Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why we need better sex education

Every semester, I teach a course in the Psychology of Human Sexuality at Montgomery College. And every semester, I become more convinced that our system of sexuality education is dangerously inadequate. But wait, you say -- most public schools include sex education and there is so much sexual information readily available today, so surely students are well aware of the basics regarding sexuality.

Tell that to the young man who never had any sex education before my class. His parents opted him out of every aspect of sex education at school. That is their right, but they also failed to provide any significant discussion of issues surrounding sexuality at home, beyond the basic message of "don't have sex." He was so grateful for the opportunity to have access to real sexuality education in my class.

Tell that to the young woman who was sure there was something wrong with her because she couldn't have an orgasm through penile-vaginal intercourse. She spent years faking orgasms because she didn't feel comfortable talking to her partners about her inability to climax. For the first time, she is talking to her partner openly about how she responds sexually and exploring new possibilities for herself and her partner.

Tell that to the many students who were sexually assaulted, abused, or raped, but have never told anyone about it because they were sure it was their fault, or it wasn't "really" rape, or because they thought no one would believe them. They still suffer with feelings of fear, mistrust, anger, and doubt that can have a corrosive influence on their sexuality and intimate relationships. They tell me their stories, finally beginning to believe that what happened to them wasn't just "bad sex" and that they didn't deserve it.

Tell that to the students who have never learned effective relationship skills. The chapter on love and communication is revelatory -- they realize that they have routinely been using destructive communication tactics like stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness, and suddenly the failure of their last relationship makes sense. Most report that they have never been taught communication skills in school, and few can identify even one couple in their lives who could act as a role model for a happy, successful relationship. They walk out of my class with concrete, scientifically-validated strategies for more satisfying and enduring relationships.

This doesn't even include the students who got misinformation about STDs through abstinence-only sex "education", who never learned about the full range of contraceptive methods available (or how to use them correctly), and who couldn't label basic sexual and reproductive anatomy accurately. We need to do a better job of educating young people about sexuality. We are leaving them dangerously ignorant and misinformed, without the knowledge and skills they need to make safe, satisfying sexual choices.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the future, though. President Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex "education" (or what one of my friends calls "ignorance-only" sex education), and the new appropriations bill focuses on funding effective sexuality education. In other words, there is a pool of money available to fund programs that have been "proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity), reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections or reduce teenage pregnancy" [from the 2010 appropriations bill via Newsweek's blog, The Gaggle]. I am pleased to see an approach that cares about the empirical evidence of efficacy in sexuality education. This means that we will be shifting toward more comprehensive sexuality education, which is effective at reducing rates of teen pregnancy, and away from abstinence-only sex education, which has been receiving federal funds since 1981, despite its failure to reduce adolescent pregnancy or delay sexual activity.

But sexuality education needs to be more than just pregnancy and STI prevention. We need to provide the tools to develop sexual lives that are both safe and satisfying. Certainly, we need to provide effective, age-appropriate sexuality education about issues related to reproduction and health. But young people also need to know how to enhance pleasure and build strong relationships. They need education that builds sexual agency and effective communication skills -- not only will that help reduce unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, but it would also be an important step in our progress toward greater gender equality. Until those lessons are part of every adolescent's education, I'll continue to hear the stories that are proof of the inadequacy of our current system of sex education. And I'll continue to do my best to provide the kind of sexuality education I think every person needs and deserves.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rain beads

It rained today, and I love the way that the water forms beads along the bare branches. I didn't manage to get pictures of today's rain beads, but here is a photo of the rose bush outside my front door in November, 2009.

I see beads and adornment everywhere. Q and I met up with friends to see Avatar yesterday (in 3-D). It was a visually lush film, with all kinds of creatures and plants, but I spent a lot of it looking at the Na'vi jewelry and clothing. I started getting visions of new designs for beaded necklaces and fabric accessories. I'm easily distracted by bright colors and shiny baubles . . . it just made me want run back to my fiber studio and play with my stash. Instead, I'm still working on organizing and clearing out my office. I seem fated to be surrounded by piles of paper.

Friday, January 15, 2010

(I'm having a hard time) letting go

I admit it -- I'm a packrat. But at least two or three times a year, I go through a major de-cluttering. I go through the piles of paper and sort through my clothes and books, trying to get rid of things I don't need or want. It's surprisingly difficult for me to part with these items, even when I haven't looked at them for months or years. When I finally do manage to dispose of the unnecessary items, it's great -- I feel energized, as though I've cleared the decks and I'm ready to go full steam ahead. Why, then, is it so hard for me to give up my stuff?

Some of it has to do with pragmatic issues. I might need this item in future, so I save it, "just in case." This can be a perfectly sensible mindset, but as almost anything could have some use in future, it doesn't help me sort out what I am likely to use and what I am unlikely to use. I also hate the idea of waste -- throwing perfectly usable items away seems wrong. In this respect, Freecycle has been very helpful. Rather than tossing something in the trash, I post it to the Freecycle list. In most cases, I've been able to find takers for all kinds of stuff that would be unwelcome at most traditional charity organizations. I feel better, knowing that I'm not contributing to landfill waste and that my unwanted things will find a purposeful existence in someone else's life.

But my response goes beyond simple issues of practicality. Letting go of these things means giving up hope. When I look at the boxes of data that are stuffed into the closet in my office, I still cling to the idea that I can publish the research, even though some of these studies were conducted more than a decade ago. The bins of fabric represent the potential for garments and quilts that I have long planned, but never begun. To give them away is to admit defeat, to bow to the ugly reality of failure, and I refuse to do so.

