Indications were that Humber College’s fourth annual conference on Sexuality, held at Toronto’s Skyline Hotel last November, lived up to its intent This time, the organizers strove for less of a clinical focus and put more emphasis on contentious social issues.
The topic of sexuality grew out of Humber College’s post-graduate programme on counseling in sexuality. In the past, the outreach was primarily to teachers – challenged with the interpretation of sensitive issues surrounding the subject in classroom settings. Attendees at this conference included educators, doctors, clergy, counselors nurses, school board trustees, social workers, psychologists and lawyers, with the issue of sexuality broadened to include abortion, prostitution, child abuse, rape and myths surrounding sexuality as portrayed by the media.
The programme got underway with a morning address by Dr. Sol Gordon, professor of Child and Family Studies and Director of the Institute for Family Research and Education at Syracuse University in New York. He was described by organizer Jill Birch from Humber College as “a known conservative in the field.” (Editor: the same Sol Gordon who authored “Sex Comix” which were widely promoted and circulated by the U.S. Planned Parenthood Federation. Many parents, however, found them to be pornographic.)
Gordon began by focusing on “why we are not getting our message across.” In his view, it is because there is virtually no sex education in North American schools today. That is, it exists in less than 10 per cent of the schools. When it is taught, too often the emphasis is on anatomy, rather than on values and the doubts experienced by young people today who live in a world that encourages widespread sexual activity.
He strongly emphasized talking to teenagers in a language that they can understand. For example, say “it is stupid,” instead of “it is irresponsible to just let it happen.” Similarly, he considers the myth that one can only fall in love once, dangerous. He recommends the number 18 – not because it is statistically correct, but because it can “do no harm.”
In this context, the widespread emphasis on sex in the media, which includes traditional images of manliness with early signs of sexual prowess, fosters anxiety in teenagers who do not indulge in sexual intercourse. “We have to say that it’s okay to wait until marriage,” says Gordon. He says that studies show most teenagers would prefer this anyway and, certainly, most parents do.
In addressing the question of “How you can tell if you’re really in love,” Gordon had several suggestions for adults attempting to sift through conflicting messages and myths in contemporary society. These included the reinforcement of ideas such as, “The real turn on is intimacy – you can’t tell the difference between love and infatuation for the first month – there is no connection between love and abuse – the difference between love and hate cannot always be recognized.”
He feels that masturbation ought to be “normalized” on the premise that anxiety and guilt surrounding the practice tend to lead to deviance as these emotions do with any form of compulsive behaviour such as over-eating and over-drinking. In psychological terms, feelings of guilt and anxiety provide the energy for repetition.
Workshops at the conference included topics on “Teens growing up sexual, the politics of abortion, teaching about pre-marital sex and abstinence, a case for moral sex education in the school and community, reclaiming our body image, sexuality in ageing, female teenage prostitution and familial sexual abuse.
The workshop on abortion, one of the most sparsely attended, had promised to focus on “putting women back into the abortion debate.” However, the general tone of the discussion reflected the polarization of positions surrounding current views on abortion involving pro-life and “pro-choice” factions in the debate.
Any doubts expressed on my part concerning the right of a woman’s complete and unquestioned control over her own fertility led to impatience and hostility on the part of workshop leaders. Norma Scarborough (head of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League) and Ruth Miller.
Workshop participant and luncheon speaker Flo Kennedy from New York City, although well aware that I was “on the other side of the debate,” defended my right to participate in the workshop without divulging the name of the publication I was representing. I had been challenged to do so by the two leaders as we each introduced ourselves. (Kennedy feels that “abortion ought to be as available to a woman as an eraser is if she has made a mistake.”)
The main focus of the afternoon workshop was on my own personal attitudes toward abortion, which were perceived to be naïve and uninformed. There was also discussion on a poorly-taught sex education programme in at least one Toronto public school which remained unidentified. The emphasis in this particular programme was evidently on pregnancy and disease prevention with a field trip to a local hospital, followed by the distribution of pro-life literature. Another criticism was directed toward a lack of concrete information concerning the availability of abortions and contraception to teenagers in the city.
The March 17, 1985 issue of The Catholic Register was similarly criticized for attacks on the Planned Parenthood Federation. The following quotation from an article by Louise Shanahan received attention:
Planned Parenthood relentlessly offers a glittering package of sexual promiscuity and abortion to the unsuspecting teenager…Planned Parenthood is a trap, and once again the teenager falls victim to their snare, endless pain and heartache and sin are his or her constant companions.
Ellen Willis, whose July 1985 article in The Village Voice was distributed at the workshop on abortion, believes that abortion rights are the cutting edge of feminism, precisely because they deny that anatomy is destiny. She says that pro-life advocates who believe that their opposition to abortion is simply about saving lives have never seriously addressed the reality that they are shoring up a particular sexual culture, whose rules are stacked against women.
One of the most useful and well-attended workshops was on pre-marital sex and abstinence, conducted by University of Toronto Schools’ physical educator, Ron Wakelin. He set out a framework for sex education in high schools, ideally as co-educational settings.
In his view, programmes that concentrate solely on bringing down the incidence of pregnancy and venereal disease are dehumanizing. He compared them to courses in shop lifting which concentrate on “how not to get caught.”
The emphasis ought to be on reasons why abstinence is desirable, concentrating on emotional, spiritual and psychological dimensions. According to Wakelin, sex taught as a negative outside of marriage, “is not being bought by anyone.” The goal ought to be for the best in uninhibited rather than unbridled sex, in a stable, long-term relationship.
The conference wound up with some remarks from luncheon speaker, Flo Kennedy. Colourful and dynamic throughout. If somewhat course at times, her extensive experience as an attorney, author, lecturer and feminist infused a sense of urgency into potential strategies for change.
Sexuality, she stressed, is never a safe topic. The politics of sexuality for feminists, she said, required a reappraisal of tactics used in the past to achieve desired goals, along with those that might be used in the future. According to Kennedy, women have learned to use the vote and their “body power.” Economic pressure appropriately applied, has not yet, in her view, been effectively tried in the women’s movement.