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The Answer Blog

Sexuality Education

Five Tips for Teaching Sex Ed to Boys

May 16, 2013

At Answer we are constantly asked for specific tips and techniques for teaching about sexuality in ways that resonate with male learners, which is why we created our latest online workshop, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. I thought I’d offer a few tried-and-true techniques here as a sneak preview.

Create ground rules up front

I have two points to make on this, knowing that experienced educators will read this and think, “Well, duh, I use ground rules with all my groups.” But my first point is, ground rules are particularly important with guys. According to Dr. William Pollack’s “boy code,” boys navigate the world through rules, and therefore, both having rules and letting them come up with those rules is imperative for both group dynamics and group buy-in on your work with them. Second, if you create ground rules, discuss with the boys how you will enforce those ground rules. When educators post ground rules then fail to intervene when they are broken, it teaches boys that rules (and policies and laws) are not to be respected. We are teaching far more than sexuality content when we work with young people.

Build in extra time

Sexuality is an exciting, interesting topic. There’s nothing like that moment when guys finally get that answer to something they have always wanted to know. This often results in an explosion of laughter or energy in the room. Although this comes from a good place, it still needs to be managed so you can complete your lesson.

Get them out of their seats

Similarly, boys do far better when lessons integrate moving around. If, for example, you are teaching a class or workshop that is particularly content-heavy, build in a quick energizer to let them clear their heads for a moment and refocus. When our computers slow down, hitting CTRL-ALT-DEL gives them a zap that restarts them and usually speeds up performance. Same with conducting quick, five-minute energizers for male learners. But most curricula don’t include these in their lessons, so you have to build in time for them.

Integrate low-key competition

The boy code values competition, so using a lesson that includes a competitive aspect almost guarantees focus and participation. Just be careful that the competition or the prize for winning the competition doesn’t become the focus instead of what you are trying to teach. In addition, know your community. When I did work in areas with higher gang-related activity, we never used competition in the classroom because it was unsafe to do so.

Use humor-but be careful

Sexuality is not only interesting and exciting, but it is also, on occasion, hilarious. One of my favorite characteristics of adolescent and teen boys is how goofy they can be. Boys are wonderfully non-defensive and able to laugh at themselves when they ask a question that they think is probably way off base. When I was working with a group of 7th grade boys, one asked me, “When you have sex with a girl, your penis goes in, but how do you stop the rest of your body from going in, too?” My response was something like, “The vagina is not a black hole in outer space. You don’t get sucked in there never to be found again….” The questioner laughed, and everyone else laughed but not derisively. Then I simply explained why this wouldn’t happen, and we moved on. Careful, intentional use of humor is particularly helpful when working with boys.

One caution about humor, though, is that it is very easy to slip into it because you know that it engages the learners. But we are educators, not entertainers. When I use humor, I am always grateful to hear that participants laughed or had fun. But I also always ask, “So, what’s something you learned that you think you’ll be able to use when you go home?” The answer to that question tells me whether I used too little, too much or just the right amount of humor.

Get more information about the unique learning needs and styles of boys, or register for Boys and Sex Ed.

Guys—A Sex Ed Afterthought

April 30, 2013

When I was starting out in the sexuality education field, I was hungry for training on how to effectively teach the many topics we address. A colleague recommended a training on domestic violence, and since healthy versus unhealthy relationships was a topic in our teen curriculum, I attended. As the facilitator began the training, I realized that the entire room was made up of medical professionals being trained on screening for and treating women who had been physically assaulted by their partners or spouses. I was the only educator—the only person who was interested in learning how to teach young people about healthy versus unhealthy relationships. I asked a few questions, and the facilitator did her best to answer them. I was able to cull some useful information here and there, but overall the training had very little to do with me or what I needed.

This is what far too many boys experience in the sex ed classroom.

Teaching as if Guys Aren’t in the Room

The vast majority of sexuality education curricula are written with the needs and issues of girls in mind-reinforcing, perhaps inadvertently, the idea that “boys will be boys” and so we must arm girls with as much knowledge and as many skills as possible to be the moral gatekeepers within male-female relationships. When a teacher focuses on the needs of and uses language that is designed to resonate with girls, boys often end up feeling invisible—like they don’t belong in the classroom, like sex ed doesn’t apply to them or is a waste of time, which is just like I felt during that training. It was a strong training; it just wasn’t directed to me. So, just like boys in the sex ed classroom, I had to find the information I was looking for on my own.

Sexuality education must integrate messages and teaching methods that resonate with boys. There has been push-back by some that learning based on biological sex is sexist. And I have to admit I have struggled with that over the years. But as a parent of a son and an educator who has worked directly with thousands of adolescent boys, I have seen firsthand that there are certain methods and efforts that work differently with boys than they do with girls. Does this mean that these methods work with ALL boys? No. Does this mean that these methods do not work with ANY girls? Of course not. But at the most basic level, we need to stop teaching sexuality education as if boys aren’t in the room or as if girls need all of this guidance and help, but boys can figure everything out on their own. It does a disservice to girls as much as it does to boys.

