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

Archive for the 'rantapalooza' Category

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Growing up, one of my favorite things to do with my Dad was to go to Cubs games. And not just because it meant hanging out with my Dad, and also in spite of the fact that when they played the Phillies, my father rooted for them instead which resulted in things being thrown at us. I can’t decide if I liked doing this in spite of or because of the time when I was thisclose to catching a ball, some dude behind us grabbed it from me, and my father went into an invective that seemed to last for DAYS about what kind of putz someone was for taking a fly ball from a little girl. Probably both.

Even though I left Chicago over a decade ago now, I remain, and always will, a diehard Cubs fan.

If you assume I care at all about baseball, or even understand how the game is supposed to be played, you may be wondering why.

I have my reasons, but one of them is that the Cubs provided me — and provide me still — an amazing lesson in owning your suckitude. The Cubs never really acted like they sucked as much as they do, nor did we or any of their other fans. Sometimes it was fun just to see what new, creative way they’d blow a game: they have never seemed to run out of ways to do that, which strikes me as its own genius, really.

Every now and then, the Cubs would actually win or at least actually play well, and that was awesome, I suppose, but I feel like the times when that happened we were all so busy looking for pigs flying overhead or the four horsemen of the apocalypse that we, Cubs fans, were always distracted enough to not get the full impact of the amazing lack of total failure.

The Cubs, especially to me as a kid, made sucking actually seem kind of cool. Like a rebellion, in some ways — Oh, winning. That is so last year. And the year before. For everyone else, anyway. It’s cheap to be a winner: we aim to LOSE, because we are THAT MUCH COOLER THAN YOU. — but mostly they sucked, and then the next game, they got back out there and they kept playing.  And that’s been how it’s been for the whole of my life. Players keep actually joining the team and seem to be excited about it. Fans still fill Wrigley, and the jeers and cheers are full of equal amounts of love. The Cubs seem to basically give suckitude a hug, a kiss, slap it on the ass than have a beer together.  I think that’s pretty super-amazing.

I’ve been thinking about the Cubs lately, because I feel like I forgot these lessons in sucking they taught me so generously. When I was younger, they informed a lot of what I did.  I think, because of the Cubs, no lie, I was a lot more fearless than I would have been otherwise, and a lot less afraid to try things I might lose, fail or just plain suck at.

Lately, I feel like I have been failing a whole hell of a lot. Heck, last week, I had a much-needed staycation planned, and I even managed to louse that up.  One assumes there are no grades given for recess because no one could possibly fail recess.  Clearly, those school systems have not met me. I totally failed recess last week.

I keep feeling like I’m watching some of the people around me excel at things I have tried and tried to do well, but either failed at or…well, failed by my ridiculous standards.  Mind, some of these things are things where I just wouldn’t be down with, or have time for, doing the same things to have that same level of achievement.  Others are things where someone else is simply more invested in winning or succeeding at them than I am.  But with other things, those conditions don’t apply.  Some of these things are things I very much wanted to do very well with, or well with consistently, and tried the same things but got different, less awesome results.

Blue, because Blue loves me and is lovely to me, says I’m being too hard on myself.  That may well be, of course, as I’ve a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing. A couple other friends of mine roll their eyes, and with love, not malice or dismissal.

At the same time, my standards are my standards, and sometimes they aren’t actually higher than other people’s standards. By whatever yardstick we’re using, I feel like I keep failing and have failed a lot in the last year or two with a lot of things.

What I want, though, is to be able to allow for that. I want to have it be okay for me to fail sometimes, or even a lot.  After all, I try a lot of things, constantly, unceasingly, so it’s not like I can be amazing at all of them or amazing at them all the time, nor should I have to be. It needs to be okay — with anyone, but most of all, with me — for me to suck. Ideally, I’d like to get to a place where it’s not only okay, but I can have a Cubbish sort of Zen about it and actually embrace sucking.

I mean, it’s not like messing up, or not hitting the highest bar or just being meh at anything doesn’t have its benefits or offers us nothing.  It offers us plenty: humility, patience for ourselves and others, compassion, humanity, humor, and the ability to have a life that is about something more than achievement or whatever we count as success.  It keeps us playing the game, as it were, to play the game; to be in the process, not the product. I’m sure it offers more than that, those things are just off the top of my head, and I’m not where I’d like to be with it yet, remember. I feel confident that when I get to that enlightened place where feeling like a failure is nothing close to the end of the world, a place of ass-slapping comfort, good cheer and one more reason to just keep going back out on that field, picking up that bat, and trying again, I’ll have a lot more benefits to report.

But in the meantime, I kind of suck.  And dammit to hell, I am going to get okay with that being the case sometimes if I’ve got to fly to those now-unaffordable bleachers and make myself positively sick on cotton candy, cheap beer and completely misplaced optimism towards a team doing well that never has to make it happen.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I’ve realized lately that by virtue of being such an early adopter of the internet and having done so right at the gate as a publisher and very visible writer and activist, I seriously missed out on one of the perks a lot of people seem to get to take advantage of.

In short, there are often times when I would really, really like to NOT have to engage in discussions or make criticisms with depth and thoughtfulness and care.  I’d like not to have to worry about what someone is going to feel/say/report that “Heather Corinna” said.  I’d like to be stealthy, and not feel any kind of social responsibility not to hide behind anonymity nor any to be a decent person and a Buddhist who isn’t fucking around about it. I’d love not to have to reread what I wrote even once, let alone several times.

In a word, there’s a post I keep wanting to leave online on at least one article or blog somewhere a day, and it is, simply, something like this:

This thing you said/wrote is seriously stupid, and I think you’re an asshole who is mean and also shitty.

Yep, that’d do it.  No careful analysis, no diplomacy, no “we’re on the same team so let’s work together,” or even “we’re not on the same team, but I know you’re a good person, right?”

Just that.  Without my name, without having to say anything else or engage in any way, without any kind of responsibility.  Just that lazy, drive-by not-at-all-thoughtful letting go that I know happens all the time because I get emails and posts kind of similar to that every day.  They’re more like, “That’s stupid and you’re stupid (or pretentious or arrogant or a dyke or a girl, the most offensive thing anyone can be, in case you were unaware), which I have to say because you’re not being mean or an asshole, even though that’s not stopping me from being both of those things,” but still.  Same gist.  Same words that elicit what I strongly suspect is a very, very satisfying — albeit pithy — feeling somewhat akin to a decent bowel movement of some kind.

One might knock that and call it small, but probably not one who feels chronically constipated, be that literal or symbolic.  I, too, want the online version of metamucil.  I am hoping having said it here just might suffice.

(It won’t, but it seemed worth a shot. And yes, most of what I just said was stupid, I’m being a bit of an asshole, and I literally even talked shit. But at least I’m not being mean.)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

I very recently started some coaching to help me develop some balance between my work and my life, and to help me create better separation between the two.

It’s probably more obvious to everyone else than it was to me that I needed that, but to give you an example of just how clueless I can be about this, my coach and I were setting a goal so that I could, eventually, get down to a workweek that looked at lot more like 40 hours a week instead of the more typical 60, and even 70 I wind up putting in sometimes.

In doing that, she asked me if I could describe what a day when I was working 40 hour workweek would look like for me.  In my usual Corinna lead-first-with-mouth-next-with-brain fashion, I opened my mouth to immediately speak and said, “Well….”

And then nothing came out. In the back of my head, a very annoying Musak version of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” started to play, because silence was all I had going.  Finally, when I reached the sub-basement of the elevator of my mind, I mumbled, “Shit, I have no idea.”

This seemed ridiculous. Surely it had just been a while, and I couldn’t remember.  So I asked her to hold on a second while I collected my thoughts, and flipped my fingers through the card catalog of my life.

Last decade or so: yeah, no 40 hour weeks there or anything even close. Plenty of years where I wasn’t even just working this one job, including the two years where I was killing myself — but feeding myself, and keeping my organization afloat, both hardly unimportant — by working three.

Let’s try looking at the pre-web years. The year before I started all of this?  Nope, three different jobs.  The couple of years before that? Teaching jobs, nannying jobs, my internship and the farmer’s market gig during the summer on top of all that.  Nope, back to that 60 hour+ week during those years.  I know it’s not even worth considering the years I was running my little school, because even in the five days a week it was open, I showed up every day to prep at 5:30 or 6 and didn’t usually leave until 6 or 7, then showed up one weekend day to clean it.

That gets us to the college years, during which I usually took around 27 credit hours a semester and worked close to full-time on top of that to pay for school and my own bills. When I was in high school, because of the kind of school I attended, we had a longer school day than most, and I worked part-time then, too, so no 40-hour-weeks then. During my gap year between high school and college I think I actually did have close to a 40 hour workweek, but since a whole lot of that year was spent in an LSD-induced haze, I a) have few memories of that year and b) think the ones I have are perhaps a little bit suspect, since some of them contain things I’m fairly certain did not exist in reality.

That gets me to early adolescence and childhood.  While I’m very sure trying to visualize how those days went is of limited use regardless, the fact of the matter is that even during a lot of them, I got up incredibly early, often going to the hospital with my mother hours before school started, so I don’t think I even experienced a 40-hour “workweek” as a child.

Which all led me back to my initial answer: “Well….shit, I have no idea.”

I’d like you to share a rerun of the moment I had in my heart and my mind when I realized it was true that I earnestly had absolutely no experience in my life, neither as an adult nor a teen or even a child, of not being overworked and overextended, and pushing past what is a pretty common limit for an awful lot of people; of having overwork and overextension be my absolute normal, to the point that I couldn’t even access anything in my usually vivid imagination to pull up a picture of what having a life that wasn’t like that could or even might look like. Enjoy the moment with me next where I was whacked a few hours later by what utter insanity that is and how very, very long it has taken me to realize that.

Mind, it’s not like my experience with this is all that atypical for someone like me in terms of my usual economic class, trying very hard to just pay the basic bills and keep my head above water. I come from immigrants, so there’s also that to take into account. I’ve also always worked in at least one of three fields: education, activism and healthcare, which are all legendary for paying very little while demanding a lot from their workers. But do most people in those kinds of situations not even recognize that their normal is….well, too much?  Again, color me clueless.

Setting aside the past, and keeping in the present, one of the big questions is this: why DO I work so many hours?  Over the last year and change, for the most part, I get paid the same whether I work 40 hours or 80 hours.  It’s not like I see an increase in financial support for what I do when I work more hours, like people notice and say, “Hey, that ED seems to be working way more hours than usual, I’m going to donate or donate a little more.” I think most of the time, people just don’t even realize that I’m the person doing most of the work that I am to even consider my work hours, why would they?

When other organizations are short of funds, short on staff, but high on people who want and need services, what do they do? They have people wait longer out of necessity and cut back services: they do not ask their staff to add more and more hours without additional pay or benefits to try and have one person do the work of ten.  They do not suggest that a staff person should just give up their whole life to do their very best to get as close as they can to working 24/7. That is because they are reasonable, fair and probably don’t want their staff to drop dead.  Go, them. Would that my own boss were such a smart cookie who gave that kind of a shit about me.

But she’s really, really got to change or else it’s going to be time for me to find a new boss.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing okay. Moving out here to the island has allowed me to live in a beautiful place where everything is not constantly breaking at a reasonable rent. No, I don’t own a house or a vehicle, but as always, that’s okay: those things are my normal, too, but they’re fine as normals. Working more isn’t likely to put those things within my reach. I don’t have the healthcare I need, still, but there’s nothing I can do about that.  Overworking also won’t give me access to that, it just makes me need it all the more. I can pay my rent and my bills every month, I don’t have to worry about being unable to afford to feed, clothe or shelter myself. I can even sometimes give the people in my life in a far worse spot than me a tiny bit of financial support sometimes: less than I’d like to, but hey, as someone not even middle-class, being able to do anything at all is a boon.

I’m actually in the position right now to have a really beautiful life if I want it, if I allow myself the time and space to enjoy it and live it. I’m living in a place I love being in, with someone I adore.  For the most part, my life currently is blissfully free of drama or crisis. I’ve had the opportunity to learn to just be happy, rather than in a constant struggle, be it financial, interpersonal or emotional. It’s even possible that sometime in the future, I might be able to find a way to bring Briana and Liam — who are both part of what I consider my core family in the world — over here, but to commit to that, I’d need to, and want to, commit to having the time to really help with Liam and be around for him. So, my little pipe dream is a beautiful thing, but this sense I’ve had that would be no problem is delusional, since as things have stood, I clearly have yet to learn how to make that kind of time. Promising it to a little kid and his mother when I don’t know if I can deliver it would be unconscionable.

Let’s take another trip to The Department of the Painfully Obvious. I have had pretty much zero time for any of my creative work.  I can manage a little bit of time to sit with an instrument and strum on it some, but have had little to none for more than that, to create (or even publish what IS created!) any visual art, or even just fiddle around to get those juices flowing, to put any real time into writing that isn’t directly related to work. I was an artist before I was anything else in this world, and it’s so vital to who I am and to expressing and exploring who I am for me, and yet.  And yet.

There’s more, but those are the core issues, and they’re pretty overwhelming all by themselves.  But the good news is, I know all of this now, I am painfully aware of all of it now, even if that awareness is in its infancy.  The even better news is that I’m committed to making positive changes and have started doing that.

The first goal is for me to get to a 55-hour workweek. Over the last week, since setting that goal, with one day shy of that week today, I’ve clocked 48 hours.  If I work  only a 7-hour day today, I’ll have met that goal for this week.The week before this I clocked around 70 hours, so that’s a pretty massive improvement.  Now I just have to stick with it which, of course, is a lot easier than it sounds.

It’s been a nice week.  I’m finding that at least once, I have actually felt the kind of sense of accomplishment in packing less into a day, and ending it on time, as I often feel in packing in more than seemed possible and working superhuman hours.  I’ve had some of the kind of time I’ve wanted to have for my partner.  I’ve had some of the kind of time I’ve wanted for myself. I feel slightly less relieved by the idea of being run over by a Mack truck because if I were dead, I’d finally be able to get a nap.

I’m also starting to see some of the things that keep me in this mess.  For instance, while I’m usually really excellent about limits and boundaries in my personal life, and in my professional ethics, I’m recognizing I’m actually very bad with both when it comes to work in the sense of what’s asked of me, what’s asked of myself and what (read: how little) I ask of others. I ask much, much more of myself than I ask of others, and I think the trick is going to be to find what’s in the middle of those goalposts, and move each side closer to it.

I’m also finding out I’m less immune to what others think or say about me around my work than I thought.  For instance, we did go ahead and put up a notice that response time for direct services at Scarleteen will now be slightly longer sometimes out of necessity.  There was some background gossip around that somewhere that I know was about something to the effect of how much I suck, and I was finding that really, really bothered me, even though I know I don’t suck and I also know that anyone who’d make that kind of judgment is clueless about the level of work I do myself and we do as an organization, or what it takes to run it all, especially for this long with so few resources to draw on. Why do I care so much, especially when the chances are that anyone being critical hasn’t put half the time and dedication into their work as I’ve put into mine?  And why am I putting so much of my own esteem into work, and so little into life anymore?  Must to fix.

Guilt is clearly another big trigger for my internal overwork beastie. When the emails keep piling up to the degree there is just no way for me to answer them all in a day, sometimes at all; when people are asking me to do things for them, their projects, their orgs, and usually for free; when I set a limit or politely decline things I’d love to do but just can’t because I am out of hours to do them in and people don’t back off, rather than feeling pissed, I feel guilty. I want to be able to do all of these things, and I’m very unforgiving of myself when I can’t.  So, rather than dismissing or getting mad at people who won’t respect my limits or take some time to get a sense of how much I’m already doing before they even ask for something (or hey, try and ask for things only when they can make a sound offer that compensates me in some way), I internalize and get made at myself and refuse to let myself off the hook.  Even when I know someone has figured out how to trigger a guilt response in me or is clearly looking to do that, I still have to talk myself through why that’s uncool, rather than just falling in line and acting of of guilt.

Of course, there’s also the fact that this is something I need to learn. I am, as I now know, an absolute beginner at this.  I do not know how to work a typical, full-time workweek. I do not know how to have this kind of balance, both because I haven’t usually had the opportunity and because the few times I have, I didn’t take it.  I have to learn how to do this, and my ignorance has been a barrier.  I have to ask for help with this, so I can learn, rather than asking for help with all the work I manage, which can feel like the same thing, but it really, really isn’t.

There’s going to be more, of course, but I think one other thing that’s on the list of things that keep me stuck here is one of the toughest to face, speak or even think about, which is that the person I usually want to be is really not a person I — or anyone who doesn’t want to kill themselves — can be. If and when I am only highly valued or appreciated because I do more work than others and will give up everything to do it, that is not a good thing. That’s a serious problem.  I can’t control whether or not that’s the yardstick by which others measure me, but I can control whether or not I use it with which to measure myself, and I have got to stop doing that. I not only cannot be that person and be healthy and whole, that person isn’t so great, anyway. I’m more than that person. I’m someone who has always had the capacity for a lot of joy, even when things are awful, and who has been really dedicated to milking everything I can out of life, living it completely and fully and with great wonder and abandon and delight. I can be that person, who has value AND still work to the degree I need to to support myself and to the degree I can to do the good things for the world and the people in it that are so important to me. But I can’t be that person, that whole person, if all I do is work and if when I work, I am working so much and so hard that when there is finally a minute when I am not working, I am too physically, emotionally and intellectually drained to do anything else.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that a while back, my mother found this newspaper article about a relative of ours from 100 years ago. The headline read, “Man Drops Dead After Stint of Shucking Corn.” (For serious. Clearly a writer who thought subtlety was for sissies.)

The story was about how said relative was purportedly feeling really, really sick all day, but had a history of being a very hard worker, and was not going to make an exception that day. He made clear to his co-workers that until all that corn got shucked, he wasn’t going to leave work. So, he did it: he shucked all that corn. Then, as the headline so delicately reports, he dropped the fuck dead.

I feel certain there was a moment in there where dying must have felt very satisfying. A long day of farm work when you are literally taking your last breaths is hardly the best day ever, so it being over — like, really over — must have been awesome for a second.  There may have even been a moment in there where he felt quite satisfied, thinking that he won the Martyr Olympic Gold for finishing his work even though he also finished his heart in doing so, which probably no one else on the team that day could say for themselves.

But I also have this funny feeling that there may have been another moment, probably the very last one, where he had a sudden, likely awful, realization that he just spent his last moments above ground on earth shucking fucking corn for pennies; spent his last day creating a challenge for himself that seemed laudable at the time, but was about the worst, most pointless use of a last day on earth there was. When he had that moment, he probably felt like a total asshole.  Then he died, that assholic feeling being the last he had. It was perhaps paired with the vain wish he had had just one more nanosecond to leave a tip for someone later on down the line like me that his story was not to be interpreted as an aspiration or inspiration.  Rather, it was a warning not to be so damn stupid as to think that last ear of corn matters more than giving someone you love a hug, rolling down a sunny hill, having a laugh, drinking a cool pint, eating the corn instead of working it, or just appreciating the value of your life as something much, much more than merely being She Who Works Herself to Death.

He didn’t leave that message, alas, and some of my family members indeed saw this dude as some sort of hero. When I first saw it, I did too. I thought, “Yep, that’s us, aren’t we so awesome in our badass workiness?” I thought that because I was an idiot who somehow wound up with a Protestant work ethic that would make Luther feel like a hack, even though we don’t even come from Protestants (though I’d be lying if I didn’t say we do come from some idiots, so maybe that explains it).

But I’m starting to get that unwritten message now. I’m going to learn how to leave the last ear of the damn corn unshucked if it…well, if it doesn’t kill me.

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

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Dear Amazon,

Yes, I am an Amazon whiner.  I made a big stink in the past when my book was among the books de-ranked by you.  And I have complaints about you, even though I would be remiss in saying that you benefit me by selling my book, to the point that Amazon may be where I do my best sales. Thank you for that, but at the same time, you get a cut, too, so it’s not like I’m the only one who benefits from that arrangement.

I’m irritated again.  I’ve been irritated by this for a while, but I have got to get it off of my chest.  And yes, I have a personal and vested interest in this: I am not without bias or personal agenda.

When I go to the Amazon section that is Books> Teens > Self-Esteem, I get a list of books almost entirely written FOR teens about self-esteem.  When I go to the section that is Books> Teens> Literature & Fiction, I get fiction books that are written for teens. When I go to the section that is Books> Teens> Horror, I get horror books that are written for (not about) teens. When I go to the section that is Book> Children’s Books> then ANY topic, I get books FOR children.

So, I cannot figure out for the life of me why, when I go to the section that is Books> Teens > Health, Mind & Body> Sexuality, the vast majority of books on the list are anything BUT books for teens about sexuality. This is not a new issue, it’s been how it is for years.

Right now, the top book is a book by Meg Meeker for adults about her ideas on teen sexuality (which perhaps best belongs in that horror section I mentioned earlier).  Of the first 25 books on that list, in fact, four are similar books to Ms. Meeker’s (at least one of which should be shuttled to that fiction list). Five of the first 25 are young children’s books about sex or reproduction, not teen books. Perhaps strangest of all, four of the books in the first 25 are children’s fiction that have nothing to do with sex whatsoever, and where it would be pretty disturbing if they did. I’m very certain that My Weird School #17: Miss Suki Is Kooky! and My Weird School Daze #3: Mr. Granite Is from Another Planet! are NOT teen sexuality books.  I don’t think anyone reading those books is reading about how Miss Suki is that kind of kooky or how the other planet Mr. Granite is from is a planet where there are free condoms for everyone.

Of the first 25 of the list, only 8 of the books, including mine, are actually for teens and about sexuality, sexual embodiment and/or reproduction.  Though of those 8, 4 are about NOT-sex — about how God doesn’t want you to have any until you’re married, in a word — more than they are about sex. So technically, only 4 of the 25 first books in the section currently showing are for teens and about teen sexuality.

This would be a whole lot like if I went into a section for vegan cookbooks and what I found instead were a handful of auto manuals, some contemporary fiction that had nothing to do with cooking vegan, a bunch of books about why vegans are terrible people, a few on how veganism will kill you dead, some steak cookbooks and then 4 actual vegan cookbooks.  Which I think we can agree would be mighty silly.

Or like if people looking in the religious section for books on funadamentalist Christianity found…well, nothing but books like my book.

I’ve left you a note about this before.  You didn’t get back to me.  This came as no surprise. But I can’t tell you how much I’d like an answer on this.  Is this random?  If so, don’t you want to clean it up so that the books are on-topic and relevant to the readers you have the section for, just like the books in all other sections?  If it isn’t random, what’s the deal?  Do you just not want teens to be able to read about sexuality at all?  If so, why bother having a teen sexuality section in the first place, why not be transparent that you just don’t want one?  Is it just that you prioritize sections being in order in such a way that teen sexuality just comes last?  If so, can I volunteer to freaking clean it up for you already?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

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

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

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

Let’s unpack this, working backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should wait for sex…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here a few different phrasings to try on:

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

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

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

This post, about this post and some of the comments in it, brought some things up for me this week, so I’m going to unpack  some things.

Through most of my life, the majority of my long-term partners have not been porn users or those who have used porn with any regularity. That’s nothing I purposefully screened for, asked for or did intentionally, it’s just been the way it worked out, which has been pretty surprising to me, since you hear all the time how unlikely that is, particularly if you’re dating men. And yet. To boot, in my own sexual history, it’s been more common for my female sexual partners to be porn users than my male ones.

“Porn user” is a common but weird phrase, mind, and it carries negative implications. So let me be clear: they have not been people who generally or habitually utilized/perused pornography in our sex life or in their own masturbation. With my casual partners, I really couldn’t tell you. It’s something I just don’t know about some of them because it just never came up in the brief hours or days we were schtupping. My sense is that it’s been pretty all over the map.

In general, I’ve never been someone who has a preference when it comes to whether or not a sexual/romantic partner uses pornography. It’s a fluke that most of my long-terms have not been into porn much in the same way that it’s been a bit of a fluke that most of my long-term partners wanted to be monogamous with me: both things I often don’t have any strong preferences about and have a lot of flexibility with.

Mind, I was a written erotica author and publisher for many years, I have and still do work in erotic art and fine art nudes with my photography. More than once, I’ve had staples in my own navel. So, if someone else wanted to be with someone who had little or nothing to do with pornography or erotica, I’d have been a poor choice for them. However, personally, I’ve never really been much of a visual pornography user myself, though. Lord knows I had the chance: for a handful of years, I got sent a lot of porn to review for Scarlet Letters.

