Monthly Archives: September 2006

Condoms are Style-ish!

I know I’m late with this, but I was resisting writing about a Sunday Styles feature because I have this thing about the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. Actually, it’s a thing about the Times: Why do they need TWO style sections. There’s the Sunday one and the Thursday one. Isn’t that rather a lot of emphasis on style? (Disclosure: I do like the Modern Love feature.) But really, how many Labor sections does the paper have? How many Working Parent sections? Let alone that most of the products and lifestyle habits that are featured are way beyond reach for most New Yorkers, let alone most Americans. The median household income in New York is $49,480 and it’s a few thousand dollars less than that in the US as a whole. (That means half of households have incomes less than that!)

So I have to thank Viviane for reminding me about what is a nearly unique event: a feature in the Style section about a product that is inexpensive and that is useful for people regardless of socioeconomic status: the condom!

Now, of course it was about condoms on university campuses, not condoms being distributed on the street, but hey, it was condoms, and they were being given away for free. (And to make the Styles folks happy, there was a photo not of a condom, which, once opened has nothing to distinguish one brand from another, but of a Durex magazine ad with a cut out “penis outfit” free to anyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of the ads and a pair of scissors. (Note: Scissors are for use with penis outfits only, not for use with condoms.)

Then, I talked with my mom. I have a really cool mom. My mom, who reads my blog and often argues with parts of my posts, still encourages me to write whatever I want. Anyway, my mom pointed me in the direction of this article in the Daily Pennsylvanian (the newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania). Apparently, Penn buys 50,000 condoms per year (Lifestyles). What do you suppose that budget line looks like? (I’m sure they get a discount.) My mom’s first take was “Penn Students can buy their own condoms! Imagine if those condoms could be given out on the street!” (It’s no wonder where I get my social justice sensibility.) But then she talked to a resident adviser there who said, essentially, “Yeah, they can buy them, but then they forget where they put them, or leave them in their room. We leave them out all over the place so there’s no excuse not to have one.” Hmm. In any case, Penn isn’t talking about how much it spends on condoms. I suspect it gets some donated, and the rest at a discount as the Times piece indicates.

And I thought back to the New York Times piece, which also said that some condom makers, like Trojan, hire market research firms to rate colleges’ in their Sexual Health Report Card, which is a very unscientific survey of college sexual health programs and ease of access to — guess what — condoms. Yale ranked number one, with Princeton and Stanford in the top 10. Penn was not in the top 10.

An Ivy League Condom Competition, perhaps?

Postscript: I included links to the condom brand web sites because I had no idea how complex they’d become. They’re certainly not just about condoms! For one thing, they all sell vibrating cock rings. The rings are battery powered and will vibrate for 20 minutes and include a condom. They also sell other “performance enhancing” products, lubes, and offer sex and relationship advice. They have games and trivia. I had no idea the marketing of condoms had become so sophisticated! I would love to hear from people about how they choose their condom brand.

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Cheryl Chase is Absolutely Right

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine contained an article by Elizabeth Weil titled, “What if It’s (sort of) a Boy and (sort of) a Girl?” that outlined the debate about whether or not doctors should surgically change the genitals of intersex children to better match the gender assignment they are going to be given. The article doesn’t do a great job of really addressing the nuances of that question. For one thing, a large block quote spanning the first two pages of the article asks:

“Will a child grow up to have a better life if he or she has surgery? Or will that child be better off if he or she is loved and accepted, at least at home, exactly as he or she is?”

And then, unfortunately, it spends nearly no time actually describing the adult lives of intersex people, the difficulties in measuring the quality of life, and nearly escapes entirely without addressing the role of sexual pleasure in adult life, something which the genital surgeries being debated most certainly impact.

But the article does a nice job in its profile of intersex rights advocate Cheryl Chase and her work as founder of the Intersex Society of North America. Chase, and intersex adult herself, has spent the past decade talking to groups of doctors, parents, genetic counselors and anyone else who will listen, trying to convince them that they ought not surgically alter children for cosmetic reasons, and that children should be raised with love, and with a gender assignment, no matter what their genitals look like. She argues that these surgeries are most often done to make parents more comfortable, and that parents’ comfort should not come before the child’s chance at a healthy adult life. (Again, sex lives are not very explicitly mentioned, but that is certainly part of what’s at stake here.)

