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Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality Education’

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 MOMeoMagazine.com

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.

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.”

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: http://metroteenaids.org/], 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.”

Soon.

“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.

Beyond a Public Health Model of Sexuality Education

August 3, 2011

In her recent blog for RH Reality Check, “A Collision of Culture and Nature: How Our Fear of Teen Sexuality Leaves Teens More Vulnerable,” former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders states, “Efforts in the United States…to address adolescent sex have been directed toward preventing teenage sex as opposed to understanding helping teens prevent adverse consequences of sexual activity.” She makes an impassioned argument for comprehensive sexuality education K-12, and I could not agree more.

Lois teaches sex ed
Family Guy

At the same time, however, Dr. Elders’ piece reinforces how much the field of sexuality education remains stagnated in an almost exclusively public health model that depersonalizes the learners we are trying to serve. We focus on reducing teen pregnancies and births, lowering STD rates and learning how to use various safer sex and contraceptive methods accurately and effectively, which are invaluable components to effective sexuality education and to helping young people grow into healthy, complete adults.

Yet these goals are nowhere near enough. We need to do a much better job of explaining to the general public what sexuality education K-12 really means, and this means not couching our goals and objectives exclusively in reducing pregnancy and STDs. Failure to communicate what sexuality education K-12 really means is a significant reason why our efforts to provide age-appropriate sexuality education in younger grades does not resonate with more adult professionals and parents. Adults tell us, “If the overall goal is preventing something that happens as a result of sexual behaviors, that means you are going to teach my kindergartener about sexual intercourse.” Opponents to the work we do have exploited that unfounded fear very effectively—and unnecessarily.

The world needs to understand that just like any other topic area, sexuality education must start early with very basic information that supports the creation of an overall healthy person. The world needs to understand the myriad topics that, on face value, seem to have nothing to do with sexuality, but are imperative in order to become a sexually health adult. For example, when we teach a kindergartener how to be a good friend or about boundaries of any kind, we are establishing the foundation that later will help them to be a good partner. When we tell a child, “hands are not for hitting,” we are setting the stage for our later lessons on healthy versus abusive relationships. When we teach them to negotiate with each other rather than just grabbing a toy from another student or running away from a frustrating situation in tears, we are helping them learn to communicate. When we teach young children how to take care of their bodies and to wash their hands to avoid infections, we have laid the cornerstone for later lessons on puberty, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

We seem to understand this in every other topic area—except for human sexuality. Consider math, for example. Young people tend to learn algebra in the 9th or 10th grade, because that’s the age at which their brains can understand algebra. Yet we do not begin teaching math in the 9th or 10th grade, because we know that students need the foundational knowledge of addition, subtraction, multiplication and so on before they can understand and apply the knowledge they received during algebra class. Why on earth should a life-enhancing, lifesaving topic like human sexuality be any different? And yet it is. In many schools nationwide, if sex ed is taught, it begins in high school and makes assumptions that by osmosis young people enter high school with the foundational knowledge and skills they need, but rarely have.

Sexuality education must start earlier, and it must be framed much more effectively as part of creating an overall healthy person—only one component of which is determining whether and when to become sexually active, and how to protect themselves and their partners from infection and/or pregnancy.

Abstinence Only Until Marriage? Basta Cosi…

July 28, 2011

Back in 2008 when Bristol Palin “lost her abstinence,” her mom Sarah was a staunch supporter of abstinence-only-until-marriage “education.” So when unmarried Bristol turned up pregnant, her mother did a very effective job of denying the reality that not only do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs not work, but they also are, as Bristol herself said, “unrealistic.” Now, Palin’s son Track has a wife of two months, who is visibly pregnant, which means that she became pregnant before the wedding. (Clutch the pearls!) Yet Grandma Palin remains strongly opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. And she is not alone in her denial, her resistance or her hypocrisy.

Palin's views on sexuality education

I don’t know what is more troublesome: the idea that social conservatives continue to push for the propagation and funding of these programs that have absolutely no research demonstrating any long-term effectiveness; the fact that the federal government continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs (over $1 billion to date); or the “holier-than-thou” attitude that empowers conservative politicians to publicly and unapologetically tell the country how we should live our lives (until they or a member of their family contradict the party line and suddenly, conveniently, the entire issue becomes “a matter of privacy”). It makes me think of a young child being told by her parent, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That doesn’t fly with young people about anything, especially something as significant to them as sex and sexuality. And by withholding life-enhancing, sometimes lifesaving, information from young people, we are setting them up for unhealthy interactions with unpredictable outcomes.

What if we were to acknowledge the reality that some people choose to wait to have sex until they are married, and some do not? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, because in acknowledging that, we would need to acknowledge some concepts that alternately terrify or are irrelevant to social conservatives. For example, we’d need to acknowledge that not everyone who is in a sexual relationship is heterosexual and therefore “until marriage” is an exclusionary time frame. We would need to acknowledge that young people can and do make decisions for themselves, including decisions about sexuality. We would need to acknowledge that, as parents, one of our most important jobs is to talk with our children about sexuality from the very youngest ages and keep talking about it with them through their lives—and that means talking about much more than telling our kids to “just say no.” And we would need to acknowledge that, since far too many parents feel uncomfortable with or unprepared to discuss sexuality, they need the support of educational professionals to teach comprehensive sexuality education at school. That means teaching not only about abstinence, but also about contraception, safer sex and much more.