My own lack of porn use has not really been about ethical objections so much as the fact that I find most porn either a) grossly comedic (in a bad and not so-bad-it’s-good B-movie kind of way) b) really un-sexy (especially when you bear in mind that I don’t find most cisgender men attractive and I also don’t find myself attracted to femmes) c) full of dynamics, language or approaches that either gross me out or make me depressed or d) downright boring. In other words, so much of it has been either a turn-off or felt so nonsexual to me that I’ve rarely had the chance to even get to the part where I make personal ethical considerations. The visual porn that I actually have found sexy and stimulating has generally been made in such a way that I don’t have ethical issues with it, though I don’t think that’s the big reason why I liked it. I know that Shar and Jackie and Nan made and make their material in a way that works with my ethics, but while that’s a big plus, I think why I like their work has more to do with the content, style and vibe of it all (which yeah, okay is probably also about ethics: clearly compartmentalizing this stuff is only so doable).

I think I’m also influenced by being a visual artist and finding that what I see visually in my head when I fantasize is a lot more interesting, complex and purty to look at than what has been committed to film or video or because it’s possible that some of what I see in my head just isn’t possible with the limitations of those mediums (or the limitations of physics, for that matter).  And when I’m photographing other people, it’s not a sexual experience for me (even if it is for them, which it often isn’t), it’s not really about erotica so much as body image, and when I photograph myself, unless a partner was involved, it’s the same story. Not always, but most of the time.

Written erotica? That’s offered me a lot more, and was something I far more often have found arousing, but I stopped reading erotica for the most part years ago because I just lost interest.  Editing and publishing it for such a long time probably played a part in that. My porn these days, if you can call it that, tends to be things more like cooking or music. Toss a porn vid at me and you’ll probably get a 0 on the Richter scale. Make an ungodly good and beautiful cake or pick just the right batch of tunes and then you get the quivering thighs.  Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’m bloody boring. Who knows. Who cares?

Because I work in sex, I also often feel like I’m probably a bit off-the-grid with any of this stuff.  When sexuality is your job, you’re just in a different mindset with all of this in my experience, than people are for whom it isn’t or has never been work. I see and hear enough about sex all day, and often not things that are sexy either, that when it comes time for sex I just want the physical contact, pronto. I want to get right to it.  Perhaps impatience is part of all this for me, too. I’m not often an “I need to be finessed” type: I’m more a “Stop fucking around and get on with it!” gal.

Anyway, on the whole, I don’t know how much difference a partner using or not using pornography has really made in the vast majority of my relationships. I’m inclined to say little to none, in either direction.

Of course, I also find it tough to even define that criteria. For instance, one longtime partner of mine didn’t have any purchased porn of any kind (and this was pre-internet), but often, as an illustrator, illustrated erotic images were something we sometimes made part of our sex life or our general sexual consciousness: that’s porn. And like I said, some of the art I made has been about erotic experiences, even though the arousing part for me was the-making-of (and the sex that often continued after) rather than looking at anything later.  But then, I’m also a process-not-product person in most things.

The one way issues have come up that have been problematic for me hasn’t been about porn or no-porn, but about attitudes around or about porn.

In other words, the one time a partner’s porn use really was a problem for me was when that person’s attitudes about the people in porn framed them as less-than-human, as commodities, objectified them in a way that I just wasn’t comfortable with. And sometimes those attitudes bled over into our sex life, particularly if that pornography had been used very recently. I did put a kibbosh in that relationship on having porn be used as foreplay (either with me or alone) in our sex life because when it was, I did experience a bleed-over of those dynamics in our sex that created a dynamic I really wasn’t comfortable with, and made me feel like I was in some way also kind of nonconsensually being made part of the sexual dehumanizing of someone else.  And that’s neither okay with me nor was it sexy to me: it was a really big turn-off.

If someone wants to bring sexual fantasy of someone else into sex with me, I’m totally down with that (and as someone who has enjoyed sex with more than one partner at a time far more than once, that’s a goodie for me, and plays a part in my own sexual fantasy life a’plenty), but not if that fantasy involves framing others as products or goods, not people. Mind you, I would never have asked that partner to change their porn use that had nothing to do with me and that I walked into the relationship knowing about, even if I didn’t know some of the flavor of it. And setting that limit with it did seem to put an end to the dynamic I experienced coming into our bed sometimes.

I’ve also not done very well with sexual partners who don’t use porn and have strongly negative or objectivist attitudes about people in porn or sex work. I don’t know how much that really impacted my sex life with those folks, but it certainly impacted the relationship as a whole, mostly due to my own history, to the fact that some of my friends are “those people,” and the fact that I just don’t connect well with people who hate on other people as a whole, or who feel very insecure about their sexual selves.

I’ll be honest and also say that — in my experience, which isn’t to  say jack about anyone else’s — with my partnerships, when I think hard and try and find any differences, I’ve found my partners who are not big with the porn tend to be a bit more imaginative, full-sensory oriented lovers who I experience as a bit more tuned-in to the present sexual moment. There have been exceptions, but on the whole, for me, that’s one commonality I’ve found, though it usually hasn’t been a chasm of difference, but something more often more subtle. That personal experience may well bear no reflection on regular porn users as a whole, and I don’t know of any broad, credible study that has been done with that kind of criteria to make any kind of statement on if that holds true for others or most people or not. In my experience, partners who are not frequent users of very mainstream porn also tend to bring a bit less of some porny conventions or norms to the sexual table.  Given how gendernormative and heteronormative most porn is, so much of the attitudes there just don’t fit me or what I want in a sex life that’s rally about me or the kind of people I partner with.

I’m also not a fan of things being secreted away, so if and when I have had a partner (which has been rare rare) who came into the relationship with a pre-existing pattern of being very sneaky and secretive about porn or masturbation, that also hasn’t worked out for me. I wound up feeling like I was living in my Irish-Catholic grandmother’s house, which was not at all sexy and deeply unpleasant.  I just don’t do sex-sneaky of any variety or find that jibes with my sexual ethos or the kind of vibe around sex I want and need.  Unfortunately, I also don’t find that simply saying “Hey, you don’t have to hide that, in fact, I’d really prefer you didn’t, it’s no biggie,” fixes it.  Same goes with expressing that we can make room for privacy without anyone having to hide things.  Most people have learned those kinds of patterns in childhood and they’re often pretty darn cemented by adulthood (and sometimes the hiding and sneaking is part of the allure: you take that out, and you take the excitement out for them).

People who really need or want porn during partnersex also hasn’t worked for me. But that’s mostly about the fact that I don’t dig TV or computer screens being in my sexual or relaxation spaces in general. Having a monster TV screen nearby (even in my house at all, frankly) is a total buzzkill for my own libido. Plus, I don’t have any interest in acting out most porn scenarios, since most of them bore the living crap out of me. Watching women fake orgasm also just reminds me of the depressing parts of my day job.

So, all that said, how do I feel about what the pattern has turned out to be?  I really think I’d be copacetic either way, honestly, and that what was fine and what wasn’t would be unlikely to be as simple as porn or no porn.

But here’s the thing: I’m me, and someone else who writes in with an issue like this is someone else.

Even if someone who writes in on this is someone very much like me, I don’t advise people my age or people like me: I advise young people, and they’re almost always very, very different from me.

There’s no one right preference or set of preferences here, and while I feel just fine most of the time having partners who utilize pornography (or don’t) that doesn’t mean everyone else is fine with that. While I have not found that pornography use, on the whole, or a lack of same, has made any huge differences in my relationships or my sex life, not only may that not be true for someone else, anyone else is just as entitled to whatever their process is of finding out what works and doesn’t for them as I have been.  While I haven’t had strong preferences here, that doesn’t mean someone else isn’t entitled to them.

I’m not on board with some of the reasons young people, mainly young women, are uncomfortable with porn. For instance, with a lot of the young hetero women, it often seems to do with them hating on other women and seeing other women as sexual competition instead of as allies.  Something else that seems to loom large is that porn tells the truth about the fact that no, most people, including those who choose to be sexually exclusive with one, are not only attracted to one person. Young people of all genders often really, really want to think that they are the ONLY person a partner or love interest is attracted to, rather than acknowledging that no, that’s rarely so. Even when I gently explain that if they find monogamy to have a value, that value must surely have root in the fact that even though they and their partners are attracted to others they are still choosing to be with but one, that tends to go over their heads and not be what they want to hear.  As well, there clearly is a certain virtue they attach to the idea that only that one person in the world is found attractive, even when I explain that that kind of fully-single minded attraction is actually often pathological and leads to stalking, not love.

If in doubt they idolize this mightily, please reference sales figures for the Twilight books.

But despite the things like this that I’m not okay with, and think they do need to work through in order to feel good about themselves and have healthy relationships,  I don’t see any reason it’s not okay for someone to choose to date or become intimately involved with only partners who do or don’t use porn or based on what they think is going to create a relationship that makes them feel best and works best with who they are and what they want right now.

And this is a particularly big issue since I’m me at almost 40, and most of the people I advise are just starting their sex lives and just starting when it comes to intimate relationships.  They haven’t had the decades-long learning process I have yet, the kind of vast sexual history or even the opportunity yet to have a relatively diverse dating pool to choose from and figure out what their preferences really are.  And a lot of them also — be the constraints internal or external — haven’t had a lot of the kinds of freedoms I have had to explore all of this. Even something as seemingly small as my never having felt pressured in my life, by a partner or culture, TO have a given stance on porn, to look at it or not, to be okay with it or not, is a pretty critical difference.  Young people right now have grown up with a very different environment when it comes to porn than someone my age or older did: young women right now often express feeling very strong pressure to both be okay with porn, to include it in their sex lives or even to create it of themselves for partners.  Young people today also often didn’t find porn after searching high and low for it, led by their own curiosity: many see it accidentally before that curiosity ever happens.

If what any of them need in their process with porn or sexual relationships is to try to only be in environments sans porn, then they get to decide that and find out whatever they learn doing that.  I don’t think telling a young person it’s okay for them to have that criteria is sex-negative, shames anyone who uses or creates porn, or enables a culture of shame. I also don’t think telling a young person they can choose not to enter or stay in relationships where there is porn use is telling them they can or should regulate a partner’s solo sexual behavior (something I unilaterally tell them all the time isn’t okay). More to the point,  I think it’s really vital that all young people hear that they ALWAYS have the right to choose only the kinds of relationships they want based on their own criteria, especially since so many of them (and more female than any other gender) express that they do not feel entitled to that freedom.

* * * * *

Some of my reactivity to this piece and some of the comments is also about this thing that happens all the time when you’re a person who does what I do for a living.

That’s the common assumption that because I said X to this person, my personal sex life must be driving the car.  And often, they’re really not.  In fact, part of doing my job well (which is why sex educators do things like SARs) is doing my level best to be mindful of what my own experiences have been, what my own sexuality is, what my own biases are, and to take them into account, then try and screen them out while still also bringing the person I am to the table so that I can still connect with someone well.  That’s sometimes very hard to do, but I always try.

When I answer people’s questions, what I try and do is put myself into their shoes and their heads as the share the contents with me and suggest what I think seems would be best for them, based on what they are telling me about their values, their wants, their ideals and experiences in their sexuality or sex life. I also have to bear in mind everything I have learned more broadly about this generation in the time I’ve worked with them. I certainly can’t leave myself at the door in that wholesale, and sometimes I feel like my own ideas might help them think a bit differently if it seems the way they’re thinking is problematic for them or limited, but what I say is mostly about them and my estimation of where they’re at.

The assumptions people make in public about my sex life who clearly know zip about my sex life get very tiresome, especially after more than a decade of hearing them.  And it’s adults who usually go there: the young people I work with tend to ask me questions more often than just making assumptions if and when they really want to know what my deal is (and they usually don’t). Same goes for the assumptions adults make who a) don’t work with young people and b) haven’t spent a lot of time working with a lot of young people and their sexuality.  It’s not the same as children and it’s not the same as full-stock adults, and the rare few of us who do this full-time for a long time as our job understand that in a way other people who don’t do not.

Plus, I’d by lyin’ if I didn’t say I always get a hot streak of irritation when I see long written responses to sexuality information and education to/for young adults, so people can take the time to discuss it, and how well they’d do it, amongst their adult pals, but don’t show up to volunteer to actually do the work with young people themselves, something all of us who do could really, really use some extra hands with. Seriously: if you could do it so much better, and feel you know exactly the right thing to say, please send me an email to start volunteering, because I could really use the extra help.

Back to those assumptions. For example, based on some of the angry email I sometimes get from men who resent what I say about female-bodied people and intercourse, it’s common for people to figure that the reason I say that the majority of women can’t orgasm from intercourse so often is because I don’t get off that way, and want to keep other people from doing so in my horrible bitterness about the ways I can’t get off. “You frigid old bitch” is not a phrase which I am unfamiliar with as a greeting in some of these responses.  I get that enough that I’ve even considered signing my correspondence with Heather Corinna, FoB.

The fact of the matter is that I AM someone who can come that way and always have been. I’m a very multi-orgasmic and easily orgasmic person, and I reach orgasm from fucking all the time, always have, be the member-in-question attached to someone’s body with sinew or with straps and D-rings.

But I also know from talking to many, many female-bodied people over many years, from anatomy, and from doing my homework on actual study around this that I am a minority in that: just because that works for me isn’t going to incline me to discount what’s clear for vagina-toting folks as a group.

One of my fave assumptions I get from some conservatives is the idea that because I give information on anal sex, and don’t say it’s icky or gross or dirty or always painful for women, I must be having receptive anal sex nonstop. Possibly TMI, but alas, no. Unfortunately — and I say unfortunately, because ideally I’d like to be able to have every single spot on my body have the potential for pleasure — due to one of my sexual assaults, receptive anal sex is simply not something I can do.  It is physically and emotionally intensely painful and triggering for me, and that seems unlikely to ever change. I very much enjoy providing anal sex and play for partners who dig it, to be sure, but I can’t ever be a catcher.  But again, that doesn’t mean I’m going to project that and state that my experience is everyone’s experience: I know better, and I study more than my own sex life for my work.

The assumptions about Heather and BDSM have always abounded, like that one that I have “condescension and hostility” for sexually submissive women, an interesting theory considering that for a few years in Chicago in the 90’s I was thick in the BDSM scene as a switch. While I moved away from BDSM in my sex life, it had squat to do with…well, not what I think that person seems to assume it did. I moved away from that per my Buddhism and where I was/am at with it, and I also have had some issues with how many BDSM communities present those communities as automatically immune from any abuse occurring there, as if there is any community in the world anyone could say that about.  In the early 2000’s,  I was also overwhelmingly awash in several years of submissive women as friends, friends of friends or anonymous emails coming to me — I really don’t know why– who were unilaterally a hot freaking mess. Either a mess because their partnerships really were not negotiated, because those women were not understanding that being sexually submissive as a woman was an option, not a requirement, or a mess because abuse was going on. I had a very close friend at the time where a BDSM community was knowingly and actively hiding the abuse that had gone on in her very visible relationship to protect the abuser.  My expressing somewhere at the time, which I did, that I still had yet to personally meet a female sub (I have since, by the by) who truly had her shit together was absolutely true for me at the time, and I had been asked for a personal opinion/experience in that post. Then, that was mine. I qualified it, though perhaps not as well as I could have. On the other hand, silence on that may have been my only other best option, since otherwise, I would have had to have lied about what my experiences had been. Maybe silence would have been better: I don’t know. It’s tough to make these kinds of calls, and in a space where I constantly tell people they can tell their truths, I don’t know how I feel about any of mine being somehow totally unacceptable (inappropriate is one thing: unspeakable is so something else).

What Vinnie who commented on Greta’s post first linked to, though, was a post way back when from a user who, likely unbenownst to him (as he probably didn’t take the time to look through her post history), was in a pattern of rotten relationships where she said yes to all kinds of things she later expressed she really didn’t want to, but was basically scared to death to be single or alone. She was in a space where she postured a lot, kind of setting herself up as “the girl who would do anything for love,” to prove she was worthy to herself and to partners. That particular post was her asking about a pretty 24/7 situation that, based on what we knew about her and this guy from her past posts, was not at all likely to be healthy for her, specifically.  While I thought it was possible she was a kinky person in general, this particular scenario wasn’t a good one, particularly in her headspace at the time. I did my best with it, with the knowledge I had at the time personally and professionally, and with what I knew of her to date.

You won’t find that original post now because Vinnie came into the community without any history there and made a reply in it that she felt very uncomfortable with — and in general, often when older adults come out of nowhere to talk to our users they feel understandably uncomfy, especially if they come in with a beef  that’s really more about themselves or me than the teens –  and which led her to finding his journal where he talked about her some more. She asked me to make her post at ST go poof from public eyes because of that and because she was basically being assigned a sexual identity from unknown adults she wasn’t sure was hers, so I did. The idea I had “disdain” for her was bollocks and a clear projection.

In that journal entry of his, Vinnie said, “I think you will not see Heather say [that intercourse poses no issues per consent and gender role pressure] because Heather has had pleasurable and fulfilling heterosex…what I enjoy is what’s good for everybody.”  Yet, I’ve actually had fulfilling all kinds of sex, and have also frequently discussed (including in one of the old posts he linked to) that consent and assumed/assigned gender roles are a potential issue in ALL kinds of sex, those I enjoy or have enjoyed, and those I have not or do not.  This is exactly the skewed root assumption I’m talking about.  That motivation — what I sexually like or don’t myself — doesn’t lead how I advise people.  If what I liked and enjoyed sexually led how I advised people, Scarleteen would be a very, very different place than it is, I assure you. It also very much would not have the broad appeal that it does, and would serve a far smaller portion of the populace, particularly since one of the big things I have never done/been is heterosexual. I’ve been queer since I’ve been sexual. And when it all comes down to it, Heather has had a whole lot of different kinds of sex with a whole lot of different people in her lifetime, and Heather has tended to like the vast majority of that sex, be it kinky or vanilla (not distinctions I use, but other people tend to, so), queer or less-so, genital or otherwise, whatever.  If I have any strong bias in the sexuality work that I do, my bias is that I like sex.

By all means, if I — or any other person giving sexual advice — am not doing my job well, as can happen, but hopefully infrequently — then my own preferences and experiences may wind up being more of the picture than they should be.  Many sex advice columnists and writers are legendarily bad at that, though that’s likely less about sex work specifically and more about the fact that people in general often aren’t so great about awareness and management our their own biases. There is a learning curve here, mind: we all tend to get better the longer we do this when we’re trying to get better.  We all have a process: none of us are born fully-formed from the head of Zeus, after all.

Of course some people will tend to simplify things. A couple years back, I wrote an entry about how I felt like my own efforts in sexuality activism were best made outside of trying to change or make better pornography or erotica, which got translated by a bunch of people into “Heather is totally anti-porn.” Not true (and pretty strange if a person has any idea about the scope of what I do and have done in all my sexuality work), and those making the assumptions didn’t usually engage with me in any way to flat-out ask me that, either.

I’m not saying, for the record, that Greta is making these assumptions. I’d be surprised if she did, even though I do think she misrepresented my response.  I think I was very clear that I did NOT think it was okay to try and “regulate” a partner’s porn use.  Rather, what I said was that anyone gets to make a choice about who they date and get involved with, and if someone, as this user was, felt very uncomfortable with porn, she got to choose to only date people who didn’t use it if she wanted. Mind, I also made some strong suggestions that porn may not even be her issue here at all, as I suspect, when it comes to the heart of the matter, it probably isn’t. But if she wants to find out by only dating folks who don’t use porn, she gets to do that, just like if I only wanted to date other vegans or other Buddhists, I’d get to do that, too.

I was on the fence about whether or not to cross-post this at Scarleteen, but have landed on the best-not-to side. Why? Because, again, one thing I think older people don’t realize is how much pressure is put on young women to be okay with pornography and things like strip clubs. When I did some surveys for S.E.X. years back when I was writing it,  was pretty surprised to see how many young people, of all genders, had some pretty negative feelings about pornography, and how many of them really were strongly anti-porn and felt very strongly unsupported.

Those who felt that way tended to describe feeling pressured to like it when they didn’t.  Because of the respect young people tend to give me, statements I make like I have in this entry can be interpreted by young people, correctly or not, as “Well, if Heather is okay with it, then I should be,” or “Heather says it makes no difference to her, so I must be a prude because it does for me. I want to be more like Heather, so I need to just suck it up.”  They tend to feel similarly about those of us who have had a lot of sexual partners: talking about a big sexual history can make them feel pressured, even if that’s not what we intend. I also really pick and choose carefully when I make statements about my observations around my own sex life, because sound boundaries are important and essential, especially between older people and younger people when talking about sex.

Ultimately, I want them to feel as supported in their own sexual life and ethos as possible, and am always trying to be very mindful per how what I say may or may not really be supportive in whatever their own journey or process is.  That’s the foot I try very hard to lead with.  I think I get better and better at it as the years go by, and I think some of my reactivity to a crit like Greta’s comes from hearing that critique at times when I think I’ve actually done exceptionally well, and had to work very hard to bypass my own experiences and my own feelings in order to address and try to understand hers.

Had it just been my guts talking, my guts would have said that I don’t personally get the big whoop with feeling insecure about porn like she does, especially since porn is so often so freaking dumb, and that while she was 100% entitled to choosing partners who didn’t use it (and on that, Greta and I may actually disagree), I highly doubted porn was her real issue.  But my guts in that regard would not likely have been helpful to her, acknowledged who she is now and where she’s at now, or made her feel at all comforted.  My guts probably would have gotten in the way of her process, and probably would have cemented her negative feelings even more, especially since my guts aren’t her guts, and I’m supposed to be looking mostly at hers, not at mine. My guts usually say, “Eh, porn, whatever.”  But that’s not what hers say to her, and I think someone like her can find ways to have relationships in alignment with her wants that don’t also trample, dismiss or exclude someone else’s.

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

So, here I be, trying out of of my resolutions and applying it to the journal.  Don’t need to have huge things to say: just need to show up and say them.

There are some things that get said or asked at Scarleteen sometimes that really freaking break my heart.

• Teen women asking how they can “make their vaginas tighter.”

• The same said group often asking how they can make their labia smaller and remove all the hair from their vulvas without any kind of redness or bumps.  (Catch a theme here?  IOW, who are all these things for, exactly?)

• Worry that because someone you slept with didn’t orgasm once or twice,  you must be tremendously unattractive and unsexy.

• In that same vein, focus on sex as product, not process.  Especially when it’s so new and the process should be the stuff of awesome!  Ack!

• Getting so caught up in trying to figure out how one identifies orientation-wise that it winds up being a thing of thinking, and stressed-out thinking, at that, rather than a thing of feeling and intuiting. Or just grooving on whatever feelings one has when one has them.

• Winding up with a major birth control or sexual health error or problem because Mom decided to give you her oh-so-great advice that a) was learned 25 years ago and b) wasn’t correct then.

• Mom or Dad refusing to believe that a young person wants a GYN visit well before sex (often just to ask questions about their bodies, get BC info in advance) and refusing them a visit because they’re sure they really are having sex when they’re not. Of course, the truly craptastic part is that if they really think they ARE and think it’s a good idea to have them be sexually active without healthcare.
• This is one of the absolute worst: when we get one of these teens who has more than their fair share of partners, but isn’t safe with any of them, often out of crap self-esteem. You talk up and down about safer sex, they blow you off or tell what you know are fibs about getting tested once a month. Then they start asking about this friend or that one with sores someplace, and it’s like looking into a crystal ball of an STI wave that’s likely about to hit all of this user’s circle, and them, any minute now.

• The rape and abuse survivors who were raped and abused by partners and either a) won’t leave them because denial is easier or b) make endless excuses for them now KNOWING it wasn’t okay to call names/hit/rape because denial is easier.

• The late bloomers who are just so convinced they will never, ever have a sexual life.

• The young women who report really blarghy an unsatisfying sex lives with partners earnestly trying to figure out what will make things better, but who refuse to masturbate or touch their bodies in any way with a partner.

• Okay, so, the young women who don’t masturbate and who are deeply upset about never reaching orgasm, period.

• Young men convinced that it isn’t that intercourse alone doesn’t usually result in orgasm for women,  but that their penises are just too small.

• Young men who were SO in love going through breakups.  This is one of my top heartbreaks.  The girls in that space are painful enough, but they at least feel free to call up friends and sob to their heart’s content. The boys so often just go it alone and tough it out while their very tender hearts are shattered into teeny, tiny pieces.  It KILLS me.

• And on that note, the boys who could be great same-age partners to girls their age who are dating these total idiots in their twenties who treat them like absolute garbage, but are “so much more mature.” (Ten bucks says they’d feel very differently if they had ever been treated to listening to the way guys that age talk about teenage girls when they a) think no one is listening or b) think it’s a fun way to try and lord over older women.)
• And the fact that I cannot deliver a kick to the shins of the aforementioned too-old-for-them-idiot-men through my computer screen.

