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).

In what seems to NOT be a coincidence in timing, Rebublican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced a proposal this week to restore $50 million a year in federal funding to abstinence-only sex education (the same funding that Obama has vowed to eliminate).

In his statement to the press, Hatch proclaims that:

Orrin Hatch

“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.”

In response to this news, Elisabeth Garber-Paul of RH Reality Check writes:

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.





On August 24th, 2009, CDC representatives at the National HIV Conference in Atlanta, Georgia reported that gay men and other MSM (men who have sex with men) are 50 times more likely to have HIV than heterosexual women or straight men. The report is not yet available at the CDC website and interestingly, only the “gay” newspapers have picked it up as a worthy news story (thus far).

This statistic is reported as confirming, in emphatic terms, the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities. It also recognizes that the highest impact is on African-American men. This announcement is crucial in a few key ways:

First, while there is no cure for HIV or AIDS (and a partially effective vaccine–soon to be another post), many in the US have had access to anti retroviral medications (ARVs) for decades. Many people therefore assume that HIV prevalence has leveled off and that there are very few NEW HIV cases in the US. This is simply not the case. We have a truly problematic epidemic here in the US, and the numbers clearly show us that certain populations are even more at risk than we knew.

This leads me to my second point: Our resources should be aligned to reflect where the risk is. It is not clear that this is happening, particularly in communities of color.

This new announcement tells us, in a convincing and unrelenting way that there is a disproportionate impact on MSM.

So, it’s clear that there’s a huge problem here. Still, I have some critical questions about this report.

1)  First, is there a differential risk between gay men, bi men, and MSM who may not identify as “gay” or “bi” ? Why not report the difference in risk between gay men, bi men, and MSM?

2)  Second, what is the difference between:

a) the risk among gay men, bi men, and MSM (as a category and separately, since they lumped them all together) compared to risk among heterosexual women and b) the risk among gay men, bi men, and MSM (as a category and separately) compared to risk among heterosexual men?

If there is a difference there, shouldn’t we also report that? If we don’t separate out analyses (a) and (b), don’t we unnecessarily set up a “heterosexual” and “minority sexuality” binary?

3)  Further, given that (a) and (b) were not analyzed and presented and given that heterosexual women are experiencing rapid increases in risk in some populations, how can we assure that resources aren’t needlessly pulled from them due to the way the data is being presented?

I have more thoughts, but I’ll stop there for now. There are many interesting framings of data that we can offer that rely on categories of gender or sexuality. We should do both at once. I am proud of my Centers for Disease Control for coming out, so to speak, with these newest figures, and as usual, I look forward to even more figures if these are also bravely revealed. Nuance, not simplicity helps—just as we find in media sound bites.

Turk/Greek marriage an act of resistanceTwo lovers bravely crossing social lines of family ties, class, ethnicity, race, religion, and more, all in the name of love. It’s the time worn story of Romeo and Juliet. The latest media rendition of this story comes from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a land of both love (considered to be “the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love”) and war (literally divided by ethnic warfare between Turkish and Greek Cypriots for more than three decades.)

Here’s a clip from the news story about Murat Kanati (a Turkish Cypriot) and Georgia Chappa (a Greek Cypriot):

…like the other 800,000 Greek Cypriots and 200,000 Turkish Cypriots, Chappa and Kanatli grew up in total isolation from each other, on an island less than half the size of New Jersey (a third the size of Belgium).

Change came in 2003, when Turkish Cypriot authorities opened four checkpoints to allow movement between the two sides. One of those who came across was Kanatli. He met Chappa at an inter-communal gathering in Nicosia the following year.

They quickly discovered they had a common interest — breaking down barriers. Chappa, 38, a clinical dietitian, is involved with a women’s group, Hands Across the Divide. Kanatli, 36, leads the New Cyprus Party, a small leftist group that preaches rapprochement.

Romance followed, and so did trouble.

At first they kept their families in the dark, and when they finally let out the secret, there were misgivings. “Both sets of parents I guess, they tried not to meet, or to get to know, find out about the person their child was going out with because it was easier to keep to … the stereotype,” … said Chappa…

But things gradually eased up. “The last family meetings for both parents, it’s more relaxed,” says Kanatli. “They get it as a relationship between one girl and one boy…we’ve come to that stage.”

Stories like this have fueled the likes of William Shakespeare and Walt Disney for eons.  However for those looking for an analysis of these stories, Sociologist William Goode’s classic 1959 article, “The theoretical importance of love” (American Sociological Review) continues to be a valuable guide.

Goode is one of the first to offer a global theory of love – specifically, on the social regulation of love (and hence, sexuality). He (and later social historians such as Stephanie Coontz) explains that historically, economic alliances, not love, were the basis of marriage. Sexual unions were a separate matter from both love and marriage. But the control of love and sexuality becomes particularly important when property and social status is at stake. Since love alliances are potentially disruptive of lineages and class strata, they must be regulated.

