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

Archive for the 'feminism' 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.)

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

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

I had something really incredible happen this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 5th, 2010

It’s possible I may be stating the obvious here, or saying something someone else has posited before without realizing, but something struck me last night, in the midst of insomnia, I wanted to put out there.  In the case you have read someone else saying the kinds of things I am, please leave me a reference in the comments.  I’d love to read someone writing more in depth about this.

So, you may have seen that I’ve started a large sex study about multigenerational experiences with and attitudes about casual sex.  (If you haven’t, and/or you haven’t taken it, I’d be so grateful if you did, by the way.  Same with getting the word out.  The link explains more of what I’m doing with it.) It’s gotten a lot of responses so far and also some feedback.

Someone tweeted that they were delighted with how I handled sex and gender on the study, and many people commented in the study that it was refreshing, and not what they’re used to with studies, to have so many options with sex and gender. Then, late last night, someone else tweeted that they didn’t understand why anyone was so impressed, because as well as including male, female and transgender, I included trans female and trans male as options.

I was already aware of the issues with “trans male” and “trans female” as identifiers, and understand that, particularly when used by a cis-person, they suggest that someone who ID’s as female but is not female-bodied is not “really” female or “truly” female.  At the same time, I included them because despite that, I still know people who prefer and use those identifiers for themselves.  For the record, even in leaving an open field for gender so people can self-ID however they want, I have a handful of people who picked trans female or trans male as their own IDs, more than chose transgender, and more than chose to ID as one sex at birth, then as male or female with their gender.  So, whatever anyone may think about those terms, some people are clearly still using them to identify themselves by choice.

Certainly, people outside marginalized/oppressed populations often voice an annoyance with the ever-changing language which tends to be common in these groups, whether it’s about the spelling of women, what indigenous people call themselves, or how gendervariant people identify. For instance, none of us in North America have likely been spared someone’s whiny vitriol about how those uppity indians keep trying to force everyone to be PC by asking us to call them anything but indians.  If you are or have ever been a member of a marginalized group yourself, I don’t need to tell you that within these groups, there is often great frustration about language changes and keeping up with them, some general eyerolling from some members, as well as a lot of infighting about proper language.

So, here’s what I’m thinking about ever-shifting language on the margins. The dominant groups, the ones in power, have had a LONG time to have the freedom to firmly establish their identities, with the privilege of not having their identities or language challenged by anyone most of the time who had any power to enforce those challenges: there is a level of flux in language and identity they do not have. Anyone who has tried to question or change dominant language in any way knows this all too well.

On the flip side, there is a necessary inflexibility in their language around identity and in identity overall if they are to firmly sustain their position of power-over: if they change their language, they change their identity, and thus, potentially their level of power and privilege and their stronghold on either.  If a man wants as much male privilege as possible, for example, he’s got to call himself a man, especially within that group.  Calling himself anything even remotely outside that can make his privilege more tenuous, less solid, may put it in question and put him at risk of not being considered a full member — or a member at all — of that group.

It’s really hard sometimes to be patient with ever-shifting language, especially when you want to get it right and be respectful of everyone, to fully acknowledge everyone, but are trying to get it right by everyone, which is always impossible in some contexts as everyone isn’t in agreement in any given group,  or even just when you want to freaking get things done rather than argue about language.  It’s also sometimes tough if you find an identity you like within a marginalized group, one that feels true to you, and are later told it’s unacceptable or out of vogue (I think of how many old-school feminists I know, for example, who still prefer “wimmin” as an identifier but who are going to have to take endless shit from everyone, including other women and other feminists, if they use it).

However, I think it’s a little easier to be patient about it thinking of it in these ways. We’re carving out identities more slowly, are still more in process, because we have only had so much time and freedom to do so, especially without our identities being adjunct to the identities of, or controlled by, the dominant groups. We are still in process, and there’s really no way around or shortcut in that process, especially in groups that have been oppressed and marginalized the longest and/or the most.

At the same time, we also have a freedom in that which those in — or who want to or feel they must align themselves with — dominant groups do not have.  As someone low-income all my life, I’ll often talk with people about how while being poor mostly blows (especially the poorer you are: I may be without a lot now, but I have most definitely been way worse off than I am at the present time), some aspects of being low-income provide some semblance of freedom I appreciate.  I have little to lose, for instance, and am not beholden to certain things people of means are. For example, I have had people say that even if I can’t find a healthcare plan to give me actual preventative care, I should really get catastrophic coverage somehow in the case I get hit by a truck.  However, as someone with no credit cards, no car, no house, the fact is that all that’d be is one more expense, and one that really only makes sense for people of a higher economic class than me. If I had to file for bankruptcy because of a ginormous hospital bill, I’d likely lose little to nothing because I have little to nothing to lose.  Weird as it can seem, there is a freedom in that, and I’m grateful for freedoms like that, particularly given all the downsides and ways that I’m stuck.

The same can go here with identities and language: there is a freedom in having flexibility around our language and identities, of being in flux, that I think often goes unacknowledged and unrecognized, especially when we’re tearing our hair out and driving each other up a tree about language.  The fact that any of us in marginalized groups are able to try on certain words and identities and adjust them as we go is no small deal.  It can allow us/others an authenticity and diversity that those who have privilege/power, especially those trying to make very sure they hold unto it, don’t have (or, more to the point, choose not to have, or feel they have too much to lose to have ) the freedom of having.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’m not okay with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May I suggest some easy lingusitic corrections?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 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!

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Thursday was the kind of workday when I feel I’m right where I am supposed to be in the world.

I’m at the clinic itself around once a week now as part of my job running our outreach.  My job when I am there with clients having terminations is mostly as an educator: I give one-on-one consultations and discussions about birth control methods and proper use, STIs, relationships, sexual health and any questions or concerns a client might have about their procedure.  It’s also my job when there to particularly educate and advocate for teens and young adults, and since I’m trained to do options counseling, I do that sometimes, too.  Because I float in many respects, what this also means is that I can tend to be a bit of a concierge at the clinic, particularly between clients.  So, if someone needs help with say, a lodging issue, if I walk into a waiting room and a batch of clients have a question they’ve been discussing and want more information on, if someone is alone and upset about it, I’m able to tend to things like this and more.

While I very much like doing the outreach at the shelter and in other presentation environments, this really is my favorite part of the job, despite the hellacious commute.

Last Thursday, in the span of a day, I:

• Came upon a client in one of the waiting rooms who was alone and right about to burst into huge tears.  I was able to sit with her for nearly an hour, let her cry, be an ear for the relationship conflicts she was having and reflect back her valid sadness at being totally abandoned by her partner on that day and other times of reproductive crisis.  We managed to get from crying to laughing (she was actually tremendously funny, and HER words then wound up making another client who came in in the middle of our conversation feel better: gotta love that kind of trickle-down) during the space of that time, and every time I’d check in with her throughout the rest of the day, she looked better and better.

• Was able to help a developmentally disabled client and her very awesome partner (always so nice to see, and unfortunately a bit rare per the men who more often come to the clinic) with a whole handful of things, from connecting him with a state resource to have his vasectomy paid for, to getting them a place to stay overnight, to making very detailed notes about all of her medical conditions, reactions to medications, and just assuring her that everything was going to be okay.

• I was able to arrange for something to help a client who was otherwise doing just fine, but was terrified of but one thing.  To make it so she didn’t have to have that one thing be part of her day not only was going to change her whole experience of her procedure and let her feel really in-control with it, but it also meant she did not have to sit waiting all day dreading it anymore.  So, another where we got to go from tears to great big sighs of relief and peace and smiles.

• We had protestors yesterday, one of whom walked right by a teen client in front of the clinic (and broke the law here in WA by doing so on our property) who was already upset, and who was already being pressured TO terminate outside by her boyfriend and family.

I was able to get her inside, take her downstairs to my sitting room, and give her open time to talk about all of her feelings, what she wanted, and how she felt she was given no permission by anyone to make up her own mind.  She was able to say she felt very unsure, and was considering termination, but had also wanted to consider adoption but was told this was “selifsh” I gotta say, I hadn’t heard that one before about adoption, but you hear something new every day. She also informed me her mother had told her she could legally block her from remaining pregnant, which I let her know was false.  We were able to discuss both options in some depth, and she was able to hear someone tell her — and mean it — that ANY choice she made was an acceptable choice which could be her best one, and that none of her choices were selfish save that this was about her and it was really important she think of herself.  I was also able to open the pressure valve by letting her know that no matter what, when we have a client come for a procedure who says they are here due to being or feeling forced by others and/or says they do not want to terminate, we will not and cannot do a termination that day, and that I’d be happy to inform anyone she needed me to that that was our policy and my firm decision on that.  I let her know she was welcome, if she decided for herself she did want to terminate, to come back, even the next day if she liked, and we could still talk more about all of this regardless, but she did not have to worry about making up her mind that day.

After talking some more, asking a lot of different questions about both choices, she wanted mediation with her boyfriend. I got him and we were able to have a joint discussion for a while.  Some of this involved both of us listening to this guy dish out a neverending spew of how incapable the client was of anything (I was able to respond that my impression was he was talking about himself more than about her, as she seemed quite capable to me), how he feels abortion and adoption are the same since “either way, you don’t get a kid,” (I was able to make clear that he might feel that way, but she clearly did not and I hadn’t heard most pregnant women share that particular logic), and his unwillingness to even hear her feelings on this or to consider or research, with her, other options.

This and more also gave her the opportunity to listen while someone told her boyfriend that their impression of her was far more positive than his own, and she got to hear a rebuttal of all the negatives he lectured us both on about her.  She was able to hear that yes, he got to have his own issues and concerns but that our concern was for her, not anyone else, and she came first with us no matter what. (I believe my summary to him of all he had said was that what he had to say was very interesting, and he certainly did get to think what he thought about it, but that at the start, middle and end of the day, I just didn’t personally care what he thought because he was not our client nor the person pregnant, she was. He had his own choice, and he made it when he refused to use a condom.) She got to hear me point out that anyone pressuring her to make the choice they wanted not only was not okay, but that in this case, it really backfired mightily since their pressuring her resulted in her being unable to terminate that day, even if she had decided — in an environment without pressure — that that is what she had wanted.

He decided he needed to also go on this doomsday rant about how all teen and young mothers are doomed to disaster, how she won’t finish high school, won’t go to college, won’t have the money she wants, will lose her whole life, will be a terrible parent, will have no freedom — this is another point where I asked if he was sure he was talking about her, not himself — and I was starting to wonder if the story was going to end in a plague of locusts.  I was able to point out that yes, all of those things were possibilities, and statistically, were more likely for teen mothers than women who were older.  But I then made very clear that it was also possible she could have NONE of those results, and while doing things like finishing high school and college might be tougher for her or take longer, they were doable and I’ve met plenty of women who have done them.  He started to go down this road about how she wasn’t able to be like those successful women, so I pointed out that one thing I’d noticed those other women have that she doesn’t right now were people around them who didn’t tell them what they could NOT do, but what they COULD, and who were positive and supportive, not negative and nonsupportive.  I said that did she decide she wanted to parent, he could certainly influence the outcome by growing a better attitude, but she also had the option of influencing the outcome by choosing not to surround herself anymore with negative people like him, too.  Which, who knows, said I, she might choose to do at this point no matter what reproductive choice she makes.

I got to watch her face and posture change throughout in a very positive way, and also got to watch some guy who was clearly sure — even in the way he initially spoke to me — he could bully, sweet-talk or intimidate women like he had her find out that was so not the case.  His posture changed, too.

That never, ever gets old, I gotta tell you.  I can’t imagine it ever will.  If I could do nothing but mediate scenarios like that, adjusting the power-dial ever-so-slightly, in-person, with people (usually guys or parents) who talk young women into feeling like failures, I’d ditch everything else I do in a heartbeat to do that 24/7, truly.

I can’t know what she wound up deciding unless she does come back, but in the end, my sense was she was going to be likely to terminate, and was feeling that may have been best for her from the start, she just needed everyone to back the hell off so she could get all the information and breathing room she needed to consider her options, and so she could make her own choice. This is actually a pretty common occurrence, especially with teens who also tend to face people not giving them autonomy in most things, so they often already feel talked over and controlled as it is.

It doesn’t matter to me what she chooses, but my sense is whatever it is, it’s a lot more likely to be her choice now, and whatever she feels is best.  And that’s absolutely all I need to feel good about this stuff.

It was a really, really good day, and those are but the highlights.  Again, every day I’m there isn’t like that — and some can be full of sadness or feelings of hopelessness, to boot — but there is usually at least one exchange that just absolutely sends me.  I have similar things happen at Scarleteen all the time, mind you, but being in person, seeing body language change, really seeing something vital and positive alter in the moment adds something so massively marvelous.  I am so, so full of huge, bursty, loud love for these women, and I do think it manifests itself better in person — or sees itself reflected more — than online or by phone.

I hadn’t gotten decent sleep in two days, and thankfully, the one woman who lives near me was working that day, which is unusual.  So, I was able to catch a ride home with her rather than doing the two-hour, three-bus tango, which was a godsend, as I probably would have passed out on one of the busses and wound up gawd knows where.  We stopped at Trader Joe’s on the way home. I was able to get myself a cheap bottle of wine, come home and enjoy said bottle, a little battery-operated something else, and a fine, simple meal in a peaceful night alone.  I started watching a movie but wound up feeling the adrenaline and sleep-deprivation crash around eight, which I totally indulged by going to bed as early as I wanted.

Some days are better than others, and some days — like Thursday — are freaking banner days I get a contact high from that’s got serious staying power.  Which is really good, because Friday was totally full of suckitude and I needed that buoy, big-time. Meh: every day can’t be a winner.

P.S.  Today is the very last day of the funds-matching for Scarleteen donations.  That also makes today the last time I nudge anyone about donating, likely for the rest of the year.  Point is, if you want to pitch in and can in any way, please do: anything you give will be worth twice that.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they kept on coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Ask as many questions as you give answers.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your consideration,

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

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

I don’t mean to do a drive-by dumping with something so heavy, but the topic has been on my mind a lot over the last few months. I’m not going into depth because I think the statement I’m quoting here — or rather, the attitudes it speaks to — truly speaks for itself.

Basically, however loaded, heated and conflicted discussions about prostitution and sex work can and do get, whatever difference of opinion anyone may have about law and policy and approach, I feel like there’s a very easy common ground where everyone should be able to start: with the essential humanity of anyone who is or has been a prostitute or a sex worker.

I was reminded of this the other evening. This is an excerpt from Gary Ridgway’s statement at his sentencing for the murder of 48 women, a majority of whom were prostitutes:

The plan was I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could.

I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.

(Bolding mine)

I feel like that if that statement doesn’t elicit a great deal of sympathy and empathy for women who do or have done sex work or who have been trafficked; a great deal of anger and sadness towards the way women in prostitution (and men, but I do think that all things given, the stigmas are greater for women and transwomen) — whether it is chosen or not, whether or not, when it does involve choice, that choice is made more freely or less freely or with more or less agency — are so often seen (or made invisible) and treated by a wide range of people, including but by no means limited to johns, what position sex workers/prostitutes are so often placed in by social mores, law and individuals…

…well, I don’t know if anything could.

However, I do think that no matter what side of the proverbial fence (as if it were so simple) anyone in good conscience is on, something like this really should be — and often is — a solid place where everyone can meet and be in agreement as to its inhumanity, whether it’s said by a john and serial killer of prostitutes or that nice lady down the street who goes to your church.

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

I just spent about five hours today seriously cleaning up the home office. Given my schedule over the last half a year, and how often I’ve been working away from home, it had gotten more and more cluttered and insane. When I cleaned it out, I not only took out two bags of crap, but cleared about fifteen boxes, which were either temporarily storing things in a way that was reasonable, or storing them in a way that was about me… just throwing assorted shit into boxes.

I took some photos so that I can remind myself when it starts to get bad that this, right now, is what it is supposed to look like, and there’s really no good reason it can’t most of the time.

I did this because after this next week, I’ll be back to primarily working from home again. Without getting into too many details, the clinic has been restructuring due to what works for them best financoally, and I got laid off from counseling a week and a half ago. For various reasons, this was a good deal of my recent devastation I alluded to.

The timing was both awful and strange. I hadn’t gotten the chance here to mention — we needed to have the timing right — that a few months ago an offer was extended to me to take over directorship of the clinic’s CONNECT program: our teen sexual health education and outreach program which we inherited from Aradia when it closed. It was a great offer which I pretty quickly accepted. Running CONNECT would be in very perfect harmony with what I do with Scarleteen, and they’ll really enhance each other. I’ll get the opportunity to do more in-person, local outreach and education (and get paid for it), more additional training (and get paid for it), and develop more materials (and get paid for that, too). My co-worker and supervisor is one of my favorite women who works for the clinic. At the time, the extra bonus was that combined with my hours counseling at the clinic, I would have been full-time. That certainly wasn’t going to be a bonus in some ways: combined with Scarleteen hours, that would have had me at around 60 work hours a week. But, hey: it ain’t like I hadn’t done that a million times before.

The big boon in all that, and part of the plan knowing I needed this, was that I FINALLY was going to have health insurance for the first time since the 80’s, something I am in more and more of a dire need for these days.

But alas.

I’d gotten started with CONNECT for a while, then got this news my first day back to work after my Minneapolis trip. It was highly unexpected and a really, really sad thing, not just because I was thisclose to having some of the basics I have lived without for so long, but because I LOVED counseling at the clinic. I loved our clients (and I mean loved them: I felt my heart grow and deepen daily, it was such a crazy-rich thing), I loved having a team to work with, I loved almost every aspect of what I was doing. It was hard as hell some days, for sure, but it was — particularly as a Buddhist and a feminist — such an incredible spiritual exercise. I also know myself well enough to say that I was extraordinarily good at it, and I got very highly invested in it. I was able to develop some resources that weren’t in place before, get this amazing mojo going on with one of the doctors (who had told me not two weeks before that all the clients coming from my office into her exam room were the most comfortable and calm she sees, and how very much I rocked), and really feel, much as I do with Scarleteen and sometimes more so, that I was able to provide something unique that was very much needed. Whereas apparently a lot of counselors burn out, I don’t think I was in even the remotest danger of doing so anytime soon: doing it felt so natural to me. Sometimes, I came home seriously buzzed on nothing but compassion and endorphins.

To say I’ve shed tears over this is an understatement. The first night and day after this happened was like nursing a very bad breakup. I could barely breathe when I got the phone call telling me this news. I can’t express how much I am going to miss all of these women and miss doing this. It has been tough over the last seven months to kind of connect with a lot of people outside work: doing this has made small talk something I really stunk at, whereas I used to only moderately stink at it. So much of this, and really letting myself get invested, really being fully open to all of the clients, has expanded my universe to such a degree that sometimes, hanging out with people, I felt a bit like I’d been living on Mars. But it was so, so worth it. This is no small loss for me. Yesterday was the first day I was able to talk about it in casual conversation, without getting deeply sad or deeply angry. I still feel like most days, I could easily sleep all day, which is not at all like me.

Mind, I will still be in the clinic once a week or so (and apparently still do some options counseling over the phone) once I get all shifted into doing CONNECT and developing some in-clinic education we’ve been planning since I accepted the job, which I am still electing to take. It’s kind of weird, really: I got laid off due to money, but this gig pays me better (it’s not primarily funded by the clinic, so that’s the why on that), and is a promotion. And it may be that should the financial status of the clinic change, I can someday walk back into my old job.

Again, there are still some things I’m opting to keep to myself, but on top of the loss of almost-benefits and the clients in that setting, I also have never been fired even once in my life. I know being laid off not actually being fired, but still. My inner overachiever was completely rattled and shaken by this, and I had no idea how to process it. I come from immigrant, hardworking family, so even though we are hardly ignorant to the realities of these things, it feels very intuitive to us that if you work your ass off and do a great job, everything should be just fine when it comes to keeping a job. When that doesn’t happen that way, it just feels like something is terribly wrong with the natural order of things. To some degree, I still don’t know how to process this, and I’ve no doubt that during my last week counseling this week, it’s going to feel mighty weird.

So, after this coming week, it’s back to a lot of home work for me. Some of why I had to clean today was to make room for two huge tubs of CONNECT materials, another laptop for the work on the site for it as well as the clinics birth control comparison site (both of which I’ll be webmastering as part of this job). I have to say, it really sucks to wind up a lone wolf again. I don’t mind being alone and working alone, but it was just so nice to have a couple days a week where I wasn’t, where I had in-person co-workers, especially given the way social stuff goes (which is to say it often just doesn’t) in Seattle, and especially because so much of the work I do leaves me feeling so isolated.


I don’t want to get too mopey here. Not only have I been working hard to crawl out of the big funk this put me in for a while, some of this also is only so bad. I DO still have a job there, and it’s one that in many ways, will likely wind up to be a very perfect fit. Again, it also pays me better (and if I could find some freaking way to get health insurance as a self-employed person in Washington state, where this is highly problematic, I could just about afford it now), and it is so in line with Scarleteen. As well, RH Reality Check just offered me weekly syndication there with my advice columns for Scarleteen (we’d started with bi-monthly), so it’s not like my work life is terrible.

It’s just mighty tough to kind of see the top of the mountain in so many ways and feel dropkicked back down.

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

I had an abortion in my early twenties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I am filing my survival of this last week under M for total freaking miracle. I slept until 10:00 this morning, after going to sleep before midnight, which is legendary sleeping-in for me, and I still woke up with achy feet and a very exhausted mind.

It’s tough to be unable to really write about work here. For as long as I have been keeping a public journal — nine years now — I have been self-employed, with only the occasional freelance gig where I had non-disclosures. Of course, I have never discussed every single case with Scarleteen, everything that goes on with managing the volunteers, nor did I do the same with Scarlet Letters or with photo clients, but I have always had an awful lot of room to discuss the ins and outs of my day being my own boss and having a setup where client privacy was not a big issue.

It’s weird to have a million big things I could write about and to be unable to write about them. Every day at the end of the day I come home with at least one client stuck in my heart or my head which I need to process, and writing things out is one of my primary means of expression and process. I have still sometimes written things out just for myself, but this is a large part of how much more infrequently I’ve posted here of late: time constraints notwithstanding, I just literally cannot write about my clients in-depth at the clinic or most of the goings-on there. I’m trying to feel out the ways that I can while protecting privacy, but it’s tricky.

In an extra training for options counseling yesterday — counseling for clients who are pregnant and don’t know what they want, so need someone to just sit for an hour or so and talk through their unique situation and walk through how all of their choices look and feel to them to help them find the best one — my trainer asked what we do to take care of ourselves when we’re feeling emotionally spent or upset. And I do still write it out sometimes, but given privacy issues and that writing is so much more work for me than leisure, I’ve been diversifying how I process lately. Obviously, talking it out with friends is massive, but on really tough days, I also have this thing going I really like where I load up the woodstove with wood and get a really hot fire going, sit in front of it and start sweating, and then let myself have a really good cry. The heat and sweat mixed in with the tears is my little sweatlodge: it’s seriously cleansing, and usually does the trick. I leave feeling warmed and relaxed by the whole process rather than feeling isolated or wrecked.

I also brought up the issue of how with any kind of job like this, you have to be able to recognize that there is only so much you can do, especially since by the time someone comes to you for help or counseling, they are coming as a result of situations and background that you can’t influence. In other words, the stage was set long before you. So, you have to invest yourself in doing what you can to help them right now — be that in giving them education they want/need or negotiating in relationships such as at Scarleteen, or in providing abortions or counseling to help them make reproductive decisions at the clinic. Any or all of that will, hopefully, help them, and be positives, but you can’t even get invested in those positives having legs: they may or may not. And by the time they leave your office or your websites or your email, you’ve done what you can do most of the time for them. You had your moments, and they have passed, and afterwards, it’s out of your hands. In other words, when you’re there, to do your best by them, I think you really need to fully commit and invest, but for you, after you’ve done that, then you need to be able to detach and let go. Obviously, that’s not always easy, and it’s also not always comfortable to fully invest when you’re in it.