• Reproductive healthcare providers or general physicians who scare young women off of long-term methods they feel strongly would be best for them because those docs either have biases or haven’t updated their education. Do they really feel okay about this after these patients wind up accidentally pregnant because they — as they told these docs — spaced their pills out all the time?

• Young people who don’t talk to us because we have extra information others don’t, or because we’re someone additional to talk to about sexuality, relationships or sexual health, but who talk to us because they simply don’t have anyone else to talk to at all.

• Girls hating on other girls so much that they don’t have a single friendship, and have only sexual relationships with guys which they try to have fit the friendship bill, and which never do.

• People so attached to gender norms and binaries — their own or someone else’s –  that they totally reject what would be really great relationships, experiences or self-acceptance.

• Young people who take the stupid shit bitter or unhappy older people tell them to heart.

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

I’ll apologize in advance for being pretty scattered, and also issue a warning that I expect to be for a while longer.  It’s entirely possible I’m saying that more to myself than to those of you reading.

I’ve been having a tough time getting and staying motivated with a lot of things lately.  I think most of that comes down to a strange combination of grief finally coming to a head (in terms of Mark and myself), anxiety around all of my work, a need for some big changes in every part of my life but feeling overwhelmed about how to make them happen, as well as a sense of very profound excitement and a continued sense of flabbergast when it comes to Blue and myself, especially Blue’s impending move here in just a little more than two weeks.  All of this comes on the heels of a feeling of exhaustion from the last year or so, which has been full of a whole lot of struggle and confusion, and nothing close to enough sleep.  Thus, scattered.  To say the least.  And that’s something I tend to give myself a very hard time about, even when I know it’s completely understandable for me to be this way.

Of course, now that I’m also here living alone for the time being, I’m also having to try and get that groove back on.  I’ve always liked living alone, but it’s been a few years, and my management skills when it comes to the nicely stretched-out periods of time are rusty. The last time I had them wasn’t that long ago, but in the interim, I also seem to have lost my ability to stay awake for more than 18 hours at a time, which used to be fantastic to marathon work and art with when I lived alone.

This is an exceptionally large space to be living alone in.  Until I’d lived here, I’d never lived anywhere this big, even with housemates.  Being in it completely alone feels bizarre: like I’m some sort of vagrant squatting in someone else’s space who is going to be pretty surprised to come home and find me here. I’ve spent a lot of time cleaning, moving things around, going through closets, cursing my magpie nature.  I’m finding it easier than usual lately to throw things away, a change I think has to do with my wanting a tangible representation of some clear space in my head and my heart.

I’ve been resuming some simple routines I haven’t done for a while, and something about some of those routines is very compelling when it comes to trying to get grounded again.  For instance, there was a dishwasher here.  I hate dishwashers, especially when you’re not running a school or cooking for 12.  The dishwasher got in the way of the sink; having that sink back and fully accessible and washing the dishes by hand is a quiet ritual I missed, and I’ve got dishpan hands from my fixation on constantly doing it again.

* * *

One thing that’s been bothering me work-wise is feeling like Scarleteen is the ugly duckling of online sex education. I’ve felt that way for a long time, but it’s just been getting more and more tiresome over the last few years. It’s not something I talk a lot about because it feels like a pity party, but it’s been gurgling in my gut very strongly of late.  It just gets so frustrating because a decade-and-change of doing the work with really tireless (or perhaps, tired) dedication, millions of users in that time, countless hours of constant overwork — some years without pay, and in the good ones, making around minimum wage — a girl’s gotta wonder what on earth she has to do to get some solid credibility. Or if she’s ever going to get it.  In this field, betting on never getting it would be the smarter bet, honestly.

I had a conversation a little while ago with another online sex education leader that, in hindsight, really upset me. The conversation wasn’t about this, but in the midst of it, I was essentially told how fantastic we are, and how great it is that we’re so understanding that this particular site can’t very visibly support us because we don’t fall in step with more conservative attitudes, and I mean liberal-conservative, mind, not fundie-conservative. And those sentiments were hardly unusual. I’ve tried right from the start of running Scarleteen to form relationships with other similar organizations and I have completely failed at that for those most part. Heck, once a year I used to email the other existing orgs just making clear that I think it’s crazy we aren’t all pooling resources to work together given that all of us together STILL don’t fill the level of need young people have, offering up our ad space for free for their PSAs, what have you, but to no avail.  Sometimes, we just don’t even get an email or phone call back, despite our placement, tenure and the millions of young people who have always found us invaluable.  Despite my never even asking for anything in return. Now, I know some of that is other orgs worried about losing funding via any strong association with us, that’s what is sometimes said anyway, but I have to be frank and say I really don’t think that’s a bonafide issue most of the time. I think it’s hooey, honestly.

It’s a tough spot.  I always want — and have always wanted — our content to be primarily led by what our users are asking us for, and also have always wanted to talk to our users with a certain depth and confidence in their maturity, as well as an acceptance for where they actually are sexually, rather than where many adults would prefer they be.

Mind, there are some exceptions to some of that based both on questions we really just can’t answer without making shit up or being overly anecdotal or without doing what I think is a disservice to our users.  For instance, we do get a lot of “How do I give a blow job?” or “How do I make my boyfriend/girlfriend more horny?”  We don’t tend to cater to that stuff because a) I am absolutely, positively certain I have never engaged in oral sex with their boyfriends so have no idea what said boyfriends like (and will usually respond explaining as much, and that he’s the one to talk to about what he likes), and b) save the barest basics, I don’t want any of our users to get robbed of the joy of experimentation and communication with partners by feeling like they should need a cheatsheet with them to partnersex.  As well, we watch some things, certain language, certain links, simply because I do want the site to be accessible enough to all that it both doesn’t freak out the younger or less experienced users, but also to be age-appropriate AND do what we can to limit how often the site gets blocked.  Plus, some of it is just a matter of taste: I just don’t talk about sex when educating (or heck, during sex for that matter) like I’m running a phone sex line.

Point is that overall, our model has always been user-led, and that’s also my own core philosophy as an educator. I keep hearing that we’re “radical,” and I guess we are when graded on the curve, but certainly not by my definition. We actually feel pretty conservative to me, but I know that my idea of what really is radical is hardly in alignment with many people’s ideas of what is and is not radical. I don’t know how we’d be less “radical” and actually stick to our mission or really educate honestly and well. I’m well aware how we/I do things and want to do things means making some sacrifices, like not getting funding the way other sex ed orgs our size do, but it just seems like it shouldn’t have to be this hard, and still this struggly, at this point.

Who knows, maybe the Obama administration will change this, but I have to say that I’m not particularly optimistic.  So far, what’s come out of that administration around sex ed doesn’t look much different to me than what did under Bush, and it’s also one of those issues that often gets relegated to the back page because it’s so divisive among adults (to say it’s practical, not political, for young people is stating the obvious).  Expecting a focus on inclusivity as far as what’s LGBT-friendly goes, or some recognition that what orgs like mine do when it comes to be fully inclusive is important?  I expect neither.   I’d love to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m not holding my breath.

It’s just rough.  We continue to have the widest reach and highest traffic of any of the YA sex education orgs, and yet our funding/donations are dismal and I can’t ever get enough volunteers to help run things, either.  When I listen to other people in similar positions as myself organization-wise bitch about money or staffing, I have to reign in some seriously homicidal urges because I know other executive director’s ideas about what a crappy salary is, or a low budget is. It’s a salary far higher than mine, a budget way larger than ours.  I just mostly lost one of my very best volunteers to another org because I couldn’t possibly even have one paid full-time staff position to support him properly with and keep someone fantastic. I also really don’t want us to forever be in the proverbial back room of the bookstore.  I just don’t know what to do to change that, and suspect that it’s the biggest thing that keeps us largely unfunded.  In a word, I think I, and my org, might just like sex too much.

I never really know how to talk about all of this, especially professionally.  It’s obviously totally unprofessional to shout out that everyone’s idea of how well we must be doing is off-base and that nearly any other org running this way financially and practically would have shut down years and years ago, but at the same time, I worry that our need for funding, for volunteer help, for more support overall won’t be understood unless I’m frank about these things, either.  But I worry that when I am, because of how things are, it always gets disseminated as this big panic that we’re on the verge of shutting down. We’ve been there twice — and when we were, I did say as much plainly — but we’re not there now, and haven’t been there for quite some time, even though, when you look at everything on paper, it probably looks pretty unsustainable.  Mind you, some of why we’re still around is that I am capable of living very simply, and living without some of the things many people are not. I only have myself to feed, I don’t own a car, I don’t own a house, I don’t have a credit card. It also has just the weest bit to do with the fact that our executive director is just a little bit stubborn. Plus, as I’ve said before, I was raised with the notion that activists not only needed to accept that we may never see results of our activism in our lifetimes, but also that we may scrape by the whole of our lives if activism is what we decided to do full-time.  And scraping by, I know how to do.

It’s probably obvious, but I hate, hate, HATE having to deal with money or any of this stuff.  Growing up with the idea that money is The Big Evil probably didn’t help, but marketing also just isn’t my skillset, and there’s always something really uncomfortable about having to do marketing and fundraising when it’s not about someone else. I’m a much better cheerleader for other people’s causes than I am for my own, and way more comfortable doing fundraising and marketing for others than I am for myself, even if I still don’t like doing it.  Even when it’s important, it just always feels like money-grubbing.

But I need to work that out, big-time. I need to work it out in terms of our funding and finances, and I need to work it out when it comes to our place in all of this.  Because it really is preposterous that in something we really blazed the trail for almost singlehandedly, we wind up often going unrecognized by others who stepped unto that trail after we cleared the freaking path for them. Maybe I just need to get a little more irritated about that; maybe I need to be less irritated.  Again, I just don’t know.

One of the tricky things coming up with this is that this is Blue’s skillset: he’s an amazing communicator, and an incredible marketing person, especially for progressive initiatives and causes.  To say he’s willing to help is an understatement, and he is going to help (read: I am going to grudgingly let him help), but I also want to keep very clear and firm boundaries around that. I have a pretty intense rule that I mix as little business with my personal life as possible, and when I’ve bent or broken those rules, it’s never gone well for me or others. He’s also coming out of a relationship where there were NO boundaries with any of that, where his work was 100% merged with his relationship, so it’s going to be important for him, too.  But we always did have a seemingly-natural inclination to merge (and that’s very much his individual nature, as well: not so much mine, I am my father’s daughter) we’ll have to keep in check on this.  I need my own space, a good deal of it. I also need for my work not to be overly influenced by the dynamics of close interpersonal relationships or vice-versa.  I know there are couples and families who work out running businesses together, but for me that just feels too precarious, especially since on a personal level, work as a whole is a haven for me; a place I can go and put my energy even when everything else is problematic.

To lighten the tone here, I had a meeting this week about adding a new service to Scarleteen I’m really excited about, through a company who came to me because they really wanted to work with us.  It’s a plunge I have been hoping we could take for a while, but until recently, I didn’t know how to accomplish it, and now it seems we have a great way to do so. It’s also something the other online orgs like us haven’t done just yet, and something I think is going to prove incredibly useful for a lot of young people.  Given it has a cost, and also requires labor we aren’t already doing, I’m seriously hoping it helps with funding.  I don’t mean to be obtuse, it’s just that the ink isn’t yet dry.  When it is, I’ll shout it out, I promise. I also had a different meeting about some potentially very good news per funding next year as well as for me overall when it comes to my work with Scarleteen and the clinic.

I think I need to remind myself that what I do know how to do, and know I do very well, is take leaps.  I know how to jump, and I rarely struggle with any anxiety or worry about jumping. I just feel like I’ve fallen on my face a lot when I’ve jumped over the last couple of years, personally and professionally, so I’m struggling with feelings of dread about continuing to do so. However, here I still am, right?  I’m not my best ever, I’m not super-great, but I’m okay, I’m fine, so clearly I CAN leap and wind up falling on my face and it’s not the end of the world. The theme in my life of late seems to be that jumping is the thing to do, no matter how I land.

I’ve told this story here once years ago, but I feel the need to retell. Back in college, my Blake professor made our first assignment to go out and find heaven (we were starting with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). My first thought was that I needed to be somewhere outside and beautiful, with a horse to ride, just chilling out. So, I asked John, my financial aid advisor, if I could borrow his horse.  He told me Mango was old as dirt, and may not even take any steps at all, but I figured it was worth a shot. Due to an injury, at the time I was walking with a cane, and I also hadn’t ridden in some years, so a mellow horse sounded best, anyway.  As it turned out, old Mango clearly decided this was his last chance to get a big run in and bolted like nobody’s business. I wasn’t even saddled, and I had not ever learned to ride bareback. At a certain point, he clearly was not going to slow down, I couldn’t get him to slow, and he was also about to run across a highway. So, I just let go, figuring falling and breaking my neck in a meadow beat being splattered under a horse by a truck.  Apparently, even from a distance, John had seen all of this, including my attempt at flying when I let go.  Once he came and found me in the mud, the very first thing he said was, You fall exceptionally well and with astounding grace.”

Need to remember that, too. (Mango, for the record, had gotten across the highway just fine, and was back in his stable when we got back, with seemingly no awareness about anything that had happened.  I, for the record, reported to my Blake professor that my discovery was that there is an incredibly fine line between heaven and hell, and their borders are closer than one would presume.)

I also think I need to consider that it’s entirely possible — maybe because I have to to push through, but maybe because it’s true — that I’m on the apex of getting TO being my best ever. I did most of the work I have, after all, in a completely unsupportive administration, and a largely unsupportive culture, and the former has certainly changed for the better, and the latter just might. It is entirely possible that in the next year or two, I will be able to get myself to somewhere a bit more rural, which I know feeds my spirit better than cities do, despite spending most of my life, save my very early childhood, so urban.  And however rough all of this transitioning has been for everyone, I may both be about to discover a much better relationship with Mark than the one we had been having, and I’m also about to be fully reuinted and rejoined with someone who has been a tremendously large part of my heart for 20 years, who is as amazed, excited and is feeling as equally spaztastic and relieved about it as I am. And to quote everyone’s granny, I do have my health: it’s still been on a strong upturn and that’s quite the relief.

P.S.  I should also note that in the middle of writing all of this, I had two people/small groups I really like email and ask about doing some kind of joint work together. Go figure. That given, I’m going ahead and also voicing wishes for a million dollars, a vet who loves to work pro bono, a farmer who wants to give me her land just because she thinks I’m awesome and my 18-year-old ass back. ‘Cause you just never know.

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

This is a fucking outrage.

So, it appears that Amazon.com has decided that some books now belong in their version of the back room.  In other words, some books, which they state they consider “adult” now are no longer listed in sales rankings or topical lists of subjects.

My book — a young adult book, one right on the shelves with everything else in the young adult section at the library, for crying out loud — is among them.

So are: Changing Bodies, Changing Lives: Expanded Third Edition: A Book for Teens on Sex and Relationships by Ruth Bell, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters by Jessica Valenti, Cycle Savvy by Toni Weschler, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein and too many others to count.

What CAN I still find in the rankings, which apparently now cannot, according to Amazon, include “adult” material?  Girls Gone Wild: Girls on Girls, Surrender the Booty 3: The Search for More Arse, Jenna Jameson: Ultimate Collection, Playboy: the Complete Centerfolds, Girls Kissing: Volume One, Hot BabesI don’t think I need to go on.

In other words, what it’s looking like is this:  It’s NOT “adult” and not deranked, so long as it’s porn, or salacious, or for the sexual entertainment of “normal” people. And possibly also simply not adult if it’s heterosexual or heteronormative (or tagged to the contrary).  It IS likely to be considered adult and stripped of its ranking if it’s queer (or written by a GLBT author), not hetero/gendernormative, feminist or about any aspect of sexuality for young people (though oddly, some YA sexuality guides were spared, and of the ones I am familiar with, they aren’t outrightly queer-inclusive or sex-positive, either of which may be why).

To be clear, if a person searches for one of these books by title or author, they will find it.  However, that’s only so useful.  Many people find books on a given subject by browsing the subject listings, not knowing what is available by title or author, or by seeing what books are most popular per sales: these derankings remove us from those listings, no matter our book’s popularity or relevance in a given subject.  What this also results in is a given subject, like say, homosexuality, showing books which aren’t actually relevant unless you are looking to “cure” yourself of the apparent affliction of your own identity (today, post-deranking, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality was the top book under homosexuality, and most other books in that topic are of that ilk.)  In other words, many of the listings by subject in these kinds of subject areas, have been replaced with books which, well…either aren’t really about the subject, which are protests to these subjects or are somebody’s idea of what is an acceptable approach to these oh-so-unacceptable topics.

I sent a letter, a far calmer one than I wanted to, to their executive office this morning, which looked like this:

To whom it may concern,

It has recently come to my attention that the topical listings and sales rank for my book, a young adult sexuality and reproductive health guide, “S.E.X.: The  All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College,” are now gone on Amazon, despite having active sales, and usually being very well ranked.

I have also noticed several other reproductive health guides for young people, such as Toni Weschler’s “Cycle Savvy,” and The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives,” have had the same treatment.  And yet, other books similar to ours, such as Michael J. Basso’s “The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality,” have retained their rank and listings.  Why?  Who is making these decisions, and where might any of us who are authors find the clear criteria or standard on which these decisions are being made?

My understanding is that Amazon is now hiding what it considers to be  “adult” (or rather, SOME “adult”) material from its rankings and listings,  While I strongly disagree with this practice as a whole — and the arbitrary standards clearly being applied, particularly as Amazon appears to be especially targeting gay and lesbian material — I feel all the more strongly about my book and some of these others being classed as adult, as they are expressly young adult books.

I can go to any library who has my book — and that is hundreds of libraries — and see my book right on the shelves, in the young adult section, unhidden.  Why has it been relegated at Amazon to the back room?

Thank you,
Heather Corinna

Who knows if I’ll get a response, or if the response I get will…well, contain any actual information.  Clearly, an arbitrary standard is being applied here, but I have a hard time envisioning them earnestly copping to it.  After all, what exactly are they going to say?  “Yes, we do find sexual health information for young people, particularly if it addresses queer youth or is written by a queer author, obscene and do NOT feel that Girls Gone Wild is, because…well, it’s not gay, even when the girls are macking down in it because we all know that’s just for the guys watching?”

(Is it perhaps worth my pointing out that the girls who appear in GGW really NEED to be able to find books like mine?)

Edited to add this.  If they can make money off of my book, one supposes I ought to be able to voice my objections at their front door.

4/14 Update: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/14/amazon-derank-books-sexuality

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

This guy is certainly not the first person to say this stuff, and alas, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

But sweet Jaysis, could someone, anyone at all, explain to me HOW — exactly — same-sex relationships threaten, or make less strong, opposite-sex relationships?  Have straight relationships, because they’re allowed to exist and be recognized, made my same-sex relationships lesser in my experience without my even knowing it? Because I’ve no interest in participating in marriage, but want my relationships to have import, does that mean that I should feel that married people are a threat to me?  Do friendships make romantic relationships less meaningful?  Do strong and stated-to-be-important parent-child relationships do that to romances or sexual relationships, or vice-versa?  Does my love for my dog undermine or negate your love for your cat?  Does my love of biking render your love of running meaningless?  How can one person’s traditions, somehow dismantle someone else’s when both are allowed and can exist simultaneously?

HOW, for the love of gawd, HOW?

I know: I’m asking the wrong crowd.  I’m just so endlessly tired of hearing this sentiment but even more so, tired of never once hearing it actually explained with that funny thing we call logic.

(And for the record, do people like Rep. Hayes just conveniently forget that it’s pretty likely, by his standards, that those wacky guys who founded the nation in the first place would be anti-American?  Yeah, probably.)

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Yesterday at the clinic I got wedged in the middle of a client’s abusive relationship.

It was pretty clear even from watching the goings-on in the waiting room that something was not at all right. She was dressed like she’d been scraping by, yet he was dressed like he was going for a job interview. He gave us her ID and insurance card because he was the one who kept hold of her purse. When she came in for her labs, he used that time in the waiting room to try and woo other women. (I found out later that while he was the one pushing for abortion, one of his wooing tactics was apparently to tell the women in the waiting room how much he didn’t want his wife “to kill our poor little baby.”) She also clearly, from her body language, did not want to be at the clinic. She had a do-rag she kept pulling down over her eyes, she was all curled into herself, but she also looked very irritated and upset.

We have a section of the intake form which asks how sure someone is of their decision to terminate, and she’d marked she was unsure. Those charts are more often given to me, in part because I’m trained for options counseling, and in part because they tend to be more difficult sessions, but I’m usually okay with that. When I get that on a form, I usually start with a discussion about that before I do anything else.

She told me firmly that she did not want to terminate. She had kids from a previous relationship, had never had an abortion, never wanted to have one.  She had been married to this man for a year, and described a very textbook pattern of the cycle of abuse. We discussed how the lone conflict she was having — the only thing which would incline her to choose to terminate of her own accord — was that she knew full well that having a child with this man would tie her to him. I talked about the realities of this, about legal help, about how it was a big issue, even if she could get a divorce and help keeping him from her and a child, a person obsessed with control tends not to be someone who gives up easily, so she would have to be okay with possibly fighting legal battles for years and years. All the same, in our conversation, it because clear that while she still might consider a termination given the permission to evaluate it for herself, she had been forced to be there by someone else that day — she was physically pushed into the car that morning and driven to the clinic — and so terminating that day was off the table so far as our polices go and her wishes went. I discharged her, making clear that should she make her own choice to terminate, she could reschedule for another day.

In trying to assure that going home not having terminated would not compromise her safety, I talked a little about shelters and ways to taxi her out potentially without his notice. What she just wanted was just somewhere inside the clinic to sit for a bit, gather her thoughts, ready her resolve, so I arranged that for her in another area of the clinic. I really thought she needed to get to a shelter, but obviously, I can’t usurp her choices that way. Unfortunately, when she stepped outside to smoke, he’d been circling the clinic and found her, and I was notified that there was a bit of an altercation outside. Looking at the security cameras, he kept blocking her path on the sidewalk, and wasn’t yet pushing or hitting her, but it didn’t look good. I was asked to go outside and help escort her into the clinic and to ask him to leave, making clear that we’d call the police if he came back into any of the waiting rooms.

And here’s the part where I found myself sucked into the vortex of another planet.

When I circled around to them, greeted her by name and motioned with my arm a bit protectively around her back for us to walk back into the clinic, and we tried to go in, he stepped in front of me, as well. He stepped in front of me, arms waving as if flagging down a driver who has come to help you when your car has broken down — as if clearly, I was help en route for him — and said, “She won’t LISTEN to me!”

It wasn’t just what he said, but the way he said it; the way he said it with this confidently held belief that I was on his side, that her disobedience was preposterous, and that, of course, her compliance to him would have been my primary or sole concern. I had to fight off the very nonproductive urge to say something to the effect of, “Oh dear! She won’t listen to you? That’s not right at all. Why don’t us uppity little ladies just sit down and you can tell us how it is since we’ve clearly lost our marbles all thinking for ourselves. I just don’t know what’s gotten into us. I am so sorry. Daddy knows best!”

Instead, still trying to get us both past him and back into the clinic, I said, very firmly, “I don’t care. I am taking her inside where she is safe, and you need to leave.”

He then said, “But she’s my WIFE!”

Resist sarcasm, Corinna, as it is not at all likely to de-escalate squat. Also? Do not stand there slack-jawed and silent because you can’t believe someone is trying to have this conversation with you at all. So, instead, again firmly and clearly, “That is not meaningful to me. I am taking her inside where it is safe, and you need to leave.”

And it isn’t meaningful to me, personally or politically, but it’s particularly devoid of meaning in my book when it’s obvious that the person telling me it is has acquired a wife the way one acquires chattel, and sees her likewise. You can have a marriage which is a partnership, but marriage alone does not partnership make, and I care about if someone has an earnest partnership, not a legal shackle to someone else as their personal property. I don’t give a rat’s ass what papers you have, what ceremony you’ve had, what promises you’ve made or what you call someone: what I care about is what is enacted and actionable. You can call it marriage all you want, but when what it is is bondage, putting a pretty, legally-sanctioned name on it doesn’t change a damn thing.

Then, clearly not having absorbed the general sentiment that we’re all just heartless babykillers (though most likely only because he sees us as people able to get him what he wants: I’m sure if he had wanted her to stay pregnant, we would have been Satan’s handmaidens), he tries a new line.

“But she SMOKED a cigarette today while she was PREGNANT with MY child!”

Oh, well THAT is a totally different story! Because of COURSE the damage a fag is going to do to a fetus so, so far surpasses a woman having you make her reproductive choices for her. Because of COURSE when you scheduled the appointment FOR her last week, you knew, being omniscient and omnipotent, she would have this cigarette today and thus make sustaining a pregnancy completely off the table, which I’m sure whatever you do to her at home can’t come close to comparing to. Because of COURSE your deep and utterly selfless concern for the fetus usurps her own life. Because of course, if a woman has done anything less than perfect pre-natal behavior we are morally obligated to terminate her pregnancy against her will. Duh!

