The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report last week that provides guidance on how pediatricians can provide sexuality education to their patients. Answer executive director, Nicole Cushman, MPH, provides commentary on the report on Rewire. She shares her thoughts and recommendations on what it will take to implement these guidelines and how educators and parents can partner with health care providers to ensure young people get the medically accurate sex education they deserve. Read more.
In this third installment of Answer’s blog series, Inter(sex)tions, sexuality educator Deborah Roffman tells us why human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. Ms. Roffman has been teaching sexuality education for over 40 years in grades 4-12 and is also the author of three books: Talk to Me First, Sex and Sensibility and But How’d I Get in There in the First Place. Sexuality is a topic that is too often reduced to genitals and sexual behaviors. Ms. Roffman shares how sexuality educators can begin to get at the complexity of human sexuality by making connections from sexuality to just about any other academic subject area. She encourages all teachers to make deliberate, ongoing connections for students between the topic of sexuality and other academic disciplines, to promote students’ critical thinking about a topic that is too often portrayed in simplistic ways.
“Years ago I read that the average American adult processes information about sexuality on a second grade level,” explains Ms. Roffman. “That really struck a chord, because of what I know about cognitive development. Before ages 7 to 8, children process information very concretely; they can’t yet mentally step back far enough to ‘see’ or grasp the context around the content of life. While most adults are fully able to think contextually about many, many other topics, because of the poor quality of the ‘sex ed’ they likely experienced, they may be ‘stuck’ at a concrete level of understanding.”
With such a wealth of teaching experience and a deep commitment to broadening how we think, talk and teach about human sexuality, we were excited to have Ms. Roffman share her insights into teaching sexuality education and teaching across topic areas.
Answer: You have noted that sexuality educators need to help students move beyond a limited understanding of sex and sexual health that narrowly focuses on the genitals. Why is this so important?
Roffman: The excessive emphasis in our culture on the genital aspects of sexuality—rather than the whole human being attached to those genitals—reflects and reinforces what in my mind is an ultimately dehumanized understanding of who we are as sexual beings. My mantra to my students is that, no, they are not “walking talking genitals.” They are thinking, feeling, caring, valuing, relating, communicating, decision-making, self-care taking human beings, who (also) happen to have genitals.
I want them to understand too that “human sexuality” is not just longhand for “sex” or “sexual health.” It is an exceptionally broad field of study that encompasses anything and everything in the world that connects meaningfully to issues of sex, gender and reproduction. And, if you think deeply enough about those three issues, that is just about everything in the world! After all, sexuality is the fundamental life force. Why wouldn’t it be connected to everything?
So, the point, on both the personal and macro levels, is to engage students in thinking deeply and critically about themselves and the world around them in as many ways as possible. That’s the point of education, right?
Answer: Given the constraints on the time many educators have to provide sexuality education, what can educators do to help broaden students’ understanding of sexuality?
Roffman: My first response to this type of question is that, as sexuality educators, we must also be child and youth advocates. We have to be prepared to articulate persuasively—to administrators and everyone else who needs to know—that the way we are most often required to teach this subject matter is neither pedagogically sound (large groups, brief sessions, few classes, little continuity across age groups) nor developmentally sound (way too little too late), and how that needs to change for us to do well by our students. Until it does, I find that assigning meaningful readings, especially those that relate to our curriculum or to relevant current events, keeps the learning exciting and dynamic. In any three-month period, practically all of the topics I want my students to think deeply about will appear in print or online media.
Answer: Can you give us a few examples of how sexuality educators can use other disciplines—such as math, history or even astronomy—to teach about human sexuality?
Roffman: This skill comes with the recognition that the topic of human sexuality and all of life itself are astonishingly interconnected. Think about the myriad ways that sex, gender and reproduction intersect with the following disciplines, by no means an exhaustive list: history (Henry VIII’s domestic and public life, for example, was all about sex, gender and reproduction!), religion, economics, politics, government, war and peace; all of the basic sciences, all of the arts, literature; mental and physical health, disability, child and adolescent development, health education, public health; race, gender, ethnicity, and class; world cultures, social studies, social justice, psychology, sociology, marriage and family; psychiatry, medicine, pharmacy, law; the armed services, criminology, journalism, linguistics, and anthropology; communications, mass media, technology, social networking, marketing; philosophy, morality and ethics.
Even topics that may seem totally unrelated to sexuality aren’t really: architecture (would women throughout the ages have designed all of those phallic-shaped structures?); agriculture (the invention of which established the sexual double standard and solidified the notion of women as property), geology (Mother Earth); and astronomy (think constellations).
