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

Archive for the 'body/mind' 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.)

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.

(more…)

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Last week, this eloquent missive arrived in the Scarleteen general email box:

From: na@aol.com
Subject: [General Contact] Heather Corinna
Date: July 29, 2010 8:50:10 AM PDT

bob sent a message using the contact form at http://www.scarleteen.com/contact.

her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna is a SLUT

I don’t know Bob. I also have never slept with anyone named Bob as far as I recall — I have a near-exclusive partiality to lovers or partners with names that start with the letter J or M, followed by A, C and D. The two lone B’s I can recall have both been Brians. This begs the question of how, exactly, Bob knows I’m a slut in the first place. Bob’s agenda is also a mystery. Maybe he thought I had some kind of supervisor who would see this…actually, I don’t know what on earth Bob’s intent was here. No sense trying to suss it out. All I know is that it came in, I read it, and I said, “Umm, okay. It just might. And?” Perhaps obviously, I cannot ask Bob what sort of actionable response he wanted from this very important piece of news, because he, demonstrating exceptional courage, did not use a real email address.

There’s been a lot of talk about sluthood on the interwebs this week, mostly stemming from Jaclyn Friedman’s fantastic piece here and a couple patronizing, backlashy replies. I hesitate to link to them because I hate to send them traffic, but it’s never fair to call someone’s words idiotic without sharing the evidence you’re basing that judgment on.

When Jaclyn’s piece came out, I read it, thought it was great, so real of her, and clearly something that resonated with a lot of women. Jaclyn and I are friends, so I also had a little more inside scoop on what a big deal putting that out there was for her. While I very much appreciated the piece, it didn’t resonate with me on a personal level all that much. I’m quite certain this is not because it wasn’t a powerfully-written and important piece, because I think it was.

I just got off the phone with Jaclyn, in part because some I wanted to try and figure out WHY it didn’t resonate with me, and make sure that in figuring that out, I wasn’t making any assumptions about Jaclyn and her experiences or thoughts.

(By the way, an etiquette tip it appears some people never learned? When someone puts out something exceptionally personal, no matter who they put it out to or where, if you want to have anything resembling manners, you at least try and engage with them directly before you psychoanalyze them for the whole world, and probably mostly for your own benefit. No, no one HAS to do that, but anyone arguing for “values” or “respect” is going to lose an awful lot of face if they have the social graces of a mosquito.)

Back to that email. I got it, had that reaction to it, which was pretty much no reaction. That was followed with momentary amusement at the idea either I, or my mystery supervisor (oh, if only!), was supposed to have some kind of reaction.

See, to me, a statement like that is about as powerful and about as true as statements like:
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna has a BIG NOSE
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna is SHORT
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna was RAPED
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna ENJOYS HULA-HOOPING
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna likes giving and getting HEAD
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna has a PUG
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna is A BIG QUEERO
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna STUDIES SEXUALITY
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna is IRISH-ITALIAN
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna has been a TEACHER FOR 20 YEARS
• her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna HAS RENT TO PAY

All true, all part of who I am and what life I live and have lived, and likely all part of what influences the advice that I give to others. Etymologically, being a slut means being untidy and/or being someone with a twat who has either bonked a lot of people or, as the awesome Kelly Huegel pointed out, is a female person who has had sex with more people than any one person calling them a slut considers acceptable. One supposes you can add in the frequent implication that being a slut means being someone of “loose” or questionable character or values.

So, am I a slut? Sure, okay. I am untidy. I have had sex with more people than some people consider acceptable, and on the bell curve of what folks report with a lifetime number of partners, I have had more than most. Since I have routinely questioned both my own values and character for myself all my life as a regular practice, and try to keep flexible, I suppose it’s also true to say mine are both questionable and loose. When you tell me or others something that is true about myself, I’m not likely to get my feelings hurt or be offended, particularly when we’re talking about things that have been my choice, like my sex life.

Jaclyn is getting some of the negative reactions she is just because some people are just idiots. But Jaclyn is also probably getting that kind of reaction because some of what she said is exactly what those people want to hear if they read very, very selectively. She’s a solid writer, which makes it easy to take her statements out of context.

In the piece, one thing she voiced was that what she most wants right now is a long-term relationship; that she has been able to have casual sex of late, and that it has been positive, but what she really wants and does not have is an LTR. While she did not voice a causal relationship between the two (quite the opposite), what she said allowed people who are seeking out such things to cling on to that notion, one they desperately want to believe and want others to believe. She also voiced she had feelings about casual sex that were not unilaterally positive, something else they want to hear and spotlight. And because she said what they wanted to hear and because it resonated with some other women, she’s a great sort of poster child for a carnival show where people pretend to be showing others the poor, broken girl who just doesn’t know any better so that they can avoid her same, terrible fate.

She also disclosed she survived sexual trauma. As I’ve said about a million times, if and when any of us do that, while it’s important we do do that, both politically and because being able to be honest about any part of our lives is major, we become very easy marks.  Almost anything we do or experience ever-after, anything that is anything less than perfect, will often be attributed not even to our rape, but to us being a person who has been raped. I’ve decided my new comeback to this when I get hit with it, by the way, is going to be “Okay, let’s say everything wrong with me or that I’m unhappy about sexually or interpersonally IS because I was raped.  So… what the fuck happened to YOU that made you this screwed up?”

Anyway, in thinking about my non-reaction to that email since last week, to my less-than-super-pow reaction to Jaclyn’s post and to the responses to it, positive and negative, I’ve come to some conclusions.

Jaclyn was considered “the good girl” in her family. In mine, that was my sister, not me. Her good girl distinction and my bad girl one were affixed before either of us engaged in any kind of sexual behavior or even thought about it. Mind, my family was not a unified front in this. One of my parents was extraordinarily sex-positive and very strongly and loudly against slut-shaming and against the whole good girl/bad girl epoch, while my other parent — raised in a very religiously-oppressive household where this stuff was a staple — and particularly my stepparent (an abuser, so no surprises there), slut-crowned me pretty much on the basis of having a first kiss and on trying so hard to meet gender presentations that didn’t feel authentic to me, but that they required. It appears I erred on the side of presenting that way too well. Talk about a backfire. Not girly enough? You’re a dyke. Too girly? You’re a slut. It’s a tough game to win, and one I perpetually lost. It’s also why when I was assaulted at 11 and 12, after one attempt to tell my mother, I didn’t tell anyone for years. I knew my stepparent would feel proved right and I knew it would be used against me in his abuse. I couldn’t bear the thought of giving him any more ammo.

That consistent verbal slur or implication was also based in homophobia: I knew about my feelings for girls, or experienced them, anyway, before I knew about my feelings for boys. I didn’t recognize those feelings for what they were very clearly until high school, but in hindsight, it’s obvious my family did. That may be part of why, while the word “slut” doesn’t hold particular power with me, either as a slur or as something to reclaim, the word dyke very much did and has. I think that has to do with my own journey in getting right with other women and with my gender. Mostly, though, I think it’s about been called a dyke and not being far enough in those journeys that I did internalize it as a slur — something I never did with slut because when it was hurled at my in my pre-teens and early teens, I knew it wasn’t true. About feeling bad about something I wished I’d instead felt good about and had had the strength to refuse to internalize as bad.

Jaclyn and I talked about what our differences in some of this might be, and some of what came up was privilege. While we have or have had some similarities (the self-defense, the communication skills, the fact that we’re both white), we’re also a bit different in that arena. The trajectory of our lives and sexualities have been different: with each decade, for instance, my number of sexual partners has declined: in the last ten years, I’ve only been outside LTRs and single with casual partners for around 2. I have had my work or the credibility of my work impacted by my actual or perceived sexual behaviour. But I also tend to experience a weird kind of privilege in often having little privilege. I figure if it isn’t going to be one thing, it’ll be another, so I may as well just be who I am and put who I am on the table. Like Janis sang, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Like Jaclyn, I have had times in my life when I have wanted an ongoing, intimate relationship and have not had one, though with me that’s rarely abstract. When I want one of those, it tends to be about wanting one with someone specific (or, let’s be frank: about wanting relationships where I can get some privilege and be spared some of the judgment we get while in other models). It’s fair to say I’ve usually been far more cautious about getting into romantic relationships than I have been about getting into bed with someone.

The first person I deeply romantically loved and wanted a lifelong relationship with died, and I had a while in my teens and early 20’s where I struggled with the idea that I had my shot with romantic love; I met My One Person and since apparently there was but The One, I had had mine and was shit out of luck because that person was dead. I got over that, but it took a while, and all the bullshit about there being only one big love people shove down everyone’s throat did not help at all. Given the fact that in many ways, the people closest to me growing up turned out to be who I could trust the least, I absolutely have had intimacy issues because getting close has always equaled a fear of not just being hurt, but the fear-via-experience of being abused and seriously neglected. I could go on, but the point is I have a very good idea about the why of that (and have already had and enjoyed the psychoanalysis to help me get there, thanks), and it’s simply What Is: don’t see it as anything broken I need to fix, but the person I am based on the life I’ve lived, a person I like, love and respect.

