Thinking Positive

Not too long ago, my awesome friend Trevor and I were having an interesting talk over on the Facebook. He was expressing his frustration that sometimes people will misinterpret the idea of being sex-positive or sexual progressive to mean that your life is a no-holds-barred, sexuality free for all.

Some people have made the legitimate criticism that the term “sex-positive” may wrongly imply a sort of All Sex For All People All The Time perspective. And while  I personally am still a fan of the term, I wanted to clarify and point out some of the things that sex-positivity does NOT mean.

1. We Think That Sex Is Always A Good Thing

I don’t believe that sex is inherently bad. Ideally sex can be a powerful tool for pleasure and happiness…but that’s not everyone’s experience. Some people may have sexual experiences that are amongst other things: painful, disappointing, mediocre, harmful, regrettable, exploitative, embarrassing or uncomfortable. Some people’s personal experience with sex has been far less than stellar and that’s totally valid. Trying to convince them that should like sex is dismissing their truth. Not cool at all.

2. We All Have Lots and Lots of Sex

I’ve been pretty open about the fact that these day, I’m NOT having much sex at all.  Sex positivity has nothing to do with how much sex you are having. It is also not the belief that more sex is better or more desirable. Sex positivity is about accepting and supporting people’s right to have sex as much or as little as they want or able to have. That might be tons, some or none.

3. We Believe That Everyone Is Sexual

Nope. Some people choose not to be sexual. Some people have no desire to be sexual. Ever. Given my view on consent, it’d be pretty lousy of me to convince people to have sex if they didn’t want to.

4. You Can Say Anything You Want To Us

Just because a person is sex positive or sexually progressive, does NOT mean you’re allowed to say anything to them, anywhere, anytime.  The rules of discretion and tact still apply. So do the rules of basic common decency. Being open about sexuality is not an invitation for harassment. Just sayin’

5. We’re All Kinky

Some sexually progressive people are kinky. Some aren’t. I fully support anyone’s right to get it on in whatever way makes them feel good – as long as they aren’t hurting others. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am personally excited by any and all sex acts. I don’t need to be. Being sex-positivity mean I strive to support people’s sexual expression, regardless of my own personal preferences.

6. We’re All Promiscuous

Sex positivity has zero to do with the number of people you’ve slept with. It can be zero, one, one thousand or more. What’s your number? Doesn’t matter.

7. We Have No Boundaries

Let’s get this super-duper straight. Sexually progressive people have boundaries. Those boundaries are to be respected. Accepting sex, embracing sexual diversity, encouraging sexual pleasure – none of this forfeits a person’s right to decided what they do or don’t want with their body. It doesn’t matter what a person has done, with whom or how ofter. Don’t assume they’re into what you’re into. Don’t assume they want to get with or engage with you sexually. Don’t assume anything. Be respectful, ask if it’s appropriate and accept the answer you’re given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual assault/abuse, bullying and Rethaeh Parson’s suicide. Please skip this post if you need to.

Today is meant to be the question of the week. I’m sorry but I can’t. Like many of you, I’ve been reading about Rehtaeh Parsons, a young girl who died at only 17 years old. I’m sure a lot of you have read the statement her father posted yeseterday. It’s beautiful and devastating. I know I’m not the only who read it, cried and wondered why this happened.

I’m looking for answers. I’m hearing stories, reading articles that point the finger squarely at bullying. Rehtaeh was harassed at school and her classmates called her a slut. Someone took a picture of the assault and students posted it all over Facebook. There are some really cruel kids out there today and easy access to social media and technology makes them ruthless. Rethaeh took her own life because she was mocked and humiliated. Bullying caused this.

Or so the story goes. And I’m seriously disturbed by the glaring omission in that story. Rehtaeh Parsons wasn’t just bullied by her peers. She was sexually assaulted by her peers. When she sought the support from community, she was essentially told “Sorry. Nothing we can do.” The bullying was undoubtedly rough salt being rubbed in, but that’s not what caused the wound. We’re telling the story wrong. And in doing so, I feel like Rehtaeh Parsons’ experiences are being dismissed all over again.

(Aside: I’m going to use the words “we” and “us” lot in this post. I mean it in the general “we as a society” sense and not the “you and I as specific individuals” way).