Answer: How can educators in other fields be sexuality educators? What opportunities could there be for educators in sexuality education to partner with their colleagues in other academic fields?
Roffman: Human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. That means all teachers are potential human sexuality educators. A middle school math teacher was sitting in a faculty group at his school when I quoted the statistic that if two people begin to engage in sexual intercourse at 16, with each having two and only two partners that year and repeating that exact pattern each year thereafter with two new partners, by age 20 each will have been exposed directly and indirectly to 100 partners. Intrigued, he went straight to his 7th grade class the very next period, tossed his lesson for the day and instead challenged them to work out this interesting and important mathematical progression!
Integrating human sexuality into every-day learning was a genuine gift to his students, who within 40 minutes broadened their practical understanding of math (and STIs), made important connections among subject matters, and learned to think more critically about human sexuality. Most importantly, they identified yet another adult in their school community who was “askable” and available for conversations about sexuality. Imagine a whole school full of teachers playing these roles, even if only briefly and once in a while!
Answer: What advice do you have for educators?
Roffman: I’ve advocated, well, forever, for a reframing of our subject matter from “sex” to “human sexuality,” and meaning it in the broadest possible way. In the general public, the work we do is most fundamentally associated with “sex” (which, by the way, makes us more vulnerable to attack) and sexual parts, not the growing, developing human being attached to them and the infinite ways that issues of sex, gender and reproduction play themselves out in human life. That’s the way, I think, to get us all past second grade.
I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column “When the Rapist Doesn’t See It as Rape” with a heady mix of revulsion, familiarity and gratitude that such a widely read and respected journalist had devoted white space to this issue. Kristoff drew on Jon Krakauer’s new book Missoula to call attention to the discrepancy between the public’s perception of rapists as menacing strangers and the much more common reality of rape committed by acquaintances who often don’t perceive their actions as rape at all.
The cognitive dissonance that resides in many perpetrators’ minds is hardly news to those who have advocated, educated and fought to end rape and sexual assault for decades. This latest commentary brought to my mind a three-year-old Reddit thread in which rapists told “their side of the story.” Predictably, the collective effect of thousands of comments was chilling. Men (primarily) described plying women (nearly exclusively) with alcohol and physically overpowering them, and they excused their behavior by blaming peer pressure, biological necessity and, above all, the women they assaulted, whom they perceived as sending mixed signals.
While reading rape apologia ad nauseam can seemingly lead to nothing but despair, once you cut through the victim-blaming, I believe these accounts do a better job of laying bare the nature of our rape culture than many erudite feminist analyses. It is hard to deny the pervasiveness of gender double standards, biological determinism, slut-shaming and a good old-fashioned “boys will be boys” mentality when faced with such firsthand accounts.
So how should we respond? I believe that sexuality educators can and must play a fundamental role in dismantling rape culture by addressing these issues head on in the classroom. A good place to start is with age-appropriate discussions about gender and power. For example, educators working with elementary school students can ask students to reflect on the types of toys and clothing marketed toward boys and girls as a way to introduce the concept of gender roles and societal expectations about gender. In middle school, students will be ready for discussions about gender roles and stereotypes in friendships and romantic relationships. These conversations lay the groundwork for more detailed lessons for high school students to analyze the ways gender roles and expectations influence young people’s ability to refuse or consent to sex, negotiate condom use and set and maintain boundaries.
High-quality sex education can and should equip young people with the language and tools to understand and critique the roles of gender and power in their friendships and romantic relationships. Creating safe classroom spaces for students to explore these topics can begin to create cultural shifts in gender norms and related behaviors. Research shows that sex education that addresses gender and power is more likely to have positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Given that greater than ten percent of high school girls and four percent of boys report being forced to have sex, and more than 14 percent of girls and six percent of boys have experienced sexual dating violence, educators have an imperative to incorporate discussions of sexual violence into their curricula. Only by openly addressing these issues and laying bare the discrepancies and dissonance that underlie rape culture can we begin to create a new paradigm in which victims are believed, boundaries are respected and healthy relationships are established.
If you would like to learn more about teaching about healthy relationships and addressing the unique needs of boys in the sex education classroom, check out our online workshops Boys and Sex Ed and Relationship Skills for Teens.