The cases that keep leaving me hit the most hard are the genetics cases and the women you have to tell are too late to have a termination. With the genetics ones, even though I’m personally not one of those people who has ever seen the import of having biological kids vs. adopting (or to be more clear, creating family in any number of ways) — likely in part because I’ve never found that being actually related to someone automatically creates a stronger bond and because I also hate how many kids live their whole lives in foster care — it still is just so heartbreaking when a woman has planned a pregnancy or really wanted a happy surprise with one that was unplanned, made room in their lives and hearts for kids, saved money, etc., gotten all excited about it and then has to terminate when that is the last thing in the world she wants to do. Conversely, with the too-lates (which often happens because someone just didn’t know — lots of women have very irregular periods, especially young women — saving money for a procedure just took that long, they had to travel long distances, etc.) when an abortion is THE thing a woman wants, and she absolutely doesn’t want to parent or stay pregnant, telling her she’s without that choice is often an awful thing to have to do. When that happens with teens or very young women, I get extra sad, and when it’s with women, for instance, who are heavy drug users and you know that beyond their turmoil, they’re not even likely to deliver healthy kids (and lord knows that this is one of those instances where these folks are unlikely to be good parents, and those kids are unlikely to find adoptive families either, if they’re born special-needs), it’s another huge weight.

Of course, even outside of those situations, the stories women tell you about how they came to be in the spot they’re in are often maddening, upsetting, or just really sad. I’m not just talking rape or domestic abuse cases but also serious interpersonal betrayals or sudden abandonments with partners, the way they lose jobs or homes, how many doctors are just lax in telling people how to use birth control properly or just choose methods for patients that are not likely to work for them, how many partners don’t comply with birth control use, and so on. A couple times now, I’ve had women for whom the two-week period where you cannot have vaginal sex in order to prevent infection afterwards was a very real problem, not because of abusive partners (had those too), but because sex was how they paid the rent: making clear that they may have to choose between paying their bills and putting their health or lives on the line just stinks. And as a sexuality activist, how many women are thrilled when you say they can’t have sex for two weeks — some of whom will even ask if we can’t tell their partners it’s longer than that — is endlessly depressing.

I keep threatening to wear a button that says “Just keep it in your pants, man” for the men in the waiting room given how frequently I hear the story that’s that some guy doesn’t want any more kids because he has so many with other partners. Yet, Mr. Thing, knowing full well he no longer wants any children and being firm on that point, isn’t willing to get a vasectomy or even back up BC methods with condom use. Instead, he sees it as totally workable that he can just pressure partners into abortions they may not even want to serve his own ends. These same guys will usually pitch a fit when I say that no, they can’t come into the counseling session, because they usually really, very clearly, do not like the idea that their partner can say something about them uninfluenced or uncontrolled. Suffice it to say, if and when I find they’ve pressured a partner who doesn’t want an abortion and I discharge those partners with resources to have the kid they want, these guys are NOT happy. (Apparently, we’re not doing our job if we don’t push abortion on people, as clearly, we’re expected to do that.) I have, however, developed a hairy-eyeball just for them that has limited the number of times they’ll ask to go back with us, to the point that though I do usually say I can come get them when they are done if they have questions or want to talk to me, many of them are starting to get the message that they probably do not want to give me private time with them, because I am not the women they’re used to dealing with.

Too, sometimes you meet women who have just been through these unbelievably challenging lives are are flat-out amazons. I had one of them the week before last who had to be discharged due to having such collapsed veins from years of heroin use — she’d kicked the habit amazingly for the last handful of years — but got to come back last week. She had a kid she loved dearly, but because of a severe reproductive health problem likely due to her years as a user, found out she was not going to be able to carry another. I adored her, but there was something bittersweet about it, beyond her having to make a choice she would have preferred not to. With how she looked and what her social mannerisms were, with what she told me about her life and her recent medical history, it was clear she was one of those people that most tended to treat like shit on sight and without seeing who she really was. If I could have scheduled someone to give her a foot massage during her procedure and a week on some beach afterwards, I would have. I didn’t leave those days feeling sorry for her, like I said, she was incredibly strong and really amazing in my book, but there was something I carried home: this sadness that she deserved a life she was probably not going to be able to ever have, no matter how hard she worked at it and how much she survived.

This last week, not only did I work more than twice as many hours as usual, and have some other work issues on my plate to deal with, I had all of these kinds of cases and more when I was counseling. This weekend, I’d planned to be at Scarleteen pretty much 24/7 to make up for last week, but today that is so not going to happen. I think I need that heat and those tears today, and then some time to deal with no one’s crises.

Friday, January 11th, 2008


That was a sign being held up by a protester in front of our clinic this week. Two words, but they speak volumes. (Though I confess, it took me a little while to get pissed, because I couldn’t stop saying it in an Elmer Fudd voice for a few minutes.)

This has been one of the biggest blind spots I’ve had to contend with when it comes to both working in sexuality education and working in women’s health, and with women’s reproductive choice. There’s a very pervasive idea out there — and boy howdy, does it serve the agenda of the far right — that somehow, getting married fixes absolutely everything for women when it comes to unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and just about anything and everything you could think of when it comes to sex, sexuality and reproductive health and choice. That married people — but more to the point, married women — don’t need sex education, don’t need birth control, don’t need abortion, don’t need sexual healthcare, don’t need to know about their bodies, don’t need safer sex, don’t need to know sexual negotiation skills. Women, if you want to be protected and safe, get married. That’s what’s been said to women for most of our history, and despite knowing better now — especially if you provide any of the above services and happen to notice that married women are among the clients you serve — it’s still what is said to women daily and incessantly.

I’ve talked before about the flaw in that logic when it comes to STIs. Historically and currently, marriage, in and of itself, does not and never has offered protection from sexually transmitted infections, especially when you consider not only what the rates of infidelity are — particularly among men, who more often transmit disease to their spouses, simply when we’re talking about the physiology of sexually transmitted infections — and as well, when you consider that most people will have had other sexual partners before marriage, and how many people (again, especially men) never get STI screenings, and also don’t use latex barriers consistently, or at all. I’ve talked before — and you hardly need me to deliver this news flash — about how anyone with ears and eyes knows that marriage does not guarantee a safe or satisfying sex life. I’ve talked before about how given domestic violence rates, the notion that women are guaranteed lifelong safety, on every level, simply by getting married is an incredibly cruel piece of propaganda.

There’s not likely a woman in the world who needs me to tell her that getting married does not mean that birth control is no longer needed or wanted at times, or constantly — remembering that funny little factoid that not all women or couples want to reproduce at all — or that getting married does not mean a woman thus wants to spend the rest of her reproductive life pregnant or risking pregnancy. Getting married doesn’t necessarily provide even the woman who DOES love being pregnant and does love rearing children, who wants to be pregnant and parenting every waking minute of her life the financial or practical means to do so. My mother grew up with two parents in an Irish Catholic family: she has eight siblings, and would have had more save one stillbirth and a couple of miscarriages. Mind, her mother hardly had a choice in when she got pregnant, or when she had sex, but still. Anyone who wants to tell me I just don’t know what I’m talking about and what nirvana it is to be a kid in a household stretched that thin can bite one of my grandmothers dry Bisquick-and-water biscuits (and be unable to afford the dental care needed to repair their chipped teeth, too).

Even most conservative women know these truths. They too, are either using a method of birth control, or if they are not, are trying to just avoid sex to try and prevent pregnancy. Very few women in the world with any real agency are choosing to have ten children, and to be at constant risk of pregnancy, unsure when they’ll be pregnant again at any time. Conservative women come into clinics for abortions who make very clear that they do not believe in abortion, all while choosing to have one. For those most vocal about how not-okay with abortion they are, when a clinician tells them that IF they are really not okay with it, they can’t perform a procedure for them, the outrage is often astounding. (Because, of course, abortion providers are supposed to be just DYING to give everyone on earth an abortion, since the aim is apparently to wipe out the human race and make millions from abortion procedures, so we are never, ever supposed to say no to anyone. After all, we’re supposed to be lying when we say that we’re committed to women, committed to their choices being choices they can live with: when we show up that untruth, the antichoicers get mighty pissed.)

I’d posit that a lot of conservative women have the best of all possible worlds. They can malign or try and limit sexuality education, birth control and abortion all they like, even very publicly, even fight it actively, and yet, it’s still there for them — for now, and tenuously because of their efforts to make it so — when they need it, without judgment, and most of them do use at least some of these things. They can benefit from the feminist movement when it comes to getting them out of the house, allowing them the ability to be public spokespeople, to be politically visible, and reap those benefits while denouncing their source. They can even beg off sex to prevent pregnancy by being able to say they are so, so tired from doing the things in a day that only movements they oppose have allowed them to do. They can also cheerlead marriage and abstinence even if their marriages are a mess and they didn’t abstain from sex themselves. They don’t have to be consistent or truthful in any of this, because they know they can rely on our consistency, and the truth of our commitments.

From what I can gather by polls at Scarleteen over the years, as well as the daily conversations I have with teens and young adults there, around 30% of our users are not yet sexually active. Plenty have no intention of becoming so any time soon, and plenty are, in fact, right now waiting for marriage. (Some of them are even swift enough to know they may well change their minds about that later on, but acknowledge that even if that’s how things work out, this is their plan for now.) What they’re doing, see, is this crazy-smart thing we call preparing for the future. They know that someday they likely will become sexually active, and that at that time, they’re going to need to know about their bodies, about how to work sexuality out alone and with partners, about birth control and/or safer sex. They’re looking this stuff up now, asking questions now because they both know they’ll need it later and because they are curious about it now. Some of them WILL be people’s wives or husbands later, but most are smart enough to know — smarter than some of their elders in this regard — that that doesn’t mean they won’t need to have an idea about using birth control or how to take care of their sexual health. I feel pretty confident saying that most teens would do this — including those who do become sexually active in their teens — but many don’t simply because having the information in advance isn’t an option for them, and they don’t know where to find it.

As a former — though it still informs the way I educate — Montessori educator, it’s a very big deal to me to try and educate in such a way that I am teaching what I am in the windows in which someone’s mind is absorbent, or for you non-Montessori geeks out there, at the times when a person is in a stage of development where a given set of skills or knowledge are most likely to be learned, and a natural curiosity is most prevalent. For instance, the usual window for language is, not surprisingly, under the age of six. Children under six can often become bilingual or trilingual without even trying, just by listening and being talked to in several languages, simply because that time is when they’re forming most of their basic language skills and when doing so is so gangbusters for them. And one of the ways we, as educators, determine windows of the best absorbency is simply by watching and listening to our students: they tend to show us or ask us, pretty directly, when they want to learn something. Of course, when it comes to sex education, that can be tricky simply because so many young people have been shown by so many that it’s just not okay to ask questions about sex.

In the same vein, it’s no big shocker that during the big peak of physical and emotional sexual development, young adult minds tend to be particularly absorbent to sexuality information. For sure, if they are or are becoming sexually active at that time, that information is all the more essential because it has a very immediate and practical application. But even for those young adults who are NOT yet sexually active, even for those few who WILL not be in any way sexually active until their twenties, this is STILL a great time to teach them about it because they are so absorbent, and also because it’s obviously ideal to educate someone about something they will need before they actually need it. There’s a reason we try and do Driver’s Ed before someone is ever behind the wheel, after all, and why people who start factory jobs with big, sharp machines are given training first, rather than just being told to blindly try it out, see what happens, and hope they don’t lose a limb.

Again, I’m going to state the obvious. Speaking as one longtime sex educator, the idea that I somehow would profit from someone getting a sexually transmitted infection is hilarious. No one is going to donate to Scarleteen because what I do results in greater levels of infection. I bust my arse trying to do everything I know or suspect will be effective to reduce rates of STIs. Really, either way, profit isn’t my motivation, because I’d be a moron if I hadn’t figured out by now that no matter how great a job I do, I will rarely get paid, and when I am, I should never have any expectation that I will be paid at a rate at or much higher than your average high school kid working at the drive-through gets: in a good year, I tend to make around the minimum wage. If I wanted to work in sex ed for money (and had no problem leaving my conscience at the door), I’d work for the abstinence-only faction. THAT is who has been making the big bucks in sex “education” over the last ten years, kids. Leslie Unruh, for example, as executive director for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, reported compensation in 2004 at $109,920. In the same year, her reported compensation as executive director of the Alpha Center — a CPC — was $57,547. That’s an annual personal salary — not a gross for her organizations — of almost $170,000. I haven’t done my taxes yet, but for my sex ed work — at Scarleteen and with the book — I’d estimate (and I just took a closer look) that my personal salary for 2007 is going to have been somewhere around $16,000, if that, and I likely work more hours than she does, no less. Without the one larger private grant I get (knock on wood), I just couldn’t do this as a job at all anymore — in 2004, the same year Unruh was raking in the big bucks, that huge profit I was making from sex ed was a big, fat $7,026 — and it’s been crystal clear over the years that how hard I work, how many people I educate, or how good a job I do has little to no bearing on if I get paid and how much. No matter what, this girl just picked the wrong side of the wrong fence, and it is THAT which influences my finances.
I’m sure I’d horrify Wendy Wright and her ilk and perhaps even prove the link she’s reaching for: after all, I now am not only a sex educator, I also work at an abortion clinic. Surely, this has been a very crafty plan on my part. Work like the demon I am in sex ed for ten years, talk myself blue in the face about safer sex knowing that all sexy talk about condoms and Chlamydia is only going to make teens want to race out and have sex even more (Herpes sores, in case no one told you, are all the rage now, because with all that public hair removed, you’ve got to have something to decorate your vulva with, after all), know that those young girls with the STIs will get pregnant because of them, which assures that they’ll wind up for an abortion at my other job. And don’t you think for a minute that given the lousy pay, I didn’t negotiate in advance for a steep commission from all that new business I’m going to be bringing them. I’m no fool.

(Ten bucks and two doses of EC says that at some point I find what I just said there quoted out of context in some conservative blog or book.)

But what Wright and the woman standing in front of our clinic doesn’t seem to realize is that our lobby isn’t overflowing with nothing but teenagers and fallen, unmarried women. Married women are in there every single day, some even with their husbands sitting right beside them. Some of those couples are military, flag-waving, apple-pie baking, churchgoing folk. Why on earth would they be there?

It’s a stupid question, and we all — even Wright — know the obvious answer. Because there is NO woman on earth, no matter her age, marital status or station, for whom it is always the right time to be pregnant and no child on earth for whom it is always the right time and environment in which to be born and raised. Women like Wright, of course, are likely planets away from families who can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone more — or any — kids. Most women who come into the clinic do already have at least one child. I saw someone just last week who already had two, and whose biggest concern about having an abortion was that it would impact her fertility, because while there was just no way she could afford to remain pregnant or have another child now, she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t want to have another somewhere down the road if things improved. She “chose wife,” and yet, there she was. A lot of women who get abortions do use birth control, and plenty correctly — this business about BC not being 100% effective isn’t a fairy tale. This one, though, not only wasn’t, she didn’t know how to. No one had ever taught her how, discussed her options, or even let her know that if she wanted to keep using natural family planning as she had been, there was a far more effective way to do that than the calendar method.

Suffice it to say, an abortion clinic doesn’t profit from STIs. That’s just silly. But it also doesn’t exist to profit from unwanted pregnancy. When I took this other job, for certain, some of it was financially motivated. I was working full-time and still having a helluva time paying my bills, despite already being without things many people have: a car, a house they actually own or are in the process of buying, health insurance. And this other job will help me pay my bills, but only because I live so leanly to begin with. Your average pencil-pusher makes more on the hour than most of us at the clinic, just for sitting in a cubicle and clockwatching every day, and he’s also not risking being shot or bombed, nor is he likely responsible for anyone’s physical or emotional health. And if suddenly there were methods of birth control that were 100% effective, totally safe for, and affordable and available to everyone (and you can tell me complete abstinence is when a) people stop having a libido and b) men stop raping women or obligating them to have heterocourse), if suddenly there was no more unwanted pregnancy, ever, I can assure you that not a single person at the clinic would shed a tear and be upset that the part of our job that is about providing abortions was over.

The thing that gets me the most about this “Choose Wife” stuff, whether it’s on a sign in front of my workplace or on the nightly news is that I have to also hear strong statements — from these same mouths — that women are no longer mere chattel. And yet, it is also stated or implied that once/if a woman marries, there’s just no need for any of these discussions about birth control, choice or sexual health because part of marriage presumably still requires a woman to forfeit all of that agency to one’s husband, or somehow removes a woman’s desire to have any of that ownership over her own life and body. Suffice it to say, it also — so far as I can make sense of it — implies that these children we’re told are SO important, are so UNimportant as to disregard their quality of life, whether we’re talking about having the means to feed and clothe them or we’re talking about assuring that they grow up without one or both of their parents resenting the hell out of them, telling — overtly or covertly — them HOW much they gave up to bring them into the world. Gee, thanks, Mom: lucky me.

I’m a blunt gal. I’m not going to say that some people’s opinions don’t horrify the hell out of me, they obviously do, particularly when they seek to make those personal opinions public policy. However, even with the seriously scary stuff, I prefer it straight up.

If you just think, as a woman yourself, that it’d be best for women to be without options anymore, for women’s lives to revert (and when I say that, I’m not even talking about all women: for the poorest women and women of color in many areas, marriage never even pretended to offer financial security, stability or safety) to being about nothing but preparation for marriage-and-mothering-as-career, then just freaking say it, and out of both sides of your face, please, with baby food in your hair and in your sweatpants, not a $500 hairdo and a Brooks Brothers suit. If you want to say that comprehensive, accurate sex education benefits no one, then you’d best start planning now for how you’re going to cover it up when your perfect teenage kid who has pledged abstinence gets knocked up, or winds up with PID due to an untreated STI from their new husband — who wanted to marry them, so he must have been a good guy, and who said he loved God and was waiting until marriage, so he must have been — an STI they didn’t even know they had since marriage = safe sex and no one who waits for sex until marriage needs regular pap smears and STI screenings. If you think, as a woman, women should have no choice as to when they have sex, when they become pregnant, if they remain pregnant, if they parent, then just say so and mean it…. which means you’re going to be saying it to a house full of whining tots, not on the evening news, not in your new Random House book; not with your sign you can somehow afford to stand holding every day in front of clinics where women are working, plenty to support the freaking kids women have already, plenty to support women just like you on the day you show up there, talking about how against abortion you are while you’re there getting one.

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Things I love about the new gig:

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

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

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

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

Things I loathe about the new gig:

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen Blog)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

I have no idea what the heck brought this on, but something I was working on yesterday made me think that it’d be pretty fun and empowering to think of my average vulva as my super, big, GIANT vulva. I suddenly found myself wanting to say, and quite loudly, to no one in particular, “Yeah, well check out my BIG VULVA!”

I came to the conclusion that “big vagina” somehow has a better ring to it, though, likely because however incorrectly it’s often used, it is a more commonly used term, and it’s that part of the vulva which women are so often told or think must never, never — oh, the horror! — be anything but as diminutive as possible. It’s still overall seen as much more okay to have a big labia than a big vagina, and big clits often seem to be seen as fine and dandy, mostly because they’re perceived as being like big penises.

attack of the 50 ft. vulva!You might wonder what on earth would compel someone to somehow get fixated — and in a way that makes her feel giddy and silly and very excited and more than a little powerful — on BIG VAGINA.

Often, activists who do serious and emotionally challenging work can, when pushed to the work-limit, become slap-happy and rather silly at times. It’s also been a big of a girl-bits-themed week for me, and I could possibly blame Christa in part. Plus, I work in sex, which while it is certainly important, and absolutely very serious in some ways, is in just as many ways, something ungodly silly which people do. My partner is used to these occasional bouts of sex-geek-goofy by now, so, while it certainly created a moments pause — and also a question as to if I had been drinking — my greeting him when he arrived home by jumping into the room and bellowing “BIG VAGINA!” was not the surprise it might be for someone else’s partner.

This does NOT mean, by any means, you should discount what I am about to say, or dismiss that ultimately, I’m quite serious about all of this. But you are allowed to laugh, and in fact, I strongly encourage you to do so, because way too many people take the size and appearance of their genitals way, way too seriously, and it is really messing y’all up for no good reason.

Women (though it’s important to put out that we’re pretty much always only talking about heterosexual women when it comes to this) have started to obsess on their vaginas or vulvas or labia just being way too big to a similar degree that many men have long fixated on their penises being way too small. People are tossing away ungodly piles of money daily to attempt to change the shape or size of their genitals, and some — a lot, really, vaginal “rejuvenation” surgies rose a whopping 30% from 2005 to 2006 — even risk going under the knife for surgeries which not only pose serious risks to their overall health, but also put their sexual function at risk, all for the sake of appearance or sexual performance concerns which are almost always completely unfounded and unrealistic, and which most often do NOT impair sexual function.

Genitals are small. ALL genitals are small, because in this big planet we live on, in the far bigger context of the whole cosmos, people are amazingly small, let alone a handful of inches of genital tissue. Even when we’re looking only at people, we’ve got parts of our bodies that make our genitals look microscopic: our small intestines go for 20 feet and our blood vessels quite literally are 100,000 miles long. My dog, a pug, is a small breed — so small as to be considered a “toy” breed — and she’s far bigger than anyone’s genitals could ever aspire to be. But my dog, even though she thinks quite otherwise, is but a very small dog. If I had a dresser drawer the size of any genitalia, that drawer would be really useless. Sure, compared to say, one of my freckles, my vagina or clitoris is big, and it’s all relative. But let’s face it: genitals aren’t big, even though they can sure feel big, and can even make us feel bigger or emotionally amplified.

Before I tell you more about my VERY big vagina, it’s probably a good idea to do some basic discussion and deconstruction of genital size. We’ll get to penises in a little bit: for a change, let’s first start by talking about female genital size. To keep this discussion from becoming War and Peace, we’re going to focus on average size ranges, so do understand that average means just that — the middle point of a group of values (in this case, sizes), obtained by taking the sum of a group of values and dividing by the number of values — not “normal.” The sizes of normal, functional genitalia are generally well beyond the averages in either direction, and genital size, even sizes pretty far from the averages, very rarely impacts sexual enjoyment or function unless the person with them gets so hung up on normalcy that their hangup becomes a buzzkill, or unless that person’s sexual partners aren’t making any adaptations that might be needed in some cases.

It’s not exactly an easy discussion to have about women’s bodies, for a few reasons: a) female sexual anatomy is seriously nonlinear, both internal and external, and thus very tough to measure or quantify, b) so few people have given a hoot about our genitals that they still haven’t been studied very much, and c) the parts of our genitals which have been studied have more often been the parts that men deem important to them than the parts we deem most important to us. Plus, the size of our genitals varies a lot based on age, sexual arousal, whether or not we’ve had children, the works. Men’s penises are given measurements for erect and flaccid, which is only so apt for men, but it’s even less so for women as we have more degrees in between in terms of changes with sexual arousal, and parts of us that change with arousal we can’t really measure (since they’re internal), as well as those additional factors.

