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Skills for Educators

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Preventing and Responding to Controversy in Sexuality Education

This educator skill is designed to help educators prevent and respond to controversy surrounding sexuality education. Specifically, this month's educator skill includes the following:


Preventing and Responding to Controversy in Sexuality Education


Introduction

Developing and/or implementing sexuality education can be a stressful experience not only because of the controversy surrounding the general topic of sexuality, but also because of the controversy surrounding many of the components of sexuality education. The following skills and strategies for preventing and responding to sexuality education controversies are presented as a way to effectively relay factual information while combating challenges by opponents.


Definitions

Controversy

Defined by the Webster’s II dictionary as "1.) a dispute characterized by the expression of opposing views, and 2.) a quarrel or argument."1

Fanatic

A person who has excessive zeal for, or irrational attachment to a cause. From the Latin, fanaticus, meaning "inspired by God."1

Opponent

Someone who disagrees with or is resistant in a battle, contest, dispute, or debate.1

Below are some brief definitions of the different types of sexuality education curricula:

  • Abstinence-based curricula generally focus on abstinence as the number one way to prevent pregnancy and STIs. Little time is dedicated to contraception, condoms, safer-sex, and STIs.

  • Abstinence-only curricula generally focus on abstinence. These curricula do not discuss contraception or safer sex.

  • Fear-based curricula generally use scare tactics as the major strategy for encouraging abstinence from sexual behavior before marriage. Contraceptive information is omitted, and students are required to consider only the negative consequences of sex.2

  • Comprehensive sexuality education curricula generally cover anatomy, physiology, contraception, safer sexual behavior, relationships, and abstinence.

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Preventing Controversy

Based on a needs assessment of more than 150 education and health leaders, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) recommends the following strategies to build support and prevent controversy for HIV-prevention and sexuality education programs.

  1. Work with Other Groups
    It is important from the early stages of program development to form collaborations with other organizations, such as representatives from the community, parents, faith communities, business leaders, teachers, colleagues from local organizations working in sexuality education, and the local or state public health departments.

  2. Develop or Look to Models
    Clearly define the terms that refer to the curricula (i.e. "abstinence-based," "abstinence-only," "fear-based," or "comprehensive"). Be consistent. Seek out culturally competent programs. Develop policies and protocols for guest speakers.

  3. Engage the Media
    Work proactively with the media. Submit articles to newspapers, issue press releases, and respond to editorials that may arise.

  4. Build Community Support
    Work with community-based organizations to understand the policies and issues of the school district. Involve community members and parents in curricula training sessions.

  5. Organize Public Meetings
    Anticipate differences of opinion, when developing issues to be discussed on the agenda. Set time limits and ask for speaker statements ahead of time.

  6. Prepare for Challenges
    Learn as much as you can about the opponents in your community by getting on their mailing lists and attending their meetings and trainings.

  7. Involve Parents
    Schedule a parent preview night. Publish a newsletter for parents on adolescent health issues. Create packets for students to take home to parents who may not have been able to attend the preview night. Include reading materials and parent child activities.3

ReCAPP staff believes that all of the components presented by SIECUS are important. This edition will focus specifically on the role that involving parents can have on preventing controversy related to a sexuality education program.

  • Schedule a parent preview night

    1. Make sure your event is well publicized. Publicity activities might include: 1) sending invitations or flyers home with students, 2) mailing flyers to parents directly, and 3) calling parents to invite them. If parents say they are unable to attend, ask if there is anything you could provide at the meeting that would make it easier for them to attend, i.e. child care or transportation.

    2. Coincide your parent preview night with a parent-teacher night or school open house.

    3. Provide childcare and snacks at the meeting.

    4. Reserve a room that is large enough for your event.

    5. Bring sample copies of the curriculum to the meeting for parents to review.

    6. Plan a tight agenda, have a timekeeper, and keep on time.

    7. Sample a lesson of the curricula for the parents.

    8. Plan how to meet the needs of non-English speaking parents. Invite bilingual teachers or parents to present with you.
  • Create packets for students to take home to parents who may not have been able to attend the preview night.

    1. Some items you might want to include in a packet are: reading materials, goals and objectives of your sexuality education program, a summary of what happened at the parent preview night, and a form for parental feedback about the program.

    2. In addition, you may want to include some parent-child activities. For example, provide parents with a parent-youth activity designing a set of family values related to sexuality. Give a set of questions that might start the conversation. Some of these questions might be: How does our family feel about birth control? Should birth control be more available or less available than it is now? How often do family members receive reproductive exams from their health providers?

