2009? Have any good ideas?