Better Safe Than Never

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Sex and Gender

2005 Final Web Papers

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Better Safe Than Never

Elle Endre-Stacy

Throughout America's history there has been a considerably sex-negative political atmosphere. This has, in turn, resulted in some of the highest rates of STDs, and teen pregnancies in the industrialized world. Political figures in America's history who have who have brought up the possibility of teaching sex education in K1-12 public schools have been ostracized or fired from their positions. The most famous Political Figure was Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general who advocated for the teaching of masturbation as a healthy practice to school age children, who was asked to step down from her position. Instead of fighting a losing battle with sex-negative proponents, this paper proposes a new venue for teaching comprehensive sex education to America's rising adults: College. While this may seem like too late in the game to start talking about comprehensive safe, and safer-sex ('safer' meaning beyond contraceptive health, including healthy relationships and healthy lifestyle habits), this paper argues a better-late-than-never approach...

When Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast on live television during the 2004 Super Bowl, he unleashed a massive uproar over the question of public indecency. Over half a million people have protested to the Federal Communications Commission about the incident, more than twice the number that complained to the F.C.C. in all of 2003. As a result, on 11 March, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly (391-22) in support of a bill on broadcast indecency (Wikapedia). The measure would increase fines to as much as $500,000 (up from $27,500) per incident (Wikapedia). However laws against so-called "indecent acts" are far from new (Rubin p. 7). The Comstock Act of 1873, named for Anthony Comstock, made it a federal crime to make, advertise, sell, possess, send through the mail, or import books or pictures deemed obscene (Rubin p.7). It also banned contraceptive or abortive drugs, devices, and information about them. Most states passed their own anti-obscenity laws at this time. In 1910 The Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Act went on to criminalize prostitution, which has caused considerable health and safety issues for sex-workers to date.


The United States is pathologically, and hypocritically sex-negative. It lives and breaths sex, flaunting it in ads, TV soaps and movies. Yet the nation's obscenity laws and politics refuses to acknowledge that its existence, unless a politically correct line is crossed. Nipplegate is an example of such a line crossing: while it may have been perfectly ok for Janet Jackson to be dancing half naked on Prime Time Televison, the exposure of her nipple was considered "obscene" (Wikapedia). Gayle Rubin speaks of the history and influence of the U.S. anti-sex federal laws from the beginning of the 19th century through the 1980's on relationships and societies. She explains America's sex-negative modern history that stems from religious, Victorian morality, and fear of emerging systems of eroticism. Very early on in its history the united states criminalized sodomy, sex toys, and even fellatio in many states. The 1940s through the 1970s brought homosexual witch-hunts, the grouping of deviant sexualities and eroticism with child molestation, pornography and communism (Rubin p.7). Notably, these actions were not simply about enforcing a religious ideology. They came as a response to the emerging modern erotic system. They came as a response to the flux of pornography, out gay and lesbians in the workforce, and the expansion of the commercial sex industry. The 1950s were an especially good example of formative yet repressed times for sexuality: homosexual literature was flourishing, and gay rights organizations were forming, along side a right-wing sexual counter-offensive (Rubin, p. 44). The notion that sex is bad for the young was chiseled into extensive social and legal structures at this time, right along side the criminalizing of gay men as the stereotypical child molester (Rubin, p. 5). Thus it has been a collective sex-negative history which has helped to perpetuate itself which has brought us to date. The lack of sex education in schools are a key example of the current reality of these histories.


Sexuality is broken down in the United States into two categories the insiders: those who are allowed to carefully experience sex within the right rules, and the outsiders: all other forms of sexuality. Sex work is an example of an outsider form of sexuality. Sex work has been criminalized as well marginalized, yet still flourishes in America as a trade. This has our sex workers many times without health coverage or the resources they need to stay safe. Sex is free from sin if in state sanctified, heterosexual, same-generational, monogamous marriage, however, as teen pregnancy ratings, and rape statistics show, this is not the only sex that people are participating in. Even if a married couple were to stay within the politically correct boundaries, sex is still only considered wholly legitimate if it is pro-creational, and creates a family unit. If knowledge of sex is harmful to children, an idea which Ruben discusses, gained ground in the 1950s, the "mother", the "care giver", must therefore be the anti-sex. This strips a woman of her sexual expression, and the last space for an accepted sexual space for women generally. On the flip side, the lack of honest discussion about sex, and sexuality with America's children drives our children's natural curiosity underground. Their natural exploration comes loaded with taboos, guilt and shame towards their bodies. Unavailability of birth control pills without a complete exam drives many young girls away because of the shame they have learnt to feel towards sex and their bodies. This shame has manifested itself into a vacuum of talk related to healthy sexual habits, and can be seen the rise of teen pregnancy and STD ratings. The major focus of this essay concerns the politically incorrect line-crossing that comes with teaching youth about their bodies and themselves through comprehensive sex education. sex education offers a tangible solution to these negative statistics, but much of the shame and unhealthy behavior that goes hand-in-hand with it. the current lack of sex education is not only a key indicator of the way in which sex-negativity has become so entrenched in our politics, it is also the root cause for avoiding further generations of sex-negative politics.

