Mississippi is finally considering joining the 20th century regarding sex education. The 21st century may be a bit too advanced, but they've legislated a sort-of program, according to TIME.
Mississippi has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country—more than triple the rate in New Hampshire, for example. Mississippi is now requiring schools to offer sex education, but with several key requirements that radically undermine it:
- Schools get to decide which grades should teach it;
- School districts can choose from a range of curricula, which do NOT have to be scientifically accurate;
- Programs do NOT have to discuss the effectiveness of contraception (indeed, they don't have to discuss contraception at all);
- Families can excuse their kids for any reason;
- Boys and girls must be taught separately.
As in all 50 states, a majority of Mississippi parents say they want comprehensive sex education for their kids. But parents feel mixed about this; although 90% of parents say schools should discuss the benefits of abstaining from sex, 3/4 they want birth control methods taught, 2/3 want teens told where to get birth control, and more than half prefer condom demonstrations in class.
School districts and state legislatures repudiating sex ed is nothing new. What's intriguing is that a state has legislated a program in 2012—and it's still less progressive than standard comprehensive sex education proposed almost half a century ago. Why bother to mandate anything today when years of scientific evidence and public policy failure are ignored? Mississippi might as well continue with no mandate. At least whatever ignorance and superstition kids acquire would be from their families and churches, without the imprimatur of school.
But the TIME article itself is part of the larger problem.
There are some serious errors in this allegedly objective article. The author says that "several peer-reviewed studies have found comprehensive sex education more effective at reducing teen pregnancy rates than abstinence-only approaches." "Several studies?" This is like saying that "several studies confirm that exercise is good for you." Several? How about "practically every single one?"
And unfortunately, the author waits to tell us this until page three—some 1,200 words into the story. You'd think an article about sex education would, um, mention the effectiveness of sex education in the first couple of paragraphs.
But this follows an even worse gaffe: "The research on sex education is hotly disputed." Hotly disputed? This is true only in the sense that "The alleged fact of the Holocaust is hotly disputed" or "The authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate is hotly disputed."
If all this is some bizarre attempt to write a story that appears even-handed, it fails miserably. In fact, it mirrors the problem with the sex education programs that Mississippi is instituting—it elevates opinion to the level of competing with fact. You want to hate sex education? Go ahead, it's a free country. You want to say it doesn't work, it can't work? You're wrong. I don't say so, science says so.
As a subtle kick in the groin, the TIME story is filed under "Women's Issues." You know, along with dog sweaters and recipes for baked apples.
And that's one reason that sex education languishes in our supposedly modern nation. It's considered by relatively moderate people as a "Women's Issue"—not a science issue, not a health issue, not a men's issue, not an adult's issue—a women's issue. After all, who else cares about kids, families, education, or science?
California just became the first state to ban conversion "therapy" for minors. That's "therapy" which attempts to "cure" people of homosexuality, same-gender desire, or gender non-conformity, "converting" them to heterosexuality and "normal" gender behavior.
My regular readers know that I have been a licensed psychotherapist for 32 years—about 35,000 sessions with men, women, teens, and couples of all kinds. And I mean ALL kinds.
I am totally AGAINST reparative or conversion "therapy." Under all circumstances, period. It doesn't work, and it's bad for people.
But I am pretty queasy about this new California law banning conversion "therapy" for minors, or the suggestion that adults have to be notified about the lack of evidence supporting conversion "therapy" before they do it.
Every single day, the best therapists—including me—use conventional, accepted therapeutic modalities that have no evidence supporting their efficacy. And every excellent therapist has occasionally done a terrific, thoughtful job with a patient, only to watch in dismay as one or another intervention has had terrible, unexpected results.
Then there are the less-than-excellent therapists who do therapy with modalities and interventions that are perfectly legal—and theoretically bankrupt or morally corrupt.
In virtually none of these situations does the State intervene and say "that kind of therapy is illegal with minors, or can only be done if you tell patients there's no efficacy data behind it." Why privilege the obviously egregious modality of conversion "therapy"? Why provide protection for one part of the patient population, but not the rest? Why challenge the problematic work of a small sliver of professionals, but not the rest?
And finally, do we really want the State intervening in these admittedly troubling and even damaging situations? In most of the country, we're already fighting a losing battle to keep State legislators out of the patient-doctor conversation when it comes to abortion.
Therapists deal with pretty serious situations in addition to issues regarding sexual orientation. To pick just a few, we deal with teens who are suicidal, adults recovering from rape, and parents grieving their dead children. California has no special guidelines for our interventions in these cases, other than the standard Code of Ethics.
Again, see my first sentence: I'm totally against reparative or conversion "therapy." I just question California's dramatic, single-minded intrusion into a therapy profession which lacks efficacy data for virtually anything we do.
You want to protect children? Start by requiring every therapist to learn about healthy childhood sexuality—totally missing in most training programs. Then require that every single social service, police, or legal interview with a kid discussing possible molestation be videotaped, and make the tapes available to all parties in any litigation.
