Sex Ed is “Poison”? We Don’t Think So

Leah Reis-Dennis and Elizabeth Reis

A recent column in The Washington Times warned parents about colleges "poisoning" students with frank discussion about sex and sexuality." A rising Harvard sophomore and her college professor mother weigh in.

This article originally appeared on Our colleague organization, Advocates for Youth, saw this column in The Washington Times, warning parents about colleges “poisoning” students with information and frank discussion about sex and sexuality,” we knew it needed a response. We asked rising Harvard sophomore Leah Reis-Dennis, and her mother Elizabeth Reis, to weigh in. Here’s what they said.

From Leah Reis-Dennis, a sophomore at Harvard University and a campus organizer with Advocates for Youth.

In her recent Washington Times piece, “Values a vaccine for poisoned Ivy,” Rebecca Hagelin cautions parents with presumably frightening “snapshots of what your child might encounter” at college. Hagelin cites such supposedly alarming campus occurrences as summer reading on multiculturalism, course offerings on feminist theory, and access to condoms. Although Hagelin fears for the preservation of her daughter’s Christian and conservative values, she rests assured that the strength of her family’s faith and its determination to resist the dominant “liberal Orthodoxy” will prevail.

As a college student about to start my second year at Harvard (an institution which Hagelin would likely label a “poisoned Ivy”), I can vividly recall my college selection process. As I visited campuses, perused pamphlets, and spoke with students, I, like Hagelin’s daughter, took time to “investigate the college landscape.” In my case, however, a course offering in feminist theory got a thumbs up. Free condom access on campus? All the better! In fact, one might imagine that my mother and I, devoted advocates for feminism and women’s rights, are direct opposites of Hagelin and her daughter.

Still, if Hagelin’s daughter and I were to attend the same college and meet, we would surely learn a lot from each other. She might teach me something about the Bible. I might teach her how to use a condom, even if she chooses to wait until marriage to put that knowledge into practice. But what Hagelin misses in her article is the understanding that college is not, as she implies, about meeting friends who will corroborate your existing beliefs. Rather, college should expand your mind. The people you meet should challenge your convictions and force you to question what you take for granted. Having lived my whole life in a liberal enclave in Oregon, I came to Harvard with a bundle of strong opinions that I had never before been forced to defend. At Harvard, some of my most valuable and memorable moments have been those in which my peers have disagreed with me and prompted me to consider their point of view and scrutinize my own. Hagelin’s thinly veiled fear of difference puts her daughter at a disadvantage by attempting to confine her growth within the comfortable bubble of the known and the safe. She would do better to encourage her daughter to venture outside of her comfort zone and strengthen her faith by challenging it.

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Perhaps most jarring, though, is Hagelin’s unbridled fear of college sexuality. The “graphic ‘safe sex’ discussions” that Hagelin warns of, would, in a perfect world, be redundant: safe sex discussions should already be happening throughout high school (and earlier!). Hagelin need not fear the “corruption” of her daughter’s mind or body: time and time again, studies have shown that comprehensive sex education does not accelerate the start of students’ sexual activity. Rather, it increases the percentage of those sexually active youth who practice safer sex, using condoms, birth control, and healthy communication.

In another exclamation of disbelief, Hagelin laments Yale’s distribution of 14,000 free condoms this year. “Impressive!” was my first thought upon hearing Yale’s statistic. As part of the Great American Condom Campaign (sponsored by DC-based Advocates for Youth), I distributed 500 free Trojan condoms to my peers, mostly freshmen, this year. The peer health educators at Harvard, and probably at Yale too, are at students’ disposal to answer any question they have about sex. Why keep sex in the dark on college campuses? In our modern society, Hagelin’s approach of withholding sexual education and resources from college students is akin to presenting them with cars without Driver’s Ed or seatbelts. Simply put, it’s absurd. Some students may feel unprepared to “drive,” or may choose to abstain for environmental or other moral reasons. But many, the majority, will take the wheel, and we should encourage them to do so safely. This same philosophy applies to sex. Receiving or having access to campus tools for safe sex, including mandatory education, protection, and sustained dialogue does not harm students who choose abstinence. Just like anything else at college, sex education should be a learning experience. Maybe it will come in handy in college, or maybe not until marriage—which brings up the issue of spouse-seeking.

