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  Let's Talk About Sex
 
 
The Boston Globe Magazine, February 1, 2009
   
In eighth grade, Luke Detwiler, of Natick, and his friends saw graphic pictures of people having sex. The photos contained "close-ups of various body parts and sex acts," remembers Detwiler, now 16. But the kids weren't furtively flipping through a nudie magazine swiped from somebody's dad. They weren't sneaking onto pornographic websites after school. They were in church on a Sunday morning, and their parents had signed them up for the experience.

The photos were a small piece of a yearlong sexuality education program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. A joint effort by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, OWL aims to help teens understand sexuality. As Detwiler recalls the sessions of three years ago, the pictures demonstrating what sexual intercourse looks like were "shocking to kids, but also helpful. It helped them to grasp another dimension of sexuality." So did the frank discussions about dating norms, the chance to pass around condoms, and informal conversation about the way sex is portrayed in magazines, movies, and music. OWL is among a handful of sex-ed programs that take a position more radical than it may, at first, sound: namely, that sexuality education should actually talk about sex. While events like the spike in teen pregnancies in Gloucester last year or the bulging bellies of youthful pop stars (or Alaskan first daughters) can prompt outcries for better sex ed, most of what we call "sex education" is really about preventing the bad stuff. As one Newton teacher puts it, "It's all been reduced to two issues: teen pregnancy and STDs. That's all really important, but I feel we're losing other important things."

With US sex education heading into its second century, some educators are suggesting that sex ed can, and should, be about more than just all the things that can go wrong, that adults need to do more than robotically recite statistics about condom failure or the merits of abstinence. This new approach, almost too small to be called a movement, exists largely outside the public schools, but it's a new twist in a debate that often gets bogged down in finger-pointing and name-calling. The "sex is good" mentality involves talking frankly to teens about sexual pleasure and about when and how to achieve it safely. It means focusing less on whether kids have had vaginal intercourse, and acknowledging that teens (like adults) will engage in a variety of sexual experiences. It's an approach that might make some grown-ups uncomfortable, but it's exactly what sex ed needs if it's ever going to grow up.

It's still possible for a student in Massachusetts not to learn anything about his or her body beyond what is covered in a standard biology class. While 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate the teaching of human sexuality, and 35 (plus D.C.) require instruction in HIV prevention, Massachusetts does neither. All state law now has to say on the subject is that if a school teaches a class related to sex, parents must be informed in writing and they have the right to exempt their children from the class.

Although statewide teen pregnancy rates have declined steadily since the early 1990s, the programs that may have helped spark that news are also in decline. While the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn't track the specifics of different programs around the state, department spokesman Jonathan Considine says some programs have been dropped as a result of budget cuts, time constraints, or fear of community response.

Never mind that in an era of information overload, it makes little sense to continue debating whether to give kids facts about sexual functioning or birth control. After all, anything they ever wanted to know about the scrotum or the IUD is only a mouse click away. The new debate should be: How (and when and where) do we help kids understand and actually use what they learn? As one veteran health teacher told me, "Before, they didn't have the information, so you'd give it to them." Now, her students have more information, but here's the hitch: They also have more misinformation. Her main task these days, she says, "is debunking myths."

Yet even as school programs fall victim to budget cuts, many kids aren't learning much about sex at home. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey -- an annual questionnaire given in high schools around the state -- 64 percent of teens have had intercourse by the time they graduate from high school, and many more engage in a range of other sexual activities, but only 50 percent of students say their parents have ever talked to them about sex. Whether because parents lack accurate information, find the subject too uncomfortable, or just get caught up with dinner and dishes and work, many never get around to imparting either facts or values about sexuality.

A large number of public schools refused to discuss their curriculums with me or even return calls on the subject. Numerous requests to visit public school sex-ed classes were denied on the grounds that it would make someone -- teacher, kid, parent, administrator, or all of the above -- uncomfortable. "It's doubtful I could get permission, or even want to," said one health teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. One advocate for students says teachers and schools are "paralyzed," afraid of being accused of encouraging sex, at best, and of perversion, at worst.

