Who wouldn't enjoy jetting off for a long spring weekend of sex, sex, sex? For those of us who approach sexuality with a somewhat academic bent, the AASECT 2000 Annual Conference was even better than a cross-country nookie run. Almost two hundred members of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists--and your own intrepid reporter--gathered at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, from May 10-14 to ponder "Sexuality and the Millenium: Integrating Tradition, Technique, and Technology". Wow!
I arrived at the conference on Thursday, regrettably missing a number of intriguing pre-conference workshops (including Post-Modern Sex Therapy; Sexuality Education at the Millenium; Biological Perspectives on Sexual Function and Dysfunction; and a Sexual Attitude Reassessment, wherein participants view videotapes of virtually every type of sexual expression in order to discover their own beliefs and biases). But the opening plenary speech by Carol Mendez Cassell on The Sexual Landscape of Adolescent Sexuality and Why It Matters made me want to stand up and testify, and I knew I had found myself at the right conference in the right company.
Dr. Cassell is Project Director of Teen Pregnancy Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the former Director of Education at Planned Parenthood. Most of Dr. Cassell's talk drew from the results of a Kaiser Family Foundation study of what teenagers say teens today need to know about sex, and who teens listen to when they're learning about sex. Many of the points from her talk are depressingly familiar: for instance, that teens listen most intently to what their parents say about sexuality, but most conversations with parents don't go beyond "use protection" to the detailed information about love, sex, and contraception that teens want; or that teenagers consistently and significantly undervalue the consequences of an unintended pregnancy; or that nine out of ten teen pregnancies are unintended, and the US teen birth rate is far, far higher than any other western nation's. But other points were new to me, and startling. For instance, the popular belief that "talking to kids about sex will make them do it, and talking to kids about drugs will prevent drug use" is exactly backwards--that study after study shows that kids who get good sex education are less likely to have sex, and that kids who get good drug education are more likely to use drugs. And that, in spite of these established facts, $300,000,000 of US taxpayers' money is going toward so-called "Abstinence Only Sex Education". Have you written your congressperson lately?
The first workshop I attended on Friday was in a similar vein. Michael McGee, VP for Education at the Planned Parenthood Federation, presented on Talking about Sex: Helping Parents to be Effective Sexuality Educators. The discussion centered on what parents convey to kids about puberty, sexuality, and relationships (generally, not much), the reasons why parents avoid this responsibility, and approaches for helping parents get over their fears to make a good connection with their kids about this important subject. Planned Parenthood's video and workbook set called "Talking About Sex: A Guide for Families" was presented. The video is wonderful and funny, aimed at families with kids from the ages of 10-14; it deals not only with those scary, uncomfortable topics but also with the scary, uncomfortable conversations that go on about them. I'd recommend it highly to all parents of pre-teens.
Gene Abel, M.D., an expert on sex offenders, delivered the second plenary presentation of the conference. Though his talk was aimed at an audience of professionals, the information about Avoiding Professional Sexual Misconduct Accusations is extremely useful for clients and patients as well. The most substantial point that he tried to hammer home was that doctors, counselors, and therapists don't make a sudden conscious decision to transgress sexual boundaries with their clients. Instead, sexual misconduct almost always occurs after more ethically ambiguous "boundary crossings". Dr. Abel enumerated several professional boundaries that therapists and clients should strive to keep in mind. These include role boundaries, or "Is this what a therapist is supposed to do?"; time boundaries, keeping within the alloted time of the appointment; place and space boundaries, maintaining contact only within the professional environment; gifts and services boundaries, such that gifts from either party are inappropriate; physical contact boundaries, or more than a handshake is too much; money boundaries, in which barter is a bad idea, and that practitioners should carefully clarify why if they reduce rates or stop charging; and language boundaries, where formal address is recommended because using first names only sets a dangerously casual tone. Good advice to anyone in a counseling or therapeutic setting, whether sexually related or no.
