How Sex Positive Is Fayetteville?

How Sex Positive Is Fayetteville?
Courtesy Photo In Arkansas no sexuality education is mandated by law, leaving it up to the schools to determine what and how to teach it. This is one of the factors that may correlate to attitudes toward sex in Arkansas.

Courtesy Photo
In Arkansas no sexuality education is mandated by law, leaving it up to the schools to determine what and how to teach it. This is one of the factors that may correlate to attitudes toward sex in Arkansas.

Fayetteville is renown for keeping it “funky.” But does that mean it’s receptive and supportive to expression of sexuality?

Sex positivity is about affirming, respecting and recognizing consensual expression of sexuality as healthy and normal and advocating for sex education, consent and safe sex. Sex negativity can include condemning, ridiculing, shaming or refusing to recognize sexuality.

In Arkansas, there is no law that requires sexuality education be taught in public schools.

Local school boards decide whether or not to teach sex ed, which subjects this education must cover and the grade level in which topics are introduced. Yet, if sexuality education is taught, then abstinence must be covered and stressed as the only completely effective protection against unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS. Teaching about contraceptives isn’t required. Additionally, Arkansas received $619,862 in federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in 2010, all according to policy data from the Guttmacher Institute.

Connie Crisp, who taught English literature for 35 years in Fayetteville Public Schools, said sex education and discussion was left up to the health teachers. Because some teachers were more willing to teach it, the quality of the education depended on who the students’ teacher was. In one case, a teacher just showed a video for sex ed and moved on. It’s possible some towns in Arkansas may have even opted out of sex ed altogether.

However, in her experience, she said she found that most of her students were accepting of LGBT people and were interested in discussing sexuality in the classroom.

“For the most part, if religion doesn’t get involved with it, the students are pretty accepting of people for whatever sexuality they have,” Crisp said. “As long as it’s consenting and okay.”

Arkansas is among 22 other states that do not require sex ed in public schools, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This varied “patchwork system” of mandated sexual education can be found all over the country, with different school systems providing more comprehensive and accurate sex ed than others.

This rang true for Sasha Canan, a graduate assistant at the UofA public health department who teaches a sexual health course. At the university level, her students come from various backgrounds, countries and states in addition to Arkansas. Sometimes she’s surprised by how well informed some students are, but she still has plenty of students who come in with an elementary understanding of how the body works, she said.

“I have a very small minority of my students who have gotten sex education that goes beyond abstinence which is delivered in a way that isn’t just all about the negative things around sex,” Canan said. “There’s a lot of perceived controversy around comprehensive sex education…When we think of discussing sex with school-age children, typically people start to feel squeamish.”

It’s often a vocal minority of people who are upset at the idea of sex education being delivered in the school system, whether because it conflicts with their values or believe it should be a private matter not formally taught in school. Those people complain to the school board, and hoping to avoid controversy, the boards usually play it safe, Canan said — who is currently researching these factors.

“The people who are going to be vocal about being against comprehensive sex education are probably going to be more vocal and aggressive about contacting their legislators and school board than the people who would be upset that comprehensive sex education is not being provided,” she said.

So if students aren’t getting comprehensive sex education, where do they learn about it? Many turn to the Internet, where anecdotal evidence reigns supreme on help sites like and Yahoo! Answers. Yet, there are plenty of resources such as out there that offer up accurate information and anonymous forums for honest conversation without consequence.

Support and Inclusion

While sexuality education is a key part of the foundation for sex positivity in Fayetteville, there are also a significant amount of local resources and support groups.

“It’s one thing to be sex positive about heterosexual, monogamous conventional sex, and another thing entirely to be sex positive about an entire spectrum of sexuality,” said Laura Weiderhaft, co-host of “Lean Back,” a feminist podcast. “There are support networks here that would support almost any type of sexuality. I know there’s even a kink group here. It’s just the matter of seeking them out, it just isn’t mainstream. That’s a huge benefit.”

Some of the groups include the NWA Center for Equality in Fayetteville that offers free, confidential HIV testing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. STAR Central, or the Office of Support, Training, Advocacy, & Resources on Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence on campus provides educational programs and confidential victim services.

With the recent passing of the Civil Rights ordinance in September along with the landmark Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, there has certainly been a leap forward in LGBT inclusion in Fayetteville.

