Roundups Sexual Health

TLC Takes on Teen Pregnancy, Hershey School Reluctantly Admits HIV-postive Students, and Sex Before Sports is OK

Martha Kempner

In this week's sexual health roundup: the Learning Channel takes on teen pregnancy in two new shows—My Teen is Pregnant and So Am I and High School Moms; a Pennsylvania school that previously denied admission to an HIV-positive student has changed its mind after hearing from the Justice Department; and as the Olympics draws to a close, it's good to know that sex the night before sports is just fine. 

The Learning Channel Takes on Teen Pregnancy in Two New Shows

A few weeks ago a Louisiana school made headlines for a pregnancy policy that said any young woman suspected of being pregnant would be forced to take a pregnancy test (using a doctor of the school’s choosing) and if she is found pregnant she would no longer be welcome in class. She could choose homeschooling or a “different educational opportunity.” Such a policy seemed to be taking us back to fifties when pregnant teenagers were shipped off to homes for unwed mothers while their families pretended they were spending a few months with relatives in the country. Two new TLC shows, however, are here to remind us that we’re in 2012 where instead of being hidden from the neighbors prying eyes, they are exposed to the prying eyes of the nation on reality TV shows and tabloid magazine covers. 

The first of the shows was a special that aired the first week of August aptly titled My Teen is Pregnant and So Am I. The special followed two families in the unique situation in which a mother and her daughter are pregnant at the same time. (Wasn’t this the plot of the Father of the Bride, II?)  Never one to miss an opportunity for melodrama, TLC had this to say about the show:

My Teen Is Pregnant and So Am I offers a captivating look inside two families as they struggle to deal with two generations of women sharing this life changing experience together. And as their bellies grow, so does the tension. Through tears and turmoil, joy and heartbreak, these mothers and daughters have nine months to fight through their battles and learn to lean on each other while they come to terms with their extraordinary new lives.

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From the number times I’ve written about TV shows, it would be easy to believe that I spend most of my life watching television but somehow I missed this one. The clips I watched on the TLC website, however, seem to suggest a tone of high drama.  In one, a 17-year-old and her 40-year-old get back to back sonograms and we watch as the mother cries through her daughter’s procedure explaining that “it wasn’t supposed to be like this, you’re still a kid.”  The daughter, in a taped interview, cries when she says she knows how much she disappointed her parents.  (I’m sure there are many more heart-to-hearts with the camera but I wonder if anyone ever mentions that her mother’s pregnancy seems to have been unplanned as well and asks whether the mother is equally disappointed in herself?)

Without having seen the whole thing, I will just say that it seems to be in line with the network’s other shows that invite us to be voyeurs into the reproductive lives of others from Virgin Diaries to I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant to 19 Kids and Counting.

The network’s other offering, however, seems to be taking a slightly different tact. High School Moms is a new series that premiered Sunday August 12th and follows students at a school for pregnant and parenting teens.The promo shows a girl in labor questioning whether she’s prepared and another teen with a toddler who mentions that her baby’s father is in jail. 

Since I’ve been on vacation without (gulp) cable access, I have not seen this one either but plan to watch it this week.  I am expecting it to be the same kind of sensationalized drama that we’re used to, but I have to say that one clip that TLC has available on its website makes me question (hope?) that it will be different.  In this clip, a young girl talks about how this school saved her and provided her a second chance because it’s hard to catch up with a toddler at home but she is going to graduate and she is going to go to college.  Fingers crossed that this series can show us a realistic picture of teen parenting and a good example of how adults can support young women in this situation. 

Hershey School Changes Course and Offers Enrollment to HIV-Positive Student
In December of last year, the Milton Hershey School—a K-12 boarding school named after the chocolate magnate—denied admission to a 13-year-old boy because he is HIV positive. The school, founded in 1909, was originally intended for white male orphans but has since expanded to a more diverse population though students must be from low-income families in order to be admitted.

The school claimed that he was threat to the other student because it’s a residential facility and someday he might have sex with another student. To be precise the school’s spokesperson said:

 “We had to balance his rights and interests with our obligation to provide for the health and safety of other students. And this meets a direct threat.”  

The school acknowledged that there is no threat from coughing, hugging, or sharing bathrooms but called the possibility that the student, who will live with others in on-campus housing, might have sex a direct threat.  She explained:

“Despite encouraging abstinence, we can not be 100 percent certain our kids are not engaging in sexual activity.”

True, no school—boarding or not—can be 100 percent sure that its students aren’t having sex.  In fact, if you ask me most schools can be 100 percent sure that at least some of their students are having sex. Still, the answer is not to kick out any student who has or might have an STD.  The answer is to provide the education (and maybe even the condoms) that students need to protect themselves from all STDs as well as unintended pregnancy.  

