“Our teacher was scared of the word ‘penis,’” said second year Psychology major Lauren Harradine. Well, not necessarily scared, she clarified. “But she couldn’t say it without laughing really hard.”
When your sex-ed teacher can hardly talk about the topic due to their own embarrassment, it can be difficult to learn the information about sex that you need, and eventually hope to use. Even when sex-ed includes information about STIs, condoms, birth control and consent, there is quite a bit that is still not brought up.
Last summer, a group of RIT students partnered with Cha Ron Sattler-Leblanc, associate director of the Center for Women and Gender, to come up with a way for students to learn more about these topics and have a safe space to talk about them.
After looking at models from other schools, the group came up with the new Sexual Literacy Forum (SeLF) at RIT. Although they started the program last semester, this semester student facilitators, including Harradine, are taking on more responsibility in order to help SeLF evolve into a peer led discourse.
At the weekly meetings, students not only learn more about the complexities of sex, sexuality and relationships, but they also discuss these complexities in greater depth than most sexual conversations usually allow for.
“There’s a lot of great educational things on campus like Sexervations or I Heart Female Orgasm and there would be an educational component of [SeLF],” explained third year Graphic Design major and SeLF facilitator Danielle Smith. “But I was very excited to be in a safe place where we could think critically about sex and sex in the media and sex culture because we don’t often have a place where we can.”
SeLF facilitators ensure this safe space through maintaining agreed upon guidelines or rules for the conversations. These include confidentiality, freedom from judgment, acknowledging and accepting different levels of knowledge on the subjects discussed, willingness to make mistakes and awareness of and sensitivity towards potential triggers for victims of past sexual abuse.
With these guidelines in mind, students engage in conversations about various topics picked out by the group’s facilitators. They already have topics scheduled straight through week 12 including the basics of anatomy, hormones, menstruation, STI’s and avoiding them through safe sex practices, birth control and reproductive choice, masturbation, sexual orientation, boundaries, communication, relationships, porn, body image, self love and sexual wellness.
But these conversations rarely look at the chosen topics alone. The discussions quickly expand from topics that may seem purely sexual to the multitude of factors that play a role in sexual expression as well.
In one example, Smith talked about how body image, shame and guilt easily intertwine with sexuality. “If you are someone who doesn’t feel good about your state of being or you’re not in a good emotional place, you won’t view your body as something to be used for pleasure if it’s filled with guilt or shame or just numbness. You’re not going to have, most of the time, the fullest sexual experience you can.”
In an era where sex is worshiped in advertising, movie, television, magazine and music but is a taboo subject in everyday life, serious conversations about sex are necessary but often rare. Third year Diagnostic Medical Sonography major and SeLF facilitator Somya Aggarwal is looking forward to discussion about “How sex relates to cultures, and in general, in the media … because it’s so prevalent [but] at the same time, no one even says anything about it.”
If you wish to keep adding on to your sexual knowledge and would like to engage in these discussions, SeLF takes place in room 2405 in SDC (near Dining Commons) every Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.