Enough excuses. Enough faux moralism. As my late grandmother would say, “Basta cosi.” Enough is enough.

How Do We Solve a Problem Like the P-Word? Should School-Based Sex Education Address Pleasure?

July 20, 2011

No, not that p-word. These days, that one is-forgive me-no big thing. The p-word to which I am referring is “pleasure.” And, its role in school-based sexuality education is among the hottest topics being debated among sexuality educators today.

For some who read this, the idea of including pleasure within sexuality education is a no-brainer. For others, it is the forbidden subject-the Voldemort of sex ed that should not be named under any circumstance. But is the inclusion of pleasure necessarily an “all or nothing” issue?

Those who advocate proactively teaching about pleasure will ask, “How can one teach about sexuality and not acknowledge the pleasurable aspects?” After all, sexuality education is about providing medically-accurate information, and the medically-accurate fact is that sexual behaviors can (and should) produce pleasure. But we also know that far too many people’s introduction to sexual behaviors is negative. If one’s baseline experience is coercive, assaultive or negative in other ways, the expectations for future sexual relationships will reflect that baseline. Including pleasure in teaching sex ed can provide a more positive baseline and help to correct misinformation learned through negative life experience.

Unfortunately, sexuality education has always focused on the prevention of, rather than the promotion of, something-STD and HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention and so on. This, along with the decades of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, has hammered into young people’s heads that “shared sexual behaviors only result in bad things, and therefore sex is bad.” It is confusing for a young person to receive a barrage of negative messages about sex accompanied by the reassurance that, miraculously, when one is in an adult, long-term, committed relationship sex will morph into something positive.

The age-old concern has been that if young people know that sexual behaviors are pleasurable, they will want to engage in those behaviors. But guess what? Most young people already know that sex is pleasurable, whether shared sexual behaviors or masturbation. Failure to acknowledge that sexual behaviors can produce pleasure can significantly reduce our validity with young people, which in turn can reduce the effectiveness of our work with them. In addition, research has shown that the more young people know about sex and sexuality, the more likely they are to wait to be in a sexual relationship until they feel ready, and to practice safer sex with their partner. Further, health behavior theories reinforce that people engage in particular behaviors for a reason. Without addressing the benefits a person gets from engaging in particular behaviors, sexual or otherwise-including unhealthy behaviors-it will be impossible to support healthy practices relating to those behaviors.

Having read that, it would appear that I am pushing for including pleasure in the school curriculum-but I actually am not; or, at least, not necessarily. What I am advocating for is that we think about the rationale behind what we propose teaching at particular age levels. I am also advocating for us all to acknowledge the reality in which schools operate today and realize that this often does not match the ideal for which we strive. And while it is only by pushing the proverbial envelope that we can make social progress and change, if we press that ideal without acknowledging reality, we are only setting ourselves-and the young people we serve-up to fail.

The latest School Health Policies and Programs Study is a good example of this. This data showed that, on average, the amount of time devoted to sex ed in high school is 8.1 hours per year. How likely is it, therefore, that the concept of pleasure, beyond acknowledging that people do sexual things because they feel good, will be a part of any school curriculum?

Ideally, schools should both offer sex ed classes and integrate healthy sexuality messages throughout the entire school curriculum. Ideally, sexuality education should be about physical, emotional and psychological health promotion, rather than about the prevention of pregnancy and disease alone. But if all the time we have to teach young people is 8.1 hours, is pleasure among the most important topics to include? In a culture that is conflicted about adult sexuality and that would prefer to ignore (or that blatantly fears) young people’s sexuality, is it realistic to think that most parents would get behind a curriculum that taught about sexual pleasure? I imagine that some would say yes, some no and some remain in between. Thus, the debate continues.

For those of us who call ourselves “sexuality educators” and who address sexuality-related issues every day, we understand how vitally important it is for this topic to be addressed with young people at the earliest ages and throughout the lifespan. But we also have to remember that the vast majority of professionals teaching sex ed in schools do not self-identify as “sexuality educators.” They are health teachers, school nurses, school social workers, counselors and others who have been charged with teaching about sexuality. Their school and community climates vary across a wide spectrum of politics and levels of support. Their personal comfort varies across a wide spectrum as well. In some school districts, where teaching about reproduction is considered controversial, proposing that sex ed include pleasure could make the difference between whether the program continues or is cut.

We must pick our battles wisely. And any efforts to support curricular change and improvement in school-based sex ed must acknowledge the reality of that school community, and recognize whatever efforts they have made as potential building blocks for future progress.

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.

A Thanksgiving Grace for Sexuality Education

November 29, 2009

In the spirit of not practicing giving thanks more than once a year, I offer you this post written for Thanksgiving day, because it might have a bit more shelf life.

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 Teen Talk, 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.