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SF State addresses America's sexual health crisis

November 13, 2006

Photo of Professor Emeritus Bernie Goldstein accepting his Champions of Sexual Literacy Award from Professor Gilbert HerdtTwo former surgeons general joined SF State faculty to call for major changes in attitudes toward sexuality in the U.S. and address nationwide disparities of sexual health, at a conference held Nov. 2 in San Francisco.

America's sexual health is in crisis, Dr. Joycelyn Elders and Dr. David Satcher said at a press conference at the beginning of the event. Elders cited Centers for Disease Control statistics. About 19 million new sexually transmitted infections are contracted annually in the U.S., almost half of them among people ages 15-24. The U.S. has about 40,000 new cases of HIV infection each year, with rising rates for African Americans. Nearly half of pregnancies are unintended, with the rate substantially higher among women ages 18-24 as well as unmarried, low-income and minority women.

Satcher and Elders spoke of the need to view sexual health as not only the absence of disease, but as a positive dimension of human development and well being. Citing research, they said "abstinence-only" programs -- the only type of youth sexual education the federal government will fund -- have proven ineffective.

"Sexuality is not just about having sex. It's about really understanding yourself, and therefore being able to make responsible decisions, without feeling that you're being pressured," Satcher said.

Elders added: "Vows of abstinence break far more easily than latex condoms."

The conference, held by SF State's National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC), drew about 180 leading sexuality researchers and advocates to the Palace Hotel. The conference commemorated the fifth anniversary of Satcher's report, "Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior," published while he was surgeon general. The report outlined significant public health challenges regarding the sexual health of Americans and promoted responsible sexual behavior and comprehensive sex education.

During the press conference, Elders said 5 percent of schools nationwide teach comprehensive sex education from kindergarten to 12th grade, though 81 percent of parents want it.

"Teenagers have a hormonal imperative to have sex, and we can't turn it off just by switching a button," said Elders, who served as surgeon general from 1993 to 1994. "We can't legislate morals. We have got to teach responsibility."

NSRC Director Gilbert Herdt, professor and director of human sexuality studies, stressed the importance of sexual literacy, which he defined as "the knowledge each of us needs to promote and protect sexual wellness and rights -- for ourselves and for others."

"The higher a nation's sexual literacy rate, the more likely that its citizens enjoy safe, healthy, consensual sexual relationships," Herdt said. "The lower that rate, the greater the probability of sexual violence and the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. That's what we're seeing in the U.S. today."

Professor of Human Sexuality Studies Deborah Tolman, director of SF State's Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, said a key task in adolescence is determining how the emotional, physical and relational parts of sexuality coalesce.

"The way that America is addressing sexuality today by suppressing information and refusing to acknowledge what science has to say, refusing to give kids information that they need, is un-American and un-democratic," Tolman said. "Because we remain so anxious, so frightened, so worried, we are unable to think about sexuality as a way of well being."

The Nov. 2 conference also included the presentation of NSRC's first Champions of Sexual Literacy Awards, honoring five people and one organization:

  • Elders, who lectures frequently on AIDS and teenage pregnancy;
  • SF State Professor Emeritus of Biology Bernard Goldstein, who founded the University's first human sexuality studies courses in 1970;
  • SF State alum B.D. Wong, an actor and author who volunteers for organizations including the American Foundation for AIDS Research and speaks out nationwide about being gay;
  • Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor at the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, who has led a national movement to make communities of faith inclusive of all people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • Anke A. Ehrhardt, director of the HIV Center at Columbia University Medical Center, who has made significant contributions in sex research for three decades; and
  • ThinkMTV, an initiative of the cable network that encourages youth to learn about and take action on domestic and international issues, including sexual health.

-- Matt Itelson
Photo: Christopher Rozales


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Last modified November 13, 2006 by University Communications