Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wanderlust; or, is travel sexy?

by Chris Moses

When Christopher Columbus first happened upon the shores of Hispaniola and took stock of new world natives he confronted a trying question of Biblical proportions. Less the awesomeness of discovery or any premonition about the weighty changes he had set in motion—Columbus faced a crisis of clothing. Did the Indians wear anything? Were they compelled to cover themselves out of shame? That is, had these foreign and strange people fallen before God, or were they somehow prelapsarian, untainted by Adam’s original sin?

Like any good reporter—and like the savvy rhetorician he was—Columbus hedged his bet. Yes: naked, exotic, virginal. But still not all or everyone. Covering too had its place. Rather than land on one side or the other, he straddled the defining crux in Christianity’s narrative of humankind’s emergence from Eden:

"La gente d’esta isla y de todas las otras que he fallado y havido ni aya havido noticia, andan todos desnudos, hombres y mugeres, así como sus madres los paren, haunque algunas mugeres se cobijan un solo lugar con una foia de yerva o una cosa de algodón que para ello fazen."

"The people of this island, and of all the others that I have found or learned about, they all go about naked, men and women, as their mothers had them, although some of the women cover that one place with a leaf of grass or a bit of cotton which they have fashioned for this purpose."

With remarkable clarity, Columbus entwined the characteristic dilemmas of an encounter with the otherwise unknown. Equal parts familiarity and mystery, proximity and distance, he dances between expectation and originality. The ways of seeing are old and trustworthy while the sites and sounds may be new; and between the two God’s greater truth will be confirmed.

Now we’re a long way from 1492. And I’m absolutely loathe to set out universal dictums about the ways in which difference and discovery either lead to greater human understanding or reinforce existing prejudices and inequality.

Instead I pick out this Big Kahuna of exploration to make two points: exoticism and travel are not new or unfamiliar bedfellows, before Columbus or since. Second, the variety and texture of this tango spans as many times, places, and people as have seen the light of day. Only because such quests lust for originality does each one try to mark itself out as a paragon of newness or revelation.

The power of truth as never-before-seen gets proven by the one other travel trope that even comes close to matching this wow factor for frequency and durability—the lament of loss. The best insurance for having found something unique is to weep at its corruption, to prove that never again will it be witnessed in its untainted splendour. You have seen, and in seeing you have sullied. Just like sex burdened by Christianity’s ethos of shame, the explorer’s peaks of joy and valleys of despair get traversed by pathways of guilt.

I offer this half satirical and half historical account to clear the air of my own far-reaching wanderings over the past year. Unhinged from long-standing family responsibilities, and with the need for archival research abroad, I’ve been somewhat placeless for nearly a year—and before that, a long preludes of comings and goings. Between visits to friends, work and simple holiday breaks, I’ve been fortunate to see many corners of the globe—from Colombia to Cambodia, Marrakech to Mumbai. Based here in Britain, too, I’ve been able to gain a more settled sort of familiarity beyond the US.

Yet I remain a bit obstinate about capitulating to any sort of narrative of self-discovery or clear-sighted vision of truth-through-tribulation. To my own quasi-romantic sensibility, the wonder of travel mingles far more with the mundane and satisfies in stillness what’s otherwise entangled in the frantic routines and sustaining habits of the everyday. The terrible cliché of life being a journey and not a destination deserves its fate as a poster hanging in faux inspiration from the immobile walls of immobile teachers’ immobile classrooms: any fool who has put one foot before the other knows that movement and place inextricably define one another.

And so I voice my skepticism for the packaged ‘life-changing experience’ with the point that one must have a tremendous sense of foresight to recognize how the here-and-now will resolve itself through the course of innumerable days to come. Indeed I worry that for many the dramatic is performed, semi-willfully, in a cauldron of foreignness itself manufactured for the creation of ‘unique’ experiences—performed and then given an over-determining role to prove the truth of its ‘life-changing’ force. This is exactly the repulsion and dread I feel from those who declare high school or college or whenever to have been the best years of their life. Foreclosure is never a pretty picture.

Foreclosure with travels come to an end, houses lost in economic hardship, or the sexual demarcation of virginity taken or lost, innocence replaces by shame—these events get bound together as a way to recount stories and display a set of emotions as real as they are expected by those to whom we tell our tales.

Here I find my own sense of feminism, both a freedom and a trap. It’s a sense that, canvas charted, I will animate in future posts with more anecdotal and confounding experiences from these many months of travel. In the meantime I’m off to scout some after-Easter candy sales before I head to yoga, sugary contradiction of meditative reflection that it is.

Shia and Sharia: Afghanistan and Pakistan Update

by Laura Smith-Gary

We've been following this story for weeks: Afghanistan passes a law that legalizes marital rape for members of its Shia population, as well as preventing women from going outside their houses without permission, inheriting property, and or taking custody of their children in the case of divorce. Various Western leaders, including President Obama, denounce the law. Fantastically brave Afghan women protest the law as crowds hurl stones and spit curses.

