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Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality Education’

The First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Lessons “Double Dutch” Can Teach Our Youth

November 10, 2009

Let me start with an admission: I share a birth date with First Lady Michelle Obama and am therefore a special fan. Like me, she is a Capricorn (the Goat), but oh, so much more. Before I read that her birth date is January 17th — albeit some 34 years after mine — the only two people with whom I shared a birthday were Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Now I don’t want to sneeze at either of these two gentlemen; I am proud to be in their company. But I feel a strong, indescribable bond with the First Lady because of the January 17th connection.

I have avidly followed Michelle Obama’s travels and accomplishments since she has arrived at The White House. I have watched as she dug into the historic soil of the South Lawn and planted a garden to encourage more children to eat their veggies (with the exception of beets, which the president doesn’t like). I laughed out loud when I read that on St. Patrick’s Day last March, she ordered the water in the White House fountains turned a brilliant shade of green.

It is fun and games wherever this lively, outgoing, stunningly chic woman puts her touch. She seems to be perpetually surprised and thrilled that she and her family are living in the People’s House and doesn’t want to miss a minute to enjoy the experience. Michelle — as we have never met, I hope she won’t interpret my use of her first name as a sign of disrespect-makes me, at an advanced age, feel young and ready for new adventures. She makes me smile.

My admiration for Michelle’s Peter Pan spirit was only reinforced last Saturday when I read that she participated in the jump-rope exercise “Double Dutch” at a recently held “healthy kids fair” on the South Lawn. For the uninitiated or those who haven’t thought about jumping rope in some time, Double Dutch is a routine usually performed by 10-year-olds, not women in their mid-40s. It involves skipping between two ropes swinging at the same time in opposite directions, and it is very difficult not to trip and get your feet entangled in one or the other of the ropes. (The First Lady did not miss a step.)

Apparently, Michelle has a keen eye for what’s the latest rage among preteen and teen girls, probably because of her own two daughters. Double Dutch has an interesting history among games young people play. It was first played by Dutch settlers on the shores of the Hudson River some 400 years ago. The British dubbed it “Double Dutch,” when they arrived in the New World.

During World War II, it became very popular with urban children living in Manhattan, who made up and sang rhymes as they turned the ropes. The first tournament was held in 1974 and drew nearly 600 children. Today, the Apollo Theater in Harlem hosts competitions that draw Double Dutch teams from around the world.

Recently, Double Dutch has gained further recognition as “the newest of 35 varsity sports” played in New York City, according to this New York Times piece. (New Jersey, are we there?) There is also a team called the Dynamic Diplomats of Double Dutch that performs internationally with members ranging from teens to adults in their 30s.

The fact that Double Dutch has become an international sport gives me the perfect segue, since I heard a different definition for the term about ten years ago from a group of sexuality educators. They had returned from a trip organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, a national organization devoted to the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents. They had visited the Netherlands and other European countries to study sex education programs and societal attitudes about sexuality that shape public policy for young people.

These educators told me that “Double Dutch” is a common slogan that most teens growing up in the Netherlands learn at home and in school. It reflects the deeply held societal belief that a good sexual relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility. Young people are taught that before you have sex, you must have a solid relationship based on honesty, equality, and trust (no “hooking up” or one-night stands). They also learn to use two forms of protection against unplanned pregnancy and disease each time they have sex: the female always uses the Pill and the male always uses a condom (the “Double Dutch” method).

Most young people and adults know the meaning of “Double Dutch” and practice it, giving the Netherlands the lowest rates of teen and adult pregnancies, births, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases of any nation in the western Industrialized world.

I do not expect Michelle Obama to take on the issue of adolescent pregnancy in the U.S. It would be too controversial and too difficult in her husband’s young presidency to get mired in the culture wars. Instead, I wish her the best of luck in her effort to encourage young people to eat well and to exercise. I hope she will continue to amaze us by participating in more games of Double Dutch without missing a beat, or a step.

But leaders in urban communities nationally and here in New Jersey, where teen pregnancy rates are stubbornly high, can teach young people that the term “Double Dutch” has a second meaning — and that integrating this meaning into their behavior can make a real difference in their lives. They can even hold Double Dutch events and work in important lessons about sexual health to teens.

Who says that teaching an important concept about sexual responsibility can’t be fun?

