Stop Saying “Poly” When You Mean “Polyamorous”

Quick clarification [Added 09/05/15]:  Please read the full article before commenting. This post is primarily meant to explore the confused, defensive, and sometimes outright racist/sexist/etc. reactions to a call-to-action around language use in the polyamorous community. The specific linguistic issue is concretely addressed in the final section.


Doesn’t it suck when someone tells you to stop using a word you’ve been using for years because they say it’s oppressive or harmful to their community?

Do you feel personally angry and/or persecuted when a term you use suddenly comes under attack? Do you think “this is political correctness run amok“?

That’s how a bunch of polyamorous folks felt when they were asked to stop using “poly” as an abbreviation. In case you haven’t stumbled upon this (I just heard about it two days ago myself),  here’s the scoop—a Polynesian person on Tumblr made the following call to action:

Hey, can any polyamory blogs with a follower count please inform the palagi portion of the community that “poly” is a Polynesian community identifier, and is important to our safe spaces.
Using “polyamory” is cool just like using “polygender” and “Polyromantic” and or Polysexual” is cool. But the abbreviation “poly” is already in use.

Then, when people pushed back saying “chill out, lots of words have multiple meanings” or “people have been using poly as an abbreviation for polyamorous for decades already,” they responded with this. Now, do I agree 100% with their statements? Nah. And regardless of my post’s title, I don’t actually want to obliterate “poly” from your vocabulary. But before you breathe that big ol’ sigh of relief, keep reading.

Poly: Polynesian, Polyamorous, PolyWrath?

People are now discussing this debate on various Facebook groups dedicated to sexuality education and polyamory (one of the biggest has over 18K members), on Reddit  (as well as the cesspools of Reddit) and on Tumblr. It’s apparently been brewing for a few months, if not longer, and some people are PISSED. Those under the delusion that polyamorous people are all kinder and more open-minded than the general population clearly hasn’t been in one of these circles and looked at it through a social equity lens.  But that’s a post for another day. Back to the anger.

See what I did there? You're welcome.

See what I did there? You’re welcome.

Being on the receiving end of “stop using a word” or “you’re being oppressive” isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Whenever I get called out for something—most likely ableism since it’s an axis of oppression I don’t personally experience and am still learning a lot about—there’s often a knee-jerk reaction in there. A “don’t tell me what to do” demon on my shoulder who loves getting self-righteous and hates being wrong, whose first line of defense is “it’s not even that big of a deal.” Heck, I’ve definitely felt it as a sexuality educator when I’ve merely read up on newer sexuality labels and no one is even talking to me. Though most of the time the reaction is “COOL, NEW WORDS,” I’d be lying if I said I never think “this is just going TOO FAR” or “WHY SO MANY LABELS” when hearing some new categories of identity, especially if people are getting defensive about them. That gut reaction is normal…

But then I take a breath and realize I’m being ridiculous even if it’s normal.

I’m not being my best self in those moments, and I need to hold compassion for my own feelings but also push past them if they’re not serving my values of kindness and justice.

Overall, individuals and communities are perpetually trying to find ways to describe themselves and their lives, and that can be really tough especially if the words are related to identities that are devalued and marginalized. While “labels are for soup-cans” and we’re so much more complex than words could ever describe, language is a powerful thing that helps both reflect and create our world. It helps build communities, express our emotions, and even pass down our histories. It helps us name our struggles, craft banners for solidarity, and connect for change. It makes sense people have a lot of feelings about it!

Language is ever-evolving and it’s a beautiful thing when more words can become available, when more ways of understanding our world are accessible. But that doesn’t happen without friction. Sometimes our knee-jerk reactions to new words or identities come from a place of holding onto what we’ve been taught and being uncomfortable with change. Sometimes the new labels contradict, criticize, or make obsolete other labels we’ve been using—or even identifying with—and that can feel like a punch in the gut.

WAYSA

Art by Amanda Watkins, my other boo. Click on the image to check out more of her art!

Often, and as I recognize is the case with me and my pride,  immediate rage comes from not wanting to think that we’ve been ignorant and/or messing something up THIS WHOLE TIME. If XYZ person is right that usage of a particular word is oppressive, then what does that say about me, who has been using it for years? Does that mean I’m an oppressive, irredeemable jerk? (The answer is often “no, it just means stop using it” but the visceral reality doesn’t allow us to understand that quickly.) For more on this phenomenon, check out this video by Ian Danskin [one of my partners] and his overall series “Why Are You So Angry?

Point is we need to evolve with language and work through our gut reactions to change.

Now, that’s not to say we should forget about the roots of certain words or suddenly say that terms like the n-word and the r-word are chill because “we’re past them being a slur” [hint: we’re not, and racism/ableism aren’t over either]. What I mean is that we need to hold space for growth and be willing to move in new directions with our terminology—that regardless of how defensive our initial “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” shoulder-demons might be, we MUST move in a direction of empathy and kindness, particularly to those in marginalized communities with long legacies of experiencing colonialism and other forms of structural oppression.

“But Poly Is a Latin Prefix; You CAn’t Claim It…”

Yes, poly is a prefix for dozens of words and it actually comes from Greek. Even the “poly” in the naming of Polynesia came out of super uninventive naming schemas (Polynesia means “many islands”). So? No one is saying the prefix needs to be eradicated. When talking about polycarbonate lenses, polygraphs, polygons, or polydactyl kittens, they’re not being referred to as “poly[s]” on their own. There’s the qualifier afterwards, but that is not always the case when talking about people. If someone states “I’m poly” you can’t immediately tell if they’re saying they’re Polynesian, polyamorous, polysexual, polyromantic, polygendered, or a host of other identity labels [without further context]. Heck, they could be a FEW of those labels.

So what we’re talking about here is clarity as well as empathy and willingness to listen.

Whether these Tumblr folks represent a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand, the questions remain the same: what are we, non-Polynesian “poly” people and our allies, going to do to provide clarity to our language and stand in solidarity with however many Polynesians want this change? More importantly, what does this situation, and the pushback from members of “the polyamorous community,” tell us about language adoption and resistance to change in our communities?