He starts to ask if I asked her about that. I make clear that what goes on with a client and us is private, I can’t talk to him about her medical history or health, and that, again, I am taking the client inside, he needs not to block us or try and follow, and that if he persists, we will call the police. He is starting to sputter why at me, and then even goes so far as to make a move where his hand is starting to raise in my general direction.

I tend to react to anything like that, at this point in my life, with a reflexive look which I’ve determined, the times I’ve been physically threatened since I left home to get free of that in my teens, gives a crystal clear impression that laying a hand on me would be a Very, Very Bad Idea. For all my self-defense training, I never even really get a chance to use it, because the look always comes first, and it’s been 100% effective over the years. (I wish I could make it in the mirror to see what it looks like: I’m curious. Alas, I can’t do it on purpose, or at least I don’t think I can, because nothing I do when I’m trying looks all that intimidating to me, especially since it’s also usually happening several inches to a foot lower than the person I’m giving it to.) He lowers his hand very quickly, I swoop us both around him and get her inside, he tries to follow. Someone else’s boyfriend or husband tries to do him the profoundly undeserved service of being a brother helping another brother out by making clear that he really needs to go back outside because he’s about to find himself in serious shit if he doesn’t.

There’s more to all of this — it’s a very long story, aspects of it can’t and shouldn’t be disclosed, and this whole incident had legs and took up half my day. I’m not happy with how it resolved itself, if you can even call it that. She rescheduled for next week to terminate, clearly pressured again after several more bouts with him in the parking lot, thanking me the whole time tearfully for trying to help, telling me it isn’t what she wants to do, and wound up quasi-electively leaving with him (I say that because he had a pretty firm hold on her arm, and he looked like the cat that ate the canary), but the whole situation was such that our hands were tied, and since she was discharged and did go outside again and go to him, and they were leaving, there wasn’t anything we could do. I would have written down his license plate number — since we did make clear to both of them that he may not ever come to the clinic again, and police will be called ASAP should he do so — but he didn’t have any on the car. I will probably be her counselor if she shows up for next week’s appointment, and will have to try and suss all of this out again, trying to help her figure out what she wants or needs to do knowing that in the situation she’s in, whether I like it or not, what he wants is going to have an influence I can only mitigate so much. I’m trying to think of a small token to have for her if she shows up again: I’m thinking she might need some Maya Angelou.
Obviously, I was left after the whole thing feeling both rather unhelpful and helpless, my heart aching for this woman, but I also still just had this profound feeling of total sci-fi. That guy didn’t know me. He had no idea that I interpreted his words and behavior as completely sinister while, to him, they were sacrosanct. But I know me, and anyone who knows me even thismuch would know that saying the kinds of things he was saying, trying to sway me the way he was was so completely ridiculous as to — were the situation not so sad — be knee-slappingly funny. Again, were I not so outraged for this woman, I would have laughed myself, and amidst all the adrenaline, when he first opened his mouth at me I did have to fight off laughing outright. If we can (even though we really can’t) take out all of the ugly in this, to anyone who knows me, a person talking to me like this, asserting this kind of shit to me presuming I’m on board, is earnestly silly beyond measure.

By my perspective, it was this level of total delusion that his words were meaningful, that his control over the woman he was married to was sovereign and that I’d recognize that which struck me first and foremost. I couldn’t believe, through the whole exchange, that it was happening, that this guy could not know that he was trying to speak a language to me which was a long-dead language that even if I recognized some of the words, didn’t mean shit to me.

That was immediately followed by the not-at-all-laughable feeling that it was not entirely delusion, not outside my frame of reference, anyway, and what I will and will not tolerate or enable in my own life. Clearly, in order for both of them to be at this point, this crap had been working on this woman for some time, and was likely working for him in one or both of their extended families, in the community they were in: after all, in our session it seemed clear that no one had made any kind of motion to help this woman before or acknowledge that this guy was very bad news. When we talked about him, the way she was telling me about this had a certain certainty on her part that I’d think she was crazy and that he was reasonable: that I was supportive of her pretty clearly came as a total surprise.

(I should add, as an aside, that some of that might be my color. The clinic staff are very diverse, but unfortunately, all of us who counsel right now — who often have the most in-depth conversations with clients about their trickiest stuff — are white. So, I’m often not surprised to have women of color warm more slowly to me, be more cautious at first, and, understandably, be reluctant at first to trust that I’m in their corner.)

I managed my clients the rest of the day, but it wasn’t easy. I got a ride from work to a spot downtown a mile or two from the stop for my third bus, and took a long walk there, fighting tears. Sitting on the packed, rush-hour bus on the way home, I was not only still fighting tears, I felt pressed in on all sides by people, in dire need of more air, open space and ideally, the opportunity for a good, loud primal scream. I dove into some bell hooks, but I couldn’t stay with it all sardine canned like that. I stopped at the market on the way home, picked up a bottle of wine and some things so I could have a good meal, got home, had a yawp and a good weep, took out the dog, than parked my tucas on the porch with a hefty glass and Flannery O’Connor. I needed me some Flannery: I needed her beautiful darkness and her realness all at once, the way she shows up the facades of people. I needed her to give me empathy. Mark came home, and listened to the whole saga and gave me a much-needed hug. I sat this morning for a while: I breathed it all in and out. I need some extra time for myself at some point in the next couple days — which won’t be easy, given it’s Mark’s birthday today and festivities are afoot, I have a march tomorrow, and work that needs be done before Monday — but that’s okay.

* * * * *

I also have a bit of a Buddhist conundrum about scenarios like this when it comes to how I approach, manage and experience them.

In so many ways, I am loving the work at the clinic — even when things happen like this — because it is such an amazing and constant exercise in compassion. It is nothing close to easy: it’s sometimes very tough (especially when sometimes, you have to remain compassionate with a client when they are not extending you the same compassion), but it’s a nourishing, life-affirming challenge. I certainly have a similar dynamic with Scarleteen, but it’s a little different. Not only is it virtual, but if something shakes me up, stirs me, overwhelms me, I can step away from it for at least a few minutes, if not hours, gain some composure, and come back to it on my own time. I don’t have that luxury in my counseling office: the person disclosing to me, letting me in, is sitting right in front of me, and their need is intensely immediate. I also have to address those needs knowing that a) they need to be able to move through the clinic at a decent clip so they, other clients and staff don’t have to spend all day there, so I have to try and be efficient in how I address them, and b) I will not likely have another opportunity to help this person again. This is probably my one shot.

Here’s the kicker, though: in any aspect of healthcare or counseling, from a professional standpoint, you’re supposed to keep this given distance, not get too stirred, too invested, etc. That approach runs solidly through care-based services. But as a Buddhist — and as someone trying to remain devoted to helping others in heart, mind and body — striving for distance (not nonattachment, distance) in order to cope, stands counter to my practice, and in my mind in order to best connect with clients/readers/users/the-universe-en-large, I have to remain pretty open. When a client is upset, and I am troubled by their troubles — while still keeping my own shit together enough not to make them feel guilty or like they need to take care of me, and keeping it together enough to do my job for them — this clearly is and has always been a comfort for them. I have a tough time believing that when you feel you have been marked by a great tragedy that for a person you disclose that to not to express a deep and real empathy for you, to express feeling some trace of that tragedy in a very real way, is a comfort.

There’s obviously a balance to be struck. You still need to do your job and you need to be a support, not just a co-griever. You need to instill a sense of faith in that person that however upset you also may be, that you are capable of being unattached to your feelings enough to help them when they can’t help themselves. If they feel out of control or incapable, you need to be someone they feel is in control and capable. You need to be able to still do what you can do for them while being open enough that part of the help you are giving them is being someone — sometimes that only someone they have yet encountered like this — who feels their pain and is unhappy that they have been wronged, traumatized, shafted. And of course, you need to be able to do all of this and find a way to preserve enough of yourself and your own emotional equilibrium to still start each day whole and end it the same way.

When I hear noises from anyone that I or my kind of approach gives too much, opens too much, doesn’t distance enough, doesn’t shut down enough, should strongly consider putting a larger shield up, my first reaction tends to be repulsion. I feel like there is a certain arrogance in the idea that self-preservation must always come first, as if we had any way of determining that somehow our self has greater import or meaning than someone else’s self. (Mind you, I think I’m a bit passively suicidal sometimes, but I figure it beats being the actively suicidal I was when I was younger by a serious long shot. This may color my views here.) I know that in part, that kind of directive comes from a place of care, perhaps the same kind of place that mine is coming from in trying to put others first myself: people say that to me because they care for me. But I also can’t help but think that some of it comes from a place where I’m effectively being asked to follow a certain status quo as to not threaten or usurp it: if we don’t all agree that the self always comes first, even if making it secondary, temporarily or permanently, might help someone else, that we then make it harder for those who want or need it to always rule all to feel as comfortable doing that. That sounds a bit pious to me, but I don’t know how else to express it. Thing is, I’ve been going about helping and counseling the way I do it for many years now, and I have my own way of managing it. Clearly, I can handle it without burnout better than most since I’ve got some serious staying power, and I still very much like doing what I do. My way seems to work for me and feels authentic to me — and is also in line with the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I want to live — and I’m the expert on me.

I came to the practices I did because they make sense to me, and they run through everything I do in my life, including work. I’ve never been able to — or wanted to — separate my politics, my ethics, my spiritual life from my work, or set them aside somehow, and I’ve tried very hard to only choose work and work settings where I don’t have to do that. I often approach people very vulnerably, with a great deal of openness. It’s gotten me hurt before, for sure, but I think that the benefits have far outweighed the harms. Yesterday was a hard, hard day and parts of it were painful and very frustrating. But at the same time, yesterday, amidst everything else, I did get to share more than one moment where I was able to do anything at all to help someone feel a little more empowered and a little more cared for. But I do sometimes feel a little alien, both at the clinic and en-large, when it comes to all of this stuff, particularly when it comes to the harmony and cacaphony of all of it with my practice. I need a new sangha, I think. It’s tough to find something I can actually get to here without a car (good lord is this city car-centric), but I think it’s time to renew my efforts.

I’m rambling. I’m seeking out a balance and a clarity with this which I’m finding difficult both to do and to express. I’m glad for the opportunity, but it is a lot to try and sort through in the breakneck pace of my life these days, and I’m certainly not going to sort it out before I head back to the clinic on Monday.

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

My lone wish for tomorrow is that it ends on a better note than this.

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

One of the things that has a great influence in both how I enact sexuality education and how I conceptualized my approach from the get-go is my background with teaching in the Montessori Method.

Overall, the primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we observe our students, and based on our observations of what their self-directed interests, skills and questions are — basically, what they’re drawn to in terms of what activities they choose for themselves and what activities and areas they express interest in — we choose what materials to make or find and 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 founts of knowledge. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it’s our job to follow their cues, not teach them to obediently follow ours. The underlying principles of Montessori are all about liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning. 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.”

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 human sexuality and sexual attitudes, 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.

Young adult sex education isn’t just about young adult sexual activity, just like young adult education in mathematics, social studies, physical education or language isn’t just about their use of those skills now. We teach these things with the understanding and expectation that they will be useful and needed now and later or now or later.

Most teens have an expressed interest in sexuality, and feel and express a need to find out about it now, which makes now the best time to teach it. When children and young people ask us or each other questions about sexual anatomy, sex, and sexual relationships, when they are starting to consider how sexuality will be part of their lives and what they want from it, they are communicating clearly to us that they feel a strong need and desire to learn and want our help. Even if you’re not a Montessori-enthusiast like myself, this idea is woven throughout nearly any educational approach you can think of.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why or how people can selectively forget that what we learn about sexuality is information most of us will need for the whole of our lives. When we learn about sexuality, we’re not just learning for what we need and will use right at the moment we are learning, and no matter when or in what context we have a solo or shared sexual life, that activity itself cannot teach us all we need and want to know, nor can learning only through sexual activity later tend to result in sound sexual, physical and emotional health.

I confess, I quietly slipped out the back door years ago when it came to doing adult sex education, because I often found it deeply depressing and frustrating. We all know it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and it is often just as hard for adults who have firmly established certain sexual attitudes and behaviors to change them after ten, twenty or forty years of thinking and/or doing things differently. I heard so much “But my husband just won’t listen when I say this doesn’t feel good for me: I’ve told him a thousand times,” or “My wife just won’t believe that how I feel is normal and common,” or, “But we’ve never used birth control so he can’t understand why I need to now and just won’t do it,” some days — so many firmly cemented attitudes and practices making so many people unhappy and unhealthy that I felt helpless to counter — that I just had to step back from it in order to preserve any sense of sexual optimism about the world at large.

In my job at a women’s clinic, where part of my counseling is to try and help my clients who want them to find and use sound birth control methods and safer sex practices, and to have sexual lives which are truly beneficial and safe for them, I hit the wall of this daily, both with them and with their partner’s compliance. With some women, we have to have a conversation as to how she is going to convince — not request, and know that request is all she needs make — her partner that he is not entitled to sex with her at any time and will, indeed, need to withhold from sex with her for two weeks after her abortion to prevent her from getting an infection or complication. Plenty of those clients will express a strong feeling of hopelessness, or a history of failed attempts at changing established norms of behavior, when it comes to their ability or the ability and willingness of their partners to change those habits and attitudes. I know, plainly, that had many of my clients and their partners learned these behaviors, in terms of their physical health and their social relationships, and started out with inclusive, factual and compassionate sex education earlier that these situations would be far more rare.

Those clients are lucky to even have an opportunity to get some sex education later in their lives: there are not many avenues for older adults to become sexually educated (which explains why we see some of them come to Scarleteen for help in their twenties, thirties, even in their sixties). When I hear those who protest young adult sex education in high school and college, I’m often left wondering where, exactly — if indeed, as many express, young people will all just elect not to have any kind of sex until they are older — they think older adults are going to get that education. Last I checked, major corporations aren’t giving sex education seminars to their employees, and many general doctors, like many people period, remain uneducated on, and uncomfortable discussing, sexuality.

That isn’t to say educating older adults is an impossible task, but it seems a needless challenge when we have the opportunity, as educators, as a culture, as communities, to teach sexuality and sexual health way before that time, when absorbency is far greater, and when a person is either in the dawn of their attitudes and practices, or is able to start learning them before they’ll apply them at all. What we establish early as norms, and hear pervasively as norms, is incredibly sticky. We know that when someone learns to do something incorrectly or incompletely, that the longer they go doing that thing that way, the tougher it becomes over time for them to learn differently or to add on additional steps and skills. This is true with sex as much as it is with anything else.

The practical application of all of this aside, I’m never going to be able to let go of the idea that without liberty, real learning — learning, not indoctrinating — can’t happen. If in any of the ways I educate, I seek to hinder or protest that essential liberty, I’m not only hindering learning, but the quality of life of my students, and it is my job to very carefully consider how I educate through that lens. It is not my place to tell my students or clients when to have sex, how to define their own sexuality, to tell them they are good or bad people based on their sexual desires or choices, or to tell them that they do not need to know the very things they are asking me to inform them about. I cannot ever call myself an educator if I purposefully slam the door of knowledge in my student’s faces because I, not they, feel that it’s for their own good.

Rather, it is my place to observe be responsive to the cues they give me in terms of what they need and want from me to help them learn about sexuality and sexual health, and to give them as wide an array of factually accurate and inclusive information, resources and discussions as I am able so they can create lives where their sexuality is part of their liberty; where the attitudes and practices they develop are in as best an alignment as possible with their and their partner’s unique set of needs and wants. It is my place to share with them as much of what I learn and know as I possibly can when they invite me to. This is part of why I feel so blessed to be able to educate in environments which are completely drop-in and also very one-on-one — or without my intervention at all, unless it is asked for — where even the onset of the education I provide isn’t determined by me, but by my students or clients themselves, and where every person I interact with is able to expressly ask me or my co-workers for exactly what they feel they need, rather than what I or others determine is right for them.

It is my place to allow and encourage the opportunity for them to draw their own conclusions, and to provide an environment for them where they feel they have the inarguable right to use that information however they please without my value judgments. It is my place to make clear to them that questioning my authority is always acceptable, that while I do my best to be as educated on these issues as possible, I am not infallible, without my own biases which inevitably will occasionally leak through, or somehow representative of one universal truth, and when they have questions or doubts, it is my place to direct them to other sources of information besides my own.

Every now and then, when doing an interview or a press piece, I’m asked why I give the information I do with the approach that I do, and if I’d ever consider doing it differently. And every time, I make clear that I walk into each day ready to do it differently, because if my students and clients — through my observations of them and their direct requests — asked me to, felt another approach would be more helpful, or showed me that the way I am doing things is not helpful for them, and is not what they needed, I would be obligated to adjust my approach based on my own educational ethics. Were I shown that, say, my students and clients were all made happier and healthier in the whole of their lives by only ever having sex within heterosexual marriage, only having sex for the purposes of procreating, or in going without sexual healthcare and birth control, even if that conflicted with what I have found keeps me happy and healthy, by all means, I’d have to seriously consider that. But again, I’m a trained observer, I observe daily, and that’s not something they express or I see. I do not tend to hear that knowing how to use a condom, how the sexual response cycle works, how to negotiate sex with a partner, how varied human sexuality is or how to prevent unwanted pregnancy at any age has done a person emotional or physical harm: I, do, however, hear and see the inverse daily. I do what I do the way that I do it because I do my level best to base it on mindful observation with the aim of being a partner in the learning of others, not a director or a dictator.

Like much of my father’s family, Montessori was an Italian Catholic, and designed her educational model during a historical time when sex education wasn’t an issue on the table. The only sex theorist she even had to draw from was Freud, whose ideas on infant and child sexuality — sensibly so — she rejected. She did however address that sexuality was a particular issue for adolescents, and one which can be so encompassing and distracting for them that adaptations may need to be made in their education — such as allowing them more physical activity during the day. I can’t know, ultimately, what Montessori would have felt about sex education as it is today overall, save that it does seem to me to be part of Practical Life (the area of the classroom and materials in Montessori that focus on care of oneself, others and the environment) for older students. We can glean some ideas based on how she felt about education for ages 12 - 18 (see From Childhood to Adolescence for more on that). She felt it vitally important to recognize those ages as a passage into adulthood — not an extended childhood — to help students of those ages to feel capable and able. She emphasized adolescents’ need to separate from adults, rather than to be dependent on us or exploited by our determination of what is right for them based on our ideas-in-hindsight of what would have been right for us. She protested the notion that we need to save them from themselves, and worse still, try to do so in a way which is purposefully misleading and a barrier to freedom, motivated by the idea that the ends, however deceptive and controlling, justify the means. Fascism is incompatible with learning and liberty: this is why Montessori left her home country in the 1930’s.

She would have been very much opposed to any kind of education — sexual or otherwise — which denied what we observed in our students, denied the needs our students express and demonstrate to us; which was based in ideas of controlling their behavior by making them fearful of life and others rather than providing them with the information and tools they need in order to exercise their liberty to make their own choices and to follow their own interests and development.

Uncannily enough, Montessori once wrote something else which seems a sound representation of our current conundrum with approaches to sex education in the States. It was this: “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.”

The inverse of that statement defines abstinence-only approaches to the letter. While good and evil is not a dichotomy which particularly speaks to me — few dichotomies or binaries do — ideas of good and evil, rather than ideas about liberty and learning, are foundational in abstinence-only education approaches and arguments against honest, factual, inclusive and comprehensive sex education. That simple sentence can tell us much about the flaws in a lack of sex education or abstinence-only sex education and the idea that the only way we can help protect people from activities which can carry risks is to keep them from them, teach them that they have no real means of managing them, or to urge them to be inactive — in both how they behave sexually and how we educate them sexually.

It shows up the red herring in the proposition that abstinence-only “sex education” is sex education at all, due to the approaches it takes, the purposeful misinformation or incomplete information it provides, and the place of control and withholding — a place with no allowance or respect for liberty — it’s all really coming from. It demonstrates an awful lot about if denying young people free and factual information and real opportunities for learning is really about health and well-being or really about being “good.”

(cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 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.

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

I sure wish I could croon that yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away, but alas, yesterday was a day from HELL.

I’m not writing about every item on my list, but to give you the highlights:

We don’t have houseboys in this house, we have a housedyke, and it’s me. I am usually the fixer-of-broken-things in our household. It’s actually not a role I like that much, butcha know, for the most part, I’m the one who knows how to fix things more often, so I’m stuck with it for now. Chalk it up to growing up poor, living on the fringes and having to learn to fix things because no one else is around or available. The cable modem, per usual (though it more often does this only when Mark is using his computer, but he wasn’t home yesterday), would just not cooperate and kept going down, taking ‘net access and phone service with it. I had a joint radio interview last night, and since Bellevue is a schlep for a car-less gal, was going to do it by phone, so it was a race against the clock. Also had to deal with a faucet issue outside, and then, in the midst of a rush to get a bunch of linens and towels done for Briana and The Baby Liam, our washing machine went kablooie. With a ton of water and towels still in it.

I unplugged it, restarted it, turned the fuse on and off, disconnected and reconnected the hoses, tried every setting….the works. I also tried yelling at it, shaking it and kicking it twice, but all I have to show for that is a sore toe. And as it turns out, we bought those used through our landlord, so any repairs are on us. Great. This is the first time I have every had laundry inside a place I lived, and I suppose I’m now paying the price (though I have had similar adventures with machines in laundromats, so). Or not: I have no idea what the price will be, but I probably can’t pay it, which is especially precious since there isn’t a laundromat anywhere remotely near here.

I found out I need scrubs for the new job like, yesterday, which is not so doable. I ordered some online where I could find them at a discount, but lord knows when they’ll get here. And new-job expenses are always a frustration: you take an additional job because you’re broke, but so often forget that with many jobs, for a while there the costs of travel, uniforms, what have you, end up draining your finances more. Never a good time, that.

I had some yuck to deal with at Scarleteen, too, my dog is becoming itchy again (poor kid), the house is a disaster since Mr. Price and myself have both been running so ragged with so many jobs, my backdrop stand in my studio fell on my sore toe, I burnt my hand on the stove, I felt disjointed and stressed during the radio interview. Part of why is that I believe that I was drunk-dialed by not just one but BOTH of my parents (funny that for all they don’t have in common, both love their vino). My Dad called slurring, and then just before the radio spot, my mother called elated about a bonus she’d gotten at work, but it was a kind of elated that I don’t usually hear her having without the Chardonnay.

And then there is this. Sigh. Right after what was said and posted in this video, and not shortly after the hate mail onslaught from some adults (not teens, nor even parents of teens, thanks) I had to deal with for a while thanks to this, which quotes from Shalit’s recent book, all of which pretty seriously misrepresent what all of them are talking about by shortening the whole list to two items and adding some implications which aren’t there.

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.”

Anyone reading knows this, but a) Scarleteen is for folks of all genders and orientations as is that checklist, b) we have more than that one item on the list of emotional factors, and c) one of the opening lines which has always been in that list is that sex does not equal maturity. All that plunging-fun business also isn’t mine: that’s even a little too obscene for me. Plus, a readiness checklist I’d write for expressly meaningless encounters would be a bit different than the list we’ve got. I’d be sure to include the requirement for a full lobotomy, for instance, and maybe the preferential selection of sexual partners in the thick of a midlife crisis or men who go virgin-hunting. But then, I might be jaded.

All the same, I do try and be a bridge-builder rather than a bridge burner as much as I can. I have some very huge problems with some of the things Wendy Shalit has to say — or, more accurately, just how they’re framed. All the focus on “good” girls and “bad” girls strikes me as keeping a dichotomy alive rather than getting rid of one, the endless focus on appearance seems seriously counterproductive, so much of it is framed as if everything to do with women, especially when it comes to sexuality and love, is about men, and for more reasons than I can count, framing everything as okay once marriage is involved really bugs me, and not just because I’m queer, nor just because I don’t personally feel that marriage as an institution empowers women. You’ll see where I exempted myself in the comments on that first link, and that’s because I am not going to have a conversation amidst men not only telling women what’s okay or feminine for our bodies (and lordy, how Toni would cringe if she saw herself being quoted by that guy in there in that way), but presuming that married women don’t need birth control because it’s all married women want to be pregnant all the time or risk pregnancy all the time.

