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My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?

February 17, 2012

pornThere are few more dramatic, clutch-the-pearls parenting moments than discovering that your child was viewing pornography. It doesn’t matter what your child’s gender is or how shy or outgoing your child is. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve put parental restrictions on your Internet access. Porn is easily accessible today in a variety of formats, and it is very likely that this will happen in your family at some point.

Why might your child have checked out porn? The most common reasons are…

Curiosity - Cultural references to porn are all around us. They are made by teens and adults, on the radio, by recording artists, in sitcoms and in movies. So sometimes kids check out porn because they want to know what it is and what the big deal is about.

Hormones - It’s hard for us to admit, but our children are sexual beings. Once they enter puberty, they are RAGING sexual beings. It’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening, biologically and developmentally. So sometimes, kids go online to check out porn because it turns them on. Sorry. Truth.

Confusion - Adolescents are concrete thinkers who need specific examples. If you describe what a condom is, your adolescent will understand something. If you show your adolescent a condom, allow her or him to actually touch it, your concrete adolescent will understand far more. For some young people, hearing “oral sex is when someone puts their mouth on another person’s genitals for pleasure” isn’t enough. How does that actually happen? Why do people do it? Adolescents go online, see someone performing oral sex and say, “Oh, I get it.”

Parents often ask, “What impact does viewing porn have on children?” There are different viewpoints and a range of research relating to this. Generally speaking, porn does not harm young people. It can, however, misinform and confuse them. Porn is made for adults, not adolescents. It is designed to be a fantasy-and adolescents don’t always get that, because, again, they’re concrete thinkers. What they see is what they get.

So, what do you do if your child has been checking out porn?

Decide who’s going to bring it up. If you are partnered or married, strategize together first for consistency. Then one of you should speak with your child so she or he does not feel ganged up on. Believe me, your child is going to feel embarrassed and defensive, so you need to approach this gently.

Be ready to explain how you know she or he was accessing porn. When it comes to technology, parents are all over the place about whether it’s OK to check their children’s e-mails, texts, etc. If you are a parent who does spot checks, I suggest you let your child know that in advance. Otherwise, while you’re trying to talk with your child about why it’s not OK for her or him to look at porn, she or he will be focused on how and why you violated her or his privacy.

Be ready to have several short conversations. Again, your child is likely to be mortified that you discovered she or he was watching porn. That means you have a limited window in which to talk about it. This also means that you may need to come back to it several times to reinforce what you said the first time, since all they will be able to hear is their own voice in their head saying, “Please let this be over….”

Set boundaries. Remember you are the parent, and as the parent, you are responsible for setting and maintaining rules in your home. After you’ve spoken about why adolescents shouldn’t be viewing porn, you need to clearly explain your expectations moving forward and that, like with any other rules, there will be consequences for breaking them. Effective consequences should happen right after the offense and be related to the offense (e.g., no non-homework computer access for a period of time).

Watch for these warning signs that indicate a problem needing professional help:

Subject matter. If you were to discover that the only images your child was viewing were particularly violent or degrading, you’d need to talk about what she or he saw and to explain clearly that that is not the way people should behave in a sexual relationship. How that conversation goes will determine whether you might want to bring your child to see a therapist to explore the source of their curiosity.

Frequency of viewing. A parent asked me, “If my son says he can’t stop watching porn, is that a problem?” Absolutely. If viewing porn feels like a compulsion, professional intervention is necessary to direct your child away from a behavior that is not healthy to one that is.

Changes in language or behavior. Any dramatic changes in your child’s language or behavior should be noted. (For example, if your previously outgoing child becomes quieter, more secretive, or you hear him or her using more sexualized language with friends or with you). These changes may not necessarily indicate that your child has been viewing porn, but they can. When in doubt, check it out.

Above all, stay calm. Talk with other parents about how they’ve handled this situation with their children. Speak with professionals who have expertise working with children. You are not alone in figuring out how to address this!

My Child Viewed Porn: Now What? was originally published by

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New National Sexuality Education Standards Make History

February 8, 2012

National Sexuality Education StandardsWhile the Republican presidential candidates chased each other through the primaries and President Obama embarked on the campaign trail, a recent announcement about sexuality education in America quietly made history.

For the first time ever, educators, local and state board members, and parents have a set of uniform, national sexuality education standards to measure the content of their schools’ programs: The National Sexuality Education Standards. Its goal is “to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K-12.”

Publication of the standards is an important step forward in standardizing, normalizing and improving sex education throughout the nation. If widely implemented, our youths’ well-being, health and academic achievement will improve. Programs modeled after the standards could lower our high rate of teen pregnancy and even higher rate of teen sexual transmitted diseases. Emphasis, of course, is on the “if.” If professional educators, parents and school board members give these standards a fair hearing.

Development of the standards is the result of a two-year effort spearheaded by five prestigious organizations: The American Association of Health Education, The American School Health Association, The National Education Association Health Information Network, The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education and The Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative. (FoSE includes three national sexuality education organizations: Advocates for Youth, Answer and SIECUS.)

