What exactly is Comprehensive Sexuality Education?

Recently, there have been questions in the media about what comprehensive sexuality education is. What is it that we are teaching our youth in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches across the country?

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.”

The “lifelong process” means that comprehensive sexuality education is age-appropriate. The curriculum for Kindergartners will be different than that of 5th graders and that of high school students.

The UU and UCC comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, Our Whole Lives (OWL) , teaches grade K-1 students about respect for others, how each of us is unique and wonderful, that our bodies are private and that if someone tries to hurt them or touch them inappropriately that they should immediately yell and run to tell an adult they trust. It also discusses families and what to expect when your parents have or adopt another baby.

Creating dialogue with five and six year olds about respect and families is a great way to increase self-confidence and develop close relationships among parents and children. The topics and questions brought up in the curriculum are common questions many young children have.

In contrast, teenagers in the OWL Grades 10-12 curriculum discuss body image, STDs, contraception, gender roles, sexual orientation, healthy relationships and communication. These topics are appropriate for teenagers who are exploring their sexual identity and entering relationships. These topics are not taught in the K-1 curriculum.

Parents are strongly encouraged to be involved in their child’s sexuality education. The primary teacher is always the parent. Comprehensive sexuality education gives tools to both the parents and children to talk about important sexual health issues that are age appropriate.

Comprehensive sexuality education gives us the tools we need to be in communication with each other and how to respect ourselves and others. It also helps us make healthy sexual decisions when we decide we are ready to do so.

The Bush Administration and Birth Control Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Secretary Leavitt’s proposal that broadly defined abortion to include some types of birth control. Many of you immediately responded to my request to tell Secretary Leavitt to reject the proposed regulation. Leavitt responded, and the definition of abortion was removed; however, the proposal still moved forward in its new form.

On August 26th, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed the new regulation which would allow health care providers to refuse to perform services they deem morally objectionable. Although abortion is not defined in this version, the regulation remains open to interpretation and allows employees to refuse to conduct or assist research activities. A full text of the proposal can be found here.

This regulation could severely affect a woman’s access to reproductive health care, including, but not limited to, abortions. The regulation does not include patients’ rights, and federal funding can be taken away from clinics that do not comply. This is particularly damaging to low-income women who may not be able to visit multiple clinics to receive the healthcare they need.

Currently, there is a 30-day comment period for the regulation. Act now and send your comments to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt expressing your opposition to the regulation!

Rev. Sinkford’s Reflections on HIV/AIDS in the Daily Voice

For years, Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, has pushed for our government to fund comprehensive sexuality education as a way of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Today, he published an editorial continuing his advocacy in the Daily Voice, a web site aiming to be the leading destination for African American news and opinion. In it, he reacts to a slew of recent developments, including the Saturday release of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, last week’s signing into law of the new President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the recent study from the Black AIDS Institute. Click here for the Daily Voice.

The Bush Administration and Birth Control

The Bush administration has just drafted a set of regulations which would widen the definition of abortion to include various types of contraceptives, including birth control pills. In the administration’s proposed definition, abortion would include, “any of the various procedures — including the prescription and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.”

The regulation would deny federal funding to any health center, hospital or clinic that does not allow health care employees to opt out of providing services that would violate the employee’s moral beliefs. This would include the dissemination of birth control.

As reported by The Washington Post, the regulation also mentions that “many states have recently passed laws requiring health plans to pay for contraception, pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control, and hospitals to offer Plan B to women who have been raped.” The administrations inclusion of these facts indicates a belief that health care for women, including survivors of rape is something that is wrong with the current health care system.

States requiring health plans to cover contraceptives is a big step for feminism and reproductive health activists, but now we have an administration that wants to limit these plans. By not funding health care that dispenses contraceptives, the Bush administration is putting thousands of women, specifically low-income women, at risk.

Allowing members of the medical community to decide when or if they should give women reproductive health treatment puts women at risk of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and psychological harm.

This is not only an issue of reproductive choice, it is also an issue of the rights of women in general, and even how we respond to domestic violence.

You can protect a woman’s access to birth control by telling Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to reject this harmful regulation.

