On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.
And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).
We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process: increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.
I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!
Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.
I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to posit that most humans maintain ambivalent relationships with their genitals (if and when they think about them at all). Freud and psychosexual notions of penis envy aside, we see others ways in which genital discourse has entered into popular culture with shows like Sex and the City attempting to characterize some aspects of the relationship between women and their vaginas.
But we can also consider how the concept of power comes to be embodied in—and through—our genitals. Although there has been serious scholarship on the subject, we can also turn to popular offerings like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to explain how a hierarchy is instituted in the military through display of phallic symbols (i.e., the more chevrons/penises one has, the more powerful one is). And power as represented by genitals is an important point to consider with regard to feminist readings of media.
Earlier in the semester we talked about the racist overtones of Summer’s Eve’s newest ad campaign “Hail to the V.”
But what interests me most is that another arm of the campaign, which was introduced at the same time, has yet to be pulled:
In some ways, I find the existent advertisement much more problematic than the original set (although I will fully admit that this may be due to increased familiarity and sensitivity to issues of gender over race, insofar as the two can be separated into discrete categories). In general, I am all for the idea of women owning their vaginas and feeling comfortable with sexuality but so many things about this ad struck me as offensive (or, best case scenario, thoughtless). The notion that Americans protested over potentially racist characterizations of vaginas but not this ad makes me wonder just what we envision women’s roles in America to be.
On the surface, all of the statements contained in the the ad seem well meaning—the intent was, I think, to demonstrate the importance of the vagina. But then something went horribly wrong: “The cradle of life,” for example, cannot help but evoke notions of race in addition to gender, with the Mitochondrial Eve emerging out of Africa. And, on a structural level, even the sequence of featured women further supports the mother/whore/virgin triad (i.e., an expansion of the Madonna/whore duality from some strains of Christianity) , which only further serves to entrench women in roles proscribed for them by dominant male culture. Having watched the entire ad, one cannot help but interpret the “center of civilization” line as a society of men ruled by their lust for the vagina.
But perhaps the most upsetting component of this ad is the final sequence wherein the following voice-over appears:
“Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it. One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”
The vagina, then, might be argued as the “most powerful thing on Earth,” but the question remains: whose power is it? The ad depicts women (and through visual/semantic linkage, their vaginas) as objects for conquest—their vaginas are trophies to be won in battle (between men, no less, indicating that women do not evidence a sexual desire to “know” vaginas and that women cannot fight for their own vaginas!) and are not their own! In addition to the incredibly problematic practice of reducing women to their vaginas, we are to understand that women are not even owners of their vaginas!
On one hand, this sort of attitude might seem surprising for a company promoting feminine hygiene products until we take a moment to consider the long history of control imposed upon women’s bodies in the name of hygiene. In the case of douching, we are actually trying to naturalize a process that could actually be detrimental to women’s health!
Again I don’t believe that this campaign was launched with malicious intent—but perhaps that’s only an indicator of how far some of these ways of thinking have snuck underneath the radar. For the Summer’s Eve ads to survive multiple rounds of revision and be placed onto the airwaves with no real thought as to their consequences is a tragedy perhaps best summed up by following Oprah clip which is problematic in its own way:
You know what, Oprah?…I don’t have a vajayjay but I’m painin’ nonetheless.
Although it seems doubtful that viewers of the 2011 Video Music Awards (MTV) would conceptualize their actions in such a fashion, they were, in part, observing a celebration of the image and of semiotics. Having become literate in the “language” of music videos, audiences undoubtedly learned to extract meaning from the images paired with songs downloaded on mp3 players. And yet, although each of the featured music videos could be deconstructed in productive and informative ways, one of the most interesting moments, for me, was the tribute to Amy Winehouse.
50s aesthetic of Bruno Mars aside, the choice to pay homage to a fallen singer through the use of a motif directly derived from Andy Warhol’s pop art movement was a curious one, as Warhol’s work was born out of a response to a viewership inundated with the mechanically reproduced image. Repetition, for Warhol, spoke to the relative meaninglessness of the image in a culture saturated by media but also challenged viewers to then reconcile slight variations in the image, begging audiences to develop a discerning eye. In some ways, examples like the Winehouse tribute cause me to wonder about the modern visual sensibility, for it seems as though the very process that Warhol spoke out against has come back to haunt him; the very notion of an image’s repetition rendering it meaningless has come to apply to Warhol’s own work!
And perhaps there was something to the concerns of Warhol (along with a slew of cultural theorists in the 50s), who was reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it. For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.
Although the cultural climate has changed somewhat since the mid-20th century, modern Americans continue to find themselves assaulted by images, particularly in the form of advertising.
The advertisement above, for example, represents a fairly straightforward—and yet beguilingly complex—image to promote a sound dubbing service. Undoubtedly played for a laugh, careful analysis of the image speaks to a potentially more disturbing reading of the situation.
The most immediate reading is likely that of a threesome (undoubtedly playing off of the cliche that sex sells), but closer inspection suggests that this is a particular type of engagement and most definitely geared toward a particular type of audience. Without much effort, we can clearly see that this ad portrays an encounter between two women and a man (it is unlikely that any of the participants are transsexual as nothing in the ad suggests as much to the reader) in fulfillment of the stereotypical straight male fantasy. Furthermore, the man is actively engaged in the act of viewing the sexual encounter between the two women, suggesting an element of voyeurism and the male gaze; in contrast to the women, who are embracing with their eyes closed, the man is not shown to have any physical contact (his body posture actually suggests that he is pulling away, creating space for the women to “do their thing”). Women, in this scenario exist to be watched and/or perform for the man as they reinforce the notion that lesbianism (temporary or otherwise) exists to provide males with sexual pleasure. In some ways, we might also think about how this image reaffirms a heteronormative stance (with a small exception for lipstick lesbians who perform not for their pleasure, but for a man’s) with traditional gender representations.
The copy also serves to reinforce a male-dominated view of sexuality, with the laugh coming from the disconnect between the line’s attribution to a man versus a woman. Humor in this scene derives from the fact that we, the viewer, are supposed to chuckle that a woman is uttering the phrase “If my dad could see me now, he’d be so proud” because we know that no woman would ever say such a thing. We are, then, operating under a social/family structure that speaks to the notion of the good girl (or possibly “daddy’s girl”) and assume that if this woman’s father actually saw her, he would be disappointed rather than proud. Moreover, we see that the “correct” attribution of the phrase is its attachment to the male, which then positions him as a member of an all-boys club that he and his father can participate in. The underlying suggestion is that father and son can share a fond story over the son’s sexual conquest of two women (perhaps invoking a similar story from the father’s youth) and that father, like son, uphold the devaluation of women. Looked at in another way, we can see Willamson’s referent systems at play in this ad: man is asserting his ability to “tame” the wild/sexual nature of women, moving them from “raw” to “cooked.”
Interestingly, this ad says nothing about the ability of the company in question (Herbert Richers Sound Dubbing) to fulfill the function for which they would be hired, instead relying on goodwill generated by humor to translate into positive affect regarding the brand. Given that nature of the advertisement, the company must rely on a visual representation of the syncing process (in this case, showcasing something that is out of sync) and the purpose of the ad seems to create name recognition, for no contact information is given.
