I remember last year when the author and activist Kate Bornstein was having a health crisis a community came together and raised over $100,000 for Kate's health care expenses. A friend said, without irony, that this is what many people's health care plans look like now. That same year when the only worker co-operative sex store on the planet, Come As You Are, was in financial peril, they asked for help, and they got it. At the time I thought that this is what venture capitalism looks like for a queer, commie, sex shop.
Today I read that Scarleteen, the busiest and, in my opinion, best sex education resource for young people on the Internet, is going on strike. Or at least they might have to.
Whether you can support their work financially or not, the article by executive director (and, full disclosure, friend) Heather Corinna is well worth reading.
As Heather explains, far too many of us assume that something that happens on line isn't something that should be paid for. But real sex education, by which I mean sex education provided by people who care and who are trained and who are supported as professionals in their work, needs to be paid for. A website that offers static platitudes, whether it's by text message, tweet, or email, isn't the same thing as a service where you can interact with real live people, both professionals and your peers.
While the site is chock full of amazing material on sexuality the heart of Scarleteen is their moderated message boards. Simply put there is no place like that place any place.
And it could all be gone, if we don't do something about it.
I'm sorry it's come to a strike but I think the analogy that Scarleteen is using is apt. I also think that what they are asking for is completely reasonable. As another blogger pointed out, if they are striking that means all of us are management. So here's your chance to do right by labour (if you haven't had a chance before).
You could do it for the kids or you could do it for the workers. Most of all I hope you'll just do something.
Last week I met a stranger who quickly became not a stranger as we started talking about sex. When this no-longer-stranger-but-not-quite-friend found out what I did for a living they asked me if I could explain the difference between celibacy, chastity, and abstinence.
I came up with some vaguely satisfying response but in the process I realized that I didn't really know. I could think of plenty of examples of people using the words interchangeably. So why use one over the other?
I went to work this week to dig a bit deeper, and clicking on the links above will take you to the answers I found. But I was equally interested in why I hadn't bothered to think of this before.
In sex education we put a lot of emphasis on the decision to have sex the first time. When is the right time? Who is the right person? This is fair, but I wonder about the next decision, and the next. Does it make sense to only think about the first time we decide to have sex?
The answer, I think, is no. It doesn't make sense. Each decision to have sex matters and whether you've decided it once or one hundred times, the next decision may not be any easier if the circumstances are different.
This assumption, that we only need to help people think through the first time feels a bit like the assumption that underlies compulsory monogamy, that once you make the decision to enter into a monogamous relationship, no more decisions need to be made.
I think this is completely wrong, and am going to make an effort to spend more time writing about not having sex this year. Because I tend to avoid connecting my writing or education to my personal life I will abstain from commenting on the timing of this new interest.
I can't speak to what happened off stage and after the telecast, but from the vantage point of my couch, it wasn't a great night for sex at the Oscars.
From the perspective of a sexual explorer the Hollywood film to see in 2013 was Spike Jonze's Her. It offered an interesting, complicated, and fun exploration of sexual desire while challenging some of the basic ideas we have about sexuality (that monogamy is compulsory, that you need a body for sex, that in order to show us sex you have to show us something, or anything really). It's a good example of straight people thinking very queer thoughts.
Her was nominated for four awards and in the end came out with one, for original screenplay.
But unlike the Oscars or Hollywood, here at About Sexuality we think about sex all year long. So if you're jonesing for more sex at the movies, enjoy!
It's a mixed bag this week, some good, some not so good, some fantasy, some reality.
This Magazine talks dating, sex, and disability
FastCo Labs describes the Cucumber, the Dildo, his Sock, and their condom
And an Atlantic journalist gets confused by masks...................................................
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There are a lot of reasons why people who would benefit from using condoms don't. Certainly for some people it's a lack of knowledge. For a lot of others it isn't. As I was reminded recently by the powerful liturgy for a burning condom our relationship to condoms is far from simple. Getting people to use condoms isn't just a matter of convincing them that they should.
