Category Archives: sexuality and age

Texas Mandates HPV Vaccine for 11- and 12-year-old girls

The news from the sex wars is interesting this morning, and the fronts are more complicated than we often remember.

This morning’s New York Times reports that Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, signed an executive order mandating HPV vaccination for girls entering 6th grade. (Parents can opt out for personal or religious reasons.)

This accomplishes a couple of important things:

1. Becasue the vaccine is mandated, the state has to pay for it for any girls who qualify for public assistance.

2. This will apply to anyone for whom the vaccine is recommended, so that means that all girls and women between 9 and 26 can get the vaccine, provided by the state, if they qualify for public assistance.

3. By bypassing the legislative process and doing this by executive order– something I wouldn’t always advocate — the Governor took control of the framing of debate on the issue. In his words:

“Requiring young girls to get vaccinated before they come into contact with HPV is responsible health and fiscal policy that has the potential to significantly reduce cases of cervical cancer and mitigate future medical costs.”

In other words, this isn’t about the sexual activity of young girls. This is about preventative medicine, public health and fiscal responsibility. Bravo Governor Perry! (The New York Times also notes that his move “saved legislators from having to go on record for or against a bill involving child sexuality.“)

Then too, given the Texas legislature’s recent proposal on sex ed, perhaps this was also a way of protecting kids from a potentially dangerous policy! A sort of conservative “have your cake and eat it too”: We won’t mandate comprehensive sex ed, but at least your kid won’t get cancer as a result of not having enough information.

You might recall that at the end of November I blogged about New Hampshire becoming the first state to offer the vaccines for free. Now we have two states, Texas and New Hampshire, both independent-conservative type places, that have made big public-program-type statements supporting the sexual health of girls and women.

As I said, the fronts are clearly much more complicated than we often think. But all this certainly does make me wonder what the left-leaning states doing regarding the HPV vaccine? And why are they doing it so slowly?

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality and age

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.

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

A different kind of “choice”: Texas Legislature proposes and “opt in” approach to sex ed

I’m intrigued and a bit disturbed by the framing of this new policy proposal for a sex-ed “opt in” program in Texas schools. I first read about it in a post by Jessica Gold Haralson at Vivian’s Sex Carnival. You can see that post here.

Here’s the segment of the news story about the policy where I think the strange framing occurs:

“The principle behind the bill is to have parents more involved in the education of their children regarding sex education,” says Emily Snooks, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of North Texas.

House Bill 311 would require a school district to obtain written consent of a parent before the student could take sex education. Currently, all Texas students take sexual education unless a parent requests otherwise. Under the bill, all parents would have to make a choice.

Many parents support that idea.

“I think all parents should have a choice and a say in what their child is exposed to at that level,” Debbie Sherrington, President of the Franklin Middle School PTA in the Dallas Independent School District. (Click here to see the whole story.)

Is opting-out not just as much a choice as opting-in? Currently, parents need to make a choice to opt their kids out, if they don’t want the schools teaching them about sex (or, paradoxically, since the article points out that most Texas schools use “abstinence-only” curricula, then currently parents have to opt out if they don’t want the schools not teaching their kids about sex.) In what way does Ms. Sherrington, quotd above, not have a choice in what her kid is exposed to, and at what age?
Why would a parent feel more involved by virtue of having to sign her kid into a sex ed program than she would feel by virtue of having to sign her kid out of a sex ed program? This is not about choice. This is about the power to control what the default position is.

Planned Parenthood of North Texas is a supporter of the bill, and their support puzzles me. It seems to hinge on the fact that most sex-ed programs in Texas are of the abstinence-only type (according to the PPNT spokesperson quoted in the article). But it strikes me that the bill has a hidden agenda: not to empower parents, but to stigmatize those who want sex ed in the schools. This bill would not create a new degree of choice — parents would still need to choose whether their kid got sex ed in school or not, just as before — but it does change the default position from “sex ed” to “no sex ed”.