In order to study this image further, it would be helpful to know more about the context in which it appeared. As Herbert Richers is a Brazilian dubber, it stands to reason that this ad was displayed in Brazil (but the copy is in English and not Portuguese) but the question remains if it appeared on a website, magazine, or billboard. Was it part of a campaign that played on similar themes (and how how might it affect our reading if we knew that there was a mirroring ad that featured two men and a woman)?
Mattson, K. (2003). Mass Culture Revisited: Beyond Tail Fins and Jitterbuggers. Radical Society , 30 (1), 87-93.
A twenty-something coming to terms with being an adult in Southern California, Chris Tokuhama is interested in attempts to transcend the human body. With research interests that range from Early Modern Science to Gothic horror and transhumanism (with a bit of religion sprinkled in), Chris hopes to increase media literacy in youth so that, in future threesomes, all partners can participate equally. Read more about Chris’ take on pop culture on his blog or follow him on Twitter.
The big brouhaha this week seemed to be over a new paper published by Benjamin Edlemen called “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” While I think that the paper is somewhat interesting, I think that a lot of media outlets have put it somewhat out of context in an effort to go after Conservatives.
Never in my life did I think I would be defending Red States, but there you go.
I do feel as though the paper is worth reading if you’re into that sort of stuff–it is a research paper first and foremost, however, so be prepared to wade through a bunch of dense data. I still have my doubts about how the information is being used and construed, but that’s another rant for another day.
As I sat in bed reading the paper over, however, I couldn’t help but marvel at how difficult it was to make sense of the words that were in front of me. In college, I was trained how to quickly digest papers and reports (and luckily still retain some of that knowledge), but it became readily apparent that this was just another example of how statistics can be used to suit one’s ends—the numbers are malleable and it seems all too easy to twist them into the right context with barely a flick of a wrist.
And herein lies the trouble. The text on the page represents facts but their implied meaning of the print does not.
I could spend hours talking about how and why statistics are used to fool people but the most important thing is that statistics can mislead people (normal, smart people!) awry. Lawyers use numbers and situations to fool juries, advertisements make slanted claims, and health education will often use the set of measures that suits their particular stance or goal—it’s all the same really, groups are trying to elicit a desired response out of a set of consumers.
Now, I’m not a total cynic or conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that the public should possess a healthy amount of skepticism about the things that they read. Don’t be afraid to challenge information and to get the facts in order to make up your own minds. One of my goals through these entries is to get young people to not only think critically about the choices that they make, but also ensure that they have the ability to make informed decisions. Reading things like the Edlemen publication can be tough at times, but stick with them, because the choices that you make regarding sexual health will have an impact on others but also undoubtedly on your own. While my editor might disagree with this, I would say that you shouldn’t hesitate to check out the website’s citations and sources—I’m confident that we’ll stand up to the scrutiny. I think that at the end of the day, we all want you to get the best information that you can so that you can feel confident about making choices that are right for you.
My friends and I have developed a new word to describe a particular situation that occurs when one of us is incensed about something.
Okay, so in reality, it’s more like a brief fit, but a Shantrum includes a specific set of actions (and immunity from judgment if called beforehand).
When I write these articles, I typically think about what moves me enough to warrant a Shantrum. This week it was a clip on The Soup from the television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. From its inception, I have had issues with this show, but one particular scene pushed me over the edge: a girl saying that by having sex (and good sex at that), she caused her father to die.
What kind of message are we sending to our young people? I assume that this show is targeted toward teens and pre-teens and this is the message that we are conveying about sex? That having sex could cause a parent to die? That is just not right. Now, I’m not saying that we should go toward the other extreme and necessarily encourage our children to be carefree about sex, but why would you want to instill a sense of shame and guilt in them over something that they are probably going to do anyway?
The most harmful thing, however, I think would be the refusal by parents to discuss this sort of topic with their children. I assume that this process is difficult but what happens when messages such as these are internalized without thought? Again, people are free to refrain from sex if they choose to but I think that most people would agree that it is a very extreme and unlikely case that sex would actually be responsible for someone else’s death.
The messages that we get from media are quite powerful, perhaps in part because they manage to slip under our radar. When we watch television, we are not expecting to be preached at or taught, but I think that sometimes we end up learning a life lesson anyway.
As you are watching shows, think about how the sexual situations depicted are similar to, or differ from, your own life. Do things seem dissimilar on the surface but contain a relatable theme? What is a show trying to teach you about sex? How are characters modeling behavior regarding sexual situations?
The yellow cord lay on the ground, twisted and angry where he had left it. If you looked closely, you could see the kinks in the cable where her wrists were bound behind her back as she cried out to the empty warehouse. She remembered how she had been broken while the cord held her together.
“It’s your fantasy,” he said, “So enjoy it.”
And the sad thing was that this was her fantasy—or, at least, it had been until something went wrong. She wanted to be a tough girl, to flirt with danger, but never realized that all of the martial arts skills in the world couldn’t protect her from this.
It is a rare occasion when I feel like a scene in a show has sucker punched me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a good thing—it means that a program has managed to move me on some fundamental level. In recent years, only Nip/Tuck and Six Feet Under have caused me to curl up in a ball, but seeing this past scene from Virtuality made me exhale slowly and sit in silence.
How am I supposed to react when I see a woman being raped? Her body was left intact thanks to a virtual reality visor, but that just made it worse. You could see this character fighting the sensation but she couldn’t escape the situation even if she wanted to thanks to a glitch in the programming. Stripped of her attacker in the real world, you could see a bit of the turmoil that a woman undergoes when she is raped; struggle and tension rippled through her body.
Commiserating with the victim, another crew member mentioned the worst part was that the crew member didn’t exist to her attackers when she was raped. The essence of what made her a person was forgotten and she was just a body. A bit edgy for Fox, but such a welcome statement! Surely we can all relate to the desire to be recognized for who we are—we all want to matter. To know that we have the power to strip away a component of someone else’s humanity is frightening.
Rape, for me, is one of the most abhorrent things—in some way worse than murder—but I suppose this is because so much of my identity is tied up in issues of sex that a violation of this sphere hits home; it pushes all of my buttons of suffering, pain, and fear. Rape is a stark reminder that the cost of sex for women is exponentially higher than it is for men and that, as a male, I often have no idea what this means. There have been times that I’ve been scared that I was going to get mugged but never once did it cross my mind that I might get raped on the street (or by a date!). It boggles my mind, sometimes, to think about the things that most straight white men do not have to deal with. Simply because of who they are, they do not have to worry; they have not learned to doubt themselves in a way that every other person has been taught to.
Ultimately, the victim was advised to ignore what everyone was saying and to just feel the rape; not in a way where she felt sorry for herself, but in a way where she was honest with what she was up against. The first step, as they say, is identifying the problem. It’s about calling the fear what it is and seeing it for as nothing more than that; naming fear doesn’t make it any less dangerous but defining it gives it limits. It’s learning that the best way to banish the darkness is not to dispel it with light, but to absorb it until it becomes indistinguishable from the rest of you.
“It’s funny,” I said as I sat down on the couch, “I took a shower after I got home yesterday and there was still more sand that appeared this morning.”
I was on the second leg of a marathon weekend that included hanging out with my newly adopted West Los Angeles Alumni Club and working on a fairly extensive presentation. To blow off some steam, a group of friends decided to watch the delightfully bad 80’s movie Teen Witch.
