Posts Tagged ‘education’

2010 19 Mar

Chicago feminist sex ed paper focuses on LGBTQ students’ needs

I recently received this interesting and, of course, incredibly flattering letter, and offered to give the project more publicity by publishing the letter to my blog. (Which isn’t to say that I need flattery to give good projects publicity, but I am human, you know?) I’ve already connected Stephanie with some people who can help her, but if you know anyone else who can, or are in a position to assist with her project yourself — or are simply interested and want to be kept informed of its process! — then you should totally email her: [ sgoldfarb at luc dot edu ].

Dear Clarisse,

My name is Stephanie Goldfarb and I am a graduate student at Loyola University. I am currently working on a research project that is focused on assessing the Chicago Public School’s sex/health education system. Specifically, I am interested in learning whether or not this system meets the needs of LGBT students. I also aim to formulate a working definition of “feminist sex/health” education. Though this will ultimately be a 25-30 page paper, it may evolve into my Masters thesis. As a leader in the sex positive community in Chicago, I thought it might be good to ask your opinions on this matter. Also, I am currently on the search for primary documents (such as CPS sex education curriculum and/or lesson plans) and I wonder if you might be able to point me in a good direction. Some of the articles on your wordpress site, especially “Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing” might be approved as primary sources for me, so I might end up citing you. Anyway, thank you for all the incredible work you do Clarisse. You are truly inspiring, and the sex positive community is beyond lucky to have you organizing, writing, and speaking out about the issues that are important to us.

– Stephanie Goldfarb
Loyola University Chicago
MSW / MA Women’s Studies Gender Studies Candidate
sgoldfarb at luc dot edu

2010 31 Jan

[advice] Masculinity & African activism

I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse,

A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.

I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?

Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.


I wrote back:

Hi Zoe!

Firstly, thanks for this letter.  If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this.  And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question.  I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”).  I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism.  But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….

As for Africa.  I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.

Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships.  Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult?  Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them?  If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities).  It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.

If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first.  Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university?  Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.

I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.

Thanks again for your letter.  SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

January 14: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

January 21: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

January 28: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2009 22 Nov

Redefining masculinity for the HIV/AIDS fight in southern Africa

I can’t speak for all of Southern Africa, but certainly, the area where I’m currently doing HIV/AIDS work is inundated in HIV/AIDS ad campaigns. There are ten million taglines, ten billion posters and stickers and t-shirts and events and commercials and shoutouts on the radio and and and …. Every other billboard is HIV-related. Every khumbi (van in the public transit system) has at least one sticker. Every class in school incorporates AIDS into the curriculum; even kids studying math draw graphs of HIV prevalence. I have never seen anything like this level of media coverage for anything in America, anything at all.

I was recently intrigued to note a new permutation on the back of a sports magazine. (Sorry, these images aren’t great — there ain’t no scanners here, so I had to use my digital camera.)

One of the hardest things to do here is get southern African men to test and to talk. Women are perfectly willing to speak about how multiple partners contributes to the disease’s spread, for instance; women are, indeed, usually eager to discuss some of the problems of abuse and male entitlement that are contributing to HIV/AIDS. (Warning: that link is really depressing.) Men, not so much.

Here’s an article describing the campaign whose ad I’m highlighting here. Excerpt:

Until now, most AIDS schemes have centred on health centres, which are used mainly by women.

“It is hard to go to a clinic and acknowledge your vulnerability as a man,” said Dean Peacock, coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the groups working to engage men.

But men still hold the upper hand in sexual relations, so the “Brothers for Life” campaign aims to convince men to use condoms while also improving their access to treatment.

Currently, women account for three quarters of the HIV tests conducted in South Africa, and two thirds of the anti-retroviral drugs dispensed. What’s more, men tend to seek treatment later than women, when their immune systems are already weakened.

“There is nothing especially made for men. We need to do something to talk to men,” said Mzi Lwana, head of the Men and Aids program at the HIV research unit at Witwatersrand University.

The “Brothers for Life” icon, in the ad’s lower right corner, looks like this:

Which sure looks manly to me. But the most interesting and culturally revealing part is the text, which I’ll close-up on:

“There is a new man in South Africa. A man who takes responsibility for his actions. A man who chooses a single partner over multiple chances with HIV. A man whose self-worth is not determined by the number of women he can have. A man who makes no excuses for unprotected sex, even after drinking. A man who supports his partner and protects his children. A man who respects his woman and never lifts a hand to her. A man who knows that the choices we make today will determine whether we see tomorrow. I am that man. And you are my brother. Yenza kahle — do the right thing.”

This reminds me of a presentation I saw at the 2009 Alternative Sexualities conference at the Center on Halsted; I was on a panel about BDSM communities, but secretly I was most excited about the chance to sit in on the other panels and lectures. One of my favorites was a gent named David Moskowitz from the Center for Disease Control, who told us that a whopping 25% of leathermen surveyed at International Mr. Leather tested HIV-positive, and correlated the risk of unsafe sex with a host of interesting factors such as whether the person in question was dominant, submissive, a switch, etc. (Moskowitz planned to publish his data in an upcoming issue of “Journal of AIDS and Behavior”, but I don’t know whether that happened or not.)

