Sex Toys and Censorship

Here’s a not so hypothetical hypo (yes, I’m studying for exams, so I am awash in hypos): an LSRJ chapter plans an event called “Sex Toys 101” in which they plan to bring in an educator from a local shop to teach students about sexual health and pleasure and to facilitate a discussion about state laws around the country concerning the legality of sex toys. Two hours before the event, the school’s assistant dean cancels it, citing some school regulation that bans the selling or promotion of commercial products by a private company. Except that no one was promoting or selling anything — anything, that is, other than a sex-positive attitude. The student group yells censorship. The dean says it’s just a simple case of misapplication of school rules.

Sound far-fetched? Think again. This is going on right now at the University of Wisconsin. And the school’s LSRJ chapter is in the thick of it. The chain of events might make more sense in, say, Alabama or Texas — states with a recent history of outlawing sex toys — but in Wisconsin? So it is.

Luckily, it appears as if the law school community is seeing through the dean’s flimsy reasoning. From the blog of one professor: “That sure sounds reasonable, and it might be if it wasn’t bulls**t!”

And so it appears. The person who came to speak at the event provided the education as a public service. Experts from Babeland have done the same thing at NYU without incident. They don’t bring anything to sell or push students to patronize the store. Instead, they come to promote safe and healthy sexuality. Shouldn’t a graduate school with a student body made up wholly of adults want its students to have access to all the information necessary to make informed, empowered, and healthy sexual choices? Wouldn’t a law school want to nurture the ideals of the First Amendment?

Wisconsin LSRJ thinks so, and the group is organizing students on campus to protest the dean’s actions. The major league blogs have picked up. And the pressure is mounting. But I guess this is the fight we a society can expect when we allow the government to fund abstinence-only “education” programs, which plant the seed of our dysfunctional thinking about sexuality.

One in Four, Maybe More

The first-ever national study of four common sexually transmitted diseases (or STDs) (HPV, Chlamydia, Genital Herpes, and Trichomoniasis) among girls and women was released yesterday. And the results were eye-opening: at least one-in-four girls are infected with one of the four diseases surveyed. Among Black girls between the ages of 14-19, the percentage shoots up to about half.

According to the NY Times, the Centers for Disease Control reacted by calling “for strengthen[ed] screening, vaccination and other prevention measures for the diseases, which are among the highest public health priorities.

Yes, that’s right. But let’s not beat around the bush here. We don’t just need “prevention measures,” if prevention measures means more abstinence-only “education”. We need comprehensive sex education so that teens–who, let’s face it, are likely to be sexually active at some point before marriage–know how to prevent the transmission of STDs and learn how to protect themselves. C

ecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s current leader, put it well: “The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure,” Ms. Richards said, “and teenage girls are paying the real price.”

Yes, it is girls and women who are paying the price. And it’s not the price for having sex or for attending comprehensive sex ed, if they were lucky enough to have it, as some on the anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-abortion bandwagon would have us believe. It’s the price for living in a country (or rather, under a regime) that does not respect women’s sexuality.

The Wall Street Journal can argue all it wants that these numbers are not alarming once we dig a little deeper, and that the prevalence of HPV in young women shouldn’t get us too worked up. But it does. And it should. It should get us worked up enough to push our states to reject abstinence only funding (if they haven’t already) and to institute real, comprehensive sex education.

The Tipping Point?

The other day, Iowa became the 17th state to reject federal abstinence-only dollars. The state will continue to refuse funding until and unless the federal government makes significant changes to the program. The other 16 states include New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana and Connecticut, among others. New York had previously received the second largest amount of any state of federal abstinence only dollars.

As it currently stands, recipients of federal Title V abstinence-only funding are required to adhere to strict guidelines. The program requires states receiving the funding to adhere to the following requirements:

Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, P.L. 104–


A has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
B teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
C teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
D teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
E teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
F teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
G teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
H teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

In case it’s not apparent, there are significant problems with this definition. As SIECUS explains, “This definition ensures that young people who have already engaged in sexual activity, those have been sexually abused, or those living in nontraditional households are not only denied critical health information but are presented with shame- and fear-based messages. Other groups of young people, such as gay and lesbian youth, are ignored completely.”

Yup. And the rejection of these ideas was really needed in Iowa, where some of the federal (and state matching) funding had been used to pay for a huge roadside billboard featuring a picture of a pregnant woman who was not wearing a wedding ring. The billboard read: “Wait for the bling.”

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with encouraging teens to wait to have sex until they are ready. But using federal dollars to pay for misogynist, patriarchal, patronizing ads like this one goes way beyond simply encouraging kids to wait until they are ready. Especially ironic is that, while abstinence only programs encourage waiting until marriage (for just about everything), they don’t provide people with the education necessary to prevent pregnancy should they decide to become sexually active. Abstinence-only programs are not just anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-abortion. They’re also anti-sexuality, full stop. They suggest that sexuality is a failing. But what’s failing are these programs, which have not been proven to reduce rates of teenage sex. And they’re far out of step with public opinion, which heavily supports comprehensive sex ed (which includes abstinence).