Yesterday, President Karzai announced that he will review the law that would allow marital rape and send it back to parliment and revise it if it infringes the rights laid out in Afghanistan's constitution. Still, he says that perhaps the law was mistranslated by the Western Press and said at a press conference, "I don't see any problems with it." The example of misunderstanding he cited, according to the Associated Press report I just linked to, is that women are allowed to leave their houses without their husband's permission in an emergency. Meanwhile, a cleric who supports the law insists that it doesn't allow rape, it just lets men refuse to feed their wives if the wives don't fulfill their sexual desires.

Still, the fact that the law will (probably, hopefully?) be changed is good news, and seems to indicate that international condemnation does have some effect on the president's decisions regarding human rights issues.

Meanwhile, just across the border in Pakistan's Taliban-infested Swat region, the federal government has officially ceded control of the area to Islamic militants, imposing Sharia law on the region and allowing the Taliban to reign in a desperate bid for relative peace and stability in the region. In early April, the consequences of the Taliban's rule in Swat was made graphically evident when a video surfaced of a teenage girl being publicly flogged after being accused by her family of having an affair.

The political, religious, and military situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan are deeply interconnected, and cannot be addressed separately. At the same time, I am struggling to formulate an idea of how they should be addressed. I'm encouraged that Karzai was pressured into acknowledging that a marital rape law is Not Okay, but international opinion won't be able to change the minds of the Afghan stone-throwers, and it certainly won't be able to bring human rights and peace into the Swat region. I see education as being a key element in long-term change in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially education for women. My very first Equal Writes post was about the fabulous Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute , which builds schools for girls in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I think Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S., and the international community should be strategically and deliberately investing in programs like these. However, that's not a complete solution, or one that will have any immediate effect. Military action, while in some ways appealing, also has many significant downsides, most of which are glaringly obvious after the debacle of the Iraq war. We can't count on aid reaching the populations that need it.

Yet we also can't turn a blind eye on blatant human rights violations. We can't assert, as do the abysmally ignorant commentators in many of the articles I read on the marital rape law, that the concept of "marital rape" is meaningless in Afghan culture because and therefore no one's getting hurt, and that if women don't like it they should just leave the country. We can't condemn Shia women to virtual house arrest and abandon teenage girls into the hands of the Taliban, but we can't overestimate our ability to clean up "messes" like these or underestimate the potential disaster of a truly failed state in Central or South Asia. So what do we do? Really. I'm really asking. Is there a was to protect and support women's rights (and human rights in general) in these explosive regions without making them, you know, explode? What in the world is it?

(If you'd like to donate to support the cause of the female protestors in Kabul, a Feministe commentator has offered to match the first $1,000 in donations made to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan by Feministe readers. I don't know enough about them to personally vouch for the organization, but from the fifteen minutes of research I did it seems legit and effective, though controversial in some areas because it's secular.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Veg Fest and sex toy party, tonight at Terrace!

Tonight will be an epic night, a night to indulge all of your liberal cravings, be sex-positive, eat vegan food, and see good friends! Yes, folks, tonight there are two fantastic events at Terrace, beginning at 8 pm with Veg Fest. There will be food, free t-shirts, and guest speaker T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study. I went last year and the food was delicious, and I've heard that this speaker is really great - you should definitely check it out!

And then...Princeton Pro-Choice Vox is sponsoring a sex toy party at 10 pm. There will be an hour-long presentation and then an opportunity to purchase sex toys (cash or credit card) afterward. If you've never been to a sex toy party, you should give it a try - it's essentially like a Tupperware party, except instead of boring household products, they're talking about sex toys. You can come, even if you don't plan to buy - it's worth the experience alone!

My coochie snorcher, monkey box, gentle alpaca...?

Why is Friday my favorite day? Because of this lady! Love Sarah Haskins!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Afghan protesters stoned during marriage law protest

This is truly horrible. From CBC:

"About 300 mostly young women gathered in Kabul to show their opposition to a recently passed law that forbids women from refusing to have sex with their husbands and requires them to get a male relative's permission to leave the house.

The demonstration, organized by women's rights activists in the country, occurred in front of a Shia mosque recently built by a cleric who helped craft the law. Critics of the law say it effectively legalizes rape within marriage and is a return to Taliban-style rule.

About 1,000 people opposed to the protest surrounded the women and threw gravel and small stones as police struggled to hold them back. The group of counter-protesters included both men and women."

The people stoning the protesters shouted things like "You are a dog. You are not a Shia woman!" and "Death to the slaves of the Christians."

Thankfully, there were no reports of injuries (although who knows if this is true). But the amazing thing is that even though these women are being persecuted for this brave stance against an oppressive law, it's helping to unite the protesters even more.

Thoughts from Anna Rose, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences with a sexual pain disorder, and my journey toward a cure.*

You come home at the end of a long, hard day. You're tired, and your shoulders ache. The only thing you want, what you need more than anything else, is a back rub. That's all you want. It's simple. Easy. So you ask your partner to give you said back rub, but they say no, and instead try to pressure you into having sex.

Not cool, right?

Well then everyone needs to stop telling me that "a nice back rub is just as good as sex sometimes," because it's not. It's not even comparable. If all you want in the world is sex, intercourse, then someone massaging your shoulders is just not going to do it. Just like it's completely obnoxious, even offensive, to be offered only sex when you only want a nice back rub.