All the same, I really hate false divisions, and I particularly resent someone creating them with my work, using misrepresentation of what I do or have written again and again because it nets a response they like, for their own aims. Seeing that video really made me angry, especially with the “teddy bear” comments, since I talk a LOT to young people about how BOTH “slut” and “prude” are crappy things to call anyone, and about how sexual readiness shouldn’t be seen as a status item, or a mark of maturity or immaturity. I explain often how plenty of people my age and older have times in their lives when they’re not ready for sex, or it’s not something they want to do for a while, and how that’s not about age: it’s just about how full our lives are and where we’re at in them. Saying we imply that anyone not ready for or interested in any kind of sex is lesser — especially given how many times in a day we explain that no one should ever feel sex is any sort of requirement — is either dishonest or incredibly careless. Continually talking about how we’re only talking to young, heterosexual women — especially given the language we/I use is very clearly inclusive save in pieces when we are very clear what group we’re speaking to — strikes me as an intentional way to make what we do seem to be something it is not, to serve her own purposes (which has also been an issue before elsewhere).

Anyway, at some point, I am going to just have enough and call this sort of thing out, but too, I often feel like there’s never any harm in trying to engage someone who isn’t doing same for you, and in simply asking for some consideration that the divides they see are divides they’re making themselves. Sex makes everyone feel vulnerable, those of us who work in sexuality are more than used to the fact that no matter what we say or how we frame it, people’s buttons get pushed and very few people can really see sex and sexuality outside binaries, dichotomies and all kinds of hierarchies. That’s just an unfortunate given.

I do actually get some of what I think Wendy Shalit is trying to do with her work, I do get the impression she means well for the young women she writes for, and were it framed differently, made in any way inclusive (per orientation, gender and gender identity, relationship models, spiritual belief systems, etc.) less heterosexist and entitled, and by pitting girls against each other less, I might be more convinced by some of it. While there is plenty she says that I have big problems with, I really DO think there are a few points on which we might intersect, even if we would posit different solutions to and sources of those issues more than a little bit differently. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect her to even publish my comments, and I was impressed that she did at all. Maybe I’m just being an idiot, because for all I know, she did so without constructive motives. Obviously, I have no way of knowing, especially when someone has been what seems — she’s a smart, educated woman — to be purposefully misleading as a habit. But I had a little behind-the-scenes bridge-building elsewhere this week that caused me to feel a bit more optimistic than I might otherwise, so who knows. Don’t go to “Why bother?” if you would on this. I’ve had egg on my face from trying to find middle ground with people and ask for them not to slander or misrepresent me or my work before, and if I wind up all eggy again, I’ll live. Apparently it’s good for one’s complexion, anyway.

All the same, most of the comments there make my blood boil, and that will be the end of any conversation there I have there. I am not going to sit and listen to how risky abortion is (particularly while omitting that pregnancy has always posed far more risks), how marriage magically makes a need for birth control or sexual readiness/consent vanish, or how when women want to control our own fertility, we’re somehow denying our own gender. If I want to read about that stuff, I’ll go reread The Handmaid’s Tale, where at least Margaret Atwood scares me in a way about all that that’s compelling.

In the midst of that I discovered that the version of the readiness checklist she linked to was on a website served in Israel which has stolen ALL of an old version of Scarleteen, changed some text, including the copyrights, and coated the pages with Viagra spam (how this was mistaken for a Google cache, I couldn’t begin to tell you). So, I got to spend several hours spending several case and desist letters which so far, have netted me nada. The name, address and phone number on the domain registration are fraudulent, the host in Israel is not responding in any way: it’s a freaking disaster.

Oh: and everyone and their uncle kept calling through during the radio interview, cutting off half of what I was saying.

By the time Mark stopped home briefly before going out to edit again, I was livid with all of life, and also just lost it, and wound up spilling out a bunch of issues with us that have been real problems for me in one long rush. I was not happy about how it all came out in one fell swoop, but at the same time, lately we seem to have ten minutes a day to actually communicate, so it often feels like I either just push things out, or I let them sit for weeks or even months at a time. Not really great options there. And given the timing of things, we’re not going to have any time together to talk more for close to three weeks: from houseguests now through the week and a half he’s going back home for his holidays, which really stinks.

Thankfully, I don’t have to be back at the other job until Monday , which is good because the last thing I want to do is go in there all frazzled and irritated. I get to finish cleaning and doing some work today, as well as packing up some prints and presents to ship out. Thankfully, too, I get one of my closest friends today and that dear little boy I can’t wait to see and make more forts out of blankets with.

And if nothing else, there is coffee, my sleepy, snorty dog, the piano, Villainess bath scrub and hot water, all of which I’m going to need for a little bit once I’m done freezing my hands by wringing out all the soaking, cold, wet towels.

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)

Monday, August 27th, 2007

Since my day began with yet another vet visit and yet another staggering vet bill, there’s really no sense in not going ahead and writing about one of the not-so-great parts of my Chicago trip, since I’m in a pissy mood already.

(Just so no one worries overmuch, Sofia isn’t on her deathbed or anything. The current diagnosis is that due to being exposed to fleas and now-verified mange, she had to both deal with the parasites — and now my cat has to be treated, too — AND the allergic reaction she had to them, and now also, apparently, that allergic reaction has stirred up her food allergies, so she has to have a food switch as well. At the moment, rather than itching herself into a frenzy as she has been, she’s sacked out on the sofa looking very comforted by a huge dose of antihistimines, which I really hope keep working, because the vet says if not, it’s on to cortisone injections. All this with the dog who has never had a single health issue. When it rains…)

I want to open this up by noting that both the book events I had in Chicago, even though one had some serious badness, were easily the best book events I have had so far. Both were apparently record-attendance events for both shops, which made me feel tremendously good. Both had incredible people at both of them who were a joy to meet, and who I felt very lucky to count as supporters and readers of mine.

At the Women and Children First event, we had a wonderful event coordinator and a very nicely diverse turnout. They’d told me that they never did so well with teen-specific events, and so we’d jointly decided to bill the event as a sort of remedial Sex Ed 101 for people of all ages, as well as a signing. In opening the event, I briefly explained what I do when it comes to Scarleteen, what S.E.X. covers, and also gave a relatively short list of what sorts of topics I could answer questions on. My list was essentially this: puberty, all-gender anatomy, sexual orientation, gender identity, birth control, safer sex, sexual response and function, masturbation, partnered sex, general relationships, body image, sexually transmitted diseases, all aspects of human reproduction, reproductive options and other related topics. Overall, I feel like I gave a very clear impression that I was addressing practical, tangible issues rather than theoretical or academic issues.

Most of the audience seemed to grasp that easily, including the handful of young adults that were there, the wonderful older male gay sexual health advisor, my parents and my mother’s girlfriend, the couple friends I had in the audience, a couple grad students and…well, almost everyone.

The only two people who either could NOT grasp that or who perhaps simply did not WANT to grasp that were two middle-aged, white, hetero men in attendance.

Now. For all I know, one or both of these men read me here. If you are one of these men and are reading, and feel I am somehow misrepresenting you…well, that’s kind of too bad, since what I’m about to say here was the impression everyone else there seemed to be left with, too, especially since I could see all of their faces throughout. If I hurt your feelings in any way, know that is not my intent, even though I do intended to be rather direct, and don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be.

I also want to say that one of these men announced publicly about 2/3rds of the way through the event that he had a social disorder. While I still think it was possible for him to behave differently than he did in many respects — or if he absolutely could not, to exempt himself from situations where he cannot control his behaviour — you have to give someone credit for not only being aware of that sort of disability, but for being somewhat accountable for it. Especially since the other man in the audience clearly ALSO had a social disorder — one profoundly worse than Man One did — but I don’t imagine that for a minute he would have even considered that he did, nor that if he knew he did, he would have chosen to behave any differently if behaving differently was an option for him.

Both men seemed to show up with an agenda, to the degree that one even came with prepared notes. Both men didn’t seem to care, at all, that a) they were in a women’s space, and b) there were younger people and younger women in attendance for whom the way each spoke most of the time was seriously disrespectful, purposefully intimidating and big-time inappropriate. And you know, when someone who thinks it is appropriate to sit in a group and talk easily and shamelessly about lubing up for anal sex, fisting or get in-depth about what an HPV wart looks like thinks you’re talking inappropriately, you know you’ve pushed one hell of an envelope.

Both men clearly didn’t want to talk about ANY of the subjects listed, nor let anyone else talk about them, myself included. Both men repeatedly and relentlessly spoke over any and every other audience member.

Man One, with the social disorder, basically was entirely focused on pornography and seemingly on having sex with every woman in the room that evening. I knew it was bad as it was, having watched almost every young woman in there try to get away from him, and having moved away from him as he followed me around the store before the event myself, but only in seeing that a young woman who attended the event who had briefly blogged on it note that she was asked for a lock of her armpit hair by this guy did I realize how bad it really was with him in that respect.

My father is one of those guys who, when introduced as my Dad to who anyone who meets and likes me, people seem to imprint on as surrogate Pop almost immediately. I was pretty well-adjusted about this in my youth, but I confess that there was more than one time in high school when I’d get all happy that a friend stopped by, then feel resentful when they made clear they had come because they needed to talk to my Dad. Harumph. Anyway, at some point, one of the staff there had apparently given my Dad a big bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, after which Man One came up to him, pointed at the woman, and asked my Dad how he could get “one of those,” for himself. I’m not sure what exactly my Dad said to him in response, but the look of disgust on his face was pretty palpable.

Man One would not stop talking about porn throughout the event: in fact, that is all he talked about, ad nauseum, both before the event to me, and during the event, to everyone. At one point, he sat listing all of his favorite porn sites (stating the .com at the end of each very oddly) to a totally unreceptive audience, and when I made clear after a few that I was sure we all got the picture, he kept racing to try and get to the end of the whole list, which he had written down on notecards. I was this close to asking if he got some sort of commission. It was my mother, this time, who asked him to please, for the love of gawd, freaking stop already. I watched a row of teenage girls in the front get more and more uncomfortable the more he went on: it was agonizing, and I did all I could to give them an “I’m terribly sorry” look.

Later on, he also asked if it wasn’t simply inaccurate to say that women didn’t like spending loads of time looking at naked men in print and online porn to the exact same degree men do at women. I informed him that first of all, there were plenty of men who didn’t like looking at women sexually at ALL, plenty of women for whom the inverse also was without appeal (and have I mentioned lately how tired I am of feeling like in nearly every conversation to be had about sex, I must step up and be the Heterosexism police?) as well as people of all stripes who aren’t regular porn users, period. I also let him know that most of the information and statistics we have on this — he seemed to imply that it was some sort of women’s conspiracy that stats always show the primary users of porn as being male — come from the porn industry itself, who tend to be pretty exacting with their statistics, since they’re in the business of making money, so knowing who their primary clientele is is no small matter, nor are they likely to misrepresent the marketing stats, since there’d be no benefit to them in doing so. Unfortunately, letting that question — I should have known better — in started the list of porn sites again, as well as him telling us he was going to share a personal anecdote. Seeing the faces of every single person in there still green from the existing oversharing, I tried to move on to someone else. Very, very quickly.

But alas. Up steps Man Two.

Actually, he was already standing. The event had several long rows of chairs, which everyone there had been sitting in from the start. I too, was sitting rather than standing (something I prefer at events, period, especially events about sex where I’m billed as an expert: I feel like someone in that position standing makes it feel intimidating and power-lordy). But not Man Two. He had been standing in the aisle between all the rows from the minute one, moving closer and closer to me the whole time with a silent scowl on his face while I answered some anatomy of the clitoris stuff, some basic safer sex procedure stuff, some developmental puberty stuff, some how-to-address-how-virginity-makes-some-people-feel-lousy stuff and some issues about HPV and age-matters with the vaccine. I’d asked him twice to please sit down, as had the staff. No dice.

Once he began talking, he kept moving closer, getting louder, and as time went on, I watched spittle form in the corners of his mouth, and his fists clench and unclench. He first started talking by cutting off a male college student, no less — who was a hero of the revolution for bringing his two younger sisters to the event, knowing they had zero sex ed in their family — who just wasn’t clear on what STIs he may or may not have been immunized for, and who also was interested in the status of HPV vaccination for men. I can’t say whether it was ironic, blind and careless, or just plain mean-spirited, but he interrupted that guy, who was visibly Asian, by barking out at me:

“Why does everyone blame the white man for racism?!?”

Umm, okay. We weren’t talking about racism. At all. All night. And, I’m thinking that at that moment, it was a pretty obvious answer since he’d just silenced a person of color right there in that room with his own white, male mouth. Of course, I almost wanted to ask whose fault exactly he thought racism WAS if not the fault of white people, and the whites with the most power, because I was really dying to know this fascinating theory he had, but suffice it to say, I was not about the humour this guy in any way. So, instead, I just calmly said that that wasn’t a topic we were discussing, nor one I felt was relevant to the book and the event.

My response didn’t result in much. He kept moving forward, spittly-mouthed, forehead-sweaty and clenchy-fisted, going on about this. Then there was some intermediary diatribe about how — and put in exactly this language, knowing he had teen girls sitting right in front of him — everyone just wanted to fuck 15-year-old girls and his 15-year-old daughter, but not him. I actually didn’t hear the bit about a daughter in there, my family only mentioned that later. I’m glad, because I don’t think I would have been able to not look beyond horrified at the notion of this poor kid who got stuck with this jerk as a father.

Again, the louder he got, the more I continued to ask him to sit down. And still, he’s not sitting, and still, he’s spitting. Then he starts in on why does everyone blame the white man for everything bad.

I was thisclose to telling him that if right now, anyone WERE blaming the white man for the badness, and the white man they were blaming was him, that would be BECAUSE IT WAS HIS FAULT. I considered telling him that while he couldn’t change his race, nor his sex (well, he could, but I don’t see this guy even remotely wishing he were female), what he COULD change, and what was most likely his biggest problem, was the fact that he was a giant horse’s ass. And that people who may have blamed him for being said ass were likely putting the blame where it belonged, and if he did not like it, not only could he choose NOT to be a giant horse’s ass, we’d all give him a freaking medal for making a different choice at that point.

But you know, there you are, in a public group. You watch the public group get more and more uncomfortable, half of them earnestly looking like they just don’t even feel safe anymore, and you watch them look to you to fix it, knowing that a lot of them want you to say exactly what you’re all thinking because this jerk has effectively terrorized the whole room. But you know, too, that telling someone any of those things publicly, if you did, would primarily be for you, not them, since calling them out that way is likely only going to make them both feel even worse about themselves and everyone else and behave even more badly.

So, if you’re me, the best you feel you can do is to tell him that again, this is outside the scope of the book, that this is a sexuality education book that addresses bigotry a bit, but doesn’t get into any sort of blaming, and that no one in the room is blaming anyone for anything right now (even though they’d have every right to). And then you tell him, more strongly than calmly this time to SIT DOWN. He keeps talking, so you say it AGAIN. This still doesn’t get through, so you then try being a little more direct and say it’s clear he is making every single person in the room grossly uncomfortable, but before you can get that out of your mouth, both of your parents, from opposite sides of the room, take flank positions and ALSO tell him to sit down. Then the staff try and tell him to sit down.

It is at this point that I finally just cracked up laughing, watching the bizarre circus that is sometimes my life, and did a little “Ladies and Gentleman, meet my parents…” which everyone in the room thought was just me being funny, and that the two people in the room I gestured to were just acting like parents, but were not actually my parents for real.

(My mother’s girlfriend later remarked that that was likely in part because when you look at both of my parents, while I may physically resemble them both in part, one wouldn’t assume I’d come from some soft-spoken, but very professional-looking now-blonde, or from some gangly, skinny old Italian. I’m not sure why not, but there you go. She also observed that she thought that some of why these guys went so batty was that they were expecting something from me that wasn’t there — that I was supposed to be, in their minds, some sort of femme fatale, or ball-busting dominator, rather than the short, funny and damn-patient chick in ratty jeans who talks about sex like she was talking about the weather. Who knows.)

Believe it or not, he did finally sit down, but in near-perfect unison, both Man One and Man Two piped up to say they EACH had “anecdotes” they wanted to share with the group. I think at that moment the collective imagination of everyone in that room about said anecdotes made us all wish there was some sort of soap we could use inside our heads.

Thank CHRIST that a half-second later someone else raised their hand so I had someone to call on. For the rest of the evening, the best I could do was look at both men with their perpetually raised-hands, letting them know that I saw that, unsurprisingly, they were not anything close to done, but that as far as I and everyone else was concerned, they’d said MORE than their fair share.

* * *

Honestly, the thing that grated my cheese the most about all of this was that, from everyone’s observations as well as my own, both these guys came into the event with an agenda. Both came in seeming to feel that they needed to tell all of us how it was, and that we were some sort of threat to them. Into an event at a women’s bookstore which has been hanging on financially by a thread, where most of the audience was some sort of minority, be it by age, sex, race or sexual orientation, all talking about sexuality for another marginalized population. In other words, how on earth we could have been any sort of threat to either of these guys, even if we’d have wanted to be, is completely beyond me: I’m not sure there was a single person in there with that power, nor that desire.

I’ll tell you, two, that having survived a couple assaults and stalkers, as well as being someone who has taught self-defense, that my radar is exceptionally good for predatory people. I was exceptionally glad that I was not taking the bus or the el home alone as I would have if I’d still lived there, because I can nearly guarantee that without a doubt Man Two — and possibly, though less likely, Man One — would have been the sort to follow me home.

Some of why behaviour like that pisses me off so freaking bad — beyond the fact that it also resulted in me losing my voice for the rest of the weekend, and feeling like I’d been run over by a Mack truck — is that for fuck’s sake, they were both validating the exact things that both seemed to be saying they did NOT want people to think about men. There were some awesome men in the audience, but those awesome guys are NOT the men anyone was going to leave that event remembering, because the other two made that completely impossible.

More importantly, one of the many reasons that I choose to struggle to keep serving the populace that I do is that shit like this is very real and very common in terms of this populace — teens and women. Interpersonally, politically and educationally, publicly and privately, in everything from their sexual healthcare to trying to negotiate sexual activity they are shouted down and yelled over just like this. We can talk about exceptions to the rule all we want — and by all means, should note that there nearly always ARE exceptions — but this still IS the rule. It’s also a fine example that someone doesn’t have to be the numeric majority to do that: there were but two of these guys, and at least 25 of the rest of us (and I say “rest of us,” because the only other people in the room who were male were — and it was made clear to me by them that they were — either gay or bisexual, of color or homeless), and yet they still found the way to dominate when no one else was fighting them FOR dominance, nor was that anything resembling the vibe of the room. They still attacked, still walked in on the offense, when there was absolutely no cause or reason to: when they were in no danger whatsoever, when there was less than zero threat to them of any sort, save the threat of someone else getting to take their turn speaking about their own issues or questions.

And for crissakes, you’d think, you’d hope, that one could at least be given a vacation from this sort of shite when you’re doing a mellow event, at a mellow women’s space that’s making room for everyone. But you can’t, and perhaps can’t all the more, because I think sometimes that that in and of itself is perceived as a threat: that women could have a space that IS ours, and have the “power” to invite anyone into that space with the understanding that they are expected to behave like guests and expected to make the same allowances.

And I know, we’re so often not supposed to say things like this, but the trouble is that the reality of these situations bears itself out time and time and time again. To pretend that it doesn’t, or to not speak about it (or feel we’d better not, or to be kind must not) is to deny that reality and to choose to be silenced. Like it or not, if you don’t get it, a scenario like this is a big part of why women want exclusive women’s space sometimes (however you define what women’s space is and who it includes): because every now and then, we’d like to be able to speak and talk without being shouted down as most of us so often are, especially if what we want to say either is — or is simply deemed to be — less important than or in conflict with what the men in the room determine so.

(It feels stupid I even have to say this, but just ’cause: does that mean that ANY white, middle-class hetero male is like this? No. Nor does it mean that had another shown up, he would have behaved this way. But this was the actual situation at hand, and these actual situations happen a’plenty.)

Interestingly, I think it’s the first time my mother has actually understood what parts of my job are like, how much of it flat-out stinks, and how small the payoff is so often for me. As we were driving home, she seemed to first be operating under the assumption that something like this never happens, and I let her in on the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time with what I do, in a lot of different contexts. It happens on the message boards, it happens in my email box, it happens with events and talks I give. In talking to straight, white male colleagues of mine who do similar work about these sorts of things, I have yet to have a single one express that this sort of thing EVER happens to them (not saying it doesn’t, just saying that of yet, no one has reported it to me), while other women I know in the field have stories like this in spades. In fact, much as I hate to say it, of the handful of hetero male sexologists I have met face-to-face all but one or two have not hit on me, made salacious comments to me (or about me, to a partner when I stepped away), or seemed to have even the smallest iota of real respect for me and my work beyond how it or I might benefit them personally. Last year, I had to tell a male colleague in the field to stop asking me to do his work for him (for his profit, and for free on my part) at least five times before he stopped, and even then, he literally sent ANOTHER man to harass me to do something for him. Only in saying to said other man that this was at the point of harassment which I was about to take action with did it finally cease.

But I digress.

My mother was pretty mortified, and since that event, has asked how things are going with the book and Scarleteen in every conversation, whereas she used to ask me about it maybe once a year, tops. Oddly enough, one of the lone positives from the whole fracas was that I actually got to see my mother seriously stand up for me in public — which has not happened in my recollection since 1976 — and not because she felt she was supposed to, but because she wanted to. I also think she grew some respect for me that she didn’t have before.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that my parents cooperated with something. MY parents, who I don’t think have cooperated with anything since 1969, when I was conceived.

My father, of course, was not that shocked: he knows the deal. And my father, of course, made new friends that night, and is now paying attention to the event listings for WCF and asking me about them in terms of if I think he should go to make sure there aren’t any jerks in the audience harassing the two staffers who adopted him. I’m sure there could be all sorts of analysis, gender-based and otherwise, on what my parents each took from the event, but I’m fresh out of analysis today.

The event did sell out of all their cartons of books, though, to the point that they ended up buying the three copies I had with me from me, and sending a few sad folks away bookless. And, of course, we all got to leave with whatever our own oh-so-entertaining versions of the story were, though I think the girl who got asked to give over armpit hair got the shortest end of the stick.

This wasn’t the book event that broke the camel’s back or anything: like I said earlier and in another post, there were actually some other very positive experiences there, and it really was fantastic to be able to have an event in a shop I hold so dear. But I’d already decided that week that after the couple workshops I’d committed to in Victoria for October, and the San Fran trip that same month, that I’d be taking time away from promotion. Not only am I out of funds for it, I’m out of “on” for it, especially since big social events drain the hell out of me to begin with.

And to be honest, those two guys did make me want to take a break all the more. I loathe that result, as it makes me feel like a wuss, but it is what it is. It’s one thing to deal with this stuff online, but it’s entirely another to deal with it up in my face, and that filled my limited quota of it for a while.

I’m also done with it right now, because the far more attractive prospect of friend + bottle of wine just showed up on my door, which beats out pretty much anything, but most certainly kvetching further about this crap.

Friday, July 27th, 2007

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. Well, an epiphany for me, anyway: it may well already have been obvious for others.

I’ve been trying to do this thing for myself, at least once a week, where for around a half an hour, I just allow myself to accept and entertain the possibility that I might not be able to keep doing the kind of work that I do. I’m not doing this to be morbid, but rather, in the hope that if things do get to that point, it’ll be easier for me to deal with if I’ve come to some small level of acceptance in advance.

I’ve been reminded lately, that eleven years ago, I wasn’t in a dissimilar position than I may find myself in soon again. Having to close the crunchy, indie Kindergarten I’d run for nearly five years really gutted me. On the last day of school, I threw a big party for all the current and former students and parents, because I wanted the kids to have something happy to part with, not sad, but that day, every five minutes I had to walk away, go into the alley, and sob. I gave away most of our materials to the kids, partly out of generosity, but partly because I knew if I had them around, I’d look at them all the time and torture myself.

I had to do that largely because financially, there was no way to make things work without it a) either becoming unaffordable for parents because I needed extra space and help or b) seriously killing me because 80 hours a week on your feet, with no assistants, a majority of which were spent managing a group of small children is just something you can only sustain for so long. I even saw it coming over the last year, had tried various things to make it workable, but I was so in love with the job and the idealism of the thing (it was a vegetarian school, we had a kickass parent community, even including our own food co-op, we were trying to raise kids compassionately and peaceably, etc.), that I didn’t really visualize my life without it.

So, when the inevitable happened, it was really awful. I was beyond depressed for months, I felt like I’d lost this huge part of myself, and like I’d lost family, and to boot, I just felt like a complete failure (which is kind of a silly thing for someone twenty-six who started her first indie biz at 21 to feel like, but I had no hindsight at the time). So, if I get to a similar space again, I want to do everything I can to try and be smarter about it this time around and try and do some things to preventatively manage what would be a very serious heartbreak of an even greater magnitude.

