Getting Real About the REAL Act

Christopher White

A disease prevention model of sexuality education does little to address the real issues that young people face on a daily basis.

The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act sponsored by Senator
Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was
reintroduced recently to the applause of pro-sexuality education
organizations across the nation.  Originally introduced in 2007, the
bill proposes to provide funding for "medically and scientifically
accurate information" as part of "comprehensive sex education" that is
"age-appropriate" and promotes "abstinence as the only 100% effective
way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy." 
Of course, I am not against these things and support any kind of
funding that allows states and organizations to choose alternatives to
abstinence-only programs.  However, I hope the sponsors, co-sponsors,
and committee members seize this incredible opportunity and encourage
the use of language and frameworks that go beyond merely preventing
disease and unwanted pregnancy to promoting healthy sexuality throughout the life-cycle. 

In reading some of the blog reactions and news
posts regarding this Act, I was struck by a couple of similarities
between the anti-sex ed groups (or "pro-abstinence-only" depending on
who you ask) and the pro-comprehensive sex education folks. The most
common issue I noticed was the use of the word abstinence. On one side,
we are told again and again that the only message that young people
should receive is that they should abstain from engaging in any sexual
activity until they are married (or in a committed relationship – from
those who are pretending to be more inclusive).  From the other side,
we hear that young people should be taught that abstinence is the only
100% effective method for preventing STDs and pregnancy but "just in
case" we should teach other methods for preventing these unwanted
things and call it something nice like "abstinence-plus."  Another
issue that seems to land on everyone’s radar is this issue of what is
"age-appropriate."  The ab-only folks immediately begin to scream that
young children are going to be taught about sexual intercourse
(remember the "story" about Obama wanting to teach Kindergartners how
to have sex?).  In reaction, the comprehensive supporters tend to
ramble on about it being different for different communities and
different individuals and never really give an answer.  Finally, both
sides get caught up on "scientifically and medically accurate
information."  I don’t even know what that means, and I’ve been a sex
educator for almost twenty years (yes, I know it’s about effectiveness
rates and other types of data that are so incredibly meaningful in a
16-year old’s life).

In my opinion, these arguments are old and
tired, and it is high time that we consider some alternatives. The main
thing that I encourage our legislative representatives (and the policy
wonks who spend their days talking to our leaders) to consider is
throwing out this disease prevention model that does very little to
address the real issues that young people face on a daily basis. 
Instead, consider what it means to be healthy and what it means to
promote healthy sexuality from birth until death. 

First, it
means acknowledging that we are all sexual beings, including during
infancy and old age, regardless of how we choose to express that
sexuality throughout our lives. This means that we start to accept that
teaching about sexuality is more than teaching about sex acts and
includes providing basic knowledge about bodies and society, even at
very young ages.

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Secondly, a new approach to sexuality
education requires understanding what is relevant and important for
different people at different points in life – and this is only
achieved by talking to people about this. It is our responsibility as
educators and parents to engage young people and ask them what these
things are and engage them in conversation.

Thirdly, this model
involves providing young people the knowledge and skills necessary to
be sexually healthy, such as how to access information and services
related to sexuality throughout their lives.  These life-long skills
are a necessity at ensuring sexual health and happiness throughout all
of our lives. 

Finally, we have to learn to discuss sexuality
and sexual choices with a non-judgmental voice. This includes such
things as removing anti-gay and exclusionary language, as well as
dropping mockery and dismissal of those who choose to wait until they
are in a life-long committed relationship (or even marriage) to become
sexually active. The goal of such a model–based on promoting healthy
sexuality for individuals, couples, and communities, and reaching those with diverse
religious backgrounds, sexual and gender identities, race and ethnic
origins, political views, physical abilities, and so on–is to embrace
and celebrate the very thing that makes the United States what it is –
diversity, a pluralistic society, a melting pot, or whatever words and
phrases you choose to use.

As the Director of Education and
Training at the National Sexuality Resource Center, I applaud Senator
Lautenberg and Representative Lee for introducing the REAL Act and
acknowledge that this is the first (baby) step in the right direction
for healthy sexuality.  However, my hopes are that they will consider
improving this legislation by adopting a new philosophy about sexuality
– one that is not about avoiding danger through risk-reduction but
rather encourages conversations and celebration of our diversity in
order to promote lifelong healthy sexuality. The desired outcomes of
less disease and less unwanted pregnancy will follow, but we will
change the way that we as a society view our sexuality by shifting the
focus to happiness, health, and well-being.

This post first appeared on the National Sexuality Resource Center Dialogues website.

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