Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999

Archive for the 'activism' Category

Monday, July 25th, 2011

(Cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

I want to tell you something very personal about me. Not because I want to. I really don’t want to. But I’m going to do it anyway.

It’s one of those things where even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me, I feel like sharing despite my discomfort might be able to make a positive difference. And since this has to do with something where I believe others have been making a positive difference in a way I, myself, have not also been able to, it seems the least I can do. I’ve been largely silent around the Slutwalks. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest one of all is that what inspired them simply struck me much, much to close to home. So, my silence has not been about nonsupport of the walks. In more ways than one, it’s been about my stepping out of the way of them in part based on my own limitations.

If you’re triggered by candid stories about sexual or other forms of assault, this may be triggering for you. I know it still is for me, very much so. Telling this story in this kind of detail remains incredibly difficult for me, despite many years of healing, help with therapy, help and healing found through helping others and a lot of support. It’s not a story I tell often, because even just typing it out or saying it all out loud makes my hands shake and my heart race and turns me into a bit of a mess for a bit of time after I do.

I keep hearing or reading people say things like that no one really gets told the way they were dressed makes them at fault for their assault, despite about a million evidences to the contrary, and knowing far more than one person personally who has had that experience.

Conversely (and oddly enough, sometimes from the same people who say that first thing), I keep reading people stating, despite so much great activism around this lately, that how someone dresses IS what “got them raped.” Or that they were raped because of their sexual history, their economic class, where they live, how they talk, how they do or don’t respond to men, how they identify or present their gender — anything BUT the fact that they were in some kind of proximity to someone who chose to rape them, which is exactly how, and only how, someone winds up being a victim of rape.

A few months ago, I had an apparently politically progressive blogger who would not stop talking to me on Twitter about the “rape outfit” of an 11-year-old girl whose rape case I had linked to. He, without my asking him anything about it personally, expressed he felt she would not have been assaulted had she been dressed differently. He called whatever it was she was wearing a “rape outfit.” Hearing about the fact that I had my own “rape outfit” at 12, or that, when my great-grandmother was raped and murdered in her home at the age of 76, her “rape outfit” was a housecoat, or that the “rape outfit” of young boys sexually abused by priests was often their super-salacious Sunday best; equally not hearing my firm requests to please not keep tweeting me with misogyny which I found deeply upsetting and hurtful seemed to only make him more excited to keep saying what he was. Even reminding him I was a survivor myself didn’t slow him down. Only blocking him worked. I’m quite certain he left the conversation with exactly the same beliefs as when he started it.

These things we read and hear don’t just come from one group of people: some men say them, but so do some women. Social conservatives say them a lot, but progressives say them, too. People who assault people, of course, will often voice things like this or other things to do all they can to avoid responsibility. But even people who have been victimized themselves will sometimes say things like this. Sometimes — and, I’d say, probably most of the time — that’s about internalizing the messages they got. Sometimes it’s about feeling a need to have another victim be at fault for their assault so that they can feel less like they, themselves, were at fault for their assaults, even though no victim is at fault for being victimized. More unfortunately, than I can express, rape culture is one of the most globalized kinds of culture there is.

I keep reading and hearing and seeing people who, so far as I can tell, and intentionally choosing to misrepresent or deny the core issue of what the SlutWalks are about: activism working expressly to try and counter deeply harmful and endangering attitudes expressed about rape and rape victims like those of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who, in January of this year, speaking on crime prevention at a York University safety forum said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” (This is why the word “slut” is so prominently featured in this activism, because it is this comment which directly inspired the first walk.)

I wish I had never heard a police officer say anything like that at all. I also wish that if I was going to hear that, it had been the first time I had.

In seeing so much nonsupport for the walks and people who have participated in them, I started to worry that being silent might be interpreted as being nonsupportive, which is the last message I’d want to send. I’m going to talk a little bit about the walks in this blog post and another in another few days, but I want to start by telling you what I’m about to tell you, if for no other reason than to do what I can do in support, because there are things I can’t do yet, things which others can and have.

When I was 12 years old, I was sexually abused for the second time in my life. The first had been a year before, when I was 11. Then, I was molested by an elderly man who cut our hair in the neighborhood. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even totally sure what had happened to me, nor what to call it. It was 1981, I was 11, and all I knew was whatever it was felt horrible, scared me intensely, and was not okay. But I also got the message that telling anyone about it wasn’t okay, and seemed to feel some message that because it happened to me, it must have meant there was something not okay about me, too. The home environment I was living in enabled these kinds of messages constantly and was itself abusive in other ways, so I did not feel safe at that point saying much of anything, let alone disclosing something like this.

A year later, I was alone cleaning up the art room of the day camp where I was a junior counselor at he end of the day. Because the building was still open, someone was likely at the front deck, but that was very far away, and otherwise, the place was a ghost town. The only reason I was there so late is that I’d often stretch out those days as long as I could in order to avoid having to go home.

I’m going to tell you what I was wearing now.

What I was wearing wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, in a much better world then I lived in then and we still live in now. But it did matter to someone at the time, in a way that messed me up just as much as my assault itself did. In our cultural context right now, or perhaps in someone else’s view, it would seem clear that what I was wearing had nothing at all to do with my being assaulted. In fact, now, in our cultural context about what is and isn’t “slutty” dress, what I was wearing may be seen as indisputable proof that I did NOT ask for rape or deserve rape, even though nothing anyone wears or doesn’t wear proves or disproves that in actuality, which is clear when people are rubbing more than two hateful brain cells together in their thinking process.

It was summer in Chicago then. It’s hot in summer in Chicago. I was working at a camp, and I also had to bike back and forth, so I needed to be work-appropriate, even at 12, but also able to move around easily and not pass out from the heat. If it had been totally up to me, I’d probably have been wearing less than I was so I was more comfortable on the ride home.

But as it was, I had on gymshoes. I had a fairly loose white t-shirt on with the sleeves carefully rolled up, my typical uniform of the time (because big t-shirts are more cool if you roll up the sleeves, everyone knew that). I had on red chino-eqsque shorts that ended just above my knee. I was an early bloomer physically, so whatever I was wearing, there wasn’t then, as there isn’t now, any hiding that I’m a person with an hourglass shape and curves. Would that there had been: after what happened the year before and having been teased at home about my development, I often tried to hide parts of my body as I could. I probably had on some lip gloss. I had chin-length feathered hair that year, gone blonde from being out in the sun.

A group of much-older teenage boys, probably in their late teens, came into the art room started talking to me, and asked what I was doing there. I told them, then they asked how I got back and forth from the camp to home. I remember that as I said I rode my bike, I’d wished that I could take it back. I could feel a lack of safety in the air right then. I wished I had said someone picked me up. They asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thank you. They asked a few more times, making a bit of a game of it, but a very pushy game. I said no a few more times then said I had to go get something and ran out.

I went and hid in a bathroom stall down the hall for what felt like hours but which was probably only minutes. I didn’t go to the front desk and try to ask for help. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest was probably that I had already learned in my life that being in danger was normal and that not being helped in being safe was what I could most typically expect from people. I had also learned already that sometimes telling when I was in danger only got me hurt more.

When I came out of the stall, I went to the bike rack to get my bike, planning to speed away as fast as I could and unlocked it in a hurry. But those boys drove up behind me in the van they had, physically attacked me and dragged me away from my bike and into their car. (Typical perhaps of a tween mind, I remember having a hard time later figuring out if I should be more upset I got hurt — assault or rape were not words I had at the time — or more upset that in the midst of all of this, my bike had been stolen because it was left unlocked.)

I have very hazy memories of what happened next, memories I have never fully either formed or recovered, that only show up in mushy, jagged pieces in night terrors I have had about this over the years. I will honestly say I am glad I have only hazy recall of what happened in that van, and that while parts of my body have always made clear they remember, much of my brain never has. A day later, a big, nasty bump welled up on my head, so I’ve always figured I got knocked out, and the rest of my lack of memory can be attributed to shock.

The next thing I remember was finding myself back on the curb near the bike rack, scruffed up, shirt ripped feeling incredibly sore and strangely soggy in places. I went back inside to the bathroom and was bleeding from my rectum. I think I managed to wash my face, but that was all I could manage. I was incredibly confused, disoriented and still scared to death, not knowing if anywhere was safe,if those boys had left, nothing. I went to the pay phone and called my mother, who also called the police before she came over. All I was able to voice was that I was very scared and hurt and needed someone to come to get me now.

I went back outside and sat on the curb in front of the park where a lot of people were, hoping I’d be safe there and that my mother would find me. She arrived about the same time the police did, who I didn’t know had been called. I know I was completely incoherent, and I don’t believe I was able to express anything anyone could understand. I suspect what I said was something to the effect of, “Guys. Said no, no ride. Hid. Came after me. Grabbed. Van. Scared. Hid in bathroom. Woke up on curb. Are they gone? What? Are they gone?” I know, though, however incomprehensible my words, it could not have been missed that I was in shock, nor that I had clearly been attacked in some way. Over the years, I’ve looked for rationale and reason of why I got so poorly served, but I always give up, knowing all too well how very, very many victims of sexual assault have had the same experience, and that it isn’t something with rhyme or reason part how poorly sexual assault is treated in most of the world.

While my memories of my attack are very hazy, my memories of what came next have never been. I’ve often wished they, too, were hazy.

The police and my mother talked for a while before anyone even talked to me or asked how I was at all. I sat shivering on that curb, holding my knees, watching a crowd form around us, people at the park starting to pay more attention, feeling more and more freaked out. My mother came over and asked if I was just scared, if the van was still there. I looked around. It wasn’t. I said no, I thought it was gone, I hoped it was gone, please let it be gone. For whatever reason, she said more than once “So, nothing happened? You just got scared?” and I remember not being sure how to answer that because it felt confusing, and like there was some kind of cue about a right answer hidden in there. Then two of the police stepped over, and talked with my mother again, instead of me, and I heard one of them say, half-looking at me, half-away, that I really shouldn’t be wearing shorts that short because if I did, I could expect to have trouble with boys.

I also know and remember that with those words, I suddenly got a little more clear, the clarity you get from having just felt unsafe, thinking you might be safe, and then all the more acutely recognizing you are not, and determined to say absolutely nothing to them or my mother about anything. I agreed that okay, sure, yeah, I just got scared, I was fine, please just get me home, fine. You’ll just make a note about the van, and I should call you if I see it again fine (and yeah, right). How on earth could I have felt safe saying to any of them in that space that I was bleeding from my rectum and I didn’t know why, something already incredibly vulnerable for me to share in the first place? How on earth could I say that I think what just happened to me was like what had happened the year before that I’d told no one about? So, I didn’t say anything. Not to anyone, not until a handful of years later when ever so slowly, I started telling people, scared to death every time I did.

That I didn’t say anything at the time and for a long time shouldn’t be surprising. It’s about all the same kind of things that keep most survivors from reporting or disclosing.

Here’s the part where I think it’s very, very important that anyone reading anything like this knows three vital things.

These are not opinions. These are facts. I can’t stop you from denying they are truths and facts, but you have to know that if you do, you do so from a place of bias or ignorance because we have all the evidence in the world that they are true. We have not just the story of someone like myself but mountain of stories from survivors like myself and survivors different than me, from sound studies and research and loads of “rape prevention” tips that made so many people feel like they were safer who learned the hard way that those tips didn’t do a damn thing to protect them. All they did was control them, make them feel more scared of living, more distracted by all the things they felt they needed to think about to be safe and then and they just wound up getting hurt anyway.

The only factual part of disputes to what I am about to say is that it is absolutely a fact that we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to the way most of our world and many of the people in it treat rape and those of us who have been assaulted and abused.

1) I was not assaulted because of how I was dressed. Those long red shorts and sneakers were not why I was assaulted. But. The person who was wearing a short skirt and heels when she was assaulted wasn’t assaulted because of how she was dressed, either. Even if I had been wearing something else entirely — like the housecoat my great-grandmother was, a burqua, a nun’s habit, overalls, skinny jeans or business attire; even if I was not a woman with a vulva, but a woman with a penis dressing in the clothing I felt was representative of my gender as a woman, but some of the world disagreed with me, and felt I was cross-dressing, how I was dressed would not have been why I was assaulted, nor would my assault have been prevented had I just dressed differently. That’s not because there is one way to dress that “gets you raped” and one way to dress that doesn’t. That’s because the thing that “gets someone raped” isn’t a thing, it’s a person who chooses to rape you and what you do and don’t wear is something we know does not matter and have loads of hard data that has made that clear fro a long time now. People have been raped wearing everything in the world people can wear, and the vast majority of the time people are raped, they aren’t wearing what those who blame them consider “provocative” clothing in the first place.

The idea or statement that how a victim was dressed had anything to do with their being raped does not reflect the realities of rape and rape perpetration, only the realities of victim blaming and rape culture.

2) My rape was a “real” rape. It was not a “real” rape just because my attackers were strangers to me, because there was physical violence involved, because I was so young and had not yet chosen to have any kind of sex yet outside of furtive kisses and some clueless dry-humping with a girl friend at 10, because I struggled and probably yelled no, because I was a girl, because I managed to be assaulted in ways that now, at this point in time, most people recognize as “real rape.” It was a real rape because people really did something sexual to me without my consent and against my will because they wanted to do it and either didn’t care I didn’t, or wanted to do it because I didn’t want to. That is why my rape is a “real” rape, and is also why someone who is raped by their husband at home after church has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is out at a party in clubbing gear, drinking cocktails, who says yes to something sexual, but no to something else but whose no is ignored has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is worn down by verbal coercion and finally gives in to sex they do not want has experienced a “real” rape; why a man who is sexually assaulted, whatever the gender of his perpetrator, has also experienced “real” rape.

Rapes are real in all the ways rape can happen, not just in the ways that some people are most comfortable acknowledging, or the ways which do not challenge people to have to consider that rape culture is not only real, but more pervasive, widespread and more a part of anyone’s life, ongoing relationships, and perhaps even personal behavior than anyone would ever like to have to acknowledge.

3) All I have said here has a whole lot to do with Slutwalks and the aim of slutwalks. All I have said here has a whole lot to do with who gets impacted by the kinds of statements and attitudes the walks aim to call out and challenge, how deeply we can be impacted and how those statements and attitudes not only do not help people protect themselves from being victimized, but how they hurt victims and can even put people in greater danger.

All I have said here is exactly about telling women that if they dress a certain way, like sluts (or hos, or harlots or loose women, or whatever word du jour of similar sentiment fits your era, culture or community) they deserve to be raped or are asking to be assaulted. All I have said here is not some kind of strange exception where the woman involved was treated that way but wasn’t dressed “like a slut,” because all I have said here is a textbook example of the fact that the idea of what “asking for it” is is completely arbitrary except for the part where so incredibly often, the mere fact of having been raped means, to someone, if not a lot of someone’s, that a victim must have been asking for it.

I want to finish today by saying one more thing I think is critically important, and another big part of why I’m sharing what I have with you here, despite it all being so difficult for me to say so visibly.

I didn’t attend any of the Slutwalks. I probably won’t. I’m nearest to Seattle, and had some personal issues with some of ours here that were part of what kept me from it, issues I really think are personal and individual enough not to be relevant or important to anyone but me, especially with the bigger picture in mind. I also have some more political issues, but that’s something I’ll talk about more in my second post about this.

What I want to mention now is the one big thing that kept me from attending any of the walks, and that is a lack of courage and resiliency. I need to acknowledge that I have lacked a level of courage and resiliency around this which some other people who have attended these walks have had, and which I cannot possibly express my great admiration and respect for. When I see photos of them, read their words, think about them — survivors like me, who probably have similar or even the same wounds, but went all the same, some even wearing what they wore when assaulted, I am overcome with awe and humility and gratitude.

I know: I have talked about being a survivor very publicly before. In many ways, I am very strong around this, especially since my most harrowing assaults are hardly fresh: they happened a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of time to heal. But in some ways, I am not strong around this. In some ways, I am still broken in places that haven’t yet become strong or whole. In some ways, I am not brave around this in ways that others have been or can be — or heck, know they aren’t but are so amazing, they do it anyway.

I thought about attending a walk wearing something as similar as I could find to what I was wearing that day when I was 12. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t open myself up to even one person, saying or writing in a place I could hear anything at all about the way I was dressed and my assault, whether the statement would be that I deserved to be raped because of what I was wearing, or that I didn’t, but some other woman did. I am just not that strong, mostly because hearing what I did, when I did, how I did wounded me just that deeply, that almost 30 years later, I can’t even put on a damn pair of shorts to wear in public without a meltdown, even though I can easily get naked in front of, well, pretty much anyone, or wear almost anything else I might want to with emotional comfort.

I need to say this twice: there are women who attended Slutwalks who DID wear exactly what they were wearing when they were assaulted; who did wear what someone told them made their rape their fault, despite it undoubtedly being scary and painful, because they recognized how powerful it could be for them and for others.

I had to stop for a few minutes after I typed that again, because the bravery and integrity of that action literally makes me breathless. There are survivors who did what I could not do, cannot do, because they know how important it is, to them, to people like me, to everyone. There are those who did what I could not do, who I firmly believe have done something that might seem small, but which is, I think, major. Something that will make it less and less likely a 12-year-old girl, wearing whatever it is she is wearing, who already has been done the grave injustice of rape, will never, ever hear anyone say that their clothing — that ANYTHING — made being raped their fault.

Any of us can have whatever options or ideas or feelings about this activism that we like. We can disagree about some of it, or the way a given person has or hasn’t executed it, but I just don’t know how it’s possible not to recognize the potential power of what so many people have been part of with these walks, nor to ignore how much participating must have required of some of the speakers and other attendees.

So, if there is anyone out there who organized or attended a walk who interpreted my silence as nonsupport, I hope you know now that it wasn’t. If there is anyone out there who feels worn down or unappreciated by the critiques or the resistance, know there is someone right here whose s/hero you are, in a way that someone who usually has no shortage of words has a hard time even articulating the depth of. If there is anyone out there who was brave in a way I couldn’t be, and who got torn down for it or spoken to in exactly the ways that I feared I would, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that after all the courage you probably had to muster up, anyone around you couldn’t manage to have just a fraction of the integrity and care and inner strength you do.

But know, too, there is someone sitting right here who believes that while you should not have ever had to take yet one more hit around this, I believe that in taking the risk you did, you’ve done something that not only will help make it less likely others have to, but you’ve humbled someone who sometimes arrogantly thought she was as brave around this as someone could be by raising the bar.

(P.S. I ask that you please tread gently in the comments on this, if you’re going to leave one, and in whatever you might say if you’re going to blog about my story at all. Like I said, this is something where I feel incredibly vulnerable. I think it’s safe to say it’s something where anyone would, so I’d hope anyone addressing any candid story from any survivor would be sensitive, cautious and thoughtful. I hate to even have to ask something like that at all, because, you know, we shouldn’t have to. But like all too many survivors, especially those who tell their stories and speak up, and as someone who has been burned before when being visible and vocal about her rapes, I know that we do have to ask, and that even then, sometimes even just asking winds up resulting in harassment. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen this time around, but feel the need to make that ask. Thank you.)

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Anyone who knows me or who knows anything about me usually knows that my pre-teen and teen years were incredibly difficult. I dealt with neglect and abuse in my family, starting from about the time I was 10. I was sexually assaulted twice before I even became a teenager. I was queer. I was suicidal and was a self-injurer. I struggled to find safe shelter sometimes. Few people seemed to notice, even though after I gave up trying to use my words, I still used my eyes to try and tell them constantly. The one adult I could count on over time to be unilaterally supportive of me had (still has) serious mental illness. I had to take more adult responsibility at the end of my teen years than anyone else I knew. Like many adolescents, I constantly heard directly or got indirect messages from adults who talked about how awful teenagers were, how awful I was, how difficult, how impossible, how loathesome. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, the first real-deal big-love-me-lover I had, who treated me with all the care, support and respect I could have asked for, very violently committed suicide, having scars of his own from a lifetime of his own sexual and emotional abuse. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, with just a few days of freedom under my belt, I looked at brain matter spread over a wall from someone I deeply cared about. And that was after things had started getting better. I’m 40 now, and in a whole lot of ways, I felt older at 16 than I feel now. Some days, I am truly gobsmacked that I survived at all, let alone with my heart and mind intact and rich.

A lot of why I survived is about having gotten support. Without it, I’m fairly sure I would not have, because the times I didn’t have it are when I was so perilously close to either taking myself out or just numbing out; to staying alive, but not really being alive.

I can identify a few different lifelines I lucked into. That love affair was a biggie, despite the way it ended. I had a couple of good friends. My father did the best he could, even with contact made limited and his own limitations from his own traumas.I had a couple wonderful teachers who never really talked to me about what I suspect they knew, but who gave me some support and tools to help me value and care for myself. Having and knowing I had creative talents and being supported in those by some of the people around me was a godsend. I had also started seeing a counselor when I was 15, Barb, who was wonderful, sensitive and kind. However, she was so supportive of me, and so vocally nonsupportive of how I was being treated at home — even though I’d only disclosed some of the picture — that my stepparent axed her and wouldn’t allow me to see her anymore. Unbenownst to him, she’d still kept seeing me pro-bono, and continued to do so for another two years.  When my boyfriend died, she slept on the ratty couch in the ratty apartment my dad and I lived in to help get me through the night. She was the first adult to help me even get started on sorting out my sexual assaults, and was completely accepting of the person that I was and wanted to become.

But there was someone else very unexpected who made an incredible difference. I wish I knew his name. If I did, I’d send him a thank you note every day of my life in an envelope full of cupcakes and stars and love and guts; all the best tears of the joy and wonderful agony I’ve found in living and all the best sweat I’ve cultivated in surviving and thriving.

Throughout most of middle school and the start of high school, I was post-traumatic much of the time, holding hard secrets inside myself and deep in abusive dynamics, quite successfully abused and controlled. Not to the satisfaction of the person putting me there mind, because can you ever be controlled enough by someone who wants to control you? But I was mostly just not there: I checked out a whole lot. I sometimes playacted at what seemed like was supposed to be normal life, pantomiming what I observed my peers doing and saying, typing snippets of my own truth between the lines on the old typewriter that hurt my hands to use and which was missing two vowels I had to write in by hand. I often went to bed early so that I could wake up earlier still and leave the house unnoticed for a safe place where I could cry without worry of opening myself up to more abuses and write without fear of discovery.  I’d then sort myself out, walk to school, and arrive with a manufactured calm that allowed me to at least be able to spend my days feeling like, and being treated like, I was living a completely different life.

Somewhere around the time I was 14 or 15, something inside of me spoke the truth of my own circumstances and the way that I felt. I was able to slowly stop internalizing the abuse and neglect, and know it wasn’t about what was wrong with me. That change in my mindset, however small and seedling, and a few other changes started to give me some strength to resist, to try and survive, rather than trying to disappear, hide or check myself out altogether. This change did not go over well in my household, at all. The sad, suicidal, lost kid turning into the rebellious, resilient kid is not a change an abuser appreciates. But for a little while, I remember feeling strong, like I perhaps could go to battle in this, go to battle for myself, and just might be able to win.

But it quickly seemed I was going to get bested, in a really terrible way. My stepparent came up with a “last resort” of many abuses-disguised-as-therapies to deal with me; to have the control he clearly wanted, and the family he wanted, which did not include me. He was apparently going to utilize his counseling connections to get me institutionalized out of state. This threat, coupled with some escalating abuse, sapped my spirit, and made it feel like my idea I could get out of there and survive was a total delusion. It’s always so hard to look back on how I felt then because in hindsight I can see that this person had very little power at all, over me, in the spheres he claimed to, save the power I and my mother gave him.  In my adult eyes, I can see him as the pathetic pretender he was, and see that it was, in fact, my power he was so reactive to. But that’s not how he looked and seemed then. Then, he looked and seemed, particularly with this new plan, like a very potent overlord with the capacity to make my whole life whatever he wanted.

In actuality, his connections were only so good and he still had to work within the system. To make an institutionalization like that happen, an outside counselor needed to recommend it. It was a given that my previous counselor would not make that recommendation. Before I’d started seeing that counselor, though, there was another counselor we’d met with, who I strongly disliked. My stepfather really liked him. I remember thinking he seemed cold, but the fact that my stepfather thought he was awesome was all I needed to know I wanted to stay the hell away from him. I can’t remember how I managed to win the battle to not see that person and see Barb instead, but somehow I swung it.

So, of course, this was the counselor they wanted to try and get that recommendation so I could be sent away, sent away for good, I was told (which was a lie, obviously, but I didn’t know that at the time). I figured I was doomed and defeated. All I saw in the few days before this appointment in the life ahead of me was no windows and no future. I saw myself losing the few good connections I had in the world, to my father, to my few friends, to my plans for my life which I’d only recently felt the desire to even have again, having stopped wanting to die. I saw myself doped up and locked up forever. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to say painful goodbyes. My boyfriend and my friends tried to help me come up with any possible out, but I felt so beat down that though I think there were things I could have done to make that happen, I believed in my stepparent’s claimed omnipotence, I had started to believe that I was just nuts and broken, I believed again that I was powerless.

My stepfather, my mother and I drove a long way to see this guy. As ever, I had my giant bag I panhandled with packed with my own version of survival goods (loose change, some clothes, a couple pieces of fruit and bread, my journal, a mix tape or two, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, my teddy bear, eyeliner, sleeping pills, caffeine pills and an ever-present can of Aqua Net, extra-strength) in case I got the opportunity to run. But they seemed pretty prepared for that possibility by that point, and it didn’t seem likely I’d get the chance. To boot, where we were heading was so far outside the city, I had no idea how I’d even get anywhere if I could get away.

I went in to be assessed. I held back a lot, not feeling safe to disclose, especially in a system where my stepparent had made himself seem like Napoleon. But I did disclose some of what was going on with me, some of what was going on in my house, some of how I felt, and certainly how powerless I felt. I voiced feeling my own life was being taken out of my hands, and a hard, tired acceptance of that. In spite of myself, I did share how awful it felt to live in a house where no one liked you, seemed to care about you, or recognized how much pain you were in and how badly you needed help, and how much I wanted to be with people who cared for me and where I could do all I knew I was capable of. Because I was madly in love and loved back in the same way for the first time, I of course couldn’t keep from talking about that, too. I left his office, then, and went into the waiting room, silent and scared to death.

Then he took a turn seeing the two of them. They were in there for a long time: every minute felt like an hour. Then he called me back in again. I went back in. I sat down, awaiting doom. He was quiet, contained, and his face didn’t give anything away. And then he said something like this:

“I talked to you. I talked to your mother and your stepfather. I do think there are mentally unwell people in your family. I do not think you are one of those people. I think it’s amazing you’re doing as well as you are, I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through what you have, and I’m sorry I didn’t see what was going on the first time I saw you. I think if you are unwell or in trouble, it’s not because of who you are or because something is wrong with you, but because you are living in a very unhealthy environment and there is something very wrong with that environment.  I am not going to recommend you be sent to Kentucky. I am going to recommend you live with your father, or in some other placement, because if we want you to be and feel a lot better, it seems to me we need to get you out of that house. I am going to call them back in and tell them this, too, but I wanted to tell you alone first.”

I think I still have a bruise on my thighs from my jaw falling so hard unto them in that moment 25 years ago.

I had so not seen that coming, even though my existing counselor had voiced similar sentiments (which is why I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her). I know and remember that I trusted and valued her words, and felt similarly relieved when she’d said them, but this was something different that had a much bigger impact on me. For starters, this guy had just effectively saved my life when it felt moments away from being a total loss: in some ways literally, since I no doubt would have gone back to trying to off myself in an institution, but it was bigger than that. He’d helped save and secure the possibility of my both having the life that I wanted, outside a lockdown, outside abuse, and helped me save my own sense of self, because I’d heard enough to squelch it that the lines had started to become blurry. I’d started to believe what I was told in abuse, and what I felt in neglect: that I was awful, worthless, ugly, defective, wrong and broken from birth, crazy and would always be all of those things at my very core.

In a string of words that didn’t even take a minute for him to voice, he’d done so much. When my stepfather came back in the room, I got to watch his face twist and then hang defeated when this guy voiced similar words to him, and I got a whole new wave of feeling empowered and brave. For a minute, it seemed like even my mother wasn’t convinced he had all the power anymore. Back in the car, as we drove to a friend’s house of his, I was told, from between gritted teeth, that if I could manage to get myself back to the city alone AND gather whatever of mine I could out of the house AND be gone by the time they got back AND if I accepted that I “should never ask either of them for anything again” (a deal I had to think about for all of a nanosecond, since some of my most basic needs hadn’t been met for years, so I couldn’t figure what exactly it was I would have gotten from them if I did ask) THEN I would be left to live with my father IF he would take me. Long story short, I managed to do it with the one phone call I was allotted, some expertly nimble window-scrambling, a sympathetic taxi driver and a whole lot of courage and confidence that counselor had provided me. If that had been an Olympic sport, I’d probably still hold the world record. That day ended in my father’s apartment, with my Dad on one side of me, my boyfriend on the other, a pizza, and all of us crying and laughing and hugging with relief and joy and gratitude for hours and being able to fall asleep in the company of two people who I knew loved me immensely. It wound up being one of the most happiest nights of my life.

This did not fix everything for me. Six days later, my boyfriend took too many ludes too near his idiot housemate’s loaded rifle. My father and I lived in deep poverty over the next couple years. I still had years (and do still) to work on trauma from all my abuses and assaults, to accept myself, to repair deep wounds that usually feel pretty well healed, but sometimes still feel raw and seeping.But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m really excellent, when it all comes down to it. It’s kind of a miracle, and no small amount of it has to do with an hour of time and an ounce of compassion someone who didn’t even know me gave.

That guy supported me. He listened, and he trusted my words. He was clear, he was calm, he was centered when I couldn’t be. He gave me information I needed and dismantled misinformation that was hurting me and would continue to hurt me. He validated my feelings. He showed me I had and could find more allies. He watered my strength and courage. He gave me hope. He believed in me and helped me get back to believing in myself. He showed me that however scary disclosing is, you have to risk it sometimes because you have to risk being supported, not just being unsupported. He did something and said things that would make it a million times easier for me to really start talking to other people about what I had been through, would still later go through, what I was feeling and how I needed to be helped. And he was one of the rare and wonderful adults during that time of my life who demonstrated that someone like him, who did for me what he did, even though it may have felt smaller to him than to me, is a vital lifesaver.

The older I get, the more my memories of all of those years get blurrier, but this particular moment is deeply etched. Every time I call it back up, I wind up weeping with a revisited relief and gratitude; not just because he helped save my life, my self, my goddamn soul, but because he modeled something for me that very clearly took root and has allowed me to be able to do something a little like what he did for me for many, many young people who, however different or similar their circumstances, need that now just as bad as I did then.

* * *

Lately, there’s been some growing awareness of, and attention given to, young people who have killed themselves or been killed due to isolation, harassment and other abuse; around or related to gender, sexual orientation, sexual abuse or assault, interpersonal or interfamilial abuse or assault. There are always the omnipresent news stories about kids who shoot other kids, kids who die from overdoses or drunk driving or kill or harm other kids that way. But these stories, however important they are to tell — and they absolutely are — are about when the absolute worst has happened: when some young person simply can’t take living anymore, or decides no one else should; when young people implode or explode. This is already a limited scope, and who knows how long even this level of awareness that young people often have it very hard will last. Unless something in the world has radically changed around young people, and I’m not seeing any evidence that it has, this will likely be a moment in time that passes, as many have before.

What doesn’t often make the news, and what most folks so rarely see, are the young people who have been traumatized, challenged, squashed, mistreated, neglected, dismissed or just have been poorly served who turn it around. They don’t implode or explode, they survive, thrive, endure, inspire. Those who slog on and pull through, even if all they can manage at first is to just get from one day to the next. But I see these young people all the time at Scarleteen, in other work that I do and in other work and environments like this (which sadly remain few and far between). That’s because the young people that pull through tend to because they get some ongoing, reliable and compassionate information, help and support.  That’s because one of the biggest and most important parts of what my work is to be a person that’s there for them to get those things from.

At Scarleteen, we see the young person who comes in making sexual choices that are simply not at all right for them, that they don’t feel good about, don’t like, or where they’re taking risks they don’t need to be or don’t want to be. We see the young person who knows or suspects — and is usually deeply afraid — that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, and/or that they are trans or otherwise gender nonconforming and has no one safe to talk to. We see the young person who’s had an unintended pregnancy, and in all sorts of circumstances; who may need help finding or being supported in abortion, or being supported in pregnancy and parenting, including after they’ve given birth when the folks who were so invested in them making that choice stop giving a damn because them making that “right choice” was all they cared about. We see the young person who’s been sexually assaulted or abused; we see the young person who is currently being abused, who feels trapped in abuse and does not know how to get out. We see the young person who’s only ever had abusive models of relationships and so has no idea that the abuse they’re in is not okay and is not healthy. We see the young person who wants so badly to connect to others, but who just does not know how or who has a disability that makes it even harder for them to connect than it is for abled teens. We see the religiously conservative young person who has so many questions, or has even had something terrible happen to them and isn’t their fault, but who’s gotten the clear message that they can’t bring those questions or needs to their community without being scorned.

We see the young person who grew up with so much shame around their sexuality that the mere fact of its growing existence, whatever it’s like, has them terrified and desperately trying to crush it any way they can. We see the young person whose hatred of their body is so profound they are asking how they can literally cut certain parts off or starve certain parts away. We see the young person who’s being told, endlessly, everywhere they look, how incapable they are. We see the young person so desperate to try and redo their own lousy childhood that they’re trying to get pregnant at 14 in the hopes that creating their own family will give them love they never found and still don’t have. At Scarleteen and every time I do the in-person work via CONNECT (the in-person outreach I do at youth shelters which is now part of Scarleteen) we see young people who have been rejected and cast out by the adults who were supposed to be the ones they could trust and rely upon most, the young person who is, with myself and/or other volunteers and staff, having the very first supportive and caring exchange with an adult they have had in their whole lives. We see the young person whose esteem and self-worth is so low that they simply do not care that their sexual partners are treating them like garbage, or who welcome being treated like garbage because it at least gives them some momentary sense of worth. Some of these young people are in times in their lives like I was in mine. Some of them have different challenges, and some of them are far less or far more challenged than others. Our world as a whole is highly unsupportive of young people, even in the best of circumstances. Our world as a whole is highly fearful of sexuality. Those worlds collide for me and for the people I serve every day.

But what we see in all of these kinds of scenarios and more are young people who have identified a place to be supported and helped, a place to utilize to try and make things better for themselves; a place to try and get even a little of what they need to care for themselves. If and when we interact with them directly, as we do with around 20-50 of them each day, we also see young people who are willing to take a risk and ask for help directly, often fully expecting that they will be denied, teased or shut down. And what we also see every single day are young people who often have those terrible expectations and don’t have them met: who DO get the help and support they are asking for. Who DO get the information they need and are asking for.

