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 AmplifyYourVoice.org. 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.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

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