Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey




login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

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.

Add This
Email

In Memory of Dr. Tiller

June 3, 2009

“A doctor who performs abortions shot in a church. Isn’t that terrible?”

“They got the baby killer. Isn’t that great?”

Sexuality educators may have heard these types of statements from students in their classrooms this past week after the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller, who was one of a handful of doctors who perform late-term abortions in the country, was gunned down in the Reformed Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, and his story has circled the globe.

How to respond to students? I don’t envy you: Abortion is one of the toughest issues to discuss rationally and reasonably. But after what happened on Sunday, it seems to me that it desperately needs to be discussed with young people—right now.

Yet many schools simply forbid its discussion. If a student asks about abortion, many teachers are instructed by the administration to say, “I can’t discuss that. Go home and ask your parents.” My reaction to that dictum is that if kids felt like they could ask their parents about sexual and other controversial issues, they wouldn’t need to ask their teachers.

Many schools shy away from including abortion in their health and sexuality education curriculum, because administrators are afraid of igniting adult controversy. If a student goes home and reports having had a discussion about abortion, administrators—and, to some extent, teachers—shake in their shoes waiting for a parent to pick up the phone and demand to know what was said about abortion, whether the teacher gave his or her personal opinions, and whether he or she favored the pro-life or pro-choice side.

Between the rock of silence and the hard place of controversy, our students’ need for intellectual and emotional catharsis about this issue gets lost. Because of adults’ fears, many young people cannot speak about the topic or work together to find common ground on reducing the need for abortion, which our president has challenged us to do.

We once held a roundtable on abortion with our Sex, Etc. teen editors here at Answer. I was fascinated because the teens—who were pretty evenly divided between the pro-choice and pro-life sides—came up with exactly the same arguments for their respective points of view that I had heard from adults. The discussion confirmed for me that it makes good sense to high school students the opportunity to tackle even the most controversial subjects about sexuality and morality in classrooms. Their wisdom is often equal or superior to the adults around them.

I hope that in the next couple of days and weeks you’ll take one of those questions you’ve heard about Dr. Tiller, suspend the lessons you have planned for the day, and let the discussion rip. (As a way of preparing, you can Google the following topics: late-term abortions, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which are all mentioned in this New York Times story.)

As discussion closers, you might ask your students to take up President Obama’s challenge and brainstorm ideas for increasing common ground to reduce the need for abortions. The United States has the highest rate of abortion in the Western industrialized world. Countries such as Sweden, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands have much lower rates. Students might want to research reasons for the discrepancies between these countries’ rates and ours.

The work you do this week in your classroom might in the future prevent a zealot with a handgun from walking into the sanctuary of a church and murdering a doctor in cold blood.

Add This
Email

Domestic Violence and Sex Ed: What’s the Connection?

May 21, 2009

Domestic violence has been on my mind recently.

I attended a fund-raising event for Womanspace, a local organization that gives shelter, counseling and care to women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands and partners, and I learned that more than 5,000 women had sought counsel and shelter from this community nonprofit during the past year. I also learned that the total annual cost of domestic violence nationwide runs in the billions of dollars.

By coincidence the day after the event, I went to my local Verizon store to recycle a cell phone. The salesperson directed me to a bin on which was written in large letters: “Help Prevent Domestic Violence: Recycle Wireless Phones.” I looked puzzled, so he explained that a local phone number is put into the old phone and if it’s pressed by someone who is being battered or abused, a call goes directly to the police, who can locate the place where the abuse is occurring. He added that this is a national effort.

Sexuality educators may ask: Is there a connection between domestic violence and sex education, and, if so, what is it? Are sex educators in the business of trying to prevent and lessen this scourge through our work with young people in middle and high school?  Do we even talk in class about the prevalence of domestic violence?

