Caring for Students: 1 in 4 need more

I have to admit that I am a long time SNL fan. There is no good reason, other then tradition, to spend most Saturdays watching, but… It’s what I do.

And sometimes their opening bit and Weekend Update give my brain something to chew on. Last night I tuned in hoping for something sharp on the Obama – Clinton race. Instead, in this encore performance, I caught a statistic that scared the shit out of me: 1 in 4 teenage girls has an STD. Yes, most of them (18%) “just” have the human papillomavirus virus, which is linked to cervical cancer, but I don’t care, these girls have still had their long term health compromised by a moment of unprotected stupidity. (It should be noted that the girls were only tested for HPV, chlamydia, trichomoniasis and herpes. (AIDS is known to effect 1 in 300 people in the US of all ages, with teenage girls making up only a small percentage)) This is not a good statistic. Couple it with the fact that 1 in 4 college age women have survived rape or attempted rape, and you have a population that has really not gotten the best from their interactions with men.

This is information I don’t know what to do with. I’m a physical sciences (physics and astronomy) teacher. In general, I teach rooms full of 90% men. This semester I’m teaching two sections of physical sciences for elementary education majors, which means I’m teaching 46 girls and 2 boys. This is a truly weird situation and I actually had to institute a “No gross pregnancy stories” policy in one class (there is a women in the class who we’re all hoping staves off labor until the final on Tuesday, but it’s going to be really close). Still, as I wander from lab table to lab table, helping them learn magnetism and phases of the moon (but not at the same time), I don’t know how to say, “Keep it safe when you go into St Louis looking for guys.” I don’t think I can fit in a way to say, “Be careful when you hookup to always use protection.” It’s not in my job description. But, clearly from these statistics, it’s not in anyone’s job description. Based on these numbers, statistically at least 12 of my girls has an STD, and 12 have been sexually assaulted. And of those, several have probably dealt with both. Someone needs to say something, if it’s just “Remember you always deserve respect. Always. And keeping you safe is showing respect.”

I’m not a mom, but as a teacher I see my students as people with lives I can affect. I feel powerless in the face of these numbers, and the limitations of the topics taught in my class. (In HS my bio teacher made us read the chapter on human sexuality aloud in class – we were embarrassed, but it was a more powerful lesson than all 6 months of sex ed. I’m not in a position to do that. The life cycles of stars just don’t have the same facts).

So maybe the best I can do is chew out the guys when I teach the engineering classes and they are “boys.” Maybe I can have an affect if I earn their respect and then make it clear to them what language and behavior isn’t acceptable when they are discussing conquests in lab (yes, they do that sometimes, even when female profs can hear them). Maybe if I praise the Alpha Kappa Lambda students who join in on campus These Hands Don’t Hurt events, it will have an affect.

Maybe I, and every other professor, have to do both – Both teach the girls they deserve respect, and teach the guys that they need to respect everyone equally.

We have a long way to go. Women still don’t get equal respect on the job market, and we are still learning to stand up for ourselves when we are clearly getting abused in our jobs. If we can’t get respect and demand fair treatment when we are in completely public forums like work, how much harder is it for us to demand respect and fair treatment when the abuse is completely private?

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t understand statistics, and could just believe, “This doesn’t affect any of my students.” Sadly, I’m not that naive.

11 Comments

  1. John M. May 5, 2008 at 6:49 pm #

    Wow, it’s great to see you’re concerned about your students. I bet a big contributor to these problems in college is the culture of heavy drinking and fraternity partying.

    Actually, I bet if you devoted half a class period to this subject, it would make a big impression. Here’s a very capable woman and scientist taking time from very demanding coursework to make a point about something that affects everybody. Your students would have a lot to think about.

  2. Barbara May 7, 2008 at 2:43 pm #

    I’m glad you think about these issues as an educator. As a parent to a 2 year old daughter, I still have some years left to think of how I will educate my child in these matters. As a nurse practitioner, I try to educate teens on safe sex: both birth control and STD control. The discussion of respect for self and body needs to come from parents first. We teachers and health care practitioners need to educate the children as well.

    The HPV vaccine has been recommended for ages 11-12 because, sadly, by the time a child has reached the age of 13, a large percentage have already become sexually active. Clearly, we need to intervene early and often.

