Gender and Sexuality Diversity Panel

I will be participating in the program on Gender and Sexual Diversity at the Lowell School, Washington DC, on April 23, 2013, at 7:00 pm. Also on the panel with me will be Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, of George Washington University and Children’s National Medical Center; and Kisha Webster, Associate Director of Welcoming Schools (HRC). There will be time for questions and answers.From the program announcement:

Whether we talk about it or not, gender and sexuality are part of our everyday lives—from Happy Meals and fairy tales to news about same-sex marriage. Children are constantly absorbing and interpreting the subtle messages around them and adults need to help them decode those messages. Learn how parents and schools can partner to support children’s gender and sexual identity development and their respect for one another.

Among the questions we expect to discuss are:

  • How do the media messages that surround my child impact their identity development?
  • What is the difference between gender expression and gender identity?
  • Should I be talking top my young child about sexuality diversity? If so, how?

The program again is presented by the Lowell School, Washington DC.  It is possible (though not necessary) to register in advance: 202-577-2000 or Website.

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The Steubenville Case: The Sandy Hook of Acquaintance Rape?

The high profile events in Steubenville, Ohio, involving the rape of a drunken sixteen year old girl by two fellow high school students, have the potential to shine a broad swath of light on “acquaintance rape” in America. My students and I have been taking the complexities apart in classroom discussions since the guilty verdict was announced. Here are some of the issues we’ve discussed. They also make for great discussion topics at home.

  • America’s “Rape Prone Culture,” especially its “blame the victim” mentality
  • Legal definitions of “rape”
  • Confusions about the issue of consent
  • The power of “group think”
  • The association between alcohol use, poor judgment, and dangerous activity
  • The lack of adequate adult supervision when teenagers socialize
  • The unbridled use of technology in the hands of young people, and its power to ruin or change young lives forever
  • “Jock Culture” and the entitled belief that one is special and above the rules
  • The complicity of adults in facilitating and even covering up events that encourage sexual assault
  • The lack of empathy among perpetrators and bystanders toward another fellow human being

If the judge in the case has his way, there will be a continuing investigation into several of these elements–many students and adults in the community are involved as witnesses or facilitators of the events surrounding the rapes–that will keep these important issues front and center in the news. Let’s hope so.

It’s way past time to take acquaintance rape, its multiple causes, and its aftermath seriously.

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Leading Edge Education Summit

Leading Edge Educational SummitI will be appearing on a panel at the Leading Edge Education Summit , sponsored by St. Anne’s School of Annapolis, Maryland, Thursday, April 11 at 7 p.m. Joining me on the panel will be Dr. JoAnn Deak and Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair. We will hold a discussion on research-based strategies for raising and educating intellectually, socially and emotionally healthy children. There will be time for questions from the audience, and I will be signing copies of my books. Sign up here.   Join us. Debbie

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Down With “The Talk”: Changing the Narratives We Tell Ourselves about Talking to the Kids about Sex

Americans are attached with Velcro to the idea that knowledge about sex is a big, big secret that adults keep away from children until they are “ready,” at which point, sweaty palmed and gasping for air, they spill the beans about where babies come from. Until we change that deep-rooted cultural myth, and other entrenched ways of thinking about “sex education,” we’ll continue to miss out on nurturing children and teens in the ways they most need in the 21st Century.

I’ve just published a 4-Part series on the Huffington Post explaining how these way-off-the-mark approaches evolved (see Part 1 in its entirety below) and describing the new paradigms we need for supporting kids in becoming sexually healthy children, teens and adults.

Part 1:

Changing the Narratives We Tell Ourselves About Talking to the Kids About Sex

Part 2:

Reclaiming Our Common Sense About Sex

Part 3:

Where Did I Come From is Not a Question about Sex

Part 4:

What Would a New Paradigm Look and Feel Like?

Down With “The Talk!” (Part 1): Changing the Narratives We Tell

Ourselves About Talking to the Kids About Sex

The publishing business surely has changed since I wrote my first book for parents about raising sexually healthy children more than a decade ago, after thirty years of teaching kids and parents. With a new book just out, I’ve spent weeks “on tour” in US locations from Boston to Baton Rouge, Seattle to Sioux City, and North Dakota to Arizona–all without packing a suitcase, putting the dog in the kennel, or making my husband unhappy. I only needed to make sure my land line was charged.

And oh what a trip it has been. Via dozens of radio outlets in American cities and towns of all stripes and types–urban and rural, “conservative” and “liberal,” traditional and trendy–I’ve had the chance, literally, to dial up America and find out what’s on her mind. And, here’s what I learned: in the most fundamental of ways, adults everywhere are stuck in the very same mud they stood in fifty years ago when it comes to talking to the kids about sex.

