Em-URGE-ing Voices

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College students need sex ed, too

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September 18, 2014

I would guess that most students who arrive on a college campus as freshman did not receive comprehensive sex education in middle or high school. While most of us learned about sexually-transmitted infections in the classroom, it’s also the case that for most of us, our sex education was either abstinence-only or at least elevated abstinence from sex as the universal best choice.

There are lots of other numbers to throw around: about a third of people in their late teens don’t receive any formal education about birth control, and even if they do, only a fourth of them know anything substantial about the Pill. In a standard high school sex ed course  ̶  if you get one at all, and considering that less than half of all states mandate sex ed – what students will learn amounts to how to prevent pregnancy and STIs. That’s it. A Congressional committee’s investigation found that an overwhelming number of abstinence-only programs contain information about sexual and reproductive health that is downright incorrect, up to and including religious proselytizing and gender stereotypes treated as scientific fact. State measures that are meant to move sex education curricula toward more comprehensive standards, continue to fail to pass or stall in committee.

So this is what we’re looking at on any given college campus: students who arrive knowing very little, if anything, about how to care for their sexual health; students who have not received any real instruction about consent and sexual violence; students who have almost limitless freedom to explore their sexualities and might not have the tools to understand and enforce their personal boundaries. University administrations aren’t especially known for having their students’ sexual well-being in mind, from silencing  and punishing students who report sexual assault to, like on my own campus, prohibiting resident advisors and the Student Health Center from distributing condoms for free. It can be and often is a toxic environment. When young adults aren’t taught about what consent looks like and sexual ethics, for instance, we end up with thousands of freshmen women especially vulnerable to rape in their first few weeks on campus, for instance.

That’s not to say that college students are helpless. We go to great lengths to improve sexual health on campus despite discouragement and active undermining. See: students at the University of Tennessee finding their funding slashed for Sex Week, a popular event put on by college students in order to not only share information about safer sex, but also to create sex positive environments and build better interpersonal skills via lectures, seminars, and presentations about everything from oral sex to BDSM to being a respectful partner in a one night stand. My own sexual and reproductive justice organization begins each semester with a crash course of a comprehensive sexual well-being lecture, barreling through slides on asexuality, gender beyond the binary, and hostility from our doctors about our requests for long-term and permanent birth control

But even so, when some students find their campus newspapers pulled from the stands for “raunchy” content and others are banned from giving out condoms, administrations position themselves as outright hostile to efforts to make campus a safer space in every way. That undermines efforts such as the Great American Condom Campaign, a campaign that provides student groups across the country with free boxes of 500 condoms to give away and enables students to engage in conversations about what safer sex and positivity might look like on our campuses.

Students are usually, if not always, at the front lines of advancing sexual health on our campuses. We have to be, since we live “on the ground” – in dorms first, and later in apartment complexes and in neighborhoods where it seems that no one outside of the ages of 18 to 25 exist. We have firsthand knowledge, too often horrifically so, of what our sexual lives look like and what our sexual health needs are on short- and long-term bases. So it’s important that our administrations not only listen to us when we students have enough bravery to tell them about those things, and make every effort to support our efforts, augment them with adequate resources, and include us in the creation and improvement of programs that address sexual health on campus. It’s more than necessary and long overdue.

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