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The Answer Blog

Sexuality Education

“Penis” Is Not a Dirty Word

September 19, 2011

Recently, I was sitting with a neighbor in her driveway as her young children were coloring on the driveway with chalk. The children would take turns lying down as we traced their outlines, and then they would jump up to draw in their eyes, noses and mouths. One of her sons completed his figure by drawing a line between his legs. When his mom asked what he had drawn there, he said it was his penis. Looking shocked she exclaimed, “Don’t say that! Go sit in a timeout!”

As a sexual health educator, I have spent much of my career teaching young people the correct terminology for their sexual anatomy and undoing all of the nicknames and slang terms that parents (and other adult caregivers) teach their children (“pee-pee,” “vajayjay,” “hoo-hoo” and on and on). I have also helped young people overcome their embarrassment and fear of saying words like “penis” and “vagina” out loud. It is important for people of all ages, even young children, to know the proper names for all of their body parts and how they function, so that if something is wrong they can seek help or ask questions in the pediatrician’s or school nurse’s office.

A parent is a child’s first and most influential sexuality educator. From day one, parents send strong messages to their children about all aspects of sexuality, including how they should feel about their bodies. These messages are conveyed through the words, body language and tone of voice used when discussing body parts and how they work. It is vital for parents to have open and honest discussions with children of all ages to keep their kids healthy and to teach them how to communicate and set boundaries with others in order to help prevent sexual abuse. These early dialogues let kids know that they can go to their parent(s) with any questions they may have about their bodies, and will also make discussions about sexuality much easier as the child grows into a teenager and young adult.

A child needs to feel good about his or her entire body. When slang terms are used or it’s forbidden to even mention a body part, it sends a message that these parts are somehow shameful or dirtier than other body parts. I hope that all parents stop to consider the message they are sending when they use slang terms, or even worse, when they do not name the parts at all or simply don’t talk about them. Our sexual anatomy is as much a part of our bodies as our elbows and knees. We need to name them and talk about how they work, so that we can take care of them and keep them healthy.

Beyond a Public Health Model of Sexuality Education

August 3, 2011

In her recent blog for RH Reality Check, “A Collision of Culture and Nature: How Our Fear of Teen Sexuality Leaves Teens More Vulnerable,” former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders states, “Efforts in the United States…to address adolescent sex have been directed toward preventing teenage sex as opposed to understanding helping teens prevent adverse consequences of sexual activity.” She makes an impassioned argument for comprehensive sexuality education K-12, and I could not agree more.

Lois teaches sex ed
Family Guy

At the same time, however, Dr. Elders’ piece reinforces how much the field of sexuality education remains stagnated in an almost exclusively public health model that depersonalizes the learners we are trying to serve. We focus on reducing teen pregnancies and births, lowering STD rates and learning how to use various safer sex and contraceptive methods accurately and effectively, which are invaluable components to effective sexuality education and to helping young people grow into healthy, complete adults.

Yet these goals are nowhere near enough. We need to do a much better job of explaining to the general public what sexuality education K-12 really means, and this means not couching our goals and objectives exclusively in reducing pregnancy and STDs. Failure to communicate what sexuality education K-12 really means is a significant reason why our efforts to provide age-appropriate sexuality education in younger grades does not resonate with more adult professionals and parents. Adults tell us, “If the overall goal is preventing something that happens as a result of sexual behaviors, that means you are going to teach my kindergartener about sexual intercourse.” Opponents to the work we do have exploited that unfounded fear very effectively—and unnecessarily.

The world needs to understand that just like any other topic area, sexuality education must start early with very basic information that supports the creation of an overall healthy person. The world needs to understand the myriad topics that, on face value, seem to have nothing to do with sexuality, but are imperative in order to become a sexually health adult. For example, when we teach a kindergartener how to be a good friend or about boundaries of any kind, we are establishing the foundation that later will help them to be a good partner. When we tell a child, “hands are not for hitting,” we are setting the stage for our later lessons on healthy versus abusive relationships. When we teach them to negotiate with each other rather than just grabbing a toy from another student or running away from a frustrating situation in tears, we are helping them learn to communicate. When we teach young children how to take care of their bodies and to wash their hands to avoid infections, we have laid the cornerstone for later lessons on puberty, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

We seem to understand this in every other topic area—except for human sexuality. Consider math, for example. Young people tend to learn algebra in the 9th or 10th grade, because that’s the age at which their brains can understand algebra. Yet we do not begin teaching math in the 9th or 10th grade, because we know that students need the foundational knowledge of addition, subtraction, multiplication and so on before they can understand and apply the knowledge they received during algebra class. Why on earth should a life-enhancing, lifesaving topic like human sexuality be any different? And yet it is. In many schools nationwide, if sex ed is taught, it begins in high school and makes assumptions that by osmosis young people enter high school with the foundational knowledge and skills they need, but rarely have.

Sexuality education must start earlier, and it must be framed much more effectively as part of creating an overall healthy person—only one component of which is determining whether and when to become sexually active, and how to protect themselves and their partners from infection and/or pregnancy.

Abstinence Only Until Marriage? Basta Cosi…

July 28, 2011

Back in 2008 when Bristol Palin “lost her abstinence,” her mom Sarah was a staunch supporter of abstinence-only-until-marriage “education.” So when unmarried Bristol turned up pregnant, her mother did a very effective job of denying the reality that not only do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs not work, but they also are, as Bristol herself said, “unrealistic.” Now, Palin’s son Track has a wife of two months, who is visibly pregnant, which means that she became pregnant before the wedding. (Clutch the pearls!) Yet Grandma Palin remains strongly opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. And she is not alone in her denial, her resistance or her hypocrisy.

