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

Archive for the 'Scarleteen' Category

Monday, November 15th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen Blog)

I moved to Seattle around four years ago from Minneapolis, where I lived for six years after leaving my hometown of Chicago. Growing up in Chicago, living in Minnesota and after an early childhood on the east coast, I was used to old things, to history, to a total lack of shiny-and-new. Growing up poor and in a number of far less-than-ideal living situations, my normal in how and where I lived was often pretty rough around the edges, and often involved a lot of effort from me, typically more than my fair share.

Seattle, however, is kind of the land of shiny-and-new. Almost every place I looked at when I was apartment-hunting felt sanitized and kind of like Barbie’s Dream House to me: without my kind of character and so already-finished that I didn’t see where there was room for my own stamp in them. The allure of the fixer-upper was nowhere to be found. I’ve always liked fixing places up that anyone else would see as hopeless: it’s a challenge, and a situation where I might have the ability to feel like I’m awesome because I took something shitty and made it fantastic. I’ve always felt more at home in places that were a bit of a disaster, probably because that’s just what I was used to, but whatever.

As it turns out, I found this house to rent that seemed amazing: it was over 100 years old, and in a neighborhood that at the time, had more old character and charm than new stuff. It had a ton of kooky little quirks I found really charming. It needed a bunch of work done to potentially make it nice, but it had the raw materials to be something awesome with work. I didn’t think twice about how quickly the landlord rented it out to me, because I wanted it, so that just seemed like serendipity. Like this was meant to be my house, to the point that I had this idea that had anyone else tried to rent it, it would not have been so easy for them.

I did do a lot of creative work with it, though not as much as I’d have liked to. I just didn’t have the time or the resources to do so much of it mostly on my own. As well, even from the start, I should have seen some red flags I just didn’t. For instance, while I was so into working on it, my housemate wasn’t as invested in that as I was. I should have recognized that when a landlord says you can just do whatever you want with a place with no limits, they’re either not being truthful or just don’t care much about the place. I also had to pay some of the costs of fixing it up, rather than the landlord paying me to do labor he should have done himself.

As the years went by, more things kept falling apart and breaking. I tried to keep up with them mostly on my own, especially since when I asked for help, what was given was either substandard or radio silence. Within a year, my lease also got shifted to a month-to-month lease, meaning that the landlord could ask me to go pretty much anytime with very little notice. Having survived that exact situation more than once in my life, and so barely, that felt horribly unstable, but I just accepted it instead of trying hard to assert my needs. Still, I felt more comfortable here than I thought I would have felt moving, both because moving or any kind of big start-over is so hard, and because this place felt so familiar, not just with its style and age, but with it’s whole vibe: I’ve lived almost all of my life in places that were falling apart or neglected. I was used to that, and however uncomfortable that as, something about that did feel like home.

Last year, it finally became clear that I could drive myself batty trying to keep this place liveable and it just wasn’t going to happen. I spent a winter without working heat in half the house, wrapped up in blankets all day working in front of a space heater.  The basic fixtures kept breaking. There were leaks, including one that nearly took down my kitchen ceiling, and a lack of insulation that cost me more money in bills than I have to spend. One day, I was so frustrated with two things that broke that I just gave up, went to get myself a glass for some wine, and when I opened the cabinet, the door fell off in my hand. On top of my house falling apart all around me, I didn’t even like the city it was in very much, and my neighborhood had also changed radically during the time I lived here in ways I did not like at all, and was not going to change back. I sank to the floor in a pile of tears, already upset due to building stress from managing work and some other huge changes in my life. It all felt so hopeless, and I so felt trapped in it, especially since at the time, moving wasn’t an option I felt I could handle financially or practically.

But why was I staying in a city I didn’t really like in the first place? Why was I staying in a house that was falling apart all around me more and more? Why did I keep trying to convince myself I could fix everything when I knew I couldn’t, or that my landlord would suddenly do all kinds of things he’d never done? Why did I keep focusing on the small things that I loved about the house when the big things were so awful? Why was I investing more and more money, effort and love into something where getting a real return on that investment was about as likely as a million dollars falling from the sky? Why was I staying so focused on what this house could be, rather than focusing on the way it actually was and was most likely to remain? Why was I accepting a total lack of help from the people who should be helping me with it while ignoring some potential help others could have given me to be somewhere better? I’m a smart person: why on earth was I being so stupid?

Ultimately, I think it came down to the fact that I was so bogged down and overspent with a lot of things in my life, including this damn house. On top of everything else I was dealing with, the idea of feeling displaced from any kind of home at all, even a poor one, just seemed like too much. I had taken part in digging myself in deeper and deeper into a pit: having to take responsibility for the place I was keeping myself in was harder than being unhappy, but being able to pin it entirely on what the house was doing, what my housemate and landlord were not doing. I had gotten attached and stayed so attached to the “what-ifs” and had invested so much time, money and heart into this place: I was having trouble accepting my hopes for it were simply never going to come to fruition because it seemed like such a waste. I had gotten scared of making a change, and had strangely managed to forget that I was capable of making it and had done so many times before in my life, even when it was harder than this was now. I had become comfortable in being uncomfortable.

In a few weeks, I’m moving out.

I’m leaving this house and this city for one of the beautiful small islands just outside of it. For many years no, I’ve talked about how I’ve spent almost all of my life in very urban areas, yet when I needed peace, it’s rural areas I’ve gone to to find it, and so I felt I might actually be a lot happier living rurally. The way my workday most often is, I can actually get away with only needing to go into the city a few times a month for work, so it is doable. Because it’s just a short ferry ride into the city, I can be rural here while also having easy access to the city. I found a place to move to with almost the exact same rent as I’m paying now, but where everything works and nothing is broken. Sure, it’s only 20 years old, so that feels and looks unfamiliar to me, but it’s beautiful inside and out. I will literally get to wake up every day and walk out into the forest, which is heaven on earth to me. As is often the case, if we can shake ourselves out of our miasma, we can usually identify not only ways to get out of it, but ways that getting out can be part of pursuing more of what we’ve wanted and had as goals all along.

Of course, this means my having to pack up everything and move again. It means money spent on moving and resettling, which is always a major strain. It means all the practical, tiresome crap you have to do to relocate. That means risking that a new place or space may or may not be better than the old one in some ways, even though it most certainly will be in other ways. That means having to deal with change, which even when it’s positive, is often uncomfortable and scary.

You may perhaps be wondering why I’m going on here at Scarleteen about my move. I’d be wondering, too.

I only just realized one of the big things that got me to these realizations about my house were conversations with some of you about your unhealthy, abusive or otherwise crummy relationships. So, I figured the least I owed you for that epiphany was the possibility of doing you the same turn, especially since your bad relationships have the capacity to screw you and your life up you a whole lot more than my bad house has the capacity to screw me and my life up.

We often have users come to Scarleteen who are in abusive, unhealthy, dysfunctional or craptastic relationships. Most of the time, you do know they’re bad before we talk with you about them. Sometimes, you don’t realize how bad until we talk, or have been trying to hold unto denials or the hopes that the relationship will just get better, either by some kind of magic, by someone who has never made any effort miraculously starting to, or by you, yourself, going nuts to try and make something bad into something good alone. Just like me, with this house.

I could stay here. My rent would keep going up and the house would keep costing me more and more while it all kept falling apart around me. I could put in continued effort while my landlord kept putting in less and less. I could freeze through another winter, trying to keep myself warm with the memory of the heat that used to work, the way the house probably was 50 years ago, the beautiful changes I made that could never quite get all finished but still might, and the hopes I had for this house, when it felt like nothing but lovely and positive possibility. I could stay here and risk the whole ceiling caving in on my head, which has become a real possibility.

You could stay where you’re at, too. You could stay and, at best, things would stay just as bad or as substandard as they are now or, more realistically, you could stay and they would keep getting worse. You could stay and keep investing more and more while getting less and less. You could freeze through another winter, trying to keep yourself warm with your hopes, those past feelings of possibility, and the time when things did seem okay, shutting out the reality which has made clear that those hopes will only ever be hopes. You could stay and risk someone abusive and unhealthy doing you the kind of harm that you can’t come back from, which is often a real possibility.

I could stay, and so could you. But I can also go. I can take the chance and the risk of something better, remember or learn what I’m really capable of. I can get the hell out of here and do the grieving I need to about what could have been, but wasn’t, and move forward, putting my time and effort and energy into something or somewhere much more likely to be worth that kind of investment. I can move into something that doesn’t need fixing now or right from the onset. I can step outside my comfort zone and likely wind up feeling more comfortable once the dust settles, rather than less. So can you.

I know that it’s hard as hell to leave a bad or abusive relationship, especially the longer you’ve been in it, the more hopes you tacked on to it, the more promises you believed, the more your whole life got sucked into it and tethered to it. It’s harder still if you have managed to convince yourself or allowed yourself to be convinced that any or all parts of the abuse are love or some kind of natural and unavoidable consequence of your existence.

I could tell myself that he floor that is wasting away in this house was once so, so beautiful, and old things just need my love to be better. I could convince myself that if I made more money, or chose to do something else with my life than I do, I’d not be in this house, I’d be able to have kept it running better, or able to have been more assertive with my landlord. I could figure that all of this would be something I could handle if I had done things differently and had more to fall back on. But I didn’t, so this is why this is happening, right?  This is what I am solely responsible for and stuck with, right?

Wrong. My house is falling apart because before I even got here people who were supposed to take care of it well didn’t. It’s falling apart because it needs a kind of help that my love or my residency can’t provide. For sure, I have some responsibility in what happened here: I could have moved out earlier if I’d have asked more people for help, if I’d taken some positive risks earlier — and maybe even put myself in a temporary space to be able to do that that wasn’t great, but helped me get closer to being able to make positive changes. All the same, while I’m responsible for not changing my circumstances when I could, what I’m not responsible for is for this house not housing me well, just like you’re not responsible for any way someone abused or mistreated you. You’re just responsible for doing all you can to get away from it to a place that’s safe, sound and where your love, effort and care will be returned in kind.