Controversy over sex ed is nothing new. In Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, historian Jeffrey Moran points to the following pattern: A person or a group within a community raises an alarm about sexual behavior, usually accompanied by concerns that the present era is uniquely depraved due to (depending on the year) industrialization, jazz music, the Internet. Someone will suggest that the problem -- be it HIV in the 1980s or a pregnancy spike in Gloucester in 2008 -- would best be countered by the schools. A school will institute a program; a parent or religious leader will denounce it as corrupting the minds of youth; a media outlet will stir the flames; some adults will become morally outraged; and the program will disappear, sometimes along with a scapegoated teacher or principal.

"Fundamentally, Americans are afraid of sexuality in their children," says Moran. "That hasn't changed." Even -- and maybe especially -- if adults were sexually active as teenagers, they remain tongue-tied when it comes to talking to their own children. Moran says that many fear that any frank conversation about sex will be "misconstrued as endorsement." Here's a bit of irony: Parents, according to voter surveys, overwhelmingly support sex education in the schools. Yet many teachers say that ideally parents would teach this subject at home. In other words, we're passing the buck -- and hardly anyone wants to pick it up.

Halfway through one of Megara Bell's classes, a ponytailed girl in a bright-green shirt asks the most basic of questions.

"Wait," she calls out. "What is sex?"

Bell is a Newton mother of three with short, spiky brown hair and a wry smile that suggests she would be hard to rattle. As director of the nonprofit Partners in Sex Education, she teaches about human sexuality at youth organizations, public and private schools, and juvenile detention centers around Greater Boston, and on this sunny fall afternoon, she's at an all-girls' residential school in Arlington. Six teens have gathered in a small, fluorescent-lit classroom, made name cards in pink and purple ink, and established ground rules like "It is OK to laugh." A game about decision making led to a question about how old a person must be to "have sex," which prompted, "What is sex?"

There's a little snickering, but the ponytailed girl presses ahead, explaining that if they're going to talk about how old you have to be to do certain things, she wants to know exactly which things falls under the rubric of "sex."

"OK, great question." Bell nods at the girl and explains that when "sex" is used to refer to a behavior (as opposed to, say, the male or female sex), it's usually referring to vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse. She defines all three.

"Does foreplay count?" someone shouts. "No!" another girl replies at exactly the same moment a third asks, "What is foreplay?"

The teens start talking over one another: "My friend said . . ." and "I know this dude who . . ." and "What I heard was . . ." Bell steers them back to the main task at hand.

The girl's question epitomizes the murky definitions, and murkier goals, that have plagued US sexuality education since its beginnings in Chicago nearly a century ago. We don't all agree which behaviors constitute "sex," and we agree even less on what sex means. Seen through different eyes, sex can be a pleasurable activity, a sacrament, a means to procreation, an ecstasy, a disappointment, or a source of shame -- the list goes on. These conflicting, deeply personal attitudes toward sex make it difficult to articulate a curricular vision for public schools, where all opinions must be honored.

We tend to talk most openly with kids about sex in programs outside of the public schools. At Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, manager of community health programs Abigail Ortiz is interested in teaching about avoiding teen pregnancy and HIV, but also in moving away from a shame-based or fear-based approach to sexuality. Ortiz runs an optional after-school program for middle school girls called Girl Talk, where she stresses abstinence for young women in a way that is "sex-positive."

"Sexuality is a great thing. It's not something you should be afraid of," says Ortiz. The program gives a lot of reasons for girls to delay intercourse -- getting a good education before starting a family; avoiding disease -- but instead of assuming that girls have sex only to please boys, Girl Talk speaks frankly of safe, alternative sexual practices that "make you feel really good."

"If you look at the public health data, they're going to do things," she says. "My big thing, as a public health person, is that we don't want unwanted pregnancies or STDS. But we want sexually happy people, so we talk a lot about masturbation."

