Gender & Sexuality

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Dressed for the academic classroom, posed in front of my voluminous bookshelves.

I’ve had this website for a few years now, and the tagline at the top of the site has always been: “Jeana Jorgensen, PhD. Folklorist, Writer, Dancer.”

Now that’s changed.

The three main words haven’t changed. I may not be seeking full-time employment in academia anymore, but I haven’t stopped being a folklore scholar. In fact, just last month I attended a small working symposium on digital trends in fairy-tale scholarship. I’m a little cranky (to put it mildly) in the general direction of academia right now… but being a folklorist is too ingrained into my identity for me to ever give up identifying as such. It influences how I understand the world around me, how I learn, and how I teach.

Similarly, I’ve been dancing for over half my life, and I plan to dance for the rest of it. I now direct a professional troupe, Indy Tribal, and I’ve learned tons from my students about trust and teaching. Dance is somewhere between a hobby that pays for itself (YAY) and an all-consuming passion, and as such it’s an essential part of my identity.

I’ve grappled more with the title of “writer” than the previous two. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in 4th grade, but I gave up writing fiction and poetry (my primary two loves) in favor of nailing nonfiction skills in grad school. And it worked. I wrote and published a lot. Recently, though, I’ve been getting back into the idea of writing more for pleasure, and returning to some of my early ideas about writing. But no matter what I’m writing, or for which audience, writing has been a constant in my life. I write for myself in the form of journals; I write for various blogs; I write endless to-do lists; I write scholarly articles. It’s a part of me at this point.

Now, however, I’m adding the tagline of (Sex) Educator to this website. I have a separate site devoted to my sex education work, but I want this site, which is my main web presence, to reflect that this is a part of my identity too.

See, I didn’t set out to become an educator of any sort, let alone a sex educator, but it’s evolved into a huge part of my identity, and it’s time I recognized that.

I’ve become a person who will have a conversation about rape culture with just about anyone, in the hopes that even though it’s an emotionally fatiguing topic, maybe someone will reach a new understanding of it. I’ve decided to keep adjuncting in large part because even though it’s exploitative labor, I love teaching too much to remove that venue from my life. I teach dance two and sometimes three nights a week, much to the consternation of my life partner and anyone else who likes to see me socially, because I just can’t get enough of it. I educate on gender and sexuality topics for little to no pay more than I should, not just because I’m still establishing myself in the field and am taking those pay-in-prestige opportunities for exposure (mixed bag because of undecutting, I know), but also because  this knowledge is too damn important to not be sharing at every chance.

This is why I’ve added “Educator” to the site tagline, with “Sex” in parentheses. I’m an educator who also happens to be a sex educator. I love making knowledge and concepts accessible and relevant… and I’m particularly good at unpacking the tangled mess of gender, sex, and sexuality, thanks in part to my upbringing. At one time, with only a few years of sex education blogging under my belt, I balked at calling myself a sex educator. Now? I embrace the title.

Anyway, I’m still deciding if I visually like the addition of (Sex) Educator to my website header, but I’m probably going to keep some version of it. It’s been neat reflecting on the process of getting here!

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Teaching a belly dance workshop. Photo by Pauline Shypula.

Teaching a belly dance workshop. Photo by Pauline Shypula.

I just got back from the annual conference of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Since I’ve started doing more work as a sex educator, it made sense for me to go, and while I learned tons about sexuality, it also provided me with valuable opportunities to reflect on the connections between teaching, touching, and pleasure.

There’s a lot of concern in sexuality fields (particularly counseling and therapy) about maintaining ethical boundaries when practicing with a client. Obviously the same concern applies to sex educators too, but it seemed less pronounced. I attended one panel on the ethics of touch, which focused on touch-based practices like sex partner surrogacy and sexological bodywork. There’s so much ethical grey area around these professions that long-time AASECT board members were dodging the question of whether an AASECT certified therapist can even ethically recommend these kind of hands-on treatments to a client (even when it seems like the best modality to help that client). I listened in on related conversations, too, and those helped me put into context the real fear of bodily connection that many people in the sexuality field seem to have, because of how connecting through touch is seen as dangerous both since it risks intimacy that can compromise a professional relationship, and because it just looks bad to an erotophobic culture like ours (plus there are potential legal ramifications, because getting paid to touch people in certain ways is illegal in many parts of the world). Touch – especially sexual and/or pleasurable touch – is incredibly suspect to people today, and that’s a shame in my opinion, because it can definitely be healing.