If you’ve been following the headlines related to sex education in recent months, you may have a rather bleak picture of the (mis)education of American teens when it comes to sexuality and relationships. To be sure, abstinence-only programs are still commonplace in U.S. schools, despite having been discredited over and over and over, and too many young people receive sex education that is too little, too late.
While those of us who implement and advocate for comprehensive sexuality education still have our work cut out for us, at Answer, we remain optimistic about the state of sex ed in America. In fact, we see progress and possibilities nearly everywhere we look. What keeps us so optimistic? Here are our top five reasons to be hopeful about sex education in the U.S.
1. We know that comprehensive sex education works. Study after study has affirmed the effectiveness of comprehensive programs at helping teens to make healthy decisions about sex and relationships. What is more, sex education has been credited with contributing to historic declines in U.S. teen pregnancy and birth rates by increasing use of condoms and birth control. In fact, 85.6 percent of teen girls report using some method of contraception (including condoms) the last time they had sex.
2. Parents, teens and the public support comprehensive sex education. Every state, local, and national poll affirms that the overwhelming majority of Americans support sex education that covers a wide range of topics, including birth control, abstinence and healthy relationships. While a small minority of people opposed to sex education can create some very big roadblocks to implementing comprehensive programs, we feel emboldened by the support of parents and young people across the country.
3. Young people have virtually unfettered access to the Internet. You may ask why this is a good thing for sex education. To be sure, the Internet is rife with misinformation and explicit content that can confuse and mislead young people. It can also act as an equalizing force that provides access to sorely needed information and resources to those who don’t get their questions answered at school or at home. At Answer, we launched the web version of our magazine Sex, Etc. way back in 1999. Sex, Etc. is a resource written by teens, for teens, exemplifying the power of technology to lift up youth voices. We’re proud of our commitment to leveraging technology to reach more and more young people, and we’re thrilled to be joined online by many colleague organizations.
4. We’ve made tremendous progress in supporting LGBTQ youth. While there is certainly a long way to go in addressing the needs of queer youth, anti-discrimination and anti-bullying laws in many states protect young people from harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal funding for sex education now requires programs to be inclusive of all youth and implemented in a safe and supportive environment, and the number of gay-straight alliances (GSAs), which have been shown to contribute to safer school environments for LGBTQ students, is increasing on campuses across the country.
5. Young people across the country are advocating for better sex ed. Perhaps most inspiring of all are the groups of young people who are organizing to demand comprehensive sex education in their schools. Recently, The Daily Show highlighted the efforts of teens in Clark County, Nevada to push for curriculum reform in what has become a highly contentious debate. While the outcome in Las Vegas is still undetermined, these teens give me hope that we are moving in the right direction.
I don’t mean to be flippant or pollyanna about the very real and persistent challenges to improving sex education in this country. We face those challenges head-on every day at Answer. That’s part of what keeps us committed to providing top-notch training and capacity building for educators and youth-driven sexuality education directly to young people. We have the privilege of working with dedicated educators and inspiring teens from all over the U.S., and when we look at them, we don’t see doom and gloom; we see hope and possibility.
We asked the Sex, Etc. teen staff what they wished for when it comes to sexuality education. Here’s what they had to say.
To start some important conversations about gender and double standards with your students, share this teen-written story, “Three Double Standards That Hurt Guys and Girls,” from Sexetc.org. For training on addressing the needs of transgender students in your classes, register for Answer’s LGBTQ Issues in Schools.
Meet Dan Rice, Answer’s new director of training. He has some tips for teaching about STDs that will help inform—not scare—your students.
When it comes to teaching about consent, the topic can seem pretty straightforward—sexual contact without consent is sexual assault or rape. But like any topic in sexuality education that involves communication about sexual behaviors, things can get complicated, and the topic needs more nuance for our students than we might have initially thought. So when it comes to teaching consent to young people, it isn’t always easy to know where to start. That’s why we’ve compiled three resources we think will be invaluable in your classroom this fall.
From The New Republic “If College Students Can’t Say What ‘Consent’ Is, Then We Should Teach It Sooner“
First things first, it helps to understand why teaching about consent in middle or high school is so important. Rape and sexual assault are usually a part of the conversation about consent, and these topics can be sensitive and difficult to discuss, even when we know how important it is to cover them. One thing that may make it easier for you to broach the topic is seeing the bigger picture and knowing that, if you don’t discuss it now, your students will be at a disadvantage later. In The New Republic’s great article, “If College Students Can’t Say What ‘Consent’ Is, Then We Should Teach It Sooner,” author Lane Florsheim speaks with Answer staff and Sex, Etc. teen staff writer Nick Meduski about the importance of consent education and what it should look like.
