Friday, January 25, 2013

Treating men as people is also good

As a feminist, who aso has plenty of feminist friends, over time you start noticing the kind of accusations that get thrown feminists' way. We're too extremist being a common one, even among my friends who do not identify as feminists, and another that often gets leveled by the internet hate-o-sphere and other more dedicated opponents to feminism is that we hate men. In this post I want to write a bit about the latter. Being a white cisgendered man myself and having attended several gender classes and observing the world around us, I've certainly had very strong feelings, such as disgust, for being part of a system that privileges me and works against women, queer people, and people of colour. However, being disgusted at the system is not the same thing as hatred of men. Indeed, my disgust is, apart from the fact that it's a system that does harm to large groups of people, also grounded in my belief that people have a great potential for good, and as I wrote in my response to Kaplinski a couple of weeks ago, systemic inequalities and power imbalances make for a worse society and worse people. Among the feminists I read and the feminists I know, there is generally more of a focus on systemic and social issues that give rise or reinforce to the behaviours we are opposed to, so while the tone can be harsh against men as a group to act in a way to be part of the change we want to see in the world, hatred against men does not really make sense. We are all people, and people who are privileged need to see how that privilege can make them blind to systemic issues and need to participate in changing the system that harms others and blinds them.

On the whole, I find a lot of non-feminist thought that exists in the mainstream to be far more man-hating than feminist opinion. For example, the idea that men can't control themselves, which is often brought up when talking about rape. This is the excuse used by Mr. Kaplinski, and a common trope of rape apologia, often expressed as "what did she expect when doing x". I, and I think many with me, expect people to act like decent human beings, and that it is the behaviour of the perpetrators that is what should be questioned and not the victim's. Indeed, that is the expectation most people have in most standard interactions in places where there exists an ok level of law and order. But with rape, suddenly there is the idea that men are barely constrained rapists waiting to happen. I hardly need to point out how insulting and what a low opinion of men that is, and to repeat a link made in a previous blog post, there is very little reason to believe that a large category of men are intrinsically prone to think that way. And the feminists I know don't think that way. Instead, we generally believe that social norms, how we raise boys and girls, and our expectations on men and women play a large part in how we act, both when we are alone and especially when we act in a social context. And that includes when someone makes the decision to rape (it is important to remember that rape does not just "happen", someone makes a conscious decision to sexually assault someone who has not given consent, sometimes that decision is reached as a result of peer pressure or even under threat, but it is made). As this article from Stassa Edwards at Ms. Magazine on the Steubenville rape case points out, the way we raise boys in regards to rape, and indeed girls and women in general, can be a problem:

At one point, former Steubenville baseball player Michael Nodianos says, “It isn’t really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not.” At another point an unidentified boy asks “What if that was your daughter?” Nodianos responds, “But she isn’t.”

Nodianos’s words are telling, because for too long we’ve been teaching our sons to think of the consequences of rape within a familial context (i.e. “Imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother”) and it’s clear that this method of education is a complete and total failure.
A still all-too-common approach when confronted with stories about rape is to look at the victim and ask questions about her: what was she doing? why was she in that place with those people in whatever state of sobriety? who is she?, and that's reflected in the idea that specific women are worthy of protection (your family, for instance), rather than having the expectation on men to act in an empathetic way towards all women as well as everyone else. What is needed to change a culture where so many rapists get away with their crimes and a lot of people reflexively cover up or ignore the crimes of their peers or write articles about how rape and consent are "complicated" concepts is partly to speak out against the reflexive defense of men who rape, and to raise boys in a way that empathy is valued. Of course, there is a problem in that children are rather clever and pick up on a lot of cues from society around them, which means that we also need to constantly reinforce (warning: links on this page can lead to content that is not safe for work) that disparaging, objectifying or discriminating against women is unacceptable.