After describing the statistics, he started to talk about possible interventions. The gay leather subculture is very focused on ideals of masculinity; I asked whether he’d considered a “masculinity campaign” around condom usage.

“Yeah, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Be a man, use a condom …. Right now we’re focusing on recruiting community leaders to talk about safer sex, though. We’ve found allying with such figures to be the most effective strategy.”

I wish I could ask David Moskowitz about this South Africa campaign. Is this really going to work — even a little? Is it possible to influence, to remake, something as deep-rooted as gender conceptions with a publicity campaign? Does it make sense to try and redefine manliness to a purpose? Isn’t that kind of patronizing to men? The two questions I find myself caught between most are, firstly, is it a useful campaign — and secondly, is it a morally good one?

One interesting point that came up in the fracas that resulted from my three masculinity posts (followup coming soon, really! I’ve been busy with a conference) was that many men who are genuinely willing to talk about gender are frustrated and alienated by discussions of masculinity because those discussions are not male-centered. Is the Brothers for Life campaign focused on men’s needs, or is it attempting to redefine masculinity in a way that men will perceive as serving an agenda that doesn’t work for them?

The thing that makes me feel less uneasy about that is that it’s men running the campaign, and so I don’t feel quite as much as if values are being imposed. Additionally, the campaign seems quite concerned about — not just stopping abuses by men — but creating space for men to get testing, counseling, et cetera. I think the idea of having a male-centered clinic is smart, for instance, because I see so very many clinics and testing facilities staffed almost entirely (if not entirely) by women. I suppose one could make the argument that this is “men’s fault” for not stepping up as much as women do, but perhaps this is due less to social irresponsibility than to general male discomfort in relevant spaces.

2009 30 Sep

Hate Mail At Last: a Concerned Parent Writes In about my Sex-Positive Film Series

Hello blogosphere! I know I’ve been scarce of late. My Internet access is limited and when I can get it, there are often problems (for instance, it can be expensive; sex-positive sites may be blocked by overzealous porn filters; etc). I’m settling into my HIV/AIDS work here in Africa and it’s going well, but I’m still parsing out my thoughts about … well, everything. I’ve been working on some written pieces that I definitely intend to post online, but I’m not sure whether they’ll go here on my blog, or elsewhere. Stay tuned — if I post them elsewhere, then I’ll certainly announce it here.

I have, of course, been following the progress of my beloved sex-positive film series as best I could. The final film screening, “We Are Dad” — about gay adoption — is just around the corner on October 13th. That is, the final film in the original program that I curated … but I am thrilled to report that Sex+++ has gathered a crowd of such amazing, dedicated people that it’s likely to continue past my final curation date! I’ve been tracking the dialogue at a distance; there’s a committee working on continuing the series even now, and although my heart breaks to realize that I’ll be missing more incredible films and discussions, I am also so so so very proud that we created something that struck such a chord. (If you’re interested in being in on the continued progress of the series, go ahead and email Lisa Junkin [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].)

I was always a little surprised that Sex+++ didn’t get more negative attention. When starting it, I was very cautious … I walked on eggshells, really. I believed and continue to believe that comprehensive sex education is necessary for everyone, that adult sex education is a vital step forward, and that sexuality is an important academic topic. But public sexuality is such bitterly contested ground in American culture, I thought for sure that someone would attack a series that’s open, honest and positive about everything from BDSM to sex on videotape.

It took longer than I thought, but it finally happened. A few weeks ago, this arrived in my inbox. It was copied to a number of people at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the series venue, as well as administrators of the University of Illinois at Chicago (where the museum is located):

Dear UIC and Jane Addams administrators: 

I was appalled when I read about this film series!  How you were able to get approval to show these types of movies is beyond me.  You are doing this on a college campus??? Don’t you care about the minds of the students and general public you claim to be educating? 

The movies you are showing are meant to get people to think about every type of sex scenario.  I don’t see how this could have a positive outcome.  Is our society not perverted enough?  We are all affected by everything we see and hear.  These young people are unfortunately exposed to so much talk, filthy music lyrics, movies, and TV shows that can find nothing to talk about but sex.  They must think that is all adults are supposed to do!  These students have so much pressure on them, so many negative influences, temptation to have sex before they are mentally or physically ready to accept the responsibilities involved.  Why are you adding to that?  Can’t you think of something that would fill their heads with something more appropriate, and keep your pornography to yourselves, if that is your perversion?   

I’m sure you are all intelligent people.  Why don’t you use your intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place?  You can start by canceling this film series.

Thank you for considering my suggestions.

Julie Brown
Concerned UIC Parent

The spectacular Hull-House Education Coordinator, Lisa, immediately went into action. She drafted the following letter and shared it with me; a short version was later sent to Ms. Brown, but Lisa has given me permission to post the original version. It very nearly makes me cry with pride and joy (seriously):

Hi Julie and thanks very much for your email.  I am the person at the museum who runs the SEX+++ Documentary Film Series, and I want respond to your concerns.

