Commentary Sexual Health

Young People and Comprehensive Sex Education: Moving Beyond Scare Tactics and Fear Mongering in 2012

Andrew Jenkins

Growing up in the United States is like playing a foucauldian game of discipline and punish. Disciplined by a morally bankrupt narrative about sex and sexuality and then punished for daring to question it.

Knowledge is power.

I mean that in the most cliché way possible. Without knowledge, agency and self-determination become meaningless fragments of our imagination. Something that we desperately wish for but can’t quite grab onto.

This is especially true when it comes to young people.

Growing up in the United States is like playing a foucauldian game of discipline and punish. Disciplined by a morally bankrupt narrative about sex and sexuality and then punished for daring to question it.

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I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised. When young people are subjugated and disenfranchised, systems of power thrive. When we’re alienated from our bodies and fearful of our sexuality, we lack the resources and agency necessary to become responsible agents of social and political change. Suffice it to say; those in power have a vested interest in dislocating the nation’s youth from real sex education.

For young people, sexuality is undoubtedly the most politicized site of social control. Parents fear it. Politicians debate over it. Scientists study it. Intellectuals theorize over it. Everyone is talking about it; yet, no one is talking to young people.

It doesn’t take a semester of reading Michel Foucault to understand that sexuality is an important site of power. Young people know very intimately the role that sex and sexuality play in our daily lives and we know the detrimental consequences that a sex-phobic culture has on our futures. We’re experiencing it first-hand.

Attacks on birth control. Abstinence-only programs. Sexist gender roles. Compulsive heterosexuality and homophobia. Misinformation about abortion. Age restrictions on emergency contraception. Sexual assault. Negative representations of teen motherhood. Public health initiatives that securitize youth sexuality.

We have experienced the damaging effects of a culture that stigmatizes sexuality and shames young people for exploring our own bodies.

And we’re sick of it.

The pseudo-scientific narrative about youth sexuality is plagued with fear mongering and sensationalism. Between the bogus sexting panic, and the fear-based rhetoric used to justify the recent HHS ruling on emergency contraception, it is very clear that the moral panic over teen sexuality is very much alive and kicking. Even organizations and politicians sensible enough to support comprehensive sex education are still situating the issue within a broader security paradigm. They want us to educate young people about the ramifications of sex because they don’t want us engaging in sexual relationships to begin with.

They’ve been duped by the myth of the teen pregnancy epidemic.

Don’t get me wrong. Unintended pregnancy rates in the United States are high. Sexually transmitted infections are rampant. But this isn’t only affecting young people and it certainly isn’t because we’re irresponsible and incapable of making good choices. It’s because no one believes in our ability to be good decision-makers. Whether they’re shoving abstinence-only programs down our throat, or they’re giving us access to sex education rooted in fear tactics, the message is still the same: that sex among young people is a serious threat to the morality and security of the nation.

That’s the interesting thing about sex education. It’s about much more than just the birds and the bees. It’s about power. Power derived from knowledge.

The power to shape our own destiny.

Many of the people advocating for comprehensive sex education at the local, state and federal level treat youth sexuality as a crisis to be averted. They’re so caught up with trying to rally support for the cause with alarming statistics and fear-based rhetoric that they lose site of the real problem. Young people don’t just need to know about the potential ramifications of sex. We need to know what the benefits of a healthy, consensual, and autonomous sex life look like. We need the decision-making power necessary to navigate this difficult terrain and we need to know that after given the facts about sex and sexuality, we’re going to be trusted to make our own choices.

The radical shift from an abstinence-only framework to a comprehensive one loses its transformative potential if our previous generation is still setting the rules. This is why we desperately need a youth-centered and youth-led struggle for comprehensive sex education. Young people have to lead the way in shaping sex education policy. Otherwise, we’re destined to replicate the same morally bankrupt narrative that youth sexuality is an epidemic of global proportions.

We have to change the very way we think about sex and sexuality. Instead of treating it as a social parasite, we should embrace it. We need to teach young folks that when treated with maturity, reciprocity and awareness, sex can be an exciting, fulfilling, and even empowering aspect of our lives. Learning to love our bodies is one of the most radical things we can do in a culture sustained by oppressive power structures. However, as long as we’re taught to feel shameful about our bodies, and denied the right to sex-positive comprehensive sex education, we’re doomed to replicate the very systems of domination that thrive on our ignorance and complacency.

Not a single person, political figure, or institution knows what young people need more than young people themselves. We understand the unique differences in the way our generation feels about sex and sexuality and as a result, we need to be the ones shaping a new discourse. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Young people are telling their stories and demanding that Congress replace failed abstinence-only programs with comprehensive sex education. We’re asking our Senators and Representatives to support the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, an effort that prioritizes young people. Not to mention the first piece of legislation to ever identify comprehensive sex education as a fundamental right.

