I recently attended the massive American Public Health Association meetings in Denver, where there were a number of scientific sessions on topics related to reproductive and sexual health. One of the more exciting sessions for me was a session on “Sexual Health Issues of Youth,” where Professor Lisa Lindley (Global & Community Health, George Mason University) discussed the philosophy and impact of a creative sex education program called “Project Condom.” This program combines the concept of “Project Runway” with condom couture for the intended impact of promoting safer sex.
“Project Condom” is the creative brainchild of Ryan Wilson, who works in Student Health Services at University of South Carolina. Together with Lindley (who was then a professor at USC) and a team of USC faculty, staff, and students, Wilson has now seen Project Condom through its third season. (In addition to being inspired by Project Runway, Wilson’s team was also extending the work of Adriana Bertini, a designer/activist credited for creating the idea of condom couture.)
Student groups participating in Project Condom are provided with 1,000 condoms in assorted colors. Each group develops a PG-13 theme for their design (e.g. pregnancy prevention, STI/HIV protection, abstinence). The judges (most recently including Santino Rice from Project Runway) rate the designs on 5 criteria: Overall concept and theme, use of condoms or abstinence symbol, creativity, stage presence, and interview justification. To see video footage of Project Condom click here: Project Condom, Season 3
Besides offering a forum for artistic expression, there is evidence that Project Condom is increasing both awareness of sexual health and propensity for using condoms amongst USC students. (Evidence based on surveys of audience members of Project Condom as well as increased volume of free condoms being taken on campus).
Project Condom is now being replicated at George Mason University as well:
We at Sexuality & Society applaud Wilson, Lindley, and the Project Condom team for this promising Sexual Health approach!
In societies with strict rules, sanctions, and moral/institutional hierarchies attached to sexuality, we find gaps between people’s reported sexual identity and what they actually do. Because the stakes are high if people fall from esteemed sexual categories, people in these societies are invested in maintaining at least the perception of sitting on sexual high ground.
Different societies and organizations vary in their strategies for addressing gaps between identity and behavior. In the U.S. there is an entire media/medical/criminal justice industry built around catching, shaming, treating, and punishing (or at least exposing hypocrisy) for those who fall from their esteemed socio-sexual positions (e.g. Cheating Celebrities, Pedophile Priests, Gay Anti-Gay activists).
A newly released study indicates that from a sexual health perspective it may be more important than ever to acknowledge these known gaps in identity and behavior, especially when it comes to young people. This study, lead by Dr. Preeti Pathela of New York Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene, found that for sexually active teens, nearly 1 in 10 engage in same-sex sexual activity; an increase over previous studies. (It is not clear whether this is a result of an actual increase in same sex behavior, sexual behavior in general, or whether respondents in this study were just more likely to report their same sex activities).
Regardless of the reasons for the reported increase in same sex sexuality, since teens in this often stigmatized group are also less likely to use condoms and other safe sex precautions, some sort of strategy is needed. From a sexual health perspective, creating space and decreasing stigma for same sex attraction in curriculum and school cultures is a basic first step. Below is a summary of the study:
By Zach Gottlieb
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A new study suggests that nearly one in sexually active ten teens have same-sex partners — almost twice as many as previous research found. According to a 2002 study of Massachusetts and Vermont teens, only 5 percent to 6 percent of teens had same-sex partners.
In the new study, 9.3 percent of teens said they did.
“Clearly there’s a high rate of same-sex partners among teens, and we need to recognize any vulnerabilities that may be associated with these behaviors,” said Dr. Susan Blank, an assistant commissioner at the NYC Health Department. Blank, who was not involved with the study, was referring to a lower rate of condom use and unwanted sex among teens with same-sex partners seen in the study.
The new research, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at more than 17,000 teens in New York City. It found that teens who had sex with only their own gender or with both genders were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, putting themselves at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of the 18 million new cases of STDs that occur each year happen among people aged 15 to 24.
Such risky behaviors included not using a condom during sex and having forced sex. More than half of boys who engaged in bisexual behavior didn’t use a condom, compared to a fifth of those who engaged exclusively in heterosexual behavior. The difference was not quite as large for girls who engaged in bisexual behavior and those who engaged exclusively in heterosexual behavior, but it was similar: About half of the former didn’t use a condom, compared to 30 percent of the latter.
About a third of those teens who engaged in bisexual behavior had forced sex at some point in their lives, much higher than the 6 percent of those boys who engaged exclusively in heterosexual behavior and the 16 percent of the similar group of girls.
Elizabeth Saewyc, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, told Reuters Health that these teens may engage in riskier behavior because sex education programs don’t always acknowledge gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships.
“Some teens I’ve seen tell me that they completely check out of sex ed because they feel what they were learning didn’t apply to them,” said Saewyc, who was not involved in the new study.
She suggested that educators need to acknowledge gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships more often in sex education curriculums so that teens are more likely to listen and will feel more comfortable discussing any issues.
Though the authors of the new study report that the rate of same-sex partners is higher than previous studies, Saewyc pointed that this rate is actually similar to what she has seen in her own work and other studies.
In the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey, for teens who were sexually active, 8 percent of males and 10 percent of females reported having had a same-sex partner. In a study looking at the 2001 Minnesota Student Survey, 9.4 percent of teens reported having had partners of the same or both sexes.
Dr. Preeti Pathela, lead author of the new study, said the results may have been different this time around because some states do not measure same-sex encounters. Still, Pathela said, it’s clear that some teens are more vulnerable to risky behavior and STDs than others. In discussing sexual relationships and potential risks, she said it is important that parents, educators, and researchers focus on behaviors and not just on sexual identity.
“How teens identify themselves doesn’t always correlate with actual behaviors,” said Pathela, a research scientist in the New York Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene. “Behavior is a better measure of what’s actually happening because teens are changing rapidly.”
