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Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

February 10, 2011

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“Education,” “innovation,” and “infrastructure” were among the most often repeated words from President Obama’s measured, thoughtful, and at times powerful State of the Union address. Many commentators praised the president for using them to set a new path of investment for our country.

I agree with the importance of each of them, and I want to apply them to sex and health education. A recent letter writer in the New York Times worried that the president’s recommendations about upgrading education was limited to math, science, and technology. She then made a pitch for “history, political science, literature, and…foreign languages.” Her point was that in order to “build a robust, humane, aware-of-the world society, we surely need a more broadly educated population.”

I would add health and sex education to the mix; they need to be upgraded and even conceptualized differently as we redesign our education system to help students be more competitive in the world. Along with more respect for their crucial importance, we need to revamp these subjects through “innovation,” because as we all know, the Internet has changed the way young people communicate and learn.

To start, we need funding to survey graduating high school students to learn what they liked and didn’t like about their schools’ sex and health education programs. This idea came from reading Sam Dillon’s Times piece “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” which discussed a $45-million dollar research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to find ways of using students to identify good and bad teachers.

I’m intrigued by the idea of developing a different, and much less expensive, research project to help us design future health and sex education curricula. Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who developed the questionnaires for the Gates’ project, said that “few of the national 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences.”

“As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts,” he said.

I wish a foundation would fund the design of a national questionnaire surveying students on what they like or didn’t like about their sex and health education programs, and how they would redesign their courses to help them make smart decisions about sex. Dr. Ferguson should design that questionnaire, perhaps with the help of a cross-section of students around the nation.

More respectful attitudes can be to health and sex education what new roads and new forms of transportation can be to our national economy: “infrastructure.” We need to be more understanding of the powerful, often irresponsible, or even hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality promoted by the media. Take MTV’s new controversial series Skins, about the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.

Alessandra Stanley, writing on the Times‘ ArtsBeat blog, voiced her concerns when she wrote: “Skins is a remake of a British drama about misbehaving teenagers that stars real teenagers — the youngest is 15. Monday’s episode [the second], which included a shot of a boy standing naked with a cloth over his pill-enhanced erection, generated a lot of complaints in advance and drove several sponsors to pull their ads from the series.”

MTV executives — concerned that the racy show may violate federal child pornography statutes — ordered its producers to tone down the segment, but in the end, the “offending material” stayed in the show. What is particularly disquieting to me about Skins is that its first episode “drew 1.2 million people younger than 18,” despite the fact that it was seen after 10 pm, Eastern.

Many viewers feel that Skins crosses the line between acceptable depictions of teen sexuality and pornography. I wonder if it gives impressionable teens — many of whom believe “everyone is doing it” — the entirely wrong idea about acceptable sexual behavior. I think most people believe that sex is a mature behavior and that it is better for younger teens to wait until they are sure that their sexual relationship is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutual pleasurable and protected. What Skins seems to emphasize is that teen sex should be casual, furtive, drug and alcohol induced and unprotected.

Much as I believe in giving teens honest, accurate information about sex, I worry that a lot of MTV’s content isn’t helpful to young people. I might feel differently if some of that racy content would actually be discussed by parents or teachers in age-appropriate sex ed classrooms. We need better sex education programs that incorporate what teens see on TV.

Yet, we don’t have that type of sex ed across the country. So, at the moment, I wish MTV would tone down its sexual content and put young people’s well-being ahead of profits.

The president’s speech included other phrases that can be applied to the idea of investing more heavily in our kids’ futures: “Winning the Future” and “This is Our Sputnik Moment” are two of the media’s favorites. I know they seem like sound bites, but we’re a society that likes to compress important ideas into two-second media clips.

Now it’s time to apply these phrases to sex ed.

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DADT repeal among Top Ten Sex Stories of 2010

January 10, 2011

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This is the season of lists, and here’s my “Top Ten Sexuality Stories of 2010.”

When I told friends about my list, they said I would find far more stories about the worst aspects of sexuality than the best. Surprisingly, I found many topics offered both the best and the worst within the same area. This contradiction reminded me of words by the famous historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble; that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

So I am starting with the best, most positive, and, yes, often the happiest stories about sexuality of 2010 and will send along the worst and sometimes cruelest stories next week. I hope you will find the contrast interesting. The list is numbered ten to one, building to what I consider the very best:

10. The royal marriage-to-be

Prince William and Kate Middleton are the couple of the year, with Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky close behind. The prince and the young woman whom he will marry in April, who People magazine dubbed “A Perfect Princess,” warmed our hearts because they seem very much in love. Both of these young couples demonstrate maturity and grace through long courtships and enhance the tradition of marriage.

9. A movie about a family with two moms

The American public embraced the movie The Kids Are All Right starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, about a family of two lesbian moms raising two teens where everyone does just fine, despite some momentary upheavals that affect most families.

8. A pregnancy pact debunked

The Gloucester 18should be mandatory viewing for every teen in the country,” wrote a Boston Globe film critic about this film, which discredits the myth of the “pregnancy pact” at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts, where pregnancies spiked to 18 in one year. This outstanding film shows the real complexities inherent in early sexual activity and unplanned pregnancy.

7. Teens trump adults in condom use

A study drawn from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior at Indiana University found that “condom use is becoming the norm for sexually active teenagers.” Researchers concluded that teens are more responsible than adults about using this form of contraception.

6. The birth control pill turns 50

Called “the most important scientific advance of the 20th century,” the Pill celebrated its 50th birthday in 2010. Rather than causing promiscuity, adultery, and the breakdown of the family — as its detractors predicted — the Pill transformed millions of women’s lives by helping them control their reproductive destiny.

5. A new funding stream for comprehensive sex education programs

The Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) gives federal funds of $375 million over the next five years to states offering sex education programs that show proven success at reducing teen pregnancy. While the programs will encourage teens to delay sexual activity, they will also counsel them to use protection if they are sexually active.

