By Eric Francis
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was sitting in my room and my mother walked in with a newspaper clipping from The New York Times about a new disease called GRID. This was, I read in our family’s newspaper of record, a disease that was impacting the gay male community. A few weeks later, she came in with a second article on the same subject. It was a while before the name was changed to AIDS, or any heterosexuals figured out they might have a stake in the issue.
My mother, Camille, was the source of most of my sex education, at least the face-to-face part, covering the technical issues. This had started some years earlier.
Her theory was it was easier to talk about sex to little kids than to teenagers, so the discussions must have started when I was about 10 and when my brother Justin was about 7. She was at the time an ESL teacher — English as a second language — teaching English to people from Haiti and Puerto Rico. At the time, during the supposedly wild and irresponsible 1970s, educational programs funded by New York City included basic information about birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
When she told me the stories of grown women in her class (i.e., even older than her) thinking a 7-Up douche after sex could prevent pregnancy (apparently a rumor in the times before Snopes), I got it on the spot that you just had to teach this stuff. My brother and I got a kick out of the story, too. We had 7-Up in the refrigerator. It now had an erotic connotation.
One night after dinner, she dumped the contents of an envelope onto the kitchen table, revealing all kinds of little gadgets: diaphragms and various IUDs, condoms and tubes full of spermicide and little pamphlets. After that night, I was probably the only kid except my brother for 75 miles around who could tell you the difference between a Copper 7 and a Lippes Loop. (Both are intra-uterine devices. The Copper 7 was later the subject of a serious medical scandal and subsequent lawsuit, because it sterilized a lot of women.)
To her credit, there was no moral message whatsoever: she assumed that her sons would be sexually active, and the obvious choice for her as a parent was to make sure we began that journey from the standpoint of awareness and not ignorance, making choices about family planning instead of playing in the casino of life. She did not want any unplanned grandchildren, either.
We also got a full rundown on STDs. They were not considered a big deal at the time (since they could, in theory, all be cured), but I was aware of the dangers of Chlamydia, pelvic inflammatory disease, fallopian tube scarring and a diversity of other issues. In essence, we were being taught how to take care of women’s bodies, and also our own.
As much as I knew about sex by the time I got to high school, I was completely clueless that the subject was controversial. I continued my education in books that I found around the house: The Hite Report, The Joy of Sex, and others. Sex seemed to me like a normal part of culture and of life.
My senior year, I was editor of the social science journal of my high school, called Gadfly. In one edition, we ran a full-page birth control ad provided by Planned Parenthood, featuring photos of condoms and diaphragms. It was a progressive high school, but there were some relics laying about. My typing teacher was a conservative Catholic woman and objected to the fact that Gadfly had published this ad. She let me know this one day when I showed up for class.
At 16 this was already an issue I cared about deeply, so I stood by my decision as an editor, and I was happy to debate the point with her — and she failed me. In Dewey, it was really hard to fail a class, since the school was on a pass-fail system. If you showed up and did the work, which I did, you passed.
I explained this to the department chairman, and after a meeting with the teacher, they agreed to reverse my failing grade if I passed Speed Typing the next cycle. So today, my impressive typing speed is a testament to my position on sex education, and I remember this as I breeze along the Macintosh keyboard. Some things work together for good. Some things never change.
Fast-forward two years, to the spring of 1983. I was a sophomore at SUNY Buffalo, exploring my options for getting involved in the campus community. I learned that there was a Sexuality Education Center on the campus. Staffed by students, it was a form of peer counseling, and the program was run by a professional named Ellen Christiansen. After an interview, I was accepted as a trainee in the program, and began going to the workshops.
Everything was going well, and I was eager to begin working as a peer counselor. At the very end of the program, we had a special session with men visiting from the Buffalo Sexually Transmitted Disease Center, two supposed experts in the field, and after a presentation, we were invited to ask anything we wanted. At some point in this part of the session, I raised my hand and said I had read an article in the Times two years ago about a new disease called GRID, which they had not mentioned in their presentation. Could they tell us anything about it?
