Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

Sexuality Education

The M-Word: Past and Present

January 21, 2009

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.


Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.

Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)


Remember Larry

December 17, 2008

I strongly recommend that parents and educators read the Newsweek cover story “Young, Gay and Murdered.” It is a riveting, tragic, and gut-wrenching story about the murder of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate at Oxnard, California’s E. O. Green Junior High School last winter. The student, Lawrence (“Larry”) King, was shot in the presence of a teacher and other students.

Central to the story is the crucial fact that Larry had recently come out at school and was killed by a homophobic classmate who had been harassing him. The school simply didn’t know how to handle the situation before it literally blew up in its face and resulted in Larry’s death.

What happened to Larry could happen again in any junior high school in the country—sooner rather than later. But denial is a comfortable state for many school administrators, board members, teachers and parents.

Recently, I told the head of a school for young female dancers about the work one of its alumni has done for college students with eating disorders. “Oh,” she told me, “we don’t have any problems like that in this school.” No problems like that? I asked myself, thinking of all the pressures on dancers to be pencil thin. In the same vein, I can hear middle-school principals vehemently denying that they have students as young as ten who proclaim that they are gay and then are harassed—and even assaulted—by classmates. Think again, I’d say.

Parents of middle schoolers need to talk with their kids about sexual orientation much earlier than they ever thought possible. They need to talk about the horror of hate crimes. An equal burden falls on the entire educational establishment—from the commissioners of education and state board members to superintendents, principals, school board members, teachers, staff, parents and students in middle and high schools. They must talk openly and frequently about sexual orientation and the policies needed to protect all students.

An Oxnard school board member best sums up the steps we need to take to ensure that horrible school tragedies like this one never repeat themselves: “This has got to be discussed more,” said the 48-year veteran member.

Discussed and discussed and discussed by everyone who is concerned with strengthening public education. Educators also need more training on these issues, and they can look no further than Answer’s outstanding workshops, including “That’s So Gay! Homophobia and Harassment Prevention in Elementary School” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues: You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers.”

But, first, please read Larry’s story and remember him.

Moving to the Middle on Sex Ed

December 11, 2008

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education can glean good news from Charles M. Blow’s New York Times op-ed piece, “Americans Move to the Middle.”

According to Blow, our opinions on what is “morally acceptable” are increasingly shifting toward the middle. He cites Gallup poll research gathered over the past eight years that shows that the majority of Americans think it is morally acceptable to get divorced, engage in premarital sex and have babies outside of marriage. And almost half believe that same-sex relationships are acceptable.

Although Blow doesn’t mention how Americans feel about sex education in schools, research shows that many are moving toward the middle—and beyond—on this issue as well. In fact, the majority of Americans support comprehensive sexuality education. They support programs that instruct young people about the benefits of abstinence and contraception.

With a new president and Congress arriving in January, we may have a real chance to change directions on sexuality education in public schools. President-elect Obama, although speaking out for the ideal of abstinence until marriage, has said that he believes young people need complete and non-ideological information about sexual health. Many of the newly elected members of Congress have already spoken out against abstinence only until marriage (AOUM) programs.

Yet many politicians still lag behind the public on this issue because they fear their careers will come to a grinding halt if they vote against AOUM programs. This is why Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS and a leader in the fight against federal support of AOUM, has had to work so hard to persuade members of Congress to vote against additional funding for AOUM. As more states reject these funds (25 so far), it sends a clear message to politicians that the majority of Americans want young people to learn all the facts and skills they need to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex.


Up Next: An Openly Gay or Lesbian President

December 4, 2008

In 1968, the year he was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy predicted that in 40 years the United States would have a black president. It is 2008; he was spot on.

Since Obama’s historic electoral triumph, I’ve read that the White House doors are wide open to a marvelous range of people of different genders and ethnicities. However, I don’t remember a gay man or lesbian making the list.

I certainly do not posses Bobby Kennedy’s prognosticating skills, but given the American people’s willingness to change and to understand that denying rights to others contradicts the Constitution, I’ll climb out on a limb and make the following prediction: Within 40 years, an openly gay man or lesbian will be elected president of the U.S.

The climb to this summit may seem long and steep, given the results of votes on recent ballot propositions, which most pundits consider a tragedy for gay and lesbian citizens. Take a look at the results of these ballot initiatives:

  • Floridians and Arizonians approved anti-gay marriage amendments to their state constitutions;
  • Californians, who like to think they live in one of the most progressive states in the nation, approved Proposition 8, which strips thousands of same-sex couples of their right to marry; and
  • Arkansans approved a ban on people who are “cohabitating outside of a valid marriage” from serving as foster parents or adopting children.

