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The Octuplets: A Lesson Plan

February 12, 2009

Octuplets: The word is such a rarity that it isn’t even included in the spellcheck of Microsoft Word. A certain woman and the worldwide media have put it on the map. Surely, as educators, you must have heard the buzz about the multiple births in the hallways and classrooms of the schools where you teach.

Whoever Nayda Suleman, the mother of the octuplets, really is or isn’t, she’s surely handed sexuality educators the teachable moment of the semester. I suggest you pause whatever curriculum you are using and capitalize on this opportunity to talk to your students about a wide variety of issues triggered by Suleman, a single mother of six who gave birth to eight babies, all conceived through in vitro fertilization.

But I don’t suggest that you focus your students’ attention on Suleman’s behavior or that of her medical doctor. Rather, I suggest that you use the following lesson plan, which I created after reading Ellen Goodman’s column, “Eight Is More than Enough.” The ideas in Goodman’s column provide an excellent basis for a lesson plan.

In her column, Goodman cites the following issues raised by Suleman’s births. She says the issues are “everything that we don’t really want to talk about in terms of pregnancy and child rearing”:

  • marital status,
  • money,
  • individual choice,
  • responsibility and
  • technology.

These issues should become central to your discussion with students. You could divide your students into five groups, and give each student one of the issues. Next, you could ask them to brainstorm together and then write down the pluses and minuses of each issue if someone was having a baby. For example, with marital status, the group might discuss the pluses and minuses of having a child as an unmarried teen, a single adult woman (with or without a job) or a committed couple in a marriage or long-term partnership.

The question of the appropriate age to conceive a child would certainly come up in the conversation among students. (My guess is that the students would conclude that having a child as a high-school student or a single parent would be immensely difficult.)

Individual group work around the other issues that Goodman suggests would enlarge and enrich the classroom conversation. Putting the students’ contributions to each issue on an easel-sized piece of paper and placing them up around the room would lead to a rich discussion about the heart of pregnancy and child rearing.

Goodman also asks another set of questions, which students could answer.

  • Does anyone have a right to tell anyone else how many kids to have?
  • Can only people who can afford children bear them?
  • If you are heterosexual female, do you need to have a husband to have a baby? (This might have already arisen under the discussion of “responsibility” in the first phase of the exercise.)

I might ask each student to answer each question individually and then hold a class discussion, with everyone chiming in and elaborating on his or her opinion.

A possible homework assignment might be for each student to browse the Internet and write a short paragraph about one of the following topics:

  • The history of the infertility movement;
  • The cost of having a single birth and/or multiple births to an individual family and to society;
  • Cost savings of providing family planning to poor women (which was stripped from the stimulus bill); and
  • The ethics of implanting multiple embryos and of destroying embryos.

I have tried to keep students away from giving their own opinions about the ethics of Suleman’s and her medical specialist’s behavior. This kind of discussion can cause some parents displeasure, if they hear about it. If the conversation reduces itself to a quarrel between those who support Suleman and those who do not, students will avoid the larger questions on bearing children. But students may want to talk generally, as a windup, about how or how not to regulate infertility treatments.

As a coda, it would worthwhile to review all forms of contraception. Students tell us so often that lessons on contraception are too dry and clinical to remember. A discussion of the methods against a backdrop of the octuplets’ birth might just be the perfect way for students to realize the profundity of bearing and raising a child. They may come away from the discussion with a better respect for the medical gift of contraception and a greater comfort with using contraception when and if they do decide to have sex.

If you decide to follow this lesson plan—amending it, of course, to suit your students’ ages—let us know if it flies. We shall put your feedback in another post. In the meantime, thanks, Ellen Goodman, for your thoughtful and good ideas!

Family Life Educator-in-Chief

February 6, 2009

President Barack Obama is our Commander-in-Chief, and First Lady Michelle Obama refers to herself as Mom-in-Chief. Awhile back, former President Bill Clinton earned the title Sex Educator-in-Chief, but he earned it for all the wrong reasons—namely, his indiscreet, lewd and disrespectful conduct with a much-younger intern. I would only bestow that title on someone again if that person attains the highest standards associated with sexuality education. But I will, however, declare President Obama our Family Life Educator-in-Chief.