I remember the silence in the room.
They didn’t know what I was talking about.
I was not trying to catch them off-guard; I could hardly have imagined doing so. I was really curious. And it seemed obvious to me that if something on this subject was in the Times two years earlier, they’d heard about it; and that we needed to know about it, if we were going to be counseling students, including gay students, about sex. I was puzzled that they didn’t know anything, and puzzled that they didn’t even say they would look into the subject — but I let it drop.
The conversation went on, but a few moments later, Ellen called me outside the room and said that I needed to leave the program, since I was obviously better suited to be a journalist: in other words, I had asked a question that was too difficult for public health officials to answer. As you can see, this is not a difficult feat.
So, let the search engines and the Akashic record reflect that in 1983 I was thrown out of the Sexuality Education Center training program at the State University of New York at Buffalo — a major, indeed, world-renowned, health sciences center — for asking sexual disease experts about AIDS — a disease that would soon ravage our city’s gay community.
And cut a swath through the gay community of every other city in the world. And nearly all creative industries, which lost many of their most talented people, including Patric Walker, the horoscope columnist whose daily column showed me that astrology is real. And many heterosexuals, who died in droves first from contaminated blood products, then from IV drugs, and also from sexual contact.
And the entire African continent, apropos of the holocaust that AIDS is when you don’t deal with it.
I took Ellen’s backhanded advice and pursued journalism a bit more assertively. A year later, I founded a campus magazine called Generation, and one of the first weekly features I implemented was a sex-ed column called “Just Between Us.” The writer handled the subject with humor, intelligence and no inhibitions. Every week, in Q & A format, the column covered a new subject or two. Nobody complained, indeed, it was one of the most popular features we ran. But I quietly stood guard over the column, knowing that at least we were doing our part to put information into the hands of the 28,000 students we reached each week. (I also wrote an April Fool’s parody of the column, called “Just Between the Sheets.”)
What I did not know was that right around the time my mother was handing me the first clipping about GRID/AIDS, Ronnie Reagan was collaborating with the Heritage Foundation working to ban sex education in schools.
The program they were creating and lobbying congress to fund was called Abstinence Only Sex Education, and the drift of this program is that abstinence is the only answer to every question about sex, reproduction or pleasure in existence. Kind of like holding your breath is the answer to air pollution. Various forms of the program teach (for example) that condoms are ineffective at preventing disease or pregnancy. Homosexuality and masturbation are banned from the discussion, and asking about them may get a student referred to counseling.
Today, all across our great nation, graduating class after class enters the world clueless about sex, and it’s cluelessness by design. The federal government attempts, sometimes successfully, to exert pressure on foreign governments to implement abstinence indoctrination programs, on threat of losing foreign aid. Countries like France and The Netherlands, where sex education is valued and considered common sense, think we’re smoking crank.
Unfortunately, most American parents are not like my mother, with her envelope, news reports and common sense.
Some are: some refuse to play games with their kids’ lives, and have straightforward discussions even over the objections of spouses and school officials. (If a child comes into school knowing too much about sex, in today’s political climate, that can be considered a form of sexual abuse by the parents who provide the information.) But for most young people, if they don’t hear about sex in class, they hear about it from porno films (which are abundant in many households), where, for example, boys “learn” that you can have sex with lots of people without condoms, and that the usual thing to do is ejaculate on a woman’s face. Imagine the shock of a teenage girl who unexpectedly experiences that, maybe having sex for the first time.
I have been sexually active for 27 years, and I’ve noticed one particular trend in these three decades that I find extremely disturbing: I meet more and more women who do nothing about preventing pregnancy. Many don’t believe in the pill; I am not a big fan of hormone disruption, either. But for most women these days it’s either the pill, condoms or nothing. Condoms alone are not enough; there are other options, but nobody besides me seems to have heard of them anymore. No, they are not all good, but the options need to be considered, including natural options. But this all really takes knowing something, and that takes finding out. Things seem to be going a bit backwards lately. Maybe this trend has something to do with Abstinence Only sex “education.”