While mostly innocuous, the film seemed to have some fairly large holes in its plot—but, then again, it’s an 80’s movie themed toward young girls, so it doesn’t have to make a whole lot of sense. One scene in particular, however, caused my inner “sexual health education monitor” (you know you all have one) to perk up and take notice.
In what I could only presume was a Home Economics course, a teacher began to talk about how she had been asked by upper administration to talk about Sex Ed—but in a way that made it evident that she was not comfortable doing so.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my years working with young people, it’s that kids are half-decent fibbers and even better lie detectors. Although I don’t have any hard science to back me up, I would guess this ability is due to the fact that childhood is all about learning to evaluate yourself in the context of your peers; individuals learn to be observant.
Luckily, I am fairly comfortable talking about a lot of things in the area of sex, but I also know how to fake it fairly well. As educators, our job is not to be judgmental or presumptuous but to listen to what our audience has to say and then fill in the gaps.
As I thought about the movie more, I realized that I didn’t really understand why the film included mentions of condoms and birth control pills. Was someone trying to do children a service by introducing these items into heir consciousness? Why did both scenes featuring birth control result in embarrassment for multiple people? Was the director reflecting the way that teens reacted to these aides or was he merely misinterpreting it?
Certainly not everything made for public consumption has to talk about the subject of sex or sexual health, but it seems like if one is going to do it, one should do it correctly. The problem is that I’m not sure that we as audiences want to hear the truth—it’s much more fun to make fun of the subject and pretend as though the subject doesn’t really affect us in a meaningful way.
Next time you go to see a movie, think about what you are being told about sex (don’t even get me started on the many ways that The Hangover is detrimental to our efforts to embrace sexuality). How are you supposed to react to it, talk about it, or have it? Do you agree with these messages? Why or why not?
Sitting down at my computer, time freezes for a second as I began to feel a sense of quiet desperation. We have become so much more savvy as audiences—most of the scenes in Teen Witch wouldn’t work because people wouldn’t buy them—but are still stuck in some well-worn ruts. I am hopeful that one day we will get to where I think we should be, I am hopeful that we will one day be on better terms with our own sexualities, and I am hopeful that I will eventually get to see this movie in my mind.
Take a breath and go.
I stepped into the lobby of the talent agency and glanced at the sprawl of magazines on the coffee table. “What was I getting myself into?” I thought, “I had one shot to convince these people that I could hang.”
On a recent Thursday night, I found myself interviewing for a board position in the West Los Angeles Alumni Club. As I sat around the conference table, I began to berate myself silently for showing up too early and having to make awkward conversation with an established board member. To my surprise, however, we quickly shifted to a topic that I knew something about.
“Have you seen Glee?” asked George Ross.
I have to be honest; I was excited about Glee from the moment that I saw a promotion for the show. I was never a choir kid in high school but I’ve developed an appreciation for good arrangements through my many hours spent listening to college a cappella.
George Ross (yes, that’s his name) and I proceeded to chat briefly about the show as I began to explain my thoughts about the song selection and why the show worked—ruminating on popular culture is what I do, after all.
After we parted, I didn’t think much more about the show or about musicals until my coworker broached the subject at dinner a week later. We began discussing Moulin Rouge after it was mentioned that I had strong objections to the film.
“What’s so bad about it?” Lauren queried.
In my head, the lights dimmed and a screen came down behind me as I prepared to launch into my diatribe explanation.
Back in high school, I was naive and I whole-heartedly bought into the romantic aspects of Moulin Rouge. Yet, watching it now, I reflect on how much I’ve grown since then. I am still swept away by the idea that the perfect love can transport you to places unknown and that there are moments of greatness in any relationship, but I also know that the dark side of love never goes away.
After all is said and done, after the wild ride of passion is over, you realize that love doesn’t—and can’t—conquer all. The good guys don’t always win and there is no such thing as happy ever after. Dreams do come true, but just as easily broken. The great poets have it wrong: love can’t move mountains, make rocks cry, or raise the dead. You see that we are human after all and that love isn’t always forever.
I promise that I am not bitter about this whole thing, but I do think that we as young people are so entrenched in the mystique of love that we attempt to feel a glimmer of the emotion any way that we can. We do what we can to connect to others and to avoid rejection, and this sometimes leads us to do things that we shouldn’t. We’ve all heard stories about women confusing sex with love, but also think about the times that you’ve used sex to make someone stay—maybe it’ll turn into a real relationship?—or agreed to unsafe sex just so someone would notice you.
Rather than bemoan the downfall of love, I think that this perspective offers a bit of freedom. Through all of this, we find that we have, in ourselves, the invincibility that we ascribed to love; we discover that no matter how we are challenged, there’s a part of ourselves that only we can give away. We realize how fragile and precious the feeling is—and how lucky we are to have it.
In the end, doesn’t that make it all the more worthwhile? Committing yourself to something knowing that it’s imperfect, knowing full well that the magic doesn’t last? To me, that makes it priceless.
In truth, I didn’t know how to describe it. Without warning, I felt as though a part of me had been taken away without my knowledge and I began to feel that our community had lost one of its own. It could have been anyone, really—on some level it didn’t matter who it was, it just mattered that it was someone.
Yesterday, Dr. George Tiller was murdered during a church service in Wichita, Kansas. By all accounts, Dr. Tiller wasn’t anyone particularly extraordinary, so his name shouldn’t sound familiar, but Dr. Tiller did happen to be a physician who performed abortions.
Within hours of the killing, people from all across the nation were discussing the situation and what it meant for the future of abortion in the United States. What were the anti-abortionists’ views? Would there be backlash? Did we all just want to find somebody to blame?
A grandmother in a CNN article said, “What happened to Tiller was justified. He forfeited his life by taking the lives of innocent children.”
Is there some loophole whereby murder is defensible if it prevents the possible death of future beings? How much of that responsibility can you bestow upon yourself?
I freely admit that I do not intimately understand some of the arguments against abortion but I definitely don’t understand how, if life is sacred, killing is ever the solution? I understand disagreements and feeling frustrated with the current situation (Prop. 8, anyone?) but I will never quite understand vigilante justice. Maybe I just buy too much into this system that is supposed to work. I mean, isn’t part of being patriotic believing that America functions on some level? Isn’t part of the beauty of our country believing in the idea that we have the ability to change things through an accepted channel? Perhaps I just haven’t reached the point wherein I feel like I have no other options.
And, in that light, maybe this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. Although one incident can’t speak for the entirety, shouldn’t it be troubling that a segment of the population is resorting to violence to get their message across? Shouldn’t we be worried that people don’t have faith in our governmental processes to hammer these things out? As mad as I am about the whole Prop. 8 thing, for example, I refuse to believe that the solution lies outside the bounds of our established laws. After all, in many ways, doesn’t this situation represent something that Conservatives also decry? Terrorism?
This is not to say that all anti-abortionists are terrorists, of course. But I don’t know how you can argue that killing someone for something that they believe in is not a form of terrorism. Dress it up in all of the religious dogma that you want, and provide yourself with some kind of moral justification so you can sleep at night, but, at the end of the day, when you strip it down, you’ve committed an act of violence that you hoped, on some level, would deter someone else from performing or seeking an abortion. And the sad part is that you probably did your job.