4. A new trend in abortion services

A bold new initiative to integrate abortion seamlessly into women’s health care emerged in 2010. “The New Abortion Providers” explored how medical abortion is becoming standard training for medical students and residents in the most prestigious and largest medical schools in the U.S. This training will open up the possibility for women to receive medical abortion services in private physicians’ offices rather than stand-alone clinics, where anti-choice protestors can harass and cause them harm.

3. Pope Benedict XVI speaks positively about condoms

In his book Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI told veteran journalist Peter Seewald that “condoms could reduce the risk of HIV infection in certain cases, such as for a male prostitute.” The Pontiff had never before made positive remarks about condoms. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that when he asked the Pope about his words, his Holiness responded, “It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. … This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual.

2. New medicines in Africa give women hope in the fight against HIV

Studies in South Africa provided hopeful news that women who used a vaginal microbicidal gel containing an antiretroviral medication, tenofovir, were less likely to contract the HIV virus than women who hadn’t used it. (The study followed 889 women, and broader trials are necessary to confirm the results.) Public health officials cheered when they heard the news, adding that the gel would be the first method women could use without male involvement to protect themselves.

1. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The repeal of the 17-year-old policy requiring gay men and lesbians in the military to serve only if they hide their sexual orientation was a dramatic step forward for civil rights in our nation. The House of Representatives and Senate passed a law reversing this cruel and discriminatory policy, which resulted in the loss of many talented men and women in the armed services. Upon signing the repeal legislation, President Obama said, “[T]his morning, I am proud to sign a law that will bring an end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ … [T]his law … will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.”

If you have other candidates for this list, please let me know. I will send along what I consider “The Ten Worst Stories about Sex in 2010″ next week. In the meantime, best wishes for a Happy New Year.

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A Thanksgiving Grace for Sexuality Education

November 28, 2010

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Dear Readers: I wrote the following blog post last year, but I hope that the words and feelings expressed in it will still be fresh and meaningful to you. I know that the thoughts expressed in it are as strong and accurate as they were when I wrote them down this time last year.

The Thanksgiving I remember most vividly and with the most fondness occurred in November 1980, almost 30 years ago this week. Five families, including mine, who lived along a stretch of road in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, decided to share the holiday meal together. Each family brought certain foods to the feast. I think we numbered around 25, and “we gathered together,” as the old hymn goes, in our family’s house, because everyone could sit at round tables in our living room when it was cleared of furniture.

I remember standing in my kitchen while my neighbors walked in the door with their steaming contributions (no microwaves back then), thinking of the first Pilgrims who brought their heaping platters of wild turkeys, ducks, geese, venison, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, other fruits and vegetables, and possibly a suckling pig, into a common house on that first celebration of the holiday. I felt a true bond with those first celebrants.

I cannot remember who came up with the idea, but we decided on the spot, as we sipped our cider and wine, to write “A Community Thanksgiving Grace.” We asked each adult, teen, and child to write something special for which they were particularly thankful. All the children were old enough to write, so everyone from the oldest grandmothers to the youngest boys and girls contributed words to the common grace. One adult and one teen sorted the slips of paper and compiled them into a prose poem. When we had gathered around the tables decorated with fall leaves and what flowers remained in our gardens, one of us rose and read the Grace.

Much as I would love to list all the contributions, I will only list a few to give a flavor of the thanks that were expressed that day: my 13-year-old daughter was thankful “for horses and pomegranates,” a young adult said she was thankful “for those who play soccer and football with those who can’t,” and the one most moving to me came from a young woman still in high school who said she was thankful “for this blue-green earth that had room for elephants, flies, whales, and humankind.” We chorused the last line together: “We are thankful.”

In keeping with the spirit and precedence of “A Community Thanksgiving Grace,” I am offering a list below of what and for whom I am thankful in the field of sexuality education this Thanksgiving 2009. The list is certainly not nearly as poetic as the original, and it contains only my ideas rather than those of a group. It is as follows:

For the children, teens, and adults who seek information about sex and sexuality;

For the parents who answer their young children’s questions without flinching. Questions such as “how are babies made?”—which are often posed without warning in strange locations, like the back seat of the car;

For parents who go beyond “the big talk,” and talk early and often with their teens about sex and their personal values about respect and caring;

For the excellent books by Robie Harris, especially “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies,” “Growing Up,” “Sex and Sexual Health,” which celebrates its 15th year in print this year and makes it much easier for parents to talk to their 10 to 14-year-olds about sex;

For other adults-teachers, school nurses, social workers, nonprofit personnel, counselors, therapists, librarians, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, ministers, priests, friends, and others—who provide the answers to people’s questions and concerns in a variety of venues;

For members of state school boards who pass policies requiring K-12 family life education and sex education programs;

For state legislators and members of Congress who support funding comprehensive sexuality education and not funding abstinence-only programs;

For the school districts that provide K-12 sex education programs that are comprehensive and do not shy away from controversial topics;

For the professors who teach or administer sexuality education programs that prepare the educators of the future;

For the exceptional websites for teens, including Sexetc.org, Scarleteen, Teen Voices, and Teenwire, who give young people reliable, honest, and accurate information and answers to their questions about sex;

For teens and adults who use contraception faithfully to avoid unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV;

For teens who understand and practice “Double Dutch,” the use of both the Pill and a condom whenever they have sex;

For the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender teens who seek information that helps them feel more comfortable with their sexual orientation and gender identity and who have the courage to come out to their families and to classmates;

For the many teens who are abstinent during high school and for those who choose not to have sex until they marry or are in a long-term partnership;

For the national, state, and local organizations that promote sex education and work to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;

For members of religious denominations and congregations that support sex education;

For those who work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and worldwide through programs that offer clean needle exchanges, condom distribution, and low-cost generic drugs, and support research to find a vaccine;

For those who are involved with organizations devoted to lessening the trauma of rape, incest, and sexual violence;

For those who see comprehensive sex education as the sensible common ground between those who oppose abortion and those who support the right to choose;

For all the leaders in the fight for sex education in America on whose shoulders I stand and for my colleagues in the field-past, present, and future;

For the opportunity to write about sexuality education on this website and for those who read this column; and

For the great gift of human sexuality, its never-ending story, and for the opportunity to help others, including myself, understand, appreciate, respect, and enjoy it,

I am truly thankful.

