This morning I woke up to a local housing project’s message about canceling a workshop on safer sex. The reason? No funding for outside presenters.
Welcome to the most frustrating injustice in sex education: information access and restricted conversations.
There is a sharp contrast between sex education for the socially privileged and sex education for the socially disadvantaged. In my time as a sex educator, I’ve worked with a broad range of populations and anytime I work with minorities, youth or poor people, the only things the organizations want me to talk about are STIs and condoms.
No pleasure. No agency. No risk reduction. Simply: “STIs will mess you up, use a condom or suffer the consequences.” Meanwhile, sororities and universities urge me to broach these topics.
“Sex Toys!”, they say.
“Masturbation!,” they laud.
“Sex positivity and empowerment!,” says the choir.
And they should encourage these conversations. I think everyone can benefit from a little sexual attitude reflexivity. But not everyone is benefiting from this, mostly because of social injustices.
Organizations providing services to the least powerful in society are dependent on donors and government grants. They are non-profit and perpetually on the financial edge in one way or another. So when governments hold conservative attitudes about sex, they must tow this line. STIs, condoms, pregnancy prevention. STIs, condoms, pregnancy prevention. STI, condoms…you get the idea.
But safer sex is a personal decision. No-one is there when you make that choice.
And here’s the biggest point I want to make: that choice is informed by far more than having a condom or not having a condom. That choice is informed by social messages, by power dynamics, by understanding risk, by a personal sense of agency. If you don’t address these issues, you can’t expect someone to practice safer sex.
Furthermore, there are more choices than simply using a barrier (condoms, gloves, dental dams) or birth control. What about mutual masturbation? What about withdrawal? What about making sure you go to a clinic if you do have unprotected sex, even if you don’t have symptoms? Hell, what about basic access to clinics?
I think it is no coincidence that the higher rates of STIs in this country are correlated with poverty and ethnic minority status. (The influential factors are more complicated, read though that link for a better understanding of why.)
What I propose is this: a frank discussion that cuts across cultural and social lines to teach people about a) a sexual risk continuum, b) how to be savvy consumers of safer sex products and c) identifying attitudes and issues that prevent use, such as power dynamics, boundaries and my perpetual lube-in-condom rant.
And these topics are what I consider to be the most basic of sex education messages. Beyond this, everyone should get a space where they can talk about gender, sexual orientation, and especially relationships.
Safer sex is not just using a latex or other barrier. We need to smash through the sexual anxieties and negative social messages first.