Why? Because when you look at Obama’s persona, conduct and ideas over the two-year presidential campaign and first 100 hours in office, it is clear that he is a model partner and family supporter who espouses the values of responsibility and caring. Just consider the following:

  • Obama adores his wife. When the President and First Lady danced together to the romantic ballad “At Last” during the inaugural ball, no one in the world could have doubted the depth of their love and attraction for each other—and after 16 years of marriage. They radiate real, not manufactured, intimacy.
  • He is committed to the institution of marriage. At first, President Obama dragged his feet about asking Michelle to marry him. (She was the one that kept pushing him, telling him that “marriage is everything.”) But then he bought the ring and showed it to every member of her family before offering it to her on a dessert plate at a fancy restaurant where he finally proposed. Their commitment to their marriage is a shining example for young people about the importance of partnership. (Note: President Obama has not yet supported same-sex marriage, but he strongly endorses civil unions, where partners have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. This is an important step forward.)
  • He adores his two young daughters. President Obama glows in his daughters’ presence and always refers to them by name in his speeches. I read that after his eldest was born, he worked “the night shift,” because he was only teaching at the time, his schedule was more flexible than his wife’s and she needed more sleep. (You can see his affinity for small children and theirs for him in these photographs from the campaign.)
  • He shows respect and kindness toward family members, scattered as they are from Hawaii to Indonesia to Kenya. Obama’s willingness to invite his mother-in-law to live in the White House also testifies to his understanding of the multi-generations that make up the American family.
  • He calls on young men to take responsibility. Just recall these comments from his speech on Father’s Day last June: “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. … Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.” (Check out the full speech here.)

It’s clear that people have great respect for the Obama’s family life, as this cartoon demonstrates.

Beyond the basics about family life, President Obama is working toward another title: Sex Educator-in-Chief. With the stroke of a pen on his third day in office, he lifted the noxious global gag rule, which has prevented international family planning agencies from mentioning the option of abortion to pregnant women, even if the procedure is legal in their own country.

While saying that abstinence is the ideal, he has also acknowledged the need for young people to have comprehensive information about contraception, because human fallibility and sexual desire can cloud even the clearest minds. (Just check out his official statement on the Prevention First Act.)

If Obama keeps moving in this direction, he may (unlike Bill Clinton) become the true version of a Sex Educator-in-Chief—one that meets our country’s need for sexuality education policies that are based on common sense, intelligence, responsibility and understanding.

In or Out of Limbo?

January 28, 2009

The AP headline “Future of Abstinence-Only Funding Is in Limbo” gives sexuality educators hope that the winds of change presently sweeping the land will finally end our government’s funding of abstinence-only programs, which have cost us $176 million each year and $1.5 billion over the past decade.

Many hope that new policies and funding for comprehensive sexuality education will replace abstinence-only funding and policies. Comprehensive sex ed balances instruction about the merits of delaying sexual activity with medically accurate instruction about the benefits of using contraceptives.

Our hopefulness comes because President Obama is considered an advocate for comprehensive sex education. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the AP: “[Obama] totally understands the need for young people to have comprehensive sex education—they need information that protects their health. … I hope that will be the position of the administration, but when Congress gets involved, sometimes things get more complicated.”

An Obama spokesman refused to confirm or deny what the President would propose in his budget—keeping the funding issue still firmly in limbo and advocates on both sides of the issue on a tether.

Congress has gotten involved in a way that should warm the hearts of comprehensive sexuality education advocates. On the first day of Senate business, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Prevention First Act. This legislation would increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sexuality education and support programs designed to reduce unintended pregnancies. Congresswomen Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Diane DeGette (D-CO) introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives.

Slaughter, who strongly opposes any continued funding for abstinence-only programs, introduced the legislation by saying: “We can’t have both [comprehensive and abstinence-only programs], because abstinence-only doesn’t work. We believe the amount of money that goes into [abstinence-only] would be so much better used on things to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Slaughter is sanguine that when the Prevention First Act comes to a vote there will be enough support in the new Congress to pass it.