Public schools may never be able to be as open or as sex-positive as programs like OWL or Girl Talk (as one OWL instructor puts it, "We're a self-selected group that wants to teach it and a self-selected group of parents that want their kids to take it"). But it is, on one level, ridiculous that all programs don't advocate masturbation for both boys and girls: It's a safe way to achieve sexual pleasure that doesn't carry the physical or emotional risks of sex with a partner.

A friend in her early 30s recalls that in the 1980s, schools taught boys about masturbation and wet dreams, while girls learned about menstruation and pregnancy. The unspoken message, as she saw it, was that boys heard about how their bodies could make them feel good, and girls heard about all the messy and inconvenient things their bodies could do.

If you judge by shows like Sex and the City and more recently, Gossip Girl, female sexual pleasure is much more out in the open now than it was 20 years ago. Yet at the high school level, we continue to look for the reasons why girls become sexually active and/or pregnant in ways that ignore the obvious: Like boys, some girls have sex because it feels good. We may no longer profess the Victorian idea that sexually active girls are morally flawed, but we often do speak of such girls as mentally flawed. They must have low self-esteem, we say, or they didn't get enough attention from their daddies.

Pediatrician Mark Schuster of Children's Hospital Boston, the author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask), says the notion that boys are unstoppable sex machines -- and girls must be protected and regulated -- is a fallacy. "A lot of parents assume that boys will do the pushing and girls will be the ones preyed upon," says Schuster, who studies parent-child communication around sex. Since many girls develop earlier than boys, he says the opposite is just as likely. A teenage girl may be the one pushing for more sexual experimentation, and boys may be ashamed to acknowledge that they aren't ready for it, especially if the only message they get from peers -- or their parents -- is "Attaboy."

A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that while nearly two-thirds of males ages 15 to 19 had received some type of health services in the past year, less than a quarter of them said their doctor discussed sexual protection methods with them. We continue to see sexual decision making as the province of girls -- both ignoring boys and exempting them from responsibility. Over and over, when I examined programs aimed at teen girls, I heard variations of: We tried to start a program for boys, but there wasn't enough interest, or, we lost funding. Dianne Luby, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, says her organization is determined to improve sex-ed programming for boys, in both schools and healthcare settings.

At Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Susan Shields is head of the "wellness department." ("Wellness" is the current name for the subject once known as "health.") A frank, energetic brunette, Shields invites me into the spacious department office in this newly rebuilt suburban school. It is early in the semester -- the 11th-graders haven't reached the human sexuality unit.

"What I want is for kids to think about what it means to make a healthy choice for them," says Shields. "I never say to them, 'I think you should postpone.' I give them questions about 'How do you know you're ready?' I think one of the worst things that teachers can do is push their belief system, whether it's a very liberal one or a very conservative one," she adds. "You want the kids to think."

A key component of Lincoln-Sudbury's program is to involve parents formally in the curriculum. Students must interview their parents four times during the quarter-long wellness course that also deals with topics like suicide prevention and alcohol use. The goal, Shields says, is to encourage parents to give the unambiguous messages about sexual behavior that a public school really can't. She said that in past years, kids have had to ask their moms and dads questions like "What do you think of the increase in oral sex among teenagers?"

"Kids are always like, 'I don't want to talk to my parents about that,' " laughs Shields. "But later, they say it was worthwhile." She says she's had a mix of reactions from parents. Some will call, angry, and tell her it's none of her business, but most calm down when she explains that the students don't need to share their parents' views with her or the class -- they just need a signature showing a conversation of some sort took place. Shields reports many more calls from parents grateful for an excuse to raise an awkward subject with their child.

Lincoln-Sudbury seniors Matt Weinburg and Carly Shortell took wellness as juniors, and both say they found it valuable, in part because it was fun and in part because, as Weinburg, a lanky boy in a brown fedora, puts it, "There's life skills you'll actually use."

"You'll use it more than the periodic table," adds Shortell, a blonde wearing a pale blue sweater.