The two main venues I teach in – the academic classroom and the dance classroom – allow me to handle connection in different ways. In the academic classroom, it’s rare that I have a reason to touch my students, which is fine by me. We do, however, spend a lot of time connecting intellectually. I believe that face-to-face conversations offer hugely important ways of conveying both information and critical thinking strategies, and I think my teaching would suffer if I had to give up the live, face-to-face component.

Unlike touch, I do try to incorporate pleasure into my academic teaching. I let it show when I’m excited about a topic. I praise students when they pick up a concept quickly or bring a pertinent example to class, knowing that many will receive a compliment with pleasure. I try to make things “fun” without capitulating to an all-play, no-work atmosphere. Pleasure is a frequent guest in my classroom, and I like it that way. If teaching and learning weren’t pleasurable, I’d wonder where I was going wrong. I think this helps in the creation of a safe space: my students trust me not to drag them through unnecessarily tedious or unpleasant stuff all the time, and to make topics fun and exciting, and so that when we do have to buckle down and do the hard work, they’ll be ready to come with me on that journey (at least, that’s what I like to believe is happening).

In the dance classroom, I do touch my students. I try not to do it very often, and I certainly keep it appropriate. I ask consent very frequently, even though they sign waivers before stepping into the studio with me. Here, as with the academic classroom, I believe it’s important to establish a precedent that involves a fair bit of trust. I think they need to trust that I won’t unexpectedly come up behind them and touch them without warning, which carries over from social norms in the rest of life. As in other areas of life, I try to model good consent practices, in part because lots of people don’t get this information elsewhere, and in part because it’s central to how I choose to live my life.

Pleasure also figures significantly in the dance classroom, especially for my main style of dance, belly dancing. It’s pleasurable to learn to skillfully move your body, and to adorn yourself to practice. I make a point of complimenting students when they do things right. The thrill of learning to improvise, as we do in American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, carries its own unique sense of enjoyment. As a dance teacher, I try to harness these modes of pleasure and give my students multiple opportunities to explore them.

Learning can be plenty intimidating: fear of failure, feeling stupid, not getting things right, feeling overwhelmed, ramifications for failure (like with grades or wasted money on a class), and so on. Having solid boundaries around touch (when it has a role in that kind of classroom) and incorporating pleasure can both be ways of engaging students and making them feel connected. I don’t think my use of touch or pleasure in either context is inappropriate, but the more I get into the sexuality field, the more I see people scrutinizing – and in some cases fearing – touch and pleasure. In these cases, I want to figure out what’s really going on, and then continue to do what I pride myself on: putting the students first.

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This file was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution image from Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to user Stefan-Xp for sharing it.

Over at my sex education blog, Sex Ed with Dr. Jeana, I have a post called Syphilis in the Social Sciences Classroom. In it, I describe the ways in which syphilis has proved to be a relevant STI for me to bring into my anthropology and gender studies classes.

For all the silence around STIs today in the U.S., you’d think STIs were a taboo topic – and for many they are. As I’ve already discussed, teaching sex education is not the same as encouraging sex, despite the claims of those who believe that teaching about something is the same thing as endorsing it. Add in the (unwarranted) shame and stigma of admitting that you’ve got an STI, or are even interested in learning more (“for a friend,” right?) and it becomes clear that simply talking about STIs is a revolutionary act in many contexts.

