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Center tests Americans' sexual literacy

July 11, 2005

Photo of a man and  woman embracing in a hug at nightThe National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC) has launched an Internet-based sexual literacy campaign -- the first nationwide effort to educate and promote sexual wellness. At the new Web site, visitors can take a 12-question quiz that assesses their knowledge and dispels myths about human sexuality.

"People are not being educated about how to respect each other in their sexuality, treat each other and their bodies with integrity and talk about sexuality in an open and transparent way without shame or fear," said Professor Gilbert Herdt, director of the NSRC and SFSU's Human Sexuality Studies Program.

Through the quiz and articles from NSRC's peer-reviewed Sexuality Research and Social Policy journal and American Sexuality magazine, the campaign Web site offers information on sexual wellness -- the knowledge and skills needed to maintain fulfilling intimate relationships, prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and understand sex beyond the physical act itself. Articles cover such issues as sexual coercion, rape, unintended pregnancies, protection from STDs and abortion complications.

One of the campaign's objectives is to combat misconceptions about sex. Herdt said many confuse real sexuality with “packaged” sex -- sex that has been turned into a commodity by the media to sell products and lifestyles.

"[Many people] hold up their own sexuality and compare it to what they see on reality TV, and that reality is not real," Herdt said. "[Sex has] been packaged to sell cars, beer and concepts such as vacations in Hawaii or Thailand. This packaging assaults the individual's ability to engage in his or her own meaningful sexual and intimate relationship.

Herdt added that political conservatives play on the public's fear of packaged sex, creating a “moral panic” that leads to ignorance and poor sexual wellness.

According to Herdt, the United States has a weak foundation of sexual education compared to Western European countries. Many Americans come into their young adult years misinformed about sex and unprepared for a healthy sexual life.

Studies by the Alan Guttmacher Institute show that the United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rates among developed countries, twice as high as those in England or Canada and nine times as high as rates in Japan. Every year, 4 million new STD infections occur among American teenagers.

Herdt notes that most people who have taken the online quiz responded incorrectly to whether the government plays a role in their sexual life. He points out, however, that abstinence-only programs, which have received nearly $1 billion in government funds, lower sexual literacy. Such programs prohibit discussion of contraception, except to emphasize its failure rates, and require educators to teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and harmful.

"It's an intrusion into our sexuality,” Herdt said. "It's a terribly flawed policy that has no sound scientific basis."

The NSRC is holding its Summer Institute on Sexuality, Society and Health at SFSU through July 22 for students and professionals in such fields as medicine, law, education, religion, and health care. The four-week institute follows the International Conference on Sexuality, Culture and Society held at SFSU and hosted by the NSRC last month. The conference drew several hundred human sexuality researchers from around the world.

Other activities of the NSRC this year include a partnership with Planned Parenthood to provide training at local and national centers. NSRC also plans to conduct a nationwide sexual literacy survey at college campuses later this year.

-- Student Writer Audrey Tang with Matt Itelson
Photo: Julie Stupsker


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Last modified July 11, 2005 by University Communications