Whose interests are served by this? Certainly not those who would prefer sex ed in schools. It’s generally more difficult — at least marginally, though sometimes more seriously — to actively oppose an institution’s default position than to go along with it. At very least it requires taking an additional step, and it also requires willingness to stand out. This seems to me to be an effort at stigmatizing those who support comprehensive sex ed, not an effort at increasing choice for parents.

I sympathize, though, with PPNT‘s desire that parents all be informed about the kind of sex ed their kids will get (or not get) in their schools. If I had kids that went to a school where abstinence-only sex ed was the mandated curriculum, I would certainly want to know that so I could provide comprehensive, accurate information at home. But I don’t think the answer is to make “no sex ed” the default option. Rather, I would like to see a bill that mandates that parents be notified about the kind of sex ed program their school offers, and then to be given the choice to opt out of the program if they wish.

Note: For a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the battles over sex education in public schools, try sociologist Kristen Luker’s new book, When Sex Goes to School: Warring views on sex and sex education since the Sixties.

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Filed under culture, Education, life, News and politics, sex, sex and health, sexuality and age

Don’t panic about teen sex

I used the term “moral panic” in my post of January 12 and didn’t define it. A commenter made it clear that my use of the term was probably assumed to mean something more general than I really did mean, so I’m dedicating this post to a discussion of the “moral panic” idea as it relates to teen sex.

I first encountered the term in the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen. Cohen used the term “moral panic” to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a lot of people have an exaggerated sense that a deviant behavior is rampant and causing social problems. The exaggerated perception is heightened by a spiral of media coverage that reinforces the sense that the problem seem much bigger than it is. More recently, Barry Glassner has written about media-inspired moral panics in his book The Culture of Fear, and of course Judith Levine and Pat Califia have both written about moral panics around children and sexuality.

I think we are currently in the midst of a moral panic about the sexual behavior of teenagers, and about the dangers of the Internet. I agree that there are problems associated with the sexual behavior of teenagers, and I agree that the Internet poses dangers, but I think our mainstream perceptions of those problems and dangers are exaggerated, and worse, I think our reactions contribute to the problems rather than help solve them.

Here let’s just deal with the panic around teen sex. I remember about two years ago there was a big “expose” about teens and oral sex. Caitlyn Flanagan, writing in the Atlantic in early 2006, documents the rampant fear that young girls — middle schoolers — were out there having nearly anonymous oral sex with boys in near-assembly-line fashion. In that article, she attributed the widespread fear to a real change in teen sex behavior. She cited data released in 2005, and which were culled from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which indicated that a quarter (26%) of 15-year-old girls had had oral sex, and that by age 17, a little more than half (55%) had done so. (The corresponding rates for boys were 35% and 56%.)

While her article described the fear that parents had about young teen girls “servicing” boys, the study she cited found that of the girls who reported having oral sex, more reported receiving it than giving it. Of the 15-year-olds, 24% had reported receiving oral sex while 18% reported having given it. Of the 17-year-olds, 49% reported receiving oral sex while 41% reported giving it. (All these figures refer to sex girls had with boys.) Also, it is very difficult to note changes in sexual behavior in this age group because they have so rarely been studied.

There is a problem with using the NSFG data to draw conclusions about what middle schoolers are doing. Kids who are 15 are likely in high school, so this data doesn’t tell us anything about what middle schoolers are up to, though we can infer that if, by 15, only a quarter of girls have had oral sex, that in middle school the numbers are fairly low. In January of 2005 NBC News and People magazine released data from a poll they commissioned on teens’ attitudes toward sex and their sexual experience. They surveyed teens as young as 13. They found that very few young teens had much sexual experience at all. Only 4% of teens who were 13 or 14 had had oral sex, for example, and fewer than half (44%) had kissed someone romantically. (Their data on 15 and 16 year olds estimates slightly lower rates of sexual activity than the NSFG data — a few percentage points — so I would suspect their estimates to be a bit low in all age groups.)