That said, the things we can look at when it comes to female genitalia and size, which we have some numbers for, are the size of the clitoris, the inner labia, the length of the vaginal canal, and the width of the back of the vagina. We can’t really talk about differences in size when it comes to the vaginal opening once the hymen has worn away — and boy howdy, do you bet your rump I get tired of explaining this every day — because as we all know (and if we don’t we seriously should by now), the vaginal opening is closed unless we insert something it it, or something (read: baby) is coming out of it. It’d be sensible to talk about measurement of vaginal muscular strength, but since scientists don’t seem to find that worthy of study, we can’t speak to it just yet very quantifiably. And the size or measurement of all of these things is often relatively useless and very arbitrary, but for our purposes today, that’s okay.

The vaginal canal: Let’s start by talking about the length of the vaginal canal. To most folks concerned about penis sizes, that’s about the only thing they might consider relevant (even though it isn’t all that relevant, given that when we’re talking about women who like vaginal intercourse, length usually is a non-issue, save when someone is trying to insert something too deeply which is just too long: it’s width that’s an issue, as well as how the penis is stimulating the g-spot and internal clitoris). We already know we can’t talk about the width of most of the vaginal canal, since that depends on what is inside of it, and when nothing is inside of it, its walls are collapsed save at the very back, but I will talk about width in one respect in which we can in a minute. The vagina is often referred to as a “potential” space — a term I can never figure out whether I like or not: on the one hand, very literally, the world of potential really is all about vaginas, but on the other hand, I think that term is often used to suggest that the vagina isn’t “actual” in any way unless something is inside of it, which is absolute crap.

From the vaginal opening to the cervix, the average vaginal canal length is 3 to 7 inches, unaroused to aroused, with an average capacity to stretch — when something is inside of it — to around 8 or 9 inches deep (it can also stretch from side to side). It might be helpful when we’re trying to illustrate this range to consider the range of adult speculum sizes: they range from around 3 inches to long and one inch wide to just four and a half inches long and one and a half inch wide.

Vaginal anterior width: If you really want to talk about vaginal width we have a practical reason — that being to fit a diaphragm to use for birth control — to measure, then we’re talking about the back end of the vagina. In case it’s not clear, the vagina is smallest at the opening and widest at the back, whether we’re aroused or not. Diaphragms are held in place by the vaginal muscles in the back of the vagina — a place we don’t even have the sensory nerve endings to really feel, mind — and sits over the cervix. Diaphragm sizes range from 50 to 95 mm in diameter, with fit determined by the distance between the posterior fornix and the pubic bone. A 70 mm diaphragm size is generally considered average. If it helps to understand how minor a difference this all can be, and how adaptable the vaginal muscles are, most menstrual cups only come in two sizes, with only around an eighth of an inch between sizes, to fit all women, and these two sizes sure fit us all a lot better than the ten sizes of pants we’re all supposed to fit our behinds and thighs into.

Labia minora: Since so many women, especially younger women, are so crazed over it lately, the range of average sizes for the labia minora (bearing in mind that no one ever seems to account for the fact that the size of our labia changes a bit during sexual arousal) is apparently between just less than an inch to just over two inches in length to the longest point. Average inner labia are everything from barely visible to easily seen outside the labia majora.

But obviously, given how incredibly organic and nonlinear the shapes of the labia are — and how vastly they vary amoung women, to a degree that there’s no way you could try and make the kind of easy comparisons men make between penises — it’s not exactly easy to measure, or even to determine what the longest point of some labium is. It’s often said — and anyone who had had their face or hands around even a small sampling of vulvas knows this — that the largest range in size, shape, color and texture that we see from vulva to vulva is with the labia minora.

Clitoral glans: When we’re talking about the clitoris (which also changes in size with arousal: measurements done with averages have shown an average change of 1.5 cm with arousal in XX women: intersexed women are sometimes a different story), the developed clitoral glans when “resting” is about an inch long on average, but it’s not really something there has been a lot of focus on, probably because when it comes to clits (or ovaries, or vaginas, or…yeah, you get it), many researchers just aren’t that interested and you also don’t have to tell women that something does not have to be big to do Very Big Things, especially when you consider we’ve got more nerve endings in our clitorises than there are in any size of penis. Heck, if you want to pick something that includes everyone, let’s not forget that sperm and eggs are microscopically small, but look what they can do! Too, the clitoris as a whole, when we include the internal clitoris, is basically the same size as most penises, but again, so spread out and organic in form, we can’t really measure it well, and can’t really measure it at all in live subjects at this point.

(You’ll note, if you have to torture yourself by ever looking at FAQs for genital cosmetic surgeons that they are very reluctant to say or even ruminate what normal and average sizes are, and more often will say that “normal” is determined by if the owner of said labia likes them or not — in other words, if a woman, for whatever reason, by whatever standard, doesn’t like her genitals, then it’s apparently sage for her to then consider them abnormal. Oy. It should also be noted that in double-checking the things that already live in my head on all of this, I kept falling upon studies showing that for most men and women looking to surgically “correct” their genitals, most of them have perfectly normal, functional and average genitalia.)

Take a break from the words for a minute, and before we move on to penises, check out this handy visual reference I’ve made for you, especially since it was a total pain in the bottom to make and try and keep as right as I could get it. While in even the largest version, things are still not exactly actual size, they’re awfully close, and the relative differences are correct. The anterior width circles were the toughest, but I just happen to have a wide array of diaphragms sitting around here for a project. Just because I love you so much and want to be sure everything is on the up-and-up, I really did sit putting diaphragms against my computer screen to double-check the sizes.

You’ll note I went ahead and provided an extra, very practical item to give you an idea of scale. If you want to see that graph a bit larger, click here, and if you want to see it life-size, click here.

(If you can’t see the graphic on the page for some reason, click here.)

The idea of “large” and “small” vulvas or vaginas really is silly, but it’s not like ideas about large and small penises are any less silly.

We may as well go ahead and talk about penis size, since let’s be honest: male worries and fixation on penis and genital size seems to be what created and in large part enables any sort of female concern about genital size, especially since lesbians don’t give a damn. This would likely be of NO issue to women if a) men didn’t go on and on so much about genital size and put genitals under the perpetual microscope, and then become fixated on ours, then bring women into the whole mess by making them think they’ve cause for concern, and b) if vaginal intercourse was not both defined as THE sex — even though for most women, it’s not the most satisfying, and also isn’t for plenty of men, too — and if problems with intercourse weren’t very foolishly all thought to be due to someone’s genital size, rather than due to the fact that the activity defined as “the” sex was, overall, a poor contender for the title who only got it due to being an incredibly savvy politician.

Plus, sensible or not, lots of guys care about penis size, and so do some women, which makes it important enough to talk about, and if we’re going to talk about one set of genitals being big or small, then it doesn’t make much sense to leave out another.

The Penis: The average range with penis length is between 5 and 7 inches, and the average girth (the distance around) is around 4 inches. Studies often show that the deviation between sizes, on average, is just around one inch. We see far greater variation in the size of flaccid penises than we do in erect penises. Penis averages are always a bit suspect, mind, because the men who volunteer for them are usually aware of what the study is, so guys who feel like they don’t have anything to brag about are less inclined to show up to be measured than those who do. In checking my homework here, I also found references stating that at around nine inches of length is the point at which, for women who engage in heterosexual intercourse, most women will experience discomfort. So that guy with the seven-inch penis saying it’s nine with the idea it’ll impress a woman may find that with a savvy chick, that’s not always an enticement.

But since we’ve got to hear again and again from men (and even their female partners sometimes) overstating penis length, you’ll not that in the graphical comparison above, I went ahead and even included a “larger” penis size that really isn’t very common.

(And just for the record, most of the studies on penis size done these days are being done by condom companies, so their work is actually meaningful and important. This is the lone practical need to know anyone’s penis size. Of course, more study on women’s bodies is also important for any number of reasons, but it’s still mighty slow going.)

So, there you have it. Now look at that chart again. Seriously. And not just at the dog.

Things that all vary only THAT little? Calling one SO large and the other SO small? C’mon people, you’ve got to be able to see that it’s pretty loony to get hung up on size differentials when we’re talking about such minor differences, and when those minor differences do not have anything to do with sexual satisfaction or reproductive function. Again, when folks get all hung up on the size of their genitals, the problem that becomes or creates is rarely a problem because of the size: it’s usually a problem because of the hang-up. Lose the hang-up and fixation, lose the problem.

Really, all of this size stuff is pretty deranged from the get-go, about anything when it comes to our bodies (and a lot of other things, for that matters). No matter what we’re privliging based on size, our size — whether we’re talking about height, weight, breasts, genitals, noses, you name it — is almost always mostly or entirely genetic. We’ve got what we’ve got, for the most part, and going nuts over largely unchangeable parts of ourselves, or anyone else, is a waste of otherwise good energy at best and bigotry at worst. And when it comes to genitals, no matter what we’ve got, the size of anything very rarely impairs its function. Differences in size simply — if they even do that — may create differences in the way we do certain things. Since sex is supposed to be individual, not one-size-fits-all, should we ever meet a sexual partner who isn’t down with making sure the sex they’re having is as unique and catered to they and us as possible, the problem is that partner, not our genitals.

Now, all things given, if we go ahead and make the determination that with a variation as minor as a handful of millimeters or a handful of inches, we can really still say big and small and all that jazz, when it comes to myself, I’m pretty darn average in all respects when it comes to genitals. In other words, most of my genitalia is not at either end of the poles of the averages. I wear a smaller-average diaphragm size (I’m a 65 these days), and given the clitorises I have seen up close and personal and via photos, I’d say my clit is right in the middle. One of my labia is smaller than the other, and the longer is on the longer side of the average. To look at my bits, I’ve got what Betty Dodson calls a Baroque vulva. As someone who is all about the spirit of decadence in sensory things, I think that’s quite perfect for me, really. :)

But you know what? Being average has NEVER stopped an awful lot of guys from saying they have a big penis or thinking of their penises as big. And again, this whole big/small business with such a small range is just goofy.

I often avidly protest all this size stuff, and even get ungodly irritated by it daily, especially given how often I have to comfort the “smaller” guys and the “larger” girls in my daily work, who really should not have to worry about any of this at all.

But I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time I tried rolling with it. So, if it’s up to me if I’m big or I’m small, I think it seems a whole lot more fun to have a VERY BIG vagina than an average one.

Which allows me to finally get back to my monumental, super-duper vagina. If what men consider a monumentally big penis is still as long or just a little bit longer than most vaginas can stretch, and the back end of some vaginas within average are still wider around than those penises, AND our clitorises, internal and external, are just as big as penises, then by gosh and by golly, we don’t have diminutive genitals, girls, we’ve got BIG GIANT VULVAS!

I want to give it supervillian names: Vaginormia or Vulvumba or Vagigante! (That one totally needs an exclamation point, because it sounds like a Lucha Libra name.) The Pink Colossus. Vulvuminousa. Monsmonstro. Vagzilla. The Big Vagowski — eh, that’s not going to work.

Now I’ve just got “Mike Wazowski” stuck in my head again (it’s a bit of a constant problem), and weird as I am, mixing vaginas and Monsters, Inc. is even too weird for me.

I am wholeheartedly enjoying this image of Vagzilla, like a very large sea creature of some kind, pulling its pink, fleshy feet (which totally make a noise, it’s like “schlop, schlop”) across the earth. It waves it’s VERY HUMONGOUS labia around like big, flappy, sea-anemone hands, and it makes a huge whooshing sound, like wind through trees in a storm, when it does. It’s absolutely moist, and seriously squishy. It also has a very, very large nose When it moves, it leaves a trail of shiny, clear ooze in its wake. It’s whipping aside commercial menstrual product manufacturers with those big labia-tentacles, and it’s yelling and blowing air from it’s GAPING vaginal opening, causing douches and speculums and the torture devices of cosmetic surgeons to blow across streets like tumbleweeds. Godzilla knows better than to even think about messing with it.

(My partner also had to watch me try and illustrate this image last night through the wonder of interpretive dance. Welcome to life at our house.)

I want to pen a theme song for La Vagina Grandiosa, but until I do, we can certainly already hear her when we listen to Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Paula Cole, The Staple Singers, Hedningarna, Saffire: the Uppity Blues Women, Phoebe Snow, P!nk, Janis Joplin, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, Bonnie Tyler, Chaka Khan, Joan Jett, Diamanda Galas, Loretta Lynn, Bessie Smith, L7, The Heartless Bastards, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks (I know, I had a moment of pause, but then I really thought about it: Edge of Seventeen is totally big vagina music), Michelle Malone, Kathleen Hanna, Pat Benatar or Nina Simone. Big vagina isn’t coy, subtle, delicate or soft-spoken: big vagina is raucous, gigantic, fleshy and eardrum-shattering loud.

I mean, there’s something awesome about it, isn’t there?

Not with me just yet? Okay, I’ll hang on while you get into it. I found it helped to yell one or two of those super-villain names very loudly in the living room (though in retrospect, it might be more fun to do in the bathtub, which I may just have to try later) while waving my arms around, punctuating it all by shaking my head back and forth with my mouth a little open so it made a very vaginal sort of “blubbalubbablubba” noise. The dog was certainly intimidated, I’ll tell you that much, and the pug ain’t intimidated by much. If that isn’t helping, revisit the imagery. If THAT isn’t helping, do remember that when we’re talking about vaginas, in particular, we’re talking about the place that quite literally has given birth to the world and everything in it. If even that isn’t helping…well, I tried.

For those of us who are with me on this, I really love the idea of even voicing this sort of sentiment or battle cry from time to time, just because, given that the very LAST thing any woman is apparently supposed to have, and certainly should be very, very ashamed of is a GIANT VAGINA. If women can succeed at, or even just try, to reclaim words like bitch, the very least women should be able to do, especially given the fact that if men have big penises, then we DO have big vaginas, is kick all this teeny-weeny-darling-cutiepie-vagina stuff to the curb and groove on feeling like our genitals are the stuff of epic proportions. I’m grooving on the Utopian idea that I’ll overhear some guy say to another in a bar, when describing a woman he’s awed by, who did something beyond daring he can’t imagine doing, “Man, it took some BIG-ass vagina to do that.”

In being completely obsessed with this idea over the last day or so, I’m also finding that I can kind of understand the dudes that go overboard with the “my big penis,” stuff to everyone within earshot. I so know that I’m really torturing the people listening to me talk about the vagina as giant in some way right now (but hey: I’m a sex educator, I gross people out all the time for my living), but I kind of dig it, because it’s making ME feel so big by extension that I just don’t care very much if y’all are all “YUCK!” especially since I very seriously feel we should should be awed and impressed with our bigness, that they should covet my bigness and wish it were theirs, rather than grossed out in any way.

It also seems like the more I go on about MY HUGE VAGINA, the bigger it feels. I know full well that everything genital is small in this great big world we live in, I know that the range with genitals when it comes to size is not at all vast, and I’m aware that personally, for the most part, even within that small range, I’m pretty darn average. But when I bellow BIG VAGINA, have images of Vagigante! in my head, and crank up the Joan Jett while giant, labial sugarplums dance in my head; when I envision my vulva and vagina not as small, but as vast and colossal, they really do start to feel that way, and it really makes me feel a bit bigger on the whole.

That feeling makes me a lot more sympathetic for the guys who are fixated on size, and who want their penises to feel big, and are bummed out when they don’t, or when someone else doesn’t see them that way. It also doubly illustrates part of why some women who are so fixated on their vaginas being so small often feel small themselves. While by no means do the size of your genitals — or the size you think they are — influence your size and scope as a whole person, if thinking of them as big makes you feel bigger, and makes them feel more special, I have to say that I think I’m all for it. And I’ve got to say, I really can’t help but wonder if women as a whole couldn’t really benefit from catching the size train in this regard: seems like it’s at least worth a try.

The only caveat is, though — and thus, the heart of my babblefest today — is that if we’re going to think of our genitals as big, any one of us, given the small range between them, we should think everyone’s genitals are big. We also need to accept that it’s ignorant or misinformed (and/or that we’ve clearly got some kind of agenda through which we benefit from our ignorance or misinformation) to think, presume or suggest that penises are big but vaginas are small, because we really are all about the same size. If thinking big is better for one sex, it’s also got to be better for the other. So, if you’re going to go on about your big penis, buddy, you’d best get just as excited about the idea of a big vagina, and make having a big ol’ vagowski just as cool. And if you’re a gal all hung up on the idea that your vagina must, must be as small as it can possibly be, or is such a small thing, then you’ve got to accept that penises are small, too.

But I suggest that you at least try on the “everybody is big” idea for a little while, and embrace the idea that a big vagina is at least as cool as a big penis is supposed to be. Next time you hear someone saying someone had a big vagina, and is meaning it to be an insult, try grinning and saying, with glee, “She sure did! Yeeha!” You certainly don’t have to make up super-villain names or do interpretive dances like me (though while according to some people, it’d probably be better if you didn’t, I personally feel that we just don’t see enough vaginal interpretive dance these days), but if you go through life without yelling


with great fervor at least once, I can confidently say you always feel at least a little bit smaller than you, and your vagina or vulva, actually are.

(The Scarleteen version I just got up of this lives here.)

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, yes, and a million kinds of yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

I read about this site in a book that I’m currently reading. I thought I’d check it out for myself. I think the content of your site is terrible. You think that you give teens all the information that they need so they can make informed decisions about their sex life. What bologna. The only decision that teens need to make is to not have sex until they are married. Certainly we all need to be informed about our physical health, our bodies, and how to have a healthy sexual relationship. But what about talking to teens about abstinence? And not even for religious reasons. But because it’s physically healthier to have only one sexual partner for a life time. No STDs etc. It’s emotionally healthier to have one sexual partner for a life time. You talk about separating sex from love. What terrible advice for anyone. Sex is love. Sex should be the most high expression of love. Not just some way to get your jollies. No wonder society is going in the crapper if this is the advice we are giving our children and teens. - Carolyn

You know, sometimes, I think the people who send me emails like this forget that this is my job: that I am an international sexuality educator for my living, and what I know about the sexual realities of people — more often from their own tongues than from any other source — and what your average layman knows are not likely to be at the same level. I don’t expect someone who isn’t a full-time sexuality educator to have the same level of knowledge about sex and the realities of people’s sex lives as I do, just as I don’t expect I could have the same level of knowledge about apples, however much I have loved and enjoyed them, as someone who has grown groves and groves of apples all their lives has.

But I do expect someone to afford me the respect — especially given how long I have done my job for, and for so little personal benefit — of not telling me things which anyone for whom this is a longtime job would know to simply be patently untrue, and expect anyone investing the time to send me a complaint to do their homework, even if it’s just earnestly reading my own work. (I also expect people to be a bit more realistic in assessing what power I have when it comes to the downfall of civilization, however flattered I may be at what they sometimes imply is my great and omnipotent power, but that’s beside the point. )

I don’t get letters like this every day, but I have had a recent rash of them, due to the recent release of Girls Gone Mild, by Wendy Shalit. In her book, Shalit culled a few select bits of the Sex Readiness Checklist here out of context, including ditching the opening material of that piece, to draw “her own” conclusion about those bits that nearly WAS my opening material.

“Scarleteen offers a “sex readiness checklist” for young girls to help them gauge whether they should plunge into the fun. Among the items: “I see a doctor regularly,” and “I have a birth control budget of $50 per month.” The emotional readiness a girl should demonstrate is “I can separate love from sex.” Shalit notes, “Those who can separate love from sex are mature, like jaded adults. They are ready to embark on a lifetime of meaningless encounters.”

In fact, Shalit argues, all of this advice and deprogramming aimed at women is necessary because women do not by nature thrive on casual, meaningless sexual encounters. They crave emotional intimacy and fidelity — desires the women’s magazines are at pains to quash in the name of maturity.” - Mona Charen

It very intensely misrepresented the content and message, likely because it was important to provide an “enemy” in order not only to make her points (and to give the impression they were ONLY her points), but to make it HER point so we could stay all cozily us vs. them about all of this, which is a pity when so many of us on all “sides” share the same concerns. Perhaps ironically, we’ve actually gotten more criticisms of the readiness checklist from folks Shalit would likely consider her enemy because it asks a good deal of people, far more than a gold band around one’s finger. I’ve had adults say, “Well, I don’t have $50 a month,” or “I can’t talk with my partner about sex,” to which my response is that from all I know, in the work I do, if they DID have all of those things in place, their sex lives would likely be healthier and more satisfying for everyone involved. It’s a long list, that page, because sexuality and sexual partnership are complex and multifacted. neither are binary nor simple, and we have far more than two choices — do it or don’t — and far more than two contexts in which to make those choices — married or not married — and most of us have to make those choices far, far more than once in our lives, and every time we make them is just as important as the first or last time we did.

Like I said, it’s an odd take on an article whose first five solid points, bulleted clearly include that the ability or choice to have sex does NOT equal maturity, but then, all in all, an awful lot of adult takes on young adult sexuality are pretty darn odd, which is one of many reasons why we try and keep most of the volunteers at Scarleteen in the same age range as those we serve. Considering that there is a plethora of items on the list about emotional readiness which were intentionally omitted, not merely the one listed, it is — as is much of this sort of take on comprehensive sex education — purposefully misleading. It’s a larger point for a later day, but it should be added that the conclusions strike me as odd, as well. They certainly don’t speak to scores of heterosexual married women who, for the life of them, can’t figure out why being married hasn’t equaled meaningful or satisfying sex for them, as they’re promised it will by people like Wendy, Carolyn and Mona. They also don’t speak to the scores of people who are and have been having sex they experience as meaningful outside the context of marriage. The list is also represented as only being about girls, when, in fact, it’s designed for use by all genders. But when these conversations hinge only on marital or premarital sex, they always leave an awful lot out of the picture.

So, let’s ditch all of the party lines and the oversimplification and really get down into the nitty-gritty for a change. So often, I see these conversations start with “Tell them to wait until marriage,” and end with “But preaching abstinence doesn’t work,” as if that were a productive discussion or somehow all there is to it. Every day, I see teenagers and young adults who know there’s more to it than all the adults who claim to know better than they do. Suffice it to say, brevity will not be the spirit of this piece.

I and my volunteers talk with (not to or at, if I’m doing it right) young people about waiting until they are ready for partnered sex every day at Scarleteen. Young adults also electively read any number of static articles that I have written or provided for them at the site, based expressly on their own needs and their own desire to read them. I talk with them, one-on-one, as well as in group discussions, about an awful lot of things, and when I do, they — not I — are usually those initiating the discussion, and the discussion we have is based around what they are asking me for, and what they express their feelings and experiences to be, to me, not what I decide they are, for them, or based on my own. I’m an alternative educator, and my methods come from methods I used in the classroom when I was a general educator: methods derived from or like those of John Holt, Maria Montessori and A.S. Neill. I do an awful lot of observation by reading their own words and interacting with them — affording them the respect of valuing their words, not second-guessing them — and what I tell them and write for them is based on those direct observations of them combined with observations of broader cultural topics, issues and trends, and what information they are directly presenting a clear need or desire for. I pay close attention to what results I have over time, since a great many of our “students” stick around, many even coming back as full-fledged adults, either for more information or because they want to help others the way they were once helped here themselves. Really, Scarleteen is a pretty substantial study in how this all works, because at this point in time, we’ve served millions of teens and young adults — most of whom found us themselves, by choice — so we can get a pretty darn good read on what works for our users and what doesn’t. The vast majority of email and feedback that I get from young adults usually simply starts with a capitalized THANK YOU. Often, it’s followed by many exclamation points. This comes from all genders, all orientations and it also comes from young adults who do and those who do not choose to be sexually active.

When I or my volunteers do have discussions with them about waiting for sex, it’s based on clear signs of a lack of readiness — like those on that checklist, or issues brought up in this piece, or this one, or that one, or this or this — and/or on that given young person voicing that they, themselves, do not FEEL ready (or do not feel partners are), or are not feeling good about the sex that they’re having or being asked for.