I’ve had a handful of long-term relationships in my life, most of which I’d class as successful: I had good experiences in them and got good things from them, so did the other person or people. Sparing the death of my sweetheart in high school, the person who has left or adjusted almost every one of them? That’s usually been me. Why? It depends, really, but more times than not it’s just been because various needs or wants I had weren’t being met in those relationships or the relationship had morphed from something romantic into a different kind of relationship that felt a better fit for everyone. First time at bat with my current partner, I skeedaddled because of PTSD whacking me in the face without warning or preparation and I dealt with it very badly as a result.

However, I’ve also had just as many times when I wanted more casual sex partners or experiences than I had. Like most parts of life and like many people, I’ve had both feast and famine, and have been delighted about the feast and distressed about the famine. In what things or areas there was bounty or drought strikes me as irrelevant. Bounty almost always feels great while drought pretty much always sucks, for everyone, with everything. Rocket science, this ain’t.

I even miss casual sex when I’m not having it. I can’t always say that so plainly when I’m with someone long-term. But blessedly, my partner (who’s known me on and off for 20 years, a relationship that began in 1989 with a three-night-stand) knows with certainty that I very much enjoy the sex that we have as a currently monogamous couple and also understands that while there are plenty of common threads between sex we have in LTRs and casual sex, also groks the differences and doesn’t see them as being in a cagematch.

When I miss it, what I miss is the adventure, the uncertainty, the dance of the thing. I miss sudden, often unexpected connectivity. For me, there was always something spiritually very cool in experiencing sex as one of the many ways people who aren’t deeply connected can wind up very deeply connecting quickly, be that with the sex itself or with the conversation before or after. While I’m all for taking the cultural unacceptability out of casual sex for those who still cling to it or are very impacted by it, at the same time, there’s this sort of partners-in-crime thing I’ve sometimes had with casual sex partners, where you’re both doing this thing you know some people think is not okay, which can make it all the more playful.

There’s a kind of abandon that I experience in sex period, but which for me has been particularly strong with casual sex. There’s that thing where it’s really very much up for grabs as to whether or not you’ll have sex that day or night or not that’s a lot tougher to come by with sex in ongoing relationships, long or short-term. There’s a lack of expectation I appreciate. Heck, I miss being able to blog more about the sex I have: that’s a lot more tricky when you’re having it outside casual situations. As well, given some of my history, it’s often been easier for me to say what I want when there are no strings attached than when there are. I can either way, it’s just that doing so with someone who knows me very well is more of a challenge, and feels much more vulnerable to me, so it’s scarier at first than in casual sex.

I clearly prefer ongoing or long-term relationships that start with casual sex. Not that I honestly know much about the alternative, since I’ve almost unilaterally had that thing happen that so many of us are told will NEVER happen with casual sex. Almost all of my ongoing romantic relationships have started with casual sex. Many of my friendships have, too. One of the things I miss when I’m missing casual sex are the friendships that I have found stem from it. Casual sex has rarely meant a lack of love for me. I’ve given and received a lot of love and care in most of my sexual relationships of all sorts; the casual ones have been no exception.

I know a lot of people are very scared of STIs with casual sex, but this is one of those areas where I know too much. Coming of age with a parent working in some of the earliest AIDS care meant I got and saw facts, not fictions. My personal life and those around me have reflected the reality that it’s lack of barrier use and lack of sexual healthcare most responsible for STIs, not what kind of sex we have. Having more partners certainly increases the risks, but only having one or two and not using barriers and having everyone regularly tested presents even larger ones. If I didn’t know this before I went into working in sexual health, including in clinical work, I sure know it now. Someone can tell me all they want STIs are about casual sex, but they’re usually not people working in these fields because we know better. When I hear someone say “she’s risking her life for casual sex!” I tend to wish I could require compulsory volunteering in domestic/intimate partner violence.

I’m aware, especially after going on 13 years of sex and relationships being my full-time work, that there is NO human interaction in which we cannot get hurt; NO one way of having sex or sexual relationships that removes the risk of heartbreak or abuse. There are some bare basics — consent, communication, self-awareness — and then each of us doing our best to make choices and interrelate in the ways that feel a best fit for us and anyone else involved at any given time of our lives.

I know that for people like the two I linked to shredding Jaclyn, of course, there’s also a gender script pretty much running the show. However, it’s not even worth addressing here because it’s absolutely meaningless and irrelevant for those of us who are queer and who aren’t gendernormative. (You also can’t make it meaningful by trying to change the facts of someone’s orientation and partnerships, calling them all male or hetero when they haven’t been. Just a tip.)  I’d posit that even for those who are, much of the time it’s only relevant because they’re so susceptible to those messages, not because there’s some sort of biological or sociological essentialism that rule all.

With both casual and non-casual sex I have not had radically different dynamics when it comes to my partners and their/our gender. In fact, some of the most pervasive messages about gender in the hetero scripts about casual sex sound like science fiction through the lens of my own experiences. For example, in my own sex life, it’s not usually been men who were hardest to hold onto when holding on is what I wanted, but women. It’s not been women who have expressed feelings hurt by casual sex the few times that’s happened, but men. Whoever these “all men” are that fuck and run? I’m not sure I’ve slept with any of them, and if I have, I must have just run through the finish line myself before I saw them start their own sprint.

There’s another difference Jaclyn and I talked about this morning, which is that being slut-shamed is new for her, whereas it’s something I grew up with and which has been pervasive for me for a long time.

I think it’s safe to say I haven’t ever been hurt by my own actual sluttery, per what that word actually means and per how it’s most often colloquially defined. Even being called one when I was young mostly hurt within the context of every name I got called and every way I was intentionally isolated and abused. There’s even a flip side to that, though, which is that being called a slut also gave me permission to go and be one: after all, if you’re going to get called something that involves doing things you may enjoy, it feels silly not to do those things. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten called one, it would have been harder for me to explore that part of my nature, which has involved some of the best parts of my whole life.

The personal disrespect to me in slut-shaming isn’t really what has stung, since it’s generally been clear people who throw that word at others don’t have much respect for anyone, not just me. They also most often seem to be most strongly reacting to women having sex outside the system of sex-for-goods, be those goods marriage, shelter, children, social status, hat have you. That’s a big reality for many women in the world I acknowledge and understand, for sure, and also acknowledge and understand is inescapable for some, but I also feel is nothing close to ideal. I’m lucky to have been able to live outside that system for most of my life with only a few brief exceptions. This is usually also clearly why so many of the folks so attached to that way of codifying sex are so anti-prostitution: it’s critically important their sexual exchanges be seen as radically different, even though I don’t see the big diff myself.

The few times I have felt deeply hurt by being a “slut,” wasn’t in any of the sex (or untidiness) I was having or had, but in the way people who call me or other people sluts; in the way “being a slut” is presented, something Jaclyn spoke so aptly about. It was the verbal abuse — like any verbal abuse — that hurt, not my own sexual life used as a vehicle for that abuse. That’s probably a big duh for those past the 101 of abusive dynamics, interpersonal relationships and sexuality. But for some strange reason, it escapes people’s minds who think that they can say the issue isn’t THEIR chosen words or actions, but what WE did to CAUSE their words and actions to burst forward from their mouths and fingers, which they apparently have no control over because of how our own lives, of which they often have been no part. It’s amazing that the same people who tell women they should just shut their legs don’t seem to have the same standards for their own mouths.

The times I’ve been attacked and nonconsensually deconstructed per what a slut/whore/insert-your-fave-sexual-chick-shame-here I am and it has hurt, the hurt was centrally about something different than I think the folks doling out that epithet imagine it to be. It’s not been about my feeling ashamed of myself or my choices. It’s instead been about profound disappointment and weariness that we still, at this point in history, can’t all be real about who we are in our sex lives and have our divergence simply recognized as the diversity human sexuality and life is, with the understanding that none of our lives is everyone’s right answer. That so many people still just cannot get that because they put themselves and their lives out there as prescriptions doesn’t mean we all do. When those attacks are about you having casual sex and about how much that sex shows how little self-respect you have or how little respect you’re getting, the ironic icing on that cake is that I’ve been very respected and cared for, as have my partners, in most of the sex — casual and not — that I have had. Where I’m not getting that respect isn’t from the people everyone says didn’t or won’t respect me, but from the people presenting themselves as experts on respect who clearly know nothing about it at all.

As someone who has worked many years and long hours to try and repair some of this stuff culturally, it’s particularly frustrating and tiresome and makes me feel like Don Quixote all too often. Which is really no fun at all without a Sancho Panza to have witty, existential banter with or without getting your very own musical.

There’s also a subtext to all of this that has to do with who is perceived as redeemable and who isn’t. If YOU, yourself, are seen as potentially redeemable, you get talked to one way: often with what is presented as gentleness, but tends to feel an awful lot like being patronized.  If you are NOT seen as redeemable, the language tends to be more angry and rough. If who might be influenced by you or what you voice is seen as redeemable and YOU also are, you all get talked to like you’re stupid little lambs.  If you are NOT seen as redeemeable, but who hears or sees you is, you’re really in the shit. And if you get so lucky, you and anyone you might influence are all seen as unredeemable, because that usually nets you a complete and blissful silence where you can just support one another and enjoy your private lives in peace.