I'm not sure that the official campaign for national condom month (or week, it seems to be both) offers much in the way of complicated thoughts about condoms, but I've been thoroughly enjoying some of the writing online about the month.
I used to work for a television program about sex that would sign off each week with a rhyming euphemism for wearing a condom. I thought I heard them all, but was tickled by this bloggers reference to condoms as the workhorse of the sexual health world
And the usually fascinating RH Reality Check doesn't disappoint with a news roundup which included details of New Yorkers condom usage, a history of condom dioramas, and a story about pair of researchers who believe a better feeling condom is one that comes with electrodes.
I'm not sure I'll be celebrating national condom month with electrodes, but it warms my heart to know that someone is.
Previously: My First Condom...................................................
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Writer and advocate Janet Mock's first book, Redefining Realness My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, made the New York Times bestseller list last week, nine days after being released. It's a reflection of the community building and public advocacy work Mock has been engaging in since before 2011, when a profile about her ran in Marie Claire magazine, it's a reflection of her education and experience as a journalist and media producer (as is frequently mentioned Mock worked for People Magazine). It's also a reflection of a particular moment the mainstream media seems to be having with trans people, or sometimes just trans-ness (since the mainstream media trades more in stereotypes than specifics).
These moments don't happen by chance. This moment is itself the result of decades of trans activism across many communities. Parents of trans and gender non-conforming kids are getting much of the credit these days (their blogs turn into books which turn into features on Oprah, 20/20, etc...). But the foundation that their struggles and public reflections are able to be visible on was cleared and made safe(ish) by trans people who came before them, and more recently, but much less visibly, by trans families.
One of the things that happens when a topic or a life becomes an object of interest to the media is that the experience represented gets flattened. There's not a lot of room for nuance or subtlety or messiness. Those aren't understood to be "good" stories to tell. Too many dimensions is too confusing either for editors themselves or for the perceived audience that editors imagine when they assign and run stories.
So it's a special kind of gift when someone is willing to insert themselves into these very public, highly condensed and sanitized conversations, and try to mess them up, at least a little.
This is one of the many things Janet Mock is trying to do, and one of the many things she does remarkably well. Even the short opening montage to a series of videos she made to introduce her new book to the world speak to the ways she is trying to resist simple narratives of the perfectly arrived person, one who has all the answers either for herself or for the rest of us.
I wanted to know more about this process and Mock kindly agreed to answer a few questions via email about her work, her new book, and getting messy with the media.
The title of your new book is Redefining Realness. Can you talk about what realness means (or has meant) to you and why we could all do with a redefinition of it?
Janet Mock: It was important for me to use language that is rooted in the trans women's community. When I hear "realness" I think about the documentary "Paris Is Burning," one of the first explorations of young trans women of color's lives. There's a fondness to the term that speaks of aspiration to actualize yourself and your dreams. I love that part of the term, but realness needs to be redefined because a lot of it is still conflated with the idea of "passing" rather than just being your authentic self, and I want it to be more about us defining ourselves and staking a claim on our ideas of identity, authenticity and realness.
A common response to your work is that people start by naming the way their experience differs from yours, but then share something about how they feel your work connects to their life. Communicating across difference isn't easy and I'm wondering if there something you do that you think makes it possible for people to recognize both different and shared experience in your work?
JM: I was trained as a journalist so I've had to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience that may not understand or have the language and knowledge to engage in such complex topics. I've brought that training to my work and understand that often times I am the first young trans woman of color people meet therefore I want to ensure that they don't only get a lens on gender but a lens on race, on class, on pop culture and media representation, on the erotic, on the multiplicities of identities. I often think that I do this work by contextualizing my own personal experiences and using those emotional experiences to move, educate and give folks language to discuss our complexities.
The process of writing a memoir must be a lot of deciding what to include and not to include. You share so much, but I'm wondering if there's anything in there that almost didn't make it in, or that you thought about leaving out?
