Sex health programs need realistic goals

Monday, December 15, 2008 | 11:10 a.m. CST

Let’s start with some uncomfortable truths. In Missouri, as with anywhere else, some women get abortions because of unwanted pregnancies. Some women (and men) are the victims of date rape. Some women and men contract sexually transmitted diseases.

Naturally, these events inspire others to do what they can to prevent recurrence. An especially reasonable place to make such efforts is a college campus, full as it is of somewhat malleable and very susceptible young people. But, as MU employees and students receive e-mails from university officials which detail the “drastically reduced state appropriations” the school will receive next year, the magnitude of which is “unprecedented,” we are reminded that money and time are limited resources at colleges across the country: They must be used in the name of reason, not hope.

Unfortunately, reason is not the driving force behind all the sexual health initiatives being proposed by individuals at MU, well-intentioned though all the initiators may be. According to a recent news release, one MU researcher is calling “for increase in sexual assault awareness programs on college campuses” after a study found that college-aged women were not able to “apply (their knowledge of date-rape drugs) in the appropriate context.”  

Such programs already exist at MU, but one wonders how well other campuses would be spending money if they answered this particular call to action, considering that the MU researcher came to his conclusion in part because, and I quote, “‘College students are likely to associate symptoms of nausea, blurred vision and lack of coordination with drinking too much alcohol, rather than suspect that another drug was unknowingly consumed.’”

So, let me get this straight. One of the aims of the proposed program will be to teach college-aged students that the symptoms of being drunk are not to be associated with drinking but instead with the insidious plan of a desperate, unknown deviant who was bent on drugging and violating them? Logic is, perhaps, not quite getting its due here.

The researcher points out other problems that are seemingly more significantthat females did not recognize the danger in having male acquaintances escort them to their bedrooms, for example but the real problem is the assumption that the best way to promote sexual health is by trying to control someone's subjective responses to nuanced situations (e.g. the above depends very much on the male acquaintance in question). 

Objective pedagogy is not realistic enough to account for the behaviors which can so tragically lead to date rape. Telling girls never to accept a drink from a male acquaintance because it might be drugged, for example, is an instruction they will never follow; you might as well tell them not to ever order food from restaurants because the kitchen could be violating health codes. If female students know, as the study found that they do, that date-rape drugs exist, there is little to be gained by trying to instruct them further.

Much more reasonable are sexual health programs based not on changing behavior but on finding ways to make established behavior less damaging, and such reason is prevailing elsewhere at MU.

A release from the people at MU Student Life announced that free condoms will now be provided in six residence halls. The effort is a pilot program associated with Sexual Health Advocate Peer Education, or SHAPE, that may become a standing arrangement if the proponents can get steady financial backing. (The people behind it worked for two years just to get this trial run.)

There is a noticeable absence of prodigal research and hope-based planning from their movement. Student body representatives did not, for example, first conduct a study to find out if students associate a sore throat with a cold or the onset of HIV. Instead, they recognized (presumably without the help of any formal research) that college students are sexual creatures and subsequently fought for tangible changes that can help them be so safely: The positive results of using condoms are indisputable and real, unlike those of sitting through an awareness program, which are simply potential.

If there is money, in these strapped times, for any college to instigate new sexual health and safety programs, it should be spent on those more realistic initiatives. If universities had unlimited budgets, then perhaps they could take a chance on ideas that might work in some cases. But so long as pilot programs such as SHAPE's are hanging in the balance due in part to tentative funding, we must give them precedence if we are to effectively fight against those uncomfortable truths.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Mark Foecking December 15, 2008 | 2:43 p.m.

Actually, the most common date rape drug is not GHB, or rohypnol, or any other prescription drug.

It's alcohol...


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