This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
Every year, I get dozens of calls and emails from university groups, professors, fraternities and sororities, and residential assistants, asking about sex education presentations. I send trained educators to them to talk about sex-positivity, the physiology of pleasure (as compared to “reproductive anatomy”), safer sex, body image, sex toys, sexual diversity, relationships and communication, and many other topics. It’s a valuable part of our mission to provide accurate, non-judgmental information about sex, pleasure, and relationships to young adults.
So I was curious to read Margaret Brooks’ article ‘Sex Week’ Should Arouse Caution Most of All, in which she raises both questions and fears about these sorts of programs. (Update: here’s the full text of her article.) For example, she starts off her piece with this:
Sex-toy raffles and giveaways? Workshops featuring graphic, violent pornography and simulated sex techniques? Teaching about polyamory but not about monogamy or abstinence?
All those events have transpired recently on campuses across the country—perhaps unbeknownst to many parents, alumni, and even professors.
What a marvelous way to spark a moral panic! Parents, administrators- beware! Brooks manages to make it sound like this is some clandestine gathering. It almost sounds to me like you need to have the secret password to get in, even though these events are well-publicized. This isn’t the first place in her article that Books tries to inspire fear but she sure does get it in early.
Brooks also seems to have a problem with teaching people about sexual pleasure:
Judging from the program descriptions, the emphasis of most Sex Week programming seems to be more on providing entertainment and promoting pleasure, rather than teaching students about sexual health and safety.
After years of abstinence-only propaganda, college students are thirsty for the knowledge they need to navigate through relationships and sexuality. Having been a speaker at these sorts of workshops, I can tell you that college-age people (who are almost all legal adults) have been denied the information they need and have been scared and shamed into silence and secrecy.
In this context, talking about pleasure is an important part of helping them develop the skills they need. For example, Good Vibrations offers a workshop called Sexy Safer Sex because one of the barriers to safer sex is the perception that there’s no way to do it that isn’t a mood-killer. Our participants are always amazed at how easy it is to have sex that is fun and safer, which makes it more likely that they’ll actually use condoms, lubricants, and gloves. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t talk about pleasure.
When it’s done right, sex education (for adults) integrates these two pieces. So I have news for you, Professor Brooks- it’s not an either/or. And in any case, what exactly is wrong with teaching people how to have sex that brings them pleasure? One of the biggest tragedies that results from our erotophobic culture is that so many people don’t know how to experience sexual pleasure. Despite the myths, it doesn’t always happen when “nature takes its course” and a little information can avoid years of heartbreak and shame.
Further, if you take a look at the topics which were covered, you’ll see that subjects like sex & disability, communication, transgender issues, healing from sexual assault, and safer sex were all part of the event. These are all very important aspects of human sexuality that get short shrift in our culture and get no mention at all in standard high school “health” classes, much less the abstinence programs that have been the standard for several years. So when Brooks complains about a “lack of balance,” what she’s really taking issue with is actually one attempt to bring balance back to sex education for young adults.
As Brooks notes, there has been some controversy around these events. Among other occasions, she mentions that:
And in March, the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity, a nonprofit organization founded by five Brown alumni, publicly questioned the use of university funds for Brown’s Sex Week and the lack of other points of view being presented during the event.
If you go to the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity post on the Brown event, you’ll see that the reason they had a problem was that:
During Sex Week, for example, most of the events seemed to focus on extolling the virtues of alternative, non-heteronormative sexual lifestyles and activities. We wanted to know why there wasn’t an event that discussed the benefits of abstinence and chastity
Perhaps the reason that Brown Sex Week didn’t include these topics is that they’re already very well-known to pretty much everyone. Almost everywhere you look, you’ll see messages of heteronormativity. When was the last time you saw a billboard, a movie, or a sermon about anything other than heterosexuality (unless it was specifically targeting LGBTQ folks)? And after years of ineffective messages around abstinence passing for sex education, do college students really need more? Actually, if someone wanted to offer the facts and research about abstinence, that’d be great, but I don’t think that’s what they’re suggesting.
Now, I have to say that I agree with Brooks around some things. Concerns about privacy, student safety, the qualifications of the presenters and their ability to address the full range of concerns and questions people have- these are all important topics.
I also agree with her that universities need to be more proactive about oversight of outside speakers. But I take issue when she says things like, “Ideally, sex education should be taught entirely by the college’s permanent faculty or staff.” Most college professors or staff are no more qualified to teach about sex than I am to teach about fixing motorcycles. If you want a sex educator, then hire a sex educator. Yes, “many people claim to be ‘sex educators’ nowadays” and it’s a real problem. So how about bringing in someone who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists? Or someone with other credentials and experience?
And does she really need to end with this?
It is clear that many people and organizations claim to be experts in the field of sex education and are eager to gain access to the hearts, minds, and yes, perhaps even the bodies of our college students.
Have there been any situations of a presenter trying to “gain access to the bodies of college students,” or is this simply another fear-mongering tactic? Brooks has made it sound like sex educators are all sexual predators who are looking to get into your children’s pants.
So there you have it. While Brooks raises some important points, she bookends her piece with not-so-subtle messages of fear. That should tell you more about her agenda than anything else.