Palin's views on sexuality education

I don’t know what is more troublesome: the idea that social conservatives continue to push for the propagation and funding of these programs that have absolutely no research demonstrating any long-term effectiveness; the fact that the federal government continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs (over $1 billion to date); or the “holier-than-thou” attitude that empowers conservative politicians to publicly and unapologetically tell the country how we should live our lives (until they or a member of their family contradict the party line and suddenly, conveniently, the entire issue becomes “a matter of privacy”). It makes me think of a young child being told by her parent, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That doesn’t fly with young people about anything, especially something as significant to them as sex and sexuality. And by withholding life-enhancing, sometimes lifesaving, information from young people, we are setting them up for unhealthy interactions with unpredictable outcomes.

What if we were to acknowledge the reality that some people choose to wait to have sex until they are married, and some do not? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, because in acknowledging that, we would need to acknowledge some concepts that alternately terrify or are irrelevant to social conservatives. For example, we’d need to acknowledge that not everyone who is in a sexual relationship is heterosexual and therefore “until marriage” is an exclusionary time frame. We would need to acknowledge that young people can and do make decisions for themselves, including decisions about sexuality. We would need to acknowledge that, as parents, one of our most important jobs is to talk with our children about sexuality from the very youngest ages and keep talking about it with them through their lives—and that means talking about much more than telling our kids to “just say no.” And we would need to acknowledge that, since far too many parents feel uncomfortable with or unprepared to discuss sexuality, they need the support of educational professionals to teach comprehensive sexuality education at school. That means teaching not only about abstinence, but also about contraception, safer sex and much more.

Enough excuses. Enough faux moralism. As my late grandmother would say, “Basta cosi.” Enough is enough.

How Do We Solve a Problem Like the P-Word? Should School-Based Sex Education Address Pleasure?

July 20, 2011

No, not that p-word. These days, that one is-forgive me-no big thing. The p-word to which I am referring is “pleasure.” And, its role in school-based sexuality education is among the hottest topics being debated among sexuality educators today.

For some who read this, the idea of including pleasure within sexuality education is a no-brainer. For others, it is the forbidden subject-the Voldemort of sex ed that should not be named under any circumstance. But is the inclusion of pleasure necessarily an “all or nothing” issue?

Those who advocate proactively teaching about pleasure will ask, “How can one teach about sexuality and not acknowledge the pleasurable aspects?” After all, sexuality education is about providing medically-accurate information, and the medically-accurate fact is that sexual behaviors can (and should) produce pleasure. But we also know that far too many people’s introduction to sexual behaviors is negative. If one’s baseline experience is coercive, assaultive or negative in other ways, the expectations for future sexual relationships will reflect that baseline. Including pleasure in teaching sex ed can provide a more positive baseline and help to correct misinformation learned through negative life experience.

Unfortunately, sexuality education has always focused on the prevention of, rather than the promotion of, something-STD and HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention and so on. This, along with the decades of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, has hammered into young people’s heads that “shared sexual behaviors only result in bad things, and therefore sex is bad.” It is confusing for a young person to receive a barrage of negative messages about sex accompanied by the reassurance that, miraculously, when one is in an adult, long-term, committed relationship sex will morph into something positive.

The age-old concern has been that if young people know that sexual behaviors are pleasurable, they will want to engage in those behaviors. But guess what? Most young people already know that sex is pleasurable, whether shared sexual behaviors or masturbation. Failure to acknowledge that sexual behaviors can produce pleasure can significantly reduce our validity with young people, which in turn can reduce the effectiveness of our work with them. In addition, research has shown that the more young people know about sex and sexuality, the more likely they are to wait to be in a sexual relationship until they feel ready, and to practice safer sex with their partner. Further, health behavior theories reinforce that people engage in particular behaviors for a reason. Without addressing the benefits a person gets from engaging in particular behaviors, sexual or otherwise-including unhealthy behaviors-it will be impossible to support healthy practices relating to those behaviors.

Having read that, it would appear that I am pushing for including pleasure in the school curriculum-but I actually am not; or, at least, not necessarily. What I am advocating for is that we think about the rationale behind what we propose teaching at particular age levels. I am also advocating for us all to acknowledge the reality in which schools operate today and realize that this often does not match the ideal for which we strive. And while it is only by pushing the proverbial envelope that we can make social progress and change, if we press that ideal without acknowledging reality, we are only setting ourselves-and the young people we serve-up to fail.

The latest School Health Policies and Programs Study is a good example of this. This data showed that, on average, the amount of time devoted to sex ed in high school is 8.1 hours per year. How likely is it, therefore, that the concept of pleasure, beyond acknowledging that people do sexual things because they feel good, will be a part of any school curriculum?

Ideally, schools should both offer sex ed classes and integrate healthy sexuality messages throughout the entire school curriculum. Ideally, sexuality education should be about physical, emotional and psychological health promotion, rather than about the prevention of pregnancy and disease alone. But if all the time we have to teach young people is 8.1 hours, is pleasure among the most important topics to include? In a culture that is conflicted about adult sexuality and that would prefer to ignore (or that blatantly fears) young people’s sexuality, is it realistic to think that most parents would get behind a curriculum that taught about sexual pleasure? I imagine that some would say yes, some no and some remain in between. Thus, the debate continues.