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Some Truths about Teen Pregnancy

November 17, 2010

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We’re told that we have notoriously short memories. So I wonder, do you remember the infamous “Gloucester 18”? Here’s a hint: Gloucester is a small town in Massachusetts that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seaport.” Doesn’t ring a bell? Then how about the words “pregnancy pact”?

“Bingo,” I hear you say, “that’s the place where all those girls in one high school made a pact and got pregnant on purpose, right?”

No, you would be wrong—not because you aren’t up on your facts, but because until very recently no one took the time to try to get to the bottom of the story.

Kristen Grieco, a former Gloucester Daily Times reporter who first broke the story, has stepped up to clarify the charge against the girls and the town by producing a 67-minute documentary film, The Gloucester 18. Hers was a team effort with director and executive producer John Michael Williams, and associate producer/editor Joseph Provenzano. They created a moving, compelling film that reveals the real story about the supposed “pact” as well as more profound truths about teen pregnancy.

Grieco was the original person to break and investigate a suspicious spike in the teen pregnancy rate at the local high school in March 2008. She also had heard rumors that “a clique [of girls had formed] with the express purpose of getting pregnant.” Dr. Joseph Sullivan, the school’s principal, started the ball rolling and explained the spike in numbers by saying that some girls purposely got pregnant.

The first truth that the girls in the film reveal is that there was no pregnancy pact.

Teens and sex!!! Always an incendiary mix to delight and attract the media, which can play both the role of voyeur and disapproving adult. After Grieco’s story broke, the national press descended on the small, economically strapped fishing village to sensationalize what actually occurred. After all, 16, 17, or 18 girls in one high school getting pregnant on purpose—what could be juicier for the mainstream media?

A Time magazine reporter coined the phrase “pregnancy pact,” and it drew reporters from such faraway places as Brazil, England, and the Netherlands to every corner of Gloucester to report the lascivious details.

The media got the story mostly wrong. There was no pact, but 18 girls in the high school were pregnant, which was considerably above the average number for a given year.

To Grieco’s credit, she decided to “hear” as much as she could about the true story behind the spate of pregnancies. She interviewed almost half the girls who had become pregnant (of the 18, six chose to have abortions), some of their parents, and the high school health educators. She couldn’t exactly find what the reasons were for the troubling spike but she uncovered some truths about the problem of teen pregnancy in the United States.

The girls who attended Gloucester were white. Grieco expanded her research to Lowell and Springfield, MA, to tell the stories of pregnant minority teens to see if there were any similarities and differences within the populations.  The themes were very much the same. Poverty and teen pregnancy often go hand-in-hand, and these three towns have experienced hard times during the last decade.

The film introduces us to Kyla, Alissa, Brianne, Hallie, Tabitha, Sarah, Leslie—all of whom deliver their babies and try to adjust to their new situations as unmarried, single parents (only a few have steady live-in boyfriends). We also meet one intact family and several other single moms who are raising their teen girls alone. Not many men are in the picture, which is also an unpleasant truth about teen pregnancy.

Grieco shows us the commonalities that most, if not all, of these pregnant teens share:

The girls seem passive and unrealistic about the challenges of raising a child and staying in school. None have much self-esteem or any future goals; they seem to have drifted into having unprotected sex and rarely, if ever, used birth control. They feel that some adult, hopefully their parent or parents, will accept their babies and help raise them, and most have absolutely no sense of what it takes to raise a child in safety and dignity, or the financial and psychological costs of it.

We learn that a high proportion of the teen moms were born to women who were teen moms themselves, and that the cycle repeats itself. Most of the girls who have a first birth in the film are pregnant with a second within a very short span of time.

The most troubling commonality is that so few of the girls had a loving, protective, and helpful family. I doubted, too, that their parents had been given much advice about sexuality and pregnancy. Some had grown up in the foster care system desperately wanting a family of their own. Many were looking for love and thought a baby would provide it.

Leslie, a minority teen girl from Lowell, is the one whose words and face lingers. Her mom gave birth to her at 15 and her brother at 16. I might characterize her as a “throwaway child” for whom no adult had ever cared. She didn’t have a home and spent her time living in shelters and in the back of vans. She seemed to have a lot of unprotected sex, probably in order to secure a place to sleep at night.

Leslie also had spunk. She was more articulate than the rest of the girls in the film. She said that her pregnancy was unintentional, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” because she had been told that she had only one ovary. She rationalized her pregnancy as “perhaps the only opportunity to be a parent.” Her only source of income was money earned from braiding friends’ hair. Leslie, by film’s end, is pregnant with her second child, still with no visible signs of adult support.

Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the high school health clinic, and Kim, Daly, its former nurse practitioner, offered the best explanations for why so many of the girls in Gloucester became pregnant that spring. They knew that many of the high school girls were having sex, but they were not permitted to prescribe the birth control pill or distribute condoms in the health center. They crossed swords with the leaders of the local hospital that oversaw the clinic. Hospital officials publicly questioned the hospital’s liability if birth control prescriptions were written in the clinic. Despite Daly’s best efforts to inform officials that “being on the Pill is safer [for a teen female] than giving birth,” she was unable to change their minds.

Orr and Daly lost the battle and resigned. But the community uproar led the Gloucester School Committee to permit kids to get birth control prescriptions as long as their parents opted to enroll them in the program.
But this policy came too late for the “Gloucester 18.”