A few years ago, when I began studying to be a Hakomi therapist, I was stunned to learn that there was no discussion whatsoever of sex in the training program. Hakomi is supposed to be an elegant and enlightened form of therapy; but there was no discussion in the program of how to handle sexual subject matter, no information about how to handle sexual feelings, sexual trauma, nothing — the subject was not mentioned, and the trainers objected to mentioning it. They were adamant.
You could, and many people do, become a practicing therapist and hang up a shingle and take on the public and all its pain, yet have no experience discussing sex whatsoever — even though many people need to talk about this subject more than any other.
We have come full circle, back to the 7-Up douche; back to sex “experts” who are clueless about the most important issues of their day; back to locker-room talk providing more information than health education class; to therapists who skip over everything learned about sex from Freud on forward.
I am aware there are Planet Waves readers who have a craw stuck in their throats over the fact that I will not shut up about sex. Please, get over it. Someone once wrote to me and said that it was ridiculous that I suggested that couples need to talk in advance about what to do if their sexual experiences create a pregnancy. She suggested that nobody would have sex, if people tried to have that discussion first.
Please: get a clue. Learn to say “penis” and “vagina” without getting embarrassed.
We need to talk about this stuff. We absolutely have to. We need to know about it, and act on what we know. We also need to accept the fact that all sex is risky. Women 80 years old who have not had sex since they were 55 can and do develop primary genital herpes (i.e., have a first outbreak). Why? Well how about because 90% of the population has herpes antibodies. Herpes was old news in Caesar’s day, but few people know about this.
Under most circumstances (there are exceptions) herpes is a relatively minor problem, if you can get it under control. Not everyone can, and some people end up in herpes hell. Women who are on the pill, who have multiple partners, and do not insist on condom use are flirting not just with HIV but also with infertility caused by subtle infections that can do their damage in the year between gynecological examinations.
If we take care about AIDS, we’re also taking care about a lot of other problems, at least partly or mostly. With disease prevention, a little goes a long way; a little is better than none; and the more care and attention we take, and give, the better. If we use condoms and have a brief sexual history discussion, we’ve crossed a lot of important territory. If we take STD tests regularly, we at least know where we stand, more or less.
People who have been reading my sex articles for a long time know that I don’t dwell on the disease issue. I have chosen to take a different approach, putting most of my energy into communicating ideas about pleasure, working through shame and jealousy, and writing generously about the most maligned sexual subject still very much in existence: masturbation.
Rather than preaching the doctrine of “safe sex,” I would much prefer to offer ideas about how you can talk about sex at all.
If you can talk about sex, then you can talk about any related subject, including safer sex. If you’re embarrassed and don’t have the words, or if you’re afraid to say them because you might be judged, it’s a lot harder to have any discussion at all. And consider this: jealousy prevents people from having honest sexual discussions, or revealing their actual conduct. If something makes your partner jealous, you’re likely to keep quiet about it.
There is another point. Being real with people with whom we’re sexual gives them the power to make an informed decision about whether they want to be with us. Often, the fear of jealousy is an excuse; it’s a ruse that covers the fear of abandonment. Giving people sexual information about us is another way of giving them power, including handing them what they need to make up their own minds. And this is often the occasion for a chilling silence on the theme of sex and sexual history.
Rise above this stuff we must, and learn to speak, and to listen, particularly with and to our children, and with the adults with whom we are sexual, or plan to be sexual. As my first male lover George said to me, the answer to AIDS is not using condoms. The answer is whole relationships. Maybe that sounds a little like marriage, but I don’t view it that way: I think a whole relationship is any one in which you’re able to speak intimately about intimate subject matter.
With the flood waters of shame, ignorance and moralism somehow creeping up to our chins even at this rather late date in world history, we do indeed have a few things to talk about here beside the rising tide. And hey if you can’t talk about sex, you’re missing some of the best sex there is, since those discussions can really heat up that plump, juicy sex organ known as your brain.
I do have a suggestion, though: for the sex discussions that require cool, calm reason, talk in the kitchen, over a nice refreshing glass of 7-Up. ++