Friday, September 04, 2009

Standing Up For International Sexuality Education: It's A Moral Obligation to the World's Youth

UNESCO was about to release new international guidelines for sexuality education next week. Instead, according to this article in the NY Times and verified for me by other sources, they have been pulled back due to pressure from US groups on the right that oppose comprehensive sexuality education.

UNESCO has pulled the draft from its website and says they are being revised. The complaints as you will read in this article include that the guidelines suggest that young people need a definition of masturbation, information about contraception, and to know how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

In other words, same old, same old objections. Despite more than 30 years of research that demonstrates that sexuality education can help young people delay sexual involvement and protect themselves, ultra conservatives still want to stop it. And the fact that organizations like UNFPA has now disassociated themselves from these new guidelines and UNESCO has slowed their release, shows that those voices are still winning -- and our children and teens are still the losers.

I'm taking this one a bit personally -- because as I just discovered, the guidelines part of this new work is actually based on the National Guidelines for Sexuality Education, a project I created when I was President of SIECUS, way back in 1990. Dr. Bill Yarber and I co-directed this project and developed its framework, goals, and key messages, with input from a national task force of experts. We then adapted the project for guidelines development with task forces in such countries as Brazil, India, Russia, and Nigeria.

The objections that are reported in the article are familiar, because we've heard them regularly in the past twenty years. The UNESCO document itself talks about anticipating controversy.

I'm trying to find out more about how people of faith and religious leaders can speak out about these documents, demonstrating once again that sexuality education isn't just a public health responsibility -- but a moral obligation. Stay tuned.


William Smith, SIECUS said...

Debra -- thank you so much for drawing attention to this issue. Unfortunately, the NYT story got a number of points wrong. SIECUS is intensively involved in this evolving situation in both public and quietly strategic ways. From the public side, we have released and broadly disseminated the below statement that I hope helps to clarify a few things for your blog fans.

Bill Smith, SIECUS VP for Public Policy

September 3, 2009

SIECUS Statement on New York Times Article’s Misrepresentation of New International Sexuality Education Guidelines

A story in today’s New York Times made a number of misrepresentations regarding the publication of the International Guidelines on Sexuality Education: An Evidence Informed Approach to Effective Sex, Relationships, and HIV/STI Education by the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO).

The International Guidelines are an important development in advancing comprehensive sexuality education and HIV/STI-prevention efforts around the globe and UNESCO should be applauded for its leadership on these important issues.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, SIECUS, has been extensively involved in the development of this document, fully supports it, and would like to help clarify a number of points.

First, the story vastly overstated the extent of criticism directed at this ground-breaking document, quoting an extreme, right-wing organization as well as an obscure local organization in the state of Maryland in the United States as sources of this disapproval. The latter organization was formed to address a very local issue and does not represent a significant or noteworthy constituency. The other is a fully discredited extremist organization whose theories on population are best suited for science-fiction novels, not the pages of the New York Times.

While giving too much weight to critics, the article also vastly underestimates the support for this important publication among agencies of the United Nations system. There are on-going discussions and processes working themselves through the UN system. We have every confidence that at the end of the day, the International Guidelines on Sexuality Education and the implementation of comprehensive sex education will be fully supported by all UN agencies whose mandates guide them to promote adolescent health. We call upon the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency cited in the article, to clarify its support both for efforts to expand comprehensive sex education globally and for these Guidelines as an important step toward that goal.

Finally, the story erroneously reported that the Guidelines were to be released this week at a meeting in Birmingham, England and suggested that this event was cancelled as a result of criticism. In fact, no such release was ever planned and UNESCO already released a draft version of the document in June 2009 which is currently circulating in the public realm. Ongoing input to create a stronger and more effective document is, as always, welcome. The hope is that the document serves as a model for further adaptations to regional and country-level contexts.

In fact, this week a meeting is being held in Mexico City where technical experts – including numerous representatives from the same agency that the New York Times asserts does not support this effort – met to discuss how these Guidelines can be helpful in advancing comprehensive sex education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sex education works and is supported by every major public health agency around the world. Efforts to provide comprehensive sexuality education as part of HIV/STI prevention are moving forward around the globe aided by key resources such as the UNESCO Guidelines. Manufacturing controversy by misrepresenting the support among the United Nations agencies and by citing fringe American groups fails to reflect the genuine consensus and reality of global movement that is now heading in the right direction.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

My only disagreement with you is calling the folks who oppose these sex ed guidelines "conservative" -- they are reactionary.

As for arguing that sexuality education is a moral obligation,...

Education is a moral obligation. If we want our young people to be good citizens, good neighbors and good parents, then we need to equip them with both sound information and critical thinking skills. Smarter kids means a better world.

Now, ask this of the anti-sex-ed crowd: If you agree with this general premise, how can you refuse to apply it to something as universal and important as sexuality?

From my perspective, this is like refusing to teach kids about nutrition and cooking out of fear that they might do something crazy like eat sushi. Of course, I'd be saying: "What's wrong with sushi?" but there's also no evidence linking nutrition and cooking courses with increased sushi consumption, same as the fallacy that good sex ed leads to young people doing "horrible things."

In fact, a number of school districts have switched from "astinence-only" to more comprehensive programs precisely because of the rises in teen pregnancy and STI rates while under those "wholesome" right-wing programs.

Too bad UNESCO officials don't have the guts to point out such failures to our country's Religious Right, as reason enough to ignore their complaints.

John Daly said...

It probably won't hurt to go over the text once again, since it can probably be further improved.

The discussion seems to have missed the point that policy makers are supposed to make their own curricula guidelines, making use of the collected research, to meet local needs and possibilities.

How different would be sexuality education in a poor Sub-Saharan country where most girls only go to school for a couple of years, are coerced into sexual activity very young, and are exposed to health risks from HIV, to STD to very high levels of maternal and infant mortality versus in the United States?