When people say this is “being politically correct,” they are trying to make basic decency into a politically contested issue and make it sound bad. Some people even think they’re brave if they’re politically incorrect, conflating deep-rooted anti-authoritarian work that seeks to dismantle structural power with, like, flipping the bird to someone on Tumblr talking about racism. Being a jerk and using oppressive terminology isn’t brave. Whining about trigger-warnings and “preferred pronouns” and “social justice warriors ruining fun” isn’t bold or radical. Saying we’re “coddling our new generations” and actually harming survivors of trauma by being more thoughtful is missing the point (and it’s not even medically accurate). Being unwilling to even consider a minor shift in language to give space for another community to flourish is not living in a space of goodwill.

So What Should We Be Doing?

As someone in the sexuality field AND a polyamorous person with a big tech geek streak, I value useful search terms and disambiguation. Heck, as a super Type A person that drools over nice spreadsheets, regardless of other sexual or racial identities, I think it’s crucial that we make the Internet an easier, more organized place to browse. I already avoided using “poly” online in any meaningful capacity  because it felt too ambiguous for searches and helpful tagging, and this debate is just another great reason to avoid it: because it’s a term that a racially marginalized community uses to self-identify and build community. If “poly” on its own works for them, more power to ’em. Even in sexuality-specific circles, using “poly” can be possibly misunderstood because there are other labels that start with poly- as well, so again, not the most useful.

Some have suggested “polya” or “polyam” as possible abbreviations that don’t conflict with usage by other groups. Personally, I think “polya” looks ugly as a word and makes me think of Dubya [never a good thing]. I feel “meh” about “polyam” but could see it as a better alternative, I guess. To each their own, and I won’t be adopting either of these abbreviations soon, but what I do advocate for is mindfulness around when and where we use “poly” to mean “polyamorous.”

Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Is the word being used in a space where the meaning is clear to everyone witnessing the content?
  2. Is using “poly” for “polyamorous” making it harder for another community to disambiguate and find “their own kind”?
  3. What impact does the term’s usage have on search results, tagging systems, and online spaces?
  4. Is the decision to keep using “poly” for “polyamorous” coming from a place of spite and thoughtlessness or from a place of informed compassion?

Personally, I will continue to use “poly” in private situations or verbal conversation where people know what I mean, BUT in tagging things online—a place where categorizing information is important, where people use those systems to search for others like themselves, and so on—I will use polyamory specifically and avoid “poly.” Again, this is work I was already doing, but something that is generally not a huge effort for folks to start doing if they hadn’t been. I encourage this level of specificity in others, for the sake of more than just random Polynesian folks on Tumblr.

But in regards to those “random Polynesian folks” on Tumblr, it doesn’t matter if most of us “don’t think about Polynesian people when we say poly” or that “our Polynesian friends don’t care.” While that may inform how radical our changes are and where we enact change, it shouldn’t mean that we ignore the issue entirely or dig our heels in the dirt because we don’t want to change. To questions of “couldn’t they just as easily pick a new tag/abbreviation?” my answer is just “maybe.” But when it’s a horde of predominantly White, Western polyamorists asking that question and refusing to consider where they may change, that says something.

At the end of the day, these are people asking for us to collaborate in making the Internet and its communities easier and better to navigate for all.

If you live in a place where you are guaranteed free speech, calls for space and respect like this aren’t censorship—they’re calls for consideration. You still have the power and right to make whatever decision feels best for you, but my hope is that you will prioritize the expansion of kindness and reduction of harm in the process.

One of my favorite poly-related words. This image by Robert Ashworth used under Creative Commons license. Click through for original.


Header image of Moorea in Polynesia shot by Loïs Lagarde and used under Creative Commons license. The only change to the image is that it’s cropped a bit differently.

Update 09/04/15: Poly as a prefix actually comes from Greek, not Latin as I originally wrote. Made the correction. I always get those mixed up because they’re both present in the full word [polyamory]. Thanks for the person that caught that!

Update 09/05/15: Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard from Polynesian folks on both sides of the issue. Some use “poly” while others don’t. Some think it’s useful while others don’t. Some use the ‘net regularly while others don’t. Interestingly, the “poly-as-Polynesian” definition got added to Urban Dictionary back in ’06. Anyway. I clarified a bit of language in the post, most notably in a sentence that could be interpreted in two ways and most people were reading it differently than I intended it [the one about calling something “‘poly,’ period”].

Orgasm Justice: Are You Entitled To Climax?

Header image source: Getty Images / Mic

If you’re a woman and listen to Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer, sounds like you should be! But is there more to the story? Read on to find out. My colleague Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote a piece on orgasmic parity and interviewed me for it, where she explained the impetus for the article:

Recently, both Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer have come out swinging for “orgasm equality”—namely, that when a woman has sex, especially with a man, she is entitled to an orgasm. Minaj declared in Cosmopolitan’s July issue, “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that.” Schumer told Glamour in the August 2015 issue, “Don’t not have an orgasm. Make sure he knows that you’re entitled to an orgasm.”

It’s a great article that raises many valuable points, including how some people use orgasm as a bargaining chip or power-play tool, and I’m so glad I was able to contribute to it. Alas, as often happens,  I had way more to say than could fit in someone else’s article, and so here’s an expansion on my thoughts, beyond what got used.

Orgasms: What Do The Numbers Say?

orgasm gap

Jessica Valenti, in an article defending “orgasm equality” and Nicki’s words, gave us the scoop:

According to the Kinsey Institute, while 85% of men believe that their partners had an orgasm during their last sexual experience, only 64% of women report actually having one. And the Cosmopolitan’s Female Orgasm Survey this year shows that only 57% of women climax regularly with a partner. Those numbers change a bit depending on who women are having sex with though – a 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine showed that lesbians had a nearly 75% orgasm rate.

Men across the sexuality spectrum, however, all reported around an 85% orgasm rate, and another study shows that 75% of men report always having an orgasm during sex. Every. Single. Time.

