A mini-tempest brewing over the University of Minnesota's acceptance of sex-toy money to help fund the nation's first Chair in Sexual Health Education proves one thing: We can't get that position filled fast enough.
In case you missed it (which, judging by the story's online hits, I doubt), the U's Program in Human Sexuality has created the chair, named for former U.S. Surgeon General and sexual health champion Joycelyn Elders, with $2 million from more than 275 donors in 24 states and eight countries.
A faculty member will be named to the post within five years, after all pledges have been collected.
The media greeted news of the chair with a big yawn, said the U's Human Sexuality Director Eli Coleman. Then, bingo! Turns out a $50,000 pledge came from Adam & Eve, the nation's oldest "adult products" retailer. Suddenly, Coleman couldn't keep the media away.
Adam & Eve announced the gift on its website (www.adamandeve.com). PR Newswire picked it up under the headline, "Adam & Eve Sponsors Sexual Health Education Chair at University of Minnesota Medical School." Other media sites inaccurately reported that Adam & Eve was giving $250,000 ($50,000 annually for five years, instead of the accurate $50,000 total). A Minnesota Public Radio blogger and this newspaper were among those whose headlines included "sex toys," "porn" and "U."
Hey! Seems that hot and steamy doesn't just describe our weather.
But now that I have your attention, at least until the next Vikings update, can we talk?
We face so many challenges relating to safe and healthy sexuality, including teen pregnancy, bullying of GLBT kids, lack of prenatal care for women living in poverty, threats to reproductive choices and one new HIV infection reported every day, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
One way out of the morass is through education, which Coleman understands.
"We need solid research that gives policymakers guidance," he said. "It's so frustrating that there is not more focus on the fact that we've been able to establish a $2 million chair, the first and only chair of its kind in the world, to address myriad sexual health problems in this country."
Elders embodies his department's mission, Coleman said. She interned in pediatrics at the U of M Medical School in 1960, then served as director of the Arkansas Health Department, where she worked to reduce teen pregnancy, HIV infections and infant mortality, and to increase the number of women receiving prenatal care and mammograms.
It's a pity that she is largely remembered for her infamous "masturbation should be taught" quote. Most people don't know that when allowed to clarify after being caught off-guard by the original question, she said:
"Nobody needs to give anyone a demonstration. What we need to do is stop telling them you're going to go blind, you're going to go crazy. We need to be honest and tell them, well, it's a normal part of sexuality, and if you're going to do it, do it in private."
For this she was fired? By Bill Clinton?
But what about accepting money from a company that sells sex toys and adult films, products that some believe distort sexuality or demean women? Most of what's out there, Coleman said, "is not pornography. It's erotica. But it all gets lumped into one pile as 'obscene.' Many individuals and couples find these products useful to enhance their sexual relationship," he said. "Most people use it responsibly."
Colleen Bertino can attest to that. The CEO of Fantasy Gifts, a 32-year-old company with 10 Minnesota locations, said business is brisk among middle-aged married suburbanites. She also notes an uptick in requests for sex toys and movies by women. Smitten Kitten's general manager, Clare Jacky, has many clients in the same demographic. Because her Minneapolis store's focus is on healthy sexuality, Jacky receives referrals from psychologists and ob-gyns on behalf of "people who are having issues with their sex life, including during menopause or after experiencing sexual trauma in the past. The rhetoric behind sex toy companies is so myopic," Jacky said. "It focuses purely on the pornographic aspects, which are such a small percentage of our business."
The bottom line, Coleman said, is that "no way will Adam & Eve have influence over the university and how we do things." Still, a thoughtful and research-based conversation about this hot-button issue could certainly be tackled by the U's sexual health chair, once he or she is in place. Five years seems like a very long time to wait.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org