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The everyday challenges of teaching sexuality education.

My first death threat came in 1982 after appearing on CBS Sunday), Morning in a segment describing the human sexuality, class I taught as non-controversial. More threats came in 1992 when I joined Peter Jennings on a panel of experts for a TV special called Growing Up in the Age of AIDS.

After one local newspaper interviewed me about sexuality education, l received a postcard at home addressed to "Lesbian Slut Sinner Martha Roper." My then 13-year-old son sorted the mail and handed me the card:"Mom, I think this one is for you." I called the police.

These and other events I had used to promote comprehensive sexuality, education helped me realize that by virtue of my profession, 1 was no longer an ordinary citizen. The FBI taught me how to detect a letter bomb twenty years ago, and I became as careful then as most people are today.


This school year is my 30th as a public high school teacher, and I am still teaching health education as a required semester-long course to sophomores. My school district's policies and programs support comprehensive health education. Yet a few years ago, after an 18-month battle with a citizen and her evangelical church pastor, the district was left with scars and bitter memories of winning the war but getting wounded in battle. My program was the subject of 45 letters to the editor focusing on me and the district.

The then-superintendent told me I was the scariest person south of Interstate 64, and my principal told me to stick to the textbook--i.e. no sexuality education. It took several years for my program to recover.

Today, I teach with a clear memory of the worst moments of the past and with a watchful eye to the future. While most people would never consider harming me or my family because 1 teach sexuality education, there are people who cross the line of propriety every day, either through ignorance or as a willful act of intimidation. And while there are no large battles looming, I continue to face smaller ones everyday.

EVERYDAY CONTROVERSIES The controversies around sexuality education in my Midwest world involve my own students, their parents, my colleagues, and a few citizens in my town. The few specific events I list here which have occurred in the last couple of school years are just a sampling of controversies that frequently pop up. Some of the events or comments are common, some are odd at all sorts of levels. Together, they give a good idea of the issues that arise and the deft touch they require.


* I walked into a colleague's classroom right before the bell rang, and a student blurted out: "Oh, you're the sex pervert!"

* After explaining how sexual behavior can increase an adolescent's risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, a girl asked why I was talking about sex.

* After finding out that I was a sponsor of our high school's new Gay Straight Alliance, a student asked why 1 was promoting gay sex.


At a parent conference, a couple sat before me--their first question was: "Do you promote homosexuality?" One parent called to say that her son didn't need to know about homosexuality because he was going to West Point.


* During a district-wide meeting of health teachers, a colleague accused me of being "over the edge" regarding sexuality education.

* While the Board of Education had hoped to include condom demonstrations as part of the unit on sexually transmitted disease prevention, health teachers generally agreed that they did not want to do so. They did agree to show a two minute district-created video on how to use a condom, but few teachers actually use it.


I was at the local public library earlier this year, and a woman came up to the table where I was sitting alone reading:

"Are you Martha Roper, the health teacher at the high school?"

"I am."

"Have you read harmful to Minor's by that Jew from New York?"

"The author's name is Judith Levine, and, yes, I have read it," I replied.

"Well, she's a child molester."

"Judith Levine is NOT a child molester nor is she promoting adult-child sex."

"Well, I just came over here to tell you that she called you a criminal in her book, and I agree with her about that."

"Well, you're right that she did call sexuality' education teachers criminals, but..."

She cut me off. "You ARE a criminal for teaching what you teach!" And with that final remark she turned on her heels and stomped out of the building.


The right to medically accurate reformation about sexuality is mandated by Missouri law. This year our high school paper wrote a story about sexuality education and accused the other health teachers of not teaching about sexuality at all. With all the controversies 1 face daily, it's no wonder most teachers don't want to. Still, over the years I have received support from administrators.

To prepare for a sexuality course 1 was planning for teachers this spring, I asked the superintendent if I could survey the district-wide faculty about classroom situations that teachers need help managing. He said no to the process. However, he did show his commitment to sexuality education by at inning that sex, sexuality, and diverse populations are important topics, that he has data to prove that many of our children do not feel safe at school because of other students and staff and that our school district is addressing the issue

In fact, I think that having to cope with controversies has helped to change his mind about sexuality education Recently, he criticized the textbook that the majority of health teachers voted for "Where's the sex ed?" he asked the health coordinator (I am sad to say that he has taken a new job on the East Coast.)


In spite of these conflicts, I choose to continue teaching health and sexuality education from a sex-positive, life-affirming perspective. I choose to continue to give voice to researched-based effective sexuality education because l am committed to giving young people medically accurate information

I also continue to claim victory as part of a nationwide coalition of health and sexuality educators for the generation of achievement we have seen in the lowering of the rates of sexual intercourse, pregnancy, birth, and abortion among adolescents in the United States

Yes, there is still work to do, but l am heartened by our successes, and 1 am unwilling to back down from controversy just because it is uncomfortable It's too important to let our fears stand in our way


This fall. SIECUS will release On The Right Track, a guide for youth serving organizations. It is designed to help youth development professionals recognize the need to address sexuality with young people, understand how sexuality education and youth development can complement each other, and determine ways in which youth development programs can begin to incorporate this important topic.

The publication is designed to accompany SIECUS' Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, K-12, a framework for creating sexuality education programs, curricula, and materials. It includes numerous ways in which the Guidelines can help youth development professionals choose topics, select lessons, and determine age-appropriate messages.

In addition, the publication includes examples of organizations across the country that are successfully weaving youth development and sexuality education into innovative programs and activities.

Martna Roper

Public High School Health Teacher

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Author:Roper, Martha
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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