Nicki And Amy’s Rx For Orgasm: Too Prescriptive?

I bristle at most definitive statements about how people should exist in the world. Whenever I hear “always” or “never,” it sends up red flags in my brain because those words usually erase a lot of nuance and variability of human experience, and often go hand in hand with oppressive ideas. I can’t help but eye-roll when people, especially professionals and/or media darlings who have big platforms, use prescriptive language about how people should be having sex  or perpetuate the assumption that everyone WANTS to be having sex in the first place. Still: that doesn’t mean Minaj or Schumer’s comments are entirely off the mark or unimportant.

I believe that Nicki Minaj is speaking from a place of seeing societal orgasm disparities and trying to resolve them in her own life, then, at its core, giving advice to others to not put up with inconsiderate partners [particularly men] who demand orgasm but do not reciprocate. That’s the key message I think people should take away from her comments. I see her speaking from a place of empowering women, even if she isn’t doing it in the most nuanced or inclusive way, and suspect that’s also because she wasn’t giving a manifesto on the matter, but instead briefly commenting on it. The people criticizing her for being “demanding” or “not caring about the man’s feelings” are missing the point AND also contributing to harshly judging the words of women of color, and especially Black women, who are already culturally presented as “loud and angry” for even existing.

Honestly, I care less about if Nicki self-identifies as a feminist or somehow embodies “perfect feminism” for all [coughrespectabilitypoliticscough] and more about what she says and does, and what we can learn from her that supports our personal visions of feminism—and there is a LOT there to work with. As scholars, educators, sexuality professionals,  activists, whatever: our work shouldn’t be to undercut Minaj, but instead further nuance her statements and get at their roots rather than a superficial understanding, especially if we want to reach the people she’s talking to.

Similarly, Schumer speaks about body positivity, being deserving of love regardless of size, introducing partners to the marvels of the human clitoris, and not letting dudes get away with just ignoring her pleasure. But her entitlement isn’t exactly the same as Nicki’s stance that women demand orgasms, and Schumer’s feminism often lacks a critical race analysis  that Minaj consistently brings to the table. In fact, Schumer has shoved her foot deep in her mouth around racial matters various times and excused some of her actions by holding steadfast to her “feminist” label. Is Nicki perfect? Of course not. But as far as I know she’s not pretending that her feminist cred exempts her from messing up.

amy-schumer-race

Entitlement: Revolutionary, Oppressive, Or Both?

The idea of ensuring women’s pleasure without an underhanded agenda is a radical idea, period. Even the heading for the Cosmo article where Nicki was interviewed—that calls her demands for orgasm “high maintenance”—shows why such demands can be revolutionary in a society that teaches women to be servile; the idea of women putting their pleasure at the forefront and on equal footing to men’s is seen as “too much.”

Especially for women of color, and particularly Black women, that message is key in a society that also exploits our sexuality and makes us objects much more than subjects. Heck, this also connects to age and ensuring that sexually active young women learn how to achieve or at least communicate about orgasms from early on instead of wasting precious years of sexual encounters being too timid, uneducated, unempowered, or whatever to navigate those waters. [That said, I’m not saying it’s young women’s fault that society does a terrible job with sex education or empowering us.]

From a feminist standpoint, demanding orgasms makes sense. “We’re here, we’re horny, and we want to come!” But which women are doing the demanding and which women are prevented from doing so?

In a White supremacist society that hypersexualizes women of color and gives more overall bargaining power to White women regardless of how sexual they are assumed to be, Schumer’s call to be entitled comes from both her body-positive feminism as well as her Whiteness. For both Nicki and Amy, this also intersects with their able-bodied-ness. For women with physical disabilities, who are often desexualized entirely or fetishized by select groups of the population, being entitled to climax with partners intersects with a host of other issues, including mobility concerns and worries about not being able to even enter a partner’s house if it’s not accessible. [Check out the work of Robin Wilson-Beattie with SexAbled, Bethany Stevens with Crip Confessions, and Shanna K. (as well as her peer-reviewed papers) if you’re curious about that!] For Millenials [shout out to my generation!] who are already billed as “spoiled brats” or “lazy and entitled” people who “haven’t paid their dues yet,” demanding better sexual encounters also operates at an interesting crossroads of identities, including age.

So while there can certainly be strength in entitlement, as well as the ensuing action when things aren’t up to snuff, we must not ignore the structural barriers to being able to demand orgasms and the reasons why some people find it waaaaaaay easier to be entitled than others. In short: if we truly want life, liberty, and orgasms for all [who want them], we need to do a lot of social justice work, not just generic sex ed and feminist action.

Is Orgasm Equality Where It’s At?

As was mentioned by other sexuality professionals in the Bussel article, people’s understandings vary in regards to how orgasms happen in the first place, who is responsible for whose orgasms, the value of orgasms vs. the overall sexual journey, and if one can ever truly “give” someone an orgasm or if a better word is “facilitate.” Because of that variability, I don’t really care to focus on the “should you be entitled?” question once I have your attention. I’ll even let you in on a little secret: I actually don’t believe in orgasm equality. I think it misses the mark.

What do I advocate for instead? I believe in striving for pleasure equity and orgasm justice: pleasure, including but not limited to orgasms, for those who want them in the amounts they desire. It’s about giving people autonomy to figure out what they want from sex, the space to communicate it, and the resources to work toward it, not forcing people to have sex to fit someone else’s standards. It’s not about EQUALITY, which means SAMENESS; it’s about FAIRNESS. This graphic that has made the rounds in activist circles explains it perfectly:

equity-vs-equality

During sex, if orgasms are desired, I see them as the product of collaborative effort unless negotiated otherwise. I believe in sexy times where the goals are negotiated among its participants, whether that’s one or twenty one. Is the goal overall pleasure? Is the goal orgasm specifically? Is the goal stress-reduction before a big event, building intimacy, making a baby, making money, something else? Whatever it is, it can’t just be unilaterally decided.  Each person should measure their sexual satisfaction based on their reasons for having sex in any given instance, and goals can be multi-faceted and complex.

