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Sexuality Education

April Showers

April 24, 2009

Sometimes references to sexuality education and sexuality issues in the daily newspaper are as ubiquitous as April showers. But even I was startled by what I saw in the April 15th edition of the New York Times: obituaries of two women who not only died far too young, but whose lives were shaped to a great extent by their personal and professional experiences with human sexuality.

These were the headlines: “Judith Krug, Librarian Who Fought Ban on Books, Dies at 69,” and “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58.”

What immediately attracted me to Judith Krug’s obit was the reference to banned books.  As we know, many books are banned from libraries and school libraries, in particular, because of their sexual content (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies immediately come to mind.)

Krug spent her professional life fighting efforts to ban books, no matter how offensive they might be to a particular audience and no matter the political persuasion of their authors.  She became director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and then executive director of its Freedom to Read Foundation, which raises money to promote First Amendment issues in court cases. She helped create Banned Books Week, which occurs annually, and fought the banning of sex manuals among other books.

In a 2002 interview with The Chicago Tribune, she recounted a childhood experience that inspired her life’s work. She was 12 years old and reading a sex education book under the covers with a flashlight: “It was a hot book; I was just panting, when my mother suddenly threw back the covers and asked what I was doing. I timidly held up the book. She said, ‘For God’s sake turn on your bedroom light so you don’t hurt your eyes. And that was that.’”

Think of what might have happened had her mother snatched the book away or berated her daughter for trying to educate herself about sex and sexuality. Her child might never have gone on to lead the fight against censorship on the Internet and, as principal organizer of civil liberties groups, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

If Krug had been paralyzed by the incident, she might not have earned a note of appreciation for her life’s work from the Times editors, which appeared on the same day as her obit.

According to her obituary, Eve Sedgwick’s critical, academic writings focused “on the ambiguities of sexual identity in fiction [which] helped create the discipline known as queer studies.” She pioneered new thinking drawing on feminist scholarship, “teasing out the hidden socio-sexual subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James.”

Like Krug, reports the Times, Sedgwick did not shy from controversy, “most notoriously” delivering a paper, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” at the annual meeting of Modern Language Association. “In it, she argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood could be better understood in relation to contemporary thought about the evils of ‘self-abuse.’”

In an earlier interview with the Times, she explained the function of queer theory: “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”

Given her academic work, some people were surprised that Sedgwick was married to Hal Sedgwick, also a professor. They questioned how a seemingly straight, married woman could devise queer theory. In reply, she said she disliked the term “straight,” because it ran against her notion of sexual orientation “as a continuum rather than a category.”  Struggling at the end of her life with repeated bouts of breast cancer, Sedgwick wrote A Dialogue on Love, addressing her feelings about death, depression and sexual identity after having a mastectomy.

I feel sadness for our profession at the loss of these two accomplished women, dying so close to each other in time. Each in her own way made a contribution to the study of human sexuality and each highlighted its importance in their lives and in the world.

The showers of April give way, according to the old adage, to the flowers of May. I hope that the many contributions and valuable lives of Judith Krug and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick will continue to blossom and bloom.

Unsung Helper

April 15, 2009

“Ever heard of Daniel J. O’Hern?” my husband asked over breakfast last week. Before I had a chance to respond, he added, “He was a justice of the Supreme Court in New Jersey and he died on Wednesday.

It took me a second to respond. “Oh, yes, of course, I remember Dan O’Hern, but I remember him best when he was serving as the chief counsel to Governor Byrne.” After a pause I said, “We might not have family life and sex education in New Jersey public schools if it weren’t for Dan O’Hern.”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Dan O’Hern since the early 1980s, when I was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education, which under law sets policy for the public schools. In late 1979, a committee of the State Board recommended a statewide mandate requiring family life education in elementary and secondary schools.

A furor erupted with health officials. College faculty and K-12 educators supported schools’ providing instruction to help young people make informed decisions about their sexuality, and state education associations, conservative organizations and religious groups opposed it, claiming that discussing sex in classrooms would promote sexual activity and that the state was usurping local control of education and parental responsibilities. (See The Struggle for Sex Education in New Jersey, 1979-2003: Policy, Persistence and Progress, by Philip E. Mackey, Ph.D.)