I get this a lot. And I have to say that sometimes, substitutes just don't do it. I'll say it, I'll put it out there: I want sex. I want a hard shaft pushing fast, over and over, into my body, pushing so hard that I feel it in my most animalistic psychic places, so it pushes screams out of me that can only mean ecstasy, and union, and something more basic and important than any substitute could ever touch. I want to feel my lover climax and relax inside me.

When I want oral, I'll do oral.

When I want anal, I'll do anal.

When I want a back rub, I'll ask for one.

But when I want sex, I want sex.

And yes, those other things are nice, but they're not necessarily what I'm looking for all the time. Suggesting substitutes for sex--which a lot of people do when they're trying to be helpful--seems counter-productive for two reasons:

1) Substitutes won't actually satisfy my cravings. I am a heterosexual female, and I want heterosexual intercourse. It's what my instinct and my drive have been telling me to do since I was twelve. I want physical union with a big strong man, to feel and smell him all over me, I want to feel puzzle pieces fitting together, to conceive babies with sex, I want it rough, and gentle, and in every position there is. I want to make the Karma Sutra a lifestyle.

2) I believe that suggesting other acts in place of sex undermines those acts. Like the back rub, if I want my boyfriend to go down on me and all he'll give me is sex, that sucks. I'm not going the "there's nothing wrong with these acts" route, because it's more than that: Any act of love is beautiful. For some people, oral sex is the pinnacle of eroticism, the thing that gets them off better than anything else. For others, anal is the way they best unite with their lover. There are countless acts of erotic love, and to suggest one act as a necessary stand-in for one you're not capable of denies that act its own place of honor, and belittles its importance in another life, because if it is a stand-in, it will never be adequate. It is just, "the farthest I can go," or "the most I can do," and over time, it becomes less-than, and resented. I know that because I've said it--many times, throughout five years. Every time, the concept becomes more difficult to accept, and the idea of oral or manual sex becomes less appealing because stand-ins begin to represent what I can't have. Likewise, to suggest that any act can stand in for another implies that the unavailable act is comparable, and substitutable, and that is not always the case.

I started thinking along these lines when a friend, who at the time was receiving a back rub, gave me the back rub line. My first thought was, "People take sex for granted." There are millions of life forms on this Earth who are not designed for sex. For them, it's not necessary, they don't feel the drive, but at the same time, aren't we blessed with the ability to unite with another person in this way, to express ourselves so uniquely and joyously, to trust another being so completely, and to be rewarded for that expression and trust with something as cosmic as orgasm? Throughout the centuries, sex has been the subject of massive thought and debate: It's been the highest form of spiritual power and the worst form of demonic carnality. People have ousted it from their lives, and dedicated their lives to it; worshiped by it, and by denial of it; built statues, altars, temples, industries in its name; sold it, bought it, withheld it, forced it, all for power; laughed at it, cowered before it, hid from it, indulged in it; it's been a symbol for spring, divinity, evil, corruption, baseness, power, magic, masculinity, femininity; reserved for the wise, fully enjoyed by the young; flaunted, hidden, shared; it gives us all life, and it can give you diseases that will kill you.

How, in the name of Holy Earth, could anything be an appropriate substitute?

There are segments of the community that, in their attempt to relax the definition of sex, and to make all forms of sex acceptable, give labels to mainstream, no-frills, heterosexual sex. I'm thinking mostly of "P.I.V.," and the BDSM term, "vanilla." While I respect these subsets, and know their sex is as sacred as my own, I have a real problem with these terms. The first I think is too technical for something so magnificent. The second is offensive. The term "vanilla" means bland and uninteresting, and though members of the BDSM community often enjoy the sex they call vanilla, to put a modifier on any form of sex--seems judgmental. Because let me tell you, if you can't have regular old vanilla PIV, it suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. I think that in the attempt to bring honor to other kinds of sex and to the people who use those kinds primarily, we often seek to lower the importance of the mainstream, rather than increasing the importance of the non-standard. We defend choice by saying other acts are "just as good," when in fact it doesn't matter--because they're different. Equal does not mean identical, and everyone's preferences deserve respect and realization. My deep and desperate desire for my kind of sex deserves realization. And sex is all it's cracked up to be, otherwise you wouldn't have been interested enough in this post to keep reading till now.

This is exhausting. I need a back rub.

Anna Rose

*If you have chronic pain during intercourse and you know you have no history of sexual violence, you may have a pain disorder, and you should see a doctor. Get opinions from several different kinds of doctors, especially non-conventional if possible.

To read the whole story, take a look at the whole "Thoughts from Anna Rose" series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In the new French Elle, women as they really are

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

We've been writing a lot about French magazines recently (I posted a couple of weeks ago about French Vogue's unorthodox mommy-model photo shoot), but that's because they're just willing to push the envelope! And where French Vogue was witty if confusing, the April issue of Elle is just brave - it will include photos of eight European actresses (including Sophie Marceau, Charlotte Rampling, and Monica Bellucci) without any makeup and, perhaps more amazingly, without any photoshop or retouching of any kind. This has always been something that Europeans have embraced more readily than Americans, but what's incredible is the idea that we could be presented with these celebrities as they really are, without embellishment or alteration. These women are all intensely beautiful with or without makeup, as we can see from the photos that have been leaked, and the photographer has worked to show off just how lovely they are. This is not how we do it in America - when we see photos of our celebrities without makeup, it's taken by the paparazzi and leaked all over the internet in an ecstasy of schadenfreude, as gossip blogs point out wrinkles and pores and cellulite with glee.

