Monthly Archives: June 2007

100,000

Somewhere between 9 pm and 10 pm my blog had its 100,000th page view. I think it’s somehow symbolically cool that on its 1st birthday it had its 100,000th view.

Another birthday wish, then, is for continued enthusiasm from you who read these words. Whether you comment or email or simply read, your presence is part of what drives this whole project!

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SitPS at 1: Looking back, but mostly forward

I am not good at looking back at things I’ve written unless there is discussion of a particular item, so I’m not going to compile a retrospective of the year’s posts, but I’ll tell you a few things I realized as I thought back over the year:

First off, because of the title of the blog and the topics covered, I disappointed a number of people. Many people got there through searches for “naked pictures of my wife,” or “naked middle school girls” or searches like those. Those searches turned up my two most popular posts, my response to the New York Times Op Ed piece “Middle School Girls Gone Wild” and my reaction to the news that Doris Ozmun’s naked photos had stirred up such controversy in her Oklahoma town that ultimately her husband (the chief of police) and two other town officials (the mayor and a city council member) resigned from their jobs. Though I’m very happy to have you hear, and am ambivalent about giving this advice, if you truly are looking for pictures, then a Google Image search is probably a good idea. It’ll at least save you from a mess of analysis and commentary!

Many others of you landed here unintentionally because you were looking for instructions about care of foreskins, or to find out what women think of them, or you were looking for public sex venues, or for sex in the woods, and for other fascinating things, and many of you stayed long enough to poke around, and liked what you saw enough that you came back. I’ve been glad to have you around and I hope you’ll keep reading! (I’m stunned by the number of you searching for information about foreskins, by the way, and I hope you’re finding the information that you need!).

I also learned that I am the queen of saying “let’s get back to this” and then moving on to something new. I won’t go back and count the number of times I raised a theme or a question and said I’d get back to it and then didn’t. I’m glad that the end of this first year doesn’t mark the end of the blog! There are lots of threads to pick back up:

These days, though, I am much better at looking forward than at looking back, so let me leave this post with the following birthday wish for my blog:

May the next year be even more exciting than the last, may the public square continue to expand, and may we all participate in the creation of a more sensible culture of sexuality, one that affirms differences and is grounded in ideals of openness, freedom and respect.

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Filed under Personal Reflections, public discourse, sex

SitPS at 1: Unintended Consequences

I’m not a diary keeper. I never have been. I’ve tried many times, but I never keep the habit of journaling. So, when I started this blog exactly a year ago today, I thought that it would be an occasional thing — something I’d use to rant occasionally about sex-related items that I’d read in the paper while having breakfast. I was, at the time, beginning work on a book project that focused on rethinking sexual orientation, but I was pulled to comment on lots of other kinds of sex-related topics, and so I thought a blog would be a place where I could write about those things without “derailing” what I thought was my “main project.”

It really did start that way. But then something happened: people started to read my blog. With traditional academic writing, lots of effort goes into producing work that only a handful of specialists are likely to read. Some academics are very successful at writing for a general audience, and publish excellent, accessible books, but with books the length of time between the writing and the audience’s reaction is enormous, and often you don’t ever know who your audience is. You, the readers of this blog, often react very quickly to what you read here, and I enjoy that interaction immensely.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve abandoned my book project, by the way, but writing this blog has shown me that I can take this work seriously and that books are not the only way — and not always the best way — to publish my thoughts.

Lots of other things have happened in the past year that I’d never have predicted, and were directly connected to having started this blog. One of my favorite concepts in sociological theory is the concept of “unintended consequences.” Unintended consequences are exactly what they sound like: outcomes of action that are often as important as the intended ones, but that were not anticipated in the planning of the action. We sociologists often focus on the negative unintended consequences of policies or social arrangements, but I’d say that in my case, the unintended consequences of starting this blog have been overwhelmingly positive.

While my reason for starting the blog had to do with channeling off material that I couldn’t use in my book project, the unintended consequences of the blog were unrelated to the book project and had to do instead with the social power of blogging.