Given the weight of public opinion, and the fact that more than 1/3 of states have now rejected the federal funding, I’ve got to wonder at what point the scales will tip. The Democratic congress has not yet had the political will to reduce or end Title V and the other abstinence-only funding streams. But the point at which Congress will have no choice but to do so — the tipping point to borrow from Gladwell — now seems closer than ever.

Pressure Mounting to get Rid of Ab Only

Given that abstinence-only programs have been proven time-and-again to be ineffective, it’s no surprise to see pressure mounting to defund them. RH Reality Check today posted a letter, signed by ten prominent researchers in the area of teen reproductive and sexual health, and sent last week to Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid. In the letter, the experts call on Congress’s Democratic leaders to make good on their promise to change things in D.C. by stopping the stream of millions of dollars each year that flow to abstinence-only programs (and to Crisis Pregnancy Centers). They wrote:

As a group of leading scientists who have recently conducted research on adolescents, reproductive health, and abstinence-only education, we are writing to express our strong concern about increasing federal support for abstinence-only education (AOE) programs.


The federal programs promoting AOE have prompted multiple scientific and ethical critiques. These critiques were summarized in a January 2006 paper by Santelli, Ott and others. By design, abstinence programs restrict information about condoms and contraception – information that may be critical to protecting the health of young people and to preventing unplanned pregnancy, HIV infection, and infection with other sexually transmitted organisms. They ignore the health needs of sexually active youth and youth who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning for counseling, health care services, and risk reduction education. Withholding lifesaving information from young people is contrary to the standards of medical ethics and to many international human rights conventions. International treaties and human rights statements support the rights of adolescents to seek and receive information vital to their health. Governments have an obligation to provide accurate information to adolescents and adolescents have a right to expect health education provided in public schools to be scientifically accurate and complete.

It goes on. And on. There’s just so much that’s wrong with abstinence only programs. I, for one, hoped the Democrats would own up to that and make getting rid of — or at least minimizing funding for — misogynistic, hetero-centric abstinence only programs a priority. But, as Amanda Marcotte points out, the Dems are in a bind:

Right now Democrats are in a political bind, because abstinence-only proponents are super eager to label anyone who advocates for effective programs (i.e., comprehensive sex education) as advocates for teenagers f–king in the streets.

So, in Lakoff-ian fashion, Amanda calls for a reframing:

What needs to happen is basic reframing. This isn’t about who wants who to have sex with who when, but about who wants kids to be healthy, and who is resigned to letting them get sick. Which is all you’re going to get with abstinence-only. But it’s more than just what “works” better in terms of reducing STDs and pregnancy rates (though comprehensive sex education does), but it’s a philosophical question, too. The very idea that schools should be in the business of reinforcing ignorance instead of improving knowledge is a violation of basic American ideals.

I think Amanda’s right that a reframing would help make real, comprehensive sex-ed more palatable (shocking that providing kids with accurate sex information is not enough).  What strikes me, though, is how often we on the progressive side of this issue find ourselves in this bind. We need to reframe on abortion. We need to reframe on sex-ed. We need to reframe on women and work. I’m left scratching my head a little about why it is that we are so bad at framing in the first place.

The Dirty Underbelly of Ab Only

No Ab OnlyIt’s now well established that abstinence only “education” programs don’t work. They don’t prevent or delay sex among teens. They don’t help teens prevent STDs or unintended pregnancy. And they’re misogynist and homophobic (take, for example, the program called “Sex is for Fags,” an abstinence program for boys. Ok, that one’s a joke but it’s not far from the truth). While there were hopes when the Democrats came to power in 2006 that abstinence only funding would wane, the Dems are now dithering.

Luckily, Amanda Marcotte, in her new gig at RH Reality Check, reminds us today why abstinence only programs undermine reproductive justice and hurt men’s and women’s sexual health. She reminds us about the real lessons of abstinence only “education.” They include:

  •  implicitly encouraging “anything but” sex, yet without the proper education on disease prevention
  • that the third of American women who have had abortions are degenerates and failures
  • People — but really, women — can “use up” all of their capability to connect emotionally if they have sex before marriage, thus making happy relationships later in life impossible.
  • All those stereotypes you’ve heard about what women and men want and need in relationships are true.

The research of SIECUS and Advocates for Youth back this up. At NYU last year, we hosted an event complete with mock Ab-Only class (run by SIECUS’s Maxwell Ciardullo). People — even those in the know about reproductive justice — were shocked at what kids are learning in school.  We should all be in the know, so we can fight against the continued funding of these destructive programs.