These experts believe that “sexual development… [is] a normal, natural, healthy part of human development.” They substitute abstinence-only approaches, which still receive government funding, for a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach.

The standards join a growing body of national standards for other school curricula, such as math, reading and health, which only benefit our national education system. Long after serving on the New Jersey State Board of Education decades ago, I believed that excessive local control of school curricula-particularly sex education- can prevent young people from getting challenging content that prepares them to live in the global village. When it comes to sex education, a small group of parents at the local level can often control the curriculum to a point where students get only limited, often dishonest information.

The standards are based on research-driven evidence and developmentally and age-appropriate norms, yet teaching more than abstinence might be seen as controversial. Some parents, educators and politicians believe that school sexuality education programs should focus only on abstinence and that instruction on contraception can encourage young people to have sex.

However, the experts behind the standards think otherwise. They believe that students in the early grades should learn only about abstinence, but those in grades 6-8 should also learn about the “health benefits, risks and effectiveness rates of various methods of contraception, including… condoms.” By the end of high school, students will review, compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of abstinence and other methods, including condoms.

This is balanced instruction, since about half of all teens today have sex before graduating high school. Students need the whole story about contraception, not just half of it.

Another potentially controversial area might be the treatment of sexual orientation, which is wisely placed in the area of Identity. Instruction begins in grades 3-5, and by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to define “sexual orientation as the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same or of a different gender.” Many young people already know this definition, since they live with same-sex parents, or know others who have been raised by them.

The topic continues in grades 6-8, so that students “differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” Then in high school, instruction focuses on students’ ability to “differentiate between biological sex, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”

I can see how the possible inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity might cause differences of opinion among parents and educators-but it shouldn’t hold up adoption of the standards. They need not be swallowed whole. Rather, parents and school board members-and older students whose opinions might be extremely valuable-can examine them in a series of community meetings.

Implementation can begin with elements that the majority accepts. The more difficult and potentially controversial issues can be placed on the sidelines for further study and adopted at a later date.

Elimination of certain topics, of course, can be more problematic if a state board of education decided to adopt the standards for all its schools. However, boards not wanting implementation to cause conflicts might suggest that parents can opt out of instruction for a few of the standards that might conflict with their religious or moral views.

But we’re discussing building a floor for sex education with the adoption of these minimal standards. We’re not discussing the ceiling, and there is no time limit imposed on districts to begin adopting the standards. Of course, it won’t take long for many school districts with superior sexuality education programs to do a quick review to see how their programs surpass the standards. Perhaps districts with excellent programs can serve as mentors to districts that must start at the very beginning and adopt the minimal standards.

In the 30 years that I’ve worked in the sexuality education field, nothing as dramatic and important as the creation of the standards has ever occurred. They have the potential to improve and enhance school sexuality education programs across the country. Bravo to everyone involved in their development, and good luck to the parents, educators, and state and local school board members who must now summon their courage and implement them.

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Thank You, Henrietta Lacks

January 20, 2012

I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had me as charged up as Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I am not a big nonfiction fan. I have to read so much of it for work that my home reading time tends to be reserved for escaping into fiction. But a friend whose taste in books I really respect recommended it, and so I tried it. Within the first page, I was hooked.

Hooked may not be the right word: obsessed. Evangelical, even. When I went to the hair salon, I told everyone in the place about the book, and they were riveted. When I was on the recumbent bike at the gym, I’d dog-ear a page and tap the person next to me, who had no choice but to listen to me go off on how amazing not only the book, but also the story itself, were. I couldn’t resist taking any opportunity I could to tell people Henrietta Lacks’ story. As you will read in a moment, the timing is perfect to now share it on the Answer blog.

Changing Medical History

Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, developed cervical cancer that was diagnosed when she was 31 and then metastasized quickly throughout her body. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals that in those days would provide care to African-American patients. A sample of the cells from her cervix was removed for testing, and she eventually died at John Hopkins.

Back in 1951, there was no law at the time requiring a patient’s consent for the use of body fluids, tissue or organs taken during surgical procedures. As Skloot explains in her book, even the Nuremberg Code, developed after the end of World War II in response to the medical experimentation atrocities committed by Nazi doctors, only provides guidelines for ethical practices when using human subjects in any kind of research. So no one asked Henrietta or her family whether they’d care if some of her cells, including a part of the cancerous tumor growing on her cervix, were removed during surgery and used in research. Yet this disregard for her privacy and rights to self-determination has probably saved more lives than anyone could ever have imagined. The tragedy is that companies have made billions off of replicating her cells, yet neither she nor her family has ever received one cent in compensation.

The unique thing about Ms. Lacks’ cells-commonly known as “HeLa” cells-were that they could survive in a culture solution outside of the body and vigorously replicate on their own. Hopkins researchers had been trying for decades to do this, but the cells all eventually died. Today, sixty-plus years and trillions of replications later, HeLa cells are still alive, having played a key role in the development of the Polio vaccine, medication for Parkinson’s disease and much more. In fact, a solution mixed accidentally with some of her cells allowed scientists to discover the number of human chromosomes, one result of which was the identification of intersex conditions, such as Turner’s and Klinefelter’s Syndromes.

