The Conversation AU
Sex, health and society: what's the connection?
The Conversation AU
I'm the director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS, pronounced ?arches? or ?archers? ? it's the best we can do with only one vowel!) at La Trobe University. But I would never say that to a taxi driver at the start of ...
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But he also teaches about sex for a living. For the last 10 years, he's been a sexual-health expert at the United Nations, where he does everything from teaching refugees and peacekeepers about safe sex to consulting with foreign governments and ...
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Much has changed in my life over the last few years. One change is that I've become very active with Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance. Another is that I've become even more active with my union. This latter change has created a problem for Sex In The Public Square: I have very little time to maintain this site. Fortunately, the former change provides the solution: I will now be blogging at Woodhull's web site. You will find my blog featured on the home page at http://woodhullalliance.org and it will have its own page at http://www.woodhullalliance.org/category/sex-in-the-public-square/.
I'm excited by the move. I'll be joining folks like first amendment attorney Larry Walters, sexual freedom and education scholar-advocate Marty Klein, and the folks at AVN in providing commentary for Woodhull.
This site will remain here as an archive. Comments will be turned off and new content will not appear. Please join us over at Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance and be part of a bigger conversation!
Two stories about gender and children caught my eye, over the last couple days. They are not at all connected to each other, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized that they illustrate very different responses to gender inequality, and that those different responses say a lot, potentially, about the structure and culture of gender in two different societies: Canada and India.
The first story was making the rounds a few days ago on Yahoo! News. It tells the story of the Witterick-Stocker family, of Toronto, who have decided not to share the sex of their 4 month old baby Storm with anyone other than immediate family and the midwives who assisted with the delivery.
The second is a story I read in the New York Times yesterday morning, and it tells of increased rates of sex-selective abortions among well-off, well-educated women in India. Specifically, it reports on a study recently published in The Lancet, documenting the spread of sex-selective abortion practices across India over the past 20 years. The study placed particular focus on the decisions made about second children when the first child was a girl.
What a world apart, both literally and figuratively.
In one society there is gender inequality but yet enough freedom that a family might decide to challenge the social structuring of gender by refusing to label their child. Theoretically this frees the child to take full advantage of those equalities that do exist and might remove some of the barriers to equality that remain. Storm's parents explain their choice in relation to this very freedom, according to Zachary Roth's Yahoo! article:
Stocker and Witterick say the decision gives Storm the freedom to choose who he or she wants to be. "What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It's obnoxious," adds Stocker, a teacher in an alternative school.
In the other society, gender is so powerful in the structuring of inequality that parents use it to choose whether or not a child should exist. Girls are understood to be liabilities where boys are understood to be assets. Parents with means will apparently tolerate one girl, but not a second. Education and wealth are associated with better access to health services so a family wanting to limit its liabilities and maximize its assets use the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion to end pregnancies where the fetus is categorized as female. The impact is dramatic, demographically. According to Jim Yardley's New York Times article:
The 2011 Indian census found 914 girls for every 1,000 boys among children 6 six or younger, the lowest ratio of girls since the country gained independence in 1947. The new study estimated that 4 million to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades.
We should see both stories in terms of social structure and inequality, and not purely in terms of individual choices. Storm's parents are making an individual choice, but they are doing so in a way that directly challenges the structure of the society they live in, and they are doing so because they dislike the constraints those structures impose. Any given pair of well-off parents in India are also making choices in reaction to the constraints of social structure, and are doing so in a way that reinforces the structural constraint they are individually trying to avoid.
Parents should be free to choose whether or not to have a child. Children should be free to decide how to identify themselves. But our individual choices are not always as individual as we think, and often they have collective unintended consequences when we add them all up. And some of those consequences are much likely than others to move a society in the direction of justice and freedom for all.
From page A18 of the May 24 edition of the New York Times
What do you think? This Bloomingdales ad for Rag & Bone Jeans ($165.00) and silk Equipment top ($178.00) contains the tag line "MEET YOUR NEW MUST-HAVE" and depicts an Asian model staring into the camera with her lips parted. It accompanies an article with the headline "In Oakland, Redefining Sex Trade Workers as Abuse Victims" which, among many things, criticizes the 'exoticization' of Asian women in the US.