What is it we do for them? It’s often both as small and as potentially big as what that guy did for me. We give them information: information they ask for within the scope of what we do and what we know. We give them compassion and care.  We listen. We respond to what they say and ask for, not what we want to hear and say. We support them. We always try and tell them the truth and to do so with kindness and care. We have and demonstrate faith in them. We work hard not to judge or project our own stuff on them. We treat them with respect, accept and embrace who they uniquely are and encourage them to do the same. We connect them with other systems of support and coach them in reaching out. We help them in steps that can improve their lives over time — sometimes immediately, but more often it takes some time — but we don’t blow off that if we’re they’re at right now hurts like hell, it’s painful and uncomfortable. We sit with them in that. We give them hope. We create and hold a space where we work to make it as safe as possible to take a risk and open up, and where they can also learn how to interact with others in safe, supportive ways, even when voicing things that hurt or are scary or uncomfortable.

For millions of young people around the world for around twelve years now, we are and have been that guy. We’re not the only place to find that, but for many of teens and twentysomethings we are the only place at first, or the first place. Some have voiced that at a given time, we are, literally, the only place they feel able to talk and ask questions and the only place or people they know they can count on to be available for that, year after year.

I rarely get letters from a person we helped with taking a pill on time or working through a standard-issue breakup. Who I do get letters from, often years later, are the young people in places a lot more like I was. Usually, there’s a lovely thank you, but the very best part is that they’ll usually fill me in on how they’re doing, what they’re doing, and on how wonderful their lives are becoming, which is all the thanks I need, and what I always hope I’ll hear in time, especially when I go to bed some nights having sat with someone through something terribly painful. I can let them go, both for my sake and for theirs, but some part of me always wonders and worries and hopes and hopes and hopes. Knowing that when I hoped for the best for them that the best is what happened is an incredible gift. And I’m very certain that there are many letters we don’t get but would otherwise, because a lot like me, those now-adults remember the help they got and the impact it had on them, but for the life of them they can’t even remember the name of the person who helped them. (Which is maybe how it should be when we do it right.)

Obviously, not every young person who comes to Scarleteen is dealing with the toughest-of-the-tough-stuff. I don’t highlight our toughest interactions all the time because to do that paints an unrealistic picture of young people’s diverse lives and the work that we do, which sometimes is about work that’s much easier and less meaty than this. I do believe that a lot of what we do helps prevent the a lot of tough stuff in the first place; whether it’s teaching someone about healthy and unhealthy relationship models, helping someone avoid infection or an unwanted pregnancy, or helping people set up a healthy sexuality before they can get solidified in typical, unhealthy and unhappy patterns. But I think it’s important to also give visibility to young people’s lives and stories like mine, and to make clear that one of the biggest things we do is to help some of the most vulnerable people, for whom good support and information — often a challenge to even find — really can be the difference between life and death, or between living and barely being alive at all.

* * *

I’m directly asking for your support right now, like I do once each year. Scarleteen is very undersupported financially. We always need more financial support and I would very much appreciate having yours. I think we do a fantastic, important job, think we have for many years, and I intend to do all I can for us to keep doing that job for many more to come so we can remain a place young people know they can come back to, and don’t have to worry about passing in the night when a media or cultural tide shifts. I think Scarleteen and all that happens at Scarleteen is very worthy of being supported and sustained. To make that happen, we need more than just my own stubborn and dogged commitment and that of our volunteers: it also takes some dollars (and possibly a can or of Aqua Net, a mix tape and most certainly a teddy bear). In the last month we have been fundraising, and unfortunately, it’s been very unsuccessful this year, even though we’ve provided the same level, quality and scope of service we have for the last twelve years, and the young people who need us keep on coming in droves. From today through the 18th, a small team will be matching funds raised up to $1,000, so if you haven’t given yet this year, now would be a great time, and your gift would be deeply appreciated.

I felt a little strange that when I went to write a blog entry asking for support, this story is what came out. I wondered if it was appropriate or gauche to ask for financial support while also telling this story. But then I realized not only was it okay, it was actually ideal.

I grew up having plenty of things and people I wanted to be when I was grownup. I wanted to be the musician and artist I had all those talents for. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor, a firefighter, an activist, a muckracker, a lion tamer. I wanted to be Emma Goldman, Patti Smith, Jane Addams, Judy Blume and the doctor who worked with my Mom I called Dr. Harry, who had webbed feet (he was really nice, but also, unlike the nurses who gossiped about it, I thought webbed feet must be the most awesome thing to have in the world, especially in the pool at the Y).

But most days, I wake up and jump energetically into my work even if the day before wiped me out, and I realize that who and what I most wanted to be, and clearly still want to be, was that guy who kind of gave me my whole life back in but one hour and a short string of words. For someone. For anyone who needs me to be and for whom I can be. I don’t even remember that guy’s name, but I know that most days, most of the time, he’s who I want to be; he’s who I try to be. He’s better than my hero: he gave me access to what I needed to be able to be my own hero, and gave me something core I needed to keep trying to do the same turn for others every day, probably for the rest of my life.

When I ask for support for Scarleteen, one of the things I’m doing is taking some of what this guy gave to me and trying to keep it going. Because so much of Scarleteen is made of my personal time and effort, I’m asking for your help and support for my own aspirations to be like that guy, and for our staff and volunteers to do the same. But I’m also asking for help and support for a kind of intention, service and sustained space that I think, in the biggest of all possible big pictures, helps and supports every single person we help and support to be that guy, if not for a whole bunch of people, for at least one or two other people and most certainly for themselves.

That’s a different end result to aim for than a reduction in unwanted pregnancy, lower rates of STIs, less abuse and more love and pleasure, better body image or people just being more informed so that their sexuality and sex life can be as good for them and any partners they have as it can be. You won’t find a grant to fund sex education that wants a logic model for way bigger pictures than those, and I don’t know that we can build something evidence-based on the grandest goals. You won’t tend to hear people presenting this much-bigger-picture as part of sex education, even though I think it’s implicit in all quality sex education, and some part of what every thoughtful sex educator is doing and aims to do. Teaching and modeling compassion, care, responsiveness and support, in everything, but especially in the stuff that’s most loaded, is no small part of any good sex education because it’s such a large part of any good sexual life and healthy sexuality and relationships.

I think — and that’s hopefully obvious — that all of those kinds of less lofty goals are crucially important, at the end of my day, what I want to have seen and done is this bigger stuff that lies underneath it all. I want to go to bed knowing it was at the heart of everything I did, that in ways great or small, I was able to teach or model something for everyone I interacted with that’s all about being that guy for yourself and that guy for others, which I believe would be world-changing and also believe is absolutely attainable and should be as supported by all of us in all of the ways that we can.

UPDATE A generous ongoing donor has just agreed to throw an extra $1,000 in the kitty for matching through the 20th!  So, now, up to $2,000 in donations will be matched for donations made from now until Saturday!

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Life on the island is fantastic. I absolutely love it here. I feel at home, I feel at peace, and I find it very easy both to work and to relax, the latter of which is, was and always having been the bigger challenge for me. We’ve just had three days of nonstop rain, which hasn’t bothered me, but since the sun is out, I had Blue move my big blue easy chair out back so I could get some sun and some writing here in.

I didn’t mean to let a month lapse since I last wrote. I know this site of late (read: the last couple years) is something I’ve kind of neglected, or at least which has gotten far less of my time than it has in years past.  I want to just kind of sit with this today and thin — and write — about why.

When I started writing over here in 1999, Scarleteen was still in its infancy, the dot bomb hadn’t happened yet, and I was doing just as much work around sexuality and art for adults as I was doing sexuality work for young people. When it all comes down to it, I started this site, and writing here, not to long after I’d made some really major changes in my life, particularly leaving classroom teaching in order to make my work both online and around my arts and I’d moved to Minnesota after Chicago had been my hometown for most of my life.  I’d just come out of a few pretty damn dark years: of illness, of heartbreak, of almost winding up homeless again. I was 29 years old, in a relationship with my best friend at the time, and doing work that most people weren’t yet recognizing as work, or of anything of value, at all.  I was still doing some modeling for other artists, not just for myself (nor had I yet moved behind the camera, which is about 80 million times more interesting to me). I had a lot to sort out and suss out, very few supports in it and frequently fluctuated between states of intense inspiration and intellectual clarity and feeling totally, utterly lost, not knowing what the fuck I was doing in every area of my life. On top of that, very few women — or people, period — were talking about and working about the things I was. This site made a lot of sense then, and it makes less sense now, when so much of all of that has changed.

It’s so cliche, but I’m one of those creative people who tends to be most creative when I am hurting, angry, in a new emotion or in some kind of crisis or conflict.  I’d feel more stupid about that if there didn’t seem to be so many other artists and creative folks who are the exact same way.  All the same, it feels silly; lazy, even. I mean, if you can only artistically express a limited range of emotions, how creative are you, really?

So, here’s one thing: on the whole, lately — as in, over the past year and change — I’ve just been happy. Not the screamy, high-energy kind of happy, but the quiet kind, the kind that soothes and calms and contemplates and doesn’t have a lot to say a lot of the time. The kind that doesn’t keep its mouth shut because it feels silenced or scared, but because it’s just contemplating a gentle hum and finds it has little to report back.

The kind — no sense in being dishonest — I really don’t know much about at all. I’m a newbie. I can think of very few times in my life I experienced this, and the couple times that come to mind, I was so certain I was mistaking happiness for settling or complacency or detachment that I overthought it so much I didn’t really fully experience it at all, and also ran from it in due course.

But right now…okay, here’s my right now: I can pay most of my bills. I live in a rental — but a house — that is both beautiful and not in any way broken. I am in the middle of the woods, every day. More friends visit now that I moved out here than I saw when I was in Seattle-proper, and when they visit, we’re very rarely in the position where one or more of us is crying or venting because our lives suck in some major way. My sister even just moved to this state, a sister I have never really had a relationship with, but who it looks like I finally can, especially with both of us being so far away from home. I’m partnered with someone I have dearly loved on and off for 20 freaking years, who is both a peace and a passion in my heart and my mind.  All the drama around that when it restarted has since subsided. I feel able to be myself pretty much 24 hours a day, every day, no matter who I’m around.

Work is often a lot to manage (I’ll get to more on that in a minute), but it’s going well.  I’ve been doing what I have been doing for around 13 years now, solidly, and I know what I’m doing, I have way more support for it than I used to, it’s recognized as an actual job, and as something of value.  While funding, as ever, is always an issue, it’s not as much of an issue as it’s been in years past, and even when the shit hits the fan, I can usually figure something out.  I’ve been able to do some work through my work — like working for the abortion clinics and the teen shelter — I really wanted to do.  I may soon be writing a second book, which will carry a ton of stresses, but is something I very much want to do.

I could feel better physically, sure: my health is still not anything close to a non-issue.  Some things could be a good deal more stable.  Work could be less stressful.  But I’m 40, an age I never thought I’d even reach as a teenager, a concern that was more than valid then. I’m sitting on an overstuffed chair in the woods on an island, with a nice glass of wine, birds flying around me singing away, the sun is shining, the air is clean and warm and I’m comfortable.  And happy.  And mellow. In a couple hours, I’ll go make a delicious dinner with my sweetheart, which we’ll savor leisurely, then wind down with some lovely way of connecting and chilling, and then I’ll sleep like a baby in the perfect black dark.  It kinda rocks, to say the least.

Not only am I just learning how to be like this, I have yet to learn how to do my own creative work when I feel like this. I’m determined TO learn, mind you, but I’m not there yet.  And I forget, just plain forget, about my own writing or making art a lot of the time because I’m all caught up in my reverie.  When I realize that’s happened, I’ll start to give myself shit about it, and then I just stop.  Because I don’t have to do any of these things if I’m not feeling it.  But what I do have to do is learn to just let my heart be happy and my mind be quiet, one of the lone areas in life in which I am a late bloomer, and something I am actually learning to do at long last.


Monday, July 19th, 2010

Even though when I moved part of the plan was to slow things down, I’ve been busy, busy, busy lately.

Mostly, it was just a matter of timing, that a lot of things happened around the same time as the move did, and that’ll be changing very soon.  Last week, the Scarleteen boards were closed to give myself and the volunteers a break from direct service, and during their downtime, I’ve been trying to catch up on some professional writing and a whole pile of administrative work.  I have a desk full of filing and invoicing to get done today, and several email boxes that need some serious cleaning and catchup. Being able to get this kind of stuff done with very little direct service work on my own part has been a lot easier, and I need to make that happen for myself more often.  It’s just really hard to make administrative work a priority when there are young people to care for with all manner of crises.  Especially since not only are they in need, I hate the admin work, which doesn’t help.

In a couple of days, I’m going to be taking a handful of days off so that I can finish unpacking and settling in here.  Then, towards the end of August, I’m taking a full week off.  I’ve been trying to remind myself that not only do I need downtime both to be effective in my work, but to retain my sanity, and as well, I may not always be able to be my own boss like I have been and even have the ability to do that. Considering how much of my life I have been self-employed for, I’ve really kind of blown it a lot of time time.  For sure, self-employeds do tend to work even more hours than folks employed by others, but there is a flexibility we should at least take advantage of.  And yet, year after year, I go weeks without a day off wake up early every day and work into the night, even at times I a) really don’t have to and b) really am not being compensated to.  I’ve just got to get better at that.  Thankfully, moving here seems like it’s going to help.

But I didn’t stop by here to talk about work.  Well, not really.  What I wanted to talk about was trees and their work.

Everywhere I look here, there are trees.  Outside every window, lining every walk. Pacific Northwest trees aren’t the wide, bushy trees I grew up with in the midwest before so many of them started going away to make more and more room for more and more buildings.  Some of them are as tall as city blocks.

I was laying in the hammock last week, gazing up at them above me, and was struck by questions for them I get asked myself about what I do all the time. Why do you keep doing the work you do?  What if nothing huge ever comes of it? Why keep plodding on, especially at times no one seems to be recognizing how hard it is for you to do what you do or why it matters?

Obviously, I can only guess at their answers: I’m not (yet) a tree whisperer.  But when I thought about it, and just kept looking at them, it occurred to me that the trees are self-accomplished.  Certainly, there are big ecological benefits to their being here and doing what they do.  But even if there were not, you look at trees like this and it’s clear that not only are they great just in the being, do they achieve greatness just by their slow, methodical and constant growth, they achieve absolute majesty.  We’re awestruck and humbled just looking at them, trying to grasp what they are, how beautiful and amazing they are.

But I don’t think they aspire to that.  In other words, I don’t believe that greatness or majesty is their aspiration, even though both are their achievements.  Instead, it seems to me that they simply have the desire, the patience and the persistence to grow and to never stop trying to keep growing.

… and that if that’s what any of us have going on, we get the same deal.  No matter what we may or may not achieve, how long we have to plod on without what look like results to ourselves or anyone else, even on the days no one recognizes all we’ve done, we’re at greatness and majesty because we grow and refuse to stop growing.

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

I had something really incredible happen this week.

In case it’s not painfully obvious, there are, in a lot of ways, in most ways, few benefits with my work.  The pay is gawdawful, the tangible (not emotional) benefits like health insurance or a 401K are nonexistent, and it’s often very hard work intellectually and emotionally.  I often feel largely unsupported, I’m always overworked and overextended and on top of what’s hard in working with and for young people, I have the haters to deal with as well. To boot, I have been in this solidly for a long time now, longer than most last in this kind of work.

So, it’s probably easy to see how sometimes I can lose sight of some of the benefits I do have or have cultivated, or how sometimes I can’t see that at all until they are right on top of me. But today, I came to realize something had happened over the years which I hadn’t even really recognized, something that may not directly personally benefit me, but it’s no small deal and it most certainly benefits the young people I work for and work to help.

This week, I had a new user just past her teens come to us in extremely dire circumstances.  The more I found out about her and her situation, the more dire it all clearly was. Long story short, she’s unwantedly pregnant, and only found out very late in the game due to a couple issues.  She became pregnant within an abusive relationship she since left, but grew up in the foster care system without ever getting a permanent placement and treated very poorly, as is woefully common.  Given her familiarity with the huge flaws in the adoption system she very much was not comfortable with an adoption, and does not have the resources, financially or otherwise, to parent (and is already the parent of one). Once she found out she was pregnant, she wound up at a CPC, who both made her feel like shit and also delayed things further.  This is someone who clearly has never had anyone advocate for her: I’ve been in that spot for a few years in my life, and they were so, so awful.  I’m aware there are people who spend a lifetime in that space, and I just don’t know how those who survive do: I’m ever awed by them.  She’s horribly vulnerable and was in a bad way, but it was clear — and in this process has become all the more so — that she’s got some really impressive inner strength and resiliency. I admire her.

By the time she came to us, she had been convinced by the CPC that she had no options, especially having no money whatsoever, barely even having housing, and was very intensely distraught, even considering self-harm.  After talking with her to comfort her, I then worked with her to help her know what options she did have, including abortion funding.  I got her started on working that, which is beyond underfunded, and also a tough process to navigate.  So, I took on some extra responsibility in helping her through it, starting by sending out some emails to people in my network who either run or work for funds or who are connected with some of this work.

During that process, which was arduous and intensive and is just wrapping up today, and now in hindsight, I found out something that floored me.  In a word, I’ve done the work I have for so long solidly enough, honestly enough, and with enough dedication and responsibilty that in a crisis for a user, when I say I feel someone needs advocating for and ask for the help of others in advocating for someone, many people trust me and my judgment. I’ll explain the situation when asking for help and support regardless, but clearly, I am trusted right from the onset. Wheels can turn a little faster, more people can and do get on board when I advocate for someone, and I have to spend less time convincing people to take action than I used to, which matters a whole lot in situations where a clock is ticking for someone.

Until today, I didn’t realize that’s where I’m at in what I do; that I have acquired some extra power over the years for the people I help. As a social justice activist of any stripe, this is the superpower you want. It means that potentially, if you keep it up, you can actually make some headway in people taking populations or issues seriously they may not have otherwise, or may not have taken so seriously. It means that beyond all the immediate things I want and need to do in a day, there is a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to making some real progress with the bigger picture. It means I may just be able to do what I want to do for people and the world, in the largest ways, not just the smaller ones.

It means I may actually be able to make things better, not just for individuals in the short run, but for everyone in the long run. Even typing that more real possibility immediately brings on tears. Mind, a few hours ago I was happy-crying about the outcome for this woman and for how blessed I am to know so many other people who are such compassionate, driven, big-hearted, big-minded people, so the waterworks had started already, but this is very emotionally intense for me. It’s also wholly unexpected.

With the added help and determination of some completely awesome other individuals, organizations and a clinic in New Jersey I was able to coordinate to all get connected, I was able to help someone who people don’t seem to have ever helped to help herself when she needed it most; to assure that she wasn’t let down by people yet one more time, wasn’t presented with yet one more harsh challenge she felt unable to weather and which would make her life feel even harder and even less like her own.  We were all able to make something happen this week that is very difficult to make possible in this particular set of circumstances. When she was getting really frustrated trying to help herself, I was able to grease some wheels to make it easier for her.  Again, if I got to choose my superpowers, this is one I’d ask for, and I’m still shellshocked that it appears I may have it.

This was a rough freaking week. I have more than one person I’ve been working with in a hard spot (our new users lately seem to be coming in with more harsh circumstances than usual), and having to burn up the phone and mail lines for days, worrying so much that I wouldn’t be able to help, wore me completely out.  However, I couldn’t ask for a better end to the day today.  Not only was this particular young person able to be helped when she needed it most, but I got to get a really clear sense of how working so hard for such a long time, and being sure than in how I worked, I did so building and honoring lots of trust can really pay off.  I got to hear the massive relief in her voice, relief she won’t be forced into something she doesn’t want, but also relief that she will not always be let down: a decent paycheck doesn’t give you that gift, and it is one HELL of a gift.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m one of the few full-time activists I know who had any preparation for the hardest parts of activism. My father gave me very clear messages growing up, as it became more and more clear I was heading this way, that it would often be really tough. That I’d scrape by financially, that I’d be overworked, that I’d have to deal with some backlash and that it was entirely likely I could work my whole life for people or a cause and have to accept that while there might be results eventually, they might only happen once I was dead and gone: I might never see them. Or, they might be so small I’d just feel like I didn’t do anything, no matter how hard I worked.  He told me to really think about if I was okay with that and could deal with that, especially since he had and still has a really hard time dealing with that.

All of that was valuable and important messaging. I’m glad I got it. I have done what I have done anyway, and I pretty much always have been okay with all of that, even though sometimes I’m not. Sometimes it all really gets me down and I can feel very lost in it and very hopeless. But knowing in advance this was all likely helped.

The message I really didn’t get, though, was that never really seeing results, or only being able to make some teeny drop in the bucket, might not be what happens. That it was and is also possible that I could make larger contributions, that I could make bigger waves, waves I could actually see and other people could feel and benefit from.  Something I find myself sitting with right in this moment is getting that message, and the strangeness of realizing how totally unprepared I have been for the reality of actually being effective, actually being able to make some real change, actually being able to see, in the microcosm and macrocosm, the kinds of results of my efforts I hope for, even if I don’t expect them and are prepared not to see or experience them.

And it’s earnestly overwhelming, the good kind of overwhelm I don’t experience in work very often.  If I didn’t feel so good right now, I’d probably feel a little foolish and blind. But instead, I just feel kind of mega-amazing. I have cultivated some level of superpower that has the capacity to do things for people that already should be done, but aren’t; that has the capacity to foster real positive change.

It’s intense. To say the least. Hard week, but very, very good day.

P.S. I am planning to call into the crisis pregnancy centers that swindled her and made her feel like hell next week. My intention is to call and graciously thank them for acting in such a way that made extra sure a young woman who didn’t want to stay pregnant didn’t have to. The people I networked with to get her funding already work to advocate for oppressed women already, but when you throw a CPC into the mix, we get even more angry and upset, and the fire already under our asses gets a whole lot hotter. Without them taking part, we may not have been able to make this happen like we did, so I want to make sure that they know that their manipulative, purposefully dishonest and cruel swindling assistance probably helped someone to get an abortion. Because I know that that would make them so, so proud of themselves.

Plus, that’s better than just calling and saying “Nanny-nanny-fucking-boo-boo, you bastards.”

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

(I decided to kind of feel out and workshop this here before it went to the Scarleteen blog.)

You should wait for sex, but if you can’t….

This is another in a long line of common phrases people use, like “preventing teen pregnancy” that I strongly dislike.  It’s one thing when I hear it from people who clearly have no or little respect for young people (or anyone else), or don’t recognize that someone who is 6 and someone who is 16 and not both “children” in the same respect.  But when I hear it from people or organizations where I know they do have a more nuanced and respectful ideal per the treatment of both young people and sexuality, I feel seriously bummed out.

Let’s unpack this, working backwards.

“You should wait for sex, but if you can’t…”

That’s usually followed by “then you should have sex using safer sex and contraception.”  Or — and usually addressing both those things  — “you should be responsible.”

In some respect, that’s fine. Not everyone needs contraception, either because they don’t have a partner with a radically different reproductive system than them or they’re not having the kinds of sex that can create a pregnancy, so that doesn’t always make sense. But by all means, for people choosing to have any kind of sex, we’re 100% on board with the sentiment that all of us — no matter our age — should be engaging in sexual practices supportive of safeguarding everyone’s best health, and in alignment with whether we do or don’t want or are or are not ready for a pregnancy. So, this statement often tacitly or inadvertently defining all sex as opposite-sexed or as intercourse isn’t okay, but overall, on the safer sex and contraception bit?  I’m right there with you.

But the “if you can’t?” Not cool. We all can elect not to have any kind of consensual sex, sparing masturbation we may unknowingly do in our sleep, something that happens sometimes. Some people also do have earnest impulse control disorders, but those are disorders, and do not occur in the vast majority of people of any age.

If we have consensual sex it is completely within our control, whether we’re 13, 26 or 63. There is no “can’t wait” when it comes to consensual sex. To suggest there is is not only incorrect, as we have free will, it can also be rape enabling. It backs up those who excuse rape by saying they (or rapists) couldn’t control themselves, that just they couldn’t help it, that when they feel sexual they cannot stop themselves and every kind of garbage of that ilk that is an absolute, and highly convenient, fiction. People always can hold off on sex or decline sex unless someone is being sexually assaulted or abused, in which case the person doing the abusing is in control of what is happening, but the person being victimized is not because the other person or group has also taken control of that person in some way.

Some folks say “don’t” instead of can’t. That’s far better. There most certainly is a “don’t want to wait,” but there isn’t a can’t. Nearly everyone can. It’s just that not everyone always wants to. Not only is that a more truthful framing, it’s one which makes clear that active consent and decision-making, and owning your choices, is of great import.

This “can’t” stuff also plays into the way older people represent teen sexuality: as something out of one’s control or will, as about “raging hormones” (hormones with superpowers, apparently, which can compel the body to move against one’s own will), as this burly, untamable beastie that picks young people up by the feet and shakes them until they don’t have two pennies of sense left to rub together. I’m not about to argue that when sexual feelings first start to develop and flourish that they don’t often feel heady, even unwieldy: they do tend to. That doesn’t make them unmanageable or make any actions one may take stemming from them out of a person’s control. I will also argue that this is somewhat situational — not about people only of a given age, gender or marital status — and that we have no reason to think, and no data to support, that older adults do not also experience strong sexual feelings. In addition, I hear from a lot of young people worried something is wrong with them because their sexual feelings are not at the mega-hormone-madness level people say teenage sexual feelings are. Heck, maybe it’s both a misrepresentation of young adult sexuality AND older adult sexuality.  All the same, young people are capable managing their sexuality well, and also tend to do a better job with it in cultures that don’t present teen sexuality like this.

There’s another big flaw with the general message here: “You should wait for sex, but if you can’t, be responsible.” Huh?

If there’s something we should do, and we’re not doing it, we’re probably not being responsible already: by definition and context, the term “should” here implies an obligation. By all means, if we are NOT making and owning our own active sexual choices, or if we “can’t” have the ability to own our choices at all, and thus, are irresponsible by default, we are absolutely not being responsible.  So, “If you can’t be responsible… be responsible?  That’s -1 + 1, which equals zero. It’s null.

“You should wait for sex…”

…until? You should wait for sex until what or when? Until you’re married? Until you’re in a committed relationship? Until your body is all the way done developing (which it kind of never is, technically, as it’s always changing, just not often as radically as in puberty, which often isn’t all the way over until we’re into our 20’s)? Until you’re older? How much older? By whose standards? And why: what will one, three, five or ten years automatically give you just by having a birthday each year?

I think that for the most part, politically and culturally progressive people, and plenty of moderates, have down that the “until you’re married” part isn’t sound.  Not all of us have the legal right to get married to people we love, at any age.  Plenty of us don’t want to get married at all.  Some of us are in both of those camps.  Too, marriage does not mean a lack of STIs, a lack of unwanted pregnancies, a healthy relationship or a stellar sex life (even far-right folks know this part, they just avoid admitting it as much as possible).  It never has. It doesn’t still. And as we mentioned just the other day, through history, even for those who did/do marry, most people have had sex before marriage, especially if of people who marry, both were not very young teens when they did. Saving sex for marriage was never a realistic standard for most young adults nor a common practice.

For some people, long-term committed relationships have more positive outcomes. Some people have positive outcomes in casual or shorter-term relationships. For most, it’s not a simple either/or, because it depends on the specific relationship or scenario, as well as what that person wants and feels best about at a given time in their lives.

From some sound perspectives, physical sexual development is important, though not likely as much as emotional and intellectual development is. For instance, when the cervix hasn’t finished developing (which it generally will by about the mid-twenties), it’s more prone to infection, and it’s supported by data that for women who become sexually active (with activities which involve the vagina, anyway: not sure vulval sex is an issue here) under the age of 18, those risks are higher. But what if physical development like that is the only thing that gives us an age, and that age isn’t for everyone?

Wait until you’re older? How much older? Until it’s legal? Well, think whatever we do about age of consent laws, that’s pretty sound.  But even in states where the age of consent is, say, 16 or 18, there are usually allowances for same-age sexual relationships for those under that age.  If it’s not about the law, at what age does everyone, unilaterally, acquire the skills, resources and the right relationships and scenarios to assure, or at least strongly suggest, sex will be either devoid of unwanted outcomes or bear less risk of them, or be a positive? If, in reading this, you’re not silent and have that one magical age handy for me, I need to assure you that I can’t think of one single age, talking to people of many ages about sex, I have not had people report negative or unwanted outcomes with. I also have never seen evidence to show such an age, so if you have, do please send it this way.

You won’t, though, because there isn’t any.  We have sound study which tells us things like that at the youngest ages, teens expectations of sex often are less realistic, and that the youngest teens do self-report unwanted outcomes from sex or unhappy experiences more frequently (it’s a difference substantial enough that it’s sound to say it is more common) than older teens do.  We also have good data that shows us that for the youngest teens, sex more often is not consensual sex, but is rape, via either force or coercion.  Data like that is critically important, and is data we should absolutely share with young people when we’re talking with them about sex, especially if they seem to specifically fit the picture of any of that data.  However, there will always be exceptions, and often those exceptions are not about a few teens, but about a few million. Age-in-years also isn’t all that’s going on in those pictures.

Here’s where both I, and Scarleteen as an organization, stand on this. What we want is for everyone to only have any kind of sex — be it intercourse or any other physically enacted expression of sexuality with oneself or a partner — when it is what everyone involved in a sexual scenario: strongly wants, can and does actively consent to, feels prepared for, and has the knowledge and capacity to have sex in a way that is physically and emotionally safe for everyone.

This is our goal for people of every age, and we don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to hold young people to different standards on this than we hold, or anyone else holds, older people (especially if you’re going to say young people are less capable of meeting the standard than older people, but older people don’t need to meet it once they are capable).

So, if “you should wait” means until all of THAT, then you betcha, we’re so on board.

The kinds of things we know ARE likely to create positive sexual outcomes — areas where we can clearly see those positive outcomes most often occur — are things like having an earnest and shared desire for sex with the person you’re having it with at any given time, having knowledge about and access to sexual healthcare, safer sex tools and contraception, having the full legal right to and a sense of ownership of your own body (be that about the right to give nonconsent and consent or reproductive rights),  having emotional support and acceptance from your community and culture, not feeling shame or fear about sex or sexuality, having a strong sense of self as well as a real care for others and feeling prepared for and at least somewhat skilled with the kinds of things sex requires, like communication, vulnerability, creativity, compassion, discovery and boundary-setting. There are people who are teens and who have all of those things sometimes: there are plenty who do not. There are people who are 20, 30 or 50 who do not: there are also plenty who do.  While age and life experience can absolutely hone any and all of those things, a) it clearly doesn’t for all people (if only) and b) some of those things can sometimes be easier for younger people than older people, especially if they haven’t unlearned any of their intuitive skills with them yet.

I know, because of what I do and how broadly I have done it for and from a wealth of study on human sexuality, sexual and human development and sociology, that there is no one broad group which people can be a member of that guarantees unilaterally positive sexual experiences or relationships with either unilaterally positive outcomes, or a lack of any negative outcomes. Marriage doesn’t do that, and it never has.  Being of a certain gender doesn’t do that, nor of a certain race or economic class.  Being of a certain age doesn’t do that, either, and also never has. Setting aside both the implicit falsehood of these kinds of statements, and the audacity of making them to members of a group which we are not members of ourselves, if we give young people the idea that getting married, having a partner for X-months or X-years or reaching some magical-age-or-other will immediately imbue them with all of the above resources, skills or scenarios, we aren’t helping them any.  At best, we potentially set them up for disappointment, but at worst, we may put them right in harm’s way — since those things alone do NOT protect them — the very thing I think most people do want to prevent.

The other thing “wait until” can say as a message, intentionally or not, is that once anyone chooses to have sex, it’s a Pandora’s Box they have opened and can’t shut evermore. Sexual choices are not just important or meaningful the first time or times we make them: those choices are always meaningful, we consider if sex is something that is right for us every time we do or don’t choose to engage in it, and we all always have the right to change our minds and decline sex, even if we had it before.  But a lot of young people don’t know or feel that, especially with the other messages they get about how their valuation as people changes based on whether or not they have had sex or do have sex. I know, for certain, our allies don’t want to enable that message to young people, but I worry some do because this messaging dovetails with that kind all too easily.

“You should…”

Shoulds are mighty tricky when we’re talking about sexuality, especially when making opening or general statements, rather than responding to someone’s specifically expressed wants and/or needs. Given a rare few of us have been reared without pervasive shoulds when it comes to sex, or have been totally uninfluenced by a world which is rife with them, it’s really easy to slip into saying “should” and we all usually have to work hard to avoid it. But I think we need to try.

When it comes to things like what kind of sex someone enjoys or wants, or to when sex will most likely be right for them (especially in a given situation when you don’t even know what their unique situation is), “you should” usually means something more like, “I wouldn’t,” “I didn’t,” “I don’t think you should because I didn’t like that,”  “That didn’t work out so well for me, so it probably won’t for you” “I’d prefer if you didn’t because what I want is…” “My personal values dictate…” or “Some person or idea who has more authority than you do says no.”

This is particularly an issue, and particularly problematic, when adults are talking to young people, and all the more so when they’re saying “shoulds” about nothing but age-in-years.  So often, adults have the idea that because they were once a young person of 13 or 19 or 22, they know all of how it is for young people of that same age.

But there are some big problems with that. For sure, those of us who are older were once younger. We were, however, our own younger selves, not the younger person we are talking with and about right now.  we were not our younger selves in the same time they are their younger selves. And while some parts of a given experience they had may be much like one we had, they may experience that thing very differently, or have different outcomes than we did.  For sure, age and hindsight gives us perspectives, and those truly are often valuable, especially if we’re mindful people. But the idea that we know so much more than a younger person about their experiences, or what may be their experiences, just because of our experiences or our age isn’t kosher. It is, in fact, is one of the ways that adults are often adultist. On top of that, we have adults who DID wait past X-age to be sexual with partners, and felt that was best for them: but not having had the other experience, they can’t know what that would have been like for them. Then we have adults who had sex younger than they feel would have been best for them: they have a bit more information than the former group, but still can’t know what starting sex at a different age would have been like. Having experience with something doesn’t give us experience with not-something-else.
I was sexually active as a teen. Almost unilaterally, I deeply enjoyed the sex I had, it was on my own terms, my partners were awesome to me and I didn’t have the unwanted outcomes we’ve always heard will fall upon the heads of teens who have sex en masse (likely because I did very well with safer sex and contraception when it was needed), save a broken heart a few times. No more achy-breaky than heartbreak I experienced from nonsexual relationships, either (actually, I think those heartbreaks were sometimes worse for me). I’ve heard from more than my fair share of adults my age or older who both don’t manage their sex lives NOW as well as I did as a teenager and who are less pleased with their sex lives as adults than I was with mine as a teen. However, because my experience was like that at a given age does not mean I’m going to assume that what worked for me is going to work for every or even any 15-year-old female-bodied person out there, at this point in time or any other.