Greico is attempting to get funding for general distribution of her film, as in the case of the popular An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failing urban public schools. Presently, it is distributed primarily to education groups and community nonprofits through the Media Education Foundation.

I hope The Gloucester 18 will be distributed to a wider audience, since many more of us would really understand the roots of teen pregnancy. We would learn more about our responsibilities to the vulnerable teen girls who live in poverty and have little hope for the future. We’d also wise up to how the media sensationalizes teen sexuality to the detriment of those who are working to solve this serious societal problem.

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Wanted: A Few (More) Good Men to Teach Sex Ed

October 1, 2010

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This is not about the 1992 Tom Cruise film A Few Good Men. It’s about the need for more good men to teach sex education. We need these men to serve as role models for male students, showing them the importance of talking about sex responsibly and comfortably with their girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, partners, and, eventually, sons and daughters.

There was good and bad news in a report about sex education and U.S. teens released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). The good news? Before turning 18, nearly all teens — 97% — get some formal sex education in schools or other places, such as churches or community centers. (That’s progress, although the report doesn’t detail the accuracy or quality of the instruction.)

But a serious problem is that “more females than males have received formal instruction on how to say ‘no’ to sex, and more younger female teens than younger male teens have received instruction on birth control methods,” according to the report. Further, males get far less information from their parents than do females. The report’s author, Dr. Joyce Abma, a demographer with the NCHS, said the reason for the discrepancy “could be reflecting society’s regarding teen girls as needing to protect themselves more and prevent negative consequences.”

There might be another factor at play: Teen guys in schools see and hear adult women far more than adult men talk about sex.

“We need to groom good male sexuality educators. Good ones are so rare,” said Linda Morse, who recently retired after 30 years as the coordinator of School Health and Physical Education Standards at the New Jersey Department of Education.

I asked Morse for reasons why there’s such a dearth of male sexuality educators. Her reply can be summarized as the fear factor: men’s fear about teaching sex ed and administrators’ fear about giving them opportunity. She says that over years of her observations, male teachers are afraid of having to talk about sexual topics, such as family planning, risk reduction, safer sex, or gender and sexual orientation issues.

Morse says she has seen many male health/physical education teachers choose to attend a six-hour volleyball workshop rather than one on sexuality that requires less time. She believes that all sexuality educators need to understand their own sexual identity and “develop a comfort zone with students that is intimate, but not too intimate, and personal, but not too personal.” Further, “teachers of sexuality education must be prepared for all kinds of questions at any time and must be prepared to address parental concerns.”

Some men may find dealing with intimacy and the personal challenging, because they have not been raised to do it. Morse says that most male teachers “feel extremely competent and comfortable writing lessons on weight training, basketball and fitness, but not at all comfortable about addressing issues of sexuality.”

“This may be because experienced male health and physical education teachers often aspire to become athletic directors, principals, or supervisors and take graduate courses in management and leadership rather than health education. On the other hand, females are more apt to pursue graduate level work in health, family life, and sexuality education because they plan to stay in the classroom,” she says.

Administrators often make decisions that limit the number of men who get a chance to teach sexuality education. It begins early, in grades 4-6, when school nurses are called upon to teach the “clinical” aspects of sexuality, such as puberty education. Almost all are female.

Morse points out that some high school supervisors and principals are nervous about assigning young men to teach sex education. They have concerns “about pre-services or novice teacher’s teaching to students who are potentially only three to four years younger than they are and in fact ‘datable’ outside of school.”

Clearly, we have a problem here.

Morse’s perceptive analysis goes a long way to explaining the dearth of male sexuality educators. It also explains why young men may not feel comfortable talking to a male parent or asking a male teacher for in-depth information in order to make responsible, healthy decisions. They do not have the necessary role models.

To discover how we can encourage more men to teach sex education, I spoke to Hank Kearns, who taught the subject at Northern Burlington County High School for 35 years. He became a sexuality educator quite by chance: He was “assigned” senior health in his first year of teaching.

“I saw myself as not just a sex ed teacher. I saw myself as a health educator with wellness as my focus. But sex ed was a factor in all areas of wellness: social, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and even financial,” he said.

I asked Kearns why so few men become sex educators.

“My gut response is that in order to teach sex ed, one has to be willing to make oneself vulnerable to questions, situations, and topics that men are uncomfortable with,” he said.

Kearns said he would tell prospective male sex educators that “teaching sex education helps you to become a better man. In the process of teaching, you have to learn it twice, once so you understand it and a second time you have to learn how to teach it. When you immerse yourself in that process of teaching, you understand [sexuality] on a much deeper level.”

Our society can reap rewards if we motivate more men to teach sex ed. There would be more information from the male perspective; more shared responsibility in sexual matters between partners; and more frequent and deeper conversations between fathers and sons about sexuality.

After all, conversations between the genders are an important key to a satisfying sexual life. It does take two to tango.

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My Message in a Bottle for My Neighbor, the President

August 27, 2010
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For the next ten days, President Obama will be my neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard. He’s not going to be what you call a cheek-by-jowl neighbor. Although we shall both be living in the same area of the Vineyard — Chilmark — we shall be separated by the Atlantic Ocean, Chilmark Pond, Tisbury Great Pont, South Road and legions of Secret Service.

Last year when President Obama and his family visited for the first time, I had already left the island, so I’m really excited have him close by this year. I must admit the chances aren’t great that I’ll actually see him strolling down the beautiful, wide beach that borders this part of the island, or find him at the nearby West Tisbury county fair, which is pulling in the crowds. I’m not going to rule out such a meeting, because some years ago, my youngest daughter ran right into Bill and Hillary Clinton on another Vineyard beach when they were vacationing here. (They stopped and smiled for her camera; we have the pictures to prove it.) But I doubt that summer lightening will strike twice for this family.