In his important work Emerging Answers 2007: Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., reviewed 115 programs and found “strong evidence” for the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education programs and “limited evidence” of the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

But before we start celebrating, Sarah Brown, the executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, offers a cautionary note.  She recommends that “science-driven” be applied to sexuality education programs, saying that this approach favors comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only, but that, in due course, researchers might find that some abstinence-only programs are effective. (This list of “science-driven” or “evidence-driven” programs is not long and can be found here.)

More and better research about comprehensive sexuality education can only continue to move it out of limbo and into the educational sunlight where we believe it belongs.

The M-Word: Past and Present

January 21, 2009

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.

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Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a People.com reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.


Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

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The Demise of Dating

January 5, 2009

Charles M. Blow is a favorite columnist of mine. The art director of National Geographic magazine, he also writes a regular column on Saturdays in The New York Times. I like his work, not only because he uses graphics and statistics in a compelling way, but because he writes boldly and informatively about sexual issues.

Blow devoted a recent column to what he called “The Demise of Dating.” It was about the shift from dating to hooking up by high school seniors and college students across the country. There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about this shift in behavior of students you may be teaching, because Blow points out that it “doesn’t mean they’re having more sex or having sex with strangers.” In fact, he cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that teens today are having less sex.

I recommend his column to educators as a way to get students talking about relationships and values—an important ingredient in high-quality sexuality education programs.

“Gay Marriage and a Moral Minority” is another recent Blow column that caught my eye.  In it, he quotes important data for educators and parents from a Guttmacher Institute study. The data shows the following:

  • Black teens are 26 percent more likely than teens of other races to have had premarital sex by age 18;
  • Black teens have a pregnancy rate that is twice that of white teens; and
  • White teens still have premarital sex, but they are better informed about pregnancy prevention and use protection more regularly than do black teens.

You know about the digital divide and the health care divide, but you may have not heard about the teen pregnancy divide. It could possibly deepen during the economic downturn, when in all likelihood poverty as well as a lack of opportunity among poor urban kids will increase. As always, sexuality educators need high-quality training to support them in their work with young people—and our trainings are top notch.

Thanks, Charles Blow, for your columns on sexual health issues. And, please, in 2009, keep writing about sexuality, sex education and teen pregnancy in our society. Many are grateful.

Remember Larry

December 17, 2008

I strongly recommend that parents and educators read the Newsweek cover story “Young, Gay and Murdered.” It is a riveting, tragic, and gut-wrenching story about the murder of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate at Oxnard, California’s E. O. Green Junior High School last winter. The student, Lawrence (“Larry”) King, was shot in the presence of a teacher and other students.

Central to the story is the crucial fact that Larry had recently come out at school and was killed by a homophobic classmate who had been harassing him. The school simply didn’t know how to handle the situation before it literally blew up in its face and resulted in Larry’s death.

What happened to Larry could happen again in any junior high school in the country—sooner rather than later. But denial is a comfortable state for many school administrators, board members, teachers and parents.

Recently, I told the head of a school for young female dancers about the work one of its alumni has done for college students with eating disorders. “Oh,” she told me, “we don’t have any problems like that in this school.” No problems like that? I asked myself, thinking of all the pressures on dancers to be pencil thin. In the same vein, I can hear middle-school principals vehemently denying that they have students as young as ten who proclaim that they are gay and then are harassed—and even assaulted—by classmates. Think again, I’d say.

Parents of middle schoolers need to talk with their kids about sexual orientation much earlier than they ever thought possible. They need to talk about the horror of hate crimes. An equal burden falls on the entire educational establishment—from the commissioners of education and state board members to superintendents, principals, school board members, teachers, staff, parents and students in middle and high schools. They must talk openly and frequently about sexual orientation and the policies needed to protect all students.

An Oxnard school board member best sums up the steps we need to take to ensure that horrible school tragedies like this one never repeat themselves: “This has got to be discussed more,” said the 48-year veteran member.