The article can be found online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24oakland.html
Ten is the number of bodies that have been found on Long Island's southern beaches since December. The first four, all found between December 11 abd 13, were confirmed to be the remains of women who had had some experience in sex work. The next was found on March 29. Three more were found on April 4, and two were found today. The identities of those most recently found have not been determined, and police have not made a definitive statement about whether all of the murders are connected.
So far, none has turned out to be Shannon Gilbert, the search for whom turned up these other victims.
I suspect they will turn out to be related, victims of a serial killer who targets women who, among all of the other things that they do in their lives, also exchange sex for money.
SWOP-NYC has responded with a statement that rightly reminds us that the dangers of sex work are the dangers of stigmatization and isolation, and not particular to the exchange of sex for something else of value.
I just spent three days at my statewide union's Representative Assembly where health and safety was one of the key concerns. There was a singificant focus on framing issues in human rights terms. There was a lot of talk about the dignity of all humans, and the dignity of all labor. I was even impressed that when the issue of trafficking and children came up, the focus was on slave labor in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast, and not a lurid focus on sex trafficking.
But I don't think my union would stand up publicly for sex workers. Not yet.
I spent a couple of hours on Saturday at a huge labor rally in Times Square. I am sure there were people attending that rally who, in addition to all the other things they do, have also exchanged sex for money. But I did not see any sex worker advocacy signs in the block where I was standing.
We still separate sex from the rest of work, from the rest of pleasure, and essentially from most of everyday life.
The longer we relegate sex to the dark corners of our political and social discourse, the longer we will continue to find bodies hidden in the reeds of our beaches, long undiscovered because they were marginalized from the start.
Sexual freedom, including the consensual exchange of sex for other things of value, must come to be seen a fundamental human right. Sex is a valuable thing. The right to physical autonomy and the right to sexual pleasure and the right to earn a decent living all intersect in the phenomenon of sex work.
Stand up publicly for your own right, and the right of others, to safely determine the conditions of each sexual exchange we make.
Photo is by Karl Monaghan (Red_Tzar on Flickr) and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license.
Are you a union member, or a friend or family member of a union member? If so, please come out. Please identify yourself that way in conversations. Please stand up for unions and for the basic worker rights that they protect.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, only 11.9 percent of workers in the US were represented by unions, and that number is only as high as it is because about a third of public sector workers are union members.
What does this have to do with sexuality? First of all, without unions there can be no economic justice in a capitalist society, and without economic justice, sexual freedom is impossible in any meaningful way. To fully realize our sexual freedom we need basic economic security.
Second, there is a lot to be learned from the coming out campaigns of the LGBT movement. When we are visible we reveal ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable, but we also become three dimensional human beings to those who have previously seen us as one-dimensional stereotypes.
Third, there is something similar about taking a part of your life, a part of yourself, a part that you perhaps take for granted, and making it a part of your identity. I am not just a professor, I am a union member. I am not just a clerk, I am a union member. I am not just a groundskeeper, I am a union member. Union membership is something we often see as part of the background of our lives, and we need to bring it into the foreground. Again, LGBT activism gives us a model for doing this.
In tough economic times it is easy for people to villify or demonize a small group of people who are represented in the press as greedy, lazy, and selfish. Especially if you don't have any reason to suspect that real live union members are any different from that representation.
But that's not who we are, and it seems to me that the only way for unions to turn the tide that is undermining them now is if we each come out of the union closet and identify ourselves to our friends and neighbors so they see us as the hard-working, community-minded, caring and dedicated people that we are.
Harvey Milk is represented in the biopic Milk as saying "They vote for us two to one if they know they know one of us." (It's also worth recalling that Milk worked with union leaders and had strong labor backing of his campaigns, and that progressive labor unions and LGBT political unions often work in concert with each other.)
