Archive for the ‘Sex Education’ Category

June 26, 2013

Who (if Anyone) is Providing Teen Girls Information on Contraception and Safer Sex Practices?

The topic of sex education is often a controversial one, with much attention focused on how much (if any) education teens should receive. Implementation of abstinence-only approaches remains widespread, despite objections from health experts and evidence that comprehensive sex-ed is more effective at reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

An article just published in the Journal of Adolescent Health explores the type of sex education teens report receiving, and from whom.

Most of the 2,001 teens ages 15 to 19 who took part in the national study describe themselves as white and living in the suburbs, and most of their mothers have at least some college education. The researchers only looked at teens with heterosexual experiences and make no attempt to address how their responses might differ from those of other teens from different backgrounds.

The findings, however, show some clear gaps in sex education. Among teen girls who were already sexually experienced, only about 2 in 3 had received any information on birth control from a parent (the results were about the same for STI prevention), while about 3 in 4 had received birth control information from a teacher.

Almost all girls (95 percent) reported receiving STI-prevention information from a teacher, but it’s not clear how many of those messages may have reflected abstinence-only education. About 1 in 5 girls had not received any birth control information from either parents or teachers.

Boys fared worse on this measure; more than 1 in 3 boys had never received birth control information from a parent or teacher, unless you count simply being given condoms with no additional information. Boys received STI-prevention information from parents or teachers about as often as girls did, and more of them got info from a healthcare provider when they had no other source, but the rates were still low.

Health care providers do not appear to be filling in the information gap for girls. Among the girls who had not received *any* birth control or safer sex info from parents or teachers, less than 1 in 10 got information from a health care provider. In other words, if girls aren’t getting messages about safer sex and contraception at home or school, they’re not likely to get it at all, even from their doctors and nurses.

The authors encourage improved distribution of sexual health information (SHI) in healthcare settings: “Because the majority of sexually experienced adolescents interface with the healthcare system, healthcare providers are missing many important opportunities to deliver SHI to this population.”

They do not provide any specific guidance for providers, but note that with expanded coverage for preventive and sexual health services under the Affordable Care Act, providers may have more opportunities to see teens and address this issue.

May 31, 2013

Reproductive Justice: The Movement Whose Time Has Come

The Reproductive Justice: Activists, Advocates, Academics in Ann Arbor (“A3 in A2″) conference taking place this week aims to foster learning, dialogue and collaboration around reproductive justice issues. OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian, one of the conference advisory board members, is leading a session on informed consent and moderating Friday’s final panel.

Until recently, the term reproductive justice was used mainly by a relatively small number of people involved with abortion rights and women’s reproductive health (read about its history at SisterSong). The phrasing is more inclusive than abortion rights and takes into account all aspects of women’s ability to control their own reproduction, including social inequalities that affect the ability and right to have or not have children and to parent children in healthy environments.

The term has been discussed, and debated, quite a bit lately. Over at RH Reality Check, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, recently argued why reproductive justice cannot be a substitute for the terms “choice” or “pro-choice,” prompting this response from reproductive justice activists (who, it should be noted, consider Catholics for Choice an ally). Their response notes in part:

Women of color struggled within the pro-choice movement to bring their needs to the forefront, and they also created new organizations built on a broad, intersectional analysis and understanding of reproductive rights and health. The shift from choice to justice does not, as O’Brien says, devalue the autonomy of women who face obstacles. Instead, locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than in individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it. Advocating for reproductive justice was not counter-posed against being “pro-choice” or supporting abortion rights. Rather, reproductive justice re-framed and included both.

The push toward a more comprehensive understanding of reproductive rights has also been adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of Congregations. Delegates at last year’s General Assembly meeting selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” as the 2012-2016 Congregational Study/Action Issue — meaning congregations and districts are invited to engage and reflect on it, in any way they see fit — and the subject will be the focus of this summer’s GA meeting.

Earlier this year, Billy Moyers invited Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, to discuss the topic.

“What’s happened is that women are beginning to recognize that what’s at stake is more than abortion,” said Paltrow. “It is their personhood — their ability to be full, equal, constitutional persons in the United States of America.”

For more information: Check out the Reproductive Justice Briefing Book. Produced by the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, it offers a comprehensive look at a variety of topics, including sex education, abortion, adoption, pregnancy, disability, incarceration, immigrants, LGBT issues, race, and class.

April 2, 2013

Lessons in Denial: A Student Perspective on High School Health Class

by Hanna Pennington 

Hanna PenningtonNo one ever really wants to take health class; it’s a required course, something people try to get out of the way so they aren’t that about-to-graduate senior who still has to take health. And that’s because at most high schools, health class doesn’t offer much — and everyone knows it.

I spent 80 minutes every other morning in health class during the second semester of my sophomore year, and when faced with an end-of-the-year survey about the class, I realized that the time had not been “spent,” but wasted.

We had not discussed birth control; condoms were the only form of contraception mentioned, and they came up only in the context of preventing STIs. A significant number of high school students are already taking hormonal birth control, like the pill, for a variety of reasons, whether to regulate hormone imbalances that can cause acne, reduce the pain of bad menstrual cramping, or because they are having sex, but the pros and cons of the pill were never addressed.

Through reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and other feminist websites and books, I have learned about many types of birth control. But this is because I care about this kind of thing. Most people don’t know what they should have been taught until it’s too late.

Another way in which my health class was insufficient, and also offensive, was that LGBTQ people were only mentioned in the context of HIV/AIDS, which we learned about by watching the film “And The Band Played On.” There was no other discussion.

