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Pregnancy Prevention Starts With Pregnancy Education

May 1, 2014

I think most people would be astounded by the number of questions I answer every week regarding pregnancy on the Forums at or on the Sex, Etc. Tumblr page. If I had to guess, I’d bet that 90 percent of the questions have to do with pregnancy and whether or not the person asking the question or his partner is pregnant based on the detailed story they lay out for me.

Of these many questions asked about whether or not someone is pregnant, the vast majority of the situations described involve no risk for pregnancy. And, about half of the time when I tell the teen asking that there was low or no risk for pregnancy, they don’t believe me at first.

Easy to Dismiss

It would be easy  to dismiss a teenager’s anxiety and attribute it to hormones or “just being dramatic.” Some people would probably want to moralize and say, “Well, if teens can’t use birth control or condoms or “control themselves,” they deserve to get pregnant or contribute to a pregnancy.” But I’ve learned that teens’ anxiety about pregnancy isn’t about not using condoms, not using birth control or perhaps even not practicing abstinence; it’s that these young people literally do not understand how pregnancy happens, which means they can’t understand how to prevent it.

And that is not their fault.

How Pregnancy Happens

The teens who ask about whether they or their partners are pregnant usually describe a situation like kissing a partner who ejaculates in his jeans and wondering if this could cause a pregnancy. Or she’s on hormonal birth control and they used a condom when they engaged in oral sex, but maybe some semen got on his or her hand and they want to know if she could be pregnant. You would be surprised how many people think that sperm can live on shower walls, in sinks, on toilet seats or toilet paper or that sperm can get through layers of clothing.

Again, the fact that teens are asking these questions and want to know if they could be pregnant or could cause a pregnancy in these situations is not their fault. It’s ours, because obviously we need to do a better job of educating young people on some of the basics related to pregnancy and reproduction.

Pregnancy Education Is Pregnancy Prevention

A lot of times people hear pregnancy prevention, and they think of the methods by which to prevent pregnancy from happening: using a condom, practicing abstinence or using hormonal birth control. But I would argue that pregnancy prevention starts with something much more basic: teaching young people how a pregnancy happens. When we talk about pregnancy and reproduction with our children or our students, we should be thinking, are we doing it early and often? Are we doing it in a way that is age-appropriate and makes sense to them developmentally? And are we presenting ourselves as trusted resources so that they feel comfortable asking questions about reproduction and how it happens?

Pregnancy prevention and education too often get caught up in a debate about whether or not teens should be having sex, when really it starts with the fundamental belief that young people have a right to understand their bodies and how they work. It’s our job to arm them with the knowledge necessary for them to make healthy and informed decisions.

We owe it to them.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

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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 features humorous sexual health content, especially memes, GIFs and photos. It’s the lighter side of sex ed. We also publish content regularly on—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 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.


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

For more information about YTH Live, visit


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

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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.

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Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Sam Dercon

March 27, 2014

Over the past 20 years, nearly 300 teenagers have written for Answer’s award-winning, teen-written magazine and website, Sex, Etc. We are so proud of the work they have done and continue to do to educate young people about sexual health. Many of Answer’s former teen editorial staff members go on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism. As we continue to celebrate Sex, Etc.’s 20th anniversary, we decided to catch up with some former teen staff members because we have been wondering: Where are they now?

Sam Dercon, Teen Staff Writer, 2010-2012

After reading a few issues of Sex, Etc. supplied by his mother, Sam applied to be on the staff in 2010. Sam Dercon is now a sophomore at Princeton University. I e-mailed him recently about what impact writing for Sex, Etc. had on his life and to learn more about what he has been up to:

Lucinda Holt: How did Sex, Etc. inform the work you do today?

Sam Dercon: I honestly had no experience with sexuality education prior to becoming part of Sex, Etc., so I really had no idea what to expect. But once I started, I instantly became interested in the work we did and how vital this kind of outreach is for teens. Being at Sex, Etc. inspired me to become part of HiTOPS, a teen-led sexuality education program in Princeton, and it’s also responsible for my current plans to spend this summer interning at the UNESCO HIV office in Bangkok, Thailand.

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

SD: You really don’t often have the opportunity to write articles about ‘New Technologies in Birth Control for Guys‘ or ‘Slaying Dragons and Gender Stereotypes in Skyrim.’ If you are interested in getting some kind of writing experience, working at Sex, Etc. is probably one of the most unique and impressive ways to accomplish that.”