While I may ultimately advocate for something other, It is vital that Congress begin to recognize that sex education is just as important as sanitation, chlorination , immunization, pasteurization and fluoridation as a public health and quality of life issue. It is important to stop teaching children to fear sex and their bodies if nothing else than for the health of the next generation. Comprehensive sex education in schools starting early on in America's public schools, much in the same way as it does in Sweden, would, in the long run, be the best-case-scenario.

Sweden's sex education in schools considers the reproductive system just as important as the digestive, respiratory or nervous systems. Swedish sexuality education operates on four levels. In general, at the lowest level, education for pupils age 7 to 10 years deals with menstruation, intercourse, masturbation, contraceptives, fertilization, pregnancy, and childbirth (Encyclopedia on Sexuality). The same topics are dealt with at higher levels, adjusted to the students' age and maturity. At the middle level, ages 10 to 13, added topics include the physical development at puberty, venereal diseases, homosexuality, exhibitionism, and pedophilia (Encyclopedia on Sexuality). On the upper level, ages 13 to 16, added topics include: petting, different views of sex roles, premarital relations, marriage and family including the views in some non-Christian views, abortion, pornography, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and "safer sex," and where to go for further information and advice (Encyclopedia on Sexuality). On the college level are included sexual desire, with its variations in the orientation and strength, falling in love, sexual problems and dysfunctions, ethical and religious viewpoints on contraception and abortion, societal support for the family (family law), sexual problems of certain immigrant groups, and the problem of world population. (Encyclopedia on Sexuality). In the United States many parents have also grown up in a sex-negative political climate, and would prefer to think that their children are not having sex, resulting in millions of unwanted pregnancies. Swedish teens are as sexually active as American teens, however pregnancy due to failure of contraception is usually followed by abortion, which is also available to all, regardless of income. The incidence of teenage pregnancy, abortion, STDs and AIDS is far lower than in the U.S..

Unlike Sweden, however, the average citizen in the United States does not hit a steady source of information or discourse on sex and sexuality until they reach the college level. While this is certainly not all of America's youth, college attending students have a wide range of resources available to them which encompass everything from political clubs to hobby groups. American College's are vibrant with student groups, clubs, and organizations that deliberately try and educate students about different types of sexuality, and ethical and religious viewpoints on touchy subjects such as abortion and gay marriage. For this current point in time I see College as the most viable space to be utilized for the education of America's young adults about sex, safer-sex, and healthy relationships. Granted, many college students when entering college have already had relationships, and many of them sexual. Thus the college venue of education would be a re-education of people about their bodies, the way they function, and what they need to be healthy in their relationships.


On a very local level I see the revitalization of the Bryn Mawr College's Women's Center here on campus as a tangible venue to start dialogue. The Women's Center at Bryn Mawr College has been dormant for a good part of the last five years, and has been relatively low profile since it's hey-day in the late 80s- early 90s. It's revitalization marks a part of the turn over of the feminist movement from second wave to third, and a new generation of women who still feel that a there is a need for a women's resource center, even at a women's college. The new Center, currently under construction will be designed for two main things- support and activism. Much of what I will be talking about as it applies to education, or re-education comes under the broad category of support, although there are several components of the sex-education needed on campus that will require activism to be implemented.

Safe Sex Materials

Currently there condoms are available on campus. Apart from internal contraception, there is no other readily available contraception to those female students who have sex with women. Dental dams are the first token of support that the women's center hopes to offer. The Center is designed to fund, and support the availability of safe sex materials such as dental dams, and more condoms if needed, with the help of the already available condoms located in the Health Center. However, it is imperative that these safe sex materials not only be located in the Women's, and Health Center, but that they be widely available to all of campus. Currently each floor of each dormitory has a Hall Advisor, who's job it is to stock their hall's bathrooms with condoms. The Center will advocate, and fight for dental dams to be implemented in all bathrooms along side condoms, not only for singular use, but will also supply "safer-sex packets". In each of these packets there will be:

The Packets will reusable plastic, and have the Women's Center's Logo and contact information on the front.
Currently the Center does not have enough funding to stock and keep stocking all of campus with safe sex materials. Some of these materials are offered free, or at least subsidize through sex-positive organizations such as Planned Parenthood. The new Women's Center staff will need to contact these organizations to get more information, as well as advocate for the funding through various venues on, and off of campus.
Safe sex demonstrations

The simple availability of these resources, however, is not enough to ensure that students will practice safe-sex. Currently there are no safe-sex demonstrations being given on campus. Every semester they are budgeted for through a couple of disjointed student organizations on campus, an occasionally one comes into fruition. However, these sporadic events are not enough to... There are several venues at which safe-sex demonstrations could occur on a regular, mandated basis, and of professional, comprehensive quality. As of 2005, all incoming freshman must attend a "Wellness" class, which supplies them with three physical education credits. In these classes discussion topics range from eating habits, drinking, stress and time management, but none surrounding safe-sex. Bryn Mawr has many campaigns devoted to the well-being of women, including "Women Living Well", as sponsored by the Athletic Department, yet there are no classes devoted to safe sex, and no others offered throughout the institution.

