Category Archives: Gender

The Myth of the Liberal Media, or Further Evidence that the NYT is an Elitist Paper

Originally posted on SexInThePublicSquare.org – join us there!

I’ve always known that the New York Times is an elitist paper. Most national papers are pretty directed at the upper middle and upper classes. You can tell just by looking at their advertising. Million dollar studio apartments and thousand dollar watches are not for the masses, after all. And I learned from a beloved sociology instructor in college to recognize the significance of the fact that there is never a labor section but always a business section and that the Times has two “Style” sections a week where you can learn about the newest expensive trends. So it isn’t like this is a revelation. But today’s Metro Section really beats all:

new york times screen shot of headline emperors club sold an oxymoron high class prostitution

The story itself is worse than the headline. It contains stereotypes, overgeneralizations, faulty logic, bad assumptions and lots of other problems that I warn my students about. And aside getting the prostitution stuff wrong, it’s very clear message is this: don’t try to pass yourself off as belonging to the upper classes if you weren’t born and bred among them.

Where to start?

Perhaps with the faulty logic. Susan Dominus asserts that Emperor’s Club was selling a fantasy image of “Kristen” that didn’t match Kristen’s real life. Of course many sex workers do in fact shield their identities by disguising other aspects of their lives. Dominus must know that. What she is pointing out in her article is that Kristen’s image was one of upper middle class or upper class upbringing, and to prove that Kristen was not in fact of such a background she poses a series of what she presumes to be inherently contradictory statements:

that she was a successful swimsuit model who’d traveled the world (as opposed to a singer getting nowhere with a boyfriend who’d paid her rent, as The Times reported yesterday); that she enjoyed civilized pursuits like dining at exclusive restaurants (actually, she’s been hoping for work at a friend’s restaurant); and that she liked sampling fine wines (no mention of the drug abuse she’d reported on her MySpace page). The site also described her as 24 (in fact, she’s 22, an age that might have sounded dangerously collegiate to an affluent clientele).

Can Dominus really believe that a working class or middle class person could never enjoy “civilized pursuits” like dining at fancy establishments, or that a person who enjoys fine wine never abuses drugs? (Wall Street, anyone?) Are these things really logically related in any way at all?

Only if one buys the assumption that pursuits like fine wine and fancy restaurants are reserved for the upper classes. And only if drug abuse is somehow different from addiction and the Betty Ford Clinic only serves the masses.

Then there are the overgeneralizations:

Once the story of Ashley Alexandra Dupré’s life actually came out, it was a fresh reminder that the words “high class” and “prostitution ring” pretty much never make sense in the same phrase (expensive prostitution ring, yes; high class, no). This was not someone who’d been turned down by the consulting firm of her choice and decided to make an alternative entrepreneurial move. Ms. Dupré’s MySpace page said she’d left home at 17 and had been abused. She’d been homeless. She said she knew, at 22, what it was like “to have everything and lose it, ” even if she’d built herself up since. Her story was not self-empowering; it was, even in its scant detail, profoundly sad, all the more so because of her extreme youth.

Somehow because this young woman herself is not of the upper classes no prostitute ever is. Somehow because her profile fits that of the stereotypical sex worker she must represent all sex workers. And somehow the fact that she reports having built herself back up (in part using sex work) after having lost everything is not evidence of any kind of self-empowerment.

Sudhir Venkatesh is quoted later as if his work supports this overgeneralization about prostitutes but if you heard him on the NPR the other day or read his piece on Slate.com you’d know that he has in fact interviewed women who left professional-class careers for upscale escorting. I have not reviewed his research so I’m not attesting to its quality, though I think highly of some of his other work. (And I should note that Melissa Gira Grant has taken Venkatesh to task for oversimplifying things, too.) But he introduces a three-tier categorization of prostitution that would certainly challenge the statements that Dominus makes in this article.

My real anger, though, actually comes from Dominus’s acceptance of the term “high class.” I know that is the term that much of the press has been using to describe the escort service in question. But to accept its use and to apply it to people is appalling.

“High class” is a value judgement and a way of obscuring the real stratification of wealth, power and privilege in the United States. Why not talk about the upper class, the elite, or the working class or the middle class, which are much more meaningfully descriptive?

