Trigger Warning: This post is about mental illness and sexuality. Please exercise self-care.

Today is the day that Bell encourages Canadians to talk about mental health. I sat down in front of my trusty laptop feeling calm and clear-headed, eager to write a pithy post about my ongoing struggles with sex and mental illness. Ironically, the challenge of trying create a light-hearted entry has set my heart pounding and brought me to the verge of tears. Seriously, brain? You can’’t even stop being mentally ill long enough to let me write one lousy blog post about being mentally ill? No, of course you can’t. That’s not how this works.

 

That’s what the tears and the anxiety are about. I have a brain that doesn’t work the way that people say brains are supposed to work. And the effects of my malfunctioning brain have traumatized my body. I am never more aware of this fact then when I have sex.

Some people believe that our emotional experiences stay in our physical bodies. I don’t know if there’s any scientific research to support that claim, but I believe there’s something worth considering in that idea.  In order to become sexually aroused and sexually active, I have to allow my body to become vulnerable. Often times when I let that happen, my initial emotional reaction is overwhelming. It’s this kind of amorphous fear, anger, shame, sorrow and general badness that erupts from the pit of my stomach. It moves quickly, but sometimes I catch it right away and shut it down. Unfortunately shutting it down means shutting myself down as well and then no sex for me. Other times, it’s too strong and swift. It powers through me and beyond me. I start crying because the emotions are so big, I literally can’t contain them. When the tears stop, I typically feel relief…but I’m also a puffy-faced, snotty mess. No sex for me.

 

If our physical bodies are haunted by emotional phantoms, my body’s reaction makes sense to me. In some ways, I’m lucky. Most days, I can cope with my illness. Like I know that I’m going to be vaguely panicky for the first hour of every weekday. because getting The Bean ready for school and having the day’s “to-do” list looming in front of me is terrifying. But I also know from experience that tasks in front of me are not as daunting as my brain is telling me and that my heart rate will slow down as the day progresses and I get stuff done. I’m used to the way my heart leaps when I hear an e-mail alert or the phone rings. I’m getting better at ignoring the part of my brain that’s constantly telling me, ‘No one will care if you don’t show up, because no one actually likes you.’

 

Most days I can live my life in a way that probably looks pretty normal. But I can’t stop being mentally ill. So instead I strategize. I use tools and coping mechanisms, many of which involve ignoring my emotional state and dealing with the world on a more cognitive level. I constantly remind myself ‘Just because it feels bad, doesn’t mean it is bad.’  But the flip side is that just because those painful emotions are the by-product of lousy brain chemistry, it doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Even when I’m able to recognize certain feelings/reactions as “that’s the anxiety” or “that’s the depression,” it doesn’t make them go away. I’m not curing, but I’m coping.

 

If I want to have sex, I have to let my guard down. And if all those icky emotions that I normally push through are still living in my body, it makes sense that they kind of explode when I let myself be more physically vulnerable.

 

Like I said, I haven’t looked into any scientific data on this emotions-in-body theory, but I am trying a little experiment of my own. I’m sleeping naked. Back in Canada, it’s either too cold or too air-conditioned for me to sleep nude, but I find it quite comfortable in the Northern California climate. I know nudity is not required for sex, but I find nudity does make me feel very physically vulnerable. It sounds a little farfetched, but I think that maybe if I do that in times when I’m not having sex, it will give my body a chance to process and discharge some negativity, without the pressure of having it tied into a sexual experience.

Also, my grandmother told me it’s good to give my vagina some breathing room.

It’s just hard. For me living with mental illness is an ongoing process of building myself up and breaking myself down. As I build a system to cope with an aspect of my life, some other part of me is broken and I have to find new tools to shore myself up. I’m starting to realize that my sex life is not exempt from this. My sex life is part of my life, as is my illness. I can’t separate it. I can’t fix it That’s not how this works. I will never cure my mental illness, but I can keep learning how to live with it.