Here are just a few examples that come to mind immediately.

-I met Judith Levine, the author of one of the bravest, best, books about how the sexuality of young people is treated in US culture, and about how harmful that is to the young people in question. (Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.) Someone had told her that I’d blogged about her book, and she emailed, and it turns out she lives part of the year in this city, and we met for coffee. We had a lovely and inspiring conversation, and it was a treat to meet one of my favorite authors face to face. In fact it was during that conversation that Judith Levine reminded me that “Politics is always grounded in emotion,” after I complained about the lack of reason in political discussions of sex. Her statement has stayed with me, and one of my main goals now is to work on changing th way people feel about sexual issues instead of only focusing on changing how they think.

-I met an great bunch of other NYC area sex bloggers. The range of work produced by this group is stunning, moving from beautifully constructed personal narratives to social criticism and activism. I very often find myself inspired by the writing and the lives of these amazing people. I owe a special thanks to Viviane of Viviane’s Sex Carnival for her work bringing together NYC sex bloggers and keeping the Perverts’ Saloon Tea Parties going into their second year.

-I got my partner to start blogging. He is more compulsive about his blog than I am about this one, and we blog about different things, so sometimes we have less time together than we otherwise would, but I love reading the photo-stories he creates about New York harbor, and so do lots of others, so I’m glad to have got him started. His own blog network includes lots of fascinating people and that makes me happy, too. It’s good to have more interesting people around! And while our blog networks don’t overlap very much, there are lots of possible connections: I’m thinking that next year’s Mermaid Parade could see a cross-blog contingent called “Messing around in boats.”

-After learning how easy it is to put a blog together, and then seeing how readily people read and comment on blogs, I began to get a sense of their potential as organizing tools. I used a blog to help organize a campaign to win health coverage for domestic partners of faculty at Nassau Community College. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to attend a meeting of the college’s Board of Trustees, where they are expected to approve the contract extension that contains that new coverage!

-Inspired largely by the amazing conversations that went on in the comments of some of my posts I decided to create a web site that would expand the public square idea and be a community-building effort centered on issues of sexuality. That project, SexInThePublicSquare.org, has already been more successful in its beginnings than I’d dared hope for, and I have lots o hope that it will continue to grow. (If you haven’t checked it out yet, please do!) My co-founder Chris Hall of Literate Perversions, and our intrepid legal specialist and collaborator Tom Joaquin of The Free Lance are even going to apply for nonprofit corporation status!

In fact, I owe a special thanks to Tom Joaquin for agreeing to be a guest blogger here. His posts are always popular and have addressed important legal questions. He wrote that great post about the vibrators in Alabama that kicked off so much fun in the comments that a Mark Day made a YouTube comedy sketch out of it) and also two posts on the recent abortion-ban decision. His guest-blogging here also helped give us a bridge to use in rekindling a friendship. And even more thanks to Chris Hall, who has put in countless hours helping develop the new site. Actually, Chris is responsible for another unintended consequence: I now know enough about CSS code and PHP scripts to be dangerous!

It’s been an amazing year. For an activity that requires so much computer time, there’s been an awful lot of exciting face-to-face meeting of new people, reconnecting with old friends, and making trouble change in the offline world. I’m looking forward to a second year with lots of great intended and unintended consequences!

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Sex in the Public Square Index – Year 1

Today is the first birthday of this blog. In fact, it is exactly a year ago today that I wrote my first ever blog entry. I’ve got a couple of retrospective-y posts in the works, but to get started, since I love Harper’s Index, I thought this would be a fun way to summarize some of the first year of Sex in the Public Square. If there are other things you’d like to see quantified, leave your suggestions in the comments!