LH: What are you passionate about?

SD: Personally I am most passionate about the current HIV epidemic. This fascination really stems from my desire to go to medical school and study virology, but it is also important to me because of the amount of misinformation I realized people have surrounding the virus; and it really kills me to see people leading their lives not understanding what it means to practice safer sex.

LH: What inspires you?

SD: Lately I’ve been deeply inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve made a goal for myself of never turning down a new experience (part of the reason I am going to Thailand), and I feel that Thompson epitomizes this kind of mentality.

LH: What makes you happy?

SD: Cooking for friends makes me extraordinarily happy.

LH: Who would you love to have dinner with?

SD: Stephen Colbert

LH: What would you do with $1 million?

SD: I would love to see Sex, Etc. makes itself known to teens across the country on TV channels like MTV and Comedy Central. It really would do so much good.

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How Sex, Etc. Went from Idea to Publication

March 19, 2014

I was present at the births of my three children and one newsletter, Sex, Etc. This sounds like an unlikely combination, and I smile as I couple my living, breathing children with an inanimate publication with an eye-catching name. My presence at the birth of all four is among the highlights of my life.

Why Sex, Etc. Resonates with Teens

Twenty years ago, during my tenure as executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education (now Answer), I brought the idea of creating a national newsletter written by teens for teens to a group of young people at a summer program at Rutgers where I had been invited to speak about sexuality education. I stood at the podium on a warm summer’s day before a sea of young women and told them about a new idea.

“Would you and your peers be interested in reading such a publication?” I asked. I sat down and waited until the program’s end, honestly believing that at most three or four young people would come talk to me. When the program ended, I looked out into the audience—only to see dozens of young women moving toward me in a wave.

“Oh, please do this,” one began. “Teens talk to each other all the time about sex, and a lot of it is just plain wrong.” Another added, “Adults are so uncomfortable with this topic. Parents don’t talk to us, and teachers are shy about the subject, too.” The teens’ desire for accurate information was visible, and I became their advocate on the spot. In that moment, I knew we needed to move ahead with the newsletter.

One of the first teens with whom we worked, whose name I cannot remember but to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude, came up with the name: Sex, Etc. It was an instant success. We published Sex, Etc. three times during the school year, shipping 30,000 copies to New Jersey schools in 1994, our first year of publication, 150,000 copies the second year, and 300,000 copies the third year. By then we began national distribution of the newsletter to public schools, health clinics and community agencies with teen programs. In 1997, the newsletter was honored at the White House by First Lady Hillary Clinton as one of the best ideas for teen-to-teen pregnancy prevention strategies in the U.S. At the height of its distribution, we were mailing over two million copies of the newsletter nationwide each year.

Sex, Etc’s. Work Is Not Done

Over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of how young people’s lives were transformed simply by having honest, accurate information available to them through Sex, Etc. Today—20 years since the very first newsletter was published—Sex, Etc. remains just as important and cherished by its readers as it was to me when I witnessed its “birth.”

One thing I never anticipated was that Sex, Etc., which has since evolved into a vibrant, full-color magazine and website, would reach far more than a teen audience. Educators read it before handing it out to teens or using it in classrooms to enhance sexuality education lessons. Time and time again, we hear from teachers just how important Sex, Etc. is. As one educator recently told us, “I just wanted to tell you that the magazines are a big hit with my students! I’ve created a few reading and debate assignments for some of the articles and the students are really engaged. I am already looking forward to the next issue!”

Each year, millions of young people use Sex Etc. in all of its forms—the magazine, the website and its dynamic social media platforms—to connect with sexual health information. The need that first group of students expressed twenty years ago is still very much alive today. With every new generation of teenagers we have a renewed obligation to reach and teach young people about sexual health. Our work is not done—in fact, it continues to grow.

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From Reading Sex, Etc. to Working at Answer

February 14, 2014

I don’t have too many good memories from my high school sexuality education classes. But, one amazing memory I have is of getting the Sex, Etc. newsletter.

Back in 2005, Sex, Etc. wasn’t a magazine but a black-and-white newsletter with just a pop of color in certain places. I remember our health teacher passing them out to the class and me picking it up with some hesitation. I thought to myself, Ugh, are they going to show us some gross pictures of STDs and tell us to not get pregnant?

