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Entries in sex education (10)

Thursday
Oct182012

It's Official: The HPV Vaccine Will Not Turn Girls Into "Sluts"

@RHRealityCheck

On October 15, the New York Times reported that adolescents who are vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) aren’t more promiscuous than those who don’t get vaccinated. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that raises the risk of some cancers. It’s not surprising that a vaccine has no effect on adolescent sexual behavior. What is surprising is that fear of “sluttiness” is the number-one reason parents decide not to vaccinate their kids against HPV.

Put another way: A large proportion of parents in the United States are more afraid of their kids having sex than they are of their kids getting cancer.

In fact, “slut-shaming” and negative messaging about female and non-straight sexuality could themselves be compared to a viral infection. A study published in November 2011 found that nearly half of students in grades seven through 12 experienced sexual harassment, and that most of the harassment is directed at girls for being either “slutty” or “prudes” or against kids who are suspected of being gay.

Seeking to shame someone because of her or his real or perceived sexual activity and desire is prevalent among teens and constitutes a type of bullying that is extremely damaging. The 2011 study noted that students reported being particularly negatively affected by slut shaming. Research consistently shows that LGBTI youth have a much higher rate of suicide or suicide attempts than the general population, with a strong correlation between depression or self-harm and gay bashing.

But teenagers are not solely responsible: Slut shaming and gay bashing originate with adults. I don’t mean just adults who tell children that all sex outside marriage is bad or consign LGBTI kids to celibacy, or banish them to hell. I mean adults who refuse to have a real conversation with teenagers about sex and all that comes with it—good or bad. The sex-negative culture we have created by not having real conversations about sex and relationships affects everyone.

Here’s how:

When we tell adolescents that sex is not something they should desire or like, we are telling them to set aside their own experiences in favor of a lie. Spoiler alert! A study looking at trends in premarital sex from the 1950s until now shows that the majority of Americans have sex before marriage. One of two things happens next, and sometimes both simultaneously:

On one hand, adolescents stop listening to the adults who tell them scare stories, because they see for themselves that the adults are wrong. Not everyone who has sex before marriage gets pregnant, contracts AIDS, or dies. And sex can feel amazing. When the adolescent-adult relationship is breached, children can lose their lifelines to trusted adults, who could have guided them through the mess that is puberty.

And some kids start doubting their own instincts. When we tell them that something that feels good to them is “bad,” they start thinking they, themselves, are bad. In this sense, slut shaming creates a culture of self-hatred in which girls in particular are only too willing to see themselves as deserving abuse.

It‘s crucially important that we teach children to trust their own feelings about sex and relationships. Instead of telling teenagers not to have sex at all—a completely outlandish notion in a post-post-Madonna world—we need to acknowledge that sexual desire exists, and that consent, not shame, is key. Only a teenager who is taught to respect and acknowledge his or her own feelings will know when touching feels wrong, and therefore when they need to say no. This is one of the few things my parents got right. My mother told me more than once that the only rule about sex in our house was that I should never have sex I didn’t want to have.

Slut shaming and gay bashing come from the same place: adult discomfort with sex. This can translate into adolescent date rape, teenage pregnancies, and sexually-transmitted-infection rates that are through the roof for those under the age of 24. Shaming someone for having sex that he or she wants to have constitutes bullying and teaches teenagers to ignore their own feelings about sex, potentially pushing them to unprotected and unhappy encounters.

In short: The sex-negative culture that has parents denying their children access to cancer prevention is the same culture that may expose these children to a sexually- transmitted, cancer-inducing virus. It’s time to get real about sex.

Friday
Oct122012

Teenagers Have Sex: Deal With It

@RHRealityCheck

This week, a two-year-old program allowing New York City schools to distribute emergency contraception (EC) in high schools finally made news, and not in a good way. Though schools allow parents to “opt out” of the program, some parents say they should have been asked to “opt in.”

This would make it even harder for kids to access EC (sometimes known as the “morning-after” pill). This is a serious mistake. I don’t think parents should be asked at all. They should be informed when their child enters high school that EC is available, and again if or when their daughter needs it. The health professional should also have the option of not informing parents at all, if the child expresses compelling reasons not to do so.

First, some context for how the program was conceived and implemented.

New York State has the eleventh-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the nation, with almost 60 pregnancies per 1,000 girls, ages 15-to-19 each year. Thirteen percent of U.S. teens have had sex at age 15, and about 70 percent by the time they are age 19. In New York State, approximately 40 percent of high-school students are sexually active. While 85 percent of teenagers say they use contraception during their first sexual encounter, contraception has been known to fail (and teenagers have been known to exaggerate.) Then there are the remaining 15 percent (plus) who don’t use any protection.

