Green Juice Skeptic: The pandemic presents new opportunity to radically transform sexual health education

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has undeniably caused extensive damage to our collective social and public health. In addition to preventing typical in-person contact, the pandemic has challenged the ways in which we take part in and explore our sexual identities. Given these changes, we are met with new opportunities to transform and improve our public conversations around sexual health and sex positivity. 

The United States has long lagged far behind in comprehensive sexual health education. As of Oct. 2020, only 22 states require that sex and or HIV education be medically accurate. Compared to other industrialized nations, like Switzerland, Singapore and the Netherlands, the U.S. leads the world in teen pregnancies, averaging about 57 cases per every 1,000 people ages 15-19. Only nine states require that sexual education be inclusive for LGBTQI individuals, while seven states outright prohibit educators from discussing LGBTQI health and relationships in their sex education programs. 

Despite the growing body of research which indicates that abstinence-stressed education does not reduce the spread of STIs, teen pregnancy or other sexual health related concerns, 39 states including the District of Columbia ensure that abstinence is covered in sexual education programs, while 28 states require that abstinence be stressed. 

Lack of access to adequate education about contraceptives and consent have disparaging effects on women, rendering many unable to exercise control over their bodies and their future. Undue pregnancy, among other consequences of deficient sexual health education, impairs opportunities to achieve gender equality. 

To make matters worse, the lackluster sexual health education system disproportionately affects marginalized communities, reinforcing socioeconomic and racial disparities in health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are higher rates of STIs among non-white ethinic groups. Additionally, research supports that low-income students arewere less likely to receive sexual education in their health curriculums. 

Public health organizations such as the CDC and Planned Parenthood have long called for improvements to the educational system, citing that sexual health topics are essential components of health education for young people. Beyond this, the current sexual health education system relies on outdated conceptions of sex and pleasure that demonize and shame normal and healthy sexual expression. 

Advocates and medical professionals argue not only for improved comprehensive education about contraceptive use and consent but also for a greater emphasis on sex positivity. 

Sex positive ideology is centered around the reality that sex, if practiced safely and with consent, is a positive thing. It aims to remove stigmas around sexual health, especially surrounding often taboo topics such as masturbation, pornography and phone sex. 

Given the challenges around close physical contact today, it is all the more necessary that a broader public health coalition adopt a sex positive agenda. For those living alone or opting to reduce close contact with others, the safest solution for sexual activity is solo or remote sex. 

In addition to removing concerns about coronavirus transmission, solo sex removes the possibility of STIs and unwanted pregnancy. It also promotes a healthy sexual relationship with oneself, allowing a person to feel empowered and comfortable with their own body. 

Many misconceptions and myths have largely stigmatized masturbation, arguing that it is somehow degenerative for personal well-being. Additionally, the stigma around masturbation is particularly pervasive for women’s sexuality, as sexist delusions assert that it is unfeminine and unbecoming.

Contrary to these sex negative mistruths, masturbation is found to have positive effects such as relieved menstrual cramps and muscle tension and improved sleep, according to the National Women’s Health Center. 

Masturbation is also found to relieve stress. With the inability to resort to other methods of stress relief like gathering with our community, masturbation releases mood-improving chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine. 

While often perceived as an activity delegated for those not in relationships, masturbation can actually be a beneficial way to determine what a person likes and doesn’t like, only improving a relationship’s sexual life. 

Other methods of remote sex such as sexting, phone or video sex are also valid and beneficial options during the pandemic. With the removal of physical contact, remote sex allows people to explore and actually communicate about their sexual desires. What may often be more difficult to discuss or confront in person — like certain sexual fantasies — may be more easily talked about over the phone or digitally. 

It is ultimately up to the individual to choose whatever sexual activity is best for them. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a disinterest in solo or remote sex — especially for women — may be influenced by an otherwise sex-negative culture in our country that refuses to have frank and mature conversations about a natural aspect of our health. 

Rooted in antiquated religious traditions intended to suppress sexual desires outside of marriage and procreation, our dismal public health guidelines around sexual health, both before and during the pandemic, have negative consequences. These failures to better educate the public on our sexual health reinforce a patriarchal, heteronormative and privileged supremacist order, disparaging many, but especially women, LGBTQI+ and other marginalized people. 

In efforts to reduce undue impositions of contempt, guilt and shame, as well as public health disparities, we ought to utilize the pandemic as an opportunity to transform our social, cultural and political approaches toward sexual health. 

Sophia Ceniza is a junior writing about the intersections of wellness and social issues. She is also the wellness & outreach director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Green Juice Skeptic,” ran every other Tuesday.