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Remembering Senator Lautenberg: A Champion of Comprehensive Sexuality Education

June 10, 2013

Last week, New Jersey lost a great representative—and the United States lost a great statesman—Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. During his five terms, Senator Lautenberg courageously stood up to big business and supported legislation that improved all of our lives—from a ban on smoking on commercial airlines to support for motorcycle-helmet laws. We appreciate all of Senator Lautenberg’s hard work, but what we at Answer will remember him most for is his steadfast support of comprehensive sexuality education.

For years, Senator Lautenberg championed legislation that would help to ensure that young people receive age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality. In February, he and Senator Barbara Lee (D-CA) reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which is an invaluable step in funding programs that are informed by research and based on best practices.

Senator Lautenberg was the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, and with age comes wisdom; he knew that if young people are to grow into healthy adults, they deserve access to the information and skills they need to make smart decisions about sexuality, both now and well into the future. We are grateful for Senator Lautenberg’s leadership and his unwavering belief in and respect for the rights of young people nationwide. We will truly miss him.

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Five Tips for Teaching Sex Ed to Boys

May 16, 2013

At Answer we are constantly asked for specific tips and techniques for teaching about sexuality in ways that resonate with male learners, which is why we created our latest online workshop, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. I thought I’d offer a few tried-and-true techniques here as a sneak preview.

Create ground rules up front

I have two points to make on this, knowing that experienced educators will read this and think, “Well, duh, I use ground rules with all my groups.” But my first point is, ground rules are particularly important with guys. According to Dr. William Pollack’s “boy code,” boys navigate the world through rules, and therefore, both having rules and letting them come up with those rules is imperative for both group dynamics and group buy-in on your work with them. Second, if you create ground rules, discuss with the boys how you will enforce those ground rules. When educators post ground rules then fail to intervene when they are broken, it teaches boys that rules (and policies and laws) are not to be respected. We are teaching far more than sexuality content when we work with young people.

Build in extra time

Sexuality is an exciting, interesting topic. There’s nothing like that moment when guys finally get that answer to something they have always wanted to know. This often results in an explosion of laughter or energy in the room. Although this comes from a good place, it still needs to be managed so you can complete your lesson.

Get them out of their seats

Similarly, boys do far better when lessons integrate moving around. If, for example, you are teaching a class or workshop that is particularly content-heavy, build in a quick energizer to let them clear their heads for a moment and refocus. When our computers slow down, hitting CTRL-ALT-DEL gives them a zap that restarts them and usually speeds up performance. Same with conducting quick, five-minute energizers for male learners. But most curricula don’t include these in their lessons, so you have to build in time for them.

Integrate low-key competition

The boy code values competition, so using a lesson that includes a competitive aspect almost guarantees focus and participation. Just be careful that the competition or the prize for winning the competition doesn’t become the focus instead of what you are trying to teach. In addition, know your community. When I did work in areas with higher gang-related activity, we never used competition in the classroom because it was unsafe to do so.

Use humor-but be careful

Sexuality is not only interesting and exciting, but it is also, on occasion, hilarious. One of my favorite characteristics of adolescent and teen boys is how goofy they can be. Boys are wonderfully non-defensive and able to laugh at themselves when they ask a question that they think is probably way off base. When I was working with a group of 7th grade boys, one asked me, “When you have sex with a girl, your penis goes in, but how do you stop the rest of your body from going in, too?” My response was something like, “The vagina is not a black hole in outer space. You don’t get sucked in there never to be found again….” The questioner laughed, and everyone else laughed but not derisively. Then I simply explained why this wouldn’t happen, and we moved on. Careful, intentional use of humor is particularly helpful when working with boys.

One caution about humor, though, is that it is very easy to slip into it because you know that it engages the learners. But we are educators, not entertainers. When I use humor, I am always grateful to hear that participants laughed or had fun. But I also always ask, “So, what’s something you learned that you think you’ll be able to use when you go home?” The answer to that question tells me whether I used too little, too much or just the right amount of humor.

Get more information about the unique learning needs and styles of boys, or register for Boys and Sex Ed.