Involve Guys From the Beginning

I was at a meeting recently where a discussion took place about maternity leave at school for pregnant and parenting teen girls to ensure they remain in school. It’s a worthwhile goal to help these girls both complete high school and be successful parents. Yet it struck me that the idea of family leave for their male partners did not even come up. Why? Is there an unspoken assumption that this isn’t necessary? Or that the boys wouldn’t be interested? Yet how many adults then judge the biological dads for not being present, when in fact, provisions were not made available to them the way they were for their female partners?

If we truly want guys to be engaged in their sexual health and relationships, we need to involve them from the beginning. If we want them to value sexuality education, we need to teach in ways that resonate with them. If we want to help them make healthy decisions, both now and into the future, we need to see them as part of the educational process, not an afterthought.

We address how educators can create sexual health lessons and use teaching methods that resonate with boys in Answer’s latest online professional development course, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. If we as educators are going to provide boys with the guidance they need and deserve, then we have to find more effective ways of reaching them.

Albert Einstein said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” We keep telling boys that they need to be responsible about their sexual health without providing them with the educational venue through which they can learn to be responsible. As a result, many live their lives believing they are stupid about or irrelevant in relationships-regardless of the gender of their partner. And no young person should be made to feel stupid or irrelevant.

What the 2012 Election Means for Sexuality Education

November 7, 2012

Political America

I’m not going to lie—I started writing this blog on Election Day before we heard the results. I am neither psychic nor overconfident, but there is only one possible outcome that will not devastate an organization like ours that is dedicated to ensuring that young people have unfettered access to age-appropriate sexuality education: having a Democrat in the White House.

At the same time, however, a Democrat in the White House does not guarantee that sexuality education and reproductive and sexual health organizations have nothing to worry about. As we have seen in recent years with the increase in vituperative legislation against women and young people passing in states all around the U.S., a Democrat in the White House is hardly the safeguard many have considered it to be. So with President Obama’s reelection, we must remain vigilant and work even harder to change policies that limit or deny access to sexuality education and safeguard policies that are educating and serving young people well.

We also need to hold the Administration’s feet to the proverbial fire when it comes to supporting comprehensive sexuality education, which has yo-yoed a bit over the last four years. When Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008, he was the first candidate to mention sexuality education—an exciting development for those of us dedicated to this work. We were grateful during his first term for his significant investment of federal funding for teen pregnancy prevention and more comprehensive sexuality education programs, yet neither issue featured prominently during his reelection campaign. We were ecstatic when the President cut all of the failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programming funding from the federal budget, yet deeply disappointed when this funding was reinstated as an add-on to the healthcare reform bill to the tune of $250 million over five years. (This was the same tactic social conservatives used with former President Clinton, under whose watch the initial increase of $250 million over five years was attached to the passage of his welfare reform bill).

Grossly misunderstood as “harmless,” the programs supported by this funding stream teach misleading, incomplete information. At their most benign, they are useless; at their most harmful, they serve to misinform and erode the self-esteem of young people—particularly young girls—who are made to feel worthless for having a sexual thought, feeling or question. So when an Administration funds abstinence-only-until-marriage AND comprehensive sexuality education programs, the comprehensive programs must do double work: first, to unteach the misinformation being propagated by the abstinence-only approaches; and second, to provide the age- and developmentally-appropriate knowledge and skills that research consistently shows young people need.

Sexuality education cannot be supported tentatively by our political allies; it must be embraced wholeheartedly and given the financial backing and social and political clout it deserves. It can no longer be seen as a bargaining commodity for political gain; it must be a nonnegotiable need equal to reading, math and other subjects young people learn from the earliest ages. Sexuality education opponents are in the minority in this country, yet they are a vocal minority whose fear-based messages are frighteningly effective with parents and other adults who are still trying to understand what sexuality education is, when and by whom it should be taught and what should be included.

How powerful would it be if our nation’s leader publicly and emphatically voiced his support for comprehensive sexuality education that begins with very basic information in kindergarten and continues through grade 12 in every school; that is taught by professionals who have been trained to do so comfortably and effectively in partnership with parents and caregivers in their community;  that is not just about preventing pregnancy and disease but that also includes life-enhancing knowledge and skills to help young people grow into well-adjusted adults? How powerful would it be if we stopped tolerating the nonsensical, orchestrated misinformation perpetrated by that vocal minority of adults about what sexuality education is and instead listened to the research and the youth development experts who stand ready to work with parents to help their kids grow up happy and healthy?