When I started to actually read the articles, I was pleasantly surprised to find great writing, accurate information and fun content—all written by people about my age. Everything else we had read in sex ed had been written by adults, was probably produced in the 1980s and had an admonishing tone. But in Sex, Etc. there were first-person accounts of sexual health topics written by teenagers just like me—and produced in this millennium. The stories normalized what I was thinking, feeling and going through. I was ecstatic that a newsletter like this existed and that I wasn’t alone.

Coming Full Circle

Once I got to college, I was actively involved in advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and sexual health. College was so far removed from high school that I never made the connection between Sex, Etc. and what I was learning about sexuality. However, when I took the class Women and Health, that was sexuality education, and for a lot of the students in the class, it was the first time they were learning about sexuality and sexual health. When I took Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, we talked and learned about sexual orientation, homophobia, being transgender, transphobia and a myriad of other LGBTQ topics. This was sexuality education. And, yet, I still hadn’t made the connection that this was the work Sex, Etc. and Answer were doing.

It’s not surprising then that the thought of working in sexuality education didn’t occur to me. It wasn’t until the spring semester of my senior year that I realized I would most likely be graduating without a job—an insanely scary prospect. When I considered that all of my internships had been with organizations that promoted comprehensive sexuality education, I started to think that maybe I was meant to make a career in this field.

Soon after graduation, I applied to work at Answer. Four years later, I still think applying to work here is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. It feels as if everything has come full circle. I went from a student who read Sex, Etc. in high school, to now training the teen editorial staff on sexuality and sexual health, answering teens’ questions on the forums and working with the teen editorial staff on their stories for the magazine, the website and the blog.

Twenty Years of Sex, Etc.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Sex, Etc. magazine and the 15th anniversary of

Over the years, the magazine and website have not only provided information on how to use a condom or what happens during puberty—though of course this information is important—but they have also provided what teens need to know about caring for their bodies, communicating with partners and establishing healthy relationships. Each FAQ that is read means that a teenage girl has the chance to learn about menstruation and that her body is normal and can do amazing things. It means a teen guy gets to learn about healthy relationships and to see himself as a fully realized emotional being who doesn’t have to have sex, even if his friends are pressuring him to. Every young person who learns that douching won’t prevent pregnancy or that being transgender is normal or that they don’t have to have sex to please a partner isn’t just given facts. They’re given vital information to help them navigate the complicated teenage years. And they get the important, but often-forgotten, message that they are not alone, that there are other teens out in the world going through the same things and that if they need help, Sex, Etc. can point them in the right direction.

Countless teens before me received honest, accurate information about sexuality through the magazine and website. And now I get to come to work every day and do my best—along with the rest of the Answer staff!—to make sure countless other teens are given the same opportunity in the years to come.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

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Teens and Social Media: More than Just Facebook

January 22, 2014

Have you heard the news about Facebook? Article after article say that Facebook has a problem—teen engagement is on the decline. Does this spell doom for the world’s largest social network?

Hardly. The official word is that millions of teens are still on Facebook, and the number of teens using the social network are holding steady.

Facebook is just one of many places where teens are online. As a sexual health professional you have spent time and resources on outreach and engaging your audience with status updates, photos and links. But teens aren’t just sticking with Facebook; they’re spreading their social media use across channels. So what’s a sexual health professional to do?

What’s Hot With Teens Right Now


Snapchat offers teens a simpler, more private social experience than Facebook. Users can send Snaps—privately shared photos and videos—which delete after a few seconds. The self-destruct timer leaves teens feeling less worried about leaving behind a digital footprint.


Instagram’s popular photo sharing service got a big boost when it let users share video. Instagram Direct is a new feature that lets users privately share photos and videos with each other. It’s a clear response to Snapchat’s growing popularity, but unlike Snapchat’s self-destruct timer, messages shared on Instagram Direct have to be manually deleted.


Twitter launched Vine in 2013, and it shares its parent’s penchant for keeping things brief. Instead of 140 characters for a Tweet, Vine videos must be six seconds or less. Six seconds doesn’t seem like much, but it forces you to be concise and creative. There’s no end to the laughs and visual creativity on Vine.


Tumblr has grown into one of the largest blogging platforms, and it’s very popular with teens and young adults. It’s a treasure trove of photos, memes and other viral content. Users can reblog content and quickly add it to their own blog. You can customize almost everything about a blog’s theme, which makes Tumblr a great place for self-expression. And it offers anonymity—a huge draw for teens.