I’ve taught plenty of taboo topics (non-monogamy, BDSM, trauma, Freud, feminism) in my college classes, and while there’s no magic trick to getting it right, I’ve found a couple of things that tend to work well for me. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • Explicitly acknowledge that teaching about a topic is not the same as endorsing it. This is one example of how I’ll often use verbal communication to the point where it seems way too obvious to even bother saying, which is why I go ahead and say it anyway. I’d much rather sound a tad silly than risk misunderstanding.
  • When introducing the topic, ask students what their impression of the topic is. Perhaps we old fogies are clinging to taboos of our day, while our students might be pretty well over something. Or maybe they’ll shed some light on an aspect of the topic that hadn’t occurred to us.
  • Try to find that balance between acknowledging that a topic is controversial, and introducing it as just another thing people do, hence worthy of scholarly attention. Take, for instance, my approach to kink in the classroom in my blog post And Then I Brought Up Flesh Hooks. Normalizing human sexual behavior – especially when it’s been stigmatized – is a huge mission of mine as a sex educator and an educator in general, and thus I try to talk about things in a not-terribly sensationalistic way. Again, if people are doing it, it’s worthy of study (from the hybrid social sciences/humanities perspective that I’ve come to as an interdisciplinary folklorist and gender studies scholar).
  • Give students time to respond to the topic in a less-structured way, such as journaling, doing an in-class writing prompt, or talking in pairs. Allowing them to process their feelings in some forum other than talking in front of the whole group, or having to answer directed questions from you, can be beneficial.
  • Frame the conversation with a set of rules, boundaries, or guidelines for respectful discussion. I like to remind my students that it’s okay to disagree with me, with the reading/texts, and even with each other, so long as they do it politely. In certain conversations I’ll emphasize that no one’s required to share anything about their personal lives, but only to engage with the material as it’s handled in the class. The way I do this, it’s less about creating a “safe space” where everyone feels 100% comfortable and nurtured all the time, but rather creating a space where people feel supported in speaking up, and where it’s okay to challenge and be challenged.
  • Divide students into groups and have them debate different facets of the topic. Again, this might bring up ideas and issues that I haven’t even considered.
  • Give them an opportunity to make up classroom credit if a topic proves to be triggering or emotionally activating. This might be listening to a podcast, reviewing a blog post, watching a TED talk, or something along those lines. Since I deal with sexual topics a lot in my classroom, I tend to have a lot of these options floating around my brain at any given moment, in case somebody needs to pass on participating.

At risk of being snarky, I’m sure it helps that I have white, middle-class privilege and thus can bring up certain topics without being seen as too offensive. At the same time, being a woman means I probably come across as nurturing and supportive when I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, which may help students feel more comfortable during difficult discussions. I’m not thrilled about these areas of privilege, but I have to acknowledge them, and I might as well try to use my privilege to benefit others, by creating unique educational opportunities.

I’ve never had anyone tell me not to teach a topic, or that I was being too controversial, or that I would be penalized for anything I taught. But I’m sure there’s a first time for everything. In the end, I try to keep in mind that teaching is less about my experience (as much as I might feel like a bad-ass for handling touchy topics with grace) and more about the students’ experiences, and that helps me navigate some of these tricky subjects. In the end, if it doesn’t benefit them, why am I doing it?

What about you? How do you handle taboo topics in the classroom?

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Image from Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license. Originally uploaded by user Fry1989.

I thought about putting this post over at my sex education site, but decided to publish it here instead. Why? Because I’m increasingly convinced that activism needs to be a part of my scholarship as well as my daily life.

The state in which I currently reside, Indiana, has passed a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA, also known as SB101). As this Huffington Post blogger explains, it basically opens the door to discrimination against groups that are not currently protected from such – namely, LGBTQ folks and other sexual minorities, anyone to whose existence a religious group might object.

While I generally support protests and even certain boycotts, in part to raise consciousness and in part to display displeasure, I have to agree with friend and colleague Mike Underwood who states:

Rather than a blanket boycott of Indiana, I’d suggest a strategic and vocal boycott of businesses seen to use this law to discriminate against marginalized persons. Instead why not vocally patronize inclusive businesses?

And on top of that, fight to make sexual orientation a protected class for the entire state, and to get SB 101 overturned so a more reasonable protection for religious expression can be crafted and implemented.

Boycotts punish everyone, and tend to disproportionately hurt smaller business of those already marginalized.

That’s why I’ve started asking establishments that I go into what their policy on RFRA is. And you know what? It seems like a small act, but it has so much potential.

