Comprehensive Sex Ed Responsive to Age, Community Standards

Pamela Merritt

A new McCain ad suggests that Obama supports teaching about sex in kindergarten. In age-appropriate comprehensive sex education, what do students really learn, and when?

Sen. John McCain has released an ad attacking Sen. Barack Obama for his
support of age appropriate sex ed, suggesting Obama supports education that would teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read.

Obama’s and McCain’s positions sum up both sides of the debate
over when and how to educate youth about human sexuality.  Advocates of abstinence-only programs warn that teachers will be forced to bring adult themes to young students, summoning images
of kindergartners being instructed on the proper way to put a condom on a
banana.  Supporters of comprehensive sex
education counter that, rather than provide one curriculum for all ages, age
appropriate comprehensive sex education programs take into consideration the
age and developmental level of the students, along with community values. 

Though political candidates and their supporters are forever
declaring their position for or against comprehensive sex education, they spend
little to no time explaining what, in their book, comprehensive sexual
education is.  How and why educators
develop age appropriate sex education programs is also rarely discussed.  Would supporters of abstinence only programs
re-think their position if they better understood how age appropriateness
factors into comprehensive sex education? And do pro-choice, pro-sexual health
voters actually know what is taught in comprehensive sexuality education, by
grade level? As both major political parties proceed in support of differing
platforms — the Democratic
Party’s 2008 platform includes support
of age-appropriate comprehensive sex
education while the Republican
Party Platform maintains support of abstinence only education
— now is a
good time to revisit age appropriate comprehensive sex education.

The Sexuality Information and Education
Council of the United States
(SIECUS) defines sex education as a lifelong
process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values
that encompasses sexual development, sexual and reproductive health,
interpersonal relationships, affection, intimacy, body image, and gender
roles.  SIECUS has developed Guidelines for
Comprehensive Sexuality Education
(Kindergarten through 12th grade) through
a national task force of experts in the fields of adolescent development,
health care, and education.  The
guidelines provide a framework of the key concepts topics, and messages that
all sexuality education programs would ideally include.

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Monica Rodriguez, Vice President for Education and Training
at SIECUS, explained that age appropriate comprehensive sex education is based
on what research has revealed about youth emotionally, cognitively and
physically: ""Basically, what someone wants to insure (parent to child or
educator to child) is that the information is presented in a way that is
developmentally and age appropriate for a young person," she explains. For instance, if teaching about puberty, she’d take this approach:

"Puberty starts at about 9 or 10 in girls so I need to make
sure I’m addressing this topic with girls starting in 4th and 5th grade for
sure.  By 6th grade it is a history
lesson. I need to recognize that some girls will not be near starting while
others will.  The information can’t be
too graphic but provide basic information and lay the foundation to prepare
them for what is coming.  We know that
kids that age are very concrete thinkers – they need to see it, feel it and
touch it.  Models work better than
abstract drawings.  Some kids learn
through experiencing things, so I would have them make models.  In 4th grade, I would have them name the body
parts and talk about hormones and what changes will happen and reinforce that
it is normal.  Whereas for high school
students, I would go into more specific details about hormones etcetera."

 

But, says Rodriguez, if a six-year-old were curious about the changes her body would undergo, that young person might not need specific details.  Says Rodriguez, "I have a six-year-old niece who is curious
about periods.  She thinks it is gross and
she is worried that it is going to happen to her." What message does her niece get? "The age appropriate message for her was, when
you get older you will get your period and it is kind of gross.  But you know what?  You just deal with it and it is a natural
thing that happens in the body."

Challenges of Age-Appropriate Instruction

Rodriguez acknowledged that a challenge many educators face
is that they are usually teaching to a group. 
"You have to keep it broad for the group," says Rodriguez. "Developmental levels will vary in a group and it is important for the
educator to realize that and for the curriculum to allow for that."  According to Rodriquez, educators should
answer things broadly and then pull out students who need more detailed
one-on-one information.

Another challenge to developing age appropriate
comprehensive sex education curricula is the issue of community standards.  Rodriquez explains that in a typical public
school system, each school district has its own rules and policies.  Each building and classroom also has its own
rules.  The age appropriate comprehensive
sex education curriculum has to be developed in partnership with community
buy-in.  A curriculum
committee – teachers, parents, community leaders – approve the
curriculum and present it to the school board.  The board then determines what is acceptable within that
community.

Rodriguez points out that in some communities teachers
aren’t allowed to answer any questions not addressed in the approved curriculum
while in other communities’ educators have set up anonymous question boxes
where students can ask anything.

When asked how school districts handle protest to a board-approved curriculum, Rodriguez acknowledged that "The most vocal people are
often the ones who determine what happens. 
People who organize and get others involved can get a curriculum pulled
and abstinence only one put into place. 
That curriculum might not truly reflect the community standards but
rather the standards of a vocal few."

Rodriguez offered the example of a community where opponents
of an approved age appropriate comprehensive sex education curriculum persuaded
their school board to require students to have permission slips signed by a
parent or guardian before being allowed to participate in the class.   "Those women organized to try to get the
curriculum pulled but 95% of the parents signed the slips."  In the end, the community reaffirmed that the
curriculum met their standards.