It’s pretty simple to understand just how important consent education is as a part of comprehensive sexuality education, but it can be hard to know exactly what needs to be taught in order for it to be effective. The National Sexuality Education Standards are a great resource. They offer key indicators of student success organized by skill development and tell you what content should be taught and is age-and grade-level appropriate.
You’ve seen the bigger picture with “If College Students Can’t Say What ‘Consent’ Is, Then We Should Teach It Sooner” and the essential minimum content students should be learning according to The National Sexuality Education Standards, but it can be hard to know how to put these resources into practice. That’s why the third resource you need in the classroom this fall is one of Answer’s original lesson plans. “What Does Consent Look Like” is mapped to The National Sexuality Education Standards and uses a teen-written story with the same name from the winter 2014 issue of Sex, Etc. This lesson plan uses discussion, group activities and a worksheet to help students have a better understanding of what consent does-and does not-look like. Also in this lesson are resources for students and a take away sheet that includes tips for understanding consent.
With these resources we think any educator that tackles the topic of consent in the classroom this year will be successful. But, we also want to know: What resources have you used with success to teach about consent in the past? Let us know in the comments!
Answer’s teen-written sexual health magazine and website, Sex, Etc., has featured the writing of nearly 300 teen writers in the last 20 years. We are proud to provide a platform for young people to educate their peers and talk about sexuality and the sexual health issues that are important to them. In celebration of 20 years of exceptional sexuality education, Answer has been reaching out to former teen staff writers who have gone on to do great work in sexual and reproductive health. This month we’re catching up with Cassie Wolfe.
Cassie Wolfe, LCSW, M.Ed., Teen Board Member, 2000-2001
Cassie clearly remembers hearing about Sex, Etc. in the summer of 2000. She was at a conference participating in a breakout session led by Sex, Etc.’s editor on the importance of comprehensive sexuality education. “As soon as she was finished speaking, I ran up and grabbed an application; I was determined to be part of their movement!” Cassie explains.
Today Cassie is still a part of that movement; she is a Ph.D. candidate in human sexuality, a clinical social worker and a sex therapist, who continues to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education.
Lucinda Holt: How has Sex, Etc. shaped the work you do today?
Cassie Wolfe: Sex, Etc. validated my right to receive non-judgmental and medically accurate information about my sexual health, which has empowered me to empower others. It reinforced my desire to reciprocate the encouragement, inspiration and support that I received to others who are also curious about sex. What experience has taught me is that it is not just young people who want and need non-judgmental and medically accurate information about sex; it’s ALL people! Sex, Etc. was instrumental in sparking my desire to continue the conversation about sexuality and relationships, and I get the amazing opportunity to do that as both a therapist and educator.
Sex, Etc. has inspired me to continue educating ALL people about their sexual health with compassion, understanding and empathy, regardless of their age or educational background. Sex, Etc. taught me that sexuality is more than “just sex” and that it spans way beyond disease and dysfunction. The need for information has significantly shaped my practice in working with both professionals who deliver mental health and medical services and the people who are seeking them.
Since graduating from Rutgers with a degree in women’s and gender studies, I went on to receive dual masters’ degrees in social work and human sexuality and am hoping to wrap up my Ph.D. in human sexuality in the fall or early spring of next year. For the past three years I have been working as a social worker at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment—an inpatient psychiatric facility. I do a combination of case management, therapy, provide case consults for adult individuals who present with sexuality related concerns and facilitate sex education groups on our two adolescent units. I have also guest lectured to adolescent psychiatry fellows on adolescent sexuality and risk factors in working with LGBTQ youth. In September, I will be presenting in Boston on the healthcare needs of transgender patients to OB/GYN residents and medical students.
LH: What’s the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today?
CW: The most pressing, overarching sexual health issue teens face is the systemic shaming and denial of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors involving sexuality. Societally, we still have a hard time accepting that sexuality is a normal and healthy part of our development, specifically for young people. This then translates to policies promoting the withholding of critical information young people need to make informed decisions about their sexual health needs.
LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?
CW: I enjoyed brainstorming about article topics with my peers and staff who were bright, energetic, and enthusiastic people! Our meetings never felt like work and our discussions were always sex-positive, supportive and meaningful. I also enjoyed having my articles read and discussed in health class!
LH: Name one thing that makes you really angry?
