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The Politics of Sex, ctd.

Posted by Condomologist on March 3, 2009

Recently, I linked to my heated, yet civil discourse with Jodi Jacobson over at RhRealityCheck, as we both responded to William Saletan’s piece in the NY Times about the need to find political common ground in the abortion debate. I largely defended Saletan, in that my experience tells me that lack of availability of contraception is not the biggest factor in the enormous number of abortions that take place each year in the United States. His data seemed to back up this assertion, and Jacobson’s contentions that the need to encourage access to contraceptives and put an end to the demonization of sex in this country are both on point. What bothered me about her confrontational post was that, as far as I could tell, both she and Saletan were on the same side. But it’s increasingly difficult to make progress when the left feels attacked by any idea that forces them to think outside on the box on the abortion issue. Acknowledging that abortion and unprotected sex hold strong moral implications does not need to be seen as a patriarchal attack on women; rather it recognizes that we as a nation fail when we cannot create a culture that promotes responsible decision-making when it comes to sex. Now Saletan has continued the conversation on his blog, and since the first round of the fight, he has taken note of Jacobson’s critique. He shows his appreciation for what those of us in reproductive and sexual health aim to do in our risk reduction counseling, but he points out that it’s simply not working. I eagerly await Jacobson’s response, but in the meantime, my two cents, because they’re both right and wrong at the same time.


We simply don’t know what the effects and results of universal access to contraceptives — or for the sake of my topic, condoms — and top-notch comprehensive sex education would be. To say that what we’re doing now isn’t working is a fair point, but as I think Jodi would agree with me, it’s unfair to place that blame squarely on our shoulders because we can only reach so many people in a political climate — such as Texas, for example — where teenagers are unreachable because schools won’t allow us to properly educate the students. It would then be fair to go after parents who have a responsibility — maybe not exactly what Obama means when he says education must start in the home, but certainly it could encompass sex — to guide their children on sexual matters, but aside from their discomfort with the topic, most parents are just clueless when it comes to understanding reproductive health. So to say what we’re doing now isn’t working is too simplistic, because we have many hurdles to overcome before all men and women have access to contraceptives and education free from the constraints of right-wing ideologues. That said, what we’re doing now isn’t good enough. 


We in the sexual health world need to play politics and push for wider Medicaid coverage of contraception and an end to abstinence-only education that doesn’t work; but we also need to look at ourselves and realize that even those providing comprehensive sex ed simply aren’t that good at it. This is true both amongst educators in schools, clinicians at family planning clinics, and counselors at abortion clinics. Too many educators are of the volunteer variety, going out and speaking to kids with just 15 hours of training; meanwhile, I have 4 years in the field and still don’t know quite a bit. Full-time educators aren’t properly trained either; they’re trained by other unqualified people within their agency, not by medical professionals, LGBT-focused educators, pleasure experts, psychologists and education experts. And while there’s probably a good deal of truth in the fact that this shoddy education is a result of funding deficiencies at both the non-profit and government level, it doesn’t make up for a lack of leadership within the field to improve the work we do. We certainly could use more resources, but working with what we have, we still lack innovation and determination on the ground to better train educators; engage young people to do peer education; create dialogue when we teach as opposed to lecturing students; and recognize that the battle is lost when those doing the education don’t have the respect of the kids or the ability to connect with them. And far too many in sexual health still don’t get that information about contraceptives loses its weight when it’s based on fear and the ugly consequences of sex. Sex can be incredibly pleasureable, and it must be discussed as such to be taken seriously — but far too often, our own discomfort with the issues hinders our ability to reach our patients, students, parents, whomever. Furthermore, if we’re uncomfortable or uneasy with the people we’re working with, it becomes that much more difficult to speak their language. The truth of the matter is that reproductive health is largely dominated by middle- and upper-class white women, and in a city like Philadelphia, where it’s necessary to speak to lower-income black men and women, we would be wise to seek out, encourage, and train people from these communities to do the educating. And as far as abortion clinics are concerned, we must acknowledge that these clinics are a business. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but it’s the truth. The women working there are not necessarily well trained in counseling or contraceptives, and they simply don’t have the time to go through an extensive counseling session when they’re performing 40-50 procedures a day. For the record: I’ve seen it — the real-life counseling session, the information session, the procedure. It’s not what I would describe as a healthy, overly caring environment. And while I’m sure that level of care varies widely from clinic to clinic, it’s unreasonable to expect abortion clinics to provide the empowerment and negotiation skills, contraceptive information, domestic abuse and healthy relationship counseling, and everything else necessary to increase the amount of protected sex being had. That’s just not their job, and it’s not necessarily honest to argue that contraception is their highest priority.


