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

Archive for the 'soapbox' Category

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I wound up getting a pretty invaluable takeaway from the Staycation-that-wasn’t.

When it was over — or not over, really, since it didn’t really happen, but you know what I mean — I realized that I had stayed off my personal Twitter without even noticing.  Then I realized that going back on filled me with some level of dread. So did the prospect of doing pretty much anything that involved promotion or standing out from the madding crowd in any way.  While I didn’t get the time off I wanted, I was at least able to get a handful of days separate from my larger work world of late and away from its constant din. In a word, anything potentially extroverted or which carried the pressure to be extroverted made me feel highly anxious and depressed.

Growing up, music, writing and teaching were always my big loves, as they are still. Unsurprisingly, my musical abilities tended to be the ones that got the most attention and focus from others.  Some of that was just because I loved to make music, but I suspect a larger part of it was that making music tends to involve a level of performance that writing (well, until fairly recently) and teaching, especially when you do it the way I’ve always liked to, do not.

The thing is, I never liked performing. I still don’t. What I liked was making music, being a part of music, or even more to the point, being so much a part of music that what I was in those moments was music itself, separate from myself, invisible as myself.  My favorite part of any kind of art has always been the process, not the product, and really being able to get lost inside that process. Before I went to the arts high school I did, I was always in the choir at every school I attended. I remember people feeling very invested in getting solos or not, but that was never my interest. Being in the choir — in it –  was my favorite part.  I especially loved those moments when you’d be singing with everyone else, and all the harmonies would be just right: even though you were still singling just as clearly and loudly when your own voice was more audible, you’d blend in so that you couldn’t distinguish your voice from anyone else’s anymore. It was like you opened your mouth and everyone’s voice came out, and yours was only one part.  It’s the same reason I loved being in the mosh pit during my high school years: things were loud and intense, sure, but everyone was part of the crowd, it required going with that flow or people would wind up underfoot.

I loved being at the arts school. Being able to focus on my writing was fantastic, but I was there primarily to study music, and I loved that, too. At the end of senior year, everyone needed to present their own project, and I was so happy to be able to form a band and be able to collaborate with a group, rather than playing alone. But by the time graduation was coming up, I,d realized that a life in music would probably mean a life performing. Making my living as someone who only stayed in the studio was not likely to be doable (I should have learned a brass instrument, I know). If I wanted to sing, I’d need to learn to like performing. I tried. During my gap year, my friend Joe and I would play open mikes and at a couple bars and I literally tired to see if I could learn to like performing if I just sang and played my dulcimer with my back turned to the audience.  (Yes, really.  I did like it better, but audiences, as you’re probably not surprised to hear, found it a bit odd.) What about street performing, I thought? Maybe that would work. Nope. Also? Fucking brr.

So, when I started college, I decided to stop studying music and focus instead on literature and sociology, and on writing and teaching. There’ve been two decades between then and now, and a lot happened in my life and in the world in between.  And of course, silly me, I decided to write and teach about and subjects that seem perfectly normal and relaxed to me, but also wonderfully complex, so never boring, but which most of the world finds provocative and feels the need to yell about a lot.

But over the last couple of decades, the biggest thing that happened around my little epiphany I’m about to talk about is that it seems to me that our culture has become a culture of constant and en-masse extroversion to the exclusion of all other ways of being.  A “look at me” world. If how a lot of the world seems to be going right now was a kid in class, it seems like it’d be the kid who always has their hand up for every question, even though half the time, they don’t have the answer or weren’t even paying attention to what the question was.

Everything seems to involve marketing. Everything feels like it involves making yourself louder and louder and louder and bigger and bigger and bigger. If you don’t want to be on television — or, if you’re like me and that kind of visibility sounds like a circle of hell Dante would have invented if he’d written the Divine Comedy in the 21st century — it must mean you’re not really motivated to do whatever it is you do. Hell, we have reality television, and people who aspire to be on reality television as a what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up. If you just want to quietly do your own thing, it’s often assumed you must not want to involve other people or make an impact on the world, since making an impact involves being seen as widely, as largely as possible, even if what you have to offer when given those opportunities is less than the best you’ve got to offer. I can’t express how many times over the last year or two I have found myself arguing with colleagues who just don’t understand — they’re not being assholes, they just clearly don’t get it –  why I don’t self promote more, more, more and how I can be highly dedicated to doing what I am without wanting to spend more time marketing myself and my work than time doing my work. It’s gotten to the point where if anyone around me even starts the sentence, “You know, you really should promote yourself better by….” I feel on the verge of tears or shin-kicking, sometimes both.

And in the subject I work in, in sex, I feel like it’s just gotten really bad — and maybe it always was — to the point where the promotion and marketing schtick has gotten so fever-pitch that even smart people I know with great intentions frequently sound like snake oil salesmen to me. I ran from two professional email lists screaming in the last year because where I had been looking for educated community to deepen the actual work we all do, most of what I found was what sounded like a nonstop infomercial from hundreds of people at once, some of whom, it seemed to me, spent more time marketing than actually doing the work, because when they did ask about work-related things, the questions they asked were so rudimentary it made it obvious how little time they spent doing the work they were promoting.

When I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve felt so burnt out and tired, I kept finding myself very perplexed. I love the work I do. Working with teens and young people, especially when they’re in crisis, can be very challenging, but it rarely wears me out: it tends to energize me instead. I never get tired of writing: I still love the process. Same goes for teaching: I still love working as en educator.  The money stuff is always tiresome, so I often look there when I’m trying to identify a source of stress, but that’s not it. I wish I had more time for my life, still, and for my own creative work, but I’ve been working on that with some measure of success. I keep being asked for things from too many people who seem to forget I’m just one person over here, but as frustrating as that is, I can let mostly those annoyances go when I experience them. I’ve wracked my brain with all of these puzzle pieces and more, trying to find out where, exactly, so much of my stress seems to be coming from.

Then I realized that I somehow have managed to often fall into working in this extroverted mode that doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, it keeps me from doing my best work; from my best self, even. From who I am and the way that I do things best.

I’m gragarious, sure. And very open. Sometimes loud and boisterous. But I’m not extroverted. I’m introverted. It’s one of the reasons I always loved writing. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always much more concerned with getting enough time alone than with getting enough social time, and why I always feel completely perplexed when people ask me if I get lonely now that I live on the island or if I get bored out here. When I was in the UK early this year, Blue took some time off and was home alone for several days.  When he told me on the phone he hadn’t seen a single person in days, I said, “I know, isn’t it AWESOME?” (I think it is. Blue, on the other hand, was a little freaked out by the experience.) It’s one of the reasons I fell so in love with Montessori when I discovered it, where the teacher isn’t the focus, the students are. It’s one of the reasons I still love making music, and tend to save it for cherished, quiet times when I’m alone. It’s the main reason why it’s been very hard for me to have to adjust to the fact that semi-regularly now, I have to do public talks for big groups, something I’ve gotten decent at doing, but am always most thrilled when it’s over. My introverted nature is not news to me nor is it to anyone who knows me well.

And yet. Because — and really, I can’t believe how unaware of this I have been — it seems like the way things have been around this is that this, this high-key extroversion, is The Way you do them, I have tried to do them that way. I have tried to keep my own personal and professional din at something resembling the level of what seems like everyone else’s. I have pushed myself really hard to perform the way a lot of my colleagues perform. Heck, I can actually track this back to way earlier in my life, to times even as a kid where I forced myself to learn to be loud because I so badly wanted to do things, and the only way it seemed I was going to be able to get a chance to do them was if I acted like I was extroverted.

And that, my dears, is what I realized has been making me so incredibly worn out, above and beyond all else.

For an extrovert, see, that stuff obviously feels energizing and exhilarating. Not for an introvert: it gives me an intense desire for a rock to go hide under where I can take a long nap or listen to my records alone all day. An extrovert loves to be in the spotlight. We introverts generally can’t stand it, especially if we’re not at least sharing it, ideally with someone who wants that spot right on them, far, far away from us. My sense is that for extroverts, being constantly visible and in the middle of everything helps them focus. For an introvert, especially for this introvert, it feels like trying to watch one screen while 50 different screens with different things on them are on at once. It’s distracting. For me to see out clearly, I have to start by seeing in: and I can’t do that very well if I’m trying to be extroverted. It’s like extroversion puts a flashlight in my eyes.  Not only does it just feel wrong — wrong like you feel when you’re trying to get somewhere, and someone tells you you’re on the right street, but you are 110% certain you’re utterly turned around –  it makes it really, really hard for me to even remember what I’m supposed to be doing, let alone enjoy it.