JM: When I began to embark on this text, I committed to being absolutely honest. I tore myself open, and at times I felt such openness served the text well while other times it wasn't necessary so I scrapped some of those memories and stories. For me, the toughest to open up about was the pain my mother went through as a young woman with all of these children and a husband who was insensitive. It was tough writing about those memories because that was my mother's pain but I knew I needed to include them because her pain shaped me. Overall though, I committed to telling the whole truth about my experience because I was in service of relaying a vivid account of what my girlhood looked like to other young women whose experiences mirror mine. They deserve a "real" unedited account.
In Redefining Realness you write about your life in a way that invites the reader to consider how our lives are always positioned in a broader context (of history, politics, love, community, identity, and more). In other words, there is A LOT in this book! I'm wondering if there were particular concepts or ideas that were most important for you to convey in the book?
JM: Thank you for this. It was so important for me to convey that I am not the story, but rather I am part of a larger story, a larger machine, one that pushes young women like myself into very challenging situations. I wanted to convey that Redefining Realness is a one girl's coming-of-age, yet I cannot separate that girl from the framework of a culture that doesn't give girls like her much to thrive, and I hope to unpack those issues, from the devaluing of femininity and the personal and social dynamic of gender to the cost of medically and socially "transitioning" and the resilience of folks pushed to engage in underground economies as a means of survival.
When you appear in the media as you do I think it's easy for people to imagine your life as sort of perfect, as if having written this book means that you've got yourself and everything else figured out. Reading your book one gets a very different sense, which I appreciate, and I'm wondering if you can share a few things that you feel you're learning today, or things you're looking forward to learning more about?
JM: I'm looking forward to further honing and using my voice -- unapologetically. Often times I find myself holding back and silencing myself and I want to challenge myself to speak up and use my voice and reject this idea that as marginalized people I must come off as likable and pleasant. It's okay to express our pain and frustrations and this is something I am learning to do publicly. I want to also challenge myself when it comes to engaging with mainstream media which tends to reduce people and concepts to a soundbite. My life, our lives, are not soundbites so my challenge here is inserting complicated discourse in the public arena.
Read More: Janet Mock Official Website...................................................
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Two papers released this month, one in the Archives of Sexual Behavior and the other in Current Sexual Health Reports, offer specific and comprehensive challenges to the narrative of sex addiction that remains unsupported by the APA but big business for media outlets looking for eye-grabbing headlines, as well as the clinics and clinicians who trade in its promotion and practice.
The first paper, titled Transgression as Addiction: Religiosity and Moral Disapproval as Predictors of Perceived Addiction to Pornography, reports on three small scale studies looking narrowly at the relationship between religiosity and perceived addiction to pornography. The authors point out that while the very notion of porn addiction remains unclear and unproven, it is not only possible, but valuable, to study people's perception that they are addicted to pornography.
They begin by making a case for the entangled relationship between religiosity and pornography. For example they note an interesting artifact of research in this area. When you ask the general population if they are religious and if they look at pornography, those who say they are religious are less likely to say they look at porn. But when you survey only those who admit to viewing pornography, you find no differences in viewing between those who are religious and those who aren't. What this means isn't clear, but the muddiness of it is worth thinking about.
They also offer a worthwhile observation about the popular connection between the concept of porn addiction and religiosity. They note that a search on Amazon for books related to "pornography addiction" returns over 1,200 results, and over half of these books are categorized under "Religion and Spirituality".
In the paper they conduct two surveys of undergraduate students and one web based survey including only people who reported looking at pornography online at least once in the past 6 months. They found that people who reported being more religious were significantly more likely to perceive that they had an addiction to pornography.
The sample sizes were small and, as always, the limitations are many. In their conclusion they mostly call for more research, but what is interesting to me about the paper is the way it points to how an idea like porn addiction, one which the addiction industry often ties to brain chemistry, may exist more in the culture than in the body or mind.