Kudos to Carrera and His “Top Tier” Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

October 18, 2009

I recently went to New York City to celebrate an old friend and the successful adolescent pregnancy program that he created and has faithfully administered for 25 years. I joined about 150 people at the Harvard Club in to applaud Dr. Michael Carrera and celebrate his outstanding  Children’s Aid Society Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, which he developed at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. The Program’s goal is to help young people growing up in poverty improve their life’s chances and avoid the rough seas of teen pregnancy.

The Carrera Program has nine sites in Manhattan and replications in Georgia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio. Recently, it was  designated a “Top Tier Youth Program” by The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy’s Top Tier Evidence Initiative initiated by Congress.

This designation is very meaningful. The Carrera Program is only one of two national programs to receive it. As a result, it stands to receive a sizable infusion of federal funds set aside to help communities lower their stubbornly high rates of adolescent pregnancy. The Carrera Program has a seven-year plan to quadruple the number of young people it serves every year. Presently 3,000 youth are enrolled in the Program. Replications in local, community-based organizations that will accept the entire program’s concept and hands-on supervision from Dr. Carrera are presently planned in New Jersey and Connecticut with others across the nation to follow.

Dr. Carrera always refers to his work as “a long-term, above-the-waist approach that is guided by the principle that youth are ‘at promise’ not at risk.’”

The program works with boys and girls beginning at the age of 11, six days a week, 50 weeks a year, and follows them through high school and beyond. It helps them avoid too-early pregnancy by offering them after-school, weekend, and summer activities based on seven fundamental components: general education; employment and the opportunity to open a bank account; lifetime sports, including golf, tennis, swimming, squash, and bowling; comprehensive, no-cost medical and dental services; mental health services; self expression, including dance, drama, music, and writing; and family life and sex education! (He believes that when young people can see little hope for themselves in the future, sex education cannot do the job alone.)

Until its recent designation as “Top Tier” that will make it eligible for federal funding, Dr. Carrera has raised only private money from foundations and individuals to support his program. Thousands of young people and their families have participated in the program during its 25 years of existence. It costs less than $10 a day per student and reduces pregnancies by 50 percent in the communities served.

About 70 percent of program participants enter college and have found employment in education, law, medicine, media, science, engineering, and social work. As the program expands to serve more students, Dr. Carrera believes the costs will further decrease.

Guests at the 25th anniversary celebration received a booklet that detailed the high rates (and high costs) of unplanned teen pregnancy: “One hundred teens get pregnant every hour of every day in America. Fifty adolescents give birth and twenty-five adolescents have a pregnancy termination every hour of every day. The taxpayer cost of teen pregnancies, including public assistance, housing, food stamps, health care and other factors, is nearly seven billion dollars annually.”

Recently, for one brief evening, Dr. Carrera set aside his passion and let he and his accomplishments be celebrated. The crowd applauded and cheered for several hours. The speakers of the evening were numerous and included Jane Fonda, actress, author, and founder of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, which has adopted his approach. When it was Dr. Carrera’s turn to speak, he characteristically thanked everybody else for his Program’s accomplishments.

I first encountered Michael Carrera, the original energizer bunny, when he was teaching sex education to his daughter’s class at a private co-educational school, the Lenox School, in New York City.  His energy was unbelievable as was his comfort in talking about sex and answering any question that any student tossed at him.

Years went by but I kept following his accomplishments. He became chair of the Board of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the major national organization committed to promoting sexual health in the nation, and wrote a coffee-table-sized book called Sex: The Facts, the Acts and the Feelings. He was a popular speaker at sex education conferences, and I always gravitated to his sessions hoping to pick up ideas for improving my teaching. After noticing me in the audience for perhaps the third, or possibly fourth time, he turned to me and said somewhat sharply, “You’ve heard everything I have to say. Now go and do something to help young people.”

Over the past 25 years, Dr. Carrera has certainly done just that.

Bringing the Dreaded “P-word” into Sexuality Education

July 21, 2009

“In case you didn’t see this,” read the subject line of an e-mail from my friend forwarding the story “The joy for sex—for teens!” from Salon’s “Broadsheet.”

The story was indeed eye-popping by any standard. It covered how the National Health Service in the United Kingdom had recently published a pamphlet for young people telling them, among other things, that orgasms feel good. Its title: “Pleasure.” The “finger-wagging moralists” were outraged, reported Broadsheet.

To give you some perspective on the brouhaha in the U.K. over the pamphlet, consider what would happen if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, or any of state health departments across the U.S. published such a pamphlet.

What’s that expression?: “All hell would break loose.”