Reproductive Health and Teenage Pregnancy: Tips for Providers

Curious about updates to standards around contraception, reproductive health and teenage pregnancy care, and safer sex for adolescents? Here are my livetweeted notes + some slides from a webinar overviewing key evidence-based practices which streamline reproductive health and teenage pregnancy services for adolescents. The webinar also gave data on what teens need and what kind of behaviors they’re engaging in. Though aimed at medical providers, I think the session produced nuggets of information for all kinds of folks!

The Time is Now:
Adolescent Friendly Reproductive Health Care Webinar

Speakers:

Erica Gibson, M.D., & Judy Lipshutz, MSW, RN, NYPATH
Heilbrunn Dept. of Population & Family Health, Columbia University

Topics that were covered include:

Quick Start Contraceptive Initiation
Emergency Contraception
Pregnancy Testing
Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCS)
Expedited Partner Therapy (EPT)
STI Treatment

Did you know?

  • In 2013, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey said that over 60% of HS students reported using a condom at their last sexual encounter.
  • The average sexually active teen waits 14 months before seeking reproductive/sexual health services, and the catalyst is usually the desire for a pregnancy test.
  • The types of emergency contraception  in the U.S. include Levonorgestrel pills (e.g. Plan B), the copper IUD (e.g. ParaGard), & ulipristal acetate pills (e.g. ella).
  • In July 2014, the The European Medicines Association issued the following statement: “emergency contraceptives can continue to be used to prevent unintended pregnancy in women of any weight or body mass index (BMI). The available data are limited and not robust enough to support with certainty the conclusion of decreased contraceptive effect with increased body weight /BMI.”

 

The Neverending Story (A.K.A. The Ballad of Margaret Brooks and The CSPH)

I love open letters, especially humorous ones like those I used to read back when I was 13 years old and were aimed at celebrities like Tom Felton (who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series—don’t judge me). Coming in close second, my other favorite types of open letters are those that shed light on things that had previously been hidden in the shadows.

Today, an open letter went out—from Erin Basler-Francis, one of our champs at The Center for Sexual Pleasure & Health, to Margaret Brooks. (This is not the first time she gets an open letter like this, though the one I wrote years ago was much shorter and crankier). You should click over and read it, stat. Here’s some context:

The CSPH has faced a fair amount of adversity since its inception in 2009. Members of the Citizens Against Trafficking (an anti-rights, sex work abolitionist group) continue to harass staff and supporters of The Center, particularly regarding our outreach on college campuses. These bullies use both overt and hidden tactics in an attempt to delegitimize the importance of conversations about sexuality, pleasure, sex work, and sexual rights.

Most recently, Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks, director of the Economics Department at Bridgewater State University, sent a series of emails to the provost of Vanderbilt University using a series of red herring, slippery slope, and equivocation arguments as well as ad hominem attacks in an attempt to convince the school that it would be legally liable for sexual assaults that occurred on campus after the Study Sex College Tour workshop, “Brilliant in Bed.” While not the only protestation, Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks decision to use rhetoric causally linking pleasure focused sexuality education to sexual assault on campus is both inaccurate and insidious. 

We at The CSPH have chosen to address this issue publicly because the tactics used by Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks in this case are irresponsible and dangerous when the context of the climate at Vanderbilt University, as well as the current conversations around sexual assault, BDSM, and Intimate Partner Violence.

While part of me kind of wants to commend Margaret Brooks for her passion, it’s terribly saddening that it manifests in the ways it does and I cannot in good conscience do so. We shouldn’t stand for the bullying of youth, and we should also not stand for the bullying of adults at the hands of other adults. Obviously, if you’re working toward social justice and not ruffling feathers, you’re not making big enough waves (to, uh, mix some metaphors there), but man—the repercussions aren’t pretty, and we need to change that.

boston snow

Pictured here: the Snowpocalypse that’s as cold as the attitude from Donna Hughes.

It’s not like we haven’t reached out to Ms. Brooks, either. We’ve personally invited her and her crew to our events, and extended olive branches in the spirit of dialogue both online and in person, and none of them have been acknowledged or even accepted. In fact, we’ve been pretty straightforward and transparent in all our dealings. To her credit, I guess, she DID shake my hand once? This is when I was trying to show her I was a real person and not some nameless undergrad she could just bully without having to ever face. That is more than I can say for Donna Hughes (a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island—how appropriate, right?), who very much did not shake my hand when I greeted her and gave me a cold shoulder of Boston weather proportions. It was pretty epic. But I digress.

Margaret Brooks is the same person who (along with Donna Hughes and Melanie Shapiro) tried to get a slew of events (including KFAPVD) I organized at Brown University canceled while I was an undergraduate. This is the cohort that misrepresented SO many things about the work the Sexual Health Education & Empowerment Council (SHEEC) at Brown and The CSPH were doing. This is the person that sent countless emails to Brown’s administration (including the President) warning them of the “dangers” of these events, blatantly spread inaccurate/misleading information, and wrote bulletins claiming that we were to blame for a spike in young RI men contracting HIV. This is one of the people that made my time at Brown tough for a while, and made me have to watch my back really carefully.

On some level, I’m glad it started early so I could protect myself before things got too serious, and I’m very fortunate to consistently work in spaces that respect my endeavors and where I can be open about who I am and what I do, but many people aren’t as fortunate

This is the person that sent my personal Twitter account to professors and deans before it was something I shared as publicly as I do now. This is the same person that sent critique-laden, alarmist emails to my supervisors at Sojourner House—about my personal life and affiliations to organizations that believe in kink/BDSM education and reproductive justice—trying to possibly get me fired, and definitely trying to put me in hot water and endanger a health fair I was coordinating. Fortunately, I was out about my identities at Sojourner House, because if I hadn’t been, she would have outed me to the director and my supervisor, as well as other colleagues. That is not okay.