By Summer Skyes 11 (OMG Ikr lolUploaded by JohnnyMrNinja) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Summer Skyes 11 via Wikimedia Commons

An interesting article  from Daily Mail Online popped up in my Facebook’s stream a while back, called Experiment That Convinced Me That Porn Is The Most Pernicious Threat Facing Children Today. The subject porn and youth, something that illicits strong opinions among caregivers and educators. The idea that porn can have negative effects for younger viewers is a common perspective. It’s also one that I don’t entirely disagree with, although I certainly don’t think it’s the worst thing to ever could ever happen to a kid EVER.

At any rate the title sounded ominous/sensationalist enough that I was curious about the nature of the “experiment”. What was the methodology? Who was conducting the experiment? And what was the outcome that had convinced author, Martin Daubney – a former skin mag editor – about the unequivocal danger posed by pornography? But by the end of the introductory my curiosity was replaced by big time skepticism:

The moment I knew internet pornography had cast its dark shadow over the lives of millions of ordinary British teenagers will live with me for ever….Before me were a group of 20 boys and girls, aged 13-14. Largely white, working class children, they were well turned-out, polite, giggly and shy. 

I had trouble with the way the issue was framed. “Good” kids vs. sex. Goodness in this case being demonstrated by the students’ general whiteness and not-being poor. I guess it’s okay, or at least expected that ethnic kids from low-income families be exposed to pornography?  Only when it infiltrates the sweet ranks of society’s most valuable children should we sound the alarm bells.

Right under this paragraph is a picture of the author, his wife and his very young son who looks three, maybe four years old. The grown-ups look concerned verging on frightened. The kid is nine kinds of adorable, with blond curls and a pursed-lipped smile. And I can’t think it’s a coincidence that the editors chose this photo to lead the article. You have the words “Children” and “Porn” looming over the head of this cutey-cute little person and whoa! Suddenly, porn does seem pretty threatening!

The subjects of the actual experiment are a group of 13 to 14 year-old students. Teenagers. I do think that it’s necessary for adults to be aware that youth today have unprecedented access to sexually explicit material. A kid has with a smartphone they can see porn. And not just the commercially available stuff. Snapchat and other apps have made sending sexy selfies super-easy. I don’t think it’s necessary for us parent-types to panic. But I think we need to be aware that there’s a high likelihood our kids will be exposed to more sexual content at an earlier age than most of us were.

Under instruction from a sex-educator, the youth are asked to write down the terminology they’ve picked up from porn. The lists are pinned on the board and according to the article, there are words that none of the adults know. This shocks the grown-ups. One of the terms is “nugget”. (Full-disclosure: I heard the term for the first time very recently and it did shock me. It’s slang for a porn performer – typically a woman – who doesn’t have arms or legs).

Daubry goes on to report:

But the more mundane answers were just as shocking. For example, the first word every single boy and girl in the group put on their list was ‘anal’.

Daubry explains that he hadn’t heard of sodomy at that young age and he’s deeply troubled by the thought that some of these  youth may have a) seen it, b) may want to try it.

I was still annoyed by the sensationalism, but I can understand the alarm.  It seems to be pretty common for adults to feel thrown when they discover that the kids in their life are more sexually knowledgable than they assumed. I was a pre-teen when my peers and I started flipping through romance novels to find the sex scenes. I heard guys talk about a stash of Playboy or Penthouse they’d unearthed from the basement or their parents bedroom. We started hearing terms like “blow job” and giggled when someone explained what it was. This started when were ten, eleven, twelve. I don’t think any of us were ready to have sex yet  – I certainly wasn’t –  but we were old enough to be curious.