With the entire nation having come through an era marked by a virtual tsunami of scientific, cultural, social, and technological change, how is it possible that adults remain as tongue-tied and clueless as ever over delivering what in reality, let’s face it, are merely some pretty basic and mundane facts about life?

Americans are attached with Velcro to the idea that knowledge about sex is a big, big secret that adults keep away from children until they are “ready,” at which point, sweaty palmed and gasping for air, they spill the beans about where babies come from. That ideology is as basic to our thinking as the assumption that sky is blue, grass is green, and the earth isn’t flat. (And we all know how long it took for folks to accept that last one). As proof, consider the promo in one form or another that’s preceded nearly all of my interviews–irrespective of locale, type of station (from way right leaning to NPR), or genre of the show:

“The topic today is that dreaded conversation parents just love to put off. How and when, really, should you tell your kids about sex? And, oh, by the way, if the kids are in the room, you might want to send them out.”

After the first few times hearing this, I really got nervous. Unless I take that intro apart, I thought, how can I proceed without reinforcing (horrors) totally misguided frames that so completely miss the point and, furthermore, are precisely what keeps Americans so stuck in the first place? Until this set of wrong-headed assumptions goes, we don’t stand a chance of educating children about sexuality in the ways they need and deserve. What’s more, the default options of peers and media– in lieu of parents and schools–will remain children’s primary, as in first and most important, educators.

What the nation needs, I keep telling myself, is some kind of high profile event–a state of the sexual union address, we could call it–where the president calls everyone together to say, “Pay attention, America. We’ve got to start over from scratch on this one.” Or, better yet, where the Surgeon General of the United States goes on national TV to announce that all grownups should report to their local laundry or dry cleaner immediately and have their brains washed out. Not their whole brains, of course. Just the parts that store the narratives adults tell themselves about “The Talk.”

Since, alas, such grand scale public re-education is not likely to happen, we’ll have to take the grass roots approach, by deconstructing and debunking this epic mythology one point–and one person–at a time. So, everyone, please, listen up and then spread it around.

“The (Dreaded) Talk”

Just the thought of having the “this goes in there” talk with kids is enough to make some people sweat buckets. Actually saying the words out loud can give them apoplexy. At a talk I gave for parents not long ago, a woman told me that she’d just told her seven-year-old daughter about “sex,” and then promptly went into her bathroom and threw up. She’d come for advice on how to talk to her kids about sex, and keep her dinner down at the same time. That same evening, a dad reported that he became absolutely catatonic when his son recently asked, “But how does the sperm get to the egg, Dad?” The dad, stunned and dismayed by his own reaction, honestly wanted to know, “What was that about?”

Indeed. What was that about? How can we explain reactions so extreme they look and sound eerily like evidence of trauma? How did this bizarre association between dread fear–is terror too strong a word?–and talking to kids about sex come about?

I think it’s fair to assume that a belief system so irrational, yet so immune to rationality must be “caught,” not taught, pretty early in life. Young children, let’s remember, are exquisitely attuned to certain emotions, and anxiety, especially when it radiates from a parent or other trusted caretaker, is near the top of the list. It makes them feel unsafe and unprotected, because the person they look to most for safety and protection is noticeably feeling that way too, and it puts them on hyper alert until the anxiety dissipates or they receive an adequate dose of explanation or reassurance from the same or another trusted adult that, indeed, all is well.

Typically, adults project anxiety around the topic of sexuality in ways that are subtle and indirect–for instance, hardly anyone ever says, “Boy, talking about this stuff really makes me feel anxious!” When an adult grimaces, tenses up, stammers, evades or changes the subject, or abruptly goes rigid and silent with no explanation, children can only try to guess at the cause. If the threat and confusion persist long enough, or feels severe enough, it can foster in kids a pernicious and even dread (there’s that word again) sense that something in the family just isn’t quite right. And, once he or she figures out that the subject causing all this trepidation is “sex,” the “talking-in-the-family-about-sex-equals-danger-and-threat” association is set. It’s also a set-up, since uncorrected and unchallenged belief systems, based in unresolved anxiety from childhood, can and often do emerge almost instinctively in adulthood when the child becomes the parent.

If this makes it sound as if we all need therapy, well, yes, actually we do! But, not to worry, it’s of the very short-term kind. We adults simply need to identify and revisit the maladaptive associations we absorbed early in life and use our “we’re all grown up now” good sense and perspective to whack them apart.

Coming Next in Part 2 of Down With “The Talk”!: Reclaiming Our Common Sense about Sex

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“Surprised by Teens Who Order Prostitutes as Easily as Pizza? You Shouldn’t Be.”

Another good reason why parents need to talk to their kids about topics like pornography and prostitution…

“Surprised by teens who order prostitutes as easily as pizza? You shouldn’t be.”

By , Published: September 10

No parent should be shocked that five high school football players hired prostitutes while on a road trip to North Carolina last week.