Messenger Apps

WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook Messenger and other messenger apps let teens communicate one on one or with a group of friends. Messenger apps let you share things like photos, videos, GIFs and stickers—most of what Facebook offers, but with more privacy. This is texting for the smartphone generation.

Sexual Health Professionals Must Adapt

Don’t panic about reports that teens are leaving Facebook. But don’t put all of your eggs in the Facebook basket. This is an opportunity to embrace change, adapt what you’ve done successfully on Facebook and diversify the platforms you use to engage teens. If you haven’t already, check out Snapchat, Vine and other apps that teens use to avoid mom and dad on Facebook. Follow some of your favorite sexual health organizations and brands, like Sex, Etc., and see how they’ve adapted.

I’ll be hosting Answer’s webinar on how to use smartphone apps like Snapchat, Vine and Tumblr to teach sexuality education. And I’ll be sharing best practices and examples of great work being done in the sexual health field. Whether you’re a school-based educator, community-based educator, clinician or other sexual health professional, you’ll walk away feeling more comfortable with new technology.

Register online and learn how you can use mobile apps to deepen teen engagement and make sexuality education more relevant and compelling to them.

—Alex Medina, Coordinator of Web Content and Social Networking

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Four Things Adults Can Teach Young People About Communication in 2014

January 6, 2014

“But, how do I talk about this?”

A friend in her 20s recently asked me how, exactly, she was supposed to talk about specific sexual behaviors with someone she’d been seeing for a few months. My friend, who’s smart, driven and empowered in many aspects of her life, had no idea how to talk with her partner about what she wants, needs, likes and dislikes when it comes to sex. I wondered and worried if she couldn’t talk to him about these topics, could they discuss safer sex or birth control?

While Answer works to educate teens and adults who work with teens, I’m reminded by conversations like this that teens who do not receive honest, straightforward sexuality education aren’t likely to be able to talk with their partners about these topics. And without parents or other trusted adults teaching young people how to talk with their partners, they very quickly become 20-something young adults who aren’t able to have these conversations either. I sympathize with my friend, because no one taught her or her partner how to have these sorts of conversations. And if a successful, mature young adult like my friend doesn’t know how to talk with her partner, how do we expect teenagers—who arguably have less relationship experience—to know how?

As the expert on the Forums who answers teens’ questions about sex, sexuality and sexual health, I encounter teens everyday who don’t know what good communication looks like. They ask how to tell their partner they want to use a condom or that they don’t feel ready to have sex. It’s our job as adults and educators to do a better job of counseling young people on how to have these important conversations with a partner.

I want to make the case for us—as educators, parents or people with a young person in our lives that we care about—to make the time in 2014 to talk with young people and teach them how to have healthy and respectful conversations about sex, sexual health and sexuality. Most young people will hopefully be getting the information they need about safer sex and birth control (and if not, send them on over to!), but as adults who care about young people, we need to make sure they learn more than the steps to putting on a condom or the effectiveness rate of an IUD. They need to be able to talk about what they’ve learned so they can use it.

It can be hard even for us as adults to know what to say. So, here are four things we can teach young people when it comes to communicating with a partner:

  1. Make sure the conversation happens when you aren’t engaging in sexual behaviors. Having a conversation about sexual behaviors is usually easier when both partners are clothed and just hanging out together. People generally will feel less vulnerable, emotionally and physically, for what can sometimes be an awkward or difficult conversation.
  2. Use “I” statements. Statements that begin with “I think” or “I believe” let a partner know that you’re speaking for yourself and how you feel and that your conversation is about expressing your thoughts and communicating—not about accusing or attacking. Be sure that your language and thoughts are clear and that you’re telling your partner not only what you don’t want or aren’t ready for, but also what you do want and are ready for. It may help to think about this and formulate some thoughts before sitting down to talk.
  3. Find a solution together. Agreeing to work toward something as a team often brings couples closer together and can make the conversation feel less awkward.
  4. Practice. Like anything else, good communication isn’t something that everyone is automatically great at. Learning how to communicate effectively and in a way that each partner feels valued and respected can take some time. It gets easier!

We know young people want to learn how to communicate more effectively with a partner. We also know they look to trusted adults and educators to teach them how. Teaching young people how to communicate in a relationship in an honest and respectful way just may be the most useful tool you can offer them in 2014.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

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The Best Holiday Gift for Your Kids: Talking About Gender and Sexuality

November 22, 2013

The most common reason I hear parents give for why they haven’t started talking with their children about sexuality is, “Because my kids haven’t brought it up yet.” These parents, who will confess sheepishly that they are looking for any excuse to put off “the talk” as long as possible, believe in their hearts that by not talking about sexuality they are keeping their children “innocent.” Yet they are actually doing the exact opposite. Children do not live in a bubble. And when parents fail to take the lead and proactively talk about sexuality, they are relinquishing control over the topic and allowing the culture at large to educate their children about it.