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Guys—A Sex Ed Afterthought

April 30, 2013

When I was starting out in the sexuality education field, I was hungry for training on how to effectively teach the many topics we address. A colleague recommended a training on domestic violence, and since healthy versus unhealthy relationships was a topic in our teen curriculum, I attended. As the facilitator began the training, I realized that the entire room was made up of medical professionals being trained on screening for and treating women who had been physically assaulted by their partners or spouses. I was the only educator—the only person who was interested in learning how to teach young people about healthy versus unhealthy relationships. I asked a few questions, and the facilitator did her best to answer them. I was able to cull some useful information here and there, but overall the training had very little to do with me or what I needed.

This is what far too many boys experience in the sex ed classroom.

Teaching as if Guys Aren’t in the Room

The vast majority of sexuality education curricula are written with the needs and issues of girls in mind-reinforcing, perhaps inadvertently, the idea that “boys will be boys” and so we must arm girls with as much knowledge and as many skills as possible to be the moral gatekeepers within male-female relationships. When a teacher focuses on the needs of and uses language that is designed to resonate with girls, boys often end up feeling invisible—like they don’t belong in the classroom, like sex ed doesn’t apply to them or is a waste of time, which is just like I felt during that training. It was a strong training; it just wasn’t directed to me. So, just like boys in the sex ed classroom, I had to find the information I was looking for on my own.

Sexuality education must integrate messages and teaching methods that resonate with boys. There has been push-back by some that learning based on biological sex is sexist. And I have to admit I have struggled with that over the years. But as a parent of a son and an educator who has worked directly with thousands of adolescent boys, I have seen firsthand that there are certain methods and efforts that work differently with boys than they do with girls. Does this mean that these methods work with ALL boys? No. Does this mean that these methods do not work with ANY girls? Of course not. But at the most basic level, we need to stop teaching sexuality education as if boys aren’t in the room or as if girls need all of this guidance and help, but boys can figure everything out on their own. It does a disservice to girls as much as it does to boys.

Involve Guys From the Beginning

I was at a meeting recently where a discussion took place about maternity leave at school for pregnant and parenting teen girls to ensure they remain in school. It’s a worthwhile goal to help these girls both complete high school and be successful parents. Yet it struck me that the idea of family leave for their male partners did not even come up. Why? Is there an unspoken assumption that this isn’t necessary? Or that the boys wouldn’t be interested? Yet how many adults then judge the biological dads for not being present, when in fact, provisions were not made available to them the way they were for their female partners?

If we truly want guys to be engaged in their sexual health and relationships, we need to involve them from the beginning. If we want them to value sexuality education, we need to teach in ways that resonate with them. If we want to help them make healthy decisions, both now and into the future, we need to see them as part of the educational process, not an afterthought.

We address how educators can create sexual health lessons and use teaching methods that resonate with boys in Answer’s latest online professional development course, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. If we as educators are going to provide boys with the guidance they need and deserve, then we have to find more effective ways of reaching them.

Albert Einstein said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” We keep telling boys that they need to be responsible about their sexual health without providing them with the educational venue through which they can learn to be responsible. As a result, many live their lives believing they are stupid about or irrelevant in relationships-regardless of the gender of their partner. And no young person should be made to feel stupid or irrelevant.

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Could Sex Ed Prevent Another Steubenville?

April 2, 2013

As a parent of a boy, I understand how some people have found sympathy in their hearts for the boys convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH. I have to be honest, however—I have not. But I do feel strongly that what these boys did came from years of distorted cultural lessons about what it means to be a boy or man, and therefore the blame for what happened does not lie with them alone.

“Boys Will Be Boys” Hurts Us All

News coverage has posited that Steubenville was another case of “boys will be boys”—the collusive attitude that boys are uncontrollable, and therefore we should shake our heads with an appreciative smile and enjoy their rough-and-tumble way of figuring out the world.

But the typical “boys will be boys” attitude implies a passive acceptance that boys figure out on their own what it means to be male and behave accordingly. In reality, that’s not the case at all. Our culture proactively defines masculinity for boys and is deeply invested in creating so-called “real men.” Tragically, what our culture glorifies in masculinity leaves no room for teaching boys that being a “real man” means being a person of integrity who is respectful and kind. Masculinity is defined so narrowly that boys do not question whether their behavior is appropriate let alone abusive—especially when their peers are behaving the same way or cheering them on. We see this in bullying cases as well as sexual assault cases. Our culture is far more comfortable with a hyper-masculine “All American” boy who can hardly keep himself away from girls than a boy who is caring, respects boundaries or says he isn’t interested in having sex at the moment.