I am eternally grateful to all the professors, deans, staff, friends, and colleagues who were and have been supportive, understanding and wonderful throughout all this and its multiple iterations. You know who you are. Thank you for believing in me and in sexuality education. While Brown is a deeply flawed institution, certainly, I am incredibly proud that they institutionally backed up my right to hold the events I did, and supported my health and dignity during that process. I firmly believe I didn’t bear a bigger burden while I was an undergrad because I was still a student and thus not as “fair game” as professionals in the working world.

You know who was the fairest game of them all, and the original target? Megan Andelloux—one of the best and most hardworking educators in the field today. megan andellouxMargaret Brooks is the person that time and time again contacts places where Megan Andelloux and her close friends/colleagues present with scare tactics in efforts to squash their/our attempts at education. This bullying not only harms the institutions and their populations who are sometimes deprived of accurate sexuality education, but it takes a huge emotional toll on honest, hardworking sexuality educators and advocates who are trying to make the world a better, more sexually literate place. The case with Vanderbilt is not the first time this happens.

This is the cohort of people that tried to stop The CSPH from opening back in 2009/2010. The same cohort of people that have accused my colleagues of pedophilia because they believe in giving kids accurate sexuality information and answering their questions at whatever age they start asking them. This is the cohort that, under the guise of “academic” and/or “professional” writing used blatant inaccuracies and decontextualizations (not to mention shoddy record-keeping and citations) to “make points” about how, basically, we are The Worst.

As far as ethics and academic integrity, I would expect better from a Brown alumna/Economics professor and a Women’s Studies professor.

This needs to stop, and we need people to listen. We will keep doing the work we do because we believe in it, and these things are not going to stop us, but we are not made of steel. We are committed to bringing these issues to light, but remember—all this takes a toll. How are you helping break down this misinformation? How are you supporting the victims of bullying and stalking and professional attacks? If you’re not already, imagine having to watch your back constantly for people like this. Where will they be next? What professional gig will they try to wreck soon? What kind of misinformation will they try to spread? This is why we need to speak up and support each other.

50 Shades of WTF: A Livetweeting Experience (Book 1 of Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy)

Love it or hate it, the ridiculously popular Fifty Shades trilogy has spread like wildfire so it’s crucial that we take a closer look at what this story is actually about. (I know I’m about a million years late in writing about this, but with the movies coming out, it finally felt like the right time.) Take the plunge with me and look forward to word-counts, memes, alternate universe versions of the story, and actual tips. Read my Storify [here]. This is just one piece in a larger series of posts I’m writing as a lead-up to Valentine’s day, so get ready for more!

50 shades doge

When the Professional Is Personal: Calling Out the Whitewashing of the Sexuality Field [Updated 12/3/14]

NOTE: First time reader? Skip the text between the two horizontal lines below. Already read it? Most recent updates are summarized at the top but you can also see their expanded form within the text. Barring any huge developments, there will be no more updates to this post.


12/3/14: Further updates, in summary form: Reid [a contributor] wrote publicly about this (video is still forthcoming). His partner, Allison Moon (of Girl Sex 101 and Tales of the Pack) has written a post as well. Carl Frankel has once again revised his statements. Sadly, the process has still not been transparent. For the curious, here are the various iterations of it (and note the comment section): version 1, version 2, version 3, and the currently live page. Finally, for a variety of reasons, neither I nor WOCSHN as a collective are engaging with advising or collaborating on the Secrets of the Sex Masters revisions process any further.

12/2/14: Key updates in a new section have been added. Click here.


On first glance, 95% of people can’t tell I’m Latina, or that I’m bilingual—born and raised in Puerto Rico until I turned 18 and came to the continental U.S. for my undergraduate degree. My face adds exactly zero racial diversity points to pictures because I’m pale as heck, and due to my  knack for languages, I don’t have an identifiably non-Anglo accent. However, I identify as a person of color (POC), and more importantly, a woman of color (WOC) due to my ethnic and cultural background, as well as my political leanings and activism around these identities. That means a lot of things, particularly because even in POC spaces, colorism and anti-blackness still exist, and being Latina in the continental U.S. is very different than being one in PR.

So when I saw a recently-published book that highlighted 16 “sex masters” and noticed everyone was White (with no one bringing it up publicly), I figured I needed to do something as both a WOC and sexuality professional. (I didn’t focus on other oppressions because I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know more about the personal IDs of the contributors around axes like gender ID, ability level, etc. but maintain that inclusivity along these axes is also critical).

SOSM

If you know me, you know I’m an activist, but also pretty damn diplomatic, so regardless of whatever I was feeling, my first step was to publicly ask the author and some of the contributors (including some I consider friends as well as professional colleagues) what the deal was. This set off a chain of events that continues to be in motion right now, and I want to share with you. [If you’re looking for the official, collective WOCSHN response which I worked on with some fierce ladies, peep it here instead.]

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SFS14 Workshop Recap: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent”

Two-people-talking-logoMissed the Sexual Freedom Summit by @WoodhullSFA this past weekend? Fear not! I’ll be recapping some of the sessions I attended. First up: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent” by Andy Izenson (@andyeyeballs).

Overall, I want to commend Andy for a wonderful session. He managed to strike a good balance between hilariously personable and serious, all while providing useful information and having us directly practice some of the concepts through engaging activities (AND giving space to not participate for those who hate activities and/or may be triggered by ones specific around consent). I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to judging presentations, and I had a lovely time.

While I don’t think everyone left the session with the same delicious taste in their mouth (especially not the cisgender white man who probably felt attacked when he mentioned that a way for people, and particularly women, to stay safe was to do things like “not go into the dorm room of college guys if they’re drunk,” and there was a palpable sense of rage in the room), I’d venture to say 95% of folks felt good about the workshop. Curious to hear more? Check out the workshop description to start:

This workshop will take participants through an understanding of the current state of and conflicts around sexual consent in the law, within activist communities, and in their own practices. After last year’s workshop focused solely on personal practice, this workshop zooms out to take a wider view of what it means to commit to fighting rape culture on multiple fronts. Participants will have opportunities to learn and practice positive consent strategies in their interpersonal interactions, and takeaways enabling them to empower the members of their own activist subcommunities to speak up and connect against abuse and assault. The session’s goals are to allow participants to experience consensual empowerment in a safe environment and learn strategies for spreading that empowerment throughout their own work.