As a bisexual person, I felt shortchanged. I sought out resources online, much the way I did with birth control, but again, this didn’t make up for the lack of class information. The majority of high school students are straight, but it is important to provide for those who aren’t, or who might be questioning. It is important to learn about how to have safe gay sex, not only safe straight sex; that information is a lot harder to find, unless you know where to look.

Related: A “Real” Sex Ed Story: A Teenager Recalls Lessons From “Our Whole Lives”

Another issue we did not discuss is consent. People need to learn not only that it’s OK to say no, but that enthusiastic consent is the key to happy, healthy sex (in fact, there’s a petition to make consent a mandatory part of sex-ed in public schools).

Abuse, both physical and sexual, should also be discussed. And resources should be provided for everything: where to get help if you’re being abused, where to purchase prescription contraception at a discount, where to get tested for STIs, and the number for the closest Planned Parenthood, for starters.

Finally, we never discussed masturbation. It is important for students to know that instead of it being something unholy or disgusting, masturbation is a perfectly healthy and important way to explore one’s own body and sexuality.

According to research by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), comprehensive sex education is more effective in preventing teen pregnancy than abstinence-only education. In her 2008 New Yorker article “Rex Sex, Blue Sex,” Margaret Talbot analyzed the differences in sexual patterns of teenagers living in different parts of the country, including the prevalence of teen pregnancies and STIs and use of contraception.

In conservative red states, where abstinence-only education is the norm and religion dictates much of the discourse, teenagers have sex earlier, usually without protection. In more liberal blue states, where there is often (but not always) more comprehensive sex education, teenagers wait longer to have sex and use protection more often when they do.

Although I live in blue-state New York, my health class was not all that. It is possible to acknowledge teenagers being sexual without encouraging it, but our teachers didn’t acknowledge any part of it. It is irresponsible to teach the class assuming that everyone is and will remain abstinent until marriage.

The 2009 documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” examines young people’s attitudes toward and knowledge of sex and sexuality, comparing America’s largely insufficient programs to those of places like the Netherlands, where parents and children talk openly about sex (and which have lower rates of teen pregnancy and STIs).

Although I was briefly tempted to move overseas, there are comprehensive sex-ed curriculums in the United States, even if they can be hard to find.

One of my friends attends Rye Country Day School in Rye, N.Y. A program there encourages underclassmen to ask upperclassmen leaders whatever they want about sex, relationships, and so on. I was really impressed when I first heard about this, as it fosters an environment that removes shame from asking questions, which is how people get the answers they need.

At Manhattan Country School, there is a sex-ed curriculum, designed by Dr. Cydelle Berlin, that involves theater arts and peer education. Trained actors answer questions while in character. There is a box in every classroom in which students can leave anonymous questions.

The Unitarian Universalist Church, instead of strictly discouraging or not discussing sex as other churches often do, teaches a K-12 sex ed curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” As stated on the website, the program “not only provides facts about anatomy and human development, but also helps participants clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.”

This curriculum is based on SIECUS’ “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” which spans the same age range and includes such important topics as body image, gender identity, masturbation, abortion, and sexuality and society.

When reading this curriculum, I was pleasantly surprised how enlightened, inclusive, and accurate it was. But this should not be surprising; accurate language should be the norm.

It is bad enough that decisions about women’s health are made mostly by male politicians, but it is even more disheartening when you realize that some of them have no idea what they’re talking about. High school students aren’t the only ones who need basic education about reproduction, but it’s a good place to start.

Hanna Pennington is a high school senior in New York whose first foray into feminist activism was at age 7, when she wrote a letter to a children’s magazine protesting the omission of Sacagawea in an article about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 

February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day – A Safer Sex Reminder

Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day! Seems like a good time to revisit the topic of safer sex and sexually transmitted infections!

The CDC just released a new fact sheet on STIs, indicating that there are about 20 million new infections each year, and that young people (ages 15-24) account for about half of these.

In its report, CDC provided the following recommendations for women for STI screening:

  • All adults and adolescents should be tested at least once for HIV.
  • Annual chlamydia screening for all sexually active women age 25 and under, as well as older women with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners.
  • Yearly gonorrhea screening for at-risk sexually active women (e.g., those with new or multiple sex partners, and women who live in communities with a high burden of disease).
  • Syphilis, HIV, chlamydia, and hepatitis B screening for all pregnant women, and gonorrhea screening for at-risk pregnant women at the first prenatal visit, to protect the health of mothers and their infants.
  • Trichomoniasis screening should be conducted at least annually for all HIV-infected women.

Have questions about sex, sexuality, STIs or related topics? Beloved sex-ed site Scarleteen has just launched a new live help feature, providing anonymous live chats with Scarleteen staff and volunteers. The full website, which tackles all kinds of questions about sex, is an amazing resource for young people.

February 6, 2013

In Armenia, Abortion Rates are High and Access to Contraception is Limited

Taleen MoughamianTaleen K. Moughamian, a women’s health nurse practitioner in Philadelphia, traveled to Armenia in the fall of 2012. Working with the Children of Armenia Fund, she conducted  health exams, including breast and cervical cancer screenings, and provided contraceptive counseling. The following account is based on her work and conversations with Armenian women.


by Taleen K. Moughamian

The differences between Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and the rest of the country are vast. While Yerevan has most of the modern-day conveniences you could ask for, the villages I visited in the Armavir region have populations between 300 and 1,000, mostly comprised of women.

Their husbands have gone –- off to neighboring countries, especially Russia, to find work. They usually stay away for 10 months out of the year. Some men have even started new families in their work countries.

It was not uncommon to meet women who needed to be treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because their husbands are having extra marital affairs while abroad. They are upfront about this, though it surprised me how openly they talked about it.

I heard so many of them say, “They are men. They have needs. What can we do?”

This has created a huge problem and is one of the reasons why STIs, including HIV, are on the rise in Armenia.

