Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality Education’

The M-Word: Past and Present

January 21, 2009

I know that Leon Panetta is a fine public servant and that he’ll do an excellent job as director of the C.I.A. in the Obama administration. However, when I first heard of his nomination, my thoughts reverted to another moment: The December night in 1994 when, as former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Panetta called Dr. Joycelyn Elders to fire her from her post as Surgeon General of the United States. Why? Because she had used the M word. Since this is a blog for sex educators, I will use the correct word: masturbation. (Dr. Elders actually rebuffed Panetta’s attempt to fire her; insisting that the President call her himself.)

There wasn’t much video around at the time to show you the moment Dr. Elders used the M word, so let me set the scene: She was answering reporters’ questions at a United Nations conference on AIDS. A reporter asked her if she thought it would be “appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.” She replied: “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

Dr. Elders was not promoting a national policy. She was responding to a member of the press. She used qualifiers like “I think” and “perhaps” in her measured response. But those fateful words got her into big trouble with the White House. About the firing, Panetta said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.” Dr. Elders went home to Arkansas.

Dr. Elders holds a medical degree in pediatric endocrinology and is an expert on childhood sexual development. As Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appointed her director of the Arkansas Department of Health and, as President in 1993, he appointed her United States Surgeon General. She was the first African-American to hold the prestigious position.

Her frankness got her into trouble almost from the get-go. Before the masturbation controversy, she argued for the distribution of contraceptives in schools.


Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.

Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)


The Demise of Dating

January 5, 2009

Charles M. Blow is a favorite columnist of mine. The art director of National Geographic magazine, he also writes a regular column on Saturdays in The New York Times. I like his work, not only because he uses graphics and statistics in a compelling way, but because he writes boldly and informatively about sexual issues.

Blow devoted a recent column to what he called “The Demise of Dating.” It was about the shift from dating to hooking up by high school seniors and college students across the country. There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about this shift in behavior of students you may be teaching, because Blow points out that it “doesn’t mean they’re having more sex or having sex with strangers.” In fact, he cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that teens today are having less sex.

I recommend his column to educators as a way to get students talking about relationships and values—an important ingredient in high-quality sexuality education programs.

“Gay Marriage and a Moral Minority” is another recent Blow column that caught my eye.  In it, he quotes important data for educators and parents from a Guttmacher Institute study. The data shows the following:

  • Black teens are 26 percent more likely than teens of other races to have had premarital sex by age 18;
  • Black teens have a pregnancy rate that is twice that of white teens; and
  • White teens still have premarital sex, but they are better informed about pregnancy prevention and use protection more regularly than do black teens.

You know about the digital divide and the health care divide, but you may have not heard about the teen pregnancy divide. It could possibly deepen during the economic downturn, when in all likelihood poverty as well as a lack of opportunity among poor urban kids will increase. As always, sexuality educators need high-quality training to support them in their work with young people—and our trainings are top notch.

Thanks, Charles Blow, for your columns on sexual health issues. And, please, in 2009, keep writing about sexuality, sex education and teen pregnancy in our society. Many are grateful.

Moving to the Middle on Sex Ed

December 11, 2008

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education can glean good news from Charles M. Blow’s New York Times op-ed piece, “Americans Move to the Middle.”

According to Blow, our opinions on what is “morally acceptable” are increasingly shifting toward the middle. He cites Gallup poll research gathered over the past eight years that shows that the majority of Americans think it is morally acceptable to get divorced, engage in premarital sex and have babies outside of marriage. And almost half believe that same-sex relationships are acceptable.

Although Blow doesn’t mention how Americans feel about sex education in schools, research shows that many are moving toward the middle—and beyond—on this issue as well. In fact, the majority of Americans support comprehensive sexuality education. They support programs that instruct young people about the benefits of abstinence and contraception.

With a new president and Congress arriving in January, we may have a real chance to change directions on sexuality education in public schools. President-elect Obama, although speaking out for the ideal of abstinence until marriage, has said that he believes young people need complete and non-ideological information about sexual health. Many of the newly elected members of Congress have already spoken out against abstinence only until marriage (AOUM) programs.

Yet many politicians still lag behind the public on this issue because they fear their careers will come to a grinding halt if they vote against AOUM programs. This is why Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS and a leader in the fight against federal support of AOUM, has had to work so hard to persuade members of Congress to vote against additional funding for AOUM. As more states reject these funds (25 so far), it sends a clear message to politicians that the majority of Americans want young people to learn all the facts and skills they need to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex.


Looking Ahead

December 1, 2008

In light of the historic fact that Senator Barack Obama will soon become our 44th president, I thought I would review what he has said to date about some aspects of sexuality and sex education. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act on his beliefs (the personal often does not become the political and the political often changes the personal), but his thoughts might point in interesting directions.