For those of us who call ourselves “sexuality educators” and who address sexuality-related issues every day, we understand how vitally important it is for this topic to be addressed with young people at the earliest ages and throughout the lifespan. But we also have to remember that the vast majority of professionals teaching sex ed in schools do not self-identify as “sexuality educators.” They are health teachers, school nurses, school social workers, counselors and others who have been charged with teaching about sexuality. Their school and community climates vary across a wide spectrum of politics and levels of support. Their personal comfort varies across a wide spectrum as well. In some school districts, where teaching about reproduction is considered controversial, proposing that sex ed include pleasure could make the difference between whether the program continues or is cut.

We must pick our battles wisely. And any efforts to support curricular change and improvement in school-based sex ed must acknowledge the reality of that school community, and recognize whatever efforts they have made as potential building blocks for future progress.

Mary Ware Dennett: Radical Sex Educator?

April 14, 2011


Who was Mary Ware Dennett, and why does Lynn Lederer, Ph.D., director of professional and community programs at Middlesex County College, call her “a radical sex educator”?

Late last month, while we were still technically celebrating Women’s History Month, Dr. Lederer defended the dissertation she wrote for a doctoral degree in the social and philosophical foundations of education at Rutgers University. Its title: “The Dynamic Side of Life: The Emergence of Mary Coffin Ware Dennett as a Radical Sex Educator.”

I interviewed Dr. Lederer about Dennett, and it convinced me that Dennett deserves more recognition for her contributions to the sex education field. Her beliefs were certainly radical for her time and worthy of the word today.

Mary Ware Dennett (April 4, 1872–July 25, 1947) was raised in Boston and lived most of her life in New York City. Her ancestors included numerous social reformers, and Dennett learned the importance of social equality from them. One of her relatives was Lucretia Coffin Mott, an American Quaker abolitionist, social reformer, and proponent of women’s suffrage.

As a young adult, Dennett became involved in the “arts and crafts movement.” The movement had an anti-modern sentiment, concerned with the economic inequalities that industrialization exaggerated. It advocated “a return to the land” and the simpler things of life. Dennett’s accomplishments included founding the design school at Drexel University in Philadelphia and becoming a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. According to Dr. Lederer, she was “principled and pragmatic and didn’t care whose feathers she ruffled,” as she became an advocate for sex education, birth control, women’s suffrage, and other causes.

Personal events, family history, and the social and political context of the early twentieth century fostered Dennett’s interest in birth control and sex education. Married to Hartley Dennett, an architect, she suffered “three horrible pregnancies, one of which resulted in the death of the baby.”

Her doctor ordered her not to have any more children, yet he prescribed no method of prevention other than abstinence. Eventually, Dennett divorced her husband, who was having a romantic relationship right under her nose. In the early twentieth century, seeking a divorce was itself somewhat of “a scandal” and required a courageous spirit. Dennett became a single mother, raising two young sons in New York, where she worked for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Questions about sex from her 14-year-old son, Carleton, away at a small New England boarding school, started Dennett down the sex education road. She did not shy away from the questions and began to seek age-appropriate materials for him and her younger, 10-year-old son, Devon. She found most of the materials unsatisfactory and lacking in candor: They did not mention or describe the sex act itself.

Since Dennett believed that “sex is the very greatest physical and emotional pleasure there is in the world,” she confidently undertook the challenge of answering her son’s questions using her own research and discussions with doctors.

The result of her dedication to “truth-telling” was a 16-page manual that she wrote in 1915, The Sex Side of Life, an Explanation for Young People. It covered many topics forthrightly, including the “physiological, scientific, moral, and emotional aspects of sexuality.” Dennett used anatomically accurate words for male and female body parts and included pictures with the parts clearly labeled. She described the actual sex act and encouraged her sons to understand that sex should be for pleasure as well as reproduction. This was radical indeed when placed beside views of the Victorian era, which influenced sexual behavior when Dennett was growing up.

Dennett told her sons that she believed sex was part of a “special relationship” and counseled “against sex without love.” (Critics today might complain that Dennett’s manual did not mention gay and lesbian relationships.) To her credit, she discussed masturbation, although she hinted that her sons should not “do it too much.”

Ironically, given her own personal experience using abstinence as the only form of birth control, there is no mention at all of methods, which must have existed, crude as they might have been. Venereal diseases get only a brief mention.

What makes this manual truly radical is not only the scope of its information for young people, but also its tone. There is hardly a hint of adult or parental control or repression about young people’s sexuality and no emphasis on fear or shame as ways to control behavior. Rather, Dennett emphasizes a humanist, civil libertarian approach that engenders respect for young people’s rights to all the information they need to make a personal decision about sexuality, whether good or bad.

Although some might think these next lines from the manual quaint—even naïve, in today’s sexually saturated culture—they convey its spirit and tone. Dennett wrote to her sons: “When boys and girls get into their ‘teens,’ a side of them begins to wake up which has been asleep, or only partly developed ever since they were born, that is the sex side of them. It is the most wonderful and interesting part of growing up. This waking up is partly of the mind, partly of the body, and partly of the feelings or emotions.”

