by Bianca Laureano
This is a series of posts from the sexuality course I am teaching this summer. Check out the first, second and third weeks. If you are interested in receiving some of the readings, syllabus, and workbook assignments please leave a comment with a way to contact you.
The last week of class has a series of guest speakers discussing topics that range from sex work, HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and our final class will be an evaluation of the course, turning in of the final projects (information below of those) and a conversation with author and artists Ivan Velez, Jr. regarding his book Tales of the Closet.
There are two options for the final project: either a traditional research paper on the topic of the student’s choice or rewriting a form of media to represent inclusivity, responsibility, and accountability regarding sexual health, sexuality, and reproductive justice from the student’s perspective which is accompanied by an analysis. The final post will be about our conversation with Ivan Velez, Jr., what questions folks had for him and how he responded to them and I’ll share some of the topics students chose to (re)write about. Because we spend a good amount of time discussing the final project this week’s discussion and notes are not as long as the previous ones but still include good information and highlights of our conversations!
This class discussion required students to do some reading in their textbook as well as a chapter from the book Sun, Sex and Gold: Tourism and Sex Work in the Caribbean, an anthology by Kamala Kempadoo. This anthology was one of the first by Caribbean scholars discussing and addressing gender, race, class, ethnicity, im/migration, citizenship, and how it intersects with sex work in the Caribbean. They read Joan Phillips article “The Case of the Beach Boy and White Female Tourist” which focuses on a historical analysis of sex work in Barbados from colonization to present. Her article turns the stereotype that primarily women engage in sex work and men as their clients by sharing her qualitative data of Bajan men who court and partner with racially White women (mostly from Europe) who are on vacation in exchange for profit. The profit in this case may be food, shelter, alcohol, access to places only tourists and their company may enter, clothing, and sometimes money.
Students were also asked to watch the first 15 minutes of the documentary “Rent A Rasta” which discusses the same exchange Phillips discusses, however the sex tourism occurs in Jamaica. The second part of the documentary focuses on Rastafarian religion and connections to exploiting the identity of being a Rasta based on stereotypes people living abroad may have. The film is also narrated in a way that is, in my opinion, misogynistic and sexist. It is one thing to state how this is a social issue and how it is impacted and influenced by colonization, racism, classism and religious inequality versus identifying the women in the film in degrading ways. The film is a useful example for folks who “don’t believe” the Philips article is true or relevant today and a useful tool in deconstructing and being a critical media consumer.
At the beginning of this lecture I write the following terms on the board: “Sex Worker,” “Prostitute,” and “Trafficking.” I begin by asking students how they would define the term “prostitute.” I start with this term because it is the terms that out of the three, folks have a working understanding or knowledge of. Because this is an upper level course, students have very inclusive definitions for “prostitute.” Students came up with the definition of “exchanging sex/ual services for profit/shelter/food/security/clothing/etc.” Students did not come to an agreement as to if this term was only applicable to street prostitution or “high end escorts” (similar to whom government officials/politicians have been connected to). From this conversation I was able to discuss a hierarchy that exists not just in our society and community, but also within the sex work field. It is not uncommon to hear that street prostitution is the “lowest” form of sex work, being connected to ideas of class, access, race, ethnicity, documentation status, ability, gender, and age.
I then introduced the term “sex worker” as a self-identifier that many sex workers have come to use as a term to identify themselves (this is of course personal choice/preference for each individual sex worker). The term has a few points that are important to understand, especially for people who may work with this population. It is:
1. A term some use to self-identify
2. A term that challenges ideas on what work is and to recognize that sex work is a form of labor and work (i.e. working certain hours, being organized, having the tools of the trade (i.e. condoms, barrier methods, safety outlets, healthcare), professionalism, negotiation, etc.)
3. Inclusive of a range of types of work in the sex field (listed below from our conversation)
4. Recognizes that sex workers are not just their job/career. That sex workers are more than just sex workers – they are activists, parents, writers, artists, partners, children, siblings, etc. This one identity does not describe the entire person.
I then asked students what types of work they think would be included in the term “sex work” and her is a list they came up with: video dancer, nude model, exotic dancer/”stripper,” phone operator, cyber sex, massaging, dominatrix, escort, street prostitution, and pornography.