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Loving My Job Doesn’t Mean You Get to Exploit Me (Or “Why My Time & Work Ain’t Free”)

Illustration by http://melaniegillman.com/

Illustration by http://melaniegillman.com/

“DWYL” & The Intersection of Capitalism/Sexism

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” –a glimmering promise of joyous labor that’s fun 24/7 and somehow secretly “not work.” Miya Tokomitsu thinks the “intoxicating warmth” of that line’s promise must be critiqued:

“Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

This idea of “not-work work” creates a cycle that enables many employers to exploit their employees (especially in nonprofits doing social services/justice-related things) because they rely on the workers’ “love of their jobs” or “passion for social change” to offer low wages, never give raises, demand outcomes incongruous to the hours being paid, and more. As someone who works “doing what she loves,” but is frustrated by the ideas that “if you love it, it’s not work, and thus you shouldn’t charge for it,” I cannot stress enough how timely and important this article is.

Tokomitsu drives the point home even further, explaining how this disproportionately affects women and is embedded in sexist notions of labor and “whose job it is” to do certain activities:

Yet another damaging consequence of DWYL is how ruthlessly it works to extract female labor for little or no compensation. Women comprise the majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce; as care workers, adjunct faculty, and unpaid interns, they outnumber men. What unites all of this work, whether performed by GEDs or Ph.D.s, is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it. Women are supposed to do work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all, they’ve been doing uncompensated child care, elder care, and housework since time immemorial. And talking money is unladylike anyway.

“Come On, Anyone Can Do That!”

When people think “pffft, anyone can do that” about fields like art, caregiving, and education, they erase the level of preparation many people have to get to actually do those things well. Yes, there are things “anyone can do” to an extent, but the results/quality will vary widely. This often happens because people think they understand a field and assume they can do just as good of a job (which is often untrue). This happens to me with sexuality education all the time.

While I fully support popular education methods, community skill-shares, and decentralizing power (especially in fields that get increasingly professionalized at the expense of including the affected communities in their own healing/work), those strategies fulfill a very specific need. Sex education, particularly in school settings, is not just something you can wake up one morning and do with the same level of knowledge, grace, and skill as someone who has invested a lot of time and resources into their preparation.

Social media is another prime example of this issue. Many people are ON social media and think that automatically gives them “expertise” to do high-level social media management and content strategy. Yeah, no. Just being able to boil some pasta and mix it with cheese doesn’t make you a chef either.

Like the image at the top of this post points out, though, these kinds of attitudes are are RARELY directed at medicine, chemistry, and pretty much any STEM field (which BTW are male-dominated, surprise!) because society places those bodies of knowledge on a pedestal and presumes (or knows) they take a great deal of technical knowledge. Especially in regard to STEM fields (since some people don’t even want to touch those areas with a 10-foot pole out of fear), even relatively simple tasks are seen as impressive because of that fear and ignorance. Not to say chemistry is a piece of cake or that neurosurgery is just like teaching a room full of students, but that we must acknowledge the complexity and nuance of fields that are socially considered “soft” and are also often associated with women.

On The Other Side Of Sex Education Programming

By the time I graduated from Brown University in 2011, I had a slew of campus event organizing experience. As the chair of various groups, I coordinated a large number of events to promote wider dialogue and education around sexuality issues. My set of tasks included being the liaison with outside speakers and negotiating prices to bring them to campus. Looking back on it, I realize how underpaid some of the speakers were.

In fact, sometimes I actively haggled prices down so I could make the events more attractive to the funding boards and so we could put on more events. Part of that was just because of the way certain groups and events got funded and my desire to do as many educational activities as possible, but I also think that it’s related to not fully grasping the type of work and hours that can (and often do) go into delivering a stellar college workshop or lecture. Now that I’m on the presenting, rather than the college organizing, end and I also work for a small organization that does training/education on sexuality, I have a more informed perspective about these issues.

When your eyes widen at the prospect of a speaker asking for $2,000-$5,000 for a presentation, think about that for a second. When you hire consultants and freelancers, they often have to charge more per hour and per project than organizations because you are hiring them sporadically instead of putting them in a long-term, stable position with benefits they can rely on. When independent sex educators are pricing their work, they have to think about things like:

  • their past/present/future professional development and education
  • having to (often) pay for their own healthcare and insurance(s)
  • time spent preparing their outlines and materials (which can involve a great deal of research)
  • expenses related to travel (food in new places, places to stay, transportation itself, time spent away from home-base, etc.)
  • expenses to make the presentation worthwhile (e.g. purchasing new PowerPoint or Keynote themes, buying props, mailing items to the presentation location, paying for extra bags on airplanes, etc.)
  • fees taken by booking agencies if they don’t handle all their bookings/gig logistics

On top of that, educators doing the college circuit have to think strategically about where they speak and how much they charge so it can be sustainable. Student organizers often want to bring in other speakers too, and schools aren’t often willing to pay someone to come annually & speak to the “same” student body, so educators can’t always count on that money being stable from year to year. Think about all the other offers that might be competing for attention, too! Especially if someone is in really high demand, they’re not going to take 20 low-paying gigs instead of 20 high-paying ones, so they will prioritize the things that make sense and/or money.

Please note: this doesn’t apply to everyone 100%—there are people who consider themselves sex educators with little education and grounding in the field beyond personal experience (I’m not saying you need a degree in sexual health to be able to speak about these topics, but that some people think that taking one class in college or one workshop somehow makes them An Expert in All Things Sex). Not every sex educator reads through medical journals, uses fancy slideshows, spends hours preparing for their presentation, or combs their work for racial diversity and inclusive language. There are also people with stable income who just do sex ed on the side every so often and don’t have to deal with some of the things above.

