Commentary Sexual Health

New York Times Magazine Spotlights A Comprehensive Sexuality Education Course

Martha Kempner

In a refreshing change from articles on sex education controversies, virginity pledge events, and chastity balls, the New York Times Magazine shows us what sex education can be when a good teacher is given the freedom to address the subject in an open, honest, and comprehensive way. 

In an article entitled, Teaching Good Sex, Laurie Abraham profiles a sex education course at a private school in Philadelphia that—to a sex educator like me —sounds damn near perfect.  Taught by Al Vernacchio, a veteran high school English teacher who also has a master’s degree in human sexuality, the course focuses not on preventing disasters like teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) but on helping young people think critically about their sexuality and their behavior. 

One of Vernacchio’s signature lessons involves having students analyze the ubiquitous metaphor of sex as being like baseball.  Baseball, for example, is a competitive sport that has specific goals (as Vernacchio puts it in the article “you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base’”). The players have an adversarial relationship to each other where one (in sex it’s typically understood to be the boy) is trying to advance and the other is trying to hold him off. 

After looking at this metaphor, the students in his class work on creating a better one in which sex is more like pizza.

While baseball is played at an appointed date and time, people order pizza because they’re hungry and they want it.  When ordering pizza with others, people often talk about what they want whether it’s the typical toppings like sausage and pepperoni or the odder ones like pineapple.  “…None of these are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment.”  More importantly, though, the goal of eating pizza isn’t to win, it’s just to be satisfied:  “That might be different for different people; it might be different for you on different occasions. Nobody’s like ‘You failed, you didn’t eat the whole pizza.’” 

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I was at a meeting a number of years ago where Vernacchio conducted this lesson with a room full of sexuality educators and I instantly loved it.  It does exactly what I think sex education should do for young people, it makes them think, re-examine their ideas, develop new ones, and talk about it with one another. This is what Vernacchio’s class, Sexuality and Society, is designed to do. According to the article, “His goal is for young people to know their own minds, be clear about what they want and don’t want and use their self-knowledge to make choices.” 

And as the article shows, in interviews with the students, the class is working.  It helped one girl figure out how to approach her partner about whether or not he was seeing anyone else because she was considering getting more serious but only if they were exclusive. In starting the conversation, she relied on Vernacchio’s distinction between nagging and asking for what you want. It helped two boys who masturbated to pornography but “found themselves disoriented at real-life encounters with girls,” understand how that could happen.  One explained, “Pornography gives boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you….But yesterday, when Mr. V. said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual—I’d never thought about that.”  And, it helped one girl who really liked sex shed the feeling that she was doing something wrong. 

I think the instant love for the pizza lesson was unanimous at the meeting I was at.  We all felt like it was an ingenious way to challenge society’s assumptions about sex and engage young people.  But something else was unanimous as well—the feeling that Vernacchio was unusually lucky to be able to teach such a lesson without worrying that parents would be outraged, administrators would balk, and he might ultimately lose his job. 

In most schools, particularly public schools, classes simply can’t be as comprehensive or open as this one.  In some cases this is because there is an actual policy on the state or local level that limits what can be discussed in sexuality education courses.  A number of states, for example, say that classes must focus exclusively, or at least primarily, on abstinence or forbid classes from discussing homosexuality.  In other cases, teachers censor themselves out of completely justifiable fears.  Too often we have seen communities erupt when a teacher discusses a “controversial topic” (think homosexuality, abortion, or masturbation), parents complain to administrators or the school board, and suddenly the teacher finds herself facing the threat of being fired. 

These are also the stories that most often appear in the press.  Sex sells and controversy sells, and most often when sex education is in the news it’s because someone is unhappy about what was said in the classroom.  In some ways this makes sense.  After all, if everything is fine and no one is complaining, it’s not exactly news.  Moreover, however, as Abraham points out, it can be hard to find good sex educators who feel comfortable and supported enough to be featured in the press. There is a definite sense that it’s safer to keep quiet than to draw any attention to those classes and teachers that are providing high quality sex ed. 

I’m glad that Abraham sought to spotlight good sex education and that Vernacchio and his students were in a position to tell their stories without fear.  Maybe if parents read what can go on when good teachers are given the freedom to address this subject in a comprehensive way, more teachers will get the okay to start courses like this one. 

Hey, a sex educator can dream right?

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Burden Is Undue: What I Have Learned and Unlearned About Abortion

Madeline Gomez

For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

Thirteen years before I was born, the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, for all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack.

In the past six years alone, states have enacted 288 provisions restricting access to abortion care. Three years ago, the Texas state legislature enacted HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill. And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled two provisions of that law are unconstitutional.

I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.

In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.

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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

***

I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.

I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.

I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.

I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.

I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.

I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.

I am 22 and my friend—the first I know oftells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortionsshe will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.

I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.

I am 26 and in my home state of Texas, Wendy Davis is filibustering an anti-abortion bill with two pink tennis shoes on her feet. I watch her all night, my heart swollen with pride at hundreds of women screaming in the rotunda, refusing to be ignored. Despite their efforts, Texas HB 2 will pass. Within three years, over half the abortion clinics in Texas will close.

Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announcedbut it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.