Stories about Catholic priests and sexual abuse are so common that for some, “priest” is nearly synonymous with “pedophile.” Because the bulk of *known* Catholic Priest sex abuse cases have involved boys, the association also leads to assumptions about priests’ latent homosexuality. Reflecting and reinforcing these associations about Catholic Priests are the plethora of jokes on late night talk shows:
“I read this in the paper this morning: New York City has a priest shortage. So you see, there is some good news in the world. … To give you an idea how bad it is, earlier today in Brooklyn an alter boy had to grope himself.” —David Letterman
“As you’ve probably heard, the Pope has asked all the Cardinals to return to Rome. You know how they got them all to come back? They told them that there was going to be a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir.” —Jay Leno
“The Cardinals will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the new hotel at the Vatican, where turn down service means the bell boy isn’t interested.” —Daily Showhost Jon Stewart
Just when it seems like surely all the scandals have been aired and all the jokes have been told (and for some the bigger scandal may be that the Priests might be “gay”, rather than that they sexually abuse children), we hear about more Priests abusing massive numbers of children and of the Catholic hierarchy systematically attempting to hide the abuse.
In an article published today in the Huffington Post, Rev. Debra Hafner, an Ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, discusses the need for faith communities to directly address sexuality and sexual abuse. Hafner also calls upon Pope Benedict to “move beyond apologies to action,” … urging “all religious institutions to address sexuality in healthier, more open and responsible ways.”
I’m not holding my breath on Pope Benedict suddenly becoming a proponent of sexual health (!). On the other hand I am hopeful about the leadership of the Religious Institute, which is calling for religious leaders to move away from guilt and shame framings of human sexuality toward framings which support holistic sexual health.
The latest revelations about sexual abuse against children by Roman Catholic priests are nothing short of revolting. The story of Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused more than 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee over decades, despite the boys’ speaking out and calling for help, should outrage us all. The new revelations from Germany and other European countries add to the understanding that the prevalence of pedophile priests are, in the words of my colleague, Dan Maguire, “a global Catholic Church pandemic.”
“It went up to the Pope,” a formerly Roman Catholic friend said to me yesterday, with tears in her eyes. “How is it possible that people knew and didn’t stop it?” Unfortunately, the answer is that the Catholic hierarchy did know, and chose to transfer the priests rather than address the crimes they were committing against children.
Yes, crimes. In the secular world, the offending priests and their superiors would be held criminally accountable for their behavior. It is not enough for the Pope to apologize, as he did to victims last week. It is unconscionable when Catholic apologists try to explain away the church’s inaction as a relic of another time, when people didn’t talk as much about sexual abuse. We are talking now – and learning, to our dismay, how widespread sexual abuse in faith communities really is.
A national research study from Baylor University last year revealed that three percent of adult women, across a range of Christian and Jewish traditions, were involved in instances of clergy sexual misconduct. Most of this occurs between adults; sexual abuse of children and youth by Roman Catholic clergy is of a different magnitude altogether. Still, we must not deceive ourselves that other houses of worship are safe havens from abuse and harassment – or that clergy are prepared to address sexuality issues in a healthy and responsible way. Indeed, many religious leaders are complicit in the silence that has shrouded sexuality concerns in congregations for decades.
Sermons and sexuality education that will break the silence around sexuality and help to mitigate the stigma and shame that too often attend sexuality issues among people of faith.
New requirements that seminarians (or those studying to be clergy) examine and reflect on their sexual histories, understand the dynamics of sexual attraction, commit to clear boundaries regarding intimate connections with those they serve, and complete training in pastoral care for sexuality-related issues.
Established polices for safe congregations, including screening of staff and volunteers, background checks for those who work with children and youth, annual trainings on sexual and physical abuse, prevention education for parents and youth, referral agreements with local assault programs, and clearly stated grievance procedures. Every congregation should have a clear, well-publicized policy that sexual contact by clergy, pastoral care providers, religious educators and youth leaders with any congregant, of any age, is not only inappropriate but also actionable.
The Pope now has an urgent responsibility — and an extraordinary opportunity. He must not only move beyond apologies to action, but could also use his influence to urge all religious institutions to address sexuality in healthier, more open and responsible ways.
When Madonna released “Like a Virgin” in 1984 she dedicated the album to “all the virgins of the world.” At that time, her fans (including me, a reserved high school girl infatuated by Madonna’s commanding sexuality) thought we knew what she was talking about. But if this album were released today, it’s likely that many high schoolers and others would have a more diverse understanding about Madonna’s message.
This is because several forces have been in the works for many years (at least in mainstream American culture) which have allowed people to envision “sex” — and hence, virginity — as including more than the presence or absence of heteronormative, procreative, penile-vaginal intercourse. (Societies and cultures across time have always had a variety of meanings attached to various sexual acts, so this shifting and broadening perspective on “sex” is actually a global norm). A new study from researchers at The Kinsey Institute provides further empirical support that the idea of “having sex” is not seen as static or universal in contemporary US culture. The following comes from a press release from Indiana University, which houses the Kinsey Institute:
The study involved responses from 486 Indiana residents who took part in a telephone survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at IU. Participants, mostly heterosexual, were asked, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …,” followed by 14 behaviorally specific items. Here are some of the results:
Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women. The study involved 204 men and 282 women.
95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29), 50 percent for men in the oldest age group (65 and up) and 67 percent for women in the oldest age group.
71 percent and 73 percent considered oral contact with a partner’s genitals (OG), either performing or receiving, as having had sex.
Men in the youngest and oldest age groups were less likely to answer “yes” compared with the middle two age groups for when they performed OG.
Significantly fewer men in the oldest age group answered “yes” for PVI (77 percent)
… William L. Yarber, RCAP’s senior director and co-author of the study, said its findings reaffirm the need to be specific about behaviors when talking about sex.
