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The Answer Blog

Sexuality Education

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Emily Duhovny

June 26, 2014

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:

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.

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Natasha Ramsey

May 8, 2014

Sex, Etc., Answer’s award-winning, teen-written magazine and website, has been providing the sexual health information teens need and deserve for 20 years. None of this would be possible without the teens who write the stories that educate young people across the country. These writers go on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism. We recently caught up with former teen staff writer, Natasha Ramsey.

Natasha Ramsey, Teen Staff Writer, 2005-2007

Natasha Ramsey is currently a medical student at NYU, and we couldn’t be prouder of the great work she has done and continues to do to promote young people’s sexual and reproductive health. When I reached out to Natasha via e-mail she recalled being interested in sexual health as a teenager and actually having pretty good sex ed.

“I had a really great gym/health teacher in middle school who made us act out the menstrual cycle and fertilization,” she explained.

Natasha also enjoyed writing short stories and poems as a teenager, so when a tutor at her high school’s after-school program told her about Sex, Etc., she immediately applied to be a teen editor.

LH: How has Sex, Etc. shaped the work you do today?

NR: How has Sex, Etc. not shaped the work I do today?! If it were not for Sex, Etc., pursuing a degree in medicine would not have even crossed my mind. I always had an interest in sexual health, but my true passion was writing. I attended a health sciences high school and vowed that I would never step foot near a hospital and would become a journalist. It was through Sex, Etc. that I was exposed to the field of public health and advocacy and the pressing issues that teens face. Sex, Etc. sparked a fire in me to ensure that teens get the information they deserve about their bodies.

Additionally, the staff at Sex, Etc. was very supportive of my goals and were instrumental in my college acceptances and numerous awards and scholarships. It was no surprise that I majored in public health at Rutgers University and eventually went on to pursue an M.D. degree.

As a medical student now, I am involved in numerous activities geared towards educating teens, including creating my own sexual health curriculum for teen girls at a local high school. My experience with Sex, Etc. has been instrumental in my journey, and I honestly would not be who I am without it.

LH: What’s the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today?

NR: I believe the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today is teen pregnancy. Although the rates have decreased over the years, the few teens who do get pregnant often have many obstacles they have to face. I believe that many young women are not adequately informed about their bodies and additionally may lack the tools to effectively communicate with their partners. This is an area that I plan to work in as a physician.

LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?

NR: Writing for Sex, Etc. was an amazing experience for several reasons. I loved that we were able to choose the topics we wanted to cover, and although the staff did edit the pieces that we wrote, I always felt that my voice always shined through in my work. Additionally, I love that our work has a legacy, and that teens are able to access our articles years after we have written them. To this day I still have copies of Sex, Etc. magazine and printouts of news clippings. I was very proud of my contributions to Sex, Etc., and had it not been for me growing out of teenage-hood, I would probably still be writing for them!

LH: What issue are you most passionate about and why?

NR: I am most passionate about women’s health and preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. As a future physician, I plan to work with disadvantaged populations as well as pilot health education programs to improve the health of the people in those populations. My passion for these areas come from the work that I did in Sex, Etc. many years ago as well as my upbringing in an urban neighborhood where I saw the need for health education in the community.

LH: Name one myth or ridiculous thing you heard about sex growing up?

NR: The most ridiculous thing I have heard is that birth control messes up your reproductive system. Unfortunately, many people still believe this ridiculous myth because they are not well informed about their reproductive organs, menstruation or birth control. This is problematic because people end up not using birth control and becoming pregnant. I am a huge proponent for birth control and try to help dispel this myth whenever I talk to my patients.

LH: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would that be?

NR: I would have dinner with President Obama and Michelle Obama. As a future physician who plans to work in disadvantaged populations, I have so much appreciation for the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, they both seem really cool!

Pregnancy Prevention Starts With Pregnancy Education

May 1, 2014

I think most people would be astounded by the number of questions I answer every week regarding pregnancy on the Forums at Sexetc.org or on the Sex, Etc. Tumblr page. If I had to guess, I’d bet that 90 percent of the questions have to do with pregnancy and whether or not the person asking the question or his partner is pregnant based on the detailed story they lay out for me.