There is limited access to effective contraception, so the rate of abortion, which is legal up to 12 weeks, is high. Most of the women who seek an abortion are married, already have two or three children, and do not feel they can provide for a larger family.

Sex-Selective Abortions
For some women, this means having three or four or even 15 abortions over the course of their lives as they struggle to create a family they can support. The median number of abortions for women over 40 is eight, according to a 1995 study conducted at a Yerevan abortion clinic.

Sex-selection has also become a huge issue. Since women leave their homes and join their husband’s family after marriage, a son provides a source of security for his parents. I met so many women who have had multiple abortions because the sex of the child was not what they had wished; for more data, see this UNFPA report on sex selection in Armenia and this story in The Armenian Weekly.

If you look at recent family planning data, it appears the number of abortions is going down, but from what I observed, that is not necessarily the case. Rather, more abortions are going unreported.

Rise in Unsupervised Abortions
Women are using an over-the-counter medication called Cytotec (the brand name for misoprostol) to induce abortions at home without the supervision of a trained medical professional. Cytotec’s indication is to treat ulcers, but it also acts as an abortifacient. Fifty cents worth of Cytotec can induce an abortion, whereas a surgical abortion usually costs about $35-$50.

When used properly, Cytotec is very safe, even without clinical supervision. But it is most effective when used in combination with a second drug, mifepristone (see more on this below).

Women in the villages I visited were not familiar with the World Health Organization guidelines now used by women all over the world. (Note: Women on Waves offers guidance, based on the WHO research, on how to do an abortion with pills.)

Many Armenian women are therefore in a dangerous situation, as they are using Cytotec without the relevant information about its efficacy or side effects, which can range from an incomplete abortion to bleeding to death.

Barriers to Contraception
As part of my work with the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), I counseled women on birth control options. This has been quite a challenge, as there are so many myths surrounding birth control, and it’s expensive for rural women. One pack of birth control pills costs about $15-20 a month in Armenia. For a village family barely making $100 a month, it is completely unaffordable.

Besides the cost and access issues, social factors also influence a woman’s reproductive health. Although many husbands are supportive, others do not allow their wives to use birth control.

Sometimes the mother-in-law gets involved, too. When a woman in Armenia gets married, she moves in with her husband and his mother. The mother-in-law is usually the matriarch of the family, so she has a lot of pull in decision-making, even when it comes to her daughter-in-law’s reproductive health.

Changing Patterns, Changing Lives
During my last week in Armenia, I met a woman who had come to her village clinic for an abortion. She had two children and this was going to be her fourth abortion. She told me that her husband wants to have another child, but that he’s an alcoholic -– has been since the day they got married –- and he beats her.

She doesn’t think it’s right to bring a child into this world when her life at home is so unstable, and yet she is completely dependent on him for financial security. Living in the village, there are very few resources for either of them to get any help.

Stories like this are difficult to hear; you quickly realize how vital organizations like COAF are to these women. COAF provides free screenings for breast and cervical cancer and free treatment for STIs. With the help of the UNFPA, I inserted intrauterine devices (IUDs) for free to eligible women. This provides them with one of the most effective forms of birth control for up to 10 years.

On my final day working with COAF, one of the women was so thankful that as soon as the IUD procedure was complete, she jumped up and gave me a big kiss. She had had six surgical abortions, and she could not remember how many times she had taken Cytotec to end her other pregnancies.

It amazed me how much the women opened up to me. They are yearning for accurate information and resources, and they are deeply grateful not only for the health care that is provided but for the conversations about their bodies and their health.

Some women may not change their minds about birth control right away, but I know they at least have the information they need to consider it, and sometimes that is enough to start changing attitudes.

Despite all the economic and cultural barriers, I believe things are changing for women in Armenia -– slowly, of course, but moving in the right direction. There is no reason why Armenian women should have to keep relying on abortions for family planning, or why they should be misinformed about their reproductive health.

My hope is that educating women about their health and family planning options will empower them to take control of future. At the very least, they know where and when to seek care if they need it.

Related: Learn more about OBOS’s partner in Armenia, “For Family and Health” Pan Armenian Association (PAFHA), and efforts to adapt and distribute women’s health information based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The preface to the Armenian edition is available in English.

Ed. note about mifepristone and misoprostol:
Mifepristone and misoprostol are now frequently used together to produce what is called “medication abortion” for women who are less than eight weeks pregnant. The drugs are not identical and perform different actions. Mifepristone, often known by its manufacturing name RU-486, is almost always used for abortion or to end missed miscarriages. Misoprostol has wider applications and may be used in place of prostaglandins to create cervix softening prior to birth. It can also help prevent stomach ulcers that are caused when people take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

Under the supervision of a health care provider, women choosing a medication abortion typically use an oral dose of mifepristone first, followed by either an oral or vaginal suppository dose of misoprostol several hours later. In slightly more than 90 percent of women, this induces abortion within two days, provided it is used in early pregnancy. Misoprostol becomes increasingly less effective in more advanced pregnancies, and other, more effective drugs may be chosen for pregnancies that are more than eight weeks along.

The different actions of mifepristone and misoprostol explain their effectiveness in inducing abortion. Mifepristone works to separate the placenta from the uterine lining, and it causes uterine contractions. Additionally, the drug has some effect on the cervix and may cause it to soften.

February 4, 2013

Getting Personal: What It’s Really Like Living With a Sexually Transmitted Infection

Jenelle Marie, STD advocateby Jenelle Marie

When you hear the term STD (sexually transmitted disease) or STI (sexually transmitted infection), what do you think of first?

Grotesque pictures of maimed genitalia displayed on a projector during yesteryear’s sex-ed class geared toward frightening you into abstinence? That scene from ” The Hangover” where Sid says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … except for herpes. That shit will come back with you”?