The thing is, I — and my other fellow introverts — should be able to be who we are, the way we are, and do what we want to do in life and in the world in our way. It’s no more wrong or right than the other way: these are both ways of being. Not putting out a constant, flashy, look-look-look outflow doesn’t mean I don’t want to do things that have a big impact, nor that I don’t think my work has value: it usually just means that I want to be in the work and focusing on the work itself, and focusing on myself in such a way that I’m the vehicle for it, rather than the other way round.

I thought a little about some of the people I’ve admired most in the world who were clearly introverted: Blake, Goodall, Thoreau, Ghandi, Woolf, Bronte, Curie, Einstein, Dr. Suess, Jung, King, Van Gogh, Chopin, Yeats, Joni Mitchell, Georgia O’Keefe, Remedios Varo, nearly every writer and artist whose work I find most visionary and my father. Then I started thinking about how they’d fare in the world right now, and how hard it might even be to find them and what they did if they didn’t shift to an extroverted model. I mean, would Virginia Woolf really be like, “No, srsly, everyone, COME SEE MY ROOM! Pls RT!” Would Thoreau have a daily photoblog of Walden Pond? Why? How the hell would Chopin have composed anything with one hand on a cell phone? How on earth could activists like King and Ghandi have done what they did as well as they did with the kind of reactive urgency we have right now?

Then I realized that all the people on my list were brilliant people, very self-possessed and visionary people who I feel certain would have found a way to be who they are, and to do things the way that felt right to them, without taking on a way of being that would be more likely to stand in the way of their work and their lives than it would be likely to enhance it.

I am, at the moment, without solid answers about how to do this differently. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve ever really thought about it before: I only, and quite foolishly, just hit upon this awareness last week.

But I’m so very grateful to have gotten to that awareness, even if what got me there mostly seems to have been a lot of deep annoyance, a ton of new grey hairs, distraction from all of the things I actually want to do and which need a level of full attention tough to come by anymore for me to do them as well as I can, and feeling very misunderstood pretty much constantly, all unpleasant things.

For now, I’m just going to start thinking about this. I have a few strategies to start with, though, like staying away from social media I can until I figure out a way to manage it that really works for me, taking baby steps to ask the extroverts in my circles to accept I’m different than they are, doing things more quietly, even if it seems like a gamble to do so, and just reminding myself that the way it seems like everything has to be done isn’t the way everything has to be done.  There are other ways to do things than whatever the predominant model is or seems to be at a given time, something I know and have always applied to near everything in my life and my work, something I tell other people at least several times a day, and something I used to do all the time, so there’s no reason I can’t apply the same here with this, starting now.

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

This is a fucking outrage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To whom it may concern,

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

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

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

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

Thank you,
Heather Corinna

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

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

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

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

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.

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your consideration,

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

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, February 22nd, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, what about them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

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

Having GOOD sex was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

(This one’s for Andrea, who asked. Slight swerve form the ongoing topic, but only barely.)

Why I Stopped Putting All (or most) of My Efforts into Erotica and Decided the Revolution Didn’t Hinge on That, Groovy as That Would Have Been. (I really wanted to work “On My Summer Vacation” into that, but alas, it just wouldn’t happen.)

So, Scarlet Letters has just been sitting for a really long time now. (And I haven’t been able to actually touch it or have it forward elsewhere in part because it was important it stayed as-is during the ACLU/COPA case.) I’ve okayed a couple of reprints on some of my photographic and written erotica, but per the written, I haven’t done anything new or particularly wanted to. With the photography…well, I’ll get to that.

I also haven’t done the constant networking I used to do with other women working in erotica and pornography, in part because there are fewer of them (when we’re really talking women-owned, women-centered, women-directed) than ever. And yes, I know that some younger women think there’s a surge of it online these days, but I assure you, it ain’t nuthin’ compared to what we had going around 2000/2001.

I’ve declined, over the past couple of years, a lot of offers for features/joint projects in the arenas of porn and erotica. I’ve even gotten to the point with features on my photography where if the approach is, at all, to have me presented as a pinup or a babe, it’s just not workable for me.

In a word, I’m outta much of this arena, or, what is generally defined as this arena. How it’s defined and how limited I feel that is an entry or twelve for another day.

Now. There are first some secondary reasons for this.

• Some of the why of this is simply that Scarleteen just took the heck off (ST gets a minimum of twenty times the traffic anything else I ever did did, even during the best years), and because I’m an activist at heart, so when a need expresses itself very loud and clear, that’s where I’m going to go. And that one shouted out way louder than any “needs” anyone ever had for women-centered erotica/porn.

• Another part of why is that set a standard at SL that we would not publish crap. That even if it meant skipping deadlines, or publishing less, that what we did publish needed to be exceptional, original, and of real quality. And as the years went on, we found that we just kept using the same artists and writers again and again because (and any erotica publisher or editor worth their salt, and being honest, will tell you this) the vast majority of what we got in was mediocre at best, and the Worst Shit You Ever Read/Saw at worst. And it gets really, really depressing (or, at a minimum, bloody boring) seeing what even the smarter, more creative eschelons of the populace define as sexy or erotic.

(It’s amazing, really, how sex can make everyone so stupid. Even really good authors and artists sometimes, who rock any other subject, can suddenly turn into the worst hacks on the planet when they tackle sex in their art.)

• USC 2257 didn’t help. While I often prefer suggestion to explicit work, our editorial policy had always been to really look at things artistically, and judge them on that merit, so that included all kinds of work. A big, big deal to me when it came to working in women’s sexuality is, was and has always been that privacy for women is a huge issue. So, the last thing on earth I would do is cooperate in compromising the privacy of female subjects in any photographic work.

• It also stopped paying even its own meager bills. After the first year or so, for a good, what, four years? Something like that… we did pretty well with CPM banner ad contracts for Scarlet. Between 2000 and 2002, for a woman-owned and run business that did not compromise itself in any way, or get into bed with anyone it didn’t want to 100%, I did pretty darn well. Again, at the time, there were enough other people and companies with the same aims, so while finding harmonious adverts wasn’t easy — bear in mind that woman-centered and focused means that 99.9% of the types of ads available to sexuality publications were big fat nos to us, because we didn’t want to have misogyny or male-directed sexuality on the site — but I worked it well enough for a while there. Then there were less of us. Then the bottom dropped out of the web, period. Then there were less still. Then, just not enough to have it be workable at all.

• We could probably have paid more bills — obviously — if both the publication and myself as its editor were willing to play something close to the more acceptable part when it comes to marketing sexuality. If I/we had been willing to talk like porn stars, to have less personal privacy, to hold the poses, always wear the heels and lipstick, “oh baby” somebody, set politics aside, care less about quality and more about quantity, and get seriously into bed with the male-run or driven affiliates and publications. But I wasn’t, and we weren’t. For me, I’d always said when I started doing work in sexual media that if it didn’t feel true to me, I wasn’t going to do it. If it conflicted with my personal/political ethics, I wasn’t going to do it. And if I just plain did not feel 100% okay about something, I wasn’t going to do it. And in time, part of what has happened is that it was that or let Scarlet and most of erotica period sit on the shelf until we could figure out a different way. Those pressures got greater, while at the same time, I began to feel like in some respects, I needed to be more cautious about what I/we were cavalier about, even considering that I was rarely calavier about anything. At this point, even with my own site here, I’ve since accepted that to do what I want to do with writing and art, I have to have zero reliance on the small funds it generates anymore, and NOT try to have it make more money, because pretty much anything that would guarantee better subscription sales would also guarantee lesser creativity and authenticity, and it’s just not worth it for a few hundred extra bucks a month.

I’ve also since worked on accepting that the comfort and security of any one “camp” is a luxury which someone who aspires to be a truthful revolutionary cannot afford.

You just can’t be authentic or nurture authenticity and autonomy in your life and your work when you always have to check in with someone else’s agenda — even if it’s the same as, or similar to, yours. I need room to be critical of any given media or issue, in whatever ways I feel critical and want to express that, and I don’t have enough room if I have to worry about betraying one camp or another.

Which is part of why it’s sitting. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m still thinking about it. I think I know a good way it can go at this point, but I want to do it right, so I’m taking my time.

Those, believe it or not, are but the smaller issues. Here’s the big one, and it’s no happy ending.

Ultimately, this is the conclusion I’ve reached, which of course seems way more obvious in hindsight, as most things do.

Women can’t possibly reclaim pornography — which is an expression of sexuality — before we’ve reclaimed sexuality, period.

That is a logical given. And we have NOT, in my mind, “come a long way, baby.” We’re a long, long way off.

(Before you go there, I don’t think porn/erotica of any type cannot make the same kinds of strides TOWARDS women reclaiming/owning our sexuality the way something can like, say, Hanne’s upcoming book on the cultural history of virginity, the cessation of rape or getting EC freely and easily available to everyone. Entertainment of any type is obviously powerful in many ways, but unless it accomplished aims like that through it as a channel, it’s power — however far its reach may be, and however much it enthralls — is far more limited. Most of what is produced as sexual entertainment, as compared to even mediocre films in every other genre, is what Olson Twins films are to Thirteen.)

