Getting Real About the REAL Act

The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act sponsored by Senator
Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was
reintroduced recently to the applause of pro-sexuality education
organizations across the nation.  Originally introduced in 2007, the
bill proposes to provide funding for "medically and scientifically
accurate information" as part of "comprehensive sex education" that is
"age-appropriate" and promotes "abstinence as the only 100% effective
way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy." 
Of course, I am not against these things and support any kind of
funding that allows states and organizations to choose alternatives to
abstinence-only programs.  However, I hope the sponsors, co-sponsors,
and committee members seize this incredible opportunity and encourage
the use of language and frameworks that go beyond merely preventing
disease and unwanted pregnancy to promoting healthy sexuality throughout the life-cycle. 

In reading some of the blog reactions and news
posts regarding this Act, I was struck by a couple of similarities
between the anti-sex ed groups (or "pro-abstinence-only" depending on
who you ask) and the pro-comprehensive sex education folks. The most
common issue I noticed was the use of the word abstinence. On one side,
we are told again and again that the only message that young people
should receive is that they should abstain from engaging in any sexual
activity until they are married (or in a committed relationship – from
those who are pretending to be more inclusive).  From the other side,
we hear that young people should be taught that abstinence is the only
100% effective method for preventing STDs and pregnancy but "just in
case" we should teach other methods for preventing these unwanted
things and call it something nice like "abstinence-plus."  Another
issue that seems to land on everyone’s radar is this issue of what is
"age-appropriate."  The ab-only folks immediately begin to scream that
young children are going to be taught about sexual intercourse
(remember the "story" about Obama wanting to teach Kindergartners how
to have sex?).  In reaction, the comprehensive supporters tend to
ramble on about it being different for different communities and
different individuals and never really give an answer.  Finally, both
sides get caught up on "scientifically and medically accurate
information."  I don’t even know what that means, and I’ve been a sex
educator for almost twenty years (yes, I know it’s about effectiveness
rates and other types of data that are so incredibly meaningful in a
16-year old’s life).

In my opinion, these arguments are old and
tired, and it is high time that we consider some alternatives. The main
thing that I encourage our legislative representatives (and the policy
wonks who spend their days talking to our leaders) to consider is
throwing out this disease prevention model that does very little to
address the real issues that young people face on a daily basis. 
Instead, consider what it means to be healthy and what it means to
promote healthy sexuality from birth until death. 

First, it
means acknowledging that we are all sexual beings, including during
infancy and old age, regardless of how we choose to express that
sexuality throughout our lives. This means that we start to accept that
teaching about sexuality is more than teaching about sex acts and
includes providing basic knowledge about bodies and society, even at
very young ages.

Secondly, a new approach to sexuality
education requires understanding what is relevant and important for
different people at different points in life – and this is only
achieved by talking to people about this. It is our responsibility as
educators and parents to engage young people and ask them what these
things are and engage them in conversation.

Thirdly, this model
involves providing young people the knowledge and skills necessary to
be sexually healthy, such as how to access information and services
related to sexuality throughout their lives.  These life-long skills
are a necessity at ensuring sexual health and happiness throughout all
of our lives. 

Finally, we have to learn to discuss sexuality
and sexual choices with a non-judgmental voice. This includes such
things as removing anti-gay and exclusionary language, as well as
dropping mockery and dismissal of those who choose to wait until they
are in a life-long committed relationship (or even marriage) to become
sexually active. The goal of such a model–based on promoting healthy
sexuality for individuals, couples, and communities, and reaching those with diverse
religious backgrounds, sexual and gender identities, race and ethnic
origins, political views, physical abilities, and so on–is to embrace
and celebrate the very thing that makes the United States what it is –
diversity, a pluralistic society, a melting pot, or whatever words and
phrases you choose to use.

As the Director of Education and
Training at the National Sexuality Resource Center, I applaud Senator
Lautenberg and Representative Lee for introducing the REAL Act and
acknowledge that this is the first (baby) step in the right direction
for healthy sexuality.  However, my hopes are that they will consider
improving this legislation by adopting a new philosophy about sexuality
– one that is not about avoiding danger through risk-reduction but
rather encourages conversations and celebration of our diversity in
order to promote lifelong healthy sexuality. The desired outcomes of
less disease and less unwanted pregnancy will follow, but we will
change the way that we as a society view our sexuality by shifting the
focus to happiness, health, and well-being.

This post first appeared on the National Sexuality Resource Center Dialogues website.

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  • invalid-0

    Christopher, thank you for writing this insightful and interesting article. I think you’re looking ahead to what sexuality education—and sexuality awareness in general—will become in the future, decades down the line. (I believe that some exceptional programs may already be where you envision, like the UU Church’s OWL program, but obviously that’s not the rule today.)

    I especially wonder about this in light of the attitude in Europe, where the phenomenon of (older) teens engaging in sex is viewed not as “Oh my God, we’ve got to stop this!” but more as “Yes, as long as they do it responsibly, they’re experimenting and learning how to become good lovers, and that’s perfectly healthy.” I hear Jodi Jacobson rattling off statistics to combative ab-only advocates about how comprehensive sex-ed programs delay initiation as a metric of their effectiveness, and while I have immense respect for her and her position, I can’t help but wonder if that metric alone is missing something about what we ultimately want to achieve.

    There’s certainly a lot of ground to cover as far as basic sexual health and autonomy is concerned, without getting into the fuzzier subject of helping our young people to have a healthy and fulfilling sex life as they see fit—helping people in general to become better lovers. But I often wonder what the farthest iteration of these efforts would be, even if mass media would rather keep everyone in the dark, even though a huge and politically viable sex-negative constituency exists, even though we would likely not see it achieved within our lifetimes. If for no other reason than to stay motivated, knowing that there’s still a loooong way to go before we can claim victory :-]

  • invalid-0

    As is typical with America’s crisis-oriented mentality, our nation has tended to treat sexuality education as though sexuality only starts at puberty. Not true – as every child is sexual from birth and usually discovers that the genitals feel good around toddlerhood. (My little boys used to call it ‘fishing and rolling’!- all I said was – that it was a private behavior) But we rarely help parents deal in healthy ways with their child’s developing sexuality until they hit the teen years when the kids are least likely to listen. When my children were little, we learned the proper names for all the body parts and didn’t stop at the waist. I’ll never forget my 3 year old sitting on the toilet, singing, “Vagina, rhymes with Carolina!” I had all the books on how you were born on the lowest shelf and we read them as bedtimes stories. My children would share them with their friends – and when they reached their teens years we were still talking and reading and sharing. And not just sex – all the other things too. It does work…now they’re married with children of their own and still talking and sharing – and that’s how life should go on.

  • invalid-0

    For the last 12 years (thanks to President Clinton and President Bush) the main way schools have educated teens to prevent STDs and pregnancy has been abstinence. I don’t think that’s been working. It looks like that may finally change with the Responsible Education About Life Act (REAL) being considered in congress.