Post by Lydia Michie – 3rd year BA Geography student
After studying Population and Societies in my second year, alongside some sociology modules, I developed an interest in the changing trends in relationships and in particular the changes surrounding the sexual relationships of today’s younger generations. After watching a documentary on The Silver Ring Thing (a religiously based youth organisation that advocates abstinence amongst teens) in a sociology lecture, I began to wonder about the various ways in which society (and religion) are reacting to these changes in sexual attitudes. A simple google search about abstinence and teen sex brought up masses of media talking about the problems in Mississippi. As a travel addict, I decided that this would be an interesting way of combining my love of my degree with my love of travel and set about planning my final year dissertation research abroad and in June this year I headed out for a three month trip across the USA, stopping in Mississippi for a month mid-way.
Telling people on the East coast of the US that I was travelling down to Mississippi to do research into Abstinence and Sex Education was usually met with either one of three reactions; a wince of pity, a polite warning that I’ll “hate it down there” or simply a snort of laughter. Suffice to say, after a month of this I had become pretty wary of what to expect when I finally got there.
After a mammoth 34 hour hellish train journey from Washington D.C to Mississippi I was too tired to even think about what the following month was about to bring me. The following morning, when I woke up in my little closet that had been converted into a temporary bedroom (perhaps they thought all English people lived like Harry Potter), it soon became clear that this place was going to surprise me. Much in contrast to the ‘hillbilly’, ‘redneck’, ‘uneducated’ stereotype that had clouded my judgement of the South whilst on the East coast, I found myself surrounded by books on feminism and sociology, a sort of miniature Human Geographer’s library. Proudly hanging on the porch above the front door was the Gay Pride rainbow flag (a sight I had not imagined I would see in such a conservative and right wing state) and I was both relieved and admittedly a little shocked to find my new home to be filled with “a bunch of liberals”; a male feminist, a gay black man and an artist. Straight away I knew I had found myself somewhere unlike any other place I’ve experienced.
Despite being a big city, it didn’t take long for word to spread that there was an English girl in town and people were intrigued as to why a Brit would want to be there. The minute I mentioned my research project, I was bombarded with opinions and offers to be interviewed. The ball was in motion and I knew straight away that I wasn’t going to get the results I had anticipated.
Mississippi has the strictest abstinence policies in its high schools meaning that Mississippi teens are being taught next to nothing about sexual health and relationships other than to wait until they are “ready” or married. Sexual health services are sparse to say the least, or at least much more hidden than would be the case in other states and the stigma surrounding such services is often so negative that it may unfortunately put people off going. Despite the push for abstinence-based education and the flaws in the state’s offering of sexual health, Mississippi has some of the highest teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates in the USA, making it one of the worst in the Developed World. When looking at the economic and religious background of the state the trends would seem to show an obvious reasoning for the local Government’s sexual education choices but I wanted to explore this further and to see if there were any other factors aside from or running parallel to “The Bible Belt factor” that caused people to be in support of such policies.
Although finding interviewees proved quite easy, finding a means to interview them proved slightly more difficult. With no public transport, taxis or driving licence, I was reliant upon the generosity of the locals to ferry me about the city (an experience that certainly proved that Mississippi’s reputation as ‘The Hospitality State’ was nothing short of the truth). With each interview came new questions, new answers, new surprises and new perspectives. I found myself becoming more and more passionate about the subject and it was refreshing to find that, once they got going, my interviewees shared that passion. Although I think a lot of people are aware of the debate and have strong opinions, it doesn’t seem to be a regular topic of discussion and people jumped at the chance to vent some of their frustrations or to argue their point of view. One interviewee even said it was “like a therapy session”.
Although I’ll save the results for the actual dissertation, it’s safe to say my 7 hours’ worth of interviews, although having left me exhausted, have also opened my mind to many factors that I could never have understood without actually travelling there and experiencing that Southern lifestyle. Although it can be expensive and stressful, I couldn’t be happier to have chosen to do my research abroad and I would recommend anyone who is debating giving it a go to just do it! If you take yourself out of your comfort zone you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much it can teach you. But be prepared to never want to leave! I got some interesting results and along the way saw some beautiful places and made some beautiful friends. Mississippi and what I saw of the rest of the South is such a hard place to describe. It is one huge, humid, beautiful but messed-up contradiction of a state but that’s all part of its charm. It’s everything you might expect from the South but at the same time, it’s nothing like you’d imagine!