Number of posts: 132

Number of Guest Posts: 3

Total words (not including comments or today’s posts): 77,813

Number of page views as of this posting: 99,500

Largest number of page views on a single day: 12,543

Number of comments: 526

Number of blogs that link here, according to Technorati: 122

Total number of links back from those blogs: 313

Number of people who subscribe to the RSS feed: 117

Minimum number of people I met as a direct result of this blog: 13

Number of those who are purely fictional: 2

Number who are not fictional but whose “real” names I do not know: 6

Number of men who have contributed stories about their penises to the Foreskin Dialogs post, so far: 22

Increase in the number of blogs I read regularly as a result of writing this blog: +14

Ratio of posts to categories/tags: 1:1.7

Number of times SitPS ended up on the WordPress top blogs list: 2

Minimum number of comedy routines derived from SitPS threads: 1

Number of blogs I started as a result of this one: 2

Number of other people I’ve convinced to blog: 1

Number of times I’ve thought “How am I going to keep all this up once my sabbatical ends?”: Impossible to count!

 

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Why we need more explicit sex talk in courtrooms

The unspoken language issue in the rape trial of Pamir Safi*

About a week ago I received an email from Victoria (Tory) Bowen about a rape trial. Tory Bowen alleges that she was raped by Pamir Safi in October 2004. According to Bowen, she does not remember leaving a bar with Safi, though others witnessed that she did. She believes she was drugged but can’t be certain because a urine specimen was lost. What she knows for certain is that she woke up on the morning of October 31st with Safi on top of her. Safi was tried once for the rape, that trial ending in November 2006 in a hung jury, and is going to be tried again next month.

Bowen was writing to bloggers because of she is outraged because in the first trial, responding to a motion by the defense, the judge in the case banned the words “rape,” “sexual assault,” “victim,” and “sexual assault kit,” from testimony (worse, he did not inform the jury that the words had been banned) and this restriction will remain in effect during the new trial as well. (Bowen is currently organizing to try to change the Nebraska law that permits judges such wide latitude in regulating the language used in testimony.)

This restriction on her speech has caused Tory Bowen a lot of anguish, as she has been compelled to describe what she experienced as “sex” during her testimony. Partly because of this, the prosecution team has moved that the words “sex” and “intercourse” also be banned from the testimony in the new trial. The judge refused that motion. Dahlia Lithwick, writing the always-excellent “Jurisprudence” column on Slate, notes:

“Responding to Cheuvront’s initial language ban—which will be in force again when Safi is retried in July—prosecutors upped the ante last month by seeking to have words like sex and intercourse barred from the courtroom as well. The judge denied that motion, evidently on the theory that there would be no words left to describe the sex act at all.

If this is, in fact, Judge Cheuvront’s theory, it is an absurd one. In fact, the way I see it, the bigger problem with language in this trial is that the use of very explicit terms to describe what happened — in detail — is apparently being avoided altogether. There are plenty of much clearer, more explicit ways to describe a sex act — consensual or forced — than to resort to works like “sex” and “intercourse.” In fact, those words say very little at all about sex acts.

Lithwick makes a comparison between describing a rape and describing a mugging:

“Asking a complaining witness to scrub the word rape or assault from her testimony is one thing. Asking that she imply that she agreed to what her alleged assailant was doing to her is something else entirely. To put it another way: If the complaining witness in a rape trial has to describe herself as having had “intercourse” with the defendant, should the complaining witness in a mugging be forced to testify that he was merely giving his attacker a loan?”

Can you imagine if your only option in testifying against a person who mugged you was to say “mugged” or “gave a loan”? What about: “he pulled out a knife, threatened me, and took my wallet.” That would be much more descriptive, and much clearer for the jury.

It’s the same here. The debate should not be about whether Bowen can call it rape on the stand or whether she has to call it “intercourse” (no way!!) or “sex” (how vague!!), but why she is not being asked to describe the events in explicit detail. Imagine if the line of questioning by the prosecutor went something like this:

“Ms. Bowen, please describe for the jury the first thing that happened when you awoke on the morning of ….”
“As I was waking up I felt an unexpected weight on top of me. The defendant was on top of me and was thrusting his penis into my vagina.”
“Did you consent to his thrusting his penis into you?”
“I was asleep when he started. I woke up to discover it already happening. I could not possibly have consented.”