Let me try to answer this question by looking at some of the conclusions in the book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, by Jessica Fields, which received the 2009 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Race, Gender, and Class section. In her book, Fields talks about three distinct curricula in the type of sex education given in schools:

  • the formal curriculum—the official planned course of study;
  • the hidden curriculum—the disparities in educators’ expectations for students across social differences of gender, race and class;
  • the evaded curriculum—the lessons that are ignored, stepped around or simply omitted.

My hunch is that a lot of educators would admit that the topic of domestic violence is placed in the evaded category. But it occurs to me that it belongs in the same area of instruction and discussion as sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and date and acquaintance rape—the dangerous aspects of human sexuality. 

Our very first issue of Sex, Etc. (Winter 1994) included one teenager’s first-person account of a date rape that occurred when she was 15 years old. She writes:
 
 “He took me into the bedroom so I could pass out [I had been
 drinking]. I was in the bed and I heard him lock the door.  I
 asked him why he did that and he said, ‘So no will bother
 you.’ He lay in the bed next to me and told me to go to sleep
 and I would feel better. I remember falling asleep and being
 woken up by him pushing me and saying, ‘Put this in your
 mouth.’ I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m tired, leave me alone.’
 Then I felt him take off my underwear. I told him to stop. He
 wouldn’t. He started to get on top of me and I started to scream….
 He put his hand over my mouth and raped me.”

This teenager’s story plus lesson plans that we’ve developed can be used by sexuality educators in their discussions with teens about sexual violence. Date and acquaintance rape and domestic violence show a shocking disregard for the bodily integrity of human beings. It is my hope that sexuality educators can see the connections between them and join customers at Verizon and supporters of nonprofit organizations like Womanspace to tackle the horrific social problem that is domestic violence.

Add This
Email

Questions Matt Lauer Didn’t Ask

May 8, 2009

I may have been lulled into a state of complacency by the conversation on The Today Show on May 5th between Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its Chief Medical Editor, and Ann Curry, a host of the show. It occurred the day before Bristol Palin, the Governor’s daughter, was interviewed on Today by Matt Lauer.

Snyderman discussed the prospects of a contraception injection for men that might be approved within five years. It was a very mature discussion in which the two women showed no fear of using the words “contraception,” “intimacy” and “sperm count.” They were talking about sex honestly.

My expectations were high, therefore, when I tuned in the next morning to hear Matt Lauer, normally a tough questioner, interview Bristol Palin (and her dad) about her unplanned pregnancy and the birth of her son, Tripp, whom she cradled in her arm throughout the interview (see video below). Bristol, with the support of The Candie’s Foundation, has become their national teen ambassador, for teen pregnancy prevention.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

The Today Show piece with Bristol opened with a background segment on teen pregnancy that featured clips of interviews with Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé and father of baby Tripp, in which he hinted that the couple had been practicing safe sex and “it had failed.”

In the interview, Lauer gave Bristol several opportunities to explain her commitment to teen pregnancy prevention: “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said. He listened attentively while she described how tough life is as a teen mom. Bristol’s father chimed in with praise for “the great job” his daughter is doing: “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he assured the listening audience, adding that Bristol has no time for friends.

It was the next part of the interview that gave me a sinking feeling: a question about the kind of sex education young people should receive in school. Lauer approached the topic carefully. He asked Bristol about a statement she once made that “abstinence [education] is not realistic at all.” But Bristol backed away emphasizing the long-held line long endorsed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that “abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way of preventing pregnancy.”

Lauer moved into more dangerous territory by asking Bristol if she and Levi had practiced “safe sex,” (a vague term at best). Again, Bristol pulled back saying, “I am not here to talk about my personal life.” I heard her answer somewhat incredulously, because I thought that she had been invited to be a teen ambassador exactly because of her personal life. Bristol answered, “If you are going to have sex, I think you should have safe sex,” but then she beat the drum again for abstinence-only.