But her sons, their friends, other parents, and the medical profession itself did not find Dennett’s information and counsel quaint. Her manual created quite a buzz and was copied and passed along from family to family, colleague to colleague, and clergy to clergy. After it was published in its entirety—and received a glowing introduction in the highly regarded The Medical Review of Reviews in 1918—thousands of copies were distributed and sold (at $.25 a copy) to institutions and individuals worldwide. This demand revealed the intense need at the time for honest, medically accurate information about sexuality for young people.

But when sex education is involved, controversy is often not far behind. In 1928, Dennett was arrested for distributing copies of The Sex Side of Life through the U.S. mail and charged with promoting “obscenity” under the repressive Comstock laws. Her arrest became a “cause célèbre.” (The New York Times covered her trial.)

Dennett fought the charges, saying, “Talking about sex is not obscene.” She argued against the prevailing wisdom that talking about sex with young people encourages them to engage in it—an argument some still make today when arguing against comprehensive sex education. Rather, she maintained that sex education “empowers” young people, and every person “must have access to all the knowledge that is available to them” to make their own decisions.

Lederer’s dissertation details that a jury of 12 white men heard the case “and Mrs. Dennett was quickly convicted and fined $300, with a possible jail sentence of one year.” Dennett refused to pay the fine, explaining: “If I have corrupted the youth of America, a year in jail is not enough for me, and I will not pay the fine!” On appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the conviction, finding that The Sex Side of Life hardly measured up to the definition of obscenity in the repressive statute.

There is no record that Mary Ware Dennett ever became more involved in sex education after scoring a victory for her manual. However, she was involved in the birth control movement, where she and the far more famous Margaret Sanger chose different paths in their attempts to gain access for women to these lifesaving devices.

Sanger convinced legislators to introduce “The Doctors-Only Bill,” to permit women to obtain birth control devices only from a member of the medical profession. Dennett—believing that women should be free to get birth control devices from multiple sources and that there should not be “a medical monopoly of knowledge and information”— searched for backers of the more liberal, far-seeing legislation known as the “Clean Bill.” Of the two women, Dennett’s approach was far more radical than Sanger’s, although it was the latter’s political effort that prevailed.

I asked Dr. Lederer what Dennett might think of the progress we’ve made to date with sex education in the U.S.

“The issues Dennett fought for 100 years ago are still being fought today, a century later. She would be saddened that we still have not attained her goal that every person has the right to knowledge and information about sexuality,” she said.

For Dr. Lederer, Dennett’s “unequivocal conviction that all members of a truly democratic society have the right to know is still radical today because [it implies that] with knowledge, ordinary people have the ability and the responsibility to chart their own course in life without control from those at the top of the social hierarchy.”

“Dennett was a true humanist, trusting in the ability of ordinary people,” Dr. Lederer added.

Surely, radical Mary Ware Dennett deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of sex education heroines and in women’s history.

Sexting Teens and the New Jersey Legislature

April 1, 2011

I get nervous when state legislators or Congress members get involved in the specifics of sex education, particularly in mandating its content. My nervousness stems from the various struggles over sex ed I’ve had with New Jersey legislators over the years as a New Jersey State Board of Education member and executive coordinator (now senior advisor) of Answer. I’ve won and lost battles, and I know that adolescents’ needs are often sacrificed to the political process, which can be about survival and ideology—not education and health.

After I failed to convince a state senator to vote against a sex ed bill that required teachers to “stress abstinence” but withheld equal instruction about contraception, he told me, “I’m not going to sacrifice my career for this issue.” He knew perfectly well that young people need balanced, complete sex education, but he wouldn’t vote for their interests in case his constituents wouldn’t return him to office.

I’ve tried to persuade politicians to be more open-minded and been struck by the fact that many base their decisions about sex ed on fear and what they learned (or didn’t learn) during their own past sex ed classes. They don’t base their decisions on what teens need to know to be safe today.

So I got concerned when I read this recent Times of Trenton headline: “Assembly OKs bill 78-0 to let sexting teens avoid prosecution.” Sexting is the slang term for using a cell phone or similar device to distribute sexually explicit pictures or video. It also refers to sexually explicit text messages.

It is a punishable offence in the United States for teens or adults to send sexually explicit pictures of children or teens under 18 through electronic devices. Teens who send sexually explicit photographs of themselves, or other teens via cell phone can be charged with distribution of child pornography. Twenty percent of teens acknowledge sharing explicit photos, and 44% of high school boys say they’ve viewed a nude or semi-nude photo on a cell phone during school.

I was relieved when I read that N.J. Assembly members showed leniency to teens caught sexting and sending or receiving explicit [nude or semi-nude] photos on a computer or cell phone to other teens. The Assembly passed a law offering teens an educational program as an alternative to prosecution, serving time, and possibly having to register as sex offenders. Instead, first-time sexting offenders would be required to write an essay or attend “a responsibility management course” as part of the educational program.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D. Camden), a sponsor of the bill, said that “juveniles do stupid things, and with the click of a switch, they could send [a sexually explicit picture] to somebody, and that particular picture could be sent off to many other people with an additional click.”

Lampitt’s comment plays into the stereotype that all teens do stupid things, but at least she’s more understanding and protective of them than the politicians who’d rather they face child pornography charges. She added that the law assures teens that the educational program penalty won’t be on their record when they apply to college or a job.

This moderate approach received praise. Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, said that New Jersey should be congratulated, because “helping young people understand the possible consequences of their actions is better than providing them with a record.”