When we turn this into a story about a girl who committed suicide because she was bullied, we’re spinning a convenient truth that absolves us – the adults who are largely in charge of things around here – of our responsibility. We agree that Rehteah Parsons’ death is tragic. We offer her pothumus sympathy. We empathize with her loved ones. And we tell ourselves that we didn’t do anything. It’s the kids who were wrong. They bullied her. We reassert our determination to vanquish the scourge of bullies from our school and restrict online access (because the Internet is kind of wrong too).

Yes bullying is a thing. It’s a real problem that can absolutely break people’s spirits and drive them to desperate acts like suicide.  It’s not okay that people harassed this girl or called her names. And finding ways to end bullying is important, necessary work. But the taunts and social media slander are only symptoms of what for me is a much bigger problem. Retheah Parsons was raped and we – the adults who are largely in charge around here – don’t take sexual violence seriously enough.

We don’t like people who are raped. And we really, really don’t like people who are raped and then tell us they were raped. If we know about it, we’re supposed to do something about it. We have to think about it and that’s really unpleasant. I’m not certain of the reasons for our reticence. I do have some theories but I’ll leave for those for another post.

When people like Rethaeh Parsons tell us – the adults who are largely in charge around here – that they’ve been sexually assaulted, what do we do? We turn them into defendants. We ask them why they got raped? Haven’t we told you over and over again not to let yourself get raped? We concede that sexual violence is terrible, we’re not saying that anyone deserves it. We just want to know, what did you think would happen when you put on that oufit, went to that place, drank all of those drinks?

Yet we don’t understand why Rathaeh Parsons classmates called her a slut.

When people like Rethaeh Parsons tell us that they’ve been raped, we don’t want them to be “victims”. We don’t want to know how deeply sexual violence can hurt or see the raw, messy parts of their pain. We like people who endure rape and sexual abuse in a quiet, dignified way We’re supportive of counselling, therapy and other coping methods that involve going away and dealing with it discreetly. We just can’t get too involved – not the school, not the police. Adults in positions of power and authority but we can’t help.

Yet we wonder why Rethaeh Parsons peers didn’t say anything?

We talk about people who have been raped as though they aren’t human. After Stubenville, CNN lamented the fate of two young men by describing, their scholastic acheivements, their extra curricular activities and their histories. They were portrayed as people. People who’s futures had been tragically thwarted when some girl thoughtlessly left herself vulnerable to raping. In Rethaeh Parsons’ case her father, a man gutted by grief, who tells us that she was a person. She was a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, valuable person with a past and future that was tragically altered into something she couldn’t live through. His letter was stands in heartbreaking contrast to our habit of describing people as dehumanized cautionary tales.

We ask ourselves- how students could circulate a picture of a peer being raped?

Prime Minister Harper has said we need to “call out bullying”. As usual, he’s missed the point. Yes, Rethaeh Parsons was bullied. And that is absolutely not okay. But it’s not fair for us – the adults who are largely in charge around here – to say “Hey, kids, what you did was wrong,” when we created the environment that supports this type of bullying.  This story we’re telling – the one where Rethaeh Parsons died because of bullying – obscures the issue of sexual violence. That act of pushing it into the background is what promotes the type of bullying we say we need to stop.

The youth who slut-shamed and dehumanized Rethaeh Parsons need to understand that what they did was wrong. It was destructive and almost certainly caused harm to someone who couldn’t endure more pain. But bullying isn’t just cruel actions disconnected from thoughts or emotions. The belief that Rethaeh Parsons deserved to be treated so poorly came from somewhere.

I’m pretty sure, it’s coming from us.

Trigger Warning: This post is about the result of the recent Steubenville trial and mentions rape/sexual assault. Please exercise self care and skip this post if you need to.

On Sunday Trent Mays and Mal’ik Richmond were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. In the wake of the verdict, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspondent Poppy Harlow had the following exchange:


 

Crowley and Harlow’s outpouring of sympathy for the convicted youth prompted a barrage of criticsm from all corners of the Internet. I count myself as a member of that angry online crowd but now a few days have passed and so has the worst of my vitriol.