Hell, I went through the same sort of fear when I agreed to take on this assignment. “Were people going to track me down and tell me that I was wrong for supporting this organization? Would I be judged? How much would my personal life be affected by my public life?” And, I suppose that there is always the thought, no longer so unfounded, “What if I were to die as a result of my involvement with Planned Parenthood?”
My teeth scraped over my lip as I thought about what this all meant. “I suppose,” I reasoned, “that if this somehow ended in my demise that at I would have at least died in the pursuit of something worthwhile.”
The ice cubes in my mojito clinked slowly as I swirled the glass in my hand. In my mind, it was officially summer and I had reverted to a cooling drink to cap off a long weekend. While there was a lot of e-mail to catch up on, I decided to take care of the easy stuff first and so I opened an item from Ross to discover a link to YouTube. Now, I’m not usually one for watching viral videos but I trusted that this friend had a modicum of taste so I settled in and clicked on the address. After a second or two, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on my screen and proceeded to deliver her Commencement speech for Tulane. I closed the video and started to compose a reply back to Ross—despite being an occasionally amusing fellow, Ross thinks differently than I do and I was not entirely sure why he sent me the link.
As I continued to filter through other e-mails, bits of Ellen’s speech continued to reverberate through my head. While a large part of her talk consisted of her usual jokes, one section struck me in particular; Ellen mentioned that while a number of negative things occurred as a result of coming out, she also received letters from children who might have otherwise committed suicide. While I’ve never felt the urge to kill myself, I understand the thought process of the people who wrote the letters to Ellen—as an Asian male, I can appreciate the joy of finally seeing someone else like you in mainstream media. When you find someone relatable in popular culture, all of a sudden you become a little less weird, a little less outcast, and maybe a little more accepted. As I’ve stated before, to me, exposure to the unfamiliar can only be a good thing. Well, unless you come across an old man in a trench coat. In that case, be prepared to run.
So maybe exposure isn’t always a good thing.
This past month a new attraction, whose goal was to foster awareness about sex, garnered a lot of attention in China. The theme park, called “Love Land” featured large models of male and female genitalia along with exhibits regarding sex. According to the park’s manager, the goal of Love Land was to provide people with more information about sex.
When I first heard about the project I found myself ecstatic for here was an attempt to normalize sexuality in a country that I had always thought of as rather conservative. I hoped that this park would make discussions about sex a routine part of life and provide people with easy access to reliable information. Love Land seemed to be a natural, if rather eccentric, extension of the Chinese government’s effort to launch a national sex education campaign.
Shortly after it had made headlines, however, the attraction was demolished without much explanation.
In retrospect, however, maybe the majority of the Chinese population was not ready for this particular effort. Love Land would definitely have been an interesting place for me to visit, but I’m sure that’s partially because I’m interested in sex. I’m interested in learning more about the subject, I’m interested in talking about it, and, sure, I’m interested in having it.
Despite the demise of Love Land, I am hopeful that progress has been made. For a couple of weeks, a large number of Chinese were debating the pros and cons of sexual education (in some form) and surely that’s worth something.
I’m not quite sure who created the breakup routine, but the post-relationship dance inevitably includes a number called “Show Your Ex How Much Better You Are without Him or Her.” Often, there are no choreographers, flashy lights, or even costumes, but a careful audience will spy both parties concentrating intently on their next steps. Even before the dust settles, we feel the urge to go out of our way to show the one we once loved how we’ve moved on, how he or she meant nothing to us, and how hot we (and our current fling) are. We tell ourselves that we are fortunate for having gotten out of the relationship when we did.
But what happens when you’re not better off after all is said and done?
Recently, I had the chance to visit an ex and I went into the situation not expecting much—this would be the first time that we would have seen each other in three years—but a little part of me couldn’t help but be curious to see how my ex’s life had turned out.
So I sat there, in a place that was at once familiar and distant, thinking about how far we both had come. In the dim light of the room, I could close my eyes and feel things that were once mine; now, I couldn’t even bring myself to reach out to touch them. As a sigh escaped from my lips, punctuating the silence and filling the void, I suddenly realized that if we were competing I would have lost.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly satisfied where my life is right now, but I can admit when I’ve been bested. Looking around, I felt something that I never expected to; I felt incredibly proud. Later, as I drove away from the house and back toward my life, I struggled to define my emotions but I couldn’t describe what I was feeling in any other way. In many senses, the things that I had seen demonstrated that my ex was happy, successful, and achieving what I had always secretly hoped for.
Cracks in the pavement created a steady hum beneath my car and I found clarity in the cold night air. I began to realize that, for us, the dust had indeed settled for we were both going about our own lives and all that was left was all that there ever was—not anger, jealousy, or unease—but simply love.
This past weekend made me realize that a large portion of my knowledge in the area of sexual health comes from my experiences. For many, information is helpful, but isn’t enough on its own—at some point you have to try things for yourself. Learning to negotiate situations, to feel empowered, to ask for what I want, and to plan ahead are all things that have been forged in heated and pressured situations. How do you react to a partner who wants you to have unsafe sex? What if you’re really into him or her? What if drugs get thrown into the mix? How do you learn to identify the indicators of rape so that you don’t become trapped? These are tests that you study for, hoping you’ll never have to find out if you pass or fail.
And, for the record, faltering every now and then isn’t the end of the world; making mistakes is also a valuable part of the learning process. The trick is to minimize the consequences and make sure that you learn from what you did wrong the first time.
So I guess it turns out that I am better off now, but not for the reasons that I originally thought. I wasn’t fortunate to have the relationship end, but to have been in the relationship in the first place. The relationship provided a safe space for me to grow into my own and I really couldn’t have asked for more.
When I was younger, I often saw Public Service Announcements alerting me to the idea that “Knowledge is Power.” At the time, I believed that the goal of these messages was to keep me in school, but, on some level, I must have internalized the point, for I still believe in the value of education to this day. My belief in edification has led me to pursue higher education, to work for a University, and to write for a sexual health education website. And, as I grew up, I became firmer in my belief that education carved a path for empowerment—learning was essential to betterment. Thus, it only made sense to me when I heard about the United States’ plan to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa.
Ever since I can remember, the United Sates has been pouring money into Africa with the goal of eradicating poverty, famine, and AIDS, with a portion of the funding going toward education measures. For most of my life, I didn’t pay much attention to the whole situation—I knew that AIDS was bad and that we were fighting it. That had to be a good thing, right?
But what happens when education doesn’t work?
In 2007, an economist named Emily Oster published a paper that suggested the poorest Africans had adopted fewer safer sex habits as they had less incentive to. It turned out, according to Oster, that remaining free from AIDS or other STI’s was not so important when your life expectancy was not very high.
Whether you agree with Oster’s findings or not (there are plenty of people who don’t), one conclusion that you can draw from all of this is that educational/prevention programs must provide relevant information for the populations that they are attempting to serve.
As I mulled over the importance of Oster’s paper, I began to think back to a number of Latino students from Santa Ana mentioning how they grew up in an environment that expected them to drop out of school or become pregnant and, all of a sudden, the problems of Africa didn’t seem so far away. What if I was running into the same problem? What if I was going about all of this in the wrong way? What if I wasn’t providing pertinent advice?