CW: One thing that makes me angry is the assumption that teens cannot make informed decisions for themselves, yet are given the mixed message about also needing to be “more mature.” One thing that makes me extremely happy is receiving the support from the “higher ups” about running sex ed groups for teens in a setting that is traditionally pretty conservative.
LH: What word would you remove from the dictionary?
LH: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would that be?
CW: William Masters and Virginia Johnson!
One of the unique ways that Answer provides comprehensive sexuality education is through our teen-written sexual health magazine and website, Sex, Etc. In honor of Sex, Etc.’s 20th anniversary, Answer is continuing to profile former Sex, Etc. teen staff writers who have gone on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism. We recently e-mailed former teen staff writer Emily Duhovny to find out how working for Sex, Etc. informed the work she does today.
Emily Duhovny, Teen Staff Writer, 2006-2007
Today Emily Duhovny is a Legislative Aide at the office of Congressman Paul Tonko of New York. We aren’t surprised that Emily is working on “the Hill.” She got her start advocating for comprehensive sexuality education during an advocacy day in Washington, D.C. when she was a teenager. That experience empowered Emily and ignited her passion for policy.
Lucinda Holt: How has Sex, Etc. shaped the work you do today?
Emily Duhovny: Sex, Etc. gave me the opportunity to explore how policy and laws affected the lives of teenagers. Sex, Etc. strongly confirmed my belief that teens (and all people) need to be aware of the laws and policies that affect them. It fired me up to want to work to both understand and change the laws in our country. Sex, Etc. pushed me to discuss the issues that some considered to be “taboo” and reminded me that we must advocate and not stay silent on these pressing issues.
Today I remain committed to making the changes I want to see but serve on the other side as a Legislative Aide to Congressman Paul Tonko. I manage a portfolio of topics that includes women’s issues, nutrition and education. In my day-to-day work, I handle many of the issues that Sex, Etc. shines a light on, and I am still deeply drawn to these issues. I meet with organizations and advocacy groups who visit D.C. to talk about comprehensive sex education, reproductive rights and women’s health. I am especially excited when teenagers and college students come to the office to share their voices on these important issues.
LH: What’s the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today?
ED: Access to and knowledge about birth control and sexual health; a huge contributor to teen pregnancy is a lack of information on sexual health and a missing discussion on what healthy relationships and life choices look like. If we care about teenagers and women, then we should not be afraid of what they will do with information. The fact that there are parts of the country where teens are not only kept in the dark but are also fed lies is unacceptable. Misinformation is both dangerous and demeaning. The right message to send to teens is that we trust you to make informed decisions. Keeping teenagers in the dark is a disservice that will have extensive consequences for our teens and our communities. From the staff at Answer and my peers at Sex, Etc., this message was loudly reverberated, and it still rings true today.
LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?
ED: It was inspiring to work with teens and staff who thought critically about these issues. I enjoyed researching topics that I found intriguing or alarming and then being able to share that with other teens. I wanted my peers to read the stories and think “How is this happening in the United States?” and “What can I do to change it?”
Here are some of my favorite stories I had the opportunity to work on:
- “The Long Walk to the Pharmacy: Purchasing Plan B”
- “Same-Sex Prom Dates: What’s the Fuss?
- Going to D.C. to interview Congressman Henry Waxman on his report on the failures of federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs
LH: What issue are you most passionate about and why?
ED: Social justice, which touches upon equality, education, civil rights, access to healthcare, a just legal system and so many other spheres. There are many pressing issues to be addressed, but I deeply believe that there is a level of dignity and opportunity that all people deserve. When we ensure everyone has dignity and opportunity, we give ourselves a fighting chance of addressing all of the problems that our communities face.
LH: Name one thing that makes you really angry or really happy?
ED: Really angry: That in the United States the term “Madam President” has only been used as a hypothetical or in televisions shows. Really happy: That the above fact will one day sound unbelievable and ridiculous to little girls across the nation.
LH: Name one myth or ridiculous thing you heard about sex growing up?
ED: Here is an example I came across during my time at Sex, Etc.: ”Women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” This comes from an excerpt in Congressman Henry Waxman’s report on the failures of federally funded abstinence-only sex education, and it quotes a real abstinence-only sex education curriculum. It may not be specific to sex, but it shows the pervasive stereotypes abstinence-only sex education programs use to portray women. It definitely falls into the ridiculous category.
LH: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would that be?
ED: Margaret Sanger. It would be fascinating to hear her perspective on where we are at today.