aug sept 99
 
Ms.CELLANEOUS:
- What?
-Women to Watch
-Word: Intimacy
-Just the Facts
*SEX*
-The Naked Truth by Sondra Zeidenstein

-The Opposite of Sex
interview by Moira Brennan

-Sex Ed: How Do We Score? by Carolyn Mackler
YOUR HEALTH:
-Morning Becomes Prophylactic
-Profile: S. Jean Emans, M.D.
-Health Notes
*Supremacy Crimes* From Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Littleton, Colorado, amid all the commentary about violence and "our" youth, the obvious common denominator remains unacknowledged. by Gloria Steinem
ARTS:
-What's the Deal, McBeal?
-He Gives Us the Creeps
-Artswatch

BOOKS:

-Taslima Nasrin: A Writer Banished
-Reviews
-Boldtype: Trina Robbins

-Editor's Page
-Letters
-Uppity Women: Hanna Ingber
-Poetry: "Pre-emptive
" and "A Virgin's Last Day"
-Connections: Proud Granny
-Techno.fem: Buffy's New Gigabyte
-Ms. Marketplace
-Lastpage: White Noise
-No Comment (inside back cover)
*Going Ape*
Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's daring work with bonobo apes challenges everything you may think you know about what separates us from them. by Claudia Dreifus

NEWS:
Kosovo, Women & War:
-Tracking a Century of War
-Cynthia Enloe and Vivian Stromberg on Militarism and Making Peace
-Igo Rogova from a Kosovar Refugee Camp in Macedonia
-Lepa Mladjenovic and Zarana Papic from Belgrade
-Women's Peace Organizations Worldwide


-Mexico Gets a Feminist Lobby
-A Venerable Women's Organization Faces Serious Charges
-Opinion: Last Rights
Rough Justice in Zimbabwe
-Clippings



 

 

ahhhh, sex
The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Truth
Sex Ed
sex ed: how do we score?
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LINDA ROSIER
From pleasure to power to pregnancy prevention, the surprising truth about what kids learn --and don't learn--from school-based sex education

The 12:55 bell rings at Ridgewood High School and a flock of freshmen filter into Evelyn Rosskamm Shalom's Health 9 class. Greeting the sea of navy blue baseball caps and Capri pants, Shalom announces that today's lesson will commence with the "question box" and instructs students to proceed as quietly as possible to the Magic Carpet. In a stampede evocative of July in Pamplona, 25 pairs of Nikes and clunky sandals clamor onto a dingy gray rug at the back of the room and, with one brave male exception, self-segregate by gender: girls on one side, boys on the other, a puerile triad huddled in the back. Shalom, joking about her recent fiftieth birthday, treats herself to a metal chair at the mouth of the circle and produces slips of folded, white paper.

"Any more to add before I begin?" she asks, casually tucking a wayward strand of auburn hair behind one ear.

Braces-revealing smirks ripple through the crowd, especially among the Peanut Gallery trio, who menacingly ooze "spitball" from every pore of their bodies. Shalom quickly scans a crumpled selection. "Have I already answered: 'Why do people have oral sex?'"

peer sex ed program
A group of teens gather for
a peer sex ed program
The Peanut Gallery erupts and a handful of mid-pubescents dutifully nod their heads. Shalom, a 16-year veteran of Ridgewood High School who has been described as someone who rules a class with velvet-gloved discipline, allows the rascals a heartbeat to blow off steam before skillfully channeling their discomfort into a lively debate in response to the next question: "What is the right age to have sex?" Once Shalom takes the floor to address the query, a hush falls over the Magic Carpet. The only discernable sound is the buzzing of florescent lights above. Fifty eyes are intent on Shalom. Even the Peanut Gallery is hooked.

So goes a typical health class at Ridgewood High School in suburban New Jersey. The Ridgewood school district is renowned for its comprehensive and thorough family-life education curriculum. Following a 1980 statewide mandate that all New Jersey schoolchildren were to have sex education, Ridgewood Public Schools formed an advisory committee to consult with the school regarding its ever-evolving curriculum. Ridgewood students receive health education every year of their public school careers, beginning with instruction from a certified nurse specialist in elementary school and progressing to classes taught by high school teachers, such as Shalom, who has a master's degree in health education. "Ridgewood takes it seriously," Shalom explains, sipping a raspberry Snapple after class. "We have a minister, a pediatrician, someone from the YMCA, several parents, and two students, among others, serving on the committee, which reviews everything that will go on in my class, from lessons to controversial videos. I'm under more scrutiny than the English teacher, but by the same token, I have a support network. If a parent calls to complain--which happens infrequently--I'm not out on a limb by myself."