I was accused by Walsh yesterday of having “many young women drinking my Kool-aid” who “were unhappy about it.” I’m not sure who these young women are or what my Kool-Aid is exactly. I asked, I got silence. Thus far, in the work I do, I have yet to see reports about how upset someone is that they did something Heather Corinna told them to do, sparing a few people I’ve told to get a GYN exam or a test for something and who got poor care from healthcare providers when doing so. Since I don’t tell anyone to have this kind of sex or that kind of sex at all — on the contrary — I’m not sure what that was all about.

Lest dumb assumptions be made, the reason this is here and not at Scarleteen isn’t because I feel ashamed of myself or my friends or that I think my sex life is de facto inappropriate.  It’s because as much as possible, especially when the young people there don’t ask me for it, I limit what I share anecdotally.  I have these funny things we call boundaries on my planet. I’d do the same even if — maybe even especially, since it’s SO different than where they’re at — I had only had one partner, married them and was with them for 25 years exclusively. The young people I provide sexuality education to usually know precious little about my sex life and sexual history, because they come wanting to talk about themselves, and also because my own sex life often has little to do with them or what they’re asking. How my sexual history would be pertinent to how they can use their birth control method or to where their own clitoris is beyond me. Adults who assume I sit and talk turkey about what’s going on in my bedroom with young people usually do because that’s what they do, not because it’s what I do. Young people also tend to voice to me that older people’s anecdotes about their own sexual experiences can feel like pressure, no matter WHAT those anecdotes are. Just a few weeks ago, a few of them were talking about how they feel pressured by a lot of abstinence-messaging TO have intercourse because it presents it as the only REAL sex. Go figure.

Some of the reaction to Jaclyn’s piece, or this business about my Kool-Aid clearly was about the poor, vulnerable young women we are perceived as having corrupted or may corrupt. Often evidence for this is stated in that wild, crazy “hookup culture” all the cool kids are purportedly part of. Beyond the fact that I’m not sure how people like myself or Jaclyn can be held responsible for any casual sex young women may be having now, I also want to make clear that I feel quite certain most of the hookup-culture stuff is pretty much exactly what happened to me when I was young.  It’s calling people sluts who often haven’t engaged in any sexual behaviour, or if they have, haven’t been doing anything different than what generations before them have developmentally.

Sparing a few limited populations, as far as I can tell and based on what young people talk about in droves in my work, this “hookup culture” where they’re apparently having ALL this sex or ALL this casual sex is mostly adultist sex panic.  (The funny thing is, the only interaction I had with Susan Walsh before this was on a panel where if I recall correctly, Logan Levkoff and I were calling her and another panelist out on exactly that issue.) From what I can tell, they’re considerably more sexually conservative than my generation and a lot of my parent’s generation was, and are having around the same or fewer sexual partners than we were, not more.  Which also makes them a lot more vulnerable to messaging about sluts, whether they’re going to do the name-calling or are going to get name-called; whether they are or are not sluts at all.

In fact, it’s entirely possible Bob is a 15 year-old kid who sees me as a slut simply because I’m a woman who is talking about sex, which he has been told, in umpteen different places, means I must be a slut and means he must try to shame me accordingly.  Hopefully, Bob will grow up, which is more than I can say for many adults talking this way.

P.S. Some other entries have come up today around some of the fracas I wanted to point out:

• From Amanda Marcotte: http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/comments/no_laughing_no_screwing_no_learning_how_to_read/
• From The Sexademic: http://sexademic.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/girl-fight-sluts-vs-prudes/ (who also wrote about Oxytocin, oddly enough, as I’m trying to finish a piece on it I keep putting off)

• From Jessica Valenti:  http://jessicavalenti.com/?p=592

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.

Friday, April 24th, 2009

it said it saw itself as a very tall tree, and so I saw it that way, too.

After the weekend before last, I feel very, very clear on the fact that life on the island would fit my wants and needs very nicely.  I’ve known for a long time that I wanted, at some point in my life, to live more quietly, more rural,  I just thought it was going to be a bit more down the road than this.  But I think the only reason I thought that was that I didn’t see it as feasible any earlier.  It is, in fact, feasible sooner, as feasible as living exactly where I am is.  In some ways, it may be even more so.

The whole weekend, I kept doing that thing one does in a heavenly place, where you say to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could live here?”  Usually, when I’m somewhere where I say that to myself, it’s a pipe dream.  In this case, every time I thought that, I’d then remember that I CAN live there.  The rents and expenses are really no better or worse than they are in the city, everything I have here on the mainland I could have on that island, and getting to the city from Bainbridge (there are other islands, but this would be the most convenient for me) is exceptionally easy and highly pleasant.  I know locals here kvetch about the ferries a lot, but having grown up with subways and inner-city buses, I tend to find them a far more pleasant means of transportation than what I usually ride on.  I wouldn’t have to take the ferry much anyway, as I really only need to be in the city for outreach/clinic work two times a week at a maximum.  And two of our clinic staff live on the island, so carpooling is also an option.

I just felt better there, separate from the fact that I was also there visiting with Blue, who I hadn’t seen in five weeks.  I breathed more deeply, my skin looked immediately better.  I could walk out on the porch in the morning stark naked without anyone’s notice or care and take a soak; have my first sip of coffee with the moist breeze on my skin.  The quiet both soothed and inspired, and the company of trees, ferns, birds and water felt more like me these days than the company of tall buildings, construction detritus, bar mania and a ton of people everywhere I turn.  The rhythm of the day there fit my own so well, sending me to sleep early and rousing me to wake before the sun came up.  Doing the dishes by hand felt better than loading them into a machine: doing simple things and doing them more simply is so grounding for me.  Taking a long hike on the dirt felt better than a walk on the pavement.  The people were warmer, everything was smaller; more intimate, yet more private all at once.  My head felt more clear, my heart more at rest, to the point that I could put most thoughts of work away save flashes of inspiration.

I felt much more like island people than mainland people.  I felt much more at home. I felt much more like myself, much more like I fit, than I have felt in Seattle.

While I was there, I started to do some planning.  Ultimately, if I could sell another book in the next six months, I could handle the financial aspects of this move with incredible ease.   It’d be doable without that, but that would make it nearly a cash cakewalk. I will need to find myself some kind of reliable junker to drive, which means a) getting a new license (I let my old one expire ten years ago, having no need of it), and b) purchasing said vehicle.  I may also need to consider finding a roomie, but I may not: it really depends on what I can find to rent for myself or not.  In a lot of ways, I’ve felt so alone in my own home over the past couple of years, as well as in this city, that literally being alone, not just feeling alone, seems very important and like the right thing for me.

I do think that as much as I have always loved the solitude of being in more isolated spaces, and as much as I need to be alone in the near future, it will probably take some adjusting on my end to be out there alone.  But I realized there is a very easy and fantastic solution to that matter, which is simply calling and emailing some of the people in the world I love and miss the most and inviting them to come stay somewhere beautiful with me for a week or two during the first few months after I move.

Briana is going to come up here to visit in June or July, and wants to come see the island with me, too. (Mya is coming around then, too, maybe I’ll drag her over for a day, as well.)  I’d love more than anything for she and The Baby Liam (who isn’t a baby anymore, but I plan to call him that well into his adulthood, in alignment with my job as his obnoxious auntie) to be close to me, even to live with me, but given custody arrangements with his father, that may or may not be an option.   But it’s likely also possible for the two of them to be on one of those visits when I love, regardless.  I can also ask Becca, Elise, Christa, Mark, Mya, Heath, Fish, my mother, my father…any number of people who I’d love visits with anyway.  I think it’s a workable plan.

I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m thinking fall or winter.  Like I said before, one of the toughest parts of this is that my moving out of the city at all also equals my moving out from my living arrangement with Mark, and even thinking about that is so very hard and makes me feel tremendously sad. It’s probably right for us, regardless, to start moving towards not living together,  but that doesn’t make it easy, and it’s something very heavy in the lightness of my feelings about being somewhere else where I think I will be happy as far as my location goes.

And as I’m talking about somewhere else, I’m packing to go somewhere else yet again. After a week from hell where I have had to be on way, way too much, I’m heading back to Chicago for a week to visit family, get some grant work started, to spend a few days with Fish (who moved from here to there a few months ago, go figure) and to see Blue.  AND, perhaps coolest of all, to have a 5th grade slumber party reunion with two of my other closest friends as a child who I haven’t seen in decades.  I don’t know if there’s much cooler than that.

What I do know is that I’m wiped and need a soft, warm bed.  And that the idea of having it somewhere as lovely as the islands is a marvelous — and attainable! — daydream.

