Demonizing Teenage Sexuality

I work with high schoolers everyday. Other adults, snort and chuckle, pat me on the back and say:

“Ooh, that’s rough.” “How’s that going?” “Good luck.”

When I once failed to properly lock the staff restroom, a teacher who followed me in demanded I learn to  lock the door properly. “Believe me,” she said, “you don’t want one of them getting in.”

Them. As if high school students are dangerous animals and that just because we see them everyday doesn’t make them human beings. We herd them from class to class on a bell schedule to manage them. We place security officers in the hallways and the cafeteria to control them. We expect criminal behavior.

And because our school system does not trust young people to walk from class to class without, of course we do not trust them with their own sexuality. Yes, teenagers make mistakes. And yes, those mistakes are especially harmful when they involve sex and sexuality, because what is a healthy sexual decision and what is rape might not be clear.

So, let’s talk about it!

I grew up in liberal blue-Democratic Connecticut, and our sex-ed program only focused on STDs. While I don’t remember it being an abstinence-only education, in health class there was still no discussion of healthy sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality was heterosexuality (and allosexuality–not being ace) only. There was no way to be a teenager and also make smart choices.

Teenage Sex = WRONG.

This is especially challenging for queer students (promiscuous stereotypes, anyone?) and students like myself who are ace and might not even have the language to say so.

But what happens if we change that narrative?

Chicago schools have begun to institute sex ed as early as kindergarten in order to promote a healthy shame-free understanding of sexuality from an early age. As from thinkprogress.org said in 2013, not teaching accurate sex education

has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished.

I am privileged to work one-on-one with students where I have fewer restrictions than teachers. I can question the sex ed curriculum and American sexual mores. One of the most liberating ways to do this is to not shy away from sex language. If it’s not a big deal for me to say “queer” “sex” “vagina” “penis” “trans” “cis” these words become a little more normalized. Young people then have space to consider what healthy sexuality means to them and how they can develop healthy and smart relationships. My expectation is not perfection, but it certainly isn’t failure.

I refuse to be embarrassed by high schoolers singing and dancing to songs about sex during a school dance. As long as there is no coerced sexuality or romantic conduct, I would not step in. If high school students are shouting and singing about sex acts, this might be the only place where talking about sex is a free act. And if we, as adults, are embarrassed or demonize this freedom, then shame on us.

We have clearly not created inclusive spaces in schools and youth programs where people of all sexualities and genders can discover what healthy sexuality means for them. It’s time to create those spaces.

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Books By Women: Memnoch the Devil

I know I promised that my next book post would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I just finished Memnoch the Devil and I have a lot of critique I need to express.

download (2)Memnoch is the fifth book in Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles Series (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, etc). I read the first four books my first year in college, one after the other after the other after the other and fell into Anne Rice’s characters with devotion I couldn’t begin to explain. I talked about the series for hours to my mother and pulled out quotes and passages I found devastating or hysterical or blindingly real and human, despite the characters being undead. There are still passages in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned (book three of the series) I can still quote from memory, though I haven’t reread the books in nearly five years. Anne Rice’s characters are nearly all pan-romantic and homo-erotic overtones shape her narratives. The first three books are a dream.

Without going into too much detail, I found the fourth book, Tale of the Body Thief, bland and overall unpleasant in any number of ways. I stopped reading the series there because I had been told by friends and numerous internet reviews that Memnoch the Devil was the worst of the entire series (now ten books total).

The premise is that the vampire Lestat, the narrator and hero of the past three books in the series, gets called upon by Memnoch the Devil to serve as the Devil’s Lieutenant in Hell. Throughout the book, the Devil takes Lestat through Creation, Heaven and Hell as well as throughout time. Lestat needs to decide if he’ll serve God or the Devil by the end of this journey.

I wasn’t expecting much but was somehow still deeply disappointed. The flowing descriptions that characterized Anne Rice’s historical settings in Paris and New Orleans became purple prose and were spent describing three things:

  1. Lestat’s clothing and appearance (even for a self-identified dandy of a character, it’s an incredibly odd and jarring choice because Lestat is the narrator)
  2. Dora’s beauty (the one Human female character Lestat is obsessed with)
  3. Lestat’s tears (you could play an intense drinking game for all the times Lestat cries in this book–for a bonus round, take a drink every! time! there’s! an! exclamation! point!)

But her writing style aside, what upset me the most was her treatment of her female characters and the way women are woven into (and not woven into) this alternative creation narrative. And while Anne Rice published Memnoch in 1995 and just declared on Facebook that she quit Christianity, saying “I refuse to be anti-feminist” I still find it important to discuss the ways this narrative remains a harmful portrayal of women, rape culture, and the erasure of female narratives within religion. Regardless of whether she continues to hold the views or opinions I gathered from this book, it is still important to discuss the issues.

The narrative is told from Lestat’s perspective, but there is no pushback against his misogyny. We, as readers, are expected to agree with him and be sympathetic to his views. So when Lestat’s narration reads:

[Dora’s] voice was small and typically feminine, that is, the pitch was without mistake feminine, but she spoke with terrific self-confidence now, and so her words seemed to have authority, rather like those of a man.

are we supposed to agree with him?