Friday afternoon I attended a series of brief presentations about Sexual Health Education On-Line. This session was sort of a mixed bag. The most intriguing discussion was of the development of A Web-Based Sexuality Course, by Susan Ann Lyman and Doug Williams of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. You can check it out at blackboard.com, under the class heading HLTH412.The most rollicksome event of the whole conference was the Night at the Movies! Feminist porn filmmaker Candida Royalle and sex therapist Dr. Patti Britton showed clips from and briefly reviewed about twenty recent adult films. The room was packed and, unlike most other presentations, conference-goers were jockeying for seats in the front! Britton and Royalle divided the flicks into four categories: Education, Edutainment, Erotica, and Commercial Porn. With only a few notable exceptions, the video quality dwindled precipitously from the first category to the last. Betty Dodson's fabulous Viva la Vulva, two films from the Sinclair Institute, and two from Pacific Media Entertainment filled out the Education segment. Each of the clips from these movies were beautifully shot, and were appropriately informative, funny, or hot at the right times. The Better Sex Series for Black Couples from the Sinclair Institute was particularly welcome: a sweet, down-to-earth, and sexy series aimed at an underserved market. Most of the clips from the "Edutainment", Erotica, and Commercial Porn categories were pretty unremarkable, pretty middle-of-the-road sex flicks. Exceptions were the mainstream porn smash hit Zazel--The Scent Of Love, which suffered from the absolute absence of heat that seems to plague videos as pretty as this (not to mention the absurdity of totally bizarre boot-spur dildos-- more likely to make me fall out of bed laughing than fucking!). By far the most interesting offerings were two shortish (30-40 minute) videos from a new production company called Radius. Suck It And See (available through amazon.com) packed more heat into two wordless minutes of arresting, dreamlike footage (scenes of two baby dykes dancing and making out in a steam room were intercut with underwater scenes of nude swimmers--trust me, it worked!) than all the rest of the film clips put together. And Radius' The Operation left the whole room gasping in astonishment: it was shot exclusively with infrared film, transforming the relatively straightforward sex play into something eerie, fascinating, absolutely enchanting. Infrared detection picks up emitted heat, and it was incredibly cool to watch the woman's vulva grow brighter when her clit was licked, or to watch her nipples get momentarily darker when her lover licked them and his saliva evaporated. (If that piques your interest, order The Operation from Radius Pictures, 818 3rd Ave. #1121, Portland, OR 97204. Send a $30 check or money order and a signed age statement.) I can't wait to get my hands on these great flicks so I can see them in their entirety!
The next morning got off to a rip-roaring start with a truly inspiring plenary by Eli Coleman, Director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota and President of the World Association for Sexology. In the hour and a half that he spoke, topics ranged far beyond the nominal title of It's Time For A National Strategy to Promote Sexual Health. Changes in sexual culture in Western societies in the last two decades, human rights and sexual rights around the world, lessons we can learn from other cultures: these ideas and many more got bounced around in his fast-moving presentation, and I frequently found myself wanting to stand up and cheer. If sexuality.org ever sees fit to name a patron saint, we've got a strong contender in Eli Coleman.
After such an inspirational presentation, the next workshop I attended was something of a sobering shock. In HIV Prevention and Sexual Health: The Impact Of The Changing Epidemic On Counseling, Therapy, and Education, presenter David Purcell of the Centers for Disease Control laid out the good news and the bad news in the HIV and AIDS of the United States today. Summarizing this information-packed session is difficult. Undoubtedly the best news is that, since the advent of protease inhibitors and associated antiviral treatments in 1996, AIDS deaths have dropped significantly. The worst news is that this public health victory has led to more relaxed attitudes about unprotected sex in high-risk groups (men who have sex with men and injection drug users and their partners, especially people of color) and HIV infection rates remain steady at 35-40,000 people per year in the US. What people don't know is that these anti-HIV drugs are extremely costly and the regimen is difficult to maintain; that drug-resistant strains of HIV are already common; and that doctors have recently documented the first-ever cases of reinfection, where someone successfully treated with anti-HIV drugs has subsequently been sickened by a drug-resistant strain. The sad fact is that HIV and AIDS are here to stay. Please, readers, be conscious of safe sex and be responsible in your sexuality.
Next, Kathleen Logan-Prince and Aurelie Jones-Goodwin explored The Psychology of Erotic Desire. After a discussion of various theories of erotic development--Freud, Hendrix, Money, Kaplan, Morin--we were presented with an intriguing worksheet intended to distill the common elements in our most electrifying sexual experiences, real and imagined. Though there wasn't enough time to follow the exercises to completion, what we did finish sparked a lot of interesting (and confidential!) discussion.
Saturday evening was free for exploring Atlanta--or for a fundraising wine and cheese social for the Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. Let me tell you, watching the brightests minds in sexology get tipsy and scramble after raffle prizes is remarkably entertaining. I'd highly recommend it for a good, say, third date: your money goes for a very good cause, and you're bound to get lucky if you're the one to go home with the autographed Candida Royalle video....
Sunday morning's last workshop of the conference addressed Issues Often Seen In Couple's Sex Therapy. Presenter Jane Forsyth Brown addressed some of the complicated dynamics that develop when relationships face sexual challenges. A lot of animated discussion developed among the experienced therapists in the audience about what techniques had worked and what had not. Probably the most useful distillation of this wide-ranging session sound basic but is undoubtedly true: both partners in a relationship contribute to the dysfunctions that arise, and both of them need to be committed to change before any change can occur.
Whew! As you can see, it was a weekend packed with fascinating presentations and good information--and I could only participate in part of the program. Each workshop session had several presentations running concurrently and I inevitably had to miss some great sessions. I sorely regret completely missing the several-session track on transgender issues, an issue new to the Association's conferences and reportedly very good presentations. There were several sessions on sexuality and developmentally disabled adults, on midlife changes, on educational programs, on medicines that affect sexual performance, and much, much more.
What a great trip. I was so heartened to meet so many bright, enthusiastic professionals dedicated to helping people achieve healthy, enjoyable sexuality. AASECT impressed me mightily, and I look forward to attending next year's conference in May 2001. See you in San Francisco!
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