Of these many questions asked about whether or not someone is pregnant, the vast majority of the situations described involve no risk for pregnancy. And, about half of the time when I tell the teen asking that there was low or no risk for pregnancy, they don’t believe me at first.

Easy to Dismiss

It would be easy  to dismiss a teenager’s anxiety and attribute it to hormones or “just being dramatic.” Some people would probably want to moralize and say, “Well, if teens can’t use birth control or condoms or “control themselves,” they deserve to get pregnant or contribute to a pregnancy.” But I’ve learned that teens’ anxiety about pregnancy isn’t about not using condoms, not using birth control or perhaps even not practicing abstinence; it’s that these young people literally do not understand how pregnancy happens, which means they can’t understand how to prevent it.

And that is not their fault.

How Pregnancy Happens

The teens who ask about whether they or their partners are pregnant usually describe a situation like kissing a partner who ejaculates in his jeans and wondering if this could cause a pregnancy. Or she’s on hormonal birth control and they used a condom when they engaged in oral sex, but maybe some semen got on his or her hand and they want to know if she could be pregnant. You would be surprised how many people think that sperm can live on shower walls, in sinks, on toilet seats or toilet paper or that sperm can get through layers of clothing.

Again, the fact that teens are asking these questions and want to know if they could be pregnant or could cause a pregnancy in these situations is not their fault. It’s ours, because obviously we need to do a better job of educating young people on some of the basics related to pregnancy and reproduction.

Pregnancy Education Is Pregnancy Prevention

A lot of times people hear pregnancy prevention, and they think of the methods by which to prevent pregnancy from happening: using a condom, practicing abstinence or using hormonal birth control. But I would argue that pregnancy prevention starts with something much more basic: teaching young people how a pregnancy happens. When we talk about pregnancy and reproduction with our children or our students, we should be thinking, are we doing it early and often? Are we doing it in a way that is age-appropriate and makes sense to them developmentally? And are we presenting ourselves as trusted resources so that they feel comfortable asking questions about reproduction and how it happens?

Pregnancy prevention and education too often get caught up in a debate about whether or not teens should be having sex, when really it starts with the fundamental belief that young people have a right to understand their bodies and how they work. It’s our job to arm them with the knowledge necessary for them to make healthy and informed decisions.

We owe it to them.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Derek Demeri

April 17, 2014

Since 1994, hundreds of teen writers have written for Answer’s award-winning, teen-written sexual health magazine and website, Sex, Etc. Our writers do the important work of crafting the stories—in print and online—that educate their peers about sexual health. At Answer we believe strongly that we should involve young people in sexuality education. Their voices resonate powerfully with their peers, and we are proud to promote teen perspectives on sexual health and sexuality education. But what happens when these writers are no longer teens? What happens when they are 20-and 30-somethings out in the world?

In honor of Sex, Etc.’s 20th anniversary, we decided to catch up with some former teen staff members who have gone on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism, because we have been wondering: Where are they now?

Derek Demeri, Teen Staff Writer, 2010-2011

We didn’t have to look far for Derek, who is a junior at our very own Rutgers University. He is majoring in political science, minoring in history & African studies, and getting certificates in global politics and French. He also works as the Sexual & Gender Minorities Project Leader and Associate for the Center for the Study of Genocide & Human Rights (CGHR) at Rutgers.  Here’s what Derek has to say when I reached out to him via e-mail.

Lucinda Holt: How did you learn about Sex, Etc.?

Derek Demeri: In high school, I founded and acted as the president of my school’s gay-straight alliance and occasionally ran public awareness campaigns to help the student body understand queer and trans* issues. My English teacher at the time recommended that I apply to Sex, Etc., as it was an organization she admired and thought I would fit in well with, given my interest in sexuality education.

LH: How has Sex, Etc. shaped the work you do today?

DD: The training I received at Sex, Etc. while I was a staff member really helped me conceptualize sexual health issues. I think it was one of the first times that I learned how interconnected rights can be. You can’t teach about the diversity of gender identity or sexual orientation without proper sexual health classes being taught in high schools, nor can you expect access to condoms for the queer community without access to all forms of prophylactic. While I entered Sex, Etc. as a gay rights advocate, I left beginning my journey as a sexual rights advocate.