We need a paradigm shift in this country’s attitudes about sexuality education, which is a significant focus of Answer’s new strategic plan over the next five years. We can make immeasurable progress on this strategic priority if the policymakers at the federal and state levels stop playing politics with sexuality education and instead give it the true, unconditional support it needs. Anything can happen in the next four years, especially with a topic like sexuality education. But it can no longer be seen as a political hot potato. Policymakers must have the courage to support it openly and enthusiastically.

Talking With Your Kids About Sexuality: Not an Olympic Feat!

August 2, 2012

I have worked with thousands of parents over the years, many of whom try to find any excuse they can to not talk with their children about sexuality. As a sexuality educator who is also a parent, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum, finding teachable moments everywhere, relentlessly reinforcing information and values with my child.

So I was a little embarrassed to admit that it took me until the third day of the Olympic Games to realize how many teachable moments relating to sexuality there have been within both the Games and the accompanying media coverage. When you consider that sexuality is about far more than sexual behaviors-that it is about gender and gender roles, body image and self-esteem, sexual orientation and identity, and much more-opportunities for discussing sexuality are all over the Olympics. So I thought I’d offer a few examples and suggestions of how you  can take advantage of the many teachable moments that are sure to arise while watching the remainder of the Games:

Puberty

My soon-to-be-ten-year-old son is obsessed with puberty. He couldn’t be more excited, so anything he can link to what’s going to happen during puberty he will. As we watch the Games, he’s full of questions:

During synchronized diving: “Why does the one on the left have hair on his legs and the other doesn’t? Is he older than the other one? Does the other one shave his legs? Will I have to shave my legs in puberty?”

During women’s gymnastics: “She’s 15? She looks like she’s 12. She doesn’t have any, you know… OK… breasts….”

Behind all his questions is “What’s normal?” I didn’t need to know anything about these individual athletes to be able to respond; I didn’t need to know their true ages or shaving habits.  What he needed to hear was this: young people go through puberty at different rates; bodies can look totally different on people of the same age; and all of this is entirely normal.

Gender Roles

Already there have been gender role stereotypical moments, and moments that have decimated those stereotypes. They are all opportunities to talk with your child about perceptions they may have (or have heard expressed) about what boys or girls can do solely based on their gender. This is the first year that every single country represented has a female athlete, and that is worth highlighting. Perhaps you’d want to discuss why it took so long for that to happen, why it happened this year and why some people are not celebrating.

You may wish to discuss how, even in the Olympic Games, girls and women are still expected to pay attention to their overall appearance while boys and men are not. I purchased a magazine for my son that provided in-depth interviews with some of the athletes. Part of the coverage discussed the female athletes’ makeup tips, while coverage of the male athletes described their workout routines. The fact that female athletes are judged on appearance as well as ability is something that can and should be discussed with young people.

Body Image

Young people receive messages from their earliest ages about beauty, and research consistently shows that people who do not feel good about their bodies are much more likely to make poor sexual decisions. Olympic athletes would give regular runners who are in great shape inferiority complexes, never mind how we as civilians might respond! So here are a few things you can point out if your child comments on the athletes’ bodies:

  • Olympic athletes spend most of their days exercising and working on strengthening their bodies.
  • They need to eat really healthy and take care of themselves.
  • There are lots of different body types in the world. Most people do not look like these athletes, and that’s OK. Some other athletes don’t look like these athletes. Everyone is different, and it’s normal to be different.

Sexual Orientation and Relationships

The opening ceremony was a huge demonstration of pageantry and mixed media, including a part that combined live-action and video in which a broad array of couples were shown kissing. These went very quickly, but once your kids got beyond squealing “Lady and the Tramp!” and “Shrek and Fiona!” they may have also noticed interracial and interethnic couples, adults older than their 20s, as well as-for a few brief seconds-a kiss between two women. All of these are potential teachable moments.

The vast majority of relationships young people see in popular media are still people from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are also between people of two different sexes in their 20s-to-30s. This video and performance represented the diversity that can be found in love relationships. Talk about it!

With a week and a half left in the Olympics, who knows what other opportunities for discussion will present themselves? But consider the values and lessons you’ve been imparting to your child(ren) already, and see whether you can find ways of using an event that has captured the attention of so many of our children as an excuse for starting new conversations and keeping them going well beyond the closing ceremonies.

Check out these additional resources for talking with your children about sexuality.

My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?

February 17, 2012

pornThere are few more dramatic, clutch-the-pearls parenting moments than discovering that your child was viewing pornography. It doesn’t matter what your child’s gender is or how shy or outgoing your child is. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve put parental restrictions on your Internet access. Porn is easily accessible today in a variety of formats, and it is very likely that this will happen in your family at some point.