Some people would appeal to nature here and say that men have a lower capacity for empathy (I seem to have argued against that very point very recently). However, there is research saying that that is not necessarily the point. For instance, take a look at this abstract linked from an article at Feministing (translation for people who haven't spent way too much time reading abstracts to follow):

[...]Graham and Ickes (1997) speculated that reliable gender-of-perceiver differences in empathic accuracy (a) were limited to studies in which the empathic inference form made empathic accuracy salient as the dimension of interest, and (b) therefore reflected the differential motivation, rather than the differential ability, of female versus male perceivers. These speculations were tested more rigorously in the present study[...] The hypothesis was strongly supported, consistent with a motivational interpretation previously proposed by Berman (1980) and by Eisenberg and Lemon (1983), which argues that reliable gender differences in empathy-related measures are found only in situations in which (a) subjects are aware that they are being evaluated on an empathy-relevant dimension, and/or (b) empathy-relevant gender-role expectations or obligations are made salient.
The most important line here is the one that states that differences in empathy "reflected the differential motivation, rather than the differential ability, of female versus male perceivers". In other words, we have more empathy when we are motivated to be empathetic. If society around us treats a group of people (slaves, immigrants, women, homosexuals) as less worth, there will be less motivation to feel empathetic. If we tell boys and men that women's opinions don't matter or that only certain women are worthy of protection according to some kind of social hierarchy, then that is not any better than the laws of old that stated that a woman being raped was an economic loss for her family, rather than a crime against her, and leads to the kind of callous disregard (and acceptance from others of that callous disregard) for another person exemplified by the quote above.

As in so many issues, this is not something that can be solved easily. It is the kind of structural messages that can exist to a certain extent in pretty much all walks of life, like the idea that boys teasing "girls they like" against those girls' will is adorable until they reach a certain age where we try to reverse it and say it's sexual harassment (it was never ok), or the common devaluing of women's opinions in discussions, or not speaking out against sexual harassment, or promoting different ideals of empathy for boys and girls, or slut-shaming, or victim-blaming, or a society where men hold a clear majority of powerful positions. The list goes on and on, and a lot of the problems are difficult to know what to do about. But what I will try to do is to speak out against harassment in public transport, streets, and my workplace (I'm not a very confrontational person, so that can be difficult, but where would we be if we didn't challenge ourselves?), set a good example for my nephew and speak out against bad behaviours, vote for political parties that support my vision of society, and, apparently, write blog posts and argue against those who would dehumanise men and rob them of responsibility.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Some words on entitlement

I was going to start this post with the dictionary defintion of the word "entitled", but its usage as an adjective seems to be a neologism. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise me overly much, as entitlement as a negative term seems to have gotten more popular in recent years, albeit with some pushback. Being entitled, in common usage, has come to mean that you expect something for nothing and that you expect more than is reasonable. It has been used about the youth of today (I dare-say in every era), the recently unemployed, men embittered by gender relations, people in southern Europe, and just about any other group that another group doesn't like. The problem with the word is that it's a lazy way of slandering people without backing it up by saying the way in which they are entitled. To feel that you are entitled to something can, after all, both be good and bad, depending on what we think we are entitled to.

To begin with the good, people should feel that they are entitled to human and civic rights, a working education system and economic structure, equality under the law, a central bank concerned with a well-working economy for the masses rather than a small group of creditors, and in general decent opportunity in life. If we feel that we're entitled to these things, we will fight for them, and they are worth fighting for. To shrug away people's completely reasonable concerns and ambitions with the word "entitled" is to spit in the face of everyone who has fought for social progress and democracy throughout history.

On the negative side, we have people who think that they deserve something particular by virtue of who they are, rather than wanting something they think everyone deserves. Like men who get bitter at women for not giving them a good-night kiss after having paid for dinner or who think they deserve a date with the person they like and don't want to take no for an answer, or people who think that they should be treated differently by the law because they're such important individuals. Calling them out on their negative behaviour makes sense, but to use the term entitled without properly backing it up with what they're entitled to and thus why it's fucked up is to further lower the discourse (though admittedly, I have not seen too many examples of the latter).

The words entitled and entitlement should not be seen as bad in and of themselves, and should never be allowed to be used to avoid a discussion about the role of the state and what we collectively should reasonably expect of society, nor as a way to avoid saying outright why something a person is doing is bad. Or as I could also have put it, weasel words are bad.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Myths take a long time to die