This would seem to be common sense. You can imagine the voice of the intersex infant if only it had a voice. Please don’t cut off my clitoris or reduce its size without my consent. Please don’t cut off my penis because it appears too small or my genitals are ambiguous, and please don’t try to create a vagina for me out of intestinal tissue. Please wait until I’m old enough to decide whether I’m happy as I am or want to change my body. But the infant doesn’t have a voice and the adults who will determine her care are prone to thinking about gender and sexuality and bodies in ways that are pretty inflexible and pretty bound up in the idea of that bodies and identities and labels must all neatly align themselves and they must fit a too-narrow two-category system.

I wrote a few months ago questioning the idea that gender is binary (that there are only two options and that they are opposites) and the idea that it is biological. Gender is about much more than genitals. And the appearance of genitals seems to take on a special kind of significance that the appearance of other body parts does not take on which is especially puzzling given how infrequently we show our genitals to others in this society.

There were a couple of things that I think the article missed and that I want to put out there. They sort of run underneath the narrative of the article in an unspoken kind of way, but fears about them are obvious in the framing of the article.

  • Transgender and transsexual identity occur in people regardless the external appearance of their genitals, regardless their chromosomal makeup. Surgery on an infant is not necessarily going to suit the identity that is formed as the child grows up.
  • There are no “perfect” genitals. The fact that we have a medical definition of the acceptable length of an infant penis should be shocking to us! Does the length have anything necessarily to do with the sexual function of the organ? Can it still get erect? Can it still transmit pleasure sensations? Can it still be a conduit for sperm, should that be so desired?
  • Attitudes can be changed and people can be taught how to challenge bigotry, so that the fear of what will happen to this child in the locker room at school, for example, should not be cause for early and potentially devastating surgical reshaping of the body.
  • Sexual health and sexual pleasure are important parts of human life and should not be relegated to some low or unspeakable status when determining a person’s health care options. This is true for adults (we should always be willing to ask how a given treatment is likely to affect us sexually, and then to consider those effects carefully before giving our consent to a treatment) but it is also true for children who are even more vulnerable because it is so difficult for us to acknowledge that they are sexual creatures.

For more information on intersex the ISNA web site’s FAQ page is a good place to begin.

For information on transgender, try the Gendertalk web site.

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Is “abortion” different from “embryo disposal”?

It was a Saturday morning and I was walking down a street I’m rarely on when I saw the men and women with rosary beads and heard them softly singing the words, “this is the day that the lord hath made.” I thought it seemed strange. There was no church nearby. Then I noticed the storefront in front of which they stood was actually the entrance to the women’s health clinic on that street. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I was immediately defensive and angry. I wondered if these people came every Saturday to hold their vigil here. You see, this is a clinic that offers abortion services in addition to all the other women’s health services it also provides.

As I walked home I found myself thinking about several articles I’d read recently about fertility clinics, unused embryos, and the ethical issues surrounding their storage, disposal, or use in research. And while stem cell research has certainly generated a fair amount of controversy, the other two issues seem to be largely ignored in public discourse, and are left out, entirely, of the still-raging fights around abortion. And I thought, why on earth are these protesters not outside of fertility clinics.

Fertility clinics create way more embryos than will ever be implanted. And they also allow for screening of embryos for gender and for genetic abnormalities (with the assumption that some will be rejected). Given that these procedures result in a tremendous number of embryos that will be destroyed, why are we even talking about abortion as a controversial issue? Why do we still have to fight battles to protect the right to safe and legal abortions?

The framing of the various ways that embryos are destroyed is very instructive:

Fertility clinic destruction of embryos is framed as an unfortunate but necessary outcome of helping generally heterosexual generally married couples to have children.

Abortion is framed in terms of helping women (the discourse rarely focuses on couples) to avoid having a child.

So, destroying several embryos to make sure that a woman can have a baby and fulfill her dream to be a mother is acceptable. Destroying a single embryo to make sure that a woman who does not want to have another child can fulfill some other dream is unacceptable.

Hmm. Kristin Luker made the observation 20 years ago that abortion politics are really a referendum not on abortion per se but on women’s obligation to be mothers.

They are also a referendum on the freedom to enjoy sex without the intention to procreate. If you have sex without intending to reproduce, and you accidentally get pregnant, you are supposed to “face the consequences,” by carrying the child to term. If, on the other hand, you want to reproduce and are having trouble, you can create unwanted embryos and dispose of the ones you don’t use.

