Margaret Brooks, the noted anti-sex work activist who thinks that arresting sex workers somehow protects them (because hundreds of years of evidence isn’t enough to show that it always makes things much worse for them), is at it again.
Citizens Against Trafficking just released a statement from her that’s full of scare quotes, misinformation, and misdirection to try to convince readers that sex education is the source of all evil. Let’s take a look:
She starts off with a statement about how “At least four students attending universities in Rhode Island have contracted acute HIV infections within recent months,” which she describes as a sudden increase and a recent outbreak. According to wikipedia, there are 12 colleges and universities in the state, with a total student population of 81,720. And this report says that the rate of reported HIV infections in Rhode Island between 2000-2008 varied between 10.4-14.3 per 100,000 people each year, with an average of 12.05 per 100,000. (table 13, p. 29).
An average of 12.05 per 100,000 is equivalent to 9.85 per year among all of the university students, assuming that the rate of infection among college students is the same as among people in Rhode Island in general. So if 4 new HIV infections have been identified “in recent months,” that’s not surprising. That’s how many new HIV infections there are in just under 5 months, according to the numbers. Now, I’m not sure that Brooks is referring to the entire student population of the state. For all I know, this all took place on two campuses. But we don’t have more specific information, so I can only take her at face value.
Given that, and without wanting to minimize the situation in any way for these 4 students, from an epidemiological perspective, this is likely to be nothing more than a blip in the statistics. But it sure does make for a great way to scare people. It’s also worth mentioning that there don’t seem to be statistics on the rate of HIV infection broken down by age for the state of Rhode Island, and that I don’t actually think that there’s any reason to assume that the infection rate among college students matches the general population, for a number of reasons. My point, though, is that this unfortunate situation can’t reliably be called an emergency, a crisis, or even an increase, since we don’t know what the expected rate of infection is. I would expect the chair of of a university’s economics department to have a better grasp on how to interpret statistics than this, so I can only conclude that she’s being deliberately misleading.
Next, Brooks quotes two medical students who say that there is “a public health crisis among college-aged MSM in Rhode Island”. This is convenient because it lets her call it a crisis, too. But given that the identities of the students who were diagnosed were not released, we don’t know whether they’re men or how they were exposed. Yes, sex between men is the most likely route of transmission for people in Rhode Island. And if she’s going to use the pattern in the entire state as her basis of comparison, then it’s fair to use my calculations above to show that 4 people in a few months is nothing unusual. If she wants to claim that the pattern among students is different than among the general population, then there’s no justification for assuming that these 4 students were exposed through sex between men unless we get more information about them (which we can’t do because of patient confidentiality). By trying to do both at the same time, she’s very carefully selecting her information in order to create a false impression of validity.
I’m curious to know why Brooks decided to quote a couple of medical students rather than Timothy Flanigan, director of infectious diseases at Miriam Hospital, professor of medicine at Alpert Medical School, and the one expert who’s quoted about this situation in the article she cites. Maybe it’s because he didn’t call it a crisis. And if you google either (HIV Rhode Island university) or (HIV Rhode Island students), the only relevant hits you’ll see are for the two articles Brooks refers to. It seems to me that if there really was an increase, there’d be more information than two articles from 3 months ago (November 1, 2010). I don’t know if Brooks is cherry picking her sources, if she lacks critical thinking and media literacy skills, or if she’s simply acting out of selection bias. But whatever her motivation is, she’s clearly blowing this out of proportion.
So what’s to blame for this supposed emergency? According to Brooks, sex education, of course!
In particular, she says that it’s sex education events that “often fail to provide medically-sound information about safer sex practices that would help students minimize their risk of contracting HIV and other STI’s.” But before she gets into that, she talks about how some sex educators do BDSM, some of them are sex workers, and some of them make porn. She manages to conflate all of these things, talk about them in an “isn’t this icky” tone, and makes it seem as if this taints the sex education that these folks do. Brooks also takes a swing at polyamory:
Polyamory refers to multiple sex partners. Promoting polyamory on a college campus could increase students’ chances of contracting HIV.
As if lots of college students aren’t already having sex with multiple partners, often without communicating them about it. The last time I checked, almost all polyamory educators include information about negotiating safer sex and how to talk about it with partners. That information is more helpful at risk-reduction than the usual “don’t have sex” approach.
