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Lakoff for sexuality educators: the power and magic of "framing".

Like a lot of other sexuality educators in recent months, I've been reading and synthesizing a new book by Dr. George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist, a neurolinguist to be more exact, who specializes in a fascinating field known as "Semantic Framing."

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As Lakoff explains, we can't see or hear frames. They are part of our "cognitive unconscious"--structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access. These structures determine the way we reason and what counts as "common sense" to us. Frames relate directly to language, because all words are defined relative to certain cognitive frames. Whenever we hear a certain word, therefore, its unique frame is activated in our mind.

Lakoff asserts that the strategic success of the Far Right, in its quest for absolute political power in the United States, can be explained in large measure by its masterful manipulation of semantic frames. He explains that through the work of thousands of think tank intellectuals, language professionals, writers, agents, and media specialists--funded by billions of dollars in donations and grants over the last thirty years--conservatives have worked a "revolution of thought and language." They have successfully managed to brand liberals, long thought of as populists in our country, as "effete, elitist, unpatriotic spendthrifts" and a threat to American culture and values. At the same time they have successfully re-branded conservatives, whose policies favor the economic elite, as the "real" populists.

For many of us in the sexuality field, Lakoff is salve for a burn that won't heal. He really gets it--the why and the how of the relentless attacks by the Far Right on our field, and on many of us personally, over the past three and a half decades. (1) We sexuality professionals, Lakoff infers, like other progressives, have been targeted because we are perceived as threatening to the Far Right's "strict father mentality"--an essentially patriarchal world view shared by the political and religious right wing in this country--and to its decades-long mission to impose this mentality on the rest of the nation.

To the Far Right, Lakoff explains, government should exist as a vehicle for preserving and serving their values (e.g., self reliance; strict discipline; the accumulation of unbridled wealth and power; obedience; punishment as a means of controlling behavior; the literal word of the Bible; premarital chastity); their self interest (tight control over schools, particularly in the area of values or "character" education; public financing of sectarian schools; deregulation of big business; concentrated governmental power and one-way, top down communication from government officials; control over sex and reproduction); and their world view (welfare and entitlement programs are immoral, because they sap self reliance; power should belong to the wealthy, because they have earned it; the environment belongs to human beings who may use it as they see fit as a means of increasing their prosperity; gays and lesbians threaten the established order of the patriarchy and must receive no "special" rights; "Christian" values should provide the core values of government; the U.S. has the moral authority to act as it wishes in the larger world; God trumps science).


The remarkable success of the Far Right in winning the debate in this country over major social, moral, economic, religious, and even scientific issues of our times is due, Lakoff contends, to its uncanny ability to control the language of the debate. "It has long been a right wing strategy," he writes, "to repeat over and over phrases that evoke their frames and define issues their way. Such repetition makes their language normal, everyday language and their frames normal, everyday ways to think about issues." (2)

Who among us in the field has not marveled, while at the same time bristled with disgust and anger, at the way the Far Right has co-opted the language used to talk about our issues. Let's start with "pro-life" and "culture of life," terms that relegate those who favor the availability of safe, legal abortion to being, what, pro-death? How about "partial birth abortion," a concocted term (which most Americans probably think is the actual scientific term) for a rarely used procedure that was designed specifically to connect abortion, all abortions, to a horrific mental frame. Or, phrases like "the gay agenda," meant to evoke images of sick "homosexual pedophiles" hiding behind "fake" concerns for school safety issues so they can get into our schools and "recruit" our children.

The pro-abstinence-only lobby devises increasingly polarizing and demonizing language to describe anyone--including not only sexuality educators but also nationally respected researchers, physicians, and medical organizations--who rejects its approach, whether on the basis of available scientific evidence, clear developmental need, and/or genuine concern for public health. Typical are the cunning and pejorative terms used to describe sexuality educators such as "condom pushers" (note the drug pusher connotation) and "promiscuity promoters." This language is clearly intended to imply that if you're not for abstinence-only-until-marriage, then, quite logically, you favor immorality and telling children that absolutely anything goes.

We must be attentive as well to the more subtle forms of linguistic manipulation being used. I once attended a workshop given by one of the Far Right's gurus of the "character education" movement. At the beginning of his talk he listed many of the problems that plague young people in today's society. One of the given examples was "premature sexual behavior." By the end of the day, however, through a subtle but steady shift in his use of language, the phrase premature sexual behavior had been replaced with the phrase premarital sexual behavior, and the word "chastity" had found its way onto a list of "core" human values. I looked around in horror to see the nodding heads of the very eclectic group of smart, open-minded educators--teachers both in secular and non-evangelical parochial settings--in the room. Not one had detected the frame shift.