It is time for policymakers and judges to be consistent. Procreators should not have rights that non-procreators don’t have. The termination of an unintended pregnancy should certainly not be considered a criminal act if the destruction — or eternal suspended animation — of intentionally created embryos is seen as a medical necessity.

For an interesting scholarly article on the disposal practices of fertility clinics, click here.

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Sex and compassion

Sex can be many things. It can be an expression of love or of desire. Of devotion and commitment. It can be a way of knowing and a way of communicating. It can be a selfish act or a sacrifice. It can be given, taken, bought or sold. It can be an act of violence. And it can be a source of healing.

An old friend has been suffering. He’s not from New York but once in a while we get to sit down together, face to face, and have time to catch up on our lives. His health is fine, but much of the rest of his life is very difficult. The suffering has been long-standing. The difficulties are complex and solving some leads to others. I listen, and sometimes I have something helpful to offer by way of insight. More often I just listen.

And quite often, while I’m listening, a part of me is thinking, “let me take you to bed.” I want to have sex with him. Not out of lust, and not out of pity. Not because suffering is a turn-on. Not out of a need to “fix” something. Not apologetically. Not to take advantage. The desire to take this man somewhere quiet and slowly undress him and lay hands on his body is intrinsically linked to the outpouring of compassion that I feel when we are sitting across from one another. This is not a “poor thing” kind of compassion, but a “let me show you how good you can feel” compassion thing. A “relax and enjoy this” kind of compassion thing.

I think sometimes people can become so used to feeling bad that the bad feelings come to seem neutral and they forget how good they can feel. Sex can be a way of healing, of remembering how to feel good and being reminded that people care about us. This is not a new idea. Sex is a way of connecting back to the pleasure of the body, the pleasure of touch, the excitement of eye contact and deep communication of desire. The indulgence of warm smooth hands on cool skin. The opening of the self. The feeling of being engulfed, consumed, penetrated, filled. The becoming. The release of orgasm and the feeling of being fully seen – recognized – acknowledged – known – cared for by another human being.

This is not a self-sacrifice kind of healing. There is real pleasure – physical and emotional pleasure – in bringing compassion and connection and restoration to another person. There is a sense of power, perhaps, but not “power over.” There is pleasure in being trusted. There is a sense of self-indulgence as well. A taking of pleasure in one’s one body while bringing pleasure to someone else. There are the simple pleasures of sex.

If only it could be left at that. And I suppose it can, but so often it isn’t. Often sex often becomes complicated. Linked to anxiety. Fraught with unintended meanings. The having of it can threaten our pre-existing relationships. Somehow something irrevocably changes and those changes are unpredictable and not always pleasant.

And then there are all of the cultural prohibitions against promiscuity and the messages about what it means to be “faithful.” And these things can keep us from getting close to one another, or even feeling safe with one another. They can make us afraid of admitting the depth or the reality of our caring for other people. It doesn’t need to be so, but it is difficult to challenge so directly the dominant cultural attachment of sex to romance and then to marriage, or to longtime commitment to something “more” than simple compassion and human connection.

If I were braver, I would do what I have not done – I would reach out to this man. I would say “I want to take you away, just for a few hours.” I would say, “Trust me. Relax. Enjoy.”

But I have not done this. I am not brave enough in the face of my fears.

And it is not just the fear that our relationship would change that needs facing. It is not just the fear of disapproval that might come from others if they knew. It is partly a fear of entanglement. A fear that what I want to offer might not be enough. A fear that sometimes there can never be enough.

And these fears keep many of us from acting compassionately in non-sexual ways as well. They keep us from offering money, from offering time, from caring too deeply or too consciously.

There are so many barriers keep us from compassionate action. What does it take to make us feel safe really connecting with one another and caring for one another? What kind of trust? What kind of faith in ourselves and in each other?

And how should we decide when it is right to compassionately offer sexual connection?

I would like an answer to that question before the next time I see my friend.