Discussed and discussed and discussed by everyone who is concerned with strengthening public education. Educators also need more training on these issues, and they can look no further than Answer’s outstanding workshops, including “That’s So Gay! Homophobia and Harassment Prevention in Elementary School” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues: You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers.”

But, first, please read Larry’s story and remember him.

Moving to the Middle on Sex Ed

December 11, 2008

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education can glean good news from Charles M. Blow’s New York Times op-ed piece, “Americans Move to the Middle.”

According to Blow, our opinions on what is “morally acceptable” are increasingly shifting toward the middle. He cites Gallup poll research gathered over the past eight years that shows that the majority of Americans think it is morally acceptable to get divorced, engage in premarital sex and have babies outside of marriage. And almost half believe that same-sex relationships are acceptable.

Although Blow doesn’t mention how Americans feel about sex education in schools, research shows that many are moving toward the middle—and beyond—on this issue as well. In fact, the majority of Americans support comprehensive sexuality education. They support programs that instruct young people about the benefits of abstinence and contraception.

With a new president and Congress arriving in January, we may have a real chance to change directions on sexuality education in public schools. President-elect Obama, although speaking out for the ideal of abstinence until marriage, has said that he believes young people need complete and non-ideological information about sexual health. Many of the newly elected members of Congress have already spoken out against abstinence only until marriage (AOUM) programs.

Yet many politicians still lag behind the public on this issue because they fear their careers will come to a grinding halt if they vote against AOUM programs. This is why Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS and a leader in the fight against federal support of AOUM, has had to work so hard to persuade members of Congress to vote against additional funding for AOUM. As more states reject these funds (25 so far), it sends a clear message to politicians that the majority of Americans want young people to learn all the facts and skills they need to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex.

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Up Next: An Openly Gay or Lesbian President

December 4, 2008

In 1968, the year he was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy predicted that in 40 years the United States would have a black president. It is 2008; he was spot on.

Since Obama’s historic electoral triumph, I’ve read that the White House doors are wide open to a marvelous range of people of different genders and ethnicities. However, I don’t remember a gay man or lesbian making the list.

I certainly do not posses Bobby Kennedy’s prognosticating skills, but given the American people’s willingness to change and to understand that denying rights to others contradicts the Constitution, I’ll climb out on a limb and make the following prediction: Within 40 years, an openly gay man or lesbian will be elected president of the U.S.

The climb to this summit may seem long and steep, given the results of votes on recent ballot propositions, which most pundits consider a tragedy for gay and lesbian citizens. Take a look at the results of these ballot initiatives:

  • Floridians and Arizonians approved anti-gay marriage amendments to their state constitutions;
  • Californians, who like to think they live in one of the most progressive states in the nation, approved Proposition 8, which strips thousands of same-sex couples of their right to marry; and
  • Arkansans approved a ban on people who are “cohabitating outside of a valid marriage” from serving as foster parents or adopting children.

Currently, same-sex marriage is only legal in two states: Massachusetts and Connecticut. What will happen in other states, where the issue is certain to arise again? Where will the successful alliance of Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals that defeated Proposition 8 turn next? Groups in this alliance raised $40 million dollars and sent armies of volunteers to California. They have a paradigm that works. Will they decide to try to ban domestic partnerships state by state?

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Looking Ahead

December 1, 2008

In light of the historic fact that Senator Barack Obama will soon become our 44th president, I thought I would review what he has said to date about some aspects of sexuality and sex education. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act on his beliefs (the personal often does not become the political and the political often changes the personal), but his thoughts might point in interesting directions.

I started by reviewing Obama’s words from the third and final debate. If you’re like me, while watching presidential debates you always hope the moderator will ask the candidates directly about their views on sexuality education in public school classrooms. So far, no one ever has.

However, moderator Bob Schieffer did move in the right direction when he asked Senators Obama and McCain whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. This led to a back-and-forth discussion which touched on nominations to the Supreme Court, late-term abortion and life-saving treatments for children of botched abortions.

Obama eventually turned the discussion toward our issue: how to find common ground between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life. He stated, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.”

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