Category Archives: Relationships

The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org, our community-building site. Come on over!)

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, public discourse, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

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!


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

Loving and Marriage

Today is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, the case that finally declared laws against interracial marriage to be unconstitutional. Many thanks to Rachel Kramer Bussel for reminding us all that not only is this the anniversary, but that an organization exists that promotes its celebration! Here’s a link to her interview with Loving Day’s founder, Ken Tanabe.

Interracial marriages were still against the law in 16 states as recently as 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws criminalizing them were unconstitutional. (They were illegal in 24 states in 1958 when Virginia residents Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, traveled to Washington DC to get married.) Loving v. Virginia is an interesting case to think about. For one thing, the law being challenged did not prevent all interracial marriages, but only those that involved white people. An African American and a Native American could marry, but neither could marry a white person. The concern was clearly for protecting the “racial purity” of white people as the dominant race. Here’s an excerpt from the Supreme Court decision that quotes the law in question:

The two statutes under which appellants were convicted and sentenced are part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages. The Lovings were convicted of violating 20-58 of the Virginia Code:

Leaving State to evade law. If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.”

Section 20-59, which defines the penalty for miscegenation, provides:

“Punishment for marriage. If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.”

Not only were interracial marriages unrecognized, but to live together “as man and wife” was evidence of marriage and marriage was a felony crime punishable by up to five years in prison. In the case of the Lovings (aptly named!), who had gone to Washington DC to get married in 1958, the punishment had been 1 year in prison, suspended for 25 years as long as they left the state and didn’t return for 25 years. In other words, they must spend a year in prison or be banished from their home state. The Lovings pleaded guilty when they were charged in January 1959, moved to Washington DC after their banishment, and spent the next 8 years filing motions and appeals attempting to win their right to be married.

Their case is interesting also because it highlights the use of religion in decisions about marriage, and the way that God is invoked to justify socially-defined boundaries. The judge who ruled on the Loving’s original conviction wrote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Of course many deeply religious people were activists in the civil rights movement, and that movement itself would have been impossible were it not for the part played by churches. The words of the judge in the Loving case reflect a narrowly defined understanding of Christianity and God held by a small but dominant group of people. We are seeing something very similar in our current fight for marriage equality today. When people oppose marriage between two people of the same gender, they often invoke a narrow understanding of god that is held by a shrinking but still dominant group of people.

When the Lovings’ case was heard by the Supreme Court, the question was really whether it was a violation of the 14th amendment to ban marriage between two people based only on their races. The first section of the 14th amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The 14th amendment is not one that deals only with questions of race. In fact, the only place that race is mentioned in the text of the amendment is a mention of “Indians” in Section 2 which deals with representation in Congress, and there it is not race on its own but “Indians not taxed” — read: Indians who are members of Native American Nations — and while the entire history of the treatment of Native Americans in North America is one of racial injustice, of course, the issue as presented in the 14th amendment is one of “no representation without taxation.”

Celebrating the Loving v. Virginia decision is important for at least two reasons. First, we should celebrate the step away from institutionalized racism that the decision represents. And we should notice the degree to which racial injustice still pervades our social structure, and should continue to work for racial equality. We are still a segregated society, with segregated schools and segregated social groups. We need reminders to cross boundaries we wouldn’t ordinarily cross and to make friends. Second, we should celebrate in order to reminds ourselves that injustices can be rectified, and that with courage, persistence, and activism, they are rectified.

Can you imagine if the federal government had passed a “Defense of Marriage Act” in the late 1950s or early 1960s such that no state would have to recognize any other state’s interracial marriages? Might that have changed the tenor of the Supreme Court such that the Loving case would have gone differently?

Can you imagine requiring interracial couples to endure civil unions rather than having full marriage rights?

We are again in the midst of a struggle for equal protection under the law as it relates to marriage rights, this time for couples where the partners belong to the same group, rather than to different groups.

Shouldn’t we grant couples of the same gender the kind of equal protection granted to couples of different races 40 years ago?


Bonus points: I know some of you read from other countries. In addition to discussing the specific issues raised above, can anybody provide links or discussions of marriage segregation laws from other countries, or discuss how they’ve changed?


Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, Family, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, public discourse, racism, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, US Supreme Court

Speak out on General Pace’s disgraceful words!

This post, by Sex in the Public Square contributor Tom Joaquin, was originally published on his blog, The Free Lance.

General Peter Pace, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced on Monday his personal opinion that simply being a gay or lesbian person is immoral, and that the military should therefore continue to refuse gays and lesbians the opportunity to serve in the military. Well, to be more precise, he supports the official military policy, that gays and lesbians can sign up, as long as they’re willing to crawl into the military closet and deny who they are.

The current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is immoral because it openly requires dishonesty, and treats gays and lesbians as second class citizens. It is unconstitutional because it punishes by exclusion gays and lesbians, not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are; this type of “status crime” was years ago determined unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

General Pace’s delicate moral niceties are archaic. Barry Goldwater, the bastion of all that’s conservative, and 37 year veteran of the military, announced years ago his support of the right of gays and lesbians to be in the military:

The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it…. why the hell shouldn’t they serve? They’re American citizens. As long as they’re not doing things that are harmful to anyone else.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, while Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush, called security concerns about gays and lesbians an “old chestnut” and referred to the idea that “a gay lifestyle is incompatible with military service” as “a policy I inherited.” These comments were made by Cheney just after his assistant secretary of defense, Pete Williams was outed as a gay man.

The world has moved on ahead of the US. There are at least 26 nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve, including Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Columbia, and every country in the European Union, which requires all members to abolish any bans on open service.

Pace’s comparison with adultery is specious. According to files received by Salon pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request the military, under General Pace, is currently providing waivers for at least 17% of incoming recruits, accepting recruits with civilian criminal records including domestic abuse, assault, breaking and entering and auto theft. An outstanding article by Helen Benedict, also published in Salon, documents the pervasive threat of rape and sexual harassment women soldiers in Iraq live with daily. Perhaps General Pace should focus his moral concerns on matters of real substance existing within the scope of his responsibility.

The Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has let the world know what he thinks Department of Defense policy should be, based upon his morals. He has also provided encouragement and cover for the continued harassment and abuse of men and women by their fellows and those in their chain of command. Sounds pretty damn immoral to me.

Please note: I am personally against the action in Iraq and support plans to withdraw troops now. I am not advocating for the war in Iraq, but for the right to openly serve in the military without regard to sexual orientation. Tom

IMPORTANT: If you agree with me, write your representatives in Congress and the Senate as well as General Pace, and write your local papers. Register your disapproval with General Pace’s remarks and your support for changing military policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. General Pace can be reached at:

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman
9999 Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon
Room 4E873
Washington, DC 20318
Fax: (703) 697-8758

All or any part of this post can be used, with attribution, for any non-commercial purpose to help spread the word.

-Tom Joaquin, The Free Lance


Filed under activism, culture, Don't ask don't tell, Gays in the military, Gender, Homophobia, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation

The “Voice” of the Affluent, not the Alternative

Like many others, I was saddened to learn that Rachel Kramer Bussel would no longer be writing the sex column, “Lusty Lady,” for the Village Voice. I admire Rachel and I enjoy her writing. When I read on her blog that she’d been told her column was finished, I was disappointed. Then, when I read what the Voice had used to replace her, my disappointment turned to irritation and disgust.

Some of us had speculated that the Voice had hired someone “younger” and “newer,” but as it happens, the “newness” that they’ve turned to is the newness of middle-age and convention. The Voice has hired “two married mothers living in Brooklyn” whose greatest wish is to get their husbands to have sex with them.

Now, I’m glad when I see married women writing about sex. Sex ought not disappear — as an event or a topic for conversation — just because people have hitched their wagon to the state. And married women should share their experiences just like single or otherwise-partnered women should do. Women should talk about sex no matter what their relationship status. Women should talk about sex no matter what their class or their age would lead us to stereotypically expect from them.