The Indoctrination of Boys Into Rape Culture

As the Steubenville case gained more national attention, strongly-worded messages and memes were posted on the Internet to protest rape and the attitudes that foster rape. These included, “Culture teaches women not to get raped, instead of teaching boys and men not to rape,”  “Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them not to rape” and “Real men don’t rape.” Yet what was also posted online were offensive images, such as a photograph of the Dos Equis beer’s “most interesting man in the world” character with the caption, “I don’t always rape your mom, but when I do, I don’t use a condom.” Stemming from historical, and relatively tame by comparison, insults about a person’s mother, these sentiments have morphed into abhorrent references about sexual assault.

Last year, Amazon’s UK division stocked t-shirts with the statements, “Keep calm and hit her,” “Keep calm and rape a lot,” and “Keep calm and rape me.” Although the site eventually took down the t-shirts, the fact that these t-shirts were created and posted for sale in the first place demonstrates how ubiquitous the  attitude that violence—and, in particular, violence against girls and women—is funny.  Now, I don’t think—as someone who is parenting a boy and has worked with many adolescent and teen boys-that boys are incapable of feeling sympathy and empathy. I think boys come into this world with great capacity for sensitivity and caring, and are then aggressively socialized away from having those feelings-that being emotionally intelligent is a female trait, and therefore a weakness. The result for boys is a disconnect between their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Trent Mays’ “apology” was a clear example of this:

“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken.”

What is missing here is a pronoun. The photographs were not magically taken and forwarded on to others. I speculate that Mays apologized because he got in trouble and people were upset. But he did not acknowledge or own that he should not have done what he did; he should not have taken or forwarded the photographs. I also think that part of why he and Ma’lik were crying so hard in the courtroom was because they were genuinely confused by how what they did was wrong, and why what they tried to do to cover it up didn’t work. The lessons they’d received about male invincibility failed them, and the result was incomprehensible and devastating.

How Sexuality Education Can Help

Could sexuality education have prevented what happened in Steubenville?  No one knows for sure, especially in an abstinence-only-until-marriage state like Ohio where it’s highly unlikely any discussions relating to gender, gender roles and relationships would take place. But it’s not just Steubenville, and it’s not just Ohio.

Sexuality education certainly can help. But to be most effective, it must start early. Kindergarteners need to learn about maintaining and respecting others’ boundaries. Instead of just learning “no, go, tell” if they were to be touched inappropriately, children need to be clearly told, “And you should not do this to others, either.” Sexuality education in the first and second grades should include lessons about how boys and girls are similar and how they are different, and that no one has the right to put someone down for being different. Specifically, kids need to hear that it is OK if boys do not like sports and instead like music; if girls like sports instead of dolls and dresses. Sexuality education needs to extend into fourth and fifth grade with lessons about not just the physical, but also the emotional changes of puberty, which can be scary and overwhelming to boys as well as to girls. And sexuality education should continue on from there, getting into what is considered to be traditional lessons about pregnancy and STD prevention, as well as lessons about gender and relationships and much more, throughout middle and high school.

By and large, sexuality education nationwide still focuses on the needs of and issues relating to girls. This must change. Sexuality education needs to provide lessons that are designed for and include the realities that boys face, and it needs to be far more direct about how people can and should treat each other, regardless of gender. It needs to stop holding girls up to be the moral gatekeepers of their sexual interactions with others. It needs to be comprehensive in scope and must get the time in the curriculum that is required if we are hoping to change negative attitudes relating to gender and relationships. Finally, sexuality education must include training and education for parents and adult professionals who can play integral roles in ending the perpetration of gender role stereotypes and creating respectful boys and young men.

What happened in Steubenville happens far too frequently, in communities throughout the United States. It happens in urban settings, suburban settings and rural settings; it happens to girls, and it happens to boys. Incidents are reported, and they are covered up.

So Steubenville isn’t alone. Like Ma’lik and Trent, Steubenville just got caught. I hope that an enduring lesson from Steubenville is that more young people can and should have the courage to come forward. Only then will the groundswell of national motivation to end sexist attitudes and socially-endorsed misogyny continue to grow.