According to Yarber, because “There’s a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media,” it is especially important for sexual health workers to be specific about what they mean when they talk about sex:
“If people don’t consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them. The AIDS epidemic has forced us to be much more specific about behaviors, as far as identifying specific behaviors that put people at risk instead of just sex in general. But there’s still room for improvement.”
These study results appear to show that respondents have a broad range of understandings of sex: Men and women across generations are likely to count “sex” as including oral, anal, and vaginal activities. And while many assume that sexual change always starts with youth, this study indicates that the attitudes and behaviors of older men (who were LEAST likely to count penile-vaginal activities as sex) as not what we might expect.
Given the disconnect between popular culture and people’s lived experiences around sexuality, I have a proposal:
To Madonna: I think that you should re-release “Like a Virgin” in 2014, 30 yrs after its original release, and partner with sexual health organizations like SIECUS and the Guttmacher Institute to critically discuss the various meanings and cultural associations attached to being a “virgin” as well as being “like a virgin.”
To sexual health workers: By entering into a cultural conversation around the varied meanings that people attach to virginity and sex, you would open up a needed, and much broader conversation about sexuality, health, and the various pathways to living a vibrant life. (Plus, come on, how cool would it be to partner with the goddess herself?!)
Sanders, S., Hill, B., Yarber, W., Graham, C., Crosby, R., Milhausen, R., (2010) “Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having ‘had sex,'” Sexual Health. 7(1), 31-34.
Kari Lerum and Shari L. Dworkin on December 31, 2009
In his book, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change, and Social Worlds (1995, Routledge), Ken Plummer explains that when individuals narrate seemingly internal and personal stories about their sexuality, these aren’t very individual or internal at all. Rather, such narratives emerge in themes that are made possible due to specific cultural and political conditions; sexual stories are thus part of larger sexual storytelling culture, and can be understood and made meaningful and visible only via existing cultural frames.
In 1995 Plummer documented three kinds of emerging sexual stories: rape stories, coming out stories, and recovery stories. The year of 2009 brought several unique opportunities of its own to tell sexual stories. Some of these stories reaffirmed and revisited familiar plots to “old” sexual stories, while some forged new territory. We have decided to group this year’s stories (which we have selected with a highly subjective and US based lens) into themes; each theme is a compilation of several individual stories, forming what we see as a larger set of cultural stories being told about the pleasures and dangers of sexuality, and the roles of social institutions in regulating and redefining normative sexual boundaries. Thanks to Phil Cohen, Holly Lewandowski, and Amanda Hess for story leads. Also, thanks to RhReality Check’s Amy Newman for her list of top stories from 2009 (from which we borrowed a few).
In her recent article on Tiger Woods, Shari Dworkin debunks widespread psychological and “sex addiction” explanations for Tiger Woods’ affairs:
“Recent media coverage of Tiger Woods’ marital “transgressions” is overflowing. Some argue that Tiger is sex obsessed and has a “sex addiction” given his high sex drive and desire for sex with many women over time. Others argue that any sports star who is on the road and away from home so much has a huge chance of being unfaithful to their wife. (Some media reports argue that it is “rare” to find a faithful male sports star). Still others argue that Tiger Woods’ late father pressed him down under his thumb too much as a youngster and upon his death, Tiger unleashed his “wild side.” Finally, some news reporters offer that Tiger was “traumatized” as a child when his father cheated on his mother, and that he must just be paradoxically following in dad’s footsteps. But very little media coverage attempts to press beyond an individual level and not many articles offered a much needed broader analysis of masculinity, race, sport, sexuality, and media.”
Similar structural and cultural analyses incorporating masculinity and institutional/political power could and should also be applied to the other stars of this story, including: Mark Sanford, John Ensign, & John Edwards.
Additionally, a cross-cultural perspective is needed here as well (e.g. why are these stories so powerful and shaming in the US, but not in European countries?)
According to The Guardian: “In Latin America policies and attitudes have mellowed over the past two decades and in most countries it is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Buenos Aires, Bogota and Mexico City boast gay pride parades and gay-friendly districts where same-sex couples can kiss and hold hands in public. Yesterday Di Bello, 41, and Freyre, 39, became the continent’s first gay married couple. The pair sidestepped a court ruling blocking their wedding in Buenos Aires by holding the ceremony in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego province and the world’s southernmost city. They exchanged rings at a civil ceremony witnessed by state and federal officials, prompting jubilation by gay rights activists and consternation from the Catholic church. “My knees didn’t stop shaking,” said Di Bello. “We are the first gay couple in Latin America to marry” (Guardian.co.uk — Dec. 29, 2009).
While more women are having multiple-baby births (thanks to IVF technology), not all multiple-birth mothers are viewed the same. Kathryn Joyce from RhReality Check offers an insightful comparison between the highly demonized Angela Suleman (“octo-mom”) and a “Reality TV” family with 18 children:
“Suleman’s newborns were delivered, as it were, into a pop cultural moment of preoccupation with large families. Reality TV shows about families with many children abound on TV’s TLC channel, most notably with the chronicles of the 18-child Duggar family. That the Duggars are grounded in and motivated by the pro-patriarchy Quiverfull movement, with its emphasis on female submission and male headship, is breezily dispensed with in favor of dwelling on the sentimental and zany experiences of life in a 20-person family. “Jon and Kate Plus Eight,” another reality TV show about a large family – this one the result of sextuplets born to a mother who, like Suleman, chose not to selectively reduce the number of embryos that “took” during an IVF treatment – is less burdened by the extremist ideology that undergirds the Duggars’ convictions, but still presents a traditional picture of large family life, with married heterosexual parents and a stay-at-home mother. …. While many observers are concerned with her apparent inability to support such a large family, the fact that she is unmarried has alone been cause enough for others to declare her family a situation of de facto child abuse” (for Joyce’s full article click here).