I know full well that it doesn’t or likely won’t work for some and I also know there are those for whom it does or will. My own experiences may provide me perspectives (but also potential biases) I may not have had I had very different experiences. But it’s my job to manage them and put them in greater perspective, to recognize they are individual, not universal, to avoid projecting and to figure that for any given teen out there who might have been just like me, there’s one out there who is radically different, and for whom my choices at a given age would be a terrible fit, with very different outcomes.

If being older really makes us wiser, why do adults have such a fracking hard time seeing when we’re projecting this stuff unto youth, or recognizing it’s often so disrespectful? Many times that “should” comes from the I-did-this-I had-bad-things-happen place. I completely understand adults — especially those who are parents or are mentors, teachers or other allies, rather than folks who don’t have any real emotional investment in a teen or teens lives — wanting to do what they can, within reason and with care, to help young people avoid harm or hurt. I think that’s laudable and loving. However, a negative outcome happening from something we do at one age doesn’t mean it’ll happen to all people that age doing that same thing. We all need to think more deeply than this and present teens with thoughts of more depth.

I took a one-block walk to the park to play when I was seven, climbed on what looked like a jungle gym in an alley to me (it so wasn’t) and I wound up slicing off half my hand, which left me with a permanent disability. Does that mean that it’s a bad idea for seven-year-olds to go take a walk, and we can be sure of that because of what happened to me when I was seven? If I have had both positive and negatives with both serious and casual relationships, does that mean all must be good for everyone…or that none are?
Maybe you had intercourse with your boyfriend when you were 15. You didn’t use birth control and became unwantedly pregnant, or a condom wasn’t used and you got an STI. You didn’t come into the relationship with knowledge about either of these things, nor sound negotiation skills or a real sense of self-esteem. You hid your sexual activity because per your religion, you were breaking the rules and sinning. Your relationship was also crappy, and the guy wound up leaving you, on top of everything. So, if you had had intercourse at 20, but all those other conditions were exactly the same, do you think the outcome would have been different?  Doubtful. Just like if that guy had a mustache, things would not have been different with all the same conditions at the same age with a partner sans mustache. The problem most likely was not being 15. It was all the conditions of that equation.

There’s often some coulda-woulda-shoulda going on here, too. A lot of people come of age with ideas of what “perfect sex” or “perfect lover” or “perfect first time” is. Many people have the idea that if they had just done X-thing differently, they would have had that perfect first time instead of the less-than-stellar experience they had. Certainly, we don’t always all make the best choices and some different choices very much may have resulted in different outcomes — because no, someone who had no sex at all would not have become pregnant, and someone who didn’t choose a sex partner they knew was a jerk would have been less likely to wind up with a jerk-in-bed. But as someone who hears a WHOLE lot about that “perfect first time,” including from people who followed all the given “rules” about what promises to make that so? I gotta tell you: if you didn’t have it, one reason why was that, in large part, that “perfect” first time isn’t real. It, like perfect lovers and perfect sex, is a fable; a fantasy. Hello: that’s why it’s so shiny. Too, we can’t ever know what outcome switching up one thing differently would have had, or what THAT change may have created. We hear a similar tactic in reproductive justice a lot, when people who are antichoice and regret an abortion they had say that they should have done adoption, that would have been so much less painful. Not only do they have no way of knowing that, that ignores the endless scores of women who HAVE surrendered a child and found it very painful. Grass, greener, other side: you know this one.

I also want to be clear that “should” is a word that has something to do with control. When we say “should” to someone — especially without context, such as where someone tells us they want to have sex without a pregnancy, so we say they should then consider using contraception — we suggest someone is obligated to make a certain choice. That’s not helpful messaging if some of our intent is to empower people to make their own best choices.  The phraseology here also suggests that responsibility is more about someone doing their duty, being a good citizen or a “good person,” than just caring for themselves and caring for others: it’s the latter motivation that’s more likely to help people create and nurture positive sexual lives and relationships. Plus, messages of duty and/or obligation in regard to sex are particularly noxious for women, for whom much of the whole cultural history of sexuality has been about sex as a duty and obligation.

I would be so delighted if we could start to broadly hear a change in this messaging, especially from individuals or organizations I know or think truly want what is best for young people, which certainly includes, ideally, a lack of negative or unwanted outcomes from sex, and also — pretty please? — some address of consent; which I also hope includes nurturing positive, wanted outcomes, like feeling good about one’s sexuality, having a satisfying, beneficial sexual life — one that includes pleasure and fun, not just not-pregnancy or not-STIs — like feeling able to express yourself and your feeling with someone else, like feeling alive in your body and feeling capable and respected. I don’t think we can’t present sex positively and treat young people as capable while still sending strong messages about health and public health: in fact, I think the former tends to make the other much more effective.

Here a few different phrasings to try on:

  • “If you want to have sex, please care for yourself and others by taking care of your bodies, hearts and minds, including consent, safer sex and contraception.”
  • “If you are going to choose to have sex, and want to do all you can to assure positive outcomes, on top of assuring desire and consent, please manage any infection or pregnancy risks with safer sex and/or contraception.”
  • “If you and your partner feel emotionally ready for sex, and each want to be sexual together, please make sure you are also practically ready when it comes to safer sex and contraception.”
  • “If you want sex to be positive, you’ll want to wait until sex is something you and yours want and feel ready for, including the use of safer sex and contraception.”
  • Or, if you earnestly feel you either didn’t wait but should have, or did wait, and that means it’s best, and want to speak from your own experience, how about “From my perspective, I think you should wait because . But if you decide that isn’t what’s best for you, and you want to choose to have sex, then I would like you to be sure mutual consent, safer sex and contraception are all in the picture.”

Of course, my favorite approach is avoiding generalized statements like this and instead having conversations where I can simply first ASK if someone does or does not want to have sex right now, then give more information, and ask more questions, then tailoring what I am saying to what they state their needs and wants to be: if we start there, and work from their answer, it’s pretty easy to sidestep all of the problems with these kinds of phrasings. I think it also makes it easier for us to focus as much on what we should be doing as we’re focusing on what teens should.

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

I’m cross-posting a piece here from both The Guardian (where it was edited down for size) and at Scarleteen, and then I’ve a bit more to say.

* * *

All of us who work at clinics that provide abortion, or as abortion or reproductive rights educators or advocates know we do so at substantial risk. Women who come to our clinics as clients also know that they, too, may be at risk.  The slaying of Dr. Tiller yesterday is tragic and upsetting, but it is not surprising or new. We didn’t become scared for the first time yesterday.  We’ve always been scared, and we have always had cause to be scared.

The independent clinic I work for part-time had a branch firebombed three times in 1983 until it shut down.  In 1988, via Operation Rescue, unending and intense harassment of children from demonstrators in another of our clinics forced us to close our on-site clinic childcare center for clients and staff.  And our clinic, despite being one of the 40 or so in the U.S. which provides procedures through the second trimester like Tiller’s did (though Tiller’s was one of but three to go past 25 weeks to 28 weeks, the legal limit), could very well be counted as one which has it easy. We haven’t had an incident of violence for some time, most days we have but a few protestors, and we do not wear Kevlar to work.  None of our providers have been murdered.  Yet.

But all of us who work in the field live either with the threat or actuality of domestic antiabortion terrorism daily: at work, at home or anywhere at all.  Let’s refuse sugarcoating or denials that merely call it violence or paint it as random or isolated: what happens around abortion is not the same violence as someone shot during a minimart robbery.

Terrorism is generally defined as an act intended to create fear, perpetrated for an ideological goal. The Patriot Act is not something I support, but antiabortion violence fits squarely in its definition of domestic terrorism. Vandalizing or bombing clinics; stalking, threatening or harassing staff, clients or providers and/or organizing or aiding others to do so; publicly publishing the home addresses of providers or staff, names, photos and school addresses of their children; outcries for a war:  all of this and more could be easily classed as terrorism by the definitions our government has used for other violence or threats.

The murder of Dr. George Tiller at his church yesterday morning  — based on the information we have so far – was domestic terrorism, and terrorism which has been known and prevalent for some time.

It’s been going on in the United States since we have had legal abortion, and typically increases during times when our federal government is not outright antiabortion.  As Christina Page points out, the number of harassing phone calls to clinics since Obama took office has massively increased. She also notes that the murder of Dr. Tiller is eerily similar to the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993: that, too, happened only a few months into a new administration which was not antiabortion. Dr. Tiller was also shot the first time in that same year.  Rachel Maddow gives a good overview of the history of clinic violence here.

Some antichoice groups will call Tiller’s assailant a vigilante. But for those who use incendiary speech, who provided him with the information and comraderie that fueled him, it’s going to be tough to uphold that stance with anyone of intelligence. We all have freedom of speech, to be sure, but as with any freedom, that comes with responsibility.

Current Operation Rescue president Troy Newman says they denounce vigilantism, but the raging enticements provided en masse through their organization has always told a different tale.  The organization’s founder, Randall Terry, says his movement “should not tone down its rhetoric despite the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller,” and that Tiller was “a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.”

When someone like Bill O’Reilly provocatively says again and again and again, that an abortion provider is a butcher who the law refuses to punish (nevermind that abortion is legal), when he calls abortion “execution” or talks about providers as those who “kill babies for money,” (as if all surgeries did not cost money); calls abortion clinics “death mills,” or reports (falsely) that Tiller will terminate pregnancies up to the due-date, he is NOT denouncing vigilantism, just like someone constantly and intentionally pouring gasoline on rising flames is not denouncing fire.

This kind of rhetoric and harassment and the fear it creates is something we’re faced with every day. And it has serious impact, even when no one is murdered.

It purposefully scares, intimidates and upsets the women who come to our clinics.  It intentionally clouds their decision-making. If one reproductive choice may or does involve things like being harassed, stalked or assaulted, you’re obviously going to take that into consideration in your a choice, even though fear or harassment should have no place in choices as important, personal and complex as those of reproduction.  Even for those unswayed by these actions, abortion in a context of shame and blame can make a choice one’d otherwise felt was best one of guilt and remorse.

The threat of harassment and violence can even keep women from coming to clinics when they were not seeking out abortion services at all. Here in the states, clinics like mine are where many women – particularly low-income, immigrant and teen women — also get their well-woman care, contraception or pregnancy tests, as many women are without health insurance or a private OB/GYN.

The threats, intimidation, vandalism and assault and the fear of them makes staffing clinics difficult, and make a job which is already emotionally demanding far tougher. Anyone getting any kind of surgery ideally needs a centered, relaxed and stable staff and a safe environment during their surgery: that’s no minor feat in this culture.  Clinic staff work long hours, often at low pay and with few or limited benefits. Even without clinic violence or the threat of it, it’s not an easy job: abortion isn’t just any surgery, and as with anything to do with the end of a pregnancy, whether it tends in termination or a live birth, our clients emotional needs can be great.

With all of this violence and intimidation so constant and pervasive, and with the actuality of the job itself often being less-than-ideal, why do so many of us stick around?

We stay is because we know that women need us to.  Many of us have been those women ourselves at one time or another.  We know from women: we understand our own needs.  And we’re scared sometimes, but not scared enough to leave women without choice and care.

A sign at Tiller’s clinic read, “Abortion is not a cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is an issue of the heart. Until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.” Dr. Tiller knew us, too. No one going back to work a day after having both arms shot, knowing it could happen again, is going to take that risk for cash or because they want to win.  Only someone who cares deeply for and about women, and has a very real grasp of the realities of women’s lives, is going to do that.

Obviously, the threat of something is not the same as that threat made real.  Some of the shared upset the reproductive health and abortion communities have right now is because we do feel even more unsafe than usual.  For those who knew Dr. Tiller personally, their personal loss is profound. But even for those of us who never met him or were not close to him, even for those fear has not increased, the loss is enormous.

It’s obviously important for the women receiving abortion and other reproductive healthcare to have as fantastic a doctor as possible, but it’s also very important for those of us working in the field to have our Dr. Tillers.

Like any field of practice, abortion has those who are adequate (and some less-than-adequate), some who are very good, and a few who are simply exceptional. Dr. Tiller wasn’t just any doctor; just any abortion provider or advocate:  he was an exceptional and inspirational doctor, provider and advocate. He was someone who set and held high standards of care, a quality of healthcare we all want to receive, especially when we are in crisis. He chose to work with some of the toughest cases; to include providing for a group of women with some of the greatest emotional needs, women who also had few other places to turn, despite that choice creating additional risks for him and resulting in greater harassment. His commitment to helping women never wavered in over thirty years of his practice. Just like anyone in any field, we have our heroes, and we all looked up to George Tiller.  Just like anyone in any field, having our heroes assassinated is devastating, particularly when they are assassinated for being so exceptional.

Ginny Cassidy-Brinn, an ANRP and the author of Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth, works at my clinic, and is someone I look up to the way I have Dr. Tiller.  I want to leave you with words she shared with me yesterday. I think they’re the way Dr. Tiller would want us to best use our sadness or fear and the way he so bravely used his own.  I think they are what those of us in the field, as well as those who want to understand or support us or the women we serve, need to hear.

Like anyone who knew him even slightly, I know that he was very brave. He faced so much hatred on a daily basis: he knew the risks he was taking.  But he simply thought that women’s being allowed to decide whether to carry a pregnancy or not was an essential, basic human right.  So, he continued despite the attacks and threats. He was diligent in protecting himself, — I don’t think he had any desire to be a martyr — but he continued.  He was very careful as a physician: using the safest, best techniques.  He did a lot to foster communication amongst abortion providers to make abortion safer.

I keep thinking about the old Joe Hill quote, “Don’t mourn, organize.”  I intend to mourn, but I also intend to carry on his legacy–to try to be as brave, loving, politically savvy and competent in my work as he was.  And to try, to the best of my ability, to inspire others as well.

* * *

This has hit me much harder than I expected: it’s been tough for me to shake it off.  It’s not like I expected it to feel like a trifle, but considering how aware I am of this kind of violence, how much I know to expect it, I’m surprised at my response and how it lingers.

On the afternoon that Dr. Tiller was assassinated — again, I’m irritated with it not being made clear by our leadership that this kind of murder is a political assassination just like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or John and Robert Kennedy –  in an effort to find some way to work through my feelings without more hours of the crying that was hurting my face, I headed out back to do some weeding.  My garden had become seriously overgrown.

I was ripping those plants out like nobody’s business, feeling more and more anger with my sadness, and was struck by a (perhaps obvious) metaphor. I snapped a few shots trying to capture what was going on with me.

I think some of why my sadness and anger is lingering is that I feel we’re left so adrift, those of us who work in any aspect of reproductive justice, especially in or around abortion.  Yes, we have a new administration now which is more supportive of our rights when it comes to some policies. However, knowing that violence has begun again, in part because of that fact, I need a strong response to it: I need acknowledgment of the terrorism it is and always has been, clear statements that it is unacceptable, I need everyone and their uncle to shut the hell up about this “common ground” bullshit: my body isn’t common ground.  (Okay, so mine kind of is, but you know what I mean.) Women and our lives are not common ground, despite thousands of years of being treated like we are. Those of us who work in this field, who work around it, who work for reproductive justice have never sought to stamper on anyone’s rights or ideas: asking us for common ground is silly at best, and a grave insult at worst.

These are the loose thoughts I came back inside with, hands cathartically bloodied from weeding with such intensity:

An inexperienced gardener will often ask how it is, exactly, we know which the weeds are, and which are not.

The most simple answer is,
of course,
that I know what I want in my garden, and I know what I don’t. I get to make that determination because it’s all growing (or not) in my soil.

My neighbor or some bird passing by might drop a seed in it; that does not alter whose ground it is, and who’s right it is to choose what grows there: it is my own, and sovereign. It is my own say, and only mine, what gets nurtured and kept, and what is pulled, or let go to seed. However lovely everything growing might be, whatever it’s right is to grow, it may be that this plant will keep that one from growing. It may be that I either cannot afford or simply do not care to grow anything at all this year or that one — even every year there is — leaving the soil fertile, but barren.  I may even want to burn out all the seed entirely.  Again, my soil: my right to do with it what I will.

And sometimes it may be that this plant or that may well have grown into something more marvelous than I thought it would, and I will never see that result. And it may be that I accidentally pull a plant I did not intend to: but that is my regret, if I have one, to carry; my sorrow to hold, if I have sorrow.  All of that is the nature of my life and my life in this particular body: no matter what we do, no matter what we choose, there is a certain and unique weight that lives between our hips and in our hearts.

And we can’t always tend to our gardens on our own.  If we’re lucky, some other gentle gardener who understands, and cares to help, with no claim of ownership over the ground that is ours, will lend a hand. In the midst of storm, his hands, too, may become injured or bloodied; her heart, too, may sometimes be heavy.  This is not light business: whatever we do, even if we neglect the soil completely, blood, sweat, a tear, an ache, a strain and all the thick mud of our lives is unavoidable.

The best of help — genuine help — will not second-guess, will not presume ownership or a share of our crops, but will simply ask us what we need and then tend to it generously, offering counsel of his own only if we ask for it first. She will not ask if we’re absolutely certain we want these plants to go or that to stay; he will not enter into philosophical arguments with us about their own ideas about the way to garden.  They will not seek to speak for the weeds, nor for us: they are listeners with gentle nods, able hands who trust our hearts and their own and respect the soil.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen blog, because a) I can and b) I’m just that irritated with this lately.)

Preventing teen pregnancy. I hate, hate, hate that phrase.  Nearly everywhere I go or look as a young adult sexuality educator anymore, I run into it incessantly.

Let me be clear: I don’t hate doing all that we can, to help people of every age to avoid pregnancies or parenting they do not want or do not feel ready for.  I’m so glad to do that, and it’s a big part of my job at Scarleteen and elsewhere when I work as a sexuality and contraception educator and activist.

I don’t hate doing what we can to help women who want help to determine when the best possible time is for them to become pregnant and parent (for those women who want to do so at all), and to do what we can to be realistic about pregnancy and parenting when counseling those who are considering either or both.   In addition, I’m totally in support of making sure young women know all their options with the whole of their lives; aren’t choosing to become pregnant or parent at a time that’s too soon for them to both discover and reach their own goals and dreams, or too soon for them to be able to learn and provide good care of themselves.  All good stuff, all terribly important, and all things that many young women seek help with which we can provide.

I’m on board with parents of teens or twentysomethings who don’t want to pay the costs for their teen’s pregnancy or the child of their teen, or don’t want a new infant in the house.  I’m not down with any young person assuming that their parent should automatically be a co-parent, an instant babysitter, or will bankroll a pregnancy.  Co-parenting with anyone is something to be discussed and negotiated, not assumed.  When we’re talking about consensual sex, if a young person has the maturity to have sex, to have sex which carries a risk of pregnancy, and to consider parenting themselves, I think it’s reasonable and appropriate to also then require the maturity to discuss and negotiate any contributions they want from their own parents with pregnancy or parenting.

I certainly understand parents wanting their youth to be able to have a childhood and adolescence that is not fraught with more responsibility and stress than a young person is able to manage, or which is likely to cause them unhappiness: that’s plain old love, and I don’t see a thing wrong with that.

I understand wanting children in the world to have parents who are capable of parenting, and for those children to have their most basic needs met.  I worked in early childhood education for years before moving on to run Scarleteen, and I continue to feel very strongly about quality care and parenting for children.  I also came from two young, unprepared parents, so I know firsthand what some of the downsides and struggles can feel like to a child.

I’m also absolutely on the bus when it comes to all of us, doing all we can to make our soundest decisions around pregnancy and parenting, and the idea that we should all be held accountable when it comes to only choosing to parent if and when we think we can be parents who can provide what children need.  It is in part because I am on board with that that I am 39 and childfree, despite being someone who has always liked kids a whole lot, to the degree that I’ve been teaching my whole adult life.  Part of why I also work at an abortion clinic is because I strongly support the right of every woman to decide if a given time is or is not right for her to remain pregnant, and to have the option to decide a given time is not right.

(For the record, I do not understand that “we shouldn’t have to pay taxes that support other people’s children,” stuff.  I have to pay taxes for all kinds of things I don’t support or like, but I’ve never had a problem with the idea that some of my income goes to help and support the children of the world.  It’s one of the few things my taxes go to that I do feel good about.  I have chosen not to reproduce myself, however, I’m of the mind that we all share some collective responsibility for caring for everyone else on our planet.  So that one?  I don’t get or sympathize with.)

Here’s what I’m not okay with.

What I hate about that phrase is the patronizing, disrespectful and ignorant presumption that all teen pregnancy is unwanted or unplanned: it isn’t, and while young women may have less information about and access to contraception than older adults so may have more unplanned pregnancies than older adults (teens do have more unplanned pregnancies than older women, but the highest unplanned pregnancy rate right now is for those 18-24, poverty is as much a determinant as age is, and close to 50% of pregnancies for all women are unplanned), that part certainly isn’t their fault or doing. Ask a young person what they want in sex education or contraception access, and you’ll find it does not resemble what we, the adults who have withheld power from them in these policies, have usually provided.

I hate the shaming or demonization of teen parents or teens who become or are pregnant, the widespread assumption that all of that is always bad or always wrong, and must always be prevented based on anyone’s standards but those of young people themselves.  I hate teen pregnancy being presented as if it were a pandemic, and teen parents presented as automatically incapable of parenting just as well as anyone else.  I hate the often-dishonest moralizing that often goes with all of this, and teens being told that all sex = pregnancy and that the only way to prevent pregnancy is to avoid all kinds of sex, and/or that choosing to be sexually active means choosing to be pregnant.  I hate the other words so often used around this topic, which make teen pregnancy sound like Hurricane Katrina. I hate the defeatist messages we give teens or young women who have become pregnant and who are deciding to parent. I hate that we seem to hold teen or young mothers to higher standards of parenting than we hold older parents.

I hate that our culture has no problem recruiting young people into the military before the age of majority (for enlistment at 18, but the efforts start before then, contracts are often signed before then), suggesting that they have the capacity to make that kind of potentially life-altering decision, one that can often involve choices around life and death, and yet suggests they have no capacity to make this one.  I hate that in many states and areas young women can be legally married at 16 or younger, and even though for the youngest teens, that often requires parental consent or a pregnancy, I hate that it’s thought by so many that marriage at the age of 16 somehow makes young parenting easier, better or more socially acceptable, or that for a 16-year-old woman, a legally binding marriage contract is somehow less of a big deal, less of a limitation on her life, than a social contract to care for a child. I hate that there are states and areas which don’t allow a young woman the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy of her own volition, and some which don’t allow her access to contraception, and yet in some areas — especially when we are talking about nonconsensual sex — remaining pregnant is the only option we allow young women to have within their own control.

I hate the presumption that it is anyone’s place BUT the teen in question to actually prevent a teen pregnancy.  Can it be our place to help those who want help in that aim?  Absolutely, and I hope that when and if any of us are asked for that help, we’ll provide it. But it’s not our place to do the preventing, because it ain’t our body or our life.  It’s theirs.

Perhaps even more than that, I hate some of the attitude that seems to inform that presumption, which feels to me a whole lot like older people saying that it is okay for older women to become pregnant, but not for younger women.  Which is a pretty odd thing to say about women who both have actively working reproductive systems, who both have the ability to become pregnant and to parent, or to make other reproductive choices.  In fact, it sounds a whole lot like eugenics to me.

I’m not going to beat around the bush (as it were) here.  In a whole lot of ways, women in their late teens and early twenties are in a better position than women in their thirties or forties are to reproduce, whether anyone likes it or not.  They are more fertile, their bodies will bounce back more quickly from a pregnancy, and they have more energy both for pregnancy and for keeping up with small children.  A 19-year-old woman and a 39-year-old woman, on average are not in the same space physiologically when it comes to bearing children.  The younger woman, in general, is in the better, healthier position, and the same is likely so for her fetus, particularly if she has healthcare of the same quality the older woman has.  And for most of human history — though there are certainly aspects of this, such as gender inequality and sexual violence, very worthy of critique and change — teen or young adult mothers have been who so many of our mothers were.

There is another side of that coin, which is that young women are without some things many older women have.  They more frequently will have less financial resources to care for children, their partnerships (if they are co-parenting) can tend to be less stable or shorter-lived, and they have less access to things like day care at school or work, good transportation, health insurance and the like.  Obviously, too, a younger person has often had less life experience, and an older person may have greater perspective in certain areas which can be of great benefit when it comes to good parenting.  But there are corrections for those inequalities. So many of the troubling statistics that we have on teen pregnancy and parenting aren’t around the pregnancy or parenting itself, or the age of a parent, but instead, arise from many inequalities young people suffer because we have set things up so that they do.

For instance, it’s not likely because someone is 16 when they become pregnant that they will be less able to finish high school, but because so many opportunities for schooling are cut off to young, pregnant women, and so few concessions are made to help a pregnant or parenting teen finish high school or enter college. Given the higher teen pregnancy statistics when it comes to young women of color, immigrant women and rural women, the fact that our culture often doesn’t privilege education for those groups in the first place is no minor detail. It’s not likely because someone is a teen that their child can be more likely to wind up in the corrections system, but because someone is a parent of any age who is without the resources they need to actively parent. Older people can help younger parents by sharing life experience and perspective gleaned with them rather than hoarding it or lording it over them.

Given that we know that that lack of resources is a central issue, why do we see so much money and so much effort put into “preventing teen pregnancy” yet so relatively little put into efforts to get free or affordable daycare into high schools and colleges, providing counseling, schooling and housing for young mothers?  Why do we hear so much about preventing teen pregnancy yet meet so much resistance when it comes to contraceptive and abortion access for teen and young adult women?  Why does the left and right alike tend to have so much to say and offer before or while a teen is pregnant, yet so little post-pregnancy or when a teen has become a parent?

Why is so much money put into developing and doing fertility therapies for women moving outside of their reproductive years, and so little for supporting women at the dawn of them; women of an age where even the best contraceptive methods, used perfectly, fail most often?  Why are the celebrity teens or those of fame and wealth “speaking out against teen pregnancy” so often the loudest voices we hear?  Why are the representatives of teen pregnancy and parenting so often so non-representative?  Knowing about the disparities between white women and women of color with teen pregnancy, those between women in poverty and those who are affluent, and about the achievement limitations teens who choose to become parents so often feel they have, what the heck is up with the vast majority of those representing teen pregnancy being so wealthy, white and pampered (or male!?!) all the time?

Knowing that for some teens who do choose to become pregnant, or risk pregnancy needlessly, it can come out of loneliness, the desire to cement a relationship, low self-esteem or the feeling that they have little opportunity for a breadth of life achievement, why do we shame them, blame them and put them down so often, further isolating those already isolated and low-feeling teens even more?  (At the same time, it’s important to recognize these are also often motivations or feelings of older women with pregnancy or parenting, too.  They do not only belong to teens.)

For the many older men involved in these prevention initiatives, given the rate of sexual violence and coercion involved in so many teen pregnancies, given how often young men don’t cooperate with sound contraception, and given the fact that no cisgendered man has any experience with being pregnant himself, why are their efforts not put on talking to young men about sexual violence, sound sexual decision-making of their own and contraceptive cooperation rather than in moralizing at young women?  And yes, I’m talking to guys like you, Neil Cole.

(FYI, I don’t think Cole’s commercial or ad should be suppressed.  However, I’d like to bring your attention to who the infant is given to in the ad, and who is the one really being talked to, who the big issue is left with while the male partner is taken out of the car and out of the issue. Check out the ad: the only thing directed at young men is about marriage. Cole’s language around teen pregnancy with the Candie’s campaign, and who so much of it is aimed at is seriously not okay in my book, particularly as a male person. While he seems to put so much of this on young women, he also doesn’t seem to recognize what actually does belong only to young women: “kids” don’t have babies, women do. Yet, all the parts of teen pregnancy — marriage has nothing to do with getting pregnant — are apparently, based on his language, only about women.)

I’m also not entirely certain that there isn’t, possibly, for some, some measure of envy at play here. It’s tough to talk about, especially as a feminist, but I have had enough friends trying to reproduce at later ages now to know how incredibly frustrating the process can be for them.  I also have friends honest enough with themselves and others that they will share that they do feel jealousy and anger when they see other women able to become pregnant as easily as breathing, and that’s often the case with the youngest women.  Some older women — not all or even most, but some — struggling to get pregnant now may even feel resentment about all the strong social messages they got about childbearing that they had to wait for later, should wait for later.  If and when those feelings exist, they are valid and real, but don’t have a place, covertly or overtly, in the discourse around teen pregnancy.

When older people and/or those of means are those creating the movements to “prevent teen pregnancy,” — and that is overwhelmingly who is — the onus is us to evaluate and keep in check any bias we may have, and to be very sure those are not influencing how we treat teen pregnancy, planned or unplanned, wanted or unwanted.  And that’s what I think hasn’t been done very well: that’s what I see when I see phrases like “preventing teen pregnancy.” I see a whole lot of bias, a whole lot of carelessness and a whole lot of disrespect.

So, are we all checking in to be sure that older people aren’t trying to claim some sort of ownership over pregnancy and parenting and who has the “right” to parent; who can and cannot be a good parent based on age alone — and nothing else — something we know has little basis in reality?  Are we sure that some of the messages we’re sending aren’t about our own frustration or resentment; aren’t coming from a place where we might feel like young mothers now are taking liberties we wish we would have?  As well, are we sure that for those of us who felt that our lives went best because we did not procreate or do so at a given age aren’t projecting our own goals and desires unto a generation which may be radically different than ours?  Might we even be projecting some of what we saw and heard — and disliked — from our mothers generations unto this one?

Ageism is alive and well and teens are a very common — and often thought to be acceptable — target for it. We, as adults, make lousy policies for or around teens without allowing them input or control, and then we point the finger at teens when those policies we made or supported fail them, such as the poor sexuality education we’ve given them (especially in the last ten years here stateside), the awful relationship modeling, the glamorization, romanticism and commercialization of things like motherhood, vaginal intercourse, marriage and being sexually “attractive.” The only real power we give them of late is in the commercial marketplace, and then adults whine about how youth are fixated on money and acquisition. Uh, okay.

Their sexual and reproductive lives are two of the areas where ageism is exercised constantly, and often without any resistance from even progressive adults. Are we sure that ageism and classism (not to mention racism and sexism) aren’t playing a part in our discourse around teen and young adult pregnancy?

Are we also sure, that as can happen, that older people are not harboring a desire for their children do do as well as them, but not to surpass them?  In other words, what if — just what if — a young teen mother really could “have it all?”  What if she could be a good parent AND finish high school, finish college, have the career she wanted, have all she envisions her life to be?  By all means, that scenario might feel mighty frustrating for generations before who did not have the cultural or interpersonal supports or resources to achieve all of that, but not if we can see making things better for the generations that follow us as one of our great successes, not as something we were robbed of or must grudgingly provide.

It stands to mention that some of this approach likely comes out of attitudes that are not just about young people or young women, but about pregnancy and pregnant women, period.  We have long had a cultural problem with women’s bodies and reproductive systems being treated like collective property; with laws, policies, practices and initiatives around pregnancy being led by everyone but those who actually are or will be pregnant.  To some degree, the way we have been treating teen pregnancy is highly indicative of those attitudes, which isn’t all that surprising.

But if we’re serious about being pro-choice, if we’re serious about wanting to help others make decisions in real alignment with respect and self-respect, the most basic foundation we have to hold is that every woman has the inarguable right to make choices about her own body for anything that happens to or inside of her own body, and that no one but that woman is most qualified to do so.  Once we start talking about preventing a given choice someone else may make, we take that person’s ownership of their choice away.

When our bodies are of an age where they can reproduce, any of us then — be we 16 or 36 — has the right to choose to do that with our bodies if we want to.  By all means, once a child is born, we’re talking about someone else, someone outside of a woman’s body, and not our own body.  That’s a huge and tangled discussion of its own, especially given the way children are so often framed as the property of their parents, rather than as the responsibility of parents and all the rest of us.  But until there is an actual child born and independently present?  We are talking about a woman and her own body.  Not ours, hers.

For the record, I also have a problem with the notion of “preventing unplanned pregnancy.”  A LOT of wanted children, children who are loved, children who are parented well, come from unplanned pregnancies: at least half of us have.  As a sexuality educator who knows very well how many people don’t understand how reproduction works, and as someone who has a good handle on human history per how long most people didn’t know, it’s safe to say MOST pregnancies throughout history have been unplanned to at least some degree. Even now when we do know more, when far more people are educated, when we have many contraceptive methods which are highly effective,  a lot of people approach pregnancy not as something they exactly plan, but leave themselves more or less open to at given times depending on how okay they are with pregnancy. For sure, we do want to fill people in on the things which might make a pregnancy more or less healthy when it happens, make parenting go better or worse for everyone involved, but while planning can certainly contribute to healthy pregnancy and sound parenting, it really isn’t a requirement or a reality for many people.

This really isn’t all that complicated.  Words matter.  The phraseology we use for things matters, especially when we’re talking about subjects like this.  Especially when we are talking about choices which are not ours to make, about the lives of others and the bodies of others.  Especially when we are talking about something as nuanced, complex and wildly individual as pregnancy and parenting.  Especially when we are coming to something and saying that it is about quality of life and respect.

May I suggest some easy lingusitic corrections?

If your heart is in the right place, what you want to do is to not to prevent anything.  Rather, you want to nurture and support conscious conception and contraception, conscious birthing; to enable wanted and healthy pregnancy, wanted and healthy parenting. You want to help support all of us in having exactly the reproductive life we want and feel is best for us to the degree that we can control that.

If you’re still stuck on prevention as an approach, why not try making it about helping teens to prevent unwanted pregnancy or unwanted parenting?

Is age really even relevant? Only so much. An unwanted pregnancy has the capacity to disrupt or cause hardship in a woman’s life whether she is 17 or 37.  A parent who is unprepared for parenting, who doesn’t want to parent, or who just can’t parent can do damage to a child no matter how old they are or are not.

What you really want to do — I hope — is to help women of all ages to understand what all their possible choices are for their whole lives, to have a good idea of what making any given choice can entail, the possible positives and negatives alike, and how it could impact them and others.  What you probably really want to do is to help young people, all people, make choices around sex, pregnancy and parenting which are most likely to result in a happy, healthy life, and the life any given person most wants for themselves and those in their lives. What you also probably want to do is work just as much towards creating a culture of support for those who do become pregnant — by choice or by accident — and choose to parent as you work to support those making different choices.  And if you really want to help to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy, you need to make sure your efforts are directed just as much towards young men as they are towards young women.