We then discussed the difference between “sex work” and “trafficking.” Students had heard of the term “trafficking” and I made clear that people who are trafficked are:
1. NOT consenting, but forced to engage in such work
2. Often considered kidnapped or held hostage against their will
3. May be drugged or manipulated in other abusive ways
4. May be considered missing in their homeland/location of origin
5. Are victims/survivors of a crime, as trafficking is a crime
6. Also trafficked for other types of work, such as forced labor in unsafe and unsanitary conditions
For many students it was necessary to make clear that sex workers make conscious decisions to engage in the work they are doing. Even if their options and choices are minimal, sex workers may make a choice to do that particular work. Whereas, people who are trafficked are not making a choice, that choice is being taken from them and this is an example of sexualization in a negative way from when we discussed the Circles of Sexuality.
At this time we had a guest speaker join us. She helped me co-lecture on a few additional points I wanted to make about sex work. We discussed how sex work in some forms, such as street prostitution is a crime in the US. We discussed how this is a good example of the social construction of crime: how crimes are determined by societies and thus given certain types of punishments. In the US, many argue that sex work is a “quality of life crime,” something that in NYC has a very specific history.
I had mentioned again the three camps that emerged from the Feminist Sex Wars in the US. These included anti-pornography, anti-censorship, and pro-sex. I shared how for many folks in these spaces, they fall in the same space when it comes to sex work: anti-pornography folks may often argue that sex work and prostitution must be criminalized and remain illegal. Some ideas connected to this are that sex work harms women; it is not “good” for women, and focusing on using police resources to limit this is a good thing. Folks who identified as anti-censorship may fall in a similar space in that some people may argue that people who engage in sex work should not be targeted as criminals, especially for consenting encounters, and often make this point for folks who are over 18 years old. Pro-sex folks may argue that sex workers must be supported, provided with resources that are useful for them at that time and not centered on recruiting them out of their field (unless they indicate that they wish for that themselves). There is also a focus on de-criminalizing sex work with the idea that police resources can be used more effectively on other crimes beyond consensual sexual encounters among adults. Again, I shared that some students may find themselves falling into one of these three categories, but there are others as well, such as being in between certain categories, and that our opinions and ideas do shift and change and people have been known to be on one side of the debate and after having a particular experience or knowledge they shift to another.
I shared some data that indicates that women are arrested at higher rates for sex work when all genders go into sex work at equal rates. We discussed why the focus would be on women and some of the comments by students included:
1. gender stereotypes about women and men, masculinity and femininity
2. fear of safety
3. to curb violence
4. ideas that boys/men can protect themselves (goes back to gender stereotypes)
5. patriarchal views of women needing to be “saved” and “protected”
6. Homophobia by police (in that policemen will go undercover as clients for sex workers who are women, but will not do the same for sex workers that are men when they are expected to “uphold the law” for everyone, not just women)
I mentioned briefly the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act in New York will provide specific services for youth who are trafficked and/or sexually exploited. This law (which was passed) in NY provides youth with services versus incarceration via the juvenile justice system. It may provide youth with social workers, shelter via foster care, and Medicaid (to name a few specifics), which are many of the resources that are already offered to youth who are considered “persons in need of supervision” (PINS).
Most of the guest speaker’s presentation focused on current experiences and laws that have been enacted in the US regarding sex work. She spoke about the “Craigslist Killer” who was targeting women who posted ads on Craigslist and identified as escorts. A good discussion of how the media represents such crimes emerged; along with the ways women (especially women of Color, immigrant women, working class women, and women with disabilities) are portrayed by the media when they come forward regarding experiencing abuse and violence. Two NY-specific examples were shared and these include: the case of reported sexual assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn towards a Guinean hotel worker and the two NYC police officers that were recently acquitted of raping a fashion executive who was intoxicated (the officers were convicted of police misconduct and sentenced to a year in prison).
Our guest speaker also discussed how technology and the internet have changed the way our society views sex work and criminalizes and protects us. For example, we have not always had specific laws regarding online encounters, harassment, stalking, and violence. As our society evolves our need to examine, implement, and update our laws and protections shifts as well. The class made connections to the Phillips reading and how women are treated when they come forward regarding abuse, as the men interviewed by Phillips did not have any positive statements to make about Bajan women in their communities. They saw these as examples of gender discrimination.