Ending a Culture of Rape in the Military

Social theorists from feminist sociologists, like Audre Lorde, to institutional anthropologists, like Michel Foucault, agree that rape is never about sex. Rape is about power. Rape and sexual abuse dehumanizes and humiliates its victims. Its effects ripple through societies beyond those who are abused. This is why rape has been used as a very effective tool by invading armies. It has been documented that rape and sexual humiliation have been used in nearly every war since the Roman Empire. And it is widely recognized as a tool of genocide. Rape has been found in the holocaust as well as the Serbian, Rwandan and Sudanese genocides. And it has been a tool of torture in many international conflicts.

The effects of rape include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and often share similar results to what veterans of war and conflict experience. People who experience sexual violence during war time suffer the dual stress of sexual violence and war. It is for these reasons and more, the use of sexual violence is banned under international law as a crime against humanity.

It should come as no surprise, however, with this long history of rape in wartime, that reports of sexual violence and humiliation at the hands of U.S. soldiers are making their way into the public. Three years ago when pictures of sexual humiliation and sodomy came out of Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, the public was outraged—and rightly so. But the media, public opinion and the Department of Defense all categorized it as a fluke. Recently, though, we have come to realize that Abu Ghraib was not a fluke, but rather, a harbinger of events to come.

In July of 2006, a group of U.S. service members were investigated by The Pentagon for allegedly raping and killing an Iraqi civilian. And similar stories of soldiers raping women in Iraq are more common that we wish. A horrific story involving a KBR contractor being imprisoned and raped by her colleagues chilled the nation. Last February, a New York Times article reported these are just few of 124 reported sexual assaults investigated in Iraq since 2005. But what is more disturbing is the fact that more than 2,200 sexual assaults have been investigated by the Department of Defense in 2006 alone. It is unknown how many of these took place in Iraq.

A culture of rape is very real in the U.S. Military and it can no longer be ignored. Gruesome accounts of sexual violence between soldiers, military contractors and civilians are all too regular. And the Department of Defense cannot consider these as isolated incidents. As women service members have called for more accountability, the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reached out to organizations like the Miles Foundation and Men Can Stop Rape to address the very real culture of rape facing our military. Currently the Veteran Affairs has sixteen care centers for veterans who have experienced sexual assault—many of whom experienced their trauma as far back as Vietnam or World War II.

Currently, the organization Color of Change is calling for Congress to investigate the apparent rape and murder of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq. Please visit their campaign for Pfc. Johnson. And to learn more about the DoD is working to prevent sexual assault, please visit the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office website at http://www.sapr.mil/.

The South and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

HIV/AIDS has been a problem in the United States for the past three decades. Many groups have worked tirelessly to educate the public on how to prevent transmitting HIV/AIDS and how to protect yourself from getting it in the first place. The fact that we knew so little when the epidemic first hit made it difficult for people to know how to protect themselves, but now that we are more knowledgeable and many myths have been largely dispelled it seems that we should be in a state of decline. HIV/AIDS cases should be at an all time low yet the rates have stayed largely the same since the 1990’s and have increased dramatically in the South and mainly among African Americans and women.

Let’s look at Alabama for instance, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention African Americans, who make up only 26% of Alabama’s population, accounted for 72% of new cases of HIV. And the data is similar for most of the Southern states and especially the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina). Between 2000 and 2003 the number of new AIDS cases increased 35.6% in the Deep South compared to 4% in the other Southern states and 5.2% nationally*. Not only are residents of the Deep South becoming infected with HIV at a higher rate they are also among the states with the highest death rates related to AIDS.

These rates are incredibly alarming. One explanation for why the HIV/AIDS rates has increased is due to the high levels of STI’s in the Deep South, which are the highest in the nation. STI’s have consistently been found to increase the risk of HIV transmission. That leads us to the question of why there are such high levels of STI’s. AIDS Alabama and SIECUS connect the HIV/AIDS rates to abstinence-only education which is prevalent in Alabama and across the South. Since 1998 when Alabama began receiving federal funding for abstinence-only education the STI, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy rates have increased. Yet Alabama is still using these programs even though many studies have proven abstinence-only programs to be ineffective. Alabama, in particular is suffering from extremely poor health conditions.

The fact that the South and the African American population is greatly suffering from this disease needs to be addressed. Comprehensive Sexuality Education programs need to be instituted to educate people about STI’s, HIV/AIDS and contraceptives. People need to know how to protect themselves. They are not learning it through medically inaccurate, gender stereotyping, religion promoting, homophobic and shame based abstinence-only programs.