Why might your child have checked out porn? The most common reasons are…

Curiosity - Cultural references to porn are all around us. They are made by teens and adults, on the radio, by recording artists, in sitcoms and in movies. So sometimes kids check out porn because they want to know what it is and what the big deal is about.

Hormones - It’s hard for us to admit, but our children are sexual beings. Once they enter puberty, they are RAGING sexual beings. It’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening, biologically and developmentally. So sometimes, kids go online to check out porn because it turns them on. Sorry. Truth.

Confusion - Adolescents are concrete thinkers who need specific examples. If you describe what a condom is, your adolescent will understand something. If you show your adolescent a condom, allow her or him to actually touch it, your concrete adolescent will understand far more. For some young people, hearing “oral sex is when someone puts their mouth on another person’s genitals for pleasure” isn’t enough. How does that actually happen? Why do people do it? Adolescents go online, see someone performing oral sex and say, “Oh, I get it.”

Parents often ask, “What impact does viewing porn have on children?” There are different viewpoints and a range of research relating to this. Generally speaking, porn does not harm young people. It can, however, misinform and confuse them. Porn is made for adults, not adolescents. It is designed to be a fantasy-and adolescents don’t always get that, because, again, they’re concrete thinkers. What they see is what they get.

So, what do you do if your child has been checking out porn?

Decide who’s going to bring it up. If you are partnered or married, strategize together first for consistency. Then one of you should speak with your child so she or he does not feel ganged up on. Believe me, your child is going to feel embarrassed and defensive, so you need to approach this gently.

Be ready to explain how you know she or he was accessing porn. When it comes to technology, parents are all over the place about whether it’s OK to check their children’s e-mails, texts, etc. If you are a parent who does spot checks, I suggest you let your child know that in advance. Otherwise, while you’re trying to talk with your child about why it’s not OK for her or him to look at porn, she or he will be focused on how and why you violated her or his privacy.

Be ready to have several short conversations. Again, your child is likely to be mortified that you discovered she or he was watching porn. That means you have a limited window in which to talk about it. This also means that you may need to come back to it several times to reinforce what you said the first time, since all they will be able to hear is their own voice in their head saying, “Please let this be over….”

Set boundaries. Remember you are the parent, and as the parent, you are responsible for setting and maintaining rules in your home. After you’ve spoken about why adolescents shouldn’t be viewing porn, you need to clearly explain your expectations moving forward and that, like with any other rules, there will be consequences for breaking them. Effective consequences should happen right after the offense and be related to the offense (e.g., no non-homework computer access for a period of time).

Watch for these warning signs that indicate a problem needing professional help:

Subject matter. If you were to discover that the only images your child was viewing were particularly violent or degrading, you’d need to talk about what she or he saw and to explain clearly that that is not the way people should behave in a sexual relationship. How that conversation goes will determine whether you might want to bring your child to see a therapist to explore the source of their curiosity.

Frequency of viewing. A parent asked me, “If my son says he can’t stop watching porn, is that a problem?” Absolutely. If viewing porn feels like a compulsion, professional intervention is necessary to direct your child away from a behavior that is not healthy to one that is.

Changes in language or behavior. Any dramatic changes in your child’s language or behavior should be noted. (For example, if your previously outgoing child becomes quieter, more secretive, or you hear him or her using more sexualized language with friends or with you). These changes may not necessarily indicate that your child has been viewing porn, but they can. When in doubt, check it out.

Above all, stay calm. Talk with other parents about how they’ve handled this situation with their children. Speak with professionals who have expertise working with children. You are not alone in figuring out how to address this!

My Child Viewed Porn: Now What? was originally published by MOMeoMagazine.com.

New National Sexuality Education Standards Make History

February 8, 2012

National Sexuality Education StandardsWhile the Republican presidential candidates chased each other through the primaries and President Obama embarked on the campaign trail, a recent announcement about sexuality education in America quietly made history.

For the first time ever, educators, local and state board members, and parents have a set of uniform, national sexuality education standards to measure the content of their schools’ programs: The National Sexuality Education Standards. Its goal is “to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K-12.”

Publication of the standards is an important step forward in standardizing, normalizing and improving sex education throughout the nation. If widely implemented, our youths’ well-being, health and academic achievement will improve. Programs modeled after the standards could lower our high rate of teen pregnancy and even higher rate of teen sexual transmitted diseases. Emphasis, of course, is on the “if.” If professional educators, parents and school board members give these standards a fair hearing.

Development of the standards is the result of a two-year effort spearheaded by five prestigious organizations: The American Association of Health Education, The American School Health Association, The National Education Association Health Information Network, The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education and The Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative. (FoSE includes three national sexuality education organizations: Advocates for Youth, Answer and SIECUS.)