Am I going to miss things about this old house, this neighborhood, this city? Absolutely. There’s an old clawfoot bathtub here that is divine, even though the faucet never stops leaking. I made a great garden here and a meadow up front. I painted things here that are very creative and cool and have my unique stamp: I hate to leave them, they feel like part of me. I have routines here. I have a couple places I go here that I really like. I’ll be further away from a couple of friends. But I’ll deal: new places offer new things to value. When I’m honest with myself, it’s impossible to deny that what I’ll be missing the most was how things were when I first moved in, when the bloom wasn’t off the rose. When my feelings about everything were painted with the exceptional spackle that a sense of possibility is and the desire for something great can be. I had hopes for this house, but they didn’t come to fruition.  That sucks, but it also happens in life, and usually more than once. You accept it, your brush your knees off, and then you find new hopes, hopefully getting a little better each time at identifying where those hopes are more likely to become realities.  You also accept that we’ve got to take risks for the good stuff.

It may be that the change I’m about to make, the next place I’m going, turns out similarly. I’m pretty sure it won’t, because I’ve applied some lessons I learned from this. I’ve set it up, for instance, so that I have a long-term lease: I made clear from the start I refused to sign unto something month-to-month, because I know that doesn’t provide me the stability I need and know I deserve to have my needs met. I recognized that getting a better place, a more functional place, meant the screening process and the way in took more time and was not quite as easy as getting this place was, and I accepted that. I’ve made sure that nothing needs to be fixed by me: walking into this new place, everything already works and nothing is already broken. I’ve asked for help and support from the people around me in my transition, and they’re glad to provide it. I’m leaving things behind here that I just don’t need or that I know hinder me.

Sure, it’s more shiny-and-new than I’m used to, it’s somewhere I haven’t lived before, and I’m going to have to learn to do some things well I’m not yet good at. And maybe the forest that has always felt like a great refuge for me won’t feel the same when it’s where I live instead of where I visit.  It’s totally possible. If and when we do things differently, apply what we’ve learned and make choices based on goals we’ve had for ourselves… that’s when we tend to net different results, better results.

While my move comes with some question marks, continuing to stay here comes with few. The trouble is, the certainty in staying is all about being sure that, at best, things would stay exactly as crap as they are. What’s even more likely is that they’d get crappier. When we’re honest with ourselves, we all know something falling apart is going to stay falling apart once  we’ve done all we can to try and repair it with no results. I have to recognize that things would get worse if I stayed: more things would fall apart, and I’d get more and more hopeless and trapped, especially since the longer I stay, the tougher it is to go.

Am I scared? You bet. Big changes are scary, even when they’re potentially good ones. Even as someone who has taken many big risks in her life and gone through a lot of changes, big change never really stops being scary. I’m nervous and scared and I feel a bit unsteady on my feet, even though I’m moving toward something I have wanted and dreamed about, something that very clearly is far more likely to be positive and better.

So I keep reminding myself that this is living. Trying new things, taking risks that seem likely to be beneficial, stepping outside my comfort zone in pursuit of personal growth and positive change, is all of what being alive is all about. I shouldn’t feel stuck in the ground until I’m six feet under, after all. Staying stuck, sticking with anything that clearly isn’t working, avoiding what’s new and unknown is the antithesis of living: it’s refusing to be fully alive. That’s not who I am, and I’m sure it’s not who any of you are.

I know that my house isn’t exactly your relationship, particularly since, as an object, it doesn’t have the ability to have the kind of power over me another person could have, and I also couldn’t get as attached to it as I could to another person.  While the conditions of my house are awful, my house itself can’t manipulate me or try and control me. My house isn’t doing anything maliciously, nor does it know it’s treating me horribly and trying to rationalize it or someone make it’s actions seem like my fault. My house also doesn’t have the capacity to fix itself, unlike whoever you’re in a relationship with.

My house isn’t calling me names, isn’t telling me I’m stupid or a slut, isn’t accusing me of things I haven’t done or trying to control where I go or who I talk to. My house isn’t trying to keep me from my friends, family or other people who care about me and would make sure I’m always safe; my house isn’t trying to limit me in what I do in my life so that it can feel superior to me or make it tougher for me to go. My house isn’t destroying my cherished belongings on purpose. My house isn’t hitting or punching me, isn’t raping me or trying to coerce me into sex or pregnancies I don’t want. My house isn’t doing horrible things to me and telling me I asked for them. My house, itself, didn’t actually make me any promises it knew it couldn’t keep. My house also doesn’t have the capacity to choose what it does or doesn’t do, and isn’t actively choosing to treat me badly. It earnestly can’t help or change the state that it’s in, unlike the person who is failing or abusing you who has chosen not to work on themselves to get better and to stop hurting you, others and themselves. My house isn’t telling me that I couldn’t do better, that it’s as good as it gets. My house will let me leave a bad situation without trying to trick or force me into staying in something where I’m going to continue to be harmed.

My house isn’t your relationship or your partner. If any of those things are happening to you in your relationship, your house, as it were, is in a much worse state than mine is. Which begs the big question: why are you staying when I’m leaving?

Like I said, I know leaving a bad relationship is hard, and that leaving an abusive relationship is even harder. I’ve been in that spot (which is some of why I feel so bothered by how it took me so long to recognize the problems with this house), and have had friends there, too. If you need help in leaving, come and ask for it. You can ask me or one of the staff here and we’ll be happy to help you find local resources to help you out, you can call any number of hotlines, look up your local domestic violence/intimate partner violence shelter or support group or you can ask the people you know really love and care for you for help, being honest with them about what’s going on.

But if you don’t want to freeze through another winter, have the roof cave in on you or wind up more and more trapped in your interpersonal version of this sad, crumbling house, then you’ve got to take at least one step that’ll get you to the kind of space that will earnestly be a good home for your heart and your spirit, even if those first steps feel shaky or your knees knock when you take them. I deserve and am worthy of that. So are you.

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

In case you haven’t noticed in your Internet travels, we’re getting towards the end of our big end-of-year fundraising drive for Scarleteen.  This drive is crucially important for Scarleteen as an organization and for myself as its executive director and lone full-time staffer. I haven’t blogged about it here yet, because I was holding out for this week.

From Friday morning through Sunday night, two awesome donors will be matching funds raised up to $2,500.  As of right this second, we’re at 1/3rd of our goal, which we have raised since releasing our appeal a little less than one month ago.  I’m hoping that over the weekend, we’ll be able to make some serious headway: while we really need to reach our goal, even if we can raise $2,500 to have it all matched, we’ll be past the halfway mark, which will also make a tremendous difference.

So, I’m including our appeal here.  You can check in with our meter on the site to see how we’re doing on the home page for the appeal here, if you like. If you can give during this time period, that’d be absolutely fantastic: same goes for getting the appeal out in front of more eyeballs.  Thanks so much!

You probably know Scarleteen has been the premier online sexuality resource for young people worldwide since 1998. We have consistently provided free inclusive, comprehensive and positive sex education, information and support to millions for longer than anyone else online. We built the online model for teen and young adult sex education and have remained online for nearly eleven years to sustain, refine and expand it.

What you might not know is that Scarleteen is the highest ranked online young adult sexuality resource but also the least funded and that the youth who need us most are also the least able to donate. You might not know that we have done all we have with a budget lower than the median annual household income in the U.S. You might not know we have provided the services we have to millions without any federal, state or local funding and that we are fully independent media which depends on public support to survive and grow.

You also might not know Scarleteen is primarily funded by people who care deeply about teens having this kind of vital and valuable service; individuals like you who want better for young people than what they get in schools, on the street or from initiatives whose aim is to intentionally use fearmongering, bias and misinformation about sexuality to try to scare or intimidate young people into serving their own personal, political or religious agendas.

To try and reach our goal, we’re asking our supporters to consider a donation of $100 or greater. If that isn’t possible for you, whatever you give will still help and will still be strongly appreciated. To donate now, click on one of the links below. If you’d first like more information on why we’re setting the goal we are, what Scarleteen has done in the last year and during the whole of our tenure, our plans for 2010, and what the scoop is with our budget and expenses, keep reading.

Ready To Donate Right This Very Second?

  • To donate to Scarleteen by credit card, online check or via a PayPal account: click here and choose the button at the top of that page for the donation amount and style you prefer.
  • To donate by check or money order directly to Scarleteen: make checks payable to Scarleteen and send to: Scarleteen, 1752 NW Market Street #627, Seattle, WA, 98107.
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible: you can donate through The Center for Sex and Culture, a fiscal sponsor of Scarleteen online here (scroll down to the option to donate to Scarleteen on the left side of that page). To mail a tax-deductible donation, make your check out to The Center for Sex and Culture, writing “For Scarleteen” in the memo. Mail that to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA, 94114. They will send a written acknowledgment of your donation to you for tax purposes, and will send us donations made to them on our behalf after deducting a very reasonable percentage.
  • However you choose to donate, if you want to be listed as a donor on our site, please send us an email to let us know how you’d like to be acknowledged.

Want some more information? So far, in 2009 Scarleteen has:

Had around 1 million overall hits to the site each day from an average of 25,000 unique users daily. Scarleteen has a very high page-load rate as compared to other websites: on average, our users load 3.5 pages each when visiting Scarleteen. Since 2006 alone, our site has had over one billion overall hits and nearly 70 million page loads.

Currently, Scarleteen is the #1 ranked site by Alexa for teen sexuality education/information and for general sexuality advice for users of all ages. It is ranked 27,823 of all websites internationally, and is ranked 11,210th in the United States (on 10/12/2009). Our core users are international, 15-24 and diverse in their race, gender and sexual orientation. To see some of our user testimonials, click here.

To find out more about our educational philosophies and model, you may want to read Scarleteen Is…, What Is Feminist Sex Education?, On Innovation and Inclusivity in Sex Education, A Calm View from the Eye of the Storm: Hysteria, Youth and Sexuality or look at our general about page. If you’ve never taken the time to just look around the site as a whole, please do!