Rather than collect actual information from workshop attendees, Brooks assumes that being poly, or a sex worker, or kinky, automatically disqualifies you as an educator. She doesn’t have anything to say about their workshops, just who they are or what they do for a living. This is an ad hominem argument at its finest, and it’s a clear example of her sex-negativity. (Here’s a great read on the connections between demonizing sex workers and slut shaming.)
Next up, Brooks lashes out at Megan Andelloux for showing an image of her poster “Pleasure Focused Sex: Playtime for Adults.” (click on the image to see a bigger version) Since it doesn’t suggest getting tested before having sex, or have warnings about HIV and STIs. She also thinks that Megan doesn’t scare people enough in her youtube videos because none of them tell people how to reduce their risk of STIs or to get tested.
I haven’t had a chance to watch the videos, but here’s a sample of some of the topics, which come from questions that college students asked her:
- Can the Clitoris be Desensitized with Vibrators?
- Help My Boyfriend Last Longer!
- Taking Too Long to Orgasm
- Lube, Lube, Lube-Which is Safe to Use?
- Does Anal Sex Cause Prostate Cancer?
- What Makes Someone A Slut
- Does “The Pill” Decrease Sex Drive?
Apparently, Brooks wants sex educators to include information about HIV and safer sex, even when it’s not relevant to the question. We could find ways to add it in for some topics, such as anal sex or lube, but do we really need to be taken to task for not squeezing it into every 5 minute video? There isn’t a single sex educator who lives up to that standard. I wonder why Brooks doesn’t call out Dan Savage for also answering questions about sex without talking about safer sex whether it’s relevant or not.
Speaking of Megan’s videos, Brooks slams her Kink Academy videos, claiming that “BDSM training videos like these that advocate hog-tying women and using needles (that can spill blood) do not contribute to a safe sex campus environment.” What she neglects to mention is that Megan’s videos on that site (NSFW for most folks) do include safer sex methods. Instead, she selectively uses images of bondage and needle play, which are much more likely to be difficult or triggering for people who are scared or upset by kink. It’s another example of her cherry picking what she tells people, in order to sway them. The screencaps that she shows are of videos made by other people, and while she doesn’t claim that Megan made them, by linking her with them, she misrepresents Megan’s work in order to attack her. For that matter, Brooks also leaves out the fact that you can engage in most BDSM behaviors safely, if you know how, and that these videos are intended to teach those skills.
Brooks thinks that Megan’s advice to wash up before going from anal sex to vaginal sex is insufficient because “simple ‘washing up’ is unlikely to remove all viruses and bacteria from the genitals, especially when students have limited wash facilities and privacy in a college dormitory setting.” Maybe they’ve cut back since I was in college, but the students do have bathrooms, don’t they? With sinks, showers, and doors that lock? I bet that most of the students have soap, too.
Brooks then attacks sex educators who receive sponsorship from sex toy companies:
Clearly sex radicals are targeting universities and they are developing business models to gain entry to this market.
Now, I will agree that whenever a company sponsors a speaker, there’s the possibility that it will shape what they say. But if you don’t want that, then how about advocating for funding for sex education? There aren’t many people who can make a living as sex educators. Other than the fortunate few, the rest need jobs that bring in enough money and have enough flexibility to let them take an afternoon or a few days off for teaching gigs, or they need to get a sponsor. If universities aren’t willing to pay for sex education, something else will meet the need. This is one reason that pleasure parties have become so popular among adults, many of whom simply don’t know much about their bodies or sex.
For that matter, does Brooks speak out about conferences that are sponsored by drug companies, sports teams that receive gear from athletic companies, or any other form of corporate sponsorship? Not as far as I can find. By singling sex education out for a practice that is part of a much larger pattern, Brooks makes her very slanted bias quite clear, I think.
Ultimately, what Brooks wants for tighter oversight:
The solution lies in requiring University Health Services to review all planned sex education speakers, curricula and events, including any videos and DVDs to be shown or distributed. If the proposed materials contain unsafe sexual behaviors or are too obscene for Health Services staff to review, then they should not be taught or distributed to students.
Universities that are slashing department budgets are simply not going to pay for someone to evaluate sex education materials. And even if they were, most often, nobody on staff has the training or credentials to make an accurate assessment of sex education. Very few medical professionals get more than a few hours of “sexuality education.” I put it in quotes because it almost always focuses on reproduction and (sometimes) STIs. There’s almost never any training on sexual function, communication, practices, diversity, or how to talk with people. So there aren’t a lot of people who are qualified to do what Brooks wants, but she’s hardly advocating for changes in medical training. She just wants to drop this into the lap of some people who don’t have the resources, much like having the gym teacher give high school lectures on “health.” (Bad Sex Ed is a grimly funny site where “adults share the worst advice they ever got in sex-ed classes as a teen.” Take a look at some of the posts before you decide we need more untrained people talking about sex.)