One reason why parents hesitate to talk with their children about sexuality is the misunderstanding that doing so means talking about sexual behaviors. It actually doesn’t—particularly for younger children. What children are bombarded with from birth and what parents need to talk with them about from the earliest ages has to do with gender: what society says it means to be a girl or a boy and the consequences of either fulfilling or going against those expectations.

Gendering Children

There is no greater cultural example of this in the U.S. than Halloween costumes. Costumes, separated by what are considered “girls’ costumes” and “boys’ costumes,” communicate that girls should be sexy, while boys can celebrate a range of their boyness, from strength to humor to scariness. Boys are told to “Be fearless!” and girls to “Be sassy!” Because nothing says scary like a sassy 12-year-old girl.

Halloween costumes are far from the only offender. Most toy stores separate their inventory by gender; greeting card sellers do the same. Boys’ toys enable a boy to “be like dad” (because, why would he want to emulate his mother?), while toys for girls represent “everything nice.”  When a baby is born, we learn that “B is for Boy…and balls and bats… and bikes… and banged up knees…”and that “G is for Girl…and giggles and grins/games and glitter….”

“Inoculating” Against Homosexuality

Why is our culture so set on gendering how we act? The egregious examples above come from the land of capitalism. But the real root of this worldwide cultural investment in raising boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine is homophobia—the irrational fear of or discomfort with people who are or are perceived to be lesbian or gay.

With so much progress recently relating to same-sex marriage, this admonishment of homophobia may seem misplaced—but believe me, it isn’t. The general public still confounds sexual orientation and gender, assuming that a boy or man who has stereotypically feminine traits or interests is gay, and that a girl or woman who has stereotypically male traits or interests is lesbian. And because this remains a distressing thought to far too many parents, our culture tries to “inoculate” children from the get-go, convinced that swathing a baby boy in blue and a baby girl in pink will ensure their heterosexuality.

There is more flexibility for girls than for boys. A girl who plays with stereotypically boy games and toys is being strong, improving herself by being more “male.” Conversely, if boys play with stereotypically girl toys, they are weak. And although we tolerate some ambiguity the younger a child is, a gender line is usually drawn by the elementary school years, when children are told, “Isn’t it time you started playing with…?”

Now, I am not saying that parents of boys need to go through their homes and throw out their footballs and action figures or that parents of girls need to push their daughters away from playing dress-up or having tea parties. What we need to do, however, is be very aware of how we respond to kids who fulfill the cultural stereotypes and those who don’t and why we are responding as we do. Parents need to remember:

  1. The types or colors of clothes, toys, books and hobbies a child chooses do not necessarily indicate anything about that child’s future sexual orientation.
  2. Parents cannot change their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
  3. Gender stereotypes and the accompanying messages can limit young people and lower their self-esteem– e.g., “Boys don’t cry; therefore if you express your emotions you are gay” or “Girls don’t run around like that; therefore if you do you will never have a boyfriend and people will think you are a lesbian.”

The Gift of Acceptance

The single most common question we hear from young people is, “Am I normal?” If children get the feeling from their parents that how they behave, dress or speak is not OK, they will learn to play a part in order to make their parents happy. And while this gender conformity may comfort the adults in their lives, children who limit themselves rather than being true to who they are are much more likely to have lower self-esteem. If we communicate instead that we accept our children—whether a son is a football player or loves to play the violin; whether a daughter is a ballerina or fascinated by how cars work—our children will be more likely to grow up to be strong and sure of themselves. And that means they are much more likely to be strong, sure and happy adults.

We survived Halloween and are already seeing ads for the upcoming winter holidays. This holiday season, the best gift we can give the young people in our lives is to talk with them about gender and sexuality, share accurate information and impart our values and remind them that they are important, valued and loved, no matter what.

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The Trouble With Teens and Porn

August 28, 2013

Teens are viewing porn. Not all teens are viewing porn, but many teens are viewing porn.

The two most common questions I am asked about teens watching porn is, “Why do they do it?” and “How will it affect them?”