While the proposed law shows empathy for teens, I don’t think it goes far enough, because educators’ roles are not mentioned at all. Perhaps senators, who will next consider the bill, need to seek information about what is actually taught about sexting in New Jersey’s middle- and high-school sex education courses and correct any omissions.

One New Jersey sex educator told me that sexting is not specifically mentioned in the 2009 version of the Core Curriculum Standards, which guides the development of sex and family life education programs for all districts. She thinks a savvy teacher could find a rationale for teaching about it within the relationship strand, but that little is done to ensure that a topic like sexting is actually covered in classrooms anyway.

If the Senate passes this bill and Governor Christie signs it, then students will be penalized for sexting when they’ve been ignorant of its consequences since they haven’t learned about it in sex ed class. This doesn’t seem fair to me.

The bill passed by the Assembly needs additional language requiring that the department of education amend the Core Curriculum Standards to specifically say that sexting should be taught and that money should be allotted to train teachers about this and other aspects of technology that are such a part of teens’ lives.

Perhaps more students should be involved with adults in the development of sex education content, too. I recently read a couple of articles about sexting in Sex, Etc., our magazine and website written by teens for teens. The teen writers understood that sexting had legal pitfalls, but they saw texting in general as a generational step forward from their parents’ telephonic era. Properly used, they say, the new technology brings accurate information to them in a second, and it does not involve a difficult or embarrassing talk with a parent or waiting until next year, when the only sex education course is offered in school. I can’t argue against this point.

One teen writer made a point that I’d never considered: talking about sexual desires over a computer or phone eliminates the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or becoming pregnant. (The writer understood it was not responsible to send nude or semi-nude photographs.) These articles made me realize that a debate about the pros and cons of sexting would lead to a valuable classroom discussion.

If legislators let educators and teens focus on preventing sexting, then perhaps teens will make smarter decisions, and we won’t have new laws to implement.

Education, after all, is an alliance between students, parents, educators, and policymakers. Teens are not always wrong. Teachers and legislators need to meet them more than halfway and offer as much assistance as possible—not just punishment.

Let a deeper discussion about sexting begin.

A Brutal Crime Against an 11-Year-Old Girl in Texas

March 18, 2011


An 11-year-old girl was brutally raped in November 2010 in Cleveland, Texas, a small community of 9,000 that lies about 50 miles northeast of Houston. There, according the New York Times article “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” the girl was gang raped by 18 young men and teenage boys, all of whom have been charged with the crime.

The suspects range in age from middle school students to a 27-year-old. Five are Cleveland High School students, including two basketball players. Another is the son of a school board member. A few men have criminal backgrounds. (The attack occurred around Thanksgiving, but the story didn’t appear in the Times until March 8.)

It is hard for me to write about this rape, because I have a granddaughter who is almost 10 years old. The girl, who survived the rape, attended Cleveland Middle School. School authorities interviewed her and her mother, and when it was determined that the gang rape had occurred, they turned the matter over to the police, because the attack hadn’t occurred “on school property.”

Some town residents’ reactions, as reported in the Times story, are shockingly unsympathetic. Although one resident said that the rape was “really tearing our community apart,” others blamed the victim, because she “dressed older than her age, [wore] makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s, and [hung] out with teenage boys at the playground.”

One of the few residents willing to speak on the record went so far as to say, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

In a letter to the Times, reader Jinnie Spiegler, of Brooklyn, NY, expressed some of my outrage about this last comment. She pointed to the residents’ willingness to “subtly blame the victim” and her mother, forgetting that the victim as well as the suspects “are innocent until proved guilty.”

An 11-year-old girl’s or any woman’s dress or behavior should never be an issue in rape and sexual assault cases. This approach falls into the “she asked for it” type of wrongheaded thinking.

The girl now lives in a foster home after having been removed from her home by Child Protective Services, according to The Houston Chronicle. I hope she is receiving the appropriate counseling and care that she needs. But I am deeply concerned that she will have to relive the brutality of her experience, if or when she has to face the accused who raped her in court, testify to their cruelty, and undergo cross-examination and possible humiliation from their lawyers, who’ll be eager to keep their clients out of jail.

What’s happening in northeastern Texas to address the aftermath of this brutal crime? Are schools administrators, teachers, and community leaders using the gang rape as the “teachable moment” that it surely is? Are other middle- and high-school students learning that rape and sexual assault are illegal, unacceptable behaviors? Are all teachers receiving training, so they can effectively discuss these issues? Are they explaining that even if a girl or woman wears what might be called age-inappropriate clothing and makeup that makes them look far older than they really are, that never means they are “asking” to be raped? I wish I were confident that the town is abuzz with this type of education.

Special attention needs to be directed to young and adult men in Cleveland. I’ve always favored sex education for boys and girls in both separate and mixed-gender groups. When boys and girls are alone, they often feel freer to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed to ask in a heterogeneous group, which is good. But it is essential to have both genders discuss issues like rape together, so they can understand each other’s points of view. If sex education is started early, in elementary school, boys and girls can address subjects like rape much more comfortably as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Silence on this topic never helps.

Males need to know that if they rape and are found guilty of the crime that they forever will be listed as “sexual predators” and be required to check in with authorities in any town in which they live. This seems to me a punishment that fits the crime, along with jail time. I wonder if the teen and adult men who raped the little girl in Cleveland knew about or understood the lifelong consequences of their actions for themselves and the victim.

Schools need to discuss consequences of sexual actions much more comprehensively than many presently do. We need to ensure that discussions of real subjects like rape are included in sex education/health courses, starting in grade school.