Already I’ve spoken with employees at my favorite cafe on the northside of Indy, and heard that they promote tolerance and inclusion. I cheekily replied that I’d be happy to give them more of my money. What I wasn’t expecting was for one of the employees to approach me as I was packing my things to leave, and to warmly thank me for bringing up the issue. That was really touching, and a good reminder that activism isn’t just about creating concrete change in economic patterns, but also about connecting with people.

On the scholarly side, we’ll see how much attention I can give this issue in my classroom. On the one hand, I may not need to mention it much, as my wonderful students this semester have already posted links to relevant news in our online discussion group. On the other hand, my status as a PhD-wielding college lecturer gives my words a certain amount of weight, and so speaking up might infuse some opinions with a bit more legitimacy, and give my students something to fall back on if they want to mention our hypothetical classroom discussions to their peers or family members.

As Kelly J. Baker points out, scholarship and activism have an uneasy relationship: “Activism appears to have merit when it can be neatly attached to one’s scholarship or a vision of a shared politics.” I’m already pretty “out there” as a scholar who does a lot of work on gender, sex, and sexuality, so it’s probably not surprising to anyone  that I hold the position that RFRA is thinly-disguised homophobic bigotry.

We’ll see how things go with this (abhorrent) piece of legislation. I’m going to try to speak up as much as I can, in both formal and informal settings, in part because I have a privileged position as an institutionally-recognized scholar, and in part because I get to vote with my wallet, and make human connections while doing so. I also get to lean on some personal privilege here, as I walk around wearing a wedding ring and am cisgendered. In my mind, one of the better things to do with privilege is use it to challenge the status quo and help others out, so hopefully I can do some of that here.

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The famous non-consensual kiss from “Sleeping Beauty.” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam (in public domain).

I spent a good chunk of this year’s annual meeting of the American Folklore Society live-tweeting the conference. And, given that I’m now working as a sex educator, a lot of what I tweeted about was sexuality and gender.

When I tweeted disparagingly about the lack of sex positivity at the conference, a colleague responded by asking what exactly I mean by sex positivity. It’s not, unfortunately, something that everyone in our society learns about, nor is it on the curriculum for most folklore studies programs. So I wrote this blog post about what sex positivity means to me, and decided to do a follow-up post relating it back to folklore.

In folklore studies, and especially my specialty of narrative studies, we spend a lot of time talking about genres. A genre is a basic category of folklore, a type of expressive culture that we group by similarities in content, structure, transmission/performance, and function. So my first thought when it comes to relating sex positivity to folklore is to write about which genres engage with sex positivity (or not).

Based on the paper I gave this year, examining gender and sexuality in the TV show Lost Girl, I’ve been thinking about sex positivity in two specific narrative folklore genres: legend and fairy tale. We define legends as belief tales that are told as though they actually happened, which is why you so see so many urban legends debunked on they tie into people’s beliefs about reality, so strongly that they’ll be transmitted regardless of their truth value.

For a representative sampling of legends about sex, check out these summaries of texts from just one legend book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker by folklorist Jan Brunvand: innocent make-out sessions lead to death in “The Boyfriend’s Death,” infidelity is punished in “The Solid Cement Cadillac,” and various nude surprises occur because people are generally acting pervy. Then there are legends regarding the transmission of HIV/AIDS, organ theft after a one-night stand, people getting stuck together during sex, and people losing objects internally during masturbation.

Based on this sample, I think it’s safe to say that most legends are NOT sex positive. They depict sex acts as having dangerous consequences. Even if a character’s intention was not malevolent, the effects are harmful. This probably relates to how legends function in society: they often contain socially conservative messages meant to police communal behavior.

With fairy tales—which have a bit more distance from reality as they’re fictional, formulaic tales about magic, quests, and transformation—it’s a bit harder to make sweeping proclamations about whether or not they’re sex positive. Most fairy tales end in marriage, after all, which would seem to be an endorsement for sex. However, fairy tales give us a fairly narrow vision of acceptable forms of sexuality: most fairy-tale pairings are heterosexual, monogamous, and transactional.