I know for a fact that many of the people who use the current language around teen pregnancy are people whose intentions are stellar, totally laudable, and all about the good things I’m talking about here. So, why diminish or mislead those great intentions with words and phrases that undermine them and disrespect the population we’re claiming to care so much about?  Why use the negative when you’re trying to support the positive?

P.S. This rant is dedicated to my friend and volunteer Alice, and all of the other teen and young mothers who get as validly angry about this stuff as she does.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I’m posting most of the text of the lecture I just gave at UT last week, because a bunch of people asked for it, and because it was a great experience (and how awesome was it to be in a room full of current and potential sex educators?  VERY).  So much of what I said really sums up where I’m at with work right now and have been going.  I say “most of,” because some of the text here were points I knew I’d riff on some more casually, which I did, but this is still the meat of the thing.  My riffs are where I tend to be funnier, so my apologies for not remembering what the hell else I said.  I’ve gotten a lot better with my comfort level with more formal public speaking over the last year or two, but am still uncomfortable enough that when I’m done, I feel like I’ve just come out of some kind of hypnotic trance.

You might also notice that some of this lecture borrows some bits from a couple other pieces I’ve written recently, namely this one.

My name is Heather. I’m turning 39 this spring, and I’m a full-time sex educator.

I was asked to come talk to you to about how to be both innovative and inclusive with sex education.

In many ways, sex education often seems to get stuck in two big places.  Plenty of people seem to think that if you’re talking about sex to young people at all — no matter how you’re talking about it, no matter why you’re talking about it — that’s progressive enough, and for some, that in and of itself is too progressive.  Despite Americans having over 100 years to get used to sex education at this point, for many it still seems an innovation, and not a particularly welcome one.  Hopefully I don’t need to tell this group too much about how so many ideas about inclusivity in young adult sex education — when the notion exists at all — often come from a place more concerned with political correctness than real equity.

We infrequently seem to even address either of these issues, in part because American sex education seems to be stuck at the world’s longest red light: the discussion about it starts and ends with if abstinence-based sex education is best or comprehensive sex education is.  Progressive sex educators will always — validly –  tend to strongly voice that comprehensive sex education is best and that’s what needs to be provided.  For sure, medically-accurate, secular sex education is vital.  However, I think all too often progressives don’t realize how little difference there can be between the two, and how limited so much current sex ed of all types is.

To get us all started on the same foot, I want to address what those three terms usually mean.

Abstinence-only sex education is no kind of sex education at all, ultimately: it’s about why NOT to have sex until (heterosexual) marriage, and based around unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and ideology about how sex before or without marriage is bad news.  Most of it makes no effort to be medically accurate — quite the opposite — but instead relies on fear tactics like the notion that condoms have microscopically-small holes which sperm and infections can swim right through, or that people who have more than one sexual partner lose the ability to emotionally bond with others.  That education does not usually give instructions on using birth control methods or safer sex — it often furthers that any of this education would encourage sex (and that these things are not needed in marriages), though I can’t help but wonder sometimes if that also isn’t just about the fact that many abstinence educators also just don’t know how to use these things themselves.  It focuses almost entirely on refusals of sex, if it teaches any usable skills at all. Abstinence-based sex education also is by nature heterosexist and not merely gendernormative, but relies strongly on binary and traditional notions of gender and sexuality.

Abstinence-plus education does tend to include practical information, and much of it is medically-accurate, and may also be evidence-based, however its supposition is still that it is best for teens not to be sexually active or sexual in any way. It, too, also tends to be very gendernormative and not very inclusive.

Comprehensive sex education is medically-accurate, does (or is supposed to) include instruction on birth control and safer sex and may also include address of topics like anatomy, sexual orientation, masturbation, relationships, sexual abuses, pregnancy options and more, and should come from a place where no one set of sexual choices is privileged as best or right.

But in a recent study of comprehensive sex education in the state of Illinois, of 17 possible topics, emergency contraception was mentioned least, taught by only 30 percent of teachers. Only 32 percent of teachers brought up homosexuality or sexual orientation, 34 percent taught how to use condoms, 37 percent taught how to use other forms of birth control, 39 percent discussed abortion and 47 percent taught students where to access contraception and sexual-health services.  So, even when sex education is comprehensive…well, it’s often not comprehensive at all.

Most of the sex education available to young people right now is either abstinence-only OR abstinence-plus.  Very few curricula or programs are without some kind of abstinence ideology.

Despite thousands of years of young adults being sexual people in any number of ways, and every evidence possible that this is totally natural to them, many adults and sex educators  — even plenty we’d think of as progressive — have in some sense become apologists for sexuality, particularly that of young people.  We’ll talk about it because we have to, because many are going to try “it” and be sexual, but more and more, in sex ed, sex is discussed a lot like the common cold: fairly inevitable, but something you’d probably be best to avoid, which is a pretty wacky way to talk about something that is primarily about pleasure.

The vast majority of sex education available today is also centered around reduction or management of risks of unwanted to negative outcomes, giving the message that the best sex has to offer is nothing bad happening to you because of it.

I had a wake-up call a little while back when I spent some time reviewing some of the top comprehensive sex education curricula.  I, too — when it came to sex ed provided in schools — had made a lot of presumptions about the comprehensive curricula.  I knew they were medically-accurate and often also evidence-based, but I had made a bunch of other assumptions.  I assumed most, if not all, would have detailed address of sexual and whole-body anatomy, that they’d discuss or even masturbation, that they were inclusive — when it came to sexual orientation and gender identity, to race, to class, to relationship models and a variety of sexual choices –  I expected at least some address, though perhaps minimal or watered-down, of desire, of pleasure, of the sexual response cycle.

Yet most of those curricula have little to none of those things.  In fact, at a meeting to review a few of them, sure that I had merely overlooked or wasn’t seeing inclusion, in four of these curricula, I asked where the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth was and was told that one of the curricula had a scenario listed in which both teens in the story where named Joe.

Hopefully, I don’t have to tell you that inclusion is a lot bigger than two people named Joe  — which doesn’t even assure those two people are the same gender or sex in the first place — on one page.  Nor do I likely have to tell you that sex is about a whole lot more than merely avoiding — or winding up with — unwanted or negative outcomes: if we get pregnant or don’t, get a sexually transmitted infection or don’t, are or are not sexually assaulted.

There are a few reasons all of this is the case.  A lock on funding for comprehensive sex ed since the end of the Clinton administration, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars pumped into abstinence-only through the Bush administration is certainly is one of them.  A general discomfort with sexuality as a whole among teachers, school administrators, parents, healthcare providers — and, by proxy, teens themselves — is obviously another. It’s no newsflash that we continue to have big problems — far bigger than many people like to admit — with sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, sizeism.  And all of these issues have certainly impacted sexology as a whole, a field of study which has always been highly male-dominated, very white, very heteronormative and gendernormative.  Sexology has certainly been becoming more diverse over the last twenty years or so, but it still has a long way to go.

So, what informs sex education?  These cultural attitudes, the limits of what has been studied when it comes to sexuality, which is also often informed by these cultural attitudes and blind spots.  The medicalization of sex is also a factor, as is the fact that America is far less sexually liberated than she likes to think.  Toss in an age-old fear of young adult sexuality — hell, a fear of teens and young people, period — then try and stuff it all into formats which can fit into mainstream models of public education, pass a parent and a school board, work in the often toxic social environment of high schools and junior highs and you get an idea of what we wind up with, and how, even if medically-accurate, even if it’s comprehensive, most sex ed is still woefully substandard.

I haven’t chosen to try and provide sex education in schools, but instead, have done so through an online medium to a widely diverse, international userbase for just over ten years, as well as with some in-person outreach and through print publication.  I don’t have to write a curriculum that passes anyone’s muster but that of the young people who choose to utlilize it, and I don’t do any sex ed that isn’t 100% opt-in on the part of young people.  I’m an anarchist by nature, an alternative educator by trade, and that is the way that I do sex ed.  As a young person, I was massively helped by alternative education environments — it’s even safe to say my experimental arts high school saved my life, and certainly my sanity and sense of self –  and before I worked in sex education, I spent several years as a Montessori teacher, a model which informs a lot of how I have done things right from the start with Scarleteen.

To give you a little history in a nutshell, in 1997, I was still teaching in Montessori, but had never stopped writing.  (A lot of my background is in the creative and performing arts, and I started publishing early, in my teens.) Much of my written and artistic work always had a whole lot to do with sexuality and sensuality, and other than bruising my head any more from banging it against the walls and doors of what existed in terms of publishing opportunities for that work, in 1998 — when the web was still very new and all of our web design skills were atrocious –  I rolled out a website called Scarlet Letters, which was the ‘nets first site which focused on female sexuality and eroticism.  Why the net?  Because it was dirt cheap, mostly, and because something about the newness of it: the pioneering nature of being on there seemed a great fit for pioneering ideas.

Within just a matter of months, I began to find letters in my inbox from younger people — Scarlet Letters was intended for adults — with questions about sexuality, stating they just didn’t know where else to go.  My first impulse was to look for somewhere for them to go, and when I did, I — as they clearly had — found nothing.  So, for a little while, I’d just answer the questions in email.  Most of them were pretty rudimentary — Am I pregnant?  Am I gay?  Where the hell is my clitoris and why do I care? — and as the go-to girl for sex in high school and college, the daughter of a public health nurse and and activist and, well…someone who liked sex a whole lot and had done more than her share of field research, they were relatively easy to answer.

And they kept on coming.

By the end of that year, I added a section of pages  of these questions and answers to Scarlet Letters which would later become Scarleteen. I hadn’t kept up with young adult sex education since I had it, I was only aware of how it played out in the ECE and elementary environments I’d taught in.  Naively, I had figured that sex ed had pushed off from many of the progressive efforts of the seventies and early eighties and must — I thought — be pretty okay by that point.  It didn’t take more than a few big batches on the constant influx of letters for me to do some research and find out how completely mistaken I was.

Let me fill you in a little on the Montessori model: Maria Montessori is a fantastic example of  being an innovator.  The first female doctor in Italy, during the first World War she was assigned to care for children in the ghettos.  Those children were intensely independent, used to caring as much for their families and self-care as their parents, and traditional notions of containing children, having them sit in neat rows and be directed by an adult just didn’t suit them.  So, Montessori, very organically, and based on the unique needs and stages of her students, developed her own method.

The primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we are primarily observers.  Based on our observations of our students self-directed interests, skills (or lack thereof), unique needs and questions, we choose what materials to make or find and what to present to them. In doing this, we’re also trying to help students learn to be observers, as well as working to empower them when it comes to trusting their own interests and instincts and to be self-motivated and self-directed, rather than reliant on — or vulnerable to — others to give them directives. Montessori teachers see ourselves more as helpers, as guides, than as directors or teachers. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it’s our job to follow their cues, not to teach them to obediently follow ours. Questioning is not discouraged, but intensely encouraged. The principles of Montessori are all about independence, liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning, or live a life of any real quality. Montessori wrote that, “Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” 

(This is also a particularly pertinent notion when we’re talking about sexuality, and says — I think — quite a lot about what we can expect when we come to sex education or sexuality from a standpoint of sex and sexuality being something we and others must control.)

Particular areas of what we call absorbency — times during which a person is most able to learn something and can most easily and enthusiastically absorb information — is also something we pay close attention to and bear in mind. The big deal that identifies a time of absorbency is when a person is both expressing a strong interest in a subject or area of development and is just starting to use and hone those skills: ages 1-3, for instance, as children are learning to speak and are fascinated with language, is usually the time of the greatest absorbency for language. If we help children be exposed to and learn language then, not only is their mastery best, they usually can also learn more than one language, more easily and ably than they will be able to during other times in life.

It doesn’t take someone with Montessori training or keen observational talents to identify the fact that when it comes to sexuality, the minds of adolescents and pre-adolescents are greatly absorbent. Because part of identifying what and when to present certain things has to do with when a person is starting to use what they learn, we can easily spot adolescence as a great time for sex education. In working with young adults, while I’m not really getting in on the ground floor since so many sexual attitudes are learned in childhood, I’m still in early enough so that our readers can get help forming healthy habits and attitudes at a dawn in their sexuality and during a time when they are very absorbent. I’m not just working with them just so that they can use this information and these skills now — after all, some of them want the information now, but don’t intend to, or are not, putting all of it to practical use, while others are becoming or already sexually active — but so that they can have them early, available to them for the whole of their lives.

Using the models — or really, the un-models — of education I liked best, like Montessori, like ideas from John Holt and A.S. Neill, the first thing I did was assess my students, not based only or mostly on statistics or standardized testing, but based on who they really were and what they were telling me.  I had needs clearly expressed to me by young people.  They had important questions about sex and sexuality which were not being answered, and they needed and wanted answers.  Clearly, they also felt comfortable asking via the new terrain of new media, and also felt comfortable approaching me, personally, likely due to both my openness about sex, my casual tone and probably also because they were so desperate for anyone willing to answer their questions who seemed likely to have answers, and also likely not to be able to hold them accountable for asking,  that they were not being particularly selective about who they asked in the first place.

What were my tools and materials? I had what felt like the perfect fit for their needs with the Internet.  It was anonymous.  It was relatively cheap (and while my costs have certainly grown with our traffic, compared to print media, it’s still peanuts).  I was not going to have to try and slog through endless beaurocracies to provide what the teens were asking me for, wasn’t going to have to argue with parents and administrators — though later I did have to argue with the federal government, but we won that argument.  I would be able not only to build what I felt was best based on their expressed needs, I’d also have the freedom  — should I need or want to — to knock it all down and try something completely different on a whim, a flexibility and whimsy which often had not exactly been appreciated the few times I’d tried teaching in pre-established systems with administrators, but which is central to student-based and directed education.

I had me, someone who had been a teacher for some time and loved teaching, who had had an incredibly challenging adolescence and an easy and intense compassion for children and teenagers.  I had a set of diverse skills I could draw on which helped: I had writing skills, design skills, and the great gift of a sense of humor, which tends to be a godsend when talking with people about sex.  I had  the ability to camp out at the library and further my education as much as I liked with sexuality and related issues, a field of study I had already gotten into in college.  I had a love of anarchy, and of pioneering: I preferred to start with my imagination, rather than with pre-existing systems.  I brought my own diversity to the table: I grew up very marginalized in a handful of ways, had some views and experiences that were often outside of what many teens were exposed to.  I was queer, I wasn’t on the marriage-and-baby track, I came of age in the 80’s and made the absolute most of it, I was comfortable with the provocative, but not all that impressed with it, either. I was beyond comfortable — and quite happy — with sex and sexuality.  And I was impressed with that plenty.

That’s the way Scarleteen started, and at more than ten years since, that is still much of the way I direct it.  By all means, we are monstrously larger than I ever imagined we’d be: I certainly did not forsee this becoming my full-time job and my life’s work with those first letters, nor did I imagine we’d have 20 - 30,000 readers every day.

But I still stick to the same model I had at the start: the content we have is almost entirely based  — with some unavoidable but relatively minor limitations — on the content our users have asked for, which, as it turns out, has tended to result in an incredibly comprehensive, inclusive and holistic body of work. When you have this many people to work with, from this many places in the world, with this kind of diversity, in a medium with this much openness and an aversion to control, and you let them lead what you do, it is going to tend to result in a body of work and a community which is highly diverse, inclusive and holistic.

I rarely, if ever, have to think about what to teach, and what information to give: my users and clients — when I do in-person outreach — tell me that, and I trust them to know what they need.  More times than not, what it is I have to figure out is HOW to provide it for them, and I do that most by asking just as many questions of them as they ask of me, and by being open to what they tell me, willing to adjust my thinking at any time.

It might sound simplistic to posit that coming to sex education not through what we as adults deem important for young people to know, but by starting — and primarily staying with — what young people themselves tell us they want and need to know seems to solve many of the typical and current pitfalls of sex education.  But that has been my experience.

I also very strongly believe that  when we move past risk management, and address sexuality more holistically, not only do we better equip young people — any people — to have a happy, healthy sexuality that is self-designed rather than conformist, we also tend to also help young people build skills and a knowledge base which easily includes risk management and provides them with additional context and tools to make reducing and managing risks easier for them.  If a young person can talk to a sexual partner, for instance, about something as loaded as pleasure and desire, as perhaps not reaching orgasm through intercourse or even finding it all that compelling, or can openly show a partner where to find a clitoris or prostate gland, to discuss what dynamics they do and do not want in the relationship, negotiating condom use or discussing birth control can tend to be a piece of cake, and inclusivity also gets a lot easier.  This information also tends to come about pretty organically and in a way that makes a lot more sense, and is a lot less scary or intimidating.

For instance, if a young person does ask what a clitoris is, what it’s for and where it’s at, once you answer them, they might then ask how it is someone might experience pleasure that way.  In giving them that answer, you’re going to address sexual activities that aren’t for one given kind of couple, and which will likely challenge some heteronormative ideas, and likely ALSO wind up talking about how certain activities with the clitoris do or do not pose risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

If we teach young people about things like how incredibly diverse sexuality is, because it is, if we model active and compassionate listening when it comes to sexual pleasure and creating agreements in a relationship, not only can they use that knowledge and those tools with their own sexual lives, and in the way they think about sexuality as a whole,  they can also apply those skills even more broadly, such as for conflict resolution and understanding in other tough or loaded places.  Honestly, all I have to do to know that most of the members of our last administration didn’t have a really good sex education is to look at how they handled international diplomacy.

I feel like sex education in and of itself is still revolutionary, to be sure, but I also feel like most sex education at best is not very revolutionary, and at worst, is about devolution.  But real-deal sex education — that is open, that is honest, that is a lot more fearless, that is human and comes from who it’s being given to, that nurtures inclusivity and diversity of thought and experience — is seriously revolutionary stuff.  And I think it’s totally doable.

I want to leave you with a strong sense of how doable that is, and — hopefully — a desire to do so.   On the note, I’ve a few helpful hints I’ve picked up over the years I want to toss out at you about how to be — in my book — a totally fantastic sex educator.

• Be yourself and be honest. You do get to have boundaries — and limits and boundaries are vital with any relationship between teens and adults, and all people, and setting them is certainly one of those things that gives them some great tools for their sex lives. So, if a student asks you something you’re not comfortable answering, or it feels like an invasion of a privacy you need, you get to tell them that, though I’d advise really telling them that.  In other words, rather than saying “I can’t talk about that,” you say “You know, that makes me uncomfortable,” or “Actually, that for me is something I like to keep private.”  But ultimately, they’re looking to you as the person to be candid with them, and you can benefit them by repping you and sex as it is, in all its diversity, silliness, awesomeness, awkwardness, complexity and joy.

• Assume yours might be the only formal sex ed that they get.  Hopefully, that will NOT be the case: ideally, everyone should get sex ed from multiple sources and perspectives.  But all too many people really don’t, including well into adulthood.  So, don’t put undue pressure on yourself, but bear in mind this may well be a one-shot deal, and it’s best to make the most of it.

• Ask as many questions as you give answers.

• Recognize that no matter how protected an environment teenagers will inevitably feel vulnerable when discussing sex, meet them in that space.  If they’re vulnerable, but you don’t allow yourself to also be vulnerable, that creates an imbalanced dynamic that asks a lot more of them than it does of you.

• Peer educator training: any time you are doing sex ed, you are also effectively doing peer sex educator training.  More than anything else, teens get their sex information and education from each other.  So, when you educate one of them, you’re always educating more than one of them.  Teens having accurate information isn’t just about their own sex lives, but about the sex lives of all the teens they may wind up talking with about sex and sexuality.

• Take risks.  Know that if you take a risk and find yourself in a pickle, you’ve always got the ACLU.  I’ll give you their number.  Seriously.  They love sex educators.  A lot.

• Consider that an unhappy sex life or sexual self is just as dire an outcome as an unwanted pregnancy or a serious sexually transmitted infection.  I think we need to accept that it is, especially if we’re serious when we say that sexuality is huge and important.  Plus, from everything I have observed over the years, people at peace with their sexuality and in healthy sexual relationships tend to make smarter choices when it comes to things like contraception, safe relationships and safer sex.

• Lastly, don’t stop educating yourself.  As you probably already know, sex and sexual health information changes constantly and sometimes quickly.  What you learned in med school five years ago can quickly become archaic.  And that education includes your own personal field research. I’m talking about your own sex life. If you aren’t honest about your own areas of growth and doing your best to have a sex life and sexuality that is healthy and enriching — alone or with partners, and whatever that means to you — I’m just not sure how great a sex educator you can be, just like I can’t imagine that an English teacher who hated to read or only read the Cliff’s Notes would be very inspiring and effective.  Be an aspirational sexual demographic.

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Man, I’m tired.

I’m a little bit concerned that 2009 will wind up labeled as The Year of Burnout, because I keep feeling very precariously on the edge of it, and it’s really uncomfortable.  Running more than one program has been seriously, seriously tough in a whole lot of ways.   It’s not just a matter of working more than one job, since I am having a hard time thinking of a time when I didn’t work more than one job.  It’s working more than one very demanding job, having more than one position of leadership, and working with a whole bunch of people in a lot of different ways. When I’m in the trenches with any of my work, working with my users and my clients, those feelings of burnout tend to fall away and I’m in the zone that I so, so love, effortlessly, but everything surrounding all of that is what’s getting to me.

It’s about having — or feeling a lack of — the resiliency to work in the fields that I do and weather the fallout that lands in my lap ably.  There have also been a lot of changes at the clinic lately, and some rough tensions. It doesn’t help that none of my jobs still offer me any benefits at all and the health insurance conundrum remains, as ever, unresolved.

I had a mini-meltdown at home on Saturday night about a bunch of things, one of which being that as I approach three years of living here, Seattle still just doesn’t even remotely feel like home to me, and I’m guessing it’s just not going to.  I love my neighborhood, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to make this place home. There are a whole bunch of reasons why, and I’m not going to go on and on about all the ways Seattle blows chunks for me.  It’s a tricky spot to be in, though, in part because Mark very much loves it here, and also because I’m just not sure where I’d go right now if I were to move again anyway. I’m feeling like I don’t want to even think about relocating until I know, for sure, a place that I step in and feel very much at home in.  having visited back home in Chicago lately, I don’t think that’s it, and while there was so much I loved about Minneapolis, I didn’t like some of the changes happening, and frankly, it’s too freaking cold. There are other cities I like, but I just don’t know how I could afford to live in, and there are pipe dreams I have about living rurally, but I see no way to even come close to manifesting those any time soon. I am off to Austin this week, a town I always love, so I suppose I can give some thought to there as a future-maybe, but it’s missing a large body of water, which has always been a must-have for me to feel at home.  Bleh.

I think per the impending burnout,  when I get back home from Texas, I need to just spend some time with a pen and a blank notebook and try and map out all of my stuff: what all I am doing, what areas are seeming to cause me the most stress, what places I can possibly pull back a bit. I also, still, need to get a lot, lot better about expressing my limits to people as well as to myself, as well as find some extra patience and compassion for myself about the limits of nothing more than my mere humanity.  I often balk at being presented as a Superwoman, but that’s a bit silly of me to balk at since it’s not like I don’t try and effectively live like one.

I also very much need to find some time in the next few months where I can literally take a complete week or two off, full-stop.  Given the amount of work I do in a year, it probably would be totally appropriate for me to have a full month of vacation, and lord knows I could use it, but that’s not exactly doable.

I don’t like feeling like this.  Just this weekend, at the NARAL youth activist summit, I was talking about how in my mind, the job of an activist, in so many ways, isn’t somehow singlehandedly fixing a problem or getting an issue the attention it needs, but inspiring others to be activists, too, not necessarily full-time, but enough to mobilize enough people in ways from small to great to make the good stuff happen.  At times like this, I can’t help but feel like I am not even remotely inspiring, and that totally bums me out.  (That’s not me, for the record, asking for anyone to say, “You do inspire me, Heather!” I’m just talking out loud and voicing how I feel about myself at the moment, which I don’t imagine would be altered by anyone else’s feedback.)

When I’m out of town next week, I’m going to be talking to a bunch of future and potential sexuality educators about how to be innovative in sex ed.  Effectively, what I have so far per what I’m going to say about that is talking about how it is I think, since that seems a lot more valuable than saying what I have done without talking about how I have done it and what has led me to do things the way I have.  I’m hoping that goes well for a whole lot of reasons, but I also think I could use a reminder in how I think and how I innovate.  Applying that to some of the places I find myself in right now would be a mighty fine thing to do.

In all honesty, I sometimes wish of late that I could take a long sabbatical to do nothing but have a personal and creative life right now.  The last few months have been so intense, mostly in incredible, expansive, big-growy ways. Even the rough spots have brought a lot of enlightenment and growth. I have been feeling so loved and so able to love so fully, getting so much clarity about a million things, and having a strong feeling of renewal all around that I just didn’t even see coming or knew I even needed.One interesting side effect, too, about reconnecting with Blue has been that areas of my memory which were murky or just gone (gee thanks, abuse) have been coming back to the surface.  I’m not sure if that’s because it was first with him that my most repressed memories were able to surface, because we have such a long history together, or lord knows why else, but it’s actually quite a gift.

I feel inspired as hell creatively, personally, in my heart, in my guts, in a part of my brain that doesn’t get enough airtime these days, nor do they seem to have found the right places to express themselves outside of my love relationships and my closest circle of friends.  My two romantic relationships are both incredibly rich and complex, and the intersection of them all the more so, but it all feels very right and like…well, it makes a whole lot of sense out of a lot of things which hadn’t made sense before.  I feel very much in my right place in both of them, even though neither is perfect or without its challenges.  I suppose wishing I could do nothing but love and make art is incredibly self-indulgent — and it also would take away from the benefits these feelings have been having on the work I do, which have not been small by any stretch — but I wish I could all the same.

This came out really whiny, alas.  But it’s what I’ve got at the moment, and where I’m at right now, a strange mix of tired and invigorated, inspired and burnt, expanded and limited, old and new.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I’m finally just finishing up the push for our two major Scarleteen fundraising drives (part of my infrequent updating here due to all this) for 2009.

So, I thought I’d share the letter I sent to existing donors and supporters about the drive…well, because I can. And you’re supporty-type people, oh readers of mine. Any donation you might be able to make yourself, or promotion of the fundraiser in your own networks would rock my socks. Thanks!

I blissfully anticipate a return to the more typical dizzying pace of my life in a couple of weeks, and hope to have something much more interesting to report than exhaustion.

P.S. It was very early this morning when I started working, and I’d already stayed up late the night before and had been sick for a couple days, no less. Thus, in trying to come up with a simple tagline for the Valentine graphic, my brain was not at its most normal. That’s not true, actually: it was perfectly normal for me, that’s just not the right kind of brain to use for things like this. Where there are other people involved. Whose money you need. Who are supposed to feel like young people would be safe – rather than permanently scarred — with you.

This state of mind is perfectly evidenced by the first two graphics which were other “brilliant” (and those are intentionally self-effacing bunny ears, not quotes) ideas I had for the tagline that is supposed to cast as wide a net as possible to help me sustain my organization. Yeah.


From February 14th through March 15th, one of our regular donors has agreed match the donations we receive up to $350 per donor, and/or up to $3,000 total.

This is a great opportunity to amplify your support! You can play a part in sustaining Scarleteen and all of the young adults who need and are helped with our unique brand of inclusive, progressive, holistic and accurate sexuality education. As we finish one decade of delivering the goods we so strongly feel have nurtured and continue to nurture the development of a healthy, happy sexuality for young people, I’m asking for your help as we enter another.

You have several options you can use to donate:

  • You can donate online with you credit card or PayPal account by clicking here, OR
  • You can donate by check or money order, made out to Scarleteen, and mail to: 1752 NW Market St. #627, Seattle, WA, 98107 OR
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible, you can donate by check or money order by making your check out to The Center for Sex and Culture, and writing “Scarleteen” in the memo. They will send you a written acknowledgment of your donation for tax purposes, and will send us any donations made to them on our behalf. Those donations should be mailed to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA 94114.

Scarleteen is now affiliated with the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. The CSC was founded and is directed by Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Robert Lawrence. Their mission is to provide judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum; and to research and disseminate factual information, framing and informing issues of public policy and public health. We’re thrilled to be the first young adult sex education project they have worked with and are very glad for this partnership. Robert and Carol, as well as other members of the CSC, have been incredibly supportive of Scarleteen and sex education as a whole over the years.

To give you an idea of how we utilize donations, I’d like to briefly fill you in on where we stand with Scarleteen right now, what we accomplished in 2008, and what we have in the works for the future!

Most weeks, Scarleteen remains the top-ranked site for young adult sexuality education on the internet. Our information, support and advocacy continues to serve many young people all over the world.

  • We rank in the upper 25,000 of all sites online internationally
  • We consistently rank in the top 11,000 - 12,000 of all sites in the United States
  • 65 million page loads have occurred at the site from users since 2006
  • We now have over 40,000 active message board users

We currently have around 20 active volunteers, and in the last year, have added more content to the site than we have in any other year prior. We have been able to sustain and add to the most basic information, but have also been able to keep widening our scope so that on top of having information on topics like sexual anatomy, contraception and safer sex, we have a good deal of information which is tougher for young people to find on such topics as gender identity, body image, rape and abuse, more subtle or sophisticated sexuality issues, feminist approaches to sexuality and the body and relationship modeling and management.

One of the tricky parts about financing Scarleteen is that while our traffic is incredibly high, the vast majority of it comes from users who either do not have their own income, or who do not have checking accounts or credit cards with which to make donations. We usually average just one donation per every 500,000 users. That’s one reason why your help is so important: support that comes from those who can give — like past users of Scarleteen who are now adults, or parents, educators, mentors and other adult allies — is what helps provide our services for those who cannot. It’s also why a site like Scarleteen is so important. Due to both age and financial limitations (as well as concerns about safety — particularly for GLBT youth — or privacy), often young adults are also without the resources to purchase good books or access quality counseling and support services and our free, easily accessible information and support is a godsend for many of them.

Want an idea about how some of our users feel Scarleteen has been a help to them? Take a look at some of their emails to us here. You can also have a peek here to see some of the media coverage Scarleteen has gotten in the past, and peek over here to get a better idea of why we do what we do.

If you haven’t kept up, here are a few pieces we added to the site in 2008 and 2009 to give you an idea of what we’ve been up to:

We have also had a handful of great first-person pieces added from users or volunteers in our In Your Own Words section. Our voting guide last year helped many users of voting age to find clear, balanced information about the Presidential candidates to best inform (and motivate!) their vote. Our archive of direct, in-depth advice to users who write in with questions is extensive. Lastly, our message boards, which we rolled out in the year 2000, continue to be busy, actively moderated and a place of bustling, supportive conversation (as well as a way to help users manage crises quickly) at a level many teens do not have other opportunities to engage in when it comes to such loaded subjects.

Scarleteen is also in the process of organizing a Teen Talking Circle through the site in an online format. For information on Teen Talking Circles, see: http://www.teentalkingcircles.org/

With your support we can sustain the pace we have set for ourselves as well as be able at last to do some things we have wanted and have seen the need for, for some time. They include:

  • Creating and distributing outreach print materials for schools, clinics and community groups, based on content like our popular Sex Readiness Checklist, our anatomy articles, and our pieces on abuse, gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Providing our volunteer staff extra training. In the next year, we’d like to get a few of our staff trained or certified in either or both pregnancy options counseling and/or basic sex education.
  • Stipends for some of our volunteer writers and columnists, which will both sustain a quality of content and allow us to keep up with the frequency of updates we have had in the last year. Paying writers also can nurture a greater diversity of voice and content.
  • Maintaining a part-time freelance developer to help us best manage and maintain the site for optimum useability.
  • A part-time, in-person assistant for myself as director.

In 2008, we were able to cover the basic overhead expenses of the site, and to do some travel for in-person book promotion, education and outreach. I was able to acquire needed computer/equipment updates for the organization, and have been able to pay our bills easily. We have also been able to donate many copies of the book to young people and youth advocacy organizations. We have also begun to establish a lending library for our volunteers so help them further and sustain their education on the issues we address at Scarleteen.

To let you know where I stand as director, I am very much looking forward to what we can do in our second decade. When I founded Scarleteen in 1998, I could not find any other viable resources online for young adult sex education and information, and perceived a strong need by youth for something like this. I also had a vision of sex education, having previously been both a teacher and a student in alternative education models before, that was considerably different than so much of what sex ed had been. Our supporters have put great faith and trust in my vision of the organization and sex ed as a whole, and I hope I can continue to inspire that faith and trust as we continue to grow and evolve.

I’ve had time to reflect on where we have come from and where we need to go. Towards that end I would like to continue to give my time, vision and dedication, as the sole full-time employee at Scarleteen, and to also increase my yearly salary to $20,000 (last year I took around 16K before taxes). As anyone who does work or has worked in non-profit knows, it’s hardly a place for the world’s best pay, however, as director of a large organization with ten years of operation, I feel, if possible, my salary should reflect the gravity of my position and the amount of my time and efforts a bit better.

Many of our supporters have been so exuberant and effective in drumming up support from others through the years, and that’s been an enormous help. Whether or not you can help with a donation right now, you can always help by getting the word out, both about Scarleteen as a whole, and about fundraising drives like this one.

If you’re able to donate, you have my deepest thanks. I know that these are not the best times for fiscally supporting anything save oneself, so I doubly appreciate what support you may be able to give. Donations of any size — and general support are so critical in providing support for those who need it and have helped us to thrive and survive. I cannot thank you for any of your support enough, both on behalf of all of the young people who remain able to access such needed information and support, and on my own behalf. Doing the work I do with Scarleteen has been, in so many ways, my dream job and my life’s work and I am so blessed to have that opportunity and to be able to continue to do it with your help.

Here’s that information on how to help out once more:

From February 14th through March 15th, one of our regular donors has agreed to match funds we receive in that month, up to $350 per donor, and/or up to $3,000 total.

  • You can donate online with you credit card or PayPal account by clicking here, OR
  • You can donate by check or money order, made out to Scarleteen, and mail to: 1752 NW Market St. #627, Seattle, WA, 98107 OR
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible you can donate by check or money order by making your cheque out to The Center for Sex and Culture, and writing “Scarleteen” in the memo. They will send you a written acknowledgment of your donation for tax purposes, and will send us any donations made to them on our behalf. Those donations should be mailed to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA 94114.

We’ve also got a new way that some of our younger users can easily help support Scarleteen! If all of our users for just two days each gave only one dollar, we could fund the site for the whole year. One dollar can assure that others are helped the same way you’ve been. If you’d like to help out, but don’t have much income of your own, a checking account or credit card, you can slip just one buck into an envelope and make a big difference. Plus, for every 30 envelopes we get with a dollar inside, we’ll randomly pull one and send that donor a free signed copy of S.E.X., which is a sweet deal for a buck and a stamp. Find out more about our Give a Buck fundraiser by clicking here.