But these women are professionals, living upper middle class seemingly conventionally-affluent lives, apparently with little sex to speak of, and nothing much to say. As some readers already pointed out, this type of column might have been suitable for New York magazine or the New York Times, but not for the Village Voice.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the Village is not what it used to be. Sure it still hosts many interesting and alternative folks, but there is no mistaking that gentrification has succeeded in winding its tendrils throughout the neighborhood. Still, the Village Voice used to be an “alternative newsweekly,” and now, especially in its new sex column, it appears to be becoming the Voice of the Affluent, not the Voice of the Alternative. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed this happening. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed the increasing number of ads for cosmetic surgery, expensive day spas, and other luxuries-deemed-essentials of the elite creeping in among the ads for futons and second hand clothing and drag shows. (Anything that markets itself as a cosmetic procedure and comes with a “$500 off” coupon is way out of my league as luxury treatments go.)

But I digress. I am inclined to be happy when married women write about sex. I am a married woman, much to some people’s surprise, and while I don’t live in the most traditional of marriages, I find that — based on a very unscientific sample of my friends and colleagues — lots of married people don’t live in the most conventional of marriages. I’m totally up for reading about how people negotiate sex in their marriages, how they keep themselves sexually engaged, and how they deal with, or work around monogamy. There is lots of interesting material that married folk could put out there for everyone to enjoy.

So there is no excuse — other than a radical shift in market strategy — for what passed as the Voice’s sex column this week. First of all, it didn’t contain any useful information about sex. Instead it was really not much more than a catalogue of commercial endorsements. It’s amazing how many Nora Shelley works in. By name she mentions “Forever 21,” “Zoloft,” “City Bakery,” “Cosabella” ($60 bras and $20 thongs, mentioned twice), “Aeron” (as in the $750+ desk chair), “the Limited,” and “Starbucks.” Now, Forever 21 and City Bakery are places they actually spend time in during the events narrated in the column. The other mentions are pretty gratuitous. Is there any reason in the world we should care what kind of desk chair Essie Carmichael’s husband sits in to do his online “printer research?” And even worse, in the litany of product endorsements, the only item named that helped either woman achieve sexual satisfaction does not get its brand identified or promoted! What kind of sex column tells you exactly where to buy a dress that you don’t look good in, and a lunch that spoils your diet but then doesn’t name the amazing showerhead that is reportedly the best gift Essie has ever been given and the only thing with which Nora has had sex in years?

As if that weren’t bad enough, Nora Shelley, the one who wrote this week’s column and who isn’t getting any sex with her husband, has a housekeeper and a nanny and still can’t find time not to be exhausted. Not only that, she’s not creative enough to see immediately that sex with her husband should be easier if she’s got a nanny and a housekeeper, rather than more difficult as she believes it to be. And to make it all the worse, the tone is whiny and self-indulgent instead of hip and informative.

I suppose this change reflects what the Voice understands its readers to want. I suppose it means that the alternative crowd they believed they existed to inform has become an affluent-married-mainstream crowd. And perhaps that’s exactly what’s happened. But if you’re a Voice reader and you don’t fit that description, let them know.


Filed under culture, Family, life, Personal Reflections, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

Blog for Choice Day – January 22

January 22nd is “Blog for Choice” Day. On that day, the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, pro-choice bloggers are asked to dedicate at least one of their posts to the reasons they are support a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. I’ll be participating, and I hope you’ll consider it too. If you don’t have a blog, I hope you’ll encourage your favorite bloggers to participate, and then come here on the 22nd and leave a comment about your own reasons for being pro-choice.

The idea behind the day is an interesting one. It’s not just about telling your own story. Blogs have become incredible social networking devices, and they influence the visibility of issues when lots of people are writing about the same thing. The pro-choice/anti-choice culture controversy is certainly quite visible, but I also think that lots of people don’t understand why we support safe and legal access to abortion. The “debate” often gets reduced to rhetoric, and our personal reasons get ignored or lost or rendered invisible. I don’t advocate making policy based on personal feelings, generally speaking, but personal stories help frame issues, as the recent Ms. Magazine effort did, and I think in terms of abortion access, those who oppose abortion have been much more successful at getting their stories out there.

So, on January 22nd, let’s tell our stories: I’ll tell you why I’m pro-choice and I hope lots of other folks will do the same.

For more information, click the “Blog for Choice” button below

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Filed under activism, community-building, Education, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sexuality

“Middle School Girls Gone Wild”… Really? I think the boys are wilder!