Now that I’m a parent, I look at my son. He seems so very young. It’s hard to fathom that the talks about sex – not just “these are your body parts/this is how babies are made” talks – might start happening in just a few years. I think it’s totally understandable for us grown-ups to have an initial freak-out. THE KIDS ARE WATCHING WHAT?!! But I think the next step is to get it together and figure out what to do next. If my kid does find himself amongst a group like the one in the article, here are some things I hope I remember to bring up:

  • What do you think about the fact that amputees are being referred to here as “nuggets”? How might it make that person feel? What message does that send about people with disabilities? What do you think about the fact that people with different bodies can and do have sex?
  • Do you know the differences between having anal sex in real life and the way it’s shown in porn? Do you know why it’s important to use lubricant? Do you know reducing your risk of infection with barriers? Do you know why communication with your sex partner is super-important here.
  • Let’s talk about why you’re watching this. How did you find it? Airial Clark a.k.a. The Sex Positive Parent had some great advice around kids discovering porn. Ask them if *they* think this is material is appropriate for their age. Remind them that the performers are real people, adults doing adult things. How do they think the people in the movie might feel if they knew kids were watching? How would they feel if a grown-up was naked or tried to have sex in front of them?
  • It’s also an opportunity to find out from kids what they find compelling about the material. Because it may not be what you think. It’s an opportunity to talk about the difference between porn sex and sex-in-real life.

Daubrey does have some follow-up conversation with some of the youth after the class. He finds the ensuing conversation “horrifying”, saddened that these kid’s expectations around sex have been shaped almost entirely by pornography and shocked by some of the content the teens have been consuming.

These kids were balanced, smart and savvy. They were the most academically gifted and sporting in the school. They came from ordinary, hard-working households. This was not ‘Broken Britain’.

Once again, folks – sex is for bad people. Who’s bad? Kids who struggle in school. The one’s who come from weird, poor households. The ones who are “broken”.

Most of us become curious about sex long before we feel ready to engage in partnered sexual activity. Sexuality isn’t something that suddenly kicks in on our 18th birthday. It’s with us all of our lives and it develops over time. When I was a kid, my friends and I didn’t look at novels, or Playboy and unscrambled pay-per-view because we wanted to run out and do those things. We just wanted to know what it was about. We were trying to understand.

Youth today are curious too. They’re seeing more because there’s more material and easier access to explicit content than we had at that age. Unfortunately, that isn’t something that we can change. I knew more about sex at a younger age than my parents had…and they probably knew more than their parents. Depending on our kids’ ages and situations, we can limit their exposure to porn for a time. But at some point they’re going to get on the Internet. And if they want to find porn they will. And I think the best tool we can give them is a whack-ton of real-world information about sex, so that porn isn’t the only influence.

Daubrey does conclude with cursory call for parents to teach their kids that  that real sex “is not about lust, it’s about love.

So, I agree with the spirit but I don’t love the phrasing.Lust and love aren’t mutually exclusive. And personally I’m not interested in judging the rightness or realness of  people’s sex based on how much of either is involved. I want to teach my child to  honour his own ethics when it comes to sex. I want him to understand their options when it comes to safer sex and if it applies, contraception. I want him  to understand why respect, consent and care for our sexual partners is essential. I want them to know that sex isn’t about being normal and doing what everyone else is doing, it’s about doing what feels good, what feels right for the people involved. And yes I will try to teach him about love and lust, just not as an either/or proposition. And finally, I will try my best to teach him to look at media with a critical eye, so hopefully he can distinguish between reality and a carefully crafted performance.

The very last sentence of Daubrey’s article tells us to communicate with our children.  “By talking to them, they stand a chance”.

At least we agree on something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This past weekend I made my way down to f Los Angeles to attend Catalyst Con West, a conference dedicated to the wonderful world of sexuality. I’ve wanted to check a Catalyst event for awhile now and being that L.A. is a short flight from away, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out.

CCon Badge

Flashin’ the badge!

How was it? Phenomenal!

Being at CatCon was like attending awesome summer camp but with hotel rooms instead of cabins and the buzz of vibrators instead of mosquitoes. I played games, made new friends and by the time it was over and by the time I left, I had grown at bit. I learned so much, enough to fill several blog posts. Those are coming but for now I’ll review some of my CatCon highlights. Believe me there were many!