Sometimes, trolls  on the internet are successful in generating a response when maybe you should just leave it alone. Like when they try to sound reasonable and yet manage to hit a point I find completely illogical or based on flawed assumption with pretty much every argument they make. And when they apparently count as legitimate intellectuals in Estonia.
Jaan Kaplinski, an Estonian author, wrote a blog post at the end of last year giving his views on rape, naming it Rape or Non-consensual Sex. In it he presents several arguments about why some kinds of non-consensual sex happens, and why it is sometimes, in his mind, not rape. He explicitly calls out "radical Scandinavians" and since Radical Scandinavian Man are some of my middle names, I feel compelled to answer. The radical thing in this case is to not accept non-consensual sex, apparently. I will warn the reader that I have other radical notions like "try not to harm others" and "women and men are part of a category called 'people' and it is possible to communicate with them".
Mr. Kaplinski's basic assertion is that men can have problems understanding a no in certain situations, and that it shouldn't be illegal when a man then penetrates a woman without consent. I have several problems with this, and will go through them in order (though obviously some of them overlap). Mainly, I find that the argument is immoral by itself, that it is based on flawed assumptions, and that it is an argument that has negative consequences for society as a whole.

The moral argument is quite simple, when you remove all the frills. It is wrong to do what you want with another's body against their wishes. I don't think I need to ask people or Mr. Kaplinski to imagine how they would feel if they were penetrated by someone without consent, as it should be pretty obvious that it constitutes harm. Sometimes, there can be circumstances where you can transgress against someone to stop some greater harm from taking place, I do not see how penetrating someone against their will could possibly stop some greater harm. This seems like the kind of thing that is so self-evident that I almost don't want to write it down - as someone who thinks sex can be a wonderful thing you do together with another person, I don't think I should have to. And what argument does Mr. Kaplinski make for why doing this kind of harm is acceptable? Because communication is difficult sometimes. If it's not clear by now, I am no great philosopher, but it seems to me that if you're in a situation where you could potentially cause great harm, you have some responsibility to make a decent effort at avoiding it. Making an extra effort at communicating with your sex partner seems like a very small effort to make, if you are indeed motivated to not do harm to your sex partner (which I sincerely hope).

Mr. Kaplinski makes several assumptions that I don't think hold when analysed critically, the first being that communication is necessarily so complicated. Take these quotes from his blog post:
[...]often the female no is not an absolute no but can be a step toward finally saying yes.[...]
Here, it is not simply a person understanding another person, but a body understanding another body. And a male body tends to understand the closeness of a female body in a very straightforward way. Yes, with an effort, a man can even then abstain from sex.
In the first case, obviously the sex should wait until you actually get that yes, while using the skills you have gained in other social interactions to make sure that you're not badgering, intimidating, or making the woman you're talking to feel uncomfortable. If we see the important word as being "yes" rather than "no", we seem to avoid a lot of the problems. To the extent that women are conditioned to not express sexual desire for fear of being accused of being a slut or similar shaming language, I suggest working to tear down sexist double standards on the structural level, and making sure that there is enough trust between you and your sex partner to express desire despite it. As long as you honestly care about communicating with your partner, most of the time you should be able to make it work. If there's still uncertainty, well, lack of sex has never killed anyone. Of course, Mr. Kaplinski is here talking about situation where two people have come quite far sexually already, so that a yes shouldn't be quite that difficult to express, if the other person is indeed interested in expressing it.
In the second quote, Mr. Kaplinski suggests that the male body understands the presence of a female body meaning a "yes" to sexual intercourse. The answer to that is easy: the body is wrong. And as Mr. Kaplinski writes, men can back off at that point. He says it takes effort, but as mentioned, making an effort to avoid inflicting great harm is obviously the right thing to do.