Engaged in over 4,000 conversations with young people on our message boards, providing them factual and friendly answers on contraception, sexual anatomy, safer sex, sexual health, masturbation, interpersonal relationships and other related topics; helping them through struggles like pregnancy scares or unplanned pregnancies, STIs, sexual harassment, rape and intimate partner violence or abuse; talking them through relationships and breakups, family conflicts, gender, sexual identity or body image issues and their sexual decision-making; discussing political issues pertinent to sexuality and youth rights. Most posts at the boards are answered within a few hours, some within minutes. Many of our board users return to the boards again and again for more help, to engage in deeper discussions or to talk with or support other users.

In total our boards have over 43,000 registered users who have posted over 60,000 topics: all have been answered by one or more of Scarleteen’s staff and volunteers. Our boards are fully moderated and a safe space for young people. To help protect our users from potential harassment, they may not share personal information like full names, e-mail addresses, messenger or social networking handles or personal webpages. Managing and moderating the message boards often requires the bulk of our staff and volunteer time.

Answered nearly 100 column-length young adult questions in our Sexpert Advice section, which is also syndicated weekly at RH Reality Check. There are around 900 Sexpert Advice columns in total published at the site. However, our advice queue typically has over 500 questions waiting for answers. In order to catch up with this backlog, we need the funds to acquire more staff to handle the high demand for the longer, in-depth answers our advice column provides and our users are seeking there.

Generated fresh static content. So far this year, we have posted 42 blog entries, half of which were penned by young adult volunteers, and have added more than ten new full articles to the site. Some of our most recent articles include Positively Informed: An HIV/AIDS Roundup, Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man, An Immodest Proposal, Chicken Soup for the Pregnancy Symptom Freakout’s Soul, Let’s Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry, Give’em Some Lip: Labia That Clearly Ain’t Minor and Love Letter. We have also added several new youth-written articles this year, and updated several existing articles to be sure our information is accurate and timely.

Excluding the message boards (where there are tens of thousands of pages), Scarleteen currently contains around 1500 pages of content: articles, advice answers, blogs, external resource listings, polls and more. We are not able to pay authors for articles, though we often are queried by authors we’d love to hire who have great ideas. An increase in our budget would allow us to provide more new articles and to further diversify Scarleteen’s editorial voice.

Received media coverage: In the last year, Scarleteen was mentioned by/in Salon, Glamour, BUST magazine, Medill Reports, TIME Magazine, City on a Hill Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Utne Reader, CBS News and other outlets. To see some of this and more media coverage for Scarleteen in previous years, click here.

Provided direct community education and outreach: In the last year, Scarleteen director Heather Corinna gave talks to sex education students, sex educators and sexologists, youth and/or their allies via presentations at or for the University of Texas (NSRC Regional Training), the sex::tech conference, the American Medical Students Association, Harvard College, the NARAL Youth Summit and Garfield High School directly reaching around 350 total participants. In addition, through the CONNECT program for Washington Corinna currently directs through Cedar River Clinics, direct to-youth sex education was provided on an ongoing basis both to Cedar River young adult clients and homeless teens in Seattle at Spruce Street SCRC, a secure residential shelter. In 2010, Scarleteen will inherit the CONNECT program and continue Seattle-based direct outreach. We also have plans to continue providing information and education both to youth and other educators via conferences, summits and other public outreach opportunities nationally. In addition, with the help of a student intern, Scarleteen is preparing four informative pamphlets for print and distribution to clinics, schools and other groups which serve young people on sexual readiness, consent, managing sexuality after rape or abuse and on how to be queer and trans friendly.

New at Scarleteen in 2009

In 2009 we ran a pilot program to train young adult peer sex educators online. To find out about that program and see what trainees had to say about their experience click here. We want to provide two more sessions of the training for 60 trainees in 2010. We have also just debuted a new SMS service for young people to text sexuality, sexual health and relationship questions to us and have them answered on their mobile phones. For more information on the text-in service, click here. As with all of our services, both of these new services are provided at no cost to youth.

Goals for 2010:

On top of continuing the existing services we provide, we would like to continue to grow, adding new sections, functions and levels of service.

  • Find-a-Doc is a user-fueled database we’d like to build to help young people find the in-person sexual and reproductive healthcare, counseling, LGBTQ support, rape and sexual abuse survivor support and other services related to sexuality they need. Unlike many adults, young people often lack the ability to get a recommendation from a friend: many of their peers and partners do not often yet use or know where to get these services, either. Some do, but are reluctant to disclose they have used them. This database would allow a user to enter one of these services they have used and would reccomend to another young person. Scarleteen staff will validate the service/provider by phone before publishing the listing. Our users in need of these services will be able to search for these services by choosing the type of service they are looking for and entering a zip code.  They will also be able to read comments from others who have used these providers/services to help them make their best choices in care. Find-a-Doc has been on our list of to-do’s for two years now, but the budget has not yet allowed us to pay a tech developer what would be needed to build it.
  • Improved Mobile Performance: More and more users are accessing the web via their mobile phones.  While Scarleteen is currently browsable via mobile, it is not optimized for that use.  Site improvements for mobile use can help us expand our reach and the ability of users to get to us exactly when and where they need us.
  • Volunteer stipends: Our volunteers are an integral part of Scarleteen. Most of them are young adults themselves, and having peer or near-peer voices and perspectives on the site is crucial to keeping Scarleteen youth-centered and accessible in tone for young people. Not only do our volunteers have their own valuable experiences in working as volunteers, they help keep parts of the site running smoothly and assure our users who are asking for one-on-one interaction get it from caring, compassionate and informed people. And the longer we can sustain a volunteer, the more skilled they become. Beyond slathering them in thanks and providing them skills and training, having some reasonable stipends is one way we can help retain the volunteers we value so much.  For more about our volunteers, as well as more about our executive director, Sexpert Advice authors and guest authors, click here.
  • Scarleteen would like to increase our traffic and our reach. Increased reach not only means more young people getting the sex information they want and need, it also can help support Scarleteen by creating greater opportunities for fiscal sponsorships and advertisers. Scarleteen has never purchased any kind of advertising to let young people know about our services. Given that all of our traffic has been via direct referrals and word-of-mouth, just imagine how many youth we might be able to reach with other means of promoting the site. We would also like to serve our global reach better by adding more sexual health resources specifically tailored to our users in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the South Pacific.

What We’ve Got & What We Need: As of November 1st, 2009, Scarleteen has received approximately $42,000 in grants and donations, the bulk of which has come from a single private grant. Only around $8,000 of that total has come from individual donations, $3,000 of which was from a single donor. To meet our needs for 2009 and the start of 2010, we need $70,000 in total financial support. Our goal now is to raise at least $24,000 in the next two months to meet our needs and cover the costs of 2009, as well as to walk into 2010 on financially healthy footing.

Beginning next year, we will require a minimum annual operating budget of $75,000 and the revenue to support it. While that is a substantial increase from our existing budget, it is essential: our existing budget cannot adequately sustain our staff or the organization as a whole. That new minimum budget is also still incredibly low: it accounts for the site running at a total of around $200 a day to provide all of the services we do to all of the young people and their allies who use them.

75K is exceptionally cost-effective and reasonable for the level of service we provide, especially compared to other organizations and initiatives, including those which do not match our reach and our level of direct-service. To find out details about our budget and expenses, and to compare them to other budgets and expenses of both similar and opposing sex education initiatives, click here.

As you can see, we need your help.

Please make a donation if you are able, and consider the value and level of the services we provide to young people in doing so. A $100 donation can pay a major chunk of our server bill for a month, or half the monthly cost of the SMS service, or, can fund any kind of use of the site, including one-on-one counsel and care, for around 10,000 of our daily users. However, we would very much appreciate your a donation at any level.

We’d also be grateful if you’d share our appeal with your own networks to broaden ours, and let the people who care about you know why you care so much about us.

In advance, we thank you for all you can give us and all you do or have done in support of Scarleteen.  We fully intend to keep doing all we can to give just as much back.

Once More with Feeling

  • To donate to Scarleteen by credit card, online check or via a PayPal account: click here and choose the button at the top of that page for the donation amount and style you prefer.
  • To donate by check or money order directly to Scarleteen: make checks payable to Scarleteen and send to: Scarleteen, 1752 NW Market Street #627, Seattle, WA, 98107.
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible: you can donate through The Center for Sex and Culture, a fiscal sponsor of Scarleteen online here (scroll down to the option to donate to Scarleteen on the left side of that page). To mail a tax-deductible donation, make your check out to The Center for Sex and Culture, writing “For Scarleteen” in the memo. Mail that to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA, 94114. They will send a written acknowledgment of your donation to you for tax purposes, and will send us donations made to them on our behalf after deducting a very reasonable percentage.
  • However you choose to donate, if you want to be listed as a donor on our site, please send us an email to let us know how you’d like to be acknowledged.

If you would like to support us in some other way, such as through advertising, sponsorship or by volunteering your time or if you have any questions about donating, we’d love to hear from you.  You can contact us via e-mail here.

P.S. If you’re curious about how I’m doing, this is me in a nutshell: I have the working-too-long-on-fundraising crazies.  My main computer here kicked it a few weeks back, and thankfully I got a good deal on a new system, but am still switching everything over, which is the pain that stuff always is. (And means the new photo work I have ready will still be a wait, as I will now need to learn and use a whole new application for the site here.) The dogs are getting along swimmingly.  Blue and I are happy as clams, even though it is freezing cold in this house and we rarely see one another without hats on, that given.  I’m overworked, but what else is new? I need more coffee, but what else is new?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

The other day, a friend called to catch up with me and asked how I was.

I answered her by saying that the house won’t stop falling apart on me, that I’ve been beyond overworked and am scrambling to make ends meet, that I spent a week with what undoubtedly was H1N1 that flattened me utterly, but that otherwise, I’m seriously great.

Which is true, even in that context of not-at-all-great stuff.

Sorry to have been so absent. I was first gone for a while because of taking my Staycation, which I completely enjoyed, especially since half of it involved Blue’s arrival. Being able to have real time together without seeing and feeling the sands of the hourglass dwindle to an inevitable and painful separation was amazing. Having the time and the freedom to really spend some time ushering in a life together we’ve both wanted on and off for such a long time was a very big deal and a seriously righteous gift.