In America, the P-word draws lightening whenever you join the topics teens and sex. Many people here—as I’m surprised to learn in the U.K., too—think that any mention of the word “pleasure” in a talk about sex with young people sends the wrong message, whether the talk is taking place between parents and their kids or between students and their teachers using a classroom curriculum. That message? That talking about pleasure encourages young people to have sex.

Americans tell pollsters that of course they talk to their children about sex and support sex education programs in public schools. But there’s always a caveat to that support: These discussions must emphasize the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The thinking goes something like this: If we shroud sexual behavior in fear and shame, then we shall discourage young people from engaging in it at too early an age.

If the conversation is about sexual pleasure, many people think we’re sending the opposite and inherently wrong message. The powerful abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, on which the U.S. spent more than half a billion dollars, is predicated on instilling fear and shame into young people by telling them only about the drawbacks to having sex as a teenager or outside of marriage.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has removed this funding from its 2010 budget, but that doesn’t mean leaders are going to suddenly endorse instruction about pleasure.

The U.K. pamphlet encourages “parents and educators to add a dose of honesty about carnal delights to traditional sex talks.” A spokesman for the conservative British organization Family and Youth Concern called the pamphlet and approach “nothing less than child abuse.”

My hunch is that if such a pamphlet were to ever see the light of day in the U.S.—and I think it would be a long time coming, if ever—a slew of groups and politicians would use the same words, doing their best to ensure that the pamphlet would never appear in any public school or library.

This whole controversy reminds me of a comment I once heard from a 15-year-old teen awaiting the birth of her first child due to unplanned pregnancy. “I sure hope,” she said, “that giving birth won’t hurt as much as having sex.”

Obviously, the first and perhaps only time this teen had had sex before getting pregnant was far from pleasurable. I thought to myself at the time that probably no one in her life had ever told her that sex was supposed to be a mutually pleasurable experience. I doubt that anyone had ever mentioned the word “orgasm” to her, or told her about attraction, stimulation, lubrication, foreplay, intimacy, and enjoyment.

Had she been able to read a pamphlet such as “Pleasure,” she might have realized that she could delay losing her virginity until she was more knowledgeable about sex and the pleasure it’s supposed to provide. She might have also learned that sexual behavior is a two-way street, and that she deserved to feel satisfaction when engaging in it. She might have learned that she and her partner could have used protection, it would not have detracted from that pleasure, too.

My hunch is that if we talked to many young women who starting having sex at 13 or 14 years of age, we would find them abysmally ignorant about sexual pleasure, orgasms, and all the good stuff about human sexual response. Of course, they see sexual behavior on TV, the Internet, and in movies all the time—yet I wonder how many young heterosexual women ever get a chance to talk to anyone about the fact that sex is supposed to feel good for them as well as the guy.

For far too long, we have focused on the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The outcomes of this approach are none too good. The U. S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world and, according to the latest statistics, one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease.

Enough of the dire warnings about sex: Let’s take a new approach in a new century. Let’s use the P-word with young people. I’ll take any bet from any reader that if we adopt a positive approach and communicate honestly about sex’s delights, then we can raise a generation of young people who are more careful and more caring about their sexuality.

If young people understand that there is something precious about the gift of human sexuality, they might treat it with more respect than they presently do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments in more progressive states like New Jersey, for starters, should publish pamphlets similar to “Pleasure.”

It would take a lot of courage to step up and speak honestly to young people about the pleasurable aspects of sex—but what a gift they would give them.

Author Robie Harris Talks Candidly to Children About Sex

July 8, 2009

If Robie H. Harris looks like a grandma, it’s because she is one. But unlike almost every other grandma in the United States, Harris is an award-winning author of picture books about sex, sexual health, and safety for young children, school age children, preteens, and adolescents.

The books—It’s Not the Stork!: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, for ages 4 and up; It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families, for ages 7 and up; and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health, for ages 10 and up—have sold millions of copies and been translated into numerous languages. It’s Perfectly Normal, at last count, has been translated into 27 languages. They feature the charming illustrations of Michael Emberley.

I happen to think that Harris’s delightful and informative books belong in every elementary and middle school library, public library, and home in America. I once somewhat jokingly suggested that all new parents should be given Harris’s books for free when they leave the hospital with their first baby and told to put them on a shelf and retrieve them when their kids reach certain ages.

I recently interviewed Harris about the new, updated, 15th anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal, which her publisher, Candlewick Press, will release in early September. The edition includes a new chapter on young people’s fascination with and use of the Internet.