While a uniform national curriculum does not exist, barrels of federal money are being siphoned into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, frequently laden with wrath-of-God scare tactics

And then there's the question box, or anonymous questions, as they're often referred to in health-education circles. Shalom operates her question box--a pushing-the-envelope trade tool that gives the teacher jurisdiction to answer any inquiry--by first distributing identical slips of paper and then requiring that all students write one to three lines. (If a student has no question, she or he must thrice scribble "I have no questions at the present time.") And finally, Shalom makes good on her promise to honor every question, which in any given session can produce such gems as "Do teenagers have sex?" "Is it right to have an abortion if you get pregnant by mistake?" and "What exactly do guys do when they masturbate?" Shalom notes, "In any class, if someone is asking a question, you know that at least a few other people were wondering the same thing." She informs her students from the start not to waste time devising outrageous queries just to get a reaction; she's been at this too long to get embarrassed. And with no further ado, she plows into the explanation minefield with nary a blush.

Evelyn Rosskamm Shalom
Evelyn Rosskamm Shalom (second from left) runs an unusually frank sex ed class.
Perhaps it's the ubiquitous florescent lights that stir up decade-old memories of my eleventh-grade health class, where the beefy, small-town wrestling coach slapped transparencies of the chlamydia bacterium onto the overhead projector and recited a litany of drippy symptoms, in a lesson that bore a greater resemblance to the previous year's fetal pig dissection than to my forays in the back of minivans. As I recount my tale of sex ed woe, Shalom shakes her head. "If kids are going to change their behavior, we need to teach them the facts before they engage, but that alone is not sufficient. We must give them time to talk about their attitudes and practice communication skills." Pushing her wire-rimmed glasses up on her nose, she adds, "Anyway, Ridgewood would never make a physical education teacher cover chlamydia, just as they wouldn't expect me to coach volleyball."

Fade from the Magic Carpet to a school district in Franklin County, North Carolina, where, in the fall of 1997, a scissors-toting parent-volunteer was summoned to the high school to slice chapters 17, 20, and 21 out of ninth-graders' health textbooks. The culpable text--covering contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and relationships--didn't comply with the statewide abstinence-only curriculum, ruled the school board. Apparently, in a state where in 1996 there were 25,240 recorded pregnancies among 15- to 19-year-olds, the board hoped that if they obliterated a discourse on condoms, getting down wouldn't dawn on youngsters.

Unfortunately, this sort of scene is business as usual with the politically explosive issue of school-based sex education. While a uniform national curriculum does not exist, barrels of federal money are being siphoned into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, frequently laden with wrath-of-God scare tactics. Comprehensive sexuality education the likes of Ridgewood's, designed to reinforce sexuality as a positive and healthy part of being human, is available to only about 5 percent of schoolchildren in the United States Sexuality education is an across-the-school-boards contentious subject, bound to generate controversy, even among well-meaning feminists; sexuality is not a one-size-fits-all equation, and the messages appropriate for one kid may not work for the girl or boy at the adjacent desk.

And then there's the Great Antipleasure Conspiracy. Translation: adults swindling kids (especially girls) by trying to convince them that sex is no fun, in the hope that they won't partake, a practice exemplified by the shocking omission of the clitoris--whose sole function is to deliver female pleasure--from most high school biology textbooks. The notion of women experiencing erotic pleasure--or possessing full sexual agency--clearly scares the boxer shorts off conservative educators. Analogous to attempting to eradicate pizza by withholding Italy from a map of Europe, not including the clitoris in a textbook depiction of female genitalia is a frighteningly misleading excuse for education.