As for the parents in Cleveland, Texas, and elsewhere for that matter, they too need a course on rape and sexual assault prevention. They need to know how to better protect their own kids and how to counsel them about how to avoid dangerous situations.

Mothers and fathers – and if there are no males in the home, then male relatives and friends – must talk to teens and young men about the horrors and illegalities of rape.

I also hope that the community addresses the matter of blaming the girl’s mother. I would ask, “Where were the mothers of the 18 young men charged with the crime? Where were all the fathers?”

Cleveland, Texas, isn’t the only place in America that needs a re-education in how to prevent rape and treat its survivors. Schools and communities all over the country need to talk more forthrightly with young people and adults about rape and sexual assault. The President and First Lady were masterful in calling the nation’s attention to the problem of bullying, with a conference at The White House and a video in which they spoke movingly about the seriousness of the problem. Now they need to consider using the brutal crime against this 11-year-old girl in Texas to call the nation’s attention to the epidemic of rape and other sexual violence against girls and women.

To the young girl in Texas who had to experience such degradation, my concern and deepest sympathy. I hope she will never be ashamed about being repeatedly raped by those men in that house and abandoned trailer filled with trash. I am not a therapist who might counsel her to “put this awful event behind you, and go on and live your life.” I can see the sense in this point of view. But, as an educator, a parent, and a grandparent, I hope that as she grows older – and after the physical and emotional pain have healed – she will find the courage to speak out about what happened.

If she finds the courage, she will be doing other young girls like my granddaughter a real service and perhaps lessening the incidence of rape in our country.

Image from The New York Times.

Prize-winning Novel ‘Almost Perfect’ Puts You Inside the Life of a Transgender Teen

February 16, 2011

The American Library Association’s John Newbery Medal is to young adult fiction what the Oscar is to the motion picture industry: the highest award the industry can bestow.

Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest won this year’s Newbery award, and while reading about it, I found another prize-winning book for teens: Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher. The book received the ALA’s 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, given to “English language books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience.”

Since I’d never read a book about a transgender teen, I decided to take the plunge. Almost Perfect is set in “the American heartland”: a small Missouri town. (The author lives and works as a school librarian in the state.) Its narrator, 18-year-old Logan Witherspoon, is a junior at the town’s only high school and lives in a trailer with his mom, a single parent who works as a waitress. Logan’s sister goes to the state university, and Logan’s mother hopes he will follow in her footsteps.

But Logan isn’t feeling good about anything, because he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, Brenda, and is sad and disillusioned about life. He is sure that Brenda was the only girl for him. While patiently trying to rationalize why she didn’t want to have sex with him, he learns that she cheated on him with another guy.

Into Logan’s vulnerability, confusion, and sadness strides Sage Hendricks, a new girl in town who, for reasons Logan can’t fathom, appeals to him. Her résumé is somewhat odd: She has been home schooled until high school and has an overly strict father who won’t let her date. (Her younger sister is allowed to date.)

Their friendship grows. But Logan wonders if he can confine it to just that when he feels attracted to Sage when he sees her in a bikini at the local pool. Sage also begins to push beyond the self-imposed boundary. Logan kisses Sage when they are together, and she returns it. Pulling apart, Sage says, “Logan … the reason I can’t date … the reason we can’t kiss … the reason I was home schooled, I … I’m a boy.”

While Logan recoils from this information, Sage explains that she wanted to be a girl ever since watching her mother dress her older sister in frilly pink dresses. Disgusted with himself for being attracted to Sage — and worrying that if anyone ever found out, he would be called “a fag” — Logan ends the relationship. But not before Sage tells him that she has taken hormones, brought in illegally from Mexico, to create her breasts, and that she can’t have the operation to complete the sex change, because it costs $30,000 and her father refuses to pay for it, since he’s furious about her decision to become a girl.

Logan beats himself up for abruptly leaving the relationship. Like magnets, they come together for a night of lovemaking in his sister’s dorm room at the university. As Logan remembers: “Sage. Me. Naked. Well, I was naked. Sage had never removed her shorts.

Things had started slowly. Touching. Kissing. More touching. Then … the sweat, the touch of her mouth, the prick of her nails, the noise of the bed as it scooted across the floor.”

Later, reminiscing, both agree that they had lost their virginity.

If anything, Almost Perfect gets more intense with Logan’s decision to break up with Sage again. We learn about his lies to his sister about the relationship and his pangs of remorse; the vicious beating Sage endures from a guy she hooked up with after the breakup; Sage’s father’s attack on Logan; and Sage’s decision to return to being a male, which Logan begs her not to do. We also learn of Sage’s threat to commit suicide, which she had tried once before.

Logan thinks he has learned a lesson and can resume the relationship: “Sage just wanted to be herself. To be something that half the people on the planet become when they’re born. She just wanted a little acceptance, a little understanding. And because she had the gall to look in a mirror and say, ‘I am a woman,’ she had been rejected by her father, denied a normal childhood, abandoned by a boy she thought cared for her and had her bones broken and her face smashed…”

Sage has had enough of Logan’s changes of heart and, sadly, although she cares for him, sends him away after he visits her in a psychiatric hospital. Sage does not commit suicide or return to her former gender — but the relationship ends, Logan graduates and goes off to the local university, and Sage to another out of state.

I had to keep reminding myself that Almost Perfect is a novel, not nonfiction. Yet in his acknowledgments, Katcher says that he used the online stories of many “real-life Sages” to form the core of his book.