I took a breath.
I’ve managed to get to a point in my life where I know enough about sex to keep myself safe; I know what I value and I’ve developed the skill set to ensure that I make smart choices (well, most of the time). On the one hand, this provides me with the ability to share my knowledge and mistakes with all of you. But, on the other hand, I think that I occasionally forget how hard it is sometimes to be a teenager facing all of the pressures out there today. For one, I certainly don’t have other people worrying about if I’m having (or not having) sex and with whom said sex is or isn’t occurring. Well, at least, if they are, I don’t know about it.
So, while perhaps my experiences are not exactly the same as yours, I think that my job as a writer is to find the universal truth of situations and to help you feel what I’ve felt. With any luck, you can relate to parts of my story (if not the entire thing) and use my words to point you in the right direction. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I do think that I know a little something about the subject of sex and sexual health. As I’ve said many times before, sexual health education isn’t just about learning how to use a condom or to avoid rape—those things are important as well, but maybe, this time, it’s about the “expert” learning from you.
It was a good burn. It had been a while since I had breathed in the salty air rolling off the beach. One foot on the pavement, I felt the sting creep in. I inhaled deeply, letting the balmy breeze permeate my lungs and fill my head.
Venice, if you have never been, is quite an amalgamation of stimuli—from the people, to the sounds, and the smells, there is always something to soak in. To be honest, I am completely out of place in a beach town filled with people who are not like me but the great thing about Venice is that nobody really cares. Here was a place where a number of worlds collided in one long strip of beach that, more often than not, contained a trace of pot incense.
Over the course of the day, I mentioned to Kim and Tiffany that I had rented a documentary about four students at the Harvey Milk High School contrasted with the creation of a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” tribute album. Although seemingly a bit random, the proceeds from the album went to supporting the Hetrick-Martin Institute (which, at the time, ran the high school). The existence of the Harvey Milk High School is a bittersweet one for me: on one hand I applaud the idea that we have set aside money for students to grow in a safe space but I also hate that we have to have such an institution in the first place. Why is that we even need to create an area for GLBTQ youth? Can’t get all of our teenagers to respect each other?
Watching the documentary, what struck me about these students was that they were physically much younger than I am, but also much stronger than I may ever be. These individuals were not yet out of high school but they had already walked down paths that I had yet to start. One girl ran away from home after being excommunicated from her church and established a life for herself independent of her family and, although happy, mentioned upon seeing her home that, “This is where I should have been.” Another transsexual girl mentioned that she knew cutting was not a good thing but that it relieved the hurt inside and sometimes she felt as though it was all she had. How do you react to something like that? I didn’t even know this girl and I felt so much sorrow for her.
Without a doubt, the students in the Harvey Milk High School had suffered and as I reflected on their experiences, I began to wonder if there was any truth to the phrase, “No pain, no gain”? American culture teaches us that we must work hard for our success and that the best victories are hard won. We often hear that we define ourselves in our weakest moments, or in the face of our mistakes. We know that growth in every sense involves some measure of discomfort—we never develop intellectually if we are not uncomfortable, if we aren’t challenged. Learning isn’t easy.
Maybe it’s only because we have suffered pain that we are able to connect to others? As we grow up we first look for a mate with no complications but then gradually shift to look for someone whose baggage goes with ours. And what is baggage if not an emotional scar? A place where we were cut and didn’t heal just right? Well, at least not yet? Or is love simply the experience of baring your biggest hurt to your partner? Surely that isn’t all there is to the emotion, but it’s hard to deny that, having done that, you don’t love someone just a little bit more.
Pain, in all of its forms, defines who we are as people—embrace yours and learn to use it as a tool to shape who you want to be.
If you were to come to my office, you might see a small whiteboard that collects ideas for these articles. Plastered with colored notes, the unassuming space holds an assortment of thoughts that run through my head in conjunction with sexual health education. The board constantly morphs, with new topics going up as I think of them and others coming down as I write. But, although I have been creating these entries for a while, there has been one square that has managed to remain untouched.
Leaning over, I felt a slight resistance as I pulled the note from the board. How would I even begin to talk about the presence of transsexuals (or transgender issues in general!) in popular culture? I was certainly aware of the trans community but I certainly did not have extensive knowledge of the subject.
So let’s start there.
A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me that transsexuals were the new token population in television. Shows like Dirty, Sexy, Money; America’s Next Top Model; Ugly Betty; and The Real World all began to feature transsexual characters and I honestly didn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was glad that this segment of the population was gaining exposure, but the cynical side of me suspected that these characters were being shown for shock value. Was this is how it had to be? Did minorities have to undergo this process in order to be accepted or were we just exploiting the culture?
While I’m still a little skeptical about the portrayal of transsexuals in media, I’m going to choose to try and see the good in what has happened. So gather around kids, and let’s get ready for some knowledge to be dropped.
Although there are countless variations in gender identity, one of the distinctions that I want to make is between the terms “transsexual” and “transgender”: the former refers to the belief that you were born the wrong sex while the latter applies to people who challenge the prevailing notions or definitions of gender. It makes sense, really, if you stick to the definitions of the root words and see “sex” as a physical manifestation and “gender” as a societal creation. To make things even more complicated, you can toss in sexual orientation, cross-dressing, and drag! While many people associate all of these terms together, they are actually all distinct categories, albeit with some overlap.
With all of this swirling around, it seems all too easy to label this population as “other” and just push it to the side. After all, it’s strange and defies convention, so it’s easier to refrain from thinking about it, right? But, like in real life, actually understanding what you face often makes it less scary. Confused? Just look at this Wikipedia entry for a brief primer.
While doing research, I came across this article, and all of a sudden, this global idea of transsexualism became more personal. The article told the story of Catherine Carlson, suddenly making it evident that the crafted personas on television represented real people—often with very real problems.
Reflecting on the article, it seems only natural to root for the underdog, to cheer for the one who has borne the burden of a life filled with hardship. The exuberance that I feel for this woman is both pure and selfish, for, if I’m honest with myself, it’s a life that I’m grateful not to have. I know that if things had turned out differently, I might have been in that situation, but while I’d like to think that I would rise to the challenge, I don’t know if I would have found the strength. So, Catherine, while I’m sure life is hard, know that I’m pulling for you with my heart breathing “Go, Baby, Go.”
When I sat and thought about what was going on, I couldn’t say that this girl was entirely mistaken. Sure, her method of lying to caseworkers certainly wasn’t entirely honest but her goal of making an organization accountable was certainly something that I could support.
Yeah, I said it.
True, I write these articles on behalf of a Planned Parenthood affiliate and I initially found myself incensed by what was occurring, but I realized that I was just being defensive and protective of an organization that with which I had come to align myself.
One of the problems with all of this is that Lila’s videos are designed to provoke powerful emotions from people on both sides of the fence and having a strong feeling about an issue is one thing, but acting from that same place only leads to brash behavior.