In peace and with pleasure,
Heather Corinna, Founder & Director, Scarleteen

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Yesterday, a TIME magazine piece on cosmetic vulval surgeries nearly did our completely excellent server in. Then today, another piece from UC Santa Cruz’ student newspaper came out (which is a much more fun piece than the TIME one, and the reporter who did it was great fun to talk to and get connected with everyone).  Media avalanche, man.  Jaysis.

By the by, last night while I was in the living room indulging in a mini-film fest of tragic 80’s figures (Sid and Nancy is what was on at the time), I overheard Mark upstairs on the phone bragging a blue streak about me and my work to a friend.   It was just about one of the sweetest things ever, and I totally melted like a stick o’vegan buttery spread.

In making some calls for the CONNECT program, I set up a observation day at yet another program for homeless youth where they want some sex ed.  I am just loving that when it comes to my local work, I seem to be finding myself more and more often serving…well, the me of yesteryear.  At that training a weekish ago, a lot of it focused on basically reliving/telling our teen years, and I was telling my tales (which, by the way, is far more difficult to do in a group of people you don’t know in pewrson than it is in writing), I realized that I had a level of appreciation for my own pluck and ability to survive that I’d not ever given the proper weight to, even though it’s something I see in these kids and appreciate all the time about them.  It seems like kismet, really.

With that, I’m out to go do some more outreach today.  And I am hoping that unlike the very awkward Not-So-Great Tote Bag Explosion of 2008 that happened on the bus a couple months ago that resulted in every method of birth control imaginable spilling all over the floor (and every single person on said bus all but freezing in their seats, lest they have to TOUCH any of it: what the heck is with that?), I will not find that both all that stuff as well as a bunch of abortion instruments get restless and feel the need for an untoward escape.

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I know it’s a bit late in the game for those with early voting, but I just wanted to write a letter about voting this year. I do this every election for my friends and family, though I often write it more for those in the concentric circles around the people I know than for those closest to me. I often see or represent some groups plenty of people don’t have a familiarity with or a real awareness of.Perhaps obviously, I’d also encourage you to pen a letter like this of your own, but you’re also more than welcome to circulate mine.

What I don’t usually do is publish this letter, but I am making an exception this year.

For those not in the know, I’m a longtime Green Party person. And I have loved that this year, my parties presidential ticket is two amazing women of color, two peacemakers, two big thinkers, two women who — in my book — really get it and who could be amazing leaders.

While I’d love to vote for my party (wouldn’t I always!), this is another of those years where I don’t feel able to do that, because there is simply no room for what ultimately is a symbolic vote. This country isn’t ready for a two-woman ticket yet, let alone a third party or the Green party. I don’t like the two-party system, but at the same time, I don’t feel like this week is the right time for me to fight that battle. However, I have to say that this year, I don’t feel very let down about voting outside my party. In fact, even if my party had a chance this time around, I’d probably still vote outside of it.

I want to take a few minutes of your time and tell you not about me, but about some of the women I meet at the clinic I work at, who come into my office for counsel and tell me some of the most intimate details of their lives. As you already know, I provide education to millions of young people every year (with no public funding, by the by, due to providing accurate information, a drought which will continue in another Republican administration), and counsel anywhere from ten to fifty people one-on-one daily at Scarleteen. But I don’t sit down with them in person the way I do with the women at the clinic: I don’t see their faces, they don’t ask me for a hug or to hold their hand, or cry where I can see them when I simply acknowledge the challenges they face as real and not at all unimportant.

I want to tell how you much they are like me, you, other women and people you know. I want to tell you how important they are, even though they are clearly so easy for some to ignore or dismiss, even though they are so often rendered invisible.

Many of them already have more children than they can support or care for. Many are of color and/or low-income, and often become pregnant not because they have planned pregnancies with cooperative partners, but because their access to contraception has become more and more limited thanks in part to the Bush administration over the last eight years. Many also have sexually transmitted infections as well as being unwantedly pregnant, both too frequently due to an ignorance purposefully cultivated by the Bush administration through the billions of dollars sunk into knowingly inaccurate abstinence-only education, some of those funds even moved from family planning programs which not only provide accurate information, but also provide things like contraception, sexual healthcare and maternal healthcare for women who WANT to be or remain pregnant.

Some are in my office because they have been raped, a crime which still is diminished by so many in our government (and Palin did indeed allow Wasilla to charge rape victims, sometimes as much as over $1,000, for the rape kits done on them by the justice system: we see a lot of clients at our clinic from Alaska), and where many women also find themselves denied emergency contraception to prevent pregnancies due to Bush administrative support of healthcare providers refusing to supply effective and wanted contraception to women based on their own “moral” judgments. Bush may well leave a legacy of the HHS policy to be decided on this week which now would allow doctors and healthcare workers in public healthcare, even in healthcare clinics specifically for family planning, to refuse all contraception to patients based on their own personal feelings about the “immorality” of family planning.

Many have such a hard time taking care of the children they already have because they still are not paid at the same rates as men (despite often having the greater burden of expenses, particularly single mothers). Many, like myself, live without healthcare or in grossly inadequate public health programs, if they can even qualify for those. Many have children who are having to also go without healthcare (our child mortality and health rate is one of the worst of all developed nations); many have children who most certainly have been a child left behind when it comes to education. Some of them do not even want to terminate their pregnancies: they would want to have more children, but the reality of their lives — they are often already parents, they know what parenting requires — does not allow for that choice, nor does the continued lack of support for mothers and children in this country, a hard irony when coming from those who say they want to prevent abortion so badly. Some grew up in foster care, and know too well the truth of how many adoptive families there really are out there, especially when we’re talking about children of color: they don’t want to risk birthing a child who will end up in the foster care system.

Given we have a big base here in Washington, some are in the military (where abortion has been banned and contraceptive access grossly limited in recent times, a ban McCain and Palin support, and this in spite of the fact that the rate of sexual assault for women in the military is exponentially higher than it is for civilian women), some have partners in the military. Many of the women with partners in the military take care of two many children without help or assistance, and suffer from neglect or domestic violence due to partners who come home suffering from PTSD, gross fatigue, injuries and other issues and ailments our VA has been doing little about. (This is a particular issue for women in the military, who are having a doubly-tough time getting veterans care and assistance.) Many of these military families have had losses over the years due to the war in Iraq, and many of them still in service there want to just come home.

John McCain and Sarah Palin not only both seek to axe Roe vs. Wade, they both have records and statements of nonsupport for the many things we know prevent abortion in the first place: sound family planning programs, accurate sex education, domestic violence prevention, and an awareness of the many women whose lives do not even remotely resemble their own. John McCain and Sarah Palin have every intention of continuing harmful abstinence-education policies as well as continuing to underfund or reduce sound family planning.

McCain was also one of the rare senators who has voted against anti-domestic terrorism measures (the FACE act) for clients and workers at family planning and abortion clinics: the law and protections which help keep our clients — including those coming in for pregnancy tests who intend to remain pregnant, or those not pregnant wanting birth control or a pap smear, thank you very much — my co-workers and myself from being bombed or shot in the head on any given day.

The McCain healthcare plan is lunacy, seeming reasonable only to those with the wealth to actually HAVE $5,000 a year to spend on healthcare. McCain also has opposed many things which would improve the status of mothers, children and families in the states, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act. McCain voted to take $75 million from the Maternal and Child Health Block to fund abstinence-only programs, and voted to terminate Title X, our national family planning program which serves those most in need of birth control and reproductive health services.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are against the Lily Ledbetter act, a bill which would allow women more time to discover their pay isn’t fair and to seek restitution. They paint it as a “lawyer’s dream,” cavalierly — perhaps because neither of them are in personal need of it — but it’s a woman’s dream: it certainly was Lily Ledbetter’s dream when she discovered after a good deal of time — as is often the case — how unfairly she was being treated. Nearly all of the veterans organizations are in support of Obama and Biden. Despite being a veteran himself, John McCain has not had a record of being particularly helpful for or supportive of other veterans.

Neither John McCain nor Sarah Palin are feminist: neither ever have, nor intend to, provide real support or help for all women nor to strive for gender equality. from what I can tell, John McCain was not looking to empower women with his choice of Palin: he was looking to empower himself with eye-candy and someone the religious right would like better than they like him. McCain has voted continually to cut or underfund the Violence Against Women Act which Biden has been the champion of and the Victim Economic Security and Safety Act which Obama passed.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are no friends of general public education (or the arts), which empowers those most marginalized in this nation, both intellectually and emotionally: the women and children most at-risk of some of the worst circumstances are more often the most uneducated or undereducated. Suffice it to say, John McCain and Sarah Palin are also no friend of anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden not only fit all of these bills, they fit most fantastically.

These are issues they not only have a realistic awareness of, but a deep desire to remedy. These are issues they actually talk about, and make actual plans for, rather than barely give lip service to in order to court favor or votes, when even that is given at all. These are issues they view through the lens of fairness and equity, not through the lens of what they want for themselves or via their personal religious doctrines.

If these issues seem less important than taxes, the war in Iraq or international diplomacy, I’d posit you reconsider. All in all, no matter who wins, someone is likely to have to pay higher taxes. All in all, no matter who wins, given the systems of support per the very structure of our government, we’re probably going to do just fine when it comes to diplomacy (though I’d say Obama will likely do a better job there, given how many foreign nations have voiced a far deeper respect for him than McCain). All in all, no matter who wins, working our way out of the mess Bush has made in Iraq is going to be difficult at best.

But the kinds of issues I’m talking about aren’t minor or secondary. Civil rights, human rights, issues are foundational for our nation and for the quality of life of everyone here. They are the very reason this nation was founded, and why the men and women who entered into the wild experiment that was democracy here took the grave risks they did to do so. They knew — as so many of us know — that life is only so valuable without a certain quality of life. They didn’t find these kinds of issues to be trivial, neither do I…and neither should any of us.

These kinds of issues are where we can really see the biggest differences between the candidates, and they are profound differences which deeply impact the quality of life of so many citizens. These are the kinds of issues where we can get a good look at who a candidate really cares about, and if they truly have in mind the interests of all of us, or merely some. These are the issues where we can see if a candidate intends to unite all of us or create or enable deeper divisions. These are, in my mind, the kinds of issues where we can see who is ready to lead (and where to) and who is not.

I won’t lie, I want things to be better for me, personally.

I want healthcare for the first time in over 20 years: I need it badly. I want the young people I counsel to come to me able to spell, and the young women I see at Scarleteen to not doubt their equality as they still so often do. I want those of us who aren’t heterosexual to have the same rights as those who are. I want to be able to continue to obtain contraception since I continue to know I cannot afford a child — financially or per our joint health — nor do I want to become pregnant. I do not want to have to counsel women choosing abortion solely or primarily because they have not been afforded the same rights and benefits as other women when it comes to contraception, maternal healthcare, pay, protection from abuse or assault and other equities anymore. I want to be able to get the same funding for the accurate, needed health information I supply to millions a year that organizations who don’t even serve a fraction of that number of, and who supply purposefully and knowingly inaccurate information to (and part of my job is often correcting, or managing crises which have arisen from that misinformation), do. I want the arts supported. I want equal pay for equal work.

I want this country to stop calling one-sided xenophobic assaults “wars” or “liberation.” I want for America to stop being the country every other country validly despises and is ashamed of. I want for the 20 years I have spent in activism about education, women’s rights, young people’s rights and sexual and reproductive health to really mean something, and for a chance to do the work I do without constantly feeling I am fighting a battle I cannot make strides in, let alone win.

But — and perhaps even more so — I want these things and more for the women I meet at the clinic.

The beauty is that taking care of their needs doesn’t stand in the way of taking care of my needs, your needs or anyone else’s needs.

That’s the beauty of real fairness, real equity, real investment in the aims laid down in the Constitution and the heart of this nation. That’s the beauty of being civic-minded, and doing your best to think, when you vote, not just of yourself but for all of us as a nation.

I don’t expect Barack Obama or anyone else to be able to fix all of this in a mere four years. But what I do expect, and am absolutely certain I will see, is for Barack Obama to try. I do expect both some actual remedies and also real groundwork laid in order to make the fixes which are more long-term possible, as well as a foundation and a spirit which may well just influence how people think so that people like the invisible women I see become more visible. I have not been even remotely hopeful that that is something I would finally start seeing for years: it is an amazing thing to feel it possible in the near future today.

That’s a whole lot of why I’m not only voting outside my party and for Barack Obama, but why I feel exceptionally good about it. And it’s why I’d ask you to consider doing the same.

If you’re still on the fence, do some research today. Be sure to look through the nonpartisan voting guide at Scarleteen.

But whatever you do, by all means, please vote. And when you do, do your very best to do so with the real aims of this nation — and with your hopes, not your fears — at heart.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Just a reminder: September 25th is the last day to submit public comment on the proposed HHS regulations which are not only superfluous, but more importantly, would limit access to reproductive healthcare (and other healthcare) services in the U.S., particularly for those who already have the greatest limitations to care.

It’s so important to have public comment on this, so if you have not done so yet, take a few minutes tonight and be sure to get something in, even if it’s just a very polite way of saying “Go to hell.”

Here’s mine:
I am writing to urge you to stop efforts to block women’s access to basic reproductive health services.

I understand that the proposed regulations that the Department of Health and Human Services released on August 21, 2008 expand existing law to allow more health care providers and institutions to refuse to provide needed care.

As written, the regulations could allow institutions and individuals — based on religious beliefs — to deny women access to birth control and permit individuals to refuse to provide information and counseling about basic heath care services.  Moreover, they expand existing laws by permitting a wider range of health care professionals to refuse to provide even referrals for abortion services.

For those of us working in healthcare, the onus is on us to choose a clinic or an area of practice where we know we want to provide the healthcare services offered to clients, and which we feel is in alignment with our personal values or religious beliefs.  It should not be on those seeking needed health services.  It is our responsibility — and we have the greater agency as as workers — to seek out the work we want, and leave the work we do not want, or do not feel we can live with, to those who are supportive and can honor any given job description.  It is also our responsibility to take a job earnestly, not disingenuously.  In healthcare, we have an extra responsibility, which is to put our clients needs and their physical health  — not our ideas about their spiritual health — ahead of our own, and to care for them in the way which is best for them, objectively, rather than in the ways we feel would be best for us, or feel our religion would mandate.

Since this proposal has come to light, I have looked for any evidence that it is in response to a mass of healthcare workers voicing complaint and finding they are incapable of doing the very jobs they have agreed to do.  I have found no such thing.  I have also found Mike Leavitt’s responses to the concerns of many with this proposal to be disturbingly dismissive, belittling and out-of-touch.  The notion that low-income people can (or should have to) simply and easily choose a healthcare provider whose religious beliefs match their own, as Leavitt has flippantly suggested, is a stunning display of ignorance about the realities of public healthcare and those in need.  The Department of Health and Human Services is the principal agency we have for “protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves.”  That does not mean those who work in healthcare: it means those seeking and receiving healthcare.  The head of the HHS blithely stating he is privileging providers over patients seems effectively to be saying that he has no real interest in doing his job or serving the population he has sworn to through his appointment.

That given, I simply can only reasonably deduce that this proposal is one last gasp from the Bush administration to try and limit or remove more of our reproductive rights.  This appears to be nothing more than one more back door through which those who want to control women — rather than to provide healthcare, which is not to be confused with morality lessons — and put our health at risk can creep in under the false pretense of self-protection.

I work for two different reproductive health organizations, with populations who would be the most impacted by this policy, should it be approved: with teen and young adult women, with women of color, with low-income women.  At both, I see daily how — already, without these new regulations — lack of access to reliable contraception and reproductive health services and accurate information has a negative impact.  I see it with the clients who come to the clinic I work at, where we provide abortions and other reproductive healthcare services: a great deal of our clients arrived there because their access to contraception and sound information on contraception was limited or absent. For a nation who endlessly states it wants nothing more than to limit abortions, policies like this have a funny way of showing it.  I see it with the young people I counsel every day who often go without reliable contraception or sexual healthcare because of discrimination they face from healthcare providers, ignorance about contraception due to the limitation of their providers, or valid worries that they will be refused care or service, or given morality lectures rather than healthcare.  For a nation which states it wants its citizens to be as healthy as possible, and who want its youth to thrive, proposals like this appear to stand in a strange conflict with that aim.

I do not need to work for either of these organizations: I have far more choice and agency in where I work and what job I do than I  — or others — do when it comes to healthcare, particularly as an uninsured person in the United States who relies on sound public healthcare.  Should I ever forget that, I think it would be sound to suggest it was time I found another profession and that I consulted my conscience.  It is a cruel irony to have this proposal state to be about provider conscience, when, in fact,  it appears to be about suspending conscience altogether.

My clients cannot exempt themselves from their healthcare needs: I can exempt myself from a job I do not wish to do, or set aside my own personal beliefs to honor those of someone in need of care who has every right to receive it.  If I am in earnest about wanting to support reproductive health in my work, should I find myself unable to do the work or put needed care first, exempting myself from it would be the only sound recourse.  I should say the same about the federal government and this proposal if it truly supports our health. At a time when more and more Americans are either uninsured or struggling with the soaring costs of health care, the federal government should be expanding access to important health services, not undermining existing protections or interfering in programs that have successfully provided services for years.

For certain, freedom of religion is an essential part of the foundation of this nation: however, separation of religion from public law and policy is the other vital half of that equation, and required for that very freedom.  For all of our citizens to have the liberty our constitution assures, it is necessary that no one set of beliefs or values be privileged, nor exercised at the cost of another person’s health.

For years, federal law has carefully balanced protections for individual religious liberty and patients’ access to reproductive health care. The proposed regulations appear to take patients’ health needs out of the equation.  I urge you to restore this important balance and protect access to basic care for the millions of Americans who depend on federally funded health care services.

Thank you for your consideration,

Heather Corinna
Founder and Director, Scarleteen.com
CONNECT Program Director, Cedar River Clinics/FWHC

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I had a really wonderful morning today that very quickly turned bittersweet on me.

Today was one of my days to do sex ed outreach to the street kids at the temporary teen shelter in the International District. The group was all girls this morning, which rarely happens. I don’t mind teaching when boys are part of the group, but the mixed-gender group with this particular population really makes a big difference. I actually don’t think the difference is about sex or discomfort with the topic: rather I tend to think it’s about gender posturing for who is the toughest or the most disaffected. In any event, it was nice to only have girls today.

They were pretty bubbly when I came in, but when it was said what I was going to be doing there, half the group was delighted, and the other half expressed disgust or disinterest. (And I always make a point of making clear that no one is obligated to participate.) They all stayed, and I started going through the birth control and safer sex portion of my presentation. When I asked how they felt they and their friends were at handling safer sex negotiation, one of the “I’m not interested” asked about dealing with that when you’re on-street.

Without really meaning to tell a personal anecdote — rather, because I think I so often take for granted that my whole life history is right there on my face — I said I remembered that a few times when I was on-street in my teens, when I’d agreed to an exchange of sex-for-place-to-sleep, how that was probably the toughest spot I’d ever felt with negotiation: my having shelter was on the line. ALL the eyes got big then, and ALL of the girls jumped off the couches and came into a close circle around me on the floor. We then talked some more about how being on-street makes a lot of these issues different and more difficult before it turned into a two-hour long very random Q&A about everything from who’s fallen for the blue balls whine, how their gay male friends can use female condoms, why you shouldn’t use flavored condoms vaginally, where their uterus actually was, some talk about sex readiness and age, the works.

In the middle of all of this, the one girl who leapt furthest from the couch told me that she really wanted to do exactly what I was doing for street kids once she got off-street, and that she “didn’t mean to be a jerk,” but she only wanted to listen once she realized I’d been where she was because they had to hear from so many people who never were. She made “I’m so going to be you when I grow up” eyes at me for the rest of the session, which pretty much broke my heart into a million little pieces.

I don’t usually do condom demonstrations with these, but instead ask if they feel like they need one. Usually, they’ll say no, and often, too — especially in those mixed groups — I get the impression the comfort level among them just isn’t right to be yanking a dildo out of my purse. When I asked today, they were all over it saying, “Do you have a PENIS with you?” The fact that I did apparently was the funniest thing that ever was, second only to that giving them the permission to tell me what to do with “my penis” — “give me your penis,” “pass the penis, please,” and “no, it’s my penis right now, I’ll give it to you in a minute” — thereafter.

I got accused online the other day of trying to turn teenage girls into “temporary lesbians,” so I had to keep from cracking up myself when one of them had the dildo in her hand and said, “Doesn’t this ever get soft?” and I said, “No,” and she was quiet for a minute before saying, “Oh. Cooooool.”

I’d say I don’t know if I’ll ever be told again, “Put your penis back in your purse, Heather,” save that I know I will. Lord knows I have before. Welcome to my life.

In any event, it was a really great session, very dynamic and warm and hysterically funny after we talked about the tougher stuff. I wanted to put all of them in my purse with the penis, take and give them a place to have that slumber-party energy they seemed to be enjoying today in a real home, not a lockdown. It was a total daymaker, and I also left with this sparkle in my heart from just having a few minutes in there where I was reminded why I’m Buddhist. There was some big ol’ bodhisattva energy in all of those girls and they really gifted me by opening it up more around me.

Unfortunately, once I left and got on the bus I got whacked with the big-heart-ow of those girls being total throwaway kids as far as their parents or guardians are usually concerned.  Some of them are going to be on and off-street until or even through their adulthood.  Often, I feel that going in, presenting and coming home: things don’t usually get so spirited that I forget it for a while. I forgot today. Then I remembered.

When that reality came hurling back, it hit hard and left marks.

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I’m up all too early because I head back to work in-clinic today in order to start a new part of the CONNECT program.

Basically, I’m bringing sex ed and CR into the clinic, giving women in the waiting room an option to come sit in the cozier room with me and other clients to do Q&A and discuss all things sexuality, reproductive health, sexual health, abortion, relationships, the works.  Hopefully, I can find a way to do this so that I don’t seem like a clown sent into the old folks home: I need to figure out a way to invite them in where I’m not poking my head into the waiting room, hawking my wares with a “Yo, sex education is in the house!”

All the same, I’m excited. It feels like a first day of school: I even have some new school supplies.  This is one of the first things I proposed to diversify the works and help our clients when I took over directing the outreach program.  If all goes well, they stand to learn a lot, I stand to learn a lot, and I think it could be a truly marvelous thing.  Plus, I have really missed being in the clinic over the last monthish, and I’m really looking forward to giving my co-workers big, bear hugs.

In other news, I am hoping to present a panel with a group of fine, fine women at the 2009 SXSW Interactive Festival and I need your assistance.

Here’s the info on what we’re hoping to present:

Sex Ed Online: How Teens Self Savvy

Creators of popular online teen sexuality content—including the Midwest Teen Sex Show and Scarleteen.com—community educators, scholars and advocates discuss teenagers, sex, and the Internet. Content developers, parents and teens: Bring your questions, fears and hopes. We’ll answer generational quandaries. Apparently, there are prizes for the best questions, but I have no idea what they are.
For the uninitiated, here are the deets about the SXSW Interactive Festival:The SXSW Interactive Festival (http://sxsw.com/interactive) is an industry conference for web developers and digital creatives, held in Austin and now in its 15th year. These days the conference has become so popular that it gets hundreds of proposals, like mine, from people who would like to present at the conference.

To help the SXSW Interactive folks sort out what people what to hear, the conference organizers now use a web-based panel picker. Please visit and use the panel picker and to place a vote on it for my proposal and leave a comment.  It’s fine if you don’t currently have plans to attend SXSW Interactive 2009 - anyone at all can vote and leave a comment.

Leaving a comment would be especially helpful, because the SXSW people pay more attention to those comments than anything else.

So, if you’ve got a sec…
==> Please go to http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/  and, in the search box, enter “Sex Ed” in order to quickly find the listing for my proposal, place your vote and leave a comment. The panel picker will be active until August 29.

It will take you less than 3 minutes and costs nothing, but you must open an account on the panel picker to post a comment. You are not signing onto any e-mail lists by giving  your information, and you do not need to attend the conference nor must you have attended it in the past in order to vote for my panel.  While votes to rate the proposal (1-5 stars) are valuable, I’m told that what really counts with the organizers it is having comments written about why someone would be a good speaker and/or why the topic is of interest. So please vote for my idea and comment

And here are more details about the women who’d be presenting with me: Karen Rayne, Karen Kreps, Nikol Hasler and Kris Gowan PhD.

* Nikol Hasler is one-third of a highly entertaining podcast, “The Midwest Teen Sex Show.” A Midwestern mother of three (who isn’t afraid to use her children in the service of sex education) Nikol has no formal training as a sex educator but along with her co-creators Guy Clark and Britney Barber, she has created a great sex education tool, playing with stereotypes not just about sex, but about age, race, class, and orientation in a way that is engaging and opinionated enough to be useful.
* Kris Gowan has a Master’s in Education in Human Development and Psychology and a PhD in Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of “Sexual Decisions” (Scarecrow Press, 2003) and started www.teensforum.com (but left before it became overly commercialized) Her research has focused on healthy relationships/sexuality in adolescence and lately on positive youth development and the intersection between youth, the Internet and sexual development/sexual identity.

* Karen Rayne earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, which she puts to good use educating parents about how to talk with their teens about sex and romance. She also provides comprehensive sex education to teenagers.
* Karen Kreps will be moderating the panel. Karen has more than two decades developing interactive content (www.netingenuity.com), and has written and published the book, “Intimacies: Secrets of Love, Sex & Romance,” a collection of columns she has written for The Good Life magazine. See http://trueintimacies.com. For six years, Karen hosted monthly public discussions about love, sex and romance.
Some of the questions that will be answered on this panel include: 1. What do teens want to know about sex? 2. How do they use the Internet to find answers? 3. Which social media tools provide the best sexual education? 4. What positive or negative impact can the Web have on teen sexuality? 5. At what ages should online use by children and teens be monitored? 6. Are parents abdicating their roles as sex educators to the Internet? 7. Does online info encourage or discourage sexual experimentation by teens? 8. What role does the Internet play in educating youth about sex? 9. Can the government regulate online sex education and should it? 10. Can online sex info be trusted for accuracy?

I will be most grateful for any support you can offer and hope that you will please use the Panel Picker and vote for our proposal. Thanks!

And with that, I’m off like a good hair day in the rain.  Literally, unfortunately.  Monsoon season seems to be starting early here this year.  Great.

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

While out of town this weekend, between two plane trips and a couple late evenings up reading, I started and polished off  Elliott Currie’s The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence in very short order.  I didn’t do this because it was a fluffy or easy read — it’s actually very in-depth and painful at times, though highly readable — but because it was such a well-done piece of work, so engaging, and from my point of view, so dead-to-rights.  It was incredibly refreshing to read Currie’s approach: I was thirsty for it, and it delivered a long, tall and much-needed drink. I found buried treasure.

It was timely, my reading this book, because for a while I’ve taken issue with how at-risk youth are even defined.  For the most part, they are defined by race and class, as necessarily of-color, and/or in poverty.  By all means, I agree that being a member of any oppressed class — which every adolescent is, simply by virtue of age — will always bump risk factors up, and I want care given to of-color youth and low-income youth in a way which does it’s best to compensate for those youth having less resources than others.  (As well, I’m also concerned with the not-so-well-meaning and racist or classist implications of identifying at-risk youth that way, as if, by virtue of color or income, rather than the institutions which discriminate by that criteria, a given person is somehow innately destined to have bigger problems, and it is that person in need of “fixing,” not those institutions.) But I do often worry, particularly since so often we see middle-class youth of all colors at Scarleteen having such a tough time of things, about assuring that our focus is broad enough when it comes to who we decide needs care and attention.  I have frequent concerns that the way we identify who is and who isn’t at risk, who may and may not be likely to be at-risk, is too narrow.

How much money the family of a young adult has is no guarantee at all of happiness or well-being, something I learned all too well when I taught upper class children for a year in the early 90’s: there was an isolation, a loneliness and a stressed-out perfectionism many of those students — particularly those approaching puberty — that took me very much by surprise at the time.  On more than one occasion, I heard a parent respond to a valid concern we voiced for their child with little more than an immediate concern for and defense of their needs (such as the “need” to pull a child in and out of school incessantly because a parent didn’t like the cold and liked to switch over to a summer home on their whim, for themselves), not those of their child.

The new middle-class world in which many American adolescents grow up is one that combined harshness and heedlessness in equal measure.  It is a world that is quick to punish and slow to help, a world paradoxically both deeply moralistic and profoundly neglectful.  Hence, it is hardly surprising that so many mainstream teenagers are in trouble, for that world makes it very hard to grow up.  It makes it all too difficult to achieve a strong and abiding sense of worth and all too easy to feel like a failure and a loser.  It makes it all too easy to feel like an outsider, all too difficult to feel appreciated or respected for being who you are.  It is a world in which it is treacherously easy for adolescents to trip up and break the rules but in which no one can be bothered to help them avoid tripping up in the first place. (p.254, bolding mine)

I admit, I had a lot of déjà vu when reading Currie’s accounts of the teens he worked with.  While I grew up primarily low-income, a few of my adolescent years were spent in the middle-class, and those were the years when things got as bad as they could possibly get.  Accounts in the book of Tough Love were all-too familiar to me, and the reminder harrowing.  In my case, Tough Love was used in conjunction with, and sometimes as justification for, an abuse dynamic, which was particularly chilling, and you see that in some of these accounts as well.  I remember, too, that when we moved into (rather, married into) the middle class, there was less notice of the effects of my household on me.  In lower-class communities and schools, neighbors and teachers seemed to have a keener eye: in middle-class life, there seemed a universal propensity to turn the other cheek, to put on blinders, to say “None of my business,” which felt very different — cold, isolated, the kind of disturbingly quiet things are when no one wants to talk about what’s wrong — than our lower-income community had.  Perhaps it was partly due to the timing, due to that switch happening at the onset of my adolescence, but I remember it very distinctly feeling like suddenly we youth were the enemy, always at fault, and parents and other adults ever-good, even when they were being anything but.

I noticed some changes and some similarities.  On the north side of Chicago, back when I was a teen, there were a rare few of us identified as “trouble” who had not either spent some time put in mental institutions by parents — not by the state — or who were frequently threatened with same.  It became a way to find something quickly in common: “Oh, you were in the ward at Northwestern?  When?  Were you there with Susie?”  That still seems to be occurring, but more often the institution is pharmaceutical: at the first sign of trouble, mood changes (which are part and parcel of the chemical effects of puberty, not a disorder) or rebellion, teens are put on SSRIs, anti-anxiety or ADHD medications.  We also see many youth now wind up in criminal institutions, “boot camps,” — whose listings I have to remove from our GoogleAds constantly — get shuttled more from one home to another, and with GLBT youth, in camps which aim to “rehabilitate” them.

Young adults seem also to be suspended or kicked out of school with more frequency and ease in this era, taking away yet one more resource that is needed; setting youth more adrift than before, rather than helping them to use places like school as a much-needed tether. His accounts of the world of modern-day suburban high schools and rigorous academic achievement will probably also sound very familiar to teens today: as cold, uncaring (particularly for students who do not prove their worth with high grades or test scores), punitive and, all too frequently, more parent and teacher-centered than student-centered.  Of course, there is also a heavy and judgmental religious morality, one which in the U.S. has found it’s way into schools and policies through our current administration, which also often judge, youth, and do so with the ultimate authority figure: one which claims to come directly from God.  The actuality or threats of kicking a teen out of the house also do not appear to have decreased, despite the fact that it still remains unlawful for a parent to abandon a minor in that way.

I appreciated that he brought up that one common reason teens wind up in trouble, or in situations or social circles which endanger them isn’t because teens are stupid or foolhardy, but because those places or groups are more accepting of them, have less stringent or rigid standards for approval than teens are finding elsewhere. There’s a reason, after all, that so many teens are so stressed out right now: it’s not random.

If we wonder why we see very young teenage women dating older partners who clearly or likely are exploiting them or putting them at risk, rather than just looking to that teen or that adult, we should also look at what they get from that situation which they are not finding elsewhere.  If the only person stating or recognizing a developing maturity (whether or not that is earnest or manipulative) is the 25-year-old guy who lives with Mom and picks up teen girls at the mall, it’s no wonder a young person moving into adulthood is very drawn to that person, despite their flaws or manipulations which may even be known to teens pairing up with them.  If we feel like youth are spending too much time in online communities and too little in real-life, we might look at the differences through this lens, considering what kind of acceptance they are or are not getting here or there.  If we’re wondering things like why we’re seeing an increase in abusive YA relationships we might also look to where they are learning those patterns in the first place, why those relationships seem to be so easy for teens to fall into and why they seem so normal and familiar.  If it seems completely incomprehensible that young people wind up with addictions to hard drugs (self-injury is also pertinent here), we might look at the differences in how a person feels on a drug and off of it: if a drug seems the only way to feel comfortable socially, to care less about feelings of hatred for oneself, or to find something to shake a person out of feeling numb, why look to the drugs or the addiction first, and to what’s being escaped from second, if at all?

The stories he recounts are so important: as usual, I can’t say enough how important I feel it is that we listen — really listen — to young people.  They are painful and poignant, but often inspirational: many of the young people he interviewed managed — though they shouldn’t have had to — to create and discover selves and lives of meaning and value despite so frequently being denied help and care from the sources where they should have most easily found both.

But what I found most important, and most meaningful, were the conclusions he draws from those stoires and what he knows as an expert on many of the institutions and institutional systems youth can wind up in, from what their experiences illustrated so clearly and consistently. It’s all very simple, really.  The idea many people seem to have that the reason middle-class adolescents find themselves in crisis is because they have too much of everything — too much esteem, too much care, too much attention — and thus, the answer is to take those things away — work to decrease esteem, withdraw or deny care and attention — is not only profoundly cruel but profoundly flawed.  When the young adults he talked to were able to turn their lives around was, of no surprise to those thinking and feeling clearly, when they finally got some practical help, some support and attention; when they were cared for and treated compassionately, when who they are was respected and assured to be of worth — without being proven through achievement — when they were no longer just tossed to the wolves to see if they’d make it or not.

These should be obvious conclusions, but we all know that however obvious they may seem, they are often not the conclusions drawn or the approach taken.

