The documentary film Let’s Talk About Sex , as many of you know, will have its cable television debut this Sunday at ten pm on TLC. I had the pleasure of watching a screening of the film on Tuesday evening in NYC and sit on a panel with director James Houston. Here’s what we discussed together and with the participants who watched the film with us (don’t worry - I won't give any spoilers for those of you who have not seen the film yet and are waiting for April 9).
About an hour in length, the film Let’s Talk About Sex examines US ideas on sex and sexuality, with a focus on comprehensive sexuality, youth and provides opportunities for parents to hear from young people what they need when it comes to such conversations.
The screening was hosted by Miss Kings County 2011, Carmen B. Mendoza, whose platform is de-stigmatizing getting tested for HIV. I met Carmen in December of 2010 after she won the title and we hit it off! Her platform is important and reaches communities that many don’t reach out to in such settings. She’s a media maker, so look out for an upcoming Media Maker’s Salon with her soon!
There was a full house for the free screening and it included folks of various ages from all over NYC. Many of the folks present were in their early 20s and really connected to the film, and had great call and response as we watched. There were lots of laughs, some for comedic reasons, others out of shock, and there were some gasps. After the film, director James Houston and I sat on a panel to discuss the film and topics that came up in further detail.
One of the first conversations was about the goals James had for creating the film. He shared his desires to examine how his socialization as an Australian man who has lived in different parts of the world, and now in NYC, was different from what he was discovering US teens experience. Many of those were represented in the film, and he’s an advocate for encouraging parents and youth to push for comprehensive sexuality education. Research shows a majority of US communities want comprehensive sex ed, but a loud minority are monopolizing those conversations.
Participants asked about how audiences have responded to the film and James has shared that many folks enjoy the film. I agree that the film is accessible and easy to incorporate into a 50-minute class. The graphics and images are represented in ways that many people can understand. He shared that folks have provided their own experiences with education and religion after screenings, that parents have thanked him for encouraging and sparking conversation with their youth, and that teachers find the film a resource to use with students and their parents.
We were asked about the impact of religion on approaches to decreasing teenage pregnancy, HIV infection, and STIs. Houston shared that the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have been supporters of the film, and that when he went to visit specific communities that are using faith-based communities to discuss sexual health and reproduction, he found that there is a lot of work to still do. I think many of us agree that communities of faith are essential in playing a role in helping support comprehensive sexuality education. Many communities have begun to have important discussions around HIV with their members and are at the forefront of helping provide education and support to folks who are living positive and those who want to stay HIV negative.
Another question asked if James considered including a young person who had chosen to abstain from sex and what their experiences were. James shared that he did go to a camp in the Midwest to document the curriculum and activities but there was “not a lot going on if you know what I mean.” He also talked about how the term “abstinence” is such a loaded term that is filled with morality and judgment. This is one of the challenges to talking about abstinence in the US.
I then shared how young people I’ve worked with who have survived abstinence education know that when I ask questions such as “what are some ways to make sure you remain HIV negative” the expected response is to abstain from sex and sexual activity/behaviors. They have been socialized to know this is the “right” answer. Yet when I ask them “what does abstinence mean,” I get several different responses at the same time. I have realized that young people define abstinence differently even when they have the same form of abstinence education. This creates a new challenge and a new dialogue that we must have with young (and older) people. We have to help them decide what abstinence means for them, versus giving them our own definitions. For some folks I have learned abstinence means waiting until marriage to have sex; others believe it means not having any vaginal penetration but anal and/or oral sex is abstaining. There is a range, and diverse perspectives. I’ve encouraged youth I work with to define what abstinence means for them and make sure they are clear with their partners and that their partners share and understand their definition.
Another question was on why there is such a delay/lag in the US towards comprehensive sexuality education. James shared that he believes there is so much fear around sex and sexuality that is not seen in other parts of the world. This fear impacts a lot of our daily lives from conversations from birth to conversations as adults. He gave specific examples from the film (which I won’t share because they could be spoilers) to support his perspective. I expanded on that and shared that there is a huge illusion of power and control many parents and adults think they have over the choices and bodies of young people. This is a perfect example of how we misuse power in this society and use power over people versus power with them.
One of the last questions from the audience was from a teacher who wanted to use this film with her students, but made the point that many parents from working class and working poor communities are not present or able to have such conversations with their youth. As part of James’ argument for comprehensive sexuality education, he encourages people to mobilize their communities toward supporting such forms of education. The challenges do exist and I shared how we have to be cautious of our power as educators, as people who are educated in specific ways (i.e. college and higher education) when working in communities of which we are not members. We need to make sure that what we are bringing to those communities in which we are outsiders, are what the community desires. If it is not what the community wants then it is really us forcing our agenda onto them and telling them what to do. I gave the example that sometimes when we assume a family doesn’t talk over a meal it may be because that family can’t afford food, and those are larger issues we need to recognize and work to eliminate before working on others. In addition, I shared how comprehensive sexuality education may not reach all youth, especially those in the foster care system where their guardian is the State or youth who are already living HIV positive.