I am halfway through my exchange semester in the US, and enjoying all of the opportunities that an American college campus affords me. This past week, my campus put on an event called “Sexploration Week”. Run by the university's health center, this meant info-stands with free condoms, rapid-result , anonymous HIV testing, and several presentations by guest speakers. As both a curious college student and someone who is interested in the field of sex education, I was very excited about the event. And so, in the middle of midterm-week-insanity, I managed to attend a presentation by the company Pure Romance, and a live Q&A session with sex advice columnist Dan Savage.
Because of what I do at Scarleteen, I am always interested in seeing what kind of information teens and young adults are exposed to and how it is delivered. So while I was curious to learn some new things myself, I also felt a little like an under-cover agent, assessing the information that was given and how it was presented.
My first stop on Tuesday was presentation by Pure Romance Inc, a company that sells 'intimacy enhancing products' to women via Pure Romance parties. It was advertised on the schedule as “The Naked Truth” and I went into it not knowing what to expect. To be honest, I was a little surprised at what it turned out to be. My first introduction to the topic was by way of a product catalogue that I received upon entering the lecture hall. On the cover, five women in pink outfits were holding up a box with a pink bow and a little heart on it (the company logo), ecstatic looks on their faces. Though the women depicted are racially diverse, they are all conventionally pretty, and those whose hands we can see are sporting wedding bands. This cover gave me the sense that the products are intended for married women in their 30s, rather than college students with a wide variety of sexual orientations.
The rest of the catalogue only serves to reinforce that impression. First of all, though some of the products are advertised as uni-sex, everything is overwhelmingly pink (because, you know, it's every woman's favourite color!). Secondly, many of the product descriptions are heterosexist and based on gender stereotypes. For example on page ten, in the section entitled 'Foreplay', a pink info box tells us that “women are like Crock-Pots and men are like microwaves: It takes us a little longer to get warmed up!”. A few pages later, 'arousal creams' are advertised with the headline “Because he's ready, you're not. Now you are!” - this not only assumes that it's the woman who isn't in the mood, it also advocates using products to jump-start, rather than skipping sex for the night or talking about why you're not in the mood. It only gets worse on the next page, entitled 'Performance Enhancers'. Here we find a cream called 'Great Head' that relaxes the gag-reflex for when “oral favors feel like all labor, no love”, a numbing cream (not that they come right out and call it that, or anything) for “those who experience premature ejaculation” and my personal favourite, 'Like a Virgin', a tightening cream that will make it “feel[s] like the first time”.
Now, to the credit of the presenter, the presentation itself wasn't nearly as bad as the catalogue. The information she gave was factually correct, and in many instances she supplemented the catalogue's description to make it more inclusive. For example, in her description of 'arousal creams', she emphasized that hormonal birth control can often lower libido, as can stress and certain other medications. She also advertised lubricant-use and explained which types are condom-safe, and also dispelled the myth that if you 'need' extra lubricant, it means that there is something wrong with you. She also tried to be inclusive of same-sex partners.
On the whole, I feel like an honest effort was made to be inclusive and arm the students with honest information. Also, the entire Sexploration week with all of its different presentations was funded in part by the company, so they helped to get a lot of opportunities for education to the students in ways that might otherwise not have been possible. But the catalogue did leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and I hope that the other students who attended the presentation did not look at it too closely.
On Thursday, I found myself in IU's Alumni Hall for the Question and Answer session with syndicated sex-columnist Dan Savage. He stepped on the stage and was greeted with a standing ovation even before he had had the chance to say anything at all. He started the evening by telling us that he often gets slammed by the media for coming to campuses “with an agenda”. So to circumvent that criticism, he came with nothing at all prepared and will only answer our questions. That way, no one can accuse him of having an agenda. His next order of business was to take a poll of the sexual orientations represented in the audience. A fairly large number of people identified as homosexual or bisexual, and though many of the questions were from heterosexuals, as well, Dan often addressed the queer community specifically, and it was an incredibly empowering experience to sit in a room full of fellow non-straight people and listen to a non-straight person talk about sex.