Dora is a saint, a televangelist saint, who is perfect in every way. She is not afraid of Lestat even he reveals that he killed her father or when she knows he’s a vampire. And at the end of the novel when Lestat returns from his journey with the Devil and is distraught and crazed, Dora kisses him and she’s on her period (which Lestat has noted every time they’re in the same scene together). Lestat’s response is:

I rolled her over gently […] and I pulled up her skirt and I lay my face against her hot naked thighs […] my tongue broke through the thin cotton of her panties, tearing the cloth back from the soft down of pubic hair, pushing aside the blood-stained pad she wore, and I lapped the at the blood just inside her young pink vaginal lips […] blood that brought no pain, no sacrifice, only her gentle forbearance with me, with my unspeakable act […] my tongue licking at the secret bloodstained place, taste and smell of her blood, her sweet blood, a place where blood flows free and no wound is made or ever needs to be made, the entrance to her blood open to me in her forgiveness.

um…well, it’s great to know the female body is there for a male character’s enjoyment and forgiveness. It’s even better to know that Dora’s response is to hold Lestat’s head as he cries, call him her darling and her angel, and then ask to sleep beside him when he goes to rest. Did I mention there are two other male vampires in the room and no one does anything to stop or question Lestat’s actions? I can’t remember the last time I was so angry or disgusted over the treatment of a female character.

The novel disregards women again through Anne Rice’s mythology of Angels and God. All the Angels are male. God is without a doubt male. This, despite the fact that Memnoch says Angels resemble females more than males yet Angels are without a doubt more male than female. And what angered me the most as a feminist was that rape culture and violence against women was explained as a natural part of humanity. When Memnoch goes to live among the humans, he chooses to become male. Lestat understands this decision, saying:

‘I would imagine you had seen enough of rape, childbirth, and helpless struggle to make the wiser choice. I know I would have.’

And right there, to be female is laid out as to be deficit and there is no challenge to this conversation. There is no alternative voice or speaker of authority to these two male character parading their superior maleness. There is no thought that women are not naturally victims of rape, that childbirth could be anything but horrific and painful, or that women do not naturally struggle.

Of course, I knew going into this book that not all female authors are feminists, but I was amazed by the breadth of the dismissal of the female sex. Although I’ve definitely read books since starting to read books by women I did not enjoy, this has been the first book I was angry about and would not recommend.

But, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to be a female author writing speculative fiction. You have to consciously decide on feminism and equality.

Next up: We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Keep reading. Even the books you don’t like, just keep reading.

Are you married? and other loaded questions

I bus tables at a restaurant and a coworker today asked me if I was married. He’s older, in his thirties or forties and though I knew he wasn’t asking me out, I was deeply uncomfortable.

I told him no, I’m not married and he proceeds to tell me that he’s surprised because with my sweet personality he’s sure some nice guy will snatch me up soon. Bull shit.  He thinks this a compliment but I went from being uncomfortable to being offended. I don’t want to be snatched up! I’m not some dessert made for someone’s pleasure. Who I am cannot be broken down into ‘sweet’ and if I am sweet it is not for the benefit of anyone else, regardless of sex or gender.

The worst part was he was trying to be nice! But questions like this are heteronormative. He assumed I was straight, assumed I wanted (and needed) a man in my life and assumed that I had the privilege of being able to get married if I so choose. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong again. I have ace friend who worked at a restaurant and she pretended to be a lesbian because it was more convenient for her than having to explain being ace. I don’t want to pretend to be anything. I am asexual and I don’t want to hide this fact, but I don’t know how to bring it up. It’s not my place to explain my sexuality to my coworker and I am not comfortable having that conversation at work, especially with an older man I barely know.

I feel gross and objectified. I’m not a person in his eyes because all I am is a sweet girl ripe for marriage. Is it so much to ask to be treated as a human being?

I pulled him aside and told him his comment made me uncomfortable. He asked why and I said because it was a personal question. This is true; it is a personal question. But more than that, it’s a loaded question. Even with the best intentions, asking someone questions about romantic or sexual relationships can make the other person feel threatened. I am immediately on edge if someone asks me if I have a boyfriend. Even the non gender specific question of “Are you dating anyone?” holds assumptions about my sexuality and I will inevitably disappoint with my answer.

Does anyone have advice on answering or diverting loaded questions? Any advice on how to watch your language so you don’t make someone else feel unsafe? I would appreciate the feedback. Thank you.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

50 Shades IS NOT “female wish fulfillment”

Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporterwrote a movie review of 50 Shades of Grey yesterday. And in her review, she falls into every trap of encouraging rape culture and violence against women that this series propagates.

Though she recognizes that the novel revolves around a BDSM relationship she does not seek examine how this relationship is portrayed. She takes the story at face value that BDSM is a heterosexual relationship with a dominant man and a submissive woman. She does not make an inquiry into practicing BDSM in a consensual relationship regardless of the sex or gender of those involved.

