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Opinion: Teens learning about sex, etc. from other teens

The goal of this column is to make young people aware of a website where they can obtain accurate answers to their questions about sex, relationships, pregnancy, STDs, birth control, sexual orientation and much more. It’s Sex, Etc. ( This column is written based on a discussion I had with Susie Wilson, someone I truly admire.

Wilson will turn 84 tomorrow. She is an absolute force of nature. For more than 35 years, she has been the dynamo behind the battle to provide age-appropriate, medically accurate education about sexuality in New Jersey and across the nation. Because of Wilson, public school students in New Jersey receive comprehensive sex education, unless their parents choose to remove them from the classes.

In 1978, Wilson was appointed to serve on the state Board of Education, following in the footsteps of her mother, Katherine Neuberger, who chaired the state Board of Higher Education and served ex-officio on the board that set policy for K-12 schools. Wilson’s crusade on behalf of sexual education began with a question following the presentation to the board on pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease among teens: At what age do young people have to know how their bodies work?

When the then-commissioner of health answered “by age 10 [fifth grade]” and then made a plea that schools were the logical place for sex education instruction and suggested the board take action, Wilson took the plea seriously. Due to her efforts, New Jersey became one of the first states to mandate that local districts develop sex education curricula at the elementary and secondary level.

Today, even critics of sex education acknowledge New Jersey’s pre-eminent position in family life education. In an October 1994 article in The Atlantic online, “The Failure of Sex Education,” Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote: “Virtually every public school student in New Jersey receives sex education ... . An overwhelming majority of adults said they favored teaching teenagers about sex in school, including controversial topics such as contraception, homosexuality, and ‘safer sex’... . Support [for sex education] is nearly as high among parents as among non-parents.”

Over the years, public support for comprehensive sex education in New Jersey has grown. This support has thwarted attempts to overturn the statewide mandate requiring sexuality education in the state’s public schools and to stress abstinence instruction to the exclusion of teaching about other methods of protection against pregnancy and disease. This is not to suggest that there are not parents who continue to favor offering abstinence-only rather than comprehensive sex education (see The Times, “Parents: Sex ed is too much, too soon,” Dec. 16, 2013).

Wilson also has spearheaded the creation of the first national newsletter written by teens on teen sexual health: Sex, Etc. is celebrating its 20th year of publication this month. The website celebrated its 15th year. Today, tens of thousands of young people nationwide are obtaining honest, accurate sexual health information on topics that formerly were seen as taboo, because of Wilson’s vision and dogged determination. The initial platform for her efforts was the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University’s Center for Applied and Professional Psychology (renamed Answers, but still housed at Rutgers).

Sex, Etc. was first published in 1994. The newsletter was mailed nationwide and had an initial circulation of 150,000 copies. Today, the information is presented in a vibrant, full-color magazine published three times a year and through a dynamic website ( The website receives 120,000 unique visits each month, and another 45,000 paid subscribers read the magazine annually to get answers to their questions about teen sexual health.

Sex, Etc. is sexually frank. Some critics would say it’s sexually explicit. The topics are chosen by a teen editorial board based on questions and common misunderstandings they hear from their peers. In many cases, the subjects are too hot for other publications to tackle. In a recent issue, for example, a student wrote in moving terms about her own experience with genital warts.

According to Nancy Parello, an Associate Press reporter who served as the newsletter’s first adult managing editor, one of the real keys to Sex, Etc. is balance: “We try to cover everything from every angle,” Parello said. “The kids write about abstinence — that there are good things about waiting. But we recognize that there are kids out there who are having sex, and that we need to speak to them as well.” Student writers are recruited from throughout New Jersey. All stories are reviewed for medical accuracy by a seasoned health educator and, when necessary, by a physician.

The following are examples of topics covered by Sex, Etc.: abstinence, body image, contraception, safe sex, sex terms, self-esteem, teen parenthood, STDs, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation, sexual harassment and violence.

There is no evidence that sex education boosts the level of sexual intercourse or STDs among teens. The preponderance of research indicates that comprehensive sex education helps to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS, STDs and unintended teen pregnancy. I suspect that Sex, Etc. produces similarly positive results and may even save lives.