Clearly, high school—and potentially middle school—is ground zero for prevention. New York City has stepped up to the plate in recent years with the morning-after pill program and a city-wide sex-education mandate.

The teen-pregnancy rate in New York and other states with similar rates is not likely to drop anytime soon. A month ago, a New York Civil Liberties Union report on sex education in New York state revealed how little and how poorly students are being prepared for the sex they are having. And at what cost. Those under the age of 19 account for approximately one-third of all newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the state. And not surprisingly, teen mothers are much less likely to graduate from high school than their peers who are not pregnant.

Here are a few other thoughts on why comprehensive sex education should be mandatory, and the morning-after pill available to all high-school students, regardless of where they live.

  • Many teens have sex, whether you tell them about it or not. And telling them not to have sex definitely does not work. Abstinence-only sex education has been proven to fail time and again. My devoutly Catholic adoptive mother, a lifelong education professional, told me more than once that working in middle schools made her want to stand in the hallways and hand out condoms.


  • The majority of teenagers, especially younger ones, do talk to their parents about sex. Those who do not usually have good reasons not to. Studies have shown that kids are very good at predicting their parents’ reactions. Even those who do talk to their parents don’t always get the full picture. More than three-fourths of teenagers don’t know how to bring up sexual-health issues that their parents haven’t already addressed. If parents do not bring up the morning-after pill or any other contraceptive option, teenagers may have to depend on piecemeal (and often incorrect) information from peers.

     
  • The morning-after pill safely prevents pregnancy after a condom has broken; after a sexual encounter in which the partners were too embarrassed to ask about contraception; after rape; or in any other emergency. But the morning-after pill is effective only when used within a narrow time frame. If EC is readily available in schools, it can speed up the process.

The fact is, I can't imagine what would possess a parent to prevent his or her child from accessing information or health care they might need.

More important, I don’t believe parents have the right to do so. Children are entitled to be heard, and to have their interests protected. If there is anything I have learned from interviewing teen mothers across the Americas, it’s that we cannot assume that parental decision making in the area of sexuality is always in the child’s best interest.

I am not a disinterested party. My daughter, if things go as planned, will be a New York City high-school student in five years. Statistically speaking, she is likely to have sex at some point shortly thereafter. I want her and her classmates to be able to negotiate safe, consensual, and enjoyable sex. I want her to have access to the morning-after pill as soon as possible, should she need it—whether at school or over the counter at the pharmacy.

The real news flash of the week should have been: Teenagers have sex. Deal with it.

Wednesday
Sep122012

Why Boys Are Inclined to Under-Achieve and Girls Lose Self-Esteem in Early School Years

As the new school year starts, schoolyard lamentations about boys’ academic underachievement resurface. And the worry is real: girls most definitely do better than boys at school.

But as the mother of a girl (and a women’s rights advocate), my first reaction, when fellow parents complain about their boys’ needs being ignored, is: hmmmm, sure. For those of us who, like me, are the mother of girls, the school year means we might be dealing with the sudden loss in self-esteem most girls apparently experience right about middle school, brought on by the pressure to be sweet and beautiful (or worse: sexy) rather than strong and smart.

And both with regard to boys’ academic under-achievement and with regard to girls’ self-erasure: how does that happen?

For most children in the United States, school is definitely the place where they spend the most time. What adults they see there, and how those adults behave and expect them to behave, is therefore likely to be a significant influence on their lives.  

Another big influence in entertainment media, including video games. Studies show that, on average, 8-to-18-year-olds spend more than 53 hours a week on entertainment media, and that girls and boys play video games to an almost equal extent.

From even a superficial look at each of these key influences in turn, it’s clear that something is askew. There are a distinct lack of male role models at school and a dearth of empowered female role models in video games. This bias is exacerbated for children of color: African American men are seriously underrepresented in the teaching profession, and good luck finding a strong black female character in a video game.

The question: Does any of this matter?

Teaching, in particular in lower grades, has been considered a woman’s profession for more than a century. Likewise for the notion that boys can’t sit still or that classroom learning is not designed for male style learning: while it is potentially true that some boys are less used to sitting down and concentrating on a book-ish task than some girls, the sit-down-and-learn style of schooling is nothing new.  

In other words: there is no reason that the lack of male teachers or the prevalent teaching philosophy suddenly should affect boys’ academic performance negatively.