I remember the year 1980 as one of almost constant controversy about the mandate. It was filled with open public meetings, newspaper headlines and revision after revision of the policy in order to meet concerns of opponents. Hanging over the heads of the Board was the distinct possibility that the legislature would pass a law negating the State Board’s mandate, which was its right under the Constitution.

Enter Dan O’Hern.

One morning I received a phone call from Paul Ricci, president of the Board, who said that he and I, as chair of the committee that had recommended the mandate for family life education, had been summoned to the Governor’s office. When we arrived, we were ushered into Dan O’Hern’s office, where for next half hour we made our case for the State Board’s action and policy.

O’Hern didn’t say very much. We touched on all of the important points, particularly one that we thought might be particularly persuasive: The policy was supported by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a lay group representing the bishops. Church leaders backed the State Board, because they wished to mandate family life education in parochial schools and felt that the statewide policy in public schools would advance their case.) (To show that the conflict over teaching family life education in public and parochial schools never ends, log on to the most current controversy in Perth Amboy, NJ.)

At the end of the 30 minutes, O’Hern said something like, “It’s okay; the Board can go forward.”

Safely back on the sidewalk outside the State Capitol, Paul and I exchanged views of the meeting. We decided that Dan O’Hern was going to tell the Governor that the State Board’s actions should not be overturned by the legislature, which was controlled by the Governor’s party, and that word would be passed to legislative leaders to let the Board proceed.

That is exactly what happened. The Board made some gentle changes to the policy to satisfy members of the Senate Education Committee, then the policy was passed by the Board and went into effect in all school districts in 1983.

But Dan O’Hern had one more role to play in the family life education controversy. In 1981, then-Governor Byrne appointed him to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. After the mandate passed, family life education’s opponents calling themselves the New Jersey Coalition of Concerned Parents sued the State Board, claiming that it had overstepped its authority in requiring family life education. In 1982, the Supreme Court heard the case, Smith v. Ricci, and ruled unanimously that the Board had the right under the New Jersey constitution to set the mandate.

Justice Dan O’Hern was one of the justices voting for the Board; I like to think that he was persuasive and supportive of the Board and family life education in conference with his fellow justices. He certainly had all our arguments up the sleeve of his long, black robe.

In Dan O’Hern’s obituary in The New York Times, the reporter mentioned that among his 231 majority opinions—he served for 19 years until his retirement in 2000—he helped to “define state policies on issues like the death penalty, law enforcement and homelessness,” mostly favoring the views of liberals, but sometimes bowing to the views of the conservatives. In other words, he tried wherever possible to be fair and balanced.

There is no mention in the obituary of the role that Dan O’Hern played in assuring that all young people in New Jersey have school programs in family life and sexuality education.  But those programs, which we take for granted now, might not have been developed or sustained without him.

Yes, I shall always remember Dan O’Hern, and with gratitude.

Spring Cleaning…and Condoms

April 3, 2009

“Spring cleaning” to me isn’t the kind of housecleaning that our grandmothers did come the first signs of spring: hanging draperies on the line, beating pillows within an inch of their lives, and dusting every piece of bric-a-brac in the house. I just clean up my desktop and delete old files that I haven’t opened in years.

As with all self-improvement ventures, sometimes you discover a “jewel” among the dusty remnants. This spring, my “jewel” turned out to be a still-relevant, four-year-old comment from a New Jersey high school graduate about her sex education course. The young woman, whose named I do not know, was responding online to “Bush’s Sex Scandal,” a 2005 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that roundly criticized the Bush administration’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

She wrote:

“I agree with you 100% when you advocate sex ed that includes, but is not limited to abstinence. I went to high school in Glen Rock, NJ, where the official stand was ‘abstinence is the safest policy.’ That is how my teacher would begin and end each class period. Then she would say: ‘but if you aren’t abstinent, then you can use…’ condoms, diaphragms, the Pill, etc.

It was amazing. We learned the effectiveness of every form of birth control, even those that are not widely used. …. My teacher taught us how to use a condom, and I can recite the instructions on cue if need be. … She taught us what prevents STIs and the symptoms that a person would have with each infection. We discussed the policy of ‘abstinence-only’ education in class, and even learned the international statistics that you mentioned in your column. I never realized how utterly complete my sex education was until I got to college.