These experts believe that “sexual development… [is] a normal, natural, healthy part of human development.” They substitute abstinence-only approaches, which still receive government funding, for a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach.

The standards join a growing body of national standards for other school curricula, such as math, reading and health, which only benefit our national education system. Long after serving on the New Jersey State Board of Education decades ago, I believed that excessive local control of school curricula-particularly sex education- can prevent young people from getting challenging content that prepares them to live in the global village. When it comes to sex education, a small group of parents at the local level can often control the curriculum to a point where students get only limited, often dishonest information.

The standards are based on research-driven evidence and developmentally and age-appropriate norms, yet teaching more than abstinence might be seen as controversial. Some parents, educators and politicians believe that school sexuality education programs should focus only on abstinence and that instruction on contraception can encourage young people to have sex.

However, the experts behind the standards think otherwise. They believe that students in the early grades should learn only about abstinence, but those in grades 6-8 should also learn about the “health benefits, risks and effectiveness rates of various methods of contraception, including… condoms.” By the end of high school, students will review, compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of abstinence and other methods, including condoms.

This is balanced instruction, since about half of all teens today have sex before graduating high school. Students need the whole story about contraception, not just half of it.

Another potentially controversial area might be the treatment of sexual orientation, which is wisely placed in the area of Identity. Instruction begins in grades 3-5, and by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to define “sexual orientation as the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same or of a different gender.” Many young people already know this definition, since they live with same-sex parents, or know others who have been raised by them.

The topic continues in grades 6-8, so that students “differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” Then in high school, instruction focuses on students’ ability to “differentiate between biological sex, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”

I can see how the possible inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity might cause differences of opinion among parents and educators-but it shouldn’t hold up adoption of the standards. They need not be swallowed whole. Rather, parents and school board members-and older students whose opinions might be extremely valuable-can examine them in a series of community meetings.

Implementation can begin with elements that the majority accepts. The more difficult and potentially controversial issues can be placed on the sidelines for further study and adopted at a later date.

Elimination of certain topics, of course, can be more problematic if a state board of education decided to adopt the standards for all its schools. However, boards not wanting implementation to cause conflicts might suggest that parents can opt out of instruction for a few of the standards that might conflict with their religious or moral views.

But we’re discussing building a floor for sex education with the adoption of these minimal standards. We’re not discussing the ceiling, and there is no time limit imposed on districts to begin adopting the standards. Of course, it won’t take long for many school districts with superior sexuality education programs to do a quick review to see how their programs surpass the standards. Perhaps districts with excellent programs can serve as mentors to districts that must start at the very beginning and adopt the minimal standards.

In the 30 years that I’ve worked in the sexuality education field, nothing as dramatic and important as the creation of the standards has ever occurred. They have the potential to improve and enhance school sexuality education programs across the country. Bravo to everyone involved in their development, and good luck to the parents, educators, and state and local school board members who must now summon their courage and implement them.

You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids

November 30, 2011

If you’re a parent, you know well that you have many jobs when it comes to your children’s well-being. But did you know that one of these is being your child’s sexuality educator?

Teaching your child about sexuality, in the context of your own family values, is one of the most important jobs you have-yet it is the job parents usually get the least amount of training to do.

The very idea of talking about sexuality tends to raise a myriad of questions for parents: What’s appropriate to say at which ages? Shouldn’t I wait for my child to bring it up? What if I don’t know how to answer my child’s questions?

Relax! There are some basic ways that you can let your children know that you are a safe, “askable” adult-no matter what they might have questions about.

It’s Never Too Early to Start. It’s important to remember that sexuality has to do with far more than “sex.” “Sexuality” is a far-reaching, comprehensive term that encompasses everything from physical anatomy to understanding how to treat people with respect to learning how pregnancy happens and much, much more.

When you understand this, you know that children are receiving messages about sexuality from the day they are born-from the words people use around them to describe their body parts to messages they get from family, peers and the media about how they are supposed to behave based on their assigned gender. The longer you wait to talk with your child, the more you are competing with what they’re hearing all around them.

The important phrase here is “age-appropriate”-what your child needs to know as a kindergartener is much different from what she or he needs to know in high school. Start early, start slowly-and if you’re unsure, reach out for some guidance.

It’s Never Too Late to Start. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you haven’t yet started talking with your child, you didn’t miss the proverbial boat. Start now and keep talking.

As your children get older, they will need to know new information with each passing year and be faced with making decisions about relationships and shared sexual behaviors. Your guidance will be imperative throughout their adolescent years.

Try to put the idea of having “the” talk out of your mind. You need to talk early and often!

Take Small Bites. You don’t need to cover absolutely everything in one conversation with your child. It will overwhelm you as much as it will your child!

Look for teachable moments: watch television with your child and mute the television during commercials to discuss something you’ve just seen.

