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Let’s Talk: What My Parents Did Right

October 15, 2015

Every October, Answer joins colleagues across the country to mark Let’s Talk Month—a time to acknowledge the important role parents and caregivers play in nurturing their children’s sexual health by encouraging open, honest communication about sexuality, dating and relationships. Young people consistently cite their parents as the biggest influence on their decisions about sex, and they report wanting to hear more from their parents on these important topics. The data are also clear about the impact of these conversations. Young people who report having positive conversations with their parents about sex and sexuality are more likely to wait to have sex and to use condoms and contraception when they do become sexually active.

As I prepared for Let’s Talk Month this year, I spent some time reflecting on my own parents and all the things they did right in addressing sex and sexuality as I grew up. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who fostered open communication on a range of topics, cultivated a close and trusting relationship between us and set clear expectations around healthy behaviors. I have vivid memories of conversations with my mom and dad that helped me develop boundaries and personal values to support healthy decision-making. Here are a few things I recall my parents doing especially well.

They took advantage of teachable moments.

I’ll never forget one particular car ride with my mom, on our way to the swimming pool, when Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” came on the radio. (I’ll pause here to allow readers of my generation to collect themselves.) As I began to hum along, my mom slowly turned down the volume and asked, “What do you think they’re singing about?” I’m sure my face quickly flushed to match the red of my cheerleading skirt, but my mom pressed on. She recognized an opening to have an important conversation and she took advantage of it.

Popular media—music, television, movies and the like—presents endless opportunities to address topics ranging from love and affection to consent and abuse. Rather than fast-forwarding through a steamy scene or ignoring unhealthy behaviors modeled by some of our favorite fictional characters, parents and caregivers can use these moments as a springboard for meaningful conversations. Once my mom had my attention that day, she shared what she thought was important for me to know about sex and relationships, illustrating the next skill my parents mastered.

They communicated a clear set of values around sex, dating and relationships.

As we pulled into the parking lot outside the swimming pool, my mom recited a message she would reiterate throughout my adolescence: “Sex is a beautiful, special thing, and it’s best when shared between two people who love and are committed to each other.” What’s important here is not the content of what she said, but the fact that she articulated a clear set of values my parents believed in and wanted to instill in me. My parents viewed sexuality as a positive aspect of life, and they placed a high value on expressing love in the context of a relationship.

Every family will develop their own unique values around sex and sexuality. An important task for caregivers is to get clear on what values they hold and to seek opportunities to express those values to their children. Being proactive about initiating such conversations demonstrates a critical value in its own right: that communicating about sex is a priority. Ideally, these conversations should be ongoing, forming the basis for a dialogue that evolves as young people grow up. Had my mom simply let that song play and not spoken up, I might have absorbed a very different message about sexual relationships and been left thinking that my mom viewed the topic as inappropriate or that she would not be open to answering my questions. But my parents didn’t stop at communicating their values.

They made sure I had access to the health services I needed.

As I got older and began to have my first relationships, my parents talked to me in more detail about how to determine if I was ready for sex and how to prevent pregnancy and STDs. They let me know they would love and support me no matter what decisions I made, and they emphasized that I had control over my body. They made sure I knew about the available options for birth control and told me they would take me to see a doctor if and when I wanted. I knew I had the right to access health services on my own, without my parents’ knowledge or consent, but I chose to involve them when the time came because they had built a foundation of trust and I wanted their support.

Many parents and caregivers fear they won’t have the knowledge to answer all their children’s questions about sex and sexuality and some worry that talking openly about sex will encourage young people to become sexually active. In reality, parents don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. Children just need to know they can come to their parents who will help them find the information they need. Young people want to hear their parents’ views on dating, relationships and sex, and communicating clear values on these topics has been shown to help them make healthy decisions. Parents don’t need to have all the answers in order support their children in navigating the transitions and milestones of adolescence. They do need a clear set of values and expectations and a willingness to initiate the conversation. So Let’s Talk!