And why not come out and make the message clear:

If you aren’t born among us you can never be one of us and we’d much prefer it if you’d stop pretending.

The ad at the top of the NYT screenshot is for Loro Piana and the Americana Manhasset, shopping for the wealthy.

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Filed under Eliot Spitzer, feminism, Gender, inequality, New York Times, public discourse, sex, Sex in the Public Square, sex work, sexually oriented businesses

But will Medicare pay for lube?

drawing You might have missed the part about the penis pumps. It was in a New York Times article about Medicare overpaying for things like oxygen tanks. Apparently Medicare, despite its potentially enormous bargaining power, spends more for many items than they would cost in your neighborhood pharmacy or surgical supply store. In the midst of the article is this paragraph:

For example, last year Medicare spent more than $21 million on pumps to help older and disabled men attain erections, paying about $450 for the same device that is available online for as little as $108. Even for a simple walking cane, which can be purchased online for about $11, the government pays $20, according to government data.

The article doesn’t comment at all on whether penis pumps are a legitimate Medicare expense, which I think is interesting. Given our government’s very conflicted attitudes about sex, I find the news both heartening and irritating. I am glad that Medicare takes the needs of aging men seriously and considers sex a part of healthy living. We were just discussing that when we were discussing Pepper Schwartz’s book Prime. TracyA linked to a great post by Supercrone about sexual desire in her 80s, Mimi of Sexagenarian in the City writes about her own re-entry into dating and sex, and so I’m glad that the US takes the sexual needs of the elderly — at least elderly men — seriously. I wonder why it denies the sexual needs of so many of the rest of us. Our own internal contradictions around sexuality are pretty amazing. Medicare, an entitlement program for older folks, will pay for penis pumps. Medicaid, the program that provides health care for poor people, does not cover abortion services (thanks in large part to Henry Hyde, who died the other day) though states are apparently free to provide such coverage. (For example, in New York State residents enrolled in Medicaid are entitled to “Free access” family planning — including contraception and abortion — even if their Medicaid Managed Care Provider does not cover those services.) We see inability to have intercourse as an illness for the elderly but don’t want to teach young people about safer sex.We spend our tax dollars foolishly in either case, overpaying for penis pumps or paying at all for abstinence-only education.But back to the penis pumps again: is this an example of sexism in health care again? I mean, older women are less likely to be in need of contraception or other family planning services, but does Medicare pay for lube? Or are women expected to deal with the changes in their sexual function on their own while men’s physical changes get medical attention? (And if Medicare does cover lube, what are they paying for a bottle of Astroglide, do you think?)And is Medicare paying for condoms to keep these older men from getting and transmitting STIs? Or are we again in a situation where we’ll pay to address the disease (inability to maintain erection) but not to prevent disease?If, like me, you were wondering about the efficacy of penis pumps in the first place, here is a link to Corey Silverberg’s piece on them from About.com. He points out that penis pumps are pretty reliable at generating erections but that unless well aroused, or if the man has a problem maintaining erections, that the erection created by the pump might not last. He mentioned that better penis pumps, of the sort sold by medical professionals (which he says run about $200, not the $450 that the US pays) come with “constriction rings” (read: cock rings) that help maintain the erection.I wonder if Medicare would cover the cost of cock rings alone for men who have no trouble getting erections but do have trouble maintaining them.And what about sex ed for older folks so that they know that there is plenty of good sex to be had without erections and penis-vagina penetration? What about some workshops on manual sex? Oral sex? Sex with toys? Training in orgasm without intercourse, anyone?Meanwhile, lets make sure that all government provided health care treats sex as an important component of healthy living. Lets make sure that Medicaid and Medicare cover sexually-related health care costs, whether those be penis pumps or lube, or contraception or abortion. If sex is a party of a healthy life, those things are all important.Lets make sure that private insurance plans do the same!And lets pay for smart sex education for sixty-year-olds and for sixteen-year-olds!Illustration, “Penis Pump,” by Derek on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share alike license.NOTE: This is also published on our community site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Join us there!

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Filed under Education, Gender, Health, medicine, New York Times, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality and age

Pepper Schwartz joins us on SexInThePublicSquare.Org

Come, talk about sex and older women with Pepper Schwartz!

