BYU conference discusses changing the way people talk about sex

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BYU’s College of Nursing and the Women’s Studies Honor Society handed out these stickers and badges to participants of the 2020 “Promoting Healthy Relationships” conference. (Hannah Petersen)

BYU students and faculty participated in a “Promoting Healthy Relationships” conference that encouraged changes in how people discuss sex and sexual assault.

The College of Nursing, BYU Women’s Studies Honor Society and the Global Women’s Studies department put on the conference on Saturday, Feb. 8. This is the first conference of this type on BYU campus; it focused on encouraging healthy attitudes in romantic relationships and active involvement in sexual education.

The idea for the conference began when nursing students Electra Cochran, Emma Beaumont and Harper Forsgren attended the “Human Rights and Women’s Rights” study abroad program. While on the study abroad, they were taught about past and present issues that activists and organizations took head on to try and solve. They came home with the desire to make a difference for women in the U.S.

Forsgren said that the study abroad exposed her and her fellow students to the work that was being accomplished internationally for women’s rights and showed them what remains to be done. “We all felt this desire, this innate ingrained desire, that we wanted to be part of that change,” she said.

Beaumont said she didn’t want to be another “drop in the bucket” and believes the conference and issues discussed will instigate broader change.

Cochran said she was excited that the conference encouraged a plus-one request that allowed for a number of men to be invited, instead of just women.

“It’s important for both genders to be involved in this issue,” she said.

Nursing major Hanna Kaplan invited her fiancé, Adam Pack, to the conference. Both said they felt that BYU needed a conversation about sexuality. They said it taught empathy to those who hadn’t experienced sexual abuse or assault first hand.

“It’s a really important thing; I think we should be open to talk about with everyone,” Kaplan said. “And when we don’t, or when we have a conversation that excludes certain people, the problem still remains.”

Psychology professor Melissa Goates-Jones gave the keynote speech. She spoke about attitude changes at BYU towards sexual assault and shared results from a voluntary questionnaire done in 2011 before comparing those results to the same survey given in 2019.

The questions were meant to evaluate the BYU attitudes, beliefs and tolerances to rape myths. Male and female students answered all questions. The largest statistical difference in responses from students centered around two questions.

The questionnaire asked, “Do you believe women who are raped are partially to blame if she goes into a man’s bedroom?” In 2011, 48% of women answered yes. In the 2019 study, that number dropped to 17%. The shift in mindset made Goates-Jones speculate that fewer women are self-shaming for being sexually assaulted or victimized.

The second survey question asked students, “Do you believe a woman is partly to be blamed for being raped if she has previously had sex with the man but refuses sex after an expensive date?” Nineteen percent of BYU males responded yes in 2011. That number dropped to 7% in 2019.

The crowd applauded the progress BYU culture has made in the last decade. After the applause died down, Goates-Jones said the one thing she hoped students took away from the conference is that consent is an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and a high-five.

Communication became a key topic in every presentation. Fellow speaker and BYU Title IX Office Coordinator Kelsie Cleveland connected consent with communication.

“It’s so much more awkward if someone goes in for a kiss and has to do the swerve than if they were just like, ‘Would it be okay if I kiss you?'” Cleveland said.

Cleveland repeated that communication was the foundation of consent and a healthy relationship. She said couples should have “a commonsense rule of intimacy: if you can’t talk about it, you have no business doing it.”

Utah Department of Health Men’s Engagement Specialist Marty Liccardo shared similar views on communication and sexuality. He said that even in today’s culture, men and women have difficulty talking and teaching about intimacy.

“Usually it takes me about five minutes to get a group of adults 18 to 85 to say the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina,'” he said. “This discomfort is a real cultural problem.”

Along with Liccardo, other speakers felt similar frustrations with the euphemisms and lack of clarity on how sexual education is taught to children.

Family life professor Chelom Leavitt has focused her research and educational efforts on better teaching adults and children to have healthy relationships and sexual attitudes.

She said the first thing parents should do for themselves and for their newborns up to age three is to “name body parts what they are.”

“A vagina is a vagina; a penis is a penis,” she said. “We don’t use euphemisms. We don’t use vagaries.”

BYU students shared their insights at the post-conference lunch.

“The biggest takeaway, for me, is definitely how to teach children,” Pack said. “I think that is really valuable for me to understand. I feel like I understand rape myths and rape culture and how that happens — just getting additional light on what I can do to make a difference.”

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