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Break the Silence on Homophobia and Bullying

February 15, 2013

No homophobia

A few days after I became a parent, a friend sat with me as I held my son and said, “You know, being a parent is like wearing your heart on the outside of your body.” Even as a brand-new parent, I completely understood what she meant. I had already begun to feel this intense vulnerability, along with the huge responsibility I now had to provide my child with the guidance and lessons to support his growth into a healthy, well-adjusted person.

That memory was in the forefront of my mind last week as I sat in the audience watching the formal announcement of the newly-established Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University. I marveled at the strength and selflessness of the Clementi family, who have transformed their indescribable loss into opportunities for guidance, healing and true change for others by creating both this Center and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

Tackling Homophobia Head-On

The Tyler Clementi Center and the anti-bullying legislation being proposed in Tyler’s name will provide important support to a particularly vulnerable population, college and university students, especially first-year students transitioning into this new stage in their lives. As my excitement grew over what the new Center and legislation promise to accomplish within higher education, I was strongly reminded of how important it is to ensure that we do not wait until young people are college-age to share the important lessons about treating others with respect and dignity and speaking up when we observe others who fail to do so. I felt like the Clementi family’s commitment was a renewed call to action for all of us, regardless of whether we are parents, to address homophobia head-on with children from the youngest ages. There is so much parents, educators and other key adults can do when it comes to preventing homophobic attitudes and bullying behavior with kids when they are younger.

For example, when we talk about respect and prejudice, we have to mention homophobia specifically. If we speak up about other “isms” but not about homophobia, our silence can communicate collusion with homophobia. Most people understand—regardless of how they may choose to behave in private versus public—that racism, sexism and ableism are wrong. But homophobia remains one of the most tolerated and even defended biases. Even college-age students will defend their use of the phrase, “That’s so gay,” because they did not mean it as a homophobic slur and “it’s just something people say.”

Sometimes, there are clear examples of homophobia that can be used as teachable moments, but other times, it is not so overt. Homophobia—like racism and other “isms”—is not limited to extreme physical violence perpetrated against someone who is, or even perceived to be, lesbian or gay. Homophobia, like racism, can be subtle yet ubiquitous, wearing away at a person’s self-esteem on a daily basis, where daily reminders of being “less than,” “different from” and so on have far too often led to young people dying by suicide.

Each new generation of young people—especially boys—is still being taught that being anything other than heterosexual is something to be ridiculed, feared, disgusted by and therefore fair game for corrective, abusive action. Boys and young men hear overtly and subtly that it is absolutely inappropriate to be gay—alongside the confusing message that being lesbian (as long as a woman fits the stereotype of beauty as defined by the dominant culture) is desirable. The pornification of lesbian and bisexual teen and adult women is an egregious form of homophobia that is demoralizing and debasing-yet passively accepted as “the way it is today.”

Start Talking to Stop Bullying

We need to constantly think about the language we use with and in front of children and adolescents. We need to use the media, which provides us with a seemingly endless supply of teachable moments, to point out and talk about homophobia whenever we see it. And if children or adolescents behave in a way that merits a punishment or consequence, we need to explain that punishment so that they understand why the language or behavior should not be repeated. Otherwise, they will remember the punishment rather than what they did to deserve it. This will also help to discourage bystander behavior—because when we speak up against homophobia, we are modeling to our children that they should do the same when they see or hear it themselves. Children then learn that there are no exceptions to the rule: bullying is wrong, no matter who does it to whom.

The Clementi family is doing more than its part to try to make a difference. We can support their efforts by talking openly and directly about homophobia and bullying. The younger we begin these conversations the better; but just like talking with your kids about sexuality, it’s never too late to start.

Answer maintains a list of resources for parents to talk with their children about sexuality and has both in-person and online professional development opportunities for educators relating to LGBTQ issues.

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What the 2012 Election Means for Sexuality Education

November 7, 2012

Political America

I’m not going to lie—I started writing this blog on Election Day before we heard the results. I am neither psychic nor overconfident, but there is only one possible outcome that will not devastate an organization like ours that is dedicated to ensuring that young people have unfettered access to age-appropriate sexuality education: having a Democrat in the White House.

At the same time, however, a Democrat in the White House does not guarantee that sexuality education and reproductive and sexual health organizations have nothing to worry about. As we have seen in recent years with the increase in vituperative legislation against women and young people passing in states all around the U.S., a Democrat in the White House is hardly the safeguard many have considered it to be. So with President Obama’s reelection, we must remain vigilant and work even harder to change policies that limit or deny access to sexuality education and safeguard policies that are educating and serving young people well.