“…there is an increasing amount of scrutiny and disgust from many regarding the direct connection between the Ugandan anti-homosexual campaign and a conservative U.S. religious group called “The Family” — which some, including The Observer have called a ” cult” due to the requirement for core members to remain secret about their activities. Regardless of what the group is labeled, it is clear that it has been successful in recruiting high level political leaders including some US congressmen and Uganda’s president Museveni to its core values: “fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they once termed ‘totalitarianism for Christ’ ”
As quoted in the LA Times: “Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin engaged in a widespread cover-up of abuses by clergy members for decades, a “scandal on an astonishing scale” that even saw officials taking out insurance policies to protect dioceses against future claims by the victims, a commission reported Thursday after a three-year investigation” (see full article here)
Ross Douthat, a conservative writer for the New York Times and the National Review, describes how a culture of fear around sexuality is precisely the kind of culture that produces sexual abuse — and especially cover-ups of sexual abuse. Douthat concludes that:
“…you can see how it could all go bad — how a culture so intensely clerical, so politically high-handed, and so embarrassed (beyond the requirements of Christian doctrine) by human sexuality could magnify the horror of priestly pedophilia, and expand the pool of victims, by producing bishops inclined to strong-arm the problem out of public sight instead of dealing with it as Christian leaders should. (In The Faithful Departed, his account of the scandal, Philip Lawler claims that while less than five percent of priests were involved in actual abuse, over two-thirds of bishops were involved in covering it up.) I suspect it isn’t a coincidence that the worst of the priest-abuse scandals have been concentrated in Ireland and America — and indeed, in Boston, the most Irish of American cities — rather than, say, in Italy or Poland or Latin America or Asia” (see Douthat’s article here).
In her post in Sexuality & Society, Shari Dworkin writes, “While Caster Semenya’s recent “news” seems to have shocked the world, the concern about “gender verification” in sport has taken place for quite some time. The tests have changed over time…but the point has not (e.g. when women are “too good,” they must not be women). …” (see also sociologist Philip Cohen’s story about Semenya, and an update on Caster’s status in the NYT). Note that in these stories there are never any calls for parallel sex verification tests to see if men they are “too much of a man,”—a man that no other “normal” man can hope to “fairly” compete with. This is because of the specific role that sport has historically played in terms of making boys into men (when women compete, there have been numerous fears that they are masculinized and are not “normal” women).
# 4.Harsher punishments for-sex-with-minors stories, starring: Roman Polanski!
Filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 for the sexual assault of a 13 year old girl. He spent 42 days in a California prison and was released. Upon hearing of a judge’s plan to have him serve more time and possibly deport him, Polanski fled to France. In 1988 Polanski was sued by the girl he assaulted and in 1993 settled with a payment reported at around $500,000. In the years that have passed Polanski also married (in 1989), had two children, and continued on as a prolific and well regarded film maker. For reasons that are still murky in terms of timing, Polanski was arrested on Sept. 26, 2009 (32 years after the crime) at the Zurich, Switzerland airport at the request of US authorities. Polanski’s case, spanning decades and continents, offers an insight into how laws and attitudes about sex with minors has changed in the US:
The LA Times reports that “(s)tatutory rape convictions similar to Roman Polanski’s typically result in sentences at least four times longer today than the 90-day punishment a judge favored before the director fled the United States in 1978, a Times analysis of Los Angeles County court records shows. Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland on an international fugitive warrant — and his pending extradition proceedings — have sparked transatlantic debate about whether the 76-year-old Academy Award winner should serve additional time behind bars for having sex with a 13-year-old girl….The Times analyzed sentencing data to determine how L.A. County courts today handle cases in which men admit to statutory rape — also known as unlawful sex with a minor — in exchange for the dismissal of more serious rape charges, as Polanski did. The findings show that those defendants get more time than Polanski has served — even factoring in his 70-day stint in Swiss detention — but less than his critics may expect. … “Thirty years ago, sexual assault — rape and sex crimes — were treated differently,” said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney’s office. “Time and education haven’t worked for Polanski’s benefit.”
“There is no question that what Roman Polanski did to a 13 year old girl in the 1977 was wrong, and illegal. But it is also wrong to drag Polanski back to the US 31 years after the crime and have him spend an unspecified amount of time in prison. What possible good would come about by Polanski doing time for the crime? Obviously, it would not function to rehabilitate him or change him in some way. The fact that Polanski has had a stellar film career and apparently lived a law abiding life for 32 years after the crime is indicative that the case for changing Polanski is simply irrelevant.”
The details of Roman Polanski’s case lies in stark contrast to the case of Phillip Garrido, a registered repeat sex offender who was arrested earlier this year for kidnapping 11 yr old Jacee Dugard, and holding her captive and sexually abusing her for 18 years (from 1991-2009). The young Dugard bore two children out of Garrido’s abuse (now ages 11 and 15).
Despite today’s more stringent punishments for statutory rape, we hope that US jurors and judges will be able to distinguish the vast differences between the sexual crimes of Polanski and Garrido.
The Pope’s message was also heard in the US, at least among some US Catholic college students. Amanda Hess, writer for the Washington CityPaper highlights how all 3,000 students at Catholic University are now prohibited from having sex that is “disruptive” (defined as “ANY” sexual expression inconsistent with the Catholic Church including premarital sex and same sex sexuality). These rules are written into the code of student conduct. Hess states that:
“Deference to the catechism spares Catholic administrators from the awkward enterprise of referring to masturbation, condoms, or any other specific of a typical undergraduate’s sex life” … “violations to the student code can’t be absolved in typically Catholic fashion, with forgiveness administered privately after confession to a priest. At the Catholic University of America, your sins are subject to judicial review” (click here for full article).