While I think we can absolutely take steps, and while I think that some of us can get decently far with this individually (especially women who can have the most distance/respite from the usurpers of their sexuality, individual and collective), I’m afraid I think that at this point, most of what we can do is to provide band-aids until we’re just plain not living under patriarchy anymore. Not just in sex: full-stop.

(While I’m going off like a rocket and probably pissing people off anyway, I may as well say that I’m of the mind right now that anyone who thinks we’re even close to reclaiming or discovering our sexuality is either naive — as I was — delusional, or pretty self-absorbed. The assumption or assertion that a given women’s sexual behaviour must be 100% authentic to her just because she’s female — which oddly, usually also comes from people who will talk a bluew streak about how men are sexually conditioned, something I guess somehow women are immune to? — is as intellectually anorexic as the assumption or assertion that any choice any of us women make is feminist because we’re female.)

That isn’t so say that band-aids aren’t a good or needed thing. Much in the same way that Affirmative Action is a band-aid until (oh, salty optimism abounds) people aren’t racist anymore, I absolutely think all the reclaiming and rediscovering (and in the case of women’s sexuality, so much of it isn’t re-anything so much as trying to really find it for the first time) one can do is a Very Good Thing, and is really, really important. By all means, I think that we and women before us working in this arena have actually made some incredible strides that I wouldn’t ever dream of dismissing or discounting: even if it’s just individually rather than collectively. But even when those strides are made, they still often can’t benefit a great many women — a majority of women — because there isn’t an allowance made for them in their/our lives and world.

I mean, even if we reduce things to a lowest common denominator – okay? — it’s only so useful to know where your clitoris is and what it does if a) you weren’t reared with and/or aren’t still surrounded with a culture, community or relationships that shame the hell out of you (or cut your clit off, or stone you, or rape you) for touching it and/or b) partners who will be all that interested in it beyond figuring it might be a good way to get you to say yes to the sex they want if they pay a minimum of attention to it.

(Some time back, there was this new miracle cream — right here in the states where apparently everyone knows all about the clitoris now and thinks it’s the shit — that came out for women designed to increase arousal, right? It apparently had these totally amazing ingredients that would just drive every woman wild and make her a wailing walrus of love. The instructions explained that for the cream to work, it had to be, I kid you not, “rubbed on the clitoris for ten to twenty minutes.” I don’t think I need to expand on that one, do I?)

Maybe in my case some of it is that focusing primarily on YA sex education feels like I can accomplish this better, since most of my “students” aren’t set in their socio-sexual conditioning or attitudes yet, and if so, certainly not as solidly as people older than them are, just because of the passing of time spent under seige. That makes me feel kind of lousy sometimes, like I abandoned women of my generation or older, but I’m often pragmatic in my activism: above all else, I just want it to be effective.

I got tired of watching people come into this genre anew saying they had the best of intentions, asking for my help, getting it much of the time, and then either jumping ship when it didn’t make them oodles of dough, or selling myself and other women out to net the cash. I got tired of seeing male-owned orgs give their sites a female face or front and saying they were women-run or about women because some male pornographers/venture capitalists figured out that they could benefit off of the backs of women this shiny, new way, while the guys were setting the direction and making the big cash. I got tired of listening to men and women alike talk trash about women in porn or sex work, and either treat them like commodities or speak on their behalf — discussing negatives OR positives about the experiences they haven’t actually had themselves — without invite to do so. I got tired of listening to women outright bullshit about doing things for other women in their porn/erotica when it was so freaking obvious that that was not their concern: it was just popular to say, got you more approval from women, and made it easier to sleep at night.

I am still so goddamn tired of reading comments from men at women’s sites/blogs who work in sex and ID as feminist where the men cannot shut the hell up about what GREAT feminists they are, ever telling a woman who is questioning her feminism or choices not to…

…because their feminism does not challenge these men at all, it benefits them, and only for that reason.

Note to Guys Masquerading as Pro-Feminist Men: it is NOT feminist or pro-feminist to aim to silence the thoughts in a woman’s head. Just sayin.’

I got tired of some of us working so effing hard for so damn little and getting shit from all sides for it. I’ve talked about this before, but it is seriously draining to have porn-people and male culture demonize you because you’re apparently in bed with radical feminists, while radical feminists won’t quit with how in bed you are with the guys. Hell, in high school and college, when everyone accused me of being in bed with absolutely everyone, at least they they were right AND I got to get very well-laid all the time. I got tired of people trying to manipulate me into doing something for their ventures — work they’d sometimes, without informing me, put in a context that was totally abhorrent to me — by playing on how I “owed” something to women, because they knew I actually gave a shit, when they really just wanted to use my name (something which a few people seriously overestimated the power of, big time) to make some cash or feel important.

I got tired of noticing that when I really pushed the envelope, and really did what I felt was challenging, original and outside-the-box (as it were) work when it came to photography, people sometimes got angry with me, and when I did light and fun or…well, let’s be honest, work that was fluff or just fell short of what I’d hoped, people loved it. If I’m really reclaiming — and people really want that — and I’m really expressing my sexuality as a multi-dimensional whole, then when work I do didn’t/doesn’t meet someone’s ideas of what they want to see or are comfortable seeing that should NOT be a conflict. And if — as this has happened — I decide to shoot a series in the shower where I am processing a rape flashback, or share actual sex I am having with the actual latex barriers I use to avoid chlamydia of the throat, or shoot subjects I think are beautiful who don’t fit a certain body ideal, or the sex I have with a girlfriend doesn’t look or sound like girl-on-girl porn people should NOT be sending me angry or whiny letters or cancelling subscriptions if, in fact, they support reclaiming and earnestly exploring women’s sexuality, because ladies and germs, stuff like this is part of that gig.

I got really tired of seeing what I was told was reclaiming which looked so incredibly similar to how men have presented sexuality or women’s sexuality (hate to say it and sound like a straight-girl basher, but when I did see what seemed like successful reclaiming, it nearly always came from dykes. You know, the kind who learned to have sex with each other from each other, rather than from porn).

I’m not immune from that either: some of the reason I shoot and publish a bit less than I used to is that I found even for myself that reclaiming is a lot of work. If I didn’t put a good deal of thought into it, if I rushed it out, if I didn’t try really hard to see/think/feel differently (or make a point of questioning what seemed different on first glance/imagine), if I couldn’t view my own work really critically, I discovered on second glance that even what I thought was my reclaiming sometimes looked quite alarmingly, frustratingly, like rehash. And this even coming from me, who’s done her dyke-time, who seriously could give two shits what men think of her, her body or her sexuality, and who had all kinds of diverse sexual conditioning and counterculture and blah blah blah. You get it.

(I also got tired of feeling so damn bitter all of the time and feeling so alone in it. If you’ve gotten this far into this entry, you may also have some idea of how tired I was of the way I was making some of my friends and colleagues feel when I went on about this stuff.)

Point is, women reclaiming sexuality under patriarchy is exactly akin to people of color reclaiming their culture and identity under white supremacy: you are incredibly limited, at best, in what you can do, and that really is just that.

Not a very hopeful sentiment, I know. And it’s some of why I feel like a real asshole sometimes, and let me tell you why.

I HAD some older feminists almost telling me this almost verbatim when I started working in that arena. I’m stubborn, sure, but generally I really am very good at listening to a wealth of perspectives, and to respecting those of people who have done longer time on this earth than I have. I was never one of those folks who thought that if every woman could have a really good orgasm, the whole world and all of culture would change: I can be daft sometimes, but I’m not THAT daft. But for whatever reason, I really, really, truly thought that not only could we forge some really important cultural changes by getting our sexual expression out there, by all sisters-doin-it-for-themselves-ness when it came to sexual media, I just for the life of me could not wrap my head around the fact that a LOT of other things needed to happen first before we could not only forge those changes, but before we could even do the kind of work that could possibly create them.

Lemme tell you something: eight years of sex advice letters en masse, mostly from hetero women, and sometimes from men, will teach you a thing or two about what state of affairs we’re really in when it comes to this.

I think some of the rift created between myself and some other feminist women years back had to do with two misunderstandings: one theirs, one mine.

• Theirs was that I did not think every other aspect of women’s equality and work for that equality was important (and that some of them just didn’t really get what I was trying to do, or didn’t think my efforts were especially valuable). I did, I always have: it’s just that I earnestly thought — and given the caveats above, still think to a degree — that women’s sexual equality and identity was ALSO important, and that I could do the most effective work there, and make real strides doing that.

