The Coalition for Positive Sexuality (CPS) is a grassroots direct-action volunteer group formed in Chicago in the spring of 1992 by high school students and member of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), Queer Nation (QN), Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (ECDC), and No More Nice Girls. We came together to respond to the health crisis among Chicago teenagers. The Chicago Department of Health and the Chicago Public Schools fail to teach students about sexuality and safe sex because of bad educational policies, a general silence around sexuality and sexual practices, and systematic discrimination against people on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age.
Our purpose is twofold: first, to give teens the information they need to take care of themselves and in so doing affirm their decisions about sex, sexuality, and reproductive control; second, to facilitate dialogue in and out of the public schools on condom availability and sex education.
Towards these goals we collectively wrote a booklet on sexuality and safe sex, entitled Just Say Yes. The production and distribution of Just Say Yes to teens was the initial project of our organization. We hope to make changes in teenagers' lives through grassroots, activist, near-peer education. While we certainly considered the advantages of traditional lobbying (of the Department of Health, the School Board, and Local School Councils) when CPS first organized itself, we felt that the health crisis among Chicago young people mandated the most expedient response possible: writing and distributing our own safe sex and sexuality information.
Just Say Yes is predicated on respect: self-respect and respect for others. It is pro-safe sex, pro-teen, pro-choice, pro-queer, and pro-woman. Just Say Yes covers everything from resources for victims of violence to information on HIV testing to suggestions of hot, safe, sexy things to do with a partner or alone. It is crucial that young people have information about safe sex because many live in communities which historically have less access to health care, and because they are having sex and deserve to know how to be safe.
Every Thursday morning during our first 4 years of existence, CPS visited a different Chicago public high school; arriving about 30 minutes before school started, we gave condoms and copies of Just Say Yes to students as they headed into class. We visited all 67 Chicago public high schools and distributed approximately 50,000 booklets in Chicago and nationwide.
In February 1995 we published the booklet in Spanish, entitled ¡Di Que Sí!. Demands for our materials spread across the country (and world), inspiring us to produce a national version of Just Say Yes in 1998. Currently, both the English and Spanish language booklets include national resources, and address national laws on HIV testing and access to abortion.
In June 1995 CPS established a website (http://www.positive.org).
This project has turned out to be an immensely effective outreach tool.
Copies of Just Say Yes and Di Que Sí are serialized on
our site and available 24 hours a day, all over the world. The site also
contains an extensive list of resources so that teenagers can access
information about sex, sexuality, health and counseling, confidentially
through computers at their schools and homes. The site averages 6,500
visitors each day (65,000 hits) and has been consulted by people from
more than 75 countries. Through our Web site we have gained
international attention and made contacts with groups working in other
states and countries.
In 1996 CPS began a poster project directed toward young women. The Girl Germs poster project offers a critical response to the issues of safe sex, HIV/AIDS, abortion rights, birth control, sex education, and teen pregnancy by bringing young women's voices back into the dialogue. Girl Germs aims to empower young women to take control of their sexuality, not deny it's existence, and to demand respect. The posters combine black & white photographs with text that contains useful information such as instructions for practicing safe sex. The text appears in both English and Spanish on all posters. Although the posters speak specifically to young women, the posters prompt a dialogue meant to be over-heard by the general population. These posters are distributed to social service agencies, health clinics, juice bars, coffee houses, and anyone else who wants them. Girl Germs posters can also be found posted on city streets and college campuses. This project was funded by Ms. Foundation and Girl's Best Friend Foundation.
In 2000 CPS became a "virtual organization" based in Washington, DC. We have volunteer members living all over the US that participate in CPS primarily through the internet. Members make decisions about CPS activities, update our materials, answer emailed questions from teens, and manage the distribution of our print materials.
In one sense, then, Just Say Yes is an end in itself. A teenager can read it, learn how to play safe, and teach her/his friends how to play safe.
But at the same time Just Say Yes and ¡Di Que Sí! are only the beginning. We mean for this project to provoke dialogue among students, parents, teachers, and administrators about safe sex and sexuality education. We mean for it to precipitate coalition-building around the current crisis in teenagers' health. Finally, we present these booklets as a model for what adequate sex education would look like. Any sex "education" that talks down to students, that excludes lesbians and gay men, that defines only penile-vaginal intercourse as sex, or that fails to address issues of sexual violence or homophobia or abortions is simply unacceptable.
the need for this project
According to the 2002 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 46% of teenage men and 47% of teenage women are sexually active, and about 1/3 of teens reported they have never received instruction on methods of birth control. At least 1/2 of the people becoming infected with HIV each year are under 25 years old and African American teens ages 13-19 accounted for 65% of new AIDS cases in 2002. These teens need to have information about birth control and safe sex. And because teens play a crucial role in changing the way that sexuality and safe sex practices are viewed, their sex education is crucial. In the midst of threats to health care funding and the unchecked AIDS epidemic, young people face a health crisis of their own -- including disproportionate suicides among young gay men and lesbians and staggering rates of HIV transmission. By refusing to discuss sex except in pejorative terms, schools deny young people the information they need to make the decisions that they are already making about sex.