To be clear about how the series works:  SEX+++ Documentary Film Series is not a series about porn.  It does show explicit material at times, though not in the majority of the films, not to minors, and not without voluntary consent forms when needed.  We chose each film with the intent of educating audiences and providing discussion points on sex positivity.  The way we define sex positivity is this: there is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to sex, so long as the behavior is safe and among consenting adults.

Sex positive education teaches that sexual behavior is not something to hate or fear, but something to be respected and enjoyed.  This way of thinking about sex is meant to erase harmful stigmas while encouraging open and honest communication among partners.  Importantly, a sex positive attitude includes the idea that abstaining from sex or preferring one behavior (including hetero, monogamous sex) over another is also completely valid, but it does not allow for judgment of other adults who are behaving responsibly (i.e. with the consent of their partners and with everyone’s health/safety in mind).

I agree with you on several things — especially that there are many negative and harmful portrayals of sex in the media and that young people often feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior.  But this series aims to create a different sort of space — one where healthy sexual behavior and relationships are demonstrated via documentary films, where honest and medically accurate information about sex is made available, where a diverse audience respectfully converses and sometimes disagrees, and where there is no shame in pleasure.

The films that we show are not altogether different than some of the material used in university courses — human sexuality, biology, gender studies — and we treat our series similarly.  The films are meant to expose our audience to other cultures and lifestyles, but we do not promote any given lifestyle — though we do put forth these values: 1) tolerance/acceptance for alternative lifestyles, 2) the importance of healthy, happy relationships, and 3) a belief that honest communication is necessary to healthy relationships.  I would argue that not only are these critically important values for any institution of education to promote, but that they are in line with other efforts at UIC.

I certainly recognize that not everyone’s world view accepts alternative lifestyles, but as an academic professional at a public university, I believe I have an obligation to be nonjudgmental and to provide safe, educational spaces for all types of students.  The SEX+++ Documentary Film Series seeks to do this, and from the feedback I have received, it has been a valuable program for students, staff, faculty, and community members.  The film series is one way that the museum is working to make the world a better, more just, and pleasurable place.

Again, thank you for your email.  I hope that you will consider coming to one of our public programs in the future — we have many opportunities for debate and discussion around important issues.  In addition to the SEX+++ film series, we have a weekly program called Re-thinking Soup, where we discuss issues of food and justice, and we have other lectures, workshops, and events.  Hope to see you in the future.

best regards,

* * *

Lisa has always been way better than I at staying calm, and her response was so eloquent that at first I wasn’t sure there’s anything left for me to say. But I think I just needed time to figure out where to start.

I have done a variety of community work in the USA, and I’m currently accepting an unbelievably low salary to work on HIV/AIDS mitigation in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not just doing it because I’m interested in traveling and learning about other cultures, but because I truly am seeking to — as she says — use my intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place. I poured hundreds of hours of unpaid effort into creating Sex+++ for the same reason.

I am not much older than the students at UIC. I grew up in America, and I felt the same sexual pressures that they do. When I came up with the slogan “Among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’,” I was thinking just as much about all the sex scenarios I don’t want to fulfill — as about the ones I do.

It’s true that this series grew partly out of my own desire to destigmatize almost “every type of sex scenario”. I don’t think people should ever, ever have to face negative judgment for doing consensual things. The complicated thing is that consent is not as simple as it looks, and it gets harder to negotiate and understand consent when the people involved don’t understand their limits or their desires.

When I think about “there is no ‘should’,” I think about all the times I’ve felt pressured to have sex I didn’t want to have. I think about the times I agreed to have sex I wasn’t enthusiastic about. And I think about all the time I spent being confused about my sexuality, wondering what was wrong with me and what was missing, before I finally came into my BDSM identity.

I think about kissing boys I didn’t really want to kiss, because I didn’t know how to turn them down; I think about the way I cried, how my heart shattered and my mind went into turmoil when I confronted how intrinsic pain and power are to my sexuality.

How can anyone think that repressing sex or driving it underground will make it disappear? How can anyone think that it will make it easier to deal with sex? If sexuality had been wrapped in silence my entire life, I would have still kissed boys and craved pain — but I wouldn’t have had the words to describe what I needed or what I was. In that case, I might have been too confused or too nervous to stop kissing when I really, really needed to stop. Or I might still believe that my sexual orientation opposes my feminism, my independence, and my integrity.

I think it makes the world a better place to teach people their limits and their desires. I think that giving people positive sexual representations will help them shoulder their sexual responsibilities. I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer for their sexual desires, and I think that everyone deserves to know about the many ways they could consensually implement their sexual desires.

I think people will have sex no matter what — and that an educator’s most appropriate role is to show them how to do it honorably, creatively, and with joy.

