The scarlet subject

The scarlet subject

One of the taboos akin to the South, sex is often spoken of in hushed whispers passed through lips. And for some state schools, sex education is left to the bare minimums found in the state of Alabama’s health curriculum and religious culture.

Alabama’s minimum material to be included in public school sex education programs or curricula highlights self-control and abstinence as keys to a healthy sex life – or lack there of – and outlines social expectations.

Section 16-40A-2 of the Code of Alabama states “abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons.”

It further emphasizes the “importance of self-control and ethical conduct pertaining to sexual behavior.”

The eighth of the nine total requirements includes “an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

(See also: "Discussions needed to change judgmental attitudes toward sex")

Christopher Lynn, professor of The University of Alabama’s Anthropology of Sex course, has taught in schools across the nation, including four colleges in New York.

“I know from teaching here that most of the students who speak up in the Anthropology of Sex course indicate that their only sex education was a health course in high school and possibly something brief from their parents,” Lynn said. “Now that’s not all of them, but the ones who put their hands up think they lack something they think they should have.”

Lynn said the stereotyped sexually-conservative South holds true due to religious stigmas and lack of sex education in schools.

“I taught at four different institutions in New York and by and large had a more exposed – I wouldn’t say smarter or more sophisticated or anything like that – but a different percentage of [students who] have been exposed to basic sex and didn’t see it as all that taboo,” Lynn said. “So you put all of that together, and it suggests essentially that the conservatism prevents educational exposure opportunity.”

Ben Ray, a senior majoring in French and English, hails from Slapout, Ala., where he said he received little to no sex education besides the abstinence-only, hetero-normative previously defined. Ray said it was not until college that he formed his beliefs about sex and sexuality.

“I would say that the state of sexual education in the state of Alabama is beyond deplorable, and for the South in general there’s this attitude that there’s this taboo associated – a stigmatization of sexuality – especially LGBT sexuality,” Ray said. “I would say this conservative attitude is detrimental. … Teen pregnancies that come about from this lack of knowledge of sex, the spreading of STDs, specifically HIV and AIDS, these kinds of things are the direct result of the conservative attitude that doesn’t allow for real sexual knowledge.”

(See also "It’s time to recognize pervasive problem of HIV/AIDS in this country’s women")

According to the Center for Disease Control’s HIV surveillance report in 2011, the South has a much higher concentration of HIV diagnoses, with 21,326. The Northeast had the second-most with 7,989, a difference of 13,337.

“When you talk about Southern conservatism and this idea of Southern gentility that men are supposed to be this certain way and women are supposed to keep their virginity until they’re married, I think it has historical roots in the South that still pervade in the present day culture,” Ray said.

Briana Fennell, a junior majoring in secondary education, grew up as a Catholic in Hattiesburg, Miss., and attended a private Catholic school. She said the majority of her sexual education was covered in her high school sex class and focused on anatomy.

Fennell said she is choosing to wait until she is married to have sex.

“Mostly my religion has shaped my views of sex,” Fennell said. “What I’ve learned a lot since coming to college is the logic behind it. The theology behind it is very obvious to me because of my upbringing, but you can explain my views of sex without mentioning God based on logic and the natural law, which I love.”

Religion, logic and political leanings aside, Lynn said sexuality is an undeniable part of the human experience. Without communication about it, regions may continue to develop the same patterns and opinions.

“You have a social structure where sexuality is totally a part of it,” Lynn said. “This is the way humans have been for most of evolutionary history. People don’t really move that far away from home. If you plan to stay in this community your whole life, you have no interest in moving to where sexual morays are different, then the values that they have here are super, super important.”

(See also "The routes to reporting assault: Title IX fills voids created in annual campus report")

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