In Arkansas, Fayetteville is considered to be the most inclusive to LGBT rights, according to a ranking by the LGBT-advocate group The Human Rights Campaign. Fayetteville scored a 76 out of 100 possible points on its 2015 Municipal Equality Index, which examines the laws, policies, and services of cities and rates them on the basis of their inclusiveness of LGBT people who live and work there.

Fayetteville lost points in the survey for having no transgender-inclusive health care benefits, no city contractor non-discrimination ordinance, no LGBT liaison in the mayor’s office, and no LGBT police liaison or task force. Nearby, Springdale and Ft. Smith scored 18 points.

Another important group for students is the Students For Gender Equality group on campus. Each year in September, the group does a Smart & Sexy Sex Ed week-long event where several guest speakers, films, and programs are planned to advocate for safe sex, sexual health, consent, abuse awareness and sexuality.

“From my understanding, just from my own personal experiences prior to coming to college, the information has been warped and shaped by abstinence only education in high school,” said Aisling Thornton, the group’s president. “It’s almost a little late on the jump to give college kids sex education, but we just want to have that open dialogue in a safe space that they didn’t previously have access to.”

Religious Influence

As a child growing up in a Catholic household in Fayetteville, Joseph Reagan said sexuality was nothing you talked about.

“Maybe like a lot of other people, the word was not uttered,” he said. “The subject wasn’t approached.”

After returning to Fayetteville as a parent after starting a family in the more liberal Boulder, Co., Reagan said he found the Nancy Reagan “just say no” mentality and abstinence-only culture to be poor quality and negative. Before long, his children returned home with “ATM” or abstinence-until-marriage cards after receiving them from their religious peers at school.

“The conservative religious movement in our area, being in the belt of the bible belt, had an incredible inhibitory effect for broaching the subject,” he said. “Areas that have had just say no policies showed a higher rate of teen pregnancy than areas that had actual, supportive true sex education. That doesn’t exclude abstinence but it includes those that will partake and educates them so they are protected.”

This inspired Reagan’s family to find the Unitarian Universalist fellowship and sign up for the OWL (Our Whole Lives) sex education classes.

Abstinence-only education is typically favored by Christian values to retain purity for soul mates in holy marriage. Additionally, LGBT sexuality is largely unrecognized and shamed in many religions.

I think there are a lot of unhealthy attitudes toward sex on campus,” Thornton said. “I don’t know if I would say overall the UofA is a beacon for sexual positivity. As a queer person in Fayetteville, it’s an interesting dilemma because a lot of the mainstream resources aren’t necessarily catered to queer people and may not say necessarily that they’re a safe space.”

While that view of LGBT sexuality is seen by many denominations of the Christian faith, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville was very active in supporting the Civil Rights ordinance when it was disputed.

“We see sexuality as one of God’s great gifts of expression, the most intimate expression of love that two human beings can offer one another. We have a very high view of sexuality,” said Rev. Lowell Grisham, of St. Paul’s. “We recognize that in the beauty and diversity of creation, God has created human beings with different sexual orientations. What I would support is that we behave in the way this is natural for us, so that it would be unnatural for someone of the homosexual orientation to be in a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex.”

Above all else, providing sexually active people with information to make informed decisions needs to be the focus in the sex positive movement, Thorton said.

“We need to focus on giving our community and students the information they need to make informed, conscious, healthy decisions,” they said. “You have a lack of information and you’re making these sexual practice decisions. You’re putting yourself at risk. Knowledge can be the most empowering thing you have in your arsenal. I think if we give them information and trust them to make wise decisions, that could be very impactful on our community and our community health overall.”


Established Sexual Health Resources on the Web

Various resources and accurate information about men and women’s sexual health, contraception, pregnancy, relationships, sexual orientation, STDs, body image and abortion.

Independent and inclusive website designed toward teenagers and young adults. Features 500 comprehensive sexuality, health and relationship articles, guides and fact sheets, over 1,500 in-depth advice answers, extensive external resource lists. Also offers direct services such as a text service and an online crisis chat.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention –

Provides several resources and fact sheets about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS Prevention, Reproductive Health, Sexual violence prevention, pregnancies and LGBT health, etc.

Provides several educational resources for understanding health standards, government policy and sexual health and resources and lesson plans for home education.

Local Support Groups

Students for Gender Equality –

NWA Center for Equality –, 479-966-9014

Arkansas Coalition for Reproductive Justice –

Arkansas Trans Equality Coalition –

NWA Rape Crisis (24 Hour hotline) 1-800-794-4175

Categories: Cover Story