2009 9 May

Sex-positive documentary report #7: “It’s Still Elementary”

Cross-posted at

I half-suspected this would happen: after our sixth screening (the bisexuality documentary) was overwhelmed with people, the seventh Sex+++ movie was far quieter. It was nice to have breathing room! The really cool thing about this is that I can now promote the film series to new groups … I’ve been afraid to do any new promotion because we’ve had so many people at some screenings, I’m nervous that we’ll be overwhelmed. So now that I can do some more reaching out, I’d love new ideas about new people I can tell about the film series!

In the meantime ….

I’ve taken a while to post about it because I went to San Francisco on the interim, but the last film at my sex-positive documentary film series was “It’s Still Elementary” — courtesy of GroundSpark: Igniting Change Through Film.

“It’s Still Elementary” is a bit of a meta-documentary: a documentary about a documentary! In 1996, a film called “It’s Elementary” confronted the question of how to educate grade-school kids about gay and lesbian issues. It showed a number of grade-school educators taking on the issue — in the 1996 political climate, they risked their jobs to do so! — and it also showed the kids in their classes creating their own respectful, honest conversations on the subject. Of course there was a firestorm of controversy around “It’s Elementary”, especially when it was broadcast on TV in 1999. Conservative religious groups did things like call it a “powerful pro-homosexual propaganda film” and mount fundraising campaigns against airing it, writing to their followers that “If we fail to take a stand to put a stop to this outrage, the sin of sexual perversion could be promoted to a potential audience of tens of millions of children” (source).

That controversy is covered in “It’s Still Elementary”, as well as the process of making the “It’s Elementary”; the progress of the :cough: “homosexual agenda” inherent therein; the way the kids who actually experienced that education feel about it today; and issues faced by leaders who tried to get the film shown to educators in their communities. One thing that particularly struck me was the apparently frequent allegation, made by people who didn’t want “It’s Elementary” shown to teachers, that gay and lesbian issues simply weren’t “important enough” to be worth covering in school. School administrators — who didn’t see themselves as at all bigoted, but simply pragmatic — frequently argued that what’s “necessary” is readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. So of course, since it didn’t fit into that box, they figured training teachers to address gay and lesbian issues wasn’t worth doing.

The reason this caught my attention was that I’ve encountered that argument before. People, even open-minded people who don’t consider themselves to be anti-sex, will frequently argue that quality sex education is simply not something we “need” to be worrying about. Folks will just figure it out, right? Or even if they don’t, raising a generation of sexually confused and ashamed kids is no big deal … right? In fact, this attitude continues — for many people — into adulthood; it’s just phrased differently. As adults, the questions (sometimes stated, but almost always implied) become things like, “Does sexual pleasure really matter?” or “Is it really so important that you explore your sexual needs?”

Now, it’s not that I think everyone should be spending all their time thinking about their sexual needs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there is no “should”. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone their priorities, and I have no problem with freely choosing to prioritize other things over sex … I mean, I do it all the time. Sex is not the only thing in the world. But I do think that this whole idea, that sexual pleasure is unimportant, goes beyond being a crying shame — it’s positively dangerous. Sex, our sexuality, is important. It’s so deep-rooted, it shapes so many things about us, so much of our approach to our lives … whether we’re aware of it or not. How can we know ourselves if we don’t know our sexuality? How can we live as whole human beings? And why, why should we be expected to repress or subvert or twist up a powerful drive that could be such a source of pleasure and power? The idea that sex is unimportant, “not worth it”, is another manifestation of our cultural stigma against sexuality, and a dangerously subtle one to boot.

One person at the discussion group, after we showed “It’s Still Elementary”, noted that the film (and the educators it highlights) was limited — it didn’t take on bisexuality, or trans. That’s a problem. But I’d argue that there’s a bigger problem — that educators limited themselves, are limiting themselves, to orientations when it would serve us better to create a wider curriculum around general sexuality. But, gasp! We can’t have a curriculum about general sexuality for children! What would happen to kids exposed to ideas of sex?

As it turns out, they’d be fine. Unitarian kids get the best sex education in the country through the Unitarian church, starting in kindergarten, and they amazingly don’t grow up to be axe murderers. The key is that sex education really doesn’t have to be entirely about explicit sex. From the website for Our Whole Lives, the Unitarian sex ed curriculum:

Our Whole Lives helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Grounded in a holistic view of sexuality, Our Whole Lives provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.

This is a concept introduced by “It’s Elementary” — the idea that we can have conversations about gay and lesbian issues (which are, after all, about sexuality) with kids without edging into scary sex territory. It’s time to take that idea to the next level and create good, national, general sex education that doesn’t tiptoe around important ideas like pleasure, or self-discovery, or defeating shame. Or so I’d like to believe. In a country where — what is it, 60%? — of schools are still mired in abstinence-only sex education, I recognize that my grandiose plans to teach kids not to be ashamed of their bodies are far from implementation. At least I can do adult sex education … reverse the damage a bit, perhaps. (Interestingly, one of the people I met on this past San Francisco trip, name of Dr. Charlie Glickman, did a dissertation on proposed adult sex education among — guess who? — the Unitarians. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it seems so good.)

