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Tales from the True History of Sex Education in New Jersey

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The day after New Year's, I got a call from Susan Wilson, a former member of New Jersey's state board of education and former executive director of the Family Life Education Network (now called Answer) based at Rutgers, my alma mater.

While I wrote The Sex Ed Chronicles as a work of historical fiction, Susan Wilson made the true history of sex education in the Garden State; she has helped shape public policy and programs for sex education for 30 years. The day after we spoke, I received a Rutgers publication, The Struggle for Sex Education in New Jersey, 1979-2003: Policy, Persistence and Progress, as well as the two most recent issues of Sex, etc., a teen-focused magazine. Susan told me that she wanted to read my book — it was only right that I read this material as soon as I received it.

Sex education enjoyed popular public support in New Jersey. A September 1980 Rutgers Eagleton Poll found that 78 percent of respondents thought that sex education should be taught in junior and senior high schools — and, most important, the proposed legislation had the backing of the New Jersey Catholic Conference. The Catholic bishops agreed to support the legislation, provided parents and religious leaders would be full partners with the schools in local sex education programs.



However, the state teacher’s union and school boards association opposed parental involvement in sex education at the school district level, as well as the idea of an unfunded mandate. They, along with concerned parents and right-to-life groups, succeeded in delaying full-implementation of sex education programs in all school districts until 1983. The most important organization involved with implementation was the Network for Family Life Education. Susan Wilson was the Network’s second executive director; she ran it for 23 years.

Starting with only in-kind office space and no money, the Network for Family Life Education successfully raised funds to assist school districts with implementation from numerous sources. These included a 1,200-member speaker’s bureau and a partnership with the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund for posters and $1 million in free billboard space.

The Network also played a major role in defeating ''stress abstinence'' legislation for 22 years. While the 1980 legislation was reauthorized twice, in 1985 and 1990, bills to ''stress abstinence'' fell to opposition in the state senate in 1989 and to the governor’s veto in 1993. By 1993, the state’s school board and teacher’s union had joined with the Network to oppose ''stress abstinence'' while the Catholic Conference had gone on the record in favor of it.

However, a ''stress abstinence'' policy passed the legislature and was signed into law in 2003, an election year for the state assembly. There was a footnote in the material Susan Wilson passed on to me that might explain why ''stress abstinence'' became law. The note highlighted the fact that formerly moderate New Jersey Republicans had shifted to the right in order to head off challenges from conservative opponents in their primaries. This included votes for a ''stress abstinence'' policy.

While ''stress abstinence'' is currently the law in New Jersey, the state’s department of health and education recommended that certain aspects of sex education be shifted to lower grades. They recommended, for example, that puberty be discussed in the fourth grade instead of the sixth, that abstinence and sexual feelings be taught in the sixth grade instead of the eighth, and that sexual orientation be covered in the eighth grade instead of the 12th.

More impressive than these policy changes is the growth of Sex, etc. as a resource; circulation of the magazine reached 2.2 million by 2003, and there’s been web-based content at sexetc.org for ten years. The print and online content is written by teens for teens, though professionals handle the tougher questions.

Most interesting of all, the content is balanced; not every writer made the same choices in their sexual relations. The content disputes conservative thought that comprehensive sex education is a ''liberal'' issue; everyone received complete, medically accurate information to make his or her own decisions, including abstinence.

It’s not impossible, after reading an issue of Sex, etc., to believe that teens could learn as much as they want about sex and then elect to abstain. That’s their choice. I only wish that the New Jersey legislature agreed.

It’s possible that ''stress abstinence'' could be overturned in New Jersey at some point, as Democrats control majorities in the state assembly and senate, and occupy the governor’s office. In 2006, Governor Jon Corzine turned down federal funds for abstinence-only education. He was one of the first governors to do so.

However, while there may be enough support for repeal, this may not be the right time. New Jersey faces a $3 billion deficit, and the governor has proposed an ambitious but politically unpopular recovery plan: to boost highway tolls every five years. I doubt the governor would want to take on additional political headaches from conservative opposition, so I would expect ''stress abstinence'' to stay on the books for at least another year.

New Jersey is often a butt of jokes about corruption and pollution, but the Garden State has some of the most progressive sex education policies in the country.

For that, we have to thank Susan Wilson and the Network for Family Life Education.

About the Author

Stuart Nachbar operates EducatedQuest.com, a blog on education politics, policy, and technology. He has been involved with education politics, policy, and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as a writer. His first novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, about sex education and school politics in 1980 New Jersey, earned a coveted ''Publisher’s Choice'' selection from iUniverse.
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