In addition to being ridiculous, the school’s argument is in violation of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) according to the AIDS Law Project, which filed a suit on behalf of the teen.  The organization argued that the ADA includes HIV within its scope.   The school disagreed saying:

“We looked at the law and our unique program and made the best decision we could. Our heart goes out to this young man.”

But as the new school year approaches, the school did an about-face based on a review of the case by the justice department.  In a statement, the school’s president defended the original decision but conceded:

“The U.S. Department of Justice recently advised us that it disagrees with how we evaluated the risks and applied the law. We have decided to accept this guidance.”  

As such, the boy has been offered admission as well as an apology from the school. According to his lawyer, he is considering the offer. In meantime, however, she points out that this does not mean the lawsuit is over:

“We couldn’t be happier that they’re doing the right thing, but if you turn a blind eye to a law, you’re responsible for the harm caused while you were turning that blind eye.”

Just Do It—Even the Night before a Big Sporting Event

The Olympics may be over but my own favorite sporting event to watch—The U.S. Open Tennis Tournament—is just starting.  I have good news for Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters, the Williams sisters, and anyone else who might be worried that having sex before they hit the court will negatively impact their performance.  Apparently Mohammad Ali went without sex for six weeks before a big fight and who can forget Tim Robbins’s character in Bull Durham who wore women’s undergarments, breathed through his eyelids, and refused to have sex with Susan Sarandon while he was on a winning streak.  A review of scientific studies published in a recent issue of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine suggests they might have abstained for no reason.  The analysis found that sex the night before competition has no effect on physiological test results.

One study tested athletes’ strength and endurance under different circumstances and found that neither was adversely affected by sex the previous night. A second study found that sex made no difference on grip strength, balance, lateral movement, reaction time, aerobic power, and VO2 max (a measure oxygen efficiency).

Those who believe otherwise sometimes argue that sexual frustration makes people more aggressive and that ejaculation reduces testosterone (a hormone related to athletic performance). Neither of these theories has been scientifically proven. 

So, in the words of one of the top names in sports, go ahead, “Just Do It.”

Analysis Sexual Health

Arkansas School Tells Students They Can’t Return Until They Prove They Don’t Have HIV

Martha Kempner

Though many thought this issue was settled in the 1980s, a school system in Arkansas has demanded to know the HIV status of three siblings, saying their behavior poses a risk to students and staff.

Three siblings in the Pea Ridge School District in Arkansas were sent home from school last week and told they could not return until they provided administrators with documentation of their HIV status. Disability advocates are calling the school’s actions “unlawful and immoral,” but school officials have suggested that aspects of the students’ behavior put other students and staff at risk.

According to the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas (DRC), the issue began on September 9, when school officials called a meeting with the siblings’ case worker. In that meeting, the school officials said the three kids could not return to school until they received documentation that the children are not HIV-positive. Administrators had reportedly learned over the summer that one of the four siblings in the family (only three of them are of school age) and their birth mom are HIV-positive. They then demanded information on the others.

The siblings have been in and out of foster care over the years, and their current foster parents refused the request on the advice of experts who said the kids could not be denied education because of their HIV status. When they returned to school the next day without any paperwork, administrators reportedly kept them apart from the other kids and demanded that the foster parents come get them. The superintendent then informed the foster parents that upon advice from school counsel, the students were not to return to school without documentation. One of the siblings missed his first football game because of this disagreement.

The DRC is investigating the incident. The organization’s executive director, Tom Masseau, said in a statement, “The fact that the foster families have to provide documentation that the children are HIV negative before entering the school is unlawful and immoral. Further, the fact the school’s attorney authorized this unlawful act is at best appalling. It stigmatizes individuals with disabilities or their ‘perceived’ disabilities as there is no indication these individuals have HIV.”

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The school’s actions do appear to violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which says that public schools cannot prohibit young people from attending because of their HIV status. Many of us remember when this issue first made headlines in 1984, with the case of Ryan White. White, who had hemophilia, was 13 at the time and had contracted HIV through blood transfusions. The Kokomo, Indiana, school district would not allow him to attend classes for fear he would spread HIV to other students. Instead, they insisted he “dial in” to his seventh-grade courses from home. White took the district to court and won. Still, he faced so much discrimination at school that his family relocated to another community about 20 miles away.

Ryan White’s fight was at the beginning of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, when people did not understand how HIV was and was not transmitted. People feared that a playground accident or nose bleed could expose numerous children to HIV. There was also fear that the virus could be transmitted through casual contact such as sharing drinks, utensils, or toilets.