Now that I’ve cooled off, I can sort of understand Crowley and Harlow’s emotional reaction. These are very young men. I don’t doubt that the verdict brought the reality of a terrifying future into focus for [Trent] and [Mal’ik]. I imagine their grief and terror were sincere. And I actually agree with those who worry about out the significant likelyhood that these boys will come out on the other side of this sentence angrier and more violent than they are now.

So I don’t fault Crowley or Harlow for their feelings. I generally regard compassion as a virtue. Even I wouldn’t say I’m happy about the verdict. The guilty verdict was the only outcome that wouldn’t have been a total fucking travesty. But still, I can’t feel glad. From my perspective nothing good has happened here. A young woman’s body and privacy were brutally violated by two boys, operating under the warped belief that they had a right invade another person’s body. It’s humanity fail on a spectacular level. There need to be consequences, serious ones at that but I find this whole suitation tremendously sad.

Crowley’s assertion that this situation is tragic? Yes, it is. I just don’t think it’s tragic for the same reasons she does. She and Harlow continually characterized the verdict as though it was something that just happened to two nice boys who could have never seen this coming. That isn’t true. But more than that it isn’t helpful. We can watch these boys and feel pity for wasted youth and opportunity. But ignoring Mays and Richmond’s responsibility doesn’t help them now, nor will it help the young people who are watching, listening and learning about their own obligations as reponsible human beings.

This rape didn’t just happen. Mays and Richmond chose to do it. We can feel compassionate; but when lawyers, CNN correspondents and the rest of us ignore the fact that these young men are responsible for what’s happened, we’re letting our sympathy trump our responsibility.

We need to stop talking about sexual assault as though it’s an act of nature, like snow in winter. Because it is exactly that attitude that contributes to youth like Hays and Richmond thinking that molesting an unconscious woman is no big deal, because hey, that’s just what happens when someone is drunk and vulnerable in a room. Furthermore, when anchors like Crowley and Harlow all but ignore the survivor in their post-mortem of these events, it reinforces the idea that this sixteen-year-old woman was a non-person. Instead of saying, “Mays and Richmond did something terrible to this girl,” she becomes the mere catalyst for two football players’ tragic fall from grace.

Crowley says, “Regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like sixteen-year-olds.”  That’s true. I am also saddened by how young these men are. They are barely more than children. Children learn from adults, especially adults who hold positions of authority and credibility. Which is why I believe it’s so important that parents, coaches, teachers and people who speak on behalf of major media outlets consider the messages that we give to young people when we talk about rape as though it happens indenpendently of the rapist’s free will. We need to watch our words. We need to be aware of the way we speak about survivors. We need to think about the message we’re sending to youth when we say, “He was a good student,” “She was drinking,” “He played football.”

This young woman’s decision to drink did NOT cause Mays and Richmond to assault her. Their academic and athletic abilities are NOT absolution from responsibility. Doing well in school DOES NOT put one on a higher plane of humanity that entitles them to treat drunk, unconscious woman as objects of amusement.

I hate that two 16-year-olds are going to prison. I hate the thought that they may grow into hardened, damaged men. I have a son. When I imagine what those boys’ parents must be feeling today I want lie down and cry all the tears. So no, I don’t think Crowley’s compassion was misplaced. But she had a job to do and in this case, I feel she failed. What she needed to say, what Harlow needed to say , what we all need to say is that these boys made a choice. This isn’t random happenstance. Their tragic circumstance came as a direct consequence of their decision to assault another human being. Don’t imply to the world this sentence is sad because Mays was a gifted footballer or Richmond got good grades. It’s sad because those two boys deliberately harmed another person.

I don’t want to see dismayed boys sobbing in court and carted off to prison, wondering how this could have possibly happened to them. If those young men don’t understand, if other young men don’t understand then we need to help them. Not by making excuses for them, but by explaining in no uncertain terms that sexual assault is a choice that -regardless of the circumstances – is wrong.

Trigger Warning: This post contains some discussion of sexual harassment and assault. Please exercise self-care and skip this post if you need to.

The other night, The Man of Mans were walking downtown after a fun night out with friends. The January deep freeze was on in full force and from the moment I felt the arctic air on my face, I had only one goal – getting to the nearby parking garage and our car as fast as possible. I was quick-stepping along the sidewalk urging The MoMs to keep pace. We were a few blocks away from the parking garage, when I spotted a man and woman who seemed to be engaged in some major public display of affection.

