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

Archive for the 'the binary blues' Category

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

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

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

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

her advice comes from fact that Heather Corinna is a SLUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

So, here’s a question: how many of you think male-bodied or identified people are, as a group, earnestly satisfied with their sex lives?

To be clear, we hear a lot about how many women are not, but most men are, but I think that statement isn’t actually about satisfaction, but about who is reaching orgasm, or reaching orgasm most often.

If a given group of people reaches orgasm, then those people tend to be classed as sexually satisfied, just because they have reached orgasm, even though we know sexual satisfaction is a far larger critter.  Vaginal intercourse is a biggie where we see this: because most men orgasm that way (who do have intercourse) but most women don’t, people will say most men are satisfied with intercourse while women aren’t… but are men really satisfied with that activity alone?  Or are they just reaching orgasm that way?

I just wonder sometimes how short the cultural and (especially in the mainstream) interpersonal conversation about male sexuality is being cut short in this because of these kinds of assumptions. I also wonder that if I’m correct in my thesis, one reason we see so many male/female partnerships where women aren’t satisfied is because there are many men who really aren’t either, but since they’re a) reaching orgasm and/or b) getting” the kind of sex men are supposed to like, or told is satisfying for them because of orgasm, there’s a whole world of communication and exploration in many relationships which could be happening, but which isn’t because of this issue.  In other words, that we can sometimes expect one party of a couple to have a whole set of skills in finding out and communicating what satisfies them that they may not actually have (or know they don’t) at all, and expect them then to share or translate skills to their other partner they don’t have in the first place.

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

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

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

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

Let’s unpack this, working backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should wait for sex…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here a few different phrasings to try on:

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

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

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

Lately, amid all of the prostitution current event fracas, and the ensuing blogosphere drama (which I stay out of as a rule. I’ve always been mostly a blog lurker at other folks’ online homes, primarily because I suppose I feel like too many people online just like to revel in/enable/create conflict for no good reason) around it, something has occurred to me which may or may not have merit — I’m still ruminating on it — but which I think is worth considering in the spirit of a little mental floss.

That something goes like this:

• Forced prostitution = military draft

• Prostitution/sex work chosen because of being a best financial option, limited availability of or access to further education/life options or particular social/regional limitations = Military enrollment chosen because of being a best financial option, limited availability of or access to further education/life options or particular social/regional limitations (in either case, sometimes these are also temporary situations rather than permanent ones)

• Prostitution/sex work chosen despite having a wide array of other employment/financial options or open availability of further education/life options = Military career chosen despite having a wide array of other employment/financial options or open availability of further education/life options

I think that looking at things this way, we might tend to see (well, I am, anyway) some correlaries when it comes to how many people are in each group for both prostitution and military (and that right now, we’re seeing the most people in both areas of work in that second group, and how those folks get there also have some common factors), and how in that first group, either situation is something one’d probably consider inhumane (though more folks seem to think a forced draft is acceptable, and I’m not sure why), and how, while that third group is where we tend to see the fewest people for both types of work, we certainly cannot deny that group exists.

In both cases we are talking about work which often has dangers many other jobs do not, which often tends to have a short shelf life in terms of sustainability of that work as a career over a lifetime, where after doing either kind of workers workers tend to have wounds, issues or disabilities caused by the work which frequently cost them and are often not paid for (or paid for adequately) by the work they did, and work which people tend to have very strong feelings about which can/do strongly impact the workers.

We also are often talking about two industries in which financially, there is a big divide between the employer/industry or client and the worker themselves, where we often will see certain racial and socioeconomic factors at preferential play. I find it interesting in thinking about both of them together to note that with sex work, we see mostly heterosexual women and gay or feminized men, while with the military we see a majority of heterosexual men or gay or masculinized (or perceived as masculine) women (and the latter is a very recent addition, no less). In the same vein, I think it’s also interesting to note that the clientele of sex work is and has always been primarily male, and the way the military has often been presented is as protection for women and children. Suffice it to say, we’ve also always had very strong links between these two groups in many ways: the military as either clients of sex workers, or as part of forced prostitution, has a long history. As well, we often see many people who, as those served by either type of worker, will defend or champion the work that serves them, but do very little for — or even act in nonsupport of — the workers well-being or care, tangible rights, or social strata, or who rally against a given group of workers yet actively or passively still benefit from them (much like we will sometimes see actively antichoice women as clients at abortion clinics).

It’s perhaps obvious, but I also wonder if looking at this sort of comparison, or some other like it, wouldn’t help to improve some folks’ levels of compassion or understanding for sex workers or about sex work.

Bear in mind I’m talking about these things from the perspective of workers only here (and to be frank, that’s all I’m interested in discussing: in nearly any situation I could give a rats ass about how clients or others who are served by workers benefit before we are assured that the workers have fair conditions where the benefit is at least mutual). I’m not talking about if one or the other type of work or industry has more merit or value, if one or the other is more or less acceptable or positive or how either work or industry may or may not benefit anyone — individually or as a culture or class — who isn’t a worker in it.

So, what do you think? Deconstruct, reconstruct, poke holes, explore, discuss.

(For all I know, by the by, someone else has made this comparison before me, and I’m either reprising it unknowingly, or just missed a page somewhere. If anyone does know anywhere it’s been discussed before or explored, I’d love to know where.)

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Oh, UGH.

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

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

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

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

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