This exchange uses neither the term “rape” nor the term “sex” nor the term “intercourse,” and for good reason. Rape, as has been argued in the trial motions, is a conclusion for the jury to come to. It is not all that uncommon for judges to make witnesses stick only to facts and not to make legal judgments in their testimony. But the exchange imagined above does clearly convey lack of consensuality, because it sticks to exactly what happened.

And that is why words like “sex” and “intercourse” are inadequate here. They don’t describe specifically what was going on. Not only does “sex” generally imply consent, but the word can mean all sorts of things, from oral sex to anal sex to mutual masturbation to, well, you get the picture. And “intercourse,” while somewhat more specific, likewise seems to imply consent. But that does not mean that “rape” is the only option. Explicit description of what happened would be much clearer and would avoid the problem of implying consent. In this case, Bowen should stick to the facts, no matter what the prosecutor or the defense asks. And those facts, according to Bowen, could include statements like:

“No, I didn’t have sex with Safi. I woke up and he was on top of me thrusting his penis into my vagina.”

and

“I couldn’t consent. I was asleep when he started.”

Perhaps there are more facts she might explicitly assert, and if so, I hope she will.

Safi, of course, can try ot assert that he did in fact have sex with Bowen, but he should be questioned closely by the prosecutor about what kind of consent he obtained. Specifically, in relation to the events of that morning, it would be interesting to follow a line of question like this:

“Mr. Safi, you say that you had consensual sex with Ms. Bowen on the morning of October 31, 2004. What did she do, specifically, that morning, that communicated her consent?”

I understand that people are squeamish about explicit descriptions of sexual behavior, but it seems like no place outside of a sex education context is it more important to be clear than when it comes to trying someone for a sexual crime.

“Just the facts” and “the whole truth” are important legal principles to strive for here, and I can think of no better way to abide by those principles than to introduce very explicit sexual language into the courtroom.

*This was originally posted at 2:20 p.m. Since then I have had one email exchange with Tory Bowen and on the basis of that exchange I added a sentence about her organizing to change the Nebraska state law, and a sentence about her believing she was drugged. I also corrected my spelling of her name. 

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Filed under language, Pamir Safi, public discourse, rape, sex and the law, Tory Bowen, Victoria Bowen

Naked On The Internet

A fearless exploration revealing order within the seemingly chaotic world of online sexuality.

Today is my turn on the Naked On The Internet blog tour!

Naked on the Internet: The wordplay geek in me can’t help but wonder if the title were chosen partly for its acronym: NOTI — say it out loud: “Naughty.” Or, alternatively, “Not I.” The first reading suggests a certain subtext about coyness of women’s sexuality or about the way women’s sexuality is defined in mainstream culture. The second sounds a bit like what some women might say in response. Naughty? Not I. This is real, live, honest sexuality. It goes way beyond the simply “naughty” to the complicated, the routine, the tiresome, the exciting, from the infinitely diverse realms of self-exploration and self-gratification to the incredible range of efforts expended to meet of other people’s needs.

The greatest strength of Audacia Ray’s first book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), is that it makes widely visible a world that many of us only catch glimpses of. It vividly renders the experiences of women who use the Internet in an astounding number of ways, from dating to blogging, from escort work to making and consuming pornography, from searching for health information and support groups to exploring the world of cyberdildonics.

For those who are themselves well-integrated into the world of Internet interaction and exploration, the book offers company, empathy, and explanations for some of the strangeness we encounter online. And for us, the book also offers clear views of the parts of the Internet that we never see, or where we spend little time. The Internet is a “space” of such diversity that even the most “plugged in” can’t find their way through more than a fraction of it, and Ray illuminates several corners that I hadn’t explored before. Meanwhile, for those who are unfamiliar with the Internet and its sexual facets, the book makes an excellent guide to begin one’s explorations. In addition to Ray’s clear descriptions of activities like webcamming, escorting, and her easy-to-understand explanations of complicated things like funding rules and legal restrictions and relationships between regulatory agencies, the book also catalogs a large number of interesting and important web sites in the back, and provides a glossary as well. The book is unique in its ability to be both tour guide for the inexperienced and companion for the deeply-entrenched.