A second assumption used by Mr. Kaplinski to explain why communication is so difficult for men is an appeal to nature: in mating rituals in the animal world, no doesn't necessarily mean no, and men, by their nature, are "autistic" and have more problems understanding others than women.
We are willingly or unwillingly a part of animal kingdom and our erotic rituals are quite similar to the rituals of some other animals. And in these rituals, often the female no is not an absolute no but can be a step toward finally saying yes.[...]
Yes, we men tend to be autistic. As I have been explained by women, they always understand whether a man is interested in them. Not so with men.
First off, and it is perhaps needless to say, that something is natural does not make something right. A person who is angered and kills someone else can not excuse it with death being a common result after conflicts in the animal kingdom, nor can someone who kills their children say that animals often do it during hard times.
Perhaps more importantly, we live in a world where women have at various times been considered frigid, at other times too emotional, at some times dangerously part of the natural world, and at others removed from it. Men, on the other hand, were often seen as their opposites (and often somehow better because of it). What I mean by that is that if we lived in a society where boys and men were encouraged to have an active emotional life, strong empathy and caring for others, and put a greater focus on communication and friendships over gender lines, we might well end up with men that are different than what seems natural right now. Will gender differences persist? Quite possibly, but looking at history, there is obviously a great variation in behaviour among men and women alike so we should never be too tempted to see our behaviour at present as being "natural". In addition, we live in a society where women's voices in general are given less validity than those of men's, if we were to make more of an effort to not denigrate women's opinions, maybe there would be less of a problem to understand them in more intimate settings.
The mention of autism is interesting. People who are diagnosed with autism often have problems throughout their lives, whether interacting with men or women. Autism is not a problem that occurs only in the bedroom or when dealing with relationships. What people with autism spectrum disorder usually do is to learn to cope with their problem so as to improve their social life, using certain cues as signals for moods and situations they don't instinctively get. If you care about social interactions where you might have a problem (and if you think you might cause harm by misunderstanding consent, I hope you do care), you will hopefully take steps to rectify it, by learning various cues and ways of communicating for that which you don't understand instinctively. It might be prudent to add, in this context, that literature and other culture is a way of understanding the world around us; romance literature and movies are overwhelmingly coded as feminine, and are to a great extent read by women. Though I won't make any absolute statements about it, it's entirely possible that Mr. Kaplinski's experience with romantically psychic women is merely the effect of a group of people taking a more intense interest in romance than he (or his male friends) do.

A third assumption that seems to motivate his post is that women are not attracted to "good guys" but rather macho-men who are, presumably, not good:
And it was a shock to me to discover that men relish talkint obscenities, that in their discourse sex is very much connected with rude force, even with violence. And the greatest shock was to find that girls were more interested in such macho-type men than in good guys as me.[...]
[...]I was too good a guy and couldn't understand that bad guys had more luck with women than good guys. And quite possibly still have.
First off, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that a guy who is truly good would not write a resentful blog post decades later complaining about not having had enough sex.
Secondly, in my experience women don't particularly like bad guys (though obviously that also happens) - they like interesting, funny, confident, attractive people in a mix, much like men do. I can't mention that many female friends of mine who find someone being nice being a turn-off; however, if "nice" or "good guy" was the main thing they could say about a person, I would also not assume that they're very attracted by him. Confidence and being clear about what you want probably helps quite a bit in many kinds of social interaction, flirting and getting into bed with someone among them; being withdrawn probably doesn't. Of course, if a woman is mostly interested in getting laid for a night or for a little while, getting together with an attractive guy who clearly signals he's into that is probably the right way to go. I don't know if those guys are what some people see as "bad guys", of course. In many blog circles, this kind of thing is called "nice guy syndrome", and plenty has been written about it.
Additionally, in the context of this post, wouldn't the fact that women are supposedly more interested in macho-type men mean that there were less situations where consent was lacking? I mean, if they were attracted by them, wouldn't it stand to reason that they actually had consensual sex when they did have sex? And what's wrong with that? The lesson here should not be (and never should be) "care less about women's consent", it's (if it matters that much to you) "become more attractive".

A final assumption is the way Mr. Kaplinski sees the interplay of men and women in society in regards to sex:
I cannot but agree with the assertion that a female no is a no when it is told seriously, not as an element in a play where woman rises the stakes, present herself as a more valuable partner asking for an effort from the male to get access to her favours.
Mr. Kaplinski seems to see sex as a commodity, something that women possess and men must bid to gain access to. A similar idea is that sex is something men want and seek, and women's role is only to accept or deny. I won't deny that a lot of people follow these concepts, and that a lot of social rules are based on them, such as shaming women for having sex (giving it up too easy). However, what I do say is that we should all work to change it. I have never understood what women supposedly give up when they have sex to make society get all scandalized; sex should be something two (or more) people do together because it's enjoyable for both of them. They both get enjoyment and both "lose" some time (they probably weren't going to do anything better with it) and give some physical effort. To me, at least, sex is worth having so long as everyone involved is into it; I want partners who find me attractive and are confident enough to take pleasure in my body as I take pleasure in hers, and more than anything the confidence to ask what I like. As long as people are aware of the risks in regards to STIs and unplanned pregnancy, why should we expect men and women's attitudes to sex and sexuality to be so different from each other?
Though it's certainly a long process (and one that's been championed by feminists for a long time), if you don't like the game, the right response isn't to punish someone by minimizing their wishes and to do them harm; it's to change the game.