Take advantage of car rides to and from school and other activities. This is a non-threatening place to have discussions about sexuality and other important topics.

Talk With Your Partner or Spouse About Your Values. If you are married or in a relationship, make sure that you and your spouse or partner talk about your values and beliefs relating to sexuality so that if you have individual conversations with your child, the messages you are giving are consistent.

Be sure to deal with any differences you may have in your opinions and values away from your child. For example, if one of you believes it’s OK for 13-year-olds to date but the other thinks that that’s too young, you need to have that conversation independent of your child and figure out together how to respond in ways that provide information without undermining either one of you or your beliefs.

If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know.” There is a strong pressure on parents to know everything. Although we may love it when our kids are younger and think we do, we can’t possibly. The good news is there are tons of Web sites, books and other resources for parents.

If you’re stumped, be honest with your child, saying something like, “That’s a really great question. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. Let’s go look it up online together.” You won’t lose validity in your child’s eyes. In fact, he or she will appreciate your honesty.

There’s nothing about becoming a parent that makes us instant experts in sexuality-or in any other topic for that matter. But the good news is you’re not alone.

You can get support from trained sexuality educators, learn from fellow parents and get guidance from folks in your faith community, if you are a member of one. Talking about sexuality isn’t always easy, but it is always important.

You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids” was originally published by MOMeoMagazine.com

Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed

October 19, 2011

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?” by Robert George and Melissa Moschella, is not as much about sexuality education as it is an overt example of how deeply the socially-conservative agenda is pervading all aspects of our culture.

This is no accident; it is an intentional, widespread campaign against not only sexual and reproductive health, sexuality education, women’s rights, and the inclusion of LGBTQ youth in anti-bullying measures, but also against the rights of young people to dare to want to access information that will make them educated consumers of the world in which they live.

This campaign started gaining momentum with the Tea Party (you know, the folks who applauded “Let’s hear it for letting someone who doesn’t have health insurance die!”), formerly considered to be more on the fringe, but who are now, inexplicably and horrifyingly, gaining legitimacy.

I’d like to highlight several core elements of social conservative propaganda-some of which appear throughout the piece-that continue to be used to manipulate people into thinking there is a concerted effort being made by educators to contribute, as the authors claim, to “the sexualization of children in our society at younger ages:”

1. Lie blatantly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social conservatives believe that the end justifies the means. In their view, it is completely appropriate to lie to young people. This is what ignited the years-long battle sexuality education experts have fought to ensure that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula be, at the very least, medically accurate.  These curricula lie to young people in order to scare and shame them out of having sex (even though research has shown that doing so is woefully ineffective). If in the end, a young person doesn’t have sex, social conservatives claim victory despite the fact that these young people may not have any self-esteem to speak of or know how to practice safer sex in the future.

2. Use fear. Sex ed wasn’t always such a controversial topic to teach, but social conservatives have turned the provision of school-based sexuality education into an adversarial “us against them” debate. They work to terrify parents out of trusting trained educators to provide children with the information they need to make healthy decisions, now and in the future.

In the Times Op-Ed, George and Moschella ask readers to imagine how they would feel if their child had just entered middle school and were provided with sex ed in which he [sic] was “…encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?”

Here they are trying to scare parents into believing that these terrible, awful, amoral educators are trying to undermine your parental authority. The lie inherent in this (see point #1) is that educators are telling young people to ignore what their parents have to say about sexuality.

In fact, the cardinal rule for anyone teaching sex ed to young people is to always encourage them to talk with their parents, caregivers, or other trusted adults in their lives, and to press those adults to do the same, within the context of their own family’s values.

3. Treat young people as idiots. If we do that, then we will be guaranteed to have the “sovereignty” over them that George and Moschella espouse.  For those of us who work with and on behalf of young people, the disenfranchisement of youth that is embraced by social conservatives is particularly infuriating.  The thought is that if young people are ignorant, they will remain dependent upon their parents-and this is as counterproductive for the young person as it is for the parent.

If we do not see young people as inherently smart and strong with great capacity for learning and doing things independently of us, we are not infusing the positive self-esteem and strength they need to be independent beings in the world. Social conservatives think of young people as incapable and needing constant adult supervision and support, and then expect them to be able to navigate the world effectively as adults. This is as ridiculous as teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage and assuming that as soon as people are in a heterosexual marriage that they will miraculously be infused with the full range of knowledge and skills they need to have happy, healthy relationships.  All of this sets young people up for failure from the earliest ages.

As a former college professor, I saw this firsthand when parents would call me to try to get  their child into an already-full class or discuss their child’s grades. I wondered whether these same parents would accompany their adult children to job interviews, help them ask someone out on a date, or be there to negotiate safer sex with a future partner.