Another great strength of the book is its readability. I have the privilege of knowing Audacia Ray and I can tell you that as you read this book you can hear her speaking to you. She has managed to write a book that is very much in her own conversational voice, and she can do that with credibility because she is articulate and funny and thoughtful in her everyday speech. Academic writers often lose their own voices as they produce their work. Ray never gives up her conversational voice. She also never gives up her own presence: she is both heard and seen throughout the book. She turns her own life into a subject to be studied just as she has turned the experiences of those 80 women she interviewed into material for analysis. She is honest, courageous and she treats the lives of her subjects with care. She lets them speak in their own words, not substituting her judgment for theirs yet always giving the reader her own interpretation, and being clear about where she disagrees.

Where the book is not as strong, the things it lacks are in some ways tradeoffs for its strengths. Because of the conversational tone, perhaps, the writing can be a bit uneven at times. This is Ray’s first book, and she was writing it while completing her Masters degree in American Studies at Columbia University, working as executive director at $pread magazine, writing her blog, Waking Vixen, and writing and producing her first porn film (The Bi Apple). So if there are places, especially early on, where Ray sounds rushed, or where the transitions are a bit rough, that seems understandable. To finish a book like this in the midst of completing so many other major projects is something I don’t imagine many people could have done!

In addition, Ray interviewed 80 women for the book, and having been an interview participant I know that she took great pains to let her interviews be as open-ended as possible. She listens intently, and asks probing questions. As she says in her methodology statement, she tries to let the interviewee tell her story her own way. As a reader I was frustrated at a few points to come across generalizations where I knew Ray must have had solid data from her interviews to better support her claims, but as a qualitative researcher myself I know the risks of collecting so much rich information: it becomes overwhelming, and it can be difficult to go back through it all carefully to find exactly the bits that you need. And while she does sometimes resort to these generalizations, it is never the case that she resorts to cliche or stereotypical generalizations. Hers are always the sort that ring true even if they leave you wanting more proof.

And because it covers such an enormous scope of Internet activity, some chapters in Naked on the Internet feel a bit more shallow, a bit more glossed over, than I’d wished for. The early chapters, in particular, feel lighter in rich description and in analysis than I wanted. On the other hand, the chapters on sex work (she has separate chapters on “female-produced independent porn” and on the “harnessing of the Internet” by other kinds of sex workers) are extremely well developed, thorough in their use of evidence and rigorous in their analysis (without ever losing the conversational tone that makes the book so engaging). This makes sense because Ray’s academic work and her activism have focused on issues facing sex workers for quite some time. Ray is an indefatigable advocate for sex workers, and few people are as well prepared to fight for sex workers’ rights as she.

With Naked on the Internet, Audacia Ray has cracked open an extremely important sphere of inquiry and she has done so with a fearlessness that, all on its own, makes the book worth an important one. There is nothing that Ray shies away from because of controversy or stigma. She raises questions that touch on the involvement of children in 24/7 style webcamming (what do you do if you’re a cam girl with a kid?), on deeply ingrained cultural taboos (why did adult-oriented credit card billing services reject porn sites that featured menstruation when just about anything else failed to phase them?), on the politics of funding and providing sound sexual information to teenagers (how is Heather Corinna’s Scarleteen different from Planned Parenthood’s Teenwire?).

For answers to those questions, and for questions you’ve never thought of before, you have no choice: You must get Naked on the Internet, too!

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Filed under Audacia Ray, book reviews, culture, feminism, Gender, Naked on the Internet, sex, sex and the media

Thoughts on Fathers Day

What are you doing for Fathers Day? My partner, a father of five children all adopted or conceived long before I entered the picture, is off sailing for two days on the Schooner Pioneer and enjoying parts of the Clearwater Festival. (Check his blog for an account, probably Tuesday.)