Whatever first comes to your mind is not likely to include your neighbor, professor, or best friend living with an STI, having an incredible sex life, and otherwise prospering. That is, of course, unless you’re also living with an STI and you know better.

I am your neighbor, a professor at a community college, and am enjoying a wonderfully healthy sex life with a man who thinks the world of me and nothing of my STI. I’ve been living with genital herpes for over 14 years now; I’ve also contracted HPV, scabies, and vaginitis throughout the years. And yet not once did an STI hinder my relationships or happiness once I stopped allowing it to dictate my self worth.

Embracing Stigma

At 16, when our family doctor peered at me with a lazy eye, through thick glasses, and accompanied by a partially missing ear to tell me my genital herpes outbreak was the worst case he’d ever seen, I was devastated. Embarrassment coursed through me as he handed me a prescription and sent my mother and me on our way – sans brochures, additional information, and references to resources, support groups or even a mention of the vast number of people living with an STI everywhere. I was a pariah – a leper – even the doctor was disgusted by my condition.

For years, I accepted my fate and considered myself as being punished for having been sexually active before marriage. As a high-schooler, I was called a slut or a whore and “friends” of mine forewarned men who took interest in me that I would merely infect them, hurt them, and they should steer clear entirely. I actually maintained some of those friendships for a period of time, not knowing otherwise about STIs and those who contract them, thinking myself deserving of such treatment.

A Long Overdue Paradigm Shift

It wasn’t until a few years ago I began to see myself for who I truly was: a beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, and valuable individual who just happened to contract a long-term infection. In fact, my infection had not stopped me from obtaining two honors degrees, getting married, conquering my fear of heights by going skydiving – not once, but three times – or pursuing my dreams by auditioning for “American Idol.”

While I’m not the next American Idol, I learned an invaluable lesson throughout that period of self-discovery: I am not deserving of poor treatment, cruel friendships, or snide remarks; the stigma placed upon those living with an STI is inaccurate, ignorant, and illogical. And I have the power to change that. We all do.

In order to change the status quo, though, one has to first understand where the misunderstandings and wrongful judgments originate. Rather than be angry at my doctor for leaving me with nothing more than a crass diagnosis or at my childhood friends for mistreating our relationship, I am choosing to delve into why those perceptions persist.

Part of the problem came from within. I didn’t challenge what little I knew about STIs, and I embraced the negative opinions for years before I was able to distinguish between the laymen’s view of STIs and the reality behind the array of people who contract them. STIs do not define one’s character; they’re merely a reflection of an experience – an experience that is as individually unique as are the people who contract the STIs themselves.

Consequently, I’m not angry or frustrated by the amount of time it took for me to finally find solace in my infection. Rather, I have a holistic appreciation for the process one undergoes when being diagnosed with any type of taboo condition (infection or otherwise). Not only have I taken great pains to find myself in a place of self-love and self-respect, I want very much for others to have an opportunity to feel the same fortitude after their diagnosis as I do now and over a far shorter time table.

Becoming an Advocate

Hence, I have become an advocate.

Due to the immense stigma behind contracting an STI, most people don’t speak openly about their experiences. However, as people, we learn best through community. Naturally, we are pack animals – we nurture our young for years beyond most other mammals and we develop complex (and hopefully, healthy) relationships with others outside of our family nucleus. It makes sense then we need others to help overcome obstacles and boundaries – in this case, contracting an STI and/or living with an STI.

So, I’m willing to tell you how horrible my experience has been at times, and how I’ve found incredible happiness, love, success, and rewarding relationships despite living with an STD all in hopes you can move through the process with much more clarity, community, and understanding than I once endured.

Join me, and I welcome you.

Jenelle Marie is the founder and administrator of The STD Project, a website geared toward eradicating the sigma associated with having a sexually transmitted infection. This entry was originally posted at BlogHer and is reposted with permission.

December 21, 2012

Fan of Female Condoms? Enter International Film Contest

If you’re a filmmaker with an interest in spreading the word about female condoms, check out this contest from PATH, a global health organization:

Why does the world need female condoms? How can female condoms enhance your life? Submit a short film (1:00–5:00 minutes) that tells a story about what Female Condoms Are to you and your community. The deadline to enter is March 1, 2013.

First prize receives $5,000. Winning entries will also be screened at the 2013 Women Deliver conference. Full details and rules are on the contest website.

To learn more about female condoms, see our previous posts and this excerpt from the most recent edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

October 1, 2012

What Do You Think Congress Needs to Know About Sexual and Reproductive Health?

Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate in Missouri for U.S. Senate, made news again last week for his comments on the ladies — this time for asserting that his opponent, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, acted “much more ladylike” during the 2006 campaign, and for suggesting that it’s fine for businesses to pay women less than men.

Well, then.

We do have Akin to thank, however, for sparking an upcoming Congressional Pop Quiz on gender, sex and reproductive health designed by The Ladydrawers. But first they need you to share what you think Congress needs to know about sexual and reproductive health. Here’s info from the call for participation:

The latest Truthout strip asks readers to submit questions for a Congressional Pop Quiz on the workings of your body. We’d like you—the cartoonists, the ladydrawers, the gender-aware media makers—to submit illustrated questions. You can use the questions from the Truthout comments section, generate queries among your own communities, or just straight-up ask Akin to identify the different between your vag and, say, a praying mantis. Which, actually, is pretty damn good at shutting “that whole thing down.”

We’d like questions on sex and reproductive health, of course, but questions about gender seem appropriate too. Marriage, partner benefits—it seems a little bit endless, what we must ensure Congress knows before further legislation is enacted. Anything. Be creative. Be funny. Be accurate. Use evidence-based resources, and cite them, so interested parties (R, D) can read more.

