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Let’s Talk About Sex

Lorraine Kenny,
Associate Director for Communications/Marketing
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April 8, 2011

This Saturday at 10 pm/9pm Central, The Learning Channel, the network that brings us Toddlers & Tiaras, Cake Boss, and 19 and Counting, will air Let’s Talk About Sex, a documentary about what we are teaching – or failing to teach – our kids about sex. At its core, I found the film more disturbing than watching parents traffic their toddlers in tiaras through the junior pageant circuit – a show I admittedly find pretty hard to watch. The first time I saw Let’s Talk About Sex, I sobbed: ashamed of how poorly we are educating our children and fearful that I am not fully up to the task of helping my own daughters lead healthy, happy, and yes, sexual lives. But I also left the film inspired to make a difference.

The film offers some clues as to why we are so stuck, and how we might move forward. In addition to telling teens’ stories from pregnant and parenting teens in Los Angeles to mothers and daughters struggling to communicate to gay teens building a life for themselves, the film offers a basic analysis of where we are and points to where we need to go. This is especially so when the film features a research project on sexuality that the ACLU commissioned from the linguists at Real Reason.

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Faced with poll after poll showing that Americans overwhelmingly want their public schools to prepare kids to make responsible and healthy decisions about sex and frustrated by the degree to which our policies do not reflect this support, we asked Real Reason to help us step back from the debate. They took a close look at how Americans understand sex and sexuality; the images of sex and sexuality that our opponents use to push an abstinence-only-until-marriage agenda; and the language we use to advocate for comprehensive sex education.

The film does a great job of teasing out some of the most salient points from a rather complex study. As the films shows, through a deep analysis of how we use language, Real Reason uncovered two prominent and problematic cultural models of sexuality influencing the debate over sex education. As a culture, we seem to understand sexuality as either:

1) an undesirable, contaminating substance, or

2) an external force, specifically, an opponent.

In the first, sexuality is something you suddenly and unfortunately “come into contact” with, not something that has always been a natural part of who you are. Think: “dirty” jokes, “filthy” language, “polluted” young minds, and even the stereotypical virgin/whore dichotomy.

As for the second, think: lust-driven adolescents who are the victims of their raging hormones. Here, sexuality is a threat to our self-control that needs to be reined in.

No wonder we’re too freaked out to really talk to our kids about sex and to help them understand what they need to know as they move through adolescence and on to adult relationships.

Let’s Talk About Sex asks us to move beyond these negative understandings of sex, get passed the cultural discomfort, and do better by our kids. You can start by inviting friends and family (especially the young people in your life) to watch the movie with you on Saturday night and get the conversation going.

You can also join us in telling Congress to stop throwing precious federal dollars at short-sighted abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. We know they’re ineffective and perpetuate extremely harmful attitudes about sex and sexuality. Tell your members of Congress to support the Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act (S. 578/H.R. 1085). The bill would strike the existing federal abstinence-only grant program and reallocate $50 million annually to support evidence-based comprehensive sex education programs. Now there’s an approach we should be talking more about.