Susan N. Wilson: What is the main purpose of your books about sex and sexuality for children and preteens?

Robie Harris: My overall purpose is to give information to help kids stay healthy from their early years through puberty and adolescence. Kids today are swamped by sexual words and images. The media sometimes gives accurate information, but sometimes it gives inaccurate and even dishonest information and that can lead to unhealthy behaviors and risks.

Our kids must have the most up-to-date and accurate information, so they can make healthy decisions, not risky ones. That’s why I consult with many experts in the field of sexuality when I’m updating my books. I have great respect for parents and teachers and hope that the books Michael and I have created can help them to talk with and educate children about sexual matters.

SW: You’ve updated It’s Perfectly Normal for the 21st century as the banner headline on the new edition proclaims. Since you wrote it 15 years ago, the Internet has come of age and kids find it very exciting.  How have you addressed this new technology and what it offers children in the way of information, good and scary, about sex and sexuality?

RH: Children accept the Internet’s presence 100%, but parents need to help their kids navigate and use it in a safe way and let their kids know the risks it can pose. I tell older kids that while the Internet is a great place to look up topics about sexual health and keep in touch with friends through e-mail, instant messaging, or social networking sites, there are still things they need know to ensure that their own personal health and relationships stay safe and healthy.

I tell kids of all ages that what makes good sense is to ask a grown-up you trust to help you to find sites where you can get responsible information. I also tell them that talking with a trusted adult is a great way to get the information they want. We all know that our children live in a world of sexualized images, and they need to be guided through it by trusted adults.

SW: What do you call the chapter on the Internet in the new edition?

RH: With older kids, ages 10 to 14, I acknowledge the Internet with a new chapter called “Helpful, Fun, Creepy, Dangerous.” The purpose of the chapter is to help kids get information while at the same time stay safe. Some of the information they can get on the Internet will be helpful, some will be fun, but some could be creepy, confusing, and make them feel very uncomfortable. I suggest ways for them to find responsible sites that have helpful and age-appropriate information, so they can make good decisions. I also suggest what to do if they end up on a site that makes them feel upset or creepy.

SW: How would you define the word “pornography” and do you use the word in your revised book?

RH: I think the best definition of pornography is, “You know it when you see it.” I think kids know it when they see it, too. They can’t quite explain it, but they know it, and it can make some feel creepy and upset and others feel excited. I define “puberty” and many other terms in the book, but while I talk about pornography, I do not define it, as I could not come up with a definition I felt would make sense for kids.

But having a conversation with kids, when needed, is something that can happen over time and over many days. There is nothing wrong with using the word if a parent needs to talk with their child about it. Parents and kids can even try to define the word together to help them understand the perfectly normal reactions they may have if they do see it.

SW: Do all children have the same reaction to what you call “creepy” sites?

No, I think that while some find these sites by pure accident, some intend to go to them and find them sexually exciting.

SW: What advice would you give to children or students who come across upsetting information online and are frightened by what they’ve seen or “grossed out” by creepy images?

RH: If they have seen upsetting information online or meet someone online they don’t know, like a stranger who tries to meet them in person, my immediate advice is to quit the site and immediately talk to a trusted, responsible older person about what they have just seen. I also hope that the responsible, older person will assure them that they haven’t done anything wrong in finding the site, and that they are just curious. And being curious about sexual matters is not bad; rather, it’s normal and healthy.

SW: There is a lot of talk about the prevalence of cyberbullying. Do you address this issue?

RH: Yes, I definitely let children know that saying something mean, bullying someone, or spreading gossip—even sexy gossip—when they are communicating with others online can make a person feel crummy and hurt that person’s feelings. This is something all our kids need to know not to do.

SW: In this age of Facebook and other social networking sites, do you give preteens and teens any advice to follow in the new chapter?

In order to protect kids from danger, I include a list of rules for the Internet for them to keep in mind whenever they go online. Parents and teachers can reinforce that these rules are ways to ensure kids’ privacy and safety. Here are a few of the rules:

  • Never use your real name;
  • Do not post any personal details, such as your telephone number,
    street address, or the name of your school;
  • Do not say you’re a kid; and
  • Never give your password.

SW: If a child’s parents are unable to discuss unpleasant and confusing sexual images, what should the child do?

I recommend that the child seek out another trusted adult, such as the school nurse or psychologist or the child health care professional, to discuss what s/he has seen. Similarly, if parents are not able to discuss these Internet events—and some aren’t—asking another trusted adult in the family, a neighbor, or their health professional for help can often help their child.