Nor is it especially surprising that the little johns were from football powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. Religion and prestige are rarely shields from temptation and stupidity.

What’s new in this old-as-time story is that today, thanks to smartphones and the nearly complete submersion of the sex trade into the digital swamp, ordering three prostitutes to your hotel room is as easy as ordering a pizza.

This teen boy fantasy is closer to “Weird Science” than “Risky Business.”

“The Internet is the new street corner, and I tell everyone that going down to 14th Street” — the street once known for prostitution in the District — “is nothing more than going to your browser now,” said Sgt. Ken Penrod, a vice detective with the Montgomery County police.

The bold step of ordering up a prostitute on an iPhone often begins as early as middle school, when legions of boys start downloading porn.

Remember when the quest for certain issues of National Geographic or the hunt for Uncle Fred’s Playboy stash used to define porn exploration?

Now that the family computer and its Net Nanny aren’t the only way to get online, the access to porn and paid sex is in the palms of our children’s hands, 24-7, giving the “Droid Does” slogan enhanced meaning.

Mobile porn has become so prevalent among teens that there is even a nonprofit group, Fight the New Drug, and a micro-industry of treatment camps aimed at teens who have a crippling addiction to it.

For teens ogling mobile porn regularly, the next logical step is to act out that fantasy and click on the many ads urging viewers to order up live sex.

As horrified parents, how do we stop this?

The 18 chaperons on the trip with the DeMatha team did bed checks at 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. They were almost as thorough as the Secret Service planning security for a presidential trip. Oh wait, scratch that. The Secret Service has its own little problem in this area.

The DeMatha boys evaded the best efforts of their chaperons by placing their order at 5 a.m.

Gonzaga boys soccer coach Scott Waller told The Washington Post that he confiscates laptops and cellphones when the team is on the road.

Get this: When Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy took 50 football players to Las Vegas for a game, they had 14 coaches, the school athletic director, trainer and strength coach plus two additional adults and two cops he hired just for the trip.

If anything happened in Vegas, it stayed there. But maybe the cops were the final defense keeping it legal. Wait, that is legal in parts of Nevada.

The simple fact is, keeping kids from doing what they want to do is tough.

And an online debate has been raging about the fairness of DeMatha’s punishment — kicking the boys off the team.

“They’re just teenagers being stupid teenagers. They should be suspended for a week, give them some community service in the school, and the coach should make them run some laps. Another case of the news media sensationalizing everything,” wrote T_Dubb, in the story’s comments.

That reaction mystified Penrod and others.

“It. Was. Illegal,” he said. It wasn’t just immoral.

If drugs were the issue, the debate about punishment wouldn’t even happen. And there would be no winks, no “boys will be boys” comebacks in online forums.

This isn’t a problem limited to DeMatha or an anomaly in any way. Parents who think their kids would never dream of downloading porn or hiring prostitutes are kidding themselves.

Penrod’s investigators see kids from all over Montgomery trawling the online prostitution sites. He remembers one kid who got stung in a case involving a sex worker, and police saw his profile pop up on a prostitution site the next day after he appeared in court.

The problem here isn’t only about limiting access. There are deeper lessons to address.

The illegal purchase of sex, the fact that most American prostitution is a result of human trafficking and the reality that the plastic, bleached and enhanced world of online sex is a myth that twists ideas of human sexuality and relationships need to be discussed here.

Parents cannot toss aside online porn as the equivalent of the curiosity they remember.

Porn is everywhere. You click on a link for “Cute Animal Videos” and bam! you get barnyard acts by naked humans (true story — happened to me with the kids on the iPad this summer). Any child of any age with a Nook, a Kindle or an iPad can go from Word Search or Angry Birds to graphic, violent, degrading sex videos in just two clicks.

And for older kids, not only are they awash in unrealistic, desensitizing images, but they are constantly being urged to take it to the next level, to go live.

Families who don’t have uncomfortable but honest discussions about sex, porn and prostitution are putting kids at risk for some scary consequences.

That sex talk won’t happen once or twice. It has to happen often, with a lot more detail today.

Deborah Roffman, a sex educator in Maryland for four decades and the author of “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go To Person’ About Sex,” said she talks to parents a lot about the conversations they have with kids. But recently, she has issued an ultimatum:

“I rarely say ‘parents must.’ But in the book I just finished, I said parents must talk to children about pornography.”

“You used to have to go to the other side of town to go to the video store. That was a statement by our society. There were a lot of physical barriers. And that’s all gone now, there are no physical barriers between the child and adult world.”

The DeMatha players betrayed the school’s strict moral code, humiliated their families, undermined their team and put their futures at risk.

We talk to them about saying no to drugs, drinking, and texting and driving.

But when it comes to talking about online sex, too many parents clam up.

Those days are over.


© The Washington Post Company

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