LH: What’s the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today?

DD: I believe repression of sexuality is the biggest challenge teens (and our general society) face today. Adults and even teens themselves continue to perpetuate extremely limited ideas of sexuality that don’t allow teens to explore and educate themselves about sexuality in a healthy manner and results in a myriad of problems. This repression can mean safer-sex methods that can help prevent pregnancies and STIs are not being used. It can mean same-sex desires are repressed, which sometimes results in violent reactions against those who live openly. It can mean dangerous and life-threatening self-performed surgeries by teens trying to have an abortion or by trans* individuals attempting to transition genders without proper medical care.

LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?

DD: I loved being surrounded by a group of people that were dedicated to advancing sexual health education, but with each person coming from a different background and perspective on the topic. Everyone had a different reason for being passionate about sexual health, which really helped me broaden my own perspectives and understandings of sexuality.

LH: Who inspires you?

DD: My mom continues to be my biggest source of inspiration. She passed away about a year ago due to complications from her cancer treatment. In her 5-plus years of battling cancer, I have never seen someone stay so strong and determined to come out on top. From doctors telling her to give up hope to her own health dragging her down, she always picked herself up to fulfill her commitments as a single mother. No historical figure or celebrity will ever compare to the strength and will power that I saw every day in my household growing up.

* “Trans*” with an asterisk is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities, such as transmen, transwomen, transsexual, that might fall on the transgender spectrum.

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Sam Dercon

March 27, 2014

Over the past 20 years, nearly 300 teenagers have written for Answer’s award-winning, teen-written magazine and website, Sex, Etc. We are so proud of the work they have done and continue to do to educate young people about sexual health. Many of Answer’s former teen editorial staff members go on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism. As we continue to celebrate Sex, Etc.’s 20th anniversary, we decided to catch up with some former teen staff members because we have been wondering: Where are they now?

Sam Dercon, Teen Staff Writer, 2010-2012

After reading a few issues of Sex, Etc. supplied by his mother, Sam applied to be on the staff in 2010. Sam Dercon is now a sophomore at Princeton University. I e-mailed him recently about what impact writing for Sex, Etc. had on his life and to learn more about what he has been up to:

Lucinda Holt: How did Sex, Etc. inform the work you do today?

Sam Dercon: I honestly had no experience with sexuality education prior to becoming part of Sex, Etc., so I really had no idea what to expect. But once I started, I instantly became interested in the work we did and how vital this kind of outreach is for teens. Being at Sex, Etc. inspired me to become part of HiTOPS, a teen-led sexuality education program in Princeton, and it’s also responsible for my current plans to spend this summer interning at the UNESCO HIV office in Bangkok, Thailand.

LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?

SD: You really don’t often have the opportunity to write articles about ‘New Technologies in Birth Control for Guys‘ or ‘Slaying Dragons and Gender Stereotypes in Skyrim.’ If you are interested in getting some kind of writing experience, working at Sex, Etc. is probably one of the most unique and impressive ways to accomplish that.”

LH: What are you passionate about?

SD: Personally I am most passionate about the current HIV epidemic. This fascination really stems from my desire to go to medical school and study virology, but it is also important to me because of the amount of misinformation I realized people have surrounding the virus; and it really kills me to see people leading their lives not understanding what it means to practice safer sex.

LH: What inspires you?

SD: Lately I’ve been deeply inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve made a goal for myself of never turning down a new experience (part of the reason I am going to Thailand), and I feel that Thompson epitomizes this kind of mentality.

LH: What makes you happy?

SD: Cooking for friends makes me extraordinarily happy.

LH: Who would you love to have dinner with?

SD: Stephen Colbert

LH: What would you do with $1 million?

SD: I would love to see Sex, Etc. makes itself known to teens across the country on TV channels like MTV and Comedy Central. It really would do so much good.

How Sex, Etc. Went from Idea to Publication

March 19, 2014

I was present at the births of my three children and one newsletter, Sex, Etc. This sounds like an unlikely combination, and I smile as I couple my living, breathing children with an inanimate publication with an eye-catching name. My presence at the birth of all four is among the highlights of my life.

