As an undergraduate senior, I had the distinct privilege of being one of “those” people who unabashedly dispensed condoms on the quad. Blushing twenty-somethings approached me, giggling nervously, for a “dirty little” giveaway, as if (PIV) sex was something to be whispered about at a university of 40,000 attendees widely known not only for its academic reputation, but also for its nightlife. (Then again, when don’t people other than sex-positive feminists whisper about sex?)
Public condom giveaways constituted once facet of my membership in a sexual health peer education group to which I belonged during my final year of college. This student-led, faculty-advised organization was and is, perhaps, most well-known for its interactive sex toy workshop, which features vibrators, dildos, cock rings, and “pocket pussies,” among other taboo playthings. Student workshop facilitators explain the proper usage and maintenance of said items with the end goal of informing their peers how to safely eroticize their sex lives.
Awesome, right? Sex-positivity! Vibrators! Pleasure! And we were talking about it like it should be talked about—like it’s NORMAL. Fun. And safe! (Oh my!)
I thought this was pretty much the greatest thing ever. I grew up associating sex with shame, guilt, and hushed tones. More than anything, I wanted to stomp out stigma and start anew. And I wanted to help others do the same. So, you can imagine my surprise when I realized (and fully processed) that there were certain types of stigma that this group wasn’t interested in tackling.
We talked openly about LGBTQIA issues, safe and pleasurable sex, and the nebulous and ever-shifting cultural definitions of “virginity.” But we didn’t talk about abortion, because, explained the faculty advisor for whom I held immeasurable respect, we weren’t a “political” organization.
We weren’t pro-choice. We weren’t “pro-life.” We just weren’t.
Of course, I thought this was an underdeveloped, disingenuous, all-around shitty explanation for why the group opted out of the abortion debate. Reason number one being that an organization that openly lauds vibrators and supports marriage equality is hardly apolitical.
Retrospectively, I realize this student group never outlined its guiding principles, which I’d always implicitly understood to be those of bodily autonomy, self determination, and freedom from oppression and related forms of stigma. At the very least, this is what the organization’s stances on other reproductive and sexual health and rights issues suggested. And by this logic, one would expect the group to advocate wholeheartedly for abortion rights.
But abortion proved too divisive, too controversial. We avoided abortion for fear of alienating or exiling anti-choice members. (Too bad no one considered how this decision might alienate women who’d aborted.) When it came to abortion, we compromised. A seemingly small price to pay for uniting the ranks of the campus sex-ed brigade under one rainbow-colored, sex-positive banner.
Is this scenario the exception or the rule? Must abortion rights always be sacrificed on the altar of apparent public opinion (which is, perhaps, “let’s just not go there”)? Is sex-positive sex education necessarily pro-choice? Exemplary models like Scarleteen exist. But as my experience demonstrates, not all sex-ed endeavors are created in the image of Scarleteen.