Here at the University there are two popular contact sports. The first is evident in the residential lawns populated with vehicles on Saturdays and the transformation of the backpack-toting pupil into a pigskin enthusiast in maize face paint.
The second, while sometimes audible, is less visible. It occurs in the wee hours of the morning and during the day, in pairs and in solitude. It can be as thrilling as a touchdown, as disappointing as a turnover and no uniforms are required.
Much more than a sport, sex — as novelist Fannie Hurst contends — “is a discovery.” But unfortunately in the United States, the lessons we learn are fraught with ambivalence: desire and disgust; openness and shame; knowledge and misinformation; silence and discourse. Thus, this biweekly commentary hopes to facilitate a campus dialogue on the anxious yet ubiquitous topic of sexuality.
I know what you’re thinking.
I am, after all, just another member of the erotic species with a perspective. My convictions, though, have been shaped by my experience as a sex columnist as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I also studied sexuality on the graduate school level with Carol Vance, and I have a hearty academic commitment as a first-year graduate student in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy to improve sexual policy in the United States.
All that policy talk leads me to today’s discussion piece: sex and the 2008 presidential elections. Of particular interest is how sensitive the national psyche is to issues of sexuality and what the costs are of sensitivities being exploited for political purposes.
Perhaps the most palpable site of sensitivity of late is the issue of sex education. In recent weeks, John McCain’s abstinence-only-until-marriage policies have been criticized in the wake of his vice presidential running mate’s teenage daughter’s pregnancy.
In an attempt to deflect that attention, McCain deployed an attack ad against Barack Obama last week. The 30-second commercial provides no information about McCain’s stance on sexually transmitted diseases, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently refer to as a “major public health challenge.” However, it falsely asserted that Obama’s support for a bill that would teach kindergarteners strategies to combat unwanted touching from sexual predators was instead a proposal that promoted “learning about sex before learning to read.”
To truly understand the impact of these words, one must know that sex education policy has been an issue of serious contention for decades now. The issue has not been so much about whether to implement “age and developmentally appropriate sex education” as the bill in question, which was never enacted in the Illinois state legislature, promoted. Instead, emotions have flared on the subjects of when children should be taught and what should be included in the curriculum.
Parsing through the root of this anxiety, American parents seem to be caught in a conundrum. That is, how does one teach about sexuality without provoking the onslaught of questions from their offspring about the circumstances under which they were conceived and sexual behavior that predated their conception? Adulthood or procreation does not absolve us from answering the internal questions that remain, the residue of ambivalence. Many parents have not fully reconciled teaching children about sex with their personal disclosures.
But there are costs when emotional reservations and public policy intersect. As the smoke and mirrors of a shattering economy shelter us, few have noted that the CDC’s 2006 STD Surveillance Data reported, “Direct medical costs associated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually.”
It’s shocking to learn in the same report that college-aged students were beat out by our female siblings ages 15 to 19 for the highest Chlamydia rates.
Obama proposes a comprehensive sex education platform that includes abstinence, contraception and sexually transmitted infection prevention methods, along with a general sentiment that parents give moral guidance to their youth. Undoubtedly, there are deep-seated political ideologies on many sides of the debate. Still, the consequences of STIs are incontrovertible and can be fought with a bipartisan front.
As constituents, this is not the year to let our sexual angst continue the tradition of perennially unasked questions on sexuality. Instead, McCain must address these sexual health concerns with a comparable platform.
Rose Afriyie can be reached at email@example.com