Sex, like tobacco

a public health risk?

April 28, 2017

Sex, like tobacco, a public health risk?

A CSW blog

In line of a political climate of increasing conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and an aggressive rollback of the rights of women and marginalized people, during this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), the new U.S. administration appointed a hate group to its official delegation. In general, there were emboldened opposition advocates against key issues including; comprehensive sexuality education, sex work, LGBTQI rights and abortion. To have a clear idea about what these groups preach, Lewis and I went to the event on “The Family, Child well-being and the Empowerment of Girls” organised by Belarus on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Family. Several of the countries present included Hungary, Oman, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Kuwait. There was a large delegation of high school students from Mexico present who were recruited by the pro-family and anti-abortion groups Be Human and Construye, and were trained to lobby within their official delegations.

At this event, Valerie Huber, the CEO of ASCEND, promoted the method Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE). SRAE seeks to educate youth on how to voluntarily refrain from non-marital sexual activity and prevent other youth risk behaviors, a.k.a. “teen sexual experimentation”. She framed SRA as relevant, realistic and holistic life empowerment approach which “empowers especially young women and girls”.  ASCEND believe “that helping teens eliminate – not simply reduce – sexual risk, is the right thing to do.”

CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, stands firmly against this regressive and disempowering approach to sexuality education and believes that young people have the right to extensive Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), and it is a country’s obligation to realise this right. CSE is rights-based, age appropriate and gender-sensitive education that covers six key concepts as per the international standard: relationships; values, attitudes and skills, culture, society and human rights; human development; sexual behaviour; and sexual and reproductive health.

Since we have this view on sexuality education, we were shocked to hear that Huber regards the SRA approach as having a valid place as an instructional model alongside other public health approaches. Think of anti-drug, anti-violence, and anti-drinking strategies that might follow a public health risk avoidance and risk reduction paradigm. Huber highlighted, and compared sex, to tobacco. For example, often the message regarding smoking is: “Don’t begin smoking, but if you are already smoking, it is important to stop.” According to ASCEND, this model should be applied to sex education as well.

However, it is critical to firmly distinguish smoking tobacco from having sex. Firstly, and most importantly, tobacco is full of chemicals, tar and additives. Sex, when done safely and with consent, can, unlike tobacco, give young people a wonderful and amazing feeling inside without it damaging their lungs and brains. Sex is probably one of the most natural things in the world because it can offer us healthy pleasure and intimacy. I believe it is extremely naive to believe that SRA education will stop adolescents and youth experimenting and engaging in sexual activities. Educators should instead help them along this journey to freely enjoy the pleasures and glee of sex. Besides this, SRA uses fear tactics to rim sexualities and promotes abstinence like teenage sex is a disease to avert. I believe that well-rounded and holistic information about sex and sexuality, which CSE covers, rather than stigmatization and fear, is the way forward. Instead of instilling anxiety and shame, sex education should encourage youth to gain self-esteem and confidence and educate them on all the emotional and physical aspects of growing up, having sex and starting healthy relationships.

Adults should teach youth about all aspects of sex, not putting it in the same box as deadly addictions like tobacco or drugs. When we teach youth CSE, which talks openly about “potential” dangers and does not assume that sex, de facto, is a risk, young people will grow up to be empowered and healthy adults.

Kate van de Krol - Youth Advocate