Monthly Archives: October 2006

The Alternatives to Marriage Project and Supporting Family Diversity

I just read a post at Pandagon that was in reaction to an article in USA Today. The article spotlights the Bush Administration’s “abstinence only” programs and the ways that they are now targeting not just kids but unmarried adults. You can read the post at Pandagon here and the USA Today article here. The outrageousness of directing “abstinence only” money and energy at unmarried adults is not what I want to focus on here.

What I want to focus on here is the work of an organization I learned about because of reading the USA Today article. That organization is called the Alternatives to Marriage Project, and its mission statement reads:

The Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP) advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who are single, choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage. We provide support and information for this fast-growing constituency, fight discrimination on the basis of marital status, and educate the public and policymakers about relevant social and economic issues. We believe that marriage is only one of many acceptable family forms, and that society should recognize and support healthy relationships in all their diversity. AtMP is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

I support this project because I believe it is unjust that our society reserve respects and rights for only one family arrangement: the heterosexual married couple. It is unjust that the social contract between individuals and the state is strongest for those who accept opposite-sex marriage as the framework around which to organize their lives.

Click here to sign on to the Alternatives to Marriage Project’s “Affirmation of Family Diversity,” which reads:

We believe that all families should be valued, that the well-being of children is critical to our nation’s future, and that people who care for one another should be supported in their efforts to build healthy, happy relationships. One of America’s strengths is its diversity, which includes not only a wide range of races, ethnicities, creeds, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations, but also a range of family forms. One family form is marriage, and we agree with the newly-formed “Marriage Movement” that marriages should be supported. What worries us is the mistaken notion that marriage is the only acceptable relationship or family structure.

More than one in three American adults is currently unmarried. Policies that benefit only married relationships routinely exclude this considerable percentage of ordinary people, whose lives and families do not fit the married ideal upheld by the marriage movement.

The family diversity that exists in America today includes people who have chosen not to marry and those who are prevented from marrying, such as same-sex couples. It includes people who have chosen to live together before marriage (the majority of marriages today are preceded by cohabitation) and those who are single. It includes older people and disabled people, who may risk losing needed benefits if they get married. And it includes children, half of whom live in a family structure other than their two married parents.

We believe it is essential to recognize, embrace, and support the family diversity that exists today. Stigmatizing people who are divorced, punishing single parents, casting stepfamilies as less-than-perfect, shaming unmarried couples, and ignoring the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are not positive approaches for supporting families. Many opponents of diverse families misrepresent and oversimplify both the history and research on which they base their claims. The picture that is painted by these opponents is bleak. In reality, however, there are millions of happy, healthy unmarried families. The challenge is to find effective approaches to supporting these successful families, as well as the ones who are having difficult times.

We believe:

  • that discrimination on the basis of marital status should be prohibited
  • that policies designed to help children should focus on supporting all the types of families in which children live
  • that laws and policies should be changed to allow for the full range of families to be recognized (this includes domestic partner benefits, family and medical leave, hospital visitation, and survivors’ benefits)
  • that more research is needed on unmarried relationships and families, so that we can address their needs directly
  • that same-sex couples should be able to choose marriage as an option
  • that there is much we can learn from the countries around the world that have already taken steps to recognize diverse families
  • that the challenge that lies before us as a nation is how to support ALL relationships and families, not just married ones.

Let us not forget how many people were oppressed, humiliated, and stigmatized during historical eras in which it was considered unacceptable to be single, divorced, or gay. We celebrate the strides we have taken in recent decades towards making the world more supportive of the vibrant diversity of families that exist. We support principles that work toward creating happy, healthy, loving relationships and families for all people, married and unmarried.

And while you’re there, check out their resources on polyamory, cohabitation, living single, domestic partnership, and other topics of interest to those who don’t, or can’t, marry.

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Filed under Advocacy, Info, and Activism, Family, News and politics, public discourse, sex

Back from Oakland — and there is a “there” there

It is 10:00 Monday night, October 30th. In one hour I’ll have been back on the ground in New York for an entire week. It seems like I got off the plane at JFK, blinked, and a whole week has passed. I’ve had a difficult time adjusting to being back in New York. I love living in New York. This isn’t going to be an anti-NYC rant. But while I was in Oakland I had the time to relax and reconnect with myself — my whole self — in a way that I haven’t been able to do in a long time. In fact, in preparing to spend a week with Wendy, my close friend in Oakland, I realized that one thing I miss about the time in our lives when we lived in the same state was the way that my life was so much more clearly integrated then. So I went to her with a project and the project was to reintegrate my mind and my life. To remember how to stop privileging one part of my identity — the professional part — over all the other parts. It worked beautifully in Oakland, of course, but has been harder to maintain here, where that part lives. In Oakland there were friends and other people who had connections to other parts of my identity and experience — the sexual parts, the contemplative parts, the meditative parts, the political parts, the communitarian parts — and who did not have any immediate connection to my professional life, so it was easy to let that professional part of me recede a bit into the wallpaper and let the other parts of me step out onto the floor. Now, back in New York, I want to find room for all those parts of me to be active and visible. I suspect blog entries in the future will explore this working toward greater integration.