So I decided to be creative in getting a message to the president. Some people have written letters to him in the local newspapers. While strolling the beach, I fantasized that I would write him a note about an international topic that’s troubling me, put it in a bottle, and cast it out to sea. With some help from the wind and tides, the bottle might wash up on the sands of Tisbury Great Pond, near where the president is staying. With some luck, it might be retrieved by Bo, the family dog.

Now I know this message in a bottle is a fantasy, but the subject on my mind is anything but whimsical.The administration has not commented on the recent death by stoning of a young Afghan couple that had eloped to a safe shelter and wanted nothing more than to marry. (The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times.)

The Taliban had the “first public execution since their fall from power nine years ago, killing a young couple who had eloped,” according to the Times. The couple – Khayyam, 25, and Siddiqa, 19 – had fallen in love despite her upcoming arranged marriage to Khayyam’s relative, which she refused to do. They fled from their village in the remote corner of Kunduz Province in northeastern Afghanistan.

Family members tricked the couple into returning, and they were seized by the local Taliban. A religious court condemned them to death. Their punishment for “an illegal sexual relationship” was death by stoning.

Hundreds of men of the community, including Siddiqa’s brother and the couple’s neighbors – no women were allowed – surrounded the couple, who had sworn publicly “to love each other no matter what happened.” Amid much festive cheering and shouting, they were stoned to death.

Siddiqa – dressed in a head-to-toe burqa that showed nothing but her eyes – died first. The source who reported the grizzly details said that the crowd was happy, because under strict Shariah law, “death by stoning in this situation is an appropriate punishment.”

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said he was “deeply grieved” by the killings. Amnesty International also condemned them, as did the local Kunduz governor’s office. Their remarks are reassuring, but I’ve heard nothing from American leaders.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have spoken eloquently about freedom of religion in the U.S. in connection with the Mosque location controversy in Lower Manhattan. But neither has spoken out about these barbaric killings in Afghanistan, where Americans are dying to supposedly encourage more democratic principles and a new constitution that would support women’s rights. Surely, this tragedy would offer a moment for American leaders to speak up about ending violence against women.

I’m not naïve. I know there is evil in the world. And what is the death of one young couple, compared to the deaths of many military members and civilians from roadside bombs. I would tell the president that the stoning death of this young couple diminishes all women’s rights, an issue he cares about.

For me, Khayyam and Siddiqa are a modern Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers whose lives were destroyed by hateful adults. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet speaks these beautiful words when she discovers that her lover has killed himself after he thinks she is dead:

“[T]ake him and cut him up in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will fall in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

I shall remember these words when I think about Khayyam and Siddiqa, whom no one in high places seems to care about. If you are interested in making your voice heard about this tragedy, you might want to send a donation to Amnesty International.

I would end my note to the President by telling him that I’ve always admired how he speaks up for his young daughters and wants their rights and opportunities to only expand. Speaking out against Siddiqa’s and Khayyam’s deaths would be speaking out for all young women and men who seek the right to love and marry.

Maybe it’s just as well that there’s no way under the sun for a message in a bottle to get by Secret Service. After all, I really want the president to have a restful vacation and not have to listen to the likes of neighbors like me.

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Warren Buffett’s Wise Words about Women

August 6, 2010

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Hey, Eve, are you there? I think you’re going to love these wise words. They may make you feel a lot better about those caustic comments hurled at you through the ages about eating the apple and getting booted from Eden to go work by the sweat of your brow.

The words?

“Women all over the world get shortchanged.”

Warren Buffett said them. He’s “the Oracle from Omaha,” Nebraska, who heads up Berkshire Hathaway and is one of the foremost philanthropists on the planet. They were relayed by his former wife, philanthropist Susan Thompson Buffett, on The Charlie Rose Show.

“Warren feels that women all over the world get shortchanged. That’s why he’s so pro-choice,” she said.

How true the statement, especially when you think about the situations and conditions that place women at a disadvantage in their lives. A recent case in point: Governor Christie’s veto of a bill to add $7.5 million in state funding for 58 family planning clinics. A move that now unfairly affects women’s ability to control their fertility and protect against unplanned pregnancy.

I read about Buffett’s statement in the compelling New York Times magazine piece “The New Abortion Providers.”

This is an important piece by Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. It explores a dramatic new turn in the abortion struggle thanks in large part to the largess of Warren Buffett.

According to Bazelon, “This abortion-rights campaign, led by physicians themselves, is trying to recast doctors, changing them from a weak link of abortion to a strong one. Its leaders have built residency programs and fellowships at university hospitals, with the hope that, eventually, more and more doctors will use their training to bring abortion into their practices. The bold idea at the heart of this effort is to integrate abortion [not surgical, but primarily medical, administered no later than nine weeks into a pregnancy] so that it’s a seamless part of the health care for women.”

Warren Buffett is the brave person at the heart of this new strategy, according to the anonymous sources in Bazelon’s article. His money has funded a series of fellowships in the most prominent academic institutions that make it possible for OB-GYNs and family practice doctors to receive graduate training in abortion procedures.

The money comes primarily from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. She died in 2004, and two years later, writes Bazelon, “Warren Buffett gave the foundation about $3 billion. He said that he expected the gift to increase the foundation’s annual expenditures by $150 million.”

Although the article reports that “Warren Buffett has never spoken publicly about his views on abortion,” we now know through his former wife that he feels strongly that “women all over the world get shortchanged.”

American women are getting shortchanged because the availability of abortion providers has shrunk dramatically, since “most of the OB-GYNs left the stage” after Roe v. Wade, says Bazelon. She explains that “the shadow of the greedy, butchering ‘abortionist’ continued to hover, and many doctors didn’t want to stand in it.”