In those discussions, I do all I can to provide tools for determining both readiness and a real and realistic desire for partnered sex which can be used by as diverse a population as possible, applied to as many different situations as possible, and which I know, both from our users experiences, as well as from sound and reliable broad study, over time, HAVE really proven to be effective to best safeguard their physical and emotional health, and to best assure that sexual partnership and their own sexuality is most likely to be beneficial and positive for them and for us as a global culture. When I do have those discussions, unless they bring it up themselves, marriage or sole partnership — or waiting for that per sex, as if we could guarantee either — isn’t part of the equation, for a whole host of reasons.

For one, the teens I talk to are not all heterosexual (nor am I, the person talking with them and who you’ve emailed, thanks). Some of the teens I talk to have been sexually abused or assaulted and weren’t even given having one “sexual partner” as an option. The marital status of the young people I counsel is also a non-issue for me, as a sexual health and sexuality educator, simply because we know, historically and from current data, that while limiting partners (though not necessarily to one), as part of safer sex practice (which also includes barrier use and testing, something which often very much falls by the wayside or is altogether absent in most marriages) makes a difference, that neither hinges on marriage, nor has marriage ever unilaterally offered people — especially women — the kinds of protections against STIs, unwanted pregnancies, sexual disappointment or sexual or emotional health which its proponents like to pretend (or wish) it does. That doesn’t even touch on the matter of me not wanting to push anyone into a very intense and binding legal contract with another human being so they can get laid the “right” way, nor the fact that plenty of people have very much WANTED one lifelong partner, only to simply have that person, or any one person, abandon them or in no way treat them like a bonafide partner.

It’d be one thing if abstinence-until-marriage approaches earnestly worked, and by worked, I mean DID not only result in people forestalling sexual activity and ALSO “worked” when it came to having positive effects per unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission and also did, in fact, leave people feeling better about their sexuality as a whole, through the whole of their lives. But we know that it doesn’t. We’ve historically seen far better results with the advent, increased education about, access to and legalization of contraception, with the development of safer sex practices, greater awareness and protection given when it comes to rape and other sexual abuses, acceptance of sex in far more contexts than heterosexuality and marriage, and with work to advance and support the equality via gender, race, orientation and economic class.

However, even if it did work — and worked better than all of those things, which is salient since abstinence-approaches often are at odds with many of those matters, and our federal money to abstinence-only programs right now not only limits how much we can do those things practically, but takes funding away from many of those arenas to operate — “wait until marriage” doesn’t include everyone in the first place (heck, it sure wouldn’t have included me), so it practically cannot even be unilaterally applied, and there are also other issues at hand.

For instance, a majority of our global and local STI epidemics have started and proliferated among married couples, largely because a) marriage or sole partnership in and of itself does not mean bacteria and parasites (they don’t look at people’s ring fingers before leaping in, they’re crafty, but not that bright), b) some sexually transmitted infections — including one of our most prevalent — are not first contracted via sex and c) a marriage contract not guaranteeing fidelity, by any stretch of the imagination.

To state that if everyone only had one sexual partner there would be no sexually transmitted diseases is entirely inaccurate: if in doubt, talk to an epidemiologist. To state that marriage — or virginity — protects people against STIs is also to ignore or dismiss entire continents and large countries right now — if you can’t deal with talking about these issues in Africa (especially since they tend to show up some of the dangers in conservative thought about sex and sexually transmitted disease), then you might start by just looking at some of Mexico.

The night before her wedding, a girl kneels down to pray. She prays for 3 things:
“Dear God, please make my husband faithful to me.
“Dear God, please keep me from finding out when he is unfaithful to me.
“Dear God, please keep me from caring when I find out he is unfaithful to me.”
- Joke told in Degollado, Mexico, summer of 1996

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: we have a pretty funny habit in the States to try and dismiss or revise history, including our history with STIs (and let’s not even get started with the times we have used STIs and other infectious diseases as biological weapons). We have a “chastity campaign” — what we used to call abstinence campaigns — to thank for one of the first big waves of STIs in the states, of syphilis and gonorrhea, which occurred among married people first, due to every other countries soldiers in WWI being given condoms, knowing full well that no matter what you told them, they were going to cheat on their wives. But in the U.S., because as is the case now, somehow we convinced ourselves that “Just say No” was a workable, more morally sound option, it was OUR soldiers who came back home giving their wives the wonderful gift of VD — we DID learn our lesson that time — a very different approach was taken with WWII, with much improved results. You can guess, too, how much the shame and “You bad, bad boy!” attitudes about extramarital sex contributed to a lack of prevention and testing — which have always safeguarded everyone far greater than marriage contracts — to, as is so again now, an increased spread of disease, and greater complications from sexually transmitted infections which went undiscussed, unknown and untreated.

With around 1/3rd of just U.S. women alone who abort now being married (and abortion, through much of history most often being MORE prevalent among poor, married women who already have children; abortion historically has often been more about economic class and poverty than anything else,) we know that marriage in and of itself does not prevent unwanted pregnancy. With spousal and partner rape being far more prevalent than stranger rape, and domestic violence effecting a minimum of 10% of the population in America alone — and let’s not forget that for pregnant women, a leading cause of death is homicide by a spouse or intimate partner, and that around 1/3rds of all homicide cases with a female victim are at the hand of an intimate partner or spouse — we know that marriage does not, in and of itself, protect anyone from emotional hardship or pain, nor guarantee a healthy, happy and mutually considerate and beneficial sexual or emotional life.

It also always seems to be diminished or dismissed that we all have only so much control over if we have sole sexual partnership. Not even bringing rape and sexual abuse into the equation, from a sexual health standpoint, any time any of our partners takes another partner — including the no less than 25% of married men and 15% of married women in the U.S. alone shown in nationally representative samples who do so extramaritally — we have no longer had one sexual partner from an infection and disease standpoint, and we have no longer been in a lifelong monogamous relationship from any standpoint. Marriage or the promise of lifelong sexual partnership does not come with a guarantee. This is a particular issue when we’re talking about very traditional marriage approaches which often have pretty serious sexual double-standards, as well as in approaches to marriage in which one or both partners are considered property of any sort, sexual or otherwise. Suggesting that in those scenarios sex is healthier for both partners, and more likely to have positive results is simply ridiculous.

With my mailbag, anytime I’m doing heterosexual adult sex ed, it’s overflowing with letters from married adults, usually women, who are seriously unsatisfied with the sex they’re having with their spouse, in both the physical and emotional departments. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped doing sex ed for older people and decided to focus on young adults was simply because it was incredibly depressing to read my mail. Denying that these people are real and exist is futile: just take a look at book sales for sexuality self-help books for marrieds. Someone is buying them, after all, and it sure isn’t those of us who are not married — why would we care?

What might someone who is adamant that saving sex for marriage and only having sex within marriage tell the woman who writes in after 20, 30, 40 years of marriage, who internalized all of this hype about marriage guaranteeing a positive result when her husband is sexually abusing her or even “just” having sex with her in a way that has nothing to do with her own pleasure, comfort or with love? Little or nothing is going to change in most cases once a dynamic has gone on for so long, so besides telling them to leave — which isn’t something social conservatives are likely to suggest — what would you say? Do those people not exist? Are they imagining sexual and interpersonal problems, and if so, how are we defining what is problematic, and whom are we privileging in that determination? What do we make of elderly people who tell us that they DID have but one sexual partner in their life time and that it was NOT emotionally or physically satisfying for them, and did NOT result in their sexual health and happiness (translation: have you talked to even one grandmother about sex honestly, ever)? Do their experiences not matter or are somehow invalid? Might we even take an extra step and consider the fact that after just a couple of times with a partner sexually, we can generally get a good read on what our sexual dynamic with them will be like?

Is it, somehow, practically better to wait until after signing a binding contract, especially in communities or systems where dissolving that contract in unacceptable, to find out that your partner could give a hoot about the other partner’s needs, wants, limits, about their own anatomy and sexuality, about what roles are going to be in play? Implicit in the “saving sex until marriage” argument is the notion that a marriage is and must be a sexual relationship, and that that is no small part of that relationship. If it’s important and reasonable to find out in advance of marriage, for instance, that a potential spouse is kind to children or capable of resolving a financial conflict without striking anyone, how is it unimportant to try and determine in advance if the sex you’re signing up for, feasibly, the whole of your life, isn’t going to consider you, or your own separate sexuality and body, as a valid and equal part of the equation? I’m not stating everyone need do the opposite here as some sort of essential edict: I’m not saying that premarital sex is going to guarantee health or happiness any more than forestalling sex until after marriage is. However, I am saying that if you’re going to make sex something which is about marriage, and which marriage is about, suggesting that such a critical and large element should be a complete surprise, knowing that partnered sex does carry so many physical and emotional risks — and knowing and applauding how very binding a marriage contract can be — is a pretty bizarre suggestion if you’re going to posit that it is in the better interests of women.

As well, until we can NOT have marriage be both exclusive AND about the sexual ownership of one person by another — and that does not mean monogamy, per se, as that is only one approach to monogamy — I don’t think we can even have aspects of this conversation. Until marriage law unilaterally and internationally not only does not privilege one group of people over another, but also one partner OF a marriage over another, stating that it is sexually most healthy for anyone to forestall sex until they marry is lunacy. Much of the underpinnings of these arguments for sex-after-marriage not only dismiss the exclusivity of marriage, and the numerous places — including some parts of the U.S. — where the gender of a partner gives them lesser rights in marriage, but they also often champion very traditional gender roles/status and religiosity in marriage, two issues which have been shown in many studies on marital sexuality and relationships to play a part in greater sexual and general dissatisfaction and health.

Marriage is no safeguard of sexual health. It is more difficult for married women to negotiate safe sex and condom use than it is for single women. - part of “The Lancet’s” Sexual and Reproductive Health Online Series

Here’s one bit that no one wants to talk about: the part where half the time someone is telling you it’s better to wait, that same person is a sexual non-entity in their marriage. That during all of this all-about-love sex, often enough, one partner is hammering away on — not with — the other while that other is harboring silent resentment and some pretty deep disdain or even just resignment, not love. One partner has sexual wants and needs which not only won’t be fulfilled, but which the other partner refuses to even address or uphold as important. That in many, many male-female marriages, sex — as it culturally has been for most of our history — still starts, stops and ends with the only one partner’s genitals, and not even the whole of his genitals, at that. This is not an absolute: there, too, are marriages where these are not issues, but these are common issues and complaints which create real conflict with the idea that marriage = sexual health and happiness, especially when we’re talking about women, but hardly exclusively for women.

We often hear that it’s so important for a child to have a same-sex role model or a parent of their same-sex around. But most of us are not so foolish as to dismiss that WHO that person is and what they are like is no minor factor. Having a same-sex parent around who is a terrible parent, a poor role model or an awful person isn’t likely to net positive results, and we can generally agree that in those cases, it would be better NOT to have that person around. When it comes to marriage or sole partnership, stating that having that relationship in and of itself is going to be beneficial completely ignores and denies that the quality of that relationship or marriage, and WHO your spouse or sole partner is matters a great deal. How could a sole partnership or lifelong marriage with a lousy partner somehow net more positive results than having, say, four utterly amazing and wonderful partners?

So, people can keep saying marriage or sole partnership affords physical and emotional protections, and is more likely to create a healthier, happier sexuality all they want, but reality — sometimes even their own married reality — often flies in the face of that assertion, and quite profoundly.

* * *
An aside: I’m really bothered by what’s intimated about love in the email up top there. You know, PLENTY of married people, and plenty of people who love one another, DO have sex sometimes when it’s just or primarily about “their jollies.” If we care about and respect the person we’re doing that with, and their “jollies” are as important as our own, and if love is all its cracked up to be, then it shouldn’t be at all problematic for us to have sex as the same sort of fun sometimes — or even always — that we have playing a game of touch football, or sharing a joke, with a partner is. Obviously, we have a huge cultural mandate that says that for married women, still, sex is about duty and obligation and while it may be about male jollies, his are always privileged over hers, and we have, as ever, a huge cultural problem, still, with honoring pleasure and supporting sex AS pleasure and joy, especially if that is “all” — because these things are so meaningless, apparently — it is about.

Suggesting one be able to separate sex from love isn’t about saying that sex shouldn’t be loving, or that there is some sort of extra status when it is not. That suggestion is about realizing that sex, in and of itself, can’t create love that isn’t there already, nor repair it, and that we need to understand that sex is NOT always an expression of love, and certainly not when we mean “love” in the way many young people understand it and have been sold it, which is more about romance or possession than respect.

* * *
I often feel like supporters of abstinence, when talking to sex educators, forget that most of us who work in the field, and are bringing far more than out own sexual experiences, that of a few people we know, and what we read about in disreputable media sources, know a lot more about people’s sex lives than the average joe. I used to do a lot more adult sex ed than I do now or instance, and I know full well, from what married people have told me and asked of me, that while it has net positive results for some it has been negative for others. We regularly get advice queries at Scarleteen from unhappy, unhealthy young adults who waited until marriage, and of late, the numbers of those queries have been increasing pretty vastly. For sure, it needs to be noted that people who are 100% satisfied with their sex lives are not going to be filling my mailbag, and that’s the case with the waiters and the non-waiters alike. but the point it, that just like NOT waiting has been positive for some and not for others, the same can be said for those who waited.

Really, you don’t even have to have the gig I do, or read/counsel as many people as I do to do the math, here. Perhaps my circle of friends is simply more diverse than those who write me these sorts of letters, because even just among the people I have known in my personal life, when I’m off-duty, I know that both of these two choices (for those for whom they are available AS choices), sex-before-marriage or sex-outside-marriage, and sex-after-marriage and only until marriage, net some pretty widely varied results between people.

Nearly two-thirds of teenagers think teaching “Just Say No” is an ineffective deterrent to teenage sexual activity. - Roper Starch Worldwide, Teens Talk About Sex: Adolescent Sexuality in the 90s

What else do I know? I know that a majority of people telling this generation to wait until marriage didn’t wait themselves, and that the age of first intercourse or first sexual experience has been slowly climbing downward since the turn of the century — not just of late — which is likely due to many changes, including access to effective contraception, women being ever-so-slightly more allowed to even have and drive a sexuality of their own, lower age of physical sexual development, an increase in leisure time, delaying marriage until later ages, and a great big list of issues, many of which are positive changes.

Sure, some of these abstinence mandates are just sanctimonious blather, but some of it is based on the strange logic that says “I Did X and I wasn’t happy with the results, so one must need to do Y to get the right results.” That’d be sensible in an equation in which there were but two options, but that’s something we can’t say about sexuality and sexual partnership.

This is also about hypocrisy and awareness of projection. I have not only had more than one partner in my life, I have had far more than one partner. My circumstances, personality, and the unique conditions of my upbringing and time and place were such that I’d expect that a majority of the young adults who read Scarleteen would be gobsmacked if I shared how many partners I’d had before I was 20, because for most of them, their situations differ in many ways from my own. I also know from listening to and working with them that what worked for me likely wouldn’t work for a majority of them; what was positive for me then may not be for many of them now. Certainly, I make a darn good guinea pig when it comes to showing how well safer sex works, and that it’s totally possible to have more than one partner and feel great about it and be a happy, healthy person. Certainly, I could compare my one set of experiences to those of any other one given young women who waited until marriage for sex, and had but one partner who is sitting nursing the STI she isn’t supposed to have, who is feeling terrible about sex, and who isn’t sexually happy or healthy. In doing so, I could easily draw the conclusion that I sex before marriage with multiple partners in one’s teen years must be the right choice, and hers the wrong one. But not only would doing so be beyond unintelligent and socially irresponsible, it’d be idiot logic.

Because I am aware that my positive or negative experiences are just that, mine, and that I am not Everywoman, and because I am also aware that we, as people, have a strong propensity to project our own experiences unto everyone else, to be a socially responsible sexuality educator and a good teacher, I’ve got to do my level best to be responsible enough not only to qualify my experiences as being mine, and I need to make sure that I’m also not being a ginormous hypocrite. For me, personally, to tell any one of them that there is one choice that is best for all of them, knowing full well — especially the older I get and the more I know myself — that it by no means would have been the best choice for me (or heck, just not having made that choice myself, so having no idea at all what results it would have had) would not only be complete bullshit, it’d be incredibly disrespectful, and not just because it isn’t my job to tell them what choice to make, nor do they often ask me to make their choices for them (and when they do, I decline).

Additionally, one of the toughest things I experience in doing my job is remembering to try and always keep in check that generational differences — even just by one generation — are often far wider than we perceive them to be, especially from the vantage point of those of us who are elder, and feel we have already lived the experiences the generations younger than us have had. We haven’t, see: we’ve had our own adolescence, and there may be some commonalities, but our adolescence is just that, ours, and there often tends to be less commonality than we’d like to think. I often feel like when I may err, I likely err on the side of conservatism or overprotectiveness, which is saying a lot for an anarchist, feminist, queer rabblerouser like me, but I think it’s something that’s always very easy for any of us to slip into, even when our intentions really are good.

If, indeed, sex is love, than the way we sexually educate also has to be loving and thus, full of respect. It’s not sensible, no matter what, to dictate or cheerlead a choice for someone else just because we know or suspect it was/would have been the right choice for us, but it’s beyond insult to do so when we have absolutely no way of knowing what that choice would have been like for us whatsoever, or when we’re flat-out lying. Given the statistics on marriage and marital sexual dissatisfaction — especially per issues of lack of orgasm and sexual arousal among women, widespread complaints of a simple lack of affection among partners, sexual obligation, prolific complaint from all sides about vaginal intercourse being more often unsatisfying than not, female complaints about the frequency of sex being determined only by the male partner’s libido — and given the proliferation of those pushing abstinence-until-marriage with unfounded promises, an awful LOT of people are knowingly lying to our youth.

A survey by Northern Kentucky University revealed that 61 percent of students who made abstinence promises broke them. And of those who said they kept their pledges, 55 percent indicated they participated in oral sex. The survey queried 597 Northern Kentucky students, 16 percent of whom made pledges not to have sex until marriage. The study noted, however, that pledge-breakers delayed sex for a year longer than nonpledging teens–until an average of 17.6 years old. But pledge-makers who became pledge-breakers were less likely to use protection, such as condoms, when first having sex.

Heck, even if abstinence-until-marriage DID result in all the things it claims to and really COULD include everyone, while I’d be fine getting behind it, I’d still be honest with the youth I counsel and tell them that myself and others didn’t do that and are still having positive results.

We can certainly see negative the results, and the purposeful dishonesty, with a lot of abstinence-based approaches. One very common facet of abstinence-based sex education is fear. I talk to an awful lot of youth who have been reared with this stuff daily, and from that work alone, I can assure anyone, with great confidence, that this approach isn’t making them any smarter, nor is it resulting in any of them having healthier sex lives or feeling any better about their sexuality: it’s resulting in most of those I have encountered being incredibly scared and also incredibly challenged in things like limit and boundary setting, safer sex practices (which, to work, need to be used with ANY new partner for at least the first six months, even in marriage), birth control negotiation, acceptance of personal sexual orientation, a real understanding of the sexual and reproductive anatomy, as well as realistic expectations for what sex is once they do choose sexual partnership. I have young adults literally terrified to shake someone’s hands for fear they have recently toileted, and could thus cause a pregnancy. I have young adults so completely sold on the fact that so long as everyone is in love, or says they love them, or marries them, that the betrayals they experience when sex very much is NOT love in the kinds of relationships they’re assured it will be cause them incredible emotional pain. I have students of abstinence-only programs in droves who have so taken to heart that intercourse is the only real sex, and that that’s where the big risks lie, that almost daily, and sometimes more than once a day, we have to explain that even if one doesn’t include receptive anal sex or giving oral sex as a loss of virginity, that doesn’t make them automatically physically or emotionally safe.

For a lot of teens, even if they DO intend to wait for sex — be it until marriage, or by some other criteria — they come here or come to me because they need, and are asking for, someone to tell them not just the facts — the real ones — but that they are OKAY, they are still or will still be good people even if they do choose to have sex outside some sanctioned context or other. And sometimes, that they aren’t insane in noticing that everyone telling them to be abstinent is often talking out of both sides of their face. Too, adults forget that young adults don’t need us to tell them what is going on with themselves: they know better than we. A lot of this focus on yelling in everyone’s face to wait for sex is good, old fashioned sex panic, because plenty of teens ARE waiting, because they WANT to wait. Some are waiting for marriage, some are waiting for a certain amount of time to pass in a relationships first, and some have other criteria for waiting — for all or certain kinds of sex — entirely. half the turn-off many teens have to abstinence approaches is because they feel like they’re being falsely accused of having or wanting sex when they flat-out don’t.

Look, if this “wait-until-marriage” stuff really DID work, so far as earnestly reducing rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, as well as guaranteeing that partnered sex and interpersonal relationships were always or even almost always a positive for all those who wait, AND it didn’t usually include gobloads of misinformation to incite fear into the burgeoning sexuality of those it addressed, I’d sign unto this in a heartbeat.

It’s my job to do what I can to do my level best to have partnered sex and sexuality become as positive an experience for everyone, with as few negative consequences as possible. Needless to say, if all my job needed to consist of to be effective was me saying “no,” it’d sure make my life a whole lot easier, and my workday a lot less stressful. Heck, I could easily cut my work hours down to almost nothing, simply by developing a nice auto-script to just say “wait” to everyone writing me a letter. But my job has NOT been made any easier by abstinence only approaches. I have more misinformation to correct than ever before, coming from more and more sources claiming to be credible, and backed by people who really SHOULD be trustworthy. For a while there, it used to be that most sexual information was spread peer-to-peer, but now we’ve got it coming right on down from our governments, who carry a high credibility, however undeserved. I’ve got good girl/bad girl good boy/bad boy stuff to deal with that my parents thought finally, thankfully, ended with their generation. Over the years, our traffic has only increased and increased — despite us still never having done any advertising — which not only creates more and more work for me, but costs me more and more to host. Suffice it to say, every time I file my taxes I am even crabbier than most because I know that I am literally giving money from the little I make to mandates which create more work for me and which cost me money to try and repair. I am having to fiscally contribute to a system which I professionally protest, and which does harm to those I seek to help. Given that this wave of abstinence-only began in 1996, and it’s now more than a decade past, if it was working, and it was so positive for everyone, I think it’s reasonable to surmise that I should be having less and less work over the years, don’t you?

With letters like this one I usually end up scratching my head wondering why, exactly, it’s so difficult for us as a people — because this isn’t a behavior that only belongs to conservatives — to simply accept that when it comes to sexuality, it’s often a multiple choice test in which there are an awful lot of combinations that can be the right answers, an awful lot of the SAME combinations that can be the wrong answers, and it’s not the answer which dictates which will be right or wrong, but the individual involved and their very specific situation. This isn’t rocket science: this is simple observation. Let’s say Carolyn DID wait until marriage for sex, and Carolyn is pleased as punch. I didn’t (nor did I even include ideas about marriage in any aspect of my sexuality or sexual decision-making), but I’m sitting here happy, healthy and satisfied, too.

So, who’s right, then? We both are… per our own, and only our own, choices All we need is but one — and suffice it to say, I’ve had far, far more than that — letter from someone who DID wait for marriage or lifelong sole partnership and did NOT have the promised positive results, or one person who did NOT wait and has had positive results, to know that the idea that any one choice is best for everyone is flawed.