Pepper SchwartzStarting this weekend, Pepper Schwartz will join us on SexInThePublicSquare.org for a discussion of her new book, Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex and Love in the Sensual Years.

Please join us!

Jeffrey Rosenfeld reviewed the book for us here. We’d especially love to hear from people who have read the book, but all are welcome.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz is a noted sociologist specializing in sexuality. She has written over 40 academic research articles, and also many accessible books on sex and relationships including, including The Great Sex Weekend and Everything You Know About Sex and Love is Wrong, along other books aimed at helping people keep their sexual relationships interesting and vibrant. She has also written Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character and 201 Question to Ask Your Kids / 201 Questions to Ask Your Parents, books that help parents talk about sex with their kids, Pepper Schwartz has dedicated her career to opening up sexuality as a realm of sociological study, but also to making that study useful and accessible to the public. In Prime, she does something academic-types rarely do under their own names: she reveals much about her own sex life, using her own experience as a prompt to offer advice to herself and to other women experiencing the dating and relationship-building world in their 50s.

This conversation marks the beginning of a new feature for us at SexInThePublicSquare.org. We’re initiating a series of conversations with authors of the books we review, and we’re thrilled that Pepper Schwartz has agreed to kick off the series for us.

The conversation will take place in the comments section of Jeff Rosenfeld’s review. When we start, I’ll put a direct link to the conversation on the sidebar of the site so you can get there quickly!

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Filed under culture, Gender, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age, Travel

ENDA Passes the House: No Party in the Square

The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) was voted on by the House of Representatives today. It passed by a vote of 235 to 184 with 14 not voting. It needed 212 to pass.*

It passed by the skin of its proverbial teeth. So, why are we not celebrating?

Let’s review:

1. ENDA does not really protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Even though the debate about including or not including protection for gender identity or expression was framed in terms of protecting the transgendered, really those provisions would have protected gays, lesbians and bisexuals better than simply stating that, as the bill that passed the house does, that you can’t fire or refuse to hire someone because of his or her real or perceived sexual orientation.

That is like saying “Fine, so we can’t fire you for being a lesbian as long as you aren’t too butch.” If you’re “too butch” all bets are off.

HRC and its coaltion and Barney Frank and allies in the House have framed this as an issue of society becoming used to talk about GLB issues and being ready for civil rights legislation for lesbians and gays, but not quite being ready for legislation protecting transgendered folks because that issue is just newly in our consciousness as a society. That is naive and elitist. It presumes that most GLB folks are middle class and upper middle class professionals just looking to move up in the corporation. That simply isn’t the case.

2. ENDA does not consider the U.S. military an employer. All those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not covered by ENDA. After all, we can’t let an important civil rights bill interfere with our “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

3. ENDA does nothing about housing discrimination which weights much more heavily on working class and poorer LGBT folks than on middle and upper class ones.

4. ENDA will likely be vetoed.

Here’s where I think the HRCs cynicism creeps in. I think they don’t like the eviscerated ENDA either but they recognize that a veto is likely and is counting on that opportunity to go out and say “See how bad the Republican party is to LGBT folks? Don’t vote for them.”

But the truth is that we already know that the Republican party is bad to LGBT folks. There is no better evidence of that than their own sex scandals. You don’t see nearly so many people falling out of the Democratic party closet partly because the Democratic party doesn’t force people to be so closeted.

I’ll be away at a union conference this weekend so won’t be blogging much, but in that spirit let me ask you a question:

How much value is a bill like ENDA when so much employment in the US is “at will” employment, meaning that your employer can simply fire you because he feels like it anyway. So long as he doesn’t give an unfair reason for firing you he can simply say “you know, this just isn’t working out. I’m sorry. We have to let you go,” or “No, we have so many people I don’t have any hours for you next week, sorry! Check back in on Thursday.”

We need strong legislation that moves us toward economic and social justice for all of us. Not “civil rights” bills that say, essentially, that you can’t refuse to promote the clean cut guy in the business suit just because his partner is a man.

ENDA-as-is? It makes for weak symbolic politics and ineffective workplace protections.

It certainly isn’t the bill we need.

Note: This was published first on SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Drop by!

 *I first reported that the bill passed with a vote of 218-205 and 10 not voting. That was a mistake. That vote was actually a vote on procedure (a vote to consider the measure.) The vote on the bill itself is now correctly reported above.