HeLa and the HPV Vaccine

HeLa cells also helped to develop the vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil. Cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the world, the greatest defenses against which are a) for girls to be vaccinated (in boys, vaccination combats genital warts), and/or b) for girls and women to have regular Pap tests. When a Pap test is done and irregular cell growth (called “dysplasia”) is discovered on the cervix, this is considered a precancerous condition that is can be treated before cancer develops.

Although there is disagreement about the use of vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that nearly 12,000 new cases of HPV diagnosed each year in the United States could have been prevented by the vaccine. And we wouldn’t even have the option of being immunized were it not for Henrietta Lacks.

Since January is cervical cancer awareness month, I thought it important to remind girls and women to take care of their health, this month and every month. So in honor of cervical cancer awareness month, take action. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Visit the Web site for and consider supporting the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Talk with the girls and women in your life about how to prevent HPV and cervical cancer through regular Pap tests. If you are under the age of 26, or know someone who is, consider the HPV vaccine. And if you choose the latter, please take a moment to remember the egregiously unsung woman of whom only one or two photos have survived. Whether for the HPV vaccine or the many other medications that have been created thanks to her, we owe Henrietta Lacks a great deal.

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Putting an End to Bullying: Pledge to More Than Take a Pledge

December 15, 2011

Over the past few years, greater national attention has been focused on the issue of bullying, mostly because far too many young people who were bullied ended up dying by suicide. Considering that the root of bullying behavior is often found in gender norms and expectations and the targets of bullying are often young people who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, sexuality education can and must do a better job of addressing bullying if we are truly committed to making it stop.

A few nights ago, I watched an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a program in which a family in great need is selected to receive a newly built, customized home. The show introduces us to the family members and shares their stories as we watch the cast create the home and make several other dreams come true for them over the course of a week. This particular episode focused on the family of Carl Walker. Carl was an 11-year-old boy who had been bullied relentlessly by students at his school for such simple things as carrying around library books and enjoying reading. He was called a girl and told he was gay, along with all the terrible epithets that are used to insult people who are or are perceived to be gay. The night Carl’s mother was planning to take him with her to a PTA meeting to address the bullying, Carl went upstairs and hanged himself while she was preparing dinner. Remaining in the home had been understandably traumatizing to the family, but they did not have the option to move. Thanks to the show, the original house was razed, and a new one built that celebrates the life of Carl inside and out, replacing the terrible memory of what happened with peace and hope.

How Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, and her family have carried on in the wake of this loss is absolutely beyond me. Somehow she, like Judy and Dennis Shepard and other miraculously strong parents, chose to use the tragedy of Carl’s death as an opportunity to reach others. The Walkers are now working with GLSEN on a project called Stand Together. This new Web site asks visitors to take a stand against bullying. Visitors can download and print out a piece of paper with their number on it, take a photograph, and upload it to the site. While watching the show, I checked the site and over 20,000 people had taken the pledge. My son and I took a photograph as one entity; our number is 60,699. As of the writing of this blog, the number is 93,069.

I have to admit, as I was watching this extremely emotional episode, I thought to myself: Will the impact of their work have a continuing effect? We are a fickle culture with a relatively short attention span. How can we work to ensure that the issue of bullying does not become a flash in the pan, today’s social issue topic du jour? I realized that standing together is a good, first, motivating step, but we must do much more.

Answer staff takes the Stand Together pledge to end bullying.

1. Take the pledge, and then talk about the pledge. Just as talking with children about sexuality is not simply about having “the talk” but a lifelong, ongoing conversation, we must constantly talk about bullying. Reminding friends and family members that we all pledged to do so is a great motivator for keeping focus on the steps we can take to end bullying.

2. Take action that resonates with young people. I have struggled with what I feel is an overly simplistic message to young people: “It gets better.” I love the reassuring motivation behind it, but from a child development standpoint, it’s nowhere near enough. Developmentally, adolescence is a narcissistic time; we have to remember that children who are bullied often feel like they are the only ones who have ever experienced it. We tell them others’ stories, but they are certain that their situation is different-that it is somehow their fault, that no one will believe them, that no one will care. They are concrete thinkers who live in the here and now, so thinking about the future can be challenging for some and impossible for others. And the scary reality is that for some people, it does not get better. We adults have the benefit of knowing things can improve, but young people who are bullied only know the pain they’re experiencing now. So while it’s fine to say, “It’s going to get better,” it is far more effective to accompany that with, “because here’s what we’re going to do to make it better,” and then actually take action. Put together a plan of action; ask a young person to write down her or his story and use it in making your case for the safety of the child and others.

3. Label sexism and homophobia and explain why they are wrong. Children learn from their earliest ages that there are “boy” things and “girl” things and that boys should behave in certain ways and girls in other ways. The social consequences for not adhering to these expectations can range from minor to quite serious. The abhorrent truth is that there remains far more flexibility for a girl to be non-conforming in her behavior (the unspoken lesson in this is that by doing something “boy-like,” she is improving upon herself). Yet every single day, boys are criticized by other boys-and even adults-for acting like girls. And, of course, a boy who acts like a girl must be a gay boy. Parents, educators, religious leaders -every adult-must nip these gendered messages in the bud at the earliest ages. There are times for open discussion: “What do you think of what we just saw on that commercial?” And times to be direct: “I think it’s completely inappropriate that that guy just called his friend a pansy because he wanted to study for a test instead of going out with him.” Strong message, strong impact.