Recently, I learned about the study “Injustice at Every Turn,” compiled by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which reports that over half of transgender teens try to commit suicide. Many of these teens undoubtedly face the same struggles as Sage.

A good first step toward improving relationships between transgender and non-transgender youth is for parents and educators to read and discuss a book like Almost Perfect with teens. Small steps like this one might reduce the loneliness that many transgender youth feel before they think of suicide as a way out of their misery.

I guess it would have been too much for the ALA to award the Newberry medal to Almost Perfect. That’s too bad, since school libraries would be more likely to purchase it, parents more likely to give it to their teens, and sex educators more likely to use it in their classes. (Of course, some school administrators and parents may have problems with a book that has a transgender heroine and a mildly explicit sex scene, even if it had won the Newbery award.)

Many might believe that Almost Perfect is only for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgendered teens. But it is a book for all teens. It also would help all of us know what it’s like to be a transgendered teen and feel his or her fear, pain, and desire for acceptance. There are many human lessons in Almost Perfect — lessons about dignity and acceptance, respect and understanding, fear and courage, empathy and compassion, and friendship and love.

Perhaps someday a book about a transgender teen may win the Newbery medal. In the meantime, there is Almost Perfect.

Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

February 10, 2011


“Education,” “innovation,” and “infrastructure” were among the most often repeated words from President Obama’s measured, thoughtful, and at times powerful State of the Union address. Many commentators praised the president for using them to set a new path of investment for our country.

I agree with the importance of each of them, and I want to apply them to sex and health education. A recent letter writer in the New York Times worried that the president’s recommendations about upgrading education was limited to math, science, and technology. She then made a pitch for “history, political science, literature, and…foreign languages.” Her point was that in order to “build a robust, humane, aware-of-the world society, we surely need a more broadly educated population.”

I would add health and sex education to the mix; they need to be upgraded and even conceptualized differently as we redesign our education system to help students be more competitive in the world. Along with more respect for their crucial importance, we need to revamp these subjects through “innovation,” because as we all know, the Internet has changed the way young people communicate and learn.

To start, we need funding to survey graduating high school students to learn what they liked and didn’t like about their schools’ sex and health education programs. This idea came from reading Sam Dillon’s Times piece “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” which discussed a $45-million dollar research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to find ways of using students to identify good and bad teachers.

I’m intrigued by the idea of developing a different, and much less expensive, research project to help us design future health and sex education curricula. Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who developed the questionnaires for the Gates’ project, said that “few of the national 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences.”

“As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts,” he said.

I wish a foundation would fund the design of a national questionnaire surveying students on what they like or didn’t like about their sex and health education programs, and how they would redesign their courses to help them make smart decisions about sex. Dr. Ferguson should design that questionnaire, perhaps with the help of a cross-section of students around the nation.

More respectful attitudes can be to health and sex education what new roads and new forms of transportation can be to our national economy: “infrastructure.” We need to be more understanding of the powerful, often irresponsible, or even hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality promoted by the media. Take MTV’s new controversial series Skins, about the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.

Alessandra Stanley, writing on the Times‘ ArtsBeat blog, voiced her concerns when she wrote: “Skins is a remake of a British drama about misbehaving teenagers that stars real teenagers — the youngest is 15. Monday’s episode [the second], which included a shot of a boy standing naked with a cloth over his pill-enhanced erection, generated a lot of complaints in advance and drove several sponsors to pull their ads from the series.”

MTV executives — concerned that the racy show may violate federal child pornography statutes — ordered its producers to tone down the segment, but in the end, the “offending material” stayed in the show. What is particularly disquieting to me about Skins is that its first episode “drew 1.2 million people younger than 18,” despite the fact that it was seen after 10 pm, Eastern.

Many viewers feel that Skins crosses the line between acceptable depictions of teen sexuality and pornography. I wonder if it gives impressionable teens — many of whom believe “everyone is doing it” — the entirely wrong idea about acceptable sexual behavior. I think most people believe that sex is a mature behavior and that it is better for younger teens to wait until they are sure that their sexual relationship is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutual pleasurable and protected. What Skins seems to emphasize is that teen sex should be casual, furtive, drug and alcohol induced and unprotected.

Much as I believe in giving teens honest, accurate information about sex, I worry that a lot of MTV’s content isn’t helpful to young people. I might feel differently if some of that racy content would actually be discussed by parents or teachers in age-appropriate sex ed classrooms. We need better sex education programs that incorporate what teens see on TV.

Yet, we don’t have that type of sex ed across the country. So, at the moment, I wish MTV would tone down its sexual content and put young people’s well-being ahead of profits.

The president’s speech included other phrases that can be applied to the idea of investing more heavily in our kids’ futures: “Winning the Future” and “This is Our Sputnik Moment” are two of the media’s favorites. I know they seem like sound bites, but we’re a society that likes to compress important ideas into two-second media clips.

Now it’s time to apply these phrases to sex ed.

Some Truths about Teen Pregnancy

November 17, 2010


We’re told that we have notoriously short memories. So I wonder, do you remember the infamous “Gloucester 18”? Here’s a hint: Gloucester is a small town in Massachusetts that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seaport.” Doesn’t ring a bell? Then how about the words “pregnancy pact”?

“Bingo,” I hear you say, “that’s the place where all those girls in one high school made a pact and got pregnant on purpose, right?”