Clearly, if the Catholic church cannot discuss sex outside of sex within marriage, they cannot discuss condoms very effectively.
#2.Backlash-against-sexual-&-reproductive-justice stories, starring: the murderer of Dr. George Tiller!
Gosh, this story is soooo last century (the 80s and 90s were full of anti-abortion terrorism stories), but unfortunately it’s still a story in 2009.
Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided late term abortions in Wichita, Kansas, was shot dead while attending Sunday Church services. Jodi Jacobson, Editor of Rh Reality Check explains the importance of Dr. Tiller’s work, as well as the cultural context for how perceptions of his work are widely inaccurate:
“In all the extensive coverage of the assassination in his church of Dr. George Tiller by a murderer affiliated with extremist right-wing groups, little has been said to shed light on what late-term abortions are, who has them and why. Instead, much of the media and talking heads pontificating on this subject have constantly focused on Tiller’s being “one of the very few doctors who perform late-term abortions,” without providing any context as to why he did so and under what circumstances. As a result, the dominant narrative is one which perpetuates an assumption that people are electing to have late-term abortions for the sake of convenience.” (To read Jacobson’s entire analysis, click here).
And finally, we’d like to end on a positive note, with a list of sexual and reproductive justice stories from 2009:
Supported starting a large prevention campaign to end HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. He formed a campaign called “Act against AIDS” and also formed an Act Against Aids Leadership Initiative AAALI) that partners with 14 of the nation’s leading African-American civic organizations in order to “integrate HIV prevention into each organization’s outreach programs.” The program refocuses national attention on the AIDS epidemic and features a media campaign called “9 1/2 minutes,” to draw attention and visibility to the fact that every 9.5 minutes, someone in the USA is infected with HIV.
And although this last bill still needs to be signed, we are expecting Obama to:
fulfill his promise to fund evidence-based, scientifically based sex education.
We are intrigued by many of this year’s sexual stories, saddened by some, and encouraged by others. May 2010 be filled with opportunities to reframe old (sexist, racist, homophobic, and sex-negative) stories into sexual stories that involve measured discussion of sexual health, sexual justice, and sexual rights.
Kari Lerum & Shari L. Dworkin, Eds. Sexuality & Society.
“Sexting” — the practice of sending sexy words and images from cell phones from person to person– has suddenly emerged as the newest social problem for American youth. News reports overwhelmingly describe sexting as a new teenage trend which is “alarming,” “dangerous,” and “shocking.” Parents of minors are told be on red alert. Sales are on the rise for “net nanny” controls, which alert parents via a text message if their child visits an “inappropriate” web site and/or sends or receives “inappropriate” email or instant messages. Parents are advised to pay extra cell phone fees to block all images–sexual or not—from their children’s phones. The underlying message of most news reports is this: if parents don’t put a stop to sexting, their children will end up traumatized, endangered, in jail, or dead. Read on, as we’re not making this up.
This sort of alarmist language, suddenly emerging as a sort of moral tsunami, is a fantastic example of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has termed a “moral panic.” According to Cohen, moral panics are reflections not of any inherent physical threat but of threats to existing moral orders. Moral panics are driven by the construction of a “folk devil” — symbolized by a group or a social movement seen as causing a threat to a particular moral order. Using this framework, the moral panic around sexting reflects deeper social fears — for example around loss of parental authority and increasing teen agency over their own sexuality. The folk devil responsible for this moral threat lives in “cyberspace” and in some cases may be “cyberspace” itself.
From what I can tell, the growing visibility of, and panic over, sexting was at first largely generated by media personalities such as Dr. Phil and Matt Lauer of the Today Show. Since then, dozens of news outlets have featured stories on sexting. Surveys on sexting have been quickly conducted and released: MTV asked teens about the prevalence of their sexting; CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents about how concerned they were about teen sexting. The results, as reported in the media are as follows: Teens are sexting like crazy, and parents are freaking out.
Dr. Phil was one of the first to discuss this on a national stage with a show in April 2009 called, “Scary Trends: Is your Child at Risk?” In the video promo for the show, Dr. Phil warns in his classic fatherly drawl: “There are some dangerous trends popping up in schools everywhere, and you may not even know if your children are getting involved.”
The camera cuts to video shots of three pairs of young white hands (two identifiably female) punching keys on a cell phone. A voiceover from deep, spooky-sounding male voice says: “The disturbing new trend, called sexting, sending nude shots from phone to phone.” (the word NUDE is flashed on screen).
Next we see and hear clips of a white woman talking about her daughter, who we gather, was a “sexter.” The spooky male voiceover comes back: “It nearly killed her daughter.” The camera shoots back to the mom, eyes pleading for Dr. Phil’s forgiveness: “We thought we were doing everything right, Dr. Phil.” Dr. Phil nods, knowingly. The Spooky voiceover states: “how to protect your children.” The camera cuts back to Dr. Phil, who points to the camera and warns: “Don’t think it’s not your kid!” (Click here to see this short promo).
Dr. Phil’s “Scary Trends” program arrived on the heels of a few stories, some tragic, found in the news in the previous weeks and months. For example, in separate cases, two teenage boys (one in Wisconsin, one in New York) were charged with “child pornography” after sharing digital photos of their girlfriends posing nude. In another case, four middle school girls in Alabama were arrested for exchanging naked photos of themselves (ABC news, March 13, 2009). In all of these cases, the photos were being exchanged for and among peers. None of these photos were sold. And yet, teens taking pictures of themselves, their partners, and/or their friends are now being labeled and punished as child pornographers by the criminal justice system.