Sex surveys, like all surveys, are prone to a certain amount of self-reporting error. That is, people are not always completely honest, even when they are promised anonymity. But anonymity does go a long way to ensuring accurate survey data, and I think the data reported by the NSFG survey is pretty reliable. Yet, moral panics make it all the more difficult to collect good data. The more embarrassed or ashamed people think they should be about something, the harder it is likely to be for many of them to be completely honest. The way we report data has a lot of influence over how that data is interpreted. Imagine if, instead of raising the alarm that “Nearly 3 in 10 young teens ‘sexually active,’” (by which they mean anything from romantic kissing to touching some one else’s genitals to oral sex to intercourse), they had used a title like “More than 70% of young teens have no sexual experience at all.”

If we really want to know what teens are doing, sexually, then we need to ease our panic and approach the problem rationally. But even more than that, we should try to remember what it felt like to be teens, ourselves. What were we curious about? What did we want to try? What did we really do? How did we interact with our friends? And how can we, now adults, help teens to navigate their world respectfully and without instilling shame and fear?

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More on girls, boys, sex and sports

I’ve had much more time to think than to write since the sudden surge in interest that peaked just before New Years. Now I’m sitting down to write and noticing just how much there is to continue!

You’ve raised interesting points, here and in some other blogs, that I want to follow up on. I also want to continue some of my own musings. It is tempting to do that all at once, but that would produce such a jumble of disorganized thoughts that none of us would enjoy it very much. So I will try to discipline myself and take on only one or two related issues at a time.

Today I’ll start with the question of girls, sexualized performance and interaction, boys, sports and aggression, since that is what generated so much controversy. Soon I’ll take on some of the other ways that sex and age have been in the news of late (namely, the new attention being given to older women by younger men). Then I will take on some of the more personal themes that were raised in “Sex and Compassion,” another post that generated several new comments.

The most common counterargument raised in the comments was actually not about girls and sexuality but about boys and sports. There was a strong tendency to defend sports as beneficial, for both girls and boys, and especially in the sense that sports can encourage teamwork and discipline.

I agree that sports can do that. And not all sports are equally dependent on aggression, either. Football is a more aggressive sport than long distance running, and yet even within football some positions rely more on aggression than others. My objection is not to sports, per se. My objection is to the linkage between aggressive athleticism and masculinity, and then, beyond that, to the commercializing of aggressive athleticism (way more people watch football on television than watch relay races – even the most popular track and field events don’t generate the kind of television coverage that ordinary weekly football games do) and the limiting of boys, and then men’s sense of how to display their masculinity. Teamwork and discipline can be taught in recreational sports programs, and kids can be encouraged to play outdoor games, without having to hang college educations on the commodification and exploitation of bodies. This is the parallel I see between sports and sexually provocative dancing, and the narrowing of identity options for boys and girls.

Most commenters who were critical of my position on girls and sexually provocative dancing, for example, were bothered that girls’ ideas about sex, and for that matter boys’ ideas about girls and sex are narrowly constructed and imposed too early. BlogLily framed this concern very clearly in another feminist blog, here. Not only does this limit girls and boys sense of sexuality and beauty but it does so for the profit of impersonal corporations and continues to maintain the privilege of the relatively few women who fit that narrow mold while making for great unhappiness for many other women who don’t. I agree that the narrowing is a big social problem. I don’t think that the solution is to further lock down sexual imagery, but rather to allow it to expand. And I would love for it to be de-commercialized! I would love for girls, and boys, to be able to see sex, and sports, as ways to playfully communicate, interact, and enjoy their bodies, rather than to see either one as a way to be “successful” as a woman or man.