Most important: submit them to us here at or on our Tumblr by October 15. We’ll publish everything we receive here and on our Tumblr that fits the above guidelines (so include your website in your submission for proper credit), and choose the very best ones to print or publish in a quiz we’ll send directly to congress. (We might even have a way to pay you.) Line art only, please!

Can’t draw? Submit your text question on Truthout’s comment section, work with a friend who does like to draw, or do it anyway. You’re the expert: on your body, and on what you want to say about how it should be legislated.

The deadline is Oct. 15, so get going!

Having road tripped with The Ladydrawers in August to deliver “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and sex-ed books and comics to Akin’s office, I can pretty much guarantee that they’re the most awesome rabble rousers this side of the Mississippi (view more photos and drawings from that adventure).

The trip’s urgency was set off by Akin’s unfortunate comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. Since we were in the neighborhood, we also stopped by McCaskill’s office and a training for sex-ed educators, dropping knowledge and spreading the word that everyone deserves access to accurate, evidence-based information on reproductive health. In fact, we’re about to launch a larger-scale delivery effort; more on that soon!

August 23, 2012

Road Trip: Delivering “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Sex Education Books to Rep. Todd Akin

Why mail the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” when you can deliver it in person? Yes, a Chicago-to-Missouri road trip to Rep. Todd Akin’s office begins this afternoon to deliver copies of the newly revised and updated 40th anniversary edition of the landmark book.**

Seriously, who needs accurate women’s health information more than a member of Congress who thinks women can magically ward off pregnancies if their rape was “legitimate”? (So, what amazing feats have you accomplished with your uterus today?)

I’m traveling with the always awesome Anne Elizabeth Moore and a crew of Ladydrawers – Sara Drake, Rachel N. Swanson and Nicole Boyett - who are packing art supplies and snacks, making us pretty much invincible.

Our journey to deliver “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to Akin’s office will kick off at Women & Children First in Chicago, where we’ll scoop up their four remaining copies of the book and combine it with other educational reading material. Then we’ll hit the highway, 55 South to be precise. Wave when we go by!

Our plan is to deliver the books in person Friday morning at Akin’s St. Louis office. Stay tuned for updates from the road, and if you’re not already following us on Facebook or Twitter, start now.

In the meantime, how can you show your support for an educated Congress that believes rape is rape, period, and all women deserve access to basic reproductive health services? Visit and join us!

**Hat tip to St. Louis Post-Dispatch Book Editor Jane Henderson, whose writing inspired this road trip.


July 2, 2012

How I Talk About Sex With My Kids

By Annie Brewster

My 13-year-old daughter is now in the throes of seventh grade Sex-Ed. Yesterday, while lingering at the table after dinner, just the two of us left, she asked: “Rubbing the clitoris is what makes sex feel good, right?”

I swallowed hard, hesitated for half a second, and then said “Yes. That’s a big part of it.” And the door was open for further discussion. What are the other ingredients of sex that “feel good”?

We have always talked openly about sex and the human body. I am not squeamish on these topics, perhaps in part because I am a doctor, and when my children (now ranging in age from 5 to 15) ask questions, I believe in answering directly and honestly.

My now 13-year-old, a relatively uninhibited and curious child, asked about how babies are made when she was 3. Her favorite book was “It’s So Amazing” by Robie Harris, and she begged me to read it to her over and over again, so I did. She asked questions, and I answered. We talked about the sperm and the egg, the penis and the vagina, and how the sperm and egg meet up (i.e., the penis goes into the vagina), and for a while, we stopped there.

At some point, she discovered my diaphragm in the bathroom drawer, and, more than once, I found her using it as a frisbee. “That’s not a toy,” I would tell her. “That’s mommy’s.”

For a while, that was enough, and she would obediently put it away. It was a few more years before she pressed for more details, and I told her about birth control, after explaining that grown-ups sometimes have sex even when they don’t want to make babies. Now, we have moved on to the clitoris and the concept of pleasure.

In our house, we are not shy about nakedness, or at least I’m not. And I am not ashamed of how my body works. All of my children, at a young age, have watched me change a tampon–not a planned demonstration, but an incidental one–and have asked about what it is I am doing. Why the blood? I want my daughters, and my son, to know that menstruation is a normal, healthy part of growing up for females.

“This is something that happens to teenage girls and women about once a month,” I tell them. “It doesn’t hurt, and it is a good sign that my body is working the way it is supposed to.”

Listen to your body. Love your body. Respect your body, and respect others, too. This is part of my message, and I want my children to hear it, loud and clear.

Research backs me up. A 2009 study on parent-child talks about sex and sexuality found that “more than 40 percent of adolescents had had intercourse before talking to their parents about safe sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases.” Time magazine reported on the research noting:

That trend is troublesome, say experts, since teens who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay their first sexual encounter and to practice safe sex when they do become sexually active. And, ironically, despite their apparent dread, kids really want to learn about sex from their parents, according to study after study on the topic.

“The results didn’t surprise me,” says Dr. Mark Schuster, one of the authors of the new study, published in Pediatrics, and chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. “But there’s something about having actual data that serves as a wake-up call to parents who are not talking to their kids about very important issues until later than we think would be best.”

I understand the “sex talk” is tough, and I know not everyone is comfortable with my approach. When I brought home a how-babies-are-made book from the library at age 5, my mother had an uncontrollable laughing fit. When my 13-year-old asked my husband about his own puberty last night, he was embarrassed and slightly stunned.

“What was the hardest thing for you to adjust to in puberty, a) facial hair; b) your voice changing; or c) ejaculation?” she asked.