Human Sexuality: The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Topic

August 28, 2015

In this third installment of Answer’s blog series, Inter(sex)tions, sexuality educator Deborah Roffman tells us why human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. Ms. Roffman has been teaching sexuality education for over 40 years in grades 4-12 and is also the author of three books: Talk to Me First, Sex and Sensibility and But How’d I Get in There in the First Place. Sexuality is a topic that is too often reduced to genitals and sexual behaviors. Ms. Roffman shares how sexuality educators  can begin to get at the complexity of human sexuality by making connections from sexuality to just about any other academic subject area. She encourages all teachers to make deliberate, ongoing connections for students between the topic of sexuality and other academic disciplines, to promote students’ critical thinking about a topic that is too often portrayed in simplistic ways.

width= “Years ago I read that the average American adult processes information  about sexuality on a second grade level,” explains Ms. Roffman. “That really struck a chord, because of what I know about cognitive development. Before ages 7 to 8, children process information very concretely; they can’t yet mentally step back far enough to ‘see’ or grasp the context around the content of life. While most adults are fully able to think contextually about many, many other topics, because of the poor quality of the ‘sex ed’ they likely experienced, they may be ‘stuck’ at a concrete level of understanding.”

With such a wealth of teaching experience and a deep commitment to broadening how we think, talk and teach about human sexuality, we were excited to have Ms. Roffman share her insights into teaching sexuality education and teaching across topic areas.

Answer: You have noted that sexuality educators need to help students move beyond a limited understanding of sex and sexual health that narrowly focuses on the genitals. Why is this so important?

Roffman: The excessive emphasis in our culture on the genital aspects of sexuality—rather than the whole human being attached to those genitals—reflects and reinforces what in my mind is an ultimately dehumanized understanding of who we are as sexual beings. My mantra to my students is that, no, they are not “walking talking genitals.” They are thinking, feeling, caring, valuing, relating, communicating, decision-making, self-care taking human beings, who (also) happen to have genitals.

I want them to understand too that “human sexuality” is not just longhand for “sex” or “sexual health.” It is an exceptionally broad field of study that encompasses anything and everything in the world that connects meaningfully to issues of sex, gender and reproduction. And, if you think deeply enough about those three issues, that is just about everything in the world! After all, sexuality is the fundamental life force. Why wouldn’t it be connected to everything?

So, the point, on both the personal and macro levels, is to engage students in thinking deeply and critically about themselves and the world around them in as many ways as possible. That’s the point of education, right?

Answer: Given the constraints on the time many educators have to provide sexuality education, what can educators do to help broaden students’ understanding of sexuality?

Roffman: My first response to this type of question is that, as sexuality educators, we must also be child and youth advocates. We have to be prepared to articulate persuasively—to administrators and everyone else who needs to know—that the way we are most often required to teach this subject matter is neither pedagogically sound (large groups, brief sessions, few classes, little continuity across age groups) nor developmentally sound (way too little too late), and how that needs to change for us to do well by our students. Until it does, I find that assigning meaningful readings, especially those that relate to our curriculum or to relevant current events, keeps the learning exciting and dynamic. In any three-month period, practically all of the topics I want my students to think deeply about will appear in print or online media.

Answer: Can you give us a few examples of how sexuality educators can use other disciplines—such as math, history or even astronomy—to teach about human sexuality?

Roffman: This skill comes with the recognition that the topic of human sexuality and all of life itself are astonishingly interconnected. Think about the myriad ways that sex, gender and reproduction intersect with the following disciplines, by no means an exhaustive list: history (Henry VIII’s domestic and public life, for example, was all about sex, gender and reproduction!), religion, economics, politics, government, war and peace; all of the basic sciences, all of the arts, literature; mental and physical health, disability, child and adolescent development, health education, public health; race, gender, ethnicity, and class; world cultures, social studies, social justice, psychology, sociology, marriage and family; psychiatry, medicine, pharmacy, law; the armed services, criminology, journalism, linguistics, and anthropology; communications, mass media, technology, social networking, marketing; philosophy, morality and ethics.