But de-commercializing sexuality, and transforming sexuality into something more playful and freeing requires us to take control of it ourselves. And that requires us to exert our own power as sexual individuals, and to display our many varieties of sexuality so that we create alternatives to the narrow model that is presented to us, and to those girls who were up on that stage the day that Lawrence Downes got the inspiration for his op-ed piece. And that would seem to require that we stop sending kids the message that sex should be hidden, or kept for only the most private of contexts.

The girls that we see imitating the pop stars to whom we object should be encouraged to be more creative, not discouraged from being sexual in the first place.

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

Happy New Year

This year is ending with a huge upsurge of interesting comments and I promise to respond to them when I return on January 2, 2007.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something to read, may I suggest, based on what has triggered all the recent interest, these two posts from the archives. The first is more personal, the second more political.

Sex is a way of knowing

Age, Consent, Power, Position, Agency and Abuse

Wishing peace and joy and compassion and pleasure for all in the new year,
Elizabeth

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Filed under News and politics, Personal Reflections, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

NYT Editorial Page Gets It Right On Sex Offenders

The New York Times this morning ran an editorial “Sex Offenders In Exile” that is about the most sensible thing they’ve written on the topic. In it, they rightly point out that driving sex offenders underground by overly restrictive policies about where they can live is a dangerous and misguided tactic.

They also rightly point out that such policies — which have effectively made some entire cities and towns off limits to sex offenders — are often made because we are justifiably afraid. That our fear is justifiable does not mean that it is a good driving force for policy-making. Fear leads to irrational decisions.

(Note: This is not the first time I’ve written about sex offender policies. See here and here for other posts on the topic.)

Sociologists are big on discussions of unintended consequences. Policies like those that bar sex offenders from living within 1000 or in some cases 2000 feet from a school, playground, place of worship, etc., are rife with unintended consequences, as the editorial points out. For one thing, they often push sex offenders into margins where they are harder to monitor. They also make it harder for offenders to hold jobs and become integrated into the kinds of social networks that would actually support their rehabilitation. Remember not all sex offenders are hard-core recidivists. But even those who are less likely to re-offend become more likely to do so if they’re only friends and neighbors are also other offenders.

Another unintended consequence of these policies is that they lull us into a false sense of safety. For one thing, the majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to the child, not by strangers. For another thing, simply making a likely re-offender live farther away from children does not keep them from traveling into circles where children will play. And there is a class-injustice here as well: poorer families are more likely to live in the places where sex offenders are allowed to live, making their children more likely than wealthier children to be the targets of registered sex offenders.

I am easily frustrated when I see irrational decisions being made. I am prone to outbursts like “Why don’t people think rationally about X,” whatever X might be. This editorial points out that people don’t make decisions based on how they think. They make decisions based on how they feel. And this is a very important insight.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Judith Levine, a writer whose work on sexuality and the perils of “protecting” children in ways that do them more harm has been very influential in my own thinking about sex policies. Judith reminded me that the important work that we who write about sexuality or politics or any sensitive issue need to take up is not to change how people think, but rather to change how they feel.

It is hard to imagine how to change people’s feelings about sex criminals or about children. We have made children into frail and sacred objects and have projected onto them so many of our fears about so many things.

How do we make ourselves less afraid? How do we make ourselves care enough about safety and justice to get it right? How do we get ourselves to be outraged at the effects of our fear-based decisions?

Consider the impact of these policies on the life of Genarlow Wilson, who, three years ago when he was 17 had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. He was convicted of molesting her and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She never filed a complaint about the sex. Even prosecutors in the case wish that the outcome had been different. They had originally been bringing a rape charge against a group of boys, including Genarlow, and Genarlow was found to be not guilty of that charge, but videotape evidence presented in that case showed him having oral sex with the 15-year-old-girl. In explaining why he would not accept a plea deal offered to him, which would have cut his prison time, he said:

“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. ”It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”

Nobody intended for an outcome like this to occur. Nobody intended for a bright, successful, promising young man’s life to be ruined because he was sexually active and had consensual sex with a girl just a few years younger than himself.