GAGS AND SWAG

Next time I go to CatCon, I’ll bring a bigger bag. I was not prepared for the generosity of the conference sponsors. I came away with two beautiful new vibrators, including the much lauded We-Vibe Thrill. Another fave is was Nature Lab’s maple-scented lube.  This Canadian gal is here to tell you that they nailed the aroma. Now I’ll have nice reminder of the True North during frisky times!

SEX-LEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Keynote speakers (L to R): Tristan Taormino, Jackie Strano, Yosenio V. Lewis, Shira Tarrant PhD and Sinnamon Love.

Keynote speakers (L to R): Tristan Taormino, Jackie Strano, Yosenio V. Lewis, Shira Tarrant PhD and Sinnamon Love.

I had the opportunity to meet so many of sexuality heroes. Charlie Glickman, whose thoughts on sex-positivity have shaped my own. Tristan Taormino, one of my favourite porn performers, producers and authors. Carol Queen, one of the most influential sex-positive feminists of all time. And Nina Hartley, who starred in many of the first feminist porn films I ever saw.

I also met Sinnamon Love. I wasn’t familiar with her work in the adult entertainment industry but after meeting her and hearing her speak, I did some Googling and girlfriend is an adult-film superstar! She is also one of the most intelligent, articulate women I have ever heard speak on the subject of sex work. After making her acquaintance this weekend, you best believe I’m a big  Sinnamon Love fangal now!

TALKING THE TALK

The talks I attended at CatCon were full to brimming with ideas and information that I can use to become a better educator, business person and sex-positive advocate. By the end of each day, my fingers were cramped up good from furious note-taking. But it was worth it. I’ve got a Google doc crammed full of great stuff! I didn’t get to every session I wanted to attend (Note for next year: look into cloning options), but such is life.

I’ve now got a bug in my brain about giving my own at a future CatCon. Given what I heard, I’ll have to bring my A+ game.

FRIENDLY FACES

Chatting with the sexuality big-wigs is a thrill and a honour. But there’s nothing that fills the soul like forming new friendships – especially warm, funny, accepting, amazing friends. These are just a few of the folks I met. I highly encourage you to check out the wicked work they’re doing. And if you have a chance to make their acquaintance, do it- you’ll be very happy you did!

Sex Texts

Queerie Bradshaw

Darling Propaganda

Think Banned

Bondassage

Sex Positive Parent

The Ramblings of Zoya Lynne

BONUS BUILDING!

I also got to build my very own vibrator! For reals!  It’s a nifty little number from Crave, with a special design that maximizes genital sensation, while minimizing that pesky hand numbness. It’s also waterproof. I should know. I tested it myself.

Vibe Building_1

My tools :-)

Putting it all together...

Putting it all together…

 

The finished product! (Shout out to my building buddy, Zoya!)

The finished product! (Shout out to my building buddy, Zoya!)

 

So, that was my weekend. A great time and the perfect prelude for this weekend, when I begin classes for my PhD. Wish me luck? It’s been a looooooong time since this gal’s done the school thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My departure from Ottawa is at hand. But first I have to make sure all my sexy essentials are packed and ready to ship out west. Check out the vlog below for a peek at my favourite books, toys and of course my box o’ porn!

Some things – like the dang flippin’ cold this summer – are out of our control. That’s okay. Because we can be all self-determined like with things like managing our sexual risk factors.

Actor Michael Douglas recently revealed that his oral cancer has been linked to the presence of HPV. Since everyone was talking about it, I figured I would too.

BTW, in the video I mention that there is no cure for HPV. I should clarify that there’s no medical cure; however, in some cases a person’s immune system can fight the infection on its own.

 

This is a reboot of a entry I wrote for my old blog back in September of 2010. It’s not about sex but it is very personal. I’m reposting it here as it’s directly related to a new entry coming later in the week.

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Yesterday…I got my hair did.

I have a standing appointment every eight weeks to have my hair washed, trimmed and relaxed.  If you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of black people hair, relaxing is a chemical process that breaks down the bonds of my super-kinky, naturally nappy hair, leaving it straight.