Please understand, I go to Vassar College…so we aren’t lacking in information about sex. Personally, I keep a box of condoms, lube gloves, and sex information outside my door for the people on my hall. Condoms are everywhere. But as a freshman, I met plenty of people who just didn’t have the background in sex education that I was fortunate to have. I found myself explaining things to my friends that they were never aware of. And it wasn’t just my roommate who went to an all-girls Catholic high school. People from Virginia, Connecticut, and California were just as uninformed.

I have come to value what my high school did for me in taking the progressive route with my education. I am a sophomore in college and a virgin (not by choice, really, it is just working out that way). When I do have sex, there is no question in my mind that I will use a condom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am thoroughly convinced that a complete sexual education is the only way to go, because when it comes to sex, options are the best weapon that you can have to protect yourself.”

Although four years old, Kristof’s column, with its arguments for teaching about condoms as well as abstinence, is still extremely pertinent. The Obama administration, while budgeting less funds for abstinence-only programs in 2010, is still not willing to bite the bullet and withdraw all funding from these discredited programs and replace them with comprehensive ones.

Earlier this week, I received several high priority e-mails asking me to make calls to the offices of the Democratic members of the Senate budget committee. The SOS appeals urged me to ask 13 Senators to vote “no” on the “Bunning [Senator Jim Bunning, R-KY] amendment” to restore full funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the 2010 budget.

I wish I could have e-mailed the New Jersey high school student’s comment to each of these senators. Her clear analysis of why young people need non-ideological, honest, accurate, and balanced sexuality education speaks louder than any words of mine about why adult legislators should listen to young people when they make decisions that affect their health and lives.

Too many legislators believe that their political careers will end if they vote against funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage. When Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out against using condoms to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa (see “The Pope on Condoms and AIDS”), he implicitly sent a message to Catholic legislators on this continent. That message? “Do not support school programs that include teaching about condoms, because this instruction goes against the moral teachings of the church.”

Catholic priests are not averse to rallying their congregations to oppose Catholic politicians who bravely take a stand against issues supported by the church. I understand the dilemma that legislators face when dealing with opposition based on religious doctrine, but what happens in public schools is a different matter.

I hope legislators pay more attention to young people like the thoughtful student who responded to Kristof’s column than to the Pontiff.

Childbirth: More Difficult Than You Think

March 27, 2009

If you were to ask teens in a sex education class about childbirth in America, most would agree that it is a relatively safe and easy procedure with practically no side effects. But childbirth is not nearly as risk-free in other places, especially in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

A devastating factor called an obstetric fistula can wreak havoc on young and adult women who give birth in poor, rural countries that lack doctors and nurses, sanitary facilities, roads, and methods of transportation.

A recent article in Science Times provides an excellent explanation of an obstetric fistula. Times reporter Denise Grady describes how a fistula develops after women experience complications during childbirth: “Obstructed labor can kill the mother [and baby] or crush her bladder, uterus, and vagina between her pelvic bones and the baby’s skull. The injured tissue dies, leaving a fistula: a hole that lets urine stream out constantly through the vagina. In some cases, the rectum is damaged and the stool leaks out.”

Young girls ages 13 to 17 are most vulnerable to obstetric fistulas. They are often married off soon after their first menstrual period, usually to older men in the community, and because of poor diet and nutrition, their bodies and bones are not strong enough to withstand normal labor. Exacerbating the problem, most of these young women live in rural areas—miles, hours, and even days from an urban medical clinic or hospital—and there is no transportation other than dusty carts and ancient buses to take them where they can have a safe delivery. There is no help when these women go into prolonged labor. The baby usually dies in their uterus and they develop fistulas.

Unless the fistulas are repaired by skilled surgeons, these young women leak urine and feces through their fistulas, some continuously. Most are ostracized from their homes and villages and often forced to live in huts they have made themselves. If married, their husbands usually leave them to marry another woman.

The only consolation to this terrible problem is that the operation to close the fistula is 90-percent effective. Grady reports that a charitable group—the African Medical and Research Foundation—brings skilled surgeons to Dodoma, Tanzania, to operate and train doctors and nurses from other places in Africa on how to repair fistulas.

But the person who’s done the most to shed light on the fistula/childbirth problem, and to bring help to young African woman, is 83-year-old Australian obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Catherine Hamlin. She and her late husband, Reginald, also a surgeon, emigrated from Australia to Ethiopia more than 45 years ago to start a school of midwifery. Instead, after seeing the fistula problem, they pioneered the first operation to repair them and opened the first and only world center dedicated to providing free fistula repair, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

Hamlin tells the story of founding the hospital and the Fistula Foundation, which raises funds to support and expand its work, in her book The Hospital by the River.