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Thursday, after working my second job at the clinic, I was effectively kidnapped by my co-worker Gigi and her ten-year-old daughter Sophia, whom I adore.She calls herself Big Sophia around me, my pug being Little Sofia. We wound up driving from their place to my neighborhood for dinner, which is a pretty long haul. On the drive up, I sat in back with Sophia as she showed me how she plays cards on her Zune, shared her teen magazine with me, and put her headset on my ears to share her favorite music.

As I agreed that Paramore are, as she said, so super awesome and cool, I was reminded of my sense that when girls that age think you’re the bomb, you really must be the bomb, and you very much feel as cool as the bands they like when they let you in. It’s quite a gift.

At dinner, we sat together as she flipped through the magazine some more — she still liked me even after insisting she hold my hand as we crossed a busy street, though she may well be too big for that. (She seems to simply accept that her Auntie Heather is a worry wart.) She pointed out a two-page section in it to me about embarrassing moments. The more embarrassing something was considered, the higher it was rated, and they key for the ratings listed the highest as so, so mortifying that one should leave town. Some guy farting loudly in his car with a girl hardly ranked, but, surprise, surprise, the one which involved menstrual blood was top-rated as the worst of the worst.

The scenario was that you were at your older sister’s dorm in college and you wound up leaking on her roommate’s bed. The image showed a horrified girl, a very psychotic-looking screaming roomie, and a pool of blood so large, I suspect there may have been a dead body under the blankets. Maybe even two.

I casually commented that I didn’t understand why you had to get out of town because of something that inevitably happens to women with some frequency, just like people get nosebleeds on things or track mud into the house. I mentioned that this kind of stuff really does happen pretty often, and I’d be pretty surprised to see another girl — since it’s probably happened to her, too — make such a big honking deal out of it. I also mentioned I’ve never had a move where once I totally stripped a bed or futon, I wasn’t reminded of how often it happens with the many Rorschach splotches all over mine. I also commented that a puddle of blood that size was an illustrator taking some serious artistic license.

This brought up questions for her about getting periods, and if that’s always horrifying. I told her my comic tale of the cruelty of the fad of white painter’s pants in the early 80’s, especially when your parent had let you know how to identify malaria, but had not filled you in on why you’d suddenly find a red stain inching down your leg while talking to someone you had a mad crush on. (Thank goodness for Judy Blume, mother of us all.) Her Mom also chimed in with her story and talked about how not having that basic information made what would probably otherwise just be a mere bother a lot worse. We both talked about the wads of toilet paper in the underpants technique one often finds oneself using when a pad isn’t available or you don’t even know what one is yet. We also both mentioned that even if moments like that felt like a nightmare at the time, it doesn’t take long for them to become the very funny stories you laugh about like we all just had been laughing over.

Sophia asked both of us how old we were when we got our periods (I was 11, Gigi was 12 or 13), and exhaled a “Phew!” that she still had some time. Then we both said some words about how she probably does, but it really is only as big a deal as you make it. So, when it happens to her, it’ll be just fine, and once she starts having her period, it’ll get pretty normal after just a little while and not be anything to worry about. And certainly nothing to consider leaving town over if you bleed on something now and then.

I was even able to end the evening sending them home with one of the kickass booklets on getting your period I was part of doing with Lunapads.

Only once they all left and I was home alone did I even realize that we’d had “The Period Talk” with Sophia. I had a brief moment of worry that not having thought about it while we were having it, we didn’t do it right, or messed something up. But in reflecting back, I realized how mellow and casual — and unabashedly public! — it was, how it was even in front of her Dad, who was also being totally unsqueamish about it, how comfortable and conversational Sophia was throughout, and how normal it was all made to be, and I felt great about it, convinced this kid I like so much may have had one of the best period talks ever.

One almost as super awesome and cool as Paramore, even. Rawk!

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.

Friday, April 4th, 2008

Oh, but there’s just nothing like waking up in the morning to find an image of you (from a clearly copyrighted page, no less) used without your permission and to be the unidentified rape survivor used as a poster child without even a request for your permission, let alone the permission itself. Having your work (Scarleteen) attributed to someone else is just icing on the cake. Given the subject matter, there’s a pretty grotesque and sad irony afoot, to say the least. Sure, it’s likely just editorial/journalistic carelessness, but it does strike me as sending the message that rape survivor = available to anyone for their own use without permission.

This is not to say I expect better things of Gawker or Jezebel — nor that I didn’t send their shared legal department a nastygram minutes ago — but rather, to say that I’m clearly going to require an awful lot of coffee, a very long bath, a hug and to manage my general disappointment with people today.

P.S. To friends who I told about my father coming down with pneumonia — which is obviously incredibly dangerous for him given his general health and the conditions he lives in — I just heard from him and he finally seems to be on the mend. That also means he will be able to come up and stay with me for a week and a half as planned next week.

P.P.S. If you’re local to Seattle, I just took a call from KOMO news on the I Was Raped project, who have assured me I can count on them for the sensitivity I have not otherwise encountered much today.  I’m not entirely optimistic, but we’ll see.  It is crazy to me that I have to explain (and I have, several times today to different people) that my choosing the context where an image of me identifying myself as a survivor is not minor.  A big photo of me on my local news can mean that I get to spend days, even weeks possibly running into people locally who know me only as “that girl who got raped,” by my face, it might mean opening myself up to all kinds of things with groups of people that are broader than the groups I usually encounter.

I will probably have more to say after the segment is aired, depending on what they used of what I said, but I gotta say, so far, this doesn’t go down as one of my best days ever.  I feel exposed — and given, I signed up for some of that, hoping it will be a worthwhile thing for others — and like I’ve had to fight for my right not to be some sort of commodity and it’s just… I don’t know.  It’s just something, and not something very great for me at the moment.

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008
Monday, November 19th, 2007

It’s really a pity when you have a really nice weekend with friends (Mark and I drove down to Portland with Ben and Joriel yesterday), a great treatment from your acupuncturist (even better when she’s just a doll and treats you gratis), several phenomenal vegan meals, and then a mellow night back home and end it all with a night full of troubling dreams.

All night last night I had a series of what were clearly anxiety dreams about this job interview tomorrow. Most were based around perceptions of me as not likeable, which has got to be about the interview, because I pretty much stopped caring overmuch if people liked me in high school. There was also a lost-on-the-bus dream, which I know is also about this, as I’m having to take four busses to get to the location they want to interview me at and potentially have me work at. (I know four busses would suck, but again, I really want this gig quite specifically, and I really need a second job, so.) Then I had a revisitation dream about the very ill-fated second job I tried to have in Minneapolis in 2002, where I was doing home-care for a developmentally disabled woman who physically attacked me, including ripping a handful of my hair out in her hand, on the first (and thereafter, only) weekend I was there for an overnight. Joy.

It’s been a while since I had a bonafide job interview, and a while since I had a second out-of-the-home job. Since 2002, actually, with that disastrous homecare gig (if I don’t count co-teaching kickboxing, which I would save that it was a barter-work situation, rather than something I was paid for with the green stuff). This is something I very much want, work that I think is critically important with aspects I have been wanting to learn to do for some time, so that’s part of why this is clearly very loaded for me. Too, I think the anxiety is piling up because while my conscious mind can work out how I can do most of what I already do full-time and an additional job, out of my own office and at a considerable distance, my subconscious mind is all “SAY WHAT?!? We want a vacation, dammit, not more work!”

I’m also a bit nervous, since they decided to interview me at a different clinic than I initially applied to — the first was for a part-time spot — that at this one, the position may be full-time, and if they offer me a full-time spot, I’m not sure what I would do. While I can figure how I could work something else part-time and still run Scarleteen and keep up to some degree with my art and other writing, I don’t know how I would do two full-time jobs and everything else. Horse before the cart, chickens being hatched before eggs…I know. I’m just sorting my crap out, okay? I stopped teaching in ‘98, and even just substitute-teaching in ‘99 because it wasn’t workable to do that and everything else at the time, and that was when there was far LESS work involved, and when I was almost ten years younger than I am now, and when I needed a lot less sleep. My kingdom to have all that energy back, man: if I remember back ten or twenty years when I could work 18 hours or more in a day, grab three hours of sleep and be a bit low-energy, but otherwise fine, and bounce right back to normal in a day, I find I am stewing with jealousy towards the me I once was.

I think I’m also worried I’ll find myself having to make a hard choice again between two things I very much want to do, and it’s making me nervous for no good reason, since I don’t even know if that’s a realistic possibility at this point.

Gah. Just need to get to tomorrow, I guess. For all I know, I may be being just plain silly. Even though he’s worse at babbling for hours than I am, so a call would eat up a good amount of my day, I should probably call my Dad for some support: it’d make me feel better.

That involves doing an awful lot today, including prepping some artwork for an anthology, trying one last time to get a written piece done for the same anthology. I tried several times to write Friday and yesterday, only to find that when it comes to the topic at hand, I’m all style and little substance right now. It’s all fine, well and good to write beautiful sentences and gorgeous phrases, but one doesn’t want to go all Macbeth and be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, especially when you’re talking about the future of feminism. One more try this morning, and if the writing just doesn’t happen, I accept that I do, indeed, have limitations and not only cannot always be brilliant, but can often enough not be anything even within the same zip code.