SW: I hear you’re working on a new picture book for very young children. Could you tell me more about it?

It’s a picture book for very young children ages two-and-a-half and up about naming all the outside parts of their bodies. It is normal, healthy, and developmentally appropriate for young children to want to know “the science names” for all of these parts, so they will learn early on that having these parts—whether you’re a girl and have a vagina or you’re a boy and have a penis—is as normal and healthy as having elbows, chins, and other body parts. When young children can name these parts, they feel proud of the body they have—a feeling that will help them all through their childhood and as they go through puberty and adolescence.

Domestic Violence and Sex Ed: What’s the Connection?

May 21, 2009

Domestic violence has been on my mind recently.

I attended a fund-raising event for Womanspace, a local organization that gives shelter, counseling and care to women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands and partners, and I learned that more than 5,000 women had sought counsel and shelter from this community nonprofit during the past year. I also learned that the total annual cost of domestic violence nationwide runs in the billions of dollars.

By coincidence the day after the event, I went to my local Verizon store to recycle a cell phone. The salesperson directed me to a bin on which was written in large letters: “Help Prevent Domestic Violence: Recycle Wireless Phones.” I looked puzzled, so he explained that a local phone number is put into the old phone and if it’s pressed by someone who is being battered or abused, a call goes directly to the police, who can locate the place where the abuse is occurring. He added that this is a national effort.

Sexuality educators may ask: Is there a connection between domestic violence and sex education, and, if so, what is it? Are sex educators in the business of trying to prevent and lessen this scourge through our work with young people in middle and high school?  Do we even talk in class about the prevalence of domestic violence?

Let me try to answer this question by looking at some of the conclusions in the book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, by Jessica Fields, which received the 2009 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Race, Gender, and Class section. In her book, Fields talks about three distinct curricula in the type of sex education given in schools:

  • the formal curriculum—the official planned course of study;
  • the hidden curriculum—the disparities in educators’ expectations for students across social differences of gender, race and class;
  • the evaded curriculum—the lessons that are ignored, stepped around or simply omitted.

My hunch is that a lot of educators would admit that the topic of domestic violence is placed in the evaded category. But it occurs to me that it belongs in the same area of instruction and discussion as sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and date and acquaintance rape—the dangerous aspects of human sexuality. 

Our very first issue of Sex, Etc. (Winter 1994) included one teenager’s first-person account of a date rape that occurred when she was 15 years old. She writes:
 
 “He took me into the bedroom so I could pass out [I had been
 drinking]. I was in the bed and I heard him lock the door.  I
 asked him why he did that and he said, ‘So no will bother
 you.’ He lay in the bed next to me and told me to go to sleep
 and I would feel better. I remember falling asleep and being
 woken up by him pushing me and saying, ‘Put this in your
 mouth.’ I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m tired, leave me alone.’
 Then I felt him take off my underwear. I told him to stop. He
 wouldn’t. He started to get on top of me and I started to scream….
 He put his hand over my mouth and raped me.”

This teenager’s story plus lesson plans that we’ve developed can be used by sexuality educators in their discussions with teens about sexual violence. Date and acquaintance rape and domestic violence show a shocking disregard for the bodily integrity of human beings. It is my hope that sexuality educators can see the connections between them and join customers at Verizon and supporters of nonprofit organizations like Womanspace to tackle the horrific social problem that is domestic violence.

April Showers

April 24, 2009

Sometimes references to sexuality education and sexuality issues in the daily newspaper are as ubiquitous as April showers. But even I was startled by what I saw in the April 15th edition of the New York Times: obituaries of two women who not only died far too young, but whose lives were shaped to a great extent by their personal and professional experiences with human sexuality.

These were the headlines: “Judith Krug, Librarian Who Fought Ban on Books, Dies at 69,” and “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58.”

What immediately attracted me to Judith Krug’s obit was the reference to banned books.  As we know, many books are banned from libraries and school libraries, in particular, because of their sexual content (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies immediately come to mind.)

Krug spent her professional life fighting efforts to ban books, no matter how offensive they might be to a particular audience and no matter the political persuasion of their authors.  She became director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and then executive director of its Freedom to Read Foundation, which raises money to promote First Amendment issues in court cases. She helped create Banned Books Week, which occurs annually, and fought the banning of sex manuals among other books.