CPS strongly believes that a young person's decision to be abstinent must be supported and validated, but so must her or his decision to be sexual. To do otherwise is not simply to omit information: it is to enforce an ideology that discriminates against young people -- particularly any young person who is sexually active, and all young lesbians and gay men. We are united in anger at the inadequacy of sex education in the Public Schools and at the homophobia, misogyny, and racism that teenagers face every day at school.
This project is about empowering students and breaking silences around sex and sexuality. It is about giving young women the option of delaying childbirth until it is truly freely chosen; about stopping the spread of HIV and STD's; about affirming and connecting sexual pleasure and safety and responsibility. We know that free condoms and good sex education will not create the other things that young people need--productive employment, adequate housing, universal health care, and so on. But it can and will provide a crucial link in that chain. This is not simply a project in safe sex pedagogy, as vital as that is. We are sending a message of inclusion and affirmation to young people who are a part of our community: you deserve to have absolute control over your own sexual and reproductive choices; you deserve to have the information with which to take care of yourself and the people around you.
our organization and the people we serve
All people involved in CPS volunteer their time and expertise. There are no paid staff persons. CPS currently has about 12 volunteer members who answer the questions teens email to us, update our materials, and make decisions about the organization. While CPS is a non-hierarchical group and there is no specific leadership, there are members in charge of specific tasks. We make all decisions by consensus.
CPS does not have a governing board; we operate collectively with a non-hierarchical structure. We are about 75% women and 25% men; 25% people of color (African American, Latina, Native American, Middle Eastern) and 30% lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Our ages range from 19 to 43. We are high school and college teachers, artists, actors, college and graduate students, blue and white and pink collar workers, disability recipients, PWA's, and activists.
evaluating our work
We acknowledge and accept that, as primarily non-high schoolers, we have little chance of knowing exactly what currency Just Say Yes has in high school social circles, of how it plays out locally in teen cultures and subcultures, or of what precise effect it has on young people talking about and/or having sex. We hope, however, that teenagers learn from Just Say Yes at least that a group of young people cares about them and respects them enough to speak frankly about sex and about staying healthy. We know that the educational potential of Just Say Yes lies not in the booklet and website alone but in the ripple effect of conversations and arguments that Just Say Yes initiates. We are near-peers, and that is important; but teens are our most powerful resource for educating teens.
All the same, we rely heavily on feedback from teenagers to evaluate the effectiveness of our work. We first heard from them in the focus groups that we organized. We also heard from students when we visited high schools. Particularly when the weather was nice, students would often stand around reading Just Say Yes, and talk with each other and sometimes with us about the booklet. After an action, students sometimes called to tell us that their principal took the book away from them; others called to thank us, and to invite us back; several young women from different schools have written to ask for condoms and lube, and have asked very specific questions about sex and pregnancy. Via the interactive "Talk Back" page on our website, teenagers can email CPS with their questions and comments. We receive 5-10 messages, in English and Spanish, every day. This feedback is a good barometer of what is not quite clear enough in the booklet (and we make changes accordingly during our yearly revisions). The contact reassures us that we are an approachable entity, one that many teens have trusted with "embarrassing" questions. Just as important, these interactions tell us a great deal about how precious information about sexuality and sex is, both to the teenagers who want it and to the administrators who resist it.
These responses convince us that we have already had an important impact on our young people. We will continue to work until all parents begin to educate their teens, and schools provide comprehensive education for all teens--women as well as men, lesbian/gay as well as straight. Ultimately, we will know we have had some impact when teenagers can call upon resources to help them survive and fight misogyny and homophobia, and when gay-bashing, unwanted pregnancies, and HIV are no longer a part of their lives.
about Just Say Yes
Just Say Yes! is a comprehensive sex education pamphlet. It addresses issues of AIDS, STD's, safe sex, sexuality, birth control, pregnancy and abortion. The booklet talks about sex in everyday language and gives explicit directions for using condoms, plastic wrap, and latex gloves for safe sex. It validates young people's choices to be sexual or abstinent, to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or straight, and to have these decisions respected by others. Just Say Yes! is unabashedly pro-sex, pro-woman, pro-queer, and pro-choice .
The Coalition for Positive Sexuality created Just Say Yes in direct response to the health crisis among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of newly-diagnosed AIDS cases are people in their 20's, which means that they probably contracted HIV when they were teens. In addition, sexually transmitted diseases are rampant, and the teen birth rate in the U.S. (although declining) is the highest among all the industrialized nations.
CPS hopes that Just Say Yes will serve two purposes: 1) to get comprehensive sexuality information into the hands of teenagers and 2) stimulate debate around issues of sexuality education in our schools and throughout the country. CPS is not alone in its demand for better education for our young people: surveys conducted by the Roper Organization show that 96% of adolescents believed that they should receive HIV/AIDS instruction in school, and 64% of adults believed that this education should be explicit about condoms and safe sex practices.
how to contact CPSYou can contact the Coalition for Positive Sexuality by e-mail at:
|We came together to respond to the health crisis among teenagers|