Parents have to teach their children how to think for themselves. We are not our children’s friends, we are their parents.  And from the moment we become parents, our job is to help our children eventually become independent from us.

When it comes to sexuality, an oft-quoted phrase that comes from SIECUS is that parents are the primary and most important sexuality educators of their children. But the reality is that far too many parents are simply not equipped to teach their children age- and developmentally-appropriate information about sexuality - any more than they are equipped to teach trigonometry even if they were math whizzes in high school. Giving birth or adopting a child does not automatically make us experts in all of the topics and skills young people need to know to be prepared to navigate the world as adults.  This is why we need to rely on educational, medical, and other professional experts-and, if we are a member of a faith community, our faith leaders-to help us.

Educating young people about sexuality should be seen as a partnership between entities that share the common goal of having them grow into sexually healthy adults, not as a faux struggle between parents and schools.  Yet because of (and only because of) the hyperbolic rhetoric spewed by those like George and Moschella, sex ed continues to be seen as a battle.

This is as counterproductive as it is unhelpful. Young people deserve better, educational professionals deserve better, and parents deserve better.  I call upon us all to reject the rhetoric and focus on helping young people learn the content and skills they need in order to have happy, productive, rich lives.

“Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

It Takes More Than a Month: Incorporating LGBTQ Issues Into Sex Ed

October 11, 2011

LGBTQ lockersThe first observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month was seven years ago. (We add the “Q” to LGBT to include those who identify as “queer.”) October was chosen for two reasons: To commemorate the first-ever march on Washington, DC by LGBTQ individuals back in 1979 and because it includes National Coming Out Day on October 11th, which started in 1988.

LGBT History Month is more than an observance of the contributions of LGBTQ individuals throughout history; it is a call to action for those who teach sexuality education to review their curricula, materials and resources to see how inclusive they are of LGBTQ individuals and issues. And it is a call to action for state-level policymakers to look at their state’s sexuality education mandate—if they have one—to ensure that the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity are specifically required. According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, fewer than half of states address sexual orientation as part of sexuality education. Some that do, like South Carolina, prohibit any discussion of homosexuality unless it is done within the context of HIV and AIDS. Others, like Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma, require treating homosexuality as abnormal or dangerous.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I reviewed a state with a strong sex ed mandate (on paper at least), New Jersey. New Jersey’s core curriculum content standards require that by eighth grade students will “discuss topics regarding sexual orientation” and by 12th grade, “investigate current and emerging topics related to sexual orientation.” My dissertation examined whether and how that was being done. I was stunned to find many schools were not teaching sexuality education at all, regardless of the mandate. I was less stunned, but equally disappointed, to discover that in schools that were teaching sex ed, many were excluding the topic of sexual orientation.

If people are so resistant to teaching about sexual orientation, then why teach about it? There are countless reasons. Some of the most compelling of which come from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), who found that in US schools during a given year

  • 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed,
  • 40% are physically harassed,
  • 19% are physically assaulted because of their real—or perceived—sexual orientation,
  • 64% are verbally harassed because of how they express their gender,
  • 72% hear homophobic remarks like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently throughout the school day,
  • Nearly two-thirds of students feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation,
  • More than a third because of their gender identity, and
  • 29% missed class at least once because of safety concerns.

What about teachers and parents? The support is there. In a national study, 78 percent of high school teachers and 75 percent of parents said they thought that sexual orientation should be included in sexuality education programs and that it should be “discussed in a way that provides a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and different views in society.” Adults support schools being more inclusive; LGBT students need them to be. Here are a few quick suggestions on how to make this happen:

  • Have more than “gay day.” Young people often refer to the one day on which sexual orientation is addressed at school as “gay day” because it is discussed that day, then completely ignored for the rest of the year. LGBTQ issues should be integrated throughout the school year, across the curriculum.
  • Be clear about LGB vs. T. Far too often, we refer to LGBTQ issues, but the T—being transgender—is often left out altogether. Being transgender isn’t about sexual orientation; it’s about gender identity. If we use “LGBTQ,” we need to address lesbian and gay people AND bisexual people AND transgender people.
  • When teaching about relationship issues, include same-sex relationships. For example, in an activity in which students evaluate what makes a relationship healthy, make sure that at least one of the couples is a same-sex couple.
  • Remember the achievements as well as the challenges. We are all aware of the devastating statistics relating to rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide by LGBT youth. But if that is all we present to young people, we are giving a very negative view of LGBT people and are communicating to those who may be LGBTQ themselves that their futures are quite bleak. Stories of courage and success must be told alongside the stories of challenges and prejudice.
  • Remember the diversity within the diversity. There is a pervasive stereotype nationwide among young people and educators of color that only white people are LGBTQ. This is perpetuated in no small part by the media and serves to further isolate and disenfranchise LGBTQ youth of color. It is important for educators to acknowledge clearly that an LGBTQ person can be of any race or ethnicity, any education or socioeconomic level, and from any geographic location.
  • There are LGBTQ youth in every school. It is imperative to remember that, statistically speaking, there will be LGBTQ students, or students with LGBTQ parents and/or other family members, in every school—and to teach accordingly.

