Last semester, a student group came to the Student Budgetary Committee (SBC) with an unusual request: two dildos, poster board, and Velcro. For the group members of Aids and Sexual Health Awareness (ASHA), however, this request was nothing out of the ordinary.
ASHA, a student-run program that trains Wesleyan students to teach safe sex education to local Connecticut schools, is committed to providing a comprehensive and self-empowering alternative to the abstinence-only curriculum funded by the state.
As of January 2010, Connecticut policy requires the teaching of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) and HIV, but not sex education; if individual school districts do decide to include this, the state will only fund abstinence. This is where ASHA enters the picture.
“We think that peer education is extremely important, operating on the basis that information coming from a 50 or 60-year-old P.E. teacher will not come across as relevant,” said Carrie Cohen ’12, ASHA’s curriculum coordinator. “But we want to make sure we’re coming in and doing what parents and faculty are comfortable with.”
Although ASHA’s lesson plan incorporates abstinence as the only 100 percent effective preventative-method against pregnancy and STIs, painting abstinence as the ideal goal runs counter to the group’s sex-positive mission.
Their liberal philosophy generated some trouble in Middletown last December, when a few parents voiced concerns about the content of the ASHA workshop. After a seven-year hiatus from the Middletown school district, the local health de partment invited ASHA to teach about sexual health as part of a guest lecture series. The complaints of these parents were subsequently picked up by the Middletown Press, which ran two articles lambasting Wesleyan students for promoting sexual activity in students as young as 14—a link to a copy of the lesson plan was included in the article.
In response, Arielle Tolman ’10, the student director of ASHA, and Cathy Lechowicz, the director of Community Service and Volunteerism, crafted a letter to the Board of Education, which presented ASHA’s perspective in fairer detail.
“Sex education is a very sensitive and personal matter, and it always will be,” Lechowicz said. “I believe the parents reacted this way, not entirely because of the content, but because they were not informed that the workshops were happening. This is not unprecedented—I don’t mean specific to ASHA, but sex education in general.”
Tolman, who was not interviewed for either of the two Middletown Press articles, said she was saddened and disappointed with the way the press spun the story, especially given the high evaluations and positive feedback the group had received. She noted that if only a few parents complained about the phrasing of the lesson out of a group of about 300 high school freshmen, then the workshop was largely successful.
“We were really looking forward to working with Middletown in the future,” Tolman said. “But we know what we did and we know we did a good job, and we continue to believe in what we’re doing. We still ended the semester on a high note.”
Lechowicz does not believe the situation did irreparable harm to University-Middletown relations, and the students are forging ahead this semester with renewed vigor.
“Our work is incredibly important,” said Lena Solow ’12, one of the student coordinators of ASHA. “Giving teens the facts they need and the opportunity to think about their own boundaries is something that unfortunately doesn’t happen often enough, which is why I’m so glad ASHA is able to offer that.”
Solow is one of a small group of dedicated coordinators who make up the ASHA Core. The Core meets weekly, but there are about 25 volunteers involved in teaching, on campus fundraising events, or volunteering at the Oasis Center—a local support center for HIV-positive Middletown residents. With a small $100 budget to cover gas money and supplies, including dildos for condom demonstrations, this low-budget program provides free lessons averaging about 45-minutes to interested health teachers.
According to Cohen, the lessons are constantly evolving to cover everything from STIs and contraception to boundaries and communication. Each ASHA member who is interested in teaching goes through three to four hours of training and observation before they are put into classrooms, which range from 15 high school seniors to 100 ninth-graders.
“Every class environment is unique, and we get some kids saying some pretty funny things,” Cohen said. “Kids get really uncomfortable, especially if their parents are. You have the really quiet classes, the ones trying to impress their teachers who actually are very misinformed. But despite the fact that each environment is different, we do evaluations, and every single student writes down something they didn’t know before.”
Although the hands-on, interactive lesson-structure leaves room for inappropriate, awkward, and often shocking questions and answers, the program’s coordinators maintain that college students are the most effective resource on issues relating to sexual health.
ASHA is currently planning the first Wesleyan-Middletown STI Testing Day on April 13, a huge feat according to Wanda Richardson, an epidemiologist with the STD control division of the State Health Department.
“There is no testing in Middletown; we used to have an STD clinic—it was on South Main Street—but it closed down. It was a funding issue,” Richardson said. “This is the first attempt outside of the Wesleyan campus, and will take place during National STD awareness month in April.”
The group is also organizing a Wesleyan team for the New Haven AIDS walk on April 11—those interested in participating are encouraged to contact Carla Becerra ’10 (email@example.com or wesleyanAIDSwalk2010@gmail.com).
The ideological battle over sex education, however, is not over. On a recent teaching gig in Berlin, Conn. last Monday, one health teacher expressed concern that Wesleyan students were essentially “telling the students to have sex.” On the other hand, Chair of the Department of Physical Health and Education, Shelia King, who observed as her own son took part in one of the ASHA workshops taught that day, saw it quite differently.
“I thought the best part was the way they phrased the material to the kids,” King said. “It’s certainly different than hearing it from their instructors—it was at their level.”
With the foresight of the Middletown altercation and a firm belief in their mission, the members of ASHA are determined to keep talking about sex—in an informed, mature, and engaging way.
“[Abstinence] is still an ongoing issue, and it should be,” Tolman said. “There should be a dialogue within communities and ASHA might have a place in that. I don’t think we’re a long term solution, but having peers talking about sexual health is always a good thing to ad into the mix, and I think it’s a good resource…this is hard stuff to talk about.”