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The perils of posting naked pictures if you have tattoos, are not thin, and are married to the chief of police

“SNYDER, Okla. — The police chief, the mayor and a councilman in Snyder resigned Friday amid an uproar over nude photos of the chief’s 300-pound, tattooed wife that she posted on an adult Web site”

I caught a glimpse of this story while I was out of town recently. The wife of the chief of police in this small town posted nude photos of herself on the Internet, on an adult web site, and those pictures apparently outraged “dozens” of the town’s residents, who demanded that the police chief resign. He initially refused and, while the DA said the photos shown to him were “obscene based on local community standards,” the city council had supported the chief’s wife saying that the photos were protected by the first amendment. As a result of the hoopla, her husband (the police chief), the mayor, and a city council member all resigned their jobs. The chief and the mayor resigned over the criticism of the chief and his wife. The council member resigned because he didn’t want to be associated with those criticising the chief.

Let me be clear: Three people lost their jobs — and no doubt their families are suffering economically and socially — because “dozens” of people were offended by some naked-woman pictures. This is outrageous.

I’m angered by this story. First of all, if the photos were on an adult site, then whoever found them was also browsing adult sites. Why should it be okay for the viewer to view but not for the poster to post? And so what that the poster’s husband is the chief of police. Is his ability to do his job curtailed in any way by his wife’s use of an adult web site?

Then, worse, as if it weren’t bad enough that this woman’s nude photos were used against her husband at his job, the paper emphasizes the wife’s weight and tattoos. Why were those details included. Would it have been different in the eyes of the towns people if she had been 5’7″ and 130 pounds, with no tattoos?

The chief himself is quoted as saying, “My wife is 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds. If there is somebody that thinks they can control her, have at it. I have tried for 11 years and haven’t been able to.” Apparently the criticism of the townspeople accomplished what the chief claims he couldn’t do. The 43-year-old woman — clearly an adult — took her photos down as a result of all the negativity.

“Local community standards” often reflect the standards of a vocal minority. In this case, they reflected the standards of “dozens” of vocal residents in a town of 1,500. Did the others remain quiet because they agreed, and thus found no need to speak out? Or did they remain quiet because it is too difficult to support something that is being loudly condemned as “obscene”? The latter seems much more likely to me, given the numbers of people who quietly cruise the Internet for sexual connections or information or stimulation.

In the end one person’s freedom was curtailed, unnecessarily and unjustly, by the outspoken voices of a few and the silence of many. And many others received a clear warning that, should they consider posting photos of themselves, they will be considered outcasts in their community.

This might seem to be trivial to some who say, “look it’s only a bit of nudity and it isn’t that important,” but this silence is the same silence that makes it so difficult to fight for the rights of sex workers, of gays and lesbians, of BDSM practitioners, and others who explicitly challenge the dominant sexual culture. In fact, I’d bet that the vitriol spouted in this case was all the more venomous because this was a woman — the wife of the chief of police — who was counted on to visibly support that restrictive dominant culture. If such respectable folks continue to make public their departure from that dominant sexual culture, even in the face of such criticism, imagine how quickly it could be replaced by something much more interesting!

I wish the police chief had not resigned, and that his wife had not pulled her photos. I wish they had posted more photos, perhaps together, and challenged the “dozens” and the DA. But given the norms of silence and repression it’s easy to understand their fear. It’s a difficult cycle to break. And it must be broken if we are all to be able to conduct ourselves as adults, openly and unafraid. We need cultural change and legal change, neither of which will be easy to achieve.

Sex bloggers and sex-radical writers who make what is assumed to be private public are certainly in the vanguard of this change. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is fighting too. But more of us need to challenge the silence by speaking up for ourselves an by speaking up for those, like Doris Ozmun and her husband, who are stigmatized and publicly condemned for using what should be every person’s right to sexual expression.

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New look.

I’m trying out a new WordPress theme. It’s called Pressrow. What think you? Use the “drop me a note” link to the right or leave a comment.

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Condoms for prisoners in CA! (Almost)

Last week the New York Times editorial page supported California’s bill allowing condom distribution in state prisons (but I didn’t get to writing about it until now because I’ve been out of town).

The bill is good, but it doesn’t go far enough — it ought to mandate condom distribution and the making available of HIV testing — but it’s a start. Governor Schwartzenegger should sign this bill, not only because it protects prisoners, but also because it protects their partners once they’re released. Those who nearly killed the bill on “moral” grounds need to understand that it is immoral to endanger the general public by releasing men from prison who are sexually active, uneducated about HIV, unaware of their HIV status, and who unintentionally put others at risk. Protecting the public health through HIV education, prevention and testing for prisoners is a moral imperative!

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