As she justifies the importance of selecting a college with like-minded students, Hagelin cites a finding that many recently married couples met through college. Finding a husband should not be a factor in the college decision process. Never. Not in the slightest. What is this, the 1940s? College is not for meeting a husband. College is for meeting new people and learning new things—things that probably will and should include multiculturalism, feminism, immigration issues, environmental studies, and yes: sex—all elements that factor prominently into a complete understanding of the country and the world that we live in. Whether this learning remains purely theoretical or is put to the test in the dorms is up to each student. But let’s hope that students at Hagelin’s so-called “Poisoned Ivies” and beyond continue to be given school-supported resources with which to make informed decisions, have fun, and experience college life to the fullest, whether it’s focused at the campus ministry or in the bedroom. Or both.

College Kids Need More, Not Less, Information

Elizabeth Reis, Associate Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Oregon and mother of two college-age kids

Rebecca Hagelin may not want her daughter exposed to the dangers of college life (books about multiculturalism, the environment, and animal rights are the least of it!) but I hope she has prepared her nonetheless. As the mother of two college-age kids (my daughter is a sophomore at Harvard; my son just graduated from Cornell), as well as a professor at the University of Oregon, I am aware of what students learn from the curriculum as well as in the dorms.

Those role-playing games and graphic safe-sex discussions that Hagelin disdains? Her daughter may face similar scenarios, and so why shouldn’t she be ready with appropriate responses? Those workshops are meant to prepare students for situations that may arise so they can think about their reactions ahead of time. Many (not all) students drink at college. Many (not all) students have sex during their college years. Her daughter may not do either, and that is her choice. But on the off chance that she makes different choices when opportunities come along, she should have the tools to make responsible decisions in her new environment.

As a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, I speak to many, many students who do not have a clue about protecting themselves from disease or pregnancy. Recently I had a young woman in class who came to tell me she had to drop out of school because she was pregnant. She started crying in my office, telling me how she hadn’t planned this, and now she was going to have to marry her boyfriend and raise her baby, none of which was on her agenda. Since she was inviting me into her life by telling me her troubles, I didn’t feel too intrusive asking her if she had known about birth control. She told me, astonishingly, that she kind of knew about it, but somehow didn’t think it applied to her. Didn’t apply to her??

After one of my lectures on the history of sexuality where I had provided alarming statistics about the recent rise of chlamydia of the mouth, another student came to me in tears. She explained that in order to avoid intercourse (she considered herself Christian) she only has oral sex with men but doesn’t really consider it “sex” and so didn’t think she needed to worry about protection. Now she was upset not only because of the risks of sexually transmitted infection but because I had rocked her world suggesting that she had violated her religious principles by engaging in what I was calling “sex.” She pleaded with me to tell her what to do. (I sent her to the campus counseling center, a place that every student should be made aware of and feel comfortable using).

And these are the students who have sat through all the orientations about safe sex! Perhaps some of them aren’t really paying attention because they are committed to the values they’ve brought from home and so they can’t imagine they will ever need the information. My caution to them: take it all in anyway, even if it seems unnecessary to your own life. You might find yourself helping out a friend.

Despite my overall disagreement Hagelin’s misguided efforts to shield her daughter from the realities of college life, I do agree with two of her points: Students should research the schools in which they are interested, figure out what’s most important to them and make sure that that school will be able to provide a social environment in which they will thrive. Feeling comfortable with one’s peers will enhance students’ learning, but the friends they make do not have to be cookie cutter versions of themselves. One of the greatest things about college is meeting other students from completely different backgrounds and with different perspectives. I also agree that parents should stay in touch with their child (within reason), not just by regular letters, but by other social media as well: Facebook, cell phones, texting, and Skype. Hearing the tone in their kids’ voices or seeing them on the computer screen can make college a lot less scary for the parents. Of course we want to protect our children from anything bad; in my book the best protection is straightforward information and plenty of it. They are old enough now to make their own decisions, and they need to know everything they can to make good ones that keep them safe.

Topics and Tags:

college, Sex Education, Sexuality, teen sex

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