Hmmm. His initial response was that none of these things were hard (unhelpful, in my daughter’s opinion). But he later came around to “facial hair” because this required a behavior change (i.e., the onset of shaving). Still wanting, my daughter told me about this discussion, and we talked more about the potential challenges of adjusting to change.

Some parents don’t believe that conversations about sex are appropriate for young children, and, understandably, they want to decide when these conversations take place. I respect this, but I am not sure silence is the answer. Sex is everywhere in our society, and kids are going to hear about it one way or another, either from friends or from the media. Isn’t it better for us, as parents, to help them make sense of what they are hearing?

Frankly, I am much more comfortable talking about sperm and egg, penis and vagina with my 5-year-old than I am hearing her parrot the pop song “I’m Sexy and I Know it,” after listening to the radio with her teenage sisters in the car. Disturbing images of “Toddlers in Tiaras” come to mind.

On the one hand, our prudish silence suggests to kids that sex is shameful. On the other hand, the over-sexualized media portrays sex as power. What about everything in between these extremes? What about nuance? As parents, it is our job to help kids interpret what they are hearing, and formulate new definitions. This is an opportunity. Silence isn’t going to shield our children from hearing about sex, in the same way that preaching abstinence isn’t necessarily going to stop teenagers from having sex.

According to a 2009 study in a large urban school district, 12 percent of 12-year-olds had had vaginal sex, 7.9 percent oral sex, 6.5 percent anal sex, and 4 percent all three types of sex. By age 19, 7 in 10 teenagers have had sexual intercourse. Moreover, 15- to 24-year-olds account for nearly half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted infections each year.

And let’s not forget teen sexual violence, and teen pregnancy. Our job is to give kids the tools they need to protect themselves and to make smart choices, and this requires dialogue. Healthy knowledge can be power.

Here’s what I want my children to know: Sex is not shameful. Sex between two mature, consenting, caring (ideally, loving) individuals can be a beautiful thing, but sex is intimate and vulnerable, emotional as well as physical, and should be respected. Sex requires maturity. Listen to your own voice. Trust yourself. Never compromise yourself.

Bottom line: We need to talk to our kids. I am not suggesting parents should give impromptu lectures on sexuality and human development. Rather, we should follow our children’s lead. They will ask the questions when they are ready for the answers.

Annie Brewster is a Boston internist and a former Our Bodies Ourselves board member. This blog entry was previously published at CommonHealth and is reposted with permission.

May 9, 2012

New CDC Report Finds Trends Toward More, Better Contraceptive Use Among Sexually Active Teen Girls

The CDC recently released a report on sexual experience and birth control use among female teenagers in the United States. The agency used data from the National Survey of Family Growth for 1995, 2002, and 2006-2010 to look at sexual activity and birth control use among girls ages 15-19.

The percentage of teen girls who reported that they had never had vaginal intercourse rose from 48.9% in 1995 to 56.7% in the 2006-2010 period.

Of the girls who had had sex in the month before the interview, 59.8% used a highly effective contraceptive method (IUD or hormonal contraception), 16.3% used a moderately effective method (i.e., condoms alone), 6.1% used a less effective method (withdrawal, rhythm method, cervical cap, diaphragm, etc.). 17.9% did not use any contraception.

There was a trend over time toward more use of the highly effective contraceptives, but racial disparities exist. White teens were more likely than Black or Hispanic teens to use a highly effective contraceptive, and to use a contraceptive at all.

The study is limited somewhat in that the teenagers reported on their own sexual activity and contraceptive use. And since the researchers defined “sexual activity” as only heterosexual vaginal intercourse, the study also doesn’t give us information about overall trends in teen sexual activity.

The editors of the report note that the teen birth rate has also fallen to its lowest rate in several decades, and provide several suggestions for further reducing teen pregnancy, including:

  • Providing evidence-based sexual and reproductive health education in schools
  • Connecting teens to reproductive health services
  • Having health care providers encourage use of highly effective contraceptives along with condoms
  • Also having health-care professionals provide culturally competent, evidence-based sexual and reproductive health counseling on the importance of correct and consistent use of contraception and a variety of contraceptive methods.

Hat tip: More Teens Using Effective Birth Control, CDC Study Finds – Women’s Health Policy Report, National Partnership for Women and Families.

Random note: the Policy Report links to Healthy People 2020 goals for reducing teen pregnancy; I created the PubMed searches for those and other HP2020 family planning objectives. For any objective, click on “View Details” and then on the PubMed search link to find citations in the medical literature about the specific topic.

February 8, 2012

Good Vibrations And OBOS = A Perfect Match!

Good Vibrations image

We are delighted and honored that Good Vibrations selected Our Bodies Ourselves as one of  four nonprofit organizations it’s promoting during the months of February and March. That means shoppers can select OBOS during checkout online and in stores and make a donation that goes entirely to the organization.

We’re in excellent company! From the Good Vibrations press release:

Good Vibrations, the trusted San Francisco-based company that takes pride in providing accurate information on sexuality and toys for grown-ups, is delighted to announce a new partnership with four regional non-profits as part of their corporate giving initiative, GiVe. Beneficiary organizations are La Casa de las Madres of San Francisco, AIDS Project of the East Bay in Berkeley, ACCESS Women’s Health Justice in Oakland, and Our Bodies Ourselves in Boston.

From February 1st to March 31st, Good Vibrations’ customers can support these regional nonprofits in Good Vibrations retail locations: San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Boston and online. Shoppers can make a financial gift at the time of their Good Vibrations purchase and 100% of your contribution goes to the nonprofit of your choice. [...]

Staff Sexologist Dr. Carol Queen says, “With people celebrating romance and connectedness during Valentine’s Day, we invite them to experience the pleasure of generosity to these worthwhile organizations that support people through some of the more difficult aspects of relationships and sexuality. We are honored to be able to bring the GiVe program to this remarkable group of non-profits.