Preventing teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and eliminating premarital sexual behavior are two separate (though in some ways indirectly related) goals or end points. While both are legitimate endeavors depending on the setting and context, they derive from a very different set of motivations and values, and they require two wholly different strategy sets. Nonetheless, the Religious Right has played a calculated and very effective shell game with the American public by successfully merging two vastly different concepts or frames--abstinence, one of many behavioral choices that can serve to enhance sexual health, and chastity, a state of being in the service of religious, spiritual, or moral purity.


What Lakoff has to say about what has happened in our country is frightening and distressing, yet his core message is one of hope and strength. He reminds us that the core values of progressives are the true American values: nurture and compassion; taking care of the less fortunate; freedom and liberty; equal opportunity and prosperity for all; fairness and equity; honesty; trust; open, two-way communication; cooperation; community building; diversity and shared political power; governance that favors core ethical principles over the personal values of powerful individuals.

The problem is that progressives suffer massively from what he calls "hypocognition," or the inability to frame clearly and strategically their messages in terms of the specific values they, and most other Americans, hold dear. (I have wondered for decades, for example, where on the political spectrum the nation might be today on the issue of legalized abortion had we in the field from the very beginning defined and explained ourselves as Pro Conscience--which is really the point--rather than Pro Choice.) What we must do now--and can do--is work collectively to develop the skills we need to craft artful, accurate, and resonant "sexuality frames." And, we can learn to do so without sacrificing our integrity, as the Far Right has done to itself by crafting their frames purely for political gain and thereby deliberately deceiving and manipulating the American public.

The First Step: Stop Using their Frames

We, too, in the sexuality field often suffer from "hypocognition." While admittedly lacking the funds, organization, and political clout to stand toe to toe with the "organized opposition" (I prefer to call them the "organized imposition"), we have seriously undermined our own work by failing to uniformly and assertively frame the sexuality debate in our own terms.

For example, a vital yet rarely acknowledged--even by sexuality educators--concern about the national focus on abstinence-only education is how it informs and reinforces a narrow, genitally based understanding, or frame, of human sexuality and, therefore, sexuality education. Human sexuality as a construct and sexuality education as a discipline are infinitely more complex than issues concerning genital behavior. The notion of sexuality as a fundamental component of identity and human life--deserving of ongoing, comprehensive, and sophisticated educational programming--has been near-totally dwarfed by the push for abstinence-only education over the past two decades. This reductionistic frame has only further handicapped an already miseducated general public.

Equally, if not more alarming, has been the direct, negative impact on the sexuality field itself. Even in our own professional literature, sexuality curricula are most commonly categorized by us either as comprehensive (i.e., containing information about abstinence and contraception) or abstinence-only, thereby giving the narrowest possible meaning to the word comprehensive. In fact, and we should know better, neither of these approaches constitutes sexuality education at all, but rather much more limited "sex" (or "no-sex") education.

Ironically, by falling into the trap of defining ourselves and our goals around the rhetoric of the pro-abstinence-only lobby, we have in effect lent it major credibility. And, by default, we've also abdicated our role as a field in actively educating the public about the vast differences between "sex" and "sexuality" education--this to our children's great detriment. Until individuals, families, and communities truly understand the totality of human sexuality, adults will not be able to appreciate and support children's healthy sexual development in the full and real meaning of the term.

It's More Complicated than We Think

While Lakoff's progressive and conservative "frames" provide a wonderful lens for helping us to understand and deal more effectively with the organized imposition (Gotcha. I just reinforced a new frame!), we may have even bigger linguistic challenges in defining ourselves as a profession.

As we are very aware, for generations, a majority of families and schools have neglected and/or abdicated their roles as the primary sexuality educators in children's lives. The enduring effects of this educational vacuum are cumulative, if not synergistic, across generations: We are a nation of adults who by and large do not know how to converse or even think about the subject of sexuality in the mature and sophisticated ways we have learned to think and converse about other complex topics. Most adults, even today, were denied opportunities--just as their parents and their parents before them--to engage in the kinds of ongoing, age-appropriate spiral of learning and dialogue that create the foundation for clear rational thought and able communication. In short, a case can be made that around issues of sexuality, the United States, almost as an entire nation, is developmentally and learning disabled.

These individual and broad cultural deficits mean that the general public is tragically vulnerable to the fear-mongering, reductionistic logic, and politically clever rhetoric offered up by the Religious Right. Truth be told, however, the human sexuality field has itself inadvertently contributed to this vulnerability by not recognizing and addressing it directly, or helping the public become better informed and able to "deconstruct" the Far Right's simplistic logic.