Women’s opportunities to have abortions in hospitals dried up, and instead they had to turn to “stand-alone clinics” for the procedure. By the mid-1990s, 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. were performed at clinics, and “feminist activists” get credit for their development.

“When the clinics became the only place in town to have an abortion, they became an easy mark for extremists,” said Carole Joffe, author of Doctors of Conscience and Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. Bazelon reports that the number of OB-GYNs providing abortions were either “graying” or “drying up.”

Fellowships provided by grants to academic medical centers from the Susan Thompson Buffett foundation are beginning to reverse the trend; they will help women who need an abortion get one in the privacy of the office of a well-trained OB-GYN or a family practice physician.

Several years ago, I received a letter from a physician at the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula, Montana.

Although Blue Mountain bills itself as a “family practice” clinic, the doctor who wrote me said that the free-standing clinic was the only one in the state to provide abortions.

He told me that many women in Montana have to travel hundreds of miles to utilize their right to choose, and some can’t afford the time or money to make such a long journey. I’ve always been pleased to support the work of this clinic, because I do not think that any woman in Montana, or any other state, should be shortchanged from using rights guaranteed to them by the law of the land.

To date, Warren Buffett hasn’t felt the intense ire of the anti-abortion forces. Bazelon wonders if “his plainspoken Midwestern persona and his enormous wealth may make him the wrong enemy for anti-abortion advocates.” She quotes from a letter that he sent with the $3 billion gift to the foundation in 2006. He wrote that the gift was “to focus intensely on important societal problems that had very limited funding constituencies.”

This week’s news also brought another example of how women’s sexuality is shortchanged not by denying them the right to choose an abortion, but by failing to help them protect themselves from HIV during sex.

This time the example comes from Sub-Saharan Africa. In that part of Africa, more adult women and young girls than men are infected with HIV. The difference in infection levels between women and men are most pronounced among young people aged 15 to 24.

There was a glimmer of good news about women and HIV. South African scientists working in two AIDS-devastated communities say they have found a “vaginal microbicidal gel containing an antiretroviral medication used to treat AIDS, tenofovir,” which shows promising results for protecting women from HIV.

If the gel continues on this track, it means that for the first time women can control their own bodies and protect themselves from HIV. “They do not have to ask the man for permission to use it,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency.

However, it will take years before the gel is publicly available. And it will take years to see if Warren Buffett’s words and generosity bear fruit. His words are indeed wise, as are the scientists’ efforts, which can positively affect women’s health in every corner of the world.

Because when it comes to sex, women everywhere are very often shortchanged.

Right, Eve?

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Oh, Bristol and Levi Are Getting Married, but Should We Really Care?

July 15, 2010

I overslept yesterday morning and paid a price. Usually I get up at 6:30, catch the opening of the TODAY Show, and am out the door for a run. Not yesterday: I walked into the kitchen and flipped on the TV just in time to catch the 7:30 segment on Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston’s announced engagement (nice, big ring) and impending marriage.

I didn’t intend to start my day with this “exclusive” from Us Weekly, and for a moment I thought I’d tuned in to a story from The National Enquirer rather than NBC.

Then I remembered that Gail Collins had indicated last week in her column, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” that a reconciliation was imminent, and she wisely warned other young women, “Don’t have unprotected sex with your boyfriends, girls. Look what he might turn into,” i. e. someone so taken with celebrity that he will do anything to make sure he remains in the spotlight. However, she never went so far as to talk engagement or impending marriage.

So, I put down my running shoes and listened instead to Matt Lauer interview the

publisher of Us Weekly, who was about to burst for joy at her magazine’s great scoop.(I must admit that the cover picture of the threesome was winsome and quite gorgeous. Tripp, where did you ever get those luminous blue eyes?). I listened while they discussed the couple’s decision to go ahead and get engaged “without her parents’ permission (!),” their decision to practice abstinence-until-marriage (!), and their plans to “see a marriage counselor once they were married (!).”

About my first exclamation mark: The couple’s proclamation that although they posed for pictures and gave the scoop to Us, they needed to ask her parents for permission to marry seems ingenious to me. In the 21st century, most young adults in America (Bristol is 19 and Levi 21) are making this critical decision on their own. Of course neither Bristol nor Levi have any visible sources of income, unless you count her speaking fees and freebies such as the Us Weekly photo shoot, so perhaps it really is essential that they get her parents’ permission before planning what will surely be one of the celebrity weddings of the year and living happily ever after.

My second exclamation mark: I just don’t know how any young person who’s had an unplanned pregnancy can pretend to be a poster child for abstinence-until-marriage. It boggles my mind; at the very least, it is silly and contorted to take this position, and it sends a totally mixed message to other teens.

I’m aware that Bristol has teamed up with The Candies Foundation and, for a rather high fee, speaks to young women around the country on the advantages of abstinence-until-marriage. Why is virginity such an important issue, particularly for young women? Most young people have sex before marriage. There is nothing shameful about this conduct, unless sex is forced or unprotected and unless a person violates a religious principle that requires one to abstain until marriage-but that is a personal matter.

I would prefer that Bristol talk about how condoms can break, how it can be difficult to negotiate with your partner to use them and how, in the heat of the moment, a lot of young people don’t use them. Points like these, I think, would really be helpful to a teen audience.

My third exclamation point: the need for an early visit to a marriage counselor reminded me of a friend who, many years ago when trying to juggle the lives of five very active children, said she needed a live-in-driver. I have always thought this was the smartest idea I’d heard to help harried young women with children keep their sanity.

When Us Weekly mentioned that Bristol and Levi were going to see a marriage counselor once they married, I wondered if marriage counselors rather than live-in-drivers are the way to go for this generation. Periodic visits to a marriage counselor are wise, but I wonder if in Bristol and Levi’s case, with so much early stress in the relationship, the visit should precede rather than follow the wedding.

