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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Talking About the Presidential Scandal in the Classroom

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Talking About the Presidential Scandal in the Classroom

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When it comes to discussing sexual behavior and values, Clinton, Lewinsky, Starr, and the rest have handed educators the greatest teachable moment in recent memory.

In the midst of a presidential sex scandal and the release of the 453-page report from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr to Congress and the public, millions of children and adolescents are now back at school. How should educators handle the story? Recent back-to-school media reports indicate that many are planning a duck-and-cover strategy, running from the subject at breakneck speed and hiding behind such bromides as "kids are too young to discuss this," "kids will be embarrassed," "kids will giggle," "it's too controversial," "parents won't want their children to come home and ask questions," "this is a topic that only parents should discuss with their children," "it's a personal matter between the president and his family," and "it's better to stick with the constitutional issues and avoid the sexual ones."

But educators can't get off that easily. This school year, the S-word will be all around us. After months of speculation, denial, and leaks from the grand jury, we finally had the president's terse admission of an "inappropriate" relationship with a White House intern; then we had delivery two weeks ago of Mr. Starr's report to Congress, displayed on the Internet complete with its 500 references to "sex," and the media's dissection of every salacious, sordid detail.

Any adult who is even remotely in tune with children and adolescents must be aware that they are already talking about the scandal--sharing words, whispering, giggling, expressing their opinions, and repeating jokes and comments they have heard at the dining room table, on television, or on the Internet. Will educators leave children to sort this one out on their own? Or will they seize this opportunity to do what they were trained to do--educate?

If they stop running and ducking for a moment and think, educators will realize that, when it comes to discussing sexual behavior and values, President Clinton, Monica S. Lewinsky, Mr. Starr, and the rest have handed them the greatest teachable moment in recent memory. If it is handled forthrightly and openly, everyone in the school community can actually benefit from the scandal. Instead of shrinking from it, educators should help children in elementary, middle, and high schools bring discussion of the scandal in from the playground to the classroom where educators can offer them a safe place to ask questions and get accurate, age-appropriate answers; sort out their values; and develop important critical-thinking and communication skills that will enable them to lead healthier, happier sexual lives in the future. If educators are unable or unwilling to open the door to such discussion, then the sex scandal--and, perhaps, sexuality itself--will remain, for many young people, a series of jumbled words, furtive talk, dirty jokes, and confusing messages.

Children of all ages, but young children especially, may have concrete sexual questions related to the story. Picture a teacher encountering a group of giggling, early elementary school students and discovering that the cause of their giggling was a comment related to the presidential scandal. As a way of creating an environment where children feel comfortable asking questions, a sensible teacher might try to find out what the students already know about the matter. "What have you heard about that?" she might ask. Some might respond, "We know the president had sex with Monica Lewinsky." The teacher could acknowledge that they were right and perhaps add that the president said his behavior was wrong and that most people think his behavior was wrong, too. The teacher might then ask the children whether they think the president's behavior was wrong--and why. Discussion could center around lying, how being lied to makes people feel, and how lying can get people, including a president, into huge trouble.

A teacher who creates an open environment will encounter, and should be prepared to answer openly and honestly, all sorts of sexual questions: What is semen? (A whitish fluid produced in males, beginning when they are teens, that contains sperm.) What is sperm? (Sperm are male sex cells.) How does semen get on a dress? (It spurts out of the penis.) What is oral sex? (It's a pleasurable activity that can be part of having sex or making love.) Teachers can use such factual questions as a jumping-off point for delivering important messages about sexual values: Sperm can cause a pregnancy. It's very important not to cause a pregnancy accidentally. Sex is for adults. Children are not ready for sex. Teachers need to know that, when answering young children's questions, less is better than more. Kids are usually satisfied with short, quick answers. The most important lesson teachers can convey to young children when it comes to the scandal is that adults are willing to talk to them about sex--a lesson that may prove invaluable later when those children are teens and ready to ask such questions as "How do I know when I'm ready to have sex?"

Teachers need to know that, when answering young children's questions, less is better than more.

Middle school students are likely to be more interested in the scandal, more sophisticated in their understanding of it, and more inclined to try out what it means to be an adult by using sexual slang and repeating comments--both serious and humorous--they've heard adults make. They also are likely to have more sources of sexual information and misinformation--peers, older siblings, TV.

In addition to helping preteen students sort out the facts about sex, teachers should not shrink from discussing the nonbiological aspects of the story with them. Middle school students are not too young to begin considering such questions as: What are the responsibilities of marriage? What makes a healthy relationship? What is the difference between love and sexual desire? Are there different rules for males and females when it comes to sex and relationships? Is lying about sex OK? Should much older men have relationships with young women?

High school students frequently complain that their health courses focus too much on the biology of sexuality. Most want the opportunity to talk about the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of sexual relationships. Many are beginning to engage in romantic and sexual relationships themselves. Many are not significantly younger than Monica Lewinsky was when she was engaged in an affair with the president. High school students are also fast approaching the time when they themselves will be marrying and entering the workplace.

The scandal offers educators the opportunity to discuss with these young adults a myriad of issues that lie at the heart of sexual behavior: What role does honesty play in marital and nonmarital relationships? What is intimacy and how is it created? How do age and power differentials affect relationships? What are the potential consequences of different types of sexual behavior--infidelity, for example? What are some of the reasons people engage in extramarital affairs? How should couples handle things like conflict and breaches of trust? What is consensual sex? What is nonconsensual sex? What are the implications of each? What is sexual harassment and why is it harmful? How should individuals behave toward each other in the workplace? How does the media present sexuality and to what degree should we accept that presentation?

The list goes on and on. If permitted to discuss such topics, teenage students will gain a deeper understanding of human sexual behavior and learn the important value that each of us, whether adolescent or adult, must constantly consider how we are going to conduct our sexual lives and how we can make choices that do not harm ourselves or other people.

Opponents often criticize school-based sexuality education programs by alleging that they teach only the mechanics of sex and remain neutral when it comes to values. Now, it is up to schools to show opponents that they are wrong by boldly and clearly encouraging discussion of the Clinton-Lewinsky story and the questions about values that it raises.

If they find their courage failing in the face of new and more graphic reports about the scandal, educators can take inspiration from these words of William Shakespeare: "Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower safety."


Susan Wilson is the executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University's school of social work in Piscataway, N.J. Ann Schurmann is the network's program manager. The network provides resources, advocacy, and technical assistance for school sexuality education programs.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 36,38

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