Saletan’s right when he says we on the left now need to think outside the box to encourage protected sex. Jacobson’s right when she laments the atrocious, harmful record of the Bush administration and current conservative voices and their eagerness to trump science with religion. But no one out there really knows what we’re capable of, because we don’t live in an ideal world where parents, the media, and the government discuss sex like they do in Europe — and we won’t anytime soon. In the meantime, we need to focus on extensive continued education training — and I don’t mean one 4-hour class, but 30-40 hours of class — for teachers from all subject areas who are willing to do the necessary top-notch sex ed at their respective schools. We need to create peer education academies and do the same kind of in-depth training, so teens can talk sense to their peers. We need to seek out men, straight and gay, to enter reproductive health, because these are men’s issues as much as women’s; and a look at any sexual health agency, group, organization or department anywhere in the country will show an overwhelming number of (white) women. We need to find local members of communities not getting sexual education, so they can bring it back to their neighbors through churches, community centers, athletic teams, and neighborhood associations. Because the small number of professionals in the field can’t spread their wings far enough, and they simply aren’t good enough at their job to have the greatest impact possible. And lastly, we need to admit that sex is often a very positive (albeit confusing) thing, whether inside or outside of marriage, and so the research needs to continue into how we make sex safer and more satisfying at the same time. That’s what I hope to do here with condoms, but further study also needs to continue into looking at how hormonal birth control methods affect female pleasure and satisfaction.


It’s all well and good and necessary that we fight over policy changes and engage in lively debate with words, but even if Obama cuts all funding for abstinence education and directs money to comprehensive sex ed and contraceptive access — and it’s not clear from his recent budget proposal that he goes far enough — the abortion rate and unplanned pregnancy and high STD rates will not go down overnight. It will be a painfully slow process, and it must be achieved through creative new intiatives designed to actively engage young people, while ensuring that the information they receive is sex-positive and thorough. And important decisions to protect oneself from infection and pregnancy will still remain secondary as long as our young people are living in abject poverty and don’t have hope for a better tomorrow. So let’s pray our economy recovers at some point soon.


3 Responses to “The Politics of Sex, ctd.”

  1. Dare said

    Amen. Tell it Jonathan!

  2. Will Saletan said

    You’re really good. Honesty, nuance, and constructive energy.

  3. Mark said

    I find this all incredibly persuasive, although what it persuades me of is, of course, the unfortunate fact that we don’t know as much as we should. I was personally intrigued by the reference to Europe as a healthier sexuality climate. I don’t know the statistics at all–about abortions, unplanned pregnancies, levels of contraception use, etc. My brief time in Europe definitely showed me that white middle-class people seem to have stigma-free sex younger and more often (my own small sample size, I know), which of course made it seem like a teenage boy’s paradise. I always wondered if — and yes, I am essentializing here, but with some justice, I tink — teenage girls got the short end of the stick, as they generally have in the sexual revolution. In my crowd, when I was 14, we weren’t asking girls to have sex, but had we, they would have had all sorts of societal norms to back up a decision to say no. That seemed far less the case in, say, France. But since our author here is more of a France expert, as he is more of a sex-ed expert, I defer to him.

    Very, very fine post.

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