Also on the agenda, finishing a batch of photos I did of Robert and Carol a couple years ago, a phone meeting with the c-chair of the western region of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality about them flying me in to do a talk for their conference in April, sending out a pile of books, meeting Cheryl for our Monday early evening cocktail hour, ringing up Northwest to try and work out transferring my miles to Bri so that she and The Baby Liam (who is not really a baby anymore, but who is likely stuck with that nickname from me well into adulthood) can be here for a bit in December, doing some laundry, and evaluating my cupboards.

The one unfortunate part of seeing my acupuncturist — who moved from Minneapolis to Portland — is that she suggested that she thinks it’s a strong possibility that I have developed a gluten allergy. I’m used to making dietary changes, so it wouldn’t normally be that huge of a deal, save that at this point, I eliminate so much for health and/or ethical reasons (and out of habit and necessity: even if I was suddenly okay with eating meat, the last time I ate it was in ‘81, and I ate it pretty infreqiently even before that, so it’d likely make me sick as a dog), that if you also pull wheat, rye and barely out, I’m not left with very much. For someone who routinely forgets to eat, the less available food there is, the harder it gets when I DO remember TO eat. Not good. On the other hand, if getting rid of gluten even makes a dent in some of the health issues I’ve been having, it’d be well worth the loss.

Lately, too, I’ve been having some not-so-great reactions to soy, which is a pretty intense vegan conundrum, to the point that I’ve figured I may soon have to add back fish or eggs on a quasi-regular basis, because without any soy, I’ll find myself with a pretty huge protein problem, especially when I can’t eat at home. Regardless, for the next two weeks, we’ve agreed I’ll go gluten-free to see what happens and how I feel.

Oh, how I will miss you, sweet, beautiful cupcakes: I loved you well. Here’s hoping that either Jelena is wrong, or that you’ll be able to make some adaptations yourself and accept some other kinds of flour through which to express yourself.

Monday, March 26th, 2007


Finally, finally, finally, the cover for the book is finished.

Which is good, because I was finished with it — in terms of having to invest concern about it — months ago. Huzzah!

This weekend was a marvel: Mark and I made a pledge to both staep away from work for a whole two days. That perhaps sounds silly to anyone who isn’t a self-employed working artist and activist, but as a pair of folks who are always overworked, yet always have a giant work backlog, two solid days of “Do Not Disturb” is the golden fleece.

And we didn’t do anything special, other than simply spend the sort of time together we got to spend all the time when we were bi-coastal (or whatever the term is when one of you is on a coast and the other midwest). There was a lot of time spent in bed, time spent in the bath, time spent cooking and eating, time spent just hanging out in our beloved neighborhood of Ballard.

Of course, this means I start the week already extra-behind and racing to catch up, but it was so utterly worth it.

Extra bonus? Last week Mark came home with a much-much coveted Birth-aversary gift (it was promised for last year’s birthday, but delievered on our anniversary, so): a beautiful standing heavy bag so I can friggin’ box again. My physical and mental health alike thank the boy deeply: it’ just criminal that it’s been a whole year since I’ve been able to train with what my body/mind loves the best.

The rest this weekend also gave me some awesome inspiration, to the point that my reluctant-to-assign-brilliance-to-anything sweetie called the photo idea I drummed up genius, so I’m looking forward to having some time this week to get some calls out to friends. Gotta keep this one on the down-low until I start developing it, but if you’re anywhere near me, interested in hearing what it is to be a potential subject, let me know. I feel like I can assure that this one will wind up being pretty revelatory for folks.

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

I’m hoping to be able to make time tomorrow morning to be able to do some self-portrait work, so long as the old camera will be a dear and cooperate. (Can’t use the new camera for that, and besides, we seem really to not care for one another — it’s hopefully going back soon.) If I don’t get to it tomorrow, it won’t happen until after my Dad is gone.

I know it’s been a while. Primarily, that has to do with time and how much I’ve had to cram into a day, but it also has to do with interest. As longtime readers know, I tend to cycle between my arts, with one often crying out for attention over another: I have seasons of creativity that demand different media at different times.

Too, though, subjects here are few and far between, and I haven’t been all that interested in myself as subject lately, and without the real interest, there’s no real work.

But as winter is at its end, I want to capture my body in the state it’s in right now, because I know it is soon to pass. Due to both the winter months and to less activity during the winter than I’m used to, I put on a bit more winter weight than usual, to the degree that I even managed a teeny belly, which delights me. I can grow a lot of lush things on my body, but my midsection has always been the one area where weight just doesn’t tend to go: maybe I’m changing with age, who knows. But through my life, I have coveted other people’s bellies. Much to the chagrin of lovers of mine who don’t like bellies — or bellies on them — my hands always want to wander up and down a convex curve of someone who has a belly of substance. If allowed, I’d just run it back and forth like that for hours. Not sure what that’s all about, but there you go: I’m a belly admirer.

I’m also as pale as I get, which is to say pretty darn pale. While the Mediterranean genes keep me slightly olive beneath it all, during the winter months, my freckles become less and less distinguishable. So, between the paleness and the extra-cushy stuff, there’s something about my body during the season of dark and cold that I cherish in its difference. It reminds me of the passage in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek where Annie Dillard talks about the vulnerability of vertabrates: there is something both more transparaent and injurable and yet more insulated about bodies during the winter.

This is sensible, of course. We stay indoors far more often, and when we go out, we drape ourselves in layers that our own skin doesn’t provide. We are inwardly quieted and more slow. We are more sedentary, more solitary, we need to create more warmth in our own skin, and so, like any other mammal during cold times, we pad ourselves. When we’re not smart enough to do it ourselves, our own biology and the patterns of nature do some of the job for us.

It’s vexing to me how much to-do is made of winter weight and color and what is apparently a very dire need to change it as soon as is humanly possible. Of course, as the days lengthen, as light increases, as we become more active again — effectively, as we come out of hibernation — and we feel better, more energized, more vital. Again, even when we don’t pursue it intentionally, it’s the rhythm of nature and its effect on us: how intense the differences are between the seasons of the earth and our bodies and minds are clearly effected by our behaviours, but the changes would exist no matter what.

* * *

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on some ideas I first started exploring in college, and which were going to be my primary focus of study until that crafty William Blake seduced me into a slightly different direction. Essentially, I’m coming to some conclusions regarding sexuality and body image in that the more divorced people become from nature and the most simple aspects of daily life — and I’m thinking this is particularly true for women — the more divorced we become from truly being in our bodies, and being in harmony with our bodies and our sexuality.

Working with teen and young adults, especially a generation in the western world who is the most divorced from nature in our history, these ideas have been coming to the forefront for me again. Trying to explain that a winter body exists because winter exists, and that it is only sensible and sound to honor and appreciate it for what it is, just as we do any season itself is likely to fall on deaf ears, even among many members of my own generation.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to talk about the body as something which — bearing in mind of the greatest influence of our genetics — takes the form and shape of what it is used for. If we engage in sports, what sports we choose to engage in will determine where our muscle most develops. The simplest explanation would be to talk about how easy it can be to recognize one kind of manual laborer from another just by the shape of their bodies, but to middle-class kids where many of them have never even walked to school one, where a majority of them don’t even know a single manual laborer, and may never do any themselves, this is obviously a lost cause, too.

Same goes for trying to work with some of them having real disconnects with their body and their sexuality in terms of exploring what is sensual, as in, of the senses. They rarely cook, and when they do, it’s rarely with fresh foods (much less food they’ve grown) or fire; even then it’s more about product than process — rushed, rather than savored. Many of them don’t even know what the whole of their bodies smell or look like without every product on them known to man, what it feels like to wind up totally covered in mud and dry in the sun, or to bathe in river or lake water for a week. The bleached-out world so much of middle America is woefully lacks a lot of opportunities for exploring the senses and what is natural. I can tell a teenager that the scents of their bodies are normal and just as they’re meant to be, but when the whole of their world is deoderized, sanitized, homogenized, and the only natural scent they might ever smell is their genitals, it’s going to stand out and seem foreign, rather than naturally blend in and feel natural. More than once the suggestion to some having a particularly tough time connecting with their own bodies to look into massage, dance or other bodywork, even to just start taking walks out of doors more often pretty clearly gets me dismissed as a crunchy old hippie. (Go figure: with the ones that DO get out and hike, like to camp or dance, cook because they’re vegetarian and family food won’t work, the body image and sexuality problems don’t seem so pervasive or intense.) There’s a section of the book where I work to get them to redfine “sexy” more holistically, with more emphasis on all their senses, and who knows if it’ll catch.

So much of this shift away from nature is thought to be a luxury; a privilege, and one given as a gift by the generation before to them. So many of them are expressly reared to drive, not walk; to nuke something frozen rather than cook; to take a pill rather than try and heal other ways; to spend lesuire time seated rather than in motion (and to HAVE so much leisure time in the first place); to hide or remove what is natural rather than to cultivate harmony with their nature and nature-at-large. The more time that passes, the more I observe things through this lens, I’m seeing less of a gift and more of a curse, especially the more and more extended childhood — or rather, dependency — is in our culture, and it is a curse not just upon people, but obviously, one on the planet itself.