Today we understand that HIV can only be contracted through direct contact with blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk. Though HIV is present in saliva, it is not in high enough concentrations to transmit the virus. Moreover, there is widespread understanding that schools should protect staff and students by taking universal precautions—which essentially means assuming that anyone might be infected, and handling all bodily fluids with care (for example, using latex gloves when helping a student who is bleeding or when cleaning up blood, vomit, or other fluids). If such precautions are applied to all students, the HIV status of an individual student becomes irrelevant.

In this case, however, the school argues that the behavior of these siblings may mean they pose an increased risk to staff and students. After days of not responding to media requests for information, the school district put out a press release last week, which said in part:

The Pea Ridge School District is dedicated to providing a safe environment for our students, teachers and staff.

As reported in the media, the district has recently required some students to provide test results regarding their HIV status in order to formulate a safe and appropriate education plan for those children. This rare requirement is due to certain actions and behaviors that place students and staff at risk.

Though the school district did not provide any additional information, the DRC reports that two of the siblings have sensory processing issues and become overwhelmed easily. When these students do become overwhelmed, they often lash out and hit, scratch, or bite themselves or others. While hitting and scratching cannot transmit HIV, human bites do pose a risk of transmission.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

It is very rare, but in specific circumstances HIV can be transmitted by a human bite. In 1997, CDC published findings from a state health department investigation of an incident that suggested blood-to-blood transmission of HIV by a human bite. There have been other rare reports in the medical literature in which HIV appeared to have been transmitted by a human bite. Biting is not a common way of transmitting HIV, in fact, there are numerous reports of bites that did not result in HIV infection. Severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood were reported in each of the instances where transmission was documented or suspected. Bites that do not involve broken skin have no risk for HIV transmission, as intact skin acts as a barrier to HIV transmission.

Despite this very small risk, experts agree that the school has no scientific reason to know the siblings’ status. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, told Rewire, “This is an old and settled question—testing is not required, knowledge of students’ serostatus is not required.” He added that in all the years of the epidemic there has never been transmission of HIV in a school setting, and said that the biting did not add to the risk. “Any exposure to blood should be treated with universal precautions,” he added.

The last time the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) addressed this issue was 1999. The organization explained:

Discussions about children with HIV infection attending schools have disclosed that discrimination has occurred and that erroneous information, ie, HIV is likely to be transmitted in the school setting, has been given. These situations create unnecessary hardships for children and their families and illustrate the continuing need for community educational programs about HIV transmission.

The AAP concluded, “Knowledge of a child’s HIV status is unnecessary for school entry. Disclosure of a child’s HIV status to the school should not be required.”

Jeffrey Crowley, program director of the National HIV/AIDS Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, agreed that this was a settled issue. He noted a similar case last year in which an HIV-positive teen was initially denied admission to a boarding school. He told Rewire, “It’s fascinating that we’re making so much progress in handling HIV in this country, but in some ways we are going back to the beginning of the epidemic.”

The question here, Crowley said, is not only whether there is risk, but who gets to make that call: “We as a society decided we didn’t want these decisions to rest with individual superintendents across the country, which is why Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act. It’s comprehensive and it’s the law of the land.” As mentioned earlier, the ADA is very specific when it comes to HIV in schools, and though it does make exceptions for a direct threat, a child with HIV, even one who bites, is not a danger to the school community. In an ADA fact sheet, the Department of Justice explains that “[p]ersons with HIV or AIDS will rarely, if ever, pose a direct threat in the public accommodations context.”

Not only is the risk of transmission through biting incredibly small, but the steps school officials would take in handling a bite would not change if they knew that the “biter” was HIV-positive. As Crowley noted, “If you’re trying to protect children, this actually does a lot of harm through stigmatization.”

Analysis Sexuality

Russia’s Anti-LGBTQ Law Leads to Protests, Pushback, and a Reminder of Our Laws Here at Home

Martha Kempner

The new law has rightly called attention to the widespread discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in Russia. And as the international community reacts—by dumping vodka and threatening to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi—it's worth noting that some U.S. states have similar language on the books.

On June 30, Russian President Vladamir Putin signed a law that outlaws distributing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” anywhere children could hear it. The law, meant to crack down on gay rights activism, essentially makes it illegal to teach young people about homosexuality. In fact, anyone caught providing information on homosexuality to children could be fined heavily and foreigners who are caught violating this can be jailed for 15 days, fined the equivalent of $3,000, and then deported. The law also makes gay pride parades and events illegal and imposes fines against people expressing such “propaganda” online or in the news media.