What makes this institutional failure so troubling is that many of these teenagers really needed help at some point in their adolescence.  They were at best overwhelmed and adrift, and often in peril.  Some had been genuinely damaged by their treatment at the hands of abusive, neglectful or dysfunctional adults. Over and over again, the teens I spoke with said that what they most needed during their periods of crisis was basic: they needed someone to listen to them, pay attention, take them seriously and not put them down or humiliate them.  They needed people who were sufficiently engaged to help them figure out what to do next and strong enough to be flexible and understanding rather than reflexively judgmental — people who could help them understand their mistakes while acknowledging their good qualities and who could help them build on their strengths and potential.  When they got that kind of response, they appreciated it and usually responded in kind.  But they rarely got it.  What they got too often was an ideologically grounded regime of punishment and blame that seemed designed to break their “oppositional” nature… (p.168, bolding mine)

More flashback for me.  I remember — and by all means, we still hear this from teens today daily - that whatever mistakes I made, or perceived failings of flaws I had always seemed to take more precedence than the good things I did or  my unique personality and talents.  I could get the great grades I did all I wanted, and yet, what I heard more about was how the way I dressed and presented was ugly and unacceptable.  I could be an intensely creative person, always writing, making a piece of art, singing and playing piano,  I could be as kind to other people as possible, I could try and do some things with social change movements, but because I clearly wasn’t straight and was (and actually was perceived as being well before I *actually* was) sexually active, what I boiled down to was just a loose slut.  The fact that I had largely raised myself, taken care of myself from a very young age without much help was never recognized, but when I made any error or oversight with that self-rearing, it was all my fault.

Like most of the youth in Currie’s work, when things turned around for me was exactly when these kinds of things happened for me.  I was able to switch from a very unwelcoming public school — even for an excellent student, which I very much was — to a specialized and highly inclusive arts school where my gifts and talents were recognized and my uniqueness was celebrated by both faculty and peers.  I had a counselor who didn’t put blame on me, but acknowledged things that were not my fault clearly (like that it was my family who was crazy and dysfunctional, not me; like that I had been trying to live though serious trauma without any real help or acknowledgment of that trauma so it was no surprise I was having a very hard time). I was able to get connected with a parent who was supportive of me and willing to work through the problems I was having with me with love and acceptance, fully engaged with me in doing so.  All of these kinds of things were my turning points. The fact that I had to actually fight to get those things — that anyone does — that I was ignored or denied when asking for them so much I just stopped asking, rather than to be neglected (or, at other times, face highly severe “punishments”), abandoned, institutionalized, tossed to the wolves all “for my own good,” will hopefully, at some other point in history, be recognized as the harmful lunacy that it was and for many teens, still is.

Here at Scarleteen, and at other services which are expressly for teens and young adults, one way we often see that lack of care is just in how tough it often is for us to find volunteers or get donations: to far too many people, teens and young adults are seen as a population who is too young to be considered and treated as adult, but too old to be cared for. Services which are about control or containment — which are, let’s face it, more about providing creature comforts for parents then for teens — often are more stable and supported than those which are about providing the kind of bonafide support or help the youth themselves are asking for, and that’s a serious problem.  Teens are often put in a sort of purgatory, even in what services are provided for them: little children are important, adults are important, but anyone in between…well, they’ll sink or they’ll swim, right?  What Currie makes clear, and I agree, is that what that approach inclines them to do is to tread water or drown.

I do wish some attention had been given to the additional challenges gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth often face; that some address had been made of how additionally isolated GLBT youth often are, and how “tough love” or… approaches compound their crises.  But that’s a minor quibble — and really, my only quibble — while most of the youth he talked with seemed to be heterosexual, Currie didn’t explicitly identify the orientation of any of them, and it may simply have been outside the scope of his study.  I also would have loved a foreword from one of the youth he interviewed: maybe for the next printing?

None of this is rocket science, but it does stand pretty counter to some very common approached to youth in trouble and.or in need of help. We should know by now that the “Bad kid! No biscuit” (or no love, no roof, no school, no social outlets, no dating, whichever it is) approach not only doesn’t work, but is potentially quite damaging, and certainly not in accord with helping young people transition into healthy, happy adults. For lack of a better term — though I personally, am really fond of rebellious and think there’s a lot of great power in the term — being “oppositional” is part of the nature of adolescence.  While it may inconvenience, challenge or scare parents or other adults, and while it certainly can wear a person out, in so many ways, adolescence is another sort of birth.  During the teen years, young people are giving birth to the adults they are becoming, and like any birth, it is frequently painful, in some way inconsiderate of its environment, raucous, unpredictable, chaotic, anarchist. To a large degree, it is not something others can control, which certainly poses a conflict to a culture seeking more and more control of everything and everyone.   I’m of the mind — and my impression was that Currie is, as well — that young adult separation and rebellion needn’t be or be viewed as destructive.  In fact, I’ve long thought and expressed that I think it’s something we need in our culture: one incredible thing teens do for us is sort of jar us awake, pull us forward unto their future, give us, as a culture, a sort of high-powered jolt I think we’re often in need of.

So many huge cultural and social changes in our culture — like them or not — are changes we have generations of youth to thank for: the Great Awakening, the Industrial Revolution, public schooling, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat era, feminism, the hippies, yippies and diggers of my parents years, the punk movement of my era, the riot-grrls of the one right after that, tech development, and…. well, we’re going to see what we really have right now, if we give our youth a chance to show us, anyway.  For a lot of our national and global history, young people have been at the forefront of social justice movements and other social change, and for just as long of a time, adults have frequently been resistant, and sometimes that resistance results in attempts to (and successes at) control and contain rather than engagement, cooperation and participation.  Often enough, and certainly now, adults have been sure that teens cannot harness and manage their own energy despite history showing us that more often, in fact, young people know exactly how to channel their rebellion and their unique spirits powerfully and positively, perhaps better than adults do.

I think if we seek to quiet, subdue or control young people, we all — and most particularly the teens themselves — lose something immensely valuable and seriously important. We also don’t help teens at all by either abandoning them or by punishing them for their nature: it’s one of the ways we do them real harm.  The title to the book speaks of a typical answer Currie got when asking teens about why they fell into destructive or damaging habits, addictions or behaviors, or how they felt about themselves and their lives at the time: “Whatever,” was a typical response.  I think — I hope - one place all of us can agree upon, no matter our divergent and diverse politics, values or aims — is that no one earnestly benefits from a population who feels that their lives and actions are just “whatever.”  The youth themselves most certainly don’t, but neither do adults, even if that “whatever” gives some adults more room to have lives uninterrupted or without the inconvenience of a more invested and higher-esteemed teen.

It seems like stating the obvious, but if we want a healthy, vibrant and caring world, we just can’t very well expect to have that if when our youth are looking towards adulthood, we’ve made them feel that they’ll have nothing of value to contribute if and when they get there (unless, apparently, they become only who we want them to be to serve our own needs and aims, rather than being and becoming who they actually are and serving what needs and aims are their own).

Suffice it to say, I strongly recommend this book: to parents, teachers, other YA helpers, as well as to young people (I know my inner-teen got some healing and acknowledgment through this, so your actual-teen might well, too).  In a similar vein, I also would suggest two other books, Generation on Hold: Coming of Age in the Late Twentieth Century, (James E. Cote & Anton L. Allahar) and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine.

It perhaps goes without saying that I also strongly recommend that we look at where, exactly, teens are learning to look at themselves and their lives as “Whatever.”  A mirror may prove useful.(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen blog.)

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Before I head off the San Francisco — where for the religious right to get at me, they’d have to crawl through an ocean of queers first, who probably would rub their cooties all over them and turn them gay — after a few hours in Slumberland, I feel the need to sum up my week in but two words: holy shit.

Which does a rather amazing job, really, of saying it all in very short order.

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

I just got off the phone with my Pop.

I’m appreciating so much that over the last two years he’s been able to be in the SRO where I can actually be able to be in contact with him, know where he is, and that there’s a phone so we’re able to talk with some frequency and for decent periods of time.

When all the work crap went down a few weeks ago, and we were talking, we got into a conversation where he was asking why I was dedicated to activism the way I was, and I interrupted myself in the midst of explaining to tell him that I thought it was pretty damn silly for him to be asking why I was pretty much exactly the way he taught me to be. He took a pause, and he asked if that made me suffer. I answered that while it certainly doesn’t make for an easy life, it’s so rewarding and such a huge part of who I am that I don’t even know who I’d be otherwise: that what he gave me in that regard was a massive gift. And then he cried big, happy tears (this after crying sad tears about something else he’s been dealing with, so that was good).

My father has always been very hypercritical about being as good a parent to me as he could have been, despite the fact that given the whole of our situation, the whole of my childhood and adolescence and his life, and all of the things he has done for me — including, quite literally, saving my life and my sanity in my teens — I think he was a great Dad. I feel very blessed. I have a parent who has always been 100% supportive of me in everything I have done, who has always been my dearest friend. While his disabilities and his issues certainly have often been very hard for me, and having to provide care for him sometimes (being his only person in the world is certainly a burden), have him be on street sometimes, all of that, has by no stretch been easy for me and has often been acutely painful, I’ve also always been aware that neither he nor I can control much of that. When it all comes down to it, I have such a unique relationship with my father: one I see other people have very rarely, and without that….well, I just don’t know what on earth would have become of me in many, many ways. Really, I think I do know, and I do not think it would have been at all good. I don’t even know if I’d be alive or intact, honestly.

Those rare moments like that, where he actually experiences and feels the value he’s had, feels proud of the way that he parented, is able to have his self-critique and self-loathing fall away when it comes to me: it’s so awesome, and I’m so glad.

I probably won’t be able to see him again for another handful of months. Our plan at the moment is to fly him out here for the elections. We figure if it’s a good result, we all get to celebrate together, and if the worst happens yet again, we’ll at least have good company for a solid three-day bender of epic proportions.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Kicking federal government attempts at censorship is so the gift that keeps on giving, man.

I swear, this just never gets old. Ever. If I could send the feds a card that issued the world’s biggest zurbitz – is that how you spell that? — when opened, I really would. Of course, knowing they keep paying to try and reprise this stupid thing with our tax dollars does take the bloom off the rose a bit, but still.

Had a small, but nice presentation at the youth residential center this morning, got to wake up and see a bunch of new plants I put into my garden, solidifying a fall trip hosted by two libraries in one of the toughest hit places in the states when it comes to unwanted teen pregnancy to go help get those kids edumacated (my love for librarians: another thing that never gets old), and heading out to supper with my sweetie.

Good day today.

P.S. Mr. Price and I are beginning the serious couples trial of trying for… a second dog! Wahoo! We expect it to be a long, arduous journey, full of false hopes and times when we are certain we may never find out exact second dog (particularly since with Madame Sofia, there is much to live up to), but we’re now — as of this evening — 100% committed. Wish us positive, perky puppy thoughts!

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Yesterday was my last official day counseling in the clinic.

I’ll be back once a week or so in around a month to do outreach work and sex education, so it’s not like I’m gone forever, but lordisa, it still was sad. When I got home from grabbing a few drinks with one of my work buds, I came home and mostly sat on the couch is a sort of a dull, heartsick malaise until I fell asleep. I’ll miss my team. I’ll miss my other co-workers. I’ll miss simply doing that work. And bloody hell, will I miss those women who came through my office every day, who for the brief time I had to listen to and speak with all of them, something magical and intimate in the best, most unexpected way happened and so often left me awestruck with a quiet but fiery admiration for all of them.

I think in the next few weeks, I need to carve out some time to bet back to my art and see if I can’t do a series of some sort for them, about them. Those clients have been my sheroes. I’ve kept trying to think of really how to leave the ones I will never meet some sort of gift in honor of those I did, and also better express what they gave to me, and also creatively work through my sense of loss, and I think that’s my best bet.

I will not miss catching my first bus of three before 6 in the morning in order to arrive at work at 8. It may well be that I’ll need to do that again sometimes should things turn around at some point, but I will enjoy the brief respite from it. Several times in that hellacious commute, I found myself feeling a sort of dignity in it, but in hindsight, I think I was just that desperate to find some good in it. I will not miss wearing scrubs. I remember as a child us often having some hospital castoffs from my mother as jammies, and they seemed very comfy then, but that was only because they were eight sizes too big for us, I think, and because we were wearing them to bed, not in the middle of downtown. There’s no stretch to the damn things, and if you’ve hips and breasts, you have to often buy them way larger than you’d like. I reminded myself of MC hammer a few times too many for comfort. It is a good thing not to be working over 60 hours a week during my favorite season, and instead, working only a little bit more each week than your average Jill. And financially, I really will be okay. The clinic manager yesterday also filled me in one a possible route for healthcare in the state I didn’t know about, so there may still be hope on that score. I will not miss….

…yeah, I’m out of items for that list. Ladies and germs, my feeble attempt at glass-half-full.

I am very much looking forward to the new teen outreach/education directorship, though. Doing in-person ed is a very nice bookend to all I do online, so doing more of it is a serious bonus. And I really am looking forward to bringing it into the clinic for our clients. I think too few people realize that information on birth control or getting clients BC methods just isn’t enough to keep women from unwanted pregnancy. If sex is an obligation or duty, if it isn’t really about you as an equal part, if you don’t know how to set limits and boundaries, don’t know where your clitoris is, don’t have a good sense of what a healthy sexual relationship looks like, don’t really feel some bonafide agency in your sexuality and sex life, then there are huge chunks missing which not only are going to be more helps to help limit how often that happens, they’re obviously also integral parts of having sex be a positive in your life, rather than something which, at best, just spares you a negative or unwanted consequence.

Mark has been away for the day job in Nebraska this week, and having one helluva week of his own, and comes back home this afternoon. I see extensive snuggle in our near future. We’re heading to Snoqualmie Falls early tomorrow morning, for a meeting I have for work, and then staying over with the pug so we can take a hike on Sunday. Big mountains, fresh air, green things, human sweetie, small-snorty-canine sweetie: just what the doctor ordered, I’d say.

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

I just got back from doing a morning birth control and safer sex presentation for the clinic at a temporary shelter for teen runaways down in Chinatown. It was all boys, which was unexpected, but I grooved with it and all went well. Still trying to figure out how one of the guys was earnestly convinced that his girlfriend hides needles in her hair in order to puncture his condoms — despite the fact that none of his condoms have ever failed to his knowledge, nor has he ever seen any of these aforementioned needles — and why he felt it was so reasonable to suggest that these are things all women do, but that’s beside the point. I’m exposed to so much paranoia, ignorance and just general weirdness in my line of work that often, what surprises me is the absence of it.

The real hilarity of my morning was that on the bus down there, I was a few rows behind a man who had some mix of OCD and Tourette’s going on. He would count all of us on the bus methodically and with his hands — “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, either, nine…” — getting more vexed the higher he got in his count, and when he got to the end of the list, he’d then shake his hands, and yell with no small measure of frustration, “Sex, sex, SEX!”

It took everything I had not to let him know that I heard him, and I was en route to do the best that I could to handle it, but he was going to have to be a little more patient, for crissakes.

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

I had an abortion in my early twenties.

It was not easy to afford. I was working sixty hours a week, in a fledgling business with a lot of overhead expenses. I was fresh out of a college education I had paid for myself, and was also caring for a parent at the time. There were no resources through public health in Chicago I could use to help with the expense. My partner was pitching in for half, but all the same, coming up with four hundred dollars was an additional struggle during an experience which was already challenging without any financial issues at play.

That four hundred dollars seemed like a whole lot then. But when it all comes down to it, it’s very little, and what I had to do to come up with it was so small in comparison to the experiences other women go through to obtain their abortions right now.

I had the luck of knowing almost right away that I had become pregnant. Plenty of women don’t find out before their sixth week, like I did. Given how many have irregular menstrual cycles or skip periods with birth control, don’t experience morning sickness or other early pregnancy symptoms, or are in such poor health already that feeling ill is normal, plenty don’t know until their seventh week, their twelfth week, even their twentieth week. For those women, an abortion isn’t going to cost four hundred dollars, but eight hundred, twelve hundred, even two thousand dollars or more and some only find that out once at the clinic. I had the privilege of being able to not only know I was pregnant very early, but the ability to raise money in a short enough period of time that I could get an early abortion which only cost that much. Some women know as early as I did, but are unable to raise the money for an early procedure. For them, every extra week it takes creates a new hurdle as each extra week also elevates their cost, as well as their distress by pushing them closer and closer to the point at which a termination will no longer be an option.

I had the luxury of having a provider a mere three miles from my apartment. But less than 15% of women in the United States have an abortion provider in their county, let alone a ten-minute bus ride away. Those women also have to factor in the time and cost of travel, lodging and meals into the already costly expense of their procedure.

I was able to have an early, first-trimester abortion so I also only had to be at the clinic for a few hours on one day. I did not have to risk my job by needing to take a week off of work for a procedure I probably couldn’t tell my employer about without risking biased treatment ever after. I did not have to worry about having even less money than usual because I needed a week off without pay. I did not have to push myself to get right back to work when I really should have been resting and risk my health in order to make up for the money I spent on my procedure.

I was a working adult, not a teenager: I had my own source of income to help pay for my abortion. I had working friends who I could ask for funds and support. I didn’t have to consider asking my parents, knowing it could compound my trauma and potentially put me at risk of being held back from getting a termination, nor did I have to face those I asked for help denying me funds because they figured I deserved the “punishment” of a child for having sex, having my birth control method fail, not knowing how to use it, not having one at all, or because I had a partner refuse to use a method or cooperate with mine. Because I was employed, period, I did not have to worry about being able to eat or pay my rent that month due to the cost of the abortion sapping all of my funds.

I had my partner’s support and was financially independent, so I had no reason to be concerned with that partner freezing me out of shared bank accounts to pay for my procedure, or refusing to help me with travel to a provider. I did not have to worry that disclosing to a partner or parent that I was pregnant, and that I needed help financially to obtain an abortion, might put me at a possible or known risk of abuse or assault. Because I was living in a city where my reproductive choices were largely supported, I did not have to try and hide my pregnancy or my abortion, or spend extra money to get a ride from a friend, take a cab a town or two over to use a different pharmacy for my medications.

Coming up with the money I had to was also easier for me because I was childfree, unlike the majority of women who have abortions. I wasn’t having to scrape by to support two or three children at the time while also paying for my procedure. I didn’t have to arrange or pay for child care during and after my abortion.

I had a place to stay after my procedure, and lived with a person who was safe for me, so I did not have to worry about my safety during a time that is critical for self-care to prevent infections and complications, or that my lack of money would prevent me from being able to stay somewhere safe during and after my procedure. I could also afford the medications I needed to manage my cramps and to help prevent infection, and could afford to feed myself the day of and after my procedure.

And because I had the means and the support to budget for and use two sound methods of contraception after my procedure, I did not have to go to sleep at night knowing that it was likely I would have to wind up having another termination to go through and pay for, another unwanted pregnancy, very soon after dealing with the one I’d just gone through. I could afford both getting my methods of birth control and paying for them over time.

Many women do not have these abilities, privileges or luxuries. Many either may not be able to have a wanted or needed abortion at all — they may not earnestly have the real, practical right many of us still do of reproductive choice — or they may risk being unable to have all that is needed to make an abortion truly safe and sound, physically and emotionally. Some will put themselves at tremendous risks to try and raise those funds in ways which are unsafe and emotionally traumatic. Some who cannot afford a wanted abortion will seek to self-abort or otherwise endanger themselves. Some will instead have to continue an unwanted pregnancy and deliver a child who is not wanted and who they cannot afford to sustain or nurture, from pregnancy through the whole of that child’s life.

Any of us who has been pregnant knows that what choice we feel is right for us with a pregnancy is not minor: it is essential. Pregnancy is major, and how it impacts our lives, tremendous. Being unable to make our own right choice, to only reproduce and remain pregnant when it is what we want, right for us and when we feel it is right for any child we might bring into the world is tragic and inhumane. As it is, even when we can manage the cost, we have to face protests and challenges from individuals and governments to our essential rights, judgment everywhere we look about a decision no one but we can determine is appropriate, all while often straining to keep our lunches down and continue, uninterrupted, the hectic pace of our lives.

In an ideal world, every woman’s right to choose would be completely supported, and every woman’s knowledge of what was right for herself and her offspring would be respected. Women would have no trouble at all finding all the financial, practical and emotional support needed to only reproduce when that was exactly what we wanted.

We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where, at best, abortion is merely tolerated, and rights expressly for women and children, which primarily or solely impact women and children when granted, are granted as if a great favor is being given, rather than an equal and inalienable right. The political climate we live in now has been doing more and more to keep the legal right to abortion from being practically useful: our right to abortion is only so meaningful when the barriers to it continue to grow. We live in a world where most women make less on the dollar than most men — and where seeking legal protection against that discrimination is still often viewed as frivolous — despite often having a greater financial burden to begin with. We live in a world where many Medicaid programs and private insurance will cover Viagra (even for sex offenders), but not abortion or birth control. Where many women have little or no consistent access to reliable, affordable and safe methods of birth control and plenty have partners that do not support use of those methods even when those women can afford and access them. We live in a world where those who most often tend to find themselves in the most need of an abortion and with the most limitations on getting one are not only women, but women of color, women in poverty, women who were not born (or are not yet) U.S. citizens, disabled women, women with addictions, women who are legal minors, women who have been or are raped, assaulted or abused: women who are marginalized and who have less privilege beyond simply being women.

I cannot imagine having to sneak across state lines so I can obtain an abortion without my father forcibly dragging me out of a clinic as he did two times before. I cannot imagine how, with three children and a coming eviction, I could possibly save for a procedure. I cannot imagine having to have a three-day termination while my only home was a bench on the street, or at home with a partner or family member I knew would beat me when I returned there. I cannot imagine feeling I had no choice but to remain pregnant and deliver a child I strongly suspected would be born profoundly disabled because of a drug addiction I was trying to break free of. I cannot imagine having just emigrated and finding myself in the position to have to pay for an abortion while working for a wage that is a human rights violation in and of itself. I cannot imagine the two-week waiting period advised to abstain from vaginal sex after an abortion to prevent infection seeming a practical impossibility because without engaging in sex work during that period, a woman cannot support herself or her family. I have met the women who have been in these situations and others like them, and have seen a profound helplessness and desperation that no woman should have to experience during an already difficult time.

But I have also met these women and literally watched some of that helplessness dissipate; seen their worries interrupted by an exhale of relief when I can offer them financial help with their abortions.

Cedar River’s Women in Need fund helps to cover the costs of abortion, lodging, transportation, childcare, meals, pregnancy testing, ultrasound and contraception for women who cannot afford or completely cover any or all of these things, even after exhausting every resource they’ve got. The National Network of Abortion Funds has listings for our fund as well as other funds like it you can either use for yourself, refer other women to, or help with a donation. It doesn’t take much, either. The medications needed after a procedure are often less than $20. Meals for a couple of days, $25. Three months of contraception, $75. Lodging for a night, around $100. Enough to cover the portion of a procedure a woman can’t, that $400 that seemed so tough for me to save up, but which is comparatively miniscule.

Because I work part-time for Cedar River, because we serve women from several states and more than one country and also include terminations beyond the first trimester, because we’re one of the last remaining independent feminist women’s health centers in the states which offers abortions, and because we’re having a benefit for our fund on Monday evening, I’d like to ask you to contribute to ours. I’ve administered some of these funds myself, and have spent time with some of the women who need them: I know, first-hand, how important our fund is, what a difference it can make and how it positively impacts the lives of the women we can help with it. I have watched women who would otherwise have been unable to make the choice they know was right for them, or who could not have had what they needed to assure all aspects of their procedure was safe have that ability due to our WIN fund. I give to it myself via a percentage of my paycheck every two weeks, and while I certainly need the income for myself, giving what I can to that fund is something I feel is very important and a really small sacrifice. Of course, some financial help with an abortion does not usually have the capacity to fix everything wrong in a woman’s life, to wipe away inequities and hardships which are bigger than all of this. In some ways, it’s a band-aid, but it can be one critical in keeping a deep wound from getting even deeper; causing further infection in an already fragile balance of well-being and survival. At the times I administer that fund to a client, it’s amazing to see, directly, how my small contribution can sometimes literally change the landscape of a woman’s life, both through being able to make the choice she knows is right and needed, and through being shown a much-needed kindness, sometimes for the very first time.

If you’re in or near Seattle, our benefit tomorrow night for the WIN fund begins at 5:00 at the Karma Martini Lounge & Bistro (where I also had my book release party last year), on 2318 2nd Avenue in Belltown. You can have a few drinks with us and donate there, and hear a little more about what this fund does. Or, you can donate through our website here. Again, if you’d like to give to an abortion fund but prefer to give to women in your area or some other specific area, or even start a fund in an area where there is not one yet, you can take a look at a listing of funds like ours here through the NNAF.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

(Heads-up: parts of this post are fairly explicit when it comes to detailing rape and abuse.)

One of the more interesting (and by interesting, I mean ridiculously ignorant) responses I have seen in a few places discussing the I Was Raped project and my input was my statement on the news that the first time I was assaulted — at the age of 11 — I did not know what had happened to me and was without any language to even express it.

This is being met with some measure of disbelief by a few folks, or the assumption I was on drugs or had been drugged or that I was simply stupid. My personal favorite was that I’m a young girl who only called my rapes rape after being brainwashed by Jennifer and feminism, a newfangled notion she apparently just clued me into. Who knew I was such a late bloomer, and that I was somehow able to grow up in the 70’s in a progressive Chicago neighborhood with a single mother, an activist father, and managed to never hear about feminism? Wowza.

I think people forget that in the early 80’s and before, we were without SO much awareness about rape and all other kinds of abuse. (And other things: I also had attraction to women before then, and a girlfriend before I knew bisexuality was a term for what I was. I was actively dating both men and women for a few years before, as detailed in one of my teenage journals, there was an entry that simply says, “Huh. It seems that I’m bisexual.”) That’s hardly to say we’re living in an acutely aware world now, but that things really have changed pretty substantially in a relatively short period of time. I was an exceptionally intelligent child, in many ways precocious, and also being a compulsive reader, I knew a whole lot about a whole lot, including having some knowledge and understanding about sex.

However, even for plenty of people who know something about sex, who are smart and relatively informed, figuring out what sex is and what rape is aren’t so easy, particularly when you’re raised female. Even if we look at classical literature - much of Greek mythology, all sorts of folktales, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the Bronte Sisters, you name it, and this was the kind of reading I did as a kid — it doesn’t take a genius to notice that usually, when rape happens, it’s often presented as sex or, at best, “sex by force.” It’s rarely, if ever, called rape. In that literature, in religion, in common parlance, in romance novels, in films, in family gossip young women have for eons been taught, more than not, that we are passive sexually, that sex for us is something a person “takes” or we “give” (rather than as something shared), and that often enough our sexual awakening is supposed to be about men deciding to indoctrinate us. Many of us were, have been and still are taught, overtly or covertly, that rape is only rape — and even then may not be — if we’re screaming no at the top of our lungs, if there is a knife at our throat, a scary-looking stranger who is scowling (not getting off and smiling or laughing), a dirty alleyway. Even then, we hear about what women in that situation did to deserve it, ask for it, incite it. As I’ve said before, with my rape that came closest to that, at the age of 12, I heard that kind of backlash from the mouths of the police.

My first assault happened with a man I trusted — my family trusted — the man who cut our hair for years. When he asked me to go back into that shampoo room with him, I earnestly thought nothing of it. When he told me how pretty I was getting, I was marginally uncomfortable, but then I always had been with compliments. When he started getting closer and closer to me as he said this, then started talking about my breasts and my legs as he backed me up against the wall, I became very quickly and acutely uncomfortable, but I was taught by one of my parents and all of her family that you trust adults, and that’s just that: that when you feel uncomfortable around them, you don’t yell out or tell them to get out of your face, or tell them how much their breath in your face makes you want to throw up. I was taught that it was more likely I would misunderstand the well-meaning actions of adults than be correct in knowing when they were doing something wrong. When his hands went everywhere he could possibly put them, I was in such a state of shock that this was happening to me. Part of that was that while I had developed a bit early, for the most part, I did still feel pretty childlike, and what was going on very much did not feel like what happened between an adult and a child. Another part of that was that from everything I knew, this was not unlike how, when sex happened, it was described. I didn’t want it, I didn’t feel aroused — I felt incredibly repulsed and before I walked home, wound up throwing up in the alley several times — and yet, it’s not like anyone had ever talked to me about how sex was supposed to feel, emotionally, or like I hadn’t seen enough representations of sex where it clearly was not about the woman’s wants, initiation or boundaries. What I was looking for, later that day and for years afterwards, was a rationale of why that happened to me, how, somehow, something I said, did or wore would have given the impression I wanted that or was available for that. For a couple years, I blamed my developing body: pulled hair out of it that had grown in, tried to make it go back to my childhood body, cut it up with a razor.

I did not tell a soul what had happened to me then. I was cut off from my dad at the time, and I was living in a household with a stepparent who was verbally and emotionally abusive, and who, since I had started puberty, had used that to humiliate and torment me. One of his favorite taunts during those years was to tell me, in lurid detail, how he might cut my breasts off. I think it’s also entirely possible — remember, these are memories which are now 27 years old and which are also made murky by a lot of trauma in a short time - I was worried that having my stepparent know this man had done this to me would give him or any other man the feeling they could do the same. Telling my mother would have meant he was told — my privacy was never respected in that home (the only place I could assure that was a closet I rigged to lock from the inside, where I spent a whole lot of time for a few years), and I was often treated as the interloper to what would have been, apparently, an otherwise idyllic existence. I had no idea what telling anyone else would mean, but I didn’t think it would be helpful. I was already a bit of a misfit at school and we had just moved, so all my friends were very new friends — and didn’t want to say anything which would cement my status as a freak further.

Again, there wasn’t any precedent for this back then, when it comes to telling. There were no talk-TV shows, no magazines, no books, not hotlines, no PSAs telling you to tell, or letting you know that telling could be a big help. There were only an onslaught of messages telling you to shut your trap and pretend nothing happened. My clear assumption at the time was that I must have done something to deserve this or make this man think I wanted this: I was often blamed for so much I did not do in my childhood that I had no reason to think otherwise. I was used to being found at fault. I wasn’t about to tel anyone about this thing which felt so wrong and get sorely punished for whatever I did.

There’s something else people seem to forget. I was more educated in many ways than a lot of girls my age, but I work in sex education right now, not in 1981. And every single day we get questions from people of a wide range of ages, from a wide range of nations, who very clearly would not — or do not - know, either. We hear from people who do not know the names of their own body parts, or do not know what the most “basic” forms of sex are. We hear from people all over the globe in their teens and twenties who do not know the basics of reproduction, or when sex has even happened. We work with a population who is frequently told that ANY sex is wrong for them, and so they tend to expect sex — wanted sex, sex of any kind — to feel wrong. We hear from people all the time who have been forced into sex or other kinds of abuse and do not know what happened to them; know that it was rape or abuse and it was not something they asked for or are responsible for. In other words, things have improved, but we still have a loooong way to go, and there are lots of things which inhibit people from knowing they have been abused which have little or nothing to do with rape at all.

Back when I was running my alternative pre-kindergarten and teaching in other classrooms, the few times I had a student I discovered was being abused in some way, figuring it all out was very tough, because children normalize whatever their normal is, and they are also very easily manipulated by abusive adults into believing that when they say a given thing is okay, that it is okay, even if it hurts, even if it doesn’t feel right, even if every part of them initially — in time that intuition is often worn down to nothing — knows it isn’t okay. I had a student once with a babysitter who, as it turned out, had a husband who punished the children they cared for by burning their mouths with a lighter (you can guess, sadly, when this all played out, how little happened to this man — as I understand it, the only consequence of all of this was that the woman doing home daycare got a limit placed on how many kinds she could have, and stupid DCFS told them who made the report, so the child and his mother were harassed by phone at their home for weeks by these people). I only found this out after my young student had told me all day his mouth and throat were sore. I had given him water and juice, and finally took him in the bathroom to look back in his throat… and saw that the roof of his mouth was literally charred black. I knew well enough by then that you have to be careful how you talk to kids about this stuff — again, it’s very easy to lead or influence them — so it took everything I had to try and ask questions cool as a cucumber when I was mortified and heartbroken, knowing something awful had happened to this child. In asking where he’d been lately, what he’d done over the last few days, he finally volunteered, with a shrug, that “Maybe that happened when Mike put his lighter in my mouth. He does that sometimes.” He said it as if he were saying, “Maybe I’ll have eggs for breakfast this morning.” Mike put a lighter in his mouth, sure, and it later came out that Mike liked to physically “discipline” him in other ways, but Mike also played ball with him, told jokes, was his friend. These kinds of situations are confusing for children, confusing for teens, confusing for adults.

See, sometimes we don’t know we’ve been abused because the person who raped (or otherwise abused) us isn’t supposed to be someone who can harm you: a boyfriend, a teacher, a parent, a clergyperson, a friend. If people who are supposed to care about you, who say they care about you, who others you trust invest trust in assaults you it surely must have been something else, because people you love aren’t supposed to do you harm. Sometimes we don’t know because the person who is assaulting us tells us, quite plainly, while they are doing so that we like what they are doing, that everything feels so good, that we are so special, that they are our friend and would never hurt us. They’re smiling, the way we see them smile all the time, not looking scary or yelling or calling us bitches or sluts. Sometimes we don’t know because what we are told or shown in sex and what we are told or shown is rape so closely resemble each other: my personal feeling over the years is that one thing that makes healing so hard for a lot of survivors is that so much of the consensual sex they are having is still pretty rape-y in a lot of ways. Sometimes we don’t know rape was rape because we have heard so much more about how women are temptresses (or, for male survivors, how men and boys always want any kind of sex from anyone) who lead men into the things they do to us, who cause men to lose self-control — this kind of talk loomed large among my mother’s Irish Catholic parents, for instance — or we hear about how dirty and filthy and bad we are from birth, no mater what we do or don’t do, no matter what is or is not done to us by others.

Let’s also not forget that often, our psyches do us a profound favor with traumatic events where they can kind of turn off and tune out our minds so that our memories of a traumatic event are murky and even nonexistent. This is not some kooky idea people came up with in order to prove imaginary traumas, it’s something very well documented, and one very typical aspect of PTSD. In my case, while I remember much of my first assault very clearly, my second is one where a whole chunk starting where I was forcibly grabbed and pulled into the van and ending where I somehow had gotten myself back into the bathroom of the ice rink where I started, shivering and shaking and bruised, is just missing. I’m very well versed in this point of therapies for missing memories, things like RMT, and of the big flaws in them. Before I even knew how flawed approaches like that could be, I had no interest in trying them (and the one therapist I had who I stuck with in my teens was very down-to-earth and never suggested them): I never wanted those acute memories, nor did I, personally, need them to know what happened to me and to work through it. All the same, when you have memory loss with trauma, it can make figuring out what happened right at or around the time it did a challenge, especially when you factor in the very typical desire for denial of trauma.