The reality is, however, that these situations often require a measure of tact. It’s easy for us to sit back and judge this scenario with a clear-cut mentality when we see it played out on YouTube but anyone who has been in a room with a patient (especially a teenage one) knows that things are never this easy. I certainly do not purport to be a counselor but I have had enough experience to know that situations between a professional and a client need to be handled with extreme care, thought, and discretion. How do you serve the greater good when a 13-year-old tells you that she had sex with a 31-year-old? I imagine that the focus of the clinician at that point immediately revolved around the girl whether viewers realized it or not: Was she raped? What is her thought process in wanting to abort the baby? Is a violation of her trust outweighed by my duty to report a crime? How would the reporting of this particular situation affect the willingness of future girls to come forth? To me, the situation depicted in the videos is nothing more than this: the actions don’t always follow the letter of the law but might very well abide by its spirit.
If you’ve seen Lila’s videos and immediately react, take a second and think about what you’ve learned from watching television. On medical dramas, we are routinely bombarded by examples of doctors doing things that are illegal, immoral, or unethical in order to accomplish a goal. Sometimes, efforts to subvert presiding laws cause chaos because the character needs to learn a lesson. Other times, however, things work out because these actions are in the best interest of a patient. We have seen examples of a Chief of Surgery coercing a comatose patient’s wife to pull the plug so that six other individuals could get a kidney on Grey’s Anatomy; Private Practice has had doctors cross boundaries in an attempt to do what they thought was best, and every medical drama in the history of television has had a doctor become too involved in his work due to a personal situation.
How do you know when to uphold the law and when to declare the rule unjust? In the end, it’s a judgment call.
For example, Private Practice just featured a teacher sleeping with her student. When doctors discovered this transgression, they experienced conflict over whether they should report the teacher to the police: Arguments were made that statutory rape was a crime and should always be reported; other doctors mentioned that the relationship was consensual and heard a rejoinder that minors can’t give consent. But, doctors ultimately came to question if the act of reporting would do any good for either party.
The answer? Not so much.
Without question, this whole situation represents a complicated dilemma. Recall a time when you helped a friend cover up a mistake and you might understand the mindset of the Planned Parenthood employees. Thinking about the videos again in this light, perhaps what occurred in these videos wasn’t right but I’m not entirely sure it was wrong.
T.S.Eliot once wrote that “Aprilis the cruelest month.”
While I don’t know if I would call it cruel, I will admit that, between work, the weather, and life, things have been pretty bad in the past few weeks. For example, my alma mater has been mentioned on the news several times for incidents regarding student safety with one item in particular causing a fairly strong reaction from students and staff on campus.
Reading the article, I found myself appalled. I will never be able to understand how the campus community can mobilize so quickly to evidence blame and hate. Some student reactions to the incident have mentioned that the girl should have expected nothing less from a fraternity party, that she was drunk and/or slutty, or that she felt regret about having sex and called rape unfairly. Other students made light of the situation by noting the implausibility of such an incident occurring in a fraternity house that holds a reputation for having a number of gay members.
“Why do you think the vast majority of people on here don’t believe this girl’s story? They’ve heard it too many times before.”
“Also to the girls who got raped, waking up the next morning and feeling bad about being a slut is no reason to suddenly cry rape, don’t go to these parties if you don’t want sex and intoxicants.”
“It may not be the case here, but when girls make bad decisions (i.e., get too drunk and make a mistake like hooking up with a random dude), crying “rape” can be a way to receive sympathy instead of scorn. This may not be the logic of many (or even most) girls, but there is a segment of the female population that does this.”
“However Lambda has a great defense as nearly 1/2 the house is gay. Most girls leave that house at 3am with better clothing, hair and make-up then when they left home earlier that night.”
For all the good things the school does, there are times when I am absolutely disgusted by my peers who think and feel this way. Regardless of who this girl was or how many drinks she had, she did not deserve to get assaulted (allegedly). I do not see how people cannot have compassion for her or how people can disparage this young woman’s character. Suppose that this girl was not actually assaulted but just thought that she had been—does she not still warrant some measure of respect and sympathy? Even if it were later discovered that she had called rape falsely, does the matter not deserve to be investigated and treated sincerely?
However, just because the alleged perpetrator is at fault does not mean that the female student isn’t wrong. Let’s be clear, I’m in no way blaming this girl and while no woman (or man, for that matter) deserves to be raped, it seems like smarter choices could have been made all around.
Undoubtedly this is not the first incident of sexual assault on a college campus, but all of these girls are someone’s daughter, possibly someone’s sister, and perhaps someone’s future mother. More than that, these women are people and fellow human beings—doesn’t that count for something? What man would ever say, “It’s okay that my female relative got raped. She secretly wanted it.”? I don’t think that all men are evil or to imply that fraternity parties are inherently bad—I get the spirit of having fun at a house and I certainly have no moral qualms about consensual (safe!) sex even if it’s on a somewhat suspect couch that may or may not glow under a black light (Not that I’ve ever done that. Seriously.)—but I do think that college students need to actively engage in, and evaluate, their environments in order to figure out which ones are suitable for them.
On the bottom shelf of my dresser sits a shirt from my college days. Back when I almost exclusively wore t-shirts with slogans on them, I had an item from a company called Blacklava that said “Got Privilege?” on the front and sported pictures of various items on the back. At the time, I thought that I was cool for bringing various plights to light by wearing a t-shirt (yes, it was silly) and I honestly haven’t thought much about the garment for a while—I’ll still wear it every now and again but no longer with the hope that I’ll get questions. Memories of the shirt came flooding back, however, when I happened upon some comments by one of my students
I had to stop for a second and look at the screen. “He can’t be serious,” I thought to myself as I quietly began to lose my composure. There are few things in the realm of sex and sexuality that really shake me, but I could feel myself quickly getting to a place were all I could feel was anger. In front of me lay a half-formed argument that men have some sort of divine prerogative to be leaders because they were created before women in the Bible (God made men first so they must be more important, right? There’s no way that a book written by men would use religious influence to disenfranchise women.)
“It is not your responsibility,” I wanted to scream, “to fight injustice and be a provider because you are a man, but because you are a person. Because you are a human being.”
Digging my nail into my palm, I took a measured breath. It is this kind of thinking that makes it unacceptable for men to make less money than their wives or for males to be bested in something that they care about. I mean, it’s all right that women know how to cook and clean, because that’s what they’re supposed to know—real men don’t do that sort of thing. But a woman who is an expert in sports? An authority and not just interested? Dangerous. In my mind, all of this stems from a desire to keep things simple, to keep people in easily defined boxes, and to have an unwavering sense of gender roles and identity. Men like this will tell each other to “be a man” or to “have some balls,” not realizing that it comes from the same hateful place that considers being called a “pussy” or a “fag” an insult.
The student went on to argue that, even biologically, men were designed to be the penetrators perpetrators of action. That is how rape happens. Thinking that possessing a penis grants you some sort of God-given right to be the dominant force in a situation is precisely the foundation for forcing yourself upon someone else.
I willed the tension to go.
These thoughts swirled in my mind as I remembered the t-shirt that lay in my drawer. Sure, “Got Privilege?” was a great way to get people to start thinking about the issue but how would I go about making them feel it? Maybe part of a poem by D.A. Clarke would help.
It’s simple really, privilege
Means someone else’s pain, your wealth
Is my terror, your uniform
Is a woman raped to death here, or in Cambodia or wherever
Wherever your obscene privilege
Writes your name in my blood, it’s that simple,
You’ve always had it, that’s why it doesn’t
Seem to make you sick to your stomach,
You have it, we pay for it, now
Do you understand?