Even topics that may seem totally unrelated to sexuality aren’t really: architecture (would women throughout the ages have designed all of those phallic-shaped structures?); agriculture (the invention of which established the sexual double standard and solidified the notion of women as property), geology (Mother Earth); and astronomy (think constellations).

Answer: How can educators in other fields be sexuality educators? What opportunities could there be for educators in sexuality education to partner with their colleagues in other academic fields?

Roffman: Human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. That means all teachers are potential human sexuality educators. A middle school math teacher was sitting in a faculty group at his school when I quoted the statistic that if two people begin to engage in sexual intercourse at 16, with each having two and only two partners that year and repeating that exact pattern each year thereafter with two new partners, by age 20 each will have been exposed directly and indirectly to 100 partners. Intrigued, he went straight to his 7th grade class the very next period, tossed his lesson for the day and instead challenged them to work out this interesting and important mathematical progression!

Integrating human sexuality into every-day learning was a genuine gift to his students, who within 40 minutes broadened their practical understanding of math (and STIs), made important connections among subject matters, and learned to think more critically about human sexuality. Most importantly, they identified yet another adult in their school community who was “askable” and available for conversations about sexuality. Imagine a whole school full of teachers playing these roles, even if only briefly and once in a while!

Answer: What advice do you have for educators?

Roffman: I’ve advocated, well, forever, for a reframing of our subject matter from “sex” to “human sexuality,” and meaning it in the broadest possible way. In the general public, the work we do is most fundamentally associated with “sex” (which, by the way, makes us more vulnerable to attack) and sexual parts, not the growing, developing human being attached to them and the infinite ways that issues of sex, gender and reproduction play themselves out in human life. That’s the way, I think, to get us all past second grade.

Three Ways to Be an Ally to LGBTQ Students

October 13, 2014

It’s Ally Week, and we have three ways for you to be a better ally to LGBTQ students.

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Tiffany E. Cook

October 2, 2014

For the past 20 years, Answer’s award-winning, teen-written sexual health magazine and website, Sex, Etc., has been a platform for young people to educate their peers about sexuality. In celebration of Sex, Etc.’s 20th anniversary, Answer has been reaching out to former teen staff writers who have gone on to do great work in sexual and reproductive health. This month we had an opportunity to speak with Tiffany E. Cook.

Tiffany E. Cook, Teen Editorial Board Member, 2003-2004

As a teenager Tiffany remembers hearing about an opportunity to write for a sexual health newsletter. Little did she know that applying to write for Sex, Etc. would completely change her life.

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

Tiffany E. Cook: The better question is “How has Sex, Etc. not shaped the work I do today?” Before I started working with Sex, Etc., I had planned to major in theatre and become an actress. After my year on the Sex, Etc. teen editorial board, I switched gears and decided to pursue my passions for sex education and social justice. While in college at the University of Idaho, I developed curricula and provided peer education on campus, talking to campus living groups, fraternities and sororities about sexual health, rape culture and body image.

After graduation, I moved to Boston for a job working as a community health educator for a hospital system. There I held many different roles from teaching sex ed at an alternative high school (where I frequently used Sex, Etc. articles and Answer’s lesson plans as a part of my curriculum) to developing and implementing a walk-in clinic for teens. I also provided direct family planning services, including birth control, pregnancy testing and pregnancy options counseling, as well as HIV/STI testing to patients of all ages.

While working as a direct service provider, I discovered that many of my adult patients didn’t know much about sexual health and pleasure, not to mention protection and safety. Even now, I am constantly amazed by how many of my adult friends call me with birth control questions. Just the other day, I sat in the courtyard of my apartment building with a group of my neighbors, teaching them how to use female/reality condoms and explaining how IUDs are placed. This is why Sex, Etc. is such a great resource for not only youth, but adults too!