The most tragic stories however are of two teen girl suicides; both killed themselves after they were viciously bullied, sexually shamed, and socially isolated from their peers. In both cases the girls were inadequately defended, and even further shamed and punished by, teachers, school administrators, and parents. Jesse Logan, a vivacious 18 year-old from Ohio hanged herself in her bedroom after being targeted for torment by other girls at school. Jesse had sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, and in retaliation when they broke up the boyfriend sent the photo to a group of younger girls. The younger girls ran with the photo, using it as a powerful social shaming tool (which of course can only work within a social context where girls’ sexuality is shameful). In an interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show, Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, said that:
“…she never knew the full extent of her daughter’s anguish until it was too late. Cynthia Logan only learned there was a problem at all when she started getting daily letters from her daughter’s school reporting that the young woman was skipping school.
“I only had snapshots, bits and pieces, until the very last semester of school,” Logan told Lauer. She took away her daughter’s car and drove her to school herself, but Jesse still skipped classes. She told her mother there were pictures involved and that a group of younger girls who had received them were harassing her, calling her vicious names, even throwing objects at her. But she didn’t realize the full extent of her daughter’s despair. “She was being attacked and tortured,” Logan said.
“When she would come to school, she would always hear, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who sent the picture. She’s just a whore,’ ” Jesse’s friend, Lauren Taylor, told NBC News.
Logan said that officials at Sycamore High School were aware of the harassment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. She said that a school official offered only to go to one of the girls who had the pictures and tell her to delete them from her phone and never speak to Jesse again. That girl was 16. Logan suggested talking to the parents of the girls who were bullying Jesse, but her daughter said that would only open her to even more ridicule.
In this same interview with Matt Lauer, Cynthia Logan described her unsuccessful legal attempts (she tried six attorneys) to hold school officials accountable for not intervening in the bullying of her daughter. Lauer turned to his guest, Parry Aftab, described as “an Internet security expert and activist in the battle to protect teens from the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.” In a stunning re-direction of the issue of school accountability for creating bully-free zones, Aftab brought the discussion back to laws about child pornography:
“If somebody’s under the age of 18, it’s child pornography, and even the girl that posted the pictures can be charged. They could be registered sex offenders at the end of all of this. Even at the age of 18, because it was sent to somebody under age, it’s disseminating pornography to a minor. There are criminal charges that could be made here.”
Here’s the take home message we get from the Today Show: don’t worry about madonna/whore dichotomies that are spread among youth and adults. The main thing we should be concerned with is that Jesse “fell victim to the perils of the Internet and the easy exchange of information on cell phones.” So let’s be clear: The source of Jesse’s anguish and eventual suicide is not the unrelenting and unchecked bullying at school but the fact that cyberspace (folk devil that it is) made her into a perpetrator of child pornography. And don’t forget, parents: child pornographers go to jail, and you don’t want your kid to go to jail.
Hope Witsell was only 13 when she killed herself in her bedroom, also by hanging. Hope, a girl from a conservative Christian Florida family, had sent a topless photo of herself to a boy crush. The boy showed the photo to a friend, who embraced the opportunity to gain social power by sharing it widely with kids in that school and neighboring schools. The following comes from a story about Hope on Today, MSNBC.com:
While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.
“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.
Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope wrote, “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore. I’m too inexperienced. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”
Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.
Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.
In her interview on the Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Hope’s mother was joined, just as Jesse’s mom was, by the same Parry Aftab, proponent of internet safety measures. Again, Aftab directed the viewers away from thinking about adult accountability in protecting the rights of teens to not be shamed and bullied about their bodies. In fact, parents and their girls are all innocent here in Aftab’s view. Aftab even reassured Hope’s mother that her child wasn’t a bad girl; in fact, Aftab points out that Hope’s suicide is actually a sign that she came from a “good” home because kids with good morals have more guilt when they stray sexually:
Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.” (Parry Afteb, speaking to Hope Witsell’s mother on the Today Show).
Dr. Phil, the Today Show, and countless other media sources are doing teens, and especially girls a great disservice by offering content, tone, and implications of their sexting panic. Instead, a much more helpful and interesting perspective on the issue would be to explore the following questions and lines of reasoning:
What are the gendered sexual, class, and race dynamics of the panic over sexting? It seems that white “good” girls are at most “risk”: let’s talk about why, and what it is that is at stake! Should we panic over boys as well?
Why do so many adults remain complicit in the sexual shaming and bullying of kids?What models can be used to talk openly about sexuality at school, and to create a safe learning environment for all kids regardless of their sexual expressions?
Related to the above, how do school curriculums that teach/preach abstinence only sex education (which implicitly and explicitly underscore a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) encourage and facilitate the bullying and shaming of girls? How do they set up a gendered system that assumes that girls are usually sexual victims and boys are usually predators?
How can sexual health and justice scholars work with parents, teachers, school administrators, and teen advocates around these issues?
How does a concern with protecting girls’ sexual purity come at the expense of NOT protecting their sexual and human rights?
Recommended readings & resources:
Cohen, Stanley. 1972 (reprinted in 1980, 1987, 2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Routledge: NY.
Miller, Alice. M. 2004. “Sexuality, Violence against Women, and Human Rights: Women make Demands and Ladies get Protection.” Health and Human Rights 7, 2.
The Safe Schools Coalition focuses on providing safe and supportive school environments for GLBT students. This model is useful for understanding how a rights based — versus a shame based — approach can be used in cases of school-based sexual bullying.
A recent article in the British Telegraph reports that the government of the Spanish region of Extremadura is funding a new sexuality education campaign directed at teens aged 14-17. The campaign takes an empowerment approach towards teens and sexual pleasure, leading with the slogan, “Pleasure is in your own hands.” Through hip fanzines, flyers and workshops, the campaign provides sex positive information about masturbation, as well as contraception and self-respect. Full text of the Telegraph’s article can be found here
As might be expected, religious conservatives in Spain (affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church) are not happy with the pleasure campaign: the Telegraph quotes Hernández Carrón of the right wing People’s party as saying, “‘(t)his is an intimate subject that should be dealt with at home.'” He complains further that “(w)e have become the laughing stock of Spain.”