And if you’re in the Boston area, you can join Dr. Queen and OBOS’s Judy Norsigian this Sunday, Feb. 12, at a special pre-Valentine’s Day Mixer and Info Tour at Good Vibrations in Brookline!

Photo of Good Vibrations in BrooklineIt’s a free event, and you’ll enjoy a light reception and store tour led by Dr. Queen. This is a great opportunity to learn everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Pease RSVP (office AT or call 617-245-0200) so we can provide Good Vibrations with an accurate number for refreshments. Here are the details:

Sunday, Feb. 12, 3 – 5 p.m.
Good Vibrations Brookline Store
308A Harvard Street Brookline, MA

Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, stop in at a Good Vibrations store or shop online through March 31!

November 23, 2011

Different Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: The Wide Range of Normal Vulvas

As mentioned in yesterday’s post on the new book “What You Really Really Want,” this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine carried an amazing article  – Teaching Good Sex — that uses a Philadelphia private school’s approach to sex ed to illustrate a simple but controversial question: What if we actually taught young people about pleasure, orgasms, healthy relationships, and the wide variety of what is normal in both sexual desire and physical appearance?

I want to highlight one specific issue raised in the article — the lack of awareness among high school students about what women’s genitalia look like. While there has been little fanfare about the elective class so far, its instructor, Al Vernacchio, a well-liked and respected sex scholar who also teaches English at the school, notes that some lessons do draw more attention than others:

The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating — students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch — and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there. “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” he said. What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look “normal.” “They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,” Vernacchio said.

One female student remarked that when the class covered a biology unit, she was surprised she knew quite a bit about the opposite sex: “I probably would’ve been able to label just as many of the boys’ body parts as the girls’, which is sad. I mean, you should know about the names of your own body.”

Compounding the problem of a lack of education is that many students are relying on the most readily accessible photos of women’s naked bodies — media-distorted images and online pornography — and these images don’t exactly promote a realistic view.

I recall that my own sex education experiences involved uniform line drawings of healthy genitals and graphic photos of STI-affected genitals, but nothing visual, and especially not photographs, to indicate that there really is a wide range of what healthy genitalia look like. At Our Bodies Ourselves, we have a long history of encouraging people to grab a mirror and take a look at their own genitals, advice that shows up from the earliest to the most recent editions. Another good resource about women’s genitals is this article over at Scarleteen, which talks realistically about normal variation in size, shape, and color.

Meanwhile, there’s a petition at calling for better tracking of cosmetic genital surgery. The petition also wants surgeons who offer these services to “provide full information on genital diversity” when working with women who have concerns about the appearance of their genitals. “Without this information, women cannot make an informed choice,” the petition reads. It continues:

Most surgeons’ websites are loaded with photographs that misinform the public about female genital diversity. The “before” photos in the before-and-after online photo galleries depict a range of genitals as abnormal, but scientific studies show that many different shapes, sizes, and colors are normal. The photo galleries not only misinform, but they increase women’s and girls’ self-consciousness and add to anxiety. Photos may even be photoshopped or retouched.

This is a topic Heather Corinna also covers in the Scarleteen article, explaining that while some women do have physical discomfort or other medical reasons for wanting genital surgery, “for the most part, for nearly all women, your labia ARE normal, however much they vary. Beauty — as ever — remains in the eye of the beholder.”

That’s a lesson all students could benefit from.

November 22, 2011

Sexuality, Pleasure & Safety: How to Know What You Really Really Want

What you Really Really Want book coverImagine if sex education covered not only important information about how to protect your health and prevent unwanted pregnancy, but also how to have really good sex — including how to know what you want and how to value your needs and desires along with your partner’s.

As The New York Times Magazine reported this past weekend, a truly comprehensive sex-ed class does exist — one that gives as much weight to female orgasm as to navigating complex emotional and physical terrain. Sexuality and Society is a highly regarded senior elective at Friends’ Central School, a co-ed, Quaker, college preparatory day school in Philadelphia.

Now what if there were a book — a workbook of sorts — that could be used in a class like this, and made available to teens and young adults everywhere who don’t have a progressive forum for discussing sexuality?

Luckily for everyone, that book exists.

What You Really Really Want” is the latest title on sex and sexuality by Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of the 2008 hit anthology “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape,” and a contributor to the 2011 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” In her new book, Friedman takes on the role of your smartest, most honest, least judgmental, down-to-earth friend, serving as a helpful guide through 11 chapters on defining, understanding and owning your sexuality.

The book’s subtitle — “The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety” — explains the roadmap within. To make the most of this excursion, Friedman encourages readers to do two things: Write every day, with a pen or keyboard, and love your body — and not just in general; you should spend at least 30 minutes a week doing something that “makes you feel nothing but good.”

Jaclyn FriedmanOne of the book’s elements that readers will find particularly useful are the “dive-in” exercises that encourage thinking through how to apply what you’ve read to your own circumstances. At various times, Friedman pauses and encourages you to ask questions, assess your comfort zone, and identify the tools you need to overcome barriers to expressing your sexuality. These check-ins come across as authentic, which is difficult to pull-off on the printed page. That success is largely due to Friedman’s engaging writing style and genuine concern for women’s health and safety; she is the founder and executive director of Women, Action & the Media, which works for gender justice in media, and has been an outspoken advocate for challenging the ways society shames women.

