All School Meeting Address: Sexuality and Healthy Relationships

The text below is of an All School Meeting address of September 22, 2015.  Warning: I use graphic language below.

Good morning, Andover.

Yes, you did hear right: this morning, we are going to talk about sex in this chapel. I realize that might sound awkward to some of you, but I ask for your close attention in this All School Meeting all the same. What I have to say involves every person here. That includes our faculty, who are with us this morning to underscore the importance of this topic to our community. This issue is universal.

What I am about to say may be more than awkward for some of you; it may be downright upsetting. At the end of my remarks, we will introduce members of the community who are specially trained to talk with you on these matters, and I encourage you to do so.

Before we get to the matter of sexual development and healthy relationships, let’s start by stepping back a bit: Why are you here? Why are we all here? I don’t mean it as an existential question – why are we on this planet – but rather, why did you choose to come to Andover? What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Most people say, one way or another, that you came to Andover for the “excellence.” That excellence might mean a fabulous learning experience in physics, English, music, or the arts. Maybe you came to Andover to pursue great academics as well as excellence in lacrosse or drama or in playing the flute; maybe seeing Eight Bells in the Addison blew you away on your revisit (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please go find out before you graduate). These are all good reasons to come to Andover and to be at Andover. I’m proud of what all of us – faculty and students alike – can and do accomplish when it comes to these kinds of excellence.

Today, let’s focus on an equally important form of excellence: how we relate to one another in this community. I mean in particular how you as students relate to one another when you make the decision to have an intimate relationship with another person, whenever that time might come, and whatever that might mean to you.

While I suppose it has not been often that heads of school have talked about sex in this chapel in the history of this school, it is a topic fully in step with our mission as a place of teaching and learning. As you know by now, more or less everything we do is grounded in our founding principles. In this case, the principle in question is the idea of knowledge with goodness. In our Charter, Samuel Phillips and the other founders told us that:

[… A]bove all, it is expected, that the Master’s attention to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under his charge, will exceed every other care; well considering that, though goodness without knowledge – as it respects others – is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.

In modern-day terms: “knowledge with goodness” has to do with how you treat one another – how you care for one another.

We often talk about how Andover is the most diverse community in which most of us will ever live. We are proud of that fact and we seek to build upon that diversity all the time. One important skill that we want you to learn is how to get along with one another in an extremely diverse community. We come from different faith traditions and different family backgrounds, among many other forms of difference. Being excellent as a student here means caring, respecting one another, being in partnership with one another – not despite our diversity, but in keeping with it.   This diversity means that you will come to any relationship with potentially very different beliefs about what is morally right.

Let me pause here – on this topic of moral perspective – to address one possible concern about sexual education, lest my message this morning be misconstrued. Some adults worry that more talk about sex with kids means an encouragement to be sexually active sooner than you otherwise would. I don’t believe that any of you would hear me that way, but let me make it plain: regardless of your gender or your age, you have every right to abstain from sexual activity. We, as adults in this community, strongly support that decision. No one is obligated to participate in a hook-up culture; no one is obligated to make a choice about your sexual development that is out of keeping with what you believe is morally right. As you leave this chapel today, I trust that each one of you will feel that we, as adults, are here to support you as you work through what is a especially challenging part of teenage development – including supporting your sound decisions not to engage in intimate relationships during your time here.

Just as we emphasize academic integrity with your pursuits in the classroom and personal integrity with regard to following Blue Book rules, this topic too is about integrity.  We want you to make decisions and engage in activities while you are at PA that honor your integrity—in line with your personal values and ethics. You need to support one another as you make these important choices in your life, whether here at Andover or once you are in college.

Put another way: we do not encourage sexual activity at Andover, but we do acknowledge that some of you choose to engage in sexual intimacy while you are here. It is our job as adults in your life to help you make safe choices and to ensure that you know where to turn for support.

I want to share with you today, in terms as clear as I can make them, our community expectations when it comes to healthy relationships and sexual activity. Some aspects of this topic are clear and obvious; others are a bit more complex.

First, a crystal-clear statement: we cannot and do not tolerate sexual assault of any kind at Andover. If you are worried that what you are engaged in is sexual assault, then stop. If you have experienced something that you wonder was sexual assault, seek help – more on that from Mrs. Elliott shortly.   If you don’t know what I mean when I say we cannot tolerate sexual assault on campus, please come talk to me or any of us up on the stage today.

Also in the category of “clear:” the law in Massachusetts says that you cannot consent to sexual activity if you are under 16 years old. If and when we learn of sexual intimacy between students where one or both student is under 16, we are required to report it to the police and to the state of Massachusetts; we also discuss it with your parents. This requirement is not theoretical. For those who might be wondering: oral sex counts as sexual activity for these purposes. This is not my opinion; this is the law in our state.

