Monthly Archives: June 2006

One step closer to vaccinating girls against cervical cancer!

This morning the New York Times reported: “A federal advisory panel voted unanimously yesterday to recommend that all girls and women ages 11 to 26 receive a new vaccine that prevents most cases of cervical cancer.” Yes!! Hints of sensible sex-related policy-making! (Click here for a list of New York Times stories about HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, to see just how controversial this has been.)

The vaccine, Gardasil, prevents four strains of the HPV virus which are, collectively, responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancers and 90% of all cases of genital warts. But in order to be effective it has to be given before the person is exposed to the virus. Because so many people have HPV that this means giving the vaccine before sexual activity begins. (In another recent story, the New York Times reported that in the US 20 million people are infected with HPV each year, and that by age 50, 80% of women have been infected).

That’s why this recommendation is so important. By recommending that all girls and women ages 11-26 be given the vaccine, the advisory panel recognizes and accepts as real that girls are sexually active and should still be protected, and it brings the federal government one step closer to committing funds to provide those vaccines for poorer people. (Cervical cancer disproportionately affects the poor because so many middle- and upper-class women get regular Pap smears which can detect abnormal cells so they can be removed before they turn into cancer.)

Problems will arise when it comes time to address the question of making the vaccines mandatory. The vaccine, made my Merck, is “more expensive right now than all other childhood vaccines put together,” says John Schiller of the National Cancer Institute (quoted in today’s New York Times story). Also according to the Times, many states already struggle to provide the vaccines they currently mandate. In addition, while some conservative groups have either supported or not taken a position on the vaccine, others are vocal in opposing making it mandatory. Linda Klepacki of Focus on the Family, quoted today in the Times, explains the opposition thus: “You can’t catch the virus, you have to go out and get it with sexual behavior.” Previously she has been quoted in the Times saying, “We can prevent it by the best public health method, and that’s not having sex before marriage.” The problem, of course is that the person you marry might also be infected.

There is only a small amount of talk about men in all of this. If women are getting infected through sex, of course many men must also be infected. Merck intends for Gardasil to eventually be available to boys and young men, but, ironically, couldn’t get approval as quickly as it did for girls and women because it had a hard time getting men to agree to be studied. See the last paragraph of this article from the June 9, 2006 issue of the New York Times for an explanation! Which leaves me with a question:

If women need to have regular pap smears to help protect them from cervical cancer, why don’t men have to have regular penis filings to protect women from cervical cancer?!

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Kink is fine as long as you’re married?!

The July+August issue of Mother Jones (one of my favorite magazines) contains an item about web sites for Christians seeking sex advice and sex toys. Those sites raise an interesting question about what “counts” as sex-positive.

The article begins with two quotes, one from the Song of Solomon, and one from a Christian sex toy web site (Book22.com) that itself refers to a Christian sex/marriage community bulletin board and advice site (TheMarriageBed.com). In characterizing the advice given on The Marriage Bed, JoAnn Wypijewski writes, “They must shun porn, but are commanded to pleasure. they may enjoy oral and anal sex, toys and fantasies, “mild pain” through spanking, biting (so long as nothing becomes a fetish or substitutes for intercourse, and couples fantasize together, of themselves married and forsaking all others).” In addition, she writes, that Christian couple should feel free to “slather their skin with chocolate body butter and Happy Penis Massage Cream, restrain each other with silken bonds, use blindfolds and swings, vibrators and pierced-tongue stimulators, penis extenders and dildos (though not those molded after real flesh). All this may be theirs if they are straight and married.” She even describes an essay written by one of the founders of The Marriage Bed (the husband of a husband/wife team) that encourages wives to strip for their husbands, and finish by masturbating to orgasm while he watches.