After moving to Brooklyn a year ago, I started working as a Gynecological Teaching Associate (GTA) with a variety of medical programs (including Rutgers!). I teach medical and nursing students how to provide safe and comfortable breast and pelvic exams with empowering patient education. I also recently partnered with Praxis Education to develop curricula for other workshops for medical practitioners, including workshops on sexual assault, sexual health and LGBT care.

Overall, the year I wrote for Sex, Etc. introduced me to my passion for advocating for sex- positive culture and healthcare. Had I not been selected for the board, I have no doubt that I would be doing something very different with my life!

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

TEC: Wow, such a great question. I am very frustrated by the stigma and shame teens face regarding their sexuality. Stigma and shame create barriers to communication with parents, health providers and families. I would love to see American culture shift towards supportive, open and honest communication about sex and decisions.

LH: Name one thing that makes you really angry or really happy?

TEC: Really angry. Politicians who think they know better than medical providers about health care, especially surrounding access to abortion. Really happy. My dog Tank! When I’ve had a tough day, I love to snuggle up with her.

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

TEC: Improving sexual health and LGBT care in the medical community. For some reason sexual health is still not a priority in clinical settings, and I really want to fix that. It’s hard to have a conversation about safer sex when your provider isn’t asking the right questions! Beyond working with medical providers, I also get excited when working with elder adults (50 years+) around sexual health. Older people have sex too!

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

TEC: That taking birth control or emergency contraception would cause an abortion. Birth control only works to prevent pregnancy; once somebody is pregnant only miscarriage or an abortion will end the pregnancy. This myth still persists today amongst people of all ages.

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

May 8, 2014

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

Natasha Ramsey, Teen Staff Writer, 2005-2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YTH Youth Advisor Interviews Alex Medina of Answer

April 30, 2014

This blog post was originally published by YTH and is written Anthony Sis.

If there is one person in the world who is the most passionate about working with youth, it is Alex Medina. Alex is currently the Coordinator of Web Content and Social Networking at Answer. Answer is an award-winning, national organization that provides invaluable sexuality education resources to millions of young people and adults every year based at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Alex Medina

Alex Medina (right) with YTH Youth Advisors Anthony Sis and Ebony Section

At YTH Live 2014 I had the opportunity to meet Alex in person at the youth networking session hosted by the YTH Youth Advisory Board. I had the pleasure of asking Alex some questions about his work at Answer, his experience at YTH Live, and how he began working with youth and technology. Here is what Alex had to say:

1) Alex, I have seen you attend YTH Live over the past couple of years. What inspires you to come back?

YTH Live is a fantastic conference for people like me who are passionate about youth, tech and health. Tech changes quickly, and young people drive much of that change. So it’s important to adapt health outreach efforts and meet young people where they’re at online.

I’ve learned so much from the successes and challenges of others in the field. And I get to share get to share the groundbreaking work I do at Answer. We’re always working on something new in tech and sexual health!

2) At Answer you serve as the Coordinator of Web Content and Social Networking. What kind of tasks do you work on?

I get to work on all things tech, including social media strategy, web content development and managing digital projects, like redesigning a website or developing a game. I also get to train professionals on how social media or smartphones can be used to engage teens. I’m always thinking about how technology can improve sex education.

3) You were a part of the Sex, Etc. relaunch back in 2012. How has the website content changed since its relaunch?

The LOL section of Sexetc.org features humorous sexual health content, especially memes, GIFs and photos. It’s the lighter side of sex ed. We also publish content regularly on Sexetc.org—the Sex, Etc. teen staff are always writing new stories and blog posts.

4) At YTH Live 2014 you spoke at the “Gaming for Health” session about games designed for sexual health education. How did your interests in gaming and sexual health come together for you?

I grew up playing video games and have always wanted to make a game. In college I thought I’d become a video game designer. But I went on a very different path after discovering sexuality and gender studies. During my senior year at Rutgers I started volunteering at Answer, and the rest is history.

