World Sexual Health Day: Let’s Talk About It!

Antón Castellanos Usigli

World governments are responsible for providing sex education and sexual health services, but youth can’t just passively accept these things. We have to talk and act on our knowledge.

On Saturday September 4th, more than twenty-five countries celebrated the first World Sexual Health Day, instituted by the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS).

During the summer, Nadine Terrein, member of the Advisory Committee of the WAS, invited me to co-organize the Mexican activities of this important date.

She told me that Rosemary Coates, President of the WAS, had conceived of the Day with the main objective of spreading the understanding of sexual health as a main component of our well-being and to promote the fact that sexual health is only attainable through sexual rights (see WAS Declaration of Sexual Rights). Thus, the specific theme of this first World Sexual Health Day was: Let’s talk about it… an intergenerational discussion.

After Nadine explained the concept of the Day, I offered to organize a Forum of Intergenerational Discussion on Sexual Health at the private Jesuit University where I study Psychology: the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. The institution was interested in, and accepted to house, the Forum. After weeks of organization, it took place on Friday September 3rd, one day before the World Sexual Health Day.

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The Forum began with a message delivered by Patricia Uribe, Director of the National Center of Gender Equality and Reproductive Health. Later, Eusebio Rubio (Past President of the WAS) introduced the concepts of “sexual health” and “sexual rights,” Esther Corona (Executive Coordinator of the WAS) explained the global panorama of the World Sexual Health Day and Nadine talked about the activities in Mexico.

The intergenerational discussion began with the tremendously smart and funny intervention of Guadalupe Loaeza, one of Mexico’s most popular writers. She told her “sexual autobiography,” which began decades ago, when she was expelled from a religious middle school after telling her classmates about “the way babies are made.” Years later, she would arrive to her first marriage with no sexual experience and eventually divorce. Afterwards, she discovered, for the first time in her life, sexual pleasure through auto-eroticism and by getting rid of her taboos. Less than a decade ago, she remarried. Now she proudly says that as a woman in her sixties, she is in the prime of her sexual life.

In the course of her “sexual autobiography,” Guadalupe pointed out the gender gap in the recognition of eroticism among older people: an old man is allowed to have an active sexual life, but older women are seen as asexual “grannies.” Younger people in developing (and in some developed) countries face the same injustice: only men are allowed to enjoy their sexual activity, whereas girls are allowed to be only objects of desire.

Though this exemplifies the extent to which sexual ignorance prevails around the globe, the advances in matters of sexual health have to be acknowledged. One of them is that young people, more than ever, are talking, assuming responsibility and demanding sexual rights.

In relation to this, I was extremely surprised with the participation of youths during the Forum. One of them commented on something of extreme importance:

“Yes, it’s the government’s responsibility to provide sexuality education, but sexual health is also our responsibility.”

I immediately replied that I was in total agreement. World governments do have the responsibility of providing scientific sex education and sexual health services, but youth can’t stay numbed, passively receiving everything from the educational and health institutions.

If you have gained sexual health consciousness and knowledge, why not spread them? If you see that your government is not acting according to science and a human rights-perspective, why not denounce it?

As time goes by, more young people gain access to information, to formal education, and to opportunities of becoming more health and sex conscious. We should take advantage of this situation!  If we hear a homophobic or misogynistic joke, let’s criticize it; if our friend tells us that she/he has a question regarding birth control or condom use, let’s help her/him by seeking professional help or information.

In the “John Money Lecture” she delivered last May at the University of Minnesota, Joycelyn Elders (15th Surgeon General of the US) said:

“Sexual and reproductive health problems count for 18 percent of the total global burden of disease, and 32 percent of the burden among women of reproductive age.”

The problem is even worse when we consider inequality regarding gender and sexual orientation, sexual violence (including teen dating violence) and many more psychosocial problems related to sexuality.

Fortunately, young people have a powerful weapon in our favor: the right to talk, to discuss issues regarding our sexuality. Breaking the silence is fundamental to achieving sexual health, not only among peers, but among generations as well.

Through the creation of an honest and constructive dialogue, we can make a serious difference, involving more peers and adults.

Let the World Sexual Health Day be a space to continue and update this revolution of talking…

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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