Today I was going to write about how this blog has served an unexpected purpose: social networking. When I set it up I had only intended it to be a place for me to write about the topics and issues that distracted me from my “other” work; often these would be pieces I had read in the newspaper that really irritated me and sent me off on a tangent that was not what I was “supposed” to be writing about. But in addition to serving that purpose, it has became an avenue upon which I met very interesting people. And I was going to tell you about them today.

But that entry will have to wait, because this morning a New York Times piece really irritated me. This New York Times Op-Ed piece, written by Lawrence Downes, the father of a middle school girl, begins with the words “It’s hard to write this without sounding like a prig” and ends with the declaration, “Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.”

Without reading the piece you can pretty much imagine its contents: middle-aged parent of middle-school child sits in middle-school auditorium watching a talent show which, predictably, falls pretty short on imagination and talent. The girls writhe around like stripper-wanna-bes to sexually explicit Janet Jackson lyrics (yes, what would outrage at mass media sexualization of girls without a swipe at Janet Jackson). The boys, somehow, never appear on stage. Or if they do, we never learn what their acts consist of. We are just told that they would never “waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor.” Hmm. Really?

I’m not so much angry at this man because he objects to the sexualized performance of the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls, though I would remind him that this is hardly a new phenomenon, and that way back in the 80s –good god 20 years ago — when I was in middle school, girls were prancing around imitating Madonna, Cindy Lauper and, yes, Janet Jackson.

No, I’m angry because he asserts that boys would never let themselves be so reduced to this kind of spectacle. And, while he doesn’t tell us what the boys did do for their performance, there is no question in my mind that boys are constantly reducing themselves to such spectacle. And being rewarded for doing so. Perhaps not an overtly sexualized spectacle, but a spectacle that rewards them for their physicality, their bodies, their writhing. A spectacle that places them in danger and that lauds their violent or at very least aggressive behavior. A spectacle that reduces their gender-role options rather than expanding them. And parents of boys are generally not appalled. No, in fact, this is seen as so commonplace that it is not worth even mentioning. No, beyond that, it is seen as so spectacular, so wonderful, that we organize leagues and teams and television channels and billion-dollar advertising campaigns around it.

Why are we not outraged at the valuing of young boys bodies and the lauding of their masculinity in organized competitive sports?

We are not angry about that because we believe that such activities prepare boys to be men. In fact, we so believe that the skills and capacities learned in sports are beneficial that we encourage girls to get involved too. And certainly capacities for teamwork and cooperation and the discipline of training are all very important. But those can be generated in a number of ways that are less aggressive than, say, football, a sport on which colleges and universities depend for money, which exploits the bodies of young men and subjects them to debilitating injury, but for which we celebrate them as participants.

No, we are not angry because we value aggression in boys. We see it as a sign of their masculinity. Apparently we don’t feel as strongly about valuing sexuality in girls. And that’s unfortunate, really. Think about it: aggression is rarely a positive attribute. In fact, boys and men end up struggling with their aggression in relationships with others. Aggression: fighting, abusiveness, intimidation, bullying. Sexuality, on the other hand, is linkable to pleasure, playfulness, intimacy, connection, communication. I don’t mean to suggest that it is always associated with these things, but the potential is always there within sexual experience to lead to these things. This is not true of aggression. It is hard to imagine aggression leading to anything particularly positive.

I’m angry because we privilege boys for their physical performances of gender even when those performances depend on aggression and even violence. Yet we criticize girls for their physical performances of gender, especially when those involve overt displays of sexuality. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one of the reasons we are so fearful about our girls displaying their sexuality is because we fear what might happen to them at the hands of aggressive, out-of-control boys! Yet somehow it seems better to limit the girls’ personal expression than try to change the culture of violent masculinity.

I hope Mr. Downes rethinks his talent-show experience. What were the boys’ performances reflecting? And what about all those other instances where boys are rewarded for a very narrow, very physical, very exploitive, dangerous set of performances? If Mr. Downes is serious about his concern for gender equality, as he seems to be by his closing declaration, I hope he reexamines his feelings about the performances of these middle school girls in light of a new examination of middle school boys activities. I think he might find the range to be equally narrow, and the outcome to be much worse.