Why Sex, Etc. Resonates with Teens

Twenty years ago, during my tenure as executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education (now Answer), I brought the idea of creating a national newsletter written by teens for teens to a group of young people at a summer program at Rutgers where I had been invited to speak about sexuality education. I stood at the podium on a warm summer’s day before a sea of young women and told them about a new idea.

“Would you and your peers be interested in reading such a publication?” I asked. I sat down and waited until the program’s end, honestly believing that at most three or four young people would come talk to me. When the program ended, I looked out into the audience—only to see dozens of young women moving toward me in a wave.

“Oh, please do this,” one began. “Teens talk to each other all the time about sex, and a lot of it is just plain wrong.” Another added, “Adults are so uncomfortable with this topic. Parents don’t talk to us, and teachers are shy about the subject, too.” The teens’ desire for accurate information was visible, and I became their advocate on the spot. In that moment, I knew we needed to move ahead with the newsletter.

One of the first teens with whom we worked, whose name I cannot remember but to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude, came up with the name: Sex, Etc. It was an instant success. We published Sex, Etc. three times during the school year, shipping 30,000 copies to New Jersey schools in 1994, our first year of publication, 150,000 copies the second year, and 300,000 copies the third year. By then we began national distribution of the newsletter to public schools, health clinics and community agencies with teen programs. In 1997, the newsletter was honored at the White House by First Lady Hillary Clinton as one of the best ideas for teen-to-teen pregnancy prevention strategies in the U.S. At the height of its distribution, we were mailing over two million copies of the newsletter nationwide each year.

Sex, Etc’s. Work Is Not Done

Over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of how young people’s lives were transformed simply by having honest, accurate information available to them through Sex, Etc. Today—20 years since the very first newsletter was published—Sex, Etc. remains just as important and cherished by its readers as it was to me when I witnessed its “birth.”

One thing I never anticipated was that Sex, Etc., which has since evolved into a vibrant, full-color magazine and website, would reach far more than a teen audience. Educators read it before handing it out to teens or using it in classrooms to enhance sexuality education lessons. Time and time again, we hear from teachers just how important Sex, Etc. is. As one educator recently told us, “I just wanted to tell you that the magazines are a big hit with my students! I’ve created a few reading and debate assignments for some of the articles and the students are really engaged. I am already looking forward to the next issue!”

Each year, millions of young people use Sex Etc. in all of its forms—the magazine, the website and its dynamic social media platforms—to connect with sexual health information. The need that first group of students expressed twenty years ago is still very much alive today. With every new generation of teenagers we have a renewed obligation to reach and teach young people about sexual health. Our work is not done—in fact, it continues to grow.

From Reading Sex, Etc. to Working at Answer

February 14, 2014

I don’t have too many good memories from my high school sexuality education classes. But, one amazing memory I have is of getting the Sex, Etc. newsletter.

Back in 2005, Sex, Etc. wasn’t a magazine but a black-and-white newsletter with just a pop of color in certain places. I remember our health teacher passing them out to the class and me picking it up with some hesitation. I thought to myself, Ugh, are they going to show us some gross pictures of STDs and tell us to not get pregnant?

When I started to actually read the articles, I was pleasantly surprised to find great writing, accurate information and fun content—all written by people about my age. Everything else we had read in sex ed had been written by adults, was probably produced in the 1980s and had an admonishing tone. But in Sex, Etc. there were first-person accounts of sexual health topics written by teenagers just like me—and produced in this millennium. The stories normalized what I was thinking, feeling and going through. I was ecstatic that a newsletter like this existed and that I wasn’t alone.

Coming Full Circle

Once I got to college, I was actively involved in advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and sexual health. College was so far removed from high school that I never made the connection between Sex, Etc. and what I was learning about sexuality. However, when I took the class Women and Health, that was sexuality education, and for a lot of the students in the class, it was the first time they were learning about sexuality and sexual health. When I took Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, we talked and learned about sexual orientation, homophobia, being transgender, transphobia and a myriad of other LGBTQ topics. This was sexuality education. And, yet, I still hadn’t made the connection that this was the work Sex, Etc. and Answer were doing.