Sexuality education is not for and about some people; it is for and about all people. If LGBTQ issues are not included within a school’s sex ed curriculum, they need to be—and not just during LGBT History Month, but all year round.

If you’re looking for more training on LGBTQ issues, add your name to our e-mail list to get more information about our upcoming online professional development workshop, “LGBTQ Issues in Schools.”

Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together

October 7, 2011

Multiple choice testThe first standardized health and sexuality education test for students in the public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., has become a reality-and I am thrilled. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step. I applaud the District of Columbia for taking the first step in the nation to assess what students know-and don’t know- about sexuality topics like contraception and health topics like nutrition, mental health and drug use.

This spring, students in grades 5, 8 and 10 in a district with 75,000 students will be tested for their knowledge on these and similar health-related topics.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years to the date since I wrote a column promoting the idea of a national health education test. In that column, I called for funds to create a standardized national health education test covering a wide range of health-related topics. High school students would be required to pass it in order to graduate.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that Harvard require passage of the test as part of the admissions process: If the mother-of-all universities had such a requirement, then other universities would probably follow!

Such a test would be a win-win for kids and adults: It would get health education out of the periphery of the school curriculum, where it languishes, and give it the important role that it needs to promote lifelong wellness. What’s more, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and teens would take health education more seriously if it were a subject students would be tested on. And although certainly not a magic bullet, good information conveyed by good instruction is fundamental to behavior change. Finally, test results might prod school districts to improve woefully deficient health and sexuality education programs.

I hadn’t thought much about my idea until a colleague forwarded this Washington Post article. The headline immediately caught my attention: “D.C. schools prepare for the nation’s first sex-education standardized testing.” Well, I thought, it’s not a national test, but maybe the way to get there is state by state by state.

The health and sex ed questions will be multiple choice and skills based rather than only soliciting correct information. For example, if there is a question about condoms, students at the 10th grade level most likely would be asked to make or check a list of the correct steps from purchasing a package of condoms to using one.

For my original piece, I spoke to Nancy Hudson, a senior associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D. C. Hudson works for the Health Education Assessment Project (HEAP) whose mission is “to develop effective standards-based health education resources to improve health literacy through improved instruction.”

“We have over 1,900 assessment items to work with in constructing a test, and they are free to any state asking to use them. The D. C. sex ed assessments uses many of these 1,900 items which were tested for validity and reliability that are two essentials in school testing,” explains Hudson.

Obviously, there are many ways to skin the sex-education standardized test cat at the state level, and the D.C. schools have focused on one way: inserting questions in the general assessment tests of other subjects, such as reading and math, which are administered for a two-week period in the spring.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a community health education nonprofit that works to promote sexuality and HIV education in the D.C. public schools [link to: http://metroteenaids.org/], was one of the driving forces behind the development of the tests.

Tenner told me that he enthusiastically approves of the new test, agreeing that in education “what gets measured gets done.” He said that he and others in the city who advocated for inserting the questions in the assessments argued that “healthy kids learn better, healthy kids stay in school and don’t drop out, and healthy kids complete more grades in school and college so they can get better jobs.”

It bothers Tenner that the media and opponents have already labeled the new assessment “the sex test.” He said that opponents argue that “if kids can’t learn to read, why should they learn about sex.” I suggested a retort that I often used to stop this argument in its tracks: “Use age-appropriate materials about sexual issues with kids, and they might improve their reading.” He liked it.

Now that D.C. has taken the all-important first step, perhaps New Jersey will step up and become the second state to consider using a statewide standardized sexuality education test. The cost of preparing the tests for New Jersey-which Tom Ewing, the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS’s) director of external relations, estimated at $250,000 two years ago when I spoke to him-would now be greatly reduced if we were to use the test items from D.C.

Local schools boards in the strapped cities might mention the expense of adapting and giving the test as reasons for not doing it. Therefore, it might be better to have the State Board of Education interested in the issue and work with the Commissioner and possibly the Commissioner of Health to find monies to pay for a statewide assessment.

I’ve been warned that joining sexuality education with standardized testing is a toxic brew that will incur the wrath of people opposed to both ideas. But we’ll never know what a good idea this might be unless we give it a try.

Teaching to the test on this subject makes good sense.

Ewing of ETS told me it would take about 18 months to develop a statewide test. In the meantime, let’s promote some new words to a familiar old adage: “Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together.”

Soon.