4. Teach young people to act when they see bullying happening. We also need to remember that during adolescence the most important group is a child’s peers. I have heard adults tell adolescents things like, “Why do you care so much what other people think about you?” This confuses and minimizes young people, and I will guarantee you that the answer an adolescent will always give is, “I don’t know.”  That’s because young people honestly don’t know why their peers are so important, all they know is that without fitting in, there are no friends (regardless of whether these friends are the right types of friends). For this reason, we need to spend more time talking with young people about bystander behavior. It is relatively easy to teach a child not to bully others; it is another thing altogether to ask that child to be the whistleblower when someone (especially someone they perceive to be a friend) is bullying another child.

5. Use your “celebrity.” When I use the word “celebrity” here, I mean “influence.” Consider the social influence you do have. You may be well known and respected in your profession; you may be the power parent in your community; you may be an active member of a religious or faith group. If you choose to make a pledge to stop bullying, then pledge to yourself that you will use your influence to focus others on this issue. Post about this issue on Facebook-not once, but regularly. Tweet, post on Tumblr, write a blog-not once, but once a day, once a week, once a month, or with whatever regularity you can. Visit and comment on others’ blogs, and they will do the same in return.

With so much dreck on television, it was phenomenal to watch a program that modeled how the media can and should raise awareness about a life or death social issue like bullying. And it feels good, when we are caught up in the emotional transfer of such a powerful show, to take a picture and sign a pledge. Now we need to do the hard work, and some of it may not feel very good.  Be the parent who brings up this issue at every school board meeting. Be the adult who doesn’t have any children but who notices bullying going on as you pass a playground and says something. Be kinder to people in your own life because children are watching us for cues on how to behave-and because “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. Young people need to hear again and again that they should never bully others, that they don’t deserve to be bullied, and that they should always tell an adult if they see bullying taking place so we can make it stop.

Get involved. Stay involved. Make this change happen.

Putting an End to Bullying: Pledge to More Than Take a Pledge” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

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You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids

November 30, 2011

If you’re a parent, you know well that you have many jobs when it comes to your children’s well-being. But did you know that one of these is being your child’s sexuality educator?

Teaching your child about sexuality, in the context of your own family values, is one of the most important jobs you have-yet it is the job parents usually get the least amount of training to do.

The very idea of talking about sexuality tends to raise a myriad of questions for parents: What’s appropriate to say at which ages? Shouldn’t I wait for my child to bring it up? What if I don’t know how to answer my child’s questions?

Relax! There are some basic ways that you can let your children know that you are a safe, “askable” adult-no matter what they might have questions about.

It’s Never Too Early to Start. It’s important to remember that sexuality has to do with far more than “sex.” “Sexuality” is a far-reaching, comprehensive term that encompasses everything from physical anatomy to understanding how to treat people with respect to learning how pregnancy happens and much, much more.

When you understand this, you know that children are receiving messages about sexuality from the day they are born-from the words people use around them to describe their body parts to messages they get from family, peers and the media about how they are supposed to behave based on their assigned gender. The longer you wait to talk with your child, the more you are competing with what they’re hearing all around them.

The important phrase here is “age-appropriate”-what your child needs to know as a kindergartener is much different from what she or he needs to know in high school. Start early, start slowly-and if you’re unsure, reach out for some guidance.

It’s Never Too Late to Start. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you haven’t yet started talking with your child, you didn’t miss the proverbial boat. Start now and keep talking.

As your children get older, they will need to know new information with each passing year and be faced with making decisions about relationships and shared sexual behaviors. Your guidance will be imperative throughout their adolescent years.

Try to put the idea of having “the” talk out of your mind. You need to talk early and often!

Take Small Bites. You don’t need to cover absolutely everything in one conversation with your child. It will overwhelm you as much as it will your child!

Look for teachable moments: watch television with your child and mute the television during commercials to discuss something you’ve just seen.

Take advantage of car rides to and from school and other activities. This is a non-threatening place to have discussions about sexuality and other important topics.

Talk With Your Partner or Spouse About Your Values. If you are married or in a relationship, make sure that you and your spouse or partner talk about your values and beliefs relating to sexuality so that if you have individual conversations with your child, the messages you are giving are consistent.

Be sure to deal with any differences you may have in your opinions and values away from your child. For example, if one of you believes it’s OK for 13-year-olds to date but the other thinks that that’s too young, you need to have that conversation independent of your child and figure out together how to respond in ways that provide information without undermining either one of you or your beliefs.

If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know.” There is a strong pressure on parents to know everything. Although we may love it when our kids are younger and think we do, we can’t possibly. The good news is there are tons of Web sites, books and other resources for parents.

If you’re stumped, be honest with your child, saying something like, “That’s a really great question. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. Let’s go look it up online together.” You won’t lose validity in your child’s eyes. In fact, he or she will appreciate your honesty.