Meanwhile, my time in the Bay Area was not spent only meditating on inner harmony. My first four days were spent at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association. It was a great conference, and my favorite session was led by Lisa Duggan of NYU‘s American Studies program. The session was called “Queer Victories” and featured one of the smartest people I’ve ever heard speak: Anna Marie Smith of Cornell University’s Government department. (She had an agenda very much in keeping with Queers for Economic Justice.)

Then I moved on to my friend’s house and discovered that there was much more to Oakland than the area around the major hotels and Jack London Square. Oakland is a great place to spend some time. It’s a different place than it must have been when Gertrude Stein said “there is no there, there.” It’s got interesting neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, and on Lake Merrit, which is a fantastic walking place, it’s even got pelicans! pelican on lake merritt And it is very easy to get in and out of San Francisco using public transportation. The ferry is cheap –5:50 each way, and the ride is wonderful. The BART is cheaper, and easy to navigate. If you’ve never been to Oakland, do give it a try.

If you go to Oakland, I recommend Arizmendi, a co-op owned bakery/pizza place (locations in San Francisco, Oakland and Emeryville), a walk around Lake Merritt, and, in Jack London Square I recommend taking in the view of the container port Port of Oakland, Sunset Container Ship Loading , and then having a drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon heinolds first and last chance saloon (Heinold paid for part of Jack London’s college tuition, and London did some of his writing at the bar there), and the treat yourself to dinner at Il Pescatore. There are fantastic farmers’ markets in Oakland, and a lot of interesting political activity as well.

In San Francisco, you have to see the Women’s Building in the Mission. It hosts all kinds of advocacy, support and information resources for women (topics range from immigration help to education support to day care resources to BDSM lectures and workshops). The outside is painted with spectacular murals. Women's Building It isn’t far from Good Vibrations — a company I have known via their mail order business for years. It has recently ended it’s existence as a co-op and has become a profit-sharing corporation, but the feel of the store is exactly as one would imagine it to be if one knew it’s web site and mail order business: clean, bright, well organized and uncluttered store with relaxed, helpful and relatively informed staff. It’s homier than Babeland here in NYC and larger than Grand Opening, which had been favorite sex toy store in Boston, but has recently closed, and a Good Vibes outlet opened in its place. Also in the Mission is Modern Times, a collectively owned bookstore, and repository of all manner of printed work from radical political tracts to well-used copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Also in San Francisco I had a wonderful dinner with my friend Wendy, Carol Queen, her incredibly warm, sweet, and sexy partner Robert Lawrence, and a new friend of theirs whose privacy I won’t intrude on by naming. I hadn’t seen Carol or Robert in seven years and in the intervening time a mutual friend had caused a great deal of trouble that I very much wanted to talk to them about. It was helpful to hear their sense of the whole matter. I also learned about the new space the Center for Sex and Culture is about to move into — or about the two spaces they are considering — and I can’t wait to get back out there in the Spring and see how the new place is doing. Carol and Robert are amazing people. Chris Hall calls them parent figures to the kinky community in the Bay Area and I think that practically speaking he’s right. But they’re so much sexier and friendlier than parent figures!

While thinking about sex-related spaces in transition (Good Vibes from co-op to profit sharing, CSC from one location to another) I also got to learn a bit more about the troubles at the Lusty Lady. They are struggling to find a balance between democratic process and power trips and to survive as a co-op and the outcome of that struggle is not clear. I wish them the best and hope that they can make the democratic, worker-owned peep show thrive!

I returned to NYC to disturbing news and to good news:

The Foley scandal emails were originally posted on the Internet by a staffer at Human Rights Campaign. That story broke just after I returned. It hasn’t gotten a great deal of attention, and HRC fired the employee as soon as they discovered what he’d done, but I can’t imagine that the revelation does much good for the cause of gay rights on any level.

New Jersey’s highest court didn’t rule that marriage was constitutionally available to same sex couples, but did at least rule that the legislature had to find some way to create equity between same sex and opposite sex couples. (For the ruling itself, in PDF form, click here.) This is something, but not enough. And really, marriage isn’t enough either. As Anne Marie Smith pointed out during her wonderful presentation at the ASA, to focus on marriage — especially when focusing on the sharing of benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits — is to ignore the needs of many married and unmarried people whose jobs afford them neither.