It’s been a while since I linked to it, so I’ll wrap this up by mentioning my old post: Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. Which just goes to show that even when you’ve got decent sex education, there’ll be room for improvement.

And now I am off to bed (not in a sexy way, regrettably … I’ve worn myself out, with all this typing about sex!). Check out the GroundSpark website to buy “It’s Still Elementary”, and do come out to the upcoming Sex+++ films “Private Dicks” and “Forever Bottom” — both about ideas of masculine sexuality. May 12th, 7PM. See you there!

2009 2 Feb

“There is no ‘should'” and the sex-positive “agenda”

What does it mean to be a “pro-S&M activist”? What’s my “agenda”? These are questions I’ve thought about a lot. But here’s the one that preoccupies me the most: What action can I take in the real world to help create a powerful, energetic pro-BDSM movement? I’m trying to think pragmatically and concretely. Sure, I love discussing highly theoretical questions like, “What are the roots of stigma against certain sexual identities?” But what I really want is to have a larger cultural impact, not just worry ineffectually at these mysteries like a dog worrying at a bone.

The first concrete step I took, towards the end of 2008, was creating a slide presentation that I called my “BDSM Overview”. The first slide shouts CONSENT IS KEY! in all-caps, and from there I dive into a whole bunch of stuff. I start with definitions — not just the words bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism, but noting that BDSM is classified as a “paraphilia” and that some people see it as our “sexual orientation”. I go into statistics — the few available ones, anyway. Then I’ve got a slide headed, “Why would anyone do this?”; a discussion of consent, what consent means, and BDSM communication tactics that assist us in figuring out consent (such as safewords, check-ins, journal-keeping, and checklists); and advice on how to tell consensual BDSM from abuse. A rundown of emotional-cultural role issues follows, like those experienced by many feminist kinksters or African-American bottoms; and that makes a good springboard for stereotypes, pop culture, and history. Lastly comes legal issues and BDSM-related scandals, like the infamous Operation Spanner and Jason Fortuny’s disgusting Craigslist “experiment”.

There, I thought when I finished it. If anything can destigmatize BDSM, this can … at which point I started seeking places to present it around Chicago. Which was way harder than just making the damn thing. Some places loved it, but others found it too edgy — like the head of one university’s wellness center, who said that authorizing my presentation would be “just impossible”.

And yet my conversation with her was a blessing in disguise: over our half-hour talk, she became visibly excited and scrawled a page full of notes. When we followed up by email, she started her message by writing: “Just this morning I was thinking about how our talk really opened up some new ways to think about old concepts. For example, I will never again think about consent as simply being yes or no. So thank you for that.” She apologized for being unable to allow me to lecture on BDSM …. But was there any way I could develop a new workshop? A vanilla workshop, on the topic of sexual communication? “Of course!” I cried without hesitation.

I could have worried about “compromising my message”, but that would have been ridiculous. Sure, I want to destigmatize BDSM. But it’s far more important to get people pondering the best ways to talk about sex, what it means to have awesome sex — what it means to have a fully consenting partner who enjoys that awesome sex with you.

* * *

A month or so after I started developing the BDSM Overview, I went to the movies with my favorite feminist friend Lisa Junkin. It was a documentary called “Passion and Power”, covering the history of vibrators and the female orgasm, and we walked out of the cinema feeling deep joy and contentment. “That was great,” I said. “We should have a regular sexuality film night.”

“You know, people besides us might come to see that,” said Lisa ….

From this humble moment was born my most successful project ever: the Sex+++ Documentary Film Series. Lisa is Education Coordinator at Chicago’s own Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she had me create a proposal for her boss. I started by writing out some guiding principles:

Q. “What is being sex-positive?”
A. “Defining sex on my own terms.”
A. “Understanding my own sexual needs.”
A. “Being in charge of my own sexual experiences.”

… and the whole thing exploded from there. The series was approved after a few emails and one meeting, and I researched documentaries about everything from bisexuality, to polyamory, to swinging, to trans people, to homosexuality — I even included heterosexuality … and BDSM! Before I knew it, we were standing outside the screening room on the first night of Sex+++: January 27, 2009. There were sixty people in there, eating pizza and eager to watch “Kinsey”, and I was deciding how to address them.

We’d advertised all over the city, with posters and universities and bloggers and e-newsletters; the audience members could have come from anywhere. I had to define “sex-positive”, but knew the audience would have a wide variance in exposure to integral concepts like third-wave feminism and non-abstinence sex education. What I came up with was this:

“It’s really hard, maybe impossible, to sum up the sex-positive movement in a sentence. But if I had to, I’d say it this way: Among consenting adults, there is no ’should’. The whole idea behind being sex-positive is that we don’t want people to be having — or not having — sex because they feel like they should.”

The audience applauded; I grinned like a pumpkin. That night, I went home nigh-drunk with joy. And it was just the beginning.