There’s nothing about becoming a parent that makes us instant experts in sexuality-or in any other topic for that matter. But the good news is you’re not alone.

You can get support from trained sexuality educators, learn from fellow parents and get guidance from folks in your faith community, if you are a member of one. Talking about sexuality isn’t always easy, but it is always important.

You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids” was originally published by

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Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case

November 22, 2011

I stood on the Trenton train station platform last week waiting for the 6:26 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., and found myself thinking of the 10-year-old boy enduring anal rape by an adult man in the shower in the football facility of Penn State University.

Even in the early morning darkness, I had a clear mental image of the assault described by the assistant coach who witnessed it. I had just walked by a newspaper stand blazing with headlines about the child sexual abuse charges against the man, Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, who has been arraigned on 40 charges related to sex crimes against boys by a grand jury in a 23-page report. University officials first ignored and then lied to the grand jury about their failure to report the child abuse to authorities.

After I boarded the train, my only thought was that it get through Pennsylvania as quickly as possible, so I could turn off the picture of the child rape. I wanted to put the horrific, immoral crime out of my mind, because it made me almost gag or cry whenever I thought of it.

Throughout history, adult men have raped male and female children. It is close to being the most heinous crime, short of taking a child’s life. Sexual abuse survivors suffer bodily invasion, loss of power and trust, and possible lasting pain and sorrow that can destroy positive feelings about sexuality. It was a horrendous story out of Penn State, and it brought back memories of the pervasive rapes by the pedophile Catholic priests.

My head had cleared by the time I arrived in D.C. to attend the 28th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, given annually by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. This year’s award went to Frank Mugisha of Uganda, who the center described as “a leading advocate fighting for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community in Uganda and against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make “homosexual activities” punishable by life in prison on the first offense and death sentence for aggravated offenses.”

Photo: Brendan O’Donnell

Photo taken of Frank Mugisha on 14 December 2009 in the House of Parliament in London.

I learned more about Mugisha’s exemplar life and work when he appeared onstage with Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, who is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, and other dignitaries. He looked small and frail, but I soon learned that the only aspect about him that seems diminutive is his height. When Kerry Kennedy detailed why he had received the award, I realized that he had the heart of a lion.

“Frank Mugisha knew at 14 he was gay,” Kennedy said, “and he came out knowing full well that he was taking great personal risk, and he was going to have to suffer harassment and abuse throughout his life if he chose to remain in his homeland.”

She added that the extent of the abuse hurled at sexual minorities in Uganda is unimaginable to people living in a free society. As a result of coming out as a gay man, Mugisha has lost jobs, friends, and is estranged from his family. He was expelled from his homeland because of his advocacy, but chose to return and fight for the rights of sexual minorities — knowing that he could lose his life in the effort.

Uganda is “one of 80 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death,” Kennedy said. She estimated that while homosexuality is opposed by almost the entire society, of the “32 million people who live in Uganda, about 500,000 are undoubtedly homosexual, but only few people — one of them Frank — are willing to speak for them.”

“Frank told me that he gets up every day in a hostile climate to advocate for these persecuted people, because he believes ‘I have to do what I have to do,’” she said.

This past January, one of the other few people who did speak for gay people’s rights — Mugisha’s colleague David Kato, an advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) — was brutally murdered in his home.

“Yet Frank continues to courageously provide leadership for the movement in the face of constant death threats and in the aftermath of the ruthless killing,” Kennedy said.

Since 2007, Mugisha has led SMUG, which advocates for LGBTI rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and support for openly gay people in the form of counseling and suicide prevention services. An important aspect of the RFK Human Rights Award is that for the next six years, the center will work with Mugisha, SMUG members, and others to advance the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda.

Not only will Mugisha go home with this beautiful honor, but he also has the promise of resources from a well-recognized nonprofit. Now he is not quite so alone. In fact, Kennedy asked everyone in the audience to stand and join her in a pledge to Mugisha, saying together in one strong voice: “You are not alone.” Chills went down my spine.

Kennedy ended her speech by referring to a lovely Africa proverb: “Plant trees when you are young, so when you are old you will enjoy their shade.” She assured the newly honored Human Rights Award Laureate that with the help of the RFK Center, he would be able to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant together.

The theme of the morning was a simple one: personal moral courage, so fundamental to Robert Kennedy’s beliefs. His daughter mentioned it, as did two other speakers who followed her to the podium: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In their brief congratulations, both quoted the following words of Robert Kennedy’s, because they applied to Mugisha’s life and work:

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

These words rang in my ears as I took the train home. Unquestionably, every single adult connected with the Penn State sexual assault case failed the moral courage test that Mugisha passes each day of his life in Uganda.

Sandusky’s alleged crimes against young boys go beyond any discussion of morality and courage — and a jury of his peers will make a final determination as to his guilt or innocence. If he lived in Uganda, he probably would be hanged without any sort of a trial, because, as Kennedy told us, “most people there believe that gay men rape teenage boys.”