Filed under Childhood Memories, Gender, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

Desperately seeking practical info — please circulate

I work at a public college in a county — Nassau County, NY — that does not recognize domestic partnerships. We at the college are county employees as well as being college employees. (Yes, two bosses. Lucky us!). We have two options for gaining recognition for (and thus winning corresponding benefits — rights! — for) our faculty members’ domestic partners.

In other words, we have two lines of possible action for making sure that all our families are treated equally.

The first is to negotiate this recognition and the benefits that would go with it into our next contract. This would only affect employment-related recognition, but it would be a start. We tried to negotiate this in the last round of bargaining and failed.

The second is to get the county to pass legislation that would recognize domestic partnerships and treat them equally with other families for employment-related purposes as well as for such purposes as housing, medical decision making, and so on. This could be done through lobbying for legislation, or, possibly, through a lawsuit that would force the county to make such recognition.

I need, badly, to hear from people who have been actively involved in successful organizing campaigns at local or county or public employer levels to win recognition of domestic partnerships. In New York this would mean people who helped win this recognition in Suffolk County, Westchester County, Rockland County, New York City, Albany, and Rochester. Outside of New York it means a lot more places.

If you are such a person — and of all you readers out there, there must be one who is — please get in touch with me at sexinthepublicsquare (at) yahoo (dot) com or by leaving your comments here. If you are not such a person, but you know someone who is, please pass along my request.

Hundreds of people look at this blog every day. And some of you look at it on purpose, and not because a search for images of public sex brought you here.

Some of you are activists, and some of you have won. I need to hear from you.

In solidarity,



Filed under Family, Gender, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sexual orientation


The darkness descends early and it is a good time to draw inward, to reflect, to be thoughtful, to contemplate.

It is Thanksgiving, and rather than let that mean myths about pilgrims, Indians and turkeys and horns of plenty I prefer to take the holiday more seriously and quietly consider the things that I take for granted but should not. The things that, when I consciously consider them, make me wonder at how fortunate I am.

I am grateful to have a partner who shares so much of himself with me and encourages me to share so much of myself with others. He is a truly amazing human being: generous, creative, incredibly smart, full of energy, thoughtful, wise, gorgeous and sensuous… I could not be more fortunate. I am grateful for his love, his support, his encouragement, his curiosity and his enthusiastic adventurousness.

I am grateful for the rediscovered courage to open myself more fully to the world.

…and for the new, interesting, passionate and compassionate relationships that have opened to me as I have been more open to the world.

… and for the courage to explore them, and for the courage it has taken these brave souls to open themselves to me.

…and for the time and carefulness that goes into all the communication that sustains important relationships.

…and for friends who are such inspirations for how to be whole and how to engage honestly and completely with people.

…and for the ability and time to meditate, to sit quietly, to stretch and to be mindful.

I am grateful for colleagues who encourage intellectual growth in unusual directions.

…and for sabbatical leave during which to do exactly that!

I am grateful for the community of bloggers whose work inspires me and who encourage me in developing my own work for the readers who comment on it.

I am grateful that the political atmosphere in this country is a little less scary than it was before election day.

I am grateful for life, for freedom, for family, beauty in the world, for consciousness and mindfulness and the supportive love of others who see and understand.

And you. What are you grateful for?


Filed under Personal Reflections, Relationships

Age, consent, position, power, agency, abuse

The New York Times has recently been raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. Back in December they broke a story about Justin Berry, who in turn was helping the FBI to break a ring of child pornography traders, especially those who would pay for boys like Berry (he was underage when he began) to pose and masturbate in front of their web cams. In the past week the Times has published two more articles, here and here, warning about the new ways that child pornographers and consumers of child pornography are getting around the law, organizing groups, and trading advice for luring real children to have sex.

Let me begin by saying, unequivocally, that sexual exploitation and abuse is wrong. Nothing I write below should be construed as challenging that basic principle. ALL exploitation and abuse is wrong.

That said, young people are sexual creatures with varying amounts of agency, self knowledge and with a host of diverse desires.

Is an intergenerational sexual relationship necessarily exploitive and abusive, or is it possible that some can be consensual and healthy?