In a 2002 interview with The Chicago Tribune, she recounted a childhood experience that inspired her life’s work. She was 12 years old and reading a sex education book under the covers with a flashlight: “It was a hot book; I was just panting, when my mother suddenly threw back the covers and asked what I was doing. I timidly held up the book. She said, ‘For God’s sake turn on your bedroom light so you don’t hurt your eyes. And that was that.’”

Think of what might have happened had her mother snatched the book away or berated her daughter for trying to educate herself about sex and sexuality. Her child might never have gone on to lead the fight against censorship on the Internet and, as principal organizer of civil liberties groups, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

If Krug had been paralyzed by the incident, she might not have earned a note of appreciation for her life’s work from the Times editors, which appeared on the same day as her obit.

According to her obituary, Eve Sedgwick’s critical, academic writings focused “on the ambiguities of sexual identity in fiction [which] helped create the discipline known as queer studies.” She pioneered new thinking drawing on feminist scholarship, “teasing out the hidden socio-sexual subplots in writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James.”

Like Krug, reports the Times, Sedgwick did not shy from controversy, “most notoriously” delivering a paper, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” at the annual meeting of Modern Language Association. “In it, she argued that Austen’s descriptions of the restless Marianne Dashwood could be better understood in relation to contemporary thought about the evils of ‘self-abuse.’”

In an earlier interview with the Times, she explained the function of queer theory: “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”

Given her academic work, some people were surprised that Sedgwick was married to Hal Sedgwick, also a professor. They questioned how a seemingly straight, married woman could devise queer theory. In reply, she said she disliked the term “straight,” because it ran against her notion of sexual orientation “as a continuum rather than a category.”  Struggling at the end of her life with repeated bouts of breast cancer, Sedgwick wrote A Dialogue on Love, addressing her feelings about death, depression and sexual identity after having a mastectomy.

I feel sadness for our profession at the loss of these two accomplished women, dying so close to each other in time. Each in her own way made a contribution to the study of human sexuality and each highlighted its importance in their lives and in the world.

The showers of April give way, according to the old adage, to the flowers of May. I hope that the many contributions and valuable lives of Judith Krug and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick will continue to blossom and bloom.

Spring Cleaning…and Condoms

April 3, 2009

“Spring cleaning” to me isn’t the kind of housecleaning that our grandmothers did come the first signs of spring: hanging draperies on the line, beating pillows within an inch of their lives, and dusting every piece of bric-a-brac in the house. I just clean up my desktop and delete old files that I haven’t opened in years.

As with all self-improvement ventures, sometimes you discover a “jewel” among the dusty remnants. This spring, my “jewel” turned out to be a still-relevant, four-year-old comment from a New Jersey high school graduate about her sex education course. The young woman, whose named I do not know, was responding online to “Bush’s Sex Scandal,” a 2005 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that roundly criticized the Bush administration’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

She wrote:

“I agree with you 100% when you advocate sex ed that includes, but is not limited to abstinence. I went to high school in Glen Rock, NJ, where the official stand was ‘abstinence is the safest policy.’ That is how my teacher would begin and end each class period. Then she would say: ‘but if you aren’t abstinent, then you can use…’ condoms, diaphragms, the Pill, etc.

It was amazing. We learned the effectiveness of every form of birth control, even those that are not widely used. …. My teacher taught us how to use a condom, and I can recite the instructions on cue if need be. … She taught us what prevents STIs and the symptoms that a person would have with each infection. We discussed the policy of ‘abstinence-only’ education in class, and even learned the international statistics that you mentioned in your column. I never realized how utterly complete my sex education was until I got to college.

Please understand, I go to Vassar College…so we aren’t lacking in information about sex. Personally, I keep a box of condoms, lube gloves, and sex information outside my door for the people on my hall. Condoms are everywhere. But as a freshman, I met plenty of people who just didn’t have the background in sex education that I was fortunate to have. I found myself explaining things to my friends that they were never aware of. And it wasn’t just my roommate who went to an all-girls Catholic high school. People from Virginia, Connecticut, and California were just as uninformed.

I have come to value what my high school did for me in taking the progressive route with my education. I am a sophomore in college and a virgin (not by choice, really, it is just working out that way). When I do have sex, there is no question in my mind that I will use a condom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am thoroughly convinced that a complete sexual education is the only way to go, because when it comes to sex, options are the best weapon that you can have to protect yourself.”

Although four years old, Kristof’s column, with its arguments for teaching about condoms as well as abstinence, is still extremely pertinent. The Obama administration, while budgeting less funds for abstinence-only programs in 2010, is still not willing to bite the bullet and withdraw all funding from these discredited programs and replace them with comprehensive ones.

