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Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.
Recent CDC Study
Amidst the health care reform debate that continues in Washington, DC, the CDC recently released a report noting that sexually transmitted infection rates continue to soar, and are still increasing, in the United States. A few findings from the report:
- 1.2 million cases of chlamydia were reported in 2008, up from 1.1 million in 2007.
- Nearly 337,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported.
- Adolescent girls 15 to 19 years had the most chlamydia and gonorrhea cases of any age group at 409,531.
- Blacks, who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 71 percent of reported gonorrhea cases and almost half of all chlamydia and syphilis cases in 2008. Black women 15 to 19 had the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
- 13,500 syphilis cases were reported in 2008, an almost 18 percent increase from 2007.
- 63 percent of syphilis cases were among men who have sex with men.
- Syphilis rates among women increased 36 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Sexuality Education And Sexual Health
The report does not explicitly discuss sexuality education, or “sex ed”, but what is implied is that sex ed has been failing to provide young people with the knowledge and resources necessary to maintain a healthy and pleasurable sex life.
This is largely due to the pervasiveness of abstinence-only education; when youth are only told “don’t have sex… until you’re married” without being told what to do if you decide to have sex sooner, they’re not equipped to make safe and healthy decisions when that day comes, even if they do wait until they’re married!
It appears that funding for sex education is now going nearly-exclusively toward comprehensive sex ed, curricula that openly discusses sex, sexuality, and sexual health, yet that still notes that abstinence is the absolute safest way to avoid health consequences for having sex. But, there continues to be opposition to this plan, with the often-stated concern that teaching children about sex and sexuality will lead them to do it before they’re supposed to (a point in their lives that is largely determined by others, rather than themselves: when they’re in a married heterosexual relationship).
However, research comparing abstinence-only and comprehensive (or “abstinence-plus”) sex ed programs finds that abstinence education does little, if anything; in some cases, students who received abstinence-only sexuality education delay their first sexual experience for a few months longer than those who received comprehensive sex ed, but their rates of STIs are much higher and their rates of condom and other contraceptive use are much lower because they were never taught about such things in sex ed.
Sexual Health Disparities and Inequality
As I noted earlier in the statistics from the CDC report, Black people, women, adolescents, and men who have sex with men (MSM, whereas we cannot assume a gay or bisexual identity for these men), have some higher rates of STIs than their privileged, majority group counterparts (i.e., compared to whites, men, adults, and heterosexuals).
We see that those who face prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation are also the ones who have worse health in general and sexual health in particular. We can even say that these forms of inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, are largely to blame for these inequalities: discrimination in the health care system, less access to health care, poorer (both in quality and funding) schools and the subsequent poorer quality in sexuality education, just to name a few.
The CDC even notes that a part of the solution to addressing racial disparities in sexual health is to address poverty in the US. Further, according to the work of Dr. Jessica Fields, a sociologist at San Francisco State University, even when students do receive comprehensive sexuality education, the images they see and the content surround the lives and sexualities of white, able-bodied, heterosexual people; in her book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, she notes that people of color, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people do not see images of themselves, nor do they hear content that pertains to their lives and sexualities.
It’s no wonder that these are some of the groups that also have higher rates of STIs.
Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.
The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, aided by women’s and gay liberation movements, have made for greater acceptance of casual sex, or “hooking up”, on campuses. While many celebrate the freedom to hookup, others are expressing concern for safety and health.
What Is Hooking-Up?
Hooking up has emerged as a new trend on college campuses across the United States, and some say it appears among high school students as well. Today, we see young adults getting together to have sex outside of the context of dating and marriage. For some, this is simply a one-time thing soon after meeting, while for others it can be a regularly occurring encounter with the same partner (sometimes called “friends with benefits”). Though we know about how common hooking up is today from research by scholars like Paula England and Kathleen Bogle, we see that there is no universal definition of “hooking up.” Sometimes it simply means oral sex, or mutual masturbation and “heavy petting”, and sometimes it means sexual intercourse. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, we tend to be vague and unclear about the specifics surrounding sexual activity in general, so it comes as no surprise that there is no clear, universal definition of hooking up.
So, Why Should There Be Any Concern?