And this is why it’s so vital to just freaking quit it with this one right choice mishegoss. Not just because it doesn’t work, and because it isn’t sensible, but because it doesn’t honor the individual in any way, nor honor our diversity as individuals with widely varying sexual wants, needs and desires. Sure, there are some basic issues we really can apply to everyone — issues of consent or of sexual health, for instance — but hinging anything on something so also varied as marital status, sexual orientation, gender or age has shown us up historically, time and time again, as at worst, a grave error which does great harm to many, and as an utter waste of time and energy, and an incredibly effective distraction, at best. This is a distraction in that it very much does keep us from having to look at, address and try and develop strategies for sexuality issues which impact everyone, married and unmarried alike, issues which we often prefer to avoid or deny: sexual abuse and rape, domestic abuse, unwanted pregnancy, reproductive rights, homophobia and sexism, ignorance about sexuality and sexual response, the gross inability to sexually communicate, the works. This “one right choice” stuff is especially pernicious when addressed to women (and not only is most casual discussion on this issue about young women, most abstinence-only strategies make it very clear that sexual policing is the responsibility of women), who have spent nearly the whole of human history having our sexuality and sexual choices mandated and dictated to and for us by someone else.

We KNOW a lot of what works: we do, whether we like it or not, or feel comfortable with it or not. Sexuality education IS still a relatively new endeavor, and we are all still very much learning how to do it. I’m not comfortable all of the time either — who is when it comes to sex? — nor can I say that I am 100% certain 100% of the time that my approach with any given person or group is the right one. But I know that I’m a lot more comfortable wondering, questioning, and feeling out what might or could be right than I am when I’m somehow completely certain that I’m absolutely correct about a topic as huge, as loaded and as diverse as human sexuality.

We do, however, know that giving people as much accurate, unbiased, inclusive and compassionate about human sexuality as we can has helped people to figure out what the best choices they can make for themselves are, even when they make mistakes. We know that when we have seen board declines in rates of unwanted pregnancy — such as one we saw here in the states between 1995 and 1998 — it has resulted from comprehensive, not abstinence-based, sex education and from greater availability of effective birth control methods, and that areas with only abstinence-based sex education don’t tend to show the promised positive results (not counting the undeniable positive of activists like Shelby Knox who step up in those areas, mind). We know both because they tell us it helps them, and because since we have started to do so, we have seen some important changes more broadly. We know that doing so in a way in which we do our level best to honor the diversity of those choices, to do so without privileging ANY one choice is not only the way that information (which you acknowledge is vital) is best heard and absorbed, as is the case with any kind of real education, it also, just in that respect, gives people something many people and our culture, historically, something which they are rarely given and which may be, as far as I can gather, the single most important thing anyone can have for a healthy sexuality: a positive acceptance of their sexuality and the clear given that their sexuality is theirs to own and inhabit — not mine, not yours, not anyone else’s.

See, I — we — can’t do that if and when we tell someone that any one choice is the only right choice. If and when we say or mandate that, “the only decision that so-and-so needs to make is…”, particularly about a population which we not only are not a member of, but one whom we have any power over (and we’ve plenty), we are usurping that person’s or population’s full ownership of that decision.

I got another letter (it’s been a doozy of week for these) from a woman telling me that I just do not tell girls to say no to their boyfriends often enough. Not only do I often feel like that’s what I spend half of every day doing with new users, that letter, like the one from Carolyn, like many of these kinds of sentiments, speaks volumes. If we really are — really and truly — invested in helping young people to make sound choices, and in them having a healthy, joyful and fully-autonomous sexuality and positive sexual relationships, then the way we educate them has to be in support of them actively making those choices, has to be primarily concerned with enabling that process, for them, not in directing it. Because when we seek to direct choices, not inform them, we enable exactly that which I hear folks like this saying they want to cease. Whether it’s me, a boyfriend, or someone else, telling someone that there is only one sound choice for them based on our ideas, our wishes or our experiences, and abusing the influence we know we have with them to do so, isn’t loving or respecting them, nor is it educating them.

Even if there really was any ONE right age to have sex at, one right type of relationship to have it in, any one right way to have sex, the very moment at which someone else tells you what YOUR right choice must or should be, it doesn’t really get to be your choice anymore. It’s theirs, and for all the big talk about sex being love, denying someone’s full ownership of themselves and their own sexuality isn’t loving. The very minute that we present anything in a way that is knowingly dishonest and seeks to prevent individual critical thinking and decision-making, we are not acting out of love, but out of control, which in and of itself, makes love — in sex or anything else — impossible.

(Crossposted to the Scarleteen blog)

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

After this post, you may not hear from me for a little while, given I’ll be out of town, yet again, when really, I’d like nothing more than to just grab a very fluffy blanket, my itchy puppy (that’s not a euphemism), and the nice pile of books I’ve been fascinated with lately. But alas.

When I return, I really need to get back to some visual and multimedia artwork, because my mind is begging me for it, so what I’ll likely do is get started on the full wall project I took photos for in Chicago regarding some of my history, and brainstrom text for each one by one in the journal. I haven’t used this as the creative workbook it’s often served double-duty as for me over the years in some time, and it’s high time I revisit that potent use. I also am beyond behind with photo processing: I have a good six or seven beautiful portrait sessions lying in wait, and you know, right about now, I could use pictures without words for a while.

However, now that I’m nearly finished with it, I have to take a minute to rave and then rave some more about Janice Irvine’s Disorders of Desire: Sexuality And Gender In Modern American Sexology. I swapped my very worn copy of bell hooks’ All About Love for this with my mother’s partner, and it was a very awesome swap (especially since I’ve read that hooks so many times, I can nearly quite it verbatim — that book is the best treatise on love ever written, as far as I’m concerned).

It’s exceptionally rare for me to find books that are really about the sort of work that I do and the history of the sort of work that I do. However mixed my feelings were through parts of the film Kinsey, for instance, I was in tears throughout just because it was so bloody nice to feel addressed, and to see some attention paid to this work. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: working in sexuality is seriously isolating, especially in this culture, with the groups I serve, and when the work you do isn’t “sexy” or entertaining. (And even then, nearly ANY sort of sex or sexuality worker is usually very isolated and very marginalized, but that’s stating what should be mighty obvious.)

But what’s fantastic about the Irvine book is that it focuses in great depth on how much all of sexology, sexuality reserach and sex therapy and education has been strongly biased due to the fact that it has been address of all genders which has been dominated and formed by one: men.

Really, when it all comes down to it, when we’re talking sexuality exclusively, rather than reproductive health, up untl the last twenty years — and really, more like the last ten — it is a field that has been completely male-dominated. Sure, Virginia Johnson was female, but she was in a very secondary position as an assistant to William Masters, and he ran the show, big-time. Shere Hite did work before the last twenty years, but in sexology her work was largely discounted because of her sex, because what she found did not support the status quo and because of what were seen as methodological problems (which, from what I can tell, was actually just her getting called on some of the same sorts of flaws male researchers had in their work, but she was being held to a higher standard because she had to prove her right to do the work simply because she was not male). It’s easy to forget that over just the last ten years, an awful lot has changed as far as women finally having some influence and part in sexology. For instance, I could have sworn Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography had been around for slightly more than ten years, but I just started rereading it again and lo, it was published in ye olde 1999.

It’s always been a bit of a strange balancing act for me to do the work I do and find the space between what is seen as the medical-credible, as well as sexological “standards” and what either clearly or probably are aspects of all of that which are so influenced by gender bias and heterosexism, and where the direct and cumulative observations one makes having done the work oneself through simply stand in total conflict, as do things when you consider the context and the biases afoot. And in this field, as with many, we often see the “science” or the medical speaking over the populace they’re supposed to be serving, stating that what the populace reports to be for them simply isn’t so because the science says otherwise.

I answer sexuality questions nearly every single day, and read personal testimonial and narrative on sex nearly every single day, and have for nearing ten years now. If I was reading, say, in 1965, women saying what they did then (when given the space to say so safely, which was infrequent) and still do now, about the fact that vaginal intercourse alone is not physically satisfying for a majority of them, the “science” would have stood in direct conflict to the women it was supposed to serve, largely because that “science” was dominated by a group of people for whom that was an unacceptable answer, and whose studies were completely skewed by their bias, and whose solutions to that “problem,” when it was recognized, were — as most things are — all about doing anything and everything to preserve the status quo, which, at that time (as if often the case now) were to be sure the nuclear family, the male-female unit and “normal” gender roles were protected. If I were to have said out loud that this conflict existed, or pointed out bias, I would have been laughed out of the room and ripped to shreds publicly.

Most of us know about turn-of-the-century approaches to women’s sexuality, but don’t know, or pass by, the fact that even less than twenty years ago, the new version of nymphomania, sex addiction, was defined as affecting women who did such clearly outrageous things as masturbate, use personals ads, have one night stands, prepare for sex (as in, clean one’s bedroom, choose to wear certain clothing), or engage in sexual fantasy. (Suffice it to say, this behaviour in men did not class them as sex addicted.) And of course, the opposite end of the spectrum, frigidity, would include things like not having an interest in, or satisfaction with heterosexual intercourse, not having sexual desire to a degree that matched that of a male partner, having body image issues, etc.

In other words, there’s often been — and often still is — no middle ground when it comes to women’s sexuality from a medical perspective, and often a clinical sexological one: too much desire is a disorder, too little desire is a disorder, and the criteria for both often overlap, resulting in no healthy manifestation of women’s sexuality whatsoever, save if it is in agreement with whomever the man in question — husband, doctor, greengrocer — just happens to be and whatever he happens to want.

Without digging deeply into the history of this arena, people often forget that even the gender essentialism we see in so much general and sex information now, and what we’re told are male and female diferences and male and female needs arose from gender theorists and sexologists with a huge bias (and too, funders they were trying to keep), and for whom it was an absolute given that one essential part of being a normal male and a normal female was being heterosexual, and that that given strongly influenced every assumption and conclusion drawn on top of it. One of the tragedies of this was that a focus on gender roles in the first place was bastardized from feminist theory, but the way it was applied in sexology was often to do whatever could be done to safeguard sexism and heteronormativity. Grr.

Without examining the history of sexology and sex therapy, we forget that a whole awful lot of it has been outright abusive to women: sex therapy in the 70’s into the 90’s often involved “prescribing” sex with one’s therapist, for instance, or group sex sessions without any foundation of healthy limits, boundaries and negotiation (or even the desire for group sex on the part of the patient).

Like it or not, accept it or not, it’s pretty well documented that sexologists during the second wave of feminism more often than not absolutely reviled the feminists pointing out these flaws, and contributed plenty to the idea that feminism was, in and of itself, anti-sex, because so much of it protested not sex itself, but the way sex was being presented and prescribed by sexology, the media and the medical — all male dominated — at the time. This, for the record, is one very substantial reason why much of second wave feminism is very wary of sexology as a whole, and it’s hardly an invalid concern. I’d say it took me more than a few years to really get that.

And boy, howdy: you want to look at a woman that could stand to toss out her well-worn .45 of “Stand By Your Man,” take a hard look at Virginia Johnson — I knew enough of some of the pretty creepy ways she’d (well, both of them) operated — like with their programs to “cure” homosexuals — but Irvine had some pretty choice quotes in there from her from conferences that seriously made my skin crawl. Johnson seems to me to have been aware that without the wagon she was hitched to in terms of Masters, she wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on, since she could easily see that the few female contemporaries she had who were trying to work without a man or a male organization behind them were quickly silenced and mocked. It strikes me as a pretty classic example of the struggle so many women deal with in anything when it comes to the rock and a hard place of supporting other women without winding up unsupported yourself. I’m not about to let that sort of thing go unquestioned and unobserved, nor say that I think tossing other women under the bus because they’re putting the man who you’re dependent on in some sort of quasi-jeapordy is by any stretch okay, but I do think it’s helpful to take stock of some of WHY this so often happens, especially with work in such male-dominated fields.

(I’m reminded, actually, of the female staffer for Girls Gone Wild who is quoted in Levy’s Female Chauvanist Pigs, who said things that felt flat-out harrowing to me when it came to the utter lack of care and concern for other women, who also clearly seemed to see herself as being in a struggle for their own survival — which she’d justify this with — even if that’s not really the case. The difference between good money and a shitload of money is not an issue of survival, folks.)

It’s been interesting to read this book, because some part of me had actually forgotten why, when I started developing Scarlet Letters in ‘97, and tried to focus on sexuality and eroticism in the latter half of my college years in ‘90, it felt like such strangely uncharted terrain, and like I just couldn’t find that information I wanted and needed. Why, in so many ways, it felt a whole lot like shouting into a void. At the time, not having enough of the background and history, I just assumed I was being a dolt and not looking in the right places: at first, it just didn’t even occur to me that much of the information I was looking for just plain didn’t exist, or that the reason why what I could found seemed so conflicting and unrealistic because there was no woman’s voice at all in the vast majority of the information about women. When I found out that the reason I wasn’t finding much was that there wasn’t much there to find yet, it was pretty shocking to me.

And it has been SO FREAKING REFRESHING to read this book because these are issues and problems I think about and talk about all of the time, but given how specialized a discourse they are, half the time no one else knows what on earth I’m going on about. It’s a dream to have someone else not only addressing this, but going over my head with it at times, and talking about facets of it that I wasn’t yet even familiar with: I relish opportunities for beginner’s mind, and am so grateful when they fall into my lap.

Things HAVE gotten better, for sure. But honestly, I get frustrated in this field a LOT, because in some many ways, they still aren’t very good, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality, and to sexuality or identity that is not heteronormative, gendernormative or heterosexual. I still see a majority of young girls being advised on sex by men, without a real effort made to understand that they are reared as and live as girls — if I hear an older man tell young women even one more time how much better casual sex would be for them than a serious relationship, totally dismissing their greater physical risks as well as the cultural climate they live in that punishes them profoundly for anything other than sex in the context of marriage or “serious” romance — and not mentioning, of course, that such a choice also benefits men — I swear, I’ll scream. I see them furnished with information that came primarily or solely through a male lens, and same goes for reproductive health and public policy on women’s reproductive health and rights, without any real examination of that fact, nor an urge to better balance it. Ridiculously, one often has to explain and defined why this is all so problematic, when were the shoe on the other foot, no explanation would be needed, as it would be a very easy — and equally valid — outrage. Can you imagine how men as a class would react if all of most of the information about their sexuality was coming from women, filtered through women, and women were setting up or enabling a system to be sure to keep their voices OUT or muted so that the information (and our unquestioned positions as Experts) could be sure to suit our agenda and personal sexual desires first and foremost, and their sexuality framed in such a way to be sure it always met our needs first?

I still see sexuality information for anyone who isn’t heterosexual prefaced endlessly with statements to us, from straight people, that it is OKAY (with them) that we’re not straight. Phew! We were so worried there for a minute! Sexuality information for anyone who isn’t gendernormative or even biologically XX or XY basically still mostly puts everyone in a space where we still have to choose within a binary system, even when the mere existence of anyone at all who is not gendernormative automatically renders that system meaningless as a default or a given. (I’ll give you that that’s a difficult one to practically handle, mind, and I know I haven’t got it anything close to down either, but when not only is the effort TO move away from that not made, but a lot of effort is put into making damn sure we remain there — heck, there’s a quote from John Money in DOD where he flat-out says that without a binary system of gender, the world would literally fall apart — I still get to bitch, even if I haven’t perfected the approaches yet myself.)

I’ve been asked more than once why I don’t just go and get a medical degree, to up my credibility. Beyond the fact that that’s a pretty silly thing to suggest to someone who is already poor, the fact of the matter is that I don’t want one, largely in part because I know full well what that experience would likely be like for me. For starters, most general and even OB/GYN programs have sexuality segments that, at most, are a few weeks long, and which involve a curricula of books which I have already read: my sexuality library is massive. I know that in many ways, med school for someone like me would be an agonizing process of railing against the machine for a piece of paper which would likely only put me in more debt, and give me no new practical options: I have no interest in directly practicing medicine, in being any more involved in the western medical system than I already am, and in being given a credibility which, while accepted by many, is strongly suspect in my book, because of a lot of the issues Irvine has brought up in DOD. I also know that right now, I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing to be best qualified to do the sort of work I do: I’m having one-on-one, unhurried, in-depth discussions with my “clients,” I’m reading a vast array of material at all times from a diverse group of perspectives, and I’m working in the field doing my level best to observe daily to find the needs had and then serve those needs, not as I determine them, but as those in need are directly expressing them. It’s pretty amazing, really, and the ‘net, of all things, really was the great open door I thought it might have been way back when when it comes to women’s sexual narratives and those of young people: there are certainly still big barriers to that online, given, but I’m not sure any other media has provided as many opportunities in this regard.

In short, over the last ten years, I’ve been getting the best kind of education possible in this arena, an education that I feel in many ways, is ideal and should be at least part of what the “credible” folks are getting to. But as it stands, that’s not often the case.

This book has also served as a really nice reminder for me that I really like the work that I do, quite a lot, and I like the way I am able to DIY it. I’m pleased as punch to be able to do it the way that I do, and what gets me the most down about it isn’t the work itself, but the external problems with it: the culture, history and (what should be) support systems that don’t support it or outright protest it, the problems I have in getting paid, and the fact that it’s very frustrating for me both for myself and for the people I serve that there are so many needless and destructive barriers to finding and getting real, inclusive and unbiased information, even from my back end (no, not THAT back end) here. The last few days, I’ve gone ahead and let myself get back in the groove of doing my job for as many hours as I want to — and this may sound silly — without feeling like I can’t answer question after question and read piece after piece when that’s the work I love to do because I’m not making ends meet with it at the moment. Ms. Irvine was a big help with that, so my hat’s off to her.

(What else has been on my bookshelf lately? As I said, I’ve been revisiting Natalie Angier’s — has anyone read The Canon yet? — going over Toni’s Cycle Savvy, and also getting started with Courtney Martin’ sPerfect Girls, Starving Daughters, which so far, I think is utter brilliance and right on target. Coincidentally per this entry, in her introduction she says that she feared people wouldn’t find her qualified simply by taking the time to observe and listen to tons of women in her life and outside it, rather than getting the piece of paper to be a body image or ED Big Person With Big Paper. Maybe it’s the ex-Montessori teacher in me speaking, but I am so troubled by the process of mindful observation somehow being tossed out of the credible pile, when, in fact, that is what”’scientific” data is supposed to largely be in the first place. It’s also troubling to me to hear casual discussion of how meaningless observation is because of biases or carelessness when, in fact, one can practice observation as a viable skill, and be mindful of biases to take them into account. We’ve got to be awfully careful not to toss the baby out with the bathwater, especially since without first-person reporting and credibility, and sensitive observation, we wind up with exactly the sort of fine messes I’ve been prattling on about.)

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

I have two pleas for cash and/or help for everyone this morning, both things I think that everyone, of every conceiveable stripe, can get behind.

The first came through my email box from the Feminist Majority Foundation this morning. Here’s the email, with some extra information I’ve tossed in to round things out (in italics):

I am writing to ask for your help with a dire situation for women and girls in Afghanistan. One in six women will die as a result of childbirth or pregnancy-related complications. Maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan are simply unacceptable.

What are those rates? According to UNICEF, about 120 to 600 out of every 10,000 Afghan mothers (numbers vary by region) die while giving birth or because of related complications. To put that into perspective, here in the states, the maternal mortaility rate is around one in every 10,000 now. The infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is also one of the highest in the world.

I don’t think that this readership needs me to explain that there’s just no bad in midwifery. While often we hear that prostitution is the world’s oldest women’s profession, that’s a pretty substantial blurring of the truth: it’s midwifery (duh). Midwifery — obviously — not only is vital when it comes to healthy pregnancies and deliveries, but also for educating mothers on doing what can be done to keep themselves and their infants healthy after birth. Suffice it to say, midwifery in any case, but certainly in third world nations, also provides women with a way to connect with and aid each other, which is perhaps secondary, but incredibly critical for any oppressed class. This training also provides education for men on how to be supportive of trained midwives, to boot.

Experts believe that the most effective strategy to reduce these needless and tragic deaths is to train more midwives to assist in pregnancy and childbirth. For only $3,000, a new midwife can be trained in Afghanistan. One midwife will in turn be able to promote the health and well-being of countless Afghan women and their new infants. This is extremely important in a country where the healthcare system in most provinces has been devastated and is not functioning. Electricity and supplies are often scarce. Many medical professionals have fled the country. Most Afghan women, even if they are pregnant, have never seen a doctor. Family planning is rarely available.

And all of this is under U.S. watch — after we promised to provide Afghanistan with a “Marshall Plan” and to free Afghan women.

Understand that despite the promise of that plan, Afghanistan received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a RAND Corporation study.

We have an opportunity to help Afghan women and girls by providing funding to train midwives. Please, donate now — as generously as you can — to help train a midwife in Afghanistan. Your support will save lives.

Half of your generous contribution will go toward a midwife training program run by the Shuhada Organization — an Afghan women-led non-profit organization, founded and led by Dr. Sima Samar, which operates hospitals, clinics, and schools in Afghanistan.

This is a pretty amazing organization. And if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to donate to the FMF to help with this issue, but still want to help, you might consider donating to Shuhada instead.

The other half of your contribution will support the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls. Our public education campaign works to increase funding and resources for Afghan women-led non-profit organizations, as well as education and health programs, and to provide support for some 25 Afghan refugee women a year to attend college in the U.S.

Please, while this email is in front of you, make as large a donation as you possibly can. The lives of Afghan women and girls depend upon it.

To donate through the FMF, click here.

Next up: While I was in Ohio, we spent an evening out with Mark’s brother Andy, who is an utterly amazing and visionary public school educator of special needs, middle-school inner-city kids in the worst part of the Kentucky/Ohio border. If I’m recalling the conversation correctly, around 70% of his students wind up in the criminal justice system in adulthood without intervention and education, and these are the kids of kids (especially given many of them aren’t white) that conservatives in that region label “dead-end” kids and would just throw away. He’s come up with this insanely smart mixed-age classroom idea for this year (and there I sat, the ex-Montessori teacher, smirking to myself to see another inner-city teacher, like Montessori herself was, come to that conclusion), as well as an additional system that I won’t recount here yet so that he can get it all implemented first. We were talking about how vocabulary is a real problem, and I had an idea that I think might be helpful. Yes, I was the materials-making queen when I was a classroom teacher: it was one of my favorite parts of teaching. I love this sort of brainstorming.

Know those word magnets you can put on your fridge and make silly poetry and the like with? What if those were made to be far bigger, so that they could live on a magnetic-paint wall, the kids could see them easily from pretty far away, and also enjoy the fun, oversized nature of them? You put basic words in there to make basic sentences with, but you also put some synonyms and antonyms in there too, with more complex words. So, let’s say that one kid has already used the word “good,” and another kid wants it for their sentence, so a teacher can easily pull out the word “beneficial” and explain it means the same thing, giving the kid a way to learn some good vocabulary actively and organically, as well as without feeling like he or she just got lectured or schooled.

I’m going to talk to Andy today about the best way to get donations to him — suffice it to say, their budget is beyond dismal — and will add that information when he does. But I also thought I’d pool all of you to see if anyone worked at/owned a print shop, or knew anyone who did, to see if we couldn’t find a shop willing to donate the printing of these full-stop, or provide a discount in creating them.

Addendum:I have had some awesome users with some excellent ideas that are totally doable for this for Andy, sans donations. Thanks so much, y’all!

(More from me later on other things, but just wanted to start the day with these two items: they’re important.)

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

There’s little better for an author then having an event at not only your favorite bookstore, but at the bookstore that you truly came of age in, where you’d sit for hours reading, and was your best home away from home. It’s amazing for a feminist to have an event in a place where you started doing your cornerstone reading in feminist theory, and which has provided a haven for feminist women, activists and authors for nearly the whole of your life. Same goes for coming of age queer and confused and having a haven where you knew you could sit with your hairy pits and your stompy boots and read your Adrienne Rich, your Rita Mae Brown or your Curious Wine, all while crushing on the gorgeous woman who always saved you the books she knew you’d like, without anyone looking at you funny.