Then I forced myself to go back to work again, which included a day at the youth shelter, where it was total pandemonium including a couple of the teen boys hacking up a lung in everyone’s face. Two days later, I woke up feeling a little out of sorts. Four hours after that, I passed down face first on the couch and don’t remember a damn thing that happened the next couple of days afterwards, mostly because I almost entirely slept through them. I was still sick — but much more lucid — for a few more days, but it took well over a week for me to even resemble being back to normal. I thank my lucky stars that Blue was here to be a killer nursemaid.  It’s crazy to be so sick you have no memory of whole days at a time.

After that, I not only had to try to jump back into work again, but into big-time high-gear.  I had abstracts to prepare, a presentation for medical students to prep and deliver, a book foreword to write for an anthology, several local meetings, an interview and all the usual work I already have to do. I read a bunch of libelous commentary in both a printed book and online from a religious conservative about me that made me want to get out a Ouija board, channel Jesus from the dead, and demand he go and do something about some of his apparent followers because some of them are really out of hand and he’s clearly the only one they’ll listen to (if that: they seem to dismiss a lot of his messages, but just showing up would at least scare the crap out of them and get a momentary silence we all could use). After that, I needed to prep a feminist carnival, roll out a huge new addition to the services Scarleteen already provides, and start prepping for the big end-of-year fundraising appeal for Scarleteen that is critical to our survival. In case you haven’t picked up on this about me already, I HATE dealing with, thinking about and talking about money. I hate asking for it even more. I just hate money, period: I’d give just about anything to live in a totally barter-based world. When my days are filled with large portions that are about nothing but finances (especially since it’s usually about finances that aren’t there), I begin to slowly and surely lose my mind. It doesn’t help, of course, that Blue is in a similar spot right now himself.

The night before the fundraising release, my stress levels and way too many 12-15 hour workdays in a row broke the proverbial camel’s back.

I had a meltdown that made almost all other meltdowns in my personal history look downright amateur.

Mind, that was also in part because of the falling-down-house. The house I rent here is 107 years old.  It’s clearly withstood a lot, but the maintenance on it over the years and the time we’ve been here has been less than fabulous, and it’s a typical old west coast house: built fast, not in any way insulated. In the last two months, I’ve had so many things break it’s just nuts, and they seemed to have liked to do so in a way that gave it all a very dramatic build: it started gradual, but then picked up so there were days towards the end here where something would happen almost daily. First it was one broken sink (paired with another that was already broken: anyone who has stayed here recently got used to brushing their teeth in the kitchen). Then a broken toilet, which we woke up to with the floor full of water it resulted in. Already, the woodstove was toast (and the landlord doesn’t want to pay to fix it), and then the heat in the main rooms downstairs broke (which is also still not repaired). Next, one of the kitchen cabinets just fell off in my hand. Then the dryer broke. We’re not provided a washer and dryer in the lease: the last were bought used, so are up to me to replace: thankfully, we lucked out and found a free one. Then the toilet downstairs started leaking, providing the cold downstairs of the house with an oh-so-wonderful urine-scented perfume.  Then — not actually part of the house, but still — my main computer system which houses all my music, all my photo work and what I use to do it with, and my most important software, went kablooie.  And because we’ve had a recent move-out and move-in here, a good deal of the house was already in disarray.

And that’d be when I totally lost it, sinking into a pile on the floor of the stinky bathroom. It absolutely did not help that in that same week, we’d decided to double feature the original Grey Gardens with the dramatized new version (which was exceptionally good, but somehow manages to be even more depressing than the original documentary, which is quite a freaking feat). Both Blue and I could identify the stage the place here was in with its matching Grey Gardens stage, what felt like only a couple steps away from a pile of cat food cans in the corner and water from the ceiling pouring unto the piano.

I needed that big cry, really. It’s hard and it’s scary to work so much, so diligently and for so long in my life and still be dealing with things like not having working plumbing and heat. I was basically raised with very strong messages that I, like everyone else on both sides of my family, should expect to be overworked and underpaid, to always be bone-tired from work at the end of every day of my life and to not find work would net me even the basic the things it can net others. Those messages in some ways were helpful — after all, they have helped me manage my expectations — but in other ways, especially the older I get, they can feel a whole lot like a curse, especially given how deeply I am realizing I internalized all of that stuff.  Perhaps internalized to the point that others read that in me and figure throwing me crumbs is just fine since I’m clearly fine with it myself and will not stop doing all I do regardless of the conditions. It’s also hard and scary to be very transparent in asking for things I badly need, and most others in my position have, knowing that ask is inevitably going to meet with at least some cold shoulders that are going to either make me very angry, or just really hurt my feelings. Some of my meltdown was me bracing myself for some disappointment I knew would come.
It’s also hard and scary for me to have someone else around who very acutely feels my pain and frustration; who I’m both really letting all the way in, and who goes all the way in when I do let them.  Usually when I totally lose my shit, I’m alone, which sucks in some ways, but in others, I can really go whole hog with a freakout when it’s totally private.

While it’s certainly ironic, since it’s not what I want, it’s no coincidence that in my relationship history, it’s more common for me to be with people who keep a certain distance from me or withhold than it is for me to be with those who get very close and go all-in. With Blue back in my life full-stop, I’m acutely reminded that in some ways, I can be somewhat Wild Boy of Aveyron emotionally: a bit feral, twitchy and skittish when it comes to anyone really being all the way open to me and wanting the same in return. I’m reminded that this was part of the issue with us way back when, and that while I’ve certainly come a long way in that regard, I’m hardly all the way there. This Mowgli still has some serious work to do in this department. However, having someone so deep in it with me who will really just let me go and listen to all I’m crying about — both the reasonable and the not-so — is a gift. I also need to remember that especially for someone who knows — perhaps better than anyone — how hard it is for me to really open up and speak to the things that scare me the most, that make me feel the most awful, that my doing so is a gift, too.

But.

Like I said to Becca when she called and asked how I was, all of that aside, I’m actually ridiculously happy. Which might seem completely insane given all the crap I just chronicled, but there it is.

Last night I was saying to Blue that if the two of us are as happy as we have been with everything in such total fucking disarray and utter chaos, it’s kind of mind-blowing to figure how we might be if and when it’s not. Even something relatively tiny, like getting an electric blanket to help with the cold, seems to make us much happier and more giddy than it might otherwise. Life here is very good despite all the other kinds of crazymaking and badness.  It’s amazing having Blue here and continues to be awesome for us both to finally really be together. In setting up some of what we can with the place here, it feels homier than it ever has, and that process has been exceptionally nice. Nice enough, even, that when I had heartburn the other night and Blue pointed out the Tums were next to the condoms on the nightstand, it made me laugh instead of making me feel geriatric. The animals are all socializing well. The meadow I cultivated — where the tree used to be — is beautiful and flowering. I have some good work stuff on the horizon in the next six months, just have to see it all through and hopefully get there.  I have had some great help and company in Blue with some of my work stuff and functions. And while I am not in the position to cut back my work hours, I really, really want to, and that wanting is in and of itself a very positive thing.

It sucks that we have to deal with the crap that is this crumbling Grey Garden right now, but we’re still planning a move to the islands, hopefully in the spring. I think we can get through one winter here, even with busted heat. Thankfully this is Seattle, not Chicago or Minnesota, so even if we had no heat at all, it’d be uncomfortable but hardly lethal. It sucks that I have to keep pushing the envelope so much with work, and have to work so hard right now, but it’s hardly anything new.  And I *did* get a weekish off this year, and that really was a lifesaver.

So yeah: a whole lot of everything really is quite shit. But I’ll work my way through it — and get to some of the bright spots looming on the horizon up there –  and am sure I’m not only going to get through it all okay, but in some ways, all that shit only has so much impact because it hasn’t yet managed to overrun the stuff that’s really, really good.

P.S.  I deeply apologize to site subscribers for the lack of photography updates.  I actually have one fantastic completed set that was ready to go online, and two in the process of being ready, but since the main system died with all of that inside of it, I can’t get to any of that or upload any right now.  I may be able to get the data off of it in the next week, but it’ll still be a bit after that for me to be able to get everything moved over to another computer and get it all up.

P.P.S. For those of you who don’t know, when I’m silent here, I’m rarely silent on Twitter, where you can keep up with my life and work mini-updates, things that politically infuriate me, my irrelevant random thoughts and my attempts to stop eating the pretzels I’m unable to stop stuffing in my gob right now.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’m not okay with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May I suggest some easy lingusitic corrections?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they kept on coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Ask as many questions as you give answers.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway….

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

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

You have several options you can use to donate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1st, 2008

I’ve a question for the group.

What the hell do or would you say to women (or men, but I almost always only get this from women) who are thoroughly convinced that when they say no to a boyfriend (again, usually a boyfriend or some other guy), about any kind of sex, and he keeps doing or trying to do what he is doing anyway, it is because he just doesn’t understand what no means or is certain these women are kidding while clamping their legs together and saying no or playing a cute little game? To impart that he UNDERSTANDS she is saying no, that she does not want him to continue, and misunderstanding he is doing something against her will is not the problem?

Seriously, I need some new perspectives here, some fresh brain-juice.

Because in a recent incidence of this, no other logic of any kind having gotten through to the girl in question certain her new boyfriend just doesn’t know what the word no means (and feeling this is simply a basic given for men in general), I was left with only “Is he stupid?” which I don’t feel is particularly productive.

This has been one of those weeks, man. Every now and then, it just seems like The Bad & The Ugly (without The Good) becomes the predominant theme in user queries for a handful of days, and it so burns me out.

(By the by, I’ll be in San Francisco next weekend, and at the Center for Sex and Culture both next Friday evening and the following Sunday afternoon. details soonest.)

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)

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

I am physically and emotionally exhausted. This front page and everything on it is why.

And now I seriously have to go to bed since I need to get up in just over five hours. Bloody hell.