The second paper, by David Ley, Nicole Prause, and Peter Finn presents a more exhaustive review and theoretical discussion of pornography addiction itself as a model that is meant to describe a pathology.
Referencing the title of the paper, the authors make their position clear from the beginning, writing in the introduction that:
the pseudoscientific practices surrounding the treatment of 'porn addiction' compel us to reveal that the emperor is not wearing any clothes
The problem, they point out, is that even if there were a reasonable theoretical argument for understanding the viewing of sexual stimuli (which is their preferred neutral language to describe what usually gets called "using pornography" a term they point out carries a host of unproven and poorly conceptualized negative connotations) no one has proposed a model that can be studied.
Instead a majority of papers published rely on self reports from clinicians, don't share data (one review of 49 papers found that only 27% of them included any data to support their conclusions), overstate the problem (frequently citing the statistic that "up to 6% of people are sexually addicted, when empirical research puts the numbers closer to 0.6%), and fail to acknowledge or engage with the larger professional debate that is ongoing about addiction models to begin with (for example in the most recent DSM included the term addiction over the advice of its own working group, and while it remains in the section title it was rejected for use in the context of gambling or substance use).
Another problem that they argue is being strategically ignored by those invested in the porn addiction model is the limited body of evidence that suggests that looking at sexual material can be beneficial. If you're interested in current debates about sex addiction or specifically porn addiction it's a fascinating and detailed read. Ultimately the authors find that what is offered by those who argue that pornography addiction exists is too vague to be useful to scientists or clinicians, they remain skeptical of an industry that is financially benefiting from individuals shame and ignorance regarding sexuality, and they question the larger motives of those who push a practice in the absence of evidence of its effectiveness.
Ley, D. et al. (2014). The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the "Pornography Addiction" Model, Current Sexual Health Reports.
Grubbs, J.B. et al (2014). Transgression as Addiction: Religiosity and Moral Disapproval as Predictors of Perceived Addiction to Pornography, Archives of Sexual Behavior....................................................
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There's a saying about how difficult it is to make change in government. It's apparently like trying to turn a cruise ship around. You have to plan way in advance, it's slow, and it takes a lot of coordination.
In early January a group of HIV service, research, and advocacy organizations wrote an open letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to their latest report on HIV risk among US gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.
One of the CDC's functions is to collect information about HIV and share that information with professionals. The primary way the CDC shares information with professionals is through their MMWR Series (MMWR stands for morbidity and mortality weekly report).
In their open letter, the coalition of organizations called on the CDC to do better, specifically around how they report on, and in some ways conceptualize the experience and lives of the people they are counting. They had eight points, each worth reading. I just want to mention the first one.
They encouraged the CDC to stop using the term "unprotected sex" when what they mean is "sex without condoms". As the coalition points out, there are multiple ways that we protect ourselves from infection during sex.
Risk is not a simple thing to calculate. And the actual level of risk in any sexual encounter that includes penetrative sex is determined by several factors (whether any of the people involved currently has a transmissible infection, how likely they are at the moment of sexual activity to transmit an infection, who is penetrating who, what other methods beyond condoms they are using to reduce risk, for example PrEP, and more).
Condoms still represent a key tool in reducing risk. But they are not the only tool we have. The coalition is rightly calling on the CDC to support all tools we have by making them more visible in their language.
They go on to ask the CDC to be clearer when they report their findings both in terms of the actual activity and risk (they give the example of the CDC not consistently distinguishing insertive and receptive anal sex) and in terms of who they study (for example the inclusion or exclusion of transgender people and the way that trans bodies are misidentified and categorized in research write ups).
They sent the letter to the CDC on January 6th. On January 23rd the CDC responded by agreeing to no longer use the term "unprotected sex" when they meant "sex without condoms" and committed to an ongoing dialogue with interested organizations to address the other points raised in the open letter.