On to my epiphany. A friend messaged me when I was in the midst of one of these meditations/visualizations, and made some noise that it wasn’t the best time to talk to me (I sit and weep when I do this: that’s fine, it’s catharsis, but it’s not pleasant to be around), but not enough noise, really. Truth is, I want to talk about this stuff with people, I just feel like a perpetual downer these days, and feel really guilty about burdening people with it. And so it got brought up, my malaise with this, and she mentioned that I couldn’t be a failure because many people consider me a (s)hero.

Forgive my bluntness — she did, she’s a peach, and she gets it — but being a hero to someone or even a lot of someones rarely pays the rent or puts food on the table. And right now, and at my age, I’d honestly easily give up any hero-status I may have for some form of reliable paycheck. I mean, it’s really nice, I’m not a complete asshole, nor an ungrateful louse, and it does makes me feel good about myself and what I do/have done.

But here’s the thing. I’ve come to the conclusion that much as is the case with artists, where they and their work are usually considered most valuable when they’re dead, that with actvists – and what nutjob decides to be both, anyway? Erm… – we are often considered less valuable, less heroic, if we have even the basic creature comforts that everyone else does. In a word, I think that people perhaps often confuse heroism with martyrdom.

I’m no Catholic nor a Christian. I’m Buddhist: our goal is to certainly accept that we all suffer, for sure, but we try to work to reduce the suffering we and others experience, not to elevate or celebrate it. I mean, I think Jesus was an incredibly cool guy, one of the all-time-greats, for sure, but I don’t think he died for anyone’s sins en masse or that his death or the way he died is anything to celebrate or idolize. I also have a really hard time believing that anyone would seriously ask someone to crucify them, even if they were batshit crazy or just totally worn out with being the Messiah (well, maybe that one I believe). I think he got screwed by a jealous ass and that that seriously sucks. And if that isn’t what happened, and in fact, Judas really was following Jesus’ directive, then it’s Jesus who was the ass, because that’s a fuck of a cruel position to put a friend in, man.

But enough about Jesus: let’s talk about me.

Well, in a minute. Instead of Jesus & Co, — and I’m hardly comparing myself to these folks, just looking for activists people know to talk about — I’m thinking about people like Aung San Suu Kyi, and the fact that from, where I’m sitting (which is not in Burma, so if I’m being inaccurate, please correct me), it appears that only after she was put under house arrest, and thus, laregly unable to continue to do the amazing activist work she was doing, did she get the big street cred and awards. Certainly, refusing to leave the country, which would have given her freedom, was an incredible protest all by itself, but so was the work she did which led her there in the first place.

I’m thinking about Martin Luther King, and the likely reality that had he not been assassinated, his profound achievements not only would have been less recognized, but in no short time whatsoever, the fact that he cheated on his wife, that he wore nice suits, or that he didn’t have to put his life at huge risk anymore would have overshadowed his incredible accomplishments.

I’m thinking about Phil Ochs, Nelson Mandela, Alice Paul, Medgar Evers, the current Dalai Lama, Harvey Milk, the works. And what I’m thinking is that without their martyrdom and their profound suffering (far more than mine, obviously; I’m just kvetching about having big troubles paying the bills and not having a segment of the population think I’m some sort of child predator: I’m certainly not grappling with being shot or imprisioned for years and years), their heroism wouldn’t be held up so high.

And I’m thinking that is complete and utter bullshit.

I’m thinking that that complete and utter bullshit has something to do with why on earth I keep finding it so hard to make ends meet when someone working at a fast food restaurant the number of hours I do often, say, has some sort of vehicle, and someone who sits on their arse in a cubicle all day getting paid for forty hours, with benefits, but really working maybe 20, is doing far, far better in just having some basic stability, security and quality of life than the both of us.

It’s become pretty clear to me over the years that a lot of people just figure that anyone who does any sort of activism, especially if they do it for their living, has made some sort of intentional choice to barely scrape by — or chose that because we somehow are trying to show others we’re better people than they are by scraping by — or somehow deserves to live poorly or at higher risks because we chose not to have “real” jobs, even if our work benefits those who have those “real” jobs, or fills in the gaps because those with the “real” jobs don’t have the time or wherewithal to tend to the stuff we are. There absolutely is plenty of commentary out and about which clearly states that full-time activists deserve to stay poor and struggle because we chose the “luxury” of doing work that we feel is universally important rather than the hellacious torment of a corporate job.

It seems clear, especially if I pay attention to what others say about people like me, that if I wrote my missives from a comfortable house that I owned, or had a car I drove around in, or talked about the kids I can’t likely ever afford to have at this point, by some, I’d be less of a hero; less of an activist.

It seems clear that if I didn’t sit here perpetually whinging about how much it sucks that forty is flirting with me and no matter how hard I seem to work doing things people say are important, I can’t squeeze even a dime for it from the majority of folks who talk about the value of what I do, I’d be less of a hero. That I’m considered more of one because someone can look up my woes about healthcare without insurance, see how low and exhausted I can get, how tough it is for me to get real credibility, or look back and read about the winter I had to post online to ask for someone to donate a coat for me for the winter because it can get just that bad. And that’s freaking lunacy.

This, for the record, is not intended to be any sort of guilt trip. Rather, this is me simply acknowledging pervasive attitudes that exist, and trying to desconstruct them in the hope of perhaps changing them, or at the very least, accepting them better than I do now. I’m trying to suss these things out because I’m in a space where I’m trying to look the life I have now square in the face and see if there is any chance of continuing to do things the way I do them — or continuing to be a full-time activist at all — but to also have some hope of some semblance of a basic, comfortable life. I’m wondering if the sort of attitudes I’m talking about aren’t a big (maybe the biggest? Maybe not?) barrier to that, because if they are, then it seems to me that I need to accept that there is only so much I can do to change them, and more realistically consider what I might need to do — not for the world-at-large, but just for myself — in that context.

Look: I grew up with the sorts of people I mentioned above as my heroes and sheros. When my friend I was talking to asked me who my own heroes were, I admit, I was loathe to roll out the list, because when you look at it, it seems pretty clear that from day one of my life, the role models and idols I’ve chosen aren’t just activists, but also martyrs. It’s entirely possible that I, too, am influenced by that conflation and confusion, even if I abhor it; even if I’d by all means prefer that more of my heroes were still alive than dead young and early, that they lived much more comfortably than they did. (Mind you, I’d rather have grown up with those folks as my role models than the vapid celebrities so many young people hold up, but still, it begs an important question about idols and role models.)

However bitter a pill it is to swallow, I’m glad, at least, that my brain is going to these places, because I very much need to think about them, very seriously, and pretty much now. It’s gotten pressing to do so financailly, it’s gotten pressing to do so emotionally, and since I’ve also found myself with a bonafide life-partner, there is that on top of it all. By all means, Mark knew pretty well what he was signing unto with me and what I do, but I also don’t want my work, my life, and my fallout from both to cause him suffering. There’s this activist/social work trap you can so easily fall into where you’re so invested in making huge groups or classes of people feel better, have better lives, so focused on the big picture that you get myopic about your own life, your own betterment, and with making sure the people closest to you are also okay, and that you’re not only helping them, but not making things WORSE for them by working so much to make things better for others (it’s something I also see a good deal of in feminism, too: there are some incredible activists who are doing great things for women-at-large, but who sometimes seem really inept or careless when it comes to maltreatment of the women right next to them). I’ve found myself in that place before with work and my interpersonal relationships and my own life, and I do not want to land there again.

I’m not sure what to do with this particular epiphany, where to file it, or where to go from here just yet. I’m just at the starting gate of sorting it all out, after all. So, I’m more aware of what part of this is likely about, acutely aware that I think it’s crap, and obscenely aware that I don’t want a cross on my back, because that’s just plain fucked up.

Well, you gotta start somewhere.

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

This just in: I’ve been really depressed.

Probably not a surprising headline at this point, but you know how depression goes: you don’t usually see it coming, and only figure out you’re there once you’re soaking in it.

It’s primarily work-related, which is some of why I’ve been reluctant to talk about it, because getting into the specifics of why the work I do is hard, and why parts of it aren’t working for me always feels precarious and uncomfortably like money-grubbing, not to mention, is likely not all that interesting for anyone else. Hell, it’s not interesting to me.

But I’ve no doubt my radio silence is a bit odd, and since I’ve been doing what I do, pretty much out there for all to see here for eight odd years now, I may as well just come out with it. It’s not like I don’t have other readers who run their own businesses or work as activists, after all. At least the lot of you can share a sigh with me. I apologize in advance for going on at great length: there’s no making this brief.

As I often find myself — and have, running independent businesses and working the causes for the whole of my adult life — I’m in a finanical and existential pickle, and looking further down the road, I’m seeing the vinegar turn.

A lot of how I’m feeling I described to Mark as this: I spend my time doing what I think is building something higher and higher, but right now, I feel like maybe I was unknowingly upside down, and what looked like upward construction was, perhaps instead, me digging an incredibly deep hole for myself. It’s not a hole for anyone else, for anyone utilizing what I do and have done, but for me, personally, it really does look like that.

Many years ago (so crazy that it really is many) when I first starting shifting from classroom teaching to working full-time in sexuality — in erotica, but also in education — my pro-bono lawyer at the time told me to consider what I was doing very carefully, because if I made that choice, and got any kind of notice in making it — or even none at al - I may well never be able to go back to classroom teaching, especially not in this country, where the ethos are so insanely bizarre when it comes to fear and panic about children and adults having any sort of overt sexuality or doing anything even remotely considered sex work. I didn’t blow that concern off, by any means. I did consider it pretty carefully, and it just seemed like what I was aiming to start doing was important enough that I could live with that.

But what I didn’t really consider as well as i should have, however, was if this other work could actually sustain me. Some of why is because I was making so little and working so hard teaching that it was hard to imagine being even less financially stable. I’d also grown up poor enough, and continued to live poor enough, that at the time, it felt like if that stayed that way forever, I wouldn’t be elated, but I’d deal. Of course, having always lived scrap-to-scrap, it’s not like I’m exactly the best financial planner ever.

Throughout the now almost-ten years I’ve been working online in this arena, getting by has been incredibly difficult, because in every aspect of my work, I have been really dedicated to doing it in such a way that I did not sell out: did not misrepresent anything in order to make a buck, did not ally myself with anyone or anything that I wasn’t comfortable supporting (or felt effectively would cancel out the good I was doing with my work), did not do things in such a way that were driven by profit, rather than by the integrity and aim of the work.

It’s no news flash that when you’re working in any aspect of sex and sexuality, that is more than a minor challenge.

Now, there were a couple good years in there. Certainly, not good by a lot of people’s standards: I live pretty lean — I don’t have a car, I cook at home more than go out, I rent, I don’t own, I don’t do credit cards — but I’d be living primarily that way even if I was rolling in it, most likely. But by my own standards, there have been times when I’ve done alright. Being in at the gate before the web boom, this site here did pretty well for a handful of years before alt-porn was on the map, and when there did seem to be a market for erotic work that wasn’t porn, or wasn’t marketed as porn. When Scarlet Letters was in its heyday, and people really thought there could be a real market for women’s sexuality content (oh, you laugh now…), we had a few paying advertisers that we liked a lot (Good Vibes, Babeland: good folks who don’t exploit anyone or objectify women’s sexuality — when SuicideGirls first started, we accepted them as an advertiser, but when it started seeming — in pretty short order — like that wasn’t the great woman-run thing they said it was, we stopped working with them). Back before the dot-bomb, Scarleteen was on Chickclick’s network for a couple years, which meant that we were able to run good avertising, paying an apporpriate CPM, and working with really nice people who really supported what we did very bravely — even to the point of refusing to take us off the network when their biggest network advertiser, one of the major American personal product companies, blew a gasket about having ads run on a network which included a teen sex education site and demanded they did or else they’d pull their millions.

(Chriesta, I sound like someone’s grandma. Back in MY day….)

Scarlet Letters hasn’t been updated or shifted to something else since 2004 because for the life of me, I cannot figure out how on earth to do it in a way where it pays its own bills — without putting things on it neither I nor our readers would want — how on earth to make the time to do it, and because I don’t have the heart to sell the domain (even though it’s got some worth), because I know full well the buyer would likely use it for something noxious. I update the artwork and work here less and less often because at this point, making the work costs more per time and money than I get back for it, and flatly, the better my work gets in my eyes, the less saleable it seems to become. Plus, the move to Seattle hasn’t been good when it’s come to opportunities for photography work: I did far, far better in Minneapolis, and that’s the understatement of the century. To the point that I have sat down and looked at if it is fiscally feasible for me to just fly out there every few months to do that work, because that is still where I get the most people inquiring about having work done.

And Scarleteen. Oh, Scarleteen.

A wonderful thing Scarleteen is, I know, from a public service perspective, and from a maybe-if-I-stopped-liking-the-sex-so-much-I’d-get-sainted-for-this viewpoint, but want to know about an insanely stupid business model? Come on, I know you do.

An insanely stupid business model is choosing to serve the population LEAST willing, likely and able to support that service financially. Seriously, that’s beyond dumb. And when your second rung of support for that service is the adults responsible for that population, it’d SEEM doable, unless you consider the fact that the majority of them obviously don’t care overmuch about that service being provided for their kids, or else the kids probably wouldn’t be coming to you for that service in the first place. Tack on that the service you provide is viewed as provocative at best, and downright evil at worst (especially coming from a bent, wanton harlot like me OR from a man-hating, anti-sex hag, depending on who’s making the judgment that day), and you see just how financially suicidal that is.

Scarleteen, for most of its history, has been sustained — and me with it, especially as it’s turned into my full-time job — by donations. And yet, with every year that passes, those donations become less and less frequent. Used to be that a bad month for us per donations was when we only made $50. Anymore, if we net $50 in donations over a couple months, it’s a freaking miracle. The longer we stick around and keep up the good work, the greater our reach becomes — just over the last few months, it’s elevated over 100% — which just costs us more money and requires more time spent serving everyone, and doesn’t result in any more donations to offset that. I have one private grant — thank christ — but that’s not guaranteed to be permanent, and it is arranged to decrease over time. We’re working on 501c3 status, but a) that costs money and time, too and b) that may or may not be of a lot of help given the cultural climate right now, and it looking like it won’t change very much for quite some time.

So, when it’s looking like this, I look back to advertising, preferably as a stop-gap, not a permanent solution, for all the obvious reasons (well, obvious to me as an anti-capitalist and as someone whose work often involves correcting and fending off the effects of the media and acqusitional culture, anyway). I’ve just finally put Google AdSense on Scarleteen, and I’m not at all happy about it, but it’s certainly a lesser of other evils and it’s also something we CAN do right now to net a little income and try and hang in there until something better comes along. Beyond that running at a really skimpy CPM and so helping, but not much, and looking like arse, even with me filtering the things showing up on it like a maniac, I’m unhappy with what’s being run there overall and what I have to race to filter in the first place. Vaginoplasty ads, sexual performance “enhancers,” really gross dating services — and yep, found an abstinece-only program ad on a page — aren’t things I want on a site where I am trying to help young folks build up esteem and come to sexuality in a healthy way.

But as of right now, I’m nearly out of other options. About once a year, I’ve gone on a kick for a few weeks where I try to persuade what SHOULD be considered appropriate advertisers for us — condom companies, birth control manufacturers, books and magazines, independent media, record labels, indie designers, etc. — and every single time, it’s the same song and dance. Pretty much everyone is outright terrified as to what it would say about them and their business to be on a site “endorsing” teen sexuality and telling teens that they are still okay if they decide to be sexually active. That bit that happened with the Chickclick advertiser I mentioned up there? That was about a CEO coming home to discover that his 17-year-old daughter was reading about masturbation — and how it’s totally okay — at Scarleteen. Oh, the horror! And at the tender age of 17, no less! Having interest in her own genitals! Is there no end to my great corruption of America’s youth?

Apparently not. This week, I’ve spent time on the phone with a couple of the larger ‘net ad agencies, because our traffic and reach (and the number of pages we have) is such that most DIY ad revenue sources just aren’t feasible for me. Plus, I hate shilling for money, and don’t have the time in my day (or the heart: it’s hard not to take personally) to spend every waking minute trying to persuade advertisers that I really, truly, am not trying to turn teenagers into depraved, sex-addicted beasts, and that I’d really just like to sustain what we do for them — which they ask us to do for them — while at the same time helping them find their way to thinks like books to read and decent condoms to use, which seems like a pretty decent arrangement, no?

Not to advertisers or ad agencies it doesn’t. Never has, apparently still never will. I have one more left to talk to, but since all the others gave the usual “No, we can’t, even as great a site as I personally think it is, our higher-ups don’t want to lose ad clients, and our content needs to stay ‘clean’,” I’m not feeling particularly hopeful. This, for the record, is also what’s happening with coverage of the book so far, even in terns of getting promotional venues. Note: it WOULD be okay — and “clean” — to support my site if it was all about appearance, bikini-waxing, getting skinny, if it was a lad mag or a site full of sexist jokes and videos. But talking about birth control or clitorises or noncompulsory bisexuality to teenagers? Filth!

So, here I sit. Well, more like, here I slump and skulk. I have a seriously challenging and emotionally demanding job which requires I work more than full-time, but which pretty much never pays me for all that time, and which I sometimes even find myself in the position of having to pay for the great privilege of doing. I’m in the hole due to time I had to take to re-edit the book, costs of promoting the book, the costs and labor of the site upgarde, an upgrade I was hoping would pump up book sales and donations — as well as make it easier and more efficient for me to do the work — but instead has only increased reach and thus, cost. My usual avenues of freelance work to offset Scarleten-debt — as well as to help pay for my own personal expenses, rent, food, healthcare, the perpetually never-paid student loans, etc. — appear to be closed to me right now.

And my lawyer was right about going back to teaching. Right now, if I wanted to go back to teaching in a classroom full-time, the only way I’d get hired would be to outright lie about how I’ve been spending my time (I publish with my first and middle name only, so while given my visibility, it’s likely a lie I’d get caught in eventually, I likely wouldn’t right off the bat), which I am beyond not okay with for so many reasons. Alternately, I could invest some time in making much of my work disappear (though the book pretty much makes that impossible) so that you had to dig a lot harder for it and it wasn’t in any way active. Even thinking about effectively throwing away so many years of hard work is beyond heartbreak, and knowing that I can’t do both — this is why I left in the first place, it’s not that I was tired of teaching, I loved teaching — which means some things would just have to get shut down…ugh, it’s just too much to even bear thinking about right now. I try to make myself think that way to be practical, and I wind up weeping.

Sometimes, I get really irate about people doing any kind of work like the work I have done or do under secrecy or big pseudonyms. Often, that’s because I really do think it’s important not to do that to take the shame out of sex, even though (obviously) I fully understand the price that requires at this time (though if everyone took that risk, I think in pretty short order, things would be very different in that regard). But sometimes, it’s simple jealousy. I envy the fact that most people working in sexuality don’t find themselves in this sort of position: came from a place where it felt/feels okay to be invisible as who they are in their “other lives,” and aren’t limited in the way that I’ve set myself up to be, even though, for me, I don’t see how I could have accomplished what I have without doing it this way, very visibly.

Beyond….well, being broke, which is crappy as it is, but especially tiresome when you spend close to forty years being that way, the even harder emotional hit for me lately is that not being able to even sustain myself and my businesses in the most basic ways, despite working so damned hard, and doing something for so long, with so much dedication and in such a way that even at my low points, I don’t often doubt the value of, makes me feel valueless.

I don’t like that feeling for a lot of reasons. I don’t like it because it stands in pretty sharp conflict with my knowing full well that money and wealth, while it does PUT a value of things, does not accurately DETERMINE the value of things, and I resent my believing, even for a minute, that it does. (Plus, I hear my father lecturing me about it inside the recesses of my head, and if you think I, can go on and on for an age, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m like this for a reason, you know.) I don’t like feeling that way because even on the days when the work is harder than hell, and not a single person I help remembers to say thank you, even when I’m at a low point and so self-pitying I feel like nothing I’ve done is worth anything, it’s really important to me to be able to shake that stuff the hell off and get real, knowing that it’s psychological suicide to rely on anyone or anything else to acknowledge the value of what I do. I’ve done a ton of work in my life for absolutely no money, or very, very little, because it was of real value and I was able to do what needed to be done: money shouldn’t determine a value.

But I’m having a harder and harder time believing that of late, and the more time goes on. I can see 40 from where I’m sitting, and I really don’t want things to be like this when I get there. When I see the things people hurl money at and fiscally support, it makes me more and more bitter and less and less optimistic. Some woman wants new boobs — not because she had breast cancer, even, but because she just wants new boobs — and she makes that about all the big, wonderful men helping her achieve that “goal,” and she can raise money for that, but I can’t often for the life of me get fiscal support to help prevent rape or help someone heal from one, to help someone avoid an unwanted pregnancy, or let some girl know her boobs are just flippin’ fine so she can achieve productive goals, actual acheivements, and NOT wind up the woman grubbing for cash by flashing skin to get fake boobs in a vain attempt to feel better about herself, who will most likely ultimately come back to just needing someone to tell her she’s just fine as she is TO feel better. I could go on for an age with these examples, but I’m not going to, because it’s just too pathetic and I just get pissier and pissier the longer I go on about them. Plus, y’all know the stuff I’m talking about.

A week or so ago, I had someone write me back in reponse to trying to arrange a promotional event who actually felt the need to explain to me — as if I had no idea, and you know, haven’t been doing what i do for as long as I have — the demographics and general needs and practices of people who blog about sexuality. I don’t have diva moments often (which is a big part of why i stopped studying opera in high school), but as I read the missive over here, an audible gasp issued from my mouth (which made me sick of myself quite instantly), and I just couldn’t even make myself respond back. I mean, there’s no way to say, “Umm, do you know who I AM?” that doesn’t sound prissy, pissy and banal. Regardless, and even knowing the stupidity of the way I felt at that moment, feeling valueless comes up again: you do something for a long time, starting before anyone else even does it, and sometimes, when you’re recognized in no way for it — it just makes you feel like shite.

Know what else? When people DO sell out, there is SO much noise about it. But when you really don’t, even over loads of time? When you bust your arse NOT to, and take the hard hits for not doing so? Ain’t a peep. And you know what? That freaking blows.

Usually, I’m pretty good at being positive in light of all of this kind of stuff and the daily crap I slug through. I’m no dummy, I know and understand why what I do is so often so unsupported, even though I don’t agree or — obviously — like it. But when you’re staring down at a stack of bills, looking at rent due a couple months away and not sure where it’s going to come from, needing some real healthcare and having no idea when you’ll be able to get it, eating peanut butter and jam too often for lunch, having a book you worked on for six years to promote but no cash to promote it with, piling stuff you love off to pawn, and envying the hell out of people who can go somewhere and take a real vacation while you’re harboring the heartbreak counseling yet one more sexual abuse survivor you really — however much of a shit you feel like for feeling this way — wish someone else was taking care of, it’s pretty easy to not only cease being positive, but to get pretty damn negative.

My new thing lately is to be out to dinner or drinks and if I’m with someone I feel even remotely close to, I just burst into tears for no reason, in public. That’s a winner. I’ve been avoiding seeing friends because I’m such a drag lately, and I kind of don’t feel like having to try NOT to be a drag: faking it just feels even worse, and when I talk about this stuff, I usually wind up with a) a bunch of earnest trying-to-help that are usually all ideas I’ve had and pursued, so I have to recount my failures, or b) a total silence, likely because no one knows what to say, which is understandable, especially since it’s pretty unusual for me to have my spirit so broken. Poor Mark has effectively been living with Sybil — if I’m feeling better, I try and just avoid this topic altogether, but if I’m low, or something brings it up, I just lose it and turn into a weepy pile of mush, on top of being critical with him about every damn little thing lately, because my threshold for anything else going wrong or getting messed up is so low, and because he’s one of the only people I feel even remotely comfortable losing it in front of. Lucky him! (Course, he just had his own personal breakdown in front of me last week, so it is a pretty mutual exchange.)


I just wish I knew what the right thing to do was to get on the right track with all of this, instead of feeling so lost and so torn and so out of options. I wish I could magically change my attitude about it all, to boot, because I know that cannot possibly be helping the matter. Some days lately, I just wish I could say to hell with the whole lot of everything, pack up my dog, my cat and my piano, get our arses to Mexico or some nice farm land somewhere — and convince Mr. Price to join us — change my name and grow tomatoes until I kicked it: it’s a fantasy I entertain often, and quite enjoy entertaining. If I share that fantasy with others, the typical response was that I’d get bored in no time, feel useless and need to go do some activist work. While I think that would have been true about me at one point, I’m not so sure it is anymore: in fact, I’m becoming pretty certain that it isn’t, to the point that I almost resent the implication that I simply MUST do The Big Work. I’m tired, man, I’m world-weary, and if I’m going to scrape by on so little so much of the time, it’d sure be nice to do that without having to work so hard and juggle so much of everyone’s heaviest stuff.

