By Corinne Daley
A progressive action to take in spreading healthier values and ideologies of sex is to start with conducting conversations with our children, with our peers, with our elders, and with our communities. The Netherlands are doing just that through Rutgers, which is a Dutch sexuality research institute that aids the sex education curriculum in Netherlands schools along with many other schools in different countries.
A recent study from Georgetown University shows that starting sex education in primary schools helps avoid unwanted pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and STDS. Through the guidance of the Rutgers sexuality research institute, Netherland educators conduct honest conversations on the topics of love, relationships, desires and fantasies, gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, contraceptive options, and skills to help protect themselves from sexual coercion, intimidation and abuse.
According to the World Bank, Netherland teen pregnancy rates are one of the lowest in the world; and five times lower than the US rates in HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases. Keep in mind that like any other statistics there are many factors that may have influenced those numbers, such as economic influences. Economic influences or not it is apparent that because the Netherlands are more open to sexuality, students are shown to be more assertive and better communicators than their American peers; and on account that youth sex is more socially acceptable in the Netherlands than America, contraceptives are more readily available.
One of my friends Domenic Roberto is trying to make change to the American culture in regards to sexuality and the sex education system through activism. I decided to do an interview with him to talk about about his thoughts on sex and sexuality.
Interviewer – Corinne Daley a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Interviewee – Domenic Roberto a Student at Siena College in New York.
Interview Setting – through Skype.
(Start of interview)
CD – Tell me about the sex class at your college: how you feel about it, your professor, topics you have discussed, and the way your school has dealt with it over the years.
DR – Sure, yeah totally, okay so I am in a class called Thinking Sex, and it is taught by this really awesome professor named Dr. Swan who is honestly one of the only people I think could teach this class. He started off the year with here is a list of everything we are going to talk about. And this was ranging from bio things like anatomy to extreme things like pedophilia and bestiality. He said the first thing we’re going to do here is look at this list and if you are uncomfortable with talking about any of these topics, we will not do it. Raise your hand now, or write it down on a piece of paper, send me an email, and means necessary send it to me. And we kind of just went from there. Obviously our topics are still kind of jarring for some people. Our first reading from a book called Perv, it was from the first chapter called We are all Perverts and it talks about so many different sexual acts such as bestiality, incest, like a lot of stuff. Granted starting the year like that might have made some people uncomfortable, but it was a really interesting gateway into the world of it all. Hearing about all of these different things, and more importantly normalizing them and talking about them in a casual setting, which is a necessary setting for a class like this. We have gone through a lot of different topics. We have gone through anatomy one-way, Orgin another way, and some diversity, as well as gender in comparison to sex. They tie into each other despite the fact that they are separate. It has been a really eye opening class. I think it is one of the most important classes anyone can take at our age. We have learned about so many cool things. When you think about sexuality, and you think about gender, and when you think about just sex in general, and the ways in that there are injustices about it, whether it’s unethical treatment in the porn industry, or LGBT rights, or just talking to people about gender being not related to sex. A simple fact like that, or basic anatomy that people don’t know, I mean at least half my class did not even know the word vulva until they came to the class. My class is half female, so it’s ridiculous how little people have learned (throughout the years), but at my college is very much a lot of kids who have come from private Catholic schools so the sexual education is not alway the best. I had a really good one where I came from, but I had a secular, suburban, liberal town.
CD – I can image that you still learned a ton through taking this class.