I’ve been researching promiscuity and non-monogamy in fairy tales, and based on that, I’ve concluded that fairy tales (like legends) convey rather restrictive attitudes about sexuality. Promiscuous female characters are punished, while there’s rarely any comment on the need for a man to be a virgin before marriage (yes, there are tales about magical virginity tests before marriage—only for the female characters, of course). It’s a little disturbing to realize that fairy tales contain many similar elements to contemporary abstinence-only programming: an emphasis on virginity before marriage, a need to police sexual behavior especially in women, and a correlation between chastity and virtue. (want citations? contact me for a copy of my paper)

In contrast to legends, though, fairy tales do show sexuality as being potentially generative and therefore positive in that light at least. Sex in fairy tales leads to children, and fairy-tale children are generally valued. You never know when having a kid might lead to breaking a curse down the road, after all. So while it’s still a mixed bag, I have to conclude based on this brief survey that fairy tales are a bit more sex positive than legends.

I can’t think of any other folklorists using sex positivity as a metric to evaluate the messages within various folklore genres. This could be an intriguing and useful line of inquiry, so if you have suggestions for folklore genres to compare and contrast in regard to sex positivity, feel free to leave a comment and get in on this discussion!

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When a friend shared a link to Why We Care About Other People’s Sex Lives, a look at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality, I was skeptical. As I’ve ranted about to anyone who will listen, I have a hate-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology and related fields such as literary Darwinism. They’re just so… essentializing. Ugh.

But the above-linked article caught my interest. The author looks at a number of recent studies about how people judge casual sex. In one instance: “Even after controlling for variables like age, religiosity, and political affiliation, the study authors found that people who saw female financial dependence on men as more common were also more likely to negatively judge promiscuity in both sexes.” Why does this occur? I’m not inclined to go with the evo psych reductionist reasoning that women are less horny than men but simultaneously more calculating; instead, I’d like to draw some parallels between sexual and economic principles.

What do sexual morality and financial dependence have in common? The concept of limited good. As folklorist Alan Dundes explains in this interview about evil eye beliefs: “The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of ‘limited good.’ There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Dundes goes on to argue that expressive culture (in this case, folk belief about the evil eye) reflects a society’s underlying worldview of paradigm about economic exchange.

So when we have an economic system that commodifies certain kinds of social and sexual interactions (such as marriage) by directly tying them to one’s ability to survive and thrive, it’s not surprising to see that same attitude reflected in a society’s sexual attitudes. The fear about not enough potential (and desirable) spouses to go around (hence not enough access to married-life-resources) affects beliefs about sexual practices, turning sex into a commodity when really, it doesn’t have to be that way. We know from the non-monogamous emotion of compersion (feeling joy when someone else feels joy) that it’s possible to react to sharing your partner with another with positive, constructive emotions rather than destructive, possessive, jealous ones.

I sometimes wonder how sexual behaviors and stereotypes will change in my utopian vision of the future, wherein we move from a limited good economy to one where marriage isn’t required to obtain health insurance, citizenship, or other concrete goods. Will sex ever be de-commodified? I’m not sure, but I hope we move more in that direction.

Oh, and there’s another, simpler idea that I’d like to extract from the essay on sexual morality: the notion that a society’s attitudes about sexuality can (and perhaps should) change over time. The authors of Sex at Dawn (which I review here) also implicitly explore this concept. What I like about the idea that attitudes about sex are always evolving is that it recognizes that sexual behavior is always culturally constructed. Our ideas about sex are always changing due to a confluence of various factors: the ways in which we have sex change, our social paradigms (some of which explicitly relate to sex) change, and our scientific understanding of sexual functioning is always evolving too.

Basically, there’s always been an amazing diversity of sexual practices throughout human history. In my mind, that’s as it should be. There is no one way to have sex. There is no universal, monolithic meaning of sex. The only thing that’s universal about sex – other than it happening to continue humankind’s existence on this world – is that I believe sex should be considered among the list of universal human rights.

So, let’s keep up the dialogue about sex and society. Hopefully a greater understanding of how these paradigms intersect and influence one another will lead to more tolerance and progressive social change.

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the things I love about my family is that they take an active interest in my career and hobbies. So when I flew into L.A. to see my folks, my dad handed me a big box of newspaper clippings, related to literature, folklore, dance, sex education, and so on.