  • Publish a newsletter for parents on adolescent health issues.

    1. Plan a writing activity for students to write articles on adolescent health issues.

    2. Use information from adolescent health websites to cite statistics and research related to programs that are shown to work. Suggested sites are
      ReCAPP's section on Evidence-Based Programs
      www.hify.com/
      www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/ and
      www.advocatesforyouth.org/index.htm.

    3. Organize a student club to publish the newsletter. Secure appropriate computer hardware and software.

    4. Give parents information about how to contact the principal, school board and city counsel to advocate for their child’s needs.

     

For more information from SIECUS on preventing controversy about sexuality education, go to www.siecus.org/pubs/fact/fact0009.html

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Responding to Controversy

Know your Opponents

Before responding to controversy, it is important to understand some of the reasons that have led people to oppose your program and some of the tactics they might use.

Reasons for Opposition
  • Lack of knowledge about your program goals and how they will be implemented.
  • Fear that any discussion of sex will distress or offend youth.
  • The belief that talking about sex encourages sexual activity.
  • Anti-sexuality education propaganda generated by an outside organization.4
  • The belief that your program is in opposition to their religious values and beliefs.
Tactics Opponents Might Use
  • Challenging your organization rather than just the sexuality education activities.
  • Challenging anyone, anywhere and everywhere.
  • Using attacks on sexuality education programs to support a larger social or political agenda.
  • Focusing only on their perception of negative effects the program will have on their children.4

Strategies for Responding to Controversy

  1. Expect It
    Remember that there are usually two sides to an issue, and therefore it is possible there will be opposition to your program.

  2. Be Pro-active
    Be clear about the goals of your program. Share program goals, protocols, and definitions with the community as early in program development as possible. Insist that all parties have the right to define themselves and their goals.

  3. Make it Clear that You're a Person, Not a Program
    The more personable and "real" you are, the harder it will be for your opponents to see you as merely a symbol of something they oppose. They will also be less likely to attack you personally. If they do make a personal attack, kindly remind them that they are there in opposition to your program and not to you.

  4. Be Honest
    Do not make claims that are not supported by fact. When opponents disregard the facts, calmly ask for their "facts."

  5. Be Reasonable
    The goal is to enable people to responsibly manage their sexuality and fertility. Research shows that knowledge alone is not sufficient.5 Curricula that have strong evidence of success in changing sexual risk-taking behaviors also focus on:

    • reducing a small number of sexual behaviors
    • using theoretical approaches to modifying social behavior
    • giving a clear message
    • providing basic information
    • addressing social pressures on sexual behavior
    • modeling and practicing communication
    • practicing negotiation and refusal skills
    • employing a variety of teaching methods
    • stating clear goals
    • teaching methods and materials appropriate to the students
    • scheduling a sufficient length of time, and
    • providing training for teachers and peer educators.6
  1. Point out Opponent’s Unfactual Claims
    Do not let opponents make claims based on a distorted reading of the statistics. Offer a better explanation of the data. For example, an opponent might argue, "Teaching young people that they can have safer sex encourages promiscuity." Your response might be: "According to a major global study published by the World Health Organization, programs that teach young people about contraception and safer sex do not lead to earlier onset or higher frequency of intercourse. In fact, programs that teach about both abstinence and safer sex can help young people to postpone having intercourse."5,7

  2. Know When to Refocus
    Try to steer around fanatics. Distinguish between opponents who are resisting out of discomfort or ignorance and those who are fanatical. Identify approaches and solutions that both parties can agree on.4
For more examples, see SIECUS’s "Responding to Arguments Against Comprehensive Sexuality Education" at www.siecus.org/advocacy/kits0005.html.

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References


1Webster’s II. The New Riverside University Dictionary. Riverside Publishing Company. Boston, MA. 1984.
2SIECUS. "SIECUS Curriculum Critique." Community Action Kit. 1997
3SIECUS. "Strategies to build support for HIV-prevention and sexuality education programs." SIECUS Report, 25-4, December 1996/January 1997. www.siecus.org/pubs/fact/fact0009.html
4James Bowman Associates. A handbook for family planning community educators. Texas. 1989.
5Grunseit, A. and Kippax, S. "Effects of sex education on young people's sexual behavior." World Health Organization. Geneva, Switzerland. 1993.
6Kirby, D., Laris, B., and Rolleri, L. "Sex and HIV Education Programs for Youth: Their Impact and Important Characteristics" a pdf article on ReCAPP.
7SIECUS. "Responding to arguments against comprehensive sexuality education." Community Action Kit. www.siecus.org/advocacy/kits0005.html