No, you would be wrong—not because you aren’t up on your facts, but because until very recently no one took the time to try to get to the bottom of the story.

Kristen Grieco, a former Gloucester Daily Times reporter who first broke the story, has stepped up to clarify the charge against the girls and the town by producing a 67-minute documentary film, The Gloucester 18. Hers was a team effort with director and executive producer John Michael Williams, and associate producer/editor Joseph Provenzano. They created a moving, compelling film that reveals the real story about the supposed “pact” as well as more profound truths about teen pregnancy.

Grieco was the original person to break and investigate a suspicious spike in the teen pregnancy rate at the local high school in March 2008. She also had heard rumors that “a clique [of girls had formed] with the express purpose of getting pregnant.” Dr. Joseph Sullivan, the school’s principal, started the ball rolling and explained the spike in numbers by saying that some girls purposely got pregnant.

The first truth that the girls in the film reveal is that there was no pregnancy pact.

Teens and sex!!! Always an incendiary mix to delight and attract the media, which can play both the role of voyeur and disapproving adult. After Grieco’s story broke, the national press descended on the small, economically strapped fishing village to sensationalize what actually occurred. After all, 16, 17, or 18 girls in one high school getting pregnant on purpose—what could be juicier for the mainstream media?

A Time magazine reporter coined the phrase “pregnancy pact,” and it drew reporters from such faraway places as Brazil, England, and the Netherlands to every corner of Gloucester to report the lascivious details.

The media got the story mostly wrong. There was no pact, but 18 girls in the high school were pregnant, which was considerably above the average number for a given year.

To Grieco’s credit, she decided to “hear” as much as she could about the true story behind the spate of pregnancies. She interviewed almost half the girls who had become pregnant (of the 18, six chose to have abortions), some of their parents, and the high school health educators. She couldn’t exactly find what the reasons were for the troubling spike but she uncovered some truths about the problem of teen pregnancy in the United States.

The girls who attended Gloucester were white. Grieco expanded her research to Lowell and Springfield, MA, to tell the stories of pregnant minority teens to see if there were any similarities and differences within the populations.  The themes were very much the same. Poverty and teen pregnancy often go hand-in-hand, and these three towns have experienced hard times during the last decade.

The film introduces us to Kyla, Alissa, Brianne, Hallie, Tabitha, Sarah, Leslie—all of whom deliver their babies and try to adjust to their new situations as unmarried, single parents (only a few have steady live-in boyfriends). We also meet one intact family and several other single moms who are raising their teen girls alone. Not many men are in the picture, which is also an unpleasant truth about teen pregnancy.

Grieco shows us the commonalities that most, if not all, of these pregnant teens share:

The girls seem passive and unrealistic about the challenges of raising a child and staying in school. None have much self-esteem or any future goals; they seem to have drifted into having unprotected sex and rarely, if ever, used birth control. They feel that some adult, hopefully their parent or parents, will accept their babies and help raise them, and most have absolutely no sense of what it takes to raise a child in safety and dignity, or the financial and psychological costs of it.

We learn that a high proportion of the teen moms were born to women who were teen moms themselves, and that the cycle repeats itself. Most of the girls who have a first birth in the film are pregnant with a second within a very short span of time.

The most troubling commonality is that so few of the girls had a loving, protective, and helpful family. I doubted, too, that their parents had been given much advice about sexuality and pregnancy. Some had grown up in the foster care system desperately wanting a family of their own. Many were looking for love and thought a baby would provide it.

Leslie, a minority teen girl from Lowell, is the one whose words and face lingers. Her mom gave birth to her at 15 and her brother at 16. I might characterize her as a “throwaway child” for whom no adult had ever cared. She didn’t have a home and spent her time living in shelters and in the back of vans. She seemed to have a lot of unprotected sex, probably in order to secure a place to sleep at night.

Leslie also had spunk. She was more articulate than the rest of the girls in the film. She said that her pregnancy was unintentional, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” because she had been told that she had only one ovary. She rationalized her pregnancy as “perhaps the only opportunity to be a parent.” Her only source of income was money earned from braiding friends’ hair. Leslie, by film’s end, is pregnant with her second child, still with no visible signs of adult support.

Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the high school health clinic, and Kim, Daly, its former nurse practitioner, offered the best explanations for why so many of the girls in Gloucester became pregnant that spring. They knew that many of the high school girls were having sex, but they were not permitted to prescribe the birth control pill or distribute condoms in the health center. They crossed swords with the leaders of the local hospital that oversaw the clinic. Hospital officials publicly questioned the hospital’s liability if birth control prescriptions were written in the clinic. Despite Daly’s best efforts to inform officials that “being on the Pill is safer [for a teen female] than giving birth,” she was unable to change their minds.

Orr and Daly lost the battle and resigned. But the community uproar led the Gloucester School Committee to permit kids to get birth control prescriptions as long as their parents opted to enroll them in the program.
But this policy came too late for the “Gloucester 18.”

Greico is attempting to get funding for general distribution of her film, as in the case of the popular An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failing urban public schools. Presently, it is distributed primarily to education groups and community nonprofits through the Media Education Foundation.

I hope The Gloucester 18 will be distributed to a wider audience, since many more of us would really understand the roots of teen pregnancy. We would learn more about our responsibilities to the vulnerable teen girls who live in poverty and have little hope for the future. We’d also wise up to how the media sensationalizes teen sexuality to the detriment of those who are working to solve this serious societal problem.