If I had a recent picture of myself with my hair au naturel, I would post it.  But such a photo does not exist. I’ve been processing my hair for well over twenty years now.

Left to it’s own devices, not only is my hair intensely curly, it’s impossibly thick, has a coarse texture similar to that of synthetic furniture stuffing and left unbraided, prefers to point up rather than down.

As a child, I hated everything about my hair.  I hated the thickness that could obliterate lesser combs.  I hated the ordeal of having my head scrubbed every Saturday morning with the special “for-black-people” shampoo that smelled terrible, followed by two hours of pain while my mom combed out the extensive net of knots that had formed.

Young and nap-tural!

But most of all, I hated that my head was topped by stiff plaits when my friends had long, soft, easy hair that actually moved as they did.  Back then I would have gladly traded a limb in exchange for a long, swingy ponytail.

Because I’m female, because I’m black and because I live in the part of the world that I do, having healthy hair-esteem is a challenge. When we very little my cousins and I would put yellow blankets on our heads to simulate the free-flowing blondness we saw in commercials and re-runs of Charlie’s Angels. I was in my twenties, before I saw ad for hair products that included a woman of colour shaking her glorious mane with slow-motion vigour.  And even then, her hair was as straight and silken as her Caucasian compatriots.  The marketing mantra of desirable female hair has been basically then same my entire life: Long. Shiny. Bouncy. In it’s natural state, my hair is exactly the opposite of this.

When I was a girl, white people were baffled and fascinated by my hair.  I remember a woman, a stranger,  actually fingering one of my nappy braids and saying, “It doesn’t even feel like hair.”  That sucked.

It also sucked that while white women regarded my hair with insensitive astonishment, black women – primarily members of my own family – perpetuated “good hair” myths with a vengeance.  Once I hit about ten, the pressure to tame my fuzz and do “something” about my hair was ON!

“You can’t run around looking like some African wild-child,” one aunt-admonished me.   (Side note: Try-Not-To-Seem-Too-African was a driving force amongst my grandparents’ generation of Black West Indians).

I also got, “You’d be pretty if you did something with your hair.”  And the most direct criticism from a family friend, “Your hair makes you look ugly.”

My mom tried her best to counter all the hair negativity.  But my mother’s natural hair texture is a lot looser than mine and much more in line with conventional standards of beauty.  So every time she tried to instill me with a sense of pride in my nappy head, I’d look at her wavy, long, bouncy, shiny hair and think, ‘What the hell to you know?’

Fro-licious!

By the time I was eleven, I succumbed.  I began badgering my parents until they conceded to let me have my hair relaxed.  My mom took me to a salon on a Friday after school.   I was so excited when we arrived, I ran inside and practically jumped into the beautician’s chair.

Relaxer is a cream made of standard conditioning agents, fragrance and an assload of sodium hydroxide.  When the stylist  first applied to my head it felt goopy and kind of cold.  After a few minutes it started to tingle.  Then it kind of started itching.  And then…it began to burn.

I didn’t cry that first time, but I came close.  I was chanting the f-word very, very quietly (Mom within in earshot) and contemplating running to the bathroom and putting my head in the toilet. Finally the stylist ushered me over to the sink, hosed my head down with cold water and put me out of my misery.

 

Why would anyone do this to themselves? I wondered.  I decided that had been my first and last relaxer, because only an idiot would willing subject themselves to that type of pain of a regular basis. Then the stylist turned me around to face the mirror.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.  For the first time in my life, I had “normal” hair.  It was loose and straight and shiny and it moved! It was some sort of hair miracle!  I could not stop touching it.  The minute we got home, I tied it back and started shaking my head around like a pony-tailed fool.  The kids at school went crazy for it.  White people left me alone!  Black people nodded approvingly!   Pain? Who cared? What was 20 minutes of scalp torture when compared with unprecedented social acceptance?