Said another way, helping the public understand the true purpose and nature of human sexuality education is not simply a matter of its advocates speaking out boldly and articulately. Discomfort, misperceptions, and misplaced anxieties regarding sex and sexual education--some so deep-rooted they have remained unchallenged throughout literally centuries of history--pervade U.S. culture. The construct "sex education" itself evokes a number of powerful and deeply embedded frames--many of which are contrary to the foundational principles of human sexuality education. To allow for the possibility and acceptance of a more comprehensive and holistic model, the public will need opportunities to identify and reconsider these historically embedded "sex education" frames.

In my experience, working in the field since 1971, the staying power of these traditional frames, over time and across broad socioeconomic, ethnic, and geographic boundaries, is remarkable. Some of the most common, most influential, and most deeply embedded include:

* Sexuality refers only to those things in life having to do with "sex" and reproduction.

* The word "sex" is a synonym for heterosexual "sexual intercourse."

* "Sexuality education," "sex education," and "intercourse education" are equivalent concepts (though "sexuality education" is sometimes understood as including the developmental, social, emotional, relational, and moral issues connected to "sex," and/or issues related to sexual orientation).

* Sexual education is primarily a one-way, adult-to-child teaching process that adults can and should control. As a practical matter, then, either schools or families can complete this task. (While some parents charge that their parental roles are usurped by programs in schools, others are relieved that the school is "doing it;" the embedded frame in each instance carries the assumption that the roles of families and schools constitute an either/or proposition, rather than a both/and partnership.)

* Knowledge about sex is inherently powerful, perhaps even inherently dangerous; knowing "too much information too soon" may be especially harmful. Therefore, there is a right time, right age, right person, and/or right way to deliver sexuality information, and the pace, content, and context in which this information is given should be carefully controlled by select adults.

* Learning about sex at the wrong time or in the wrong way may lead directly to "having sex." Giving certain facts, especially, such as information about pregnancy or disease prevention, is tantamount to "giving permission" to "have sex." Moreover, talking about topics like contraception sends a hopelessly mixed message: "We don't want you to have intercourse, but if you do, use protection."

* Showing adequate respect for deeply held religious, personal, or family values requires that schools refrain from teaching any topics, ideas, or values which may be offensive to individual parents or groups of parents.

These ways of understanding or framing sexuality education are obviously in stark contrast to the characteristics of truly comprehensive sexuality education. It's evident as well, and by no means an accident, that the rhetoric of the "abstinence-only" movement aligns closely with most of these frames. As Lakoff argues so convincingly, the Far Right excels at framing issues in ways that resonate with the ordinary beliefs of ordinary people.

Human sexuality professionals, then, are faced with a triple challenge: highlighting and discrediting a number of widely held, historically embedded frames regarding the sexual learning process; articulating accurate, understandable, and convincing alternative frames; and skillfully contrasting these alternative frames with those of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach.


While certainly not all American-born adults have internalized all of these embedded frames, or to the same extent, very few hold to none of them. In my experience, the first three examples--which frame sex, sexuality, and sexuality education in such narrow and literal terms--are the most universally held and the most intellectually disabling of all, given that they essentially preclude the public's ability to grasp the nature of a truly comprehensive approach.

It is vital that sexuality educators everywhere learn how to recognize, highlight, and deliberately reframe these historically embedded ideas in their encounters with the public as often as possible. Otherwise, no matter how articulately we learn to speak about who we are and what we do, we cannot and will not be heard by many, many people--who might otherwise be our staunchest supporters if only they understood. In neurolinguistic terms, our frames simply won't make sense to them because their already deeply embedded historical frames will prohibit it.

In this section, I am going to look at four existing frames that interfere with efforts to implement comprehensive sexuality education and suggest several ways that we can start the process of reframing these issues.

The Equation of Sex with Intercourse

Even today, several years post the Clinton/Lewinsky debacle, whenever Americans hear, read, write, or say the word "sex," it is almost universally taken to mean "sexual intercourse." This linguistic equation of sexual behavior with vaginal intercourse is hugely problematic in a variety of ways:

* It embodies the heterosexist assumption that all people are, or should be, heterosexual.

* As a point of basic logic, it confuses a category of behavior, i.e., sexual activity, with an example within the category, i.e., vaginal intercourse. (That way of thinking is like confusing a whole produce department with the carrot section.) Therefore, it precludes a complete and complex understanding of the breadth of possibilities open to people as sexual beings. (Suppose people always brought carrots to a potluck dinner when they were asked to bring "a vegetable.")