Earlier this week, I received several high priority e-mails asking me to make calls to the offices of the Democratic members of the Senate budget committee. The SOS appeals urged me to ask 13 Senators to vote “no” on the “Bunning [Senator Jim Bunning, R-KY] amendment” to restore full funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the 2010 budget.

I wish I could have e-mailed the New Jersey high school student’s comment to each of these senators. Her clear analysis of why young people need non-ideological, honest, accurate, and balanced sexuality education speaks louder than any words of mine about why adult legislators should listen to young people when they make decisions that affect their health and lives.

Too many legislators believe that their political careers will end if they vote against funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage. When Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out against using condoms to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa (see “The Pope on Condoms and AIDS”), he implicitly sent a message to Catholic legislators on this continent. That message? “Do not support school programs that include teaching about condoms, because this instruction goes against the moral teachings of the church.”

Catholic priests are not averse to rallying their congregations to oppose Catholic politicians who bravely take a stand against issues supported by the church. I understand the dilemma that legislators face when dealing with opposition based on religious doctrine, but what happens in public schools is a different matter.

I hope legislators pay more attention to young people like the thoughtful student who responded to Kristof’s column than to the Pontiff.

Why Can’t More Americans…?

March 25, 2009

In the hit Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings plaintively, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics came to mind recently as I found myself vexed by several national media stories that reveal our negative attitudes about sex. Yet my plaintive question is: “Why can’t Americans be more accepting of their sexuality?”

Story 1: Anna Quindlen on Abstinence-Only

If Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen might never have had to write these sentences in her March 16th column:

“Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.”

Quindlen writes a brilliant, perceptive analysis of Congress’ blindness to the failure of abstinence-only programs. If we, as a country, were more accepting of our sexuality and more willing to follow sound program evaluation, we’d have decided years ago that all young people deserve comprehensive sexuality education and be done with it.

Story 2: Obama’s Budget and Abstinence-Only

Sexuality educators learned that the new administration hasn’t removed funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Sure, it may have cut some of the money, but the Department of Health and Human Services section devoted to Preventing Teen Pregnancy states:

“The Budget supports State, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active.”

I call this budgetary decision a big waffle that divides kids into two groups: the sheep (the “good” kids who don’t have sex while in high school), and the goats (the “bad” kids who do). It denies young people equal opportunity to learn in advance of having sex about important ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Isn’t it useful for kids who decide to remain abstinent in high school to have knowledge about contraception, which they might put to use when they are in college or, as adults, ready to get married or commit to long-term partnerships?

If only Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, the DHHS would fund programs that offer balanced information about abstinence and contraception before most kids become sexually active. And it would support distribution of condoms and birth control pills to those who ask for them, as is done in many European countries with far lower teen pregnancy rates than ours.

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Sex Education: Forgotten, or Ignored?

March 11, 2009

It always amazes me how frequently the phrase “sex education” is omitted from important articles or statements about reproductive health, family planning and abortion. Sexuality education plays a crucial role in prevention, and it deserves much more recognition than it receives.

Just consider these two recent examples from the national press:

The National Council of Catholic Women recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad reproduced a statement on the Freedom of Choice Act by Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Act, if passed, would ensure Roe v. Wade’s protections and guarantee a woman’s right to choose. The statement from the USCCB was a stinging attack on the Act, and it included no mention of efforts the USCCB would support to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.—not even a reference to abstinence-only programs. The USCCB focused on how the Act would threaten “prenatal human life,” rather than on ways that we, as a nation, can work together to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive sexuality education provides such a way.

The second example is the Times op-ed “This Is the Way the Culture War Ends,” by William Saletan. Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, presents his solutions on ending the culture wars that currently rage over abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.

On birth control, he writes:

“This isn’t [about] a shortage of pills or condoms. It is a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It is a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation—and the subsequent killing, through abortion—of a developing human being.”

Now you may consider me naïve, but I was certain that Saletan’s next sentence would be about the importance of high quality, balanced sexuality education in our pubic schools.  But, you guessed it, he simply moved on without mentioning any instruction that might help young people understand the concept of personal responsibility about sexual behavior.

Maybe Saletan hasn’t heard a crackerjack high-school educator instruct students about the need to use contraception each and every time they decide to have sex, or if they one day decide not to be abstinent. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that for years and years, young people in the majority of states have only been given negative or false information about contraception through federally support abstinence-only programs.