* * *

While running around promoting Sex+++, I attended a meetup for Chicago Bloggers organized by a political commentator named Arvan Reese. I kept quiet at first, unsure how the group would react to a sexual deviant in their midst — but eventually I had to bite the bullet and introduce myself. “I go by Clarisse Thorn,” I began, described why I’m a BDSM blogger, and distributed fliers for Sex+++.

Arvan got in touch a month or two later. “You inspired me,” he told me. “I’m going to start a sex-positive community blog. Will you help?” developed swiftly and went live on May 1, 2009. When I asked about the site’s tagline over coffee, Arvan smiled. “I was hoping to use ‘There is no should,'” he said. “That is, if it’s okay with you?”

To this day I’ve only given my BDSM overview presentation a few times — fewer times than, say, my sexual communication workshop. Sex+++ is now in its second year; SexGenderBody has swept the Internet; both encourage kinksters to speak out — but when I look back on it, my effect as an activist seems remarkably unfocused on BDSM. Still, BDSM centers everything I’ve done.

If we’re thinking politically, we kinksters can’t just focus on kink. We’ve got to expand the agenda to cover all consensual sexuality. Lisa’s pretty much straight and vanilla, and so is Arvan, but they’re the best BDSM allies a girl could ask for. And then there are the amazing sex workers, swingers, polyfolk, queer kids and trans people who have supported these projects, become my friends, even occasionally attended some of Chicago’s kinky parties ….

So here is my agenda: Consent is everything. Here is my agenda: There is no “should”. My agenda is this: if someone wants to have sex with men, or sex with women, or sex outside marriage, or sex within marriage, or sex with multiple people, or crazy kinky sex, or sex for money, or sex on videotape, or no sex at all … that’s all totally fine, as long as everyone involved feels good about it. My agenda is to frame good sex as something everyone deserves, that everyone can be taught about and trained in, and — more importantly — to convince the rest of the world to see it that way too.

* * *

This piece was edited and expanded for the sake of clarity on August 3, 2010.

2009 19 Jan

Liberal, sex-positive sex education: what’s missing

It’s been a while since I posted something substantive; I’m so busy with my awesome upcoming sex-positive film series and discussion group (please attend!), it’s hard to find time! So, I’ll make up for that with a really long post.

I am fortunate. I was born in the eighties and I received a great sex-positive upbringing. The public school I attended taught students how to use condoms; middle school health education included a section on sexually transmitted diseases. My parents didn’t throw their sexuality in my face — but they were almost always matter-of-fact, understanding and accepting when they talked about sex. (I’ll never forget how, at age 12 or so, Mom sat me down and gave me a long speech about how it would be totally okay if I were gay.) I was raised Unitarian, and the Unitarian Sunday School teen program included a wonderful sex education curriculum called About Your Sexuality. (I understand that the sex-ed curriculum has been changed and updated, and is now called Our Whole Lives. I haven’t delved deeply into the Our Whole Lives program — maybe it addresses some of the issues I’m about to describe.)

So I think I’m in a good position to describe the problematic signals we face in liberal sexual education. Yes, I’ve experienced the overall sex-negative messages that drench America, and they’re terrible — but so much is already being said about those. I also received lots of sex-positive messages that are incomplete, or problematic, or don’t quite go the distance in helping us navigate sexuality — and I think the sex-positive movement must focus on fixing them.

I’m so grateful for my relatively liberal, relatively sex-positive upbringing. I think it did me a world of good. But here are my five biggest problems with the way I learned about sexuality:

1. I wish that I hadn’t gotten this message: “Sex is easy, light-hearted — and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Do I believe sex can be easy? Sure. Do I think it can be light-hearted? Absolutely! But do I think it’s always those things? No, and I don’t think it “ought to” be.

I think we need to teach that sex can be incredibly difficult. It can be hard to communicate with your partner. It can be hard to learn and come to terms with your own sexual desires. It can be hard to understand or accept all your partner’s sexual desires. And just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean that you’re with the wrong partner — or that you’re missing some vital piece of information that everyone else has — or that you’re doing it wrong.

And as for light-hearted, well — sure, sex can be “happy rainbows joy joy!”, but it can also be serious … or dark. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

I recently talked to a friend, who also identifies as a BDSMer, about our stories of coming into BDSM. Both of us had sadomasochistic fantasies from a very early age (mine, for instance, started in grade school — seriously, I actually did tie up my Barbie dolls). I told my friend about how I’d always had these intense, dark, violent feelings — but when I made it to middle school, I remember a change. I had a series of vivid BDSM-ish dreams, and I freaked out. I closed it all away, I stopped thinking about it, I repressed it all as savagely as I could.

Before that, I had also started thinking about sex. I imagined sex at great length; I read about sex. I had long since filched my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex and examined it, cover to cover — not to mention many other fine sexuality works, like Nancy Friday’s compilation of female sexual fantasies My Secret Garden. I was totally fascinated by sex. I talked about it so much that one of my friends specifically searched out a vibrator as a birthday present for me. I actually pressured my first major boyfriend into any number of sexual acts before he was ready, which I suppose is an interesting reversal of stereotype. As I started having sex, I found that I liked it okay, but knew a lot was missing — and couldn’t figure out what.