Call on your Representatives to GET REAL! and support the Responsible Education About Life Act. Our lives depend on it.

For additional information:

*HIV Infection and AIDS in the Deep South

AIDS Alabama

Southern AIDS Coalition

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

Utah Health Teacher Answers Students Questions About Sex, Faces Jail Time

A middle school health teacher was put on paid administrative leave in Herriman, Utah after answering students’ questions about oral sex and masturbation. The school district has launched an investigation to determine what course of action should be taken. Meanwhile, parents are outraged and Rep. Carl Wimmer is planning to introduce legislation that will enforce criminal penalties on teachers that deviate from the state law when teaching sex education. The bill would also create a registry of the names of the teachers who violate the law. The law requires that sex education focus on healthy relationships, the prevention of diseases and physical and emotional development and it prohibits promoting or encouraging sexual behavior.

Students in support of the teacher held up signs in front of the school that read “We were the ones asking her questions.” These students are obviously not getting information about sex at home or at church, so they are turning to the next logical person to ask: their health teacher. I admire this woman’s bravery and commitment to teaching. She could have easily avoided answering the students’ questions, but instead she gave them all of the information they asked for. We should have more teachers like her in our schools.

The Sexualization of our Youth and Abstinence-Only Education

Sex in the media is nothing new but yesterday Vanity Fair published an article with pictures of tween star Miley Cyrus. Cyrus, better known as Hannah Montana was pictured with smoky eye makeup, red lipstick and tousled hair with a blanket seductively wrapped around her chest exposing her bare back. The sultry, sexy look immediately caught the attention of the media and Hannah Montana fans. The photo certainly does not exude the innocence that parents and fans so admire about Cyrus. This certainly isn’t the first time that young stars have been seen in provocative poses. Just look at Britney Spears, she was only 16 when she danced around in a sexy school girl outfit for “Baby One More Time.”

The media is constantly bombarding us with images of sex and it seems no age is too young to sell it. What shocks me about this particular photo is not the medias exploitation of another young star but the fact that Cyrus’ parents were present at the photo shoot and did nothing. They somehow found it acceptable for their daughter to wear next to nothing and as Cyrus said herself “I think it’s really artsy…It wasn’t in a skanky way.… And you can’t say no to Annie [Leibovitz]. She’s so cute. She gets this puppy-dog look and you’re like, O.K.”

Here we have a star whose main audience is girls ages 8-13. Girls that look up to her as a role model and who are now seeing these images that say it’s ok to be sexual. As they grow up the images of their age group will only get worse with television shows such as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill showing high school students having casual sex and losing their virginity in the backseat of a moving car.

And all of this is happening while youth are being taught abstinence-only education in schools. Currently the only type of funding for sex education is for abstinence-only-until-marriage. Three major federal funding streams give money to states and community organizations for abstinence-only-until-marriage education which teaches that marriage is “only a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” as stated by the federal 8 point definition of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

The government is telling youth to wait until marriage while the media tells them to go for it. Our youth are hearing two messages that contradict each other. Youth are not being given the tools they need to protect themselves if they do decide to have sex, which 70% do by the time they are 18. We need to stop sending mixed messages to our youth and start teaching them about all aspects of sexuality and how to protect themselves and their partners (of whichever gender they choose) so they will be able to make positive decisions in their lives.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on April 23rd titled “Domestic Abstinence-Only Programs: Assessing the Evidence”. Of those present the majority felt that abstinence-only programs do not work and are harmful to our nations youth. The American Public Health Association and U.S. Institute of Medicine both testified that abstinence-only programs have not decreased the rate of pregnancies or STD’s. Much of the testimony also discussed the need for comprehensive sexuality education programs. The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act (H.R. 1653, S. 972) would provide funding to states for comprehensive sex education programs. REAL would still teach abstinence as the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and STD’s but it would also teach the benefits of contraception and protection, as well as encourage family discussions.

It is time for us to take a stand on this issue and let the government know that we will not accept abstinence-only programs and demand comprehensive sexuality education programs. You can tell Congress to Get Real! today and support the Responsible Education About Life Act!

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

And the woman who made it all possible was Kierstin Homblette.