HIV and AIDS
This class solely focused on HIV and AIDS in the US and worldwide, rates of infection, ways HIV is transmitted, media impact on messaging regarding HIV, and ways to live healthy if people are living positive, and how to stay HIV negative. I lectured for an hour before we were joined by two presenters from Love Heals, the Allison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education .
Students were asked to watch the entire PBS Frontline series online: The Age of AIDS.
The documentary is extremely thorough and gives a good background to the origins and history of HIV in the US and around the world. If you too want to watch this documentary make sure to turn your pop-up blockers off as another screen is needed to view the films by chapter. They also read the article: As AIDS Turns 30, Fewer Americans Feel At Risk, which highlights how long HIV has been known to have existed in the US.
To start I asked students what new information they learned from watching the documentary The Age of AIDS. Students shared that they learned how scientists first began to understand the disease, how the disease is spread through IV drug use/syringes, the media’s role in HIV messaging, and stigma still attached to people living with HIV. I began by sharing how there are many beliefs from many different people about how HIV came to exist among us. Many students were familiar with the ideas of HIV being a government conspiracy against certain populations as a form of population control and eugenics; HIV being a curse for some past decision/experience a person made. I shared that regardless of how folks believe HIV to have arrived, it is here and it is our individual and collective job to know about it and how to prevent ourselves from contracting HIV and living healthy if we are living positive with HIV.
I shared that scientists believe, as stated in the film (part four “Scientific Breakthroughs”), that HIV is a virus that originated through hunter gathering communities (those that hunted their own food and cooked it). The belief is that some primates that were eaten had the virus and because they were consumed in ways that their meat was not completely cooked (perhaps raw) that the mucus membranes in our mouth, throat, and esophagus absorbed that virus and it mutated into a form that impacted humans in a specific way.
When HIV was first seen in the US the population that were dying were overwhelmingly gay white men. It is homophobia that lead to the first name for HIV which was GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) which narrowly and inaccurately gave the impression only gay men can contract the virus. US doctors and government knew that this diagnosis and label was incorrect because all over the world people with similar illnesses were arriving at hospitals and seeking treatment. Heterosexual women in Haiti who were mothers, wives, daughters; heterosexual men in Angola, men and women in Europe, of all sexual orientations were exhibiting the exact same immune deficiencies as the gay white men in the US. However, our government chose to promote a message that it only impacted certain communities by ignoring what the rest of the world was experiencing.
Shortly after an increase in the numbers of IV drug users who use syringes for drugs were found to be a community at risk and experiencing similar immune deficiencies. Thus the name GRID was no longer applicable and the term HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) emerged. I shared how the rates of HIV infection for this population have gone down dramatically. Today more than 95% of new HIV infections in the US are contracted through unprotected sexual activities. Much of the reason why IV drug users rates have declined is because of harm reduction approaches that teach users how to clean their needles, provide needle exchange programs, and support for folks in need at any given time. Even though such harm reductionists approaches have worked for that population, they have not been implemented for other groups at risk for contracting HIV in the same way.
The number of newly infected people each year includes women, women of Color, heterosexual women, and older adults. All of these people report contracting HIV through unprotected sex. We then discussed the NPR article regarding stigma. I shared that they have all lived in a world where HIV has existed, that for many of their parents and professors and older people in their lives, this is not the case; we remember times when there was never any HIV. I asked why they think people in the US do not think they are at risk for HIV infection and their reasons included: stigma, denial, ignorance, fear, stereotypes, lack of education, age, cultural beliefs, and believing it “can’t happen to them.” We discussed each in detail. For example, when discussing denial, students mentioned how choosing to be in denial about HIV and the risk of infection means that people don’t have to be prepared, or get tested, or know their options.
At this time our two guest speakers from Love Heals arrived and they provided much needed HIV 101 regarding how HIV is transmitted, what bodily fluids transmit HIV (semen, vaginal secretions, pre-ejaculatory fluid, blood, and breast milk) and which do not (sweat, saliva). Sharing a statistic that every hour two young people in the US are infected with HIV, they discussed the difference between HIV (the virus) and AIDS (the syndrome) and how in the US an AIDS diagnosis is given when a person is living with less than 200 T-cells/white blood cells. They also discussed what T-cells/white blood cells are (fighter cells in our immune system) and how they impact HIV status (HIV destroys them lowering the immune system). They also discussed modes of protection for contracting HIV (abstinence, getting tested, using barrier methods, communication, and education) and took other questions as they came up.