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Two work-update quickies:

1.  RH Reality Check is now — as of today — syndicating my advice columns at Scarleteen twice a month.  I love them big bunches, and really appreciated their asking in the interest of getting more youth involved in reproductive and sexual health education and activism, so that’s exciting.  I’m also hoping my having some content there might help get some of our users at Scarleteen feeling more confident about getting involved in some of the discussions there.
2. I’m also the sexual health consultant for the upcoming orb28, a site I am SO thrilled is near to launch.  It’s from New Moon Media, the fantastic organization which publishes the magnificent New Moon magazine for and by girls, and orb28 will be an interactive site gearing to a slightly older audience than New Moon targets.   Feminist outlets for girls and teen women are so few and far between, and I think this is going to be a great one.

Monday, December 24th, 2007

So, pretty clearly from the vibe and the lingo, a pro-lifer (and what sounds like an adult) just posted this question in the Sexpert Advice queue at Scarleteen.

Which is fine: I have a bit in my book on this, and have been meaning to have a piece up on CPCs at Scarleteen for a while now. I appreciated the reminder and the opportunity.

But I just have to wonder: what response did they expect from me? I kinda doubt they wanted to invite me to do an in-depth shakedown of the whole deal, but I can’t imagine, for the life of me, what else they thought I’d do, or how they thought any answer I’d give would someone send more women to them or be of any benefit to them. Did someone earnestly think I’d be all, “Oh, right! I totally forgot to include a link for pregnant women — especially poor women, teen women, and women of color who those orgs love extra-super-much — who want to be manipulated and lied to! After all, that’s a reproductive choice, too, right? Silly me, let me go fix that right now. Thanks for the tip!”

People are so freaking weird, man. Or stupid. Or both.

In other news, I am slowly on the mend. These antibiotics are hell on my guts, but finally, last night, my ears started going back to normal, I was able to stand (heck, even sit) for a while without wanting a five-day nap after, have the appetite for a real meal, take in a nice, deep breath without hacking up a lung, and not have to second guess that I’m semi-coherent, as I have been for days now.

In the ER the other night, when I got put in the room, I got told to take my top stuff off and put on a gown. So, I took it all off, knowing that if they were going to do a chest X-ray, I’d need to do that. When the X-ray tech came in, I asked if I should bring my pile of stuff, and to my ears, this was the conversation we had:

Him: Oh, good, your brassiere is off.
Me: Yeah, I figured it should be. So, can I leave my stuff here or should I bring it?
Him: It’s good you took it off, you can’t have one on for the X-ray. And you’ll want to have that
for the holidays.

Which a) didn’t answer the question of if I needed to bring it, b) didn’t seem to acknowledge I said or asked anything at all, and c) made me arrive at the conclusion that I was either having some serious auditory hallucinations or this guy just was far more focused on the grave impropriety a bra-less holiday would be (maybe he had some kind of traumatic experience getting whacked with a merry, unrestrained boob one Christmas or something) than on anything else. However, I was left thinking that if the latter were true, and I really heard what I did, I don’t know why he wasn’t concerned about leaving said brassiere and it being stolen.

I was going to say “What?!?” but I thought it best I just let it go. I was either going to be told I was hallucinating or I’d have to hear about this holiday bra issue, and I wasn’t up to either possibility.

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.

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Phew! It took me months, and a whole weekend spent doing nothing (save one book promo event down the street) but this including pulling most of my hair out to edit it down to something resembling a manageable length, but sparing a graphic for it and maybe a few more final adjustments, it is finally freaking done. Writing that piece was harder for me in many ways than writing my whole book: it’s just such a broad topic, and it is so, so hard to approach men with it and walk the fine line between accountability and nonproductive blaming. I also went back and forth a thousand times about detailing my own rapes, but it just felt like disclosing them was important (even if it means, as it usually does when I disclose without being a weepy mess, that I’m likely to get at least a few emails telling me I deserved to be assaulted) when it comes to making readers who might feel vulnerable know that I’m vulnerable, too.

We do have substantial male traffic, so I’m hoping it does some good, and to boot, I can at the very least know plenty of female readers will see it and will get to have the rare experience of reading rape prevention materials that are about someone besides rape victims.

(FYI, I had a sidebar in there originally explaining that some couples like and both consent to dominance and submission play and that doesn’t mean we’re talking about rape since that activity is wanted and negotiated, and then gave a little airtime to talking about that it needs to be negotiated like anything else, not assumed, etc. I took it out just because it seemed obvious given the talk about consent before it, but for any peeking over at it who do D/S, can you let me know if you think it really needs be mentioned? Thanks!)

Hell, even if it does no good whatsoever, I am pleased as punch to have that stinker OFF of my to-do list at long last. Know how it is when any given thing just goes on and on, never finished, and how it becomes the most important thing to do in the whole world — even if it really isn’t — just because it’s so hard to finish or get started on anything else with whatever albatross it is putting it’s butt in the way of your brain fully focusing on anything else? That’s what I’m talking about. Now, would that it were the ONLY thing on my to-do, or rather to-finish list like that, but it was certainly the biggest and least pleasant, so that’s something.

Tomorrow — hooray! — I start two days of training and orientation for my new second (third? I have so many jobs, I don’t know which it is) job, which will likely also include a new Hep B vaccination, redoing/updating my very antiquated first aid/CPR and HIPAA schtuff, and, given what it’s like here right now, being very wet and cold coming and going. I also need to not make my workwear my pajamas, which means I must, as ever, face the terrifying laundry piles which I’ve become convinced must somehow be viral. I did give myself a splurge last week as a reward for getting this gig, and grabbed a new kata as well as this awesomely wonderful, toasty sweater (in black) here which just came today, so that at least covers the top of me. It’s the “no jeans” bit that’s going to be a tough order, as that’d be 95% of the pants I own and live in which are not pajamas. I’ll work it out, but the spoiled work-at-homer in me is a wee pissy at the moment, especially since there’s laundry involved.

I also had the first day with my new, fantastic weekly in-house volunteer last week, who got started on a Facebook page for Scarleteen (I can live with Facebook: I cannot and will not have anything to do with myspace) as well as a new call for writers. It’s so nice to have someone to help a little bit sometimes right here in the home office, who I can talk things out with rather than just typing them out, and cooler still, she was a once-upon-a-time Scarleteen user when she was younger, so she gets all of the import of what we do, which is a very happymaking thing.

Oh, and my editor wrote last week to let me know that the book is going into it’s second printing. Yay! But… she only got told after the fact, which means that it’s going into that second printing with the two very irksome art department typos. Boo.

Maybe I’ll name my next pet “Urethea” in honor of those typos, and with the wishful thinking that someday I won’t have to see them anymore save on met vet bills.

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, yes, and a million kinds of yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Meanwhile, back at the ranch….

Despite coming home and finding a mailbox with a pile of reactionary wait-until-marriage stuff inside, our weekend away in Port Townsend was scrumdiddlyumptious. Photos forthcoming, but for the most part, our exciting locales were the big, fluffy bed, two overstuffed chairs beside a gas fireplace, and a large, jetted tub. I was able to get out early Sunday morning for a seated meditation on a cliff with a moldy bench overlooking the water and then take a brisk walk across the beach. Mark literally took five baths in less than 48 hours: I expected to feel his developing gills as we slept. Sofia clearly also needed a little vacation — all that itching and your people endlessly traveling is stressful for but a small pug! — as was apparent given that save maybe one hour of the whole weekend, she found herself a cozy spot amidst the pillows on one of those chairs and refused to leave.

Saturday was a sweet, all-day mix of various sorts of debauchery — including MST3K fore-and-after-play, which should be a suggestion for the teens I work with, really — and even just by mid-morning, I was relaxed enough to enjoy a very, very nice batch of big, wavy orgasms. Funny how it’s so easy to forget — even given my job and the fact that I remind people of this daily — that the more stressed out you are, the milder your sexual response tends to be. Even the really good ones aren’t as good as they could be if you could just freaking relax; really relax, about everything. Between the stress of all the travel and having to be on so much, the perpetual struggles to keep everything I do afloat and the stress of just doing my work, not having felt well for quite some time, the works, I knew I was tense as hell, but until a day when by where nothing felt at all stressful, I wasn’t aware of how tense.

At the cabin this weekend, I was also reminded that I’m never quite sure what sound sex toy etiquette is. In other words, if you’re in a place where they will or may show up while you’re out to tidy things up, do you have to care about toys and lube and gloves being strewn all over the place? Is putting them in one pile on the nightstand good enough, or are you really supposed to hide them, even when you’re paying to stay where you are? I get the feeling you are supposed to, but the minute I even start to do it, I so deeply resent feeling like I should that I never bother.

It’s really swell to be able to look ahead over the next few weeks — heck, the next few months — and know that I don’t have to go anywhere. That doesn’t come close to fixing all of my troubles, but it sure helps out an awful lot. I’m a homebody by nature: I ground at home. When I don’t really get to do that, and am in and out a lot, it makes everything feel even more unmanageable than it is. Seattle winters aren’t exactly fabulous (but thank christ, they are NOT Minnesota or Chicago winters), but I’m glad as hell that I can be home for the whole of winter and spring. Once I really get at least somehat caught up with my backlog of every kind of work, I’m hoping I can spend it catching up on the mountain of books I have half-read, do the last of the housepainting I still haven’t finished, and have the time to do some damn art. And sleep. Get lots and lots of sleep.

So long as we can swing it, I’m going to try and use my accumulated miles for Briana so that she and The Baby Liam can come up for a couple weeks around the holidays. Her living situation is scary right now, even to someone like me who knows from hardscrabble living, and she’s got a pretty substantial break from her culinary school, so not only being able to see them, but just being able to give them a break at no cost would be great. But even that doesn’t involve me having to go anywhere. I get to bring my family to my own front door.