• Mine was that I thought I/we could do a lot more in that arena than I now think we can, and also that what some of them were trying to tell me — that I couldn’t hear — was that making changes in those other areas of equity was ALSO work for sexual autonomy and ownership; that it’s a lot more likely for larger, more tangible, basic changes to create improvements in women’s sexuality and the room all of sexuality makes for it than the other way around.

I think that is most likely correct. (And, of course, that hardly means you can’t still have your orgasms while you’re doing that other work.)

None of this is to say I plan to stop the work that I’m doing right now and have been for the last few years. I think that everything I do right now is important, and I’m feeling very good about the new projects — like the AGA — which I’ve added to the roster in the last year. I think my direction right now is a bit more sound and well-rounded than it was at other times. But that also means that I have to be careful about easy distractions and careful about not undoing my own work with other work.

It means that all of the work I do in sexuality, women’s sexuality and feminism is a lot harder than I’d like, hurts my brain and heart a lot more, and demands a LOT more of me. It means that I have to come at this stuff from both angles: I have to find ways to work on the sexuality aspects while also still working on the bigger context our sexuality lives within. I have to remind myself incessantly that if any of this seems like a no-brainer, it’s probably just me being lazy or wanting to take the easy way out.

But, more challenging as that is, it feels better to me. It feels more right, it feels more productive, it feels more truthful.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, Andrea, and others of you who have asked over the last year or so, and likely way more than anyone who didn’t ask me about it wanted to know, but there it is: ashamedly, that’s the short version. Would that it were the streamlined one. Per usual, when there aren’t easy answers, there are rarely easy explanations, either.

P.S. For the Greek/Latin scholars out there, or other words of wordsmiths, I still need a word to replace pornography to better describe what I aim for in visual work: I need a word for sex and women, and I need a word which describes not visual entertainment or the intent to create arousal, but visual art/exploration of sexuality and women.

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

Slight swerve: I find this so, so upsetting.

Some ob-gyns, as well as other physicians, recently have left their specialties to practice cosmetic medicine, including acne treatments and Botox injections, at medical spas, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, the cosmetic medicine field is attractive to some ob-gyns and other physicians because it normally results in same-day payments because treatments are not covered by insurance, and it allows doctors to set their own hours and avoid emergency calls. Robert Huckels — vice president of marketing for MedSurge Advances, a Dallas-based company that provides cosmetic medicine training and equipment — said, “It works well for emergency room doctors seeking less stress and for gynecologists who already have a ready-made female audience.”

This gives “grooming” a serious double-meaning.

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

I can earnestly say that testifying in a federal court, to a federal judge, with the ACLU and against the United States government was not only utterly painless, it was really, really quite enjoyable. It’s like being wary as hell to get on a big scary rollercoaster, going on anyway, getting kid of sick but having a really good time all the same, getting off, and begging to get right back on again.

I’m employing some tact in the following portrayal of my testimony, believe it or not. I feel it’s a bit inapporpriate to take the “I kicked the government’s ASS!” approach right out here in the public eye. Oh. Oops. Anyway.

I can say that while providing vitally necessary testimony, which no other plaintiff but me could have provided (which is pretty dam cool, right?), to help protect our first amendment rights, I not only got through it and didn’t bungle anything at all, I — merely in being truthful, brave, and in being myself — totally, utterly kicked righteous ass and had a profoundly good time doing it.

I expect to be nervous with all things home-leavy and public-speaky, because I always am, and the fact that my left thigh was covered in hives the night before I left for Philly last Tuesday appeared to be clear evidence of this. I never get hives.

The the flights were utterly unremarkable and painless, to the point that somehow, by the second flight, I forgot I was a smoker. (This happened twice this trip: and I have no explanation for this whatsoever: I could more easily find a fine explanation for a Mystery Spot than I could for how a 25-years-addict forgets she is one.)

It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, several hours before my evening prep for the trial the next day that I started to realize that I wasn’t actually at all nervous. By the time Thursday morning rolled around, after I had woken from having almost zero sleep and my babymaking dream (we have now named the infant in my dream Slimerella: when you don’t intend to have kids of your own, you forge attachments to the symbolic ones, I guess); as I was walking the eight-block dead-girl-walking trek to the courthouse with Ben, my ACLU lawyer and the brother I really should have had, who found my dream highly entertaining, I felt just fine.

For those new to my adventures, I hatehatehatehateHATE public speaking. Doing it makes me weak in the knees, lightheaded, and totally nauseated. More than once during a speaking venture, I have nearly fainted, and more than once I have almost wet my pants. Hours and sometimes days before a public speaking engagement I am a completely neurotic mess who spends all her available time praying for every kind of natural disaster to prevent the engagement from happening. I have turned down — to my great shame — a couple of gigs I was really honored to be asked to do, which would really have benefitted me, because of this stupid phobia. Needless to say, then, I fully anticipated it hitting me like a bag of rocks when the public speaking I had to do was to defend the constitution quite literally in front of the ACLU and the federal government, the latter of which I had a very healthy fear of instilled into me by my commie pinko father at a very early age, drills to hide from them should they come for us and all.

During this walk, I wondered if maybe going without sleep, food and even coffee was why I felt okay. Or if I had someone just become completely delusional per the import of what I was about to do. Or if the orgasm I had the night before had made me just that stupid.

As I entered the courtroom, anticipating that the nerves would finally, hit, they still didn’t. I gotta tell you, though: if ever in doubt that we live in a very rich country, check out a federal courtroom. Swanky business, this.

So, the day’s testimonies start. First up was this intensely wonderful school librarian as an expert witness on filters and how they — and bonafide guidance and supervision — work just fine if someone wants to be sure minors don’t have access to certain content. This woman also got in a closing statement that was the Rocky moment of the morning. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Norma Rae, and standing up and cheering was not appropriate.


      (Iris Tava Smathers) I think the
      4 best filter is librarians and teachers and parents who pay
      5 attention and who talk to kids and say, you know, this is
      6 good information. Here’s how you decide what’s good
      7 information. Here’s how you decide what’s not going to
      8 accomplish your task. And there are things that are bad
      9 decisions for you to look at. But I think you need to, I
      10 think you need to tell kids why and, you know, teach them to
      11 reason because if we throw up a lock on the door and they
      12 don’t know what is on the other side, when they get into a
      13 position where they have to be on the other side, how are
      14 they going to navigate if they don’t have those skills. And
      15 I think that is my job and a teacher’s job, and then
      16 hopefully the parents’ jobs to teach them to discern in cases
      17 like that.

I heart librarians this much. Always have, but my adoration exponentially increased that morning.

Then came (sorry, expert witness-guy) a bunch of insanely boring testimony explaining filtering software for PDA devices. This would have been the one period of time in which I did start to feel the profound lack of caffeine and nicotene in my system.

And then came me. And I still felt fine. I went up, I sat down in a very cooshy chair (though I’d not advise, should you ever find yourself in this position, wearing double-lined wool trousers when sitting for some time in a leather chair, just FYI). Before I was supposed to, actually: I underestimated the importance of standing formally while putting my hand on the Bible, possibly in part because the one in the drawer at the hotel had the traveling dildo on it, so it seemed pretty casual to me.

The judge had a great vibe. I adore my ACLU lawyer, and we’ve had these conversations for a couple of years now. So, during his questioning, I blame my unfamiliar feelings of calm and competence on familiarity.

Most of them. The spelling of things out loud occasionally got me flustered, because I had traumatic spelling bee flashbacks.

      17 A I operate Scarleteen.com, Scarletletters.com.
      18 Q Maybe you should spell each one when you mention it for
      19 the first time.
      20 A Sure, scarletletters is S-C-A-R-L-E-T-L-E-T-T-E-R-S.COM.
      21 Then there is also Femmerotic.com, that’s F-E-M-M-E-R-O —
      22 yeah, see, spelling bee — E-R-O-T-I-C.COM. And then
      23 heathercorinna.com, spelled like my first and last name. And
      24 allgirlarmy.org.

I wasn’t as witty in this trial as I was in my deposition last year — mostly because I was not as nervous, and thus not suffering from verbal diarrhea, and because it’s a lot more formal a setting — but I did get a few zingers in, and had a few priceless moments (which don’t translate as well in court reporting, sans my imitable charm):

      12 Q Why did you decide to publish scarleteen online instead
      13 of in a print magazine?
      14 A I can’t for the life of me figure out how I would be
      15 allowed in a print magazine to publish scarleteen.

A much better answer, I’d say, than “Are you high? What effing country do you think we live in, anyway?”

