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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.

Celebrating the Birthday of a Sex Ed Heroine

January 15, 2010

Susie N. WilsonHappy Birthday, Susie!

Things were a little different in 1930. The US had 48 states, and a population of nearly 123,000,000. Milk cost 14 cents per quart, and bread, nine cents a loaf. But, to be honest, times were pretty hard then.

President Herbert Hoover was facing a national debt of $16 billion and skyrocketing unemployment as the Great Depression intensified. For those who were fortunate enough even to have a job, the average annual salary was $1,368.

In one very special way, however, 1930 was a pretty wonderful year. For on January 17th, 1930, a sex ed heroine was born: Susan Neuberger Wilson. We at Answer would like to celebrate our dear friend by commandeering her blog today and sharing a bit about her amazing history and accomplishments with you.

Susie was raised in New York City, attended the Brearley School and then Vassar. She worked after college as an education reporter for Life magazine in New York where she met foreign correspondent, Donald Wilson, whom she later married.

Susie and Don moved to Washington, where he became President John F. Kennedy’s deputy press secretary and later the deputy director of the US Information Service. Susie’s close relationship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy had a significant impact on her, especially a trip she took with them in 1962 to some of the poorest parts of Asia. Susie returned fired up about taking action, and began tutoring lower-income children in Washington. She earned a master’s degree in early childhood education, and was instrumental in helping to start the first school for White House children.

Over 40 years ago, she and Don moved to Princeton, and Susie, a mother of three, remained active in childhood education. But 1978 became another significant milestone for her, when she was appointed to the New Jersey State Board of Education. Susie famously asked the commissioner of health at the time at what age he thought children needed to know how their bodies work. When he could not provide her with an answer, a sex ed force to be reckoned with was born.

Susie’s fight for age-appropriate, medically-accurate sexuality education in public schools opened her to vitriolic criticism from opponents to comprehensive sexuality education. Unfazed and determined, Susie continued the fight—and New Jersey is now a model state in the provision of comprehensive sexuality education in the United States. Susie devoted 23 years to the Network for Family Life Education, now Answer, as the executive coordinator, and remains extremely involved as our most trusted advisor. Susie’s passion extends far beyond sexuality education to women’s health and rights, and she continues to lobby legislators actively at the local, state and federal levels for their support. A brilliant, compelling writer, Susie’s blogs, Sex Ed Honestly and Sex Matters, never cease to make us think or challenge us to be better people.

Beyond her vastly impressive resume, Susie is also someone to be appreciated quite simply for who she is. Spending time with her is like enjoying a seven-course meal—each moment is to be appreciated slowly, has many layers to it and leaves one feeling sated for the time being but wanting more. Chances are Susie will begin her 80th birthday as she does every other morning—by running six miles. My hope is that she will take some time out during this special day to reflect on the wide-reaching impact she has had on sexuality education and women’s rights for more people than I think she can even begin to imagine—just as I know that, rather than rest on her laurels, she has already begun her “to do” list for all the work she intends to accomplish in the decade to come!

Happy birthday, dearest Susie, with deepest gratitude from us all!

If you would like to leave Susie a birthday greeting, simply click here to register as a member of the Answer Web site and leave your comments.

New Biography Details Life & Times of Prominent Sex Researchers

August 10, 2009

History informs, and so I recommend the new biography, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier for a good summer read. This is a book about sex—lots and lots of it—but the sex is not prurient or pornographic. Rather, it’s used primarily as a scientific tool to study the phenomenon of human sexuality in order to help us better understand and enjoy the sexual aspects of our lives.

Masters of Sex tells the story of the lives of two pioneer sex researchers, Masters and Johnson, who took the physiological aspect of human sexuality out of the dark ages of the Victorian era and into the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and modern times. Masters and Johnson authored a series of best-selling books—including Human Sexual Response, Human Sexual Inadequacy, The Pleasure Bond, and Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS—that catapulted them to fame. They may have done more for sex than any two people since Adam and Eve.

Together, they studied the human sexual response cycle—particularly the female sexual response—by observing more than 10,000 orgasms at their clinic in St. Louis, MO. They created the sexual science of sexology and developed a two-week sex therapy regime based on “sensate touch,” for couples who experienced an array of sexual marital problems, for which they claimed an “80-percent cure rate.” They also came under attack for developing another two-week program to help gay people “convert” to heterosexuality, which has since been discredited, and for sounding a too-loud alarm bell about the HIV/AIDS crisis, including publishing incorrect information about transmission of the virus.

Masters and Johnson said little about sex education other than that they believed it should be grounded in sound scientific research. So I asked Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a respect sex therapist and professor of sexuality at the University of Washington, for her views about Masters of Sex, the value of Masters and Johnson’s legacy, and how parents can talk to their own children about sex.

Susie Wilson: The author of Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier, says that Masters and Johnson “revolutionized the way sex is studied, taught, and enjoyed in America.” Do you agree? And what specifically do you consider their greatest achievements?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: The statement is more or less true, although as time goes on, some newer members of the sex education community may not realize their indebtedness to Masters and Johnson. They were the impetus to studying the body and its sexual abilities or disabilities, and they spurred research on context, emotions, etc., even if they themselves were overly biological and mechanistic.