Despite conservative opposition, this move is part of a larger shift within more progressive sexual health circles towards a “sex positive” perspective on sexuality and sexual pleasure. Indeed, in their Declaration of Sexual Rights, the World Association for Sexual Health lists sexual pleasure as #5 out of 11 sexual rights:
#5. The right to sexual pleasure.Sexual pleasure, including autoeroticism, is a source of physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual well-being.
How did it come to be that pleasuring one’s own body came to be seen as forbidden to begin with? In his book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003), Thomas Laqueuer (UC Berkeley, History) traces some of this history to the Enlightenment concept of “onania” (which claims that masturbation actually causes physical harm): “The dangers of onanism became a key concern of Enlightenment thinkers, whose preoccupation with social order made them see this inherently private activity as self-abuse in the most literal sense” (review in The New Yorker). This same review in The New Yorker rightly points out that sources of guilt and sexual shame also most certainly existed prior to and well beyond the touches of Western European Enlightenment.
“Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”137 “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”138
Sexuality education and the right to sexual pleasure are not the only areas where Spain is becoming a leader in progressive sexuality policy; in 2005 Spain also became one of just five nations that currently recognize gay marriage. [along with the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Canada (2005), South Africa (2006)]. Additionally, Norway and Sweden have both recently passed legislation of gender-neutral marriage bills (Jan. 1, 2009 and May 1, 2009)– thus effectively also legalizing same-sex marriage.
Laqueur, Thomas W. 2003. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Zone Books.
Debates about Gardasil (aka the “cervical cancer vaccine”) have up until this point focused on girls and young women. By focusing on cervical cancer, rather than on HPV (what the vaccine is really for) — debates on this issue have completely sidestepped around the issue that, of course, boys and men get HPV too. Shouldn’t they also get vaccinated? What will happen now that the debate isn’t just about girls’ sexuality?
I came across this story through sister sociologist/Huffington post blogger, Abby Ferber. In her post, entitled “Cervix Not Required,” Ferber interviews Adina Nack, professor of medical sociology and sexuality studies at California Lutheran University and author of the the book, Damaged Goods? Women Living with incurable Sexually Transmited Diseases (Temple U. Press, 2008). I quote from Ferber’s interview with Nack below:
Ferber: Last Friday, the FDA approved the Gardasil vaccine for use in boys and men ages 9 to 26 years old. When I heard this news, I was surprised. My daughter received the vaccine from her physician, and I had always thought of this as a “cervical cancer vaccine.” The reality, however, is that this is a HPV vaccine, to guard against the sexually transmitted Human Papillomavirus. Why, however, is it only now being approved for males, when it was approved three years ago for females? … Why do you think Merck first sought FDA approval of Gardasil only for women?
Nack: Only going through the FDA testing and approval process for women allowed Merck to brand Gardasil as a ‘cervical cancer’ vaccine. Prior to the recent FDA approval of Gardasil for use on male patients, most Gardasil ads have claimed to empower girls and young women with a new tool to protect against cervical cancer. But, it is not clear how many Americans have understood that they were being sold a vaccine designed to protect against a STI.
Ferber: In your book and blog posts, you talk about the stigma connected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) being gender-based. How are attitudes about STIs reflected in the initial branding and marketing of Gardasil as a cervical cancer vaccine?
Nack:As early as 2005, some organizations have been outing Gardasil as a STI vaccine and arguing that inoculating young adolescents against HPV would encourage teenage sexual promiscuity. The heads of various “family values” groups publicly declared that they would not vaccinate their own children. So, some have questioned whether Merck’s decisions to only seek initial FDA approval for female use and to brand it a ‘cervical cancer’ vaccine may have been motivated by a desire to distance the vaccine (and those who receive it) from the negative stereotypes we have about STIs and the types of people who contract them. On one hand, it is reasonable to assume that most U.S. parents would not be eager to have their daughters, as young as 9 years old, vaccinated against 4 strains of a virus that is primarily transmitted by sexual contact. After all, studies have shown that we’re more likely to assign negative traits – like promiscuity, irresponsibility, naivety, and unintelligence – to girls and women who contract STIs than to boys and men who contract the same infections. The Council on Contemporary Families has a forthcoming study showing that, while equality has increased in many areas, sexual-behavior double standards persist. In the U.S. and many other countries, a female patient who seeks out a STI vaccine often has reason to worry that others will label her a ‘bad girl’ or ‘fallen woman.’ We are more likely to see a ‘cervical cancer’ vaccine as something that good girls and chaste women are justified in seeking out (emphasis mine).
Ferber: If this strategy might have increased the numbers of girls/women receiving the vaccine, then what is the problem?
Nack:It can be argued that the success of branding Gardasil as a cervical cancer vaccine has come with serious public health costs. How can we account for the boys and men who have been unable to legally access this for the last 3 years, a time period in which many of them (and their sexual partners) could have been protected against HPV-related diseases and cancers? Prevention and early detection is especially important for HPV infections because we do not yet have a true ‘HPV test’ or medical cure. By not seeking FDA approval for both male and female patients at the same time, this vaccine’s potential benefit to the public was limited. The FDA’s recent decision to approve male Gardasil has confirmed that Merck sold us a STI vaccine disguised as a cancer vaccine. Despite the messages in Merck’s successful female Gardasil campaign, cervical cancer has never been the only reason to care about the HPV pandemic: medical studies have connected HPV to oral cancers and anogenital cancers in both female and male patients (emphasis mine).
Ferber: You have made the point that the Gardasil ad campaign was a primary source of HPV information for many who had not previously been educated about this STI – what do you see as the downsides to this?