When nonunion workers are facing layoffs and pay cuts and the media tells them its all the fault of unions, it's easy to see how they'd vote to undercut the power of workers who are depicted as leeches feeding off an increasingly anemic public. But if they knew that we were their neighbors, their kid's friend's parents, the people they always nod to at the supermarket, it might be different. If we talk to them about the ways that unions protect not just their members but the basic rights of all workers, they might feel differently. What if, instead of hiding our union membership out of fear of being criticized or attacked, we talk to them about the struggles of all employees and encourage them to seek the strength of unions to protect themselves rather than to tear down the organizations that helped bouy their own raises and benefits just by virtue of comparison?
This week is a week of We Are One events spreading solidarity, raising consciousness, and making demands for economic justice. Take a moment this week to identify yourself in relation to that effort. If you are a union member, or a friend or lover or kin to one, take a moment to tell someone else about that. Tell a story that helps counter the negative impression of union members in the press. Take a risk. We can't rebuild the labor movement from inside the closet.
I'm a union member, and a union leader, and I'm proud of my role in protecting rights for all workers. How about you?
"It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience -- it wasn't no damn riot."
- Stormé Delarverie
From the Bronx LGBTQ Center I learned of the passing of Stormé Delarverie, who was an icon of LGBT civil rights, a key participant in the Stonewall rebellion (by many accounts, Stormé threw one of the early punches at a police officer who was beating up a young man) and by many online accounts someone with a deep capacity for love, acceptance, and resistance.
I only knew Stormé Delarverie's name as one that was tied to the resistance and rebellion that began outside the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 27, 1969. I'm grateful to be able to read about Stormé now, an experience that offers both a history lesson and adventure (in geography, gender, musical performance, not to mention the less pleasant experiences of racism, prejudice, violence, and isolation).
Several of the remembrances point to this 2010 profile that the New York Times did on Stormé. Having just finished Inside the Dream Palace I was not at all surpsied to learn that Stormé was a long time resident of the Chelsea Hotel. Reading about Stormé you feel that the world has lost someone who made this a much better place. But all is lost, as long as we remember. It's not enough, but it's something.
National Masturbation Month is almost over, and while the event is mostly a grown up celebration (probably because it was started by adult sex shops who aren't that focused on the youth market) it seems like a good excuse for parents and people with kids in their lives to think about about where masturbation does or doesn't fit into conversations about sex.
We should start by acknowledging that not all learning happens the same way, and those differences matter.
We learn how things work often by trying, failing, and being instructed. Or by watching others do something and mimicking them. We learn new words when we hear them, don't know what they mean, and either we ask someone older than us to explain the meaning or the definition is volunteered by the person using the word. We learn about social rules by being punished or corrected, sometimes before we do a thing, sometimes while we're doing it, sometimes after.
When it comes to our bodies and sex learning often happens in less direct ways. Because adults don't talk about sex the same way they talk about tying your shoes or learning what the word cooperation means, we often teach by responding without words (and sometimes without really thinking much).
Kids learn that some body parts are okay to touch and some aren't maybe because we explain it, but often because we tell them simply to take their hands "out of there". We tell them to pull their pants up, to keep their dress down. And they learn from what we say but also from our tone, from our energy. They learn by watching us respond to them.
This is nowhere more evident then in how we teach kids about masturbation. In fact there is an added layer of complexity because when infants and toddlers are touching themselves I would argue they aren't masturbating (at least not in the sense of the word as it's used to describe a sexual activity). They are touching themselves because it feels good, yes. But it lacks the intention we usually give to masturbation and I would suggest it lacks the directed sexual energy that comes with later sexual development. Another way to put this is that when your 4-year-old touches their body to feel good it isn't the same as when your 14-year-old does it. And those differences matter.
The added complexity comes from the fact that our response to what they are doing is very much a response to the idea of masturbation. We are in some ways responding to much more than what is happening. Which can be very confusing if you're on the receiving end of all that responding.