I started by reviewing Obama’s words from the third and final debate. If you’re like me, while watching presidential debates you always hope the moderator will ask the candidates directly about their views on sexuality education in public school classrooms. So far, no one ever has.

However, moderator Bob Schieffer did move in the right direction when he asked Senators Obama and McCain whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. This led to a back-and-forth discussion which touched on nominations to the Supreme Court, late-term abortion and life-saving treatments for children of botched abortions.

Obama eventually turned the discussion toward our issue: how to find common ground between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life. He stated, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.”


Dangerous Liaisons

November 10, 2008

Recently, I was reminded of the possible dangers of the religion/sexuality connection after reading “Catholic School Uninvites Whitman” in my regional newspaper.

The “Whitman” the article refers to is New Jersey’s former governor, Christie Whitman, who had been invited to speak at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart’s annual “Women in Leadership Forum.” Who would be more qualified to speak about women and leadership than the Garden State’s first and only female governor?

Unfortunately, Diocese of Trenton Bishop John M. Smith didn’t feel Whitman was an appropriate choice because her pro-choice beliefs were “totally contrary” to the church’s teachings. In a communication written to the school, the Bishop stated Whitman’s presence could falsely mislead the Stuart community into thinking the school supported abortion rights. As a result, the headmistress of Stuart—a nun—uninvited Whitman.


What’s a Teen Girl to Do?

October 15, 2008

For this blog, I’m pretending that I’m a teen girl. Yes, I’m really 78, but go with me.

I have to say, I have a few issues with you adults. Talk about being under the microscope and having everything constantly scrutinized: the way I dress, my body and my sexual behaviors!

One specific issue I have with you is how you talk about me. In The Truth About Teen Girls, Time magazine writer Belinda Luscombe talks about how some adults think teen girls are being “too sexy” and “too liberal with sexual favors.” Some of you even feel that we’re “sexually loose” because we’re copying what we see on TV or read about in magazines.

If that’s how you feel, why blame us? Why not look at yourselves and how you use sex to sell products? Don’t you think that has something to do with teens being so overtly sexual? Why not look at our culture and come up with some solutions instead of blaming us for mimicking what we see?


Learning About Sex Before Learning to Read? Yes!

September 24, 2008

Before I became a sex educator, I taught children in the early grades how to read. One of the first things I learned is that development is key. You can’t teach children to decode or learn to recognize sight words and phrases unless they feel comfortable in their own skin. They need to have a sense of who they are as human beings.

This is why I support age-appropriate sexuality education for children that starts in kindergarten before formal reading instruction begins. I think it’s a good way to help them feel secure about their bodies and themselves. When adults hear about sex education taking place in kindergarten, many have no frame of reference. Some may recall the topics they learned as teens and shudder at the thought of little ones learning about condoms, contraception, abortion, rape and other explicit topics.

Recently, this topic was the center of attention in a TV ad in which Republican presidential candidate John McCain accused his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, of supporting sex education in kindergarten. The narrator says darkly, “Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

The McCain forces obviously believe that throngs of Americans will be shocked and outraged that anyone, particularly a presidential candidate, would consider talking about sexual health with five-year-olds who haven’t learned to read more than a stop sign.


Sex and the (Male) Politician

August 27, 2008

It’s safe to say that thousands of bloggers, members of the media and regular folks on the street have already weighed in on the affair former presidential candidate John Edwards had while his wife Elizabeth was recovering from breast cancer in 2006. You’re probably thinking, “Everything worth saying about this revelation has already been said.” However, I wonder how many parents have talked to their teenagers about it? And how many sexuality education teachers will be brave enough to bring up the subject when school resumes in September?

When I became involved in implementing sex education policy in the public schools in the late-1970’s, one of the arguments my opponents tossed at me concerned values. At public meetings they would ask, “How can you have such programs without teaching values?” It took me awhile to understand the broader meaning which I think was, “How can you have such programs without teaching our values? How can you teach about sexuality without specifically telling young people that intercourse before marriage is wrong, abortion is killing an unborn child, and homosexuality is an abomination before God?”


Young, Hot and Bothered

August 21, 2008

A recent segment on NBC’s The Today Show focused on what parents could do to help combat teens’ boredom and keep them out of trouble during summer vacation. Judith Sachs, editorial director of ParentingTeensNetwork, appeared on the show to discuss “cures” for the problem. Volunteering, traveling with family, learning a new language and forming a book club were among the activities she suggested teens get involved in.

Studies have shown that teens with too much free time in the summer are more likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes than those who are engaged in structured activities. Surprisingly, sexual activity was not mentioned during the segment.

As I watched the show, I reflected back on a conversation I had many years ago with a Newark, N.J., school nurse. I had just started studying the dynamics of teen pregnancy and the nurse shared with me how she saw more pregnancies in September than in any other month. Some sociologists refer to this as the “summer effect.”