Granted, these are still women who are extraordinarily beautiful, but I think it's really something to see actresses "sans fards," the French name of the issue, which translates literally as "without makeup" but also implies a kind of openness, a lack of inhibition. This is how fashion magazines should treat women - celebrating natural beauty, without making a photoshopped glamazon our ideal. Even the actresses who are celebrated as "curvy" are digitally slimmed. We remove freckles, wrinkles - anything that seems "imperfect" - without considering that the finished product is actually more ugly and unnatural than the flaws themselves. To be honest, it's really refreshing to see photos of an actress which make her look like a person, instead of an airbrushed alien. This is akin to last month's Italian Vogue, which protested the lack of diversity in the fashion industry by publishing an all-black issue - basically, the Europeans are putting us to shame. America, come on - if I can't appeal to your sense of decency, where's your sense of competition?

Are we underdiagnosing autism in girls?

by Malavika Balachandran

At Camp Sunshine, a summer camp for mentally disabled children that I used to work at as a camp counselor, we had very few (if any) female participants with autism spectrum disorders. The female campers on the autism spectrum always had autism, and not Asperger’s Syndrome, which is characterized by delay in social development, but not verbal development. Doctors, when diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome, search for lack of friendship, poor social skills, and very intense interests. However, these symptoms represent stereotyped behaviors of males with the disorder, and thus thousands of girls with Asperger’s Syndrome are going undiagnosed. Females with the disorder, while lacking the social interaction skills, often mask their disorder through silence or imitation of others; also females with the disorder are more likely to have friends than males with the disorder and are less likely to externalize their frustrations and instead passive-aggressively deal with their anger. Further, females often channel their intense interests into activities such as day-dreams and imaginary worlds, whereas males focus their interest on a more concrete interest. One camper with Asperger’s at Camp Sunshine displayed an avid interest in dinosaurs; he had memorized thousands of facts on dinosaurs and always sat in a corner creating amazing clay models of obscure species of dinosaurs. The behaviors of males are much easier to classify as abnormal, and the intense behavior of females then go undetected.

Not only do doctors fail to recognize the symptoms of females with Asperger’s Syndrome, but often turn away female patients and refuse to diagnose them! Many doctors believe that Asperger’s Syndrome does not even affect females and instead misdiagnose the females with the disorder. Moreover, the difficulties in social interaction caused by the disorder often result in females developing eating disorders and depression, but these problems are often mistreated as they are not properly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Prominent psychologist and author Tony Attwood, believes that "[as many as] 20% of females with anorexia have undiagnosed Asperger’s."

Dr. Laura Gould, the psychologist who conducted groundbreaking research in the late 70s linking Asperger’s to autism, calls for a complete upheaval in the way that Asperger’s is being diagnosed. Currently, the symptoms that signal the disorder to doctors are stereotyped to male behavior; the recognizable symptoms need to be extended to apply to female behaviors as well. Psychologists need to rethink their approach to diagnosing the disorder so that these females do not go undiagnosed. The article reports that nearly 16 times as many boys are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome than girls; with the restructuring of diagnostic tests, the difference between the numbers of boys with the disorder compared to girls will surely fall. The existing forms of diagnosis and attitudes of doctors are doing a disservice to females with the condition. Until doctors reshape their theory pertaining to the disorder, many more females will continue to go undiagnosed. But with improvements to the current approach to the disorder, we can help treat and provide the assistance to these females that they need but presently do not receive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NOM – The Gathering Storm: More than just a bad analogy

by Michael Collins

Last week the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) – a pet project of Robbie George – started a new campaign featuring a scary video. While I am in support of ‘Religious Liberty,’ NOM’s definition of Religious liberty is wholly out of keeping with America’s longstanding tradition of separation of church and state.

The commercial begins with a dark and stormy night (a tired metaphor by the 1900’s) and fake lightning bolts descending on a “rainbow coalition” of conservative people. The imagery reminds me of the poster for Twilight; another pro-Christian excursion into pop culture As the commercial continues, there is a stark transition into a beautiful sunrise (or perhaps sunset) while Damon Owens promises a better tomorrow. On the NOM website the video is described as a “60-second TV spot ‘A Gathering Storm’ bringing viewers face to face with the growing religious liberty threat posed by same-sex marriage.”

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has produced an excellent rebuttal to the legal claims made in the commercial. Scroll to the bottom for the quick facts. I, however, am more interested a critical analysis of the imagery and words used in this commercial which I find problematic.

Lets go through this line by line:

There’s a storm gathering
• well…that didn’t take long. Alex Massie of The Spectator points out that the title of the campaign is Winston Churchill’s opus titled, The Gathering Storm. Are we really to believe that the demand for equality in marriage is equivalent to the Nazi movement. Or, perhaps, the ‘Gathering Storm’ is supposed to be the response by ‘traditionalist.’