So, I am beyond elated that I have a book event at Women & Children First on Friday evening, August 3rd at 7:30 (5233 N. Clark St., In Andersonville, on the north side of the city). We’re doing this as a remedial sex ed Q&A for women of all ages, since I have so many adult readers who benefit from the kind of Sex 101 I give at Scarleteen, and since so much basic sex ed is really not about women, and in addition, certainly not often inclusive of women who sleep with women, and also not very informed by feminist approaches and a holistic viewpoint on sex. I imagine, given how events with me usually go, that it’ll turn into a pretty cool bit of CR and roundtable discussion on women’s sexuality. (I also expect to tear up the minute I walk in the door, so bring me some tissues, if you would, please.)

The extra on this is that my fave bookstore in the world has also been in a tough financial pickle — laregly due to the fact that they helped make the neighborhood they’re in so much more awesome that now they can barely afford the rents there — like most feminist bookstores have, so I’m happy to do anything at all that I can to keep them around, even if I live across the country and can’t enjoy their stacks myself anymore.

So, please come if you’re nearby, and please tell as many of your friends in Chicago as possible about the event. For anyone who comes themselves or is telling others, I encourage everyone who has some books they’ve been meaning to buy lately to wait until that event and please buy them at W&CF: they need your business, and we all need them. They’ve been supporting women’s work for close to 30 years now, and so long as they stay afloat, they’ll be doing it for many, many more.

(Also? I can’t eat them anymore myself, alas, but if you aren’t often in Andersonville, know that if you decide to make a day of it, or arrive very, very early — they close at 2:30 — and are hungry, that Svea, right across the street, has the best swedish pancakes you will ever eat in your life.)

Don’t forget, too, that if you’re in or near Chicago, that if this event doesn’t work for you, I’ll be at Early to Bed on Tuesday night, the 31st, doing an event for parents and allies of kids and teens.

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Greetings from sunny Minnesota!

(I’m not being ironic: it’s freaking gorgeous here right now. I heart midwestern summer more than more.)

Just a quick hello, as I’m between gigs, currently hanging out on Becca’s deck, enjoying a beer and a lot of sunshine. I’m off in a little bit to the middle-of-nowhere, to celebrate The Baby Liam’s first birthday party w/Briana’s family, in the land of zero wireless and lots of cheese product on hot dishes.

I saw Liam yesterday, and he isn’t a baby anymore, he’s a very little toddler boy. Full head of hair, moving around, making a ton of noise, and reveling in his own chaos, just as he should be. I confess, I often feel a bit like an alien when I’m around babies and kids, and when I feel giant surges of love for them, I never find myself thinking, “Oh, I wish I had one of my own,” but instead, simply, “I wish I could see that kid more often.” I’m not sure if that’s really unusual — given the former reaction seems to be more common — or just whether the culture of women presented as needing to be maternal (and thus, women learning to present themselves that way) is just so huge that everyone has internalized that message, and thus, can often react differently. Of course, too, I have spent more time in the muck and the mire with other people’s children than most. In any event, I wish I could see that kid more often. We had a fantastic time yesterdat evening, and I expect that we’ll have some more before I leave.

Speaking of kids, my red-eye flight was from hell. It’s not just about getting exactly no sleep, even after taking a sleeping pill. I was seated in one of the most claustropobic seats possible, and in my row and the row behind, was surrounded by Amish family, who I haven’t been that near since I was a kid. The window was to my right, and at left, a 12 or 13-year-old boy. Not only did he snore like a mother (and here I thought, not sleeping at home for once, where Mark and Sofia are a veritable symphony of snores, that I’d get a break from snoring), but anytime I almost fell asleep, or looked asleep, he’d touch me with his fingers on my arm or my face, my guess is, out of simple curiousity. If I shifted in my seat, he’d harumph loudly, despite the fact that because I’m small and he was 12, we had plenty of room between us. The lone time I went to go to the bathroom, he was so freaking beligerent, he wouldn’t even stand up so I could get out, so I nearly had to give the kid a lap dance in having to crawl over him.

Suffice it to say, given it was Amish family, I didn’t exactly fell able to say, “Hey, sod the hell off, kid! While you’re at it, quit with the freaking snoring, wouldya?” Becca’s husband suggested I should have given him a copy of my book to read, since he was clearly so bored. Pity I didn’t think of that myself.

That child made me neither wish to have any myself NOR to be able to see him more often. And I have no doubt that that reaction on my part is exceptionally normal.

So, yesterday, I managed to nab three whole hours of sleep during the day, after which I had to do a Chicago Tribune phone interview, hoping to christ I didn’t sound as incomprehensible as I felt, but did have a fine afternoon and evening with Becca, Briana and lil’ Mr. Liam. I got to see Heather today, and expect Bri and I to make a long hangout of it tomorrow night. Sunday is the book release party, the first of the three events I’m doing while I’m here.

I’ve gotten more and more acclamated to Seattle, but not enough that the first thing I did when I got here was to call my hairstylist and my dentist and make appointments. I intend on going by the eye doctors while I’m here, as well, despite the fact that my cash flow for these things is not exactly generous at the moment. Alas.

Did have another book benchmark for me today, which is finding some libraries that ordered and are carrying the book, which in many ways, is far more important to me and of more value than bookstores carrying it. I was one of those kids for whom the public library was a second home: iwas latchkey, so it was normal for me to spend a lot of time at the library after school. In addition, when the shit really started to get super-bad at my house, one benefit of still managing to be a dedicated student is that when you won’t be allowed out of the house for anything else, you are often still allowed to get out of the house if you’re at the library. I need to make a point while I’m here in Minneapolis of heading to a couple branches with books to donate. I know I sat with my first copies of more than one vital sex book in the stacks, and it pleases me to no ned to think I can be providing the same experience for other young adults.

P.S. Just because it seems it needs to be said lately in more venues than I can shake a stick at: the feminist blogosphere is not feminism. The feminist blogosphere is not the feminist community. The feminist blogosphere is just that: the feminist blogosphere, and supposing it to be, or presenting it as, a good representation of the whole of feminism, the whole of theory, the whole of feminist activism or community is foolish. To be honest, I don’t even involve myself much at all with the feminist blogosphere or all its dramas in large part because it is so incredibly discordant to my experiences with feminism and community amoung women otherwise.

I mean, certainly, still in our culture, women as a class are in very big trouble. And still as ever, feminism is in big trouble. But in my estimation, neither are in the kind of trouble we’d think they were if we presumed the virtual community to be represnentative of the whole. And that’s the case with the blogosphere, period. It has it’s value, for sure, but an accurate representation of life and community as a whole it is not.

So, if you’re a person who feels strongly about feminism, but the blogosphere is bumming you out, I’d really encourage you to turn off the computer and go find some real-life community. Join up with your local NOW chapter, volunteer at a women’s crisis line or shelter or with a more ad-hoc feminist or women’s community, or just make your own. Names that go with faces that go with voices that go with a more visceral connection really do make a world of difference.

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

There are some big cons of being — or, more accurately, being seen as, being called — a “sex-positive” feminist. In fact, at this point, I’m sure it’s nothing BUT cons. For everyone.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year, and it’s seemed high time to discuss it outright, even knowing that it’s going to be rambling, murky and unclear, primarily because the entire issue itself is, in so many ways, not even real.

I think what spurred me on to the thoughts I’ve been having over the last few months was a discussion over at the All Girl Army a while back on pornography. A few of the girls who came in pro-porn were stating that they felt that they were far LESS heard than those who were anti-porn (and a couple were talking right over the anti-porn girls, and in a thread that was all about personal opinion, were picking apart the personal narratives and opinions of those other young women, rather than merely sharing their own), something I had to vehemently disagree with when we’re talking about feminist women who are anti-porn. Even though, I assure you, that several years back, I might have said exactly what they were saying about my visibility as someone who wasn’t pro-porn, but wasn’t anti-either. Ah, hindsight.

Certainly, the anti-porn perspective is well-heard when it’s coming from a vantage point of setting up pornography as a barrier to purity, innocence, femininity, modesty and proper morality. But when the discussion is about porn as a barrier to equality, to real female sexual ownership, respect and autonomy; when the discussion is about body image issues or young partners clearly parroting porn in their in-person dynamics….? Eh, not so much. And for the youngest women, it’s become even tougher to find avenues in which voice those opinions.

Before I go anywhere else with this, for the purposes of this discussion and understanding my stance on pornography when it’s pertinent, when I say “pornography,” in these contexts, I am not talking about any and all material which may incite sexual arousal or desire. I’m talking expressly about material made for profit and en masse distribution, and which is most often made solely or primarily for men, to benefit and profit men, by men. In the same vein, I DO and have used and self-assigned the term sex-positive to the sort of sex education I provide, and did and do to the erotica and visual art I have produced: I’m not talking about “sex-positive” in other contexts here, only per feminism. I simply, to my knowledge, have never identified my feminism this way. I did Google myself on the topic, to double-check, and could not find one instance where I self-identified this way, but still. Lastly, I will not be referencing the feminist “sex wars” in any of this, because as most of us know, that has little to do with anything real, unless we’re talking about NOW and lesbians locked outside in the 70’s, and I’m not. Besides, this is the 21st century: let’s get over it, already, eh? Most of us weren’t even there, and those who were, on either “side” tend to express a complexity of the matter that stands in sharp relief to how it’s often simplified.

And I found myself having to make clear that I thought we needed to make extra room, extend extra effort per visibility, to feminists who were anti-porn, even though — and I said as much — that is not a category I would have placed myself in at all in my life, and it’s not even one I place myself in now, for various reasons, despite having many very strenuous objections to much of pornography from a feminist viewpoint, as well as from a standpoint of what I feel is optimal for a cultural sexual well-being. My points weren’t about what I needed, but about personally seeing a pretty obvious inequality in who got to speak and be heard on the issue, and in having a vested interest in allowing for as many perspectives as possible, especially when I felt I could say that I knew an awful lot more arenas in which one could speak in favor or pornography and far less to speak in protest, especially as feminist women, or when the protest was on grounds other than a patriarchal morality.

And all THAT brought up the age-old label of “sex-positive” feminists, which necessarily implies there is an inverse: the “sex-negative” feminist.

Here’s the problem.

There is no such person.

The “sex-negative” or “anti-sex” feminist is a big, stinky red herring. I feel very confident saying no such woman exists to my knowledge: she is a strawfeminist. And in many ways, constructing a “sex-positive” sect of feminism — intended or no, though many times I think it is intended — can serve the same end as anti-choicers identifying instead as “pro-life,” does: it paints those who are not clinging to that branch as something they are not, and it paints those others exactly how one wants them to be seen, quite manipulatively.

By all means, there are feminists — of any sex or gender — who critique or protest various kinds of sex, or given approaches to/frameworks of sex and sexuality. There are feminists who oppose pornography and/or sex trafficking and sex work, some or all. There are feminists who oppose any type of subordination — even willing subordination — in partnered sex. There are feminists who have a big problem with heterosexual intercourse, or with certain approaches to it; feminists who have a big problem with a handful of different sexual activities, or, more accurately, certain approaches to or dynamics which can and often are brought to those activities. There are lesbian separatist feminists; there are celibate feminists. There are feminists who have a problem with consent — as in, “I say yes to” or “I don’t decline,” — as a final word on anything, or as a barrier to any sort of examination or question of a given sexuality, sexual dynamic or sexual activity. There are feminists who have a big problem with bringing heterosexual roles or cultural dynamics to non-heterosexual sex and partnerships; there are feminists who are anti-heirarchy in sexual relationships and sexuality.

And of any of those feminists, there are those who apply these ideas and ideals only to themselves, those who put them out there for question and examination to others, those who suggest feminism would be best served by everyone sharing them; there are those for whom any of these issues are part of their feminism, there are those for whom they consider any of these issues separate from their feminism, or feminism-at-large.

But I’ve been in all this long enough now, since college at a minimum (I read feminist works before then, engaged in some feminist action before then, but I’d say I didn’t really start deeply digging in until around ‘89), to say that to date, I have never met a single “anti-sex” feminist, a feminist who says she is against all of sex and sexuality, on any terms, against all sexual partnership, by any definition, and that human sexuality, in the whole of its sphere, is a barrier to women’s equality and quality of life. I do not know of any group calling themselves “Feminists Against Sex.” I have never seen or met a feminist who is going to protests with big signs that read “ALL SEXUALITY, OF ANY KIND, IS OPPRESSIVE TO ALL WOMEN.”

Ever. Never. And until I see just one holding such a sign, or making such a statement and identifying herself as feminist, I have absolutely no reason to believe that this dichotomy/binary set up by the term “sex-positive feminist” is false.

So, sure, maybe I just haven’t met these women because there are only so many people out and about in the world we can encounter, read and see, and I’m only one person. But I think the real reason I haven’t met these women is that these women do not exist.

So, why do we hear so much about them? Why is there this whole class of feminists identified as a pro to a nonexistent anti?

More to the point, why, when I haven’t ever really labeled myself this way, do women like myself continue to be defined by others AS “sex-positive” feminists if “anti-sex” or “sex-negative” feminists aren’t real?

The most obvious answer is, of course, that some people do earnestly believe they’re real, and if we’re not them, we must be their opposite.

Equally obvious is the fact that I am a woman who talks about sex a lot, works with sexuality as a theme a lot for her work, who artistically works with the nude and sexuality by preference, and whose feminist work often centers around sexuality and reproductive rights issues, a la, things about sex (I also work a lot with the female body, which is, of course, presumed to always be about sex), and who just plain loves having sex, with myself, with others, and who geeks out utterly on the whole topic. With women like myself who work in sexuality and are also feminist, it may be presumed that the only classification for me as a feminist is as a sex-positive feminist. And I’ve had that presumption made of me by people all over the map, from “other” sex-positive feminists to radical feminists, from the middle of the road, and from both edges of it; by men, by women, by groups, by individuals. I’ve been all but collared with it.

There are tougher answers though, too, answers that I want to discuss, especially for younger women, because I feel that that “sex-positive feminist” label has really held me down in terms of the effectiveness of my feminism and my feminist work. It’s a label I don’t want anyone to walk into blithely or lightly — and admittedly, I have often been very blithe about labels people affix to me, even when they aren’t those I affix to myself or agree with — and, like anything else, which I’d encourage folks to give some deep thought to.

For instance, you put “sex-positive” in front of the word feminist, and I think you cut the impact of “feminist” at least in half, on either “side” of the false equation.

To plenty of men, that sex-positive in front of feminist says that either I am the sort of feminist they just don’t have to worry about, because I pose no real threat to them — since I don’t appear to want to take away or limit access to sex — or worse still, in some cases, it says additionally that they will get the heart of what they really want from me — sex — regardless, so who freaking cares if I’m feminist, right? So, you nod and smile when I talk women’s equality and it’s all cool: you’re still getting laid, Joe. (I am, for the record, not just pulling this out of my ass: in discussing this over the years, even just personally, I have had plenty of male friends or once-lovers confess that yes, this is exactly how they viewed my feminism at one time. I have also, like anyone else, read enough ‘net commentary on all of this by men to see this exact reaction and thought process in action.)

When you create this binary, you also force women, in some respect, to have to accept, embrace or support things like pornography, BDSM or sex trafficking who may not — or may not unilaterally — if they are labeled or seen as supportive of sexuality. In other words, were I to say I were “sex-positive,” affixed to that would be that I support or accept all pornography, whether I do or do not, in whole or in part, and whether or not I feel those things or some aspects of them are, in fact, profoundly sex-negative, or stand in the way of a healthy, autonomous sexuality for women. The sex-positive feminist label often means that we have little to no choice per our bedfellows: we are often forced into bed with those who support exactly that — forcing women into bed — and who stand counter to not only many feminist aims as a whole, but even what are often said to be “sex-postive” aims. And I resent and have always resented having this label put on me strongly for that reason: I’ve had radical feminist women put it on me to make me appear I’m in bed with those I’m not, I’ve had women who see themselves as counter to radfems do same, and no matter who does it, it freaking stinks.

You put “sex-positive” in front of feminist and to a lot of men and women, it sends a message that while they may need to worry about me calling them out in other arenas, they don’t have to worry about me calling them out or questioning them in the arena of sexuality, no matter what kind of sex they’re having, how they enact it, or what questions I may want to ask just to find out what the answers are for myself. When you put it on yourself, in many ways it also sends a clear — and often known — message that says “You may not question me, my actions or my theories on anything sexual, no matter what I do or say.”

Now, part of this, I get. Sex and sexuality IS sacred and IS personal.

Obviously, it’s more or less sacred, and sacred in different ways, for different people, but it is sacred, in a myriad of respects. No matter what type of sex it is we enjoy at a given time, no matter what our sexual identity, for most of us both are incredibly personal, very individual, and however little or however much or sexuality is or is not defined for us, influenced by outside influences, it often feels extraordinarily authentic, plenty of it IT hard-wired and we want — and deserve — real ownership of it.

For many of us, sex and our sexuality is solace, it is a way we find — or at the very least, seek — communion with ourselves and others, it is self-expression, it is process, it is growth and evolution, and the sex we’re having today may well not be the sex we want to have a decade from now, but it remains the sex we are having, and which feels right to us, right now. As women, we obviously feel an even greater to cling hard and fast to our sexuality, because in so many ways, so many people, of all kinds, either refuse our ownership or threaten the little we have.

Critique of our sexuality — of any core part of ourselves — is also very hard to hear, and sound critique of sexuality and its aspects is incredibly hard to give in the first place, because our first instinct is almost always to see it first and foremost through our own lens.

* * *
I’m going to go ahead and make an admission I generally reserve for private, just because I earnestly feel like such a complete asshole for thinking things like this, even when I was a lot younger and more green. Back in high school and college, when I first started picking up, or being given for study, certain radical feminist texts, I very ashamedly admit that I often earnestly thought, and sometimes even said aloud, “Christ, these women just need to get laid.”

(Mind, I did NOT mean “get fucked,” nor did I mean “get a penis put in their vaginas because of the mystical, life-changing powers of the penis.” I also did not mean by that that somehow having decent sex — with anyone at all of any hue or sex — would solve all the problems of women. I can’t excuse my thoughts like this much, because I want to be accountable for them, but in some respects they at least weren’t as completely stupid as they could have been. Just mostly stupid, especially since my reaction, in hindsight, was a very clear knee-jerk to having things questioned that I just wanted to enjoy, without the burden of question or critique: I didn’t WANT to think about it, dammit, and screw them for making me.)

Over the years, the more I read, and the more expansive a context I had to put it in, that sentiment began to sound as totally moronic and shitty as it was, and I began to feel as much of an idiot on that matter as I had been acting. But over the years, too, some of the underlying truths that lay beneath the thick haze of my stupidity and defensiveness became clear.

To whit: women DO need the agency to have sex (or physical and emotional intimacy combined, however you’d like to put it or whatever you’d like to have) on our terms, and by our definition, that is pleasurable, that is real communion, that honors our bodies and selves.

Women DO need real sexual autonomy and ownership of our unique and diverse bodies and our unique and diverse sexualities.

Women DO need a cultural sexuality that includes all of us, truly allows for all of us, and which holds all of us us in equal regard.

Women DO need to be able to define sex on our own terms, whatever they may be, and have equal allowance made for us to even be able to discover what our authentic sexualities and terms even are — to truly author our own sexuality — free of pressures to make our sexuality fit, support or enable a cultural model of sexuality which men created, not women, and which men created without much, if any, accord for women. Hell, we didn’t even get to be the ones who named our own parts.

Everyone needs these things, but several classes, most certainly including women, are often denied them.

Now. Having all of that certainly won’t ever magically make all of the oppressions women face vanish, but NOT having all of that — and for many women globally, ANY of that — is very much potent fuel, with many other assorted additions, in the gas tank that drives our oppression.

So, it’s not that radfems need to get laid, or that women unhappy with their position in society just need a good schtup. It’s that women as a class and as individuals, overwhelmingly, are oppressed sexually in numerous ways and that our sexual oppression is yet one more rock on the giant pile of many we’ve been stoned with that keep us down, AND hyperfocus on the sexual, or sex-as-entry to being able to bring up feminism at all is part of that.

…and radical feminists — those most often arbitrarily labeled as against sex and sexuality — KNOW this. And THIS is what the hell most (we can’t say all, we can’t ever, because feminists, like anyone else, aren’t immune from being assholes, idiots or crackpots) are going for when they are critiquing or protesting aspects of sex and sexuality.

THIS is what gets many labeled as anti-sex or “sex-negative.”

(There’s a whole separate conversation, by the by, to be had about how I feel the whole meaning and intent of the phrase “sex-positive” when applied to anything has changed. I’d love to put it here, but this puppy is lengthy enough as it is. There’s also a whole separate conversation to be had about how the converse of “sex-positive” is “manhating,” and the bullshit that says about both groups, including, m’dears, that sex-positive feminists must necessarily be putting out for men and loving-to-bits the current cultural construct of male sexuality.)

As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t just the sex-positive feminists who become diminished, whose ideas and words are given less credence by that label. By the inference that there are anti-sex feminists, those feminists who are not “sex-positive” are also diminished because it is generally seen as a given not only THAT they exist, and that they are those women who do not ID as sex-positive, but that they aren’t “real” women, aren’t whole people, aren’t sane, sound people because they are a people presumed or assigned to be either without a sexuality or in denial of one. Ironically, potentially without even realizing it, we wind up with people marginalizing those women based on their “anti-sex” stances-that-aren’t using some of the landmarks of those same women without even acknowledging them — we have, for instance, the second wave to thank for the construction of language and premises which gave us “no means no” and the differentiation between consent and nonconsent, between consensual sex and sexual abuse. And yet.

In case it’s somehow escaped anyone’s attention over the years, I am a rabid fan of the comma, especially when it comes to describing myself. I am always far more inclined to create a list of the things I am and the influences I have: to join them in a sentence, but to keep them separated by commas, rather than compounding them. I am a buddhist, an earth-lover, an anti-racist, a person without economic privilege, a socialist, a white woman from immigrant families, pro-choice, an abuse survivor, a sex worker of sorts, nonviolent, antiwar, vegan, queer, anti-marriage… I am any great number of things, but I am not one of those things + feminist. Thus, when I identify as feminist, it is only as that: feminist. If someone needs me to explain that further, I’m glad to, but as far as I’m concerned, it really says all that needs saying without further qualification: I have a vested and active interest in the emancipation, equality and connectivity of women. (Plus, when you have the kind of verbal and textual diarrhea which I do, if someone isn’t getting your deal, one extra word or label isn’t going to somehow make it all suddenly clear.) But I have long been titles by others as a “sex-positive” feminist: by some in adoration, by some in scorn, and by some, I suspect, just because it seems like the thing to say.

When that happens, I, as a feminist, am made to be taken less seriously, given less weight, because if I like sex or say I do (whatever any given person presumes “sex” to mean or encompass) I can easily be seen as a sexual object, and because IF I like or say I do sex, I must not be very feminist (and of course, it’s presumed, implied or simply affixed that IF I like sex, if I work in and affirm sexuality, I must therefore be in no way critical of any kind of sexuality or sex, and must be okay with the kind of sex and sexuality the prevailing hegemony practices, enables or cheerleads, blah blah blah), and whatever my feminism is, it’s nothing for anyone to trouble themselves with in terms of having any real power, because if I can be made to be a sexual object or okay the sexual objectification of women, if I will have sex and not ever question the sex I or anyone else is having, then I still serve a lot of the primary interests of the status quo.