Nack: By obscuring the fact that HPV is a STI in its marketing of Gardasil, Merck missed a chance to educate us about this highly contagious family of viruses: one can contract HPV from the types of skin-to-skin contact that can take place even when sexual partners are using barrier methods, like condoms or dental dams. Given the current trends in U.S. teen sexual attitudes and behaviors, I’m also concerned about how many young people are at risk for contracting HPV because they are engaging in oral sex or anal sex to remain a ‘virgin.’ There has yet to be a large-scale public health campaign to educate the U.S. public about the truth of HPV, so Merck’s Gardasil marketing materials may have been the first (and sometimes only) ‘education’ about HPV for many Americans. For teens and young adults whose primary source of HPV information came from Gardasil ads, then what is the public health damage of not clearly understanding that HPV is sexually transmitted? What about not realizing that HPV can infect and have serious health consequences for boys/men? (emphasis mine).
Ferber: Why do you see de-stigmatizing STIs as key to improving sexual health in the U.S.?
Nack: With Gardasil now fully unmasked as the HPV vaccine it has always been, I’m hopeful that we will stop believing the myths that HPV is only a concern for females and that only promiscuous people get STIs. The availability of safe and effective STI vaccines is something to celebrate. Gardasil’s new approval for use by boys/men is an important opportunity to destroy longstanding myths. To de-stigmatize HPV is to stop viewing it – or any other STI – as a sign of immorality. Through my website, I receive emails every week from those whose genital HPV and herpes infections have damaged not only their health but also their self esteem, their relationships, and their social reputations. Eliminating the shameful stigma of STIs could free millions of infected women and men from social and psychological traumas and harm public health. Viewing these kinds of infections as medical conditions would allow STI patients to focus on pursuing treatment options that not only allow them to manage their own symptoms but also make them less likely to infect others. Destigmatizing STIs may also increase the odds that a newly diagnosed person will disclose their sexual health status to their sexual partner. New social attitudes and better public health education about STIs can prepare Americans to support future STI/HIV vaccination programs.
Ferber: As a result of marketing Gardasil as a cervical cancer drug for girls and women only, scores of males and their partners have unnecessarily contracted HPV over the past three years; the full range of health consequences of HPV have been ignored, and stereotypes and stigmas around STIs remain entrenched. Astoundingly, the American Social Health Association reports that “about 5.5 million new genital HPV cases occur each year — this is about 1/3 of all new STD infections.” Clearly, what we need is open and honest education about HPV and other STIs. We have allowed our stereotypes about women’s sexuality and STIs to put our public health at greater risk.
During the first week of October (National Sex Education week, and the beginning of Sex Education month) I posted a story about Orrin Hatch’s proposal to restore $50 million a year in federal funding to abstinence-only sex education. Now that we are in the last week of Sex Education month, it is oddly fitting that some of our STI education has been taken over by private industry (in this case, Merck’s marketing campaign about the Gardasil vaccine.) Let’s hope and lobby so that kids are not reliant solely upon on commercial advertisements for their sexual health information.
I learned this morning that this first week of October is National Sex Education week (I’m not sure how these weeks get to be declared, but a quick google search confirms that a number of reproductive health organizations are on board).
“Abstinence education works” … “My amendment restores a vital funding stream so that teens and parents have the option to participate in programs that have demonstrated success in reducing teen sexual activity and, consequently, teen pregnancies.”
I thought we all decided that abstinence only education doesn’t work. And I don’t mean “we” as in the pro-choice reproductive rights community—I mean students, teachers, parents, school boards, and even the president.
But I guess some members of congress didn’t get the memo.
It *is* really striking how, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, Abstinence-only proponents insist that this form of education “works.”
But this is because the movement toward more abstinence-only approaches is driven almost entirely by conservative religious ideology, not scientifically reliable evidence.
Virtually no public health professionals and no credible scientific assessments support it (Santelli et al 2006c). In fact, public health scholars broadly support comprehensive sex education (Duberstein et al 2006) and have offered vociferous critiques of abstinence based approaches and policies, both domestically (Fortenberry 2005; Santelli et al. 2006 et al. 2006a; 2006b; Dworkin and Santelli 2007) and internationally (Human Rights Watch 2004; Cohen and Tate, 2005). The majority of parents in the United States also report that they prefer comprehensive sex education for their children (Henry Kaiser Family Foundation 1998; National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy 2003).
Fortunately, Hatch’s proposal (which barely passed in the Senate Finance Committee by 12-11), will still need House and Senate approval. Let’s hope that our Representatives in the House and Senate consult with credible public health researchers before they vote on this important topic.
Cohen, J. and Tate, T. (2005). “The less they know, the better: Abstinence-only HIV/AIDS programs in Uganda.” Human Rights Watch. Available: http://hrw.org;reports/2005/uganda0305/uganda0305.pdf.
Dworkin, S. and Santelli, J. (2007). “Do Abstinence-Plus Interventions Reduce Sexual Risk Behavior among Youth?” PLoS Medicine 4, 9, e276.
Fortenberry, J.D. (2005). “The Limits of abstinence-only in preventing sexually transmitted infections.” Journal of Adolescent Health 36, 269-270.
Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/ABC Television. 1998. Sex in the 90s: 1998 National Survey of Americans on Sex and Sexual Health.
Human Rights Watch. (2004). “The Philippines. Unprotected: Sex, Condoms, and the Human Right to Health.” New York: Human Rights Watch, May 2004.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. 2003. With One Voice: America’s Adults and Teens Sounds Off About Teen Pregnancy. Washington, D.C.: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Santelli, J.S. et al. (2006a). “Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs.” Journal of Adolescent Health 38, 72-81.
Santelli, J.S. et al. (2006b). “Abstinence-only education policies and programs: Aposition paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine.” Journal of Adolescent Health 38, 83-87.
Santelli, J.S. et al. (2006c). Letters to the Editor. “The Authors Reply.” Journal of Adolescent Health 39, 152-153.
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