And with that, I’ve got to tear myself away. There are so many branching-off points from here, but I’m about to miss my own evening walk I had set aside time for and very much need today. Mark and I are meeting for dinner in an hourish, but I’d hoped to be able to catch a solitary, moist, dusk-time stroll through the neighborhood before then.

How cool is it when you must force yourself away from work to something far more pleasant in order to practice what you preach?

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

When I was a teenager, having sex wasn’t really part of my rebellion.

Having GOOD sex was.

Now, I know that I’m kind of not supposed to even say this stuff out loud, especially within earshot of anyone under 18…or 21 or 29 or whatever this week’s proper age for sexual activity issued forth from our oh-so-moral government is per being an unrepentant tramp. Don’t suppose age matters here: it’s pretty clear there’s not any age or station at which it’s acceptable per the Bushies to be a woman who enjoys sex on her own terms and happily has plenty of it.

I know that admissions like that sometimes have the effect of diminishing my credibility in the eyes of some as a young adult sex educator. As I understand it, if you had really great sex as a teen (or a grown woman, or a lesbian or a gay man or anyone not over 50, heterosexual and married), and worse still, lots of it, you somehow lose (or never had) the ability to think critically and soundly, to have any sort of objectivity whatsoever, and thus, would obviously advise every teenager you meet to go do exactly what you did, covering them with your icky, infectious slut-bugs. You are one dangerous, contagious harlot from whom all good children who would become good adults should keep their distance.

To perhaps the surprise of exactly no one, if you were one of the ten people who held off on sex until you married at the now-average age of 27, or had really lousy teenage sex with catastrophic results, that gives you extra credibility if you’re the kind of sex educator that is telling them to stay the heck away from sex and their sexuality at all costs.

But I wasn’t ashamed of it then, and I work hard to keep any other teenager from being ashamed, so I’m certainly not going to be ashamed of it now.

Being sexually active in my teens wasn’t about pissing my parents off, or gaining social status, or meeting some sort of status quo (especially considering that while I wasn’t out for a few years, my partners were not simply male, and this was the early-mid-eighties, before anyone gave you points for macking down with other girls, to say the least). The sex I was having wasn’t merely two-minute intercourse, I wasn’t in partnerships where my body or self was dismissed or treated like a receptacle, I wasn’t feeling ashamed of how I or my genitals looked, being coerced into one-sided sex I didn’t want, or only wanted the emotional or social benefits of, and figuring that getting little to nothing physically out of sex was worth the other benefits it might have offered, or that the sex would eventually net me care from partners I wasn’t already getting.

Instead, I was almost always having sex that made me feel really good, where I had lots of good orgasms, where I could laugh with my partners at our fumbling when we fumbled, where my morning-afters left a perpetual grin on my face, rather than the look-away-I’m-hideous grimace of ashamed regret. I did a darn good job in choosing sexual partners who were kind, caring people that earnestly liked me — and vice-versa — and who had mutual pleasure and care in mind.

Mind, it was the 80’s, and I also did plenty of things that I wouldn’t encourage other teens to do, both sexually and in conjunction with sex, but in many ways, I feel I have positive sexual experiences to thank for not only getting me through the awfulness of much of my teen years, but for setting me up to continue to have great sex throughout my life, and to feel really good about my sexuality and the self it’s a part of.

Due to the negative parts of how I came of age in the house I was living in, due to the sexual abuses and harassment I dealt with, due to simply being a smart, sensitive gal who engaged in cultural analysis in her head a lot I got the message loud and clear that I was sexualized like nobody’s business, but that that sexuality wasn’t supposed to be something I owned. It was supposed to be something used against me (and I was just supposed to take it like a girl), or used to gender, commodify, devalue or objectify me. Thankfully, I also got a few opposing messages that all of that was completely screwed up, and thankfully, the context of my life as a whole equipped me with the tools to know how messed up those attitudes and cultural edicts were.

I didn’t have sex — with guys, with girls, with myself — to make anyone else mad or uncomfortable, or to follow somesome’s orders that I should. I had sex to claim and reclaim my own body and sexuality, to remind myself of all the good stuff about it, including that sex was supposed to make me feel good and be something I wanted and initiated. I had sex to find out what sex was, the ways I liked it, what part it played in my life and my identity. I had sex because I was a poor kid with a lot of pans in the fire and it’s a totally affordable vacation where you can fit in an awful lot of relaxation and de-stressing in very limited periods of time. I had sex because I wanted to have sex and I liked having sex. I had sex because it felt great, it was one hell of an adventure, and I discovered ways to be assertive in the rest of my life though the sex I was having. I had sex because in the romances and friendships in which I had it, it felt right, it increased intimacy, and it was one of many ways to get to know someone else and myself better.

In a word, I had sex for all of the reasons people have sex. Fancy that.

I know a big turning point for me in my sexual development, odd as it may sound, was the assault that happened at 12. Despite having to live in silence about it, despite it not being managed at all well, or even acknowledged as the hardcore trauma it was, despite having to work all of it out only in my own head until many years later when I found some support, I knew full well that it, and another abuse a year before, was NOT sex. I’m not even sure how I knew that, but I did.

I’m down with being a statistic: is it likely that some of why I had sex at an earlier age than many was because of abuse? Yes, I think it was. On the other hand, while there were also a whole lot of other reasons I did as well, even when we’re talking about the parts of my motivation to do so that likely came from abuse. And for those aspects that were motivated by abuse, it wasn’t primarily about my thinking my only use or was sexual, or about reenacting my abuse.

It was about rebelling against it: if I was going to be having any kind of sex with someone else, and they with me, it was going to be about pleasure, it was going to be about freedom in my body and theirs, it was going to be about joy and communion and natural curiosity, it was going to be something we liked doing on all levels; something which was emotionally, intellectually and physically satisfying for me and whomever else was involved.

And it was.

The older I get, the more aware I become that I had really good sex as a teen and young adult. In fact, now having spent many years talking with and listening to teens about their sex lives — even when their only partner is themselves — I know that by comparison, I had astonishingly good sex. Perhaps even more depressingly, I know from also doing work with adults that I had better sex as a teen than a lot of people have as full-fledged adults.

Mind, even with my burdens and my traumas, I grew up in a different time and place and environment than a lot of teens today.

I was primarily urban. My community was diverse, and no one viewpoint about anything (or looked any one way), including about sexuality, was dominant. No teacher or guest speaker in my school ever came in to tell me that I would die if I had sex, or become an unsavory, unsticky piece of tape who couldn’t properly bond to other people because I was having sex. I had a level of confidence, reslience and self-assurance that resulted in any of my peers calling me a dyke or a whore or a slut (which didn’t often happen) being told to get stuffed, and my not taking any such jibes to heart.

I left one home early on (and spent the last year barely there no matter what it took to avoid it), and had a measure of autonomy and responsibility to manage a lot of teens even then didn’t, and now still often don’t. I had jobs from an early age, I made many of my own clothes, I fed myself, I got myself around the city on my own on public transportation, I paid for much of my own basic care, including some of my schooling, and in general, the frivolities of my teenage life were balanced out by an awful lot of responsbility, so sex wasn’t the first place I needed to be accountable and in the driver’s seat.

I knew where the sexual health clinics were, and I used them vigilantly, and with community support in using them. I very rarely took risks in terms of protecting myself from pregnancy and infection, and no one was trying to scare me away from those protections. Because I spent much of my youth in the hospital my mother worked in, very comfortable around doctors and nurses, I was always fine with asking my sexual healthcare providers questions, and I had the benefit of knowing the right language to ask them in — and a comfort with that language — so I could net real answers. There was sound sexuality information on bookshelves at both my mother and father’s apartments, in my school libraries, in my public libraries.

I had one parent who was 100% fine with the fact that I wasn’t heterosexual, who was wonderful to any girlfriends I brought home, and who never gave me any idea there was anything wrong (or even unusual), at all, with being queer. That same parent also sent really strong messages about my claiming ownership and responsibility for my sexual choices autonomously. I was never the girl who’d have to ask a partner if they had a condom or birth control, and be at anyone else’s mercy as to what they’d try and get me to go without using. I was the girl who simply pulled whatever it was out of my purse, handed it over, gave no indication to the recipient whatsoever that sex without was optional, and in meeting any resistance to being safe, tended to merely shrug and voice that no sex was going to happen then, and that was cool with me.

I also had no illusions about the fact that sexual violence and abuse was widespread, and that bad things absolutely could happen to me, and — having a more cynical view in many respects than many my age — with my luck, probably would, especially if I didn’t walk in every door already standing up for myself. I had a defiance and an anger about a lot of my life that was a very real gift in this regard, as it was — and still is — in many others.

I also had some measure of comprehensive sex education growing up.

