Weekly Roundup: News on Tennessee’s “Gateway” Law, Parental Consent for HPV Vaccines, and Olympic Sex

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Roundups Sexual Health

Weekly Roundup: News on Tennessee’s “Gateway” Law, Parental Consent for HPV Vaccines, and Olympic Sex

Martha Kempner

In this week's sexual health roundup: there is new information on the origin of Tennessee's law that prevents schools from promoting "gateway" behaviors to sex at the same time that anecdotal information suggests teachers are censoring themselves because of it; a new poll shows that adults see the HPV vaccine differently than other STI treatment and prevention efforts and do not want to see parental consent for the vaccine waived; and a new tell-all book suggests that the Olympic village is a hotbed of sex, booze, and drugs.

Tennessee’s Gateway Law Succeeds in Censoring Sex Education

We may all remember the Tennessee law passed back in May–the one that bans the discussion of behaviors that are considered “gateways” to more advanced sexual behaviors–because it seemed like a joke. The law specifically said that school courses could not “promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity.” These behaviors are never exactly defined and left some of us scratching our heads, thinking back to sexual experiences, and wondering if a nice home-cooked meal or a back rub could be considered a dangerous gateway not to be discussed in class.

During his testimony one state legislator assured us that:

“Everybody in this room knows what gateway sexual activity is. Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there’s no stopping, especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught, and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody.” 

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There is so much wrong with this backwards, judgmental, and blame-ridden definition that I think I prefer comedian Steven Cobert’s snarky take on it:

“Kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station. We desperately need to intervene earlier to keep kids from engaging in… all the things that lead to the things that lead to sex.”

The most direct definition, however, comes courtesy of the President of the Family Action Council who had a hand in drafting the bill and says “gateway sexual activity” is akin to the definition of “sexual contact” according to the state’s criminal law, which refers to the “intentional touching” of “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being.”  Makes sense—after all, teen sexual behavior is clearly criminal. 

The gateway term—which was in fact modeled on the idea in drug-prevention programs that marijuana is a gateway to the harder stuff like heroin—seems to be designed to directly counter programs that teach young people about “outercourse” as a way to avoid unintended pregnancy and STDs. According to a new article on Bloomberg News the law was a direct reaction to a 2010 presentation in a Nashville school by an educator from a local AIDS organization. The elective course was designed to train students to be peer educators. In a discussion on oral sex, the leader demonstrated how to put on a condom using a penis model and her mouth. The audience for the class included the daughter of Roderick Glover, a Christian and motivational speaker. Though parental permission was required for the course somehow Glover’s daughter managed to attend without a signed slip and reported home on the “pornographic” nature of the class. Glover went immediately to the Family Action Council, Republican lawmakers, and the press. 

Two years later, he and those who joined him seem to have succeeded in censoring sex education teachers in Tennessee. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that they do not expect this law to change anything as the state has required abstinence-centered education for years. For this reason the state did not issue any guidance on the law. Unfortunately, the end result of this is not that nothing has changed but that teachers are afraid to do anything. The training director at the local Planned Parenthood reported on a recent conference in Nashville during which teachers and counselors, “… said they were less willing to use outside groups and more uncomfortable with sex education and more scared to answer questions.”  This fear is somewhat justified as the law imposes fines on outside groups that violate the new mandate (though teachers themselves are exempt). 

Though the law has been the butt of many jokes, school systems are taking it seriously and proponents clearly see it as a victory. Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association says: “We have every hope that this will serve as a model for other states.” 

New Poll: Adults Don’t Think Parental Consent Should be Waived for HPV Vaccine

A new national poll by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’ Hospital found that while most adults believe that young people should be able to access medical care for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) without parental consent, they do not feel the same way about the HPV vaccine. 

Specifically, 57 percent of those surveyed believed that young people ages 12 to 17 should have access to medical care for prevention of STIs without parental consent and 55 percent believed that these young people should have access to medical care for the treatment of STIs, but only 45 percent supported similar access for the HPV vaccine.  Those who did not support young people’s access without parental consent were asked why; 86 percent said simply they believed vaccines should be the choice of the parents, 43 percent said they had concern about the side effects, and 40 percent said they had moral or ethical concerns about the vaccine. These answers did not differ between those respondents who had kids and those who did not. 

It’s actually heartening to see that in general adults think young people should have access to prevention and treatment of STDs without parental permission and the survey had other good news; 74 percent of adults surveyed agreed that getting the vaccine is a good way to protect adolescents from HPV. Still, they clearly see the vaccine differently than other prevention options, even though it is the best method for sexually active young people to prevent HPV which causes genital warts, cervical cancer, penile cancer, and cancers of the neck and throat. This may be a result of the CDC recommendation that young people receive the vaccine at 11 or 12—long before adults see them as sexual beings. It may also have a lot to do with the nature of vaccines most of which are given to infants and very young children, and therefore parental involvement is naturally assumed. The results may also have to do with the backlash against all vaccines that has been popular in the last decade or so. Anti-vaccine sentiment continues despite the fact that the original data which began the movement was found to be completely falsified.

This poll is just the latest proof that the HPV vaccine has a public relations problem and that educators and health care providers have to continue to hammer home the important points: HPV is very common; this vaccine is the best prevention available; it prevents cancer; young people need to get the vaccine early in order to ensure that they are fully protected by the time they become sexually active; and there is no reason to believe that the vaccine will make young people more likely to have sex or more promiscuous.

Olympic Village: A Hotbed of Sex, Booze, and Drugs

The Olympic Games kick off in London on Friday and according to a new book written anonymously by a former athlete what we see is only a small portion of what the athletes do while in hanging out in the host city. According to The Secret Olympian, “no matter the host country, it’s always a struggle keeping booze and condoms in strong supply.” The author who attended the 2000 Games in Sydney claims that the Australians’ supply of 70,000 condoms ran out within the first week. 

Olympic villages are stand-alone complexes where everything is private and free. The United States complex has a 24-hour McDonald’s and two beer halls sponsored by Budweiser and Heineken. Condoms are also free. The book includes numerous stories of drunken athletes including tales of a disturbing tradition in which U.S. athletes deliberately get very drunk for their meeting with the President and Vice President after the games are over.

Though some say these stories are exaggerated, others acknowledge that alcohol and sex are rampant among the athletes. The book has this to say about sex:  

“No matter what your type, the Olympic Village can cater [to] it, providing the best physical examples on earth . . . Having completed competition, the athletes need to do something else to burn off their boundless energy. Like thoroughbred horses which haven’t had a run for a while, they get frisky.”

Todd Lodwick, a five-time Olympic Nordic combined athlete and a two-time gold medalist, admits that there is more sex at the Olympics than in day-to-day life: “How could you not?” he says. “If the opportunity is there and it presents itself…” As for the massive number of condoms that the athletes go through, however, he claims that this is just an old-fashioned prank. Athletes are told to take as many as they can so that organizers have to replace them and the athletes get a reputation: “It’s a myth: ‘Oh, look at all the sex these Olympians are having!’ ”

Being at the Olympics must be pretty heady stuff and between the adrenaline, the perks, and the close quarters away from home it would not surprise me if the athletes are having more sex than usual. It kind of reminds me of the first few weeks in Freshman college dorms—lots of freedom and new people. Still if the stories of binge drinking are true (also reminds me of Freshman college dorms), I do worry that athletes may not be making wise decisions. I guess we can only hope that some of those 70,000 condoms given out in the first week get used and that organizers keep refilling that bowl.