I wish everyone on the Penn State campus — especially the students who cheered fired head-football coach Joe Paterno — could have listened to Mugisha’s acceptance speech. He said that LGBTI rights are human rights, universal and non-negotiable. He said we must be people of good conscience who stand up and take action when we see something that is terribly wrong and hurtful to others — and that we all must celebrate moral courage wherever and whenever we find it. He assured us that even in Uganda, “Change will come.”

I was fortunate last week to see a personification of moral courage. It made the train ride home — even through Pennsylvania — much easier to bear.

“Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case originally appeared on New Jersey Newsroom.”

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Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed

October 19, 2011

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?” by Robert George and Melissa Moschella, is not as much about sexuality education as it is an overt example of how deeply the socially-conservative agenda is pervading all aspects of our culture.

This is no accident; it is an intentional, widespread campaign against not only sexual and reproductive health, sexuality education, women’s rights, and the inclusion of LGBTQ youth in anti-bullying measures, but also against the rights of young people to dare to want to access information that will make them educated consumers of the world in which they live.

This campaign started gaining momentum with the Tea Party (you know, the folks who applauded “Let’s hear it for letting someone who doesn’t have health insurance die!”), formerly considered to be more on the fringe, but who are now, inexplicably and horrifyingly, gaining legitimacy.

I’d like to highlight several core elements of social conservative propaganda-some of which appear throughout the piece-that continue to be used to manipulate people into thinking there is a concerted effort being made by educators to contribute, as the authors claim, to “the sexualization of children in our society at younger ages:”

1. Lie blatantly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social conservatives believe that the end justifies the means. In their view, it is completely appropriate to lie to young people. This is what ignited the years-long battle sexuality education experts have fought to ensure that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula be, at the very least, medically accurate.  These curricula lie to young people in order to scare and shame them out of having sex (even though research has shown that doing so is woefully ineffective). If in the end, a young person doesn’t have sex, social conservatives claim victory despite the fact that these young people may not have any self-esteem to speak of or know how to practice safer sex in the future.

2. Use fear. Sex ed wasn’t always such a controversial topic to teach, but social conservatives have turned the provision of school-based sexuality education into an adversarial “us against them” debate. They work to terrify parents out of trusting trained educators to provide children with the information they need to make healthy decisions, now and in the future.

In the Times Op-Ed, George and Moschella ask readers to imagine how they would feel if their child had just entered middle school and were provided with sex ed in which he [sic] was “…encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?”

Here they are trying to scare parents into believing that these terrible, awful, amoral educators are trying to undermine your parental authority. The lie inherent in this (see point #1) is that educators are telling young people to ignore what their parents have to say about sexuality.

In fact, the cardinal rule for anyone teaching sex ed to young people is to always encourage them to talk with their parents, caregivers, or other trusted adults in their lives, and to press those adults to do the same, within the context of their own family’s values.

3. Treat young people as idiots. If we do that, then we will be guaranteed to have the “sovereignty” over them that George and Moschella espouse.  For those of us who work with and on behalf of young people, the disenfranchisement of youth that is embraced by social conservatives is particularly infuriating.  The thought is that if young people are ignorant, they will remain dependent upon their parents-and this is as counterproductive for the young person as it is for the parent.

If we do not see young people as inherently smart and strong with great capacity for learning and doing things independently of us, we are not infusing the positive self-esteem and strength they need to be independent beings in the world. Social conservatives think of young people as incapable and needing constant adult supervision and support, and then expect them to be able to navigate the world effectively as adults. This is as ridiculous as teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage and assuming that as soon as people are in a heterosexual marriage that they will miraculously be infused with the full range of knowledge and skills they need to have happy, healthy relationships.  All of this sets young people up for failure from the earliest ages.

As a former college professor, I saw this firsthand when parents would call me to try to get  their child into an already-full class or discuss their child’s grades. I wondered whether these same parents would accompany their adult children to job interviews, help them ask someone out on a date, or be there to negotiate safer sex with a future partner.

Parents have to teach their children how to think for themselves. We are not our children’s friends, we are their parents.  And from the moment we become parents, our job is to help our children eventually become independent from us.

When it comes to sexuality, an oft-quoted phrase that comes from SIECUS is that parents are the primary and most important sexuality educators of their children. But the reality is that far too many parents are simply not equipped to teach their children age- and developmentally-appropriate information about sexuality - any more than they are equipped to teach trigonometry even if they were math whizzes in high school. Giving birth or adopting a child does not automatically make us experts in all of the topics and skills young people need to know to be prepared to navigate the world as adults.  This is why we need to rely on educational, medical, and other professional experts-and, if we are a member of a faith community, our faith leaders-to help us.

Educating young people about sexuality should be seen as a partnership between entities that share the common goal of having them grow into sexually healthy adults, not as a faux struggle between parents and schools.  Yet because of (and only because of) the hyperbolic rhetoric spewed by those like George and Moschella, sex ed continues to be seen as a battle.

This is as counterproductive as it is unhelpful. Young people deserve better, educational professionals deserve better, and parents deserve better.  I call upon us all to reject the rhetoric and focus on helping young people learn the content and skills they need in order to have happy, productive, rich lives.

“Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

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It Takes More Than a Month: Incorporating LGBTQ Issues Into Sex Ed

October 11, 2011

LGBTQ lockersThe first observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month was seven years ago. (We add the “Q” to LGBT to include those who identify as “queer.”) October was chosen for two reasons: To commemorate the first-ever march on Washington, DC by LGBTQ individuals back in 1979 and because it includes National Coming Out Day on October 11th, which started in 1988.

LGBT History Month is more than an observance of the contributions of LGBTQ individuals throughout history; it is a call to action for those who teach sexuality education to review their curricula, materials and resources to see how inclusive they are of LGBTQ individuals and issues. And it is a call to action for state-level policymakers to look at their state’s sexuality education mandate—if they have one—to ensure that the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity are specifically required. According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, fewer than half of states address sexual orientation as part of sexuality education. Some that do, like South Carolina, prohibit any discussion of homosexuality unless it is done within the context of HIV and AIDS. Others, like Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma, require treating homosexuality as abnormal or dangerous.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I reviewed a state with a strong sex ed mandate (on paper at least), New Jersey. New Jersey’s core curriculum content standards require that by eighth grade students will “discuss topics regarding sexual orientation” and by 12th grade, “investigate current and emerging topics related to sexual orientation.” My dissertation examined whether and how that was being done. I was stunned to find many schools were not teaching sexuality education at all, regardless of the mandate. I was less stunned, but equally disappointed, to discover that in schools that were teaching sex ed, many were excluding the topic of sexual orientation.

If people are so resistant to teaching about sexual orientation, then why teach about it? There are countless reasons. Some of the most compelling of which come from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), who found that in US schools during a given year

  • 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed,
  • 40% are physically harassed,
  • 19% are physically assaulted because of their real—or perceived—sexual orientation,
  • 64% are verbally harassed because of how they express their gender,
  • 72% hear homophobic remarks like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently throughout the school day,
  • Nearly two-thirds of students feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation,
  • More than a third because of their gender identity, and
  • 29% missed class at least once because of safety concerns.

What about teachers and parents? The support is there. In a national study, 78 percent of high school teachers and 75 percent of parents said they thought that sexual orientation should be included in sexuality education programs and that it should be “discussed in a way that provides a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and different views in society.” Adults support schools being more inclusive; LGBT students need them to be. Here are a few quick suggestions on how to make this happen:

  • Have more than “gay day.” Young people often refer to the one day on which sexual orientation is addressed at school as “gay day” because it is discussed that day, then completely ignored for the rest of the year. LGBTQ issues should be integrated throughout the school year, across the curriculum.
  • Be clear about LGB vs. T. Far too often, we refer to LGBTQ issues, but the T—being transgender—is often left out altogether. Being transgender isn’t about sexual orientation; it’s about gender identity. If we use “LGBTQ,” we need to address lesbian and gay people AND bisexual people AND transgender people.
  • When teaching about relationship issues, include same-sex relationships. For example, in an activity in which students evaluate what makes a relationship healthy, make sure that at least one of the couples is a same-sex couple.
  • Remember the achievements as well as the challenges. We are all aware of the devastating statistics relating to rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide by LGBT youth. But if that is all we present to young people, we are giving a very negative view of LGBT people and are communicating to those who may be LGBTQ themselves that their futures are quite bleak. Stories of courage and success must be told alongside the stories of challenges and prejudice.
  • Remember the diversity within the diversity. There is a pervasive stereotype nationwide among young people and educators of color that only white people are LGBTQ. This is perpetuated in no small part by the media and serves to further isolate and disenfranchise LGBTQ youth of color. It is important for educators to acknowledge clearly that an LGBTQ person can be of any race or ethnicity, any education or socioeconomic level, and from any geographic location.
  • There are LGBTQ youth in every school. It is imperative to remember that, statistically speaking, there will be LGBTQ students, or students with LGBTQ parents and/or other family members, in every school—and to teach accordingly.

Sexuality education is not for and about some people; it is for and about all people. If LGBTQ issues are not included within a school’s sex ed curriculum, they need to be—and not just during LGBT History Month, but all year round.

If you’re looking for more training on LGBTQ issues, add your name to our e-mail list to get more information about our upcoming online professional development workshop, “LGBTQ Issues in Schools.”

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Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together

October 7, 2011

Multiple choice testThe first standardized health and sexuality education test for students in the public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., has become a reality-and I am thrilled. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step. I applaud the District of Columbia for taking the first step in the nation to assess what students know-and don’t know- about sexuality topics like contraception and health topics like nutrition, mental health and drug use.

This spring, students in grades 5, 8 and 10 in a district with 75,000 students will be tested for their knowledge on these and similar health-related topics.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years to the date since I wrote a column promoting the idea of a national health education test. In that column, I called for funds to create a standardized national health education test covering a wide range of health-related topics. High school students would be required to pass it in order to graduate.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that Harvard require passage of the test as part of the admissions process: If the mother-of-all universities had such a requirement, then other universities would probably follow!

