ATLANTIC CITY — Conversation about sexual assault, harassment and better sexual health awareness filled a town-hall style event Thursday morning as hundreds of educators, health experts and advocates gathered in the city to discuss the newest and best ways to improve sexual health education.

The Center for Sex Education, the national education division of Planned Parenthood of Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey, hosted about 760 people from the United States and nine other countries at its annual National Sex Ed Conference at Resorts Casino Hotel.

The first full day of the conference kicked off with Christian Thrasher, national sexual health educator, and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was surgeon general under President Bill Clinton.

“Now is an important time to open up the conversation and really talk about sexual health. We haven’t really talked about sexual health itself, because when we do, it’s always coupled with disease,” Elders said.

Elders’ own history with sexual health education is memorable. At a 1994 United Nations conference about AIDS, Elders replied yes when a psychiatrist asked if teaching school-aged children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex.

Though many in the audience at Thursday’s town hall agreed with that opinion, Elders’ forward thinking in the mid ’90s prompted the Clinton administration to ask for her resignation. She has since taught medicine at the University of Arkansas.

Audience members touched on the current climate around sexual assault and a movement that led women to come forward with their personal stories of assault and harassment. Some of the claims have resulted in criminal investigations and several high-profile people losing their jobs after allegations were confirmed.

“We’re now seeing and hearing about it, but it’s not new,” Elders said. “It didn’t start with our politicians, didn’t start in the movie industry. It goes on throughout all of our society, and I think we need to do a better job with sexual health education and teach all young people, especially young men, about sexual respect and reduce some abuse we’re seeing.”

The majority of conference attendees were educators, and about a quarter of participants worked with or volunteered at a Planned Parenthood affiliate, said Casey Olesko, communications director for the New Jersey Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Early seminars and workshops at the conference Thursday focused on a range of topics, from the use of social media and digital communication in sex education to how racism affects sex education given to black and Latino youths to what fraternity and sorority organizations are doing to help educate their members on assault and hazing.

Stephanie Zapata, sexual health educator and advocate in New York City, led a workshop for people working with middle school, high school and college-aged students, exploring the intersection of race, ethnicity and historical progression when teaching sex education.

“We’re leaving out whole groups of people and patients,” Zapata said. “What’s the underlying causes (of some sexual health outcomes)? Systemic oppression? Patriarchy? Racism? Sexism? Probably all of them. We need to consider the histories of different races and ethnicities when teaching sexual education to people of color.”

Thrasher said he sees many new and similar faces each year at the conference, but has noticed that the audience of educators and advocates has grown more diverse.

About 20 years ago in the mid 1990s, he remembers being the only man of color at a sexuality health conference. That has changed greatly through the years, he said, and the conference gives people in the field the opportunity to collaborate on ideas for better sexual health education for everyone.

The conference ends Saturday.

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Contact: 609-272-7022 Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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