Friday, January 20, 2012

Soapbox: Young People and Sex

Usually, I post about general school things and my life, but this time, I am going to go up on a soapbox.

Time sent this out recently.  It's a sad, fascinating look into what young people think about sex.  The respondents in this CDC survey are all young women who had unplanned pregnancies.  I think it's a very interesting sample and certainly worth discussing.

How is this related to college students and my life as a TA?  Well, believe it or not, I was once a college student and I see college students every day.  Well, not right now because I am stuck at home with a terrible case of strep throat.

What I have encountered both as a TA and a student is a total lack of sexual health knowledge.  It's appalling.  I feel as though my friends and students have been failed by a lack of education from their schools and parents.  You see, sex ed was a non-issue at my middle/high school.  It didn't exist.  It was all, "Don't have sex and this won't happen".  In middle school, two friends got pregnant.  They both had unprotected sex and didn't think it could happen to them.  In high school, two close friends got pregnant and my school had a serious problem with all of this.  We were actually the 2nd highest rated county for pregnancies.  This was ahead of Lake County, which has numerous large cities such as Gary and Hammond where low socioeconomic status by all rights statistically should lead to more pregnancies than the more affluent cities in LaPorte county.  Marion county, that which houses the state capital (Indy) was the only county with a higher rate of teen pregnancy per capita.  That's really sad.

At home, though, I was very lucky.  My parents were open and honest.  By age 10, I had safe sex education at home.  It was embarrassing no doubt, but now I am thankful.  My sister and I grew up unashamed of my sexuality.  We were educated and in control of our safety.  We both waited a long time to have sex.  We both felt secure in that choice.  That said, most of my friends didn't have that experience.

In college, I was the go-to person for sex ed my freshman and sophomore years despite my lack of actual sexual experience.  Girls in my dorm had no clue they were putting themselves at risk and were afraid to talk because they felt ashamed.  This has been the experience many of my students have had as well.  Overhearing conversations and having a student have a conversation with me about being sexually assaulted and breaking down in my office drove the point home.  She didn't know she could be pregnant and was ashamed to do anything.  Her exam grade was incredibly low and she came to me to see if she could re-take.  As an A student prior to this, I did go to the professor and explain that while I was not at liberty to discuss her circumstances, she had been through a great deal of trauma.  Without question, he allowed her to retake another version of the exam and she ended up with an A-.

I am sure she was still reeling from what she had encountered, but I was glad that she had come to me and felt comfortable explaining it.  I, myself, was sexually assaulted in middle school - AT school, by a classmate.  I didn't tell anyone the whole story for years, but my parents were there for me.  They didn't make me feel ashamed.  They didn't blame me.  They didn't push me on the issue because they were educated enough of the subject to just love me and come about a resolution in my own time.

My friend is in charge of the vagina monologues at school.  She is in charge of arranging sex education talks for the often very young college students participating.  The stories she tells me are appalling.  These girls are sex-ashamed and sex-ignorant.  I am glad she does what she does for them because she is dedicated to educating these women.

I don't talk about men here, not because I don't care.  I feel instead that women are more vulnerable and made to feel ashamed by a society that either sees them as sexually promiscuous or incapable of desiring sex. It isn't like this everywhere, but in the U.S., it is a huge problem.  When I lived in England, I was amazed by how proud women were of their sexuality and how sex ed was pushed by the public school system.  Things were even more open in Germany.  I think we can learn a lot from this.  And I don't say that just because I am a comparative politics person, but I think it certainly has informed me to these policy lessons.  Men deserve the same education - both about sex and abuse - but I think we need to be especially worried about women.

Abstinence simply doesn't work for everyone and it is a lousy choice for sex ed.  Sex ed should certainly explain that abstinence is not a bad thing and it is the only way to be sure you don't get preggers or receive an STD.  However, abstinence-only programs are labeled ineffective by agencies such as the CDC and the DHHS.  I have a department contact over in the policy school here who is personally involved in local sex ed programs in the schools.  She was responsible for putting together a sex ed program based on a "highly effective" program that had been tested elsewhere and evaluated by the CDC to be especially good at protecting young people from STD's and pregnancy.  It was awarded a grant for this reason.  The Obama administration is trying really hard to push money to these programs.  That said, the Bush legacy is hard to correct in one term.  I fully support this.

If you are college student reading this, please get involved, gather knowledge, and don't feel alone.  Don't feel ashamed.  If you have been sexually abused, please don't feel like you are to blame - regardless of what people have told you.  If you are a grad student who comes into contact with students, be aware of this.  Perhaps you can get involved.  Most colleges have resources for you to both educate yourself on sexual assault and provide resources.  I encourage you to make yourself aware of them.  I never expected a student to come to me, but I was able to refer her to services that could help and be there for her.  I advocated for her because I knew it was important.  Most profs will understand, even if you don't outline what happened.  I told her I would not tell my prof that she had experienced an assault.  I promised.  I told him instead that she had experienced a very painful life event that I think was worthy of this retake.  Most professors ARE human and will understand.  If a student comes to you with questions and you are uncomfortable with talking about it, please refer them to services and know what is available.

No one should be made to feel guilty about sex.  No one should be assaulted, but people who are should know about services and know that there are places to go.  Kids should know about safe sex.  They should know about sexual abuse and "no means no".  We are failing our kids if we don't both talk about this at home and in school.


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