You want to protect people with non-conforming sexuality? Require all therapists to learn about alternative sexualities. And challenge the use of training materials claiming that people like S/M because they've been abused, or claiming that people's domination-oriented sexual fantasies change and become "healthier" when their past sexual trauma is resolved.
Many other therapy practices far more common than conversion "therapy" lack any efficacy data whatsoever, including:
* Molestation: Describing patients' early experiences as sexual molestation, contrary to the patients' own interpretations, is common. Patients and their families continue to be destroyed by therapists applying extraordinarily broad definitions of "molest" to common, non-hurtful family situations.
* "Sex addiction": Features discomfort with healthy masturbation, antagonism to most kinds of sexual expression outside of traditional heterosexual monogamy, and a screening tool that judges nearly every American a sex addict. The program typically pays little attention to differential diagnosis, unwittingly accepting those struggling with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and sociopathic personality disorder.
* Infidelity & affairs: Many approaches rigidly valorize monogamy; encourage punishment for the betrayer; and support the betrayed partner's desire for the betrayer's email passwords, cell phone records, and detailed descriptions of exactly what the betrayer did hour-by-hour—destroying the dignity of both partners and preventing the rebuilding of trust.
* Therapy focused on prayer, visualization, energy work, reiki, crystals, chanting, etc.. If your patient buys it, you can do it. If you're licensed, you can call it psychotherapy.
The California law's meta-message—"there's nothing wrong with your kid having whatever sexual orientation s/he has"—is valuable. But State interference with one kind of (rather uncommon) irresponsible therapy—without touching other, more common forms of undocumented therapy—is a rather heavy-handed way of reshaping social norms.
The American Psychological Association, among others, has deemed conversion "therapy" quackery. That's good news for everyone. By singling out and challenging this modality, California's legislature is implying that most conventional therapy is both documented effective and safe. Unfortunately, that's just not true.
People are always asking me about sexual communication–how to do it, when to do it, where to do it. If I only have 60 seconds (radio talk show, stranger on a bicycle), I mostly respond with some version of "just do it in whatever way feels comfortable—as long as it works."
If you have a few minutes right now, we can look at sexual communication in some detail. It starts BEFORE you're in bed, so here are some Tips for Communicating about Sex In the Kitchen (or Wherever):
* Sit close enough to touch when you talk. Then touch when you talk.
* Ask what your partner likes, or if s/he likes a certain thing.
* Discuss and decide on a "safe word"—an unusual word (like "dinosaurs") which, if either person says it during sex, means "stop right now, and I really mean it!" And don't fool around with the word once you've agreed on it.
* If you aren't sure what your partner meant during the most recent lovemaking, ask: was that "no, not now," or "no, not ever?"
* Confirm your contraceptive agreement(s)—what, when, how? And remember, "trying harder" has no place in this conversation. Contraception is about what you do, not about what you try to do, or try to remember to do, or think you ought to do.
* Clarify and resolve any disagreements about logistics: room temperature, socks in bed, talking nasty, locking the door, where to keep the lube, etc.
* Describe your body's current situation, whether temporary or permanent: lower back pain, difficulty squeezing your hands, asthma. If necessary, remind your partner whether you're right- or left-handed (an important factor in a hand-job). Also mention where you're particularly flexible or strong—e.g., hips or knees (an important issue if someone's getting on their hands & knees).
* "You should know that when we're not getting along so well, I'm a lot less interested in sex." Unless you're one of the unusual people for whom the truth is, "When we're not getting along, I'm a lot more interested in sex."
* Don't spring a sex talk on your partner first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or five minutes before dinner guests are arriving.
* "Hey, one of these days when we're in bed together, do you maybe want to try X?"
Got all that? Great. Now here are some Tips for Talking About Sex in Bed:
* Save "how many times do I have to tell you" for outside the bedroom. Or not at all.
* Never ask "where did you learn that?" or "who taught you to want that?"
* Talk about what you want more than about what you don't want; for example, instead of saying "that's too fast," say "I'd like it slower." If you say "don't do that," add "do this instead."
* Nothing says "I'm right here with you" like eye contact. Look at your partner periodically during sex, especially when talking or listening.
* Dislike whatever you want, but don't judge what you don't like (e.g., "ugh, that's kinky/perverse/unromantic"). If you don't want to do something in bed, you don't need a good reason. Thus, you don't have to justify your lack of interest in it by criticizing the activity or its sponsor.
* Don't talk about how a former partner did something better, or how someone else feels better, or how someone else's bed never had cracker crumbs in it. Unless, of course, you and your current partner get off on such stories.
* If something feels good, say so. If it feels really good, say so more than once.
* Don't ever, ever, ever, say something feels good when it doesn't.
* When someone says they don't want sex, they're not rejecting you—they're rejecting sex with you. Big difference.
* If your partner says "I love you" you don't have to say it right back; you can smile, or you can say "Hmm, good." And never, ever say "I love you" if you don't mean it. Or if you're not 100% certain you'll be saying it again.
Now that's Sexual Intelligence.