The new law has rightly called attention to the widespread discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in Russia. And as the international community reacts—by dumping vodka and threatening to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi—it’s worth noting that some U.S. states have similar language on the books.

LGBTQ Rights (or Lack Thereof) in Russia

The gay rights movement in Russia has been described as being in its infancy, and public opinion about homosexuality in the country remains poor. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about three-quarters (74 percent) of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Overall, 16 percent of Russians said they believe homosexuality is acceptable, but acceptance is slightly lower (12 percent) among Russians over age 50 and slightly higher (21 percent) among those 18 to 29. Another survey by the Levada-Center found that 85 percent of Russians disapprove of gay marriage, 34 percent think homosexuality is a disease, and 5 percent think gays should be “eradicated.”

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Given these attitudes, it is not surprising that gay individuals in Russia face violence that often goes unreported. In May, as the parliament was discussing the anti-propaganda law that eventually passed, the murder of a young gay man in Volgrograd made headlines. The attack was particularly brutal; the 23-year-old was beaten, sodomized with a beer bottle, set on fire, and finally killed by being hit in the head with a heavy stone. In a rare move, the investigators admitted that the motive for the murder was the man’s sexual orientation.

Gay rights activists in the country blame Putin’s recent attempts to court conservative members of his country with talk of “family values” and win favor with the Orthodox Church, which is being asked to play a more public role as a “moral authority” in the country. The leader of the church has suggested that homosexuality is one of the main threats to Russia.

Activist Nikolai Alexeyev told Reuters that the anti-propaganda legislation was “a call to action for the scum who committed this crime” and added, “[I]t essentially gives these people carte blanche to commit such crimes.” Alexeyev says that reported crimes against homosexuals in Russia are low but that’s because there is no concept of a “hate crime” in the country, and such motives are usually ignored by investigators. According to Reuters, an Internet poll conducted late last year surveyed about 900 LGBTQ individuals in Russia and found that 15 percent of them said they had been physically attacked at least once in the previous ten months.

Gay rights activists say they face increasing violence and shrinking police protection. In January of this year, 20 protesters holding a demonstration against the anti-propaganda law were attacked outside the Russian parliament. Men dressed in black who called themselves Russian Orthodox activists threw rotten eggs and ketchup at the protesters, called them demons and witches, and then got violent. Igor Yasin, one of the protesters, told Reuters this about his attackers: “They said they were doing God’s will, and then they broke my nose.”

Yasin says it has gotten worse since Putin returned to power: “Things were always difficult, but they only started getting dangerous about a year ago.” In an effort to protect themselves, Yasin and some of his fellow activists began their own martial arts class that meets three times a week in Moscow.

“We Don’t Discriminate”

The activists only expect things to get worse after the anti-propaganda law goes into effect. The law does not define propaganda, which leaves it dangerously open to interpretation. Could a same-sex couple kissing, snuggling, or even holding hands within view of a child be considered a violation?

Putin, however, argues that his country does not discriminate against homosexual individuals. He promises that the law will not be a danger to gays and lesbians but believes that it will help improve Russia’s declining fertility rates. The logic of this is a bit hard to follow, but presumably goes like this: Restricting propaganda will supposedly prevent gays from “recruiting” young people, which means future generations will have more heterosexual couples who are able to have children. Putin alluded to this when he said, “It is imperative to protect the rights of sexual minorities, but let’s agree that same-sex marriage does not produce children.”

The fear of “recruitment” also came out when the law was used against Dutch filmmakers at the end of July. The filmmakers were working on a documentary about the discrimination faced by gays and lesbians in St. Petersburg and the northwestern city of Murmansk. Working with the Netherlands’ consulate general’s office in St. Petersburg and the House of Equality, an LGBTQ support system in Murmansk, they arranged to meet people in the area who had faced discrimination and violence. A few days after the filming ended, they were taken into custody by police who said they had violated the anti-propaganda laws by interviewing a 17 year old. (They claim the interview subject was 18.) Kris Van der Veen, one of the filmmakers, describes being interrogated for hours in a cold room. He says he was asked questions such as “Do you think the Netherlands is better than Russia?” and “Did you ask anyone to become homosexual?”

Van der Veen told TIME magazine he was scared but rationalized the worst thing that could happen to him under the law was 15 days in prison. He and his colleagues went in front of a judge the next morning and, in an unexpected turn that may have been brought on by media attention and international pressure, Russian authorities simply let them go. They did, however, seize the filmmaker’s hard drive that contained much of the footage.

