Dr. Libbie Searcy/Associate Professor
Last week, The Avion generously devoted a full page to the Mini-Revolution Project that students complete in my “Themes in the Humanities” course (HU 145) in which I focus on the theme “Sexuality in American Culture.” Three student groups wrote Avion articles to explain and advertise their projects—all of which address the problem chosen by the class: STDs. Unfortunately, one of my student groups won’t be executing their project as planned, which was designed to help prevent STDs by promoting proper condom use, because campus administration isn’t allowing the event to take place outside of my classroom.
Learning very often extends beyond the classroom—not only when students build, invent, and research but also when they engage in service learning projects that, by definition, are class assignments executed on campus or in the community. In fact, the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (CTLE) has provided grants to faculty who want to employ such pedagogical strategies that promote active and experiential learning. There is real value in not limiting learning to the confines of a classroom.
But this project is about condoms. More specifically, it’s about sex. Talking about sex makes a lot of people uncomfortable. So does genital herpes, which affects 1 in 6 people aged 14 to 49. The CDC also notes that Americans ages 15 to 24 contract chlamydia and gonorrhea at four times the rate of the general population. Furthermore, while the HPV vaccine does greatly increase protection against some strains of HPV, it doesn’t guarantee that vaccinated individuals won’t contract HPV—the leading cause of cervical, anal, throat, and penile cancers.
One in four college students will get an STD while in college. And “uncomfortable” is the best-case scenario. Dead is another.
Abstaining from sex is certainly the best way to prevent STDs. At the same time, there is no denying that the vast majority of college students are or will be sexually active
while in college.
At an institution of higher learning, learning must come first. And students are more likely to listen to their peers talk to them about how to have safe sex. In a project like this one, students can educate their peers while a teacher assures that the information is accurate. I have done just that. I also guided all of the students’ projects in order to assure the promotion of safe sex, not the promotion of having sex.
My students planned to use the game “2 Truths and a Lie” to educate their peers about STDs. Because condoms must be used properly to effectively prevent STDs, they also planned to demonstrate (using bananas) important aspects of condom use: not storing them in lower than 32 or higher than 100 degrees or in direct sunlight, checking the expiration date and assuring (using the “pillow test”) that the package contains no holes, leaving appropriate room at the tip, and eliminating air bubbles—all of which are necessary for condoms to work.
Health Services provides free condoms to students (and, thankfully, teaches them how to use them upon request). My students simply wanted to eliminate the need to ask, especially since many students don’t feel comfortable asking. Although some people may feel uncomfortable when seeing students put a condom on a piece of produce, the students whose discomfort prevents them from asking for information can suffer actual medical consequences. As an educator, I have to care more about the latter group’s discomfort.
In my class, students watched a documentary called Let’s Talk About Sex, which explores the lack of comprehensive sex education in American high schools. In the film, young people are asked what they think of people who carry condoms; many of them stated that they assume a guy with a condom is a sex-obsessed dog and a girl with a condom is a slut. These assumptions often result in people not carrying condoms. Far too often, not having a condom results in unsafe sex rather than no sex.
My students wanted to challenge offensive assumptions that people often make about males and females who carry condoms. As one of the students involved in the project said in class, “We can’t do our project about destigmatizing condoms because condoms are too stigmatized.”
As an expert in gender and sexuality in American culture, I spend a lot of my time dealing with touchy subjects. I’m accustomed to making people uncomfortable in service of creating a safer environment on this campus that I love.
Last year, my HU 145 students executed their projects and learned how to educate others and increase social awareness. This semester, perhaps some of my HU 145 students will still learn a valuable lesson, even if it isn’t the one I intended. They are learning what it means to be silenced.
It’s an important lesson. For some of them, it may be a way to find their voice. So here’s to learning—whatever form it takes.