The simple fact is that I often have a strong emotional response to the idea of getting rid of things. How can I part with the collection of carved animals from my younger days, many of which were gifts from my family? To dispose of a gift feels like a rejection of the giver, disrespectful and crass. And what about the tattered puppets that so entertained me as a child, but which now languish in a bag in my closet? Would that I could find someone who might love them as I do, but their next destination would surely be the garbage can, and how can I consign them to that fate? I'm even unwilling to get rid of the small stack of worksheets from high school chemistry I found, impersonal and meaningless as they are. Letting these things go means letting go of my past. The link to my childhood is already so fragile that I hold these objects in hope that they will represent an anchor to that earlier life which I remember only dimly.

Indeed, it seems that I hold some items in hope that I could return to that prior self. I have a pair of rainbow toe socks in my dresser that I have worn only once. Why have these not been donated to charity? Because when I was a child, I wanted rainbow toe socks desperately. To my eyes, they represented the height of fashion. As an adult, though, I find these socks terribly uncomfortable. I have no idea why I own a pair -- did I buy them or were they a gift? -- but I keep them in hopes that they will give me the same joy today that they would have in my childhood. In one episode of the sitcom Mad About You, Jamie Buchman, bemoaning her current, dull self, said, "I used to wear hats!" -- indicating that she was once young and hip. She then attempted to recapture her former self by putting on a hat, as if by doing so, she could shed her existing persona and become again her former, cooler self. I can empathize. I, too, wore hats with blithe abandon in my young adulthood. And although I rarely wear those hats any more, they still linger in my closet, waiting to transport me back in time. We often imbue objects with magical qualities and perceive them as transformative, able to shape us into our idealized self.

In some cases, I have become the caretaker for someone else's past. My mother's doll collection resides in cardboard boxes, each doll wrapped in acid-free paper. A lovely, cream-colored vest, handmade by my partner's grandmother, resides in one of my dresser drawers. These are not items I cherish for themselves -- I care little for the dolls, which hold no precious memories for me, and the vest is not a style I would wear. But they are fragments of these women's lives, imbued with their departed spirits. I have been charged to hold them in memorium, to protect and care for their possessions, and I am no more able to carelessly dispose of these objects than would a museum curator or a funeral director.

My house is full and overflowing, but the process of divesting myself of possessions is a perilous path. Each object is richly textured with meaning . . . imbued with significance . . . full of memories. Disposing of these items speaks volumes about who I am, who I was, and who I could be. All too often, it's just easier to keep the stuff than to face those questions.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bead Journal Project

I decided to give my beading mania free reign -- I joined the Bead Journal Project. This is the brainchild of Robin Atkins, and is now in its third year. This is my first time as a participant, and I'm looking forward to creating a small beaded work each month. The project is so popular that there are actually three different blogs for it, to accommodate all the participants. I'm an author on the second blog, but you can see even more BJP at the first blog and third blog.

I posted my introduction and plan over on the BJP blog. I'm going to use the project to get back to my V-Heart series. I really enjoyed making the V-Hearts, and I actually started working on the series again this summer, so the timing is perfect. I'm looking forward to seeing where this takes me. Bead ahoy!

Friday, January 1, 2010

A fresh start

Montreal, Canada

New Year's always brings a round of discussions about resolutions. People make resolutions or refuse to make resolutions. There are endless discussions of what resolutions will be made and why so many of them don't last beyond the first month.

I stopped making New Year's resolutions long ago, when I was in my teens. Perhaps I learned early that writing down those resolutions didn't result in change. Instead, it merely guaranteed that I would ultimately face the depressing realization that I seemed unable to embody the ideals I could so glibly commit myself to on January 1.

But here's what I started wondering today. Why January 1? Why do we make these resolutions on New Year's Day? What is it about changing the calendar that makes us want to change ourselves? There's something about a beginning that seems to open up the possibility for a fresh start, a rebirth into an improved self. After all, we so often start a new regimen -- a new diet, an exercise plan -- at the beginning of the week. Maybe there's just something about a new year, a new week, a new day that seems to allow for a change. The vista of a new year spreads before us, full of possibility, untouched by the failures and difficulties of the past. Perhaps we feel that we, too, are newly-born, able to do and be anything. Maybe we are willing to forgive ourselves for our imperfections -- rather than continuing to berate ourselves for our inability to succeed in the past, we can let that go and move forward on our path to self-actualization.

One of the reasons I enjoy being an academic is that there are so many beginnings. Every semester is a new beginning, ripe with potential. I get that heady sense of endless possibility not just in January, but also in August and June. I can tell myself that this semester will be better than the last -- I will be more diligent and disciplined. I'll de-clutter my office. I'll exercise regularly. I'll read more, write more, do more.

Of course, this new beginning is both true and illusory. It is true in that every moment represents a fresh start. We can change our habits anytime we wish, and every day, every hour, every minute, gives us the opportunity to do better. Even if we failed a moment ago, we have the opportunity to succeed in *this* moment. In that sense, why should we wait until January to make resolutions? Make your commitment to improvement every morning -- no need to wait for New Year's Day.

But it is illusory in that we drag our past with us, whether we wish to or not. Making a resolution to change does not, in itself, enact any change. I'm still the same person I was before I made the resolution, and I'm in the same place, with the same stresses and challenges. We seem to think that making the resolution will be enough. We merely need willpower and the commitment to change, and we will become that better person we can see so clearly. But this ignores the many forces, internal and external, that act upon us. One of the truisms in psychology is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We are more likely to keep doing we have always done, and willpower may not be sufficient to push us out of our groove.

We always have the opportunity for change and growth and improvement. But real and sustained change requires more than a resolution. It necessitates a plan of action that takes into account the factors that influence our behavior. We can look to the future and its wondrous possibility, but we need to learn from our past as well, or we will probably find ourselves doomed to repeat it.