Thanks to the courage and creativity of young people, we’ve seen the federal government fund comprehensive sex education for the first time in history. We’ve secured no-cost birth control for millions of women through the Affordable Care Act and we played a crucial role in protecting abortion and family planning from the onslaught of radical anti-choice zealots in Congress. We’ve developed innovative ways to educate our peers through services like sexetc.org. Clearly, we have a great deal of legislative and cultural advances to be proud of.

But the momentum can’t stop here.

If we play our cards right, we can make the 2012 election a referendum on sexual health and rights. The power of the youth vote is boundless, and young people are much more likely to register and vote if we know that the issues that matter to our well-being hang in the balance. We have to do the hard work and draw the connections between sex education and other issues relevant to young people, like higher education, health care, and climate change. If we prioritize comprehensive sex education in the 2012 election, we can register and mobilize a record number of young people to put the pressure on and demand accountability from our local, state, and federal representatives. We can make the message clear that if our elected officials aren’t willing to stand up for us – and defend our basic right to honest and accurate information about sex and sexuality – we’re not going to show up for them.

It’s as simple as that.

We need politicians who are more than just apathetic on the issue of sex education. We need pro-active advocates that are unwavering in their commitment to our health and well-being. Proponents that are willing to stand up for young people when push comes to shove and our livelihood is on the chopping block.

It may be difficult to articulate a new vision for change without couching it in the same flawed security logic and fear rhetoric that undermines young people in the first place. But we have no other choice.

We have to draw a line in the sand and make it clear that if our elected officials aren’t willing to stand up for our health, they’ll have to answer to the most powerful electoral force in the country: young people.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

News Law and Policy

Texas Could Be Next to Give Police Hate Crime Protections

Teddy Wilson

Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed. There were 2 officers killed by firearms in Texas in 2015.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Monday that he would ask the state legislature to pass a law classifying acts of violence committed against law enforcement officers as hate crimes, mimicking a similar measure passed by Louisiana lawmaker.

Abbott said in a statement that the proposal is intended to send a message.

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said.

Abbott will ask the GOP-held Texas legislature to pass the Police Protection Act during the upcoming 2017 legislative session, which convenes in January. The proposal would extend hate crime protections to law enforcement officers.

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Abbott’s proposal would increase criminal penalties for any crime against a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether or not the crime qualifies as a hate crime. The proposal would create a campaign to “educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities.”

Abbott’s proposal comes in the wake of a shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead, and six others injured. Micah Xavier Johnson targeted police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, before he was killed by law enforcement.  

Police officers killed at least 1,146 people in the United States in 2015, according to the Guardian’s database The Counted. Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed, according to the Guardian’s database. There were two officers killed by gunfire in Texas in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

Police in Texas have shot and killed 53 people so far in 2016, per the Guardian‘s database.

The Dallas shooting increased the urgency of calls to increase the penalties for violence against law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced similar legislation in Congress, designed to make killing a police officer a federal crime. Cornyn said in a statement that police officers protect communities and deserve “unparalleled support.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in May signed into law the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill, which amended the state’s hate crime law to include acts of violence against any “law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel.”

Proponents of laws creating more penalties for crimes against law enforcement claim these measures are needed because of a growing threat of targeted violence against law enforcement. Data shows that violence against law enforcement has declined to historically low levels, while killings of civilians by police officers have risen dramatically.

Violent attacks on law enforcement officers are lower under President Obama than they have been under the previous four presidential administrations, according to the Washington Post’s analysis of data from the Officers Down Memorial Page.

During the Reagan presidency, there was an average of 101 law enforcement officers intentionally killed per year; during the George H.W. Bush administration, there was an average of 90 police killed per year; during the Clinton years, there was an average of 81 police killings annually; and during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was an average of 72 police killings via stabbings, gunfire, bombings, and vehicular assault per year.

There have been an average of 62 law enforcement officers killed annually during Obama’s seven and a half years in the White House.

The number of Texans who died during the course of an arrest almost doubled from 2005 to 2015, according to an analysis of state data by the Dallas Morning News. The increase in deaths coincided with a 20 percent reduction in the number of arrests statewide.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, told the Dallas Morning News that the number of deaths during arrests in Texas add to the evidence of systemic racism within the justice system.

“We have pretty strong evidence in a variety of ways that the criminal justice system is disproportionate,” Simpson said. “These numbers are unfortunately stark reminders.”