One of the biggest bummers of the last couple of weeks is that I wish so many of these conversations could have been had only with rape survivors, in spaces that felt safe, where survivors could really talk and where those who were not could just freaking listen. Every time I read one of these bouts of en masse ignorance, it was usually dovetailed by comments about how we don’t need rape awareness, how everyone knows all they need to know, and how anyone who wants to talk about their rape can with no problems and full support, which is an obvious and sad irony. If we didn’t need that awareness, survivors would feel and earnestly be safe to share their stories and all the prototypical myths — like the idea that everyone knows when they have been raped and knows that’s what to call it — wouldn’t be anything we still had to counter. If people could just listen to survivors — and put aside that sometimes, what we have to say is going to make people feel uncomfortable and is going to challenge certain worldviews profoundly — we’d have come a lot farther by now both in reducing rape and in having a better environment for survivors to heal in. It’s really tough sometimes to even figure out which is more traumatic: a rape itself, or the aftermath of rape, living with rape, trying to work through it all in a culture which is so hell-bent on enabling rape and blaming or silencing survivors.

So, no: I didn’t know that two of my rapes were rapes for the first few years after them, or even when they happened. I wasn’t drugged for any of my assaults, nor was I on drugs or any other substance. I have never been stupid a day in my life. They were not wanted, consensual sex which I only decided to call rape when a bunch of feminist women brainwashed me. I was not atypical in this respect, even though my not-knowing isn’t universal, either. The biggest reason I didn’t know is that, like many, many people then and many now — including some getting the message loud and clear from some of the discussions which have happened over the last couple of weeks — I was taught in a million different ways not to know.

Monday, April 7th, 2008

My plans for last weekend were pretty mellow: I was going to work on my taxes, do a little housecleaning, maybe get started on my garden now that the sun is back out, hang out with my sweetheart, finish some writing, practice piano and play some Scrabble. I was going to tend to myself, for the most part.

The weekend I would up having was quite a bit different.

Last Wednesday, I raced against the clock — I had to go work at the clinic the next day — to get everything up for our focus this month on sexual assault and abuse as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. That included getting together a page and other materials for the “I Was Raped” shirts which months back, I’d agreed to help Jennifer Baumgardner distribute as part of a project to increase rape awareness, both through these t-shirts and the conversation we’d hoped they’d start, as well as through her developing film of the same name, which will focus on first-person stories from survivors.

The New York Times first covered the project, using a photo of Jennifer — which was appropriate, since this is her project. Then Gawker and Jezebel hit on it, using a photo of me in the shirt without my permission or even a request for it (and still have yet to respond to my requests to remove a copyrighted image they have no permission to use). A few more sites followed suit. Later on Friday, KOMO-4 news contacted me, telling me they were doing a story on it that night and asking for my participation. As is my general practice with television, I declined to be filmed, but did finally agree to have a phone interview.

Before that interview, the reporter and I had a discussion about using my image where I explained why I was not comfortable with my face being put on the television as a survivor. I explained that when I went to get coffee this weekend, I needed it to be up to me if I was “that woman who is dairy allergic, so don’t forget, soy only,” or “that woman who was raped.” I explained that as a counselor for an abortion clinic half the week, I didn’t want to make anything of my personal life so broadly visible that any of my clients might recognize me and doubt that it was their issues which were of the utmost importance in my office. I explained that choosing to show my face with this in one context is not permission for anyone to make that choice for me in others, and that I’m the expert on how much exposure I can handle and want. I was told they don’t show rape “victims” faces on television, anyway (and then wondered, if that was so, why we were even having that conversation in the first place).

Apparently, they do, because my face was indeed shown on the news, coupled with the reporter saying I’d requested they did not show it. My words were edited massively — as is to be expected — and no information on the project was even given. The “I Was Raped” t-shirt was compared to t-shirts reading “Yankees Suck,” and “Boys are stupid — throw rocks at them.” The story spread — the tone of it intact — and the video made its way to other stations, and eventually to CNN (which I only found out about after the fact: CNN never contacted me). The story has spread very largely through the blogosphere, and with some notable exceptions, an awful lot of what’s out there is full of a lot of misinformation about me and the project, and in some cases, some really inflammatory accusations. As of today, I’m about one for one between positive emails and negative ones, and while the positives are very positive, the negatives are really negative and many have been incredibly threatening and disturbing.

I’ve been accused of exploiting myself and other assault survivors just to make money, which would almost be comical if it weren’t so vile. Scarleteen gets five dollars from any shirt sold. Five dollars, which to make, means not only my processing the order, packing it to ship, walking to ship them as well as doing all I’ve done to set things up to sell them, the crazy amount of extra bandwidth all the press has brought on (none of which I courted or chose), and all of this causing technical problems with the site, but also includes putting up with all of the crap which I have over the last handful of days. You’d think it’d be pretty easy for a person of any intelligence to realize that if it was about the money, I could do better by setting up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk, make the same dough, and do so without any sort of emotional stress or difficulty. And flatly, if someone doesn’t want $5 to go to Scarleteen, I have no trouble sending it to a different organization which helps with rape prevention, awareness and healing. But since I’m also the one paying the bandwidth bills for all of this, doing a lot of the work, taking care of all the orders and shipping AND being the whipping boy of choice AND since Scarleteen does advocacy work in this area, I’m not sure what the big problem is.

I’ve gotten letters in my email box from those who came to Scarleteen and read some of our rape content, and felt the need to write me and explain to me all of the ways in which any given kind of sexual abuse was not actually sexual abuse at all, be it because the victim asked for it, because the victim apparently really wanted it but was just ashamed of their own desires, because when the victim is male they always really want it; how for “horny” teenage boys, raping is just something they do naturally, how all survivors need to do is find out what we did to get raped, make sure we don’t do that thing again and move on, how in doing what we do at Scarleteen in the first place, we’re setting girls up to be raped by encouraging them to be promiscuous sluts, or enabling rape somehow by educating youth on homosexuality.

I’ve had the great privilege of being patronized, with other victims, by non-survivors, “experts” on rape, or even other survivors letting us know what they think we need to be doing “for our own good,” how they think we don’t know how to protect ourselves, physically or emotionally, how much more it would scar us to take something “private” and make it in any way public…and how all of these concerns are OF COURSE about us, not about them. I have been told what my personal problems are, by people who know nothing about me, and about how I could do a lot more good if I did more meaningful things with my life than I do, or how, if I stopped doing the work I do now, went and took a corporate job, was able to buy a house and car, and then give money to an organization like…oh, the one I run, I could do more for other “victims.” I have been told outright that while a given letter-writer cares for all other rape survivors, they do not care for survivors like me, and feel that it is perfectly appropriate — nay, quite called for — to shower me with abusive invective.

(Might there be some truth in some of them saying this could be traumatic for survivors because of what I’m dealing with myself and how I’m feeling right now? Maybe, save when you realize that most of this is coming from my being shown wearing the shirt in places that were not of my choosing, and where, following the choice they made for me, I have asked not to be shown. In fact, I think how I’m feeling says a whole lot more about how rape survivors are often seen as everyone’s property — since we’ve already been spoiled, see, already ruined — than it does about how my choices to be public have resulted in my getting upset.)

I’ve read about how any survivor who wears this is being a terrible person to other abuse or rape survivors who might be triggered by it. However, I never see the same concerns voiced about, oh, many media representations of sex or romance, people verbally abusing their children in grocery stores, people who enforce ideas that sex is a duty people owe one another in certain social contexts, people using the word “rape” applied in scenarios like “The IRS just raped me,” or… hey, wait! People deciding to verbally abuse a survivor because she breaks silence in a way they don’t like or wouldn’t choose for themselves. Just a word on that? I feel pretty confident saying that many of us who are survivors will not be triggered by another survivor saying he or she was raped, or having that voiced in a pretty sensitive way on a piece of clothing. More to the point, if you think this is the only way in any given day we might be reminded of our rapes, you’ve got to be kidding. The most benign aspects of daily life are often triggers: groups of men crowding close to us in a bus, the street we have to walk down to get home which was the one we were raped on, being quickly grabbed by the shoulder from someone who had no idea that was a trigger, a chair, a doorknob, a broom handle, someone’s hand, a belt, a given way the light looks at a certain time of day, the smell of a cologne, the very skin we inhabit, or someone, perchance, saying something about rape to us like “Don’t tell a soul.”

I have, of course, had to deal with the nasty kinds of feedback we always get any time we talk about rape. I have gotten email which informs me that women are property and that women are raped because men are superior. I have gotten email that told me I am sexist because we largely address rape at the site of men and women which is perpetrated by men, not which is perpetrated by women (which is only because it is perpetrated by women so infrequently, and because we can only respond, in advice queries, to the questions which are asked: I assure you, I have not deleted or purposefully not published any questions about a person surviving a rape by a woman — I simply have not yet gotten any such questions). I have gotten email informing me that I am making a “disgusting display” to get attention and pity for myself — and to help young women, I am told, make false rape accusations — by choosing to put my face all over the news (which again, was very much not my choice, but one made for me against my express wishes). I have gotten email which informs me that if I was raped, I clearly deserved it for being the terrible, horrible waste of breathable air which I am. Of course, I also got letters from people said they would have supported the work that I do and this project until they found out that not only was I, and the site pro-choice, but that I also am a baby killer who works at an abortion clinic (one such letter also informed me that having an abortion would only add to the trauma of a rape survivor, but going through pregnancy or becoming a parent before a person was ready would somehow be in no way difficult or traumatic). I read a thread discussing if I was “hot, for a rape survivor” or not.

For the record, the gender of those with those responses is mixed. These kinds of sentiments by no means only come from men (and when it comes to supportive responses, we’ve had just as many from men as from women). They come from every kind of person you could possibly imagine. This is one of the many reasons why those who have been raped often stay silent: we never know who is going to react to our rapes like this, and are well aware that it’s possible the people we expect it from least may be the ones who react just like this. I can assure you, for the record, that of the people who have sent me the worst of this vitriol, around one of every two is someone who those who know them wouldn’t even suspect the malice they usually keep hidden, save for people like me.

We’ve had server troubles all day which I’ve had to stay on top of when I still have things I need to do which I had planned to do this weekend, but could not do because I have had to spend most of it on damage control, sending requests to people to please stop stealing my face without asking me, correcting tons of misinformation about all of this flooding my mailbox, having to read through piles of hate to find emails from Scarleteen users we need to tend to, and having to try all I can not to have all of this wear on my relationships with people glad to support me, but who also have needs of their own, and things they need from me. Suffice it to say, since we have had many positive responses, many people want the short, and I wasn’t prepared to have to be processing orders all weekend. I have also been reading the positive mails, which are great, but many of them also contain the writer’s personal rape experience. That’s not to say I am not open to being the person someone chooses to share with, and that I am not very glad if I can provide a way for someone to disclose, but obviously, reading those letters is not pleasant or cheerful.

Obviously, this wasn’t my best weekend ever. Many of these responses and results obviously disappoint and distress me.

But what they don’t do is surprise me. I’ve lived as a survivor for almost 27 years now, and I’ve worked in sex education, including in advocacy for survivors and efforts for prevention, for a decade. When I was a teacher, more than once I had to deal with the travesty that was the justice system for a student of mine who was being abused. I am used to people excusing away all manner of abuses, resenting the hell out of those of us who do our damndest to protest that, and am well aware that denial of abuse, and the amount of abuse which exists in the world, is alive and well and living…well, everywhere.

I am used to statements which start with, “If I was a woman and had been raped…” (as if men never get raped: but really, statements like this start that way because they’re about how women should behave, period), or “If I was a rape victim….” or “If I had been raped…” and with the uselessness that follows all of them. Maybe it’s time for me to start talking about how I might feel and behave were I a woman of color, were I a heterosexual person, were I a person of means, had I survived the Holocaust. Because, obviously, my ideas on how I might feel and behave in those situations would be so very useful, especially to those people who actually are members of those groups.

I am used to hearing that if I want to talk about my rape, if I make it important in any way, even for a limited time, that I haven’t “moved on.” I am used to hearing about how I deserved it, asked for it; I heard it from one of my rapists (and had I been fully conscious for one of my rapes, I am sure I would have heard it from more), I heard it from friends and family, I’ve heard it from others who are oh-so-certain they and my rapists have nothing in common. I am used to hearing that the difference between strong survivors and perpetual victims is this: if you never say a word about it, if no one around you even has to know you were raped, you’re a strong survivor. But if you’re upset, if you want to talk about rape or your rape, if anyone around you has to know what happened, then you’re looking to stay a perpetual victim so that you can live a sweet life where everyone feels sorry for you. I am used to hearing that if I want to speak out about my rape, publicly or privately, that anyone who hears me is entitled to react however they would like, even if that means speaking to me in a way which is abusive, threatening, callous or cruel.

I am used to hearing about how any given thing about me is so awful or distasteful that nothing about me or what I do deserves any sympathy or, — and more important to me, since I don’t really need sympathy — any kind of basic common courtesy or respect. Sometimes that’s been because I’m queer, other times because I do sex ed, other times because I’ve had an abortion (and now, because I also work where they are provided), because I’m Buddhist, because I’m this age or that one, this gender or that, because I look this way or I don’t look that way, because I don’t have issues with nudity, because I’m sympathetic to a given group of people, because I’m loud, because I’m independent, because I have sex I enjoy, because I’m still alive. I am used to every kind of excuse imaginable at this point for why I don’t deserve the same courtesies I have always extended to others.

None of these things are new to me, nor are they much different from what I have dealt with simply in my personal life when it comes to my rapes.

And I am used to hearing all of this so much, that while it never stops being hurtful, what it has long since stopped being for me is particularly powerful. Don’t get me wrong: I have spent a lot of the past few days somewhat shellshocked, but that has more to do with the en masse onslaught and a lack of sleep than it does with any particular thing anyone has said or done. I know the place the craptastic stuff comes from, and I know that that place is one of fear, resentment, guilt, ignorance, violence or self-loathing. As much as I revile those things, as much as I want them gone, and as bad as they make me feel, I can at least identify them, and I know very acutely where my own bad feelings come from and, for the most part, how to deal with them. I can even look them dead in the eye: again, that’s a survivor skill, too — to survive, we all have to learn to do that expertly.

I’m also used to the fact that all rape survivors are different. We are not all the same, our rapes were not all the same, how we’ve processed them or reacted to them has not all been the same. I have had plenty of thanks for other survivors in my email box over the weekend, but I have also gotten emails like this:

“You are a sick fuck… and if in fact you were truely raped you would not be so fucking stupid to even want to do something so damn outrageous on wearing a shirt. And I wonder why you dont want to show your face. You are a sick individual and I am a rape victim and now a survivor but you appaul me on such a horrible suggestion on someone wanting to wear such a dumb remark shirt. If in fact you were raped, you are as sick as i could ever imagine. Of how you want to make money on it… this is not fame this is a sick person like you it saddness me to think there are people in this world like you . Playing on what horrific act of rape , how it kills a person day in and day out. We have to live with that horrible thought of it happening to us. And then we have people like you… SICK.. how do you get up and look in the mirror? May god bless your sick soul.”

By all means, I feel the way that person chose to spoke to me was insensitive and cruel. However, I think that it’s really important to remember that none of us lives in a culture conducive to healing, or in a culture which makes it comfortable to live as a survivor. We can’t even trust each other, as fellow survivors (and when we’re addressing a survivor who is same-gender, be we male or female, an awful lot of same-gender learned distrust is tossed in the mix, something often even more difficult for male survivors since their rapists were usually male as well), in our motives, in how our healing differs, in the different places we’re at in it. Survivors are, justifiably, angry — and also all sorts of people — and can often enough direct that anger just about anywhere: that’s how it is when you’re so angry and so hurt and given so little support. I directed mine inward after I was assaulted, and doing that, on top of having my rape be a thread that wound through other trauma I was living with and trying to survive, nearly killed me and also set me up for challenges in my life — as well as more risks of danger — all of which could have been, if not avoided, strongly mitigated by being able to talk about my abuses, at all, and finding some kind of support. I don’t like getting emails like that, to say the least, but at the same time, I have to take a breath, stop, and recognize that at the very least, someone just got some release of all of that anger, and while I don’t think I’m the right person to direct it to, that that person was able to direct it anywhere — to open up that pressure valve — is a likely positive for that person.

It may well also be — and pardon any pop psychology on my part — that as much as I don’t want this kind of visibility, that survivor does, and resents me for having what she wants. That’s also valid, since we are made intensely invisible as a group of people, particularly if we become survivors, rather than remain victims. While if our rapes were in some way found horrific, we might get some media-based ambulance-chasing, once they’re over, we’re non-issues, and if there is nothing particularly noteworthy about our rapes (and for most of them, the general population will find nothing noteworthy about them), we’ll rarely see address at all. In any case, victims trump survivors, and victims who arouse a pithy kind of pity trump all.

Or, this one: “No body in there right mind would believe that you’re truly doing this to help other people. I’m a real survivor because I’d never broadcast or announce the horrible things that have happened to me. the only people who would wear that shirt are full of shit. NO BODY would wear that who’s really been raped. But I’m sure a bunch of girls will buy it who want attention and want people to feel sorry for them. I do think this should be taken away from you and all the bullshitting bitches who pretend this has happened to them. Millions of women have suffered and worked very hard to over come what you are now trying to profit from. You should NOT be allowed to capitalize on other people’s pain. And even if you were raped that shouldn’t give you the right to profit from it. Did you know when you were raped that you were going to get paid for it? Or did that idea come later?”

What I hear in this — once more, forgive me for being armchair — is that this person needs to be validated in surviving, and needs to have someone let her know that however she speaks out of silence is okay, is brave, is laudable, even if it doesn’t look like someone else’s way. My impression is that she needs for her rape to be made important, because if it already really felt that way, I’m not sure why she’d put so much energy (I got three different emails from this woman before I blocked her address) into telling me how no one’s story is true but her own or those which resemble hers. I hear that she is suffering, and I hear that she is tremendously, and probably righteously, angry. That doesn’t mean I’m going to say she’s not responsible for misdirecting her anger at me, because she is, and I’ve directed no such things at her or anyone else, but it is to say that I can only get so angry back at someone in this space. I know that space: been there, done that, and — literally — have the t-shirt.

Here’s what we don’t often see and hear in the various peanut galleries of the Internet: we don’t see many survivors sharing the stories they have also shared with me both in my email box over the weekend and in other avenues I’ve had them shared with me in my life, both with work, and with the people who have personally disclosed to me over the years. I even got stories in my email box from survivors who were at sites talking about this, where so many people incessantly talked about how they were not silencing anyone, and yet, these people didn’t feel able to tell their stories, or perhaps even share the mere fact of being survivors. people who send me email like the above aren’t posting it in the forums or on the blogs: through the resentment, they also know I’m safe, or else I’d not be hearing this. Everyone else would.

Some survivors do want something like this. It’s okay to want it, and it’s okay not to, and wanting it or not doesn’t determine who was and who was not raped. It’s having been raped, only, which determines that. The two women above were raped. The man who wanted one of these and told me it was because of being brutally raped during time he spent in jail over a misdemeanor was raped. The woman who bought one because she was molested as a child was raped. The person who bought it for their partner who is working on acceptance of their rape was raped.

Saturday morning, I literally overheard my neighbors talking about the news story on the porch (and clearly not knowing it was their neighbor, who could hear them, they were talking about: Seattleites don’t tend to be very familiar neighbors)

So, why would a survivor wear something like this? Obviously, I can’t speak for anyone other than myself and for those who have talked about why they would. I’ve also already said a little bit about why I would here. One of the emails above asks how I look at myself in the mirror.

When the t-shirts got here, and I put one on to take a quick photo, checking in the mirror to make sure that despite the fact that I was two days late on washing my hair, I wasn’t too disheveled, it was an interesting experience. It was like myself was telling myself a hard truth directly, but gently. With a quiet, but clear, understanding. Rape is something that those of us who are raped are told at every turn to doubt happened to us, to explain away with a rapist’s “misinterpretation” of our nonconsent, to do our best to rid our memories of the experience, to the point that even someone like me, who also works with other survivors, who has done an epic amount of personal processing for over a very long period of time can have days and times where I, too, wonder if somehow, in some way, I managed to imagine what happened to me. Maybe that blood was from something else: maybe I just had hemmorhoids I didn’t know about. Maybe that soreness is from falling off my bike and I just don’t remember when. Maybe the reason I don’t remember all of that assault isn’t because I got knocked on the head, but because nothing actually happened. Maybe no one wants to believe me because I’m crazy, and this is all some sort of delusion. Maybe all of those body image issues, that overdose, all that poetry I wrote in my teens was about all that OTHER stuff, and that other stuff caused me to believe I was raped. Maybe when he shoved my head in his crotch, he mistook it for his own hand: maybe while I was choking on what he wanted and I didn’t, he just didn’t know I couldn’t breathe. Surviving rape is a whole world of maybe, but maybe nots.

So, sitting there, looking myself in the eye in the mirror with that t-shirt on did cause me to cry, and even if I never wear it anywhere else, even though I have, at other times, been able to acknowledge and accept what happened to me, that moment was powerful for me. I deeply could look at myself in the mirror and accept the woman who is there and everything that made her who she is, even when some of those things are incredibly difficult and not things I wished for. I was proud of her, and she made me feel strong and able, both for myself and for the work I do where I need to help others find strength and resilience. I can do that at other times, too, but I’m always grateful for any new tool to help me do that, because some days, the ones I have don’t work or don’t take me to a new place.

Over the weekend, when I was talking to an old friend on the phone providing support, he said to me, “You know, you can take this. I know it doesn’t feel good, and you don’t want to, but the fact is, you can handle this.” It might sound hollow, that, but the truth of the matter is that yes, I can. That woman looking back at me in the mirror could. If taking it wasn’t something I thought might carry any benefits for anyone, not only would it all be even more upsetting than it already is, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with this in the first place, or even have been public about surviving rape as I have been over the years. I didn’t need to be as public as I have for myself: just telling people close to me and being able to sometimes speak through my art, for me, has been enough. I’ve been more public in the hope that my doing so will help other people be able to break silence, find strength, and be able to find whatever way is their way to healing.

The biggest bummer with things like this is that unfortunately, one very strong message the backlash sends to other survivors is that it is absolutely best they stay silent: because if they don’t, see, if they speak up like I do, speak up in any way, this, too, is what will happen to them. Some who silence with ignorance, fear or guilt probably have no idea that this is a likely result: others, of course, very much are aware that they are silencing and very much intend to silence.

But here’s the thing: something like this shirt isn’t for every survivor, nor for any given survivor in every environment, on every day. I do a lot with my life, and my rape is not often at the forefront of any of it, but sometimes it is, and sometimes, it’s helpful to others if I let it be, as much as I’d prefer not to. Being able to even just say — even just to oneself — “I was raped,” is rarely easy, even though it does get easier over time. It still always hurts, it always infuriates, it always confuses, it always saddens, especially in a world which makes it so very hard to speak just that simple fact and to have it merely acknowledged. It is never easy, and it will never be easy. Saying it out loud, in any way, to anyone, is almost always scary, almost always risky. But for ourselves, and for others, when we can do it, when we are able — and it’s always okay when we’re not — it’s usually, in my opinion, a worthwhile risk. While it means that we might open ourselves up to all kinds of garbage, it also means we might open ourselves up to the good stuff, too, to connections which are rare and unfathomably meaningful, to us or to others.

I won’t be dishonest: I still want that other weekend that I was going to have back. I’d have preferred that weekend, and I really needed that weekend for myself. I spent a lot of time this weekend very deeply resenting feeling like I was pushed into the spotlight in a way I did not choose and I did not want: up until now, I’ve felt like the level of public I have been has been enough to make things better for enough people that something like this level of visibility wasn’t anything anyone needed me to do. And yet, seeing all that I have seen over the last few days, I can only assume that I was wrong in that, since if things like this were not needed, I can’t imagine I’d be seeing so much of what I had. We’d be past all of this by now, wouldn’t we? So, if that’s what needed to happen, and it did or could net anything at all positive, I can live with that. I can have that weekend I needed another time. I can move past my anger and resentment. I can make time up to my partner next weekend. I can have my life go back to being about all the other things it’s about shortly. Again, I can take this: I may not want to, but I can.

There’s no perfect note to end this on. I’m massively grateful for the support myself and the project have been shown by some. I’m deeply moved by the other survivors who have trusted me to share their stories, and to those who also have offered their care and compassion, and not just because you let me help you heal, but you helped heal some hidden parts of me I didn’t even realize still needed healing. I’m deeply saddened, frustrated, shellshocked and worn the hell right out from all of the backlash — and some of that is surprise in that I was more vulnerable than I thought myself to be and at the same time stronger, but also not as over my rapes as I have long thought — but I’m just hoping that maybe at least some of it will result in something positive, either for survivors, or for the world that we live in when it comes to how survivors are treated, how rape is viewed and in terms of anything and everything which might keep it from happening to anyone at all.

And if, from a Buddhist perspective, there truly is no separation between the self and others, and I am seeing and hearing from so many people who clearly need to work through all of this chaos, who have all of this inside and around them — and if the way I, myself, have been feeling has anything to do with anything — then all of these last few days hasn’t really just been about or for other people: it’s been about and for me, as well.

So, as it turned out, and for as much as it sure hasn’t felt like it, it seems I spent the weekend tending to myself, after all.

It seems appropriate to link this to Carly Milne’s blogging project to benefit RAINN, and I’ll write for that project a few more times before month’s end. We’ve linked to RAINN and its services for years at Scarleteen, so it shouldn’t be new to anyone, but to say it is a worthy place to support is a serious understatement. RAINN has made, and continues to make, great efforts for both rape prevention and survivor support, and if you have some extra cash — especially for many of you who get tax refunds — it’s a fantastic place to put it. I know I certainly could have used what it provides, and many other survivors do as well.

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Yesterday, I got a wonderful phone call from one of my co-workers at the clinic, who overheard my voice on her television (people who only know of me online tend not to know that in person, people will usually say my voice is the most distinctive thing about me) during a replay of Friday night’s news segment on the I Was Raped t-shirt.

She noted that she thought it was really passive-aggressive and strange that right as the reporter said I did not want my face shown, they made a point of panning down a screenshot very precisely to my face and staying there. Glad, at least, to see that crapitude got noticed: I’m still reeling from it, honestly. I have had two more news stations contact me, and expect to have to again argue for the same rights to privacy other survivors are given; expect to have to explain that making oneself visible in one context does not mean anyone else is entitled to make me visible in others as they choose, not me.

She also just had some wonderful things to say about how she really appreciated having the opportunity to work with someone like me, how I make her think about things, how passionately I advocate for others. It was really cool of her to call me and also ask if I was taking care of myself, doing okay. Mind, I’m not thrilled that obviously, this is going to be something I’ll be dealing with at work. It’s not that my being a survivor isn’t a secret there among my co-workers: when I taught the self-defense segment, I made a point of telling the staff that I had both survived rape and assaults and also evaded assaults in my life, something I think is important to share when doing self-defense training. Rather, when I’m at work at the clinic, the clients are my focus, they’re all of our focus, and I don’t want to talk about me, there. I want to talk about them. I’m also really hoping I don’t wind up with a client who saw that segment and makes the connection: when they’re in my office, it’s their issues which should be in the forefront of their mind, not mine.

It’s also seeming like when my Dad comes in on Tuesday, Wednesday I am probably going to have to finally sit down and disclose all of this, not just the press stuff, but the initial rapes themselves. My father and I are and always have been so, so close, but this is one of the few things he doesn’t really know about me, save very vaguely. The reason I’ve never sat down and told him about my assaults wasn’t shame. Rather, the first two that happened happened during a rare period of time where we were not talking or seeing each other, first due to my mother not allowing us contact, then, due to my being very hurt that my father had broken up with a woman he was dating who I loved immensely. I’ve avoided telling him about all of this because I know that he is going to feel guilty, like this was his fault — most of my father’s dreams for what he wanted to do with his life and the world were not realized, and he’s very low about that. Being a good parent to me is pretty much what he considers his lone achievement, and he already beats himself up enough for not being able to protect me from my stepparent. In many ways, a lot of the tough stuff I have battled in my life has been so much harder than anything my father ever wanted me to have to go through, and I know he’ll also just be really sad. I know he’ll be amazingly supportive of me — he always is, no matter what — but he’s also going to be hurt, including hurt I didn’t tell him (even though I know he’ll also understand), and this just really wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go with my father yet, for a handful of reasons. To say that I resent being somewhat pushed into this position is an understatement.

Yesterday morning, I woke up, ready to have a new — better — day. While I was sitting on the couch checking email on my laptop, I heard snippets of conversation from the women on the porch next door that sounded remarkably like discussion about the news segment. I checked myself for a minute, thinking I was being a narcissistic arse, but then heard more clearly that yes, in fact, that is exactly what was being discussed. “I don’t want to have to know that about anybody if I don’t ask them,” was the last bit I got, after a good deal of “Who would broadcast they were raped?” So, I was a big baby about the whole thing yesterday and stayed totally in the house, having Mark get me my daily essentials (coffee, smokes, Mighty-O donuts), having a brief stop-by with Ben and Joriel, a long, cathartic phone conversation with my ex, boxing myself into a corner of my office behind piles of receipts for my taxes, and a mellow evening of hugs, movies and Scrabble with my sweetheart.

I’m not surprised about all of this backlash (and no, I still have yet to get a response from anywhere using my copyrighted image without my permission). I wish I could say that I was: really tired, really frustrated, and unprepared for how much of this I’d have to deal with, but not surprised. My favorite part are sites talking about it where you get to read people talking about what a sensitive group they are when, in fact, they’re about as Joe Average on this issue as it gets. It’s also pretty annoying that no one can freaking well read: the shirts neither profit Jennifer nor myself: most of the money paid for them will go to cover the costs of making them and making more, if people want them, and a very small percentage goes to support Scarleteen, which both supports and counsels survivors, and also works to do what we can to aid in prevention efforts, be that by talking expressly about how to prevent rape or by talking about what consent and real desire for partnered sex are, and how to communicate and interpret consent and desire. Suffice it to say, I’ll never stop wishing some people could hear themselves and recognize that talking about what “appropriate” responses are for anyone who has survived any sort of trauma has a whole lot to do with why rape is treated the way that it is, and also realize that being told in any number of ways to be quiet is something we have all heard before, not just from family, community, even friends and partners, but often from our rapists.

There’s a reason that I agreed with Jennifer that something like this t-shirt and the whole project could be valuable, and this is a big part of why. Yesterday’s email box was… well, it was something. I got called stupid any number of times, told I should be ashamed of myself at least once. I got messages making clear — again, this is nothing new to any survivor — that it would really be best if women like me would just shut the hell up and stay quiet. I also got a number of emails from other survivors with their personal stories in them, and thanks for doing what we are. Obviously, those weren’t things that cheered me up, as those stories are so painful to hear, but the fact that anything I do could allow someone who hasn’t disclosed to feel able to disclose in any way — even if it’s just to a stranger in email — is a good thing. Perhaps selfishly, I’m just really disappointed that when it comes to me, thus far, this hasn’t been, overall, a good thing. That may change in time, to be certain, but as of right now, I’m just feeling overexposed, very raw, and in some ways, very deeply angry. I’m okay with that to some degree if it does good: after all, I can take this stuff, and I have in other ways, other contexts before. I have made choices to be public about things like this in the ways I chose to, myself, both knowing that I can only control context so much and knowing that to help to good stuff happen, you do often have to put up with a whole lot of crap. I’m also aware that my expectations of sensitivity from others are often higher than is realistic: that’s very much not a new issue.

Not sure what today will hold, save more piles of receipts, another donut, some yoga and a lot more coffee. I’m also giving serious consideration to going back upstairs and climbing back into bed with Mr. Price who is still sleeping to grab a few snuggles and give a few back. And all of that is sounding quite lovely. Hell, any situation that has made doing taxes seem like a vacation rather than a chore can only be so bad, right?

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Things I love about the new gig:

• The fact that this is a no-argument feminist job. Mind, at this point, I feel the same way about the sex education I do, and the art that I do, and I have for a while. Way back when, I was feeling it out, not sure if it was or it wasn’t for myself, and then, of course, I spent far too long listening to and engaging debates with others about if it was or it wasn’t. And I am still privy to plenty of those arguments daily, be it about my work specifically, or about the kinds of work I do in a more general way. But this? Feminist, women-centered organization, literally doing every woman who walks in there’s bidding, and providing unilateral support, when it comes to what she wants for her own body and life and being there for that express purpose; doing so in an overall environment which is massively hostile to it, even right outside the gates sometimes. I don’t even need to ask the question because “Is it feminist work?” about this sounds as seriously stupid as “Is the sky blue?”  It sure makes getting up before 5 AM a whole lot easier than it would be otherwise, I’ll tell you that much.

• When I come home at the end of the day I am completely wiped. I’m often wiped out intellectually or emotionally from the work I do here at home, but rarely am I physically exhausted as well. The kind of worn out I have when I come home is one part commute, one part standing all day, one part tons of information coming in at all times, and one part mind-blow. Even for the bits derived from tiresome things that aren’t pleasant (read: this damn commute in a city without a damn subway), it’s a good thing because this insomniac has been sleeping like the dead without any trouble.

• The women who work there just freaking rock. SO diverse (unlike most of Seattle, honestly: this is NOT a lily-white workplace by any stretch), so good-spirited, so warm and so dedicated. I nearly spit up half my lunch today listening to one of the two abortion providers there going on about how Daisy Sour Cream has been found to have more lactobacillus than even yogurt, and how she tells women — putting on a faux southern accent — who ask her about yeast infection preventatives how inserting that weekly will leave them “fresh as a daisy.” It’s just really great to be in a community of women who are my kind of people, and who I don’t have to explain things to about my and our work because they already get it completely, some of them for a whole generation before I even came to it. I have yet to meet one woman there who I don’t like immensely.

• Can I just say that abortion freaking rocks? I know, one isn’t supposed to, of course, but I’m saying it anyway. I’m not just talking about the ability to make the reproductive choice best for you, and that being an option and a reality. That’s long been an inarguable given for me, and this job has only cemented that further. There’s this moment in counseling where you inform the women there, after explaining the whole of the procedure, that they will no longer be pregnant when they leave and you don’t see a single woman at that part of the process who doesn’t noticeably exhale with relief. You can literally watch the burden sail away. But I’m talking about the actual procedure here. This last week, I got to watch procedures with one of the doctor where her clients and under general, so it’s not as invasive to really get in there and watch close up as it is for those using a local. Not only is it just outrageous how deft this doctors hands were, and how fast and sure she is — and let me tell you, there was indeed a bit of envy there, missing the deftness I might have had with my own disabled hand, which often fails these days at even writing a legible word on a bad day, even when I try very hard — it’s just a revelatory procedure when you’re all up and in it. Plus, I got to look through the products after a few procedures in a glass tray over a light, and I SO wished I was comfortable asking if I could come in there one day with my camera for this stuff. Ultrasounds and illustrations don’t do fetal development any justice. Not only do embryonic or fetal products (up until a certain point, obviously) not look like baby, it doesn’t even look human or mammalian. When you can identify something at all it is like looking at some sort of prehistoric, translucent sea creature and it is fascinating. Makes sense, of course, we grow in a liquid environment, but I was totally unprepared for the utter coolness of it all. So incredible and amazing.