Currently, same-sex marriage is only legal in two states: Massachusetts and Connecticut. What will happen in other states, where the issue is certain to arise again? Where will the successful alliance of Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals that defeated Proposition 8 turn next? Groups in this alliance raised $40 million dollars and sent armies of volunteers to California. They have a paradigm that works. Will they decide to try to ban domestic partnerships state by state?


Looking Ahead

December 1, 2008

In light of the historic fact that Senator Barack Obama will soon become our 44th president, I thought I would review what he has said to date about some aspects of sexuality and sex education. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act on his beliefs (the personal often does not become the political and the political often changes the personal), but his thoughts might point in interesting directions.

I started by reviewing Obama’s words from the third and final debate. If you’re like me, while watching presidential debates you always hope the moderator will ask the candidates directly about their views on sexuality education in public school classrooms. So far, no one ever has.

However, moderator Bob Schieffer did move in the right direction when he asked Senators Obama and McCain whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. This led to a back-and-forth discussion which touched on nominations to the Supreme Court, late-term abortion and life-saving treatments for children of botched abortions.

Obama eventually turned the discussion toward our issue: how to find common ground between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life. He stated, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.”


Dangerous Liaisons

November 10, 2008

Recently, I was reminded of the possible dangers of the religion/sexuality connection after reading “Catholic School Uninvites Whitman” in my regional newspaper.

The “Whitman” the article refers to is New Jersey’s former governor, Christie Whitman, who had been invited to speak at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart’s annual “Women in Leadership Forum.” Who would be more qualified to speak about women and leadership than the Garden State’s first and only female governor?

Unfortunately, Diocese of Trenton Bishop John M. Smith didn’t feel Whitman was an appropriate choice because her pro-choice beliefs were “totally contrary” to the church’s teachings. In a communication written to the school, the Bishop stated Whitman’s presence could falsely mislead the Stuart community into thinking the school supported abortion rights. As a result, the headmistress of Stuart—a nun—uninvited Whitman.


What’s a Teen Girl to Do?

October 15, 2008

For this blog, I’m pretending that I’m a teen girl. Yes, I’m really 78, but go with me.

I have to say, I have a few issues with you adults. Talk about being under the microscope and having everything constantly scrutinized: the way I dress, my body and my sexual behaviors!

One specific issue I have with you is how you talk about me. In The Truth About Teen Girls, Time magazine writer Belinda Luscombe talks about how some adults think teen girls are being “too sexy” and “too liberal with sexual favors.” Some of you even feel that we’re “sexually loose” because we’re copying what we see on TV or read about in magazines.

If that’s how you feel, why blame us? Why not look at yourselves and how you use sex to sell products? Don’t you think that has something to do with teens being so overtly sexual? Why not look at our culture and come up with some solutions instead of blaming us for mimicking what we see?


Learning About Sex Before Learning to Read? Yes!

September 24, 2008

Before I became a sex educator, I taught children in the early grades how to read. One of the first things I learned is that development is key. You can’t teach children to decode or learn to recognize sight words and phrases unless they feel comfortable in their own skin. They need to have a sense of who they are as human beings.

This is why I support age-appropriate sexuality education for children that starts in kindergarten before formal reading instruction begins. I think it’s a good way to help them feel secure about their bodies and themselves. When adults hear about sex education taking place in kindergarten, many have no frame of reference. Some may recall the topics they learned as teens and shudder at the thought of little ones learning about condoms, contraception, abortion, rape and other explicit topics.

Recently, this topic was the center of attention in a TV ad in which Republican presidential candidate John McCain accused his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, of supporting sex education in kindergarten. The narrator says darkly, “Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

The McCain forces obviously believe that throngs of Americans will be shocked and outraged that anyone, particularly a presidential candidate, would consider talking about sexual health with five-year-olds who haven’t learned to read more than a stop sign.



September 12, 2008

Imagine with me a series of conversations that might have occurred between a 17-year-old who is five months pregnant and her mother.

At age 12…
Your Dad and I have strong family values about sex and sexual behavior.  Sex leads to pregnancy and your father and I believe that you must wait until after marriage before you have sex. You cannot have sex until you are able to support a child and you must not become pregnant until after you are married to someone you love. Understand?
Daughter: Is that all there is to say about sex, Mom?
Mom: That’s all there is to say about sex. Just be abstinent. No kissing, no holding hands, nothing until after high school and until you find your guy.  Promise me?
Daughter: I promise.