It is also not unusual that boys and men are the main characters in whichever narrative media format kids are into at any given time. Most fairy tales and folk stories have male protagonists, or depict women as dependent on male initiative and strength. It is this bias—reflective of societally accepted gender roles--that carried over in early children’s literature and now video games. And don’t get me started on superheroes

That said (and a lot could, should, and has been said about gender bias in literature and children’s narratives) the prejudices that led to this bias have been around for a while.  

In other words: the dip in girls’ self confidence around middle school age which psychologists began to document more systematically in the late 20th century has likely existed for a long time. In fact, younger girls have not been encouraged to think of themselves as individuals or protagonists until very recently. It is therefore possible that what is new is the higher levels of self confidence and esteem in early childhood rather than the later dip.

Does this mean that biased gender representation in teaching and video games are not a problem?

I don’t think so. There is quite a lot to be said for providing a concrete example that children might project themselves onto. Filmmaker Spike Lee has repeatedly made the case that the recruitment of black male teachers in the United States might motivate more black boys to stay in school for longer.

And while male superheroes, on and off the screen, can provide a moral compass for boys, girls have preciously few models to lean on. A new documentary on the legacy of Wonder Woman shows how important, and at the same time insufficient, this one prominent female superhero has been for girls growing up during the past several decades.

Fortunately, times are changing slowly, at least for white girls. The popularity of the Hunger Games and  similar narratives shows that there is a growing appetite for female leads. But the minor furor that erupted when moviegoers realized that one of the most likable characters in that dystopic setting is black shows that there is still no real openness to narratives that represent all of us.

So the next time a parent corners me in the school yard to comment on boys lagging behind in education, I will know what to say. Let’s work together to get a better gender and race balance in our schools and on our screens. Let’s not expect all boys to be noisy and all girls to be neat. Let’s not assume that all heroes are white. It may not be directly related to exam scores, but it is pretty darn close.

 

Wednesday
May022012

A Theory on Gendered Effects of Insecurity, Or Why Men Tweet Their Penis Pix

@RHRealityCheck

Last Mother’s Day, news had just broken that then-Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner had tweeted a picture of his erect penis to a woman, thinking the tweet was private. The blogosphere immediately erupted in debates over the relative merits of women over men, the moral weight of adultery (Weiner is married), and the need for public officials to stop thinking they understand new media.

For me, however, a central question raised by the event was never fully addressed: what is it with men and photos of their erect penises?  

In the 12 months that have passed since the Weiner incident, I have received unsolicited penis pictures from several men I wasn’t dating, didn’t plan on dating, and in some cases didn’t even really know.

And I am not alone. Only just this week, a friend of mine received an erect-penis picture via text from a coworker who said he had intended it for his girlfriend but had thumbed in the wrong number.

In fact, a quick poll of those of my (male and female) friends who cared to answer the question shows that un-solicited penis pictures are not all that uncommon. Interestingly, the women I asked all said they had never sent photos of their genitalia to anyone. Absent more representative polling (and somehow I don’t think this question has ever made it into a survey), let’s just say for now that men are more likely to take and send photos of their genitalia than women.

The question is why? And... so what?

Here’s my theory.

Men and women are taught to deal with social situations differently. Men and boys are overwhelmingly taught to depend on themselves, to be direct, and to celebrate their physical strength. Women and girls, on the other hand, are taught the value of social coherence and politeness, and are often not encouraged to celebrate their bodies at all. Whether these are innate sex differences or acquired characteristics is an open question, but socially, for most people, and in varying degrees, the sciences agree that gender (i.e. learned norms), if not sex (i.e. biological distinctions), makes a difference.

This is the framework that makes a man more likely than a woman to think a photo of an erect penis is a good way to communicate something positive about a man’s body. And it is the same framework that makes a woman more likely than a man to worry if she is overweight or unattractive (which according to prevailing norms often is seen as synonymous).  

Like most internalized behavioural patterns, the difference is the starkest when the individual feels threatened.

In the context of an inter-personal relationship this means — to be slightly clichéd about it— that men are more likely to react to insecurity by reasserting their physical superiority (“You have never seen a bigger dick than mine!”) and women are more likely to react by begging for approval (“Does this dress make my ass look big?”). Both proclamations get old fast, not least because anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of either knows there is only one appropriate answer, regardless the truth: “Of course not.”

But even if you transplant this dynamic to a professional or other public arena, these somewhat primitive reactions are problematic. Men are more likely to assert their superiority — despite and often because of any insecurity they might feel — whereas women are more likely to phrase statements as declarations of submission — despite being experts in their field and sometimes precisely because they are.