After those preliminaries, he went right to the first question. Now, I have to admit that I went to this event with mixed feelings. While I think that, over all, Dan Savage gives awesome advice and that it's great to have someone like him be in the position that he is in, I do sometimes cringe at some of the advice that he gives. And so, because I did end up leaving the room feeling giddy and empowered, I want to get the negative bit out of the way first and end this blog on a positive note. To the question “Is it weird to still be a virgin in your 20s?” Dan answered with yes. He then qualified his response by stating that most people become sexually active at 15 or 16, but from there proceeded to talk about how waiting longer to have sex may make someone more prone to sexual dysfunction.
His advice was “Get out there, get drunk, and get it." He added “You don't want to get really shitfaced and accidentally rape someone, or get really shitfaced and be accidentally raped, but anyone who says that there can be no consent when alcohol is involved is lying."
Aside from the assumption that there is a common definition of virginity that we were all operating with (which struck me as particularly odd coming from someone who is gay) and the somewhat iffy thesis that waiting to have sex, for whatever reason, leads to sexual dysfunction (I'd love it if he could show me some research on that), I was uncomfortable with his advice for several reasons. For one thing, it's rarely a good idea to have sex before you are ready, and going out with the intention to get drunk and get laid just to get it over with is just not something that's likely to be very healthy or pleasurable. Furthermore, and ignoring his glib and somewhat hurtful comments about rape, many states have laws, and many colleges have policies, stating that someone who is intoxicated cannot give consent.
So on the whole, Dan, your advice there was pretty crap.
As the evening progressed, he went on to give more thoughtful responses. Asked about the recent addition of sexual orientation to the hate crime legislation, he stated that “this does not create a protective force field. You can still punch me in the face." But while hate crime legislation does not prevent hate crime, it is a positive step to see sexual orientation included in the law. He also commented on the hysteria about sexting, pointing out how ridiculous it is that a 15 year old girl could get in trouble for sending pictures of her own breasts to her 15 year old boyfriend. He jokingly suggested that we should all take nude pictures of ourselves and post them on the internet, so that it stops being such a big deal.
Dan also spent a lot of time talking about forced or assumed monogamy. “This is a dangerous thing to say for a gay male and father of a child," he told us, “but I am in an open relationship." Having a conversation about whether or not one wants to be monogamous, and figuring out the right arrangement for you and your partner specifically, be that open or closed, can drastically reduce the occurrence of cheating.
Another topic he spent a lot of time on was that of communication. “Gay people are better at sex”, he postulated. Not just because they have more of it, but because he feels gay people have a very different approach to sex and to communicating about sex. For heterosexuals, a lot of things are mutually assumed about sex, so it is not talked about. For gay people, there can be no assumptions and everything needs to be discussed beforehand. “With straight people, if they they both want to have sex, there's where the conversations ends. With gay people, that's just the beginning."
Dan ended his talk with a story about a horse. 16 years ago, he had written a column about whether bestiality was right or wrong, and come to the conclusion that it was wrong, as an animal cannot give consent. He received an angry letter from a man in Kentucky, who was married to a horse. Since Dan was also doing a radio show at the time, and this seemed like an interesting conversation, he invited the man to call into the radio show and talk about his marriage. He explained that he knew his horse was consenting since, if you're standing behind a horse and doing something doesn't like, you're going to get kicked in the face. They talked amicably for an hour, and at the very end, it occurred to Dan that he had never asked if it was a girl horse or a boy horse. So while the producer was already waving frantically to indicate the end of the show, Dan called out his last question. He was greeted with silence, and, he said, “you could literally hear him drawing himself up and after a pause he finally spat out 'I am NOT homosexual!' as if the worst thing you could imply about this man's marriage to a horse was that it was with a boy horse.”
Yesterday's article in the Indiana Daily Student claimed that many had left the auditorium appalled. I had noticed some commotion at some points during the talk, of people getting up and leaving, but I did not hear any particularly negative comments as I was leaving at the end. To be perfectly honest, I can see where people might not be too happy with Dan Savage. Even someone queer-friendly and sex-positive might easily get offended at his frequent use of graphic language or, like me, feel uncomfortable at his glib dismissals of rape. But on the whole, I feel that the good that he does outweighs any thoughtless comments he made. As he pointed out, “America is so puritanical that we are seen as freaky-deaky and kinky. But you know? It's not all bad. It's fun being freaky-deaky!” And that is why I enjoyed listening to Dan Savage. Not because of his advice, but because of the simple and all-too-rare pleasure of being able to hang out with a bunch of queer people and talk about sex.