Before going to the final section where I'll add why I think Mr. Kaplinski's argument is a bad thing for society as a whole, I must comment on this part:
[...]last minute abstention is detrimental to male health. Strong arousal without following gratification, without the possibility of penetration and ejaculation can easily lead to inflammation of the prostate and the lower urinary tract. If it becomes chronical, it can lead to prostate cancer and other nasty illnesses.
That is silly. I'm not going to dig up the incidence rate of prostate cancer for men who become aroused and then don't ejaculate vs. those who don't, because the dilemma Mr. Kaplinski presents here has such an obvious solution: if you're concerned that not ejaculating after becoming aroused is dangerous for your health, most of the people reading this have two hands. Do use them.
I will add that Mr. Kaplinski urges women to consent more because of this risk to men's health. To me, that would more or less amount to pity sex, which I can frankly do without, as I prefer women to have sex out of pleasure, not out of obligation.

At long last, a comment on the responsibility of a public intellectual and this kind of argument about rape and consent.
Culture and society matters. It matters to how people relate to each other, the acceptance of violence and oppression. You only need to look to times such as that of the Slave Trade, apartheid in South Africa, World War II, pretty much any occupation, and any place or time where women are considered to be property rather than citizens to make that clear. In these countries, the people who are in power gain great power and privilege over other groups, which are commonly denigrated, dehumanized and devalued. Though people are, in my opinion, generally decent people who want to do right, power corrupts, and when you have a society that tells you that some people are not worthy of respect and that your wishes matter more than theirs, great ills can be done to the oppressed in a casual manner by anyone who's sadistic, having a bad day, frustrated by their lot in life, or any other reason. That is understandable, though obviously something that is unacceptable and we should always work to prevent. So culture matters, and can increase the number of people in society who commit violence against others, or who simply stand by and do nothing when harm is done. We need to look no further than the recent rape cases in Steubenville and Delhi for examples of cultures where sexual violence against women is done and few if anyone intervenes to stop it.
However, as I mentioned before, I think that people as a rule can be decent, and with a society and culture where people are treated as equal, most people will not treat others as less worthy, they will be. To back up that point, especially in regards to rape, I would like to point to recent research in the US that has given rise to Predator Theory, which is simply that most rapes are actually committed by a small group of men who victimize many women. They target the women they identify as most vulnerable and get them into a position where they know they have what society regards as plausible deniability: they were drunk, she didn't say no clearly, she seemed interested earlier, and the like. As the research shows, however, they are well aware that they are assaulting non-consenting women, and will continue to do so. This is well in line with other criminological research, which shows that most crime is committed by a small minority who are repeat offenders.
With that background, I think Mr. Kaplinski's argument that men have problems understanding a no and because of that non-consensual sex should not be seen as rape or something illegal is not only immoral, but also on the larger scale promote a society and culture where women's wishes and consent are ignored, which would likely lead to increased victimization, and effectively give cover to the group of rapists who repeatedly and wilfully victimize others by letting them say that consent and communication is "confusing" when in truth it is navigable by most with a bit of effort, and those who don't make the effort or don't care are clearly in the wrong.

What bothers me the most about Mr. Kaplinski's blog post is perhaps that it presents sex and sexuality as something joyless, where it's not about people doing something pleasurable together, but rather a social competition where spending time with someone else stops mattering in favour of the raw mechanics of sex. As someone who thinks that the person you're doing it with and mutual enjoyment both while having sex and while spending time together otherwise is important, it seems like a very strange world where women's personalities and desires are erased in favour of a worldview where putting notches on your bedposts is the only positive you gain from having sex. That is not the kind of society I want, and indeed I am surprised that anyone would.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sex education and a new normal

In my last post, I outlined some of my basic thoughts about sex education. As tends to happen, though, I left out some stuff that should have been included, might not have been entirely clear on some stuff, and left out dealing with more complicated topics. I'll try to rectify that somewhat in this post, although I will still stay away from the nitty-gritty of dealing with a world where there are many perspectives on sex and sexuality, and where many of those perspectives are bad.