I'm not involved enough in these worlds to know if it feels as if the ship is turning around, but I'm thankful to these organizations for at least getting the captain to speak a little more clearly and slowly when directing us around the ship....................................................
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When I first read through this weekend's cover story in the New York Times Magazine, Sexless but Equal, I was annoyed and thought, oh I'm going to have to write some sort of response to this. But about an hour later I had forgotten all about it, which may be exactly right.
The piece was the same sort of bland admixture of heteronormative anxiety (that moment when you realize that compulsory monogamy isn't really consensual), sociobiological nonsense (men who clean up around the house are emasculated and therefore no longer desirable), sloppy argumentation (confusing power and responsibility, causation and correlation), and carefully constructed therapy narratives that leave you feeling like you've been shown something important only to wonder a few minutes later about all the smoke that is leaving the room.
The question the article poses is an interesting one: what would an egalitarian, if not equal, sex life look like? The answers are, for the most part, less interesting.
It might be that the article relies so much on antiquated ideas about gender and is never critical or reflexive about them. Gender here is presented as fixed and universal. Being a man means home renovations, not taking out the garbage. Being a woman means caring about relationship and equality (which itself is never actually explained). Men care more about the erotic than women, except at some point in the piece, when actual women are referred to, we learn that they have desires too. It gets fuzzy and it's easy to skip ahead.
It's like trying to reproduce the pointillism of Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte when all you have is finger paints.
The author, ill equipped as so many therapists are by their narrow focus on individuals, struggles to make an argument, drawing from her clients not for inspiration (as therapist Esther Perel did so well in her own working through of this problem, Mating in Captivity) but rather as arguments, proof that what she sees it and how she sees it must be the way it is.
The problem of trying to understand the world by only focusing on individuals was clearest to me in an early passage where the author turns to sociologist Pepper Schwartz (who, we are told, coined the term "lesbian bed death") to explain the problem of loss of desire and sex in long term relationships. Schwartz seems to suggest this isn't a problem for gay men. Here's the passage:
"For gay men, [Schwartz] said, 'the initial filter is erotic, so they're more likely to end up with somebody who's very different in terms of education or social class.' But, she continued, 'a gay woman thinks like a heterosexual woman who asks: 'Do we share common goals? Do we like to do things together? Is he smart?' She believes that lesbian and heterosexual couples share sexual challenges because both relationships involve women who tend to seek similar mates. As she put it, most men, regardless of sexual orientation, prioritize the erotic, but 'heterosexual men have to deal with heterosexual women.'"
Yes, the real problem is women! I'm being glib (although it is one way to read this quote). What's frustrating is the way that so many straight therapists and conservative sociologists can't see past the individual or relational to the social and systemic. The problem in this case is not heterosexual women, it's heteronormativity. It's not a problem that a therapy session or self-help book will ever fully fix, because they can't.
But shifting our focus a bit can, in my experience, make a huge difference. It's why when I'm looking to be challenged in how I think about sex these days I turn first to disabled writers, to queer writers, people of color who can't so easily ignore the influence of the social on the sexual because they feel it all the time. It's one of the saddest parts of heteronormative and gender normative privilege (something that isn't only experienced by heterosexuals, by the way), folks who have so much of it don't realize how impoverished it leaves them....................................................
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This week's sex question has been sitting in my inbox for a while. Sometimes in order to answer a question I want to explain some things around the question before zeroing in on it. In the case of this self-identified 30-something cis-woman, who shared a lot and has a talent for describing what's happening for her, first I wanted to explore the idea of heteronormative sex, then we needed to debunk some misinformation about hymens, and finally, today, we come to her question.
The title might make you think that her chosen employment is in water and waste management. It may be (she never told me) but it's not that kind of plunging. The plunge she wants to take is back into having intercourse when she has sex. It hasn't gone well in the past and she was hoping for some suggestions to make it better in the future.
Related: About.com Sex Questions and Answers...................................................
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