The Babeland event, by the way, was crazy-packed, so I had to do more lecture than Q&A, which is very much not my preference. But it was still a good thing, despite the fact that almost half the place was full with community college students from a human sexuality class, some of whom informed me later that their prof was a pretty creepy bigot who clearly hasn’t read a single study ON sexuality that was published later than 1965, and who routinely lectures even his knowingly lesbian college students about abstaining until marriage. Apparently, this was the only decent part of the class so far according to them, and also according to them and the Babeland staff, the guy nodded off through half of it. I got to walk away with a new toy for my troubles, and I resisted the urge to be greedy, since I’ve been aching for this for an age (I know, I know, it’s leather, but it has laces and a STAR on it!), and also had more than one set of youth educators wanting to talk to me about what the right way is to kindly ask your students not to masturbate publicly. I had no good answers (besides my usual suggestion to just redirect them to something else, giving them the look that says you know what they’re doing, and it’s okay, but not okay HERE) for the couple who worked in a pool with jets: you can’t keep kids off of water jets, man.

My enthusiasm for my to-do list this week tells me all I need to know about how frazzled and overextended I’ve been. When I am earnestly excited to better insulate the house here (it’s a rental, yes, but if we get the heating bills this winter we got last winter we’re in serious trouble), clean the refrigerator (and only a little depressed at how empty it is), when I wake up in the morning elated that the day will be about cleaning my disaster of an office, when doing tax paperwork seems like a break, I’ve clearly been living in Stressville. Besides finishing a couple articles that have been taking way too long (in my defense, figuring out the best way to do an article about how not to be a rapist isn’t exactly a cakewalk), and answering some advice questions, I’m going to be mostly away from Scarleteen over the next week or two. I forget, sometimes, that I’m allowed to do that, and that when it’s not coming even close to making ends meet, it only makes sense TO do that. A cleaner, more organized office, for instance, equals a clearer mind to better figure out how to deal with all the challenges right now. More to the point, now and then, during the times when I’m really not being paid at all or barely getting paid, it’s sage to do other work that needs doing which I also don’t get paid for, and is far less stressful.

Plus, there was that one time where I decided to ditch everything else to clean out my closet and found $300, effectively getting paid more for cleaning than for working. I don’t exactly expect that to happen again, but I’m not going to rule it out, either. Really, given what a slob I am, I’d not be surprised if Mark started secretly stuffing bills into hidden places just so I’d clean up my crap. I DID find a mix tape yesterday from 1988, and nearly wept with the sweetness. Labeled “Obnoxiousness Found Us in Gillson Park, Illinois,” jointly by both myself and my best friend at the time, who always went nuts with the mix tapes for the long trips we’d take — in both senses of the word — I am greatly looking forward to popping it into the tape deck in Mr. Price’s office to see what’s on it. I predict plenty of Beatles, Jazz Butcher (and I also just organized a huge pile of JB CDs a friend and rare fellow fan of them made for me a couple years back, which are a major coup since most of their stuff wasn’t even on CD), Elvis Costello, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, ska and 60’s surf rock.

I’m electing not to talk about the moment a hidden camera would have found me in this morning, belting out “Angel of the Morning” at the top of my lungs while organizing my studio shelves. because, you know, we really shouldn’t document these sorts of things if we want to be taken at all seriously.

(Though as an aside, a reader here gave a very generous donation this week, and I thank you soundly. That not only helps me to be able to toss some change at my developer so we can get some more of the upgrade finished, it also means I can finally go get new glasses, and thus end the nonstop tension headache I’ve had for two months because my prescription changed. You’re a goddess!)

P.S. In trying to finish that article on how not to rape and enable rape, I’m troubled that while we have one word, a very powerful word, at that, for a rapist, we don’t seen to have an equally powerful — and ideally MORE powerful word — for someone who is not just not a rapist, but the antithesis of a rapist. So, what’s the word for a caring, reciprocal sexual person or partner? It’s pretty darn tough to sell a concept when we don’t even have a word for it. “Lover,” alas, is terribly outdated and not something young people are even remotely likely to use. “Partner” isn’t just about sex, and as I was informed a couple years back when I accidentally outed myself to some of Mark’s film crew at 5 AM, it still primarily belongs to us queers. We could make “mutual” an honorific, but it doesn’t feel right. Might be some mileage in “accord” or “harmony,” but I can’t seem to land on it.

P.P.S. The mailbag still is out of control this week. My favorite this morning?

I was so sad when I was told about your website. Teenagers go to your site and find permission to have sex in any way they want. I am a chastity speaker and talk to teens a lot about the risks of STD’s. I know how faulty condoms are and even though people are using them STD’s are still out of control. I was so sad to read a lot of wrong information on your site. Condoms will not protect again many STD’s including HPV the most common STD today and one that can cause cervical cancer and possibly lead to death. You suggest that waiting until marriage to have sex is just not possible. It most certainly is and I hope that you will start giving teens more credit for having self control. We need to encourage then to aim for the healthiest life possible. Many people are dying because of sex but no one has died because they abstained until marriage. Please carefully consider the info you share and make sure it is accurate because so far a lot of what I have read on your site is horribly wrong especially as related to STD’s and condoms.

I really love it when people tell me what I do. (As well as the idea that it’s up to me or any other adult to give teens “permission” to have sex, while at the same time telling me I don’t give teens enough credit for making their own sound choices, while they’re asking them to sign a very binding legal contract to another person in order to even CONSIDER that choice.) It’s so helpful: how would I know otherwise? I’m the idiot savant of sex ed, see. I have no idea what I do or say: all these words and statistics and sources just come pouring out of me when I consult my Ouija board every time I answer a question. A few days later, I go look at what I have written and it’s an absolute mystery to me.

I figured the best I could do with that one was to very calmly just primarily direct her to actual, international sources of sexual health information. Probably she won’t use them, or even look, or will find some way to discredit them — even though the CDC is almost entirely in the administration’s pocket these days, so you’d think these kinds of folks wouldn’t write them off anymore. But she is an educator, and I suppose you do never know when you’ve gotten one who earnestly has their heart in the right place, but just has never been informed.

And to think, some folks call me a pessimist.

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, September 10th, 2007

Oh, UGH.

Honestly, you know (as if you didn’t already) that gender binaries have gone too freaking far when we have a discussion at the Scarleteen boards where a young female user is informed by another young lesbian user — the former having suggested as much herself — that she couldn’t be straight, but instead must be queer, because she likes pretty, skinny, longhaired emo boys.

When I have to sit and explain that if a man identifies as a man — no matter how he chooses to present — and doesn’t feel HE is cross-dressing himself nor ID’s as a cross-dresser or as trans, he’s not a transvestite (which, FYI, is often defined by youth these days as simply a “feminine,” cisgendered man), and figuring you must be queer or gay because you’re attracted to him, rather than the Brawny man, is pretty messed up…well, bleh.

I mean, sure, I know I was a teen when cisgendered guys — who, stright, gay or otherwise, were all identifying very expressly as male, nor could figure why the way they liked to present even made that a question — wearing eyeliner was all the rage, but from all I can gather, it’s no more or less so, now. Their pop icons are wearing it just like ours were (though they often appear to be usuing much more powder to set their liner, and are awfully handy with the concealer): their emo boys aren’t that different from our punk and new wave guys. The majority? Not hardly, but most of those male-identified pretty dandies then and these boys now tended to argue pretty hard — especially with freaked-out parents — that they were not trying to be women or trying to dress like women: they were expressing themselves, as men. When even with our queer-minded, identifying-as-so-different youth are still coming to gender thinking it’s anyone’s place to decide someone else’s gender identity, things clearly aren’t as improved as we seem to want to think they are.

I do my homework: I’ve seen plenty of sound data that’s made clear that this youth generation overall has some pretty traditional ideas about gender — which often make very lousy bedfellows with a lot of queer theory — but this is just plain SILLY. If our queer youth community starts doing exactly what the status quo and traditionalists do (and I’ve seen this sort of thing more than this once) in terms of second-party gender assignment — he wore a skirt, therefore, he’s not really a guy, nor am I really attracted to men; she wears her hair short, therefore she’s not really a girl, so it’s not like I’m really attracted to women — we are in some SERIOUS trouble, people. And it’s not like it’s the fault of the thirteen-year-old in question for being so confused and so garbled in this: it’s the systems we have set up that are so freaking flawed, as well as the flaws in the systems — based on the existing flawed systems — we have set up to try and make life less uncomfortable for those stuck in them to blame here. Nothing like a barely-teen from Florida to illustrate all of this mess so concretely.

This disgruntled yawp was broadcast to you from the intersection of Queer Theory and Straight Culture, where there’s a 20-car pileup. And apparently some sort of time warp: this conversation feels like one already had in every fifth living room of a Stones or Bowie fan circe 1970.

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

The good news is that I have come home to a much improved little pug.

The day I left, I had Mark go back to the vet with Sofia, who in taking a next step, put her on some Cortizone tabs. One to cover all of the bases, I let Mark know to keep an eye peeled for sleep disturbances, appetite changes and the like.

But I must confess, I was a little concerned about my wee dog being on the ‘roids. It’s always the innocent looking ones you’ve got to watch out for, after all. I should know: I live with two such creatures, one furry, the other, not so much.

So, I was also sure to tell him to be on the lookout for breast growth, facial shape changes, weight gain, irritability and serious mood swings, hyper-aggression about her lack of treats and desire to eat the cat food, sexual harassment, outright assault (I suggested her perhaps just sleep alone for a bit: I love him too much to see him psychologically scarred by a snorty dog jumping him while calling him Sally) looting, and above all else, made him swear that no matter how aggro she got or what kind of puppy eyes she gave him, he was absolutely not to cave in when she insisted on the purschase of weight training equipment.

But lo, all it has resulted in is the dog finally ceasing the infernal itching and Mark finally getting to sleep through the night, unmolested and all.

Unfortunately, Sofi is currently the only one experiencing any relief from her allergies right now. I got whacked with a full-force attack in Minneapolis, which went from bad to worse with an evening spent in a friend’s house with two male cats.

On the flight back home yesterday afternoon, in a Benadryl-induced haze already, my ears completely plugged up during the last hour of the flight, to the point where I was literally unable to hear anything. Given there were not one but two exceptionally unhappy infants on the plane who didn’t stop screaming for a millisecond, this was something of a blessing, but it’s also pretty disturbing as a normally hearing person to see a wide open screaming face and not hear a sound. I could hear a bit better slowly through the evening, but my ears only finally popped for real this morning. Yeowch.