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Filed under congress, ENDA, Gender, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

ENDA Tabled?

Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliha and LGBT Center's Cristine HerraraSo you might have been following the ENDA stories and known that it was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House last week or the week before. And you might have noticed that that didn’t happen. And you might have been waiting for news about that. I even tried to put a legislation tracker on the site (SexInThePublicSquare.org) so we could more easily keep up with bills like ENDA. (Aside: you’ll probably have noticed that so far it is only working in Safari browser.) Even with all that, I’d noticed that, well, nothing seemed to be happening. So, I’ve been poking around trying to figure out what’s going on, and I just came across this, from October 31, by EJ Graff at TFM Cafe:

The latest news on this front: ENDA, which had been scheduled for a House floor vote this week, has been taken off the table.

The official reason that ENDA won’t come up for vote: it’s been pushed aside by other business. The generally accepted reason is the split between the Barney Frank faction and the Tammy Baldwin faction.

The Tammy Baldwin faction, remember, is the faction that was going to offer an amendment, on the floor, that would put gender identity back into ENDA. The Barney Frank faction is the one that “compromised” gender identity out of the bill.

Graff does a great job explaining, again, why keeping gender identity in the bill is so important. It isn’t just to protect the trangendered, though to my mind that would be reason enough. It is also important because much of the discrimination that lesbians and gays face comes not as a result of sexual orientation but as a result of refusal or inability to comply with gender normative behavior. Some examples from her piece that make this crystal clear:

After all, when grade school and middle school kids taunt or beat up some boy for acting “gay,” it’s not because he’s been kissing other boys; it’s because he hasn’t been masculine enough for their taste.

and

Consider what happened to Darlene Jespersen, who lost her bartending job at Harrah’s Casino after 21 years—when her employer instituted a policy that said all women had to wear makeup. She couldn’t do it; her whole being revolted against that mask. (And yes, the 9th circuit decided that this was legal)

These examples also make it clear that the teasing and the discrimination that we’re talking about can also be used to victimize heterosexual people who don’t conform to gender norms. In neither of the examples above do we even need to know the sexual orientation of the people involved (real or hypothetical) in order to know that their treatment is wrong.

Does anybody else remember the amazing book, Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism, written by Suzanne Pharr? I remember reading it in a Philosophy of Sexuality class in college (eternal thanks to the phenomenal Peggy Walsh) and having one of those “eureka moment” epiphanies where suddenly all kinds of seemingly disparate oppressions slid into their interlocking positions and I really got why this was all so important to me. (It’s no accident that we read this alongside a piece by Marilyn Frye describing oppression as a bird cage.)

Pharr’s argument, very briefly and probably oversimplified, is that homophobia is used to keep people obeying gender norms that are sexist and that privilege masculinity over femininity. Any thing that challenges that system is framed in homophobic terms, and their success depends on our own internalized homophobia.

ENDA, while being framed as a piece of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights legislation, is really much bigger, but only if it includes gender identity. If it does, it is a piece of legislation that moves us forward in the enormous task of dismantling a gender role system that oppresses all who fail to conform to its narrow expectations. While some in the mainstream gay rights movement might not be comfortable with that goal (preferring a more liberal model where people of any sexual orientation are free to assimilate into the dominant culture) they need to realize that they won’t achieve protection for lots of gays and lesbians if they don’t back the gender identity part of ENDA. (This is something Barney Frank seems not to understand. In his statement in the House on October 9 he seemed to believe that ENDA could protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals effectively without the gender identity provision, and that later some bill could be written to protect the transgendered, who should effectively ‘wait their turn’. His mistake is in thinking that without specific gender identity protection that gays and lesbians can be protected effectively themselves.)

It irritates me that Barney Frank, a gay white man in power, is willing to sacrifice the effective protection of LGBT folks in order to look as though he’s done right by us. He doesn’t stand to lose if ENDA gets passed without gender identity, (though others of us do) but he does stand to lose of ENDA doesn’t pass at all.

ENDA is not for Barney Frank. ENDA is for all of us. It needs to be brought back to the table so that Tammy Baldwin can offer her amendment. The tabling of the bill is, I’m certain, in fear about Baldwin’s amendment, and I for one would much rather see the legislation voted down by people who have to go on record opposing the inclusion of gender identity then to see Baldwin and others intimidated behind the scenes into accepting the Frank compromise or having the bill die without a vote.