When the segment was finally finished and Lauer had moved on to another topic, I picked up my cup of coffee and glanced at my local paper, The Times of Trenton, and read the headline: “In India, divorce or die.” It turned out to be a rather fascinating segue from the Bristol/Levi tale.

This story centered on a newly married young couple, Ravinder Gehlaut and Shilpa Kadiya, who are in mortal danger of being killed because of an ancient mediaeval custom requiring that members of the same clan not marry. (Clan in India is not to be confused with caste. These two are members of the same caste.)

The marriage of the young couple had been arranged quite properly by their families as required under Hindu law and took place in March. Then the older male elders of the village, frustrated and angered by rapid social change, intervened and ruled that Ravinder and Shilpa were members of the same clan, making them brother and sister to each other, although they were not related by blood. The elders said that the couple had “dishonored the village” and demanded that they divorce. Although Shilpa is pregnant, the elders insisted that she marry another man. The couple refused and after warding off the blows of an incensed mob, fled the village. They are presently hiding out among Ravinder’s extended family, but fear constantly for their safety.

No glossy magazine cover for these two. They are fleeing for their lives.

These two unions represent extremes along the bell-shaped curve of marriage. Somewhere there must be a middle, where we stop fawning over every little move that celebrities make and where we offer, through the U.N. or our foreign policies, to provide protection to young couples whose lives are endangered by ancient rituals.

My head is still spinning from all that I had to think about with Bristol and Levi and my heart still hurts from reading about the plight of the young Indian couple.

Perhaps the only and best thing I can do is to make sure my alarm is set properly tonight, so I will not oversleep again tomorrow.

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The ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Hits Close to Home

June 26, 2010


I first saw the book in my 16-year-old grandson’s hands. The cover image and colors—blazing yellow and orange with a lime green dragon—caught my attention more than the title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn’t ask my grandson about the story, but I assumed that since his mother writes young-adult fiction, it was perfectly okay for him to read.

The next time I heard about the book—the first in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson—was when my 42-year-old son-in-law raved about the novels, adding how sad it was that Larsson had died shortly after turning in the third one, never living to see his work’s international success. I was puzzled as to why a 42- and 16-year old would be reading the same books.

I began to focus on the first book and comments from my adult friends who’d read it. Most said The Girl was “a page turner” that you couldn’t put down. Then I finally woke up and realized that it had been a New York Times bestseller for 43 weeks! Certainly, I’d been asleep at some switch.

When a friend who’d read the book told me that the movie version was playing at a local theater, I immediately made plans to see it with my husband and neighbor. As I bought the tickets, I asked the young man at the box office the movie’s rating. (Because my grandson was reading the book, I assumed it was probably PG.)

“It doesn’t have a rating, but if it did, it would probably be R,” he said.

“Oh, some sex and violence,” I replied, and went into the crowded theater.

Sex and violence indeed.

About 30 minutes into the two-plus hour film, the scenes of graphic sex and violence began. Twenty-four-year-old Lisbeth, the central character, is forced by an older man, who has newly become her “guardian” and controls her money, to perform oral sex on him in order to get the funds she needs to buy a new computer. She needs this computer, because she had been violently attacked by some young male thugs in a subway tunnel who smashed her laptop. The computer is the most important object in her life, because she’s a brilliant hacker and techie.

After she is coerced into oral sex with her guardian, he writes her a check for a sum far less than what she needs to buy a new laptop. We view her washing the semen out of her mouth.

The young woman—who we later discover is the girl with a dragon tattoo down her entire back—is forced to have more sex in order to get the balance of the money. She goes to her guardian’s apartment, where he throws her on the bed, manacles her hands, gags her with duct tape, and proceeds to perform what looked to me like both vaginal and anal sex on her nude body. We see her afterward, barely able to walk to her own apartment and away from the scene of the rape.

What surprised me is the next scene of sexual violence, where Lisbeth gets revenge on her attacker. Returning to his apartment, she uses a Taser gun to stun him, removes his clothes, gags him, manacles his wrists, and inserts an object into his anus. She goes one step further by applying tattoos to his torso that read (correctly), “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist.”

Sex and violence are equal-opportunity employers in this film.

We learn that the film’s focus is the investigation of a series of unsolved murders of seven women who were sexually and violently tortured before their death. We also discover that Lisbeth grew up watching her father repeatedly abuse her mother.

When I asked my friend why she recommended the movie to me, she said it was because the subtext of The Girl was Larsson’s deep concern with violence toward women in Sweden.

I discovered that Larsson put a fact about violence against women in the beginning of each section of the book: “Eighteen percent of women in Sweden at one time have been threatened by a man,” “thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship,” and “ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”

As we all know, violence against women knows no boundaries. Here in the states, one in four women experience domestic violence.

After seeing the film, I asked my son whether he knew about the many scenes of violence and violent sex in the book his son was reading. He said he didn’t know about them while his son was reading the book, adding that his son had told him that he wouldn’t like the book, because “he knows how adverse I am to violence, particularly in the movies.”

However, later when recovering from a virus, he did read it in order to learn what his son had read.

My son said that he and his wife had talked independently to their son about the violent sex scenes. “I told him that the author was trying to make a strong point about how abhorrent he found sexual violence toward women to be – and that the author chose to be very graphic in making that point,” he said.

He added, “I asked [my son] a rhetorical question, ‘Did the author need to be so graphic?’

I told him ‘perhaps not, but he was the artist, the creator, the writer, not me, and he may well have felt that he needed to shock Swedes, who may have been unaware about the high incidence of sexual violence toward women in that country.’ Then together we discussed the power of fiction.”

I thought about older teens that might see an R-rated movie like The Girl without their parents. What messages about sex and violence would they came away with, if they couldn’t process what they had seen with a parent or other trusted adult? If my grandson got his hands on the book, what was stopping other 16-year-olds from doing the same?

How many teens are reading this book and seeing the movie without benefit of clarification or discussion?