It was a trip mostly full of babies — Becca’s new son, who is cute as the dickens, and looks like someone put a shrink-ray gun on Becca to make him, and The Baby Liam, who is less baby than certified little big boy at this point. I educated him this time in the fine art of fort-building, living room dance parties, slide-climbing, sidewalk-chalking and other very important survival skills. Then he broke my heart the day I left by being intensely unhappy I was going.

Really, I don’t want to be back in Minneapolis — especially given that my neighborhood there has continued to change so much that I couldn’t afford to live there anymore — but I would very much like it if some of the people I cared about most were not so very far away. Missing my closest friends’ kids every little stage really just freaking sucks: I take my gig as Auntie Extraordinare incredibly seriously, after all, and I’ve made a family of my friends. However, Elise and I made a barter which involves my going back in June. I had initially thought it might be a good year and a half or so until I went out that way again — I am just so wiped from all this travel — but alas, it’ll be a bit sooner.

Mark picked me up last night and, elated about the spices I brought back from him, cooked me up a scrumptious supper, peppered me with wine and bourbon and we then engaged in some very enthusiastic interpretive dance in the dining room as a welcome-home. Since the food, booze and wild gesticulating wore us right out, I had to wait until this morning to jump his bones. There’s always something particularly nice about telling someone you’re so terribly sorry you made them a bit late for work but not truly being sorry for it in the slightest.

So, I’m back in the saddle as of tomorrow, and got a little head start today.

On that note, from now through September 16th, we have an arrangement with the popular Broadway play My First Time for ticket vouchers for Scarleteen donors. I’m doing it blind-auction style, so they’ll go to the 18 donors who give the most, and can be used through the end of October. More details are here for those interested in donating or circulating the information, particularly to New Yorkers and other nearby east-coasters. I’d love it if readers could circulate that info: it remains a bad year for us, and this is a nice opportunity for us and donors. Thanks!

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

I sent this in response to the New York Times piece published last week regarding abstinence-only education. Alas, I didn’t hear back from them, so I offer it up here. I feel it’s vitally important to get as much informed commentary out there on this issue as possible right now, especially considering the recent continuance and increases given to abstinence-only funding.

Re: Abstinence Education Faces an Uncertain Future: July 18th, 2007
To: oped@nytimes.com, letters@nytimes.com

There is sound reason to question any approach to one of the most diverse arenas of human behavior which privileges one set of choices over another.

By putting virginity — a concept few teens and adults can even define; one which also leaves gay, lesbian and transgender youth, as well as sexual abuse survivors, out in the cold — in a cagematch with being sexually active, we make teens feel even less capable of figuring out what choices are right for them. Since partnered sex is always about more than one party, enabling young people to make independent choices based on their individual needs, limits and boundaries should be our greatest concern. It does “rule” for any person to feel comfortable with the choices they make about sexuality, but only so long as their choices – whatever they are — are made with accurate and inclusive information which allows them to consider sex through their own intellectual, emotional and moral compass.

There IS nothing wrong with being a virgin, and there isn’t anything weird about choosing to abstain from sex.

There also isn’t anything “weird” or wrong about choosing not to.

By stating that sex before marriage is the unilateral ideal, and the only sound, morally acceptable sexual choice, we affix more guilt, shame and confusion to sex, which is so overwrought with it already. As it is, weighty matters of popularity, normalcy, social status and peer acceptance, conflicting messages from parents, partners and the media about sexuality all cause young people to feel pushed and pulled in radically different directions when it comes to sex. As parents or mentors, we know that it is vital for youth to develop autonomy to resist external pressures: why further institutionalize this tug-o-war and suspend that logic when it comes to sex?

Abstinence-only programs are rife with misinformation on safer sex and birth control, sexually transmitted infections and the relationship realities of a diverse population. They enable the worst of traditional gender roles, in which boys are often represented as mindless, libidinous beasts for whom the girls — whose interest in sex is represented as solely emotional (and heterosexual) — are the sexual gatekeepers.

And we’ve learned this lesson before: during the first World War, all other nation’s soldiers were given condoms; ours, a “chastity campaign” instead. The result? The United States — at rates exponentially higher than those other nations — experienced its first big wave of sexually transmitted disease when our soldiers came home and gave their wives gonorrhea and syphilis. Marriage didn’t protect those couples from STIs or negative sexual consequences: abstinence approaches put them in harm’s way then, as they put couples in harm’s way now.

Even for those who wait until marriage for sex — and for GLBT youth, that could be a lifelong wait — they STILL will need sexuality information. While marriage may have the power to do some things, it lacks the ability to instill couples with information on how to practice safer sex, use birth control, have mutually satisfying sex together that is truly about both parties; to discuss sexual limits, boundaries, desires, wants and needs openly and informedly. And as anyone who works in any arena of education knows, when we learn certain skills and information influences how likely we are to retain it and best apply it throughout our lives. We would recognize a clear problem if we were not teaching language in the window in which children are doing their key language development: we should see the same problem when we are not teaching sexuality basics — knowing that like language, we do not just teach for now, but for lifelong use — during the time when that development is prime.

While over the last decade and a half, the age of first intercourse and teen pregnancy rates have declined, that trend began with the rise of comprehensive sex education and better access to birth control, and has not further decreased since 2001. We also need to take into account that rates of other sexual activity which carry just as much emotional risk, and often as much STI risk, have NOT declined. In the United States, people between the ages of 15 and 24 continue to be those with the highest — and most rapidly rising — rates of infections; our rates of STIs in young adults are substantially higher than rates in nations who provide comprehensive sexual education and better access to sexual healthcare services. Of teens who report saving sex for marriage, it is only a rare few who mean ALL sex: for most, it means forestalling only intercourse, and for many that is still not delayed until marriage. Considering the median age of first marriage is now around twenty-six, we can easily suss out why that’s not a surprise.

I have run Scarleteen.com, a comprehensive young adult sexuality education website, since 1998, which sometimes sees as many as 30,000 users a day. Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in newcomers to the site reporting participation in sexual activity like anal sex. Often, teens engaging in unprotected anal sex or oral sex will report doing so because, according to the sex information they have, it is less risky than vaginal intercourse and will also leave their virginity intact. Many of those teens have not learned how to say no to those activities when they want to from abstinence-only sex education. “Just say no,” doesn’t teach us much about “Maybe,” or “I need to find out more about our risks first, see if we can take care of ourselves in a way that’s smart and safe, talk about it more, and then see how I feel.” Whether someone is single or married, has one partner or five, they need to learn how to have conversations about sexuality that are far more complex than no or yes.

The most pervasive messages of abstinence-only education — and its logical and practical flaws — have been heard loud and clear, filtered through teen minds the way any of us filters anything: with only the information we have at hand. We know abstinence-only approaches just don’t work and never have worked, and any of us past our teens knows why. If we keep the real-life experiences we know are realities and the sexuality information most of us now have as adults from teens, some won’t know why this doesn’t work, but many will find out that it doesn’t: the hard way.

Comprehensive sexuality education includes information about abstinence. But it also includes discussion with teens about what it means to be emotionally, physically, interpersonally and materially ready for any sort of sex — not just heterosexual. It includes all of the accurate sexuality and sexual health information all of them will need — including GLBT youth. While comprehensive sex education serves both teens who abstain and those who do not, the idea that comprehensive sexuality education will result in youth having sex they would not be having otherwise is as flawed as suggesting that lessons in U.S. history about the founding of the nation will encourage young children to immediately try to organize a genocide of indigenous people.

Whether a young adult chooses to have sex or chooses not to have sex, it’s their choice to make, not ours. If adults, with a political power they do not yet have, are making any one choice a mandate, not an option, then no matter what they choose, teens aren’t making a choice at all: we’re making it for them – and we’ve been making it poorly. One can only hope abstinence education faces an uncertain future, because as of right now, it’s set up millions of teens with a decided and intentionally ignorant uncertainty in an area of their lives we should all want them to be as certain about as possible.

Heather Corinna
Editor & Founder, Scarleteen.com
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College

(Cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog.)

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Sorry, more questions, still no answers!

(I’ll get back to actual entries any time now, really, I promise, including the magic carpet ride my dental hygenist in Minneapolis sent me on. But until then…)

• When I was in Minneapolis, doing my event for the GLBT youth center, I got a handful of questions about sexuality pertaining to infibulated women. This isn’t a shocker: Minneapolis has, for some time, had a substantial Somali and Ethiopian refugee program, resulting in a substantial Somali and Ethipian population there. I did know the basic answers to the questions, but I’d very much like to do an FAQ piece for Scarleteen answering questions not about the issue of FGM, but specifically address practical issues (orgasm and sexual response, healing from genital trauma, ways to respond to long-term health problems, etc.) for women and partners of women who have been genitally mutilated. However, I don’t feel right as a white woman who not only has not survived FGM, but who doesn’t live in/come from a culture or community in which FGM is prevalent. Might any of you know a woman who might be up to collaborating on this with me who does come from one of those perspectives?

• Over the last few years, I’ve noticed at Scarleteen that an awful lot of the worst (as if there were anything less than worst, but you get me) of our incest and friend-of-family rape cases arise from Austrailia and New Zealand. Are any of you better versed than I — and know decent sources I could look at — in terms of incest and friend-of-family rapes in those countries? More specifically, I’d like to have more than the basics I do on the justice system and incest, et al, on how social services generally responds (and what victim rights are), on basic cultural dynamics in terms of social and familial attitudes around incest and rape. (Stephen? Beppie? Kat?)

Book events! I need to do them! Much to my dismay, I’ve started to discover that Seattleites are big, stuffy prudes, unless you’re approaching sex in a way that’s funny-ha-ha, all about the surfacey bullshit, or are a pro-domme. One big bookstore here even had the stones to tell my publicist that they “didn’t have an area private enough” to do an event with me. Did they think I was going to take my pants off and SHOW everyone sexual anatomy? I mean, I can see that Ann Rule has an event there (who, by the way, I’ve been known to read for a guilty pleasure; I’m a criminiology geek when I have three seconds of free time to read something besides work books, so I’m not dissing Ms. Rule). Is she going to be reading? Does she not need a more private arena to read about serial killing? Aren’t they worried she might give a demonstration? Ugh. So, save one event I got started cultivating yetsterday with a local book store (gods bless Ballard), I’m up empty. Suffice it to say, most of the rest of the world is pretty closed-mouthed, too. We knew full well from the start — it was glaringly obvious during the years of publisher-hunting — that a lot of people would be bloody terrified of this book, but it’s no fun to have it hammered home these days.