Those “anti-sex” feminists, those women who hate sex on all terms who we’re led to believe are out and about and ready to take all our fun away have THEIR power undermined because if they critique sex, or don’t have a certain kind of sex, it surely must because because no one wants to have it WITH them, because they’re hairy or fat or ugly or old or visibly disabled or any of the things that don’t fit beauty ideals. If they are not “sex-positive,” or talking about how great sex is all the damn time, they must also in some way be maladjusted, and thus, their credibility and power is sapped, too.

The big duh of course, which should be obvious, is that either way you flip that coin, we’re all being discounted on the basis of sex and sexuality, and how others interpret us through than lens, no matter what we call ourselves. Which I shouldn’t need to mention, but will all the same, is quite precisely what feminism, from it’s very beginnings, has protested.

What really grates my soy cheese about any of this is how stupid the whole freaking lot of us can be — yeah, me, you, everyone else — not to realize that these divisions that aren’t even real are used in a very real way expressly and intentionally to keep us divided, to keep us from achieving very real, united aims, and so many of us, on all “sides,” enable them, knowingly and unknowingly, which ultimately stymies any of us reaching our aims when it comes to feminism. They’re used to blind us to far more real divisions: divisions of race, of class, of geography, for instance, and we too often buy right into them (in part, perhaps, because — especially if we’re women of any privilege, because we just don’t want to deal with those other divisions).

So many of us have at one time, or do now, somehow allow ourselves to continue to play this high school game of sluts and prudes — and let others reduce us to that, and they do: to be part of women hating all over other women — and without feeling like dolts about it, to go to public No, YO mama’s! to one another — because of sex: doing EXACTLY what we’ve been reared to do to each other by a culture of men to keep us divided instead of united. In saying that, I am not referring to compassionate critique on anyone’s part, of anyone’s view. I’m talking about the sort of name-calling and bitch-slapping that can and does happen from any side of this manufactured and imaginary fence, that happens on the internet like crazy (mostly due, no doubt, to the crap communication dynamic the ‘net can create, especially when people don’t use real names and feel able to say things they’d never say to someone’s face, or never say when they knew it’d follow their resume), and again, which happens from no one party, but really unilaterally.

And I just, for the life of me, can’t figure out how so many of us smart women can be so bloody stupid, and how any of us can call ourselves feminist if we’re willing to be divided by something as small and truly unthreatening as critique or question of our sexuality coming from a good place.

I think about the work I do, and I think of how much divisions like this have sometimes stood in the way of my counseling rape and abuse survivors and helping to get them to better, safer places, because I’m seen as this kind of feminist or that, so I do or do not have this credibility or that. Or stood in the way of educating more women about their own sexual anatomy and self-pleasure, or about creating a sexual and interpersonal dynamic in their relationships that is right for them. Or of connecting women who I KNOW could really benefit one another and benefit feminism as a whole, but who can’t see past these arbitrary and useless divisions to find where they CAN connect.

After saying all of this, it may sound silly to say that even if there were/are, these anti-sex feminists, I’m not sure it would matter very much. Because we’re not — or shouldn’t be — at war with one another, regardless. We should be able, however difficult it is, however much we screw it up time after time, to acknowledge whatever differences we have and still very easily find common ground that if we are all feminist we DO all stand upon, no matter how different some of our views, no matter how different our ideas may be of the best way to get there.

* * *

This isn’t easy terrain for me to navigate, not the least of which because working in sexuality and sex education is what I do, and by virtue of that, much of my efforts when it come to feminism ARE in that arena. Not because I feel it is THE area, nor the most important or critical, nor THE equality that will fix issues of equality for everyone (especially when you bear in mind or agree that sex is the first differential, it’s hardly the only one, especially for those whose oppressions are exponentially compounded by class, by race, by nationality, by ability, etc.). Rather, a lot of my feminist activism — not all, but a majority — is in this arena because this is where I have worked for many years, where I continue to work, and it is an arena in which I have discovered I can work effectively with the skills and gifts I have and serve very real needs in an arena which is important to most, including myself, especially as a survivor of sexual violence and abuse.

So, I’m well aware that a lot of the time, that is inadvertently going to give the impression that my feminism is only about sexuality, merely because there are only so many hours in the day for me to work, so much people like to hear me talk, and because I can only diversify my efforts so much and be as effective as I’d like. But as I’ve explained, I’m also unwilling to let a lot of people off that easy: I know too well, that by so many different types of people, my feminism has been said to be about nothing but sex merely to dismiss and discredit me as a feminist.

Too, a lot of my energy over the last few years has been invested, per my feminism, on really working on connectivity and bridging divides. Setting up the AGA was part of that, as has been trying very hard to keep cultivating the interpersonal connections I have with feminist women older than myself. Of course, it’s not easy, but it’s so painfully obvious that so much of why is just that women as a class are intentionally divided and kept divided, by patriarchy, by ourselves: it’s Friere and Arendt Oppression Theory 101, not rocket science. The difficulty, I think, is less about whatever the particular divides or differences are, and more about why they’re there and why it’s so damn easy for us to enable them, and so damn hard to break out of that.

I was recently asked a handful of questions about women’s spaces for a magazine piece, and explained that my first ideas about women’s spaces and feminist community were that it would be like the soft, fluffy inside of a marshmallow: comforting and warm and sweet and gooey. It’s taken me a very long time to start to get exactly how off that expectation was, and not because feminist community or women’s spaces are terrible, cold places to be, but because feminist theory is critical by nature: it can offer supports, to be certain, but it’s aim is to deconstruct to reconstruct and that means that it’s a more challenging place to be than a comfortable one. Too, we so often — I know I did — try and come to feminism the same way we come to the culture we live in, doing the things we have learned to do, been reared to do, to acquiesce, to net a desired result, to gain approval or permission. We try to come to it — again, I’m also speaking for myself — with only the tools the hegemony has provided us, most of which are useless here, and it’s jarring, confusing and tough to forge new ones.

Ideally, these communities and spaces are about nurturing growth and change, and neither growth nor change are ever comfortable: essential, vital — individually and as a collective — but very uncomfortable. I’ve recently been revisiting what bell hooks has to say about defining love as active growth and change, and it speak so, so well to all of this. I think about my close, intimate relationships and reflect on the fact that those which have been truly meaningful, which have forged my growth, which have really been loving have absolutely had many moments of comfort and support and sheer joy, but just as many which have been distinctly uncomfortable, which have made me have to look at truths I’d rather not, acknowledge failings or inconsistencies I’d prefer to avoid acknowledging, and made me have to grow and change to meet a bigger challenge. So much of feminism and feminist community, even just framing myself as a feminist in general, has meant that I had to grow, that I had to acknowledge failings and inconsistencies, and that I’ve had to incessantly re-evaluate how my life and the lives of others means I have to change my feminism, and how my feminism and feminism-at-large means I need to change (or even start by just looking differntly at) my life, even when I would really prefer to change neither.

I can’t offer big answers here.

As usual, what I offer are my own questions and observations in the hopes they serve some use to someone, and that they serve some use to me, as well. I feel I remain, as ever, and as in most things, without a camp, and while that can at times be isolating — I don’t think there’s a single camp I haven’t been shoved out of at this point — I think it’s for the best, however difficult and trying it may be. I’ve no doubt that half the reason I’ve been going back and forth with this post for a month or two is because I am always reticent to say or do things which may result in further isolation on my part, which is an incredibly shitty reason not to speak one’s truth.

I hear a lot of talk of how sisterhood — hell, how really connecting with anyone else at all, creating real communion — is so difficult, or how everyone just isn’t feeling it. But I think we all need to take a lot of personal responsibility (and feminism is ALL about that, sister) in terms of what kinship we do or don’t feel, because such a great deal of that is what kinship we will or will not LET ourselves feel, and often for reasons that are at best, lazy, and at worst, hateful and stupid. Kinship and real connectivity up our personal responsibility and accountability, and also require that we up our compassion. We need to think differently to create real kinship, and we need to be willing to privilege and prioritize that kinship, sometimes over things that, for whatever reason, we might prefer to put first.

It’s hard — really hard — to have faith in feminism, because it requires we have faith in women in a way many of us have been taught, overtly and covertly, we should not. I think it can be hard to let go of what are earnestly false divides if it feels like those divides provide us with a camp, with a home, with a unity when we feel otherwise homeless, especially when we are members of a nomadic, disconnected class that is so intentionally divided. I understand that: at times when I have been blithe about how this person or that put a label on me, I have no doubt that some of my lack of care was due to my simply feeling that at least it meant I belonged somewhere, someone believed I belonged somewhere, even if that place wasn’t where I really felt like I was or where I wanted to be.

From where I am sitting, the very first building block of feminism is simply this: love — in the active sense — and trust women. Without that block, nothing else is possible. Over the years, I have watched so many of what, in my mind, would be otherwise amazing feminists, of every conceivable hue and camp, shoot it all to hell simply because while they can do other things, they cannot seem to do that, do not want to do the hard work to do that, and without that, it’s all pointless. I have watched women knowingly, purposefully, do some kind of harm to other women — often rationalizing it in some way, as if it could be — and identify still as feminists and all I can do is look at that and think, “You lie.” We can say an awful lot about the individuality of feminisms, but we have to agree that feminism starts, ends and should be driven by a profound love and trust of women, and that if we cannot treat the women we are surrounded with, all of them, as sisters — remembering that sisters often have tremendous differences: sisterhood is not about approval or full-stop commonality — then we fail, no matter what else we accomplish.

If we allow ourselves to fail in those essentials — love and trust — based on something as completely ridiculous and trivial as a not-even-real division that diminishes and disconnects all of us by design; that plays a part in keeping us from equality and connectivity expressly by enabling and supporting exactly those forces that thrive on and drive our divisions? If we cling to what’s easier, what’s more comfortable and familiar, what is expressly a manifestation of our own oppression when we are have the smarts, the ability and the agency NOT to?

Well, then maybe we deserve to fail.

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Sad news just passed my desk while arranging book promotion venues, which is that Women and Children First, my favorite, favorite bookstore in the whole world, is in serious danger of having to close her doors.

This isn’t surprising, feminist bookstores — hell, bonafide feminism-en-large — in the States have all been having serious troubles over the years, but it sure is heartbreaking. I have spent many, many hours of my life at Women & Kids (I even have a poem here somewhere written years ago about one of many afternoons spent there), and the idea that it could be gone just hollows out my guts. It is simply one of the nicest places to spend time that there is, and it is just so important to keep feminist bookstores around. It’s not just a matter of having bookstores where we can get books and music by and for women, or even a matter of having bookstores which really advocate for women’s and feminist work, and highlight and promote work that would be dismissed otherwise: often feminist bookstores have been and are very real nerve centers of local feminist community, especially in areas where feminism isn’t a popular ethos, and a way for women to connect in many respects that we couldn’t otherwise.

Once the book was nearer to release, my plan was to make a substantial links list of indie and feminist bookstores to purchase it from, not just Amazon, but in the interim, do me (and yourself, and all the rest of us) a favor, eh? If you’re going to shop for books online, or locally in Chicago, over the next few months, shop there, would you? If they don’t have what you want listed, they have always been amazing about special orders, including being willing to dig for books you just can’t find anywhere else, period. Get the word out, so spend a couple great hours hanging out there, do whatever it is you do to help keep an important resource thriving.

On that note, if you want to find feminist bookstores near you, check out the Feminist Bookstore Network.

P.S.My throat culture came back today, and on top of an ear infection, turns out I also had strep throat, so anyone who has been hanging with me over the last two weeks or so should just keep an eye on their throats, too. No wonder I was so damn sick. Bleck.

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

This is cross-posted from the All Girl Army. I wanted to toss it here just because it’s so eerily timely, and as a reminder that it’s Women’s History Month. It was written for a younger audience, but I love talking about women like Woodhull so much — though not enough to rewrite a whole piece for a different audience — that I couldn’t resist spreading the love.

A woman is running for president. She advocates for fair labor practices, social welfare programs and women’s rights, but is also a maze of contradictions — she is anti-abortion (as are most at the time), but pro-free love; a eugenicist, but also a civil rights supporter and socialist; a suffragist and a spiritualist. She has worked as a stockbroker, a lobbyist, a businesswoman and a newspaper publisher. She is both admired and despised by many. Nominated as her running mate is an African-American man.

No one really thinks she will win. However, everyone who nominates and supports her, including she herself, feels that it is important a message be sent to the U.S. government that it is time for a woman in government and in the White House.

During her run, personal — rather than political — attacks are made on her from all sides, in all the ways women who threaten the status quo, women who dare, are typically attacked: she is painted as a witch, a bitch, a prostitute, a woman of “loose morals.” Her politics and platform are not what are critiqued: she is a woman, and so it is her person which is maligned and demonized. She is purposefully scandalized by people — primarily men, or women acting as protectors of men — with power to prevent her, and any other woman, from having any chance at all.

Sound kind of familiar? But, see, it isn’t 2007. It’s 1872.

This isn’t Hilary Clinton. It was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to try and run for President of the United States, before women had even secured the right to vote.

“I am well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow. I am content to wait until my claim for recognition as a candidate shall receive the calm consideration of the press and the public.”

Nominated as her running mate was once-slave, abolitionist leader and incredible orator Frederick Douglass. Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party, an offshoot of Susan B. Anthony’s National American Woman Suffrage Association (but eventually shunned by Anthony for her outspokenness). By today’s standards, her political stance would be a mix of libertarian and socialist platforms: women’s right to vote, work, love and marry freely; nationalization of land; cost-based pricing to reduce excessive profits; a fairer division of earnings between labor and capital; the elimination of exorbitant interest rates; human and civil rights; freedom of speech and a free press.

Woodhull grew up poor, with very little education — over time, she educated herself — and was married at 15 to an alcoholic doctor, who exploited her background as a spiritualist, and her talents as a persuasive speaker to sell his folk medicines. She’d also worked as a cigar girl (read: prostutute) while married. Flying in the face of convention as she would for nearly all of her life, she divorced around a decade later, remarried and settled in New York, where, since joining both the Suffragist Movement and the Marxist International Workingmen’s Association, she began a salon where she’s intellectually spar with other radicals of the day. Shortly thereafter, Victoria would become the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street, which is how she first gained the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who applauded her achievements for women’s equity in this regard.

“Rude contact with facts chased my visions and dreams quickly away, and in their stead I beheld the horrors, the corruption, the evils and hypocrisy of society, and as I stood among them, a young wife, a great wail of agony went out from my soul.”

In 1870, Victoria and her sister Tennessee established Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a controversial journal which in its six-year run, established a very wide readership, and included brave exposes of capitalist swindles, as well as discussion of women’s rights, civil rights and labor issues.

In that same year, Victoria announced her intent to run for President of the United States, and she would be the first woman ever to do so, even though women would still not even have the right to vote for another fifty years.

“I shall not change my course because those who assume to be better than I desire it.”

In fact, in 1871, Victoria appeared before the House Judiciary Committee — and was also the first woman to ever do that, too — to deliver a speech on suffrage. Her strong argument was that women already had the right to vote, since the 14th and 15th amendments granted the right to all citizens. While this speech did not secure women the practical right to vote by Congress, they were strieed by her speech, and in addition, she caught the attention of some of the most influential feminists of the time: Anthony, Mott, and Cady Standon, all of whom — at the time — admired Woodhull, and welcomed her into the Suffrage Movement as a leader. Public speeches and performances of Woodhull’s met with full, jubilant crowds and, by many, for a little while, she was seen as potentially THE woman to secure women the right to vote and change the landscape of women’s rights substantially, because of her incredible speaking skills, her compelling arguments and her bold audacity.

But she wasn’t loved by everyone, and support for her would dwindle quicky and cruelly. Some feminist women, for instance — and many men — mocked her on the basis of her support of free love, the idea that people should be free to love whomever they may (protesting against arranged marriages, loveless marriages, marriages of convenience, as well as the gender divides between men and women in regard to marriage and love), for however long they liked, not have to exlusively be with one person for the whole of one’s life, and that the goverment should have no place in romantic, sexual or family affairs. Ironically, Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of her worst detractors, even going so far as to create a graphic novel parodying Woodhull as a vapid, immoral libertine who knew nothing about women’s rights. All the while, Beecher-Stowe’s husband, a reverend, was himself having an illicit affair.

Woodhull soon found herself evicted from her home. Her daughter was viciously harassed in school. She lost important clients. She and her newspaper had exposed two meaty scandals — one on a stockbroker who boasted about the young girls he sexually exploited, and onother on the Reverend Beecher’s affair — and were sued for libel (calling a woman a whore or an adulterer were perfectly acceptable, even when inaccurate: exposing a man for same, even when accurate, was not), which also resulted in death threats, threats of blackmail and the confiscation of all the newspaper’s property. Woodhull was painted as “Wicked Woodhull” or “Mrs. Satan,” by the public, maligned massively as a shameless Jezebel, a brainless twit, and the underminer of all things moral and good.

If you nominate a woman in the month of May,
Dare you face what Mrs. Grundy and her set will say?
How they’ll jeer and frown and slander chattering night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mrs. Grundy in the month of May?

If you nominate a negro, in the month of May
Dare you face what Mr. Grundy and his chums will say?
How they’ll swear and drink and bluster, raging night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mr. Grundy in the month of May?

Yes! Victoria we’ve selected for our chosen head.
With Fred Douglass on the ticket we will raise the dead.
Then around them let us rally without fear or dread
And next March, we’ll put the Grundys in their little bed. ~ the 1872 Campaign Song for Woodhull

As if all of that and more wasn’t enough to thwart her attempts for the presidency, just two days before the election, Anthony Comstock, under the Comstock Laws — laws which also, at the time, kept information on birth control from being distrubuted, and would also criminalize Margaret Sanger as well — arrested, charged and imprisioned Woodhull for sending obscenity-by-post for the Beecher expose.

What little chance Woodhull might have had — even at just completing her campaign, though it stands to mention that the Equal Rights Party was the largest third party of that election year — were gone. Ulysses S. Grant won the election, Woodhull became ill after her release from prison, went into seclusion, and in the final issue of her journal, backpedaled in support of marriage. She spent the rest of her life trying to earn some measure of societal respect, and eventually married again, becoming a Lady to the Baron she wed. While she made some humanitarian efforts over the rest of her life, it is unfortunately safe to say, they killed her feminist spirit.

Bear in mind, that in 1872, at the time of the election and her arrest, pending all of her other achievements, Woodhull was only 34 years old.

Most likely, however prepared Woodhull was for the ridicule she said she expected, like so many women before and after her, she wasn’t prepared for how extensive and how destructive it could be, to herself, to her family, to women as a class. She had stated in a speech at one time, “I am subject to tyranny!” Perhaps she didn’t realize how subject — or perhaps she did, equally likely, and took the risks she did anyway, knowing their value and import. The way things went for Victoria Woodhull is often the way things go for feminist women, for women who dare: it is a hard, but clear, reality, that the price of even our small gains is often terribly high, and quite often, even when we fail, we will be maligned, punished and ridiculed for even making the effort to try. The discomfort fighting for our equality may create may be so strong as to quite literally wear us out. To make those efforts all the same, no matter the contradictions, no matter the flaws, no matter the failures, is worthy of recognition, visibility and admiration, and Woodhull is one woman in history of so very, very many who all too often goes unseen and unsung.

Regardless, Woodhull left us several vital legacies. Regardless, Woodhull made very real strides for women other women before her had not made, and was very clearly a woman well ahead of her time. Victoria Woodhull and I have some critical things in common. Victoria Woodhull and I also have some vast differences and conflicts. All the same, Victoria Woodhull has my respect, my awe and my sincerest gratitude. Just knowing about her bold spirit emboldens me; just knowing about her endless efforts, how far and wide she reached, how much she gave to the things she held dear, and what grave risks she took inspires and energizes me.

This is the legacy of women’s history, and our history needs be seen, heard and celebrated.

My first introduction to Woodhull was at the age of 13, when I was doing a paper for my social studies class on muckracking (I think I even have that paper in some box somewhere), and as is often the case with women in history, my teacher had no idea who she was, and I had to dig deep in the library to find her myself: far, far deeper than I had to dig to find out about men who’d done even half of what she had. This is all too often the case with women’s history, even with women who have made amazing achievements. All too often we and everyone else know more about men who have done little to nothing of note than we do about the women who have shaped and challenged the world. The invisibility of our history — especially the history of women who have challenged the hegmony, rather than enabled and supported it — is part of the oppression of our class.

This month, each of our bloggers and board members will be writing an entry for Women’s History month, one for each day, to make this wide legacy of women in history, feminist historical events, strides and wins visible and tangible. We are asking each of them to pick a woman or an event led by women, to benefit women, in our global history to highlight. How they choose to do so — and what they choose to highlight — will be as individual as they are.

Should you need a few more words to motivate, I leave you with one last passage of Victoria’s: “If women would today would rise en masse and demand their emancipation, the men would be compelled to grant it. “

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Over the last month or two, I’ve seen more than one discussion about various aspects of STIs in women at some feminist blogs and discussion boards, and something keeps coming up that’s troubling me.

We have to be VERY careful about broad generalizations that STI transmission is all about sex with men or all about vaginal or anal intercourse with penises involved: not because of ego or protecting the status quo, but in the interest of protecting everyone’s health, sexual and emotional well-being and not fostering further invisibility.

For certain, lesbian rates of many STIs are considerably lower than rates for heterosexual or bisexual women. There’s plenty of sound data to back that up: it’s not myth or propaganda.

Well, kind of: it should be recognized that in a lot of data collected about lesbian STI rates, “lesbian” is defined in some pretty limited ways — such as meaning ONLY women who have NEVER had any form of sex with men or been with partners who have, and who have never been raped by men, which is a very small portion of the lesbian populace — so that we can only talk about lesbian rates of some STIs cautiously, knowing we likely don’t have the full picture. Lesbian women also tend to get screened for STIs less often, and are sometimes even discouraged from screenings by their healthcare pros and partners, so knowing the rates of STIs in the lesbian population is tricky. Now, with some infections, we can feel a bit more confident: lesbians who ONLY ever sleep with women and whose same-sex partners have only ever slept with women (and this is a very small part of the lesbian populace) DO have decreased risks of many STIs compared to WSM’s, sparing risks of BV, Herpes, Hepatitis B and HPV as well, all of which do commonly show up in WSW, at rates similar to those of WSM (the BV rates are actually higher in lesbian women). Behaviour, screening results and how lesbian is defined aside, we know enough about the simple mechanics of STIs to know that due to the transmission modes of some, lesbian transmission is unlikely or uncommon.

But here’s the rub. Not only is heterosexual vaginal or anal intercourse NOT the only way to transmit and contract STIs, not by a long shot (and lord knows for young women, that myth has hurt them anough already) but lesbians get STIs, too. Clinicans and popular ideas that this isn’t so have endangered lesbian women, not offered protections. And there has been something of a history in the lesbian community at-large, largely because of the enabled myths that only women who sleep with men get STIs, of extra shame for dykes who land an STI. Whose partners will accuse them of cheating with men, for instance, or just full-stop freak out because having to use barriers when they never have before is somehow this ginormous pain in the ass (and cooking for a huge potluck isn’t?). Whose community won’t support them, or where lesbian women with an STI feel they cannot even speak to it, which is obviously both emotionally awful as well as an extra danger per public health. That’s tragic stuff, especially for a person who is already marginalized to begin with.

Like I said, by all means, STI transmission DOES occur more often with women who sleep with men and men who sleep with men, and for younger women, whose cervical cells haven’t finished developing, there are extra dangers with heterosexual intercourse.

But dykes get STIs too, even those who have not ever or do not currently sleep with men. While I’m all for talking to girls and women about the extra health risks posed in sleeping with men, and all for supporting people in questioning heteronormativity, I think we have to be careful how we do this. Treating lesbian sex as if it were a sound form of safer sex isn’t smart for the state of anyone’s health or well-being, and any form of silencing when it comes to STIs has always done nothing more than keep them as prevalent as they are, and keep those with them deeply ashamed of something that is the genital equivalent of a common cold, in the case of many STIs.