Goode labels and describe 5 types of love regulation seen historically and globally: child marriage, kinship rules, social isolation, close supervision, and “formally free.”

Regardless of the severity of regulation, the regulation of love and sexuality works to maintain distinctions between outsiders and insiders. It also maintains class, race, and gender hierarchies (with people “higher up” being more concerned with love regulations).  Based on this principle, we can predict that highly stratified societies (by class, race, religion or other criteria) will be more concerned with love regulation than less stratified societies.

As Cyprus becomes gradually less stratified between Turks and Greeks, the regulation of love between those groups will loosen. Ironically enough, though, it is possible that the loosening of this ethnic regulation may be facilitated by the rising visibility of a new “outsider”:  the gay Cypriot.  As the groom in this story states: “They get it as a relationship between one girl and one boy…we’ve come to that stage.”

Image from KUOW weekdayRecently I was invited to be a guest on Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW (94.9 FM). The topic: “The Future of Adult Entertainment in Seattle.” If you don’t want to spend the next hour listening to the entire program (I come in about 20 mins into the show) here’s a recap with some extra points that I didn’t have time for on the air.

Strip clubs are a point of contention in many communities in the US. Despite its liberal reputation, Seattle is no different. When the Seattle City council recently voted to lift a moratorium on construction of new adult businesses, familiar concerns began to be aired.

Across the US, arguments against strip clubs (and adult entertainment in general) tend to come in two or three forms:

  1. Strip clubs are bad for neighborhoods (i.e. causing increases in crime & declines in property values).
  2. Strip clubs are bad for families and children (creating inappropriate role models for children).
  3. Occasionally in these community debates, some also argue that strip clubs are bad for women  (For space purposes, I will take up #3 in later blog posts).

There are a number of rebuttals to these arguments. First, regarding the argument that strip clubs cause increases in crime and declines in property values:

  • Although many people believe that crime rates are higher around strip clubs and other adult businesses, studies have repeatedly found that this is not true.
  • More complex is the concern about declining real estate values. Many people believe that strip clubs actually “cause” declines in surrounding property value. While at times there is a correlation between the two, it is important to examine how developers and policy makers shape this connection. Real estate developers can be and are major players in adult entertainment regulation; in Seattle, real estate interests were crucial in the redevelopment of First Avenue (AKA “flesh avenue”).
  • Why are real estate developers so invested in matters related to commodified sexuality? Although real estate developers may not personally oppose adult entertainment, they are often faced with economic and emotional hurdles:  1) Zoning laws that prohibit adult businesses within a certain zone of single family homes, schools, churches (thus, if a developer wants to construct single family homes in an area, he or she has a strong economic incentive to oppose the existence of strip clubs in that area), and 2) The assumption that adult entertainment businesses are inherently sleazy, dangerous, scary places (which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy). By marginalizing adult businesses to lonely highway roads and industrial areas, this fulfills the expectation that adult businesses should be hidden. It also means that sexual businesses owners are not expected to contribute as community partners in civic matters.
  • There are examples in Seattle that defy the expectation that sex in the pubic sphere is inherently scary, dangerous, and mutually exclusive to a healthy community. Two well known counter-examples are the Lusty Lady (a peep show across the street from the Seattle Art Museum) and Babeland (a sex toy store). For many years, both have playfully, peacefully, and productively coexisted with other businesses, community groups, and high end condos.
  • In sum, the association between declining real estate values and strip clubs is neither obvious nor inherent, and certainly not causal. In some cases there may even be a positive relationship.

The second main argument against strip clubs – that these establishments are bad for families and children –assumes that adult business employees are hostile and harmful to minors (either specifically, or in general, just by their presence). One proposition I posed for the radio audience, and will pose for readers here as well, is the advantage of using the topic of strip clubs as a way to open up, rather than close down, conversation between parents and kids.

Sexual literacy and media literacy are both increasingly important in our media saturated world. Scholars in these fields consistently stress the need not to censor material simply due to sexual material, but rather to have thoughtful discussions.  Whether these discussions are on the radio, online, in the classroom, or at the dinner table, thoughtful policy comes from curiosity about the connections between personal morals and cultural, political, and economic realities.

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woman slouchedWelcome to the new Contexts.org blog, Sexuality & Society!

This blog is dedicated to exploring connections between sexuality, social institutions, cultural practices, sexual health, and policy. If you are interested in being a contributor to this blog please contact us. We are excited to begin this adventure in blogging with you!

Kari Lerum, Ph.D., University of Washington, Bothell

Shari Dworkin, Ph.D., M.S., University of California, San Francisco

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