* It implies that the only "real" form of sexual behavior is vaginal intercourse, giving the impression, especially to youth, that other forms of sexual behavior really "don't count," i.e., they do not require serious thought, relationships, or sense of responsibility.

* It reduces the nature of sexual activity to the juxtaposition of (two particular) body parts, thereby reinforcing the mechanistic idea that "having sex" is about people rubbing their bodies together, rather than bringing their whole selves to an intimate sharing with another person. It also encourages a "goal oriented" approach to love making, a mind set that often becomes a set up for diminishing emotional intimacy and long range sexual satisfaction.

* It encourages a narrow penetrative and procreative view of sexual behavior, which may reinforce an outdated, patriarchal model for understanding and shaping relationships.

* It has worked to sabotage effective HIV/STD education. Since adults typically mean and imply intercourse when they say things like "sex can spread disease," youth often identify oral sex and anal sex as "safe sex" and even "abstinent" behaviors.

* It implies for those whose bodies are not capable of intercourse due to physical incapacity that their "sex life" is over. Again, were people to think of physical "sex" as any behavior leading to, or intending to lead to, erotic arousal--a definition not dependent on any particular body parts or functions--such tragic conclusions could be avoided.

If ever there were an example of the power of "framing" to profoundly impact beliefs and behaviors, the equation of sex with intercourse would be it. And yet, even sexuality educators do not universally define nor consistently use the word sex in ways that communicate a comprehensive meaning, and thereby inadvertently reinforce limiting and even disabling patterns of thought and speech.

If all people, beginning with all people in the field, were to insist on proactively defining "sex" in broad, humanistic ways, on using the word "intercourse" rather than the word sex when that is what they mean to communicate, and on encouraging others to do the same whenever sexual behavior is being discussed, the impact would indeed be profound and in many instances, life altering.

Sexual Learning as a One-Way Verbal Process Controlled by Adults

The common notion of sexual learning, as a one-way communication process in which adults pass on sexual knowledge in the times and ways of their choosing fits, of course, neither the way children naturally grow and develop as sexual and gendered beings nor the reality of today's sexually provocative culture.

Too often, as we well know, children's honestly expressed needs and interests are ignored or suppressed by what adults decide--based on irrational fears and scientifically refuted myths about sexual knowledge--young people should know and not know. Tragically, these kinds of decisions virtually guarantee that someone other than the immediate adults in children's lives will become their primary educators.

We need to reframe this issue to explain that children and the immediate adults in their lives are best thought of as partners in ongoing give and take conversations, to which children bring their unique, developmentally based timetable of questions and concerns, and adults bring their knowledge, caring, guidance, values, and adult perspective.

Confusion of Personal Values with Universal Values

Americans often have difficulty thinking and articulating clearly about "values" in general, and most certainly about sexual values. In debates over values, individuals frequently do not sufficiently differentiate deeply held, but idiosyncratic "personal values" (often religiously based but certainly not always) from those moral values that are nearly universally defined and shared. These abstract values--including honesty, equity, responsibility, respect, human dignity, caring, compassion, etc.--form the basis of ethical decision-making and behavior. (If you look closely, they also happen to be core progressive values.)

Unless these two distinct types of values are clearly delineated, the process of reaching a comfortable agreement around the unique and proper roles for families and schools in regard to values education--particularly within public and non-sectarian private school settings--becomes muddied and, frequently, extremely contentious.

It is certainly the family's rightful role to promote and reinforce its unique constellation of personal, faith-based, and other cherished values. The school's responsibility, on the other hand, is to demonstrate respectfulness in word and action toward the diverse personal, family, and faith-based values represented inevitably within any school community, but not to the point of deference to any particular one. Individual parents who insist that their particular point of view become the point of view need to be educated about the basis on which schools can and cannot reach curricular decisions.

In my experience, consensus often becomes possible when schools and families come to the mutual understanding that while their roles in clarifying and reinforcing core ethical values overlap in significant ways, their roles in the domain of personal and family values differ.

Either/Or Roles for Families and Schools

Understanding and framing sexuality education broadly also changes the perception of who participates in it, and where and when it unfolds. When defined solely as the giving of information and/or guidance, there is only one adult role to consider: who will do the giving and when. The only discussion--and in the United States, often the argument--is over who best to fulfill that role, families or schools, and precisely when it should happen. However, when its course is understood within a broad developmental framework, the "when" and the "who," in many respects, become moot concerns. And the real question emerges: Since all significant adults in children's lives, especially parents and teachers, have important roles in promoting healthy sexual development, what are the most logical and appropriate roles for each, and how can they best work together to lend each other ongoing support and reinforcement?

