INSIDE Chico State
0 October 10, 2002
Volume 33 Number 4
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Professor Works to Break "Code of Silence" on Risky Sexual Behavior

Diana Flannery, Health and Community Services
Diana Flannery, Health and Community Services
Photo by Kathleen McPartland

When it comes to high-risk sexuality among college students, Diana Flannery, Health and Community Services, tells it like it is. In her research and her classes, she is working to break the "code of silence" on sexual behavior that the surgeon general has said may encourage high-risk sexual practices. In his 2001 Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior, Surgeon General David Satcher declared responsible sexual behavior one of the 10 leading health indicators for the nation and made promoting it a public health priority.

"Someone's got to talk to the students about their sexuality," the outspoken Flannery stated. "We can't just stick our heads in the ground. We don't want to pathologize and demonize their sexual behavior. We want to reduce the risk but still make sex fun."

Flannery's goal is to help students navigate their sexual health and stay in school. "We lose students because of the consequences of risky sexual behavior," she said, "and that makes me mad."

In her Women's Health classes and as guest speaker in Introduction to University Life courses, she is speaking out about important sexual issues normally left unexplored in class: oral and anal sex, the alarming levels of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and HIV/AIDS infection, sexual coercion, and using alcohol and/or drugs when engaging in sex.

For eight years, Flannery has researched the sexual behaviors of her Women's Health students, using an anonymous Sexual Activity Questionnaire. Her recent paper, "Anal Intercourse and Sexual Risk Factors Among College Women, 19932000," written in cooperation with Professor Lyndall Ellingson, Health and Community Services, and two former students, Karen Votaw and Elizabeth Schaefer, each of whom received a B.A. in psychology in 2001, has been accepted for publication this fall in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

The paper reports on the incidence of anal intercourse among 813 students, sexual risk behaviors associated with anal intercourse, and an eight-year trend in sexual risk behaviors of college women.

"Of known STI risk behaviors, anal intercourse among college women is the least studied," the paper states. "This silence is partially related to cultural mores proscribing anal intercourse and the assumption that only gay men participate in this activity."

Quashing that assumption, Flannery et al. report that almost one-third of the sample of sexually experienced women (defined as ever having engaged in vaginal-penile intercourse) had engaged in anal intercourse. Among the sexually inexperienced group, almost 6 percent reported engaging in anal intercourse.

Among the 30 percent of women who had engaged in anal intercourse, 26 percent always used a condom with anal intercourse, but 68 percent never did. This statistic scares Flannery, because research has shown that not only is anal intercourse associated with hepatitis B infection, human papilloma virus, and cancer in women, but unprotected anal sex also presents more of a risk of sexual HIV transmission for women than does unprotected vaginal intercourse.

"These data underscore the importance of openly addressing anal intercourse as a part of the sexual repertoire of college women," the paper concludes.

Flannery and Ellingson have also surveyed the sexual behavior of CSU, Chico freshmen. They reported that of 278 freshmen men and women surveyed in fall 2001, 71 percent were identified as sexually active. The mean age of those students was 18.2 for women and 18.6 for men; the mean age at first intercourse was 16.5 for women and 16.4 for men; and the mean lifetime number of partners was 3.3 for women and 3.6 for men. One-quarter of the women and 12 percent of the men said they had had sex against their will. About one-third of men and women said they relied on the birth control pill, which worries Flannery, because the pill provides no protection against disease. Only 53 percent of women and 52 percent of men said they used condoms, and 75 percent of women and 69 percent of men never used condoms for anal intercourse. Ninety-four percent of both men and women engage in oral sex. Because recent studies show a connection between HIV transmission and oral sex, Flannery stresses safer sex practices with this activity as well.

Flannery's students appreciate her information and her style, calling her "inspiring," "funny," "intelligent," and "passionate about what she is doing." Anna Neary, a senior English major with a minor in women's studies, is a mentor in Flannery's fall Women's Health class. She said, "Some people say she is too open about things, but I think that, with that information, you can't be too open. A lot of time, people in college aren't thinking about their health and think they will live forever."

In a reaction paper to the freshman questionnaire, student comments highlighted the benefits of Flannery's open approach to sexual behavior issues.

  • "This information was helpful because it didn't make me feel all alone."
  • "The fact that the majority of women in my class admit to sex without a condom makes me very scared."
  • "I like to think we are all educated and in control of our bodies and health. This data leads me to believe otherwise."
  • "This survey made me realize I need to evaluate my actions and take some health precautions."

Professor Elizabeth Renfro, Multicultural and Gender Studies, thinks that sexuality research is undervalued, because often it is considered not academic or truly scholarly. "I believe that Diana's research and her sexuality education work are not only of scholarly merit but are absolutely vital forms of social activism," she said.

"To me, what I do is not weird," Flannery said, "but I get the feeling others think it is." She just wants to help empower students to make good choices about their health and lives.

Francine Gair

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