Aug 252011

This week’s blog post from intern Katie talks about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and how our society stigmatizes them, which makes it even more difficult to teach about.

“Today we’re learning about sexually transmitted infections!” No matter how enthusiastic my delivery is, that short sentence rarely inspires excitement and curiosity in my students. In fact, the usual response I receive involves a symphony of groans and eye rolls. And really, I can’t blame them: internally, I’m groaning too.

I’m sure there are some superstar sex educators out there who have mastered teaching about STIs, but I’m not one of them. Sure, it can be challenging making transmission statistics and bacterial/viral categorizations “fun” (STI jeopardy only seems to maintain student interest for so long) but the problem is more ingrained than that. For me, the biggest obstacle is tone: how do I convey the necessary information–– about infection types, about barrier methods, about testing availability–– in a way that inspires prudence but not fear? I want to reinforce the reality of STIs and the importance of practicing safer sex behaviors, but I want to do so without (1) scaring them away from sex forever and (2) further stigmatizing STIs and people who have them.

I try to be particularly sensitive to the stigmatizing messages my students receive in and out of the classroom, but these messages aren’t always easy to address in a consistent, coherent manner. If I mention herpes sores and a student loudly gasps “Ewwww,” I have to think carefully about how I proceed. If I respond by insisting, “No, sores are no big deal,” then I run the risk of diminishing the difficulties (social and medical) that people with herpes experience. I would also feel somewhat dishonest: herpes isn’t a big deal in the sense that plenty of people lead happy, healthy lives with herpes, but outbreaks aren’t a walk in the park either. But if I say nothing and let the student feign disgust, I could be sending an even more dangerous message to the other students in the class–– some of whom may have tested positive for STIs or who may have friends, family, or partners who have tested positive–– that people with STIs are worthy of fear or disrespect.

STIs are unpleasant: therefore, people with STIs are unpleasant. It’s a huge logical misstep that society encourages us to make, and that we as educators must vigilantly avoid. And the stakes are high: even if a student does not have any STIs when the lesson takes place, if the takeaway message of the lesson is that STIs are cause for shame, then ze/she/he might be less likely to tell get tested regularly or tell future partners hir/her/his status. My response to the above hypothetical question would then be carefully worded. I might say something along the lines of: “Herpes is like a lot of other chronic medical conditions. Plenty of people live happy lives with herpes, but it’s still an uncomfortable complication that most people would rather avoid. Here’s how you can protect yourself against herpes…”

Again, I still have quite a lot to learn about teaching STI awareness and prevention. Nevertheless, I’ve collected below a few of the important “dos” and “don’ts” I’ve gleaned from my own experience and from the wisdom of other educators. If you have any additional suggestions or comments, I’d love to hear them!

Avoid using the term “clean.” It can be tempting to use popular jargon when teaching a class, but referring to people without STIs as “clean” is highly offensive to folks with STIs. It also sets up a false relationship between STI status and hygiene, wherein students with good daily hygiene are more likely to think of themselves impervious to disease/infection. If students in your class use “clean” in this way, gently but firmly correct them. Someone who gets an ear infection isn’t unclean. Neither is someone with a sexually transmitted infection.

Share the statistics that apply to them. I don’t think fear-mongering is ever a good idea, but it doesn’t hurt to let students in on the information being collected about their demographic. What STIs are most common? How are they being transmitted? If presented without scare tactics, this kind of info can make students feel empowered and less alone.

If possible, act in conjunction with school health services. Obviously, not everyone who works as a sex educator does so via institutions with their own health centers. However, if you are teaching at the high school or college level, try to find out how involved the health center is in student sexual health. If nothing else, it can be incredibly valuable for students to be able to point them towards a known ally in the school.

Make it easy for students to receive testing information. In the past, I’ve written the names, phone numbers, and addresses of clinics that offer STI testing up on the board and asked students to copy them down. In my experience, they’ve become self-conscious, not wanting to look like this is information they need or want, and they’ve refused to write anything down. I’ve started instead to hand each student a printed sheet with test center information; I tell them that they can’t throw the sheets in the trash outside if they absolutely have to, but everyone needs to leave the classroom with that slip of paper.

Acknowledge stigmas. We live in a society that still strongly stigmatizes people with STIs. Don’t be surprised if this message has rubbed off on your students. Listen to their thoughts and concerns, and be patient in letting your perspective sink in.

