And it’s all about our response, as the audience — as if the only possible reason a woman would show her body was because she expects praise for it, and not because it functions in the service of a story she is acting in, or simply because she individually likes the way she looks without pants.
For the boys, carrying a condom is a right of passage. Hell, your school (or maybe even your parent) provided you with this latex token of sexual freedom. If you’re a woman and you are carrying a condom, it’s assumed that you’ve come to this rooftop party to sleep with all the men present and perhaps even the rest of Brooklyn, too.
As a culture, we have at some point lost the knack for being able to see diversity of shape and form as anything other than a series of mistakes that need to be edited in Photoshop.
A Vindication of Love: Just How Much Should Love Hurt?
Originally published on SexReally.com on June 24, 2009.
An assistant writing professor at George Washington University taught a course a couple of years ago called “Love, American Style.” To her surprise, her students (all female) enjoyed discussing “chick lit” books like Bridget Jones’ Diary but were not inspired by deeply romantic novels such as Jane Eyre. Quick flings were okay with students, this professor told me, “but love was rarely mentioned. They were not that interested in it as a concept for their lives.”
Of all the readings she assigned, their favorite was an anthology of poetry entitled The Hell with Love.
Love is not an easy emotion for anyone to live with. For those of you who work hard and play hard, it can embrace you in what can seem a paralyzing squeeze. In the eyes of your friends, colleagues, parents, and/or teachers, love is a nice but muddy-headed emotion that you just have to get over if you want to be taken seriously as a student, a professional, a thinker.
So you’re tempted to tell yourself, “I’m not ready for love,” even as you try to fight off the feelings you’re starting to have for the soccer player you met or the colleague with whom you’ve shared a couple of drinks after work.
Essayist Cristina Nehring might advise you to stop fighting and give in to those instincts.
In her new book, A Vindication of Love, Nehring comes to love’s rescue. But the emotion she describes and defends in her romp through Western literature and poetry is not necessarily the love that many of us would want as a regular diet. In fact, it’s a dangerous kind of love that could lead some women and men to make exceedingly bad choices. (She opens with the passion-story of 18th-century author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who twice attempted suicide over a man.)
But it is romantic love, all the same—the love, for example, of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet for Fitzwilliam Darcy, or of Emily Dickinson’s letters to her “Master.” And, to Nehring’s credit, she is not afraid to defend it. Nehring never actually tells us what love is, but she has quite a bit to say about what love is not.
It is not, for example, “sex-on-tap,” or “the relentless emphasis on sexual climax that…has a largely depleting effect on the life of the emotions.” “When erotic intimacy is available at the tap of a mouse,” she writes, “or, indeed, at the amiable request of one’s household partner (“what about a quickie before lunch, dear?”); when magazines nudge us to “claim” orgasms as we do receipts at the end of our transactions at Starbucks; when Broadway hits like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues have women hollering the names of their genitals and baking cakes in their shape, then sex has simply become too available.”
This availability makes romance impossible, she says, because romance depends on “other-ness, tension, and reserve.” Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.
Love is also not an equal partnership, in her view. It is the ardor of a college student for her professor, a young man for an older man. It is frequently not sanctioned – bravo the adulterer! – and even forbidden, as in “Don’t go near that player. He’s only using you.”
Hers is not a pretty love. She writes: “I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired and unsettled by love.”
Such words may comfort those who have pursued a love affair that was as exhausting as it was exhilarating, that threatened one’s mental, and even physical, health. It may also encourage some girls to ask what they’ve missed.
And it may provoke readers such as Anne Kubitsky, a 26-year-old designer and writer, to say, “Been there, done that, not going there again.” Nehring’s description of love, says Anne, “sounds a lot like what I thought love was in high school and college, and this led to extreme emotions and behaviors that were not good.” True love, she says, is not needy, and comes only after you know you are “whole, complete, and have everything you need to be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied.”
Anne provides a clue as to why the students of “Love, American Style” so appreciated The Hell with Love, which is described as “a one-of-a-kind collection that helps you through the classic stages of heartbreak.” Perhaps they too had been there and done that.
