Dreger, Alice

Alice Dreger is an historian of medicine and science, a sex researcher, a mainstream writer, and an (im)patient advocate. An award-winning scholar and writer, Dreger’s latest major book is Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice, which argues that the pursuit of evidence is the most important ethical imperative of our time.

Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship and published by Penguin Press in 2015, Galileo’s Middle Finger has been praised in reviews in The New Yorker, Nature, Science, Forbes, New York Magazine, Human Nature, and Salon. It was named an “Editor’s Choice” by The New York Times Book Review and has been recommended by Steve Pinker, Dan Savage, Jared Diamond, and E.O. Wilson (read more). The Chronicle of Higher Education has called Dreger a “star scholar” and describes her writing as “reliably funny and passionate and vulnerable.”

Dreger earned her PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University in 1995, where her work was supported by a Charlotte Newcombe Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Since then, she has embodied the notion of the public intellectual, simultaneously publishing widely-cited major original work in scholarly journals and high-visibility essays in the mainstream press. She has served as a regular writer for the health sections of The Atlantic and Pacific Standard and for the blog of Psychology Today, and her op-eds have appeared in numerous other venues, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, WIRED, Slate, The LA Times, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Statesman.

Dreger’s writing has been selected for Norton’s annual Best Creative Non-Fiction volume, and the UTNE Reader has named her a “visionary.” She frequently delivers keynotes and plenaries, and to date has given about 200 invited lectures. The American Philosophical Association considers her a philosopher of note in the “writing” category, and John Green has named her book One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal as among his favorites. The same book has been praised by Jeffrey Eugenides and Abraham Verghese.

In the spring of 2015, Dreger’s live-tweeting of her son’s high school sex-ed class sparked an international discussion of abstinence-based education and has led to her new book for parents, The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World. (Read an excerpt at Pacific Standard.) She is a recipient of an Outstanding Leadership Award in Comprehensive Sexuality Education from SIECUS, Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth, GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), and the Healthy Teen Network.

Besides functioning as an historian and writer, in the medical world Dreger has served as a patient advocate and as a consultant to pediatric specialists undertaking clinical reform, particularly in the treatment of children born with norm-challenging body types, including intersex, conjoined twinning, facial anomalies, and short stature.

Founding Board Chair of the Intersex Society of North America, she also served as an ethics consultant to an NIH-funded Translational Research Network on pediatric intersex care and co-edited a medical education guide on LGBT and Differences of Sex Development (DSD) for the Association of American Medical Colleges. She has been on the faculty of several major universities, including most recently (2005-2015) as a full professor in Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She resigned that position following censorship by her dean.

Dreger’s TEDx lecture, “Is Anatomy Destiny,” has been viewed about a million times, and she has appeared as a guest expert on hundreds of media programs, including on Oprah, Savage Love, Good Morning America, and NPR, and in many original documentaries, including for A&E, ABC, Discovery, PBS, and HBO.

A native of New York, she now lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, teenage son, and a pet rat named Darling. She is the founder, board president, and publisher of East Lansing Info, a nonprofit, citizen-journalist local online news organization that, since being founded in 2014, has produced almost one thousand original reports by over sixty citizen reporters. Her hobbies include canoeing, running, weeding, swimming in open water, and trying reliably to cross the clarinet break.


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Feb 27, 2015
Why Isn’t Sex Education a Part of Common Core?

By Alice Dreger
How many times do we have to teach kids to put condoms on bananas before we get to the important stuff? (Photo: Tomnamon/Shutterstock)

According to a recent PublicMind poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University, 44 percent of Americans believe that sex education is part of the Common Core curriculum. It’s not. The Common Core — national standards aimed at creating better-educated high school graduates — actually covers only mathematics and “language arts,” or what we used to call English.

But why doesn’t the Common Core have a sex ed component? After graduation, more of us are likely to go on to have sex than to engage in algebraic equations or close readings of poetry.

Yeah, I know: Many parents don’t like the idea of other people deciding what their kids will know about sex. Many don’t even like the idea of other people deciding what their kids will know about subtraction.

Still, given that, on average, sex will matter to one’s life about as much as how one uses grammar, one would think we’d have some nationally organized approach to ensure that the basics of sex are covered in public schools.