DR – Oh, 100%, I mean I came into the class with a lot of knowledge, but even still, just the amount of things I have learned. Different theories on sexuality and gender. It’s so easy to assume you know all of the facts and that you’re pretty good at it until you actually start reading more and more about theory because there is still so much we do not know and there is still so much that we are afraid to talk about, which I think is hindering the amount that we do know about certain sexual topics. What this class has done for me is open my eyes to a lot of those things, and hopefully for my classmates as well because they were less receptive than I might have been to the class. I was pumped from day one, and it took some time for them to warm up to it. My professor is one of the nicest, most easy to approach individuals I have ever met. He lets us lead the discussion, he’s there to guide us and give us really good articles to read and all and all this promotes the healthy environment where we can talk about sex. If we cannot talk about it then we are not going to be able to talk about the injustices that are caused by it so unfortunately I do not think my school has been as receptive to it. We’re a religious institution, so for example, I do not believe our class is being held next semester at all because it is a first year seminar class. At the same time sexual behavior is still an option for sex students, which is good. It is hard to balance that religious component with this sexual quota. And there is difficulty, there are donors who give to the school who may not want to [see this class taking place], but all and all it’s trying to find a way to get this information to people I think is the most important thing, and the fact that I am part of this last group of kids being able to experience it, is really enlightening and I hope that I can continue to do work at my school to actually improve that because there is still so much I don’t know and there is still so much that other people don’t know. We need to hopefully talk about it. The fact that my friends and me have gone through this class and there are ways we can hopefully go about educating people on it whether that is just doing presentations on LGBT issues or talking about human trafficking. There are ways for us that we don’t have to compromise the sort of Catholic values of the institution to actually talk about some things. Now unfortunately that does leave a few things out that are really important and necessary. We are able to do some things in regards to programs, to anti sexual violence, sexual assault, consent, that we are still allowed to do. That is good and all, but it does saden me a little bit that this is a class that not everyone can take. Especially because it is an honors level class.
CD – Is it just honors or can students who are not in honors can take it too?
DR – We have our Freshman seminar where each student gets to pick a theme, but honors students only had two options over the summer: Thinking Sex, or Gender and Sexuality in the Western World. Gender and Sexuality in the Western World focus a lot more on gender, and raise cultural stuff like that, while we focus a lot more on sex entirely even though we do talk about a lot of the same stuff. What bothers me is that there are so many kids in my hall that I will talk to about what I am doing in class and they will all be so receptive like they will get into conversations heated about these topics, and they will be like I did not know about that, I did not know about this, that’s cool that you’re learning about that. Not only is it already an exclusive class to kids, and some of those kids were not even comfortable enough to stay in the class. Some kids did actually have to leave after the first couple of weeks.
CD – That is very interesting.
DR- That is what bothers me. You have so many kids who actually want to learn about this information, but do not have the source for it. I will do what I can. I talked to a lot of people so hopefully I can get information out there. That gets to the heart of what a lot of sexual education is. It is just people are not finding mediums to learn it from.
CD – In terms of the peers in your class, and also including yourself. Have you noticed a revolution in your attitudes and ideologies, and the conversations you have with the peers in your class from the beginning of the semester to the end? Or the year rather because you took this class throughout your whole freshman year.
DR – Yeah exactly, what I am really glad is that it is a full year class: A) so that we obviously can get a large gulp of information, and B) because during the first semester especially it was really difficult to get a lot of kids to talk about some of this stuff. There are still some kids who will talk more than others. I mean hell, I always talk in that class, but –
CD- Are you one of the main talkers?
DR – Yes I am
CD – *chuckles*
DR- I’ve got a reputation in my class.
CD – They’re like oh here goes Dom again.
DR – Exactly
CD – In a good way, in a good way.
DR – I hope so, I don’t know, but I’ve noticed too that the kids who were not that comfortable talking at the beginning of the semester opened up a lot more towards the end. There is still that like, you know, those kids who are a lot more enthusiastic than others, but compared to first semester when I would be saying a lot more to kind of fill the silence, now it is filled by a lot more other students, which I think is a great thing. Then again we’re students, we’re intellectuals who want to be able to learn. When a topic makes up uncomfortable it does not mean we should not discuss it. And I think it took kids a little longer to adjust to that. But In the end, I think, everyone in the class would agree even though they did not like or they were uncomfortable the whole year most kids would agree that it is a class that changes your perspective on a lot of things. Definitely worth taking. And with a professor who is as friendly as mine is like it’s hard not to enjoy being there at least.
CD – In terms of your own learning, what was something that you learned most in this class? So like maybe you learned something about anatomy, or something related to the mental part of sexuality, or something in history. In other words what was something that stuck out to you the most?