Among them was an opinion piece from the L.A. Times about a recent piece of California legislation, SB 967. This would mandate, among other things, that all California universities include the following language about sexual contact that occurs on campus:

  • An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant.
  • Prohibition on an accused perpetrator using self-intoxication or recklessness as a defense.  It would also not be a defense if the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain consent.
  • An explicit provision that an individual is unable to give consent for sexual activity if the individual is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated due to drugs and/or alcohol; or unable to communicate due to a mental and/or physical condition.
  • A preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action.

And so on. So far, so good, right?

Well… no. One of the opinion pieces, published in the Sunday June 1 L.A. Times, thinks that an affirmative consent standard is not only unlikely, but also unsexy. He writes: “The legislation’s affirmative consent requirement doesn’t apply just to sex. It covers all physical contact for which consent is required by a college’s sexual assault policy, like intimate touching. In real life, such contact is welcomed after it begins, not affirmatively consented to in advance.”

I hope y’all see that this is really problematic. This statement exemplifies the sex-negativity prevalent in our culture, specifically the idea that having to obtain consent by explicitly asking for it is un-sexy. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from; in practically every Hollywood flick the characters experience mind-numbing chemistry, kiss, and wind up in bed together, with nary a word spoken.

Is it really all that terrible to have to ask for someone’s consent before touching or kissing them? Would it really be so soberingly un-sexy to say something like, “Hey, I’d like to kiss you. How do you feel about that?” Apparently, yes, there is no greater boner-killer than verbally obtaining consent.

What’s even more  troubling is that this opinion was expressed by Hans Bader, an attorney and former U.S. Department of Education Lawyer. In other words, the people making our laws don’t think obtaining verbal, explicit consent is sexy or feasible.

Another person, Sandra Perez, wrote in to say: “Legislation in Sacramento essentially would mandate that a would-be Romeo obtain an express opt-in before proceeding to bed with his sweetheart, as if any such target of Romeo’s desires doesn’t have ample opportunity to communicate her unequivocal wish to opt out.” This is another WTF comment, since it both assumes that men are always the initiators of sexual contact (which is a harmful construct of performing idealized masculinity) and that there are never coercive situations wherein women – or men – don’t feel safe saying no.

I’m saddened and disturbs that both of the quotes in this opinion piece reinforce negative, harmful, and untrue ideas about consent. Whether or not you’re in California and hence potentially affected by this law, I recommend reading up on consent and figuring out how to make it a more prominent part of your conversations and your practices. So here are some links:

Please read and consider passing on these links. I’m aware that there are more sophisticated (often feminist) conversations happening around consent, specifically problematizing the notion of “enthusiastic consent (and this discussion too), but hey, we have to start somewhere.

P.S. June is  Adult Sex Ed month! Consider this post a contribution!

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My post Claiming the Title of Sex Educator recently went live at MySexProfessor, and in that vein, I’m going to start posting more sex education and sex research content here at my personal blog (update: now that I have a blog at my sex education site, more content of this nature will go there!). I’ll begin with a post about how we talk about deviance and consent, and where these subjects (maybe surprisingly) intersect.

There’s a journalistic account going around about a young man who identifies as a pedophile in that he’s attracted to children, but he has never acted on that attraction. In fact, he’s actively seeking help in order to keep from acting on it. Pedophilia is one the most taboo and reviled sexuality topics in our society, and I like how the interview humanizes the man. It’s worth a listen if you have the time (it’s around 30 minutes long).

The story got me thinking about how we tend to talk about sexual deviancy. The more taboo a topic is, the more likely the discussion of it is to be framed in terms of morality or wrongness. In other words, stigma has an incredibly polarizing effect on discourse.

But you know what? Pretty much any sexual act has the potential to be just as “deviant” as the most stigmatized and taboo acts out there. This is because every sex act that involves more than one person hinges on consent, and even the most innocent-seeming act can become a violation if consent is lacking.