Things I loathe about the new gig:

• The hour and a half to two hour commute each way when I don’t have a carpool setup, especially days like today when I get to do that both ways. The other morning was particularly special, as the bus passed me by at my stop and I got to run like the freaking wind for four blocks (a jogger I am not), nearly losing my scrub bottoms, at the glorious hour of 6:30 in the morning. I completed that day by standing in the freezing rain for twenty minutes waiting for the first of the three buses back home, and the commute on the way home took just over two hours.

Did get a bit of perspective, at least: one of the women who just started working there commutes all the way from one of the islands, giving her a ferry and a bus, for a swell three hour trip each way. And she’s full-time, with kids (rather than just a crabby little pug like some people) at home. Jaysis.

• It’s not especially comforting that there are printouts of what to do per a bomb threat at pretty much every desk. Mind, I knew the deal going in, but still. When you’re zoning out from doing training reading and look up to rest your eyes, and see that — and also hear someone in the next room calling about someone who has been sitting in a creepy truck eyeballing the clinic all day at the same time — that’s not exactly restful. Walking past the protestors first thing in the morning when you’d prefer to be in your cozy bed is also not fun, and I confess that yesterday morning, I was so too tired to deal with it that I jutted through a shrub and stuck my tongue out at the protester staring down “God will strike you down dead with the power of my eyeballs” daggers at me while I flew by. I figure things like sticking-out-tongues or the ever-classic “Phooey on youie,” are perfectly peaceful, nonengaging responses. If you’re six years old, sure, but before enough coffee and deprived of sleep, I effectively am six.

• My shins have been KILLING me after these days. I’ve really never had a job that’s about standing all day. Lifting all day, sure; standing, walking, squatting and running around liek a chicken with your head cut off, you betcha (welcome to ECE and Kindergarten teaching). But this thing where most of the day you are simply standing, without really moving much? Good gawd. I’ll be trying every pair of shoes I can think of for a while. I thought clogs were the ticket, but clearly not. Next week, I think it’s sneakers one day, and maybe my gardening shoes the next. (Mind, I don’t like wearing shoes, period, but going barefoot isn’t an option.) Nice thing about already looking like a dork in scrubs already is that no footwear can really make it worse.

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Just so’s ya know, I wasn’t being vague about the new job, what it was, and where it was, just because. I just wanted to have a talk with the development director first about it before I said anything to be sure they were okay with it, and make sure we the same parameters I’d apply myself to talking publicly about work.

Truth is, I love, love this organization SO much — and that love has been mutual for some time, which has been such a compliment — and am so excited about working with them that I was aching to say something.

I had that conversation today, and it’s all good. :)

So, I’m now working for the Cedar River Clinics/ Feminist Women’s Health Center as an abortion and birth control counselor two days a week. Possibly more over time, I just need to feel out how this all works with everything else I do. It’s one of the last remaining independent feminist women’s clinics which provides abortions — I’ve talked about them before, so you likely already know this — it has an amazing history, is full of amazing women running an organization by a completely feminist model (The one big rule there? No stupid rules. Welcome home, me!). I’m really still quite beside myself that I get to do this work: it’s a position in which you’re there helping women who are giving you their trust in something so huge and so important. I’ve done a lot of feminist work over the years, but I feel like this really is such a peak. Being a pro-choice activist for so long, getting to be right in the thick of it all is such a gift. I’m nervous as hell — suffice it to say, one doesn’t want to fuck this up, ever — but for as nervous as I am, I’m even more elated.

Today I spent the day in some meetings with the women working in my clinic and one of the others, and it was very good news. That this is a new work community for me is heaven: as I said during orientation last week — and right after saying so, realized my lingo could perhaps use a makeover from all the time I spend talking to teens — these women are seriously badass. A drink afterwards with an instant pal from training last week was also just the thing. I’m tired as hell and will likely go to bed crazy early, but that’s largely because, of course, I had to get my period yesterday. I think my body figured out it was going to be in a room full of estrogen, so considered it my duty to not contribute further. I disagree, but I don’t really get a vote.

So y’all know the parameters, I likely won’t talk that much about this job when it comes to specifics. Patient confidentiality is obviously the mot central issue, but I’ve also been writing online longer than most and know better than to get anything even resembling in-detail with an employer of any stripe. So, that’s not going to happen, here or elsewhere.

But, that’s where I work, and I remain psyched-beyond-psyched. And today, very tired. I need some supper, a few Advil, a bath and my warm bed, big time.

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

You have probably heard that the teen pregnancy and birth rate is up in the United States, for the first time since 1991. As is reasonable, the primary issue most talking about this are addressing is abstinence-only sex education and, due to the way the U.S. has only given federal funding to those programs since 1996, the lack of comprehensive sex education. Of course, too, the ab-only corner is immediately coming to the table with the strange idea that pregnancy and birth rates are up because of comprehensive sex education. Logic and sound data obviously is not the order of the day for that faction, including in their curricula chock-full of intentional medical and practical misinformation, so it’s hardly a shocker that they either haven’t looked at the facts here or have, but don’t care about misrepresenting them.

It’s not tough to find the flaw in that supposition: we’ve only had the abstinence-only mandates, and the popularity of those programs, in this country since 1996, and those mandates have grossly limited comprehensive sex education for teens everywhere. It was during the heyday of comprehensive sex education in the States — combined with the heyday of the greatest access to and awareness of reliable methods of contraception — that we saw teen pregnancies and births begin one of the strongest declines ever. As well, if they’re going to posit that comprehensive sex education is to blame, then as Desi Arnaz liked to say, they’ve got a lot of ’splaining to do, Lucy. Why, then, aren’t we seeing these increases in other nations, in which comprehensive sex ed, and contraception, is often even more widely available than it is here of late? Why, before the advent of abstinence-only, and in the swell of comprehensive sex education, did we see a decline in these rates begin around 1990, and a rise again now? If social and sexual conservatism is the answer to teenage pregnancy, why does the U.S. and other socially conservative nations have the highest rates of teen pregnancy?

As someone who talks to scores of sexually active teens every day, and has watched these trends closely for many years, I worry that critical issues will get lost in the battles between groups of adults fighting about who is in the right when it comes to sex education that isn’t even for them in the first place. Increases in pregnancy and birth rates to any group, including teens, are about more than just what sort of sex education people are getting, and tunnel-vision or polarized thinking is never helpful.

By all means, a lack of accessible, approachable and accurate comprehensive sex education is always going to create problems with unwanted pregnancy. It always has. Heck, in any given day, we see at least one teen — and sometimes full-fledged adults — who really, truly, doesn’t even know exactly how pregnancy can occur (and most abstinence-only curricula are incorrect or incomplete in that regard). If you don’t know how something even happens, and know ALL that you can do to prevent it, it’s not rocket science to figure that preventing it is going to prove a challenge. So, we know that sound, accurate sexuality education is a vital starting point, but what else should we be addressing?

1. The refusal of men of all ages — but particularly teen men and older men sleeping with teen women — to always and gladly use condoms. It’s a given that this remains one of the biggest problems with sexually transmitted infections, but this is also a huge issue when it comes to teen pregnancy. Many teen women do not have — and many cannot get — another method of birth control. Even when the female partner is using a method of hormonal birth control, effectiveness rates for those methods are lower among teens than they are for adults (largely due to so many teens having to hide use of that method from parents). If I had a dollar for every teen who I have had tell me that they (usually if they are male, or if they are female, if their male partner has given them this message) or their male partners “just don’t like” condoms and “can’t feel anything,” I would be an incredibly wealthy woman. Ironically, I get as many teens saying that as I hear about condoms having slipped off without anyone even knowing. We hear a lot about how condoms aren’t “natural” (as if hormonal birth control, the preference of most men, was), how they “get in the way” of sex (as if headaches, extra depression and decreased libido and vaginal lubrication on the pill don’t), and about how teen women will often go without them, even when they don’t want to, because it isn’t worth the strife and conflict they get from their male partners.

That negativity is often learned. A lot of the time we dig deeper into condom bellyaching, we discover that at least half the time, the guys complaining have never even used a condom, and/or have gotten messages that risk prevention is only women’s responsibility. They’re often parroting what they hear from other men: fathers, brothers, friends, men in media.

Too, girls are still getting the message that if they want to be sure to be prepared even when their male partners are not by having condoms in their own pockets and purses, then they must be sluts. “Good” girls don’t carry condoms: they may still have sex — and that can be socially acceptable, especially if they are in love, and especially when it’s what their male partners want — but being prepared on their part FOR that sex is not very acceptable these days. Condoms, in particular, are a no-no for girls to carry because it’s often assumed that they’re then concerned about STIs, and would only have that concern if a) they didn’t trust their male partners, and/or b) they have had many sexual partners and an STI themselves.

Condoms are, in my book, the best birth control going, especially for teens. They protect against STIs as well as pregnancy, they have no side effects for either partner, they are one of the least intrusive methods when it comes to impacting the sexual experience of either partner; they’re cheap, easy to find, and easy to use. And when a person knows how to use them and uses them properly, they are nearly as effective as any hormonal method. To boot, they engage men in taking equal responsibility in managing the risks of sex, and allow female partners of men to earnestly feel that investment when men not only use condoms, but do so gladly and of their own accord.

2. Steep increases in costs of birth control methods and the decreased access to birth control methods and sexual health services. Birth control costs have been skyrocketing, especially for student health centers, due to a loophole in federal law which penalizes companies (by receiving lower payments from Medicaid) for offering prescription medications at a discount. Some student groups and organizations have been working to try and subsidize birth control costs for students to offset this, but many young women are having to just leave methods behind which were working for them.

While it should be obvious, it’s always worth reminding everyone that birth control methods fail. Sure, we can say that abstinence does NOT fail, but the problem is that it does, because few people WILL remain abstinent for the whole of their lives (and unwanted pregnancy is still unwanted pregnancy, even in marriages). Abstinence-pledges have NOT proved more effective than most birth control methods: based on the data we have for the long-term effects of abstinence programs, we can basically say that abstinence is about as effective as the withdrawal method.

3. Rising rates of poverty. In every country, during every time, poverty has always created increased teenage pregnancy and birth rates, as well as presenting additional health and quality-of-life risks to young, pregnant mothers and their children. Worse still in the states, family planning services through Title X — and the placement of individuals in that department who outright oppose the services it is in place to provide — have been diminished or cut off for the poorest young women. The Senate tried to give it an increase in funding last month: the . It’s particularly nefarious in an antichoice administration which never shuts up about how concerned it is about giving children life, knowing that poor mothers equal children living in poverty, too. No child left behind my fat fanny: the United States ranks next-to-last in child welfare in a recent United Nations survey of the wealthiest countries.

Teen pregnancy in poverty increases health and other quality-of-life risks to mother and child, makes it even more likely for poor young women to complete their education and reach life goals, and it is usually far more challenging to be a teen parent than it is to parent at older ages. Don’t care enough about teen parents and their children, or about those living in poverty, to feel this is your problem? Then you probably at least care about our collective wallet: teen pregnancy costs the U.S. over nine billion dollars a year.

4. Self-esteem issues and lack of assertiveness among young women. Young women often struggle with low self-esteem, especially in a culture where everywhere they look — the media, peers, and from the right and the left — they’re sent endless messages every day about how their appearance and sexual appeal to others is everything. We’ve also been seeing with some feminist backlash in terms of gender roles, resulting in young women getting the message that they are supposed to be passive about sex and with sexual partners. Several times daily we counsel young women at Scarleteen through sexual conflicts and negative consequences due solely or largely to lack of esteem. And abstinence-until marriage attitudes don’t help that at all. Telling young women that sex is only acceptable within the context of marriage, and that they aren’t as good unless they do does not increase their self-esteem. Telling young women and men that sex is only okay (for them: you can say it’s not okay for men either, but male sexual behavior and cultural double standards about male and female sexuality show that up) within a certain type of exchange — in other words, men “earn” sex from women by marrying women — only enables and validates the message that women’s primary value is a sexual one. Positing every aspect of sex as something that needs to be bartered with or controlled is not empowering. On the other hand, young women generally report that learning how to set limits and boundaries, that they have their own sexuality which they can choose to share or not, on their own terms, that sex is about personal expression, not performance or duty, about how their bodies and sexualities work and learning how to use safer sex methods and birth control — even if they don’t plan to do so for a while — IS empowering for them. Not sure what young women need to raise their esteem and learn to be assertive? Then ask them.

In order to teach young women to be assertive, we have to protest traditional gender roles and heterosexism, because they are based in male assertiveness and female passivity as well as the notion that the only basis for relationships between men and women is sex and/or romance. We need to be talking to teens about sexuality honestly. We need to counter the messages they’re sent from the media about appearance and its value; about women as sexual objects or conquests. We need to let young women know that a young man not being down with them taking a turn in the driver’s seat is not the worst thing that can happen to them. We need to challenge young women to create a better world with better dynamics than the one they’ve got now, not just figure this is as good as it’s going to get.

We also need to pay teens real respect. The fact that most of the argument we hear about teen sexuality and sex education happens among a group of people it isn’t even about, and who are not directly impacted — adults, and adults who often aren’t even parents to teens — speaks volumes about the respect we have for young people. The fact that it’s up to adults what kind of sex education teens receive — rather than say, voted for amongst student bodies in the schools teens attend — is appalling and patronizing, and no wonder many kind of sex education aren’t effective. Speaking for teens without speaking with teens doesn’t increase esteem: we need to be their allies, not their zookeepers.

5. Rape and gender-based violence. Studies have found that between 11% and 20% of pregnancies in teenagers are a direct result of rape. 62% of pregnant and parenting adolescents had experienced contact molestation, attempted rape, or rape prior to their first pregnancy (Boyer & Fine, 1993). Around 60% of teenage mothers state their pregnancies were preceded by unwanted sexual experiences (Gershenson et. al., 1989). Before age 15, a majority of first intercourse experiences among females are reported to be non-voluntary. The Guttmacher Institute found that 60% of girls who had sex before age 15 were coerced by males an average of six years their senior. The California Center for Health Statistics found that 70% of babies born to teenage mothers are fathered by adult men. Sexual exploitation of minors, rape and other sexual abuses are NOT a small factor when we’re talking about teen pregnancy OR a lot of teenage sex. Do the math: you can see that that doesn’t leave us a lot of teen pregnancies that have NOT had something to do with rape, abuse and exploitation.

Most messages about sex and when to have it are directed at girls and young women, and when they become pregnant, they are often told, overtly and covertly, that they have been irresponsible. And yet, rates of partner abuse and date rape among teens are incredibly high, and for the youngest women, not only was pregnancy often unwanted, so was the sexual activity which created that pregnancy. “Just say no,” doesn’t help when you ARE saying no — or don’t feel your no would even have influence — and someone else is going to have sex on you anyway.

What’s our federal government been doing about that? Well, slashing away at domestic violence prevention and gender-based violence programs like VAWA and rape prevention programs and rape crisis services included under that vetoed Labor HHS bill, of course.

6. A greater window of teen fertility due to earlier menarche. This is a simple statistical matter. With menarche happening earlier and earlier, teen women have a larger window in which to become pregnant than they have before. What does that mean to us? Yet one more reason (as if we needed more) to do all we can to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation of the youngest women, to be sure young women know that common myths like them being unable to become pregnant the first time or at a certain age aren’t true, to do all we can to empower girls from day one so that they can be assertive about limits and birth control when they need to be.

7. When two people love each other very, very much… I’ve always found it pretty darn strange to hear people trying to keep teens from sex talking a blue streak about how partnered sex — or more pointedly, heterosexual vaginal intercourse — is the most super-special thing any two people can everdo together. Not only do I tend to disagree with that — simply because it can be mighty special, but isn’t always, and there are lots of other equally special things people can do together — I can’t for the life of me figure out why that is supposed to make anyone want to avoid sex. If you’re in a relationship that feels very special, you’ve got some sexual chemistry going as well as some sexual desire, AND you — understandably — want to do something with someone to enjoy and celebrate that specialness and those desires, then sex is going to be one of the first things you think to do. especially with everyone and their uncle telling you how precious it is.

The same goes for putting motherhood on a pedestal. We can all be supportive of mothers (and fathers) without being a perpetual Hallmark card about it. If you’re wondering why so many young people can’t get how much of a challenge parenting is, look around and listen: most of the messages we’re all sent about parenting are not realistic or practical, and many make pregnancy and parenting sound like a state of constant bliss and a guarantee of unconditional love. On top of sending teens really mixed messages, this kind of treatment of parenting also makes a lot of good parents feel like awful parents, and keeps their realities invisible, because they figure all the doubts they have, all the times they’re not so stoked about being a Mom or a Dad may mean they’re substandard or bad parents.

8. Which country won’t make emergency contraception over-the-counter for teen women? Oh right, ours! EC is incredibly effective, safe and easy to use, and yet, for all the bellyaching about teen pregnancy, and despite finding no scientific data that shows EC would be a danger to young women (especially when you consider that we have plenty of OTC drugs anyone can get which can be dangerous and even deadly); even despite losing valuable FDA staff over this, the U.S. refuses to have the same policies about teens and EC that other countries have.

Many teens who want EC are still going to find a way to get it, as they should. But because EC needs to be used in such a short window of time — before a pregnancy occurs — to be effective, the harder we make it for teens to get it, the less likely they are to use it when they need to (not to mention that we then increase the stress of an already panicked teen further).

9. Stop chipping away at reproductive rights. When we’re also talking about birth rates, not merely pregnancy rates, it’s also a whole different ballgame. Whether or not a teen woman continues or terminates a pregnancy isn’t really about why or how she became pregnant in the first place. And when we consider that most of the abstinence-only faction — as well as our President — is also usually antichoice, you have to admit that it’s awfully strange to see them framing increased teen births as someone else’s fault, or as a problem they don’t like. (Leslie Unruh — who has previously offered teen women money to bribe them into continuing pregnancies and who was key in the South Dakota abortion ban — in particular did a particularly creepy spot on a news show a while back cooing about how women, period, shouldn’t be using birth control because we all needed babies, babies and more babies! Thinking about it still gives me the willies, and makes me wonder if she doesn’t eat babies or something. Her statement in that link about ab-only getting 1/12th of the funding comprehensive sex ed gets is also a blatant untruth, and one easily checked.) They may or may not desire teen pregnancy — though I think it’s more accurate to say they are more concerned about teen sex than teen pregnancy — but most abstinence-only proponents DO desire births, especially if those births occur within a marriage or result in adoption. Additionally, for those who push adoption on pregnant women, it should be noted that teens who have been reared in foster care often have doubled rates of teen pregnancy as compared to other teens. Setting aside the grotesque of guilt-tripping women into what for many is such a difficult thing to do and treating woman as baby factories, consider how many children never are placed in a permanent home here. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1999 and 2005, each year around 125,000 children are not placed, and of course, race plays a part: the poorest women so often being women of color, their children are less likely to be adopted.

If it’s teen births, not teen pregnancy that troubles you — and when those births are unwanted, it really should — then you’ve got to make sure that abortion becomes and remains widely available, accessible and affordable, including to minors. At the present time, 87% of counties in the United States have no abortion provider. Abortion continues to become more and more costly thanks to our policies about it. Most states have laws and policies which require parental consent or notification for minors seeking abortion (and the same is not required for minors continuing pregnancies), and in several states it is illegal for a teen to cross state lines to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I know I’m yelling into the void when I tell many conservatives that every birth and every child should be a wanted birth and child, and that we may never reach an agreement there. But if you’re going to talk about not just teen pregnancy, but unwanted pregnancy being a problem, you have to recognize that limiting reproductive choice is a huge part of that problem.

For the progressives reading sure they’re already doing all they can? One extra tip: stop apologizing for and about abortion. It’s nothing to apologize for, a procedure which most women who have it report as a positive, and there is no utopia we can imagine up — including a world where there are no-risk BC methods all women can use and afford which are 100% effective and reversible, a world where every woman always gets a say about sex, a world where infant health risks or defects are a nonissue, a world where every woman who wanted a child could afford to raise one — where abortion would not be an essential and needed service for women to prevent unwanted births. Women have had or sought abortions for as far back as we go, and the option of safe, legal and effective abortion is nothing to be sorry for.

10. An overall acceptance that teenagers always have and always will often be sexually active in some respect. There is no teen sex epidemic right now. Historically, teens have, as a group, always been sexually active, and that activity tends to happen with the physical, emotional and social sexual development that no one can halt and which is developmentally normal. By all means, it’s beyond sound to talk to teens about sex and sexuality and let them know about risks and consequences, and about what sorts of things they need to be ready to manage if they’re going to be sexually active. By all means, we should be talking to teens to let them know that if sex isn’t fully wanted on their part, then they should not be having sex (and sex-until-marriage rarely sends that message: instead, it tends to enable the message that once a person — especially a woman — is married, she MUST have sex, and often not based on her own desires). By all means, we should be supporting teens in waiting for any kind of sex until it is wanted and until they’re ready to handle it.

But trying to stop teens from doing something which is developmentally normal for them is not only ineffective, it’s ridiculous. Sure, once a two-year-old learns how to walk they’re going to face more risks and potential dangers than they did when they were less mobile. But we don’t hear anyone trying to make a strong case that because of those increased risks, we should be doing everything we can to keep toddlers from walking, an essential part of their growth and development. Sex isn’t inessential. It’s not required, but it isn’t inessential for most people and teenagers know that, even if older adults have forgotten (or their own sex lives have grown so stale and rote that sex seems inessential to them).

As a final aside, it’s important to realize that some teens choose to become pregnant. It’s patronizing and ignorant to class all teen pregnancies as accidental. Most are, but many are not. Plenty of teen women want to become pregnant, some even more than they want to sex they’re having to get there. Certainly, with many of those young women, we can identify some common causes for that desire to have a child. Poverty, low self-esteem (primarily, thinking that the only thing they have the capacity to become is a mother), loneliness, a need to prove maturity, as well as looking to try and cement young relationships have often been found to be common issues of the youngest parents who want to be parents. But too, not only are some of these some of the same reasons that older women want to be parents, some teens also share another common reason older women have to want to become pregnant: the desire to be a parent.  Whether or not you feel teen pregnancy is or is not acceptable (and from a standpoint of real reproductive choice, if you feel it’s outright not-okay when you’re not the one pregnant and parenting, I’d urge you to rethink that), it is not always accidental, and teen women do have the right to choose to become pregnant and remain pregnant if that is what they want to do.

So, you want to help halt unwanted teen pregnancy? What do we all need to do besides supporting comprehensive sex ed?

  • Teach men to use condoms, always, and without all the bellyaching. Work to make it a positive for men AND women sleeping together to keep condoms on hand. Men: support and encourage other men in condom use. Women: tell teen women about how you don’t take no for an answer when it comes to condom use.
  • Increase access to all reliable and safe methods of birth control and slash the costs of birth control. Bring back family planning and sexual health services and access for the poorest women.
  • Fight poverty, even if that means giving up some of the luxuries you call needs. Live lean, and give to organizations like the YWCA, UNICEF, your local homeless shelters and other organizations which fight poverty and provide supports for those currently in poverty.
  • Support and nurture positive self-esteem through personal achievement and value of diversity, address lookism, sexual performance vs. sexual intimacy and sexual valuation, and by treating teens with respect and AS young adults, not as children.
  • Do everything in your power to work to end rape and gender-based violence, including blaming perpetrators, not victims.
  • Recognize current changes in sexual development — like earlier menarche — and take them into account.
  • Talk realistically, to teens and each other, about partnered sex, pregnancy and parenthood.
  • Make emergency contraception easily available for all women, of all ages.
  • Help keep abortion legal — even if you have no want or need for abortion yourself — and commit to making it affordable and accessible to every woman who wants it.
  • Know and accept that many teens will seek out and have sexual relationships.

Comprehensive sexuality education does address usually all or nearly all of these issues, and incorporates an awareness about all of them into our approaches to sexuality education. Obviously, as a comprehensive sex educator, I’m all about doing all we can to get comprehensive sex back back in the game, for real. Even from a personal standpoint, every year when I file my taxes and know that I have no choice but to fund the institutionalized misinformation that I have to bust my butt every day, without funding, to correct, my blood boils. And I absolutely think that abstinence-only funding and curricula — and the lack of comprehensive sex education that has been a result — are a big part of the unwanted teen pregnancy and birth problem.

But I also think — scratch that, I know — that that’s only one part of the problem.

(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen Blog)

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

The two panels I was part of at the NARAL youth leadership summit yesterday were pretty freaking awesome. It was SO fantastic to see rooms brimming over with women in high school and college full of enthusiasm, feverishly taking notes, having no trouble at all asking questions or inserting themselves into conversations.

For the Art as Activism panel, I sat with these two freaking brilliant women, and suffice it to say — though this is easier to explain to people who know me in person and are familiar with the fact that I’m very spaztastic in my energy — Christa and I immediately leaped on the notion that we have GOT to do some kind of work together, starting, like, yesterday. But cocktails first: always cocktails first.

The other panel I did was called “Be the Media You Wish to See.” I realized halfway through that clearly, I’d interprteted that as “How to Overthrow the Media.” I’m not sure that was what they’d had in mind. Now, I don’t think that was an unreasonable interpretation on my part, but when one of the questions that came up was how choice was represented in corporate OR mainstream media (I was all, “Whaddya mean OR?”), it became clear I might be on a slightly different wavelength.

So, per usual lately, when I heard my words starting to come out of my mouth — rather than, you know, having the distinct sense I was purposefully and intentionally forming them — I realized I was likely sounding a little outer limits. I started talking to the girls and young women (and a couple young men) about how they need to be dangerous — how it is seriously awesome to be dangerous — how the price paid in a country like we live in for taking big risks with activism and our words is so relatively small, even when the worst happens. How — in response to being asked if I thought we were going to see a change in how repro rights and women’s bodies and abortion was rep’d in the media — they’re poised to have things change but have got to just take the risks right NOW; that those big changes will only happen when they DO something. (I also brought up that there is this perpetual rift between older feminists and younger feminists where the elder feel like the younger aren’t doing enough, and how it’s pretty impossible to tell if that’s apt, or just projection, but either way, everyone has STILL got to freaking start acting up and making some noise.)

That was the point at which I made clear I knew I was getting a bit intense, but they were really receptive, so I went on. I talked about how we don’t hear young people’s voices enough, and when they really speak up, they get heard, often because the idea that they’re apathetic, self-absorbed, stupid, whatever is so prevalent. I mean, that’s an awful stereotype, but it’s one they can seriously use against the whole system to empower themselves. Crappy as stereotypes are, when your character and actions fly in the face of them, it can make it a lot easier to be seen and heard. I was all, “Fuck the mainstream media and trying to be part of it, make your own,” I went on and on telling them they were powerful. I probably said that a few too many times, really, but then, what’s too many times to hear you are powerful?

For sure, I got a bit kooky, but you know, it’s not very often that you get to do events with a room full of young people, especially young women, at an event because they WANT leadership roles. (Plus, given the panel before was three of us artists clearly pulling energy from each other’s kooky, the kook-factor was inevitable.)

It’s even less often that when you talk, it doesn’t have to be academic and dense, but rather, you can just wave your bloody-red pompoms made from a million tampon strings and cheer the hell out of a bunch of young women. Too, I keep feeling like I see this really weird sell for feminism or activism that tries to say that it’s great because it’s sexy, it’s cool, whatever. And it’s not. It’s not sexy or cool, and it won’t make you fit in. But since when was anyone ever drawn to activism to fit in, anyway? From where I’m sitting, the fringe benefits of being an activist have always been about rebelling, about opting OUT, dropping out, tuning out; about being a renegade, which sure seems a lot more interesting to both me now and to 17-year-old-me than being sexy or cool, eh? At this point, you can buy sexy or cool at Wal-Mart, for crying out loud. Their value is incredibly limited, often manufactured in sweatshops, and really quite cheap.

Despite my weirdness, it seemed very appreciated, and I had a DAMN good time doing it. I felt very, very energized leaving. Because of Scarleteen, so often the majority of young people that I encounter in a day are in some kind of crisis or confusion, empowered only after doing some work with them, so when I get opportunites to see a group of them with some real clarity, feeling that empowerment from the minute they walk through the door, my job being to amp what is already there — and in abundance — up? It was a real gift.

I had to go look it up, because after Ben dropped me off at home — we ate everything in sight at Wayward after he’d picked me up after my event — I kept having these snippets of words that were echoing my thoughts in my head, and I couldn’t remember whose they were, and I knew they were far too concise to be mine. So, I was not at all suprised to be reminded that they were bell hooks’ words, from “Teaching to Transgress,”

My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness.

Yes, yes, and a million kinds of yes.

This has been a week of some really cool women, actually. This week, Renee Walker and I also connected, and had a cool, quick gab session on the phone on Friday about ways we could join forces. As it turns out, her sister is a NARAL Washington board member, so I got to briefly touch base with her yesterday, as well.

* * *
I’ve continued to think on all the flaws — not like this is anything new — of the until-marriage stuff, and look at the commentary. One of the conclusions I’m coming to which I wasn’t quite at before was that even when you set aside the very primary issues — that we simply know that marriage, in and of itself, doesn’t create any kind of unilateral protections when it comes to general or sexual health, or emotional or sexual well-being, that not everyone can get married, even when you set aside that WHO one is married to, and what a given marriage is like is not a minor part of the whole equation — we’re still left with one very big problem.

That big problem is that in anything where there is more than one person involved, we cannot (I’d say should not, but when we’re talking about conservatives, that is very much a point where we are in no sort of agreement) control the other person or their behaviour.

We can’t say marriage is lifelong monogamy, or that we could make it so because we can only choose that for ourselves: we can’t choose it or control it in a partner. We can’t choose or control if that other person to BE married to sticks around lifelong or even shows up — a commentor brought that up again, and I’d mentioned it as well, but buried in a sea of text, alas. We can’t control or somehow pre-determine the previous history of anyone we marry or partner with, or somehow guarnatee anyone’s honesty who isn’t us.

Now, from a vantage-point of very traditional marriage, I understand personally overlooking this flaw, or not seeing it that way, when faith — as in, having faith in all things, and privileging faith over reason — is a very big deal. Trouble is that when we’re talking about sexual health, faith doesn’t cut the mustard, and it never has. I’d also posit that if, for either or both parties, or an overarching culture, control — not self-discipline, not self-determination, not harmony or comparrion — is a key factor in the idea that marriage can somehow guarantee sexual health or sexual happiness and satisfaction, then we’ve got yet another conundrum, because that’s something else we know has historically (and still) hindered, not helped, and often done outright harm, rather than given protections, people’s sexual health and sexual well-being.

Sexual health initiatives, to work, always have to solely or primarily be about, and start with, our OWN actions and choices, about what we can do, ourselves, with or without cooperation from anyone else, to protect our sexual health and honor our sexuality. It’s simply not doable to improve or protect our sexual health with things we cannot control, or by putting our health, happiness and safety in someone else’s hands. This is, of course — and I say this without judgment — going to be something that is very difficult to rectify if the meat or whole of the way you live your life is about trying to put your fate or your life into the hands of an entity you cannot even have a conversation with, and if greater moral value is put on being passive than on being active.

The email overload on this score has finally seemed to subside. Really, I don’t get whirlwinds of conservatism like this very often, it’s only once every year or so, sometimes less often than that. And again, when I do get them, they’re not from the actual youth and young adults I serve: if they were, if my own clients were telling me that what I was doing or saying was not working for them, obviously, I’d be sitting down and having some big thinks on how I can better serve them. But I don’t: we even regularly have a small base of youth waiting for marriage and they do just fine at Scarleteen, laregly because they are making that choice for THEMSELVES, not seeking to enforce it on everyone else, or on a population they aren’t even a part of.

When I get these kids of emails, they are only rarely from people who are even parents of teens. Most frequently, they’re from people who aren’t parents at all, and more often than not, from people who don’t even interact with teens and young adults in any way. If they’re parents, they tend to be parents of very young children. But mostly, from what I can gather, what most have in common is that they’re just not people comfortable with sexuality, their own or anyone else’s. You do a job like mine long enough, you don’t have to be psychic when you read or listen to someone talking about sex and sexuality to be able to suss out, pretty decently, an overall tone when it comes to what their sex lives are like. And overwhelmingly, I read a flat-line when it comes to sex with most of these folks. I mean, it’s easy to argue that there isn’t much or any value in sex simply being enjoyable or a good time when you have never had a good time.

It reminds me a bit of parts of growing up poor and among poor families. I know my mother got a good deal of this in her family: my father’s didn’t live long enough in his adult life to find out about them. And I’ve seen it in other poor families around, too, this weird idea that you want your kids to do better than you did, but either only so MUCH better, or only better if when it gets better for them, it gets better for you, too. I get the impression that the same goes with plenty of families, especially conservative families, when it comes to sex and relationships — that there is this personal agenda that isn’t just about faith or about real sexual health or real happiness, but about having a really hard time figuring out how you’d deal with it if your kids were so much happier than you were when it came to sex. Maybe that’s because they feel like their kids would start to really know how unhappy their elders were, and people don’t want that shown up? I don’t know: just thinking out loud, really.

I really appreciated Courtney Martin’s “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” and in one part of it, she talked about how her generation grew up with mothers who were encouraged to be Superwomen. She spoke to the conflict she felt with that — how while she heard her mother saying you can do anything, while Mom was trying to do EVERYTHING; heard her mother saying that being able to do everything she could possibly do every single day was the best thing ever, when she looked at her mother, what she saw was not a woman elated, but a woman completely exhausted. And I know, even just from listening to kids and teens talk about parents who are pushing the wait-until-marriage stuff, that they’re often seeing some of what I’m talking about here. They hear adults and parents saying everything about sex and love is so much better when done this one particular way, and even for the minority of them saying that who even did it that way, what they often see — which is not sexually satisfied, energized people — stands in great conflict with what they’re being told.

But it’s to the point where I’m wondering if I can’t just come up with a sort of pre-emptive note in our contact form that just read something like, Before emailing, please first go have an orgasm or two. Then take a bath, or maybe a walk or a swim. Cook something decadent, and eat more than you think you should. Have a glass of wine, or some amazing juice of some kind. Get the dirt on your hands, and leave what’s left under your fingernails there for the rest of the day. Dance like a dope or sing something much too loudly and slightly off-key. Give someone a big bear hug. Play hooky. Look in the mirror, naked, and say, with great conviction, “I love you.” If you really still need to send me that email, then be my guest.

All of which, come to think of it, sounds far more like what I should be doing on a Sunday morning than writing in my office.