      7 Q Do you believe any of the contents on scarletletters,
      8 scarleteen or femmerotic might be prohibited by the act?
      9 A Absolutely.
      10 Q Why do you fear that?
      11 A Because even as I function under the Government that I
      12 live in in this country, they have made clear that the sex
      13 information that I give to teenagers isn’t what they want in
      14 schools and isn’t what they’re willing to pay for. So, if I
      15 were to (define) community standards just as my federal
      16 government and no one else, I’d be told right there and then
      17 that what I do is inappropriate and not sexually appropriate.

Take that, federal government!

      5 Q Would scarletletters link to a site like hustler.com?
      6 A No.
      7 Q Why not?
      8 A Because I don’t want to. Because a lot of what is done
      9 at hustler, to me, is not sexy, it’s sexist and misogynist
      10 and it doesn’t support my goals…

Take that, Hustler!

      21 Q And is the journal section ever sexually explicit?
      22 A Not often, but every now and then, yes.
      23 Q And why is it sometimes sexually explicit?
      24 A Because my life isn’t always sexually explicit.

In retrospect, a better answer might have been, “Because I have sex sometimes. Don’t you?” However, I was trying to be good, and mind my lawyers comments to me from an earlier date that unlike most of my life, what was most important was the earnest, true answer, not the most clever earnest, true answer.

      3 MR. WIZNER: Your Honor, at this time, plaintiffs
      4 would like to move exhibit 42 into evidence.
      5 THE COURT: Any objection?
      6 MS. ULRICH: Your Honor, defendant has an objection
      7 to just a few of the pages. Specifically, defendant objects
      8 to page 1 and page 2. These pages are blow-up images that
      9 appear elsewhere within the exhibit. The image on page 1 is
      10 a duplicate of page 17 and as the witness explained, page 17
      11 is how that image appears when somebody clicks on the link.
      12 The image on page two is a duplicate of a photo on page 26.
      13 And it’s defendant’s position that those other pages are more
      14 representative of the actual images on the website. And so,
      15 defendant does object to pages 1 and 2.

Let the record show that this was a discussion about a photo of my breasts, being held up and on video screens while I was both attempting to still appear professional, and not take a woman objecting to my breasts for the first time in my life personally. I have never had a pet name for my body parts, but I’m seriously considering calling my tits Exhibit 42 from now on.

      25 Q Have you ever considered using an age verification system
      1 for scarleteen?
      2 A No.
      3 Q Why not?
      4 A Because it’s like saying I’m running a coffee shop, but
      5 I’m turning away people who drink coffee. I can’t serve my
      6 user base that I’m intended to serve if I put that up there.

Maybe I was starting to want that coffee after all.

      17 Q What would you do if COPPA were to take effect?
      18 A It really depends on, it depends on the site. You know,
      19 I’d say I’d move to Canada, but I said that when Kerry lost,
      20 too. And here I am. So, it’s a hollow threat coming from
      21 me. You know, so given, I probably wouldn’t do that. You
      22 know, in scarleteen’s case, I would keep doing exactly what I
      23 do. I’d feel like I was at risk. I’d know that I was
      24 choosing to take those risks.

That was the big laugh of the day, even from the judge. I’ll be here all week. Nah, scratch that: after this, I am so outta here.

(These portions are from the cross-examination by the Department of Justice lawyer)

      8 Q And Plaintiff’s Exhibit 42, page 9, is the splash page
      9 for femmerotic, is that correct?
      10 A It’s a bad scan of the splash page, but yes.

Hello, my name is Heather Corinna, and I’m an annoying little perfectionist.

      10 Q If you have photos on Femmerotic that show — would show
      11 people having sex, those would be for subscribers only,
      12 correct?
      13 A It really depends on how you define sex.

Watching the straight people in the room try and work that one out was pretty amusing.

(For the morbidly curious, here’s the whole transcript of the day, by the way.)

Here’s the thing. When the cross started, this is where I figured I’d muck things up, talk too much, annoy the judge, forget the decorum, say something totally idiotic, like “Yes, I recognize Exhibit 42, I’ve seen them every damn day since I was 11.” My inner prankster also kept wanting to do something like plainly say “Frootloops,” to a yes or no question, or to pretend to break down and confess that I was a dirty, dirty lady who suddenly realized the great error of her ways in corrupting all the wee children, just to see what would happen.

The DoJ lawyer was the same woman who deposed me for an ungodly number of hours (which translated into around 260-some pages of transcript). We’re all still a little bitter about that. I didn’t dislike her at all during that deposition, save that she was making me stay answering questions that seemed redundant and foolish to me, when I really wanted some air, a dirty martini and a smoke. But I was so frazzled that day, I couldn’t see anyone’s strategy.

This time was different. From the minute she came to the stand, whether it was so or not, I got the distinct impression she thought she was smarter, more powerful, than I was. Again, fact or fiction, the effect this had on my was apparently quite visible. Mark said that my whole body language shifted: from sitting prim and upright in my chair, to leaning back, opening my arms and clearly sending out, “Oh THIS is how you want to play it? Well, you just bring it ON” vibes. I realized in that moment that this was just like boxing, and that my boxing partners have usually been larger and stronger than me, still never knocked me out and I’ve always been able to throw them off balance. I imagine the pinstriped vest I was wearing and that body lingo may have made me resemble an old school mafioso, especially since my lawyer made some offhand remark at dinner later about me and bloody horses heads.

Setting aside my cement shoes, here cometh the cheeseball bits. I need schmaltzy theme music: I need violins, dammit!

Did you ever read The Monster at the End of This Book? You know, the Sesame Street book where Grover is terrified of that monster — mortified, fearful throughout, knowing one is at the end — but he discovers at the end that the monster is just loveable, furry Grover? That’s how I felt about the federal government that day. There’s something really awesome about being an activist and suing the U.S. government. It is a substantially groovy thing. And it’s even better when you’re up there, doing it actively, with them in the room. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life mastering bravado, I am the macha queen in many respects when it comes to that. But when bravado translates into balls-out brave in a context like this, it is an intensely empowering thing. It’s seeing the Grover behind the monster, and having moments where you feel like it’s YOU no one is seeing the Grover in. Feeling the feds intimidated by you, when you always felt so under their thumb? This is FABULOUSNESS, especially when you’ve worked as an activist for a really long time, and your winning moments are few and far between, and buried underneath an awful lot of frustration and helplessness.

When I finished, then we all walked out into the break room, I got loads and loads of judos. I was so damn high on myself that I couldn’t even take a compliment properly. “You are a rock star,” got responded to with “I KNOW!” “You were awesome,” with “You bet your ass I was…..umm, oh, thank you.” I was tempted to ask at a certain point that everyone stop paying me compliments, because it was inflating my ego in a way I was not accustomed to and clearly unable to graciously manage.

And I couldn’t. I’d turned some sort of corner. It’s so weird, really. I wasn’t actually prepared for this particular feeling. That’s not to say I didn’t know I was doing something really important, I did. But in my mind, no more or less so than what I do every day: I think what I do every single day is just as important as this was.

So, it’s a little confusing to me as to why I feel so….different. Pardon my sounding cheesy, but I haven’t really had any time to myself since this happened to even really process it, and I suspect the delay in that may have upped the ante here.

(Which I hope also excuses my behaviour at the shoe store down the street the other day. I was returning a pair of clogs I bought one size too small — not my fault, though, the shoe-fitter needed to have told me about how to fit them properly — and the owner looked at the bottoms and said, “Oh, you wore these outside?” To which my response was, “To defend your freedom of speech, buddy! You could BRONZE those shoes!” As it turned out, I think he was more inclined to make my exchange because the shopgirl overcharged me than because of my totally uncalled for snippy retort. Thankfully, jumping right back into mounds of editing and fixing my umpteen mistakes is very humbling.)

Maybe I feel like this because something I’ve done — and a something that is about the value of all the work I do, and the vital need for it — feels earnestly recognized for a change. Maybe it’s because I don’t often get the opportunity — the gift, really — to do the important things I do and have a roomful of people I respect witness and applaud that so directly. Maybe because given the medium in which I do my work, the effects aren’t really something I see very directly, and so seeing it, feeling it, was pretty unusual. Maybe it’s because more often than not, other people have more faith in me than I have in myself, and having a moment where I understood why they have that faith, and had it for myself for a change, was pretty intense.

Or maybe it’s just because I kicked the government’s ass. :)

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

If you’re going to reach out to support rape survivors voluntarily, we need to be supported no matter how we feel about our rapes; no matter at what stage we are at in our unique healing process. Not just when it makes you feel good about yourself.

A couple weeks ago, we had something happen at no consequences for the men, for instance. Or, when a rape was described, but not expressly called rape. The numbers ranged, given the study sample (its size, the particular group/class of men, the age of the men queried, blah blah blah), anywhere from 20% to 60%.