It took me years and years to connect sex to BDSM — to figure out that the biggest thing I was missing, was BDSM. Why? Because BDSM was horrible and wrong, and I’d shut it away; BDSM (I thought) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bright, shiny, happy horizon of sex! Coming into BDSM was a crisis for me partly because — although I knew other people practiced it, and had never thought much about that — my own need for those dark feelings totally shocked me. This wasn’t me. This wasn’t healthy sex. Sex was light-hearted, happy rainbows joy joy! … wasn’t it?

In contrast, my friend — who had an extremely sexually repressed upbringing — never had any trouble integrating BDSM into his sex life. Sex, for him, was already wrong and bad … so as he got in touch with his sexuality and began having sex, BDSM was involved from the start. After all, there was no reason for it not to be.

As glad as I am that my upbringing was not stereotypically sexually repressed, I have to say that I envy my friend his easy personal integration of BDSM.

2. I wish this point had been made, over and over: “You might consider being careful with sex.”

Edit: 1/20/09 — A really great comment from PAS led me to pull back and rethink a few of the things I said here. I edited this point a bit, to reflect that I’ve been trying to think through the biases he called me out on.

I recently read an excellent “New Yorker” article that reviews the new version of The Joy of Sex. It talks about the time when The Joy of Sex came out, as well as a similar contemporary feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and it points out that “both books espoused the (distinctly seventies) notion that sex could be a value-neutral experience, as natural as eating”.

“Value-neutral”: that’s a great way to describe the overall attitude about sex that I absorbed. As if sex were something I could do as an amusing diversion, with anyone, at any time, and it would always be fun fun fun! As if there was no need to be overly careful or sensitive — sex was just a game I could play, like a sport — where the worst that would happen if I screwed up might be a skinned knee.

I wish that there had been an emphasis on how emotions can really matter, when it comes to sex. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex. (Not that we always do — but we can.) I wish I had understood sooner that sex is not always value-neutral; that everyone has all manner of different sexual needs and hangups, anxieties and strong emotions. I think maybe there are people out there who can have “value-neutral” sex — where it’s totally about physicality and nothing more — but I am not like that, and I suspect that most people are not.

Which isn’t to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people who can have sex that’s “value-neutral”. (And maybe “value-neutral” is not a great term for it; I worry that I sound like I’m judging, when I use that term.) I just don’t think it’s a good model for everyone, and yet I think that it has somewhat been promoted as if everyone “ought to” be that way.

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. You see a lot of assertions along these lines in the conservative media — for instance, here’s a quotation from a synopsis of the book Modern Sex:

The 1960s sexual revolution made a big promise: if we just let go of our inhibitions, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. Yet sexual liberation has made us no happier and, if anything, less fulfilled. Why? … sex today is increasingly mechanical and without commitment—a department of plumbing, hygiene, or athletics rather than a private sphere for the creation of human meaning. The result: legions of unhappy adults and confused teenagers deprived of their innocence, on their way not to maturity but to disillusionment. … These beautifully written essays — on subjects ranging from the TV show Sex and the City to teen sex to the eclipse of the manly ideal to the benefits of marriage — add up to the deepest, most informative appraisal we have of how and why the sexual revolution has failed.

I disagree with most of their attitude. We don’t need innocence. We don’t need sexual mystery. We don’t need to eliminate teen sex. We don’t need to re-establish some limiting, patriarchal “manly ideal”. But they’ve got one thing right: we do need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

3. I wish I’d learned this: “Good sex doesn’t just require two (or more) people who like sex. It requires desire — and desire simply doesn’t work the same way for everyone.”

I’ve said before that I went through a period — back when I was first becoming sexually active — where I simply could not figure out why sexual acts with people I didn’t care about, didn’t seem to turn me on. Or rather — they turned me on a little, but not … much. It took me a while to understand that sex requires more than just two eager people. It requires attraction and desire.

When I was fifteen or so, and at summer camp, I remember making out with a boy. I didn’t really want to make out with him, but I wasn’t sure how to reject him (more on this under point 5). And I figured: he seems nice enough, so I might as well make out with him. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself, and I felt like I’d wasted my time — and I felt confused. I’d been bored at best and repulsed at worst, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, or why I’d done something that made me feel that way.

So why had I done it? Because I’d thought: “Sex is value-neutral.” Because I’d thought: “Making out is fun, right? — that means I ought to do it when I get the chance!” Because I’d thought: “My preference not to make out with him is probably just some silly repression that I need to get over.” Because I didn’t understand that desire is complicated, that you can’t just make yourself feel desire when it’s convenient, and that you don’t need a reason for your attractions — or lack of attraction. This situation was to reprise itself in various forms over the next years, until I finally learned that sometimes you simply want or don’t want things, and that you aren’t required to justify your desires.