It is a project of the women's center that a safe sex, and safer-sex demonstration be given in all mandatory wellness classes to incoming freshman, and a program further implemented to make training more frequent and attended by the whole of campus. As mentioned above, Planned Parenthood, an organization located in several places throughout Montgomery County (the nearest of which is five minutes away from Bryn Mawr's campus), offers valuable resources. They offer free safe sex training, and would be willing to come and give several demonstrations in the five different sections of fresh women wellness classes, or train others to do so.

Healthy Relationship Training

Also an important attribution to fresh women Wellness classes, and an important part of safer-sex are healthy relationship training. Healthy relationship training is vital especially at a women's college, because 33% of teenage girls report physical violence from dates before college, and physical violence occurs at a rate of approximately 20-50% in college dating relationships (Montgomery Country Women's Center). The Montgomery county women's centers (there are five), offer healthy relationship training. While there is one discussion in the fresh women Wellness class on relationships, there is currently no healthy relationship training. The main objective of the training is to teach healthy ways of developing relationships with people, meeting their needs, treating them with dignity and respect, while helping them keep their own dignity and respect. The most important part of this is teaching students ways in which they can learn to manage themselves, and teaching students how to make nonphysical interventions.

The Women's Center at Bryn Mawr will also offer pamphlets and other information about where to get help should a student be in crisis or want to learn more. As only 5% of teens who are battered by their dating partners ever call the police, and statistics show that one in three women have been sexually assaulted, this means that there is a high likely-hood that over 400 women at Bryn Mawr women have been assaulted (and this is undergraduate alone) (Montgomery Country Women's Center).


The Women's Center will also stock educational books available to be read in the center, as well as loaned out through the central library system on Campus. It's genres (as many have already been purchased) range the gamut, from instructional how-to books and to educational resources, to children's educational books. The children's books will be stocked for students, many of which have not had children, to read in the hopes that this helps to de-stigmatize talking to children about sex. A Women's Center may not be able to reach this generations young children, but perhaps it will help to reach some of the next. The Center will also stock some women directed pornography which is designed generate more open discussion, and de-stigmatize pleasure.

The Center will also stock pamphlets on safe and safer-sex, STD testing, sexuality, relationship issues, as well as eating disorders, and menstruation alternative.

Coalition on Feminism

The women's center will also host a Coalition of feminist organizations on campus. The Center will offer a living-room style space to student-run support and activist groups that meet regularly. The Coalition of feminist groups on campus will include:

These organizations do not all share the same mission statements, however they all share a common goal- women's issues. The Center will support these organizations in doing campus wide events, fund-raises, lectures, speakers, presentations, and demonstration with the goal of creating a supportive space where dialogue can occur.

What The Center Still Needs

As college is the first time many people will be able to receive an education in many of the issues in safe and safer sex, there is a lot of information and resources that need to be available to students. Ultimately, it would be great if all Hall Advisers where brought back a week early for Abusive relationship identification, and rape crisis training. This would entail teaching them what signs to look for in the members on their dormitory hall, and to aid students in seeking help through the Health Center, or Women's Center, on or off of campus. Also a long term goal is the frequent availability of free HIV testing on campus. Currently there is one free testing per semester, located in the health center by appointment, with limited spots available. Another goal is safe-sex be a discussion allowed at q-forum, a forum for all incoming freshman surrounding the diversity of sexualities on campus. Currently the administration has explicitly advised that no talk of safe-sex occur at these meetings, lest the incoming students be frightened off. This further stigmatizes discussion about safe-sex, and leaves many students without the knowledge that they need to protect themselves if having sex with women.

Ultimately the Women's Center will be a living, functioning resource and information Center which can offer a safe space to students on campus. As there is relatively little prior to college, One of it's main goals will be to advocate, and work towards a positive intervention in the lack of safe and safer sex knowledge. Granted, it would be great if education started sooner, however College offers a positive space for many of these discussions, as there is either no, or relatively less parental and governmental control over curriculum and student activities. The Center and it's programing is vital, especially on a women's campus, see pouvees essay. Many of these women will one day grow up to have their own children; maybe they will buy the children's books that they read in the center to use to talk to their children or PTA boards about the importance of safe, and safer-sex education or avoid participating in an abusive relationship. While it is not impossible that the United States will take on a safe-sex education strategy in the years, given fast-rising HIV, AIDS, and other STD statistics, an education is an education. Later is better than never.


Bryn Mawr College, At a Glance, , viewed 12/9/05.

Janice M. Irvine. Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xi + 271 pp. ISBN 0-520-23503-7.
The Montgomery County Women's Centers,, viewed 12/9/05.
Kathleen Kennedy and Sharon Ullman, eds. Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2003. xvi + 360 pp. ISBN 0-8142-0927-0 (cl); 0-8142-5107-2 (pb).

Card, Claudia, Against Marriage and Motherhood, Moral Issues in Global Perspective, edited by Christine Koggel, Canada 1999.

Rubin, Gayle, Thinking Sex, American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader, Edited by Linda Kauffman

Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Sweden,, viewed 12/8/05.

Wikapedia, Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy,, viewed 12/8/05.

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