It’s not surprising then that the thought of working in sexuality education didn’t occur to me. It wasn’t until the spring semester of my senior year that I realized I would most likely be graduating without a job—an insanely scary prospect. When I considered that all of my internships had been with organizations that promoted comprehensive sexuality education, I started to think that maybe I was meant to make a career in this field.

Soon after graduation, I applied to work at Answer. Four years later, I still think applying to work here is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. It feels as if everything has come full circle. I went from a student who read Sex, Etc. in high school, to now training the teen editorial staff on sexuality and sexual health, answering teens’ questions on the Sexetc.org forums and working with the teen editorial staff on their stories for the magazine, the website and the blog.

Twenty Years of Sex, Etc.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Sex, Etc. magazine and the 15th anniversary of Sexetc.org.

Over the years, the magazine and website have not only provided information on how to use a condom or what happens during puberty—though of course this information is important—but they have also provided what teens need to know about caring for their bodies, communicating with partners and establishing healthy relationships. Each FAQ that is read means that a teenage girl has the chance to learn about menstruation and that her body is normal and can do amazing things. It means a teen guy gets to learn about healthy relationships and to see himself as a fully realized emotional being who doesn’t have to have sex, even if his friends are pressuring him to. Every young person who learns that douching won’t prevent pregnancy or that being transgender is normal or that they don’t have to have sex to please a partner isn’t just given facts. They’re given vital information to help them navigate the complicated teenage years. And they get the important, but often-forgotten, message that they are not alone, that there are other teens out in the world going through the same things and that if they need help, Sex, Etc. can point them in the right direction.

Countless teens before me received honest, accurate information about sexuality through the magazine and website. And now I get to come to work every day and do my best—along with the rest of the Answer staff!—to make sure countless other teens are given the same opportunity in the years to come.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

Teens and Social Media: More than Just Facebook

January 22, 2014

Have you heard the news about Facebook? Article after article say that Facebook has a problem—teen engagement is on the decline. Does this spell doom for the world’s largest social network?

Hardly. The official word is that millions of teens are still on Facebook, and the number of teens using the social network are holding steady.

Facebook is just one of many places where teens are online. As a sexual health professional you have spent time and resources on outreach and engaging your audience with status updates, photos and links. But teens aren’t just sticking with Facebook; they’re spreading their social media use across channels. So what’s a sexual health professional to do?

What’s Hot With Teens Right Now

Snapchat

Snapchat offers teens a simpler, more private social experience than Facebook. Users can send Snaps—privately shared photos and videos—which delete after a few seconds. The self-destruct timer leaves teens feeling less worried about leaving behind a digital footprint.

Instagram

Instagram’s popular photo sharing service got a big boost when it let users share video. Instagram Direct is a new feature that lets users privately share photos and videos with each other. It’s a clear response to Snapchat’s growing popularity, but unlike Snapchat’s self-destruct timer, messages shared on Instagram Direct have to be manually deleted.

Vine

Twitter launched Vine in 2013, and it shares its parent’s penchant for keeping things brief. Instead of 140 characters for a Tweet, Vine videos must be six seconds or less. Six seconds doesn’t seem like much, but it forces you to be concise and creative. There’s no end to the laughs and visual creativity on Vine.

Tumblr

Tumblr has grown into one of the largest blogging platforms, and it’s very popular with teens and young adults. It’s a treasure trove of photos, memes and other viral content. Users can reblog content and quickly add it to their own blog. You can customize almost everything about a blog’s theme, which makes Tumblr a great place for self-expression. And it offers anonymity—a huge draw for teens.

Messenger Apps

WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook Messenger and other messenger apps let teens communicate one on one or with a group of friends. Messenger apps let you share things like photos, videos, GIFs and stickers—most of what Facebook offers, but with more privacy. This is texting for the smartphone generation.