Do you understand?
“It’s not a big deal,” I wrote, “But if you could pick some up while you’re in New York, I would greatly appreciate it.”
With a contented sigh I sent my request zooming to Ross’ e-mail inbox. “One more thing accomplished,” I thought. For a second after I clicked the send button, I felt a brief sense of unease–was it weird that I was asking someone else to procure condoms for me? I had always gotten my own in the past and although I certainly was not embarrassed by the issue, I certainly wasn’t proud of the fact that I was engaging in safer sex.
I remember that obtaining condoms in high school was quite a harrowing experience–I would go to the drug store and have to stand in front of the wall of condoms (mortifying enough) while deciding which kind to purchase and then actually face the check-out attendant on my way out. If I can recall correctly, not even the knowledge that having condoms meant that sex would happen shortly was enough to prevent a reconnaissance pass or two down the condom aisle.
New York, however, is attempting to change all of that.
A few years ago, on my first trip to New York, I noticed that the city had rolled out a public health campaign to introduce the New York City Condom–complete with a design the recalled the various subway lines that are a hallmark of the area. I admit that I was instantly drawn to the campaign because the condoms were like little practical souvenirs. And, let’s just go ahead and admit it: I’m cheap and the condoms were free. But, as I thought about what was happening, I began to realize that the city really did have a good thing going for it.
Condoms were available at hundreds of locations across the city, and not just at public health clinics or hospitals. Condom containers popped up at bars, clothing stores, and hair salons–places that people frequently went to. Now, instead of potentially having to agonize over buying condoms in a store, you could simply pick one up as you went about your daily routine. The ubiquitous nature of the condoms would also serve to dispel the stigma of being seen with a condom–they were everywhere, everyone had them, and they were normal.
Los Angeles has regrettably yet to see something similar pop up in our midst–there was the Proper Attire campaign that was put on by Planned Parenthood a while back but I have to say that, while I enjoyed the project, it didn’t work in the same way that the New York City Condom campaign has. As state and county budgets are slashed, the prospect looks bleaker, but I still hold out hope that we, as a community, will eventually realize that this endeavor is a worthwhile project, not to mention a lifesaver.
“It’s been a long night,” I thought to myself as I dragged my tired body into bed. Part of me knew that I should take off my shoes at the very least, but a voice inside my head argued that the removal of footwear would require me to move from the now all-too-perfect spot on my pillow.
“What is it now?” I glanced angrily at my cell. “Shut up and let me go to sleep!” Flipping over on my side, I hit buttons of my phone to discover a Tweet from Jay Brannan announcing a new music video. “I’ll check it out tomorrow,” I thought, dropping the phone back on to the headboard and settled back into the sheets.
I’ve been a fan of Jay ever since I saw him in the movie Shortbus (which itself is rich with blog topics). Performing in such a film is certainly admirable, but the film also exposed me to Jay’s music, which I have been listening to for a couple of years now.
While many of the songs on Jay’s album, “Goddamned,” are enjoyable, one song in particular strikes me when I put on my sex blogger hat: “Home.” While the track describes the certainly relatable experience of being a young person in a large city, it also contains the following lines, which are some of my favorite:
Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?
Bibles don’t save many people anymore.
Sure, there are many ways to argue this sentiment (declining condom usage is fodder for another article), but I do think that it’s an interesting point of view although I’m admittedly biased because safer sex is much more my religion than Christianity/Judaism ever would be. Why do hotels leave Bibles for their patrons and not condoms? Is saving one’s immortal life more important than potentially saving one’s mortal being? Is it practical to try to save both?
The interplay of religion and science has been around since the early stages of civilization and these forces are often pitted at odds against one another (even if not in direct conflict). As Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:
Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.
Although there has been some recent conflict between the two camps, I can’t help but believe that the goal of both schools of thought is the development of guidelines to keep their believers safe. In my world, the original role of religion was to keep its members safe (from the world and each other), healthy, and to encourage propagation of the species. Science-based sexual health education, too, I would argue, aims to do many of the same things. I think that both ideologies have things to offer and that it is incredibly presumptuous to think that one side has all of the answers, or the only answers.
Although I occasionally make fun of him, I’m starting to understand how the little kid from The Sixth Sense (I don’t remember the character’s name either) felt—except, instead of dead people, I see sex. Okay, granted, it’s not quite the same, as I don’t have crazy dead ghosts yapping in my ear and making some future therapist a bunch of money. But, all the same, I can’t stop noticing things even though I might want to.
“Fox is messed up,” I lamented to my coworker Michael. “Every time a girl has sex on Dollhouse, bad things happen to her.”
I should back up a second and say that I wanted to be a fan of this show—I was checking the website for weeks in advance and I’ve seen every episode to date. Overall, it’s not bad (and there’s nothing else on during the timeslot), but it’s certainly not great and there is that pesky problem with the show’s conservative attitude toward sex.
On one hand, the show certainly isn’t afraid to show its characters in sexual situations (the majority of the episodes to date have featured a prominent group shower insert that has very little to do with anything) and the title sequence features a (half?) naked Eliza. I get that her lack of clothing is supposed to comment on her character, but she’s still naked.
Despite the saturation of sex in the show’s environment, Dollhouse demonstrates very poor consequences for women who engage in sexual activity. Where to start?
The main character, Echo, has sex with a pretty attractive, rich, and normal-seeming guy who, upon climax, begins to hunt her down. Literally. With a bow and arrow. (On a side note, can we talk about how this scenario plays into many women’s worst fear that a guy, once slept with, will turn into a monster? This situation is not quite as literal as Angel turning into a soulless vampire after he slept with Buffy, but why does this keep coming up in Joss’ shows?)
A secondary character suffers an episode of rape committed by her handler (I don’t have time to discuss the many issues at play here) and then has her memory erased. I can see the small value in making people forget some traumatic incident that happened to them (especially given the world of the show) but I can’t help but feel incredible sorrow for the character—she was raped and is not going to even know that it happened. For the rest of her life, other people will know what truly happened to her, and how she was violated, and she will not; I can see the upside to this but I also see a huge downside.
Finally, we have a desperate neighbor who is doing everything she can to sleep with one of the male leads, finally does, and then is brutally attacked. If you’ve seen this past episode, you can argue that she takes charge and dispatches her assailant, but I would also mention that her civilian persona still has to deal with the aftermath.
In case you’re keeping score, half of the men who have had sex on the show have suffered no consequences and half have died (I strongly suspect that these male characters perished more because they were assholes and perished while they were trying to kill someone else, than because they were slated to suffer consequences from engaging in sexual intercourse). The “good guys” who have had sex are doing just fine.
I don’t have many qualms with the show overall and I don’t necessarily think that women should have to not face consequences for having sex—all I’m saying is that the depiction of sex should be more balanced (like Fox!). The danger, I feel, lies in our tendency to soak up these skewed external messages of sex subconsciously and to make them our own.
“It’s all about common sense” I droned on.
I was giving a presentation—one that I had delivered enough times that I was able to say the right words while mentally picturing myself outside relaxing in the sun. It was starting to become a bit stuffy and weather like this simply couldn’t be enjoyed properly without a pool, some alcohol, and some friends.