Note: This post is published on my blog at SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Come join in!

Thanks to Feministing‘s always amazing Weekly Feminist Reader for the link to EJ Graff’s piece!

Photo of Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliyah and Christine Herrara from the LGBT Center borrowed from GayCityNews story, “Not So Hot on Caliente” . Khadijah Farmer is the woman who was kicked out of Caliente Cab Company, a restaurant in New York City, because a bouncer believed she was a man using the women’s restroom. Though she offered to show him ID she and her party were still forced to leave. Her case, while not about employment, is an excellent example of how perception of gender identity is a source of discrimination. She was not kicked out because she was a lesbian. She was kicked out because a bouncer refused to believe she was a woman.

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Filed under civil rights, culture, ENDA, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexuality

Sex in the Public Square Launch Party!

Join us to celebrate the launch of SexInThePublicSquare.org!

August 17, 2007
7-10 PM
Rapture Cafe
200 Avenue A between 12 St. and 13 St.
Manhattan, NY
United States
See map: Google Maps

Sex in the Public Square.org is dedicated to expanding the space for public discussion of sexuality. Blending the techniques of blogging and social networking (think Blogger meets MySpace — but all open source!), Sex in the Public Square.org is a space on the Internet where members can explore which parts of sex are private, which parts are public, and what happens when private and public collide. We believe that sexuality is a fundamental component of human life, and that by excluding it from “polite conversation,” we lose an important element of democratic participation.

With forums, blogs, reviews, resource lists, calls for action, and a nationwide calendar of events dedicated to sexualities of all genders, colors, and persuasions and with thousands of visitors and new contributors joining each week, we’re ready to celebrate our “birth” and we want you to join us!


Help Keep Sex Out Of The Closet!

Readings and performances by:

Audacia Ray

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Lux Nightmare

and more!

Plus screenings of film clips from Cinekink and some old sex ed films too!

Click here to check out Rapture Cafe.

And check back here for updates on the festivities!

The party is free and all are welcome. Invite your friends. And we hope you’ll help us support Rapture by enjoying their coffees, teas, and bar offerings.

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Filed under Audacia Ray, community-building, culture, Education, feminism, Gender, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex education, sexual orientation, sexuality

The good news and bad news about the new teen birth rate data

A new study by the Federal Inter-agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that the teen birth rate is at an all time low. The current birth rate for teens between 15-17 in the US according to the study is 21 per 1000.* (That’s down from a high of 39 per 1000 in 1991). The same report gives a teen pregnancy rate of 44 per 1000 in 2002, the most recent year for which they give a rate, and some of the drop is attributable to an increase in condom use. You can see a PDF version of the report here.

Any drop in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birth rate, and any increase in the rate of condom use is certainly very good news. But the good news is hardly unqualified. There is a fair bit of bad news that surrounds those important bits of good news.

One bit of bad news is that the teen pregnancy rate in the US is still much higher than it is in other western postindustrial societies. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland there were only 5 births per 1000 women between 15 and 19 in 2002 according to UN data. (There were 53 per 1000 young women in the US that same year according to the UN figures). The UN data I found did not report pregnancies, only births. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that the pregnancy rate in the Netherlands was 12 per 1000 in 2001.

Another bit of bad news is that in the US there are significant differences in birth rates for girls of different racial and ethnic groups. The lowest teen birth rate is found among Asians (including Pacific Islanders). That group has 8 births for every 1000 girls between 15 and 19. For non-Hispanic White teens, the rate is 12 per 1000, for Native Americans (classified as American Indian/Alaska Native) the rate is 31 per 1000, for non-Hispanic Blacks it is 35, for Hispanics it 48 per 1000.

These differences must reflect, at least in part, access to health care, contraception, accurate sex education, and abortion services. The differences are not likely to be primarily related to differences in sexual activity between groups. A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics reporting on National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002 finds that Hispanic girls between 15-17 are less likely than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts to have had sex. The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.