DR – Sure, I’d say, there are a couple of things. One of the biggest things for me was when we talked about how sexuality is developed because at first I have always been under the assumption that you were born that way, that that is how it works, that is kind of the rhetoric you hear from most people, but we looked at some different theories that really made it seem, well it is still not a choice, it is something that can still be formed socially. It is called the Exotic becomes Erotic theory. It was really fascinating, something I have never heard before. It made me really think about how as good as I was studying sex and stuff in high school in my spare time just for the hell of it I have been still like a little more it is either psychological or biological. It’s difficult to have that mix and even if I wanted to believe there was a mix I could not really verbalize that. So that was one of the big things in class where I was truly taken aback and I really grasped onto that theory of sexuality. Soon after we started looking at – this was like second part of the year where we started to look more at like theories and sort of the ways in which gender and sexuality intertwine rather than first semester which was a little more like anatomy and nature stuff. But we were also looking at gender itself and the ways that culture creates it. Because I already knew gender was something that we socially and culturally created, but looking at the way that we also compulsories where we make our sexuality compulsory, and we make gender conformity compulsory really came out when we read a Butler article where she talks about – she is hard to understand – but she talks a lot about just the ways that we organize different characteristics, and how the entire system is flawed. And how we are so good at producing these things but yet they are detrimental to society when we try and say these traits are masculine these traits are feminine and that is the way things are. The fact that it feeds into the way we see sexuality and the way that we see ourselves is it almost makes you think that like this whole system is like so flawed and makes you look at it in an entirely different way. When you see a kid who is not performing within their gender where they want to play with a different toy or something else. Just to think about the impact that it has from day one where we start socializing. And thirdly the biggest thing – we read this book Sex at Dawn where it take monogamy and completely just fleshes out why naturally speaking as a species we might not be monogamous. And in terms of science – oh there are studies that show this, there are studies that show that, but it shows that there is a lot of bias in the research that people do. It talks a lot about how the system we have set up pins men and women against each other sometimes with their interests and tells them otherwise and we are socialized to different things in regards to gender and sexuality. Reading Sex at Dawn made me think about how the way our culture makes us feel compulsory at everything. There was, I just mentioned sexuality, gender and now monogamy and general, all of these things stem from different compulsions that our culture gives us and it makes you think about the influence that they have and again I go to a religious institution and I am kind of limited in how I can talk about sex and things, and yet you think about how that spread out over an entire culture that is very must influenced by Christianity at it’s roots –
CD – Yes.
DR – You look at smaller scale cultures that are like are their own sort of thing, they’re own tribal element that have their own societies their own cultures. We talked about the Maslow who are the Chinese group of people who their system is entirely different they do not have partners for life. It is considered wrong to even stay with one partner. Jealousy is looked down upon. Jealousy is something that we create ourselves. When people think about sex class they think oh you’re just talking about orgies and just threesomes and all this random stuff –
CD – Right, stuff they see in porn.
DR – Exactly, and then you also think about sex itself, it influences everything. There is a really awesome quote that my professor told me – I forget who said it, I will have to look it up, but it’s that “Everything in life is about sex, except for sex, sex itself is about power” and it’s really fascinating just to think about the influence that sex does have on everything, and gender is so tied into it as well. So those have become the main things that have really opened my eyes in terms of I have never even like if it were not for this class I do not think I could have even gotten that scope of perspective on it.
CD – That’s incredible, now you did touch upon the activism that you have done thus far on campus. Can you tell us more about your adventures of sex education and sex-positive activism?