Like so many black women before me, I came to fully embrace relaxer or, “the creamy crack”, as it’s wryly referred to.  Relaxer gave me the ability to experience ponytails and approval.  But there were negatives. You can’t really get relaxed hair wet, which meant wearing covering my hair in various plastic caps in the shower, when I swam and on rainy days. I had to go back to the salon every few weeks to get my roots touched up. At best it was a very painful process. Much worse were the few times I sustained chemical burns on my scalp.

I briefly broke my addiction to the creamy crack the summer after eight grade.  I wanted to swim without having to wear my granny-looking bathing cap.  So I had my hair cut short and let my ‘fro return. I was actually kind of okay with the whole thing for about five minutes. Then high school began.

I went into ninth grade full frizzy fro and NO ONE was having that!   Within a week, the popular black kids were calling me “Buckwheat”.  The popular white kids picked it up. By October, I’m pretty sure most people thought that was actually my name.  One day during art, two of my classmates decided to dump an entire tin of blue powder paint on my head.  Another kid cried out, “Hey! Buckwheat’s black and blue!”  Everyone laughed.  Even the teacher kind of chuckled for a second before he remembered that he had to pretend this wasn’t cool. (After sentencing the paint-bombers to detention, he pulled me aside and kindly suggested that perhaps I could avoid such incidences in the future, if I tried harder to fit in and look like the other students).

That was it. I felt isolated and traumatized.  My hair was not my crowning glory.  It was the bane of my existence.  Not long after, I was back on the creamy crack.  I have been ever since.

I lived many, many years, well into adulthood, simply accepting that my

natural hair was bad.  I’m not sure when I began to rethink that.  I do know that it took a long time before I decided  that my hair is just my hair.  It’s not bad.  It’s not good.  It’s just a bunch of dead protein strands coming out of my head.   The marketing, the gawking, the names, the pressure…it’s all just a remnant of a bunch of oppressive, Euro-normative crap.  I know this.

Because I know this, I have to ask myself, “Self, why do you still relax your hair?”  The answer…because generally speaking, that Euro-normative crap is still the basis for our standards of beauty.  And the truth is, I’m afraid of what it means to defy those standards…at least when it comes to my hair. I don’t want people gawking at my head and fondling my strands like I’m one woman petting zoo. I don’t want to constantly defend my tresses to family members. I don’t want to be mocked or painted blue again. There is a part of me that wants to go back to my natural texture, I’m afraid that I can’t do it in a non-provacative way.

My straight hair is a total concession to The Man. It pretty much violates my feminist and anti-oppressive beliefs.  I imagine there are those who see my hair and judge me as lacking the courage of my convictions.   I certainly judge myself that way, at times.  Casting directors have occasionally cited my hair as a barrier to getting film and TV work.  American producers prefer relaxed hair; however they prefer the long, luxurious look of a weave.  Canadian producers, like a little kink; however, it’s typically a longer, looser curl than I can achieve.

The thought of fighting the fight of race and gender on a part of my body I can’t even see unless I look in the mirror is wearying.  I hope someday I’ll find the resolve to ignore the ignorant but I have to admit that I’m not there yet. If relaxed is what it takes for people to relax for the time being I’ll do it and hope that eventually, I’ll it myself straightened out.

Before I get into stuff, I want to apologize to y’all for my unannounced extended absence. I won’t bore you with the dull details, but sufficed to say life stuff got in the way of blog stuff.

I also apologize, because I’m about to go on a rant. I know it’s kind of shitty when you haven’t seen someone in awhile and then the first thing they do is start complaining. But I’ve got some thoughts that are making my brain itch, so please indulge me while I purge them. I promise to hit you with some fun stuff (and new developments!) super soon, ‘kay?

Let’s get down to brass tacks…

This morning I read an article by Yummy Mummy Club contributor Kat Armstrong. She writes about Jessica Alba’s recent admission that she wore a corset for three months in order to regain her pre-pregnancy figure after her second child was born. In the wake of this revelation, apparel companies are now developing post-partum corsets so that women everywhere can pretend they never gave birth.

