Sex educator Sol Gordon likes it when those who differ with his views picket his talks. “I don’t care if they protest, as long as it doesn’t prevent me from speaking,” he said. “The controversy attracts interest and attention and helps people understand that there are a lot of irrational elements in our society.”
Gordon, a 63-year-old psychologist who for 30 years has been writing and speaking in favor of sex education for young people, was in Los Angeles recently to give a talk at Stephen Wise Temple in Bel-Air. Its title was the same as that of the book he co-wrote with his wife Judith Gordon, a former social worker: “Raising a Child Conservatively in a Sexually Permissive World” (Simon & Schuster, first published in 1983, revised and updated for the 1986 paperback edition). There were no protests during the program at the temple, which had a turnout of 200 parents and teen-agers. However, in the past three years, Gordon said, 15 of his scheduled talks have been canceled as the result of protests. His detractors include such groups as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Citizens for Excellence in Education. “Their assumption is that if you tell kids about sex, they’ll do it,” Gordon said.
In some ways Gordon seems an unlikely target for conservatives. In “Raising a Child Conservatively,” Gordon writes that “conservative families” are those “who love their country, who respect its Constitution and its laws, however much they may disagree with them at times . . . and who believe in God (while worshipping him in many different ways).” Other attributes of the conservative family, according to Gordon, are a belief that the family unit is the central constituent of society.
However, the conservative family, as the Gordons define it, has no desire to impose its religious or moral views on others. Gordon describes his opposition as doing otherwise.
The core of his advice to adults is to be “askable parents.” He advocates mature, educational discussions that emphasize morals and responsibility. A child’s questions should be answered, he maintains, whenever they are asked. If a child has not asked anything about sex by age 5, it’s the parent’s responsibility to begin, either with a book or with simple conversations about a friend or relative who is having a baby, he said.
Self-Esteem as the Key
Gordon sees the promoting of self-esteem in children as the way to encourage morally responsible behavior. A person with good self-esteem, according to Gordon, is less likely to distort moral guidelines to suit his or her own needs. In all of his writings and interviews, Gordon reiterates his belief that love and caring are more important to relationships than sex.
While Gordon recognizes that parents get uncomfortable talking with their children about sex, his goal, as he put it, is “to legitimize discomfort. The whole idea is the next step should not be paralysis. Even sex educators sometimes intimidate parents, saying you have to be comfortable with your own sexuality.” Not all parents are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to talk about sex with their children.
Gordon said he has learned that a teen-ager’s attention span for sensitive issues is about 30 seconds, so he has tailored his message to that time span. Yet he believes that all questions must be answered honestly and frankly. One of his projects has been the publishing of sex education comic books with simple words and outrageous pictures. The comic books have been cited by some antagonists in accusing Gordon of being a pornographer. His response: “I’ve never known an anti-sex educator with a sense of humor.”
A ‘Double Message’
In his books and talks, he insists on the importance of giving young people what he calls “the double message.” “The single message is ‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ or ‘no,’ and it doesn’t work. We say to them, ‘Listen, if you’re going to have sex anyway, use contraceptives.’ ”
Nevertheless, Gordon and his wife believe it is not a good idea for people younger than 18 to have sex, because they are too vulnerable and too available to exploitation.
Although Gordon openly supports choice on the abortion issue, he rarely mentions the topic when he speaks to high school audiences. Pregnancy prevention is his primary concern. He’s director of the Institute for Family Research and Education, which he founded in New York in 1970. To further its goal of strengthening the family, the institute trains leaders in community agencies, schools and religious groups to teach parents to be the primary sex educators of their children. Another key project consists of programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancies. Numerous organizations have sponsored his talks around the country and in 15 foreign nations.
Gordon is also a former professor of child and family studies at Syracuse University, where his class on Human Sexuality had an enrollment of more than 400 students each semester. He has written many books, including one with Judith Gordon for young children, “Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born?” (Ed-U Press), “The Teenage Survival Book” (Times Books) and his latest, “When Living Hurts” (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), a suicide prevention book for teens.
Gordon sees himself as a crusader. Leaning forward for added emphasis, he said, “I’m on a two-year missionary role to get across the message nationwide that knowledge is not harmful.”