They definitely created a climate where the right to sexual pleasure became a more common feeling among the general public—and they should be celebrated for this accomplishment over and above their specific contributions.

We now teach modifications of their human sexual response cycle, but they were the ones to give us the architecture to build on. They created the field of sexual therapy as a distinct specialization rather than as a part of some larger behavioral science or psychiatric practice. They gave us new information and new tools. Their contributions way overshadow their mistakes or shortcomings.

SW: Is the book for a general audience or a more a specialized one, such as sex therapists and educators?

PS: I think it is for a general audience, but especially for people who enjoy the history of science—finding out how knowledge is attained, who the people were who did pioneer work, and what that tells us about how the work was conceptually framed and measured. This book can help you figure out what to admire and what to doubt in terms of the highly influential work of Masters and Johnson.

Sex researchers will be particularly engaged, particularly people like me who knew Bill and Gini, but never knew about their private life and how it affected what they studied, how they interpreted it, and how the team influenced the methodologies and findings. The key points for sex education teachers would be to look at the evolution of the interviews, the construction, limits, and uses of [the therapy] sensate focus, and the methodologies of the original data collection.

SW: Masters and Johnson’s first and groundbreaking book, Human Sexual Response, was published in 1966. Do you think most Americans understand and value Masters and Johnson’s contributions to the sexual revolution and present-day sexual behavior? Do most people understand the various stages of orgasm that Masters and Johnson discovered?

PS: Much of their contribution to the sexual revolution is confined to people over 40, so this book can enlighten a whole new population. The various stages of orgasm is probably the most common discovery of their research included in college sexuality courses, so it is more integrated into public knowledge—but only for people who have taken such a course sometime in their lives.

SW: In your praise for the book that appears on the back cover, you say that Masters and Johnson made “a real contribution to the history of science.” Some of their critics said that their work was nothing more than “voyeuristic.” Will you elaborate on what you mean by their contributions to science?

PS: The “voyeuristic” charge is humorous. In order to understand how human sexual response actually occurred, they had to look at how it began, how it proceeded, and how it ended.  This charge is akin to accusing anatomy researchers of body mutilation, because they dissected bodies in order to study internal organs.

The first time you watch someone make love, it is arousing. But if you do that day in and out, hooking them up to blood pressure machines, studying body heat responses, etc., I can assure you the thrill will be gone. This was work that needed to be done.

SW: During the years that Masters and Johnson worked together, they had sex with each other in a clinical, mechanical way. Masters was married at the time and had two young children; Johnson was a divorcee with two small kids. Masters eventually divorced his wife, Libby, and married Johnson, and they stayed together for 22 years until they divorced. Do you think that they compromised the sexual research they did or crossed an ethical line by having sex with each while doing this work?

PS: I found the story of their sexual relationship rather sad. I was sorry to find out how loveless it was. It wasn’t even clear that it was passionate, although perhaps it was upon occasion. Certainly Masters’ own restricted range of emotions affected the first book— later books took individual emotions more into account. But the sexual response cycle is quite stilted and unattached to human emotion, fears, background issues, etc.  Sexual skill is left out of the equation, oddly enough, in the first book. The Pleasure Bond—one of their last books—does a better job, but no better I think than many of the successors.

I don’t think any ethics were violated vis à vis the research by their relationship, although the fact that Johnson was subservient to him in many ways inhibited some true collegial contributions. However, given her lack of professional training, I think this would have been the case even if they weren’t having a relationship. Whatever ethical violations happened were purely the business of Master’s wife and family, who certainly were betrayed.

SW: Masters and Johnson’s work lauded “female sexual prowess.” Maier says that their research about women’s sexual response was “a remarkable achievement unlike anything medical science had ever seen in this realm.” Do you get the impression that most women today are away of their power and prowess?

PS: Actually I think a lot of women were somewhat oppressed by the idea of multiple orgasms when the book first came out. Overall, I think the idea that women were the superior sexual athlete was good for women’s egos and a reestablishment of their sexual pride. But I think the focus on multiple orgasms had its positive and negative aspects.

SW: Although Masters and Johnson’s research is based on viewing about 10,000 orgasms in their laboratory, the word “orgasm” itself is sometimes not used in school sex education programs. How would you try to persuade a balky school board, a cautious administrator, or a worried health teacher to include a discussion of orgasm in middle and high school classes?

PS: Knowledge demands the full cycle and propensities of a given phenomenon, and if it isn’t included, it is misleading and bad science education. Furthermore, many young women do not know if they have had an orgasm or not, which means, of course, that they have not had one. Teachers help create this profoundly confusing situation by not offering full information on the human sexual response cycle.

SW: How would you help parents of preteens and teens talk to their kids about orgasms, and is it important for them to do so? Any tips for shy, tongue-tied parents?

PS: This is tough for most parents. They can talk anatomy, but not pleasure. I would counsel them to get a good book and go to Guttmacher, Planned Parenthood, SIECUS, Sex, Etc., Go Ask Alice, among other websites, and take a look at available books, pamphlets, etc. [Editors' note: Click here for Answer's resources as well.]

