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!

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

Whose fault is it? The Jamie Lynn Spears pregnancy scandal

Jamie Lynn Spears, 16 year-old sister of Brittney Spears and star of Nickelodeon’s hit show Zoey 101 is making waves with her announcement Wednesday that she is three months pregnant.

The media and bloggers have been adding their two cents to the issue for the last couple of days. Everyone from feministing.com to The Washington Post has covered the story. I hadn’t given the news much thought until I found this article in The Washington Post online. The article itself is similar to the others out there but at the end is a poll that asks:

Who is most to blame for Jamie Lynn Spears’s underage pregnancy?

The public is given five choices:
-Jamie Lynn and boyfriend Casey Aldridge, who should have known better.
-Sister Britney for setting a bad example.
-Mom Lynn, who seems to be a two-time loser at this point.
-A society ill-equipped to teach teens about sex.
-Blame? Let’s make a silk purse out of this: ‘Zoey 101: Sex Ed!’

I looked at the choices, laughed a little and casually clicked what I thought was the most logical answer: A society ill-equipped to teach teens about sex.

With the surprised comments from Jamie Lynn and her mom, it seemed obvious to me that there is a serious lack of sex education in the Spears household.

Jamie’s mom, Lynn: “I didn’t believe it because Jamie Lynn’s always been so conscientious. She’s never late for her curfew. I was in shock. I mean, this is my 16-year-old baby.”

Jamie Lynn in OK! magazine: “It was a shock for both of us, so unexpected, I was in complete and total shock and so was he.”

Yes, Lynn, your “baby” can get pregnant without breaking curfew, especially when her boyfriend lives in the house. Yes, Jaime, you can get pregnant if you have unprotected sex.

Maybe it’s because I’m more attuned to the horrors of the sex education in this country, but even so those statements seemed like there was some misinformation.
However, it seems that the majority of Washington Post readers feel that it is Jaime’s fault (51%) and followed by her mothers fault (35%). A mere 5% thought it was the failure of sex education.

Of course Jamie and her boyfriend should have been responsible, but if no one ever educated them about how to be responsible, they can’t bear the brunt of the blame. The same goes for her mother, it would be nice to think that she would know by now, but her comment clearly shows her lack of understanding of teenagers.

National Polls have shown that most parents are in favor of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, yet (unless Post readers are significantly different from the rest of the nation, which I doubt) the poll results indicate that there is a disconnect between support for sex education and understanding why it’s needed.

Instead of putting blame on Jamie or mom, why not take this time to highlight the need for comprehensive sexuality education? Parents and children alike should be educated in human sexuality and understand their bodies and be able to have a consensual and safe relationship. Thankfully, many news outlets have highlighted the issue in segments about how to talk to your children about sex. The Today Show had author and psychologist Dr. Gail Saltz on the show to give advice to parents on how to talk to their kids. Unfortunately, the Today Show anchors countered that with their worry about talking to young children and the possibility that maybe you don’t have to.

This story is undoubtedly going to reach the children that watch Zoey 101. Message boards discussing the event have many posts from parents and teachers that say kids as young as eight are talking about the news. Let’s hope that parents take the time and advice from Dr. Gail Saltz and others to give their children age appropriate information about sex instead of just condemning Jamie Lynn.

World AIDS Day 2007: Truth Telling

Last Saturday marked my second World AIDS Day with the UUA. Last year, Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, came to DC and we held a “For Whom the Bell Tolls, Resounding Vigil”, he also spoke at a UNAIDS event, and conducted a couple of lobby visits. This year, Rev. Sinkford met with the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC), rallied outside of OGAC, and spoke at a Rally in front of the White House.

Both this year and last, Rev. Sinkford has come to D.C. and taken every opportunity presented to him to practice truth telling. He speaks with conviction about our moral obligation to confront the spread of HIV/AIDS with honesty and with sound science. His unwavering support for using evidence-based, comprehensive information about sexuality to save lives is crucially important when confronting a political establishment too easily swayed by ideological insistence on the use of ineffective abstinence-until-marriage programs.

While Unitarian Universalism has never purported to have the “truth”, we are committed to use our best reasoning abilities to help us sort through the mysteries of life. We do not rely on revelation to find our truth. World AIDS Day is a day when an undesirable and downright shameful truth must be told: so many are suffering needlessly. My work has been driven by the truth that HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable. My work has been targeted at the truth that the United States’ steps towards preventing HIV/AIDS have fallen far short of that truth.

It has been an honor to work for the UUA and to see Rev. Sinkford lead this journey towards truth. While there are many religious advocates for health care workers, health infrastructure, and anti-retroviral drugs, few have tackled the complexities of sexuality and spoken the truth as Rev. Sinkford has. Hopefully this courageous moral leadership will inspire others to passionately confront the reality that abstinence-until-marriage programs fail to protect vulnerable people around the world, and they bring us no closer to the end of HIV/AIDS.

Next year the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is due for reauthorization. The UUA Washington Office for Advocacy will be working to ensure that the harmful abstinence-until-marriage funding restrictions currently attached to PEPFAR will be removed. Please join us in advocating for this crucial change in U.S. policy.