As we got closer, the majority of my brain was still occupied with matters of Warmth. Car. Now! But as glanced at the couple out of the corner of my eye, I became concerned. I don’t want to go into too much detail about another person’s experience – that part of the story isn’t mine to reveal. But as we passed the couple I heard and saw something that made me question whether she wanted what was happening.

Maybe I should stop,’ I thought. Then, almost instantly I began doubting myself, ‘What if you’re wrong? What if you make a scene? What if she doesn’t want you butting your nose into her affairs? She didn’t ask for your help. She’s not screaming or anything. The MoMs hasn’t said anything – he clearly doesn’t think it’s weird. No one else on the street is doing anything. It’s really, really cold and maybe this is nothing. Maybe it’s just your imagination.’

I glanced back one more time. Then, I kept walking.

I second later, another pedestrian who was clearly even more susceptible to cold than I am,  scurried past us. He was moving quickly with determination but he did pause for a moment to talk to us. Gesturing towards the other couple he said  “So, um…something pretty weird’s happening back there, ” and took off.

“Yeah,” The MoMs whispered to me,  “I was thinking the same thing.”

They had seen it too! This wasn’t my imagination.  I made my way back to the couple. “Excuse me,” I said, addressing the woman, “Are you okay?” Again, I’ll spare the details but as it turned out things were not entirely okay. After a brief exchange, the woman assured us she would be fine, thanked us and hurried away.

The man stared at The MoMs and I momentarily. “Oh wow,” he said ruefully, “I guess that was really bad.” He trotted away. The MoMs offered me his hand and we quietly finished our cold nighttime walk and climbed into welcoming warmth of our car.

I wish this were a different story. I wish I’d thought to ask that woman if she wanted company when she turned to walk away. I wish I’d acted immediately when my gut first told me something was off.  But the truth is while I eventually did something, it was that other guy, the one who told us that “something weird” was happening back there, who deserves some major props.

Cliff of the Pervocracy once wrote this awesome blog post about how, when you spot weirdness, telling someone in the vicinity can be a great strategy. To quote Cliff:

Next time you see something that seems wrong, but “oh my gosh maybe not really maybe I shouldn’t say anything I don’t know,” you don’t have to go right to the cops or the boss or run into the situation with your fists up.  What you do have to do–this is a goddamn order–is tell someone about it.  Someone as confused and powerless as you are.  Just check in.  “This seemed off to me, does it seem off to you?”

Sometimes it isn’t even about how the other person reacts.  Sometimes it’s just about putting it into words.  You hear yourself describe the situation and you realize what you’re describing.

Sometimes it’s just about taking a step, even if it isn’t the perfectly right step, that makes you realize you are allowed to act on this; now that you’ve done something you can do more.

And sometimes they look back at you and say “yeah, that was fucked up. I was thinking the same thing but didn’t want to say anything.  You think we should go tell someone about it?”

And that, two people realizing they’re not the only one in the universe who has a problem with what’s happening, much more often than any spectacular act of lone-hero courage, is how evil gets dragged into the light.

I saw someone I thought might have been in trouble. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I failed to follow Cliff’s order. Fortunately, that fast-walkin’ dude was on the ball. Props to him because if I hadn’t said anything, I probably wouldn’t have stopped. It was only once I knew that someone else had what I had seen, that I was compelled to take action.

As for the man we interrupted? I was only once he saw his behaviour through the eyes of random strangers that he stopped to  reconsider his actions. Will our 90 second encounter influence what he does from now on? Who know?  It will definitely influence me.

Sometimes it’s easy to rationalize harassment or assault. If the act isn’t overtly violent, if there’s a pre-existing relationship, if everyone around you starts rationalizing it too. But it’s a lot harder to rationalize these things when someone calls it out. Someone spoke and I could no longer justify walking away. I spoke up and – at least in that moment – that dude could not justify his behaviour. The next time I see something and the red flags go up, I won’t search for an excuse to ignore my instincts. I will say something to someone and hope that it triggers a chain of change.

 

 

 

 

 

I have a hard time expressing myself erotically. True story.