I’ve seen studies like this before: most of us have. These numbers don’t surprise me, nor do I generally leap to the assumption that they’re flawed studies because they show a high number. After all, an awful lot of us have been raped, sexually assaulted, coerced. Even just in my own life and work, I know a high number of rape surviviors. Generally, anywhere from 30% to 70% of us have been raped or sexually assaulted, sometimes higher depending on how you classify these things and organize your data. Surviviors know the sex of the person who raped us. It is no mystery to us, it isn’t a question. In the vast, vast majority of cases, men have raped us, whether we are female or male surviviors. That a lot of men do rape or would rape is not a surprise to us. It is terribly distressing — per our safety, our relationships with men, how sons are being reared, the toxic aspects of the culture men and women alike grow up and live in, toxic approaches to masculinity and femininity, the works — and it is painful and uncomfortable to know, but a surprise it is not.

The men — including an older parent of two adult children — who engaged in this discussion (and in discussions on rape states about perps I have read elsewhere) could NOT stop quibbling about the percentages and anything else quibble-able. It could NOT be 60% of all men, they said. And no, some of us said, it very likely is not, 60% came from X study, with X age group and this scenario. *I* would never ever rape someone, they’d say. No man *I* know would rape someone. Who’d have sex with a woman screaming at you to stop! (As if this described rape as a whole, or how most women respond when a rape is taking place.) Nice men don’t rape people, and we’re nice! they’d say. All the men I know are nice!

The quibbling went on, with those quibbling knowing full well (even if they didn’t care to be mindful about it) that survivors were reading, given we have a good deal of them at the forums, given they know the editor of the whole site is herself a survivor (one who, however, does not incite their pity, as I’ll discuss in a bit). Likely, they are not as acutely aware, if aware at all, that we’re used to this sort of quibbling, this sort of denial of our reality. That we’re used to hearing that men as a whole CANNOT be doing this: that something must be wrong with these facts, and generally, that something always boils down to us as victims in the end. We’re calling consensual sex rape, or we’re wearing the wrong thing, walking the wrong place, dating the wrong kind of guy (because, you see, all rapists are evil monsters recognizable to all of us in some magical way), not saying no loud enough, often enough, with enough conviction. Or, it’s someone else’s fault entirely, not the rapists. It’s our mothers fault for not modeling right or giving us too much independence. It’s our fathers fault for not protecting us. It’s the criminal justice system’s fault. Somebody’s fault, anybody’s fault, just not the rapists fault, because that might mean it’s the fault of an awful lot of men, or men as a class, or men as a dominant power. And that, for obvious reasons, isn’t so great to know as a man, even a man who doesn’t rape and has no desire to rape.

At this point, myself included, a couple survivors and bonafide supporters entered into the discussion (most stayed out, emailing me privately to express upset with the thread’s direction). I tried, calmly, cooly, to explain that no one was accusing the men there of being rapists or potential rapists. That while it was UNlikely any of them would NEVER know a man who did, would or could rape, that the men they felt they could trust in that regard were possibly trustworthy in that regard. But that actually, someone’s “nice” husband, “nice” neighbor or co-worker, “nice” dad or brother often enough DOES or WOULD rape. That some of us have been raped by a man who was “nice” in other respects, or who would rape us, but not his sister, daughter, wife, neighbor, friend. That some of us have, in fact, been unable to have anything done about our rapes, because we were disbelieved in being raped by this or that “nice” man.

In due course, I started to feel the anger leveled at us. (And it got to the point where I closed the thread, after getting a wave of nausea, after the older man went so far as to state that women could fix rape — and stop, in his mind, being rape enablers — by partnering with “nice” men like him, and breeding good sons who thus, genetically, would not be likely to become rapists, I kid you not.) I noticed what I often notice. All too often, as rape survivors, if we are pitiable; if we are depressed, sad, downtrodden, emotional wrecks, lonely, isolated, fearful, silenced: if we are in a phase of being — or have effectively be made entire — successfully subordinate by our rapist, by the aspects of rape culture we live in, then we can realistically expect a certain level of support from the men around us (though I don’t think this is as much of a given with male survivors).

This, too, should not be a surprise. Subordinated people are objects of pity, and subordinate women, especially, are to some degree celebrated for being such when our subordination is in line with the status quo, or it is sexual subordination of a variety which meets the needs of men. We do not threaten anyone, or their sense of power. We’re as gentle as kittens. No one is concerned about being harmed by us or losing priviliege because of us. We may rise to every small crumb of compassion or care. A Hallmark card, a hug and a “you poor dear” might be viewed as great tokens, and telling us we’re not ruined, spoiled, or sullied or that it isn’t our fault a gift of incredible magnitude.

But what about when we’re not “poor dears” anymore? What about when we want to take the proverbial Hallmark card, the pat on the head, and the so-sorry coos and shove them where the sun don’t shine? What about when we’re past that point: when we know it’s not our fault, we know we’re okay, we know we’re not lesser beings?

What about when we become angry? What about when we call — or your Dad, or your brother, or your best friend — out? What about when we start to catch on to the fact that you telling us we’re not “ruined” by some other man is still you, as a man, dictating what the bounds of our sexual or physical sovereignty are?

What about when we want to start to look at WHY this has happened to us, why it could happen again, why it could happen to our sisters, and some of our brothers, why we have to live in fear of this at all? What about when we’re ready to lay the blame on WHO has done this to us: who individually, who culturally, who as a group, and not be obtuse about their sex or gender (especially since, lord knows, they weren’t about ours)? What about when we feel utterly crazy because we’re eating post-traumatic stress for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and try as we might, it is infecting every aspect of our lives, and being told it’s okay is infuriating because we are NOT okay? What about when we want to talk about how effing pissed off we are to have to try and get back our hijacked sexuality, when we want one damn night without being woken by flashbacks or nightmares, to be free of being triggered by simple daily things, to not have to live among our rapists, to not have to be careful of how we talk about our rapes or our feelings to every bloody person we know because it might upset THEM?

When we get to THAT place, see, we no longer seem so harmless. (Because we aren’t.) If someone was supporting us to feel better about themselves, to feel like a good person, to amp their esteem, in this stage of the game, it stops being a feel-good endeavor. We are not cute, fluffy bunnies who have lost their mama to be stroked, who will snuggle back with a sad, but slightly contented sigh. We’ve had enough self-pity and self-blame for three lifetimes. We’ve had enough of people giving us permission to feel things when we should not need anyone’s permission in the first place. We may be far more critical, far more watchful, far more wary. We may even seem feral, fuming, volatile at times. If we didn’t report our rape at the time, we now might, and we might be reporting your best friend or another man you liked and respected, who you cannot believe would rape us. If we were silenced before, we refuse to be silent now. We may not want to take you at your word about how “nice” you are: we may even question why you need to keep telling us how nice you are in the first place, rather than allowing us our own judgment of your character and safety. We may want you to just leave us the fuck alone for a little while.

We may want to start investigating WHY it is that men perpetrate rape and in the volume they do: this is not an abstract for rape survivors (as often it is not abstract as to HOW many have been raped by men: when you’re a survivor who isn’t silent, suffice it to say, you tend to know more surviviors then most because they’re more inclined to confide in you as to being raped), or a maybe, since around 98% of our rapists were/are male, and we know this. Some of us would very much LIKE to forget this fact, but we cannot, even if we try. We are reminded in our dreams, we are reminded in our triggers and flashbacks, we are reminded in our bones and blood. We are reminded in your language, or the language of the men you and we both know. We are reminded in the way some men pass us in the street and evaluate us as they pass. We are reminded when any level of dismay or surprise is expressed when we decline sexual invitation or innuendo. We are reminded in aspects of male-dominated culture, and the behaviour of men and women alike under that paradigm. We are reminded every time someone makes a “funny” joke about rape, and we hear that undertone which acknowledges there is a power even in saying the word in our presence; in feeling able to even play with rape as a joke, because it has not been your harsh reality to be on the receiving end or live in fear of it.

When a person is traumatized, attacked, assaulted (or has those they are close to have been such), eventually, a person processing it, wanting to know the truth of it, is going to want to look into the big why of it, to start to look critically, to engage the issue intellectually, not just emotionally, or not just in a reactionary way. Of course, when we’re talking rape, that need can be even larger because all too often, we are told covertly and overtly that we were raped because of something WE did.

* * *

Some weeks ago, one of the AGA bloggers wrote a piece about how much she loves the freedom she feels in wearing short shorts. I ended up over here weeping unexpectedly, because — odd as it sounds, given my age and the fact that in many contexts I’m comfortable being seen nude — it finally sank in for me that the reason I do not and have never own a single pair of shorts higher than my knees in the last thirty years is not because they’re physically uncomfortable, nor is it because I have big legs I feel are unappealing in some way.