I realize that many teens have seen online pornography and may be somewhat inured to scenes that seemed so shocking to me. I don’t want to discourage teens from reading books, and I don’t believe in forbidding them to read adult books with violent sex scenes.

I don’t advocate censorship. But I would urge parents to make sure they talk to their adolescents about the scenes they may be reading and viewing.

Parents and educators should talk to young people about sex and violence, which tragically often intertwine, and not shy away from the subject. They can acknowledge that violent sex exists in novels, films, and the world at large—just as evil does. But they should make clear that sex should include tenderness, love, and affection, and we can work together to lessen sexual assault here and abroad.

As I mulled over the film’s graphic content, I remembered that June 6th was the 42nd anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death. A favorite quote of his came to mind: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

His wise words might form the basis of a parent-teen discussion about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I imagine that Stieg Larsson would have liked that take-home message.

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The Pill that Changed the World Turns 50

June 9, 2010
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If some imaginative person had made a birthday cake for it, she—it would have had to be a she—might have put 100 million candles on it. For that represents the number of women around the world who start each day by swallowing it.

No, it is not a vitamin pill. It is a birth control pill—known generically as the Pill—and many celebrated its 50th birthday on May 9th with justifiable gratitude and fanfare.

May 9, 1960, is one of those days that will shine bright in American history: it is the day that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the tiny pill that gave women control over their fertility. The FDA’s “blessing” attested to the safety of hormonal contraception, or “birth control,” in the words of Margaret Sanger. The Pill changed the world.

When it was approved, 500,000 women in the U.S. were already taking it, according to the recent Time cover story. This number would continue to swell rapidly, leading The Economist magazine at the end of 1999 to predict the far-reaching and wide-ranging impact that the scientific discovery had on women’s—and men’s —lives. In her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, author Gail Collins called the Pill “the one invention that historians a thousand years in the future will look back on and say, ‘That defined the twentieth century.’”

A recently released National Survey of Family Growth study found that the Pill is “the most popular method [of contraception] in the United States, used by 10.7 million women between the ages of 15 and 44. The Economist’s crystal ball seems to be working well. The early years in the life of the Pill were relatively easy ones. Millions of women “embraced” it, whatever the public arguments were for or against its use. It was an effective and convenient way to avoid pregnancy.

Most saw its promise in offering a different life beyond child rearing. More women were able to imagine a life that included both children and job. The results soon became plain: more companies, no longer afraid that women would leave as soon as they conceived a baby, eagerly opened their doors. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, ending not only discrimination in college athletics for female undergraduates, but also throwing open the doors of law, medical, and business schools to women.

But in the 1990s, the recent cover story in Time reported, when the Pill was about 20 years old, a backlash developed. The impetus for the counter-revolution started, or was ramped up, by organized religions and conservative political advocacy groups. The Catholic hierarchy consistently opposed the Pill from its inception, even though in 1970, “two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control and more than a quarter were on the Pill.” Many Evangelical Christian denominations followed suit, framing their disapproval in the context of what “God intends in marriage.” Church leaders proclaimed that “using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation.”

These pronouncements—and funded public policies like abstinence-only-until-marriage education school programs, which denigrate the use of contraception—may have had a serious effect on the Pill’s current use. A National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study recently found that 86 percent of young men and 88 percent of young women “say it is important to avoid pregnancy in their lives right now.” But the same study showed that “63 percent of this group says they know little or nothing about birth control pills, and much of what they think they know is wrong.”

On the eve of its 50th birthday, Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine’s executive editor, summed up the precarious situation in which the Pill currently finds itself: “We’re still fighting those battles in Congress [like allowing hospital workers and pharmacists who have moral qualms about contraception to refuse to fill prescriptions]. To think that in 2010, 50 years after the birth control Pill, we still have to fight for access and effective family planning—it’s painful.”

If women gaining access to the Pill is painful in the U.S., it is infinitely more painful for women in the developing world. Investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg writes of this dilemma in her book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. In her concluding chapter, “Sex and Chaos,” she paints a frightening picture of what will happen if we do not provide women in the developing world with the family-planning help many so desperately desire.

She reports that 6.7 billion people share this planet and its dwindling resources of food, water, and energy. She writes of an increasing number of food riots, because of hunger and continued lack of clean water. “Despite falling fertility rates in many parts of the world, global population is still increasing by 78 million people a year,” and it will add a number close to this one through 2020 if no interventions are planned. In 2050, adding only two children to every family, the population will reach 9.2 billion. If fertility remains half a child higher, there will be 10.8 billion people vying for the fundamental resources of life.

In developing countries overall, 15 percent of married women, and “seven percent of unmarried women have … an unmet need for contraception,” Goldberg writes. “This means they are sexually active, do not want to become pregnant, and yet are not using birth control.” In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of unmarried women with an unmet need for contraception is 24 percent and in many Latin American countries, “more than 40 percent of births were unwanted.”

The director of the population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation tells Goldberg that “in some ways, contraceptive access is worse now [particularly in urban areas of Africa] than it was in 1979.” Goldberg concludes by saying nothing less than “a massive investment in women’s education, birth control access, and income generation would lessen the danger that the world’s population would outstrip the planet’s resources.”

To honor its first 50 years of existence and plan for its future, perhaps we need to consider mounting a second revolution for the Pill: a revolution of access. First, we must get the message out in the U.S.— especially in school programs and health clinics in poor urban and rural areas—that the Pill is effective, safe, and does not cause cancer, strokes, or blood clots, as many of its opponents claim.

Then we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters around the world in their quest to gain access to the Pill. Perhaps our goal should be that in another 50 years, when the Pill marks its 100th birthday, every woman on the planet who wants it should be able to start her day by swallowing the tiny tablet.

Indeed to reach this goal would be historic, and a success that The Economist in 2099 might say “defined the twenty-first century.”

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