What concerns could we expect aside from the obvious concern about hooking up from groups who would rather adults wait until marriage to have sex? (This assumes that everyone will get married and can get married.) Unfortunately, England has found a significant orgasm gap in her research on hooking up experiences of college students, at least in heterosexual hooking up. In almost every case, men can expect to orgasm, but women are often left in the cold. Men are more likely to initiate hook ups, and hook ups often happen after consuming alcohol. These points raise concern for women’s ability to maximize their sexual pleasure, including reaching orgasm, but also in terms of fully consensual sex, as consent is difficult to negotiate if you or your partners are not sober enough to give a fully-informed “yes” or “no” to certain activities.
Proceed, But With Caution
I am not the type of person to suggest avoiding an activity all together because of potential risks involved. Nothing in life is risk-free, even sex within a monogamous, marital relationship! Young adults, well, really all adults, should enjoy their sexualities, but, of course, while being safe. This does not only mean in terms of using contraceptives and other means to reduce one’s exposure to sexually transmitted infections. But, I also mean adults should be safe about their social and emotional selves as well. Be sure to have open communication with your partners about what you like, what you don’t like, and what you’re seeking in the end (or that you don’t yet know!). Make sure you are capable of consenting and receiving consent to engage in certain activities. Hook up all you want, so long as you’re being healthy and safe.
Note: this blog post was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.
Late this summer, the American Psychological Association voted to denounce the practice of treating clients to change their sexual orientation, typically just from gay, lesbian, or bisexual to heterosexual. It also declared this form of therapy to be harmful to individuals’ mental health.
The American Psychological Association And Sexuality
The APA has not always had the greatest reputation with respect to sexuality. Until 1973, the organization’s primary guide for diagnosing mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), defined homosexuality as a mental illness. Under pressure from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, APA moved to take homosexuality out of the DSM.
Since then, the APA has become a greater supporter of LGBT people and critic of homophobia, producing research that highlights homophobia’s negative impact in the mental health of LGBT people (e.g., bans on same-sex marriage). This latest step to denounce the practice of “reparative” or “conversion therapy” further establishes the organization as an ally of LGBT people.
Due to the intense prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people in the United States and worldwide, many find the idea of converting their sexual orientations to heterosexual appealing; they see life as much easier and better if they were not lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
A number of groups, mostly religious, have promoted the practice of conversion therapy, claiming to offer those who are unhappy with their sexual orientations to find a better life. They even promote a high success rate of such treatment, though their methods of research tend not to go through the rigorous, peer-reviewed standards of most social science research.
Most research has found that such treatments do not actually work and can have harmful effects on clients of such treatment, thus leading the APA to call for the end of such practices.
Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?
The origins of sexuality, whether bisexual, homosexual, or heterosexual, are still not yet fully known. Sexual orientation is complex, but what is known indicates that sexuality is not chosen, nor can it be changed.
The supposed success rate of conversation therapy really indicates the ability for individuals to suppress their sexual desires, not to change them. I suspect that our sexual orientations are developed from both biological and social sources. After all, same-sex sexuality, relationships, and desires have always existed, just like those that are different-sex, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual sexual identities have not.
(In Ancient Greece, men who had sex with men did not identify as gay, nor bisexual or straight – it is only in the twentieth century that we began to take on a social sexual identity in the Western world, and now more globally. And, now, it appears that the links among sexual desire, sexual behavior, and sexual identity are becoming even looser.)
Now that the APA has taken this step to cease efforts to change individuals’ sexualities, we need to move forward in diagnosing homophobia as an illness that plagues our society.
In many cases, I would argue, it is not a problem of the individual, but rather a problem of society. This logic applies to the classification of “gender identity disorder”, what psychologists call the condition transgender people face in the mismatch between their gender and their biological sex, as a disorder. In this case it’s not considered a mental disorder, but rather a disorder of the body.
For many, treatment is sought through counseling, changing one’s gender expression (e.g., clothing, name, mannerisms) and possibly one’s sex through hormone treatments and surgery. But, I see the larger problem lying in society’s rigid gender norms and expectations. As a sociologist and an activist, my ideal world is one in which we no longer fix the individual’s mind and body to address problems of society.