It’s because when I was 12 years old, after being stalked and then assaulted by a group of teenage boys on a hot August day in Chicago where I was a junior camp counselor, the police officer called to the scene told me, verbatim, that I really should not be walking around in “shorts that short.” Shorts I (obviously) remember quite succinctly, which were mid-thigh on me; perhaps a little tighter than I’d have liked, but I was in a growth spurt, and in my family, we wore clothes out until they just couldn’t be worn anymore. Shorts of the same type, fit and size which men and women wear on any given day. Shorts which did not have “fuck me” or “rape me” printed on their backside.

I was sitting on a curb, every part of my body sore and shaking, I didn’t even know WHAT had happened to me, because I just didn’t have the context for it, and I was in an absolute state of shock. No report was filed. No one offered me healthcare, and I was not given a contact to come back into when the shock wore off and I could figure out what exactly had happened. Instead, I was told, outrightly, that I needed to dress differently, and off they went. I was 12 years old, it was 1982, and a hundred years or so from me, other kids my same age flew up and down on the swings, feeling free.

I did not talk to anyone about that attack for at least another four years. I didn’t say a word about it, I didn’t write a word about it. Only one member of my family has any real awareness of what happened to me, and even then, since I felt unable to talk about it or ask questions — even to ask why it hurt so much to use the toilet — and wasn’t asked to talk about it or invited to ask questions, that awareness is profoundly limited. Even when I did start talking to one or two people about it, including my therapist at the time, it would be in vaguries or the most timid of suggestion (and it goes without saying that I am hardly a timid person). Often, that is still how I talk about it, even with those closest to me. There’s this feeling a lot of survivors have which is that everyone knows what happened to you, even if you tell know one; like your rape is written on your face in indelible ink. Some of that is projection: but over the years the conclusion I’ve come to is that some of that feeling comes out of the fact that so many people around you often DO know or DO suspect, but wish to enable your silence.

Even though at this point, I know full well it was not the shorts I was wearing, the fact that I, a young woman in the world, was unescorted in an empty room, nor that I didn’t scream enough, fight enough, look mean enough, say this thing or that one, look this way or that, there’s a 12-year-old girl that still inhabits part of my body and she totally believed that police officer, especially since his words echoed others she had heard about herself, her sex, her gender in her world.

Obviously, at this point, 24 years later, I passed that stage of subordination, as much as one can, anyway. But part of me was deep and unknowingly in it for a LONG time, and it had some effects that only by sheer luck were not absolutely disastrous for me. Obviously, I got to the pissed-off point and then some: obviously, I’ve done a good bit of healing for myself, sometimes with the help of others.

Obviously, my life is hardly ruined because I can’t wear a given style of clothing: however, my life is irreparably changed because I cannot even put on a given style of pants without feeling a very visceral fear, and without being reminded of that day and all the various ways it — and my other sexual assaults — have altered my life because other people have purposefully stolen my ownership of parts of my life and my body. My life was irreparably changed in creating a scenario in which aspects of what happened to me and my exploring them were so off-limits that even as someone who talks about rape almost daily, I could be unaware of something so obvious and simple for so bleeding long.

* * *

I think what gets overlooked is the hard truth that if a person, and for obvious reasons, especially a man, can ONLY be supportive of rape survivors when they are subordinated — when, effectively, they are not yet survivors at all, but absolute victims, for a rape never stops when the attack itself does — then he is, effectively, not supportive of that person so much as he is supportive of his or her subordination. This does not, in my mind, make him complicit in that rape, mind, but it DOES make him complicit in enabling rape culture. And it does not make him supportive of that person’s healing and survival, for it has thus been made plain he or she is preferred subordinate.

We have a long cultural history of women voluntarily tending to men who have been wounded in wars, as veterans, as civilians. While this is not an identical issue (as a class, it is men who have waged war, even if this is not the case for individual veterans: the same cannot be said of women per rape), in many ways, we survivors are those wounded in war, a war in which we are resisters rather than participants, in which we are civilian casualties, in which we are the spoils of war. When we care for those wounded by war, it is not, ideally, out of obligation or because it is required duty — we may even care for the wounded when we strongly protest or abhor war; we may do so while we too, lie bleeding, scarred, raped. It is not — when we’re doing it right, in my eyes — about our ego, or about being viewed as a nice person. We have done so, when we do so, genuinely, it is out of empathy and compassion, out of love and care for our brothers, as their sisters.

A bit of the trouble I see in some men dealing with survivors (whether they be female or male, in either case, a rape victim is generally seen/experienced as feminized) is the inability to see women as sister, but instead, to see them as daughters. In other words, there can be a certain paternalism which I feel really inhibits empathy and compassion. However fine a father-figure a man may be or consider himself, if he is father and we daughter, we are not generally on equal footing, but viewed and treated as something to take care of, out of a certain feeling of duty and even ownership, rather than as someone to care for as you would a brother. (And obviously, ownership is a big issue when it comes to rape; a big issue for a survivor and a perpetrator.) I think that this dynamic is part of men feeling betrayed when discussion of men-as-rapists is brought to the table, feeling women have disrupted or sought to disband their brotherhood by identifying their brothers — literally or generally — as rapists. It is thought, sometimes, that we cannot understand brotherhood, and yet, I feel quite certain we can and do: it strikes me that perhaps a reason it is thought we cannot is because so many men cannot or do not feel we are sisters, but daughters.

Point is, I understand — I really do — it being hard as hell to gain awareness of how many men rape. I know that it hurts like hell, I know that not a one of us does NOT want the truth to be what it is.

Mark and I had a big discussion on this issue some time back. Before being with me, he really didn’t have any real rape awareness, so suffice it to say, as it tends to be for anyone, gleaning that awareness was neither a fun nor an easy process. We had a talk one night in which his brain clicked stuff together as tends to happen, and he asked the proverbial question: if one on every three or four women have been raped, that means one out of every three or four men have raped, right? And you know, I argued that that wasn’t really accurate, but shaking that from his mind wasn’t (and sometimes still isn’t) easy. He has three brothers. Sparing me, all of his closest friends are male. So, he’s sitting there, in part angry with with me — and you know, it happens: we all know about killing the messenger, but some measure of anger with them is still normal. (Some.) He’s angry with me because he does not want to think any of his brothers or friends have or would rape, and I have brought that up for consideration, by virtue of them being male. I talked (and have since) about recidivism, about how rates often differ in different communities, age groups, what have you. However, recidivism and greater incidence in certain communities/groups doesn’t change that fact that while one out of every four men might not be rapists, even when we’re talking all men (rather than in this group of friends or that), the fact of the matter is that there are a LOT of men who have raped, do rape or consider raping.

(I really appreciate Ampersand’s — who is male, and it’s odd to me that I have to point that out a lot — approach to this, by the way. For the curious on what it would mean if one study done, in which 4.5% of several thousand college men in the U.S. reported they had raped a woman, was the accurate number, take a look. Even if in the U.S. alone, rapists were were *only* that 4.5% of men…

“4.5% of the men in the United States… translates into over six million men.

If you added up every US citizen who was officially unemployed or looking for work in 2001, that would be less than the total number of rapists.
If you added up every US citizen who is Jewish, that would still be less than the total number of rapists.

If you added up every teenage boy who had any sort of job - an afterschool job, a summer job, working full-time after dropping out, including all of those - you’d still have over a million fewer people then the total number of rapists.
There are twice as many rapists in the USA as there are single mothers.

For every drunk driver who is in a fatal accident this year, there are over 500 rapists.

If you take every doctor and nurse in the United States; and you added them to every librarian, every cashier, every cop, every postal clerk, and every bank teller in the whole country; you still wouldn’t have as many people as the number of rapists in the United States.

(Think of that a second - think of how often, in your daily life, you’ve seen cops and cashiers and all those other folks. Odds are, you’ve run into rapists more often than that).

To paraphrase Tim Wise: In short, “only” 4.5% of the male population is a lot of people, so that even by the most optimistic assessment of how many men are rapists, there are literally millions out there who not only would but have raped a woman. When combined with those who are less vicious - those who haven’t raped, but would be willing to in the right circumstances, and those who would make excuses for why other men rape, it becomes clear just how real a widespread a problem rape and rape-supportive attitudes are among men today.”)

But see, eventually *I* started to get mad (and do still) at even having to have that conversation in that way, with anyone, where I have to talk about all the men who aren’t rapists when I want to talk about the men who are. I explain that I too, feel angry and betrayed by how many men rape, and since I’ve not only BEEN raped, more than once, but am at a vastly greater risk of being raped again than a man is of ever being raped (especially if he’s unlikely to do time in prison, he isn’t trans or gay, nor is he often feminized: and all of those are the case with the majority of men in the world), it makes me feel all the more crappy to have this awareness because it’s also about my personal safety, on TOP of being about the same emotional betrayal., especially when you consider that the vast majority of those of us who have been raped have not been raped by a stranger, but by someone we knew, and usually had some measure of trust in.