This very real gender difference is at least partially at fault when it comes to companies and society more generally valuing women’s work less than men’s: women, themselves, tend to play down their own value.

To be sure, there is no research on the relation between penis pictures, gendered social cues, and how it relates to job performance and pay rates. Moreover, I am certainly not trying to blame women for the discrimination they suffer. And I don’t believe any of these tendencies are universal, absolute, or inevitable.

However, there is more than enough science to support the existence of gendered reactions to threats and insecurity, and to point out the different ways in which boys and girls are taught to think about and enjoy their bodies, even today.

Perhaps more to the point, male (sexual) aggression — even when solicited, welcomed, and enjoyed — is part of a gendered framework that, if imposed in a general and mechanical manner, hurts us all. In fact, research shows that gendered norms make men much less likely than women to seek medical or other help for physical and mental health issues, with very real consequences for their health and happiness.

So, gals, next time you put on your favourite dress, ask yourself how you feel, not how someone else might think you look. And guys: if you find yourself about to snap a picture of your junk, ask yourself if that really is your best side, and if you wouldn’t rather be known for who you are.

Thursday
Mar082012

Limbaugh is Sorry for Calling Fluke a "Slut," But Why Were We ALL Sorry, Too?

@RHRealityCheck

This week’s back-and-forth over Rush Limbaugh’s use of the words “slut” and “prostitute” illustrates our deep discomfort with women’s sexuality.

And in saying this, I am not referring to the fact that Rush Limbaugh massively misstated, misunderstood, and misrepresented Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony on the medical need for contraception. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the subject matter will know that 1) private health insurance is not paid for with tax dollars; and 2) you have to take birth control pills with the same frequency (once a day) regardless of the amount of sex you have.

I am talking about the discomfort with women’s sexuality demonstrated in the outpouring of support for Sandra Fluke. Lawmakers, pundits and even the president have reached out, expressing sympathy for the pain it must have caused her to be called a slut. Advertisers have pulled support for Limbaugh’s program. And Limbaugh himself found it necessary to apologize for his use of words, all the while reiterating his absurd read of the content of Fluke’s original testimony.

Implicit in all of this is the notion that it is a very bad thing to be called a slut. But why? There is, as Yasmin Nair pointedly says, nothing wrong with women who like to have sex “with one person or with many, at the same time, or sequentially.” And if that is true, how is it that advertisers can be convinced to pull support for a highly profitable show solely on the premise that it is bad for business to be seen to support someone who calls a woman a slut?

Part of the reason is historic. Perceived chastity has traditionally been linked to the legal definition of defamation and libel. In this way, English common law historically considered it libellous or defamatory “per se”—that is, without the need for further explanation—to insinuate that a woman is unchaste. Interestingly, some definitions of defamation per se considered impotence and a want of chastity to be equally damaging notions. Rush Limbaugh might agree with that, considering his run-in with prosecutors over carrying Viagra and his somewhat frequent use of the word “slut” as an insult.

What is disheartening is that some of the of sympathy for Fluke comes from a similar place of discomfort with and judgement of liberated female sexuality. If we say that slut is a bad word, we are implicitly saying it is bad for women to want to have sex. If we say that prostitute is a bad word, we are saying that taking money for sex is an insult. Neither is automatically true.

Limbaugh’s negative judgement of a woman having sex for anything other than procreative purposes is obvious and direct. After all, that is what his rant was about in the first place.

For many others the judgement is more insidious and in some cases directed at ourselves. Many of my most actively feminist friends have at some point or another expressed genuine concern that some man will think they are a slut because they had sex with him on a first, second, or third date. Apart from the obvious double-standard (the man had sex on a first, second or third date too—is he also a slut?), most people in the United States, at some point, have sex outside marriage and without a deep and lasting emotional connection. In other words, most people may be sluts, but only women pay a social price for it.

Limbaugh’s juvenile tirade illustrates the many levels on which women are held to different standards than men. A woman who speaks publicly about sex, even clinically, is automatically a slut, but no such term automatically attaches to men who routinely affirm their sexual needs and desires. Women who ask that the insurance they pay for cover contraception are not only freeloaders but are also prostitutes, while the men who rely on their female partners to take care of their contraception needs are presumably virile.

In addition, both Limbaugh’s carefully worded apology, and quite a lot of the anti-Limbaugh media flurry this week miss an essential point in Fluke’s testimony: women and men have different health care needs because of their different physiology, and those needs should be met equitably.

But more than that: until we stop assuming that women are bad if they have sex with someone they don’t know, don’t love, or aren’t married to, we will never be a modern democracy with equal protection under the law.