Given, it wasn’t exactly queer-inclusive, but it sure wasn’t queer-negative, either. It didn’t quite tell me how to enjoy myself during sex and didn’t address any of my abuse, but it also didn’t tell me sex would kill me on first contact, even if I protected myself, that I needed to get married to have it, that birth control (safer sex wasn’t an issue yet: thank heaven for having a parent working in AIDS care before most of the world even knew AIDS existed so I knew about that) being effective was just a myth or that if I did become or was sexually active, I was the human equivalent of an overused kleenex. The cultural sentiment was such that I could even ask a teacher I respected for help or advice, and that adult could give me support and information without fear of losing their job.

* * *
Imagine, if you will, how things might have been for me in different circumstances. In say, the circumstances of many teens today.

It would have been very easy for me, and far more typical, for instance, to have developed a profound sexual shame and low self-esteem that would have been easy for others to exploit given some of the abuses I lived through, had I only heard opinions and information which enabled or encouraged those results. It would have been very typical for a girl like me, survivor at an early age, who grew up with one strong set of very negative messages about my terrible, awful growing-into-womanhood body, to not be so resilient and defiant, especially with the pervasive messages of the media, the Girls Gone Wild commercials, the capitalizing upon teenage sexuality while at the same time denying it outright, the en masse weight loss mania, the commodification of girl-girl relationships, the endless hard-sell of heterosexism and that one right man as the answer to everything. Even if I hadn’t have been a survivor, all this crap would have had a profoundly negative impact on me.

With the continued suppression of, and resistance to, a lot of feminist politics and the cultural revisitations of the ideal woman-as-eunuch, or woman-as-property, imagine how much more difficult it would have been for me to assert myself when it came to my sexuality: both in simply honoring its totally healthy, normal desires and in negotiating sex with partners. Imagine how doggone ashamed I might have been with myself, even for the sex I was only having WITH myself. Imagine what I might have thought of the men and the women I had sex with. Imagine how I might have felt as a sexual abuse survivor. Imagine how on earth I could have managed to be that girl holding out the condom and holding her own.

Being a low-income teen, had I not had — as a majority of teens right now do not — access to affordable, accessible and nonjudgmental sexual health services, I’d have had a lot of questions that went unanswered that very much needed answering. I may well have gone without the birth control and safer sex I needed, the annual screens and exams, and I may not have had access to medically accurate sex information at all. No sense in pussyfooting around: if I had been even half as sexually active as I was then just without that one thing, chances are quite excellent I’d have been long dead by now.

Once I switched over to my arts high school, I was in a completely GLB-friendly environment, to the degree that I’d call it GLB-celebratory: had I stayed in public high school, had all my immediate community been wary of queerness at best, and homophobic at worse, things would not have gone so well for me. Had I not had some good role models around me, some awesomely strong, outspoken women and some fantastic old queens, that made clear that my sex, gender, orientation or desires didn’t make me inferior, sullied or shameful, I would not only have been a very different person then, I would be a very different person now, someone who loved and accepted herself and everyone around her a whole lot less.

In a less diverse environment, without a wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes available to me, try and figure out how I could have really found out what I really thought and felt about my sexuality and my sexual life, explored freely enough to find out what identity was authentic to me, and what it was I really wanted for myself, to fulfill my needs, not just the needs and wants of others. Had I not had at least one family member where I could be completely honest about my sexuality and sexual life, who supported my choices and helped me learn to make them responsibly AND had I been reared in an environment where other support wasn’t anywhere to be found, where would I have turned to to find it? (P.S. This is also a good wonder to have if you’re wondering how it is so many younger teen girls get hooked into iffy relationships with older men, because guess who has NO problem endorsing and supporting their sexual maturation?) When I did just plain screw up, how might I have dealt with it and learned from my errors if there wasn’t at least one person who I knew loved me who could also tell me that it was okay to screw up sometimes?

What if I had not been reared with my inquisitive spirit nurtured? Without it being a given that I was not only allowed to, but encouraged to, ask questions about anything and everything, including my own body, any aspect of sex, sexual politics and mores? Had I instead been raised with much of that purposefully stifled, unless what I thought fit someone’s agenda, who might I have become?

Hell, how might I have been able to have the focus, confidence, energy and time to devote to all my awesome achievements of my teen and young adult years that had nothing to do with sex if I’d been a teenager today, just trying to navigate my way through the jungle of sexuality?

* * *
See, all of the things I had going for me are things that many teens right now do not now have. Plenty of them have exactly none of these things.

My challenges aside, let’s take a real look at all of those benefits I had, and bear in mind that even with them, I was still left wanting when it came to sex education and to sexuality support. If I still felt I needed more, if I could have benefitted from better, then you’ve got to ask yourself how on earth we or anyone else expects a lot of teens and young adults right now to come out healthy and whole with how little support so many of them have to be healthy and whole, sexually and otherwise.

I seriously don’t want Scarleteen and my work to be the only thing out there for them, and thankfully, it isn’t, even though sex education like this remains in serious danger of extinction. There are parents out there who rock it with sexuality support, information, and providing great environments for their kids when it comes to sex. There are other organizations which support and distribute sound, comprehensive sex ed. There are schools bucking the system, and there are communities stepping up to the plate. Not enough of them, if you ask me, but they are out there.

But I like to think that over the years, myself, the volunteers and the users have figured out a way to provide something that is quite unique and very sorely needed: something bigger, even, than just a good sex ed class or one supportive person. Basic, accurate sexuality, sex and sexual health information is critical. But so is a positive, wide, diverse and shameless context for it.

I think it’s vital to have an environment for sex education which feels comfortable, personable and also respectful; which answers questions but also asks them, making clear that sexuality isn’t simple and that its influence on us as individuals, in our relationships and in our communities and culture is vast. I think it’s essential to have sex education which dares youth to take very real ownership of their sexuality, as individuals and as a collective — perhaps in a way we don’t even know to exist yet in our world — and busts its ass to give them the tools and support to do so.

When I did the acknowledgments for the book — which, suffice it to say, went on for an age, like everything out of my mouth tends to — the very last sentence is this: “To that girl I once was, here’s that book you wanted. Sorry it took me so long.”

In many ways, this can also be said for Scarleteen.

I didn’t really mean to make something for who I was: in many ways, there is plenty at Scarleteen I did have, and which would have been superfluous for me. On the other hand, there’s plenty there I really could have used, such as opportunities to process my sexual abuse and what it meant to me to be a survivor, or having other peers around in different places to talk to who were queer, without worry of my conversations about those issues quickly finding their way through the gossip mill of my immediate queer community. Gender was also a real issue for me: it wasn’t until college, and many years of trying to fit a very femme mold that just wasn’t me, that it was ever strongly suggested to me that gender was about choice, not biology or what ideals were pushed on me. That’s one I’m still working my way through, and feel I have wasted an awful lot of time struggling with, that I could have used to a much better end. Had someone let me know earlier on that I had more choices than ingenue or femme fatale, it would have been pretty life-altering.

During the times when I had trouble rectifying my enjoyment of sex with the occasional feeling that that’s all I would be seen as sometimes, having someone to talk to about changing some of my choices or the way I made them, and about how to analyze the real root of those feelings would have been a real gift. As one of the only teens I knew as sexually active as I, having others around who were more expert, who could talk me through a pregnancy scare, scenarios when I wasn’t sure what I wanted my boundaries to be, some of my conflicting feelings about my female body or my queerness? This would have been seriously nice. Having someone with some distance from me, who I didn’t have to worry about disappointing, to call me on my shit when I did do things sexually that were just plain stupid, or put too much stock in my sexual life or identity also would have been a real bonus. And I’ll tell you right now, that as the primary sexual advisor to most of my friends, they sure would have benefitted if I had had a source like Scarleteen to send them to, especially on those days when I was so damn sure I knew all there was to know, and on the days when they believed me.

If a teenager like I was could have found these benefits in this and more, it should be painfully obvious that a majority of teenagers today need it more than ever: especially if they’re going to be having any sort of sex (and most are), and all the more if we have any care about the sex they’re having actually being any good, in every way it can — and should — be for everyone, at any age.

(Super-duper thanks to everyone who has blogged today for Scarleteen, to those donating, and in advance for those whose entries are forthcoming: not only is it a great big help to us, but now that things have started winding down for me this week, I’ve really been enjoying reading some of what’s out there.)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I have just recently discovered that if I make a big fire, cover the foyer door with a blanket, and flop my yoga mat right in front of the woodstove, I can essentially have a very heated Bikram space to do Kundalini in. Since I start my day with a fire when I can, and often do morning meditations there anyway, I’m not actually sure why it took me so long to put two and two together this way.

Still no boxing here in Ballard, I’m sad to say, no heavy bag for me to work with at home, nor have I found anything doable in outlying areas I can get to by bike or bus per being close enough to get to without losing half a day in travel for a one-hour workout, or being something I can afford. Sure missing that sweet free studio time I got for teaching and co-teaching in Minneapolis, let me tell you.