Lauer failed to ask Bristol Palin tough questions about teen pregnancy and sex education programs in the U.S. So, I thought of some questions which I would have liked him to ask Bristol:

  • Why do you think teen pregnancy rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other Western developed countries?
  • Why do you think the rates have risen lately after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage?
  • Did you talk to your parents about having sex before marriage?
  • Did you have a sex education class in your school, before you began to date Levi Johnston?
  • Did you learn only the about the failure rates of contraception in your sex education class?
  • Do you wish you had learned about the effectiveness of condoms, the Pill and other forms of contraception in your sex education class?
  • In what grade you do think teens should first learn about contraception?
  • As a national spokesperson will you only talk about abstinence or will you talk about the importance of using contraception should teens decide to have sex?
  • What will happen if Congress fails to fund abstinence-only education in the next budget cycle?

Bristol needs to answer some tough questions to convince me that she has the courage to really make a difference in the struggle to reduce teen pregnancy. Perhaps as she travels around the country and listens to other teens, she will decide that young people need much better sex education and more honest information than many of them are presently receiving in schools.

In the meantime, 225 of Bristol’s fellow Alaskan high school student leaders aren’t waiting for her efforts. They are calling for more sex education. “During its recent spring conference in Sitka, the Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution requesting “a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course for all high school students statewide.”

Maybe her fellow students will embolden Bristol Palin to change her message and be ready to answer more hard-hitting questions—that is, if Matt Lauer decides to ask her some.

Add This
Email

Remember Carl and Jaheem

May 6, 2009

After writing “Remember Larry” in December 2008, I fervently hoped that I would not have to return to this subject: the suicide of a young person caused by homophobic bullying at school.

My post suggested that parents and teachers read “Young, Gay and Murdered,” the Newsweek cover story about the tragic killing of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate in a junior high school in Oxnard, CA, with a teacher and other students looking on.

Surely, this story would not have a sequel, I thought.

But another tale so close to the first one that it could be its relative surfaced recently. This story has many of the same features as the Newsweek cover story, particularly the core point: children die because of the homophobic behavior of other children with whom they attend school.

In this second story, two African-American children—both 11 years old and living in different areas of the country—committed suicide because they had been bullied, taunted and called homophobic names by their classmates. Let me give you the details: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who lived in Massachusetts, wrapped an extension cord around his neck and hanged himself because of the “relentless taunts of his classmates,” and Jaheem Herrera, who lived in Georgia, hanged himself with an extension cord and died because of the “relentless homophobic taunting of his classmates.”

You can learn more about Carl and hear about the increase in school homophobia from this ABC World News segment:

You might also want to get a copy of the report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, which was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. The report’s bottom line is that “students are more likely to be subject to homophobic bullying than any bullying for most other reasons.”

But it wasn’t until this past Saturday when I was watching a rerun of a Barbra Streisand concert on CBS that I felt the full weight of the horror of the deaths of the two little children. Streisand sang two songs whose messages spoke directly to where and from whom our many young children may be learning how to bully, how to taunt and how to be homophobic: in their own homes and from their own parents.

The first song Streisand sang was the tender “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Although the focus of the song is on racism, the message is about teaching about hate in all forms to children:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Then Streisand sang the haunting “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. This is the song’s refrain:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen.

As a memorial to Larry, Carl and Jaheem, I would like to suggest that elementary and middle schools invite the parents of students to view and discuss It’s Elementary. This is a 37-minute highly honored educational film designed for PTA meetings on how to address lesbian and gay issues with children in positive, age-appropriate ways.

The film, directed by Academy Award winner Debra Chasnoff, goes inside first- through eighth-grade classrooms to hear what young students have to say about a topic that either leaves their parents mute or permits them to pass on ugly messages and language for which they have never been corrected.

To order, click here.

Perhaps at the end of the film and discussion, parents might sing or read the lyrics to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” and “Children Will Listen.”

Add This
Email

April Showers

April 24, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add This
Email

Unsung Helper

April 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Dan O’Hern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add This
Email

Spring Cleaning…and Condoms

April 3, 2009

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

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

She wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add This
Email

Childbirth: More Difficult Than You Think

March 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that indeed would be beautiful.

Add This
Email

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Add This
Email