The first chapter, aptly titled “You Can’t Get What You Want Till You Know What You Want,” opens with a discussion of influences on sexuality, from family and religion to our peers and partners. Friedman also provides a concise summary of confusing media messages that limit women to a “teeny window of ‘correct’ sexuality” combined with artificial ideals, followed by a dive-in exercise on media representations of women:

Dive In: Think back to some adolescent media crushes—that song or album you listened to over and over, the magazine subscription you thought would change your life, the book you picked up again and again, the movie you imagined yourself starring in, the video game you played and played and played, the TV show you just couldn’t miss. What drew you to these particular experiences? What, if anything, did they say to you about sexuality? What lessons did you learn from them that you’ve since rejected, and what did you learn that you still adhere to today? If you could go back and tell your adolescent self something about your media choices, what would it be? Get out your journal, and write about it for five minutes.

“What You Really Really Want” gradually shifts from looking at external influences that can prevent women from developing their own sexual identity to exploring different identities and assumptions about sexuality. Following sections on gender and sexual orientation, readers encounter this exercise:

Dive In: Make a list of all the words you can think of that you’ve used yourself or heard someone else use to describe someone’s sexual orientation. Don’t hold back—list the slang and slur words right alongside the more formal terms. Next, cross out every word that you think no one should ever use about anyone. Then cross out every word that you personally would never use to describe someone else. Then, of the remaining words, cross out every one that you wouldn’t want anyone else to use when describing you. Lastly, cross out any word that’s left that you would never use to describe yourself.

Write all of the words that are left in a new list. How do they make you feel? Do they describe your sexual orientation? Are there facets of your orientation that words don’t exist for? If you feel like it, invent a word that helps fill in those gaps.

It may seem like a lot of self-analysis, but that’s exactly what’s needed. As The New York Times Magazine article points out, teens have a difficult time articulating their own desires, in part due to the abundance of manufactured sexual imagery that creates false and harmful standards for what we (or our partners) should look like naked and how we should act.

Friedman wisely concentrates on the individual reader before expanding the discussion to include sexual partners. And even then, Friedman doesn’t offer advice on how to find a compatible sexual partner; rather, she helps the reader to define what compatability even means:

We all get dealt a different hand when it comes to what we’re capable of, and we all need partners who contribute different things. Is it important that your sexual partners are funny? Smart? Good dancers? Sweet with children? Great at communication? This is where you can get specific about bedroom skills, too: How talented does your partner need to be in the sack, and what qualifies as sexual talent to you?

Once you figure out what qualities you want in a partner, it’s time to add another layer of choosiness: How important is each quality to you? Because, let’s get real, nobody’s perfect, and you’re unlikely to find someone who simultaneously checks all of your boxes. Maybe you’d love to have a partner who is really athletic, but you wouldn’t rule out someone who was less active. On the other hand, it may be a total deal breaker if your partner doesn’t like to read. Get clear on what’s cake vs. what’s icing, and you’ll be steering yourself toward what you really really want before you know it.

Making a list for ourselves is one thing, but healthy sexual relationships require honesty with our partners about pleasure and safety.

“Talking freely about sex and safety with your partners not only makes sex more fun and relaxed—because you’re worrying less and getting more of what you really really want—but also makes it easier to tell the great partners from the ones you want to avoid before you get too hurt,” writes Friedman. “And that information means your intuition will get better and better, which means you’ll get even better at knowing your own desires and boundaries and finding people who can simultaneously respect and satisfy you. In short: It’s the best possible kind of positive-feedback loop.”

Besides offering examples of what, how and when to communicate, Friedman also provides an exercise that returns to the personal history and influences that can block us from advocating for our own needs:

Dive In: Pay attention this week to the times when you’re not speaking up. Do you want seconds at dinner but are afraid to say so? Do you actually want to wear that outfit, or are you doing it because you think someone else will like it on you? Did your friend or partner hurt your feelings, but you aren’t letting them know? Make a note each time it happens. Then, when you’ve got some time, pick one example and write about what it felt like. And then write about what it might have felt like if you had gone the other way and spoken on your own behalf.

Students at Friends’ Central School are fortunate to have a terrific teacher and a supportive educational environment that encourages exploration of these issues. Maybe, just maybe, other schools will start to follow suit. For the rest of us — and for those forward-minded sexuality classes — “What You Really Really Want” can make a lifetime of difference.

Excerpts of “What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety” are printed by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Photo credit: Mandy Lussier. This post is a stop in Jaclyn’s blog tour. Check out yesterday’s stop at WIMN’s Voices. If you’re in the Chicago area, join me on Nov. 30 as Jaclyn reads from her book at Women & Children First (7:30 p.m.).

January 3, 2011

My Little Black Book for Sexual Health

If you have ever wished you had a little black book that answered your questions about sexual health and insurance, your wish has come true.

My Little Black Book for Sexual Health — – is available online to help you navigate the maze. This resource offers information on various topics, including how to obtain low cost insurance and rules that might govern whether birth control is covered by your insurance.

Described as “a guide for getting the health insurance you need to prevent pregnancy until you’re ready,” My Little Black Book is aimed at young people between the ages of 18 and 26; this group is most likely to be uninsured and faces a high rate of unintended pregnancy.

The interactive website is easy to use (or download the PDF version). You can flip through the virtual pages, blow the text up for easy reading, follow the tabs, or click through the table of contents. I found all sorts of helpful information — who is eligible for a school’s student health plan, how to get prescription drug coverage, and what kinds of sexual and reproductive services are covered. It is very user friendly and easy to understand.

My Little Black Book for Sexual Health was developed as part of the Reproductive Empowerment and Decision Making for Young Adults (REaDY) Initiative, a unique statewide public-private partnership led by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and Ibis Reproductive Health, to prevent unplanned pregnancy and promote sexual health for young adults in the wake of Massachusetts health care reform. A Spanish language version will be available soon.

Nekose Wills is the OBOS program assistant.