Tag Archives: sexuality

$1 Books: Strolling Down a Strand Sale

One of the beauties of New York is that once you leave your apartment and start walking, there’s a good chance that within a few blocks you’ll stumble across something cool. My intention for this morning was to scurry over to an appointment not quite a mile away, then return home to catch up on Mad Men before tomorrow’s season premiere. Along the way, I ended up ambling through a street fair (1 free shampoo sample now tucked in my bag), crossing a bike tour that had closed down 4th Avenue to cars (good riddance), and spotted row upon row of full bookshelves on the sidewalk outside the Strand: a one dollar sale. Swoon.

So, instead of heading back to my couch, I spent an hour browsing the shelves, pleased with what I found. These are three of my fav politically-bent purchases:

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, Jessica Valenti

ThePurityMythLargeI’ve been dying to read this book by Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti ever since a “Shameless Self-Promotion” popped up on that most awesome of feminist blogs in March. (And now that I’ve graduated college, I occasionally have free time for non-required reading!) Despite my very tight intern-on-a-stipend-soon-to-be-unemployed budget, I even felt a touch guilty about picking it up for only a dollar, since the book deserves full-price support. In any case, from the flowers on the cover to the concept of a “Post-Virgin World” (the title of the final chapter), I’m utterly taken with my loot. I’d like to share the first paragraph of the introduction, which makes half-a-dozen fantastic points in four sentences:

There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality–and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls “going wild” isn’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity–the idea that such a thing even exists–is ensuring that young women’s perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on them being good people, and not on whether or not they’re sexually active.

Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us, Carole Joffe

A swift trip to Amazon advises me that this slim volume has yet to be released; what I’m holding is an uncorrected proof (which, in all honesty, makes me feel special).

A postscript discusses the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, gunned down in his own church, making the publication of this book tragically good timing. (Need to vent tangent: I may be a staunch atheist, but I still have far more respect for places of worship as sanctuaries than the so-called Christian who confessed to killing Tiller.) I’m particularly concerned with this subject after having interned at a think tank that monitors the right-wing, Political Research Associates (an enlightening/scary/depressing learning experience), under Chip Berlet, who has authored a number of excellent pieces on the Tiller murder. (And the timely report Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating.) I’m sure I’ll be talking more about this topic in the future.

You Don’t Know Me: A Citizen’s Guide to Republican Family Values, Win McCormackRepublicanSex

I figured I needed a light-hearted read after that last one–so why not a book that “details over 100 cases of sexual misconduct by Republican officials, office holders, and ideological supporters.” Okay, so it’s still a little depressing; after all, these are the “family values” politicians who are destroying our country. But, hey, at least we’re laughing through the pain.


Filed under Arts, Feminism, Reproductive Justice

Hair, Girl Scouts, and War

Sunday, at a performance of Hair on Broadway, I sat in front of a troop of 13-year-old girl scouts taken by surprise by the full on-stage nudity that closes the first act. Listening to the concerned (yet giggly), troop leaders discussing what they would tell the parents back home, and asking which of the girls had written down this musical as their suggestion (no one owned up), I wondered if it was as age-inappropriate as they thought. Or, more to the point, what about it was the most serious, shocking, saddening–meant for a mature audience.

My play-going partner this weekend was my mother, who’d seen Hair for the first time in the summer of ’68, a time when it’s racy content launched even greater waves. But it’s not just the sex (or the drugs) that makes this musical so subversive. I never managed to submerge myself in the colorful, playful fun of Hair, pulled by its underlying current of the Vietnam War–a war that was still underway when my teenage mother saw this play. Continue reading

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Filed under Arts, Iraq War, Sex

Dictionary Deficiency: Defining Sex

Labels can also be misleading.  I saw a news report about a lesbian protest march, and the reporter said, “Coming up next, a lesbian demonstration.” My first thought was, “Cool.  I always wondered how those things work.” -Michael Dane

Last week, a queer friend told me she’d had sex with a woman for the first time–and it was good. Laughing and congratulating her, I realized after hanging up that I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.

The next time we talked, I waited through a couple minutes of small talk, and then asked: so, how does that work? One open conversation and half an hour of Googling later, what people mean by “sex” remains hazy.

When I started looking, I thought the main problem with the terminology was heteronormativity. And maybe a little reproductive-normativity too: penis + vagina = ability to make babies = sexual intercourse. Some definitions do recognize that sex doesn’t always involve a mixed set, conceding that sex can involve other forms of genital contact, but that still wasn’t perfectly satisfying.

My friend determined that she considers sex between two women fingering or oral–or, if you’re bringing toys into the equation, intercourse involving dildos. But, I asked, would you consider fingering or oral sex with a guy, well, sex? No…well maybe yes on oral…and then we brought up sex between two men and whether that would be anal, or oral, or hand-jobs…and got more confused. What it came down to in this case was that she and her partner orgasmed, that it was her first such experience with another woman, and she was excited by the contrast to with a guy.