I can’t believe that after all of the “rape culture” conversations going on, my son’s formal sex ed still seems to have no discussion about consent.

My son is now a freshman in a progressive public high school, and even there what I’d like to see covered isn’t. Most of his public school sex ed seems to consist of warnings about pregnancy and disease, combined with endless lessons about how to put on a condom.

Look, I think it’s fine to teach a kid how to put on a condom correctly. But it is not something you have to teach every year, is it? These are kids who have been successfully putting on their socks for over a decade. Condoms aren’t that different. Granted, a hole in your sock isn’t as risky as a hole in a condom — even this winter, even in Boston — but the time spent on condom usage demonstrations might instead be spent on broader sex ed.

Like what?

Well, I’d start with a really thorough education about parts. I would like to see kids presented with plastic models of roughly average male and female genitalia, complete with plastic pubic hair, so they could see in 3-D what “real” genitals sometimes look like.

This seems especially important where female sex anatomy is concerned. This business of only ever presenting the female sex anatomy as a cut-away side view does not actually tell kids what they will see if they find themselves facing a pudendum. I think it is objectively true that the world would be better off if everybody knew where the clitoris is, and that it isn’t inside the vagina.

Then I would like to see kids taught about genital variation — about how phallic size varies considerably in males and females, as does scrotal size, labial size, genital skin color, shape of organs, etc. Same with breast development, Adam’s apples, facial and body hair, etc.

From there I would move on to what the bit of data we have tells us: Genital size may matter to your career if you are a porn star or if you’re expected to work naked in a job involving pinch-hazard machinery, but it won’t matter that much to your ability to have pleasure from your parts. Most people’s natural parts feel good to them.

Pleasure! Right, let’s talk about that. Could we please frankly explain to children why it is that more of us will be into sex than iambic pentameter verse? Could we unpack why the use of iambic pentameter — like so many other pastimes in life — is actually about getting laid? Face it: It’s not because we want to make babies, but because our evolution has left us programmed to enjoy what might lead to babies (if it weren’t for socks). We are made to want pleasure because the species survives through the pleasure urge.

If I’ve seen anything result from my son’s sex education, it’s a growing and reasonable opinion on his part that most adults don’t tell the real truth about sex, so there’s no point in asking them.

But wait, not everybody feels the urge to cross-sex couple? Great — let’s also talk about that! Why do some people feel the urge to have sex with people with similar parts? Here we could explore some of the possible reasons. But ultimately I think this would be a great entry into a discussion of who cares who you want to have sex with? It’s about consent, stupid.

Consent. I can’t believe that after all of the “rape culture” conversations going on, my son’s formal sex ed still seems to have no discussion about consent: What does it look like, how do you know you have it from your potential lover, who is not capable of consent, how do you clearly signal that you are not giving it or you are withdrawing it? Personally, I’d love it if children explicitly were taught “no” as their first safe word. (They can move on to “cacao” when they are grown-ups.)

What else? OK, I realize that I’m risking my chance of ever becoming surgeon general in saying this, but it sure seems like kids should be taught that masturbation is common, normal, and, if you are not too extreme with your methods, harmless. I’m not suggesting we provide instruction in methodology, but we could go a long way with a little bit of honesty about how many of us twiddle ourselves, and it doesn’t make us go blind or be unable to do division.

And then, of course, we should cover disease and pregnancy prevention — but maybe after the rest of this, after kids feel like we’re being up front with them about the important basics. That way they trust us. If I’ve seen anything result from my son’s sex education, it’s a growing and reasonable opinion on his part that most adults don’t tell the real truth about sex, so there’s no point in asking them. (He could ask his mother, but he knows that then she won’t shut up.)

I’m sure there are some people who will flip out at this proposal. (Paging Rush Limbaugh.) They will say that talking to kids about sex like this will be like engaging them in sex. I actually think there is something to that — that thinking and talking about sex awakens the part of our brain that is sexual. But we have good reason to believe teenagers will think about sex, and (gasp!) engage in sex, whether or not we adults can bring ourselves to talk about it.

Sex is, after all, the ultimate common core of humanity. So maybe it’s time to recognize it in the Common Core.

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