What’s more, there are also people out there who “drive down the market” in other ways—who shamelessly spread misinformation, steal workshop titles and materials from other sexuality professionals, and actively try to lasso work away from people who already have it by saying “Hey, I can do what [insert name of presenter usually does XYZ] does but for way cheaper!”  TL;DR: Some people will charge “a lot” for a presentation and it will not have been worth it and it will not be backing up any of the things I said above.

That being said, you know what the reality is, spoken from the event-organizing end? If you are amazing at what you do, many places will find a way to pay you. If you command a decent price-tag and aren’t wishy-washy (note: being flexible isn’t the same as being wishy-washy), many places will respect that and just get you the money. When I had speakers who haggled with me, we haggled. If there were speakers I really wanted who had a firm price tag, I just bit the bullet and dealt with it (or didn’t bring them in because we just didn’t have the money at a given time).

But It’s Not That Simple!

I don’t want to place the blame on educators and speakers for “undervaluing themselves” as if there were no other relevant factors here. I also don’t mean to imply that there’s some magical level playing ground where all sex educators get equal opportunities. Outside from a passion for sexuality issues, a love of teaching, and an imperative to give back to their communities, some educators shift their prices down because they’re not in a financial position to decline, and/or because they’re just starting out and don’t have enough professional experience or clout to ask for more. The advice of “just decline events that don’t pay you what you’re worth, stop underselling yourself, you’re hurting the field” is busted (plus it’s classist, racist, and homophobic in its assumptions and implications).

For folks who are part of minority groups, this is can be especially tricky. For example, due to things like racism and homophobia, many LGBTQ/POC speakers are:

  • offered less money from the get-go
  • are passed over in favor of white/straight folks, all other qualifications being equal
  • get trapped into offering their work at a lower rate so it will even be CONSIDERED (this also affects people tackling “unpopular” or “niche” subjects such as, say, the intersection of sex and disability)

So often we even have to fight and make special deals/packages to get certain topics addressed because they aren’t seen as pressing by the dominant group (e.g. discussions of LGBTQ people in the domestic violence sphere). It’s seen as our duty, or perhaps as our “privilege,” to be able to educate and train organizations on things like being sensitive to gender and sexuality minorities, when it should be recognized as valuable work as well as a social justice imperative.

LGBTQ/POC speakers often get shoved between a rock and a hard place—we either do the work for less than we’re worth or it just doesn’t get done. We either compromise ourselves and our livelihood for our communities and visibility of certain issues or they remain invisible and silenced. Add all this to the fact that many LGBTQ/POC folks are already battling with impostor syndrome due to lack of positive media representation and messed up social messages about the value of our work, and is at all surprising why this problem exists? This needs to change.

Not The First (Or Only) One To Say It

I’m not the first one to say some of these things. In fact, Jill McDevitt just posted about how she gets asked to do her work for free or “for exposure.” Hanne Blank has written about how “Jesus doesn’t pay her rent” (in reference to a deacon’s ignorant comments about her work as a professional singer) and there’s even a depressing/amusing Twitter account devoted to highlighting this kind of cycle, particularly in the art world.

My friend Chihiro also wrote about this and shed some light on the costs behind artwork:

Don’t ask your art friends to draw something for you for free. If we give you a gift it’s because we are generous and like you; it’s not an invitation for free art requests.
Don’t try to haggle too much, because when we price our work we have to factor in materials fee and hours we spent. If you’re skeptical, just ask us to break down the prices because we will happily do so. You may be surprised to learn a single sheet of archival drawing paper can be $13. Or that it takes well over an hour to build a frame, stretch canvas onto it, and prime the surface (gesso, sand, gesso, sand, gesso, sand… Yes this is all before a painting can even begin!) Some quality oil paints are $35 a tube (that’s not even the most outrageous price either.) If an artist requires a studio, that should be factored in too. You’re not just paying for a pretty image. Pretty images don’t come from thin air. Time, space, materials, skills, inspiration… remember what you’re paying for and maybe think of the money you spend on other things. (…)
If you can’t pay them at least offer an exchange or services. A lot of us are trained with over a decade of expensive schooling too, just like doctors!

In Conclusion, Don’t Expect My Time & Work for Free

It’s not that I’ve paid all my dues or that I’m done doing work for pro-bono. I will always strive for sliding scales, for accessibility, and for working with/for my communities. I will always understand fledgling organizations, niche topics, and the #strugglebus. However, I’m pretty damn good at what I do, and I’ve put (and continue to put) lots of money and tons of effort towards my [continuing] education and expertise. Just like you wouldn’t expect a doctor to do surgery on you for free, don’t just expect my work for free. Sometimes I WILL give it for free and volunteer my time, but it’s not something anyone can or should demand. As Hanne so eloquently put it:

[When] artists, myself included, make our work available for free, as I do in this blog, we do it consciously knowing that we are giving it away.  That’s our right as artists.

Just like your neighbor has the right to give you some of hir homegrown tomatoes — the ones sie nurtured and watered and weeded in the hot sun — if sie so chooses, just like a lawyer has the right to work pro bono for a cause sie wishes to support, just like a bricklayer can spend hir day off building a wall for Habitat for Humanity if sie desires, an artist has the right to give others access to some (or even all) of hir work for free.

No artist, however, has an obligation to give others access to hir work for free.

I strive to balance paid and unpaid projects in a way that makes sense for me and leaves me feeling good about paying it forward and leveraging my areas of privilege for the greater good. This means, though, that I do have to say no to certain projects and even have to turn away friends because there’s just not enough time in the day to Do All The Things for Everyone Who Asks. I love helping people and teaching, but please consider the requests you make and how (in)appropriate they are. If you’re asking that I take an hour or two to teach you about a topic, or counsel you about your relationship that’s in shambles, or read your manuscript for something—don’t be surprised/hurt if I say no or tell you I’d have to do it for a fee/barter. (Seriously, don’t underestimate the magic of bartering. I’m all about that.)