We also need to hold the Administration’s feet to the proverbial fire when it comes to supporting comprehensive sexuality education, which has yo-yoed a bit over the last four years. When Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008, he was the first candidate to mention sexuality education—an exciting development for those of us dedicated to this work. We were grateful during his first term for his significant investment of federal funding for teen pregnancy prevention and more comprehensive sexuality education programs, yet neither issue featured prominently during his reelection campaign. We were ecstatic when the President cut all of the failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programming funding from the federal budget, yet deeply disappointed when this funding was reinstated as an add-on to the healthcare reform bill to the tune of $250 million over five years. (This was the same tactic social conservatives used with former President Clinton, under whose watch the initial increase of $250 million over five years was attached to the passage of his welfare reform bill).

Grossly misunderstood as “harmless,” the programs supported by this funding stream teach misleading, incomplete information. At their most benign, they are useless; at their most harmful, they serve to misinform and erode the self-esteem of young people—particularly young girls—who are made to feel worthless for having a sexual thought, feeling or question. So when an Administration funds abstinence-only-until-marriage AND comprehensive sexuality education programs, the comprehensive programs must do double work: first, to unteach the misinformation being propagated by the abstinence-only approaches; and second, to provide the age- and developmentally-appropriate knowledge and skills that research consistently shows young people need.

Sexuality education cannot be supported tentatively by our political allies; it must be embraced wholeheartedly and given the financial backing and social and political clout it deserves. It can no longer be seen as a bargaining commodity for political gain; it must be a nonnegotiable need equal to reading, math and other subjects young people learn from the earliest ages. Sexuality education opponents are in the minority in this country, yet they are a vocal minority whose fear-based messages are frighteningly effective with parents and other adults who are still trying to understand what sexuality education is, when and by whom it should be taught and what should be included.

How powerful would it be if our nation’s leader publicly and emphatically voiced his support for comprehensive sexuality education that begins with very basic information in kindergarten and continues through grade 12 in every school; that is taught by professionals who have been trained to do so comfortably and effectively in partnership with parents and caregivers in their community;  that is not just about preventing pregnancy and disease but that also includes life-enhancing knowledge and skills to help young people grow into well-adjusted adults? How powerful would it be if we stopped tolerating the nonsensical, orchestrated misinformation perpetrated by that vocal minority of adults about what sexuality education is and instead listened to the research and the youth development experts who stand ready to work with parents to help their kids grow up happy and healthy?

We need a paradigm shift in this country’s attitudes about sexuality education, which is a significant focus of Answer’s new strategic plan over the next five years. We can make immeasurable progress on this strategic priority if the policymakers at the federal and state levels stop playing politics with sexuality education and instead give it the true, unconditional support it needs. Anything can happen in the next four years, especially with a topic like sexuality education. But it can no longer be seen as a political hot potato. Policymakers must have the courage to support it openly and enthusiastically.

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Talking With Your Kids About Sexuality: Not an Olympic Feat!

August 2, 2012

I have worked with thousands of parents over the years, many of whom try to find any excuse they can to not talk with their children about sexuality. As a sexuality educator who is also a parent, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum, finding teachable moments everywhere, relentlessly reinforcing information and values with my child.

So I was a little embarrassed to admit that it took me until the third day of the Olympic Games to realize how many teachable moments relating to sexuality there have been within both the Games and the accompanying media coverage. When you consider that sexuality is about far more than sexual behaviors-that it is about gender and gender roles, body image and self-esteem, sexual orientation and identity, and much more-opportunities for discussing sexuality are all over the Olympics. So I thought I’d offer a few examples and suggestions of how you  can take advantage of the many teachable moments that are sure to arise while watching the remainder of the Games:


My soon-to-be-ten-year-old son is obsessed with puberty. He couldn’t be more excited, so anything he can link to what’s going to happen during puberty he will. As we watch the Games, he’s full of questions:

During synchronized diving: “Why does the one on the left have hair on his legs and the other doesn’t? Is he older than the other one? Does the other one shave his legs? Will I have to shave my legs in puberty?”

During women’s gymnastics: “She’s 15? She looks like she’s 12. She doesn’t have any, you know… OK… breasts….”