At the same time as the marriage debate rages, the New York Times reported that fewer households than ever before contain married couples. For the first time, historically in the US, the percentage of households containing a married couple dropped below 50%. Interesting. Of course people are still tending to marry, but they’re doing it later in life rather than earlier. I wonder what the impact of ‘abstinance only’ sex education will have in combination with this trend!

Some things I’ve been thinking about while away and plan to blog about soon:

  • Are kids today really losing their childhoods and growing up too fast, as some people suggest, or are they growing up to slowly and extending their adolescence too far into their young adulthood? Do they need more protection or less? More freedom or less?
  • How can we best support efforts to destigmatize sex work?
  • How can we improve access to emergency contraception and to abortion services where they are still legal? And how can we best keep them legal?

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Off to the West Coast

I have not abandoned my post, but am out of town for the next two weeks. I’m in Oakland and San Francisco for a conference and to do more research for the book I’m working on. This space will not be updated and I’ll have sporadic email access, so comments might not be moderated very quickly.

Three stops on my agenda are the Lusty Lady, the Center for Sex and Culture, and Good Vibrations. (The Lusty and Good Vibes are both worker-owned co-ops, and I love worker-owned businesses. In addition, the Lusty has been having some new troubles of late.)I do hope you’ll do two things for me while I’m away:

1. Let me know about things you think I should do or see while In Oakland/San Francisco.

2. Let me know what sex-in-the-news stories or cultural conflicts catch your attention while I am away. Please use the “drop me a note” link on the right.

If I get your suggestions for things to do and then do any of them, I’ll blog about it when I get back. And your story-alerts will serve as blog-fodder as well!

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So hard to talk about, but we must get it right!

It is so important that we get questions of sexual policy right. The Mark Foley scandal demonstrates how hard this is for us to do. It is so important that we be able to talk about sex offenses, about age of consent, and about sexual harassment in the nuanced terms that those discussions require. If we are not about to talk in reasoned and nuanced ways, we will continue to find ourselves faced with policies that result in ridiculous outcomes.

Some examples:

Imagine for a moment that I’m 17 and my partner is 22. (This was the case in my first serious sexual relationship, and I was fortunate to have such a wonderful partner to introduce me to heterosexual intercourse!) In many states we would be within our legal rights to have a sexual relationship. I would be of an age to consent. And yet, should my partner send me sexually explicit messages using the Internet, he or she could be in violation of federal law. And should I take a nude photo of myself and give it to my partner, he or she could be in violation of child pornography laws.

Does this make sense?

And, a person who is arrested and found guilty of public urination in some states lands on the sex offender registry (for lewd behavior). That person, while not a child sex predator, will be stigmatized by his registry status and might be prevented from living in vast swaths of some towns. And many laws that restrict the movements or actions of registered sex offenders don’t specify level of offense, though some do. Now let’s assume this person was a father out with friends at a baseball game when he took a leak on his way to his car. Not only is he affected by his new status as a sex offender, but his wife and kids are as well.

Does this make sense?

Here’s the problem. We can’t have reasonable discussions of these ridiculous outcomes because as soon as a person raises one in debate, there is general panic and outrage that the objector is “defending sexual predators.” It is not even safe to have the discussion!

How can we make smart policy that truly protects people if we can’t raise such questions without fear of being labeled predators or defenders of predators?

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Going out on a limb: Mark Foley is not a “Child Sex Predator”

It’s hard to imagine a sexual issue that is more “in the public square” right now than the Mark Foley scandal and yet I’ve stayed out of the discussion so far because I think anything I say might get me into trouble if I string more than two sentences together. But let me try it anyway, and let me make my first two sentences unambiguous:

Coercion, abuse, violence, and exploitation are always wrong. They are wrong no matter the ages or genders of the people involved.

What Mark Foley did was wrong because it was an abuse of power. It was a betrayal of the trust that parents put in the Congress when they send their high school aged kids to serve as pages. That is what it was. It was not sexual exploitation. It was not rape. It may have been illegal, but it was not physical or sexual abuse. It was an abuse of trust that made one young page uncomfortable, while not making another uncomfortable. (Ironically, or not, the page that was uncomfortable appears not to have received sexually explicit messages, while the page whose sexually explicit messages have been widely circulated online appears not to have been made uncomfortable.) It is wrong for people in power to treat people with less power in ways that make them unnecessarily uncomfortable.

In many states (and in Washington, DC) had Foley and these pages actually had sex it would have been legal (had they no working relationship) because 16 is the age of consent for sex in those places. So how is Foley a ‘child sex predator’ as so many groups would like to brand him right now? Is he not really, instead, a sexual harasser in the workplace? And recall that most of these interactions appear to have taken place after the pages completed their service.