Feb 072011

For those who do not know, many sex educators, myself included, were recently attacked in a post/report that claimed that our education on the Brown University campus was a direct correlation of the recent four new cases of HIV within the student population. It stated that people such as myself (a “sex toy representative”) did not have the education to provide sex ed to students, to handle the emotional side of things, etc (of course, they neglected to mention my Master’s in Human Sexuality Education, which provided me with exactly those aforementioned skills). It also insinuated that I was a prostitute, that other educators are connected with obscenity charges and that some educators are contributing to STI transmission by discussion topics such as polyamory (multiple loves) and anal sex, despite our conversations about barrier methods, testing, and intimacy without exchanging bodily fluids.

I have always had a strong commitment to educating individuals and groups about safer sex, including but not limited to STI prevention, pregnancy prevention, consensual activities and emotional safety. As I continue to educate people about the spectrum of sexuality, I will keep including discussions about safer sex practices (including barriers and transmission prevention) for people of all genders and orientations, and also continue my commitment to distribute dams and gloves in addition to the more traditional condoms and lube freebies often provided. Please read and re-post/forward/desseminate the below press release if you believe the positive aspects of sex education, and refuse to condone the slanderous accusations put forth towards us.

-Shanna Katz, M.Ed

For Immediate Release
Sexuality educators set the record straight: “Talking about sexuality does not increase sexually transmitted infections” despite what non-experts report.

Contact: ?Megan Andelloux

Contact: Aida Manduley

In yet another attempt to shut down access to quality sex education, South-Eastern New England conservative advocates hit the sex panic button in a multi-state, email and phone campaign to colleges all over New England last week.

On February 3rd and 4th , certified sexuality educator and sexologist Megan Andelloux (AASECT, ACS) received word that numerous colleges and university faculty received a document stating that colleges who brought sex educators such as Ms. Andelloux onto their campuses were linked to the increasing rate of transmission of HIV in RI. Furthermore, among other misleading “facts” that were “cited,” the author of this bulletin claimed that Brown University was facing an HIV crisis, which is false.

Citizens Against Trafficking, the face behind the fear-mongering, spammed numerous local institutions from a University of Rhode Island account with its latest malicious missive that targeted specific individuals as well as Brown University. The author of the letter, Margaret Brooks, an Economics Professor at Bridgewater State, suggested that colleges and universities that host sexuality speakers, including those who are professionally accredited, are partly to blame for the four new cases of HIV which have been diagnosed amongst RI college students this year.

Ms. Andelloux states: “My heart goes out to those students who have recently tested positive for HIV. However, there is no evidence of any link between campus presentations on sexual issues and the spike in HIV cases. Rather, I would suggest that this demonstrates a need for more high-quality sex education to college students.“ It is unclear why people at URI or Citizens Against Trafficking, a coalition to combat all forms of human trafficking, is attempting to stop adults from accessing sexual information from qualified, trained educators. What is certain however, is that this Professor of Economics miscalculated her suggestion that a correlation exists between increased HIV rates in Rhode Island and the type of sex education these speakers provided at Brown University: one that emphasized accurate information, risk-reduction, pleasure, and health.

Barrier methods have been shown by the CDC to reduce the transmission of HIV and other STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). Research has shown that when individuals have access to medically accurate information, are aware of sexual risk reduction methods, and have access to learn about sexual health, the number of infections and transmission of STIs decreases, pain during sex decreases, and condom use increases. The CAT circulated bulletin is blatantly misleading about many issues, and often omits information that is crucial to understanding the full picture of sex education at Brown and in Rhode Island.

When individuals who do not hold any background in sexuality education speak out in opposition because of their fear or prejudice, society becomes rooted in outdated beliefs and pseudo-science that do injustice to people everywhere. Furthermore, when those individuals personally and publicly attack those devoted to providing sex education with false and misinformed accusations, it not only hurts those who are defamed, but also the community at large.

We ask for an immediate retraction of the vilifying and inaccurate statements made by Ms. Margaret Brooks and Citizens Against Trafficking in their latest newsletter. We also ask that esteemed local universities such as URI and Bridgewater State continue to hold their employees to ethical standards of normal scientific inquiry and require that their faculty hold some modicum of expertise in a field of education before raising the public level of panic over it.

Megan Andelloux is available to answer any questions the press, Margaret Brooks, University of Rhode Island or Citizens Against Trafficking holds. Aida Manduley, the Chair of Brown University’s Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council and Brown University’s is available to discuss the upcoming Sex Week and sexuality workshops held at Brown University.

Megan Andelloux, AASECT, ACS
Shanna Katz, M.Ed
Reid Mihalko
Aida Manduley