Behind all his questions is “What’s normal?” I didn’t need to know anything about these individual athletes to be able to respond; I didn’t need to know their true ages or shaving habits.  What he needed to hear was this: young people go through puberty at different rates; bodies can look totally different on people of the same age; and all of this is entirely normal.

Gender Roles

Already there have been gender role stereotypical moments, and moments that have decimated those stereotypes. They are all opportunities to talk with your child about perceptions they may have (or have heard expressed) about what boys or girls can do solely based on their gender. This is the first year that every single country represented has a female athlete, and that is worth highlighting. Perhaps you’d want to discuss why it took so long for that to happen, why it happened this year and why some people are not celebrating.

You may wish to discuss how, even in the Olympic Games, girls and women are still expected to pay attention to their overall appearance while boys and men are not. I purchased a magazine for my son that provided in-depth interviews with some of the athletes. Part of the coverage discussed the female athletes’ makeup tips, while coverage of the male athletes described their workout routines. The fact that female athletes are judged on appearance as well as ability is something that can and should be discussed with young people.

Body Image

Young people receive messages from their earliest ages about beauty, and research consistently shows that people who do not feel good about their bodies are much more likely to make poor sexual decisions. Olympic athletes would give regular runners who are in great shape inferiority complexes, never mind how we as civilians might respond! So here are a few things you can point out if your child comments on the athletes’ bodies:

  • Olympic athletes spend most of their days exercising and working on strengthening their bodies.
  • They need to eat really healthy and take care of themselves.
  • There are lots of different body types in the world. Most people do not look like these athletes, and that’s OK. Some other athletes don’t look like these athletes. Everyone is different, and it’s normal to be different.

Sexual Orientation and Relationships

The opening ceremony was a huge demonstration of pageantry and mixed media, including a part that combined live-action and video in which a broad array of couples were shown kissing. These went very quickly, but once your kids got beyond squealing “Lady and the Tramp!” and “Shrek and Fiona!” they may have also noticed interracial and interethnic couples, adults older than their 20s, as well as-for a few brief seconds-a kiss between two women. All of these are potential teachable moments.

The vast majority of relationships young people see in popular media are still people from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are also between people of two different sexes in their 20s-to-30s. This video and performance represented the diversity that can be found in love relationships. Talk about it!

With a week and a half left in the Olympics, who knows what other opportunities for discussion will present themselves? But consider the values and lessons you’ve been imparting to your child(ren) already, and see whether you can find ways of using an event that has captured the attention of so many of our children as an excuse for starting new conversations and keeping them going well beyond the closing ceremonies.

Check out these additional resources for talking with your children about sexuality.

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Answer Talks to The New York Times About Parents, Kids & Porn

May 11, 2012

pornI recently spoke with New York Times writer Amy O’Leary about parents, kids and porn. Porn is easily accessible online, and I’ve blogged in the past (”My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?”) about why a child might seek out porn and what parents or guardians can do when this happens. Porn isn’t going away, so it was great to see that the New York Times chose to cover this issue as well! Check out the articles below to find out more, including some additional advice I shared on five different scenarios in which parents spoke with their children who had stumbled upon online porn.

“How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography”

“Can Your Child Find Porn on Your Phone?”

“So How Do We Talk About This?”

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Melissa Harris-Perry Carries Margaret Sanger’s Torch

May 9, 2012

Melissa Harris-PerryAuthor Melissa Harris-Perry, a former professor of political science at Princeton University, is not Margaret Sanger, the legendary reproductive rights champion who established the American Birth Control League (precursor of today’s Planned Parenthood). But to the packed crowd at last Friday’s Spring Benefit Luncheon for the Planned Parenthood Association of the Mercer Area, she was the next best thing.

An outspoken intellectual who received her Ph.D. from Duke University, Harris-Perry hosts her own news show, Melissa Harris-Perry, on MSNBC. She is also a professor of political science at Tulane University and writes a monthly column for The Nation. Her most recent book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, received rave reviews.

Although Sanger and Harris-Perry never met, the two would have been soul sisters. Both unapologetically believe that women’s reproductive rights are fundamental to a free society. At the benefit, Harris-Perry spoke about some of the recent assaults on women’s reproductive freedom, including the Personhood Amendment that came before Mississippi voters last November. According to the Huffington Post, had it become law, it would have conveyed all the rights of being a person to a fertilized egg.