Instead, Linden describes Christian Grey as “a long-fingered anti-hero” not an abuser. She praises the film for

the breathless way it melds the erotic kink known as BDSM with female wish-fulfillment fantasy

When authors write about sexual abuse as “female wish-fulfillment” they recreate and keep the myth alive that women want rape. That there is no legitimate rape because women ask for it. That deep down all women want to be swept off their feet and onto the ground as the submissive to a dominant man.

We are inundated not just with positive reviews of men and women in these roles, but we are told it is romantic. We are told the abuser is an anti-hero not a rapist. We are told that if you are in a relationship you cannot be raped. Sexual abuse in the name of romance and becomes the norm because, as Linden continues, the movie is just like any other romance story:

as with most mainstream love stories, an infatuated but commitment-averse male is in need of rehabilitation.

This is further problematic, as it places the main female character in the role of manic pixie dream girl–i.e. the woman who is quirky and only exists to fix the main male character and ultimately serves his sexual and romantic desires. The very concept negates female agency and yet Linden expresses the notion that this film is from “a woman’s perspective.” She claims that the movie works against the male gaze (the concept of telling the story from a man’s perspective and that every aspect of the film–especially anything sexual–is meant for the pleasure of men). Except, if the movie were to break from the male gaze, it would have to do a better job than pretending that BDSM is female wish fulfillment and that because the woman gets what she wants out of sex, it negates the notion that the female character exists for the men in the story and in the audience.

The female lead, however, is not in control of her sexuality and it reviews like Linden’s that propagate rape culture and exclaim through media that women want rape, that sexual assault is romantic and the ideal relationship, and that violence against women is sexy.

Hide Your Gays

I never thought I would fall into the Hide Your Gays trope. Yet I’m writing interactive children’s books for a public broadcasting station and when I wanted to create a lesbian school teacher I felt I had to ask permission in my character notes.

Can we have a queer relationship? PLEASE??

My boss is openly gay and the other woman I work for is hugely liberal and they responded to my note saying, yes, but the company would never allow it. Children’s books + Public Broadcasting does not equal queer characters. We compromised that the teacher would be in a queer relationship but that we would never see her partner and it would be our little Easter egg.

I am ashamed that I felt the need to ask if creating a queer character was okay. These books are small and over half the information I draw up for these character will never see the light of one my stories. I would never think to ask if it’ okay to have her be vegetarian or that she has 2 brothers. But the moment we breach the topic of sexuality, the rules change. Hurdles spring up. I need to justify my decisions and get permission.

pride

So long as queer characters are hidden in the recesses of authors’ minds we won’t see changes to queer stereotypes in the media or in real life. Queer children won’t have queer role models and the heteronormative culture we live in will continue to prosper as the culture. It’s a step that I created this queer character, but it’s not a step in the right direction because queerness is still considered subversive and unsuitable for children.

All Genders

I was speaking with my mother yesterday when casually she said “all genders.” This is the language we all must start to embrace and use in our every day vocabulary. When you say both (whether both sexes, both genders, both sexualities etc) you are telling those around you that you subscribe to the gender binary, the male-female binary, the gay-straight binary and all harmful either-or’s that dominate our speech. It seems like such a small thing, to consciously switch from saying both to saying all, or none but it can mean the world to those who are otherwise excluded from the conversation.

Consider all the people who are:

  • gender queer
  • trans*
  • agender
  • gender fluid
  • polyamorous
  • intersex

and I know this is not an extensive list, so please comment and let me know who else is alienated by the language of both. 

To better illustrate my point and to explain other ways of consciously shaping our language to be more inclusive, check out the youtube video below by sexplanations.

 

Coming Out Part II

Theoretically there should have been a “coming out part I” but this blog was one of my ways of coming out as asexual. Now, I’m coming out as homo-romantic and it feels like I’m stepping out of the closet all over again.

Ever since I’ve defined myself as asexual I have also defined myself as aromantic because I had never fallen in love.

I knew asexuality (like all sexuality) is a spectrum, but I was scared that having vehemently denied being sexually and romantically attracted to anyone that if I were to reveal romantic feelings toward any gender I would be immediately thrown under the bus as “not a true ace”.  I feared  all the comments I would receive along the lines of “So, you are a lesbian after all! Why didn’t you just say so?”

But I told my mother about being homo-romantic and how one day I might come home with a girlfriend. She listened and didn’t question me. She took it in stride as just another aspect of me as a whole person who is more than her sexuality. Her only comments were to tell me as we drank tea and coffee in NYC a few days later:

Whoever you decide to spend your time with had better treat you right or else they’ll have to answer to your Bronx mother.

The next morning she told me she had a dream where I had brought my partner home and we announced we were getting married. My mother said that in the dream she embraced both of us and told us how proud and overjoyed she was. To celebrate she suggested we all make bread.

My mother is the most amazing woman I could ever ask to grace my life. She is a rock of support and I cannot be thankful enough for the love and understanding she brings to each day she graces. I know not everyone is lucky enough to have such a support system, but finding even one person in your life who you can trust can make all the difference in coming out. When you have such people in your life, coming out feels a lot more like stepping between rooms of your childhood home: you don’t even think about it.