The bit about “too obscene for Health Services staff to review” could easily mean that it makes them uncomfortable. This is a big step towards censorship because the decision would most likely be influenced by the personal biases, dislikes, and triggers of a staff member who’s not likely to have any background in sexuality. What if, for example, this hypothetical staffer is bothered by depictions of queers or discussion of homosexuality? Is it all that hard to imagine that sex education materials would be subject to unfair standards? As Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver discovered, censorship almost always hits the folks at the margins first. Brooks seems to want to repeat the past, since she seems to have forgotten it. And in any case, as an economics professor, how can she claim to have the experience or authority to asses sex education? By her own standards, she’s not the person to do it since she’s not a medical professional.
Next up, Brooks makes spurious claims about the accuracy of Megan’s information:
For instance, Andelloux teaches college students that Saran Wrap can be used as a barrier for oral-anal and oral-vaginal sex, yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has not approved Saran Wrap to be used this way to prevent transmission of HIV.
Sure, but in 2006, the CDC fact sheet HIV/AIDS among Women Who Have Sex With Women said:
No barrier methods for use during oral sex have been evaluated as effective by the Food and Drug Administration. However, natural rubber latex sheets, dental dams, condoms that have been cut and spread open, or plastic wrap may offer some protection from contact with body fluids during oral sex and thus may reduce the possibility of HIV transmission.
They later backed off from that since there has never been any research demonstrating the effectiveness of plastic wrap for safer sex. The closest we have is the article Plastic wrap for ultrasound transducers. Herpes simplex virus transmission, which showed that plastic wrap did not allow the herpes simplex virus through.
Even so, lots of agencies and educators recommend it since it probably can’t hurt and very may well work. Some examples include the Dept. of Veteran Affairs, Scarleteen.com, WebMD.com, the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I agree that we need better research, but given that we don’t have it yet (and that there isn’t likely to be much funding for researching safer cunnilingus and analingus), this is the best we have to offer. And since college students, along with most other folks, are going to have oral sex, an easy risk reduction technique is hardly a reason to attack someone. Unless you’re more interested in attacking them than presenting accurate information, that is.
The end to Brooks’ screed is really telling:
Campus programs that encourage students to have multiple sex partners and to engage in risky pleasure-seeking sex behaviors, while minimizing or failing to discuss the risks of HIV and other STI’s, are highly dangerous to students’ health. Above all, university sex education programs must be health-focused, consistent with CDC recommendations, and taught by trained medical professionals.
Because we all know that CDC recommendations are free from the influence of politics, funding, or institutional sex-negativity, right? There has also been fairly little “official” research on many kinds of sex that a lot of people do. Does Brooks think that educators need to keep silent about them? How does she suggest responding, in those situations?
I do need to say that I agree that college students, along with everyone else, deserve accurate information. Anyone can call themselves a sex educator and unfortunately, not all of them are qualified. There does need to be a screening process in order to ensure that speakers can provide good workshops. At the same time, there are a lot of really amazing sex educators who don’t have academic degrees or certifications. But medical professionals are hardly in a position to fill that need. It’d be much more effective to promote a certification for sex educators, like the one offered by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists. (note- I’m certified by AASECT, as is Megan Andelloux.) You don’t need to be a medical professional to be a sex educator- you need to be trained as a sex educator.
Once again, Margaret Books is taking potshots at sex education. She seems to have a grudge in particular against Megan, but there isn’t anyone who’s safe from her (although I note that other than attacking Reid Mikhalo for his workshop on marketing for sex educators, everyone she goes after is female). These sorts of biased and slanted attacks might be a great way for her to motivate the folks who follow Citizens Against Trafficking, but they don’t help students, they don’t support better sex education, and they don’t do anything to address safer sex.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I organize the Good Vibrations Off-Site Sex Education Program, which means that I send sex educators to organizations (including college classes and student groups) to talk about sex. Megan Andelloux is one of the people I work with. Check out the testimonials we’ve received if you want to get a sense of the value of this work.
Megan has also issued a press release about this situation.