And then there's the Great Antipleasure Conspiracy. Translation: adults swindling kids (especially girls) by trying to convince them that sex is no fun, in the hope that they won't partake

Tiptoeing around any of these issues--from pleasure to power to pregnancy prevention--is denying youngsters their basic right to health information. It is catapulting them into life-threatening sexual scenarios without sufficient tools to protect themselves. It is jeopardizing their chance to lay sturdy foundations for a sexually healthy adulthood. It's time to wake up and smell the hormones. Ridgewood boasts one of the most progressive school districts in a "mixed landscape," explains Susan N. Wilson, the executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education, a nonprofit organization based at the Rutgers School for Social Work in Piscataway, New Jersey, that promotes comprehensive sexuality education in schools and communities. Wilson, whom Shalom calls a "crusader for sexuality education," explains that over the past several years there has been progress in the quantity of sex education in the schools. "In most places, it exists; something is being taught," she says, "but there are many school districts where students receive the bare minimum--HIV education--and very, very late in their school lives." Wilson points out that many politicians have embraced AIDS education with open arms. "In a true intertwining of church and state, they've jumped at the chance to reveal that sex does, in fact, equal death."

Debra Haffner, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a nonprofit group that advocates for sexuality education and sexual rights, describes how most young people in this country get hurried through sex-abuse prevention in early grade school, the Puberty Talk in fifth grade, a lesson on HIV and STDs in middle school, and possibly a health elective in high school. "There's currently a great emphasis on abstinence in this country," she adds, "partially driven by federal programs, but partially driven by the conservative influence in communities."

Debra Haffner
Debra Haffner of SIECUS wants programs emphasizing that "sexuality is about who we are, as women and men."
Seasoned feminist sexuality educators consistently encourage teenagers to postpone intercourse until they're prepared for a mature sexual relationship. But the puritanical monsoon of fear-based abstinence education swamping the country is a different matter. As part of welfare reform in 1996, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, a federal program that allocates cash--a total of $50 million per fiscal year--to states that teach abstinence-only-until-marriage as the expected standard for school-age children. The modus operandi of these programs is to highlight the "harmful psychological and physical effects" of premarital and extramarital sexual activity and erase any discourse on contraceptives--which curiously ignores the notion that abstainers-until-marriage may, in fact, want to utilize birth control once they've tied the connubial knot.

Abstinence-only lessons, though varying from classroom to classroom, often revolve around a "pet your dog, not your date" theme. One resoundingly sexist message is that the onus of restricting foreplay should fall on the girl, encouraging her to use "self-control" rather than "birth control." A pseudoscientific chart from Sex Respect, a fear-based abstinence curriculum, depicts how male genitalia become aroused during "necking," while female genitalia lag behind until "petting." The girl-cum-gatekeeper's pleasure gets swept to the side, leaving her to ward filthy, boys-will-be-boys paws off her silky drawers.

In many fear-based abstinence lessons, misinformation abounds. One curriculum emphasizes the "danger" of French kissing by falsely implying that the concentration of HIV in saliva is high enough to be transmitted via spit-swapping. Mum is the word from teachers in response to students whose queries flirt with anything other than the abstinence-only model. In a public-school-aired video entitled No Second Chance (Jeremiah Films), a student demands of a nurse: "What if I want to have sex before I get married?" Her chilling response: "I guess you just have to be prepared to die . . . and take your spouse and one or more of your children with you."

The overwhelming bulk of scientific research underscores the failure of abstinence-only education in doing anything but eclipsing the erotic with the neurotic. A recent report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy revealed that "the weight of the current evidence indicates that these abstinence programs do not delay the onset of intercourse." In a country where a mere 6.9 percent of men and 21 percent of women ages 18 to 59 hold out for their honeymoon, force-feeding "Just Say No" to teenagers sends them scurrying to the playground or onto the Web in search of information--usually to find misinformation--and frolicking under the covers all the same. But the risks of leaving kids without sufficient skills and facts range from the obvious--pregnancy and STDs--to sexual abuse, date rape, and sexual powerlessness. Reducing adolescent pregnancy and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is clearly paramount. But Susan Wilson, who's convinced that the right wants to "stamp out" teen sexuality altogether, wonders whether the effort is "on a collision course with healthy sexuality."

Debra Haffner echoes similar sentiments. "My mentor from 20 years ago used to call that 'Sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love,'" she scoffs. "We cannot ingrain in young people the message that sexual intercourse violates another person, kills people, and leaves you without a reputation, and then expect that the day they put a wedding band on their finger they're going to forget all that."