Calling it “a step too far,” Harris-Perry said that defeating the amendment was a considerable victory, given the state’s conservative population. But she added that similar amendments have been introduced in at least five other states and may be on the ballot this coming November. This threat to women’s reproductive freedom is still alive and well.

Harris-Perry also spoke about transvaginal ultrasound laws, which require a woman to have a probe inserted in her vagina for an ultrasound before she gets an abortion. The New York Times reports that due to national public pressure, Virginia’s governor did not sign the bill requiring women to have the noxious, invasive procedure, but Harris-Perry said that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had no such hesitation. He signed this intrusive bill in 2011. Texas women in need of abortion services are forced to be vaginally penetrated.

Harris-Perry’s talk covered other national news about women’s reproductive health, including the recent Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood funding controversy. She believes that it damaged the goodwill that had existed between these two women’s health organizations.

She also spoke of her concerns about Planned Parenthood’s funding, which was removed and then reinstated in the battle over the federal budget, and the administration’s decision not to allow the emergency contraception Plan B One-Step to be sold over the counter to young women under 17. She disapproved of President Obama using his own daughters to make the case for his administration’s negative decision.

“It is not your daughter that this decision concerns,” she said about the reason the president gave, “but daughters of others who are not so well-resourced.”

Margaret Sanger would have applauded Harris-Perry’s honest approach to talking about not only women’s reproductive rights, but her own personal history. Harris-Perry spoke about being sexually assaulted by an adult when she was young (”but didn’t tell anyone for a year”).

She also spoke about becoming a mother (to a daughter, Parker), having an abortion and a hysterectomy (that “saved my life”), and her desire to have another child through a surrogate.

Harris-Perry said that she felt comfortable talking about sex because of her mother’s work for an underground abortion railroad that helped women who needed abortions before Roe v. Wade.

Using the same honesty, Harris-Perry said that sexual choices, including her own, can “come with regrets,” and that knowledge should keep women on both sides of the abortion debate from demonizing each other. She added that there are people of “great good conscience on the other side,” and that is why “the law must remain silent” in the debate.

“The right to privacy without infringement of government should be fundamental in our society and should not depend on who is in office,” she said.

Harris-Perry’s words made me realize that political allegiances should melt away in the struggle over abortion. Instead, we need to help all women get the health and sexuality education that they need, particularly in school programs, and work together to make abortion remain safe, legal and rare.

Harris-Perry sees the current battles over women’s reproductive rights more about “shaming women,” than a “war on women”-the terminology used incessantly by politicians and the media. Rather, she believes that women can unite around the idea that “patriarchy is always our enemy,” but not that “men hate women.” Our common goals should be to reduce poverty, racism and gender discrimination. Toward that end, she said that we should help our children (and grandchildren) understand that the two most important actions one takes in life are “brushing your teeth and voting.”

She left the podium on a wave of applause. I left the luncheon thinking that Margaret Sanger can rest in peace. Melissa Harris-Perry is carrying her torch and holding it high.

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New Research Blames Low-Income African American Women for Couples’ Contraceptive Choices

March 9, 2012

Recently, I was asked by a reporter to comment on a study titled, “Cash, Cars and Condoms: Economic Factors in Disadvantaged Adolescent Women’s Condom Use.” The purpose of the study was to “evaluate whether adolescent women who received economic benefits from their boyfriends were more likely never to use condoms.” My first question was, “Why is this question even being asked?” As I read the study, my questions grew-as did my dismay at reading this examination of girls’ condom use that asked no questions of the men whose penises would actually be covered by these condoms.

I do not think the reporter expected me to open up the can of evaluative whoop-ass I did on this study, so I wasn’t all that surprised when in the article my prolific rants were condensed down to a benign sentence or two admonishing the greater research community that more research needs to be done. There is much more to say about this new publication by respected researchers that yet again ends up blaming women for their male partners’ sexual behaviors and decision-making.

The researchers, who used data collected from African-American girls and women ages 15 to 21 living in a low-income area (we’ll come back to that in a sec), did indeed conclude that “adolescent women whose boyfriend is their primary source of spending money may not explicitly exchange risky sex for money, but their relationships may be implicitly transactional.”

Well, duh.