The most explicit of the IM transcripts circulating is of a conversation that took place between Foley and a 16 year old young man who didn’t seem to mind the conversations and was not the source of the complaint. In fact, today’s New York Times reports that when the St. Petersburg Times investigated the sources of some of the IM transcripts, one young man who said he would allow the use of his name, also said he “did not have a problem with the messages” he received from Foley. The St. Petersburg Times decided not to run the story at that time in part because their only nameable source didn’t appear to be a “victim.”

Do you remember being 16? Did you flirt and talk sexually with people? Did you ever have a crush on someone much older than you? I know I did. My first serious heterosexual sex partner was 5 years older than me (I was 17 and he was 22) and I was lucky to have such a wonderfully caring and mature person to introduce me to intercourse!

And while we’re talking about the page system it seems terrible that most of the time, according to the pages who’ve been quoted so far, they often enjoyed Foley’s attention – and not all of Foley’s attention was inappropriate – because the much more common experience was to be ignored by congress members. What does that say? Is that appropriate treatment? Is that respectful, to ignore the young people who are serving you?

Let’s calm the hysteria and panic. The pages involved were not children. They were teenagers, some of whom at least were old enough to consent to sex in DC. Some enjoyed the attention they received from Foley partly because they understood they were there on the Hill to make connections, because he was friendly, because teenagers often enjoy being treated like adults and enjoy being taken seriously and because they often dislike being ignored. Let’s also remember that when the parents of the 16 year old who was alarmed by the emails from Foley complained, he was directed to break off contact, which he apparently did. And also note that nobody was actually harmed. And that Foley made no serious attempt to disguise his identity, and in a sense, wittingly or not, gave the pages with whom he corresponded a certain degree of power by making his statements in writing, in an archivable form (IMs and emails) rather than making sleazy comments in a hallway somewhere, leaving the page in a “he said, he said” position which would be much harder to confront.

Let’s deal with the real issues that are presented in this case: the hypocrisy of a House member who wrote and supported legislation that he then proceeded to violate, the harassment of pages, the page system in general, and even our infantilizing of teenagers by denying them sexual agency. But let’s not obscure those issues by calling Foley a “child sex predator.” That won’t help us to talk about the real issues here, nor will it help us to make sensible policy that protects people. And it is so important to get that right!

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Art Museums for Adults Only?

Sydney McGee, an art teacher in Frisco, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas is losing her job. The reasons are not entirely clear, but her evaluations turned negative after a museum trip last spring in which students — fifth graders — did in fact see some sculptures, including some that were nudes, including one that was, reportedly, abstract. The New York Times reported on this yesterday, as did the Frisco Enterprise on Friday.

The district spokespeople give a different story than does the teacher, (as is often the case in discipline and dismissal cases) but a common element of both stories is that one parent complained after the Dallas Museum of Art trip last April, and the complaint had to do with the student having viewed “nude artwork.” The principal later talks about “abstract nude,” and the Times article mentions specifically Auguste Rodin’s “Shade” , Aristide Maillol’s “Flora” , and Arp’s “Star in a Dream,” which I can’t find (but you can click here for a page of Arp’s abstract work, to get a sense of it).

Before anybody gets all stereotypical about “The South,” let me tell you that Frisco is a wealthy suburb. When I say wealthy, I mean that according to the census bureau, in 2005 the median family income in Frisco was over 100,000. (So half of families had incomes above that!) It’s also a place with a pretty highly educated population. While the 2005 education numbers aren’t available, in 2000, half of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and 12% had graduate or professional degrees. (If you want to make comparisons to the nation as a whole, in the US in 2000 only 24% of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and only 9% had graduate or professional degrees.) Frisco residents tend to work in professional, management, sales and office occupations.

Whether they are frequent museum goers or not, I would have assumed the residents of Frisco are the types of people who see museums as places one goes to be exposed to “culture” and would think about nudes in a museum as entirely different than the otherwise presumably problematic representations of naked people one might find in the “lowbrow” mass media or in pornography. According to the reports so far, only one parent complained about the museum trip and, according to the district, the museum trip is only one reason why this teacher’s contract is not going to be renewed next year. (The other parts of the reason appear to do with her resisting being disciplined over — yes, in part — the museum trip.)

I would also have wanted to believe that the school principal cared enough about the education of children that she would talk to a parent making such a complaint and explain that it is healthy and important for children to be able to walk through an art museum, be exposed to the work presented there, and to discuss the work, it’s time period, and the context in which it was created. It sounds as if one of this principal’s complaints — and I’m admittedly reading between the lines here — is that the museum trip wasn’t planned well enough to avoid the children’s gazes falling on these nude sculptures in the first place.

I’m left bewildered that this has come up at all. There may well be more to this story, but it’s shocking to think that an art teacher could find herself in trouble for taking her students to an art museum. I don’t know how largely that one parent’s complaint figured into the trouble this teacher now finds herself in, but it strikes me as terrible that any parent, having signed a permission slip for a child to go to an art museum, would then be offended that said child saw, well, art.

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