My answer to the first question is, “Because it’s porn.” It’s forbidden for teens (and with good reason), and chances are they want to see it. They also watch porn because it’s about sex, and the restricting and censoring of school-based sexuality education throughout the United States is hugely to blame for why curious young people go to porn to learn about sex.

Porn is easily accessible. It is clear, direct and graphic—as opposed to the cryptic answers they receive from the uncomfortable adults in their lives. It is arousing, and when you consider the hormonal changes adolescents and teens experience, their interest and curiosity are completely normal, just misdirected.

Comprehensive sexuality education programs provide age-and developmentally-appropriate content that research shows to have a significant impact on behaviors, decision-making and relationships. But far too many schools teach abstinence only until marriage or nothing at all. And although parents can and should be the primary sexuality educators of their children, it is unfair to expect parents to know everything about human sexuality or what is and isn’t age-appropriate. This is why it is so important for parents, schools, faith communities and sexuality education experts to work in partnership to provide young people with such important, sometimes life-saving, information.

So, if porn contains the easily accessible, straightforward information young people say they want, why are we against them viewing it?

Because it’s not designed for them. We wouldn’t use algebra to teach a second grader addition, because it’s not age appropriate. The same is true for porn. It is designed for and to be consumed by adults because adults understand that what they are seeing is a fantasy. To many younger people, what they see is what they get, so porn represents the way sexual relationships ARE, not the way some might be. Some of my former college students told me porn taught them a lot about behaviors, but nothing about safer sex, relationships, communication, consent and the myriad other topics that should be addressed in a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

The purpose of porn is not to educate; the purpose of porn is to entertain and make money. The messages young people receive from porn are, at best, misleading—at worst, biased and inaccurate. Here are some of these messages:

  1. Only people of a certain race, ethnicity, age, body type, etc. have-or should have-sex. The visual representation of sexual behaviors in porn speaks volumes and reinforces age-old sexist, racist, ageist, ableist and other stereotypes.
  2. Bigger is better-whether penises, breasts, buttocks (on women) or muscles (on men). The number one question adolescents ask is, “Am I normal?” Porn reinforces the idea that young people are not “okay” unless their bodies look like what they see represented. This can have a significant effect on viewers’ self-esteem and body image.
  3. Girls and women exist to “service” men. Even same-sex porn between women is created for men. I worked with a group of seventh-grade boys, where we were discussing gender stereotypes. I asked them to describe boys and received unsurprising responses: “strong, athletic, funny.” When I asked about girls, the first response I received was, “Girls are here to give lap dances to guys.” There is absolutely no reason why a seventh-grade boy should know what a lap dance is, let alone have the accompanying value that a girl’s worth is in performing one.
  4. Hook up; don’t look for relationships. Porn does not tend to depict love relationships. It depicts one-time hook-ups, usually without showing or even discussing condoms or other latex barriers. Adults are alarmed by teen hook-up culture, but it’s not exclusive to teens, and it’s certainly reinforced by what is in porn.

So, what is the impact of the many messages communicated by porn? Basically, we don’t know for sure. Certainly, as I shared above, it can affect attitudes and beliefs about gender, relationships, and sexuality in general. But porn’s impact on young people’s behaviors varies depending on a variety of factors: culture (Swedish teens were able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, but Swedish culture is far more progressive around sexuality); the content of the porn (a couple engaged in a sex act versus the depiction of violence); the frequency with which porn is viewed (greater frequency resulted in earlier sexual initiation for some); the adolescent’s history with aggression (some juvenile sex offenders who consumed porn were more likely to display aggression than those who did not); and more.

As researchers continue to explore correlations and causations, young people have questions. They need to know how their bodies work, how to navigate their normal sexual feelings, how to be in relationships and how to avoid the possible negative consequences of shared sexual behaviors. They won’t learn that from porn. They won’t learn it from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

We cannot continue to let pornography “educate” young people, and we need to stop tolerating the faux moralistic arguments against comprehensive sexuality education. New Jersey has one of the strongest sexuality education mandates in the U.S., yet school after school, district after district, waste taxpayer money on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Young people need and have the right to be taught information and skills that are medically accurate and age- and developmentally-appropriate from adults who are trained to do so. They need their parents to take the initiative to talk with them about sexuality, within the context of their family’s values, rather than waiting passively for their children to ask questions—because some children may never ask. Educated youth grow up to be well-adjusted adults. And one thing we can all agree on is that we want our children to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted.

This article was originally published on

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