Is this conclusion truly publication-worthy? Of COURSE their relationships are transactional-every single relationship is transactional. And it doesn’t matter what one’s socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic background is; it doesn’t matter what the gender(s) of the partners in the relationship are. We all negotiate wants, needs and desires with our partners. We make choices based on what we have and do not have. We communicate well, we communicate poorly-and we make decisions with which some will agree and others will disagree.

The difference here, however, is that what was being examined was whether the male partners of these young women provided them with money. And right there you have a not-so-veiled statement: low-income, African-American girls are whores. Think I’m exaggerating? Just read the key words beneath the article’s abstract, which include “sexual behavior; safe sex; adolescent” and “prostitution.”

What if we took a look at a middle-income, white couple in their early thirties? One partner or spouse works outside of the home, and the other stays at home and raises their 2.5 children. This is a transactional relationship. In a male-female relationship, we will most likely see the male partner playing the breadwinner role and the female partner staying home-although this has been shifting more over the years with more stay-at-home dads. The choice of who will work and who will stay home is a transaction between the partners. It is one that involves and reflects, among other things, each partner’s capacity to earn money. Yet no one would look at the stay-at-home mom in this example who accepts money from her partner to run their home as being “paid” by her spouse, and certainly no one would imply that any stay-at-home mom is a prostitute.

What the results of this study communicate is, “if these poor, African-American adolescents didn’t rely on their boyfriends for money, maybe they’d make better decisions about their sexual health.” This is a useless conclusion in relationships that involve far more complex issues than whether a boyfriend has money or a car. It is an equally useless measurement of safer sex practices, because girls and women do not use latex condoms, their male partners do. But this is far from the only study that examines girls’ use of one of the only male contraceptive and safer sex methods. (”Women’s Condom Use Drops During First Year in College” is slated to be published in the next Journal of Sex Research.) Each study that does this renews the misplaced blame on girls and women for not being stronger in insisting that their male partners use condoms-instead of helping us reaffirm that both partners in a relationship have equal responsibility in determining how best to avoid an STD and/or pregnancy.

“Boys will be boys,” these studies imply. “How can we expect them to make such a difficult decision like using condoms? They think with their penises; they don’t actually have brains.” The messages are as offensive and degrading to boys and men as they are to girls and women. And as long as we continue to hold girls and women responsible for being the sexual and moral gatekeepers in their relationships with men we are putting an unfair burden on women and devaluing the capacity of men to be active participants in their relationships with women.

Those of us who actually work directly with young people know that myriad decisions relating to romantic and sexual relationships are often extremely complex. There are consequences for every single decision we make, some positive and some negative. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to be in a relationship and then to do everything they can to stay in that relationship-even if it is an unhealthy one. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to please other people. These are lifelong messages they receive up until the day they find themselves in a sexual relationship with a partner. And at that point, we turn around and wag a judgmental finger at them when they make a choice they have had zero support in making? Even if they have had sexuality education courses, even if they have been with partners who used condoms in the past, each relationship is a new experience. And if a girl’s male partner doesn’t use condoms, perhaps we should be asking him “why not” instead of asking her why she wasn’t able to convince him to do so.

All that has been reinforced here is a judgment against the girls in these relationships that if they only chose better partners-those who, perhaps, didn’t have stronger earning potentials or didn’t have cars-they wouldn’t have made the poor choice to have sex with men who did not wear a condom. We don’t have any learning about how we can more effectively reach boys and young men, how we can help men and women communicate more openly and effectively about safer sex-you know, actually helpful, applicable knowledge. Instead we have statistical significance and other high falutin’ language that doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans when you’re working with young people.

I know the work of several of the researchers and have long respected them. So I was particularly disappointed to read such a waste of brilliant minds stating the obvious; blatantly reinforcing stereotypes about girls (particularly, African-American girls, particularly African-American girls from lower-income areas); and validating the antiquated notion that we should be measuring how a male-female couple practices safer sex by examining the female partner’s choices and behaviors while completely ignoring the role her male partner plays in these decisions.

Research can be so, so valuable to our work with our service populations-but the time and funding to do meaningful research, particularly program evaluation, is particularly tight today. So to waste these limited resources on a study that reveals absolutely nothing new and provides no additional insight as to how to most effectively serve men and women seeking support and services is an absolute tragedy.

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