Last month, the St. Mary’s County Library canceled a controversial teen sex education workshop. Now, a nonprofit organization is raising funds to advertise Bianca Palmisano’s class at the Lexington Park library in May.
Samantha McGuire, Washington Area Secular Humanists president and its Southern Maryland chapter coordinator, said she has been scheduling meetings at the library for her group, and decided to host Palmisano’s class after it was initially canceled by the library.
She said she is collecting funds online to advertise and has about $800 of the $1,000 needed after “less than 48 hours of creating the website … I didn’t expect the uproar so soon,” she said. “The amount of money we’ve raised is a testament that the community does want the class.”
Only high school-aged children will be allowed to attend, and parental permission is required, McGuire said. The workshop is designed to be “an inclusive safe space for teens who have questions they don’t feel comfortable” asking during their science-based health classes at St. Mary’s public schools. “I don’t know how inclusive [the public school] classes are,” she said. “Some kids might have questions about same-sex or polyamorous relationships they don’t feel comfortable asking” that can be addressed at the workshop.
Understanding what consent is in relationships will be the majority of the discussion during the workshop, Palmisano said. Consent is “not just for sex” and the conversation should “move into the broader understanding” of the concept. Other topics to be discuss how to communicate with health professionals effectively and safe sex techniques. Birth control will be briefly discussed but it “can be its own class,” she said.
If there is enough time left during the workshop, Palmisano said there will be a 16-piece puzzle about how to properly use a condom.
Palmisano said she is looking forward to the class and is “super excited” to teach this community workshop, scheduled for May 21 at the Lexington Park library starting at 2 p.m. The workshop will offer “a safe space” for children to ask questions their parents may not approve of, Palmisano said. Although permission is required, parents and adults are not welcome to the class because “it changes the power dynamic of the room … Children might ask questions or see things parents may not approve of” for religious reasons, or they may not want their parents to know they are sexually active, she said. Parents are welcome to wait in the library while their child is in the workshop, she said.
If children “have a question, I’m not going to avoid it,” Palmisano said. “Kids see a lot on the internet and with our hyper-sexualized media. I’m not going to teach them how to tie people to a bedpost or what a riding crop is.”
The community reaction “has been surreal,” she said. She said she “felt bad for throwing a match into a keg and watching others duke it out” over her class. Giving people of all ages the information they need to make informed decisions about their bodies is important because human beings are “most of the time sexual beings,” Palmisano said. People might “have different feelings on the matter,” but she said she believes in trusting people with the information to make the appropriate choices.
DeBora Gorham of Mechanicsville said she was opposed to the class when she spoke at a March 7 St. Mary’s County commissioners public forum, and she “is still against it.”
She said Wednesday she considered the library to be a safe place where children can meet with friends and work on homework. Even if the parents allow their kids to attend the workshop, she thinks the library is an inappropriate place to host it. “They get a sex ed class in school,” she said.
“Stay out of everyone’s business,” she said. “Stop trying to raise other people’s children.”
Gorham said parents have the right to be concerned about the workshop because “they have the right to raise their children the way they want to. Don’t open a door for my child that I want shut,” she said. “Children are [trying to make] grown-up decisions at 10 years old” and they’re not old enough to make decisions about their sexuality.
The controversy involving Palmisano’s background seemed to stem from her “being a keynote speaking at the D.C. Slut Walk … which is hosted to end rape culture,” McGuire said. The community’s initial reaction to the workshop made people look homophobic, she said. “I don’t see what is so wrong about more education.” She said she trusts Palmisano with how to approach the class with discussions of what is and isn’t appropriate.
Because the workshop is still in the planning stages, McGuire said she didn’t know how many people will attend. Both conference rooms have been rented out at the library in case there is a large turnout, but parents will be able to sit and wait for their children in a neighboring room, she said.
Michael Blackwell, St. Mary’s library director, said it is misleading to label the class as rescheduled. “The library canceled it and is in no way endorsing this class” that has returned by popular demand, he said. The library has a “strictly neutral” stance about the class, and nonprofit organizations can use the room for free, while for-profit organizations and private parties can rent the room for a small fee, he said.
The library is not attempting to reschedule this program under another name, Blackwell said. “We did not reach out to the group who scheduled the meeting room,” he said. “Since the meeting room was legitimately reserved under long-standing and fair library policies, however, the group scheduling the program has same right to the room as all other community groups,” such as religious organizations and gun safety classes.