Plus, I’m wary of sending any sort of sexual message out there that pushes ANY orientation on people, no matter what it is. We already know this is an issue with default heterosexuality, so why it wouldn’t be with bisexualty and homosexuality, I couldn’t tell you. Once upon a time, way back when, I was doing some radio thing where someone called in all knickers-in-a-twist saying something to the effect of me “turning” teenage girls gay. My thoughts and response to this were that quite frankly, if I could I would: imagine, if you will, what that’d mean for global rates of fluid-transmitted infections like HIV, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea; for teen pregnancy rates, for sexual coercion and sexual abuse rates, for learning about sexual pleasure that isn’t merely vaginal, if even, just for the most developmental years, we could assure that all teen girls only had same-sex partners.

I said that only somewhat tongue-in-cheek (and I confess, also wanted to hear the blissful sound of a wordless conservative when I said that). But the other half of that equation is that even if I had that magnificent power — or any power to influence them that strongly– there’s no way I’d weild it because I don’t see positives in anyone pushing a sexual orientation or a certain type of sexual partner (aside of the type that will treat you well, care for you, and have real interest in mutual pleasure and responsibility) on someone else, for any reason. We come from a long, nasty line of sexual shame and the negatives of sexual “normalcy” or homogenous sexual ideals as it is: we don’t need more, and when we’re talking about wanted, consensual sex, I can’t see any sound rationale in telling anyone to try and feel differently than they do.

Right now, it is STILL a massive struggle to get people to just use latex barriers, to get regular sexual healthcare (and of course, to be able to point them to places they can get it freely and affordably), and to work with partners to co-support in regard to both. We KNOW and can easily show that these things put together ARE highly effective in reducing the spread of STIs, even those like Herpes and HPV for which barriers don’t provide quite as much protection as they do for fluid-borne infections (it’s about a 30% differential, so still, wuite a bit of protection).

There is still, in both the adult and young adult population, a lot of ridiculous B.S. about how latex barriers put something “between” partners and limit intimacy…and all the while, somehow, what the birth control pill does to the female body and aspects of female sexuality isn’t considered a limitation or something that comes “between” people. Go figure. Women, heterosexual and queer alike, STILL have one hell of a time simply handing over a condom or a dental dam as simply as it should be and saying, “Hey, use this,” with no questions asked and no resistance given. And younger people take their cues from older people in this, both in what is directly said to them, and in what they overhear in conversation, or see older adults say in media, on the net in discussions, what have you. (In fact, we’ve had more than one adult come to Scarleteen talking about how awful condoms are to wear, when the adult in question hadn’t even used one in the last two decades, and had no clue that the condoms of old are not the condoms of now in terms of their useability and comfort.)

Point is — and I feel able to speak from the front lines here, since I live on them daily — we still need a lot more of THAT address and discussion, not anything which makes us think there are more ways to avoid that, as if barrier use, sane boundaries and preventative healthcare was this awful, annoying thing we should somehow try and get around. Not some other forms of sexual guilt, shaming or greater invisibility, even if that’s not the intent of such things which can and do result in those.

We have no real way of knowing what the spectrum of sexual orientation would be for us as a population if gendernormativity and heteronormativity weren’t pushed down our throats the way they are. We can reasonably presume, though, based on what we do know, that without all that crap, we’d likely be a largely bisexual populace to varying degrees. But even in that ideal, I think it’s safe to say that a majority of people, men and women alike, would still be feeling plenty of opposite-sex attraction, would still want to act on those attractions and would act on them. So, any approach to STI prevention and reduction that doesn’t acknowledge that and work within that framework not only can carry some profound sexual and emotional negatives, it also just isn’t going to be effective. And I can’t for the life of me, see how women (or men) continuing to be plagued with illness, sexual or otherwise, futhers feminism and gender equality.

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

I’ve recently been unable to put down The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler. (It’s a tough month for my bedside table, which has had to bear the physical and emotional weight of that book, as well as bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions, Jackson Katz’s The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, and Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature.)

Even though every single first-person story in it makes my heart hang heavy, even though if I read it at night, I have to fight off the urge to allow myself to cry myself to sleep. It’s important. So important.

I was just mentioning today to one of the amazing young women at the All Girl Army, blogging for choice today, that while it is, absolutely, positively vital to talk about backalley abortions, to talk about what abortion was like before Roe vs. Wade (and what it still is like in areas where abortion is illegal or inaccessible), it’s equally important to talk about what choice as a whole was like and still IS like, even with the help of Roe and other supports. I think many often forget or simply don’t know the combined impact Roe vs. Wade,Title X and other feminist initiatives had when it came to reproductive choice no matter the choice a woman made. More accurately, no matter what a woman did or what was done TO her when she became pregnant before she had any sort of choice.

Before (and in some cases, still well into) the mid-seventies, we all too often forget that most women simply didn’t have any real choice. We all too often forget that decisions like Roe vs. Wade protect us because of the choices many of us still don’t have, and the world we live in which still threatens or refuses us all or some of those choices.

No choice for a safe, legal abortion.
If a woman was able to access abortion and got very lucky (or was simply very privileged), then she could contact, get to, and pay for a private — albeit illegal –abortion, done in sanitary conditions, by a doctor or nurse, under great secrecy. Those women were few and far between, to say the least. And even those women, in the “luckiest” conditions, often had to go back home, do all their grieving alone, suffer any side effects in secrecy and silence, and if they became ill due to the abortion, often did not or could not seek out care.

As for the rest who wanted or needed abortions, but who didn’t have the connections or the means for a safer illegal abortion, I think by now most of us — especially those who read women like me — have a pretty good idea as to what backalley abortions or self-attempted abortions were like. The tools of these abortions were knitting needles, coathangers, scissors, sticks; bleach, whiskey, turpentine or gunpowder douches. Women who got backalley abortions were often blindfolded so as not to be able to identify their abortionist, driven to remote areas, passed person to person. Many women who died from illegal, unsafe abortions slowly bled to death, in terrible physical and emotional pain, utterly alone: many were silently, slowly and painfully dying or becoming seriously ill while going to school, working their jobs, or sitting at the dinner tables with their families. That’s pre-Roe abortion history about as condensed as it gets, friends: that’s the light summary.

No matter the type of abortion, before Roe, as many as 1.2 million illegally induced abortions occurred annually in the United States and as many as 5,000 to 10,000 women died every single year following illegal abortions. Nearly four times as many women of color died as white women. That figure doesn’t account for injuries, physical as well as psychological, both of which were vast. No matter the type of abortion or the type of woman, nearly ALL of those women still suffered alone. They did not have support groups for abortion, nor any cultural sentiment which allowed them to feel any grief (rather than guilt), they did not have sound (if any) aftercare, they did not have any context to talk about their feelings or experiences, they often did not even have the allowance to say, out loud, to anyone, that they had an abortion or had been pregnant.

No choice to safely abort, but also no choice to parent, or no choice not to.
For those who either did not want to or simply could not access any means of abortion… Just in the few decades before Roe, around one and a half million women were sent away to maternity homes and tricked, coerced or outright forced into giving their babies up for adoption.

Some of these homes were okay enough places to stay (however much a place can be “okay” which robs you of a child you gave birth to and wanted), but some were not a far cry from — nearly identical to — the Magdalene Launderies. Women staying in them were hidden and isolated from everyone but the other women in the homes, shunned by their families (and sometimes the men who got them pregnant in the first place) and often during the rare times they could leave the home, they would be easily identified and harassed in the streets: insults and/or vegetables hurled, the works.

Like women who aborted during this time — and in my eyes, this is all the more painful — these women had to leave the homes after giving birth and pretend they had never been pregnant, that they were never mothers. Some of them would have contact with their infants for months in the home before having them ripped away from them. Women with postpartum depression had zero support. Women whose whole lives had been shattered were totally unacknowledged. Open adoptions arrangements (however flawed they can sometimes be) were not available: the rights of birth mothers were preciscely nil. If and when they were at all visible, these women were often disdained by their families and communities. But for the most part, they were and are often still, invisible mothers, invisible women. Too, we have plenty of history of mothers giving birth and being forced to give up their children to other women in their families: married sisters or aunts, even their own mothers, after which the mother of the child would be forced to spend her life pretending that she was sibling or cousin to her own child.

Of course, we also have the myriad women who did not want to remain pregnant and parent, but who found themselves forced into parenting, and often, unwanted marriages as well. For whom having to get married, bear a child and parent was ordered as punishment for being wayward (for as well all know, much like HIV is Gods punishment for being a deviant — even if you get it as the straightest, most vanilla person there is — pregnancy and parenting is Gods punishment to women for not keeping themselves chaste).

My mother was one of those women. Abused, lambasted, shamed by her family and told she had no other option but this to even attempt to redeem herself in their eyes, that of God and those of the whole world. (As one of “those” children, let me tell you from a child’s perspective how much fun it wasn’t to grow up looked at by a strict Irish Catholic family as the accidental, half-blood-Dego bastard child who carries the shame of her mother in every pore of her being: to be told, quite incessantly, that you were an accident, a punishment, an extension of sin. Or to reach an age where you’re well aware that your mother is working double and sometimes triple shifts, and you’re all barely scraping by, all because of you, a fact which the family who PUT her in that position reminds you of frequently.) This is some of what happens when choice is thought to stop at sex alone, if choice was even an issue WITH sex, especially when you consider how very many of these women were raised with the mutually-exclusive notion that they were both supposed to police men AND somehow also defer to them.

There are vast and varied tales of these scenarios. For women of color, while there were a scant few homes that catered exclusively to them, they just plain weren’t white enough for the maternity homes, so however horrendous an option that was, even that one wasn’t available; both per finances and connections (as well as due to racism from providers) private, safer illegal abortions weren’t optional, either. For the most part, women of color were those whose choices were the most terrifying sort of backalley abortions or forced parenting, ready or not, wanting or not. Bear in mind, too, given rates of incest, how many women were forced to parent the children of their fathers, brothers, uncles, and how many children grew up in these scenarios.

So, we then also had millions of “fallen” women forced to be mothers, often without the means for prenatal care for themselves or their babies, often pushed into greater poverty than they already lived with, often pushed into marriages that were unwanted, unhealthy or abusive.

And no choice to become pregnant or not.
I feel like what also often gets lost in abortion and choice debates is any address of how much sexual responsibility is and always has been put, disproportionately, on women. This is particularly of import for the youngest women, who obviously, I have great personal concern with. Teen women are incessantly blamed for not properly policing their male partners: especially when those male partners are same-age, but even when those partners are full-fledged adults, even sometimes when they are far older and predatory. Abstinence-based sex education makes this girl-blaming a critical part of their curriculum. Last I checked (which was very recently) at least 25% of the youngest teen women report that their first sexual experiences were coerced. The greatest rates of rape are — and generally always have been — to women under 18. And in many cases, as with sexual crimes so much of the time, these young women are held partially or even entirely responsible for being victimized. Bear in mind that many of these young women are reared with the same-old antiquated ideas about whose fault it is when they’re coerced into sex (theirs), or become pregnant (theirs), and pushed into one choice or another that they wouldn’t choose if they really had all the options available to them — including access to EC, thank you very much — and told that the person fully responsible for living with whatever “choice” they get is, guess who, them.

Let’s also remember that around 32,000 pregnancies as a result of rape occur every year just in the United States right now: I do not know what the rates were in the decades before Roe. Assuming the rates were at least the same or similar, though they were probably higher, that’s at least 32,000 women a year — more than die from breast cancer every year; only about half that many people die from drunk driving accidents annually, so where’s our PSA and OUR special fundraising wristband, right? — with NO choice as to whether or not they became pregnant, and no choice as to what to do about it. That’s tens of thousands of women every year with NO real reproductive choices whatsoever, and yet, often held responsible, in part if not in full.

Even when we’re not talking about rape or strong coercion, let’s not pussyfoot: women have intercourse they do not want to have ALL the time, every day. Out of feelings of obligation, out of a need to keep the peace, out of a need to feel, or assure a partner is feeling, “normal” per heteroseixst or gendernormative dictates and ideals, out of a need to keep a partner around so that they and/or their children have some means of survival and shelter.

Often, these same women cave when it comes to birth control due to a partner’s urging — it’s okay, you don’t have to use the condoms tonight, or okay, you’re so sure withdrawal works and you’ve worn me down arguing, or okay, you want to have intercourse RIGHT THIS MINUTE so I won’t go put the cervical cap on, or okay, I ran out of pills because the pharmacist didn’t have any this week, but we can do this anyway. Often, these women become pregnant, and these scenarios do not constitute full choice, no matter what spin you put on it.

Mothers STILL tell daughters that it is their duty to acquiesce to their husbands with all things sexual, and to service their “male needs,” whatever those may be. I have users at Scarleteen who have been reared with these attitudes with some regularity, and they are incredibly difficult to unlearn, especially when they continue to be surrounded by them in their communities and closest relationships.

Access to birth control, too, we often forget, was still incredibly limited pre Roe, and is a major factor in choice issues. When the pill came into circulation in the 60’s, half the states in the US only provided it for married women. Well before then, the Comstock laws made access to other birth control methods illegal. Before 1960, the vast majority of citizens had only condoms — which, without the male partners support, were useless — and withdrawal, which we know to be about as close to useless as it gets, and which also relies on male cooperation. And yet, when pregnancy occurred, it was often still thought to be the woman’s fault: her fault if she couldn’t “control” her male partner’s sexual advances, her fault if her male partner refused to use a birth control method, or she couldn’t access one that worked for her. This is history that is insanely pertinent right now, as things like the Global Gag Rule, Title X cuts (my clinic here sadly is shutting down this month), limiting access to EC and attacks on choice persist. The same people and forces who seek to limit or remove access to safe legal abortion, and thusly regress all the choices we have, are most often the same people seeking to limit access to contraception or contraception education, especially to those most at risk and with the least agency: the youngest women, the poorest women, the most marginalized women. Access to birth control is STILL a serious issue and a serious problem in this regard: the increased access we see has not by any means fully extended itself — or anything close — to the women who need it the most, and for whom even with legal abortion, even with changes in adoption, even with better welfare and treatment of single mothers, have far more limited choices than women with greater privilege.

Let’s not forget…
That tied up into all of this is also access to reliable, accurate and unbiased information about birth control, reproduction and sexuality as a whole. That’s not just a women’s issue, by any means, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that while lack of that information does everyone harm, men and women alike, it ultimately harms women the most. Everyone is harmed by sexual shame, by a lack of understanding of their own bodies and health — and that of sexual partners — by purposeful misinformation about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health. NOT everyone will become pregnant because of it, get cervical cancer because of it, wind up in rape or coercion scenarios because they don’t know the warning signs or are told to disregard them, or be unable to make a sound reproductive choice when pregnancy occurs that is best for them. (And that’s not even touching on issues of intercourse or other sex under obligation, sound counsel, prevention and address of sexual abuse, understanding of how women’s sexuality even works, the whole bag.) These things will happen to women, who even just by sheer biology, whether we’re talking about pregnancy or cervical cells, bear the greatest burdens when it comes to sex and the opposite sex.

In a culture/community/relationship or under a system which does not support an equality of full reproductive autonomy and agency, it is a given that sexuality and reproductive information will follow suit, and either protest that full autonomy or undermine it, and often quite intentionally.

Choice isn’t just about abortion.
Reproductive choice is an octopus of an issue. It’s not only an issue of sex and gender, but also one that strongly involves race and class.

Real reproductive choice includes a woman’s inarguable right to abort, parent or give a child up for adoption 100% informed, willing and able, as well as support for any and all of those choices, the choice to prevent pregnancy with safe, easily accessible and affordable birth control, the choice to have sex at all, and, by extension, the ability to obtain reproductive healthcare and sound information on reproduction and sexuality and most of all, to be held to sexual responsibility which is fair, sexual mores which are realistic, inclusive and not laden with sexism, and to live in an overarching environment which honors and safeguards a woman’s right to real and complete ownership and care of her own body and everything within it.

What you see here is about as abbreviated a take on these issues as it gets. However thick this text, it’s a serious condensation of this issue. What Roe vs. Wade did and does, what all the additional laws, policies and initiatives which support its principle do, is far, far greater than allowing access to merely abortion. We allow anyone to take Roe and everything related to it away — we even give an inch when it comes to this — we aren’t just removing access to abortion: we are removing a critical element of the whole of reproductive choice. Roe is foundational in many, many respects (when you really start to look at how much was built off of it, or arose because of it, it’s truly dizzying). You remove that row of bricks at the bottom of a building, you remove the stability and integrity of the building entire, and it will crumble in time. This is an absolute given, not theory or hyperbole.

This is the case whether you have never had an abortion or never intend to have one. This is the case whether you have had or do have the agency to make whatever choices you want, and may even still with regressions to choice policies, be it due to your sex, color or class. This is the case no matter which of those women above your mother was, or even if she was none of those women at all: this is the case no matter how it is you’re rearing your daughters. No matter how affected or unaffected you think you’ll be if that building built on Roe ever crumbles, you and your sisters will be buried alive in it, most likely just as we were before.

And as far as I’m concerned, if there’s even just one woman in the world who doesn’t have ALL of these choices, all of these aspects of choice? Then there’s no woman in the world who’s really got’em. Considering that even with Roe, even with policies that support choice there are still myriad women without them, both globally and right here at home, the fact that anyone still needs to defend or explain the importance of and need for Roe, today or any other day, to anyone at all, boggles the bloody mind.

Blog for Choice Day - January 22, 2007

: Lots of people are doing it today, however. I’d encourage you to do so, or to avail yourself of their words, and by all means, as ever, to do all you can to work for choice in every way you can.

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

It’s always a given that when Mark goes out of town, I won’t sleep at all the first night. Some of that is just that we’ve gotten so used to one another, and some of it is that being something of a natural insomniac, I think that my own sleep schedule — and having one at all — is often reliant on having other people around me who are sleeping. In fact, I seem to fall into step with the sleep schedule of others quite precisely: if I live with people who like to sleep in, I’m a bit more capable of it myself. Since I moved, daylight issues notwithstanding, I can certainly say I’ve been getting a lot more sleep that usual.

Last night was no exception to the no-sleep rule: I didn’t get to sleep until 4:30 this morning (and woke up at 11, annoyed with myself for sleeping so late). But, knowing that was in store for me in advance, I just made a nice dinner, a roaring fire, plopped a pile of films on the coffee table and snuggled up with the dog for the night.

I have what is perhaps a fairly odd collection of films I keep round. Of course, there’s every episode of everything Joss Whedon has ever done, and a copy of Harold and Maude (I think at this point in my life I’ve probably seen that flick 50 times, but it reamins my favorite: in fact, in high school, when Matthew died, my wonderful counselor asked what I need for her to bring over — she spent the whole day and night with me, bless her heart — and a copy of that was the top of the list, however too perfect a fit it was for the situation). There’s some fun stuff in there, but overall, I’m one of those people — is there a “these” kind of people with this? — who you probably don’t come to the house of all stoked for a fun movie marathon. Most of what I own is the very antithesis of fun.

I’m not really sure why it is or how it happened that I felt it was vital for me to own or rent films that are very hard to watch, but it’s been a growing theme. In part, I feel like it’s important for me to have films I can quickly show or borrow in case somone doesn’t understand how important the issues that are most important to me are. But I will often sit and watch really touch stuff for myself, back to back, for hours on end sometimes, tears running down my face, a lump in my throat, anger in my belly.

Last night it was Allison Anders’ (who I worship) Things Behind the Sun — amazing film, by the by, for anyone who wants some understanding about how childhood gang rape can effect a person, though if you have rape triggers, you will likely, as I do, need to step into the other room during the final flashback scene — followed by Petter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters. I picked up the latter a few weeks ago, having seen it once before when it came out, noticing that they’d attached Sex in a Cold Climate, the documentary which contains the three women’s stories it was based on. That I had not seen before, and had wanted to.

Seeing that documentary, after such a powerfully done film, after that text that precedes the credits which recognizes the over 30,000 women and girls who were enslaved by the laundries until 1996 when they finally shut down (which makes the eyes and heart burn, even if you knew that already — text is so potent in that way), finally made me have to go to bed because even I just couldn’t take anymore.

It’s one thing to read about things like the Magdalene Laundries, to watch a fine dramatization, or to play Joni Mitchell’s incredible take on it. It’s entirely another to watch old Irish women who could be your granny unable to say the word “rape,” unable to keep from weeping about something so terrible she went through that even forty years seems not to have dulled the pain much. I had to finally put myself to bed because it was completely unbearable not to be able to reach out and give these beautiful old women a hug, especially considering how much both films explore women’s inhumanity to other women (and without falling into the typical trap of presenting it as something separate from what is done to women at large to create and encourage those dynamics).

In my case, too, this particular group of women and what they went through feels personal to me beyond them just being women, beyond them being maligned for same: I see so much of the foundation for the way rape, abuse, sex and accidental pregnancy was handled (or rather, denied) in my mother’s Irish family and how much that hurt and placed both she and myself right in harm’s way.

I have to prod Mark often to watch some of these films with me: thank christ he’s a director, otherwise it might be an entirely futile effort. Once he finally does watch them, he’s often outwardly thankful for my insistence, but his inclination is usually to avoid seeing real brutality: not because he’s an arse, but because he’s still getting his sea legs when it comes to facing the world’s hard stuff. I have the privilege, if you can call it that, of a lifetime of looking so much of this square in the eye — sometimes having no choice in the matter — he’s not in that same space, and to boot, my upset and sorrow over these things, I think, makes it even harder. So, when he’s not here, I’ll often watch them more often, or watch more in a row, than I would when he is.

Maybe I keep films like this around — besides the obvious matter that films like this, like Monster, like The Accused,, like Boys Don’t Cry, what have you, are brilliant films — because I really need them. This week, for instance, I got an email from a man who had started posting at Scarleteen who was asking me (a pretty presumptuous request) to give him a women’s studies primer one-on-one to explain, as he said, the psychological impetus for misogyny specifically because, as he said, that bias hasn’t played out in the same way others have and thus must be different somehow than racism or xenophobia because, he said, there haven’t been any genocides of women or “anything like that.” I honestly couldn’t even respond after that bit there because I was just sitting over here with my mouth hanging open, much in the same way I sit when I hear or read those folks clearly convinced that nothing at all of consequence happened to Jews during World War II.

(Note: that link to Hoffman above is beyond deeply infuriating, and should likely not be read if you don’t want your day utterly ruined. On the other hand, if you haven’t heard revisionist arguments before, it is educational in that respect, and it’s also a fine illustration of the sorts of arguments feminist women have to hear all the time about how rape statistics are overinflated, domestic abuse can’t really be the major cause of death for pregnant women, sex trafficking isn’t really a problem because all women and girls in it choose it, things were just fine before Roe Vs. Wade and things like the laundries were just women being whiners, etc.)

Much in the same way I sit every time that I have to hear someone around me or within earshot talking about how women as a class really haven’t had it so bad, have we?

I think I sometimes need films like this because I need a full sensory reminder that some people get it. That there are plenty of people who know and are enraged and mortified by the treatment of women, the treatment of sex, the way dysfunctional and dangerous cultural treatments of sex have always hurt women the most. In part, I think I watch these things to feel validated in what I do: in part I watch these things to feel not so lonely in doing them as I often do. Perhaps, too, I need to just be able to cry openly and without reservation about them sometimes: rather than trying to fix them, I need to just fully feel them.

I think I need the fuel that being immersed for a couple hours in just deeply feeling them — without having to explain or defend; without having to intellectualize, subjectify or make palatable for someone else — gives me.