Why do white girls have lower pregnancy and birth rates if they’re having sex more frequently? This same study found inequality in use of contraception (which may provide some support both for the observation of unequal access and also of the observation of cultural barriers to use). White girls were more likely than either other group to be on the pill at the time of their first intercourse (18% compared to 13% of black girls and 10% of Hispanic girls), and were also more likely to use both pills and condoms together during their first time (15% compared to 9 % for black girls and Hispanic girls). This may speak at least in part to their access to multiple methods of contraception and to their ability to gain access to birth control pills before becoming sexually active.

In fact, when asked whether they had ever used specific methods of contraception, the study found that only 37% of Hispanic girls had ever used birth control pills (compared to 68% of white girls and 55% of black girls). Given an intersection between ethnicity and religion, and the prohibitions against contraception by the Catholic church, some of this difference might be explained by religion and culture. But given that Catholics around the world use birth control pretty regularly, I think that inequality of access to health care and prescriptions is a big part of the story.

There is no teen sex crisis in the United States, but there is a sex education and sexual health care crisis in the United States. If we want to bring our levels of teen pregnancy and teen births down to rates that are in line with those of countries like the Netherlands, we need to start addressing teens sexual health as a serious matter, treating teens with respect, and giving them the tools they need to make smart decisions and creating an environment in which those decisions are respected.

We need to do this while paying attention to race, class and ethnic inequality. Teen parenthood is associated with long term disadvantage for parents and for their children. Girls who become parents in high school are less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to college. Children who start their lives in poverty are less likely to make it into the middle class. They’ve got all kinds of structural factors working against them.

The answer is definitely not to continue promoting abstinence-only sex education. The answer is complicated, but it certainly requires promoting sound, accurate sex education where the values of abstinence are taught in conjunction with the importance of contraception, relationships skills, and emotional well-being. It involves providing support for teen parents so that they are not so disadvantaged. It involves making sure that access to emergency contraception is secured for everyone, and that abortion remains a legal option for young women. It involves providing equal access to health care. And it involves the acknowledgment that we can’t talk about inequality without talking also about sex.

*The original version of this post incorrectly labeled that rate as the “teen birth rate” which would have been the rate for girls between 15-19. The error was brought to my attention by a very careful reader, Carole Joffe, of UC Davis, who continued:

“…the overall figures from 15-19 (birthrate) was 40/thousand–in fact, nearly identical to the year before. This fact aside, I think your analysis of the Report is right on. I look forward to reading more of your postings. Best wishes from a fellow sociologist, Carole.”


Return to the corrected sentence.

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Filed under abstinence only, culture, Education, Family, feminism, Gender, Health, inequality, moral panic, News and politics, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

Questions for Dr. James Holsinger, or those in charge of his confirmation hearings

Quick: name the Surgeon General of the United States. Can you do it? I couldn’t. I know all about the guy who is being nominated and nothing about the one who is currently serving. I had to look him up on Wikipedia. He is Rear Admiral Kenneth P. Moritsugu PHSCC, M.D., M.P.H., and he has been acting Surgeon General since his boss, Vice Admiral Richard Henry Carmona, M.D., RN, M.P.H, F.A.C.S., finshed his term in 2006. (For the record, David Satcher is the last surgeon general I have a clear memory of!)

On Thursday, the man selected to replace Moritsugu and take on the full mantle of surgeon general will have his confirmation hearings in the Senate. His name is James Holsinger and it’s a good bet you’ve heard of him. You may have heard that his nomination is a controversial one because he is a conservative Christian or because he has expressed the view that homosexuals are diseased and pathological, and both of those things are true. But he is controversial mostly because he used weak science and faulty reasoning to try to back up his view that homosexuality is pathological. It is that use of unscientific argument disguised as science that makes him an upsetting candidate to take on the job of top public health educator in the US.