The clouds are dark and the winds are strong and I am afraid.
• It’s strange, but the commercial tacitly admits that the motivating fear for the campaign is fear; a fear of change, a fear of difference, a fear of spreading equality.
Some who advocate for same sex marriage have taken the issue far beyond same sex couples.
• Who are these people the commercial refers to. The wonderfully innocuous group is easier to demonize. The other, they, “some people” are perfect targets for a campaign that attempts to reduce equality. There is a very real danger in dehumanizing the opponents of the conservative, anti-gay rights program.

They want to bring the issue into my life. My freedom will be taken away.
• Again with the “they.” Who is NOM so afraid of? And what freedoms will be taken away. See the HRC article discussing the public and private spheres for religious belief.

I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job. I’m part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same sex marriage. I’m a Massachusetts parent helpless watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is okay.
• All of this is pretty handily taken apart by the HRC post.

But some who advocate same sex marriage have not been content with same sex couples living as they wish. Those advocates want to change the way I live. I will have no choice.
• With the overwhelming victory of Obama, it’s surprising that ‘change’ is supposed to be terrifying. I guess the target audience didn’t vote for Obama. This commercial relies on a false sense of security promised by consistency and tradition: If things change, there is the possibility they could get worse, so we should resist change. This logic ignores the lived suffering of in the LGBT community only to privilege the fear of change held by some conservatives.

The storm is coming. But we have hope, a rainbow coalition of people of every creed and color are coming together in love to protect marriage
• The commercial utilizes an ironic inverse of the term rainbow coalition. As one of my friends pointed out, it’s a rainbow coalition…of people united by a fear of homosexuality.

This commercial – ringing with fear, intolerance and factual inaccuracies – should start a national dialogue. While opponents of Gay Marriage want to center the discussion around fear, I think the discussion needs to be grounded in mutual respect and understanding.

Quick hit: more good news for marriage rights!

New York Governor David Paterson will announce plans on Thursday to introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. Even though he's not sure whether there are enough votes for the measure to pass, he wants to show that the state of New York is committed to treating same-sex couples with the same respect that it accords to opposite-sex couples. The bill is likely to have a bumpy ride, and state politics in Albany are slow enough that it could be months before the bill actually makes its way to the Assembly and Senate floors, but Governor Paterson's actions are still a promising sign that more and more legislators are feeling moved to extend this very basic civil right to same-sex couples. Yay for New York!

Disappointed in the Daily Princetonian

by Jared Aldwin Crooks

The last time that I checked, I go to Princeton University. Princeton is consistently ranked among the top universities in the nation and world – we’re lauded for our progressive thinkers and outstanding researchers, and we supposedly possess some of the country’s brightest young minds, waiting to soak up knowledge. So you’ll understand my surprise when I picked up the April 8th issue of the Daily Princetonian, looked at the sports section and saw the most blatantly sexist comment I have seen in a while. It wasn’t even an article – it was a headline: “Honestly, I’d rather see the women’s final.” The article’s author, Eben Novy-Williams, was writing about the lack of competition in the Men’s NCAA basketball championship, but the headline took all of women’s pioneering work and threw it in the trash with a swish. Essentially, the headline was saying that women’s basketball is so much of a joke that no one would consider watching the women’s final – unless the men’s final was absolutely unwatchable.

How could the management of the Daily Princetonian have allowed such a headline to be published? Some may think that this is an overreaction, but I cannot idly sit back and allow this seemingly minor issue to slip by without pointing out it out to those responsible. I can only hope that they were not aware of the offensiveness of their actions. The headline may seem flippant, or even funny, but it reflects a greater unconcern for women’s accomplishments in sports and in the wider world. Princeton has a female president, and our student body is nearly half female. The Princeton I thought I attended does not reflect the all-white, all-male values of the past, and I expect students writing for the student newspaper to act accordingly.

Sex and sensibility

by Thomas Dollar

People have been blogging a lot about sex lately, so I thought I’d take a break from Africa and get my two cents in. Stepping into a discussion on sexual ethics is like stepping into a fen of snark, recriminations and umbrage (feigned and real), so I’ll be sure to tread carefully.

Equal Writes does an excellent job (much better than most feminist blogs) of including a diverse array of opinions on sexual matters. Still, when it comes to discussions of sexual morality, conservatives and traditionalists tend to do most of the talking, with liberals and libertarians merely rebutting their points.

Traditional sexual mores place great importance on restricting sex: who can have it with whom, what they can do, when they can do it, how they should feel about it, etc. Gender roles are important in a conservative sexual ethic: men and women are assumed to have different needs and desires, and are held to different codes of behavior. Also important are concepts of the family, childrearing, and social stability. Sexual conservatives typically justify their philosophy through the invocation of a deity, natural law, tradition, and concern for the wellbeing of society.

Sex-positive liberals usually deride these conservative mores, calling them patriarchal, repressive and supremely unrealistic. And reality appears to be on the liberals’ side, as 95% of Americans engage in pre-marital sex. Still, when it comes to offering their own code of sexual morals, most liberals demur, advocating little beyond the need for consent and safe-sex practices. The result is that the only people talking about sex in moral terms are the ones who have a narrow view of it. This is really a pity, for a number of reasons.

