Many college students arrive on campus having had no comprehensive sexual education in high school, says Katharine Mooney, director of Wellness & Prevention Services at BU’s Student Health Services. “In addition,” she says, “the media perpetuates many myths and inaccuracies about sexual health and relationships.”
In an effort to dispel many of those myths and to promote safer sex and healthy relationships among college students, Wellness & Prevention Services is hosting a Q&A tonight titled Sex in the Dark. Now in its third year, the event, which includes a panel of “sexperts” from various University departments, tackles students’ questions about sex, relationships, and more. Mooney (SPH’12) says the point is to promote a frank dialogue about sexual health among BU students and to show them the number of resources available on campus to address their needs and concerns.
The event takes place entirely in the dark to make it easier for audience members to ask intimate questions without feeling embarrassed. Rather than stand up to ask a question, people anonymously text questions just prior to or during the event, and the sexperts will answer as many of them as they can in the allotted 90 minutes. “No question is TMI,” Mooney emphasizes. “Our sexperts don’t blush at anything.”
On this year’s panel are Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, Teri Aronowitz, an SHS nurse practitioner and a School of Medicine adjunct assistant professor of family medicine, Mark Weber, an SHS senior staff physician, and Aida Manduley (SSW’16), a sexual health advocate and educator.
Previous Sex in the Dark panels have covered such topics as relationships and communication; pleasure and orgasm; masturbation, sexual techniques, and exploration; sexually transmitted infections; and sexuality and social stigmas. This year’s panel will focus on sexual consent, an issue that Mooney says is an important but often overlooked part of healthy sexual relationships. “Students learn much about what a sexual relationship should look like through depictions in television, movies, on social media platforms and in pornography,” she says. “And for the most part, the media has done a poor job of illustrating active consent to its viewers. Because of this, there can be confusion about when to ask for consent, how to do it, and in what situations consent can’t be given.” Mooney says that tonight’s event “aims to teach students that consent is a critical piece of healthy sexual relationships and can be an erotic, rather than awkward, aspect of the act.”
Before the Sex in the Dark panel begins, students will have an hour to take photos with props and speech bubbles that give examples of various ways to ask for consent. The goal is to “show students that there are many clear and enthusiastic ways to communicate consent,” says Mooney. There will also be free T-shirts, a raffle, and a game with prizes.
During the evening, student ambassadors from the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center (SARP) will perform original short vignettes on topics ranging from what active consent looks like to how students can prevent potential sexual assault. Sarah Voorhees, a SARP health and prevention educator, says that these short scenes are designed to show that consent is a “healthy and sex-positive” component to sexual relationships. “It can be difficult to think about how you might approach a topic, or how you should react in a situation,” she says. “The vignettes are ideas about how we can do this in a realistic way.”
Jennifer Owens (CAS’15, COM’15), an intern at Wellness & Prevention Services, says it’s important for college students to understand that consent is an essential aspect of sex that can actually be empowering and fun. “Many people treat consent as though it’s a vague concept, when in fact it has a clear-cut definition: an affirmative, enthusiastic ‘Yes,’” Owens says. “I hear other students saying things like, ‘It’s impractical’ or ‘No one really asks for consent…it’s unspoken,’ when in reality this is not the case. Sex is a mutual engagement and with that both parties have to feel as though they are being respected and consent is a vital part of that. Just because it’s important doesn’t mean it can’t be sexy.”
This year’s installment of Sex in the Dark also aims to engage students in a frank conversation about risky sexual behaviors that can result in sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The American College Health Association reports that only half of sexually active college students say that they “mostly” or “always” use a condom during vaginal intercourse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2012, the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea were among people ages 20 to 24.
“I don’t think young people at BU are unaware of the risks,” Godley says. “Instead, I think students are engaging in a lot of wishful thinking that bad outcomes won’t happen to them. We know from national studies done with college students that too few are using birth control and too many are using alcohol in combination with sexual activity. We need to support young people to talk openly and honestly with one another about how to keep each other safe.”
Godley says another goal of tonight’s Sex in the Dark Q&A is to help students move beyond societal notions of what sexual behaviors are acceptable and what are unacceptable. Instead, organizers want to cultivate conversations about sex and relationships that reflect what students are really thinking about, rather than what they feel they should be thinking about. “The most important issue for us to confront is that often how we are socialized puts scripts in our heads,” she says. “We desperately need to get rid of these scripts and start encouraging real, true, authentic discussions about sex and sexuality.”
Sex in the Dark: A Glow-in-the-Dark Sexpert Panel is tonight from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium at the College of General Studies, 871 Commonwealth Ave. Doors open at 6 p.m., and students can have their photos taken in the photo booth and take part in a raffle and a sexual health game that awards prizes to the winners. The event is free and open to BU students, faculty, and staff.
Samantha Pickette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.