    As far as the rape statistic goes, that too is very sad. I think the rape statistics might be higher but are possibly under reported. When I was a young adult, I made a few bad decisions, like walking home from parties alone. I am fortunate that I was not among those stats. I recommend reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin Debecker. It’s kind of old now but full of useful information.

  3. Will Amos May 15, 2008 at 1:30 pm #

    I coach 9-12 year olds, mostly girls. Whenever one of them complains of getting “the shot” as they call it (HPV vaccine), I always take time to emphasize the importance of getting it, and getting it now. I make sure that everyone hears it. Not my portfolio as a swim coach, but definitely my portfolio as someone with influence in a young person’s life.

  4. David Blair May 15, 2008 at 3:09 pm #

    You are not thier parent or their preacher so its like anything else you teach them not related to the subject your are an expert in. It’s 2ndary and not your area of speciality so you need to be careful. If you are that concerned you should visit the campus clinic and see if there some way you can bring more awareness to this.

    The campus clinic knows alot about STDs.

  5. Nicodemus May 15, 2008 at 9:00 pm #

    …and it’s those very neo-Victorian attitudes that got us here in the first place. ‘Sides, since when are parents and preachers experts concerning STDs?

    Kudos for dragging this one out, Pamela. I was shocked by those rape/attempted rape statistics. Society can’t keep sweeping these things under the patriarchal rug.

  6. Ken May 15, 2008 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi,

    I read something a little while ago relevant to the 25% rape statistic. I can’t seem to recall enough to find the links, but she was complaining about the nature of the survey and definition of ‘rape’ for arriving at that figure.
    Specifically, I think there was a question like “Did you regret the sex afterwards?” (in regards to “Have you ever been pressured into sex?”) and if you answered “yes” you had been sexually assaulted or raped or something. And from there, the statistic figure was misquoted and the statistic snowballed, kind of like certain other controversial figures.

    I don’t know the accuracy, but I’m sure the information is out there on google. Until I read that I was still under the belief that the figure was 1 in 3 women. A figure that came from a coworker once..so yeh.

  7. Michelle May 15, 2008 at 10:34 pm #

    It’s wonderful that you’re such a caring teacher. Obviously your subject matter doesn’t touch on these issues, but you are in a position of some influence and I’m happy that you value the students as human beings. You do make a difference.

  8. Steve May 18, 2008 at 9:21 am #

    While I agree with your overall message, you did make one assumption that I think is faulty: You’re assuming your class of elementary education students represents the U.S. population as a whole.
    Also, I was unable to find any research at the “1 in 4” site, but I find it hard to believe that 25% of all college women have been subjected to attempted rape. (Yes, I know you said “college age”, but the site says “college women”.) For example, at your college, SIUE, I estimate there are approximately 6000 female students, maybe more. Do you really believe that 1500 of them have been subjected to attempted rape?
    A quick search turned up this research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: “About 3% of college women experienced a completed and/or attempted rape during the current college year.” (That would be 180 SIUE co-eds, still an alarming number, but hardly “1 in 4”. The report was from 2001, but I doubt if it’s jumped from 3% to 25% in 7 years.)
    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/svcw.htm

    While I don’t want to take away from your message (which again, I agree with), the statistics and research don’t add up.

  9. Pamela May 18, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    Hi Steve, I believe the discrepancy between numbers comes from both cumulative numbers (3% in a given year becomes ~12% over 4 years), how unreported incidents factored in (do you assume only 50% are reported? 25% are reported).

    Based on my on social circle in college (at MSU), 1/4 sounds right. Among my nerdy, honors student, not going our drinking, mostly Bible-Study attending friends, the number was about 1/6 for women who had men they knew or or were simply at a party with force them to have sex or try really hard to force them to have to have sex. There was one particularly powerful night when an older girl on our floor confessed what had happened to her as a way of preventing the same guy from doing something to one of us freshmen girls. He was strong good looking, and many other features that made it easy to get women in vulnerable situations. And because of his reputation, anyone who tried to complain/report was told “Well why were you alone in your dorm room with him?” That attitude allows these numbers to exist. Any even worse response I heard regarding this guy was, “He’s a good Christian boy, and when I asked him, he said he didnt’ do it. Why are you trying to ruin his reputation?” Its an ugly world out there sometimes. It goes both ways, and women do terrible things to men as well. I just haven’t heard those stories cried out in the middle of the night by a sobbing friend.

  10. john May 28, 2008 at 10:43 am #

    Keep on treating others with respect, it does rub off even on 18-25 year old males.

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