As Love Heals often does, they partner a health educator who provides the HIV 101 with a speaker who is living positive with HIV. Students heard the other speaker share their story of infection, which occurred during their first sexual encounter where a barrier method was not used. The speaker shared their experience discovering their status, getting tested, disclosing to family and friends, finding support, and living healthy today. There were many questions for the positive speaker, such as why they chose not to use a barrier method, how are they coping with family issues, how does this impact their dating life today, and what goals do they have in the future.
After the speakers left students shared that this was one of the best presentations they have had regarding HIV, and as a group they have seen a lot of presentations! NYC has an HIV mandate that requires public schools (and charter schools) to provide a certain amount of HIV education to students. They shared that hearing a personal account of living with HIV helped them understand and humanize the virus, they felt that the presentation was conversation, it was a discussion not a lecture where they were being talked at, but talked to, and that they were encouraged to talk to their friends and family members about HIV.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
This session focused on all other STIs (sexually transmitted infections) which the textbook highlights in a very accessible way and includes, transmission, symptoms, and ways some STIs may be cured. An additional reading for this class was Guatemalans Sue Over US Syphilis Tests which highlights how Guatemalans were deliberately infected with Syphilis and gonorrhea are seeking compensation.
I asked if there were any questions about HIV from last class that may have come up after class that they wanted to discuss. There were several questions! Students asked if there are laws regarding someone who does not disclose their status but has unprotected sex with someone, can the HIV positive person be prosecuted. In NY there are no laws, however in other states there are, but these laws are often focused on proving the person who is living positive had intent to infect other people. There must be an understanding of responsibility for all people involved. If a person who is HIV negative does not ask about their partner’s status, does not choose to use barrier methods, and then wants to claim their partner may have infected them, that person must take responsibility for their actions. This person chose to engage in sexual activity that was consensual, they chose not to use a barrier method, and they chose not to ask about their partners sexual health history and HIV status. This is one of the reasons communication, education, barrier methods and waiting to have sex work very well to limit HIV infection.
Other questions included how HIV positive people can give birth to HIV negative babies, how HIV can be transmitted via oral sex, and specific questions about getting tested. We had a good conversation about HIV and the connections to class and wealth. Many students know that the former NBA basketball player Magic Johnson is living positive with HIV, but they had heard he was no longer testing positive for the virus. I shared that he has a low viral load, but he still has the virus in his body, can still transmit it to his wife, and that they probably will use barrier methods for the remainder of their marriage when they have sex. Many students believe that his viral load is low because of his wealth. We discussed this as one possibility. As someone who can afford to live in environmentally safe and healthy spaces, can eat organic and locally grown foods, and afford the newest and most effective HIV medications, he has a great advantage in comparison to folks without his status and wealth.
This great dialogue took up a majority of the time I had planned to lecture before our guest speaker arrived. I quickly listed the following STIs by categories: Viral: HIV, HPV, Herpes, Hepatitis B &C; Bacterial: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Urinary Tract Infections; Parasites: Crabs, Scabies and Lice; Fungal: Yeast Infections (for all genders, yes people with penis’ can get yeast infections!). Although these are not all of the STIs these are some of the most common that I wanted to highlight.
For viral infections I shared how these are always with someone once they contract the virus. That some medications can help with symptoms of the virus (i.e. herpes outbreaks) but that does not mean it is a cure for the virus, it is just helping alleviate the symptoms. Bacterial infections are all curable, but they require a diagnosis, which means access to a medical provider. The first two STIs: Gonorrhea and Chlamydia are the most common not only on college campuses but also in NYC. If a person is diagnosed with either of these they can take a dosage of medication, which can be administered either orally or via a injection. This person must also share with their partner(s) who must also get tested and treated. If this does not occur re-infection is likely.
When discussing Syphilis I highlighted the reading they did for this session on Guatemalans being given this illness and connected this to the Tuskegee Experiments which monitored the affects of Syphilis on Black men in Alabama over a forty year period beginning in 1932. I shared that during this time a cure for Syphilis was discovered, but a racist and classist agenda was still being used to see how Syphilis impacted racially Black people versus racially white people. This experiment is one reason why we have informed consent for medical and health practices. It may also be one of the reasons some communities have difficulty trusting medical providers and professionals.
