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Is Asking People to Have Sex with Less People Appropriate for STI Prevention?

This question came up at work yesterday, in relation to an article on HPV and Gardasil.  I felt kind of uncomfortable about the advice “limit your number of sexual partners” related to HPV prevention, because to me, it feels like a value judgement.  But what’s the equivalent?  My instinct is to say “have mature, open conversations about safer sex with all your partners, no matter their number.”  But numbers-wise, this technique doesn’t achieve the same goal as reducing partners.  HPV transmission isn’t fully prevented by the use of barriers, though they certainly help.  It’s also hard to know whether you have HPV, because a lot of people do have it, and thus screening tests aren’t common under the age of 30.  It doesn’t show up on a Pap smear.  So technically speaking, limiting your number of partners is the most effective thing to do, in addition to practicing safe sex.

On the other hand, when it comes to something like HPV, I’m unsure what the risk/benefit calculus really is.  For example, many women who have sex with women don’t use barriers because frankly, it’s a pain in the ass.  It’s not a community standard, and STI risks are low enough that some people don’t think using a dental dam or gloves is really worth it.  You might make a similar choice about HPV–I probably have it or have had it, it’ll probably clear up, what’s the big deal?  Maybe this is more about stigmatizing STIs than anything.  It’s all well and good to give advice for prevention, but maybe what’s more important advice than anything is “get tested after 30, look for lingering cases, have regular Pap smears in case an issue does show up before then.”

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Blogging “Yes” Day 25: Real Sex Education

For day twenty five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “Real Sex Education” by Cara Kulwicki.  Cara is one of my favorite bloggers because she keeps everyone updated on all the crappy victim-blaming stuff that goes on, but sex education is also one of her big topics.  I remember reading this essay for the first time and being really intrigued because I knew I was for comprehensive sex education, but I had no way of picturing what that would look like.  If you think about what Cara’s proposing, it really could be revolutionary.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 15: Sex as a Competitive Sport

For day fifteen of the Blogging “Yes” project I read “Hooking up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved” by Brad Perry, who works in sexual violence prevention.  Perry’s essay includes the story of his own first 13-year-old attempt to have sex and some information he’s learned in working in sexual violence prevention about how effective sex education works.  What I found most interesting about the essay, though, was the idea of sex as a “game” that boys can win or lose.

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Talkin' bout my…education?

Cara at the Curvature recently wrote a very thought-provoking post about what she calls “real sex education.”  I’m not going to talk a lot about the post, because I think you should just read it – she makes some really interesting points – but I would like to share some thoughts about sex ed.  Cara’s real sex education involves teaching young people that sex is supposed to be consensual + pleasurable for both parties.  At first I looked at that statement and thought “hey, no brainer.”  Then I thought wait a minute, I may be progressive and all but I don’t want to be teaching kids about sex.  Then I thought, well, you know what, she has a real fucking point.

The big focus now for sex education is on teaching about how to prevent STDs and pregnancy.  There’s a big debate, I gather, between abstinence-only folks and comprehensive sex ed folks, but when they say comprehensive they still mean focusing on disease and pregnancy and how to prevent them.  It never really occurred to me what kind of a role sex ed could have had in my unfortunate early experiences, but now that I think of it, yeah, that’s a good way to start.

I’m not sure if my own sex education would be considered “abstinence only” or not.  In fifth grade, we took a course called “Human Growth and Development.”  It was a one-week part of the science curriculum that required parental permission, and of course everyone was very excited about it because of the sense of taboo that surrounded the course.  We essentially learned about anatomy – I dutifully labelled charts of male and female anatomy, though I know for a fact that a clitoris appeared nowhere on those charts (the focus being “the reproductive system”).  We had a quiz on the anatomy, then for the last class period we were huddled into a separate room from the boys and a female teacher told us briefly what a period is and what a sanitary pad is – my first introduction to the subject.  And that was that.

In eighth grade, we very briefly heard something about AIDS in health class, as part of a list of various diseases that we should be able to identify, but nothing about other STDs or how to prevent them.  In high school, there was a brief unit on the family in health class where we learned that a family is a married man, woman, and children, and though other families can and do exist they are technically dysfunctional.

And then out into the world I went!  

So when I thought about my nether regions, I mainly associated them with periods and reproduction.  My mother taught me that sex was appropriate in a loving relationship.  When I started college and did have a sexual relationship with a man, though, she was uncomfortable talking about oral sex and felt that it was something very intimate, something that while it was not necessarily to be saved for marriage, was only for special relationships and was not to be discussed.  It certainly wasn’t, as my friends had informed me, foreplay, something that you do before intercourse.

I never ended up having oral sex.  Oh, I was on the giving end plenty, as that was something he needed almost every time to have intercourse, but there was never any touching or anything like that for me.  It was very clothes off, let’s go.  I knew how to masturbate, but orgasms were something for alone time.  He asked if it was all right (the intercourse), but never offered to do something in addition.  I did finally get the courage to ask after about six months of sexual activity, and he said matter-of-factly that he “wasn’t interested in that.”  That’s fine.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But it was still disappointing. 

I don’t know that any of this is directly related to the lack of sex education in my life, but I can’t help but wonder if it might have helped.  I’m just now learning about safe sex for lesbians, and even there all the sources wildly conflict.  I think a few things could help.  1) Comprehensive safe sex information for gay and straight sex in high school.  2) Include the clitoris on the damned diagrams.  3) Teach the consent + pleasure model that Cara advocates.  4) Be realistic about sex.

I think that a huge problem with my education is that I masturbated from the age of eleven or so, but I always assumed that sexual intercourse would be this big things with fireworks and even more amazing orgasms.  When I learned that it’s kind of all right, and no orgasms whatsoever, I was disappointed.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for a woman who’s waited until marriage and then suddenly realises “fuck, I signed on for this?”  I also assumed that the actual process would be easy, tab A into slot B.  It was actually a little difficult, and clumsy, and took a lot of maintenance on my part to keep the guy ready to do his job.  This was a bit of a let down.  After sex with men, I started feeling that sex was pointless.  I mean, nothing can be better than the orgasms I give myself, so I should just give up.  Sex with women is basically going to be masturbation with someone nice to look at.  Then I started re-thinking it, and realising that it doesn’t have to all be orgasm driven.  A lot is about the touching someone, tasting someone, kissing someone, and loving someone.  I think the same could be true for heterosexual couples, especially if the woman doesn’t enjoy intercourse.  But you’d never know that from sex ed.  I think they should be frank.  Ladies, you deserve to enjoy sex.  You might not enjoy intercourse.  That’s okay.  You should search together for other ways to derive pleasure.  Etc, etc.  I think just re-framing the norms about sex that we all carry around with us would make for a much more enjoyable experience when the time comes.