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Teaching Sexuality Education | The Nation

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Teaching Sexuality Education

In 1982, Martha Roper received her first death threat.

Martha—perhaps better known as Ms. Roper—is not a drug trafficker or a gang member. She does not work for the government, or involve herself in dangerous, secret operations. She does not even run an abortion clinic. She teaches sexuality education.

Martha Roper is an award-winning, widely acclaimed sexuality education teacher and author in the state of Missouri. She holds a master’s degree in family and community relations from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and taught sexuality education in Missouri for over thirty years.

“I had a 13-year-old son around that time,” Ms. Roper told me. “Fortunately, he had a sense of humor, and when a letter addressed to ‘Lesbian Slut’ or ‘Sex Sinner’ would arrive in the mail box, he would say, ‘I think this one’s for you, Mom.’”

Ms. Roper began receiving death threats and hate mail in the early eighties, and they have never completely stopped. Since the advent of the Internet and online technologies such as Google Earth and Google Maps, Roper has had to become much more quiet for her own safety.

In the state of Missouri—or perhaps we should say “misery” as Martha jokingly tells me—it is not possible to get an advanced degree in Health Education without a major in Physical Education. Neither degree leads to a teaching credential. Upon returning to Missouri after obtaining the degree that she felt she needed in New York, Roper looked for jobs as a sexuality education teacher only to be told that her skills would not be needed, because “we don’t have that problem here.”

As a Missouri native who felt that she entered marriage and motherhood with little knowledge of sex and sexuality, Ms. Roper was determined to stay in her home state, and teach the curriculum that she had always needed and never had.

“One day, a rumor started that I wore a red shirt the mornings after I would have sex with my husband,” Martha told me. “Obviously, there was no truth in that. No matter how absurd it was, the rumor would not die. Kids told their parents, their parents told the principal. Young adult teachers even helped spread the rumor! Even my department head assumed it was true.

“If that doesn’t turn a teacher away from dealing with anything remotely sexual, what will?

“I was extremely lucky that my school’s principal would have defended me until the day I died. He would tell parents who complained, ‘If your child’s math teacher had a master’s degree and was an expert in their field of study, would you call me to complain that your child was learning too much in their math class?’  ”

Another veteran sexuality educator and sexuality education advocate, Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, now executive director of Answer, tells me that even teachers in more liberal states, such as her home state of New Jersey, face the same stigma and fear teaching sexuality education. 

“Even in states where there is a mandate or a law, such as New Jersey and now New York City, there are no systems of accountability. It is still incumbent upon the very brave teachers who are willing to risk difficult questions from the students, controversy from the school board and ultimately their job security to keep sexuality education alive. No educator or administrator should have to feel like their job is on the line when they are adhering to their state’s law.”

Comprehensive sexuality education in public schools faces a perfect storm of rampant budget cuts and hopeless personal and political stigma. Sexuality education and educators are often categorized as optional and unnecessary, placed immediately on the budget chopping block alongside arts and music programs. At worst, teachers’ personal motives are publicly questioned, making them the victims of humiliating rumors and potential threats.

“I worked as a consultant in a school district in which a school board member announced at a meeting that I supported teaching kindergarteners how to have sex,” Dr. Schroeder told me. “It was as preposterous as it was offensive—there isn’t an educator on this planet who would do something so stupid or inappropriate. As a parent of a kindergartener myself, I was deeply offended. But opponents of sexuality education aren’t concerned with facts—they are more interested in making loud, outlandish, unfounded accusations, and because they yell and scream the loudest, far too many people listen. It has to stop.”

Despite the drama of school board hysteria, parents from many different regions of the United States overwhelmingly support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. However, the vocal minority representing the “moral high ground” of abstinence-only education intimidates school administrators into shutting down sexuality education programs entirely.

“Parents never walk into a math or science class and tell the teachers how they should or shouldn’t teach their classes,” Dr. Schroeder told me, “Most districts have an opt-out policy, but many schools give over to parents completely and shut down the class for everyone. This is wrong.”

Susie Wilson, one of the activists who pushed for the original sexuality education mandate—then called “Family Life Education”—in New Jersey, is particularly familiar with the political challenges constricting comprehensive sexuality education.

“Sexuality education—unlike math, reading or science—has always been a political football,” she says.

On the local level, abstinence-only advocates wield their falsely claimed moral high ground to pressure school boards to adopt abstinence-only curricula. On the state and national levels, most politicians are unwilling to risk their careers to defend something that is both controversial within the community and already has millions of dollars of political funding against it.

“Teen pregnancy and STI rates are drastically lower in major European countries because sex education is treated as a matter of public health,” she explains. “Their general attitude surrounding sex is not puritanical and squeamish while strangely glorifying it without explaining what sex is all about. Their policies are much closer to treating humans as sexual people and sex as a normal, natural part of life.”

Our country’s inability to untangle matters of religion, politics and public health puts sexuality education teachers and their programs at an enormous risk. Sex and sexuality is treated as a moral issue, reserved for those who are married or those who are dirty with no acknowledgement of the in-between. In this worldview, unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are the unpleasant, deserved consequences of immoral behavior rather than the result of a lack of knowledge of reproductive health and sexuality.

“The only way we were able to pass the mandate in New Jersey (in 1982) was by calling it Family Life Education,” Susie confides, illustrating the taboo of referencing to anything as sexual. “I don’t think it would have passed if we had called it sexuality education.” 

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