Sex is complicated, because people are complicated. (Sex between dogs, by contrast, is most decidedly uncomplicated.) People have complex emotions, desires and needs, and when people form close relationships, these strong emotions may clash. I have heard countless allegations from sexual conservatives (including on this blog) of the dangers of the so-called “hookup culture.” They claim that casual sexual encounters are emotionally and psychologically jarring to those involved—especially the women. They may even cite several cases that demonstrate their point. Sexual liberals usually counter with a blanket, “No, that’s just not true,” and offer counter-examples of their own.

Both sides fail to recognize the difference between “is” and “may.” Some people may form strong emotional attachments to any sexual partner; others may not. Some people may engage in sexual activity merely for physical pleasure with one partner, yet form a tight bond with another. Some people may go on a tour of one-night stands (suitcase and guitar in hand), while others want to commit to only one partner for life. And people can change too, desiring different things at different points in their lives.

Any description of universal norms is a case of wishful thinking. Conservatives engage in wishful thinking when they claim abortion (generally) harms women, or that sexuality is a precious gift that women must control but men cannot, or that having sex reduces women’s self-esteem. Before the advent of hormonal contraception and legal, safe abortion, unwanted and unsupported pregnancies were a real danger for women. (And societal control of women’s sexuality had a rational basis.) But the world changed, and morality has to change with it.

Instead of morality, though, sexual liberals have given men and women a muddled mish-mash of mixed messages. We’re supposed to desire sex (that’s natural, right?), but not show it too much, lest we pressure our partners, and we should not engage in sex at all unless it’s somehow “empowering” personally. (And anything is okay as long as it’s portrayed as “empowering.”) Women desire sex just as much as men, and are not the “gatekeepers” of sexuality (that’s sexist!), yet if there’s every a dispute over consent, we assume the man wanted sex and the woman didn’t. Confused? I’ll say we are.

I’m quite confident that a new sexual morality will develop—after all, it hasn’t even been 50 years since we (or most of us, at least) tossed off the old one. My guess is that this new sensibility, unlike the old one, will be based on personal responsibility, not just restriction and self-denial. Responsibility means seeing sex as a good in itself that can nonetheless cause harm when practiced carelessly. Responsibility means recognizing that drunken sex—whatever pleasures involved—is no more empowering than drunken anything else. It demands openness and honesty between sexual partners, and in public discussions about sex. This frankness will help us overcome our tendency towards pluralistic ignorance about other people’s sex lives. It will also help people find partners who are compatible with how their own sexuality is—not some abstract idea of how it should be. This new morality will recognize that having children is too serious a responsibility just to stumble into, and that family planning benefits all of society. When will this new morality take root? It’s already starting to, but I’m afraid there will be a few more years of confusion while we sort things out.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Take out a student loan...or be a sugar baby?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine had an article about "sugar daddies" and their "sugar babies," focusing on a website called, which is a something of an alternative to The site bills itself as the "premier dating website for sugar daddies, mommies and babies" - although the "sugar mommies" account for about 1 percent of the site's users. Instead, most of the dating "arrangements" are between older (and usually married) men and college-aged women - and 30 percent involve some kind of monthly allowance (you can guess who's paying who). The quotes on the website take care to separate these transactions from what the exchange of money or gifts for sex usually evokes with quotes like "Men my age are too immature. My current arrangement is wonderful. Unlike other cash strapped students, I am pampered with expensive gifts. My sugar daddy is the sweetest man I know. He is my mentor, my benefactor and my lover." But the line between these arrangements and sex work can easily become questionable - SeekingArrangement pays to have ads pop up on search engines whenever someone types in “student loan,” “tuition help,” “college support” or “help with rent.” And many times, women don't seem to have alternatives. Other times, they just seem to want Prada bags.

It's hard to make assumptions about these relationships, because they seem to run the gamut - some "sugar daddies" help their "babies" through school without even mentioning sex. Others seem just to be looking for a step up from prostitutes. Jezebel has a great article about the media's new obsession with "kept women" (Dating a Banker Anonymous, anyone?), and how it's actually pretty distracting and gross, especially because during this recession, it's women who are more likely to keep their jobs. And really, it isn't telling us anything new - unsurprisingly, there are douchebags on this site who advertise for "drop-dead beautiful, sexy, fun and elegantly mannered in a fancy setting. She must turn heads . . . and make me the envy of the crowd." There's something disturbing but inescapable about our obsession with the "Pretty Woman" or "Pygmalion" dynamic - it's a little bit like watching Mad Men, except it's real life. At the bottom of all of these stories, whether it's last Sunday or two months ago, is the idea that these women somehow need to be rescued, by someone if not by the semi-creepy guys on SeekingArrangement.

And yes, it's a problem that some college women need to turn to "sugar daddies" to pay their bills. But I think this is more indicative of a desire to replay notions of gender that may be fast going out of date. In an article from February, Emily Bazelon of Slate notes that 25 percent of wives currently out-earn their husbands. Bazelon goes on to ask, "What if the recession pushes that number up to one-third of marriages, or more? ... And if laid-off dads turn into stay-at-home dads who do the afterschool pickups and get dinner started, won't gender roles become more fluid for everyone?" If gender roles start to get more fluid, some people aren't going to like it - and they perhaps need these old stereotypes reaffirmed by articles like this one - where even if the guys are insecure or unattractive, at least they have more money (and power) than their bombshell girlfriends.