Not only do communities not need to worry that
kindergartners will be faced with condoms and bananas, but comprehensive sex
education has research on its side. 
Studies have found that abstinence-plus
programs have a positive impact on sexual behavior
, comprehensive
sex education holds the most promise for preventing teen pregnancies and
sexually transmitted infections
and that comprehensive
sex education is better at reducing teen pregnancy than abstinence-only
programs
.  Age appropriate
comprehensive sex education does not silence parents or communities.  Despite protests to the contrary, individuals
and agencies at the federal, state, and local level are all involved in making
curriculum decisions that ultimately determine what students learn in the
classroom. 

The facts go a long way to dispel fears surrounding age
appropriate comprehensive sex education, but supporters of abstinence-only
programs continue to promote their anti-knowledge agenda.  Pro-choice voters must factor in the need to
defend and promote age appropriate comprehensive sex education or we’ll be
looking at four more years of abstinence-only funding — and the consequences of
the failure to educate our youth that goes hand-in-hand with it.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: A Nursing Home With a Healthy Attitude Toward Sex

Martha Kempner

A nursing home understands that its elderly residents are still sexual beings; New York City is amping up its youth sexual health outreach with emojis of eggplants and monkeys; and if forced to choose between eating and sex, a good number of people pick food.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Sex Is Not Just for the Young

The New York Times recently profiled a nursing home with a sex-positive attitude for its residents. The Hebrew Home at Riverdale adopted its “sexual expression policy” in 1995 after a nurse walked in on two residents having sex. She asked her boss, Daniel Reingold, what she should do. He said, “Tiptoe out and close the door.”

Reingold, the president of RiverSpring Health (which runs the nursing home), said that aging includes a lot of loss—from the loss of spouses and friends to the loss of independence and mobility. But he believes the loss of physical touch and intimacy does not have to be part of getting older.

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The policy acknowledges that residents have the right to seek out and engage in consensual acts of sexual expression with other residents or with visitors. The policy ensures that staff understand that their role is not to prevent sexual contact. In fact, some of the staff like to play cupid for residents. Audrey Davison, an 85-year-old resident, said that the staff let her sleep in her boyfriend’s room, and one aide even made them a “Do Not Disturb” sign for his door. She added: “I enjoyed it and he was a very good lover.”

Still, there are complicating factors to dating in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. Some residents may be married to people who don’t live in the facility, and others may be suffering from memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s, which can raise issues of consent. Hebrew Home’s policy states that Alzheimer’s patients can give consent under certain circumstances.

Though not all nursing homes have formal policies about sex, many acknowledge that their residents are or want to be sexually active and are working to help residents have a safe and consensual experience. Dr. Cheryl Phillips, a senior vice president at LeadingAge, an organization which represents nursing homes and others who provide elder care, also told the New York Times that this generation of older adults is different: “They’ve been having sex—that’s part of who they are—and just because they’re moving into a nursing home doesn’t mean they’re going to stop having sex.”

Of course, not all residents are lucky in love when they move in. Hebrew Home says that about 40 of its 870 residents are in relationships. Staff are trying to help the others. They set up happy hours, a prom, and have started a dating service called G-Date (for “Grandparent Date”). So far it hasn’t been too successful in making matches, but the staff is convinced that someday their efforts will pay off with a wedding.

Can Emojis Connect Youth to Sexual Health Services?

New York City’s public hospital system, known as Health & Hospitals, provides confidential sexual health services—including pregnancy tests, contraception, and tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—for young people 12 and older regardless of their ability to pay, immigration status, or sexual orientation. Health & Hospitals served 152,000 patients last year, but its leaders think it could do even more if more young people were aware of the services offered.

As a way to speak the language of young people, Health & Hospitals launched a campaign starring emojis in July.

The emojis are expected to reach 2.4 million young people in New York City through social media including Facebook and Instagram. The emojis include an eggplant, a monkey covering his eyes, and, of course, some birds and bees. The online ads read, “Need someone to talk to about ‘it’?”

When young people click on the emojis, they will be taken to the Health & Hospitals youth website, which explains available services and how to find accessible providers.

Dr. Ram Raju, president and CEO of NYC Health & Hospitals, said in a press release that the organization provides nonjudgmental services to youth: “Whether it’s birth control, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or depression screening, the public health system has affordable services in local community health centers, where we speak your language, understand your culture and respect your privacy.”

But some worry that these emojis are confusing. Elizabeth Schroeder, a sex educator and trainer, told the New York Times that while she applauded the effort, she questioned if the images chosen were the best to convey the message.

We here at This Week in Sex have to agree and admit the images confuse us as well. The monkey is cute, but what does it have to do with STDs?

Choosing Between Appetites, Many Pick Food

Good food or good sex? These two sources of pleasure are rarely at odds with each other, but if they ever are, which would you choose?

A new survey, by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, posed this very question to almost 12,000 adults in 37 countries across the globe. The results show that about half of adults (46 percent of men and 51 percent of women) believe that food can be as pleasurable as sex. And one-third would choose a great dinner at a restaurant rather than sex; women were more likely to make this choice (42 percent compared with 26 percent of men).

Millennials were also more likely to make this choice than those slightly older Gen-Xers (35 percent to 30 percent). Of course, it’s hard to tell whether this says more about their sex lives or their eating habits.

 

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