This is where the “would you do it to/with a pet?” question comes in. Think of something you might do to, say, a cat or dog as a friendly gesture:

  • Hug
  • Pet
  • Feed
  • Walk or play with

You don’t have to ask your cat or dog whether you can interact with it in a low-key, friendly way, in a manner that presumes some familiarity but does not transgress the animal’s bodily boundaries or cause it pain. Similarly, you usually don’t have to ask a friend consent before hugging her, or offering him food, or shaking zir hand.

Then think of some other activities, which you would NOT do to your pet. These could involve forcibly penetrating it, or beating it. Why would those actions be wrong? Because your pet cannot consent to sex with a human, nor to receiving pain. Animals think differently than humans and we haven’t figured out how to bridge a lot of those gaps just yet. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of communicating with one another about marvelously complex things, including giving and receiving physical pain in the pursuit of pleasure as with kink/BDSM, or choosing to enter into sex work.

My point here is that if it’s not an act that you would feel okay doing to an alive-and-feeling being that is incapable of communicating consent — it is potentially a “deviant” act. Being kissed without consent can be an invasive, horrible experience. Having sex without consent – that’s called rape.  Whether it’s the most vanilla thing in that world or as taboo as it gets, any partnered sexual activity has the potential to be traumatic if its occurs without consent.

Obviously the pet analogy falls apart at some point. Some people enjoy sloppy wet dog kisses, and the dogs seem to enjoy them right back. The activity of wrestling with one’s pet may cross into rough play, rougher than you’d do with a non-consenting human. I just wanted to come up with a metaphor that would resonate with people, that would make you think about the activities which require explicit consent and the activities that do not.

The flip side is that if any act, no matter how innocent or well-intended, can become monstrous when it occurs without consent, then any deviant/taboo/bizarre act can be seen as okay if consent is granted. Or at least, I’ll see it that way, and encourage others to have an open enough mind to do so.

Once again: if you’re a consenting adult, I support you doing anything. Consent should always be communicated, negotiated, and re-negotiated, so the more we read and talk and write about it, the better!

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The first week of classes has passed, and I find myself excited that my students are excited. And I think I figured out one major reason they’re excited – I spent a lot of time in the first day of both my classes emphasizing the relevance of what we’d be learning this semester.

In my folklore class, I made sure to talk about preconceptions about folklore, which people tend to associate with quaint, old-timey things. Of course I gave my students some updated definitions of folklore (folklore as expressive culture, as artistic communication in small groups, as creativity in everyday life), and in our discussion, they seemed intrigued by the fact that we’d be studying contemporary communities alongside the historical dimensions of folklore in the Midwest (which is the topic of the course).

In my gender studies class, I spoke about how our culture gives people crummy and/or incomplete models for understanding, communicating about, and analyzing relationships. You can blame Hollywood (I do, in part) or other areas of the media, or the patriarchy, or any number of the things, but the fact remains: we don’t learn good relationship communication skills. And part of the reason I’m teaching this class on monogamous and non-monogamous relationships is to fix that. Yes, we’ll study things that seem exotic by some counts (marriage in other cultures, same-sex relationships, polyamory and swinging, sex work, etc.) but the point is to start a dialogue about the diversity of human relationships as scholars … and maybe also get some take-home pointers about communication and consent and all that good stuff.

The other factor here, in my humble opinion, is that I was really excited on the first day of both classes too. I think that came through when I spoke to my students, and asked their opinions, and got them involved in discussions. I care about the topics I’m teaching, which must help in some fashion… but I think relevance is a major factor as well. I think a good teacher can and should make any topic relevant to the lives of her students. Some topics might require a greater stretch than others, sure, but relevance has been on my mind lately, and since I was pleased to find it a positive force in both my classes, I thought I would mention it here while also scrambling to come up with a good topic for my 2nd post of the month before the month trickles away from me.

Relevance. I dig it. More thoughts on this later, perhaps.


I’ve been turning this post over in my head for a few months, and now seems like a good time to make it.

I am not accused too often of being an “angry feminist,” but it still happens from time to time. As though that is such a terrible thing to be; worse than a greedy capitalist, or a dishonest politician, or an unapologetic rapist. As though it would be better for me to not be angry or not be feminist, but be something else instead, even if that something else is also a negative trait.

