A reality check for sexy summer read

Robin Poedel with this summer’s hot read, “50 Shades of Grey” and her collection of stuffed microbes used in teaching about various venereal diseases such as Chlamydia, syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea and HPV. (Photos by Peter Jakubowski)

Robin Poedel wasn’t too surprised when students in her class got into a discussion about this year’s hot new novel, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“It’s controversial and explicit, but it’s about sexual practices that are actually happening,” says Poedel, clinical assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s College of Nursing.  “People are always curious about sex and sexual relationships, and this is the story of a relationship. It’s dark and weird, but we can learn about different types of behavior.”

It’s the kind of behaviors readers won’t find in the S&M-inspired romance novel that makes Poedel uncomfortable. The “Fifty Shades” trilogy refers briefly to condom use in a discussion of pregnancy prevention, but doesn’t touch on the topic of safe sex until long after the characters are in a relationship. In fact, the main characters don’t ask much  about their new partner’s previous sexual relationships until near the end of the first book. All of this worries Poedel, who teaches and researches on sexual behaviors and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

Robin Poedel in the classroom

The focus of the nursing class is on human sexuality and related topics such as sexually transmitted infections.

The class – Nursing 262 – where the discussion came up, focuses on human sexuality and covers topics like love, intimacy, sexual relationships, pregnancy, birth and variants of sexual expression, as well as STIs. The class also looks at sexual power in relationships, also a theme in the books.

Encouraging safe-sex practices gets even more difficult when books and films, from “Fifty Shades” to “9½ Weeks,” portray random sex without protection as acceptable, she says.

To her students in the College of Nursing and in her research on sexual health and STIs, Poedel remains honest and passionate about the importance of safe-sex education in both entertainment and health contexts.

Sexy media can entertain, educate

Like earlier erotic phenomena, the “Fifty Shades” books offer both teaching opportunities and concerns for nurses and educators. On the one hand, the books and earlier movies give insights into variations of sexual behavior and the role of sexual coercion in relationships.

“They are the types of works that both attract us and repulse us,” she says.

And though erotic novels aren’t meant to be sex education manuals, popular media does shape public views and ideas about sexual behavior.

“It’s easy to become desensitized,” says Poedel.

Desensitization can be dangerous, especially if it leads to misinformation. An example: the prevailing misconception that STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can be easily treated, or that HIV/AIDs is no longer a deadly disease. A new World Health Organization statement cautions that, around the globe, gonorrhea is becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics.

“People have this attitude that STIs are no big deal, and they can just get an antibiotic for it. That’s not true, and that’s nothing to laugh about.”

While untreated STIs primarily affect young people, those who aren’t treated can face lifelong consequences. Untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia can result in infertility. Untreated syphilis can cause serious complications, particularly in babies born to women with the infection. The rates of STIs are also rising rapidly among older adults, 40-65, as they forgo safe-sex practices as the danger of pregnancy fades, according to research data.

Diversity, honesty in sex ed is important

Education efforts can be challenging, and even some well-intentioned media efforts can backfire, says Poedel. One of the initial focuses of the reality show “Teen Mom,” for example, was to show the hardships teenagers face in trying to raise a baby. However, she notes, soon reports surfaced that teens were getting pregnant so they could try out for the show and become celebrities.

Abstinence-only sex education programs are also a factor in the approach to STIs, says Poedel.

“Abstinence is great and it’s the only 100 percent safe way to avoid contracting an STI, but we also have to empower our young people with the knowledge they need.”

Poedel says many of many of the young and sexually active don’t stop to think that when they have sex with someone, they’re also in intimate contact with everyone that person has ever had sex with.

“It can be very frustrating to try to get the word out to young people about safe sex practices. If we could find a way to make safe sex sexy, maybe we’d see some changes.”