In 2013 Answer competed in the first annual Games for Change Game Design Competition, and we won a chance to work with indie game developers on creating a sexual health game. It was incredible to have two very different passions of mine come together so unexpectedly. Can you say destiny?

5) Could you speak about some current or upcoming projects that you’re working on?

I just finished work on a prototype of Safer Sex Shuffle, a game that teaches players how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs through the use of latex barriers such as condoms and dental dams. Players score points by linking body part and latex barrier tiles to make ‘chains’ of safer sex behaviors. It’s like Boggle or Spelltower, but with funny anthropomorphic vulva and condom artwork.

I’m so excited for what’s next for Safer Sex Shuffle. We’d like to make the game available as an app for smartphones and tablets, as well as on Sexetc.org. My goal is to make Safer Sex Shuffle a game that teens want to play again and again, both in class and at home.

6) Where do you see the landscape of youth innovation, health, and technology heading towards in the future?

The future is now! Teens and tech are already reshaping expectations for how sex education and sexual health services should be delivered. And smartwatches and wearable tech like Google Glass will be an exciting area of innovation. It’s up to us—professionals who work with youth—to adapt and meet our audience wherever they go!

7) What types of activities do you recommend youth engage in who wish to pursue a similar path as the one you’ve taken?

Google everything. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Read a lot. Unplug from technology once in a while. And eat your Wheaties every morning.

8) I have to ask, what is your favorite thing about YTH Live?

The youth! The tech! The weather!

I really did leave my heart in San Francisco, and I hope to make more memories at YTH Live next year.

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Thank you for being an inspirational youth and sexual health advocate. Keep up the great work, Alex!

For more information about YTH Live, visit http://yth.org/ythlive.

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Anthony Sis (@a_sis62) is a founding member of YTH’s Youth Advisory Board.

He’s a senior at Connecticut College studying government and gender, as well as women’s studies, with a certificate in public policy and community action. He’s a spoken word poet, dancer, writer, and avid blogger. +Learn more about Anthony

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

April 17, 2014

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

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

Derek Demeri, Teen Staff Writer, 2010-2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LH: Who inspires you?

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

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

Mary Ware Dennett: Radical Sex Educator?

April 14, 2011

MWD

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.

A Thanksgiving Grace for Sexuality Education

November 28, 2010

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Dear Readers: I wrote the following blog post last year, but I hope that the words and feelings expressed in it will still be fresh and meaningful to you. I know that the thoughts expressed in it are as strong and accurate as they were when I wrote them down this time last year.

The Thanksgiving I remember most vividly and with the most fondness occurred in November 1980, almost 30 years ago this week. Five families, including mine, who lived along a stretch of road in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, decided to share the holiday meal together. Each family brought certain foods to the feast. I think we numbered around 25, and “we gathered together,” as the old hymn goes, in our family’s house, because everyone could sit at round tables in our living room when it was cleared of furniture.

I remember standing in my kitchen while my neighbors walked in the door with their steaming contributions (no microwaves back then), thinking of the first Pilgrims who brought their heaping platters of wild turkeys, ducks, geese, venison, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, other fruits and vegetables, and possibly a suckling pig, into a common house on that first celebration of the holiday. I felt a true bond with those first celebrants.

I cannot remember who came up with the idea, but we decided on the spot, as we sipped our cider and wine, to write “A Community Thanksgiving Grace.” We asked each adult, teen, and child to write something special for which they were particularly thankful. All the children were old enough to write, so everyone from the oldest grandmothers to the youngest boys and girls contributed words to the common grace. One adult and one teen sorted the slips of paper and compiled them into a prose poem. When we had gathered around the tables decorated with fall leaves and what flowers remained in our gardens, one of us rose and read the Grace.