This Tiger Beatdown post on angry-feminist-shaming really resonated with me. In it, Flavia writes: I refuse to be boxed in the simplified category of “ranter” because I am angry. Because this anger makes me “difficult”, it makes me “alienating”, it makes me “impossible to deal with” and I should just accept that certain things just are.

Anger drives us to action; anger keeps us from being complacent. Yet it is a really charged thing for women to be angry, since in many cultures, women are not supposed to get angry. There is no safe way for us to unleash our passions. In folklore, literature, and history, we see the dire consequences of women getting angry: Medea, Snow White’s (step)mother, the doomed Amazons, the Maenads. There is little cultural space for women’s anger. We are supposed to swallow it and, I don’t know, transform it into milk chocolate hearts and rainbow bird’s nests. Or better yet, not feel it at all.

This excellent (but potentially triggering) post at Fugitivus talks about the conditioning women undergo to be pleasant and agreeable in every.single.interaction of their lives, and how given that context, it’s unsurprising that “if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution. Behavior exists on a continuum.”

One reason I chafe at the negative connotations of the “angry feminist” label is that it’s meant to police women’s behavior. Because if being an angry woman is clearly unacceptable in our society, being an angry feminist must be a billion times worse.

Another reason I dislike the stigma is that I don’t actually see being an angry feminist as a bad thing depending on what you are doing with that anger. I totally do not mean this to turn into a judgment of how those feminists are doing it wrong but these feminists are doing it right; rather, I mean that anger can be an intensely destructive emotion, and that shit will consume you if you let it. Which is not helpful for anyone, really, unless self-destruction does something unique or desirable for you.

But here is the thing: when feminists are angry, we are angry about oppression. We are angry about women’s (and indeed, men’s) options and identities being limited and defined by patriarchy, religion, laws, culture. We are pissed off that being born with a certain set of genitals means you are far more likely to experience sexual assault, to be denied health care coverage, to take a pay cut for the same work.

And our anger is frequently tempered with empathy. Feminism is a collective movement. You gain empathy by realizing that yeah, it also sucks for people who are both like you and unlike you. That opens you up to awareness that oppression happens on many axes, not just gender/sexuality, but also ethnicity, religious identity, immigrant status, nationality, class, and so on.

When you start to think about oppression and you start to realize how much it sucks to be oppressed, you generally don’t want to inflict those same feelings on others. This is where I’m going with the empathy thing. And while bell hooks has said this way more eloquently than I ever will, this is why feminism can and should intersect with multiple anti-oppression stances, and why all forms of oppression are related.

I think this, ultimately, is why the idea of the angry feminist is so threatening in a contemporary mainstream American/Western context: because the oppressors can’t understand a way of being angry that does not involve doing violence to others. Since that is how they work, by keeping others in check through fear and control. It’s power-over rather than power-with, to borrow a term from Starhawk.

But many feminists (and again, it’s such a broad movement that it’s hard to generalize about) understand that being oppressed–for gender or anything else–really blows, so we channel our anger into challenging oppression, not redirecting it onto whoever’s lower on the totem pole than us. We comprehend the destructive effects of displaced abusive anger and instead strive for transformative passionate anger.

Not that we’re perfect and get it right every time; I still feel helpless, and I still fight losing battles on the internet with people who are turned off by my anger so I really should adopt another tactic but I don’t because this shit is so raw, this being told I am less than human and don’t deserve sovereignty over my body. I am trying to do it better, to be more compassionate, to channel my anger into something useful and not wallow in rageful depression or lash out at potential allies.

This is why I don’t back away from the term angry feminist: I think it can teach us many things. It can be used to start conversations, or to end them, if the idea of an angry woman is so alien as to point out irreconciliable differences that it’s not worth bashing your head against. We do need some amount of self-preservation instincts to keep up this fight while life goes on around us, after all.

I hope that someday we won’t even need the term anymore: that women will have socially acceptable access to the same range of emotions as men, and that the idea of feminism will be something taught in history classes since it’ll no longer be necessary once gender-based oppression is banished forever. Yeah, I can keep dreaming. But I like my anger with a dash of optimism.

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