She pauses and adds wryly, "It just creates adults who are in sex therapy because they can't have fulfilling relationships with their spouses and partners."

One curriculum emphasizes the "danger" of French kissing by falsely implying that the concentration of HIV in saliva is high enough to be transmitted via spit-swapping

Hearing the term 'sex ed,' people think of plumbing lessons and organ recitals," proclaims Haffner. "They envision anatomy and physiology and disaster prevention. Sexuality education, on the other hand, underscores that sexuality is about who we are, as women and men, not what we do with one certain part of our bodies."

In 1996, SIECUS published the second edition of its Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: KÐ12, which it had originally developed earlier in the decade with a task force that included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the National School Boards Association. The guidelines serve as a framework to facilitate the development of a comprehensive sex education program arising from the belief that "young people explore their sexuality as a natural process of achieving sexual maturity." Accordingly, emphasis should be placed on informed decision-making about intercourse by acknowledging--not condemning--the broad range of adolescent sexual behaviors.

The philosophy behind comprehensive sexuality education is to start small with all concepts relating to sexuality and add on as children's developmental capabilities mature. If the topic is sexual identity, in upper elementary school, 9- to 12-year-olds (already having defined homosexuality in previous grades) would learn about anti-gay discrimination and add bisexuality to the mixing pot. By junior high, students learn theories behind the determination of sexual orientation and discuss same-sex fantasies. Unfortunately, this approach to homosexuality is to sex education what simultaneous multiple orgasms are to sex--rare. Even in progressive school districts, discourse on sexual orientation remains painfully patchy, often providing little insight and appearing very late.

Proponents of comprehensive sexuality education believe that by high school, teenagers should have processed enough information to make responsible choices surrounding sex. And the research is on their side: studies reveal that teenagers who partake in discussions that include all options, from chastity belts to condoms, often delay sexual intercourse or reduce its frequency. By cultivating in adolescents a sense of sexual self-determination--with empowerment and gratification and honest communication being central--things tend to fall into place; unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases remain on the periphery, not at the hub of their ideas about human sexuality. Back to the Great Antipleasure Conspiracy. There's reluctance even among liberal adults--most likely due to their own discomfort surrounding sexuality--to acknowledge that the majority of sex is for recreation, not procreation. Scarier still is the notion of pleasuring oneself. Wilson points out that masturbation is a subject "avoided assiduously by teachers." It is essential for schools to employ educators who will not blanch at the mention of, say, a clitoris (and who, like Shalom, boycott clitoris-free textbooks). "Nobody invests money in training," says Wilson, who points out that often sex ed teachers hit the chalkboard with only a weekend workshop under their belt. "A basic course in human sexuality for everyone in the helping professions should be commonplace."

Susan Wilson believes that abstinence-only programs are "on a collision course with healthy sexuality."
Sex education can even send shivers up feminist spines when it comes to handling a controversial issue like abortion. It seems easy if the teacher is pro-choice; explosive if she or he boasts a bumper sticker broadcasting "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart!" The safest way to navigate this tangled terrain is for teachers to acknowledge the range of values surrounding issues such as homosexuality, abortion, or masturbation in the hope that students will ultimately develop their own, educated opinions. "If there were a school-based program that only presented the pro-choice point of view, that would be wrong," says Haffner, who has recently published a SIECUS monograph, A Time to Speak: Faith Communities and Sexuality Education, in which she emphasizes the role of religious institutions in the education of their young congregants and encourages churches and synagogues to coordinate their curricula with those of the schools. Another key means for schools to negotiate the values quagmire is to give credence to SIECUS' omnipresent message that parents should be the primary sexuality educators. Envisioning a proliferation of parent nights, when parents could meet the health teachers and review the material, Haffner encourages educators to solicit parental support, all in the hope that the classroom will serve as a catalyst for domestic dialogue.

"Most Americans are terrified of this subject," says Wilson. "We teach people to read and we expect them to read. We teach people about numbers and we expect them to be able to do mathematical equations. So then we're saying we don't want to teach kids about human sexuality, but we're hoping they make sensible decisions?"