DR – Thankfully we have the Women’s Center here so we are able to do presentations and programs on things like human trafficking on domestic violence, on healthy relationships, and consent. Those are some really awesome topics to cover, and we do presentations in classrooms. We have a subset group in the Women’s Center called peach, where we go into classrooms to do presentations. So that is really cool too. In terms of things though that then become a little trickier is well when, my friend and I for example, tried to start a sexual health club, didn’t always, you then get a conflict of interests with administration and religion and it becomes trickier. So and me personally I am all about sex positivity. On my floor in my dorm and in gender as like being ‘that guy’ but I am glad I can be that force but I am only one voice, and granted I have a lot of friends I can talk to about this stuff about, but without a platform it can be difficult to sort of spread that. A lot of this semester was spent dealing with administration, and the Franciscan Friars who live here and talking about things we can and can’t talk about, and the way spirituality sees sexuality because it is really easy to think oh Catholic belief like sex is evil end of story, but it does come from a place of talking about self dignity and trying to talk about not using other people for pleasure. That sort of thing, but I think that even still at the end of the day, even though this is a religious institution people have a right to this information regardless. Sex positivity might not be important to someone who is absent but if they have a friend, or they have a family member, or something comes up and they change their religion, they change their belief system it’s information that they have in their back pocket that they can use. If we’re not going to be able to talk about it – sex-positivity – we can talk about sex-negativity all we want, we can talk about human trafficking we can talk about domestic violence, we can talk about how corrupt the porn industry is, but if we do not have a solution, a positive sexual solution to it then without that alternative we sort of lose half of the battle there. It’s one thing trying to stop sex-negativity, but if there is not sex-positivity then the same creeping influence is going to come back. There is already so much shame, and guilt and embarrassment, and taboo when it comes to sex. By normalizing a discussion we can actually think about how to go forward because if we don’t want to talk about it then we’re not going to. It’s just the main fact.
CD – Why do you think there is a stigma of shame around sexuality? You did mention Christianity and that is a huge part of where the shame comes from, but it is interesting because sexuality and sex is a huge part of our lives, and it seems like the shame and the taboo and the guilt overwhelms the positive. It just overpowers it in that there is almost no positivity. It’s very hard to find that positivity to sex and sexuality so where do you think this shame comes from?
DR – It’s tricky, a lot of it definitely comes from this culture in general, and we have a culture where everything is sex. Sex sells. You have ads, you have movies, and you have everything that is related to sex, but after bombarding everyone with this we then go hush hush when we actually want to talk about it. It’s a combination of throwing sex in the face of adolescence, and everything that we do and then telling them that if they have sex they are somehow unclean, they’re damaged, they’re broken. Even virginity itself is a social concept that everyone adopts even though it truly means nothing.
CD – Right.
DR – So a lot of it comes from the media, a lot of it comes from different generations not wanting to talk about it, different people not feeling comfortable talking about it, and a part of it comes from a lack of normalization. Think about BDSM for example. People who are into BDSM are not bad people. They enjoy their sexuality in a healthy way and there is nothing wrong with it, no one should ever be shamed for that, especially if no one is getting harmed. Yet you think about the way that our culture sees it, it’s almost strictly for most people 50 Shades of Grey or something that they have seen in a comedy movie that just does not represent it properly. There is not a single film I can think of that actually represents a healthy BDSM relationship. You think about that and then you compare it to other things. Polyamory, different sexualities in general that should be a pretty basic one. The representation is not there. The big issue is that we’re, yeah, talking about sex kind of, but we’re not actually discussion it, we’re just showing images to people. Sending little slogans and messages here and there, and refusing to actually discuss it, refusing to do anything and by that means you’re keeping people just bundled up with however they feel and when it comes to their sexuality and relationships, when they come to open up that bottle they are not going to know where to begin. It’s tricky stuff and then if they do want to talk about it, yeah, people who just do not want to hear it, or people who don’t quite understand it because they have not actually sought it out. You’re not going to change the culture, you’re not going to change the way people think, and you’re not going to make people comfortable unless you open your mind to that. You might not always feel comfortable with it, but that’s a process, you can baby step your way into it. I think just media and representation and conversations about it are going to help, but I mean currently so much of the country have horrible sexual education. It is super influenced by religion compared to others, and even places where it is not it is not necessarily talked about entirely. There is no regulation really on sex ed and what people are learning is going to be from the internet where we have a porn industry that is not ethical, that is male focused, that is entirely incorrect sometimes and that is where people are going to learn it from or maybe someone they trust online who’s opinions are not even facts, but they trust them anyways. There needs to be a standard of some kind that people can go through a baseline. We can go from there, but until we can actually start talking about it and start representing people as normal sexually who deviate from the norm, the normal, you know, vanilla heterosexual man woman marriage have sex relationship then we’re not going to be about to actually move forward in any discussion in any way of sort of normalizing it. Because it is one thing to sort of say we’ve increased rights for people in the LGBT community, and it is another thing to say our culture is accepting of them. That’s what’s honestly more difficult to change.
CD – What does feminism have to do with sex education, sex positive activism?