What determines when a person is old enough to give meaningful consent to sex? And how should we define “sex” for the purposes of understanding when consent can be given? Is kissing sex? Is fondling or mutual masturbation sex? Are cunnilingus and fellatio sex? Is it sex if there is no orgasm? Are kids who are “playing doctor” having sex? Are young teenagers making out and rubbing their bodies together having sex? Can I be 15 and consent to sex with another 15-year-old but not with a 25-year-old?

While some of these are questions that are pretty clearly answered by state laws (or so it seems on paper) they  are much harder to answer in “real life.” In state law there is a clear “age of consent” but in real life things are much more complicated.

And to what should we attribute the seemingly common fantasy of having sex with a minor? And how should we understand the process by which that fantasy sometimes gets turned into reality? The Dateline To Catch a Predator series makes it seem as if nearly every man in the neighborhood wants to have sex with a minor, and as if many of them are willing to go beyond the world of fantasy and try to meet minors for sex.

The line between fantasy and reality should be clear. Is it wrong if I want to dress up as a 15-year-old boy and then be fucked by an older man? Is it wrong if an older man wants to have sex with a woman who is dressed up as a teenage girl in a school uniform and role play being her teacher and keeping her after class? Is it dangerous for me to watch pornography that depicts these same scenarios? In none of these instances is a real child being abused or exploited.

What happens when people are made to feel so ashamed of their fantasies that they never reveal them to their lovers, partners, friends? Would there be less sexual abuse of children if people could act out their fantasies with adults?

Patrick Califia, one of those writers/thinkers/be-ers who I would put in the pantheon of sex-writer deities, has written thoughtfully and provocatively about age-of-consent laws and the panics that periodically arise around child pornography and sex abuse of children. In an essay in his book Speaking Sex to Power he writes about the harm done to kids and adults alike by overly-broad and irrationally-applied child pornography laws, picking up arguments he’d made initially in Public Sex. Again the point is not to allow the victimizing of children, but to prompt a discussion about what constitutes the victimizing of children, what harm is done to them through our attempts at protecting them, and how to tell the difference between fantasy or thought and action.

I wish I could remember where I read this example, but it struck me as a powerful one. Nursing mothers sometimes report sexual arousal accompanying breastfeeding of their children. Is it abusive if a mother has a sexual response to her child’s suckling? What if she decides to continue nursing – and her child wants to continue to nurse – past the age where many other mothers stop? What if she is still allowing her child to nurse at 2 years old or 3 years old or even 5 years old? Would that be abusive? What is it, exactly, that makes a sexual connection between an adult and a child abusive? Perhaps it is the lack of mutuality? In the case of nursing, both mother and child are receiving something valuable, in addition they are bonding as a family. What if, during diaper changes, she noticed that her baby boy got aroused when she rubbed his thighs with ointment? What if she did that each time she changed him because he so clearly enjoyed the sensation of it? Would that be abusive? What if she gets nothing out of it herself but is just doing it because it appears to please the baby? Is that any different than the behavior of an adult who fondles a child because the adult gets pleasure out of doing so without regard for the child?

Yet, kids enjoy physical sensations that we say are bad for them, and that they may later come to regret. What is the cause of the regret? For some, at least, it might be the stigma attached to their activities. For others it might be the lack of information they had when they made their decision. Certainly for those who are coerced, the coercion itself is harmful.

I understand the need to protect children from harm. But I fear that our reflexive denial that they are sexual, and the connected willingness to deny them sexual information that would help them make decisions, develop boundaries, and understand their own desires, does them more harm on a regular basis than they suffer at the hands of abusers. In addition, the focus on protecting them from strangers redirects our attention away from the fact that so many abusers are not strangers to them.

A few years ago, Scarleteen, a sexuality information web site for teenagers, published this article on the need for calm discussion and rational policy around teen sex. The authors link the hysteria around child sex abuse (which is wrong, always) and the denial of accurate comprehensive sex education for kids and teens.

In light of the recent Times coverage of sexual predators on the Internet I think we need to take a deep breath and revisit the arguments made by Heather Corinna and Hanne Blank at Scarleteen, by authors like Patrick Califia (Public Sex and Speaking Sex to Power, Cleis Press), and scholars like Judith Levine (Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, University of Minnesota Press).

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Filed under public discourse, Relationships, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sexuality, sexuality and age