Kat’s take is that this is some straight up bullshit. And Yummy Mummy Club founder/editor/all around cool person Erica Ehm agrees.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.40.16 AM

I get it. It pissed me off when I read about it too.  The idea that women’s bodies should quickly – or in many cases – ever return to a pre-pregnancy state is awful, body-shaming nonsense. Companies are taking advantage of Alba’s statement to hawk their postpartum corset thingies,  makes me seethe! But it also makes me sad. I tweeted that to Erica Ehm, which led to a brief but interesting discussion:

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.48.37 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.49.06 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.48.37 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.49.06 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.49.34 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.49.55 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 11.50.24 AM

 

I gotta pause for sec here ’cause my inner 12-year-old is having a moment.

 

OMG ERICA EHM TOTALLY TALKED TO ME ON TWITTER!!!

 

As I was saying…

I couldn’t adequately express my thoughts in 140 characters, so I’ll expand on them here. I understand and largely agree with Erica and Kat. As a Hollywood celebrity Jessica Alba is a high-profile woman with a great deal of influence and ultimately she does bear responsibility for her message and her choices. I also wish that Jessica Alba and her privileged Hollywood cohorts would use their power to promote kinder, gentler image standards for their fellow women. But also feel like that’s a lot to expect because despite their wealth and sky-high profiles I suspect that   body-positivity is especially difficult for celebrity women.

I worked as an actor for a good part of my life, including a wee bit of film and television work when I was growing up in Toronto. Even with limited exposure, it became very obvious very quickly that what I looked like mattered as much as – if not more so – than my ability. I was told that in order to work I’d have to “fix” things. My hair was too wild and frizzy. My skin had spots. I once had a casting director tell me that I should lost ten pounds because I was a bit too chunky. “Not for real life. Just for television,” was how she qualified it.

That was my experience as a super, small-time actor and it did a little damage. So I can only imagine the messages someone like Jessica Alba has been receiving about her body as a high-stakes player in billion-dollar image industry.  According to Wikipedia Jessica Alba began working in film and television at thirteen. Imagine that.

 

Like really imagine it.

Imagine being a thirteen-year-old girl going to auditions and being told by casting people, agents, directors and other influential adults that being thin and pretty is part of your job.

Imagine being a teenage girl observing the fucked up reality that in Hollywood getting fat is grounds for being fired.

Imagine being twenty years old and working your ass off as the lead of a television series, but instead of talking about your acting everyone is focused on how hot you look in your costume.

Imagine being a very young woman who’s suddenly very successful, with an agent, a manger and probably a host of other people who are personally invested in keeping you looking a certain way, because their livelihood depends on your ability to get work.

Imagine that every acting job you get come with a big side of mandatory promotional work that is largely about being “hot” and skinny on the cover of various magazines.

Imagine living with the knowledge that if your body changes in any significant way, it will be broadcast worldwide in magazines and on entertainment news shows. Especially if you gain weight.

Imagine feeling that all your money and power is conditional on your ability to look a certain way. And that if you don’t look like that, it would probably get taken away.

Imagine you’ve just had a baby and knowing that the media will be monitoring your “post-baby body”. If you get thin again, you’ll be congratulated. If you don’t, you’ll be crucified. But either way your body is matter of public record and discussion.

So yes, I am angry about Alba’s admission. But the mere fact that she felt this was necessary also makes me feel sad for her. She’s spent more than half of her young life working in an industry that has some pretty fucked up attitudes people’s bodies. It’s not entirely surprising that she places such a high value on regaining a thin figure so soon after having a baby.

Many of us have felt the negative influence of Hollywood and mainstream media standards of beauty. But the people we see in those images have are also being subjected to the same standards, often from a young impressionable age and on a very intense level. It’s no wonder women like Alba resort to extremes in these matter. So while I do share  the rage, I can’t help but feel some bit of compassion as well.

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.

“I do multiple intrinsically non- and/or anti-feminist things a day. It doesn’t change who I am or what I stand for – but those things also don’t become feminist just because I’m the one doing them.”