I did try the local gym for a month, which is a nice place, and totally affordable. However (did I talk about this before?), I cannot for the life of me get a good body/mind workout with fifty gazllion television screens around me. It is the most distracting, mind-jangling thing I know of, and while I can tune out the sounds with my ipod, my eyes have got to go somewhere. I see people reading while they work out, but I don’t get that one: my mind has got to be on my workout, plus, moving around while reading makes me dizzy as hell. The only other places for my eyes are on all the mechanics of the machines or the wall-to-wall carpeting, and that’s not much better. Plus, I bloody hate machines. Ideally, all my workouts would be out of doors, but if I can’t have that, I at least need real things, natural things around me, or, in lieu of that, an austere space with nothing in it at all. having to work on the computer all day is machine enough for me, thanks.

So, it’s been biking for me, or jumping rope, or shadowboxing, or — best of all, really, per being able to do it anytime, no matter the weather — back to my yoga practices. And for now, I’ve decided that’s fine. Earnestly, both my body and my headspace are likely in more need of dynamic yoga and more meditation than punching and kicking things anyway, no matter how much I miss the punching and kicking.

My discovery this week with the woodstove was a very happy one and exceptionally well-timed, to boot. It’s been a weird few weeks for me, very packed, and very up and down. It was beyond awesome to have Mya here for a week, but it also meant I had to try and do my work at double-time (well, I already do that normally, so I guess I meant quadruple-time). I also realize that the older and older I get, the more of a loner I become. We had a great big party here last Friday, which was awesome, but I’m one of those people where big social groups sap my energy entirely. mark is one of those lucky folks who somehow innately knows how to draw energy from big groups, and I envy him that. Me? I’m mentally exhausted for days afterwards.

Sunday night, I had one of the most heartbreaking queries I’ve ever had at Scarleteen. A teenage boy was first posting with big STI paranoia, even though he’d never been sexually active, and was even limited in masturbating. He kept insisting he had real reason to be concerned, and after prodding a bit to try and find out what that was, he confessed that he had AIDS.

But he doesn’t.

Rather, his mother has told him for years he has AIDS (because, as we all know, people with full-blown AIDS and no treatment can be sitting around doing just fine: jesus), that he got it from an immunization shot at his doctor’s office, and that he shouldn’t ever get tested or seek treatment because no one would ever tell him if he was positive.

In short, it’s pretty clear that for whatever utterly fucked-up reason, his mother has sought to scare the crap out of her kid by making him believe he had AIDS. He’s been suicidal, paranoid, socially isolated, on the verge of an eating disorder, dealing with insomnia, terrified to even kiss anyone, the works. Obviously, I went ahead and debunked things for him, got him a list of places he could get free or low-cost testing, and made it clear that that test would be negative, but he clearly needs to see that result. I also gave him the number for DCFS in his area, because I can’t begin to imagine what his emotional process is going to be when he gets that negative result (flatly, I’d be unsurprised if this kid went home and gunned down his whole family), or whatever other forms of abuse are going on in that house. Really, this is one of the cruelest, most insidious forms of child abuse I’ve ever heard, and all Sunday night — date night for Mark and I, no less, as he was going out of town for his day job the next monring — I could NOT stop thinking about it, and anytime my mouth opened, all that came out were the chaotic sounds of sheer overwhelm.

(Much of the time, I’m glad that over the years, Scarleteen has established an ongoing trust that means teens in deep sexual or interpersonal crisis feel safe coming to us. As someone who grew up in crisis with nowhere to really turn, that’s obviously important to me. Every now and then, though, I confess that I look at other sex advice sites wistfully, wishing that we, too, could just hand out pat advice, say something salacious and witty, or tell people what vibrator to use.)

I’ve also been doing some freelance consulting/counseling for the stepparent of a sexually abused daughter: fantastic family from all I can tell, but per usual, it’s challenging work that’s not exactly emotionally easy.

Then the next day, Anne sent the foreword she’d written for the book. It was lovely: more than lovely, really. Totally perfect for the readers, but from a more selfish perspective, it made me feel ungodly good. Everyone gets a rush from hearing someone they admire and respect clearly have the same respect, especially when it’s someone who paved the way for you to do what you do with the work they did. It’s an honor.

But it’s also at times like that, I find myself sitting there floored that someone I respect has good things to say about me and what I do, that creates an uncomfortable reminder. A reminder of how much I’m still stuck in that childhood and adolescent mode of never thinking I’m good enough, never fully believing that no matter how hard I work, I can do as good a job as I feel I could or should, that I’ll never quite measure up, and that it’s this giant gift for someone to recognize my achievement or support what I do without an agenda or ulterior motive. And you know, that’s seriously depressing. Now and then, when I’m counseling abuse survivors and they’re impatient six months, a year, two years after the abuse, asking how long it’s going to take to get 100% over it, it sucks to have to say that that will probably never happen 100%, and it sucks when they observe that [i]I[/i] seem totally over my stuff and I have to tell them that I’m so not. Especially when they know how many years it’s been since I got out of and away from my abusive situations.

Like them (with a good 15-20 years added on), it sucks to know how many years you work at it and how much you do to work through it and to still have shit like this crop up where it’s clear how much baggage you’re carrying around. Obviously, this is hardly something — the pace of personal development, and the ridding ourselves of negative patterns and mindsets — that’s only a given with abuse survivors, and in my case, I don’t think it’s just about abuses, but also about the various coping techniques for a myriad of things I developed early on and kept with, as well as the simple flaws of my own nature.

Eh, well. Like anything else, awareness is the biggest step, anyway. I did used to be far less aware of these patterns and when I fell into them than I have been over the last few years, so hey: that’s something.

Back to the fire with me, per usual.

Saturday, November 18th, 2006

Holy mother of god.

Now THAT (though we were at the one in Lynwood, not the Tacoma one) was one amazing afternoon. Actually, an amazing afternoon which led into a doubly amazing evening.

If there has ever been a time when I need a stretched out afternoon where I soaked in several tubs, steamed in several rooms, had every square inch of me vigorously scrubbed to a baby-soft sheen, had my hands massaged and hot wax soaked, had a lovely facial, and got to spend the day with my friend AND got to spend all of it in those sort of happy, comfortably naked, all-shapes/all-sizes body-positive women-only environment I love, it is this week.

I was trying to explain to Mr. Price the other day that the whooooooooosssssh I felt come off of me Wednesday night wasn’t just mental or physical exhuastion (certainly part of it), nor simply finishing something that long wanted finishing. It’s also about the fact that, especially over the past couple of months, the level of personal responsibility I have been carrying has been MONSTROUS. It’s not like I don’t weild enough of the stuff with everything I do already, but with the ACLU/COPA case on top of it and the book and all it is supposed to do, who it all needs to aim to serve, all the heavy issues weighing it (and me) down?

It was an awful lot of responsibility for one short person to carry, even for someone like me, who doesn’t have a problem dealing with responsibility. I can do it, for sure, but I’d prefer not to do it at that level very often.

In any event, by the time Ariel and I got back here from the bath house and had some chow, hung out and imbibed a bit with the aforementioned boyfriend (who was, when we got home, a bit in his cups), this girl was feeling pretty darn lusty. Mind, only the night before Mark and I had a very spontaneous roll in the proverbial hay, a good thing, since it had been around a week during deadline hell of no sex, which for me, is a tremendously long time.

(Yes, I’m the asshole everyone hates who, when single, if I’ve gone without a date for a month or two, will prattle on relentlessly about my terrible dry spell while my otjer single friends who haven’t had a partner to play with in a year shoot daggers at me from behind their eyes. Absolutely, a year is nightmare, no argument there. But two months IS a long time, okay? It is.)

By the time I was home I could NOT stop touching myself post-scrubby goodness and would bark out every two minutes “Feel my arm! Just touch it!” and “You will not BELIEVE how totally soft my butt is. I have baby butt. Baby butt!” All of which, of course, meant that within mere minutes of Ariel going home, it was, “Bloody hell, can we just go upstairs and have sex already?”

Before we lived together, when we shuttled across the country to see each other, we’d (obviously) often have the super-extended sex sessions. Now, when you do the math, we still have them just as often, it just seems like less often because we’re seeing one another every day, not every month, and there’s more of the shorter trysts in between the biggies.

We got to have a nice, long one.

It was seriously delicious, even for multi-orgasmic me (which is why I will ever stick to my guns when I tell people having trouble with orgasm to go get some bodywork done, on top of some other things, because not only do common sense and the basics of physiology support that approach, if it makes a testosterone-fueled chickadee like myself even that more high-key and that more blissed-out…well, come on, people).

One of those fabulous romps where all the stuff that’s only occasionally on your sexual menu, you bring in: all of it, all in one sitting (or standing, or squatting, or bending over, or….). One of those where if either of you has any tiny hangups at all, they’re just on vacation for the night. One of those where you only remember that you live in a 100-year-old wood frame house that is in very close proximity to the ears of others after you’ve wailed like a bean sidhe and yelled out things with your ex-opera-trained lungs that probably other people don’t find as enticing as you and yours.

I feel intensely bad for our neighbors. If I was a meat-eater, I’d deliver a pot roast, but delivery of a lentil loaf just seems like adding insult to injury.

What a fine, fine way to usher in my now-begun month-long sabbatical of sorts.