DR – We have a culture in terms of female sexuality does not really respond well to it. As I mentioned earlier with porn, it’s male focused and incorrect in terms of the way a women will actually experience orgasm or the way she would like. And it does not focus on consent or anything so those are so many key components to a feminist lifestyle. Especially with women, they’re shamed about their sexuality and told that if you have sex with that person you’re a slut or if you don’t have sex you’re a prude. There is this lose, lose situation. You’re going to have a generation of girls who are uncomfortable about their sexuality. It is not necessarily going to be bad for everyone. There are going to be a lot of people who feel guilt or shame somewhere in their being and it is because it is what they were told earlier on. If we don’t have good sex education then – say you are someone that has been told your whole life that if you have sex before marriage, you’re wrong or dirty, or God hates you or any influence whether it is religious or social. If you’ve been assaulted or been in an experience that you thought you enjoyed, but you didn’t. Either way you’re going to feel like you’re less of a person. There are so many stories of people who have been compared to chood gun or used shoes or pieces of tape because of whether it was assault or a simple act of pleasure. No matter what sense people are being shamed for their sexualities. Women especially, [did not get some of recording] when Kinsey came out with his book on female sexuality, it was not received well what so ever compared to the male variants because people don’t want to talk about female sexuality. It’s not sexy sometimes. And that is also just a huge double standard that comes from it all, and if you’re not going to teach women to have sexual agency, and you’re going to teach men to be sort of persuasive and coercive. You also generate a bit of a rape culture. You’re also taught from a young age boys want sex you should just always tell them no and you teach boys girls are always going to say no. You’re going to create a generation of girls always saying no regardless of how they feel, whether or not they want to be sexual, and a generation of boys who are trying to persuade them and trying to coerce them. Oh look at that girl playing hard to get or not excepting when a girl is not interested because she is always saying no regardless. In both fronts we set this up and often time women are a lot more affected than men are, but we are all affected by it.
CD – Absoluting and sex education and sex-positive activism is going to create positivity in men’s lives just as much as women’s.
DR – Absolutely, and even just think about something as simple as understanding one’s own anatomy. I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who have not been probably educated on certain components of their own anatomy, and same goes for men. Yeah you can do trial and error, you can look it up online. Sex affects every single person regardless whether or not you have a sexual desire or drive; you are affected by sex in some way shape or form. The fact that we are not even teaching it, the fact that it is such a core component to human experience and we don’t want to acknowledge it. You sort of repress a primal urge and a primal hunger that we are going to feel at some point in our lives in some way shape or form.
CD – I completely agree with you on that. Now we kind of touched upon this a little bit. I still want to ask this question just to elaborate more. What do you think needs to change in order for people to feel comfortable in talking about sex and sexuality?
DR – One of the big things definitely needs to be representation. Whether it is a movie a book, a commercial, or anything. We need to change it from being so normative. From hetero-normative, from regular typical vanilla sex sort of speak. We need to normalize in society that fact that people are different, people have different feelings, and they should not be shamed for it. I think that part of what our generation needs to do especially, is go out and just make noise about it. We need to have conversations with people about it. The more and more we talk about sex positivity the more and more there is a chance we will reach someone that we can connect to. That will talk to someone else, and talk to someone else. It’s difficult at our age, I’m nineteen, there is only so much I can do to change our current system of sexual education; to change our current culture.
CD – especially when you are fighting against people who are in power. The whole entire University.
DR – Exactly, [did not grab recording] like I said, they have a Catholic agenda; they have donors who give them money that they need to kind of live up to. I can’t fault them on that, but I can still push and do as much as possible. I have the ability to do it step by step and go to places and say okay where can we start. What is the first thing that we need to start talking about. Maybe it begins with talking about consent. Talking about sex in not just a negative way by saying here is how to have a healthy sexual relationship. Starting from there we can work out way up. We have the power of the internet, we have technology on our hands to reach a lot of people so the more that we discuss sex positivity the more that we push for it, the more that people hear it, all the more likely that the people who are shaping our generation, shaping our culture when we’re adults, those people in power might actually have a better understanding and philosophy about it. It is still going to be a slow change, but no cultural change is an easy and quick one usually. It is going to require a lot of work and a lot of effort. It could be just one class at a simple liberal arts college talking about sex to already make someone passionate about trying to make a difference. Baby steps like that is what’s going to change this country. It might be more difficult. I am in the North East, it’s a little easier here to talk about these things than if I was somewhere down south, but at the same time it is all the more important for everyone to be educated on this because no one is born with this knowledge. No one goes through their high school and all of a sudden it is just naturally you learn it. You have to be taught, and you have to be taught by a trusted source.