Third: consent to any degree of physical intimacy on this campus must take the form of an affirmative “yes.” The Blue Book spells it out clearly: we are a “yes means yes” school. That’s new and that can be awkward. But it is very important. It is a shifting of a burden from one person to say “no” to both people to say “yes.” If you are not sure, at the start or at any point during an intimate encounter, you must ask and you must hear a “yes” from your partner before you continue. If you hear a “no” or see or feel anything that resembles a “no” (or anything less than an enthusiastic, unambiguous “yes”), it’s on you to stop.

There’s a rule of thumb that might help in respect to consent. You no doubt have heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Consider instead a Platinum Rule in the context of intimacy: do unto others as they would choose to have done unto them. That said, I’d also urge you not to think of sexual relationships as being about what you do “to” someone else – which makes it sound adversarial – but rather “with” someone else. These are distinctions that can make a big difference in changing a culture.

One point that is more subtle: Gender and sexual orientation are unmistakably a part of any discussion about sexual health, but the conversation should not be thought of as exclusively heteronormative.  OK – there were a lot of big words in that sentence.  Let me unpack.  By that, I mean that a discussion of sex is not only about a dynamic that exists between boys and girls. It is hard to have a conversation about sexual health, and especially about differences in expectations and power dynamics, without talking about differences in gender. I’d urge you, at the same time, not to let stereotypes dominate these conversations. On our campus, we have community members who are boys; we have those who are girls; and we have those who do not self-identify as either or who are in transition. (My PGP is: he/him/his.) And we have a range of sexual orientation at Andover. Every student is learning about their sexuality during this period of life, but not everyone is experiencing the same thing. That diversity is important. We respect everyone equally at Andover.

The bottom line is that everyone has a right to feel safe and respected on this campus – regardless of your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your moral perspective, your faith. As many of you have pointed out, too many students, here at Andover as elsewhere in the world, have suffered from unwanted sexual encounters. The New York Times reports this morning that 1 in 4 young women have experienced sexual assault at some of our most prestigious colleges. As a community, we shouldn’t stand for that. In fact, we must stand for something very different – respect for one another, support for one another, caring for one another. At this high school, we should all be part of the solution.

What I call upon us today to do – adults and students alike – is to step up. Andover, it’s on us. We need to be courageous in talking about sexual intimacy and sexuality. This dialogue must honor each one of you during your time at Andover and set you on a course of healthy relationships for your entire life – much in the way that our academic excellence at Andover education always has set up students for productive lives of work and service.

Andover, we can do this. I know it’s awkward. We can make our community better and healthier, day by day, Saturday night by Saturday night, relationship by relationship. We owe it to one another to do just that. Everyone has a role in defining this type of excellence at Andover and in building a positive culture of healthy relationships. We can show that we care about one another and respect one another. This kind of learning – this essential kind of character development – is, in fact, why we are all here.

To close this morning, Mrs. Elliott will share with you some thoughts about those people on campus who are special resources on this topic. She will also give you a sense of what you can expect in terms of discussions in your dorms, and in classrooms, in the weeks to come on this topic.

Mrs. Elliott: over to you, and thank you for your very strong leadership on this important topic, building on the work of many others who have been committed to these issues for a long time here at Andover.

6 thoughts on “All School Meeting Address: Sexuality and Healthy Relationships

  1. John

    ALL YOUR WORDS WERE RIGHT ON –all the communication direct, meaningful, and with moral integrity! Straight-on — blessed to have you tackle this issue! J Hope each 9th grader looked up to their chosen cupid too! NAN

    Hugs, Betsy

    Elizabeth P. Powell

    781 237-4876

  2. Great talk – as an alumnus who has taught the Unitarian extensive sex ed course “Our Whole Lives” multiple times, I know how important it is to give young people some help with the concepts and language you are addressing. Our culture certainly doesn’t do a very good job at this, and it’s encouraging to see you taking some steps on that road – good luck!

  3. This is such an excellent and necessary step, and I fear, happens far too rarely, especially coming from a school leader. This address and the approach it represents should be shared widely among school leaders. One person breaking a barrier is often just enough to encourage others to venture in especially challenging terrain. Thank you for providing so worthy an example.
    All the best to you and your school community,
    Sherri Spelic
    Vienna, Austria

  4. Congratulations for this speech. As it is said the most important thing is tolerance : tolerance about your partner will, tolerance about the fact that someone can have another sexual orientations than yours. During this period of life, when we discover ourselves and the others the slightest slip-up can be devastating.

  5. Pingback: All-School Meeting Introduction: Laci Green | John Palfrey

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