By Michele Alperin
Calling herself an activist for progressive causes, sex education and women’s advocate Susie Wilson traces her social justice passion to her friend Robert Kennedy, with whom she and her husband, Donald, once traveled around the world.
“Wherever we went, we went to see what the nuns were doing,” she recalls. “They were always taking care of the poorest people in every country we were visiting. I came home realizing there are a lot of people out there not nearly as privileged as I was and who needed assistance.”
“Robert Kennedy really inspired you to do that—people who have a lot, he felt, should give back.”
And give back she has, as a formulator of New Jersey’s sex education policy and its implementer at Rutgers University’s Network for Family Life Education, now NJ Answer.
Wilson will be the speaker at the inaugural Phyllis Marchand Lecture, Tuesday, May 26, 7 p.m., in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. Because Wilson admires Marchand for her courage, that will be the focus of her talk as well as her self-published memoir, “Still Running.”
“I’m going to talk generally about courage, not only physical but moral courage, what Bobby Kennedy taught me—that you need to stand up and take a position even though it might be difficult to talk about,” Wilson said.
Looking broadly at the state’s policy, Wilson said, “I think that we are still way ahead, having been one of the first states to have a requirement and the most comprehensive [program].” But she emphasizes that the policy needs to be reevaluated to determine its effectiveness, which hasn’t been done in a number of years.
Wilson would also like to see sex education today dealing more explicitly with issues of sexual assault and sexual violence. She said, “On the one hand there is public attention on these issues, but I think they go back to sex education — you have to talk about these things sooner and more frequently if you are going to make a difference.”
Recently the issue of sex education came to fore in Robbinsville High School, when some parents objected to having high school seniors serve as peer educators teaching freshmen sex education in the Teen PEP program. Under the program, which is in place in the Princeton School District and coordinated by the HiTOPS Teen Council, the older students work with underclassmen to increase knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors associated with healthy decision-making.
“Sex education can draw lightning; there’s no question about that,” Wilson said. She notes that parents can look at the curriculum and can withdraw their children from the program, however, “they’re not permitted to shut down a program if they’re an individual parent or a small group. They have an option to remove their children and educate their children themselves.”
Parents getting upset about sex education is not something new. In a December 18, 1990, letter to Ann Breitman, chairman of the Committee for Review/Revision of the Family Life Curriculum at Hightstown High School, a parent accused Wilson of being “definitely anti-family and anti-parental involvement.” The parent claimed that “school districts with ‘comprehensive’ sex education such as ours have the highest rates of teen sexual activity, venereal diseases, pregnancies, abortions, and contraceptive use, whereas the more ‘backward’ districts that have little or no sex education in the schools have much much lower rates of all of the above.”
But even if New Jersey is doing pretty well, that is not true in places like Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Georgia that have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. “We have spent as a country $1 billion teaching kids about abstinence and the negatives of using contraceptives,” she said.
While she thinks abstinence should be included in all programs, she said it should not be the only option. “It doesn’t always work, and it is very good to know what other options you have,” she said, noting the high percentages of teens having sex before high school graduation.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Wilson went to work for the New Jersey Office of Economic Opportunity. “It got me interested in issues of poverty, which led me to teen pregnancy, which led me to sex education,” she said.
In the education area, before she got involved in sex education, her background included working as education reporter for “LIFE” magazine, earning a master of science in education leadership, supervision, and administration from Bank Street College, and teaching remedial reading in New York City schools.
Then she was appointed to the New Jersey State Board of Education in about 1978. One day the Commissioner of Health, concerned about rising rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases, challenged the board, a policymaking body, to do something about sex education.
Wilson said, “I was the only person of the 13 people around the table who asked a question: At what age should we teach them about how their bodies work, about sex, and how to protect yourself?” His answer was the end of fourth grade, and he put her in charge of a subcommittee to examine the issue.
That encounter and what followed changed her life. “It gave me a focus that touched on issues of poverty. So many of the kids who got pregnant were poor and didn’t have access to a good education,” she said. The board decided to require “family life education,” because the term “sex education” would likely be inflammatory.
The year was 1979, and it did cause a furor, she said. Opponents brought a case against the board, saying that it didn’t have the authority to require sex education; the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the opponents lost.
Then the New Jersey legislature got involved. The policy was instituted, but only after many compromises—less specificity, limitation to certain grades, and parents could look at the curriculum and could opt their children out. “They watered it down and made it more general but it was a good policy,” Wilson said.
Although she did lose her board seat because of the controversy, Wilson ended up implementing the policy. Estelle Robinson, the wife of a Trenton pediatrician, had started the Network on Adolescent Pregnancy, part of the Center for Community Education in the Rutgers School of Social Work, and she invited Wilson to set up the Network for Life Education, now NJ Answer, to foster the policy and help school districts implement it. For 23 years she worked there, raising a $1.4 million yearly budget, primarily from foundations.
Early on they did a lot of teacher training, but then developed what Wilson has always called “the jewel in the crown”—“Sex, etc.,” a magazine written by New Jersey teens for other teens, sharing information about sexuality, all the feelings around it, contraception, teen pregnancy and the like.
Wilson first understood the power of this idea when she broached it during a speech at Douglas College to a program for 11th graders. She invited anyone who thought it was a good idea to come see her after the talk. She recalls, “At the very end, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. The entire room of kids came at me—‘You have to do this! Kids talk about sex all the time; we pass along wrong information with each other; we want to know the facts, to be responsible.’”
The magazine would go first to teachers, who would distribute it to kids, thereby educating at two levels. And they wanted to include kids’ voices not just from places like Princeton and made a huge effort to pull in contributors from cities like Trenton and Newark. “They are most likely to have sex earlier and not use contraception, and having a baby as a teen almost guarantees that it will grow up in poverty,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s activism on women’s issues also extends internationally, as a member of the board of the Fistula Foundation. Fistulas are an obstetric injury that happens primarily to poor, rural women in Africa and South Asia whose babies die in utero.
These women are left by their husbands and ostracized by their communities. However, a surgery costing $450 can correct the condition, and the Fistula Foundation raises funds for these surgeries. Having read about fistulas in Nicholas Kristof’s columns, Wilson donated money and then was invited to join the nonprofit’s board of directors.
The current editor of “Sex, etc.,” Ellen Papazian, has also edited “Still Running,” so named for Wilson’s running passion—at age 67, in 1997, she completed the New York Marathon.
She got to thinking about writing a memoir after her husband died of Alzheimer’s. Recalling a throwaway line in his memoir that she should write one, she thought she’d give it a shot. “My three children don’t live here, and I couldn’t get a job in my 80s,” she said, so she wrote a memoir.
The graduate of Vassar College, former reporter, and writer of the blog “Sex Matters” knew how to set aside regular writing time and also had tons of materials on hand because she “never threw anything out.”
What she found as a result of publishing the memoir was surprising. “It’s amazing what it triggers in other people, the connections,” she said. And through the memories it has awakened in others, she said. “It deepens friendships and opens more conversations.”
Noting her own deep involvement in politics, she said that today politicians are showing no courage at all. “I think that’s why we’re in such a bad place in American politics,” she said.
It is also important, she continues, to talk about issues that are difficult to talk about, like sex. “Even though we sell everything in sight with sex, I don’t think it is easy to talk about sex in a reasonable and rational way in our society—it is always sensationalized, trivialized.”