Sex may be the last taboo. Society has come a long way from when ankles were shameful to show in public, but despite that forward momentum, there are major issues with our inability to stop laying guilt on one another for expressing our sexuality in a healthy way.
Today, babies are having babies. Adults are being infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Emotionally and physically, society has trapped itself in an unhealthy cycle of not understanding our bodies. The joy of sex is exploited, but not explained. That leads to unhealthy relationships and an unhealthy community.
That point is made clear in a study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which shows that Marion, Jefferson and Linn Counties are included in the top 10 counties in Oregon based on the total amounts of both teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STI).
Annika Shore, Youth HIV Education Coordinator with Cascade AIDS Project, works to help schools with their sex education programs. The organization itself has many facets of education, prevention and outreach.
Prior to 2009, sex education was not required curriculum for all Oregon schools. Today, law requires that school districts provide age-appropriate sex education in all public elementary and secondary schools as a part of the health education curriculum.
It also requires that the course material and instruction enhance the students’ “understanding of sexuality as a normal and healthy aspect of human development.” Within that curriculum, students are taught about the success and failure rates for prevention of pregnancy, that sexually transmitted diseases are serious possible outcomes of sex and to encourage family communication and involvement.
Tristan Taormino is a sex educator, author of several books, and a feminist pornographer. She spends a lot of time holding classes and workshops and tours nationally, speaking to college students on a variety of subjects. She’s made it her mission to educate all genders, all orientations “in their pursuit of healthy and empowering sex and relationships.”
Oregon is ahead of the curve when it comes to sex education in public schools, Taormino says, mainly due to its progressive requirements for sex education. Abstinence-only education is still on the books around the country, but it’s not legal in Oregon.
The implementation of the legalese is a different story, Shore says. “When I talk to students it’s a totally random selection of the youth that is getting that education.” She’s spoken with students who have received comprehensive sex education, but in a school 15 minutes away, students don’t remember they’ve had Sex Ed at all.
“In one school, you can learn about how effective [condoms] are, how to put them on, how to negotiate condom use with a partner. Then another school would not bring condoms into the schools at all and, instead, replace them with a slideshow.”
Taormino is concerned about abstinence-only education. “One of the things that is written into federal funding for abstinence-only is that you are not allowed to talk about contraceptives unless you talk about birth rate. False information is being spread,” she says, adding that it’s not uncommon for failure rates of condoms and birth control to be inflated to make a point.
While abstinence-only isn’t taught in Salem-Keizer schools, Trisha Ebbs, a high school teacher at North Salem High School, says that the main focus of their studies is how abstinence “is the only 100 percent effective method to not getting pregnant or transmitting an STD.” A more technical term for this type of curriculum is “abstinence-based.”
The 24J school district uses a program from ETR Associates called “Safer Choices.” The program includes a condom demonstration. Within the lessons, students are taught how to identify different types of sexually transmitted diseases.
Taormino thinks that demonstrations are an important part of learning how to have sex safely. “It’s time to get hands on and be explicit. Two-dimensional diagrams don’t teach people; they just don’t. I feel like we are constantly afraid to give young people information about sex. It should be quite the opposite. We should pile them on and save space for judgment to ask questions about sex,” she says.
“We also include the instruction on other birth control methods but our main focus is abstinence and how this is the only safe method. There is no other safe method. There is a safer method, which is using a condom consistently and correctly every single time. Other contraceptives are addressed but with the emphasis that birth control only protects you against pregnancy not STDs,” Ebbs says.
The program, according to ETR’s website, begins with three classes on not having sex. Those classes are then followed by instruction on understanding STDs and HIV, examining the risk of unsafe choices.
What aren’t shown in the district’s curriculum are the graphic pictures of what sexually transmitted diseases look like. Ebbs explains that pictures commonly found on the Internet depict worst-case scenarios and that scare tactics are not the best policy when it comes to teaching students.
“If students have only been exposed to worst-case scenarios, they may believe they do not have an infection due to no signs or symptoms when in fact they may have an underlying infection,” she says.
