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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2023

Let’s talk about SPECS, baby: Students lead new orientation event

<span class="photocreditinline">COURTESY OF NIKI KOWSAR</span><br />Peer sex educator Ella Houlihan ’21 greets first-year students at workshop table.
Peer sex educator Ella Houlihan ’21 greets first-year students at workshop table.

SPECS (Sex Positive Education for College Students), a student organization focused on sex positive peer education, initiated new programming for this semester’s first-year orientation week on Sept. 4.

The group hosted an information table in Axinn with boxes of condoms, lubricant, dental dams, and different contraceptive devices and safe sex devices, according to MiddView Orientation Intern Niki Kowsar ’21.5. 

“You generally see condoms and know what they are but for other products you might not know much about it,” Kowsar said. “It was really interesting to learn more about them.”

The event was one of 13 optional activities for incoming students, and was aimed at spreading the word about what resources SPECS has to offer, Peer Sex Educator Emma Brown ’21 said.

The impetus for SPECS came out of a class project and first became a club in 2017, said Peer Sex Educator Anna Durning ’19.5. The group underwent several iterations before becoming a group under the supervision of Barbara McCall, Director of Health and Wellness Education.

“Sex positivity is a counter approach to mainstream shaming and abstinence-only sexual health education curricula,” McCall wrote in an email to the Campus. “It means acknowledging that sexuality and sexual expression can be a normal, healthy part of people’s lives.”

SPECS delves into subjects, like pleasure, that may have been ignored or brushed aside in high school or previous sex-ed experiences, Brown said. She also emphasized the group’s focus on consent and sex education beyond the traditional, heternormative curriculum.

Peer Sex Educators Anna Durning ’19.5, Ella Houlihan ’21 and Isabell Lee ’20 hosted a MiddView information session of sex positive peer education.

However, the discretionary, drop-in format of the orientation event did not allow for substantial programming, and only four new students visited the table, Durning said. 

“I was really excited to learn that SPECS was given permission to participate in orientation, but disappointed when I found out that our event had to be during the optional, drop-in activity time,” Durning said

SPECS members felt that orientation would have been an opportune time to institute a mandatory sex ed workshop and reach more new students.

Said Durning, “Given the nature of the workshops, students can find it embarrassing to choose to attend them so making them mandatory would erase the social pressure that keeps people from turning up.”

But the group was still able to have productive conversations with students and put together a “build-your-own safer sex kit” activity at the event, Durning said.

Ella Houlihan ’21, another Peer Sex Educator, was also disappointed that SPECS did not receive mandatory slots for this year’s first-year events but remains optimistic about the (sex) positive influence the group can have moving forward.

McCall did not comment on the details of how SPECS was designated an optional rather than mandatory activity for orientation, but said she would like to see the group continue to participate in the coming years.

“It’s important for every student to have medically accurate, non-judgmental and age-appropriate information about their bodies and safer sex practices,” McCall said. Students go to each other with questions first, she said, so SPECS gives peer educators a chance to address those concerns and provide resources.

Kowsar and SPECS Peer Sex Educators said they’re hopeful the student organization will take on a more significant role during future first-year orientation weeks. 

SPECS plans to keep collaborating with ResLife and with the Student Government Associations’s Sexual and Relationship Respect Committee to make sure that all students can receive consent workshops, Durning said. 

Students can expect to see other programming in the coming months, including pleasure and communication workshops and trivia nights in Atwater Dining Hall. SPECS will also conduct first-year dorm workshops and is accepting requests from sports teams, social houses and other groups on campus to facilitate workshops.