The Fistula Foundation released a DVD, A Walk to Beautiful, that is tailor-made for high-school classroom use. This unforgettable film runs over an hour and is divided into six sections, which makes it very appropriate for classroom viewing and discussion. (We will give away a free copy of the video to the first five educators who comment on this post!)

Why should we talk about the problem of obstetric fistula among African women in our classrooms? Studying childbirth in places like sub-Saharan Africa might make our students more appreciative of the great progress we’ve made in medicine in the U.S. Some may become more understanding of international health problems, more empathetic about the needs of teens in poorer parts of the world, and more willing to contribute to others’ well being.

A high school health class might decide to hold a car wash or bake sale to raise funds for Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. A student might be so inspired by the film that he or she might become an ob-gyn and spend a part of his or her life repairing fistulas and educating young women about their dangers in one of Dr. Hamlin’s hospitals.

Now that indeed would be beautiful.

Why Can’t More Americans…?

March 25, 2009

In the hit Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings plaintively, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics came to mind recently as I found myself vexed by several national media stories that reveal our negative attitudes about sex. Yet my plaintive question is: “Why can’t Americans be more accepting of their sexuality?”

Story 1: Anna Quindlen on Abstinence-Only

If Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen might never have had to write these sentences in her March 16th column:

“Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.”

Quindlen writes a brilliant, perceptive analysis of Congress’ blindness to the failure of abstinence-only programs. If we, as a country, were more accepting of our sexuality and more willing to follow sound program evaluation, we’d have decided years ago that all young people deserve comprehensive sexuality education and be done with it.

Story 2: Obama’s Budget and Abstinence-Only

Sexuality educators learned that the new administration hasn’t removed funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Sure, it may have cut some of the money, but the Department of Health and Human Services section devoted to Preventing Teen Pregnancy states:

“The Budget supports State, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active.”

I call this budgetary decision a big waffle that divides kids into two groups: the sheep (the “good” kids who don’t have sex while in high school), and the goats (the “bad” kids who do). It denies young people equal opportunity to learn in advance of having sex about important ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Isn’t it useful for kids who decide to remain abstinent in high school to have knowledge about contraception, which they might put to use when they are in college or, as adults, ready to get married or commit to long-term partnerships?

If only Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, the DHHS would fund programs that offer balanced information about abstinence and contraception before most kids become sexually active. And it would support distribution of condoms and birth control pills to those who ask for them, as is done in many European countries with far lower teen pregnancy rates than ours.

(more…)

Sex Education: Forgotten, or Ignored?

March 11, 2009

It always amazes me how frequently the phrase “sex education” is omitted from important articles or statements about reproductive health, family planning and abortion. Sexuality education plays a crucial role in prevention, and it deserves much more recognition than it receives.

Just consider these two recent examples from the national press:

The National Council of Catholic Women recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad reproduced a statement on the Freedom of Choice Act by Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Act, if passed, would ensure Roe v. Wade’s protections and guarantee a woman’s right to choose. The statement from the USCCB was a stinging attack on the Act, and it included no mention of efforts the USCCB would support to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.—not even a reference to abstinence-only programs. The USCCB focused on how the Act would threaten “prenatal human life,” rather than on ways that we, as a nation, can work together to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive sexuality education provides such a way.

The second example is the Times op-ed “This Is the Way the Culture War Ends,” by William Saletan. Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, presents his solutions on ending the culture wars that currently rage over abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.

On birth control, he writes:

“This isn’t [about] a shortage of pills or condoms. It is a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It is a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation—and the subsequent killing, through abortion—of a developing human being.”

Now you may consider me naïve, but I was certain that Saletan’s next sentence would be about the importance of high quality, balanced sexuality education in our pubic schools.  But, you guessed it, he simply moved on without mentioning any instruction that might help young people understand the concept of personal responsibility about sexual behavior.

Maybe Saletan hasn’t heard a crackerjack high-school educator instruct students about the need to use contraception each and every time they decide to have sex, or if they one day decide not to be abstinent. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that for years and years, young people in the majority of states have only been given negative or false information about contraception through federally support abstinence-only programs.