I love the men in my life, too. I trust the men I care for, too, and I hate the idea that there are some I perhaps should not give as much trust to as I do. While I don’t have a brother-by-blood, I have had and do have brothers in spirit, whom I have loved and trusted ferociously. Who, if they raped me or anyone else, would crush my heart, and make me question everything about the people I love and trust. During the years I was teaching, I had tiny boys I cared for and cherished every day, who I loved dearly, and who I never want to imagine could become rapists (or be raped, for that matter). I do not love men less than another man does because of my sex, or because some men have hurt me. It’s ridiculous to me that that is something I even have to say to anyone at all: that I have to defend my love for men, individually and as a whole, in order to be given any credibility or patience when discussing the great harm some of them do. (As if, if I did NOT love them, that would in any way change the reality than some do that harm? Love them or not, some of them rape. Again, I feel sure that there are women out there who did love or have since loved the men who have raped me. No doubt, some of those women would likely say that don’t know any rapists, even though they climb into bed with one every night.)

(For the record, Mr. Price and I have made an awful lot of headway with this issue: most of those conversations we had a year ago, and given they were conversations he never had, it’s really pretty amazing and seriously awesome how quickly he’s processed a lot of this. He’s even gotten to be a pro per memorizing rape and abuse triggers with me and warning me in advance if we’re in situations or settings in which he thinks or knows one might come up. He doesn’t seem to get angry with me anymore for discussing this stuff: if he’s not up for the discussion, he’s gotten to the point where unless it’s clear I just HAVE to get it out there, he’ll ask to opt out.)

And really — pardon my rambling — this is the sort of thing I feel the need to call out and address. Men: it’s understandable to feel hurt, angry, even guilty-by-association to a degree, at men who rape, at the culture which enables that. I get that. We get that. And I hate that any of us have to feel that way. I wish none of us — you, me, or anyone else — did.

But to be selectively compassionate towards survivors (or even those disseminating this sort of information), to attempt to negate our realities because you don’t like them or can’t wrap your heads around them, to find us more acceptable when we are less aware, less able to work towards our own survival, is NOT OKAY. Especially if you are telling us you’re being supportive of US. More than once, for instance I have heard men complain that a given rape crisis center did not hire male help, and that complaint generally ends with, “But *I* want to help!”

Hear that “I”? That I should be the big red flag that this is about you, not about victims or survivors. That I should be your hint that you’re probably looking for something that helps YOU, not someone else, especially when the someone else’s are asking you NOT to help right now. That I should tell you all you need to know about your ability to be supportive of someone else.

(FYI, I do get the why of most rape crisis centers not having men on staff. It’s pretty obvious, especially when you recognize these are women generally calling in immediately after a rape. On the other hand, I do have a bit an issue with not having transwomen on staff. That one I don’t get.)

Nobody ever said being supportive of rape (or other trauma) survivors was easy. We KNOW it’s not easy: we’re doing most of the work, after all, and we know how much it sucks, how troubling it is, how frustrating it is, how much you want to bash your head through a wall sometimes because you’d just really like a time to come in some conceivable future where you don’t have to keep working through this damn shit you didn’t ask for in the first place. We know how difficult our awareness of these things, emotionally and intellectually, can make some of our interpersonal relationships. We are keenly aware of all of this. And you — as supporters, as partners, as friends, brothers — are either up for it, or you’re not. But if you are up for it, if you want to be, if you need to be, if you’re telling us you are, you’ve got to be up for the whole deal, not just the parts that are easiest because we are most vulnerable and at our weakest. Not just the parts where we’re victims. Also the part where we survive, and eventually — hopefully — thrive.

During some of that, you’re going to have to back the hell off. During some of that, we don’t want to be hugged, and we don’t feel like “poor dears.” During some of that, we may call you out on some of your behaviours which we feel may or do enable rape or rape culture, or which are a blockade to our healing and dealing. During some of that, you’re not going to be able to get what you might want or need from us; you might need to adapt some of your own behaviours that you don’t really want to. During some of that, or at any point, we may even ask you to reconsider friendships or alliances with other men in your life who have raped, probably would rape, set off our radars, think rape is funny in any context or who act in such a way that we feels enables rape. During some of that, you’re going to need to do your own processing without us, and not put your anger, betrayal, sadness or confusion on us.

We survivors do, and usually have done, most of our processing on our own. Maybe we have had or currently have the help of therapists, counselors, formal or informal support groups. Maybe we’ve got wonderful friends or partners, and maybe you’re one of those. But our processing is still a largely solitary activity, and you’ll probably never have any idea how much of it we do or have done.

You need to process a lot of this on your own too, or with the help of people other than us. You need to become aware of your anger and upset when it comes to our rapes, rape in general, rape culture and your feelings about rape and you, and work at putting that in the right place. You need to be aware of when something is about your needs, and when it’s about ours, and do your level best to act in accordance with both, especially when you have the lighter burden. When our healing or processing creates issues or problems in our relationships with you, you need to be committed to jointly and individually exploring and helping to manage those issues soundly and maturely, treating us as equals, while also recognizing our limitations, just as we try and stay cognizant and respectful of yours.

You need to be aware, before you offer us help and support, if that offer is about helping us, or if it’s really about helping yourself. Some of us are, for the record, happy to help you deal with some of this: just not under the guise of it being about US, and generally, not when we are in the thick of a crisis ourselves. It is advisable, however, to ASK us if we’re up to that: we do not owe it to you or anyone else to help you process or make sense of rape because we have been raped.

One of the things survivors are victimized by in rape is a total lack of boundaries. In order to help us — and not victimize us further — you need to be sure not to some of the difficulty some of us have with enforcing/having boundaries for granted (when your boundaries have been profoundly violated, rebuilding often takes a long time); you need to create and respect limits and boundaries, ours and yours.

And we will thank you for your support, and generally be very grateful for it. However, you will not receive a medal for giving it to us, nor will we think you amazingly special for getting an A because the grading curve is so low. While we recognize that that support can be incredibly difficult to give, especially during the tougher bits, we also know it to be optional, and do not want to accept it out of any spirit other than your earnest care for us and our care for you. If you have the expectation of being celebrated or seen as some sort of saint for dealing with the likes of us, I suggest you bring with that the expectation of being told to sod off when we catch on to your real motives and don’t particularly appreciate them.

* * *

To those of you men out there who have done, currently or will do the whole enchilada when it comes to support, who are willing to look at the hard stuff, and help survivors manage it; who are even willing to self-evaluate honestly in this respect, including looking at how our subordination via rape and rape culture nets privilege to you as a class, thank you. For those of you who have stood by a woman in your life for all the aspects of her healing — even the stuff that made your life far more difficult or inconvenient, thank you. For those of you who support female survivors in their sadness, anger and evaluation and are also survivors yourselves, a double-thank you. That’s no small feat. For those of you who do work to promote awareness of rape and rapists, even if your personal safety isn’t at risk, thank you, especially those of you who have to deal with other men’s disdain or resentment towards you for doing so. For those of you who help surviviors in the way THEY want to be heped, and step back from the ways they do not, even if it’s painful for you to do so, thank you.

For those of you who are trying in this respect, but not quite there yet, thank you for your continued efforts. For those of you who know you just can’t do any of this or even some of it, and know when to step back, stay out of the way, and/or voice your limitations as needed, acknowledging them as exactly that, thank you. We can’t get it all right off the bat: I sure don’t expect you to.

No matter where you’re at in this spectrum, for those of you who even took the time to read this, even if I’ve made you angry or upset, even if you don’t like hearing my words and feelings on this (and doubly, if you questioned why it was me you were feeling angry or upset with), thank you for taking the time.

* * *

(For the record, some of this stuff is also applicable to women. However, I’d have a separate letter to write to women regarding dealing with rape survivors, especially since I’ve noticed some different issues that come up there, like feelings of being “left out,” like aiding in the protection of rapists, etc. and to boot, I simply do not see the same sort of fair-weather support among women anything close to as often as I see/have experienced it with men. But the letter for women is a letter for another day. Not for today.)

P.S. M., some of this is for you, and arose out of parts of our conversation the other night. Your recent trauma was not a rape, given, but it is comparable, to say the least. I said it last night, but I’ll say it again: cut yourself a break. Healing from this stuff can take an insane amount of time and energy, and that is tiresome and maddening as hell. I’m glad you were able to get a little mad last night. I’m here if you need to get mad again, even if it’s a million times more mad than last night. I love you, and I’m here whenever you need me to be, just ask, even for the ugly, painful stuff.

(The original comments for this post are here.)