Such a test would be a win-win for kids and adults: It would get health education out of the periphery of the school curriculum, where it languishes, and give it the important role that it needs to promote lifelong wellness. What’s more, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and teens would take health education more seriously if it were a subject students would be tested on. And although certainly not a magic bullet, good information conveyed by good instruction is fundamental to behavior change. Finally, test results might prod school districts to improve woefully deficient health and sexuality education programs.

I hadn’t thought much about my idea until a colleague forwarded this Washington Post article. The headline immediately caught my attention: “D.C. schools prepare for the nation’s first sex-education standardized testing.” Well, I thought, it’s not a national test, but maybe the way to get there is state by state by state.

The health and sex ed questions will be multiple choice and skills based rather than only soliciting correct information. For example, if there is a question about condoms, students at the 10th grade level most likely would be asked to make or check a list of the correct steps from purchasing a package of condoms to using one.

For my original piece, I spoke to Nancy Hudson, a senior associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D. C. Hudson works for the Health Education Assessment Project (HEAP) whose mission is “to develop effective standards-based health education resources to improve health literacy through improved instruction.”

“We have over 1,900 assessment items to work with in constructing a test, and they are free to any state asking to use them. The D. C. sex ed assessments uses many of these 1,900 items which were tested for validity and reliability that are two essentials in school testing,” explains Hudson.

Obviously, there are many ways to skin the sex-education standardized test cat at the state level, and the D.C. schools have focused on one way: inserting questions in the general assessment tests of other subjects, such as reading and math, which are administered for a two-week period in the spring.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a community health education nonprofit that works to promote sexuality and HIV education in the D.C. public schools [link to:], was one of the driving forces behind the development of the tests.

Tenner told me that he enthusiastically approves of the new test, agreeing that in education “what gets measured gets done.” He said that he and others in the city who advocated for inserting the questions in the assessments argued that “healthy kids learn better, healthy kids stay in school and don’t drop out, and healthy kids complete more grades in school and college so they can get better jobs.”

It bothers Tenner that the media and opponents have already labeled the new assessment “the sex test.” He said that opponents argue that “if kids can’t learn to read, why should they learn about sex.” I suggested a retort that I often used to stop this argument in its tracks: “Use age-appropriate materials about sexual issues with kids, and they might improve their reading.” He liked it.

Now that D.C. has taken the all-important first step, perhaps New Jersey will step up and become the second state to consider using a statewide standardized sexuality education test. The cost of preparing the tests for New Jersey-which Tom Ewing, the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS’s) director of external relations, estimated at $250,000 two years ago when I spoke to him-would now be greatly reduced if we were to use the test items from D.C.

Local schools boards in the strapped cities might mention the expense of adapting and giving the test as reasons for not doing it. Therefore, it might be better to have the State Board of Education interested in the issue and work with the Commissioner and possibly the Commissioner of Health to find monies to pay for a statewide assessment.

I’ve been warned that joining sexuality education with standardized testing is a toxic brew that will incur the wrath of people opposed to both ideas. But we’ll never know what a good idea this might be unless we give it a try.

Teaching to the test on this subject makes good sense.

Ewing of ETS told me it would take about 18 months to develop a statewide test. In the meantime, let’s promote some new words to a familiar old adage: “Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together.”


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“Penis” Is Not a Dirty Word

September 19, 2011

Recently, I was sitting with a neighbor in her driveway as her young children were coloring on the driveway with chalk. The children would take turns lying down as we traced their outlines, and then they would jump up to draw in their eyes, noses and mouths. One of her sons completed his figure by drawing a line between his legs. When his mom asked what he had drawn there, he said it was his penis. Looking shocked she exclaimed, “Don’t say that! Go sit in a timeout!”

As a sexual health educator, I have spent much of my career teaching young people the correct terminology for their sexual anatomy and undoing all of the nicknames and slang terms that parents (and other adult caregivers) teach their children (“pee-pee,” “vajayjay,” “hoo-hoo” and on and on). I have also helped young people overcome their embarrassment and fear of saying words like “penis” and “vagina” out loud. It is important for people of all ages, even young children, to know the proper names for all of their body parts and how they function, so that if something is wrong they can seek help or ask questions in the pediatrician’s or school nurse’s office.

A parent is a child’s first and most influential sexuality educator. From day one, parents send strong messages to their children about all aspects of sexuality, including how they should feel about their bodies. These messages are conveyed through the words, body language and tone of voice used when discussing body parts and how they work. It is vital for parents to have open and honest discussions with children of all ages to keep their kids healthy and to teach them how to communicate and set boundaries with others in order to help prevent sexual abuse. These early dialogues let kids know that they can go to their parent(s) with any questions they may have about their bodies, and will also make discussions about sexuality much easier as the child grows into a teenager and young adult.

A child needs to feel good about his or her entire body. When slang terms are used or it’s forbidden to even mention a body part, it sends a message that these parts are somehow shameful or dirtier than other body parts. I hope that all parents stop to consider the message they are sending when they use slang terms, or even worse, when they do not name the parts at all or simply don’t talk about them. Our sexual anatomy is as much a part of our bodies as our elbows and knees. We need to name them and talk about how they work, so that we can take care of them and keep them healthy.

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