Those who value the secure, companionable love that Anne describes may wish for another book to sit beside The Hell with Love and A Vindication – a book that tells stories of compassion, as well as passion, and the sweet splendor of everyday love.
Have you ever experienced the kind of love Christina Nehring describes?
Would you want to experience it (again)?
Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” and “Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence.” She is a consultant to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Lest we forget, women were once criticized and even punished for wearing pants. It was considered something that only men did, and simply improper for women. But more and more women started to wear them, and now we live in a world of unisex jorts … See where I’m going here? The point: put a condom in your pocket. That’s right, your pants pocket. If you don’t rely on condoms as a form of birth control, do it anyways! Wait, why?
Aside from the glaringly obvious point that a friend may find herself in need, it deconstructs the belief that women shouldn’t carry condoms or that if they do, there’s an overwhelming or even prosecutable level of promiscuity going on. Carry a condom—because if we all do, maybe we can start to normalize it.
From “Changing Condom Culture,” Boinkology 101, July 31, 2013.
Carry a condom, ladies! (And read the rest of the article.)
Bay Area Lessons: How to tell if a white guy is flirting?
Recently, I went west to research and film Love in the Bay Area (Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco), and found it to be the PERFECT place to report on dating, relationships, and sex. These topics are already being discussed in great detail out there—seemingly at all times—at least among the folks I encountered. I spent five glorious days talking to literally everyone I made eye contact with about their love lives.
My biggest take-away: Whatever you’re into romantically, you can find it in the Bay Area. And whether it’s an unusual fetish or an odd-to-most relationship dynamic, there will be very little (if any) shaming involved as you search for your ideal partner(s).
Realizing all this, I couldn’t help but wonder what growing up in one of these cities would be like. Would I have made different decisions? How much more successful would I be in getting what my heart desires? Would I have been in an interracial relationship by now?
I asked Asha Richardson—a 21-year-old African-American woman who was born and raised in Oakland—that last question. And despite Oakland being named as one of the Top 12 U.S. cities for interracial relationships in, “Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture and Creed,” Asha has the exact same issue I have—not always knowing when a non-black guy is flirting.
While hanging out in Awaken Cafe (a very cute, hipster spot with free wi-fi) in Oakland, Asha asked Jack, her white guy friend: How do I know if a white guy is flirting with me?
Okay. If a guy literally poked me, the way Jack described, I’d know he was flirting! Proving once again that no one group is monolithic and there are exceptions to every rule. Or maybe the “Jacks” of the world are more likely to move to the The Bay?
Are Asha and I the only ones who have asked this question? Have you found it more difficult to pick up on some folks’ ways of flirting? Inquiring minds want to know!
Veralyn Williams is a Multimedia Freelance Journalist currently working in New York City. She has spent 4 years at WNYC Radio working with various departments including: Radio Rookies, Culture, News, and Freakonomics. She also freelances for Black Enterprise, BronxNet Television, Bedsider, and The Museum for African Art. Her independent work is featured on her website VeralynMedia.com. Through all of her endeavors she aims to give a voice to perspectives that are often forgotten in the media.
Homophobia Hurts Us All
Originally published on SexReally.com on January 31, 2011.
Lately it’s been difficult to turn on the news or the computer without hearing story after story about gay teenagers taking their own lives. This issue is pandemic, complex, frightening, and heartrending. And it’s not a coincidence. According to The 2009 National School Climate Survey released by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBT youth were four times more likely than their straight peers to commit suicide. These numbers point to the war that our culture wages on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth.
While what is most recently and rightfully on our minds as a country is the rash of teen suicides fueled by homophobic taunting and relentless bullying, suicide is not the only health disparity LGBT youth face as a result of social stigma. The GLSEN survey, which interviewed 7,261 middle and high school students, also found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and that nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. A 2008 Canadian study suggested LGBT youth experience higher rates of teen pregnancy and earlier onset of first sexual activity. The study identified trends in risk behaviors that lead to pregnancy like lack of condom use and early sex (before age 14), often due to sexual abuse.