Kierstin was the Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues/Clara Barton Memorial Intern for the Washington Office at the time of the march. Much of her time was spent helping to plan and organize for this huge event. She is now finishing a tour in the Peace Corps in Senegal. When I asked her for her reflections on that day, she had this to offer:

It was so much more than a gathering of people in support of a cause. The March for Women’s Lives was something different for each of us. For me, the March and the months of planning that led up to it were an education in the power that I possess as a liberal person of faith. Organizing thousands of Unitarian Universalists to travel to Washington DC and worship and march together was the most difficult and time consuming part of my time at the UUA Washington Office. But the feeling of marching, singing, and witnessing with my fellow UUs on the Mall that day was also the most rewarding and fulfilling moment of my two years there.

By marching that day, we as Unitarian Universalists witnessed for what we believe and for what makes up the core of who we are. We didn’t just talk about it, or write about it, or even sing about it. We got out there and said it with our presence, with our bodies and feet and loud voices. And I marched next to my mother, who traveled all the way from Florida to raise her own voice with mine. Four years later, this remains a seminal moment for me – a turning point in my faith and in my confidence in the importance of our collective voice in the public discourse.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. On this International Women’s Day, one area of conversation that I hope will re-open for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Greens, is reinstating funding for the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities).

As you’ll recall, President George W. Bush de-funded the U.S. commitment to this program in the early days of his Presidency, on the grounds that Chinese programs sponsored by the UN coerced women into having abortions. Though his own State Department sent a delegation to China which concluded that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, U.S. funding for this program has been eliminated ever since.

In fall of 2003, I was privileged to be part of an interfaith delegation to China to scope out the situation. I joined Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in an extensive tour to remote areas to meet with U.N. sponsored programs. We divided up into subgroups, and between us we met with over fifteen U.N. sponsored family planning programs in 9 provinces.

My group, which primarily toured rural areas, popped in on tiny villages and walked the streets chatting with women home from the rice paddies or cornfields. (Ever since, I have imagined what it would be like if I opened my door one day to a delegation of Chinese women, come to interview me about my own life history related to birth control and abortion. I kind of doubt that my neighbors would offer the immediate and warm hospitality which we received universally, or welcome the open discussions of the pros and cons of IUDs versus the pill!)

Nowhere did we see evidence of the UN supporting coercion. Indeed, the UN used its funding to leverage family planning clinics NOT to coerce abortions! Swamped by many more requests for assistance than they could provide, they only worked with groups who agreed to extensive and detailed contracts related to subtle and nuanced ways in which abortions might be coerced. Any UN program where this was discovered had its funding suspended immediately.

Every time we met with a clinic staff, we would ask them dozens of questions, probing to learn if there was any validity to the rumors of coerced abortion, as well as asking them about their clientele and services. After we were done talking to them, we would always ask if there was anything they wanted to ask us.

In each setting, with clear desire not to offend but also with clear bewilderment, they asked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in the United States. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the U.S. carrying out the recommendations of the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994? Their clear and shining pride in China’s recent admission into the U.N. shone throughout these meetings. They clearly did not understand how we could dismiss our own responsibilities so lightly.

How did it happen they wondered, that teens were so often getting pregnant in the US? Didn’t they have the access to birth control which the conference in Cairo had agreed was essential? Were they getting good education about the implications of the decisions they made? Didn’t teen pregnancy hurt the young parents’ ability to have a good life, and diminish their ability to be good parents?

The humility I felt grew by the day as I saw these remote Chinese villagers holding up an expectation of international cooperation and accountability. It took a number of days for me to realize that I had learned, despite my professions to the contrary, to dismiss such international agreements as optional or secondary. My humility grew as I listened in on conversations of peasant women discussing the pros and cons of birth control options with far more knowledge and thoughtfulness than I had heard among college educated women in my life. It turned to something akin to shame as I began to recognize how deeply I had internalized American superiority; U.S. Supremacy in the world.

On this international women’s day, I’m going to do two things, in which I invite you to join me: First, I’m going to contact my candidate of choice for U.S. President to restate the importance of UNFPA funding. Second, I’m going to check out materials provided by the planning group for the UU International Women’s Convocation, now posted on the web at www.icuuw.com. Happy International Women’s Day, one and all!

Rev. Meg Riley