A metaphor for Thanksgiving at a Sex Ed Conference

cross-posted from 
with permission from Susie Wilson.


This Thanksgiving I am focusing my gratitude on the recent two-day Sex Ed Conference organized by the Center for Family Life Education (CFLE), the education arm of Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. The CFLE has been a leader in the field of sexuality education for 30 years.

The organization provides sexuality education classes on a wide range of topics throughout northern New Jersey, and publishes sexuality education curricula that are used throughout the United States and worldwide.

Close to 300 people attended the conference, half from New Jersey and half from 25 other states, according to Bill Taverner, the executive director of the CFLE and founder and editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Sex Education. “One person came all the way from Sweden,” he told me.

Participants were school teachers, community educators, sex therapists, college professors, social workers, and other professionals from community-based organizations.

The conference had three keynote addresses. (Since it’s almost Thanksgiving, think turkey, duck, and goose.) The opening keynote, “The Conversations We Are NOT Having with Our Teens and Preteens,” was delivered by Dr. Paul Joannides, a research psychoanalyst who explained that “in the era of abstinence-only, we often feel victorious if we can talk about periods and condoms in elementary and middle-school classes and not much more in high school classes.”

Dr. Joannides painted a clear picture of the conversations about sexuality that students from eleven years of age to high school actually need from educators, as opposed to “the conversations we are often forced to give.” His book, The Guide to Getting It On, is assigned in college sex-ed courses across the country.

The second keynote, “New Technologies, New Opportunities!: Technology as an Ally in Sex Ed,” was delivered by Bill Taverner, who feels that the Internet and other technologies can be both a source of instant information and trepidation for many parents, teachers, and other adults who want to protect children from harm. But these new technologies give creative sexuality educators new opportunities to meet young people where they are.

Leslie Walker-Hirsch’s keynote was titled, “The Facts of Life…and More: Meaningful Sexuality Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities.” A social development and sexuality consultant from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Walker-Hirsch is the co-creator of the widely used CIRCLES curriculum.

“So often the sexuality education needs of people with intellectual disabilities never become known to mainstream health educators,” she told the audience. “The greatest challenge is in how this important information is communicated to these two different populations.”

Moving on from the main dishes (keynotes) to the trimmings, the conference attendees had a choice of 34 side dishes (workshops) to fill their plates. Selected through competitive peer review, the workshops seemed inviting, nourishing, and potentially delicious. To give you a taste of the trimmings, I list the following seven:

  • Don’t Forget About the Good Stuff: Incorporating Positive Messages about Sexual Pleasure into Sexuality Education,
  • If You Can’t Beat ’em, Tweet ’em: Teens, Sex, and Technology,
  • Say What?!?: LGBTQQIAA Terminology & Inclusive Language,
  • Sexting: Technology Use and Abuse,
  • Developing a Grab Bag of Strategies and Resources for Students with Differing Abilities,
  • Pills, Patches, and Rings, Oh, My!: A Look at Today’s Contraceptive Options, and
  • Healthy Teen Relationships: It’s Not Puppy Love.

As with the Thanksgiving meal, a guest at the table never thinks he or she has any room for dessert. So it is with conference attendees, who begin to feel surfeited after clearing their full plates. But as family and friends at the Thanksgiving table always find room when the pumpkin and apple pie appear, conference attendees are always able to enjoy a conference’s grand finale.

In the case of the Sex Ed Conference, dessert was the presentation of the Golden Brick Award, which is named for Peggy Brick, who is a former longtime sex educator at the Dwight Morrow High School, in Englewood, NJ, well-known curriculum writer, and former director of the CFLE. The award honors New Jersey sexuality educators whose impact has been felt nationally and internationally.

This is the sixth year the award has been given. (Brick, who is now president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University, received it first.)

The 2010 recipient was Dr. Eva Goldfarb of Montclair, NJ, a professor in the department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Montclair State University who has worked in the sexuality education field since 1990. Dr. Goldfarb has taught courses, conducted workshops and seminars, developed curricula, authored sexuality education articles and essays, and presented at conferences worldwide. She is a much loved and highly respected person.

Dr. Goldfarb, surrounded by family and friends spoke about the work in sex ed that she has done not about preventing sex, or even preventing unwanted outcomes of sex. She always saw “the purpose of sex ed as producing sexually healthy adults.”

Like all good meals, all good conferences have to end. But not without expressing thanks for the hard work and imagination of those who lovingly prepared and cooked the food, or the conference. Among the many words of praise that appeared in the evaluations, this one appealed the most: “One of the things I really liked about the conference was how well timed it was and how naturally it flowed. The pace wasn’t at all frenetic, but neither did you feel any time was being wasted. There was ample time to network outside of the workshops and presentations, and the programmed time was filled with wonderful options — a true feast of ideas.”

Many sing an old hymn at Thanksgiving religious services that begins with the words, “We gather together.” That is what the nearly 300 people did at the Sex Ed Conference last week.

Joining together for a common purpose, enjoying fellowship, and expressing gratitude for good work are the essential elements of a successful conference. They are also the essential ingredients of our national celebration of Thanksgiving.

Susie Wilson, former executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University’s Center for Applied and Professional Psychology (now renamed Answer), is a national leader in the fight for effective sexuality and HIV/AIDS education and for prevention of adolescent pregnancy. She can be reached at susie.wilson@comcast.net