How did you learn about sex? Were you taught that it’s a natural part of life or that it’s a sin? Did you receive medically accurate information that prepared you to make safe and responsible decisions regarding your sexual activity? Or were you told that all sexual activity is bad and that having sex makes you unwanted and dirty, like chewed gum?
As odd as that metaphor may sound, it’s just one of several used by abstinence-only and sexual risk-avoidance programs to shame students, instead of providing reliable, accurate information. Now, condom brand Trojan and Advocates for Youth are raising awareness of such unethical strategies by turning chewed pieces of gum into protest symbols with their #NotChewedGum campaign (NotChewedGum.org or SRAisAbstinenceOnly.org). On October 30 the two organizations coordinated a billboard-sized exhibit in front of the Capitol with the message “You Are Not Chewed Gum. Information Is the Best Protection” crafted entirely from chewed gum. Other insulting examples used to shame students include:
- The Used Piece of Tape: Students stick a piece of tape on their own arm then take it off and pass it to another student, who then does the same. The teacher notes that the tape isn’t sticky anymore, concluding that when you have sex with multiple people you ruin your ability to experience emotional intimacy.
- The Cup of Spit: Multiple students spit into one cup and the teacher asks if anyone wants to drink the cup of spit. When no one does, the teacher explains that the cup of spit symbolizes someone who has had sex with multiple partners; “no one will want you.”
- The Dice Roll and Paper Baby: Students roll dice and are handed a paper baby based on the roll. The lesson is that sex is risky and can always result in pregnancy, no matter if contraception is used.
- The Shredded Heart: Students write their hopes and dreams for the future on a paper heart and then the teacher selects a student’s heart to tear into pieces. The teacher tells the class that once they have sex their hopes and dreams are destroyed.
- The Toothbrush: The teacher shows the class a used toothbrush and asks the boys if they would like to use the toothbrush. When they say no, the teacher then turns to the girls and says that once they’ve had sex they are like the used toothbrush; “who would want you?”
- The Unwrapped Candy: The teacher unwraps a piece of candy, has the students pass it around the class, and then asks if they’d rather have the candy that everyone touched or a wrapped candy. The lesson is that once you’ve had sex you’re like unwanted unwrapped candy. People will choose the untouched candy instead of the “dirty” one.
- The Crockpot and the Microwave: Teachers explain that girls are like crock pots because they “heat up” slowly, while boys are like microwaves because they “get hot” quickly. Girls are also taught to be responsible for making sure boys don’t heat up too quickly.
“We need to counter harmful and shameful programs, and give people resources and tools so they can gain as much knowledge as possible,” said Bukky, a nineteen-year-old representative of the Advocates for Youth International Youth Leadership Council and a current Howard University student. She told me that she was interested in working on global reproductive justice because growing up in Idaho, she had a very “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding of sex as a direct result of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ influence in schools there. “If you talked about consent and birth control, you were shamed.”
Abstinence-only lessons are especially cruel to girls by claiming that they—unlike boys—are less valuable after having sex “whether they wanted to or not,” implying that sexual abuse is a female’s responsibility to avoid. This inequity is reinforced by the societal protection of girls’ virginity and the simultaneous celebration of boys’ promiscuity. Recently, rapper T.I. boasted in an interview that he takes his eighteen-year-old daughter to get an annual “hymen check,” but is fine with his fifteen-year-old son having sex. In response to that interview, feminist writer and Humanist Heroine awardee Jessica Valenti reminds us that there’s no medical definition of virginity. “There is no physical marker on men or women’s bodies that demonstrate virginity (not even hymens), and sex means something a lot broader than heterosexual intercourse.” However, seven states require only negative information to be provided on homosexuality as part of sex education and several states aren’t required to provide medically accurate information.
“We use sex to sell everything else, but as a culture we can’t talk about sex,” Trojan Marketing Director Stephanie Berez pointed out at the gum wall on the National Mall. This lack of frank conversation has led to Congress spending over $2.2 billion on ineffective abstinence-only programs and has permitted the Trump administration to cancel funding for eighty-one successful teen pregnancy prevention programs. It has resulted in cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis reaching an all-time high in 2018, with about half of all new STD cases occurring in young people aged fifteen to twenty-four. And it means we’ve failed to equip young people with education for all genders and sexual orientations needed to prevent harassment and promote healthy relationships. As the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine’s 2017 review of abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs concluded, access to sexual health information “is a basic human right and is essential to realizing the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.”
While the #NotChewedGum campaign focuses on the gross and backwards lessons of abstinence-only programs, the #ThxBirthControl campaign by Power to Decide, celebrates the unlimited possibilities contraception gives individuals, couples, and families. People are encouraged to learn more about birth control and related legislation, share their stories, and ask questions, providing the comprehensive sexual education that should be in every classroom.