“I mean, you really wouldn’t walk around by yourself at 3 o’clock in the morning in your hometown, so why would you here?” I shifted focus briefly as I wrapped up in order to make eye contact with the inquirer.
With a sigh, I let go of my brief reverie. It was probably for the best—after all, my immediate instinct would have been to don clothes that would have included at least one of the following items: a wood necklace, a visor, an A&F t-shirt, or cargo shorts. I think that we all agree that it would have been a tragic sight, one best suited for those times in college when I could actually pull that getup off.
As I went back to my desk, I continued to think about cases where the movie in our minds is always much grander and more romantic than reality. Weddings, surprise birthday parties, a successful first date—these are all things that inevitably play out better in our mental pictures than in reality (which is not to say that the actual events are ever any less than the imagined version, they’re just different).
Pornography, by its nature, aims to glorify, glamorize, and heighten the act of sex. I mean, if a film did not do that, it would mean three things: the movie would be in black and white, I would be in the 50s, and I would be in Health class learning that Good Girls Don’t. I’m completely fine with all of this; I know that the piece in front of me is just a fantasy and I’m okay with that.
But the fantasies are getting weirder.
One of the trends that I’ve noticed in the past years is the incorporation of behavior that would never happen in most typical sexual relationships but is the highlight of the porn. Right now, we have anything from girls/guys getting picked up in a van and having sex with a “stranger,” to having sex in front of your friends in a public setting, to the rather disturbing images of men placing their hands around a woman’s throat and pretending to strangle her while they have sex. There are even sites out there that feature women and men gagging so hard during oral sex that they cry.
Now, I’m not saying that you’re bad if you enjoy this sort of stuff (I do question if the last two examples of porn show respect toward all participants but I’m a party pooper like that). I would definitely say, though, that we are entering an era where we are craving stimulation that is so extreme that we would probably not engage in any of these acts in person. What does it say about us that we enjoy watching a woman (or a man) get gang raped by fifteen people to the point where the subject can’t stop drooling? Anything? Nothing?
I think that porn’s ability to reflect back our own desires is one of the reasons that we revile it so much (well, that and our general Puritanical aversion to sex)—we’d like to think that we’re all Good Girls/Boys and that we don’t do that sort of stuff. There’s something to be said for restraint, as any religion will tell you, but I also think that there’s something to be said for recognizing, and becoming comfortable with, your sexual wishes.
Let me start by saying that I very rarely get upset at American Dad. Okay, sure, I will often comment that it appears to be the less-funny cast-off sibling of Family Guy (and yes, I get that they have different premises) but I’ve never really had an issue with the show.
Until last night.
At one point the show depicted Francine, the mother of a typical family (you know, father, mother, son, daughter, alien), hysterical that she was pregnant. “You told me I was on the pill!” she lamented.
All right, I will admit that I laughed a little bit at this but then I immediately became upset (interestingly not so much with the show itself as with the character of Francine). “Take control of your own reproductive health!” I yelled back at the screen, disgusted. “Certainly nobody else is going to.”
As I began to pull together my article for the week, I began to think about the sentiment that I had uttered—although we might all hope that our partners have our best interests in mind, we can never count on it. This is not to say that we don’t love your partners or don’t trust them, but simply that we are making sure that we are making the right choices for ourselves.
The scene from American Dad also reminded me of one of the early episodes of Desperate Housewives when Lynette complained that she could not get her husband to use birth control and, as a result, ended up with way too many children. While I certainly sympathize with the stress of having to raise some pretty difficult kids, I also don’t—there should have been better communication to prevent this scenario from occurring if one of the two parents didn’t want children.
Truth be told, I’ve certainly pushed my own agenda in the bedroom and there have been times when I’ve gotten away with a lot more than I thought that I could. In retrospect, I assumed that all involved parties were comfortable with the various arrangements but I’m fairly confident that I never explicitly discussed anything before it happened—I took a lack of objection as an assent. Perhaps this wasn’t the best way to go about things, but some part of me felt that I was engaging in sex with someone who had a clear sense of judgment and I assumed that participants would speak up if they felt negatively about something.
Okay, so maybe I’m more of a stereotypical guy than I thought.
The moral of all of this is that I think that it’s important to empower each individual to be an advocate on his or her own behalf. When it’s just the two of you (or more, if that’s your thing) in the bedroom, there aren’t any judges to settle disputes or dictate how things will go—in this case, it’s up to you to voice your opinion about what you want to do and, somewhat more importantly, what you will not do. You should not feel pressured to do things that you do not want to do and you should feel comfortable expressing your opinion in bed. And, on the other side of the coin, I think that we all have to be able to listen to our partners and give them what they need. Ultimately, while it might be intimidating to speak out (actually, when is it not?) all of this is important because we are not just picking fights, but fighting to maintain our dignity and our health.
I have passed many milestones in my life—times that marked my existence into distinct “before” and “after” periods—that include my 22nd birthday, discovering coffee in fifth grade, and the Jonas Brothers. As an old man, I think that I will think back fondly on my years and appreciate the time when I did not know who this trio was. Tonight, however, I was unwillingly exposed to their presence once again.
In her post-Oscars special, Barbara Walters sat across from the band and asked them, among other things, about the reconciliation of their religious beliefs and touring lifestyle. For their part, the boys came across as typical teenagers but what struck me was their declaration that they would wait to have sex until after marriage.
That worked out so well for Jessica Simpson.
In all seriousness, I have nothing against abstinence (if that’s the route that you choose to go, then I hope that you own it and don’t let other people make you feel shame for a choice that you made), but I am concerned about abstinence-only sexual health education. While, there’s certainly a moral argument to be made about why you would wait to have sex until you are married, I don’t think that this choice necessitates that you should merely have access to abstinence-only education.
In January, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in the national teen birth rate, which has fueled a discussion on national sexual health education policy. Both camps (abstinence-only vs. comprehensive) have been blaming the other side for this new development. I would venture to say that they’re both wrong, in a sense, and that we have a long way to go in helping our young people to become more comfortable, and proficient, with sex.
What it boils down to, I think, is a general lack of education in many types of sexual health programs. Before we make any other major decisions, we tend to research our options to the best of our ability—we check out prices before buying a car, a house, or a new television; we get referrals for schools and daycare; we become informed about the positions of our political candidates—so why should it be different when it comes to sex, which is a pretty significant choice? I strongly believe that young adults should be presented with the widest array of options available and then be counseled about how to pick out the plan that makes the most sense for them. We should teach young people about how they can make the choices that are the best for them and how to deal with the responsibility that results from poor choices. I certainly don’t believe that a solid sex education foundation is going to cause teenagers to go out and have intercourse like bunny rabbits (any more than they already do) and, if adults really feel that abstinence is the way to go, I think that it would then be their job to educate their young people as to why this was the better choice for them. I think that, in some ways, Conservatives tend to try to use fear to dictate behavior—fear that stems from a lack of education. Of course the unfamiliar is going to be scary; of course you are going to tend to want to stick with the safe and secure. But I also think that you then get into trouble when you are in an unfamiliar situation because you are suddenly thrust into a scenario that you are unequipped to handle.
In the end, I think that we can all agree that our goal is to keep the next generation happy, healthy, and disease-free. If this is our objective, then we owe it to young people to continually evaluate our methods and see if our sexual education programs are really doing what we think they should.