I can talk about sex. I’ve engaged in what I call “intellectual smut” for years. It didn’t begin this way but over time, these frank, informative discussions of sexuality have become familiar and easy for me. After years of reading, writing, learning and teaching I’m perfectly comfortable steering any conversation towards the subject of clitoral response or anal anatomy. These days sex-words virtually spill from my mind and my mouth – so long as the purpose is to inform, rather than to arouse.

I am an erotic person. I have sexual thoughts and desires. I ponder people, their parts and things I’d like to do to them. I think about thing I’d like done to me. I also have an amazing partner that I love, trust and really like having sex with. When you consider all of that and the fact that I’m a pretty chatty, expressive person – you’d think I’d be the dirtiest talkin’ gal in town. Instead, it’s a struggle.

I read a lot of erotic fiction. I’m often inspired to create my own stories, but when I sit down to do it, I find it’s a long, fairly uncomfortable process. I have no compunction about baring most of my body to hundreds of people during a burlesque performance Reading an authentically erotic poem for an audience of fifteen makes sweaty and tense. Even when it comes to The Man of Mans – my partner of seventeen years, I find it much easier to express my sexual desires during a matter-of-fact discussion at dinner than I do when we’re hot, heavy and in the moment.

Words. Words make it real. Words bring what is barely perceptible into sharp focus. Words turn formless lust into an acute awareness of exactly where and how I want to touch and be touched. And there is a place deep inside of me where that knowledge feels exciting and good. But piled on top of that is a bunch of vulnerability, insecurity and maybe even a little guilt.

I’m a pretty big proponent of communication in general and sexual communication specifically. My reluctance to get dirty with my words makes it hard to put my money where my mouth is. What’s that all about? I have some theories.  The past few years of my life have been filled lots of sex-positive learning. It’s changed a lot of how I think about sex. However, I’m also part of a culture that perceives of sexual pleasure as inherently sordid, dangerous, offensive and taboo. Logically, I’ve largely dismissed that characterization. But my emotions are still under the influence of deeply ingrained sex-negative ideology. I’m fine with the knowledge that I want to put my tongue there. I haven’t been able to shut out that pesky voice telling me nice people don’t say it out loud.

Despite my awkward embarrassment, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to push past those feelings and get comfortable talking erotic. And writing erotic.  First, because the very idea of that tongue thing is pretty hot and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. Second, because the more explicit I am about the kind of sex I want, the more likely I am to get it. And lastly, because I think being okay with down and dirty communication is key piece in building consent culture.

Discussions around sexual consent often lead to a few common concerns. One is that is ensuring a partner’s consent means a bunch of super-formal negotiations where all parties sit down and to outline the all details of the sexual encounter. Another worry is the ensuring ongoing consent.  Naysayers sometime conjure a scenario where people have to stop the action every couple of minutes to ask , “Can I put my hand there? About there? What about there? How about there?” It’s an unappealing prospect for some people. I’m one of them.

But consent doesn’t have to be either of those options. You don’t have to sit primly on the couch and ask “May I please put your penis my mouth?” You don’t have to stop in the middle of fucking to say, “Sorry, I know we didn’t talk about it before but I was wondering if I could penetrate your anus digitally.” I mean, you can if you want to. But you can also lean in and whisper, “I would love it if you let me suck your cock.”*  You can be skin to skin and all over each other when you ask, “How about a finger in your ass?”**  Consent isn’t about ruining the fun. It’s about communicating. It seems like talking specifically and explicitly about the sex we do want to be having is a good way to avoid making people have sex they don’t want.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive notion that the ideal way to hook up is with languid body language, coy looks and a host of other non-verbal tactics. Asking for sex outright is often labelled crass and kind of pervy. So, it’s not entirely surprising to me that some people see explicit consent as the antithesis of hot sex. We aren’t exposed to a lot of dirty word-slinging and when we are, it’s rarely presented as a positive thing. I want it to be a positive thing. Emotionally, it may make me twitch. Logically, I think it’s a key part of a safer, hotter, healthier sex.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I think 2013 will be the year that I challenge myself to move beyond expressing my thoughts on sex. It’s time to get comfortable expressing my sexual feelings. Bring on the dirty talk!

*I got all flushed when I wrote this.
** And this.