The following is a quote by feminist author and body image activist extrodinaire, Kate Harding. I’ve been a long time fan of Ms. Harding. She frequently writes things that blow my mind and alter my thinking on issues regarding women, bodies and general life stuff. Now she’s done it again.

This particular statement was taken from a recent article entitled ‘Why I Lose My Mind Every Time We Have The Name Conversation’. The piece is about women’s who take their husband’s names at marriage. Kate fully acknowledges that:

a) becoming Ms. HisLastName is a choice that women have a right to make.

b) it can be thoughtful, meaningful, positive option for many women.

c) you can be Ms. HisLastName and a feminist and that’s totally cool.

Harding explains that women who take their husband’s names are still awesome, feminist gals making a valid life choice. But the fact that it’s a choice doesn’t magically separate the convention from it’s roots in patriarchal ownership. And being a feminist does not negate the fact that, generally speaking, our society tends to regard men’s identities as fixed and women’s as fluid.

Harding’s specific thoughts on married names were all kinds of interesting. But it’s the passage I quoted that resonated. I identify strongly as feminist, sex-positive, a queer-ally and bunch of other things. While reading the article, I realized that part of me does feel like everything I do, should fall in line with my belief that social oppression is for suck and it needs to go away now. And I will try to rationalize all of my actions within the context of those beliefs.

Case in point. I recently wrote a piece for Already Pretty about burlesque. I wrote my own experiences doing burlesque and tied that to a larger point about performers using the art form to challenge conventional perceptions of what sexy body looks like. Body image politics + personal experience = Instant Awesome Blogpost.

I thought it would be an easy assignment. Instead it was a frustrating struggling that went on for days. Eventually I finished the article and even though I wasn’t entirely satisfied, I submitted it. I figured this was just one of those crappy, writer’s block kind of weeks, nothing more.

But after reading Kate Harding’s piece I can see why I had a hard time. I was writing about burlesque subverting body image norms and I was trying to say that my participation was part of that subversion. But it’s not.

I’ve done burlesque with all sorts of people who fall outside the young, thin, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heteronormative ideal our society tends to uphold as “sexy”. I think how awesomely cool it is to see people broadening the standards of beauty and sexuality, while being hella hot and talented. I support the shit out of that kind of thing. But here’s things:

I am a younger-looking, slender, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman. Pretty much everything about the way I look and the way I present myself  falls in line with conventional ideas about what sexy is supposed to look like. Some might say that being as a person of colour takes me a bit outside the “norms” of sexiness. But even then I find that there’s a trend toward glamourizing/idealizing POCs – especially if they have European-esque features, which I pretty much do.

I love performing. I love dressing up and wearing costumes and being a big, exhibitionist show-off with my body. I also believe, passtionately that we need to make more room in this world for the many, may types of sexy that are out there. But that’s not what I’m doing when I do burlesque. I can’t do that when I do burlesque because our society has already made lots of room for my type of sexy and it has done so at the expense of other people.

None of this means that I shouldn’t be doing burlesque or that I can’t derive joy from the experience. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t support or believe that we need more sexy diversity (and maybe a better term).

I’m going to change over time. I will get older. The shape and likely the size of my body will change. There’s no guarantee that I will remain able-bodied throughout my life. If I still choose to twirll my tassles while rockin’ the wrinkles and low boobs, I WILL be sticking to the patriarchy and ageism and bunch of other sex-negative, body-negative bullshit. But I’m not now, so I probably shouldn’t pretend that I am.

Like everyone else, I make choices. Many are informed by desire to work towards a less oppressive, more inclusive society. But they’re also about what’s right for me and sometimes that’s the status quo. Instead of trying to rationalize those choices, it feels I can say, “This system/convetion/idea unfairly penalizes or excludes others. I don’t like that, but I am choosing to work within this system because there are still benefits for me as an individual.”

To put it another way, not everything I do is about fighting a social battle. And I realize after reading Kate Harding’s words, that I don’t have to rationalize it or get defensive. I’m a person, a part of this society. There’s some messed up shit happening but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes it works for me.