Perhaps what Saletan wants all educators to tell students is “abortion kills a developing human being.” He apparently won’t settle for educators saying, “Most people believe that abortion is killing a developing human being, but some people believe otherwise.”  A balanced statement like this wouldn’t detract from Saletan’s point that students need to learn about, discuss and understand the importance of taking personal responsibility, when or if they have sex.

To his credit, Saletan breaks with traditional Catholic doctrine by saying that a “culture of life requires an ethic of contraception” and that birth control offers people “a loving, conscientious way to prevent conception…” I just wish he had added, “Public schools with students of all different religious denominations should teach about birth control in their sexuality education classes.” Period.

That would have made me happy—that, and a land where the phrase “sex education” is as commonplace as Mom and apple pie.

The Octuplets: A Lesson Plan

February 12, 2009

Octuplets: The word is such a rarity that it isn’t even included in the spellcheck of Microsoft Word. A certain woman and the worldwide media have put it on the map. Surely, as educators, you must have heard the buzz about the multiple births in the hallways and classrooms of the schools where you teach.

Whoever Nayda Suleman, the mother of the octuplets, really is or isn’t, she’s surely handed sexuality educators the teachable moment of the semester. I suggest you pause whatever curriculum you are using and capitalize on this opportunity to talk to your students about a wide variety of issues triggered by Suleman, a single mother of six who gave birth to eight babies, all conceived through in vitro fertilization.

But I don’t suggest that you focus your students’ attention on Suleman’s behavior or that of her medical doctor. Rather, I suggest that you use the following lesson plan, which I created after reading Ellen Goodman’s column, “Eight Is More than Enough.” The ideas in Goodman’s column provide an excellent basis for a lesson plan.

In her column, Goodman cites the following issues raised by Suleman’s births. She says the issues are “everything that we don’t really want to talk about in terms of pregnancy and child rearing”:

  • marital status,
  • money,
  • individual choice,
  • responsibility and
  • technology.

These issues should become central to your discussion with students. You could divide your students into five groups, and give each student one of the issues. Next, you could ask them to brainstorm together and then write down the pluses and minuses of each issue if someone was having a baby. For example, with marital status, the group might discuss the pluses and minuses of having a child as an unmarried teen, a single adult woman (with or without a job) or a committed couple in a marriage or long-term partnership.

The question of the appropriate age to conceive a child would certainly come up in the conversation among students. (My guess is that the students would conclude that having a child as a high-school student or a single parent would be immensely difficult.)

Individual group work around the other issues that Goodman suggests would enlarge and enrich the classroom conversation. Putting the students’ contributions to each issue on an easel-sized piece of paper and placing them up around the room would lead to a rich discussion about the heart of pregnancy and child rearing.

Goodman also asks another set of questions, which students could answer.

  • Does anyone have a right to tell anyone else how many kids to have?
  • Can only people who can afford children bear them?
  • If you are heterosexual female, do you need to have a husband to have a baby? (This might have already arisen under the discussion of “responsibility” in the first phase of the exercise.)

I might ask each student to answer each question individually and then hold a class discussion, with everyone chiming in and elaborating on his or her opinion.

A possible homework assignment might be for each student to browse the Internet and write a short paragraph about one of the following topics:

  • The history of the infertility movement;
  • The cost of having a single birth and/or multiple births to an individual family and to society;
  • Cost savings of providing family planning to poor women (which was stripped from the stimulus bill); and
  • The ethics of implanting multiple embryos and of destroying embryos.

I have tried to keep students away from giving their own opinions about the ethics of Suleman’s and her medical specialist’s behavior. This kind of discussion can cause some parents displeasure, if they hear about it. If the conversation reduces itself to a quarrel between those who support Suleman and those who do not, students will avoid the larger questions on bearing children. But students may want to talk generally, as a windup, about how or how not to regulate infertility treatments.

As a coda, it would worthwhile to review all forms of contraception. Students tell us so often that lessons on contraception are too dry and clinical to remember. A discussion of the methods against a backdrop of the octuplets’ birth might just be the perfect way for students to realize the profundity of bearing and raising a child. They may come away from the discussion with a better respect for the medical gift of contraception and a greater comfort with using contraception when and if they do decide to have sex.

If you decide to follow this lesson plan—amending it, of course, to suit your students’ ages—let us know if it flies. We shall put your feedback in another post. In the meantime, thanks, Ellen Goodman, for your thoughtful and good ideas!