(It felt very liberating to write that out loud just now, actually. That’s a load off.)

I’m not asking anything of anyone here (save your ever-wearying eyeballs due to this entry, and for that I apologize). In fact, right now, it’s pretty critical that I sort my own shit out without a lot of interference. Obviously, if anyone has any super-brilliant ideas they’re pretty sure I haven’t thought of, I’m all ears, so long as it’s understood that I may not reply back, especially if the super-brilliance is a road I’ve already gone down, or something that I just know won’t be workable (in which case my lack of reply isn’t about not being thankful for help or concern, but about not wanting to rehash nonoptions, because doing so bums me out more).

I just wanted to get this stuff on the table, both because I needed to for myself, and because I do expect to be a bit distracted with all of this until I come up with some solutions, so it may be quieter around here than usual. Plus, it felt pretty essential to just keepin’ it real around here. I will be fine — I will, even at those moments when I’m sure I won’t — lord knows, I’ve lived through worse than this and managed to be fine, and I do have some good supports. I’ll cry a lot, and — thank heaven for working alone during the day — raise my fists and yell at the air a lot, spend late nights singing sad songs on the piano a lot, hit my bag, make a lot of lists, and hopefully, I’ll think of and find something to put me and my work in a better position to sustain ourselves soon, in a way that I don’t have to compromise myself and which also isn’t temporary, but has some longevity so I don’t have to keep ending up back in this sort of a jam and this sort of malaise.

What I would be up for, though, if you’re of a mind to feel you ought to offer something when a girl is down, are really good stories about people fixing seemingly impossible problems. I’d prefer you not just make up a fiction, but I won’t say no to a fiction right now outright, either (plus, I won’t likely know the difference). Too, I am up for anyone who is able to connect me directly with a good (and brave) ‘net ad rep who can really serve it up for larger sites: given my numbers, that really does look like the best solution right now, and it shouldn’t interfere with 501c3 filing, either.

And I’d also not say no to anyone who felt the strong, pervasive need to ship me a bottle of silver Patron, a whole lot of non-dairy chocolate, the new Patti Smith CD (she just makes being depressed and pissed off seem so much more glamorous and cool), one-way tickets to Chiapas or Oaxaca and a good kick in the pants. Just sayin’.

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.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Yesterday was another fun day, as there have been many in my life, of adventures in the United States as an uninsured person in need of medical care.

I sincerely wish a Washingtonian had warned me before I moved that it was worse here than in some other cities. I thought the Chicago public healthcare system was bad enough, nd that aspects of the one in Minneapolis stunk, but this one — if you can even call it a system — is a real doozy. The one sliding scale clinic people kept suggesting to me was one where there has recently been some staff-patient sexual abuse, specifically targeting women who were already abuse survivors. Yeah, umm, no.

The sliding scale clinic closest to me isn’t taking new patients until May, which isn’t of much help when you’re pretty certain you have an ear infection. The state offers a healthcare probram for low-incomes, but the income it looks at is gross income, which screws those of us who are self-employed, and leaves me out in the cold from what I can gather. And while in other states, the barrier to me getting health insurance was entirely financial, here in WA, the majority of insurers won’t even consider self-employeds, no matter how much cash you wave at them. Great.

The local clinic which was full, and the two general local doctors offices I called referred me to a low-income clinic here (I use the term loosely), where the fee to just get in is $300, and the patient reviews are a nightmare. Apparently, $300 buys you a medically-schooled “I don’t know” an awful lot. The real kicker there, though, was that growing up in healthcare systems, working within one area of healthcare, I have a good idea of what things cost. So, knowing that with what I was asking for, at your regular doc’s office, I’d be talking an $80 - $150 bill (basic ear, nose and throat checkup, maybe a throat culture, possibly a new patient fee), I went ahead and called the regular docs.

But despite making clear I would be paying cash, they would not see me, because I was uninsured. This is a new one. And the irony isn’t lost on me: they’d not see me, ostensibly because, what — my bills would bounce? But they would refer me to a clinic where the cost would easily have been twice as much. Nice.

(And Mark’s work only covers domestic partners if you’re same-sex. I’m glad they provide that coverage, sure, but I deeply resent the fact that the gate is closed there, for a multitude of reasons. I’m so freaking sick of the multitude of ways this culture tries to force us into marriage, I could puke.)

You know, when I was in England during college, I made the poor docs at the NHS so sick of me, because I would find a reason to go in there weekly, simply because the novelty of just being able to go get healthcare, at any time, when you needed it, would not wear off. Mind, at the time I did have good reason to go in — I used a cane for a year in college due to a bad back injury, and I had migraines and I had…okay, any little sniffle or whatever that could barely justify seeing the doctor. Point is, it was heaven.

Thankfully, Becca had suggested looking into a Minute Clinic, and Caroline ran by after work to get me there, since it was waaaaaaay far away from Ballard. Nice system, that: pretty inexpensive, nurses get to do their work without doctors lording over them, and I got what I needed. Turns out I was close to right: the sick hanging on from last week wasn’t an ear or sinus infection anymore — the nurse thought was that my body had done a decent job fighting most of it off — but that being that ill and running the high fever had totaled my throat and ears, and left my ears jam-packed with fluid, which is why my head has felt like a bowling ball for days on end. So, I now have an antibiotic for my ears and some additional helps for my throat and nose, thank christ.

All of this basically sapped up my entire day, however, which was extra annoying since I kept trying to have conversations on the phone with people I could barely hear because my ears have been such a wreck. Had I had almost any other problem, I would have just gone to the naturopathy clinic, which WILL see the uninsured AND even provide a discount, but in my experience, when you need some form of antibiotic, you’re in the one arena naturopathy and chinese medicine isn’t so hot for. (Though I have to say that I don’t get why many naturpoaths won’t do antibiotics: I get using them very sparingly, for sure, but they’re no less natural than anything else. They’re mold-based, for crying out loud, and while yes, chemically processed, so are most of the naturopathic and homeopathic medicines dispensed.)

On the upside, driving over with Caroline and her 6-year-old daughter who I adore provided some needed comedy. While waiting for them to fill the ’scrip, we went across the parking lot to a small park so Scout could play. Turns out she had to piss, so Caroline suggested she squat in a hidden area: asked if she needed help, and Scout declined. Well, she came back waddling saying she guessed she could have used help after all, since she basically just missed. Gals, you know how it goes when you’re squatting to pee with pants on: as we explained to Scout, sometimes, there is just no telling which direction those wily vulvas will send urine flying.

I could tell that she was more embarassed than she would have been had I not been there, so when she started in on a rant of how unfair it was that she couldn’t aim like boys could, we both dove in, ranting right there with her to make her feel better. When I pointed out that boys could pee their names in the snow, even, and hit peanuts in the toilet bowl, the real ire began. Grrrrr. We was some seriously pissed off, loud and uppity, unable-to-pee-with-wild-abandon girlies. Which sort of explains the strange look on the passersby.

In any event, back to work with me, now that my head is on the mend. I did manage to finish processing Ben’s photos yesterday, and get the whole set up in the patrons area, so that’s one set down, three to go in the backlog, and I love them. It’s rare when I’ll have a man in my studio, period, but when it’s a good fit, I appreciate the opportunity. I hate all this silliness that male bodies aren’t as curved, interesting or beautiful as women’s bodies (and suspect a lot of that is actually based in either homophobia, men just wanting not to be as exposed as women and to make sure women stay the naked ones, both, or something else I can’t think of right now): it’s so rare I can have anyone in front of my camera and not find a million things of interest. It’s also been nice over the last few weeks to have so many subjects around: there remains a certain kind of intimacy and bonding that happens when I photograph people, especially nudes, that I don’t know if I’ll ever tire of, and I’m thankful as hell that over the years, I’ve learned how to cultivate it so that anyone involved in the process always leaves it feeling like they’ve expanded in some way, rather than been reduced.

I also managed to finally finish a piece on the evils of menstrual suppression this weekend which had been driving me batty for weeks. I don’t think it was just trying to mesh creative non-fiction writing with medical and feminist information. Rather, somehow all the endless editing of the book seemed to reorder how words worked in my brain, resulting in what may have been the first real case of writer’s block I’ve ever had in my life. Thankfully, the editor of the anthology let me turn it in late, but it had gotten to the point where I was forcing myself to finish even if it would no longer be accepted, because it was just The Piece That Wouldn’t Go Away. I’d try and work on something else, and there it was, right under everything, nagging and poking me in the side with a whiny “I’m waaaaaaaaiting.” Well, I showed it, and now other work can resume, sans guilt.

On to more book promo planning, taxes, housecleaning and site upgrading. I’ve promised myself a nice, long bath and a brief stint in the garden so long as I keep up with the rest of the jobs today, so I don’t want to slack off and miss those joys, especially since it’s good and sunny.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Anyone who says — meaning it literally, not as metaphor — that you can’t judge a book by its cover has never been through the process of said book cover with a publishing house.

With people, it’s an apt phrase. With a book? Not so much. Because when it comes down to the publishers, the marketing people, and the consumer, you’d sure better be able to judge a book by its cover.

Here’s the thing: your book cover has to somehow do the miraculous feat of pleasing you, the author (and if you’re not the sole author, also any co-authors), your editor, the art department, the marketing department, the publicity department and the higher-ups (my editor and I call them the Grand Poobahs) of the publishing company. And all of those people need to feel, at the end result and throughout, that yes, this cover very much IS what the book will be judged by, and it needs to create the desired verdict. Obviously, all of us don’t have the same agenda.

That, my friend, is a LOT of cooks in a kitchen not unlike the kitchen of your first apartment: the floor holds a shitload of dirt no matter how often you scrub it, there’s no counter space, and it’s the size of a coffin, with a sink whose drain is incessantly backed up, no matter what you do or don’t put in there.

I came into this publishing agreement with some hard boundaries: mostly, I didn’t want to wind up in some of the positions the last publisher put me in, and I had gotten to the point where if having certain boundaries meant I couldn’t find a publisher, so be it. I’m not sure when the right amount of time will have passed for me to feel like it’s kosher for me to talk about all of the nightmare that was the previous publisher, but it isn’t yet. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, I screamed as often as I cried, cried as often as I laughed in total disbelief, and I’m fully convinced I have this awesome editor this time thanks to instant karma and the interest of the universe per not wanting me to feel any pressing need to start bombing publishing houses.

Some of those boundaries were about the cover: I wanted more power in okaying the cover than many authors get, and walked into my contract negotiations with limits. For starters, I’d seen way too many friends in heartwrenching situations with covers — endless battles, choices made without their okay, end results that effectively stood counter to the message of their books they’d so painstakingly written. More to the point, I knew I had a very different sort of sex book here, and that the usual treatment was not going to be okay. I’m not cool with sexualizing teens in any way — they have to deal with enough of that elsewhere, this is the last place they should have to be. It’s also an inclusive book per both gender, gender identity and orientation, a book that deconstructs a lot of cultural body image and gender role mishegoss, a feminist book, an anti-subordination book, a book that doesn’t hold up heterosexual relationships or intercourse as the be-all end-all, a book that tries to talk about cunnilingus and fisting AND talk about anorexia, abuse, cohabitation and not acting like a dope just because you have a big crush. A book that — I hope — sends a clear message that when it comes to sexuality, strong individuality, a down-to-earth attitude and self-esteem is king.

So, I had all sorts of limits if photos or illustrations of people were going to be used: no one naked or half-naked, no one looking unhealthily thin, no couples (unless there were a LOT of photos of couples, in which case I’d want serious diversity when it came to gender, orientation, race and appearance: but ideally, no couples, since sending the message that sexuality only exists when there is another person around isn’t cool by me), no adolescent Jon-Benet’s, no status clothing or the like, no one looking ashamed or like they were making a webcam video to seduce someone with.

As I’m sure you can imagine, then, coming up with a cover for this — in a culture that is terrified of teen and young adult sexuality unless they’re using it to sell jeans or gas, or make porn out of it, no less — that pleased everyone was a piece of cake.

Yeah, not so much.

Skipping parts of the story and process selectively, as of two days ago, the deal was that I would go to Getty Images and find three photos of three young adults for the cover of the book, and my editor and I would deliver these to the art department, within one day. Given the audience of the book, the nature of the book, and the way the cover design was laid out, my goal was to find two girls, one guy, and ideally, none of them would be rail-thin, the majority of them would not be white, they wouldn’t be a simple read in terms of their orientation or economic class, neither of the girls would look like they were going to a beauty pageant, and they would all look like the age of the book readership. Ideally, we were talking headshots, since that solved some of those problems full-stop.

I think I’ve mentioned before that when you go to any stock photo house and first input teens, about 3/4s of the photos you get are young women, and only about half of them have clothing on, or clothing that isn’t a bikini. Of the half wearing clothes, those over the age of eight not wearing a goopy face full of makeup are the minority. Finding any even of average-size? Who also look like they have a thought of substance within a five-mile radius of their heads? Good luck. I know, you’re shocked. Makes a girl embarassed to include herself amoung the class that is photographers, I tell you.

Within about three hours, I managed to find one girl I liked. White, but clean-faced, with some funky honkylocks and piercings and a friendly, self-possesed expression. On the thin side, but looking as if the weight she is is the weight she is supposed to be: her head wasn’t five times larger than her torso. Studio setting, so for any visual cohesiveness, that means that’s what the rest needed to be, too. (And no, that part really wasn’t my job, but you ask a designer and artist to do something like this, we’re going to think about these things.)

So, one down. That means that for the remaining two, no white kids, and at least one guy. Plus, no one else with dreadlocks, otherwise it’d look like a book about dreadlocks. This, I confess, made me feel a bit of an ass, since it was the white kid who got to have dreads, but’cha know, one can only do so much with so little.

This may not be news to you — heck, it wasn’t exactly news to me, but the degree of this was a bit of a surprise — but guess what? So far as I can tell, if you are a young adult male of African descent, you may only have your photo taken in a baksetball court or in an alley — apparently you aren’t allowed inside photo studios. You must either look like the weight of the world is smashing you down, or look like a cocky bastard about to throw down or get down.

If you are Asian, you must either look obsessed with fashion, marriage or money.

If you are a young woman of Latin or Hispanic descent, you are allowed to wear a moderate amount of clothing even less often than white women. You apparently must either be dancing, kissing or stroking someone else, or be touching yourself in some way to make clear that your race compels you to be touchy-feely. When you are dancing you may smile, but otherwise, you need to look sultry at all times.

Needless to say, it was not my best day ever. Especially since I got my period in the middle of it, and The Bad Ovary (or tube, or whatever the hell it is every other month that puts me in two days of agony that only a Vicodin can tackle, and until Mark gets another root canal, I’m now SOL on that score) decided it was it’s turn, no less. I was one cranky, knackered asshole by day’s end.

I did, by the time the day had been night for several hours, find my three photos, though I nearly went blind in the process and became more and more disgusted as time went by. To go with the first girl, I found a fabulous Latina, of some size, no less, looking like she owned herself and smiling proudly. I found an awesome teen boy who looked sincere, thoughtful and smart; was working his afro like no one’s business, and who didn’t have to be holding a basketball to get someone to take his picture. All we can do is hope to gawd that these will work for the art department. From the sounds of things, though, everyone was happy, particularly since we are down to the wire on this and needed a cover by the poverbial yesterday.

Honestly? I’m lucky as hell that I have an awesome editor and a publishing house who gave a shit about my concerns: plenty don’t, and plenty who do still would hardly have cared enough to listen to my editor and I to the point that in the end, they let us choose the art. Seriously, my editor is so amazing that I’ve been trying to think of a next book within the scope of what Marlowe publishes just so I can have her as my editor again, which means thinking in a different direction than I had been for the next puppy.

Obviously, finding three photos to really work for or sum up everyone — including readers — is a bit of a stretch. (But hey, another design only allowed for a single photo, so imagine what a nightmare that would have been.) A lot of authors don’t take responsibility for their covers, largely because they shouldn’t: those decisions were made without or over them, many times with their protest. I’ve read some discussion off and on over the past six months of folks arguing that authors absolutely have total say and power with covers and can get that into contracts, and I have to call bullshit there. Maybe a few authors, but first-time authors, younger authors, authors who haven’t already shown big sales, and with publishing houses of some size? Not likely.

If these three photos are what wind up on the cover, I’m down with taking full responsibility for them. Do I wish I could have just shot the photos myself? Of course: I could have done a way better job than what I was able to find out there. But that wasn’t an option. Given the options we did have, I feel great about these, and I feel good about the cover in it doing its best, within the limits that were there, to speak to and for the book. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as feeling like you’ll need to add text in your book to explain that all those pervasive sterotypes you’re talking about are so pervasive…they’re even on the cover of this book!

But it doesn’t look like I’ll have any need to do that or feel that way. Nor does it appear I’ll have to be one of those authors terminally apologizing for their cover, saying it just wasn’t up to them: if these three photos go in, it was up to me. While I didn’t do the overall design, I okayed it, and that was up to me to some degree, too. From what I can gather, everyone involved really tried to come up with things that worked for everyone’s interests and did justice to the book.

In a word? If all comes out as we hope, it’s damn fine soup from so many cooks in this tiny little kitchen.

* * *
And now I need to go lie down again in hopes I can feel better and get my shit together to do things over the next three days I’d had planned to span over the next week and a half.

My Dad is coming back up here this weekend and staying for around ten days. We’d originally planned to fly him up in April, but that month is becoming difficult for me, and to boot, he wanted to see both more of the city and the public housing opening that’s a possibility for him for himself. Turns out the cheapest tix I could find were sooner than we’d both planned, but so be it. I could use his company and our dynamic, quite honestly, and him visiting now makes next month less packed to the gills for me, which is good stuff.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

To keep the steam in the current Scarleteen fundraising and awareness push, I wanted to republish a piece here which Hanne Blank and I wrote together about five years ago. Sadly, nothing has changed to make the piece any less relevant, and in many ways, the changes which have occurred have only made it all the more so. Hanne and I haven’t had any time of late to work on any joint pieces, and hopefully we will again soon, because when you put us in a bottle and shake us up, we make a fantastic cocktail, so enjoy. Additionally, Hanne just got the first hardcover versions of her new book this week, which I can’t encourage you enough to get your hands on, because it is groundbreaking, heart-wrenching, so very much needed and an all-out amazing piece of work.

The Spanish Inquisition. The Salem Witch Trials. The Red Scare and the McCarthyism that followed. Widespread allegations of ritual abuse and child abduction. The purported existence of huge quantities of child pornography. Reputedly rampant pedophilia (used incorrectly as a euphemism for child molestation). Teenagers reportedly having untrammeled, promiscuous, prolific sex, resulting in huge numbers of unmarried youth pregnancies, skyrocketing STD rates, and countless ruined young lives. Many sensible people can look at the first three or four items in that list and see they were based in fear, stereotyping, political powerplays, and plain old hysteria. Somewhat more savvy folks will look at that list and recognize that all of those issues, right down to the feverish headlines in your evening paper, are coming from much the same place.

Yes, we’re serious. There’s just no evidence that says otherwise. In fact, there is a clear lack of evidence that things like ritual abuse and abduction, child porn, and pedophilia are taking place at anywhere near the rates that have been claimed for them. But just as there have been those who’d have reported their own mothers to the John Birch Society for joining a neighborhood barter circle -­ if Mommy is a commie, then you gotta turn her in, you know -­ many people are buying into our current hysterias about sexual abuse and youth sexuality with a similar fervent desire to rid the world of perceived threats, coupled with a similar absence of critical thought.

Hysteria vs. History
When we look in the mirror as a culture, our tendency toward hysteria always seems to hover in our communal blind spot. We’re not very good at seeing when groups with a political or social agenda are manipulating us with fear, often the unreasonable, irrational fear of the taboo. During the Salem witch trials, it’s quite clear that the members of that Massachusetts community felt that their fears ­- and their actions ­- were completely reasonable and sensible in light of the threat they perceived themselves to be facing. With hindsight, we think that burning people at the stake is just a little extreme, and that the threat of witchcraft is perhaps not quite so significant as all that. These days, we find ourselves facing a similarly pitched level of hysteria and carefully-inculcated terror in regard to youth sexuality… and similarly, we may be in grave danger of seeing our misperceptions and extremism only in hindsight.

As we should all be aware from thousands of years of human history, youth sexuality ­- and by this we mean sexuality of those under what is the current legal age of majority in the United States, in other words, eighteen years of age — poses no real threat to us when it is entered into and developed responsibly and compassionately. It is, in fact, biologically inevitable that we develop sexually at puberty in physical ways. Historically, the advent of sexual activity, both masturbatory and partnered, has generally been assumed to be a natural adjunct of this physical development. Almost all cultures, whether primitive or modern, devise social structures and meanings around both the physical process of sexual maturation and around sexual activity.

Some cultures, at some times, do this well, with an eye toward self-determination, individual sexual desires and wills, and an acknowledgement of the power, responsibility, and, yes, pleasures of being sexual. Others don’t do as well. Right now, ours is doing a pretty piss-poor job… and we’re betraying our own shortcomings via the smoke and mirrors of hysteria.

The Current Status Quo
When we stigmatize, manipulatively hamper, misunderstand, mistreat or intrude upon the flowering of anyone’s sexuality for our own aims, we create real problems. When we attempt to define what any individual’s sexuality “should” be, rather than creating a context of informed choice based in an awareness of cultural issues, biological facts, and our knowledge of tendencies and patterns of human development, we create a poisonously Procrustean bed. When, out of an interest in furthering religious or moral agendas, we force our children into this bed, not only do we do so in direct violation of their best interests, but in direct contradiction to the kinds of education, support, discussion, and understanding our children are telling us very clearly that they want and need, we create real problems.

When it comes to America, a large segment of our culture is clearly doing just that. All of it potentially affects those under the age of legal majority; some of it is targeted specifically at them. Here are a few examples:

• Since 1996, there has been no federal funding for non-abstinence-only sex education teaching or curriculum development in the public schools. Only abstinence-only (or, as SIECUS calls it, “fear-based”) sex education is permitted if the school is to receive federal funding for its health education programs.

• Increasingly, federal, state, and local healthcare initiatives and policies are based in, and used to promote and enforce, anti-choice policies. Examples include restrictions on public funding being used for abortion, private health insurers’ refusal to cover contraception and/or abortion services, restrictive parental consent laws for minors seeking abortion, and so forth.

• The concerted efforts of the conservative right to overturn Roe v. Wade in the USA have even extended to an imperialist effort to control freedom of speech and freedom of information worldwide: the infamous January, 2001, “global gag rule.” (Note: this was written well before the SD ban and all the other recent efforts to impede choice.)

• Millions of public school students are, with full federal and state approval, being taught transparently biased, manifestly inaccurate, and medically unsound information about their own and others’ sexuality. Sex Respect, a popular abstinence-based sex ed text used in many public schools, states that premarital sexual activity results in such simultaneously vague and foreboding problems as: “Increased incidence of cervical cancer, risks associated with use of contraceptives and abortion, guilt, doubt, fear, disappointment, self-hatred, stunted growth in personal identity and social relationships, and being fooled into marrying the wrong person.” (Sex Respect Student Workbook, pp. 36-37; Teacher Manual, p. 42.) Sex Respect’s information is likewise inaccurate and offensively biased in the extreme on many other subjects, for instance, homosexuality, bisexuality, and AIDS: “AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the STD most common among homosexuals and bisexuals, kills by attacking the system that defends the body against infections.” (Sex Respect Student Workbook, p. 41.) “Research shows that homosexual activity involves an especially high risk for AIDS infection. In such activity, body openings are used in ways for which they are not designed. During such unnatural behaviors, additional damage is done to blood vessels and other body parts.” (Ibid., p. 52.)

It is apparently by such methods that we are as a culture purpose to save ourselves from the perceived threats and evils of sexuality -­ and particularly, our children’s burgeoning sexual maturity, awareness, and desires.

Not too surprisingly, whenever an effort is made to resist or even rebut these kinds of maneuvers, the response -­ loudest and longest from those trying hardest to shove their control, disinformation, and manipulation down our collective throats ­- is a shocked, horrified hue and cry, replete with calls for censorship and rallying against freedom of the press. Public libraries have been threatened with having their funding yanked if they do not filter Internet access. And the recent outcry against the publication of Judith Levine’s new book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press), complete with demands by right-wing protesters that the book be pulled prior to distribution and that the press be given a thorough administrative audit (or was that shakedown?) to assess whether the Press was utilizing sound judgement in accepting the manuscript for publication, certainly smacks of something decidedly more rabid and less rational than civil or intellectual good-citizen concern.