I’ll be taking some time over the next week to get this stuff together in a more formalized way, but really, I can be creative about this. For instance, if you’re in WA, Portland, Victoria or Vancouver, it’s easy for me to get to: want to link up a group of parents informally for some gabbing on how to deal with parenting and approaching sexuality with kids and teens? Want to have a sex educator over for a group of teen girls in your community to have an accurate gab-session? Heck, have a table for sex Q&A at your next office party? I’ll do it, man, just give me a shout. Very little is too weird for this gal, as is likely obvious by now.

• I also know I asked this before around a year ago or so, but I only got a response from one person, who never connected with me via email. I really, really, REALLY need to get connected with at least a couple other people who have to rape or abuse counsel, and do the sort of highly emotionally difficult work every day I do — it’s not every single day that things are so loaded, thank christ, but it’s close. And it’s getting more so: Scarleteen and myself have been around solidly long enough, and have established a certain feeling of safety for users long enough, that over the last few years, I wind up dealing with rape and abuse more and more often. Certainly, I’ll do it — I always move first to get survivors to seek out good hotlines and in-person counseling, but they usually stick around for support with me and our volunteers — it’s needed, but it also certainly isn’t what I’d choose to do or what I was prepared to do so much of. Some days, it completely wrecks me emotionally: it’s always particularly tough with hotline or ‘net hotline work because there’s only so much you can do.

(Over the last two months, we’ve also had a couple of abusers post, looking for sympathy. Poor them, they didn’t KNOW their silent, prone, half-asleep girlfriend didn’t want sex or poor them, their girlfriend DESERVES to be hit in the face, so it isn’t really abuse, you see. Don’t even get me started on what it was like to be around me on those days, and how frustrating it is that an IP address and email isn’t enough to file a report on these assholes.)

So, readers: do you do any work like this? Do you know anyone else who does who could also use an extra person to sit and unload it with? I don’t need the connection to be one way, or all about MY stress, I just need some like-minded (or rather, like-worked, if that’s even a real phrase, and I suspect it is not) people to chat with about this stuff.

And those’d be my shout-outs for right now: my apologies for them being so all about me. Also in the all-about-me category, beyond really great reviews in Bust and Bitch, there have been some really nice blog mentions/reviews of the book this week. C.K. made my day, and then a day later, Laurie Toby Edison made it even better, especially since she and Debbie paired my review with a review of one of my best friend’s books — a real perk, since Hanne and I miss working together (though each of us had a lot of back-and-forth while we were each working on these books, and each star in our dedications and acknowledgments), so it’s uber-cool when our stuff gets put in the same pile so we can kinda feel like we are again.

(P.S. thanks to my eBay tutorial volunteers: I’ll be pinging you today.)

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

It’s a… well. Hmm.

Not a girl. Not a boy. I guess it’s just a website, even though it feels like I just gave a breech birth to a velociraptor.

But it’s freaking well done.

In case it’s not beyond obvious? Upgrading a site built many years ago, and trafficked by millions of people really kind of sucks. Thank christ that the boards only needed to be spruced, not gone through page by page, redesigned and rebuilt from the backend, like we had to do with the 250+ pages of the main site, because having to do what we did — which has taken months of many no-break, 14 hour + workdays from two of us — with an extra 51,000 pages (no, I’m not kidding, and I’ve read nearly every one of those pages over the years, and answered or contributed to over 25,000 of those questions myself, in case you wonder where all these greys and wrinkles are coming from)?

That would have flat out broken this chick. As it is, I am toast. If I have to do this anytime again within the next five years — especially when I can’t even pause from doing everything else I already do — I will sell my hair, limbs and anything else anyone’ll pay me a dollar for so I can just pay someone else to do all of this, because if I so much have to think about another upgrade of this size, I can guarantee I’ll wind up wearing one of those fancy white garments with the arm restraints for the rest of my natural born life.

(Which — natrual-born — is a phrase I’m not even sure I can validly use, given I was induced so we could get the hell out of dodge before my Dad got sent to jail. Again with the hmm.)

We went live last night pretty much all of five whole minutes before we had to run over to SIFF for Mark’s debut as a director of a festival film (which was all proud-making, and all the better because one of The Brothers Price flew in from Cincy to be here), stayed out late, then I woke up on the early this morning to fix a ton of little buggies. I have been a complete crabass for weeks, I only dimly recall what the outside world even looks like, sex is a dusty — albeit pleasant — memory, and I am beyond burnout.

So, I’m taking a week off from big work. Starting right now, as I lace my coffee with Wild Turkey and try to remember where I left my life last.

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Just a one-note quick hit from the road, here.

For Chicagoans, today’s Red Eye (the Trib’s free daily) has a nice interview and piece on the book, so grab a copy if you see one lying around!

And yes, that is really it. Not enough time, too much to tell, must to be off with the me right now.

P.S. That’s not really it. I still love my dentist in Minneapolis. Even more than ever. More on that later, though.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007


SCARLETEEN: EXPLICIT ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG

I gotta say, I’m not sure how often I give what I’d call explicit advice. If I did, I think I’d use a lot less words than I tend to and sum it all up by just answering every advice question with, “Things will always get better. And then they’ll always get worse. A good orgasm is good when they’re better and when they’re worse, and a shitty relationship is good for neither, so don’t ever promise to stick around for both.” But I digress, as I often do.

Despite how whoo-whoo the copywriter who does the front page for the P-I clearly felt the need to be, it was pretty darn cool to see that staring at me from the city paperboxes the other day. The reporter did a fantastic job and it’s a really excellent, positive piece (though I felt more than a twinge of discomfort at some of the more traumatic parts of my youth being mentioned sans context in a big paper, but then, I don’t keep it a big secret, and it is good for people to see that abuse survivors, like, DO things) — and featured on the front page, yo — which is a great energizer for me. And lord knows, I needed it. This old girl is TI-RED these days.

So often, press pieces about Scarleteen have had this sort of begrudinging acceptance. Like, “Yeah, I guess kids need this stuff but it sure sucks that they do, and yeah, I guess this woman does serve a lot of them and do a good job, but it’d sure be better is she was somebody’s nice, married, surburban Mom, and not this childless, queer, feminist skank who actually really likes having sex, and not the kind we’d prefer she liked. But I guess it’s still a good thing.”

This? Much better. And a fine how-do-ya-do, I’d say, from my new home city.

* * *

But none of that is half as cool as a phone conversation with my Dad today telling me, all choked up, that he just had the very best day of his life.

What happened?

He got to go into a bookstore and get a book solo-authored by his kid, who he has watched and mentored with her writing and work since he taught her to read, and without fail, ever since. My father may have his failings, but I cannot think of a single instance in my life when he was nonsupportive of my aspirations and my creative work, no matter what direction they went in.

Apparently, he not only felt he had to tell every single person working at the bookstore that HIS KID wrote my book, but he also sold every copy the Barnes & Noble he was at on the north side had.

As these conversations were relayed to me, the cashier, when my father was buying a copy and going on ad nauseum, said, “Oh it’s for your daughter, that’s nice,” to which my oh-so-gracious father replied, and probably loudly, since he has no idea how to speak quietly, “No, it’s BY my daughter, you dumbass.” It’s easy to see where I get my charm from, now ain’t it. Ladies and germs, my fabulous public relations department.

I guess when he walked in and found it, he saw some other woman thumbing through a copy, and he asked her about it, and she said she’d really needed something like it for her daughter. So, as he did with everyone ELSE, he made clear that HIS daughter wrote it, and — my father, toothless, road-weary and all, is a highly infectious and gregarious guy — she ended up buying a couple copies, as did someone else nearby. On top of that, he and this woman went out for coffee afterwards. Hell, even if all my book did was net my Dad some normal social contact that most people get but he rarely does (his economics and homelessness — though he’s still in the SRO — are only part of the issue, as over the past few years, he’s also become pretty agoraphobic, not surprisingly given his neighborhood), that’d be a damn fine result.

But sitting and listening to one’s parent, especialy a parent who has been around some serious luminaries in their day, and had one helluva life, tell you that seeing and buying your book (especially with the peanuts they have for cash) was the best day of their life is a really wonderful, loving, incredible thing to have happen as someone’s child.

Of course, I cried like a freaking baby. I mean, bloody HELL.

Especially considering that just the day before today, I’d gotten a small package from him in the mail with a letter that closed with this.

* * *

Still been chugging away every day with Garrett to get to a finish on the full site upgrade for Scarleteen. It’s looking phenomenal, and I’m really excited, especially considering how much easier some of this system will make my life. But days and days on end of making graphics and staring at code utterly fries my brain and makes my limbs feel like lead weights. How you techies out there do this shit every day of every year is completely beyond me.

It’s one thing to do it when combined with other work — I code and do graphics regularly, but I’m also writing, doing more creative work, at the same time — or when you have the time to take long breaks, grab a walk or a hoop or a yoga fix. But given our deadline and the crazy amount of work that shifting an almost ten-year-old site (how the hell did THAT happen?) into an entirely new format and layout, there’s been so much work packed into the day that half the time, I’m forgetting to eat and barely have time to wipe my own butt.

I did carve out a few hours today to fit in two photo shoots with visiting friends, and get contact made with another major paper who wants to do a piece, but now I have to get cracking. In the barely-more-than-24 hours I have left before I go to Minneapolis for a week and a half, I have got to get a pile of books addressed and sent, do laundry, pack up clothes, photo equipment and book stuff, eat some dinner, have sex (hey, when you’re going out of town and know it’ll be a while, you need to be pragmatic about fitting it in), grab The Baby Liam an extra birthday present, deal with some banking, do more work with the site upgrade and maybe lose my mind just a little more before I pass out on my midnight flight.