CD – Yes, definitely, because it is such a vulnerable part of people’s identity, and it is important to be in a comfortable environment where you know you’re not going to be judged in order to talk about this stuff.
DR – Yes, and actually my class is called Thinking Sex because of a Gayle Rubin article and she says, where it kind of sums up the conversation entirely, Sex itself comes with an excess of significance in our culture we give it so much value, so much power. We make it this one big pillar that if we’re afraid of something deviates from the norm, we’re afraid all is going to crumble evil is going to skid across. That people are going to be doing this people are going to be doing that, and because of that excess significance we make it a taboo we don’t want to touch that pillar we don’t want to open floodgates so to speak. People drum it up to be a lot more than something that it really is.
CD – Exactly, and I thoroughly believe that one of the reasons why sex sells so much because people don’t have any other outlet to really talk about sex, to talk about sexuality so when they see it on that billboard, when they see it on their computer or when they do see it a magazine, they’re like ‘whoooo, what’s this’. It’s shocking to them. It makes it that much more appealing, which if it was talked about it would not be that big of a deal.
DR – Yes, you think about other countries where nudity is a lot more accepted. It’s not like people are walking around all the time shameful or turned on, it is part of their lives, and it’s natural. We have such an ambivalent attitude towards it, where we’re all for sex, but also don’t do it. It’s not healthy or anyone.
CD – I agree, what are some goals you have for sex education and sex positivity activism for the future?
DR – I would love to find ways to make sure people are having safe sex. I’m still working with the administration trying to figure out ways in which we can at least educated the masses and hopefully provide for them. There is a planned parenthood twelve minutes from my school. People need to know what they can get there if they need anything, when they can go for testing because if you go to health services it’s not going to be confidential, it will show up on your insurance, parents can see it. Kids don’t want to do that. In terms of activism I mean just starting on this one school, the amount I can do here I can at least start informing the public, and I think already with the amount of buzz that my friend and me have been drumming up. People have been talking about it at least, which is half the battle right there. I’ve had a friend approach me before where he was unsure on how to protect himself if he is performing oral sex on a girl that he does not know if she has been tested or not. And so I had to give him a whole lesson on how to use a dental dam if he wants to do that or how to get tested. There are some people here in relationships that I’ve talked to who didn’t know you’re supposed to pinch the air out of a condom before putting it on. That’s crazy, and it could have been disastrous if something had happened. Things like that, just talking to people about their misconceptions. Almost being like a Q and A source. Making sure people can hear this info is really great. Other things I’d like to talk to people about are things like ethical pornography talking about the mistreatment of people there. It’s a whole other misunderstanding, and these are the things that affect our generation especially. Age nineteenth through twenty five. People going to strip clubs, people watch porn, people who have casual hookups, that’s the world that we live in right now. Making sure you’re educated is going to so much more than half the battle in terms of the impact that it has on people’s lives. People are valuable to making mistakes because they did not hear information because someone withheld it from them. I think whoever withholds information from someone that could protect them and they get hurt because of it, should at least be partially responsible for what happens. That’s one of the biggest things. Just trying to educate people, and provide resources. Even if they’re not from me, making sure they know exactly where to go to get them for free if they even need them. Or tested or anything like that because again I’m nineteen there is only so much I can do, but I have a whole summer ahead of me to think of ways to promote sexual positivity, and my class has made me all the more passionate to try and do something. In my hometown, they’re a lot more liberal, it was easier to talk about these things, but now that I left that bubble, I’m realizing the majority of people really don’t talk about these things.
CD – Dom, you’re doing revolutionary work.
DR – Not yet, give it time, I will let you know when I am.
CD – Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
DR – Absolutly, i enjoied it, I am always happy to talk about sex, my class can tell you that.
(End of interview)