So in answer to the question at the top, yes, we should be talking with kids about masturbation. To me the more important questions, the ones that are harder to answer, are what should we say and when. If you're ready to dig into those questions, here's a place to start.
Read More: How to Talk to Kids About Masturbation
Four years ago the FDA rejected an application by drug maker Boehringer for a little pink pill, called Flibanserin. Boehringer claimed that their drug could be used to treat women with low sexual desire. The FDA rejected the drug based on a lack of evidence regarding effectiveness and concerns about side effects.
The drug passed hands, and now Sprout Pharmaceuticals has brought the drug back to the FDA, armed with two new studies, and a new marketing technique. Their new argument for why the FDA should approve the drug (which is mostly being made by publicists for the company, scientists who have financial connections to the company, and at least one women's health organization that receives funding from the company) is that the FDA is being sexist. They point to the number of "sex drugs" available for men and the fact that there are none available for women.
True liberation, apparently, comes in the shape of a little pink pill.
It's a smart move. For one thing, of course the FDA is sexist (also racist, classist, homophobic, transphoibic, ableist, and more). Oppression and prejudice don't just happen on the street corner, in a bar, in a classroom or police station. Sexism is embedded in our culture and society. So you can't expect an organization that is part of the same society to be free of sexism.
But just because the organization is sexist doesn't mean they weren't right to reject this drug. For the record desire (which is what Flibanserin is supposed to "help") is not the same thing as erection (which is what all the drugs for men "help"). Producing a physiological response and altering brain chemistry are two completely different enterprises, just as being able to get an erection and actually wanting to have sex are two completely different experiences. I know we get them confused. But the confusion is in our meaning, not our bodies.
Last week ABC's Nightline ran a story about Sprout's new tactic with the FDA. If the piece is a harbinger of things to come, it's looking good for Sprout. Most of the focus was on this spurious idea that women's equality means women should be able to be as over medicated as men. It wasn't until the last third of the piece that they included this point:
"Some doctors believe Flibanserin was rejected for a very simple reason: it's an ineffective drug for a non existent problem."
The final word came from the "regular woman" who says she can't wait to fill her first prescription. When the drug is ultimately approved it will be interesting to see if women are any happier with it than men are with Viagra (a not so often cited statistic notes that more than half of first prescriptions for Viagra are never refilled).
It's interesting to compare the Nightline story to another story that ran in Slate last month, taking apart the claims of sexism in the Flibanserin case.
When I talk with sex researchers and scientists I often hear them say that what they do is not political. It's "hard science" it's about numbers and evidence and results. But all science is political.
And we shouldn't forget that this isn't the first time a small number of women's groups have teamed up with the pharmaceutical industry to tell us that liberation does come in pill form. Back then, as now, we should be asking a lot of questions, among them: Liberation for who? Liberation from what?
Feels on Wheels: Toronto's Rose Centre (The Grid)
A young couple in Toronto are trying to make the sexual change they want to see, one adorable and sexy profile at a time.
10 Things You Should Say to Someone with a Chronic Illness (Pins and Procrastination)
Not every one of these is going to really be great for every person, but I love the many simple points made in this companion piece to 15 Things Not to Say to Someone with a Chronic Illness.
Criptiques Explores the Provocative Side of Disability (Bilerico)
An interview with editor and provocateur Caitlin Wood on how her new anthology of disability writing got so queer.
Join the conversation!
Parents anxiety about their kids sexuality isn't new. But there are a few particularly modern situations that parents today find themselves in. Several of them have to do with porn.
Porn isn't new either, but the ease with which anyone (with Internet access) can find it, and the level of explicitness it offers is. What's also new is that instead of just finding porn (as other parents once did tucked under the bed or in underwear drawers) now parents are stumbling over both the porn sites and the search histories that got their kids there.
It may be the dictionary definition of too much information.
But there it is. Now you know it, and you've seen some of it and the question becomes: what do you do with that knowledge?
Read More: I Found Out My Kid Is Searching for Porn
Related: About.com Sex Questions and Answers...................................................
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