Sexual Health Professionals Must Adapt

Don’t panic about reports that teens are leaving Facebook. But don’t put all of your eggs in the Facebook basket. This is an opportunity to embrace change, adapt what you’ve done successfully on Facebook and diversify the platforms you use to engage teens. If you haven’t already, check out Snapchat, Vine and other apps that teens use to avoid mom and dad on Facebook. Follow some of your favorite sexual health organizations and brands, like Sex, Etc., and see how they’ve adapted.

I’ll be hosting Answer’s webinar on how to use smartphone apps like Snapchat, Vine and Tumblr to teach sexuality education. And I’ll be sharing best practices and examples of great work being done in the sexual health field. Whether you’re a school-based educator, community-based educator, clinician or other sexual health professional, you’ll walk away feeling more comfortable with new technology.

Register online and learn how you can use mobile apps to deepen teen engagement and make sexuality education more relevant and compelling to them.

—Alex Medina, Coordinator of Web Content and Social Networking

Four Things Adults Can Teach Young People About Communication in 2014

January 6, 2014

“But, how do I talk about this?”

A friend in her 20s recently asked me how, exactly, she was supposed to talk about specific sexual behaviors with someone she’d been seeing for a few months. My friend, who’s smart, driven and empowered in many aspects of her life, had no idea how to talk with her partner about what she wants, needs, likes and dislikes when it comes to sex. I wondered and worried if she couldn’t talk to him about these topics, could they discuss safer sex or birth control?

While Answer works to educate teens and adults who work with teens, I’m reminded by conversations like this that teens who do not receive honest, straightforward sexuality education aren’t likely to be able to talk with their partners about these topics. And without parents or other trusted adults teaching young people how to talk with their partners, they very quickly become 20-something young adults who aren’t able to have these conversations either. I sympathize with my friend, because no one taught her or her partner how to have these sorts of conversations. And if a successful, mature young adult like my friend doesn’t know how to talk with her partner, how do we expect teenagers—who arguably have less relationship experience—to know how?

As the expert on the Sexetc.org Forums who answers teens’ questions about sex, sexuality and sexual health, I encounter teens everyday who don’t know what good communication looks like. They ask how to tell their partner they want to use a condom or that they don’t feel ready to have sex. It’s our job as adults and educators to do a better job of counseling young people on how to have these important conversations with a partner.

I want to make the case for us—as educators, parents or people with a young person in our lives that we care about—to make the time in 2014 to talk with young people and teach them how to have healthy and respectful conversations about sex, sexual health and sexuality. Most young people will hopefully be getting the information they need about safer sex and birth control (and if not, send them on over to Sexetc.org!), but as adults who care about young people, we need to make sure they learn more than the steps to putting on a condom or the effectiveness rate of an IUD. They need to be able to talk about what they’ve learned so they can use it.

It can be hard even for us as adults to know what to say. So, here are four things we can teach young people when it comes to communicating with a partner:

  1. Make sure the conversation happens when you aren’t engaging in sexual behaviors. Having a conversation about sexual behaviors is usually easier when both partners are clothed and just hanging out together. People generally will feel less vulnerable, emotionally and physically, for what can sometimes be an awkward or difficult conversation.
  2. Use “I” statements. Statements that begin with “I think” or “I believe” let a partner know that you’re speaking for yourself and how you feel and that your conversation is about expressing your thoughts and communicating—not about accusing or attacking. Be sure that your language and thoughts are clear and that you’re telling your partner not only what you don’t want or aren’t ready for, but also what you do want and are ready for. It may help to think about this and formulate some thoughts before sitting down to talk.
  3. Find a solution together. Agreeing to work toward something as a team often brings couples closer together and can make the conversation feel less awkward.
  4. Practice. Like anything else, good communication isn’t something that everyone is automatically great at. Learning how to communicate effectively and in a way that each partner feels valued and respected can take some time. It gets easier!

We know young people want to learn how to communicate more effectively with a partner. We also know they look to trusted adults and educators to teach them how. Teaching young people how to communicate in a relationship in an honest and respectful way just may be the most useful tool you can offer them in 2014.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

The Best Holiday Gift for Your Kids: Talking About Gender and Sexuality

November 22, 2013

The most common reason I hear parents give for why they haven’t started talking with their children about sexuality is, “Because my kids haven’t brought it up yet.” These parents, who will confess sheepishly that they are looking for any excuse to put off “the talk” as long as possible, believe in their hearts that by not talking about sexuality they are keeping their children “innocent.” Yet they are actually doing the exact opposite. Children do not live in a bubble. And when parents fail to take the lead and proactively talk about sexuality, they are relinquishing control over the topic and allowing the culture at large to educate their children about it.