And therein lies the problem. While I want to rejoice that Christian couples are getting good sex advice and affirmation of their desires for pleasures of many sorts, there is no getting around the prohibitions against extramarital sex (which, in every US state aside from Massachusetts also means prohibition against sex with somebody of the same gender, though that is explicitly prohibited for good measure), or sex that involves even fantasizing about extramarital sex. This can’t be sex-positive, and yet I want to be happy that these people who are devoted to their faith are at least getting advice that allows for sexual fulfillment within the oppressive boundaries of their doctrine. Yet if, as Wypijewski suggests, that means usurping “a vocabulary of desire that owes everything to gay liberation’s unlocking of sex even as they slam the door on the notion that gays and lesbians have any right to sexuality,” if it means exploiting gains in sexual freedom that came as a result of enormous risks taken by those who are then explicitly excluded from basic civil rights by the very people doing the exploiting, this can’t be considered positive even in the most generous of interpretations.

In presentations I’ve given, I’ve described ways of thinking about sex as fitting into conservative sex narratives (no sex outside of marriage, and then a restricted notion of appropriate sex which is geared toward reproduction and marital duty), liberal sex narratives (where most consensual sex is okay as long as it takes place in a loving, and preferably monogamous, relationship) and sex radical narratives (where all consensual sexual activity and identity is okay, period.) It would appear, from this article, that the conservatives are using language from the liberal and sex radical narratives but inserting them into the conservative sex narrative. Is this a way to draw the uncertain back into the Christian fold? Is it a way to help keep committed Christians happy in their marriages? And how unjust it is that many of those who opened the door to this kind of freedom are still being stigamtized and shut out of basic access civil rights by those very powerful Christians who are probably enjoying vibrators and bedroom strip shows!

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How (not) to close a strip club

There are many stories of communities resisting the opening or operating of strip clubs and those communities are often successful in pushing clubs out of areas where they could operate relatively safely and into areas where they are less able to do so. Some zoning rules limit strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses to industrial zones and other spaces where there is little other nighttime activity, or where the other nighttime activity is also likely to contribute to rowdiness and disorderly conduct. Anonymous areas off of highway interchanges come to mind. While driving from New York to Georgia last December, my partner and I noted how often as we crossed state lines, there would be a zone of marginally legal activity — Fireworks!! Live Nude Girls!! — that seemed unowned by the “decent” people in either state.

Yet, as New York City is finding out, zoning clubs into industrial areas does not make them less likely to be associated with crime. Sweet Cherry, a club that the New York Times has printed no fewer than three articles about in the last month, operates in a perfectly legal spot, and has been with at least three murders, either directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, clubs that are operating in violation of the controversial zoning rules that the city has been defending for several years tend not to be associated with crime problems (partly, I’d argue, because they are in busy retail/commercial areas which, in NYC, are also often residential areas and are places where lots of people are paying attention).

The most recently article by the Times indicates that Sweet Cherry has finally been closed, but not as a result of zoning rules. Rather it has closed as part of a plea deal that will resolve several criminal and civil complaints. Not all strip clubs are associated with crime. Studies by researcher Daniel Linz and his colleagues have demonstrated no greater number of criminal complaints around strip clubs than around demographically and economically matched areas surrounding non-strip night clubs. Clubs that generate criminal complaints ought to be investigated. Club owners who participate in or enable criminal activity ought to be prosecuted, as should any club employee or patron who commits crime. Clubs that cannot operate within the law ought to be shut down as a result of their violations. But the law itself should not create a situation where crime is likely to occur. That is what NYCs current zoning rules would do if enforced.

Hosting sexually oriented businesses on busy main streets in our own towns would be healthy for our communities and for the businesses. In addition, it simply isn’t fair to push the meeting of our erotic needs off on other communities.

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Should violent offenders have to register separately?