Many communities continue to have difficulty sorting out the answers to this question, and, sadly, families and schools too often end up feeling at odds with one another or understanding their job as having to make up for perceived gaps and deficiencies created by the other. By reframing the process as everyone's job, the focuses rightly become the unique characteristics of families and schools as institutions and the most appropriate roles and responsibilities for each.

Families, on the one hand, are small and homogeneous and ideally provide intimacy, security, and consistency. They are, or certainly should be, the ever-present safety net in a child's life, always available for support, guidance, and backup. Families, obviously, also provide parents or parental figures, who offer constant role-modeling and ongoing attention and know the child and his or her unique needs better than anyone else in the world. They also have access to countless teachable moments, in which informal learning can take place.

Parents also have the critical role, which they alone can assume, of making clear to their children their own particular set of values and beliefs about sexuality. This information is crucial to children as they become aware of alternative values and value systems and try to sort out the vastly conflicting ideas to which they are exposed in this highly pluralistic society. Later, as children struggle in adolescence to separate their own from their parents' values, knowing clearly what their parents think and value is central and crucial to the process.

Schools, on the other hand, are large and diverse and provide endless opportunities to confront a bigger, more heterogeneous, and less personal world. They are a microcosm of the larger society and an important intermediary in preparing children for their future. Schools have teachers, who are trained to do the formal instruction in a child's life and who have access to curricula and other important education resources. Also, as communities of caring, competent adults with an ongoing presence in the child's world, schools can provide an additional support system, with the advantage of having somewhat greater emotional distance than do parents.

Finally, schools, unlike families, have groups of students, who can be engaged, through skilled teaching, in constructive conversation with one another about critically relevant developmental issues. As only peers can, they provide for one another an accurate mirror of their own hidden feelings, experiences, and reactions. Extraordinary opportunities for feedback, validation, and normalization can result.

Cleary, schools and families have complementary but unique and non-interchangeable roles; as a practical matter neither can act as a substitute or replacement for the other. With the process reframed--as a "both/and" proposition rather than an "either/or" dichotomy--families and schools are freed to work supportively and creatively together.


As Lakoff explains, the title of his book is intentionally provocative. He uses it to point out that when we see an elephant, our neuron-embedded "elephant frames" are activated, and we are unable to think of the elephant in any other way. That works very well, of course, when what we're looking at is actually an elephant. But, when it's not, we have to undergo a re-framing process, or we won't be able to make real sense of what we're looking at.

A couple of years ago, I had an experience that pleased me immensely. I was being introduced on one of the TV morning shows, where I was to speak about the sexualization of even young children in our culture by advertisers and merchandisers. To my surprise, the interviewer--who certainly knew my work credentials and background--described me not as a sexuality educator, but as a "child advocate."

Yes! That's who we are, I thought. If I'd read Lakoff by then, I would also have thought, now that's the embedded frame I wish would immediately come to mind when all Americans hear the words, "sexuality educator."

We live and work in a society where what sexuality educators do, how we do it, and why we do it feels at least vaguely nervous-making to average Americans, because of their unconscious, inaccurate, and deeply embedded historical frames. At the same time, we are up against a powerful and shameless lobby, fiercely determined to frame who we are and what we do as fundamentally dangerous to the very groups we hope to serve.

Our best hope may lie in the power and magic of framing our message. After all, we are educators. Words are what we do for a living.

As for me, I now frame myself as a child advocate and part-time neurolinguist.


(1.) In fact, I firmly believe, the sexuality field is exactly where the Far Right originally cut its eye teeth: Having successfully used the tactics of fear-mongering, distortion, name-calling, false polarization, and demonization against a field made especially vulnerable by the general public's ignorance and anxiety about the subject matter, they now brazenly apply these same disingenuous strategies across the board, from issues like "Intelligent Design" to the "War on Terror." Had a few brave school boards and superintendents stood up firmly against these tactics in the 1960s, I doubt the Far Right would hold near the power and influence it has amassed today.

(2.) Lakoff, p. 50.


George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.)

Deborah Roffman, Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex (Boston: Perseus Publishing, 2001.)

Deborah M. Roffman, MS, CSE, CFLE

Sexuality Educator and Consultant

Baltimore, MD
COPYRIGHT 2005 Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., Inc.
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Title Annotation:George Lakoff, "Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate"
Author:Roffman, Deborah M.
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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