Much as I would love to list all the contributions, I will only list a few to give a flavor of the thanks that were expressed that day: my 13-year-old daughter was thankful “for horses and pomegranates,” a young adult said she was thankful “for those who play soccer and football with those who can’t,” and the one most moving to me came from a young woman still in high school who said she was thankful “for this blue-green earth that had room for elephants, flies, whales, and humankind.” We chorused the last line together: “We are thankful.”

In keeping with the spirit and precedence of “A Community Thanksgiving Grace,” I am offering a list below of what and for whom I am thankful in the field of sexuality education this Thanksgiving 2009. The list is certainly not nearly as poetic as the original, and it contains only my ideas rather than those of a group. It is as follows:

For the children, teens, and adults who seek information about sex and sexuality;

For the parents who answer their young children’s questions without flinching. Questions such as “how are babies made?”—which are often posed without warning in strange locations, like the back seat of the car;

For parents who go beyond “the big talk,” and talk early and often with their teens about sex and their personal values about respect and caring;

For the excellent books by Robie Harris, especially “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies,” “Growing Up,” “Sex and Sexual Health,” which celebrates its 15th year in print this year and makes it much easier for parents to talk to their 10 to 14-year-olds about sex;

For other adults-teachers, school nurses, social workers, nonprofit personnel, counselors, therapists, librarians, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, ministers, priests, friends, and others—who provide the answers to people’s questions and concerns in a variety of venues;

For members of state school boards who pass policies requiring K-12 family life education and sex education programs;

For state legislators and members of Congress who support funding comprehensive sexuality education and not funding abstinence-only programs;

For the school districts that provide K-12 sex education programs that are comprehensive and do not shy away from controversial topics;

For the professors who teach or administer sexuality education programs that prepare the educators of the future;

For the exceptional websites for teens, including Sexetc.org, Scarleteen, Teen Voices, and Teenwire, who give young people reliable, honest, and accurate information and answers to their questions about sex;

For teens and adults who use contraception faithfully to avoid unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV;

For teens who understand and practice “Double Dutch,” the use of both the Pill and a condom whenever they have sex;

For the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender teens who seek information that helps them feel more comfortable with their sexual orientation and gender identity and who have the courage to come out to their families and to classmates;

For the many teens who are abstinent during high school and for those who choose not to have sex until they marry or are in a long-term partnership;

For the national, state, and local organizations that promote sex education and work to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;

For members of religious denominations and congregations that support sex education;

For those who work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and worldwide through programs that offer clean needle exchanges, condom distribution, and low-cost generic drugs, and support research to find a vaccine;

For those who are involved with organizations devoted to lessening the trauma of rape, incest, and sexual violence;

For those who see comprehensive sex education as the sensible common ground between those who oppose abortion and those who support the right to choose;

For all the leaders in the fight for sex education in America on whose shoulders I stand and for my colleagues in the field-past, present, and future;

For the opportunity to write about sexuality education on this website and for those who read this column; and

For the great gift of human sexuality, its never-ending story, and for the opportunity to help others, including myself, understand, appreciate, respect, and enjoy it,

I am truly thankful.

Pity the Kids in Texas and Elsewhere, Too

March 24, 2010

I have a particular interest in the recent actions of the Texas State Board of Education because of my five years of service on New Jersey’s State Board of Education. Last week, the Texas board voted to revise the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum based on right wing, conservative ideology and not sound facts.

The board’s actions were antithetical to the educational welfare of students; they put their own ideological views about issues ahead of young people’s right to receive unbiased information in the classroom.

State education board members across the nation are entrusted with setting policies for public school students. It is a challenge and responsibility to get it right for the kids. I personally found it challenging to keep kids’ needs in the forefront when making decisions. Many adult groups constantly put pressure on board members to keep their needs at the forefront, ahead of the needs of students.

My service on the board introduced me to the topic of sexuality education, or family life education, as we referred to it then. In 1982, we passed a policy that required local districts to develop their own family life education programs, but did not provide a single curriculum for the entire state. Before passing the policy, we consulted with experts and studied polls showing that the majority of New Jersey residents favored it.