When it comes to STI risk, the CDC estimates that among men who have sex with men (MSM—this phrase is intended to include men who identify as gay or bisexual but also men who consider themselves straight) the rate of new HIV diagnoses among them is more than 44 times that of other men. Rates are especially dire in communities of color. Furthermore, many people don’t even get tested because to do so would mean owning an aspect of their sexuality they may have disavowed as a survival strategy in their day-to-day life. As stated on the CDC fact sheet about HIV among MSM:
Stigma and homophobia may have a profound impact on the lives of MSM, especially their mental and sexual health. Internalized homophobia may impact men’s ability to make healthy choices, including decisions around sex and substance use. Stigma and homophobia may limit the willingness of MSM to access HIV prevention and care, isolate them from family and community support, and create cultural barriers that inhibit integration into social networks.
So what can we do about it? In order to facilitate healthy decision-making and communication, we need to work towards a more accepting culture. The following is a list I assembled with my incredible friend and inspiration Luke. Luke and I are two (mostly) straight people who felt it was time to devise a list of strategies all of us can use to make things better for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.
- 1. Start big. Beyond homophobia lives the taboo nature of sexuality in our culture. Make talking about sex a public act—not just from a hypersexual perspective, but from a perspective of love, eroticism, relationships, and health. This doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the act of sex each day, because that too is a strange beast—men talk about sex all day long. We make ads and movies and songs about it. We talk endlessly about having sex and who we’d like to have sex with, but never how we feel about it, and never when we fear it might set us apart from our friends. We need to create forums so that we can start to expose how complex sexuality (and sexual preference) can be. That complexity needn’t divide us.
2. Talk, talk, TALK to your friends (and family). Talk about homophobia and queer identity like you would about politics, like you would about a party. Offer up light speak and honest speak, not heavy confession. We need to take sex, sexuality, and preference out of the closet first and foremost and not be afraid to discuss a stereotypically blush-worthy subject. And if you notice friends or family making homophobic comments, consider calling them on it.
3. Respect privacy. On the other hand, it is perfectly okay to hold sex as a personal area to be respected, a true intimacy. We can do our best to make it clear to the people in our lives that we will respect their autonomy and privacy while also making it clear that we will love them no matter what their orientation or sexual choices.
4. Take the lead from your queer friends. Support the queer people in your life with love and respect. Listen to them. Stand up for them. If there are not a lot of openly queer people in your world, you can also show your support via media advocacy, or by becoming active in queer-friendly organizations.
5. Communicate with young people. Talk (and listen!) to the young people in your life. We need to talk about why calling things “gay” doesn’t make sense. Working in schools for one month will make you realize that middle and high school are very different and scary spaces. We can’t rely on ideas from twenty years ago about what kids say and how they act and “kids will be kids” as a rationalization is getting kids alienated and killed. We need to be strong role models and counsel and support all young people by reinforcing that they and their peers are normal regardless of sexual identity or orientation. A lack of community support for queer youth is driving the epidemic of self-harm and suicide. I don’t believe kids are bad inherently—they learn intolerance and cruelty from adults. Fortunately, change and evolution are possible at every step of our lives. But it’s even easier for young people!
6. Read books, listen to music, and watch films and television made by and about queer people. Learn about LGBT people in your culture and others, today and throughout history. Ask for queer studies programs at your college. Write to television networks about how you would like to see queer representation on your favorite channels. Watch shows in which queer life is made public and normal. Talk about these cultural products and share them.
7. Act politically. Do this as needed. Vote for laws that improve the lives of gay people. Donate to organizations that serve queer youth. Volunteer for organizations that reach out to gay populations with health and community efforts. Tell your friends and family about your efforts and why you want to be an ally.
8. Share this article with a friend, and write your own list of ally strategies to think about.
"Holding hands" photo by originallittlehellraiser.
Katy Otto is a social justice activist, writer and musician who grew up in the DC area. She works in nonprofit management and development.
This post was co-written with Luke Yablonsky. Luke is a musician, graphic designer, and social justice activist in Portland, Oregon.