If you're interested, Rebecca Traister at Salon had a great article about this issue last week, even before the NYT Mag article came out. I'm glad so many people are pointing out the absurdity of these articles!

Stealing sons

by Laura Smith-Gary

On this episode of "Cultural Misogyny Hurts Boys Too": about a month ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of "missing girls " -- in areas where male children are cherished and female children are seen as a burden, gender-specific abortion and infanticide of baby girls means thousands of female children are "missing" from the populations of a number of countries, especially China and India. Last week, Chloe drew my attention to a New York Times article entitled "Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuels Boys' Abductions."

Parents desperate for a male child, particularly parents who have already had a daughter and are prevented from having another baby by China's one-child policy, have driven a burgeoning market for kidnapped boys. Traffickers run complex networks, snatching male children from industrial cities and selling them in areas where demand for sons is strongest, especially rural areas of southern China. The figures over how many children are stolen and sold are in contention, but the Times' evidence suggests the practice of stealing and selling male children seems to be widespread and accepted with complacency in some areas. They report that not only were community members "focus more on the pain of the families without sons" than on the pain of the frantic, desperate families whose children were stolen, but that officials often turn a blind eye to the trafficking of young boys.

It seems it is difficult to overestimate the extent to which sons are valued over daughters. The article quotes a tea farmer who paid $3,500 for a five-year-old boy last year, as saying, "A girl is just not as good as a son. It doesn't matter how much money you have. If you don't have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one." A female shopkeeper told the Times that buying a son was a widely accepted practice, because dowries are expensive, sons financially support aging parents, and if you only have girls, you don't feel right inside...your status is lower than everyone else." So much lower that it might even be worth putting another family through hell by taking their son, not to mention supporting ruthless rings of child traffickers.

Putting this in context, a few days ago The Associated Press reported that due largely to gender-selective abortion, China now has 32 million more males under 20 than females under 20, with the largest imbalances coming in the 1-4 year old category -- evidence that the problem of "missing girls" and all it entails is deepening. Though the AP notes that the enforcement of an already-on-the-books ban on sex-specific abortions could normalize male-female ratios in coming generations, my fear is that desperation for boys and disgust for girls is so deeply entrenched in some (not all) Chinese communities that female children will be disposed of and male children procured no matter the moral and financial costs -- as the New York Times article shows, when having a son is an all-consuming desire, enterprising criminals will find a way to feed and exploit this obsession. Only fundamental changes in perceptions of the worth of sons and daughters will keep girls from going "missing" and boys from being snatched from street corners.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

LGBT subjects are "adult," according to Amazon

by Gracie Remington

The blogosphere is abuzz over Amazon’s recent decision to remove sales rank data from their sale pages for many gay and lesbian books. Recategorizing them as “adult” texts, the online company was exposed by Mark R. Probst, a Washington author whose book lost its sales ranking. In addition to the removal of sales information, the recategorization effort also impacts these texts’ ability to be added to lists and searches. When Probst e-mailed Amazon, he received the following response:

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature. Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services Advantage"

The books impacted by this decision are wide-ranging, from young adult books to romance novels, but the multitude of gay and lesbian books whose sales rankings have been removed is fairly mind-boggling. Jezebel, along with many other blogs, is keeping track of the books affected; hopefully Amazon will rectify this issue soon.

More thoughts on Oprah...

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

On Thursday's Oprah, according to Jezebel, Dr. Laura Berman issued some "progressive" suggestions for parents talking to their children about sex. To Gayle's dismay, Berman advised that parents discuss male and female anatomy with their kids at ages 10-11 and then masturbation at ages 14-15, which includes introducing the concept of vibrators.

Gayle delivered the classic post-Victorian objection. She said, "Too. Much. Information," and noted that girls today "know too much" and are "doing too
much." Her monologue was met with audience applause.

But Berman's suggestion isn't that radical or scandalous or unreasonable. What Gayle and the clapping audience members fail to understand is that there is nothing indecent or immoral about masturbation in the pubescent teenager, and parents enabling their adolescents to understand themselves sexually does not encourage these kids to be more "sexually active." In fact, it may have the opposite effect; informing daughters about masturbation, Berman says, is "teaching them about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reigns of their own sexuality so that they don't ever have to depend on any other teenage boy to do it for them."

If girls are already "doing too much," Gayle, I'm not sure how teaching them how to receive pleasure for themselves is scandalizing them. Buying your growing teenage girl a vibrator doesn't do anything except teach her about her own body and perhaps prevent her from seeking orgasm elsewhere.

Buy a vibrator along with "Our Bodies, Ourselves"?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I don't watch Oprah, so I'm a little late on this, but Jezebel informed me that there was a fabulously progressive episode last Thursday, dealing with how to talk to teens about sex. Oprah and her resident sex expert, Dr. Laura Berman, discussed the radical possibility of teaching teenage girls about sexual pleasure and those scary things - masturbation, and vibrators. This is an idea that may scare some parents (and it certainly freaked out Gayle, who shook her head and repeated "too much information" - to much applause from the audience), but for goodness' sake, why are we not teaching teenagers how to own their sexuality? Oprah pointed out that teenagers are having sex anyway, but I think that this applies just as much to teenagers who aren't having sex too - if teens know what an orgasm is, and how to give themselves one, they may be more careful about rushing into a sexual relationship.