Give the book to your child—at least by age 12 or 13, but preferably a lot earlier—and have them read it. Tell them you will be happy to answer any questions, clarify the book, or, for that matter, read it with them. Get a book that talks about orgasm frankly. This doesn’t require a parent to be a gifted sex educator, just a discussant with their child about important topics.

SW: What is the connection between sex research and sex education, and why is one important to the other?  Do you think that better school sex education programs would reduce some of the problems that are observed by sex therapists?

PS: There are a lot of myths and surmise about sexual functioning. Without sex research, sex educators would unknowingly be passing on a lot of them. Of course, sometimes the research gets it wrong, and then new research comes along and corrects the situation. That’s why sex research has to be ongoing—and, of course, sex changes as the culture changes and personal circumstances of life change. For example, late marriage versus early marriage, recessional times versus flush economies, new technologies of birth control or pleasure, etc.

Certainly better sex education would help reduce sexual problems. A few examples: helping students feel good about carrying and using condoms, helping students recognize sexual abuse or misinformation and dismissing it early in life rather than having it control their sexual response and feelings.

SW: Maier quotes William Masters as saying, “The truth about sex is often unpalatable to many, including those in academia and the healing arts.” You work in academia. Do you observe changes in the last decade that show that this is no longer true?

PS: It is better than it was, but people are still squeamish about sexuality and academics are not different. I do think, however, there is more respect for sexuality research in academe than there was in Masters and Johnson’s time…and part of that has been due to the AIDS crisis, where sexuality information was desperately needed and ultimately funded.

SW: Who is building on Masters and Johnson’s important legacy?

PS: There are a lot of good people doing sex research all around the world. In fact, the globalization and collaboration of an international group of colleagues is a major advance in the sexual research field. Sandy Lieblum and Ray Rosen, who did great clinical work at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and Rutgers, would be on my A-list. Sandy has done some fascinating work on spontaneous sexual desire in women. There are many other clinically based researchers out there whose names I could add.

Certainly one of the great additions—too long in coming, I might add—has been the work of minority researchers, so that now specific clinical advice for gays, lesbians, Chicanos, various Hispanic groups, Asians and African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups will get treatment specific to their own cultural backgrounds and needs. This has been sorely needed for way too long a time!

Wedding Bells

June 19, 2009

When I examined sex education curricula back in the 1980s, the topic of marriage—heterosexual marriage—got a lot of attention. As the grand finale to courses, some schools held mock wedding ceremonies complete with bride and groom, vows and a multi-tiered wedding cake.

The marriage theme recently resonated with me again when I read the New York Times “Modern Love” column “First Comes Marriage,” by Farahad Zama. Farahad, a South Asian now living in London, recounts in a most delightful way how his marriage was arranged over the course of a few days to a young woman he had never met.

He writes that during a visit to his family in Vizag, a coastal city in South India, his mother asked him, “What kind of a girl do you want to marry?” A well-brought up son, he responded:  “Whoever you choose.”  His mother explained that he should marry a local girl from Vizag.

“Your job [in the software industry] will grow and take you around the globe. You will come to India for two weeks each year, and it is only natural that while you want to spend time with us, your wife will want to visit her own parents. I don’t want your limited holidays split between two towns and wasted in traveling from place to place,” she said.

Farahad, seeing the logic in these words, replied that his only requirement was that his wife be a college graduate who could speak English. His mother and his sister said that they knew just the girl—“the niece of their neighbor.” A half hour later, he meets Sameera and they have a brief conversation in the presence of her relatives. The next morning, he leaves for Bombay; two months later he returns and they marry.

Farahad and Sameera have been married for a little more than 10 years and have two sons.

In thinking about the differences between his arranged marriage and marriage customs in the U.S., Farahad muses: “Most American couples know a lot about each other before they tie the knot. They’ve been on dates, fallen in love, fought, made up, had sex and most probably even lived together before going down the aisle.”

Then he adds: “Our story is different. That 45-minutes meeting was our only contact before we were husband and wife. We went to the movies and the beach, fought over important and trivial things, made up and fell in love —all  after our wedding.”

The students in our classrooms are more multicultural than ever before, with young people from India, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. They represent all the great religions of he world, most of which have varied marriage and wedding customs. We have many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in our classes, many of whom grow up with different ideas about the institution of marriage. We also have gay and lesbian kids in the mix, who are fighting for the basic right to marry.

President Obama in his speech in Cairo asked us to learn more about our Muslim neighbors, so we can all grow more tolerant of differences in ourselves and others. Perhaps the topic of love and marriage offers a pathway for sexuality educators to follow his suggestion.  I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps this is a good time to put marriage back into the curriculum, but in a much more holistic way, to bring out its many traditions, differences, and relative strengths and weaknesses. In the course of these discussions, different religions’ views of sexuality and gender would emerge to enrich understanding and respect for difference. Farahad’s story might be a good place to start.

As for a multi-tiered wedding cake finale: I think I’d skip it. The discussion on global marriage customs should be sufficiently rich and satisfying.

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.