This is a link to the paper that is the basis for all this criticism (PDF, hosted on ABCnews.com). Holsinger wrote it in 1991 for the United Methodist Church’s Committee to Study Homosexuality. The main text is only 6 pages long so go ahead and read it. I’ll be here when you get back.

~~~

Done? Good. So you probably have some questions, and so do I. Let’s lay some of them out. My first question comes after reading the second paragraph, which begins, “There is absolute concensus in the scientific community concerning the structure and function of the human alimentary and reproductive systems.” Holsinger goes on to explain that they are entirely separate systems in humans (as we do not possess cloacas, something he returns to later), and then explains how the reproductive systems of men and women interact to produce baby humans.

Now, I’d bet that there is no debate in the scientific community that the two systems are separate, nor that only one of them functions in a way that absorbs nutrients into the body while only the other functions in a way that causes reproduction when properly combined with the right other reproductive organs. But, how many scientists would agree that each system has only one function? And how many would deny that both systems can function in ways that create pleasure? Or would contend that pleasure is not an important part of human existence?

So one question I would ask at Dr. Holsinger’s nomination hearing on Thursday is this:

Dr. Holsinger, do you believe that public health policy and health education should ignore the ways that we use our bodies for pleasure, and should omit information about how we can do so safely?

My second question comes after a description of how the anus and rectum do not lubricate in the way that a vagina does, and so can be damaged by penetrative sex. From this observation he argues that “the varied sexual practices of homosexual men have resulted in a diverse and expanded concept of sexually transmitted disease and associated trauma.” He cites a study that I wont attempt to evaluate because I haven’t read it yet. The section he sites notes findings that bisexuals, heterosexuals, and homosexuals had different rates of assorted sexually transmitted diseases. Without commenting on the quality of the research, I can say about this is that his use of the study, whatever its own merits, doesn’t support his argument. He is trying to argue that homosexual sex is pathological and heterosexual sex is not, and he presents evidence that every group gets STDs, but that those STDs are distributed differently across groups. In the study, more homosexuals than heterosexuals get things like amoebiasis and giardiasis while heterosexuals are more likely than homosexual to have urethral gonorrhea and or chlamydia. Unless he’s willing to argue that only some STDs are signs of pathology while others are just fine, I don’t see how this helps his argument.

So, my second question for Dr. Holsinger at his nomination hearings would be this:

Dr. Holsinger, would you say that some diseases are markers of pathology in a person while others are not? If so, which diseases are markers of heathly lifestyles and which are markers of pathological lifestyles?

My third question comes from a strange quote he uses to support the claim that “trauma and tumors are the primary problems related to the anorectum in homosexual men.” He quotes a study that found that women who engaged in “anal-receptive intercourse” did not suffer from anal-sphincter dysfunction and rarely suffered from anorectal problems in general, partly because “consensual penile-anal intercourse can be performed safely provided there is adequate lubrication.” Ignoring that finding even though he cites it, Holsinger then goes on to decry the dangers of fisting and of unlubricated forceful anal sex.

So my third question would be this:

Dr. Holsinger, is it safe to say, based on your writing, that you only think homosexuality is pathological if it does not involves enough lube? In other words, would it be a key part of your public health policy to educate people about the value of proper lubrication? Or, rather, would you suggest that no sex that requires lubrication not supplied by the body itself can ever be healthy sex?

Last, I am puzzled by Holsinger’s claim that squamous-cell anal cancer, which is associated with HPV virus strains that cause genital warts is further evidence of the pathology of homosexuality. After all, those same strains cause genital warts in women, and lead in some cases to cervical cancers (for which we are all supposed to be screened annually or every two years, and which are often contracted through heterosexual contact).

So my fourth question would be:

Dr. Holsinger, how can a disease that occurs frequently in women who have heterosexual sex be used as evidence that homosexual sex is pathological, but not used as evidence that heterosexual sex is pathological?”

He ends his paper with an analogy to pipe fittings in order to illustrate just how taken-for-granted the sense of male-fitting-into-female is in our culture, and notes that injuries and diseases result “when the complimentarity of the sexes is breached.”

I do not want a man who reasons this way to be my Surgeon General. It is not his private views on homosexuality that are the problem, though I strenuously disagree with them. It is certainly not his privately held religious convictions, so long as could keep them separate from his scientific evaluation of evidence.

No, it is his inability to weigh scientific evidence to come to logical conclusions that is the problem. Perhaps Holsinger has gotten smarter in the 16 years since he wrote that article. I hope that difficult questions are asked during his confirmation hearings so we can discover whether he can now reason more logically than he could in 1991.

For updates during the confirmation hearings on Thursday, check the HRC web site’s blog.

To let your Senator that you oppose Holsinger’s nomination, you can use this HRC Action Form.

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Filed under activism, feminism, Gender, Health, heterosexism, Homophobia, James Holsinger, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health

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