4. I wish I’d gotten a list of suggestions: “Here are some places you might go to start figuring out what turns you on.”

I was told that sex was fun. I was even told to explore! But I still spent years with very little actual idea of what I wanted. No one ever told me how or where I might be able to learn more about my needs, or what exploring my needs might look like. And no one ever explained that people are turned on by different things, that some people like some sex acts and don’t like others, and that’s okay.

I went into sex with a buffet-style attitude, thinking that I must naturally enjoy sex equally in all ways. I was so surprised when I found out that I like some positions better than others! I remember how confused I was when I dated a guy who didn’t like fellatio, and how hurt I felt — like his lack of enjoyment meant that I must be doing it wrong, because everyone likes oral sex, right?

And of course, while I had a pretty comprehensive idea of the vanilla sex acts I could experiment with, I had very little idea of what else was out there. In retrospect I find this hilarious, but I remember — back in my vanilla days — I had two boyfriends who tied me up. They tied me up and were nice to me, and I suppose it was amusing enough, but didn’t drive me crazy with lust or anything. And — this is the kicker — because I did not understand that there’s a lot more to BDSM than light bondage, because I did not understand that there are many separate BDSM acts that people can enjoy and many ways to flavor them, I assumed from this experience that I didn’t like BDSM. I went through my old journal entries the other day and uncovered one in which I, confused, am speculating about what’s missing from my sex life: I write, “I’ve tried S&M, so it can’t be that.”

What a learning curve I had ahead of me, eh?

I wish someone had showed me Katherine Gates’ fetish map (though, as I understand it, the map was first created in the early 2000s, so it didn’t exist when I was getting my sex education — anyway, I wish someone had tried to explain to me the vast cornucopia of human fetishes out there!). I wish someone had explained that erotica and pornography are both actually really good ways to learn about your turn-ons, and — more importantly — had told me that not all erotica and pornography are the same, so the fact that I wasn’t into mainstream stuff didn’t mean I automatically wasn’t interested in all erotica or porn. I’ve mentioned that I had lots of conversations with friends about sex, but — until recent years — those conversations were never framed as “This is what I like,” or “I’ve found something new that turns me on,” and I wish I’d realized sooner what a great resource conversations like that might be.

5. And I wish I’d gotten a list of ideas: “Here are some ways you can try communicating with your partner about sex.”

Lastly, but certainly not least — I was never taught how to communicate about sex. No one ever gave me even the first idea. In all my sex-positive, liberal sexual upbringing, I was told over and over that “relationships require communication”, but no one ever said: “And here’s some ways in which you might communicate sexually with your partner.”

One big benefit of teaching sexual communication strategies will be that it will help people learn to say “no” when they don’t want to do something. Teaching people how to set boundaries is massively important, and I think a lot about ways to do it. I saw this adorable video about cuddle parties recently that really struck me — these people create parties where everyone basically just cuddles, but everyone also specifically has the power to say “no” to any given person or act. The reporter who made the video talks at the end about how she found the whole experience to be empowering — how she felt like it gave her space to say “no” that she hadn’t had before. Perhaps these could be used to teach people to set boundaries?

But you can’t really use cuddle parties in a school or workshop setting, more’s the pity. If I ever create a sex education curriculum, I want to describe a bunch of good communication strategies. I’ll list questions that all sex partners should ask each other, including “What do you like?” and “What do you fantasize about?” and “Is there anything you really don’t want me to do?” (Edit 7/2/10: As it happens, I later did exactly that. end of edit)

And I’ll talk about ways that you can make communication easier, if the two partners are uncomfortable having this conversation. I’ll take a page from the BDSM community by creating checklists of all kinds of sexual acts and weird fetishes and gender-bending craziness, and I’ll put it all on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being “not at all interested” and 5 being “I’d love to try this”), and I’ll tell people that they should fill out those checklists and give them to their partners. I’ll suggest that partners write out their fantasies and email them to each other, if they feel uncomfortable talking. I’ll suggest that partners write out descriptions of their mutual sexual experiences — long accounts, describing how they felt about everything and what sticks out in their minds — and send those to each other, too, so they can get each others’ perspectives on what they’ve done.

God, it’s so hard to talk about what we want. It’s even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it’s hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place — but communicating it … eeek! And it’s worth noting that this is not just a problem of having good sex. As was pointed out recently on the blog for the book Yes Means Yes! (a book of sex-positive essays that I still haven’t read, but really really want to):

[There is a] need to demystify and destigmatize communication about sex. If we can’t talk about what we like and what we want, we will always have problems making clear what it is we’re consenting to. If we can’t be frank about what we do want, we put a lot of weight on the need to communicate what we don’t.

Giving everyone great sexual communication skills doesn’t just give us all better sex — it fights rape. There’s a noble cause for you!

… So, that’s my five-pointed analysis. And that’s what I’m pushing for. My goals are not just to get people thinking that sex is awesome and sexual freedom is important. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m hoping that I can not only help out with sexual liberation — I’m hoping to improve it.