In Salem-Keizer, condom availability ends in the classroom. After the demonstrations, students dispose of them before leaving the room. Condoms are not available, otherwise, in schools.
There’s still shame and stigma with sex, Taormino says. “I’m constantly struck by letters that I receive; questions I get asked at my classes and workshops. People have so much guilt and judgment around their own sexual desires. So many people are walking around thinking they are not normal, what turns them on is wrong and things they want to explore are dirty and bad.”
She adds, “There’s still too much repression and silence. There’s too much silence on this issue. It just does everyone a disservice. I’m not surprised about the stats, they’re pretty alarming and I’m not sure when people are going to get the wake-up call.”
Being open to talk about sexuality in healthy way is one way to solve the problem at hand.
“If you look at international comparisons, the countries where talking about sexuality is not taboo, [where] carrying condoms doesn’t mean you’re a slut or a player, those places have dramatically lower STDs,” says Shore.
How we think of and talk about sexuality and the gender roles that we reinforce is a cultural problem across the country, she says.
Taormino was slated to be the keynote speaker at Oregon State University’s Modern Sex conference. Her talk was titled “Claiming Your Sexual Power.” She was summarily uninvited from the event because of her resume and website.
Her resume and website include the reasons why she might be a good person to talk about modern sex to a group of college students.
“Basically their position is that it was not a good use of taxpayer dollars to bring me to talk on campus. They brought other people in to talk about really similar things, but they modified it simply by saying that ‘her involvement in pornography makes her less credible,’” Taormino says. The talk had nothing to do with pornography.
Around the same time, Salem Weekly experienced a backlash after publishing an issue with a row of condoms on its cover. As a result, a few distribution points pulled the issue from their shelves. The problem was the sex-positive message that it contained.
Taormino says that it’s a pattern that she’s seen elsewhere. It’s common to see a lead news story about violence or the front page of a newspaper to be plastered with molestations, rape, and other sexual crimes. The acceptance of it changes when speaking about sex in a positive way.
“When it comes to sex, everyone takes a few steps back. It’s really left over from our puritanical roots. There’s still so much repression around sexuality and there’s so much confusion. On the one hand, there’s all this advertising with titillation about sexiness, but on the other hand we don’t want to give people concrete information and education,” she says.
Taormino ended up speaking at OSU after all. A student association made good on the promise. The following day, Taormino spoke about being a feminist pornographer to a little school down the road, University of Oregon. They weren’t as concerned about their funding.
She believes that one of the biggest problems with sex education in America is that its main goal appears to be withholding information and resources. Shame is still a major barrier to society’s ability to talk about sexuality in a healthy way.
Parents add to that shame by being embarrassed themselves to talk frankly about the issue. That shame contributes to teenagers not being able to talk to their parents or their partners.
“There is no space in our culture for those conversations. Kids are nervous and parents don’t know how to have [the conversations]. The message from school is a bunch of diagrams and that’s it. That’s not helpful for anyone,” Taormino says.
Politically, she says, the conservative right-wing says that if condoms were in the school that students would then immediately start having sex.
“Instead, we play this game, this pretend game, let’s not give them any information. They already have the ideas. Why aren’t we helping them understand the decisions that they’ll make?” she asks.
Being able to talk openly about sex makes a difference. More specifically, being able to communicate with a partner is the key to making healthy and responsible decisions, Ebb says.
“Do you have your partner’s consent, are you and your partner both ready, do you know your partner’s history, have you both been tested, and do you have a condom if you choose to engage in sexual activity?” Ebb explains.
Communication is also important at home. Shore does an exercise in classes where she poses a question and asks the room of students to move to one side of the room or the other, depending on their answer. One of the questions is “Is it easy to talk about sex?” A recurring theme with the answer is that the youth who say yes to that statement come from a home where there are open conversations with their parents about sex.
“What happens in the home is so much deeper and more ingrained than in schools. People can overcome their childhoods, but it’s [still] vitally important,” she says.