"Making good choices" sounds great, but it runs the risk of becoming a meaningless phrase, especially since it's now being used by both sides in the ongoing battle between the two major strains of sexuality education at work today. "Comprehensive" programs explain the reproductive system and ways to reduce the risk of pregnancy and disease, and are endorsed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "Abstinence-only" programs give reasons to refrain from all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage and were heavily funded by the Bush administration, though some expect funding streams to change under President Obama. (Comprehensive programs also address the needs and questions of non-heterosexual students, while abstinence-only curriculums typically do not.) Both sides say they want kids to "make good decisions."

Mark Conrad is the president of A Woman's Concern, an antiabortion organization with branches around the state. Through its educational affiliate, known as Healthy Futures, the organization is the primary recipient of federal abstinence-education dollars in Massachusetts and offers one-week workshops in 20 to 35 public schools a year -- some of which will also get a form of comprehensive education. "We encourage them to really learn self-respect, respect for their peers, and to make really great choices," says Conrad.

A large 2007 federal study of current abstinence-only programs found that they have not been effective in changing adolescent behavior. But abstinence education remains popular, in part, I suspect, because its goal is so devoid of nuance. Adults don't have to worry about whether they are sending the dreaded mixed message, even if they are sending a message that looks very little like a nation where, according to the US Census Bureau, upward of 90 percent of Americans have sex before or outside of marriage and many are in same-sex relationships.

In my experience as a high school teacher, I found teens to be more capable of handling mixed messages than adults give them credit for. (They tend to be more disturbed by adult hypocrisy than by ambiguity.) As I interviewed kids for this article, I found many had indeed absorbed a clear, if unintentional, message: Frank discussion of sex makes adults uncomfortable. Robert Angell, a senior at Dover-Sherborn High School, recalls a community-service trip to New Orleans where some of his friends were discussing sex on the plane. A passenger turned around in her seat and asked them to change the subject. "That's why most kids don't talk about sex with adults," Angell says. "They feel like adults are too uncomfortable with it."

To get around adult discomfort -- and reach this generation of teens in the medium it knows best -- some advocates are looking to the Internet. Rana Barar is program manager for an organization called Answer, based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, that publishes an interactive website called Sex, Etc. "When teens are not getting the info they need at school and at home, they turn to the Internet, and what they find is porn," says Barar. "We're really trying to battle that and provide useful, realistic information to teens to counteract the totally unrealistic, and not very useful, info they might get from porn."

Sex, Etc. (sexetc.org) features articles and community forums where kids can ask even their most embarrassing questions and get answers from medical experts. Much of the content is generated by teens and then fact-checked by staff and reviewed by a medical advisory board. Barar says the site receives 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a day, with an average age of 16, but that since many school computers block any website that contains the word "sex," reaching teens without home computers and tech-savvy families is a challenge.

The forums on Sex, Etc. are quite frank and explicit and full of questions like: Is this liquid emerging from my body normal? My boyfriend did X and Y happened -- is that normal? Reading through the list is a reminder that what kids are often looking for is not just birth control information or a diagram of the vas deferens, but a sense of how their bodies and their desires compare with other people's. Reading the forums is also a jarring reminder of what it feels like to be 15 and how much faith you put in what you hear from the kid next to you at the lunch table.

During another visit to one of Megara Bell's classes, this time at a suburban school, I'm very aware of how difficult this subject is to present, even under what might be considered ideal circumstances: a private school with plenty of resources and involved parents, where teachers don't have to answer to every taxpayer in a community. It's still difficult, because some of the teens' most profound questions can't be answered by anything other than life experience.

The ninth-grade class meets in the school's airy music room, and a few minutes before the end of the class, Bell invites students to turn in anonymous questions. The scrawls on slips of paper range from the absurd ("How many penises can you fit in a [slang term for vagina]?") to the serious ("If you wear a condom, can you still get a girl pregnant?"). But even more show a desire for knowledge of what real people actually do in bed, the sorts of things that come up in Sex, Etc.'s online forums. Bell reads aloud only the serious questions to students: How often do most adults have sex? Is sex necessary to have a good marriage?

"Great question," Bell says again and again, before explaining that she can't give them a response that will apply to everyone. But she will do her best to treat this huge subject openly and honestly -- in the 45 minutes she has each week.

 
 

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Copyright 2009 by Alison Lobron