Thursday, February 9, 2023

‘Sex Kit Shocker’: Safer Sex and AIDS Prevention at Dartmouth College

“Cream for anal sex. Does that make you nervous?” The camera pans to the plastic baggie Phil Donahue holds. The audience laughs. This Ziploc bag, which the Dick’s House Health Education office termed the Safe Sex Kit (later amended to Safer Sex) began a campus-wide and national discourse about moral and medical issues in sexual education.

In the years prior to the kit’s release in 1987, Dick’s House had struggled to convey the importance of safer sex practices and the growing threat of AIDS to a largely heterosexual, largely indifferent student population. In response to increasingly urgent public health guidance put out by the American College Health Association (ACHA) and the Surgeon General, Beverlie Conant Sloane – director of Health Education – put together the Safe Sex Kit to make both information about safer sex as well as protection more accessible to students. The Health Services office reported that 200-300 students voluntarily picked up kits when they were made available during registration for the 1987 winter term.

The kits included:
-    A small green square of latex meant for use in protecting the user during oral sex1
-    A lubricated condom
-    A small grey tube of spermicidal lubricant
-    A pamphlet describing how to use the contents of the Safe Sex Kits
-    A pamphlet entitled “AIDS: Questions and Answers” written by the Health Service
-    An ACHA-produced pamphlet about safe sex, which categorized sexual practices as ‘safe’ ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous’ with respect to AIDS and STD transmission.

Only a few weeks after the kits were made available, the Dartmouth Review caught wind of the Health Education office’s effort. The front-page story of the January 21st, 1987 issue read “Dartmouth Wants Perversity in the Name of Diversity.” The article accused the administration and health service of “condoning bizarre sexual practices,” “subsidizing sex,” and “approving [a] sodomy manual.” In a memo from Jack Turco, then-director of Dick’s House, to Dean Ed Shanahan, Turco acknowledged the Review’s incendiary tactics and doubled down on the Health Education program: “In retrospect, if we had a chance to do it all over again, I honestly do not think I would suggest proceeding any differently… we are not talking about unimportant issues, kinky sex, or sexual preference. We are talking about deadly illnesses… I realize that this article was constructed to create controversy and to try to embarrass individuals at the College.”

Less than a month later, Gregory Fossedal (’80 and founder of the Review) based his February 7, 1987, editorial in the New York Post – “Dartmouth’s Sex Kit Shocker” – on the original Review article. “Shocker ” was nationally syndicated and reprinted. Within days Dartmouth found itself embroiled in a media controversy. Letters and phone calls from alumni, parents of students, and people with no affiliation to the College came pouring in. Some were thoughtful moral criticisms alluding to Biblical verses espousing the importance of abstinence and marital sex. Others were thoroughly venomous. One, addressed to Pres. McLaughlin, merely read: “$17,091 to go to Condom College. It’s hard to believe.”2  Part of this controversy was because Dartmouth was the first among its peer institutions to offer any kit of such kind. Many of the calls were simply curious or confused. No matter the query, Dean Shanahan and Jack Turco tactfully responded by reiterating that the kits were a “medical, not a moral statement.”

To emphasize this message, the College sent representatives to both the Today Show and Donahue in late February 1987 to clarify the intent behind the kit and highlight the need for comprehensive sex education. Jack Turco and Cuong Do ’88, an intern at Dick’s House and head of the Nathan Smith Society (a pre-health professions student organization) represented the Health Education office. Debbie Stone ’87, editor-in-chief of the Review represented the conservative perspective.

On Donahue, a fierce debate ensued. Stone accused the College of neglecting moral education in the Safe Sex materials. Her particular grievance was with the photographs depicted in the ACHA brochure. She argued, “This isn’t a medical brochure. This is a slick advertisement to engage in perverse activities.” Despite her qualms, most of the show’s audience seemed to agree with Do and Dr. Turco. Addressing Stone, one audience member pointed out, “If you don’t know morality by when you go to college, the pamphlet can’t help you.”

Public opinion shifted for the Safe Sex kit after Donahue aired. Do and Dr. Turco’s impassioned and well-informed arguments about the medical need for sex education, combined with Stone’s poor performance and inflammatory claims, prompted a flood of positive press. In the weeks after the show, Dick’s House fielded dozens of calls per day. Some were critical, but most were coming from parents, educators, and health professionals who were excited and wanted to know more about the kits. Just as many audience members on Donahue had expressed, the kits were effective as a form of education and protection against the growing AIDS epidemic.

Similarly, the Safe Sex Kits were widely appreciated by the Dartmouth student body. In an analysis about Dartmouth’s AIDS education effort, Conant Sloane later remarked that the media controversy had changed the campus climate from apathetic to engaged. Following an on-campus panel entitled “AIDS and Safer Sex: An Open Forum,” students largely praised Turco and Do’s performance on Donahue. One student wrote, “I think it is an impressive step taken by the college to address a very serious issue which threatens our society… I’m pleased that Dartmouth has chosen to educate the community, all facets of the community.” Another asked if the kits could be made available for employees in addition to students. Though the controversy around the kits created negative press coverage for Dartmouth, the media firestorm caught the attention of students and galvanized the largely heterosexual, largely blithe community into caring about safer sex and the threat of AIDS.

Looking back on this material has made me realize how much of Dartmouth’s sexual wellness resources I have taken for granted. As a first-year student, I would laugh when my UGA knocked on my door offering candy and condoms. Only now do I realize how hard-fought those condoms were! Beverlie Conant Sloane and Jack Turco recognized the severe threat that AIDS posed to students of all sexualities at Dartmouth and worked hard to provide resources against a crusade of moral righteousness from conservatives both on and off campus. On Donahue, Turco remarked, “There’s no doubt that there is going to be another sexual revolution.” Because of him and the work of the Health Education office, Dartmouth students were equipped to handle it.

To see correspondence and news clippings related to the Safe Sex Kits, ask for the Dean’s subject files in DA-8 Box 7482 and folders “Health Education – Safe Sex Kits” and “Health Education 86-87”. To watch the full Donahue Show tape, ask for the Jones Media Center records (DL-36) Box 11701. To see the Safer Sex Kit itself, ask for Realia 145.

1 Jeffrey Hart, faculty advisor for the Dartmouth Review, wrote an article in The National Review criticizing the Safe Sex Kits for promoting vulgarity and immoral behavior. His observation on the dental dam? “The one before me is colored green, perhaps because this is Dartmouth… I wonder whether Princeton is providing rubber dams with orange and black stripes.”

2 If only I paid just $17,000 to attend this so-called Condom College. How inflation changes things!

Posted for Leeza Petrov ’22, recipient of a Historical Accountability Student Research Fellowship for the 2023 winter term. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the college's past. For more information, visit the program's website.