Wandering the internet, I found a lot of confused LGBT and straight individuals asking similar questions about what sex means, or whether they’ve “lost their virginity.” I despise this particular phrase, with its connotations of innocence and purity and this idea of loss, rather than a gain, in sexual experience. But what about dropping the term virginity and wondering: did I just have sex for the first time?

In asking what sex means, I was asking the wrong question. Let’s take another term: hook-up. On a G-rated level, to “hook-up” can mean to get together and hang out. But when you say you hooked-up with a hottie the night before, the assumption is something a little more sexual—but how much so? At times it doesn’t mean much more than kissing; in other usages, it can mean fingering, or oral, anal, or genital sex—with many shades of seriousness, clothing, etc. The same person night to night uses it to describe different situations.

When a person qualifies what they mean by “hooking-up,” it might be for the sake of a more detailed, interesting story amongst friends. We like to tell people the good things in our lives, and, despite societal taboos that might keep us unusually quiet on the subject, sex is no exception. I had a great time dancing last night—I had a great time fucking last night.

However, often, especially for straight women, the qualification is to say, “oh, but I didn’t have sex,” to avoid–what? Being called a slut? Easy? The vagueness of the term “hook-up” is one of its perks—you don’t TMI friends who maybe don’t want all the details. If you’re not in the mood to give the gripping details of what exactly happened last night, then hook-up should suffice, sans defensive qualifications. (I’m not so sure what the situation is for straight men–if you prefer to claim sex, for macho points–or for queer men and women, on where the virtues of the chastity-to-stud scale lie.)

In any case, the weight we put on “sex” is too heavy a burden. It’s not just about heteronormativity; one of the things that fascinates me, comparing my generation (we’re the Millennials now, apparently) to my parents, is the perception of oral sex. Even in the time of free love, oral sex seemed generally considered a more intimate sexual act, while today, blow-jobs are on the serious side of hooking-up, but often as standard “instead-of-sex” fare. So is oral sex really sex? More than? Less than? This question applies whether you’re straight, bi, gay, trans, whatever–but does it matter?

The concept of sex (in bold) ties in with our cultural Puritanism mingled with sex-obsession (ever a nation of opposites and hypocrites, America), fundamentalist religion trying to turn it into a battleground of sin.  The fun of sex is—well, doing stuff that’s not so easy to define. Or the multitude of ways to define it.

What can sex be? Talking with my friend, I didn’t get a clear definition; however, like Michael Dane, I wondered how that worked, and my question got me a better understanding of what sex could be. I tend to be less concerned about TMI and more interested in people openly discussing sex—so we can find a multitude of (Ecstatic? Deep? Playful? Leather-requiring?) answers to what sex can be.

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Filed under Queer issues, Sex

Back to School: Let’s Talk About Sex

When I was 12, a guest speaker presented on the merits of flavored condoms to an auditorium full of giggly 7th through 12th graders. I recall him saying his personal favorite was grape.

It wasn’t all fun and flavors though–as one of the lucky kids who received comprehensive sex ed, I actually learned how to have sex and be protected. But a huge swath of the country gets the short shrift.

 Thanks to religious fundies and the Bush legacy, abstinence-only education has increased, and so has the teen pregnancy rate. Abstinence ed has been an excellent sex in convincing students there’s no point in using condoms–while they’re having sex just as much as ever. Oops.
Looking around, I always wonder what people know about sex. How many people had been told, still believe, that the condom failure rate is 30 percent? Or how about the gender stereotypes abstinence educators love to dish out–like boys have natural urges and girls must be chaste? Does that seem like it prepares people for healthy, safe sexual interactions, in a frat basement, or a bar, or anywhere?
Plus, my sex ed was pretty good, you know, for America, but it left a whole lot of questions–ones I didn’t even know to ask back when. So I was intrigued at discovering an adult sex ed programs, Our Whole Lives, a project of the Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ. While the program is designed by two religious groups, they chose to keep faith out of their discussion of sexuality–there’s an optional companion book on faith–and since Unitarian Universalism is one of my favorite religions, I’m curious to see just how good their program is. Maybe I’ll be buying a new textbook soon.
I’ll leave you with a fairy tale from the abstinence-only curriculum “Choosing the Best.” It goes something like this: knight saves princess from dragon. Princess gets into the same dangerous situation; this time, the damsel in distress offers her savior advice on how to kill the dragon, and does so again when the situation repeats a third time. Though her suggestions work, the knight’s manliness has apparently been undermined, so he goes off and marries a village maiden with no recommendations on how to kill dragons.
“Moral of the story: Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.”
That’s right, young women: even if you’re about to be eaten by a mythical flying beast, shut up and let the man do his job on his own. You might become a tasty snack, but at least you won’t get dumped. Three jeers for abstinence ed.

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Filed under Sex