But that is what has happened, and it has happened because of policies made in fear. I will refrain from my ordinary appeal to reason. I take Judith Levine’s point. People act based on their emotions. So instead I will appeal to compassion. How do we generate compassion such that it puts our fears in their proper perspective? And how can we moderate our fear so that it matches our actual level of risk?

One way is by reducing our exposure to fear-inducing media and increasing our exposure to more sensible opinions. I’ve written before about the damage done by such popular programs as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” Certainly programs like that one do much to make us afraid and little to make us truly safer.

But we should also be talking to each other more honesty about how we really do feel and what we really do think. It is incredibly difficult to speak up against injustice or irrationality when sex offenders are the target of the injustice or the irrational policy. But it is important to do it. It is important not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is one of the few things that can change our feelings, lead us to make better policy, and really make us safer.

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Filed under Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexuality and age

“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.

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

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

“Heading South”

I haven’t seen the “Heading South” yet, but I just read this Sunday Styles piece about the movie in today’s New York Times. It seems sort of like “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” but with white women doing the travelling and with the exploitation made much more clear.

I’m interested in how people will talk about the film. Will they compare the travels of these women to the sex-tourism travels of men seeking out young girls and boys in Asia? Will the focus of conversation be on the race and age differences? Will it be on the paying for sex or the colonialist undertones? Will they say “you go girl” and cheer on the women who are acknowledging their sexual needs and exercising their autonomy?

Here is what I want to talk about: How difficult for is it for older women in the U.S. to find interesting sex partners in the U.S.? Apparently this film is resonating with older women in the U.S. It certainly does seem like our dominant culture defines older women as less desirable partners for men. Is it coincidence that this film hits a nerve in the same time period as Dateline obsession with online sex predators which always seem to be men looking for underage sex partners? If there are older men seeking sex partners and older women seeking sex partners why are they portrayed as needing to enter into exploitive relationships in order to have sex?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to racial, ethnic, nationality, or age differences and I’m not opposed to vacation sex. I’m not even opposed to paying for (or being paid for) sex. Far from it! But the portrayal here is of a society where people are left with “no choice” but to travel to a place where the local population has even more limited choices. Work should not be coercive whether it is sex work or other work. (That means that many of these resorts are problematic to start with! Recall the situationist slogan “Club Med: A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”)

The women quoted in the Times story all attest to the difficulties older women have finding satisfying sexual relationships. We can’t afford a culture that fetishizes youth to such a degree that men and women “of a certain age” need to leave the country to find satisfying sex with desirable partners. We can’t afford a culture that defines “desirable” so narrowly!

I suppose this is easy for me to say as I have always been attracted to people — men and women both — who are much older than I am. But the cultural point remains. Whether it is easy to shift our attentions or not, it is necessary! So lets start fetishizing experience, strength, and age. Let’s make up new language. Imagine the following personal ad:

“Smart, sexy, mature woman with silver-streaked hair and sense of humor written all over her face. Skills honed by years of experience and experimentation. Seeks adventurous partner to push the envelope. No game-playing .. except in bed!”

Okay, so writing personal ads is not going to be my second job, but doesn’t she sound hot?

One of my favorite pornographic novels, Carol Queen’s The Leather Daddy and the Femme, has a character named Mistress Georgia Strong who is described as having “long and shining black hair streaked white at the temples” and she is written as a character that has such authority, skill and experience that in my imagine, no matter how hard I try to stick to Carol Queen’s description, I convert her hair to a steely silver. And she is a powerfully erotic character, perhaps the one in the book I am most attracted to. If you haven’t read the book yet, believe me, you would not pass up a chance to offer yourself to Georgia Strong!

So, let’s get out there and make images of older sexy women (and men). It’s one thing to finally depict older women as having sexual needs and desires, as possessors of lust and passion. Now let’s paint them as objects of lust and passion!

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