And buying vibrators for your kids? Why not? I know that when it came to sex education, my parents bought me some books and left it at that - and the Virginia public schools were less than accurate or complete in their coverage of sex - so they might as well have given me a way to figure it out for myself. And really, we need to be telling teenagers that this is not something shameful - if their parents are giving them vibrators, they're providing very real proof that sex is something that can be talked about openly, and acknowledging that their children are going through some kind of sexual maturation. I think this is especially crucial for women, so that they know what an orgasm feels like before they have sex for the first time, and so they can tell their partner how to give them one. I'm sorry I missed this episode - and we all know that Tyra Banks and the other talk show hosts wouldn't go near this issue. Go Oprah!

Free hugs and relationships - our favorite things!

Tomorrow is a big day. First of all, it's Sustained Dialogue's Free Hug Day, all day outside Frist (and all over campus):

"What the world needs now is love, sweet love It's the only thing that there's just too little of..."
- Hal David

So come spread the love with
Sustained Dialogue, a discussion group working to promote greater understanding within the campus community.

First ever Free Hug Day!

Our hope is to foster a stronger sense of community and compassion by giving a big hug to anyone who wants one—feel free to pass them on!

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the Religious Life Council is sponsoring a panel on relationships, from 5:30 - 7 pm in Murray Dodge:

We will be starting with a panel of four (very diverse) students to hear their unique experience with relationships here at Princeton (Melekot Abate, Yuhjan Claros, Joy Li, and Miriam Rosenbaum).

Everyone will then have a chance to discuss their own experiences and opinions to integral questions such as - Is the Princeton setting conducive to relationships? What role does religion serve in relationships? Is marriage a goal, and if so, to whom?
And, of course, delicious dinner will be served!

Why feminism isn't just about "women's issues"

by Nick Cox

Over the past few centuries, women, as well as a few men, have precipitated tremendous changes. They've gone to war on all fronts: political, social, cultural, economic. On their most recent battleground, the structure of language and the subterranean cognitive constructs that inform people's thoughts, the feminists are already close to battering down the walls and overrunning the encampment. What might their next target be? Are there even any left? Have these enterprising women already exhausted the feminist agenda fully? Have they burned the patriarchy to the ground and stomped on the ashes? Is it time for them to just stop fighting and enjoy their spoils?

The answer is no, obviously. But still, the question of feminism's next move has no clear answer. Sure, there are still plenty of problems: body image in the media, pornography, sexual abuse, domestic violence, et cetera. That list could go on indefinitely. The problem, though, is that any item I add to it will have already been exhaustively critiqued by feminists of all sub-categories. Everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a terrible thing, that internet porn is a problem, and so on, but writing about problems doesn't make them go away. So my question is, are any more gender-related problems that can still be written about? Does feminist writing still have the power to change things, and if so, how?

My answer to that question is that feminism need not be just for women anymore; the time has come for men to get fully involved in the conversation. And not out of the patronizing sense of quasi-altruistic superiority that I suspect has motivated many male feminists in the past; rather, I think its time we men realized that sexism oppresses us just as much as it oppresses women. The patriarchy is in all of us and bigger than any of us. And because it has given men the sense of having power over women, we tend not to think about the very real ways in which it has restricted our own freedom. The more women uncover the hidden ways in which the patriarchy enslaves them, tne clearer it becomes that they are not the only ones enslaved.

And yet, in the face of these revelations, most men still insist on ignoring them. For example: When I was in high school, a group of guys founded a "Men's Issues Group" as a counterpart to the "Women's Issues Group." And what sort of "issues" did they discuss in their meetings? Mostly sports and cars, which are not men's issues anymore than cooking and sewing are women's issues. The assumption behind the group was that men do not have issues; the group's only real function was to demonstrate the absurdity of its premise. And therein lies the pernicious paradox that makes almost all real discussions of men's issues impossible from the beginning: the most serious men's issue is the fact that, according to the laws of the patriarchy, men are not allowed to acknowledge that there are men's issues.

Men and women enforce this ironclad law with equal severity. To challenge it would threaten both the former's claim to hegemony and the latter's monopoly on victimhood. If you tell a group of men that there are aspects of maleness you don't like, they will probably start laughing and shouting about how awesome it is to be able to pee standing up; if you say the same thing to a group of women, they will most likely roll their eyes and tell you to stop complaining and be grateful you'll never have to bear children. So the conversation ends before it's even begun. In the Middle Ages, the Church silenced heretics by burning them at the stake; we deal with heretical views, like the idea of men's issues, by treating them like a joke that isn't worth talking about. But if feminism wants to keep progressing forward, it must acknowledge that this supposed joke is actually a serious problem.

I want to encourage both men and women to allow themselves to talk about the problems of maleness. Men need not feel that we are being unmanly or violating "Man Law" by talking about our problems. We need to realize that there is nothing manly about clinging slavishly to the rules society has placed on us; on the contrary, that seems pretty cowardly to me. At the same time, I hope women will find it in themselves to acknowledge as well that men have problems that should be addressed. I know it feels good to constantly fling accusations at the wicked gender that has abused you so horribly over the years, but that sort of finger-pointing can no longer accomplish anything productive. It may be time to stop fighting and start working for peace.