In my last post I made reference to violent offenders being able to live where sex offenders cannot. This apparently is not true everywhere! In Illinois, apparently, people convicted of violent crimes against minors have had to register on the sex offender list when they get out of prison. They have been subjected to the same restrictions that sex offenders have been living with. Illinois General Assembly recently passed legislation that would require these violent offenders to register on a separate list. An Associated Press article on the Yahoo! News page noted some interesting reactions:

1. A recently released convict is relieved that he will be able to get off the sex offender registry. He says “It’s a big weight off my back” when explaining his relief at only being considered a violent offender (this may in part be because people on this new list will not be subject to the same residency restrictions as sex offenders).

2. An advocate for sex offender registries believes that they are more effective when plain old violent criminals are not on them: “Somehow if it’s not (only sex offenders), it takes away the impact and the ability for the community to really recognize the type of danger that they’re dealing with,” she said. (Note to self: It’s much more serious to be sexually assaulted than to be murdered as a child).

And it’s also interesting that only those whose violence is directed at children who will be required to register. Assault an adult and you serve your time and its forgotten. But if you’re 19 and you beat up a 16 year old, you go on the list.

What would it take to get sensible, consistent policies passed that put sex, violence and lifestage in rational perspective?

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The absurdity of sex-offender free zones

This morning’s New York Times reported that a judge in Georgia has temporarily blocked the state of Georgia from enforcing a law preventing sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a bus stop. According to the very brief item, there is virtually no housing where sex offenders could live without breaking the law, and this would result in making approximately 9,000 offenders and their families homeless.

Some questions about the Georgia law:

1. Why prevent only sex offenders from living in a neighborhood? Why not burglars or batterers or murderers as well?

2. How will this law really make children safer from sexual violence when so many instances of sexual violence are unreported, thus not resulting in the perpetrator being registered on any sex offender list, and when so many instances of sexual violence are perpetrated not by strangers but rather by trusted acquaintances?

Even if the Georgia law is ultimately revised or overturned, there are private attempts to do the same thing. The Kansas City Star reported on June 13 about a private housing development where registered sex offenders would be prevented from buying homes and where homeowners who were later convicted of sex offences would be fined each day until they moved. The article talks about a similar development in Lubbock, Texas.

This is more evidence that we treat sex differently than anything else. Here we’re treating sex crimes differently from all other crimes. If a person murdered a child he or she could move into the development or live near the bus stop, but if a person was instead convicted of fondled a child he or she could not. Which is ultimately more harmful? Why do we believe that sex offences are so much worse than any other kind of crime?

And another question to consider, and one that will come up again in future posts, I’m sure: why do we treat all claims about “protecting children” in the public sphere as if they are virtually unquestionable? I will blog about this in the future, but I will say here that I think our ability to protect children is reduced, not strengthened, when we give way to moral panics about the harmfulness of strangers.

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Sex is like food

It’s not quite cliche but it is hardly original to say that “sex is like food” (just google the phrase to see how many other people think sex and food have something in common). Sex is part of everyday life, is sustaining of life, and is a source of pleasure. People eat to sustain themselves but also eat because they enjoy the sensual pleasures of food. And yet we talk about food much more easily than we talk about sex.

And sex is also like conversation: it is a way of communicating with lovers, with partners, with strangers, with ourselves.

Yet, for all that sex is like food, or like conversation, we don’t have a culture that supports treating sex like either of those things. We share recipes, we sit down over dinner together with friends and we talk about all kinds of things, but we don’t tend to share sexual experiences as openly.

This is especially clear when looking at how news stories about sex-related topics treat sexuality, sexual activity and people who put their sexual desires and experiences out there in the public square. While we’re a society where there are fewer and fewer sexual taboos, we still stigmatize lots of kinds of sex.

I have an agenda. It is a goal of mine to make sex something we treat in much the same way as we treat eating or conversation: as an ordinary part of everyday life, as a “normal” form of social interaction, and as something to be discussed easily, freely, and without guilt or shame. I’m glad I’m not alone in working on this agenda. The blogroll and links associated with this blog will take you to other voices that also want to open up sexual discourse and bring honest talk about sex into the public square.

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