Our culture is well into full-fledged hysteria mode when it comes to sexuality, and particularly the sexuality of those under the age of eighteen. Even liberals and progressives, who tend to at least try think about such issues separately from issues of political dogma and religious propaganda, can sometimes be heard saying that while they disagree with some or all of the various ways in which our sex lives are being forcibly molded and censored and our reproductive freedoms challenged, we do have to deal with “the real problems,” swallowing whole the FDA-approved concoction that insists there genuinely is a problem with youths knowing about and experiencing their sexuality and/or engaging in sexual activity.

In the realm of sex “education” disinformation, we’re currently in a very similar place to where we were back during the First World War. As part of a WWI “chastity campaign,” “social hygienists” pushed the military to ban condom distribution among US troops, while all other countries involved in the war freely provided their soldiers with condoms. Guess whose troops had the highest rates of syphilis and gonorrhea of all those in Europe? Guess whose troops brought the disease back to their wives? Guess whose ideas — that condoms weren’t helpful and could be replaced by abstinence, and that marriage provided a safe haven from sexually transmitted disease — were proven, without a shadow of a doubt, to be both fallacious and deadly, providing our young nation with its first serious nationwide wave of sexually transmitted diseases and infections? That’s right, baby, Uncle Sam’s.

We’ve been here before. We know the kind of head-in-the-sand attempts to eradicate problems through misinformation and censorship or by pretending we can just moralize them out of existence doesn’t work. Just as smart people learn from their errors; cultures and countries that have wisdom and real care for their populations shouldn’t make these kinds of deadly mistakes twice.

Listening To Youth and Looking At Ourselves
At present, neither of us have children of our own. We’re honestly too busy working with thousands of other people’s children, attempting to provide sexuality information for which there is a dire and volubly evident need. But we do see many of the effects that abstinence-only sex education and the general cultural messages being sent to today’s youth about their sexuality can generate. What’s more, we see them in a far more candid arena than most folks who aren’t high school students get to see on a regular basis.

What do we see when we look at the thousands of teens who’ve populated the Scarleteen discussion boards and sent us thousands of e-mails for the past three years? Well, for one thing, we see an enormous number of teens having what we call “everything-but sex.” This means exactly what it sounds like: “dry” sex or frottage, manual sex, oral sex, anal sex, partial vaginal penetration: anything and everything one can think of that is not transparently penis-in-vagina intercourse to orgasm, which is what these youths’ abstinence-only sex ed curricula tell them qualifies as “sex.” Much of this sexual activity — and let’s face it, this is a hell of a lot of sexual activity — takes place with any safer sex methods in use whatsoever. Nor are most of our youth getting regular sexual healthcare or STD/STI testing, often because they have no access to this kind of healthcare without their parents being involved. Most of these teenagers and young adults don’t initially perceive the risks inherent in what they’re doing, because school and other sources repeatedly tell them that if they are monogamous (as they are led to believe all married couples are… again, despite very clear evidence to the contrary), which they interpret as not having more than one partner at any given time (despite the fact that many youths have multiple partners in a succession of fairly short-term relationships), and if they or their partner have not and do not engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse, that they have no STD/STI or pregnancy risk.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. We see youths either contemplating or sometimes actually performing genital mutilation on themselves because they are not informed as to the range of what the human sexual anatomy can actually look like, and furthermore, short of surfing porn sites online, they have no real way of finding out. We see all too many teens whose body-image and self-image is based almost entirely on whether or not someone else currently finds them sexually attractive. Sure, we can blame Britney’s bellybutton, the ad industry, and Hollywood for some of that… but perhaps it’s also worth considering that when we as adults obsess endlessly about teen sexuality, and turn it into the only teen issue on which we focus, that we might be telling young people in a rather direct manner that sex really is the only thing that matters in their lives, and that their sexuality really is just about all we notice when we notice them at all?

We see young adults in emotional pain because their budding relationships are dismissed by the adults in their lives as juvenile and thus worthless, immature, and undeserving of support, counsel, and care. We see thousands of sexually active adults who receive none of the sexual health care they need, often because their parents are under the illusion that their immaculate offspring are somehow miraculously asexual (one wonders: do these parents not remember what life was like when they were in high school, at the very least what their own desires were like?). Most of these teens also do not use reliable birth control methods, but not because they don’t care, think they’re immune to pregnancy, or can’t be bothered. No, they aren’t using reliable birth control because they’re terrified of what might happen to them if they get caught using birth control, if their families discover that they are having (or even thinking about having, or intelligently planning for) sex when they’re supposed to be abstinent, waiting for marriage, or simply “too smart for that sort of thing at your age.” For similar reasons, we also see queer youth becoming more and more isolated despite the fact that culturally, we are supposed to have begun becoming more accepting of numerous orientations and sexual identities.

Of course, this kind of thing doesn’t only happen in the realm of sexuality. Efforts to manipulate teenage thought and behavior have backfired on us in other ways. For instance, so many teens have had “Just Say No” pounded into their heads growing up when it comes to illegal drugs that many of them are convinced that legally sanctioned toxins ­ alcohol and tobacco ­ are naturally safer than those which are presently illegal. Many youths are condescended to, belittled, and told they’re “too young and too immature” so much of the time that they’ve fully accepted the debilitating notion that in their mid-teens, they are incapable of anything beyond (and have no reason to look for more in live than) some boring, unchallenging homework, a few sullenly-performed household chores, and hanging out at the mall. For lack of alternatives, many teens buy into the ultimately destructive values we hand down to them as a culture: mass consumer consumption and object accumulation, unhealthy and codependent relationships, low expectations of themselves and their achievements, and self-absorption. Massive sexual shame and misinformation are, in some ways, just another part of the heritage we’ve handed down along with our supposedly venerable “Family Values.” Abstinence-only sex education is a great education — if your goal is to assure that today’s young people have the same endemic sexuality problems, sexual health crises, lack of reproductive freedom, distorted body image issues, homophobia, sexism, and crappy sexual double standards that their grandparents’ generation did.

“But wait,” we hear you stammer. “What about what we’re told are the “real problems” of escalating teen pregnancy and STD/STI rates, permissive sexuality without morals or ethics, sexual molestation and abuse of minors, and the ‘breakdown of the family?’”

Well, what about them?

Teen pregnancy: In 1960, pregnancy rates for young women were as follows (and given the stigma placed on unmarried pregnancy, greater then than it was now, reported rates may have been significantly lower than actual rates): 175 births per thousand for women aged 18 - 19, 80 births per thousand for those aged 15-19 and 40 births per thousand for women aged 15 - 17.

In 1997, unmarried pregnancy rates for the same age groups were 80 births per thousand in the 18 ­ 19 age group, 55 births per thousand for women ages 15 - 19, and 30 births per thousand for women aged 15-17.

The Centers for Disease Control, whose figures are cited here (and these figures are representative of those found by a number of similar studies) note that the decline in those rates came from a combination of decreased sexual activity plus an increase in the use of condoms.

Teen unmarried pregnancies are not at a record high, but quite the opposite. We are at a record low for unmarried teen pregnancies, and save a small upsurge in 1990 that momentarily broke the steady decline (a blip that never even came close to flirting with 1960 rates), we’ve been on a clear downward run for the past 50 years. While a good part of that decline can accurately be attributed to the advent of longer-lasting birth control methods like Depo-Provera and Norplant, and to greater use of condoms, it can also be attributed to delaying some forms of sexual activity.

Delaying certain forms of sex, or delaying partnered sex entirely, is not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, freely chosen celibacy can be a very positive experience. Unfortunately, some of the reason teens may choose celibacy now is simple fear.

There is the valid fear of STDs and STIs, including HIV, yes. Fear of disease is quite rational and sensible. But disease fears are often more extreme than they need to be when young people are not furnished with accurate and comprehensive information about disease transmission, risk, infection, and prevention. Current (abstinence-based) sex ed is in no way designed to combat unreasonable fear, but to inculcate and nurture it.

Beyond fear of infection, there is also a resurgence of the gutwrenching fears that were familiar to our mothers in the 1950’s, when many women married out of fear of being known to be sexually active outside of wedlock: fears of pregnancy and of social stigma. These fears are not simple things, and their fallout is not simple either: rushing into marriage simply because it provides an outlet for sexual desires and feelings or because of an unplanned pregnancy, high anxiety levels causing stress-related illness (such as ulcers or anxiety attacks, usually seen primarily in older adults), poor body image, feelings of sexual shame and guilt, and appallingly low incidences of seeking out good sexual information, advice, and health care are all some of the consequences of this kind of fearful relationship to one’s own sexual self. This kind of thinking also creates an inevitable and hurtful dichotomy for those who do not wish to marry (or who do not wish to marry young). And it creates an insurmountable wall that casts out anyone, gay, lesbian, or transgendered, for whom fully-sanctioned married heterosexuality is not an option.

In all honesty, teen pregnancy is not, in and of itself, a problem. Female bodies in mid-to-late adolescence are perfectly capable of — and in some ways better suited to — healthy pregnancies and births than women in their later twenties, thirties, and beyond. For centuries, teen pregnancy was not only not a problem, it was the norm. There used to be a word for women who were still childless in their late twenties, and that word was “barren.”

In our current culture, teen pregnancy is a serious issue due not to what human bodies do quite adequately, but because of social and economic factors: a lack of medical and other care and support for young mothers and mothers-to-be (especially if they are unmarried, poor, non-White, or all three), the stigma laid onto to teen pregnancy which makes women less likely to seek out or expect any care or support at all, and a lack of economic and social support for young women who, married or not, become mothers (where is the affordable daycare so that young mothers can complete schooling in the same percentages as older, wealthier mothers go back to work and continue their white-collar careers?).

Lest we be misunderstood, we’re not saying teen pregnancy is an ideal that should be promoted. But it doesn’t have to be made the ordeal that it is. Part of that is providing adequate services and supports to women who choose motherhood. And part of that is also ensuring that women have the ability to choose whether to become pregnant, and should they become pregnant when they do not wish to be, that they have the ability to choose whether or not to bear the pregnancy to term. As sub-optimal as the conditions may be in many ways, we in this country do (for the time being, and technically if not always in actual fact) have the right to reproductive choice. And we should be protecting that right and encouraging its use — in terms of contraception availability, abortion access, and prenatal and child care and support.

There’s no real reason not to. We can go over and over the old tired cant about teens not being emotionally ready for sex, let alone childbirth, but very young women have not only had sex but borne and reared children competently for thousands of years. Certainly, if we insulate our youth and treat a 16-year-old like a 4-year-old, with similar levels of responsibility and expectation, we are going to rear children who do not have the emotional maturity either to parent their own children or to lead their own lives capably in other ways, like making sensible decisions about sex, contraception, or abortion. But this is not necessarily those children’s shortcoming, and it is not necessarily their fault: we’re the ones who raise them and educate them. Besides, preparedness for sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing aren’t issues that are limited to those under 18. We all know people, even in their thirties and forties, who are far less ready for these things than one might hope… and some of us might even, in our heart of hearts, be willing to admit that they might sometimes be us.

The real concern conservatives have with teen pregnancy is not a concern for teen health, general well-being or for the children teens may be having. It is instead largely a concern about abortion that is grounded in religious and political beliefs and issues of social control. It is a frightening thing for parents to realize that their children are growing up and may make decisions for themselves that the parents wouldn’t have chosen for them. And while those feelings are normal, and religious and political beliefs are often a part of who we are as social and cultural creatures, it is not the place of public policy or public education to create and enforce these agendas. It is not helpful, it is not ethical, and, moreover, it is not what is, in actual fact, desired by those whom it most directly affects. Numerous polls and studies show that the majority of adults, parents, teens and educators prefer comprehensive, fact-based sex education, and numerous studies and history show that that is the type of sexuality education which works most effectively on every important level, both globally and for the young adults individually. *

Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections: The STIs for which youth are presently at greatest risk, and which are most prevalent in US youth today, are not the STIs that are transmitted solely or primarily via exposure to semen. Herpes, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and Chlamydia — the most prevalent STIs with the fastest growing rates in Western youth — are transmitted by skin-to-skin and mucous membrane contact, so simply abstaining from sexual intercourse or even using condoms does not provide adequate protection to anyone regardless of their age. Certainly, where skin-contact transmission is involved, it would actually be prudent to inform youth and others that abstinence from many different types (but not all types) of partnered sex would afford them the greatest protection.

But that is not the information teens are given. Instead, they are given the blanket answers that monogamy and marriage protect you from the risk of STD/STI infection. Condoms are still mentioned, but the effort to encourage safer sex practices like barrier use often seems pro forma; in fact, in current abstinence-promoting curricula, condoms are given far shorter shrift than “just say no” and “wait until you’re married” rhetoric, and the efficacy of safer sex is often challenged or described as dubious. At Scarleteen and on Planned Parenthood’s Teenwire, we see the “oh, but there are microscopic holes in condoms” myth repeated ad nauseam, relict of precisely such faulty information being passed on in abstinence-only sex ed classes. Teens are also told that condoms regularly break or fail… which, of course, they very well can if one does not know how to use them correctly. Other barrier methods, like dental dams and latex gloves, are rarely covered at all in most sex education curricula now. This is true despite the fact that repeated research shows that barrier use offers a fairly high level of protection from STDs/STIs for those who opt not to abstain. But if you’re being taught that the only sex that really qualifies as “sex” is potentially procreative, penis-in-vagina heterosexual intercourse to orgasm anyway, it rapidly becomes an article of faith that oral, manual, anal or “dry” sex should — logically! — be risk-free.

Since the advent of abstinence-only sex education, STD/STI infections have indeed been rising in one very pertinent demographic: teenagers and young adults. This is no small thing, nor is it likely pure serendipity. The data directly supports interpretations that make it clear that the STD rate is growing not because of a net increase in sexual activities but because of unprotected sexual activities.

The Age of Consent: We have no data to show that our increasingly restrictive age of consent laws — many of which will now make consensual activity between age-group peers a serious criminal offense that could end up slapping one partner with lifelong sex offender status — are beneficial to our youth or to our culture. Age of consent laws do not provide a meaningful deterrent to rape, sexual molestation or sexual abuse. Given that most teens are not even educated about their state age of consent laws or what they might mean, they also offer no deterrent whatsoever to consensual sexual activity between teens and/or young adults, despite the fact that some of that activity is currently illegal.

Age of Consent laws originally had a very clear purpose. With sound reasoning, they were introduced during the Victorian era as an adjunct to child labor laws as an effort to keep youths of all sexes from being forced into prostitution. Presently, the only clear message Age of Consent laws send — to youths and adults alike — is that the passage of a particular birthday confers some magical ability to give meaningful and informed consent to sexual activity, whether or not they have actually had any educational or emotional support, parental or other guidance, or any preparation of any sort whatsoever. The implication of these laws is that those who are below the local Age of Consent are unequipped to handle their own sexuality, while those over it automatically are. Curious, but then again, we assume the same thing about people’s fitness to vote, drive cars, fight in wars, and watch movies that have been given an R rating by the MPAA.

We have no evidence that Age of Consent laws assist in decreasing in teen pregnancy or STD/STI infection rates. Teen pregnancy and STD/STI rates in other countries ­ Denmark and Sweden, for instance, or Japan, France, or Germany — where comprehensive sex education, social and medical support for sexually active teens, and less restrictive age of consent laws, are far lower. It’s astounding to us that the United States government can look at the facts and still keep pushing abstinence-only sex education and “child-protective” (especially given that young adults are not children) sexual laws as it does. We clearly care a whole lot less for the actual health, happiness, and well-being of our youth than we do for a given set of mores.

What If We Cared?
If we cared, truly cared, we’d look at what other countries are doing that we aren’t; what is working elsewhere where we are very much failing. We’d allow young adults to complete high school earlier if they wanted to get out of grade school and into the workforce, vocational training, or higher education. We’d encourage them toward greater independence and agency, encouraging them to find real things to do with their lives and their very potent energy and talents rather than leaving them with nothing to do but hang out in malls and cruise around in cars. Being bored and underutilized didn’t do teens any favors in the fifties, and it isn’t doing them any now. Besides, busy teenagers certainly don’t have as much time for sex as bored ones, and while our interests in furthering the stated aims of conservatives in that department are rather miniscule, we do contend that giving teens more agency and more opportunity would enrich their lives by allowing them to feel as competent and capable as they are. As it stands now, the resounding message we send our youth is that until the clock strikes 12 and they’re 18, they are incapable of anything but making a lot of mistakes and killing a helluva lot of time.

And that really is the crux of the matter. On the one hand, people complain endlessly about our self-absorbed youth culture, about what we perceive as their apathy and carelessness. On the other hand, our culture has very carefully and purposefully molded them to be precisely those things, all in the name of ease of control. And you know, it’s easy to pick out the conservative motives for all this — it enforces religious doctrines, it entrenches traditional sexism, classism, looksism, ableism, and racism, it makes it easier to spend less money providing social services and devote more money to accumulating wealth and status — it’s a bit more complicated to assess why many moderates and liberals, like many of our readers here at Scarlet Letters, often find themselves unquestioningly accepting the very same paranoid rhetoric and baseless assertions about youth and sex.

The answer is really fairly simple. As adults, we can often be open to new ideas, exploring numerous concepts, even exploring beyond the traditional limits of sexuality in very positive ways. But being able to conceive of our own sexuality positively does not necessarily mean we are skilled at stepping outside of our culture, and it doesn’t make us immune to hyperbole, scare tactics, skillfully-manipulated statistics, political railroading, and our own (often very genuine and very well-meaning) protective instincts toward the children and young adults we love and care for. Let’s face it: some of the vistas that are conjured up before us are bleak as hell. They’re scary. They’re supposed to be. And even the staunchest progressive can fall into the trap of believing something because he or she is direly afraid it it might just be true. And so we step under the all-encompassing, all-suffocating canopy of fearful hysteria.

But prevention of access to information, scare tactics, and the insidious disinformation of abstinence-only sex education really aren’t the answer. We assure you, as educators who have dedicated years of pro bono work to the sexual well-being of people of all ages that if we thought for a minute that preaching abstinence to the exclusion of all else would make every young person safe, if it would render them sexually, physically and emotionally healthy and help with the global problems of STD/STI infection, overpopulation, and infant health to boot, we would do so immediately. But we have at our fingertips — as does anyone with access to the Internet, a public library or two, and a world full of teenagers — a world of evidence, a lot of history, and plenty of very real youth to listen to and observe daily that tell us plainly that this is an approach that is both ineffective and dangerous.

If parents truly are serious about moral and religious sexual values needing to be taught at home and not at school, all they have to do is belly up to the bar. They can have the conversations, allow for those discussions, and give their children real facts (and in some cases, learn the real facts and sexuality basics themselves) so that they can have those discussions intelligently and soundly. Saying “my child shouldn’t be given this information because s/he will never need it” is simply silly. If a given student who learns about how to practice safer sex really doesn’t ever need that information, well then, by golly, they’ll simply never use it. It’s not all that unlike algebra that way: if it doesn’t prove applicable in your life, you are entitled not to use it.

Information itself doesn’t pose a mortal threat to morals… and if it does, it might be worth asking why those morals are so delicate and easily fractured. Likewise, it might be worth asking if those values ­ and the fear, hysteria, disinformation, and hypervigilant control used to enforce them on our youth ­ are more valuable than the youth themselves, and the quality and integrity of those young people’s lives, sexualities, and psyches… and our own.

These are good questions, good questions indeed. And like you, we’re waiting for some good answers.

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.

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Someone really needs to remind me that it is vital — not merely for my work, but for my sanity — to talk to like-minded women doing the kind of work that I do.

I just got off the phone with the magnificent president of this organization, and this project, who just added this project to their roster, and I feel like I just got out of a cool lake on a too-hot day, man. Amazing the difference a half-hour conversation can make.

I think I often forget how fringe people like me really are until I connect with others in the same or similar position, and then I hear that instant connection we have, and I remember, quite profoundly. Such a treat to be able to connect that way, to race to support each other’s work, and just be able to talk to someone else who loves all the obscure authors no one else even knows about who write about the kind of issues I work with, who I don’t have to explain the pertinent issues to, and who just plain Gets It.

A nice shot in the arm for me, too. I am hoping to be able to bust out a bunch of materials in the next week so that we can do a big Scarleteen fundraising and awareness drive on and around Valentine’s Day, so I needed the boost.

* * *
On an entirely different topic, this commercial?

This PSA is dirty, dirty pool, especially for those of us dog and animal people who ALREADY feel terribly about animals stuck in shelters or without homes. Hell, I can’t even ever let myself volunteer at a shelter because I know full well that I’d have dogs coming home with me nightly. I don’t even let myself get off at the bus stop that’s near the shelter here, even when it means I have to go several blocks out of my way: it’s just not safe for me.

It’s that “I know I am a good dog,” line which is the absolute worst. To the point that when I saw it, it caused me to burst into tears (which I just did again, in watching it so I could link it), clutch my dog (who was looking at me like I’d lost my mind and squirming to get the hell away from her deranged owner) and then race to the computer because I needed to see many pictures of happy dogs posthaste.

Sure, it’s obviously an effective ad, and sure, Pedigree clearly has a great agenda with promoting shetlter-dog adoption. Here’s hoping it helps.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t hate them and think they are a very bad dog right now. No biscuits for them.

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

(Just venting: people not in a stinky, pissy funk should walk on by. I may well be contagious.)

Know what sucks?

What sucks is when you’re starting to get the feeling that your camera is perhaps going the way of the dinosaur, and that’s WHY you couldn’t shoot well to save your life last week.

This doubly sucks when the same client is coming over today to reshoot, and it’s entirely possible that your equipment isn’t going to let you do any better of a job than you did last time, even though you’re now much better equipped for lights.

This triply sucks when you have been looking into a new camera and realize that it’s very unlikely you can afford one, and you can’t even work on trying to generate extra income to do so because when you have a camera who a) now won’t do jack when it comes to self-portraiture so there’s that avenue of income and b) may not perform decently when you take clients in, so you’re not about to take their money unsure if you can do your damn job. There’s a gift of the Magi, but is there like, a hex of the Magi? A giant fuck you of the Magi? Who the hell does the Magi think he is, anyway, and who invited him here in the first place?

This sucks all the more when in the last couple of days, you’ve started reviewing revenue for the year to try and prepare for the hell that is taxes and discovered that despite the ever-growing traffic and helping as many as 25K in users a day at Scarleteen in the last year, donations this last year were even more dismal than the year before, something you didn’t want to think was even possible. I feel so good about doing what I do, I do: but there is something so effing pathetic and really degrading about having a site with that sort of traffic, which performs that sort of service, which you went across the bloody country to defend your right (and everyone else’s) to net even as much income as to just pay its costs, but which some months, grant notwithstanding, has generated as little revenue as $25 a month in donations.

And I’m having an Ugly Day (yeah: I have ‘em, too, like anyone else, I’m just usally better at turning the nasty voices off than I am right now). On top of all of that, what I really, really want is for my sweetie to be hone so I can have a big, sweetie snuggle. Not only do I have to wait nine days for that, that fact that I’m even remotely dependent on someone else in that way is giving me hives at the moment.

Yeah, I’m being a whiner and it’s totally nonproductive. But this much suckitude, after another night of insomnia, no less, well…

…just really fucking sucks.

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

To the asshole in the zippy silver sports car,
That one-block section of Shilshole is not actually MEANT for cars. That is why the asphalt that is part of the bike trail there has those cute little symbols with people on their bikes, and those two paths in either direction take up the whole of the street. Yes, there is some quasi-parking for small businesses around the Marina there, but I think we can safely assume that cars going there are a) not meant to use it as a through-street, and b) meant to treat it as if it were a parking lot, as in, you drive slowly and cautiously.

So, when you fly though there like a bat out of hell right behind a biker, and clearly are not going to slow down, you give the biker two fabulous choices:
1) to be hit by your car, or
2) to swerve into the exposed railroad tracks with the deep grooves in a manner that will absolutely cause the biker to fly off her bike, maybe right into your car, but maybe, if she’s lucky, in the other direction.

I chose Option No. 2: it appeared that that way, I at least had a spitting chance of not being hit, which thankfully is what happened here.

To the lesser asshole in the zippy white sports car,
It’s totally cool that unlike Mr. Silver Zippy-Man, you stopped and asked if I was okay. Thanks. However, when I answered that yes, I was, but that like Mr, Silver Zippy-Man, you too should not have been flying through there EITHER, asking if I was okay again — because surely, I must have hit my head if I had any complaint with you — and then huffing in my general direction was total bullshit.

(I’m fine: road-rashed to hell, for sure, but more pissed off and annoyed than physically harmed. The greater injury was to my fine, day-off mood. There are just as many bikers in Seattle, if not more, as in Minneapolis, but this is now the second incident in a very short time I have had with drivers who for the life of them, cannot share the effing road, or even pay attention to what IS the road. I was really liking Seattle today, because I could take a couple hours and go for a nice not-very-frosty ride in December, and I’m mad at stupid people in their stupid cars for taking me from celebration-to-curse in less than thirty seconds flat.)