Taormino sees a solution with a bombardment of information thrown at young people from all sides: parents, teachers, media.
“I want parents to be comfortable, I want great online and written resources. I feel like in some ways we have to bombard. We know kids learn things from the media, the parents, peers, school. I feel like we have to make a multi-level effort. We all have to be on the same page,” she says.
The solution to the problem is not cut-and-dried. It is even questionable whether the teen pregnancies and spreading of STDs is caused solely by lack of sex education. Shore says that most young people know they should use condoms and have access to them. What is certain, however, is that youth programs are necessary.
Shore says the programs that really work are the ones that don’t just address sexual issues. There’s one program that she references on the East Coast that is finding success by focusing on youth development.
“Its goal is to reduce teen pregnancy, but you’d never know it if you were a part of it,” she says. The program follows a student for seven years, provides homework help, mental health care, and education like job skills and sexual health.
“The sexual choices of high school students are made in the same way adults make their decisions. We make our choices based on self-esteem, efficacy, how we were raised, our community norms, and our sense of hope for the future. If we have young people who don’t see a future for themselves, we see STDs and pregnancy,” Shore says.
Taormino agrees that self-confidence plays a strong role in making decisions around sexuality. “Part of the problem is that when we feel so much shame and guilt around sexuality, we can then behave in more risky ways or put ourselves in more compromising situations, because we don’t have any one else to talk to, because we’re not ‘normal,’ she says.
Having “the talk,” the big one filled with analogies of birds and bees and awkward pauses, isn’t something that should happen one time; instead, it should be a conversation that happens throughout childhood.
“One thing that is good for parents to remember is that sexuality isn’t just something that happens during puberty, to start with self-efficacy from the beginning by trying to be mindful, not ingrain shame around bodies,” Shore says.
Shore emphasizes that the more comfortable that a child is just being open around a parent, the more it will reinforce them coming to the parent again at puberty with questions.
“For example, a lot of children masturbate, little toddlers explore their bodies. Most parents have to have something to deal with that. Are you going to shame your young person for doing that? Or are you going to teach them about where to do it safely and respectfully?” she asks, adding that the responses to the tough questions are often a good barometer on whether a child will return with more. “If you freak out, a kid’s going to sense that ‘Oh, I shouldn’t talk about that.’”
Other advice includes that sometimes a parent might not be the best person to answer those questions. “Steer them toward someone who can. Tell them we’re going to go to Planned Parenthood, the pastor at the sex ed program at the church … whatever fits in with the values of the family.”
Parents have to have their own sex education and learn how to teach their children in an age-appropriate fashion. Taormino believes armed with knowledge and signaling to their children that there will be no judgment and no conversation that is taboo, home will become a safe place.
She says, “If they don’t, they’ll go elsewhere for the information and may not get the safe information.”
Marion County Health Department
Marion County Health Department provides both STI/HIV testing at their clinic. HIV counseling and testing is done by appointment. Another appointment will be set up to receive the results. Insurance is accepted and no one will be denied services for inability to pay.
Marion County Health Department
Address:3180 Center St. NE
Hours: Tuesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Planned Parenthood in Salem performs STI/HIV testing. Rapid HIV testing is available where preliminary results are available in 10-40 minutes. Counseling and anonymous or confidential testing for HIV is provided. If you require payment assistance, bring birth certificate and photo identification.
Planned Parenthood – Salem Center
Address: 3825 Wolverine St. NE
Hours: Monday & Wednesday: 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Tuesday & Thursday: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Friday: 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cascade AIDS Project
HIV testing is available from CAP for a suggested donation of $50. No one is denied for inability to pay. Walk-ins or appointments are available.
Cascade AIDS Project
Address: 208 SW. 5th Ave., 8th floor, Portland
Hours: Monday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
CAP also provides a hotline for HIV/STD advice. The service is free and confidential to answer questions, provide support and refer you to resources throughout the state.
En Espanol: 800-449-6940
Web Chat: www.oregonaidshotline.com