We spoke about crabs briefly, and I shared how this is also a curable STI and some symptoms include intense itching, redness and sometimes a rash for some people. The treatment may include foam for the pubic hair to be washed and an oral pill as well. There were questions about if urinary tract infections can be transmitted to a partner and if herbal remedies can cure some of the fungal issues. I shared that some folks believe that drinking 100% pure cranberry juice (not the name brand stuff with tons of sugar), eating yogurt, and drinking some forms of tea do help in curbing some illnesses like yeast and tract infections. However, it is likely that if a person goes to a Western medical doctor, the doctor will most likely encourage the patient to use medication and then go about preventative measures after using the medication and healing.
Our guest speaker for this hour joined us. Pattie Murillo-Casa is the NYC Chapter President of Tamika and Friends, Inc. a national organization that has a focus to eliminate cervical cancer through HPV education. Pattie is a survivor of cervical cancer, which she was diagnosed with 3 years ago. She is a NYer and a retired NY police officer. She shared her personal story of being diagnosed with the HPV strain that causes cervical cancer, her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, healing, coping, and her marriage to her husband.
Patti wanted all the students to know that cervical cancer is preventable! She went through how HPV is transmitted (via skin to skin contact) and that just because someone has an HPV diagnosis does NOT mean they are promiscuous as HPV can remain dormant in the body for 10-15 years after exposure. She shared the four strains we know lead to genital warts (9 & 10) and the ones that lead to cervical cancer (16 & 18) as being considered “high risk” out of the hundreds of HPV strains. Patti made it clear that HPV is something that all sexually active people may come into contact with and compared it to the common cold. Just as our bodies and immune system can heal itself from a cold, our bodies may do the same with other strains of HPV.
Currently, there is only an HPV test for women and people with vulvas, even though men and people with penis’ are carriers as well. She discussed the two vaccines that are available for young men and women. The most popular being Gardasil www.gardasil.com which helps protect against the four strains above and has been approved for all genders ages 9-26. She also discussed Cervarix which only focuses on strains 16 & 18 so it is only for people with vulvas and cervix. She also discussed that the vaccines are controversial as are all vaccines and it is a conversation to have with a medical provider before deciding to obtain the vaccine.
She spent some time talking about how HPV can lead to cancers that impact men and people with penis’ because penile and throat cancer are caused by strains of HPV. Patti spoke about how historically throat cancer was linked to smoking, but today we are seeing a link to HPV infection. She used the actor Michael Douglass as an example of a throat cancer survivor and that throat cancer is on the rise due to HPV infection in the throat linked to oral sex. She also shared a folder of information on how to talk to a medical provider about HPV and requesting an HPV test (they are different from pap smears as they are an additional test with samples from the cervix). Also included were resources for young people living with cancer.
Questions from the class regarding HPV were great! Students wanted to know that if HPV was passed via skin-to-skin contact could it be passed through kissing. Patti answered that at this time there is little research that indicates that but more research is being done to give us better insight. Other questions focused on ideas of being “intimate” while limiting potential HPV infection. Patti and I shared that depending on how people define abstinence, for some it may mean no penetrative intercourse, but activities such as showering together, nude cuddling, body massage near/on genitals, or rubbing of the genitals against one another may be forms of intimacy that some folks consider forms of abstinence as well, but the risk for HPV is still present.
As is the usual Tamika & Friends, Inc, way, Patti had a raffle of items for the students and one was randomly selected and given a bag of goodies that included a water bottle, jewelry, and the Pearl of Wisdom. All other students received small gift bags of the cervical cancer rubber bracelet, buttons and pens. It was a great way to end a class about illness and symptoms. I think students learned a lot from Patti’s personal story and the information she gave them about HPV.
Patti’s goal is to reach as many NYers as possible and educate the on HPV. If you would like to have Pattie visit your community, classroom, or organization you may contact her via the Tamika & Friends, Inc. website. She is currently preparing and planning for the Walk for Cervical Cancer in NY on September 17 2011. To register for the walk or learn more about it visit the website.