Perhaps what Saletan wants all educators to tell students is “abortion kills a developing human being.” He apparently won’t settle for educators saying, “Most people believe that abortion is killing a developing human being, but some people believe otherwise.”  A balanced statement like this wouldn’t detract from Saletan’s point that students need to learn about, discuss and understand the importance of taking personal responsibility, when or if they have sex.

To his credit, Saletan breaks with traditional Catholic doctrine by saying that a “culture of life requires an ethic of contraception” and that birth control offers people “a loving, conscientious way to prevent conception…” I just wish he had added, “Public schools with students of all different religious denominations should teach about birth control in their sexuality education classes.” Period.

That would have made me happy—that, and a land where the phrase “sex education” is as commonplace as Mom and apple pie.

Darwin and the Swimsuit Issue

February 19, 2009

February 12th was definitely an auspicious occasion: the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. When I read about the contributions of each, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection caught my attention.

Nicholas Wade of the Times recently discussed Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and his fascination with the peacock’s tail: “Showy male ornaments, like the peacock’s tail, appeared hard to explain by natural selection, because they seemed more of a handicap than an aid to survival,” wrote Wade. Darwin’s worry about the “problem” of the peacock’s tail led him to “the idea of sexual selection, that females chose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring.”

Fast forward to the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, published each February. I picked up a copy by chance just before boarding a flight to Florida. As I put the magazine on my lap, I became uncomfortably aware that a boy about eight years old was sitting next to me. I looked down at the cover showing model Bar Refaeli on Canouan Island in the Grenadines, wearing the skimpiest bikini I have ever seen. Then I saw the cover line: “Bikinis or Nothing” and began to fervently wish that I could quickly slip the magazine into a brown paper bag. Since I didn’t have one, I compromised by holding the magazine at a 90-degree angle, so the eight-year-old could only see the back cover.

Darwin was on my mind, and I looked through the photographs only to discover that, in this case, he was wrong, wrong, wrong about who was attracting whom. Almost all the men in the issue were completely clothed in very conservative coats and shirts—even when on the beach—while the women wore nothing but the flimsiest coverings on their breasts and pubic regions. Now, I know this isn’t really about sexual selection; it’s about who’s getting paid to strip down to the bare essentials, but just stay with me here.

The women were gorgeous—make no mistake about it—and the cover headline kept its promise: “Bikinis or Nothing.” (In fact, if this was a contest between bikinis or nothing, I’m really not sure which side would have won.) The gals certainly won the peacock tail contest, though. They put the guys in the shade. Had Mr. Darwin seen the 2009 swimsuit issue, I wonder whether he would have had to go back to the drawing board with his theory of sexual selection. At the very least, he’d have to say that both women and men wear tail feathers to attract the opposite sex. What a difference 200 hundred years make.

Perhaps it was because I was sitting by the 8-year-old boy that I felt concerned about the swimsuit issue and its possible effect on preteens and teens. Millions of households must receive copies of this issue, and I wonder what parents say to their children about the way women are depicted. What messages do these images send to young people, who are just barely out of puberty?

For girls, is the message, be what I am? Is it, aspire to be a swimsuit model and make a gazillion bucks? Is it, if your body isn’t like those in the magazine, then you are seriously deficient? For boys, is it, only go after the girl with the beautiful breasts? Are the girls who are willing to bare almost all more desirable and worth pursuing than those who are covered up? Do the models have the ideal American female body (and did they achieve it through starvation, plastic surgery and Botox injections), and is anything less, undesirable? I could go on a long time with a lot more questions.

I wish school officials would allow sexuality educators to use the swimsuit issue to trigger conversations about the body issues that are so critical to self-esteem. But most teachers taking a copy of the issue into a classroom would have to fear for their reputations, particularly if they don’t have tenure.

I wish the models themselves would talk openly with young women about body image and how they developed the (high or low) self-esteem to be photographed with hardly any clothes on. More and more young men are struggling with body image issues as well, so there’s plenty of reason to have a group discussion. But since teachers or models will probably not be able to discuss the ramifications of this issue and its effects on body image, then parents should use the magazine as a vehicle for talking to their own kids.

In the meantime, Mr. Darwin, how would you attempt to explain sexual selection and the swimsuit issue of 2009? Have any good ideas?

The Octuplets: A Lesson Plan

February 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Life Educator-in-Chief

February 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In or Out of Limbo?

January 28, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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