Our fathers and grandfathers have all passed away (my father when I was a child, my partner’s father just a few months ago) but my partner is himself a father and today I thank him for helping to shape the lives of five truly unique and wonderful individuals. I am honored to know them, and glad that they came into my life as adults so that we could develop relationships based on something other than a step-parent/step-child dynamic. (Don’t get me wrong, step-families can be wonderful! I had an amazing step-mother myself for a while, but I’m grateful for having the chance to know these people without the inevitable difficulties that come with any kind of parent/child relationship.)

I thank my partner too, on Fathers Day, for having done his child-raising before our relationship began, because this has freed me to decide not to be a parent without denying him his chance at parenthood.

Neal Watzman commented back in May on my Mothers Day Post, pointing out that the things I wished for mothers were equally applicable to fathers. I absolutely agree, and today I’m giving you a very slightly modified version of that post, tailored for fathers.

-Sexual openness, sane sex laws, and training in communication about sex so that men can enjoy their sexuality and share it fearlessly with their partners. Through sex we express desires, we communicate, we connect, and we feel pleasure. If men are socialized into a restrictive — albeit privileged — sexual role, they are less likely to be able to experience the fullness of their sexualities or to share themselves as openly, without shame, with partners. In fact, the privilege that comes from masculinity (with all its restrictiveness) makes it even harder for men to challenge the limitations placed on them, making it all the more difficult for them to experience their sexuality fully, openly and shamelessly.

-Access to contraception and recapturing the right to abortion when needed — without restriction — so that all motherhood is by choice. Men need this security as much as women do, and men need easy, affordable access to reproductive health care and education about “women’s health care” so that they can support their women parters when their women partners need care.

-High quality, affordable — dare we even say government subsidized — child care so that all parents who work outside the home — including those for whom work is a necessity and not a choice — can do so without economic penalty or fear for the safety of their children.

-Realistic part-time and flexible work options so that parents have more choices about how to divide the labor of wage-earning and child-care. I don’t mean part time with no stability and low pay. I mean part time with reasonable wages that would exceed the child care costs incurred while working those more flexible hours.

-Universal health care — not just health insurance — so that employers are no longer the ones who provide our access to health care. This isn’t just a matter of concern for the poor, either. Plenty of middle income people end up financially devestated even if they do have health insurance because the part of the medical bills that the health insurance doesn’t cover is still more than they can afford. (This is especially awful for people who have fallen prey to the “two income trap” where two parents are both working to pay for meeting the basic needs of the family and then one gets sick and the other can’t make up the difference.) Oh, and of course this health care has to cover treatment for addictions and mental illness just as it covers physical illness.

-Fair wages for all workers. This means eliminating the wage gap, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and providing living wages to all workers. Living wages mean that parents can work reasonable hours and spend time with their kids. And we also need reasonable paid leave policies so that people don’t lose out when they need to take care of a child.

-Marriage rights for all fathers. To exclude fathers with male partners from marriage is to exclude their children from the kinds of benefits that marriage confers on couples. While I would still dispute that these benefits ought to be attached to marriage in the first place, as long as they are attached, marriage needs to be available to all who want it.

-Peace. The costs of wars, in dollars and in lives, is too great to justify, and the paying of that cost is keeping us from doing the kinds of things suggested above — things that would make economic security a reality for many more people. War touches everybody, but in the United States men still bear the largest part of the awful burden of actually killing people in war. Men need peace because we all need peace, and men need peace so that they can stop killing people.

All people, regardless of economic status, must be entitled to sexual freedom but sexual freedom feels like a luxury when you are too exhausted from working your second job and making sure the kids got to school to even think about having sex with your partner. When we work for sexual freedom we must take into account the needs of the poor and working class as well as the needs of the middle class and the wealthy.

Health care, child care, contraception, fair wages, peace, and sexual freedom. They’re all connected.

Happy Fathers Day!

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Filed under culture, Family, Fathers Day, feminism, Gender, inequality, Relationships, reproductive freedom, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sexuality