My colleagues and I believed that we were helping young people lead safer, healthier, and more responsible lives when we required family life education. The mandate has been deemed a success in the 30-plus years since its adoption.

But I am not so sure that what just happened in Texas will benefit students. The statewide K-12 social studies curriculum covers history, economics, and sociology. The 15 board members – all of whom were elected to their positions – did not consult any historians, economists, or sociologists about their changes. None of the members were professionals in these fields. Experienced teachers and professors in the disciplines submitted a series of recommended changes, but these were brushed aside by board ideologues.

The majority rejected their suggestions as products of “liberal teachers and academia,” and instead passed curricular changes based on their own strict brand of conservatism.

The majority passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum. The more egregious changes in the history portion included insertion of such dubiously important, Republican-loved topics as the Moral Majority, Contract for America, Phyllis Schlafly, The Heritage Foundation, “the conservative resurgence during the 1980s and 1990s,” and the removal of passages on the separation of church and state.

In place of the latter, it added St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone and eliminated Thomas Jefferson, our Declaration of Independence author and champion of the separation of church and state. It also inserted the statement that our country’s leaders were “guided by Christian principles,” to downplay the Founding Fathers’ credo on establishing a secular nation.

The changes to the historical portion of the Texas curriculum affected black and Hispanic youth. According to news reports, a Hispanic board member “stormed out” of the meeting when the all-white, all-Republican majority refused to add even one Hispanic role model to the changes.

Equally insulting to minority students was the majority’s decision to achieve curricular parity when it came to discussion of the civil rights movement. It insisted that the curriculum include not only the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the “violent philosophy” of the Black Panthers, a very small and extreme radical group.

When it came to economics, the majority insisted on removing the word “capitalism,” because the phrase “capitalist pig” has negative connotations. In its place, they inserted “free-enterprise system” – not because it was more correct, but because the majority didn’t want to show that our system has any weakness.

As I read about the changes in the history and economic sections, I wondered if there would be any references to sexuality education in the sociology section. Sure enough, I found one. Board member Barbara Cargill shepherded through an amendment insisting on teaching “personal responsibility for life choices-teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use, and eating disorders” (emphasis mine).

This coupling of sexuality with socially negative topics sends a not-too-subtle signal to educators that they should teach sexuality from a fear- and shame-based perspective, an approach that is not supported by research.

If these changes go through – and the consensus is that they will be passed again in May – we can pity Texas public school students about what they will and will not learn. But the Texas vote may cast a longer shadow on what children in other states will learn, too.

Nationwide, 20 states vote to adopt textbooks for all schools districts, the largest of which are Texas and California. Textbook publishers develop books based on the curricular requirements of these state boards, because of the large numbers of public school students in the states.

Fortunately, such decisions do not have the same effect that they once did. Advances in digital publishing have minimized the outsized influence big states once had on textbook purchases. But the danger still lurks that books designed for kids in Texas will also be read in many other states. (New Jersey’s state board does not purchase textbooks for school districts.)

We can prevent travesties like the one in Texas by creating national standards in education. Last week, a panel of education experts led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers made recommendations for national standards in reading and math for K-12 students.

If accepted by states, national standards would greatly diminish local and state control of educational policy, and children from the most affluent to the poorest school districts would learn from the same high standards. These would be educationally sound, rigorous, apolitical, and developed by experts.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the first news stories about the panel’s recommendations reported that educational policymakers in Texas are among those in only a couple states likely to refuse to adopt the proposed national standards for reading and math.

As a former state education board member, I see a much brighter future for national standards. Once state policymakers and board members see how reading and math standards improve educational outcomes for children in their own states, they will adopt national standards in other subjects.

And wonder of wonders, in the fullness of time, states may even adopt national standards in heath and sexuality education. Then students in Texas – and elsewhere – will learn about the positive aspects of human sexuality.

I can dream, can’t I?

Image by Rishabh Mishra.