Death Salon LA: A Recap

death salon skullIf you know me well, you know I like me some creepy things. I used to park myself in front of the Discovery Health Channel, watch Disney’s So Weird as a kid, and browse websites for tales of the supernatural. During my gawth intellectual phase, I listened to Cradle of Filth, googled all the fancy words and characters in their lyrics (e.g. Gilles de Rais, Erzulie, Lillith, Faust, Walpurgis, and so on), and ended up writing a term paper about Elizabeth “The Blood Countess” Bathory. I even thought I wanted to become a forensic scientist of some sort once I graduated high-school.

Instead, I ended up going to Brown University and concentrating on gender and sexuality studies, but the passion for these issues lived on. Nowadays, this interest in the “creepy and dark” manifests more obviously in things like my love of the TV series Hannibal, unique earrings (e.g. baby doll arms, a bobcat’s jawbones), and the history of medicine. I’m still entranced by mortality, rituals, bodies, and how we deal with all of these, so it must have come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues when they heard I was attending Death Salon LA.

After avidly consuming tons of posts from The Order of the Good Death website (finding it via the founder’s Ask a Mortician series on YouTube), I heard about this event and promptly freaked out with joy. I immediately told one of my colleagues (the inimitable Megan Andelloux, or “Oh Megan”) who shares my fascination with these topics. After some deliberation because our schedules were pretty packed, we booked our trips from Rhode Island to Los Angeles and got ready for a weekend full of intellectual stimulation.

In just one day at Death Salon LA, I learned about demonic semen transfer systems, the mortification of female saints, cadaver saponification, decorated Bolivian and Peruvian skulls that are said to be miraculous, the mummified Capuchin hanging wall friars in Palermo, the democratization of images via post-mortem photography, anthropomorphic taxidermy, anatomical Venuses, St. Bartholomew’s flayed skin that he held as a sash, death cabarets in 20th century Europe, and more.

The experience was wonderful and illuminating, and it balanced subjects so there would be something for everyone. Still, there was definitely a big emphasis on gender and sexuality, which I obviously really appreciated, and the interdisciplinary, multimedia approach catered to a variety of knowledge levels. I’m terribly excited to see where it goes from here, and though I probably can’t go next year (it’s in Europe in 2014), I’m looking forward to it in 2015 when it comes to Cleveland.

As a demonstration of my obsession with documentation, and as a means to share information with those who couldn’t attend this year, I tweeted up a storm while I was there, and upon returning to RI, crafted a recap of the media bits I nabbed in LA. You can check out the 2 days’ worth of relevant images, tweets, and pieces I corralled:

You can also see the version posted on the official Death Salon website. I was sadly unable to attend all the events, so I wasn’t able to recap the Atlas Obscura trip to a local cemetery or the Death Salon LA Soirée with death-themed food and drinks. I’ll leave you all to dig up those resources, no pun intended.

Mayhem Around the World: A Roundup

Inspired by a Tumblr post, I decided to expand and succinctly contextualize some of the mayhem going around in the world right now. The following is a corrected and much expanded version of this postworld globe

Brazil: Massive Nation-Wide protests and riots caused by, among other factors, monetary focus on the World Cup and Olympics instead of the well-being of the populace. Government happily destroys important monuments and displaces indigenous folks from their homes to make way for things like parking lots.

Russia: Government creates laws against “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” (the vote is 436 to ZERO), people protest (and get abused by anti-gay individuals), and the Human Rights Watch reports that anti-gay violence spiked once the bill started getting considered in January.The law imposes significant fines of up to $31,000 for providing information about the LGBT community to minors, holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships” (source). Also, the Duma approved a law that criminalizes blasphemy with a 3-year prison term for anyone who organizes an activity or stages a performance that aims to “offend religious sensibilities” (on the heels of the whole Pussy Riot debacle, in “which three members of the feminist performance art group Pussy Riot were tried and two of them sentenced to two years in a penal colony for staging a profane performance in an empty church that hurt no one and caused no material damage”).

Venezuela: Massive protests and riots caused by elections that put Maduro in the presidential seat by a narrow margin and people claim it was due to fraud (here’s another source, too). However, after the recount, the National Electoral Council still says the results of the audit corroborated Maduro’s win (CNE). Either way, it is a way closer race than some people expected and sounds like the government might be shifting for future elections.

Greece: Trans* people and sex workers are being rounded up in internment camps, and the health minister has condoned forced HIV tests conducted by the police. Some of the folks who have been detained and found to be HIV+ have had personal identifiable information (including names and photos) published in the media “to protect public health.” And this isn’t counting the many innocent individuals that have been jailed for being “presumed prostitutes.”

tumblr_mpbym0DqrS1qmrux5o1_500

The awesome TX Senator Leticia Van De Putte who also participated in the filibuster and uttered the now-famous line she’s printed on her shirt.

United States: Republicans in Texas aim to pass draconian abortion law (SB5), give media incorrect information about its passing after a 13-hr filibuster, and change online records to fake time of voting, despite the bill being voted on after a deadline and being protested by both the people and a state Senator. (TL;DR: SB5 didn’t pass, but a special session has been convened and further actions will happen after the holiday weekend). Protests at the senate growing, and law enforcement called in. Also, and  even MORE importantly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been gutted and states that used discriminatory practices to bar poor people, immigrants, and people of color from voting no longer have the same restrictions placed on them re: changing voting rules. People will have to prove claims of discrimination AFTER the fact. Less than a few days after the gutting (and in some, after less than 24 hours), several states changed their voting regulations without needing to clear it with any higher authority. Finally, on the LGBT front, tons of reports of anti-gay violence are coming out, and my eye is on New York City (check out the NY Anti-Violence Project’s reports and blog section for more details.)

Australia: Julia Gillard is dumped as prime minister and leader of the Australian Labor Party, while previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is reinstated.

Turkey: Protests escalate as people fight back against state-violence (including violence against the press) and “Erdoğan’s increasingly assertive Islamist administration,” sparked by protests against the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The government violently cracks down on the dissent, detaining even the medics who were trying to treat the protester’s injuries.

What else is going on, folks? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a place to start.