The Sochi Olympics

Much of the international reaction to these laws seems to be focused on the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi. Advocates from the United States and elsewhere are calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure that athletes and spectators—even those who are openly gay—will not be affected by the law. Last week, the IOC reported that it had received assurances “from the highest level of government in Russia” that those visiting the games would be exempt. The next day, however, a member of the St. Petersburg legislature seemed to suggest otherwise. Vitaly Milonov told news outlets, “If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.” He later told R-Sport, the sports newswire of the state news agency, “An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi. But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”

Not surprisingly, activists around the globe are not satisfied by this explanation. Some are calling on countries like the United States to boycott the games, are encouraging demonstrations during the games, and are calling on the IOC to ensure that the law doesn’t become a factor for athletes or audiences. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says he is planning to introduce a resolution in the Senate asking the IOC to take a stand against Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws and to get guarantee that the law will not be enforced during the games. According to the New York Times, the IOC is currently engaged in “quiet diplomacy” with high-level Russian government officials to resolve this issue. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) argues that nothing short of Putin’s written word should be sufficient.

The organization, however, also points out that the Sochi games may be a distraction from the real issue, which is the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Russia. In a statement, HRC President Chad Griffin said, “The IOC must obtain ironclad written assurance from President Putin. But more importantly, they should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics. Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”

Vodka Boycotts

In his July 24 column, writer and activist Dan Savage discussed the possibility of boycotting the Sochi games or staging demonstrations during them. He notes, however, that most of us are not world-class athletes nor are we planning to go to Russia to watch the games in person. In search of a more immediate action, Savage suggested that we all boycott Russian vodka “to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”

Many people have listened. Restaurants and bars across the country have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. On Monday, the United Restaurant and Tavern Owners Association of New York (URTO) responded with its own version of the Boston Tea Party in which participants dumped Russian-made vodka into the streets.

While these intentions are good, some people have noted that the actions may be misguided. As the most recognizable brand of Russian vodka, Stolichnaya has taken much of the heat. But Stoli’s connection to its home country is tenuous at best—the ingredients are Russian, but it’s distilled in Latvia and, for now, it’s distributed by the American arm of a Scottish company.

The rights to Stoli are controlled by the SPI Group, an export company based in Luxembourg that is owned by wealthy Russian businessman Yuri Shefler. SPI will also handle distribution of the liquor starting in January of next year. TIME explains that Shafer and SPI have been at odds with the Russian government for years. John Esposito, the president of SPI North America told the magazine, “[Shefler] was forced out of Russia over 10 years ago and has been in courts around the world as the Russian government has tried to get the brand back. Hurting Stoli in the U.S. is actually probably going to make the Russian government happy, given that they’ve been fighting us for the last 13 years. They’re probably going to be sitting there chuckling.”

Meanwhile, “Don’t Say Gay” and “No Homo Promo” in the United States

The news of Russia’s regressive law is made more striking by all of the progress made recently in the United States around same-sex marriage. In recent months, we’ve seen the Supreme Court strike down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, learned that the U.S. visa system will now treat all couples the same way, and watched the midnight weddings of gay and lesbian couples in Minnesota and Rhode Island (the 12th and 13th states to legalize same-sex marriage). With all this good news, it can be easy to forget that some states still have laws that are in some ways reminiscent of the one Putin just signed.

Readers may remember Tennessee’s “don’t say gay” law, which got national attention last year and was reintroduced, with even harsher provisions, in February. The “Classroom Protection Act” stated:

At grade levels pre-K through eight (pre-K-8), any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.

A second, vaguely worded provision seemed to force school workers to out any students they suspect of engaging in homosexual behavior to their parents. That measure died in a subcommittee in March, but given that it’s been introduced every year for at least seven years, it would not be shocking if we see it again.

Other states have similar laws on the books. Sometimes called “no homo promo” laws by advocates, these laws restrict what can be said about homosexuality and often require teachers to refer to it as an unacceptable lifestyle. For example, Arizona’s law states that “no district shall include in its course of study instruction which … (1) promotes a homosexual life-style … (2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style … (3) suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”

South Carolina’s law only allows discussion of homosexuality in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. And Utah’s law, which prohibits the “advocacy of homosexuality,” prevents teachers from answering spontaneous student questions on this and other topics.

In many ways, these laws have the same goals as Russia’s new anti-propaganda law—they prevent teachers from educating young people about sexual orientation. In the United States, however, the reach of these laws is limited to within schools, and often young people can find information about homosexuality elsewhere. The overall environment in the United States is also very different; for example, there is little fear that these laws will be seen as sanctioning violence. Nonetheless, they are offensive and discriminatory and send dangerous messages to all young people. And it’s worth remembering as we watch how the Russian law is enforced that similar language remains in some of our very own laws.