"I know I've done my job well," explains Shalom, "when a kid articulates to me, 'I never realized sex was so complicated until I took your class.' Not that it's bad. Not that it's evil. Not that it's nasty. But it's complicated, and maybe more than you want to get into at 14."

The 2:55 bell rings, signaling the end of the day at Ridgewood High School. A gaggle of spankingly clean-cut students, ranging from a ninth-grader to seniors, cluster in Shalom's small, windowless office. All alums of Health 9, they've gathered to share knowledge garnered from the Magic Carpet.

Before my tape recorder can begin rolling, phrases like "outercourse" and "the abstinence jar" bounce off the walls, which are dotted with colorful posters and photos of Shalom's grown children. Shalom has already introduced me to the aforementioned abstinence jar that she displays in class. It is empty, thus stimulating a discussion about what needs to fill it in order for abstinence to thrive, things like alternatives to intercourse and developing a vocabulary that includes yes, no, and every possible shade of maybe.

"If you're going to teach abstinence, you've at least got to teach masturbation," pipes in Jennifer, an intrepid senior. "But," she adds, "if a girl knows how to please herself without the help of a guy, it goes against women's traditionally passive sex role, and people are intimidated by that." Clearly the Great Antipleasure Conspiracy has not gone as smoothly as planned. But then again, these teenagers are not the norm. Products of comprehensive sexuality education that encourages them to become their own sexual agents, they display at once a level-headed ease regarding sexuality and a keen awareness of the risks involved in indulging.

"Kids know better than to believe sex is just bad," says Peter, another senior, "so the only thing that happens when teachers push abstinence is we don't take teachers as seriously."

But even though a large-scale study of junior and senior high school students revealed that a booming 10.7 percent were unsure of their sexual orientation, homosexuality is still up there with the best of the taboos, snagging minimal airtime in most classrooms

"If sex is such a bad thing, then why is it all over movies and television?" Greg, the lone first-year student, chimes in. "If you've had sex education, you can watch movies and understand what's realistic and what's not," comments jeans-clad Irene, in response to Jennifer's sardonic description of Hollywood heat-of-the-moment, candlelit smooching scenes, where neither women say stop nor men whip out condoms. "Actually, you can appreciate the movies more," Dana softly adds, "because you're less impressionable."

Before long, the conversation wends its way to yesterday's senior elective, where a former Ridgewood student, now openly gay and in his third year of medical school, reminisced on the closets of his alma mater. "The class was intimidated at first," says Jennifer, "but after a while people started asking things like 'Do you go to gay bars?' and 'Do you march in parades?' and 'Do you agree with gay men being flamboyant?' It was interesting to hear about it." Some would maintain that high school is already too late to introduce such a discussion. But even though a large-scale study of junior and senior high school students revealed that a booming 10.7 percent were unsure of their sexual orientation, homosexuality is still up there with the best of the taboos, snagging minimal airtime in most classrooms. Academy Award-winning director Debra Chasnoff's groundbreaking documentary It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School (Women's Educational Media) peeks into a handful of U.S. classrooms where teacher-warriors are braving the odds and discussing homosexuality. The film skillfully demonstrates that the earlier such conversations begin, the more open and understanding kids become.

It doesn't take a logician to deduce that the future of sex education is in serious jeopardy, but perhaps it's going to take feminists to do something about it. With a paucity of children receiving comprehensive sexuality education and gobs of federal money flying into reactionary, fear-based instruction, there's plenty of action to be taken, in the form of rallying school districts, educators, politicians, and parents to support education designed to empower, enlighten, and yes, even excite youth about sexuality. And while we'll be sorry to see sex therapists hard-pressed for clients, we can envision a world where girls and boys grow into adults who regard their sexuality as anything but a one-way ticket to disease and unplanned pregnancy. As I lean across Shalom's metal desk to hit the off-button on my tape recorder, she interjects one final comment. "I see how kids respond to this stuff every single day," she reports. "They are just waiting for adults to share the tools with them. And it's not 'share the tools so I can go out and do it,' it's 'please help me learn how to grow up.'"

Carolyn Mackler is a "Ms." contributing editor. Her first young-adult novel will be published by Delacorte Press in 2000.

The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Truth
Sex Ed
 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009