One reason why parents hesitate to talk with their children about sexuality is the misunderstanding that doing so means talking about sexual behaviors. It actually doesn’t—particularly for younger children. What children are bombarded with from birth and what parents need to talk with them about from the earliest ages has to do with gender: what society says it means to be a girl or a boy and the consequences of either fulfilling or going against those expectations.

Gendering Children

There is no greater cultural example of this in the U.S. than Halloween costumes. Costumes, separated by what are considered “girls’ costumes” and “boys’ costumes,” communicate that girls should be sexy, while boys can celebrate a range of their boyness, from strength to humor to scariness. Boys are told to “Be fearless!” and girls to “Be sassy!” Because nothing says scary like a sassy 12-year-old girl.

Halloween costumes are far from the only offender. Most toy stores separate their inventory by gender; greeting card sellers do the same. Boys’ toys enable a boy to “be like dad” (because, why would he want to emulate his mother?), while toys for girls represent “everything nice.”  When a baby is born, we learn that “B is for Boy…and balls and bats… and bikes… and banged up knees…”and that “G is for Girl…and giggles and grins/games and glitter….”

“Inoculating” Against Homosexuality

Why is our culture so set on gendering how we act? The egregious examples above come from the land of capitalism. But the real root of this worldwide cultural investment in raising boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine is homophobia—the irrational fear of or discomfort with people who are or are perceived to be lesbian or gay.

With so much progress recently relating to same-sex marriage, this admonishment of homophobia may seem misplaced—but believe me, it isn’t. The general public still confounds sexual orientation and gender, assuming that a boy or man who has stereotypically feminine traits or interests is gay, and that a girl or woman who has stereotypically male traits or interests is lesbian. And because this remains a distressing thought to far too many parents, our culture tries to “inoculate” children from the get-go, convinced that swathing a baby boy in blue and a baby girl in pink will ensure their heterosexuality.

There is more flexibility for girls than for boys. A girl who plays with stereotypically boy games and toys is being strong, improving herself by being more “male.” Conversely, if boys play with stereotypically girl toys, they are weak. And although we tolerate some ambiguity the younger a child is, a gender line is usually drawn by the elementary school years, when children are told, “Isn’t it time you started playing with…?”

Now, I am not saying that parents of boys need to go through their homes and throw out their footballs and action figures or that parents of girls need to push their daughters away from playing dress-up or having tea parties. What we need to do, however, is be very aware of how we respond to kids who fulfill the cultural stereotypes and those who don’t and why we are responding as we do. Parents need to remember:

  1. The types or colors of clothes, toys, books and hobbies a child chooses do not necessarily indicate anything about that child’s future sexual orientation.
  2. Parents cannot change their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
  3. Gender stereotypes and the accompanying messages can limit young people and lower their self-esteem– e.g., “Boys don’t cry; therefore if you express your emotions you are gay” or “Girls don’t run around like that; therefore if you do you will never have a boyfriend and people will think you are a lesbian.”

The Gift of Acceptance

The single most common question we hear from young people is, “Am I normal?” If children get the feeling from their parents that how they behave, dress or speak is not OK, they will learn to play a part in order to make their parents happy. And while this gender conformity may comfort the adults in their lives, children who limit themselves rather than being true to who they are are much more likely to have lower self-esteem. If we communicate instead that we accept our children—whether a son is a football player or loves to play the violin; whether a daughter is a ballerina or fascinated by how cars work—our children will be more likely to grow up to be strong and sure of themselves. And that means they are much more likely to be strong, sure and happy adults.

We survived Halloween and are already seeing ads for the upcoming winter holidays. This holiday season, the best gift we can give the young people in our lives is to talk with them about gender and sexuality, share accurate information and impart our values and remind them that they are important, valued and loved, no matter what.