First off, what's the point of thinking about this in the first place? Well, I have a certain vision of how I think sex and sexuality and everything around it should work, and I think my ideas are preferable to the way things work today. As might have been obvious from my last post (at least in its blatant disregard for practical problems facing sex education programmes in many countries), I was presenting, in a sense, a new normal. By tacitly endorsing polyamory, asexuality, and a variety of kinks through presenting them as valid options to be discussed in sex education programmes, I am in fact trying to move sex and sexuality away from a situation where cisgendered heterosexual PIV (penis-in-vagina) sex is regarded as normal and what all other types of sex build from, and where cisgendered heterosexual monogamous relationships are what every other kind of relationship is compared to. The way I see it, that kind of sex and those types of relationship are perfectly ok and will no doubt be preferred by many; but just as I don't see a reason why we should keep marriages as the privileged form of relationship in society today, I see no reason to treat concepts like heterosexuality and monogamy as normal and the rest as different. Providing a foundation of knowledge and tools to discover ourselves in a non-judgemental manner should be the goal of sex education, and implicitly or explicitly saying that a certain set of behaviour is normal is to set up the rest as weird and different, which goes against the goal of allowing people to discover themselves with an open mind. Of course, this is not to say that educators should obscure how the world looks in regards to what are the most common types of relationships, just that they (and we) should avoid using normative language when presenting that information.

Masturbation is a topic that I didn't cover in my text on sex education, which seems like a pretty big oversight. In particular, in the part talking about encouraging getting to know your body, masturbation would naturally be a big part of that. The existence of masturbation and what it means (stimulating erogenous zones, etc.) and that it's a good way of finding out stuff about your body and what you might like in a safe environment, although with the additional information that you might unexpectedly like different things entirely when you're having sex with someone else. It is also crucial to point out that if you don't particularly care for touching yourself and it doesn't do anything for you, you shouldn't do it; the same ideas about consent, pleasure, communication, confidence and safety apply to masturbation, though of course pleasure and safety are probably the most important factors given that you're on your own. Apart from some basics, I'm not sure what you need to tell younger people about it - do it if you like it, and don't if you don't. I don't really think there's much chance of people overdoing it more than any other fun thing, so I'm not worried about that. In some cases I think there needs to be some pushback against pervasive messages that say that masturbation is a bad thing, to be sure, but that's more situational. Personally, I would like to see a case made against masturbation on its merits - it feels good, it lets you discover things about your body, it can potentially improve your sex life, and can be a good stress reliever. On the negative side... well, I suppose some people get obsessive, but that doesn't seem to be much of an epidemic. On the whole, I stand by my opinion that masturbation is pretty awesome if it's something you like.

An issue some people had with my last post was using BDSM as an example to tell youth about. I can certainly understand why, I can personally get pretty creeped out by some depictions of BDSM. At the same time, I think it's a valuable example of how people have different reactions to different stimuli, and that what is arousing for one person can be a total turn-off for another, and keeping only one perspective on what "should" be sexy and arousing is pretty narrow-minded; better that they learn early that there is a wide range of possibility for what pleasure can mean out there. Of course, BDSM is also something that provides a valuable opportunity to talk about consent, communication and safety, as it shows that it's not the actions themselves that matter, but the context and the existence of clear communication and consent. Take a situation where a man is blind drunk or fallen asleep, but still has a hard-on. Someone takes the opportunity to suck him off - doesn't really matter who or why, the act doesn't leave a mark, and he probably won't remember that it happened when he wakes up. Contrast with a BDSM scene where someone flogs their partner to the point that they break the skin, but it's done under completely consensual forms where the couple communicates with each other. Discussing that issue, I would hope that the non-consensual act is the one considered bad. Certainly, the BDSM scene can also provide ample material for a discussion about safety and how communication can be done in a way that assures active consent, but that just makes it all the stronger as an example. As such, including BDSM as a topic of conversation seems to me a good thing, as well as other kinks (though as I want to move away from "normality", as written above, maybe kinks isn't the right word to use, but that's a later topic). As always, teaching and dealing with the discussion in a way that's age-appropriate would be key.

Finally, I was going to turn my attention to more complicated topics like pornography and sex work, which are complicated to me because I am often of two minds about both topics. However, since they are indeed complicated, I will leave them for a later blog post.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sex education - core values and a wide range of options

For a while now I've thought of writing down my thoughts about sex ed, as it is a topic that interests me greatly, but I have not really structured my thoughts on. So I'll try to do that here (this sprung out of some thoughts I had involving safewords sort of developed towards healthy communication surrounding sex in general, being a bit of a prerequisite for more complicated conversations).
In sex education, there are five core values which I think should encompass the entire educational programme:


Consent is perhaps even more than a core concept, indeed without it the idea of a positive sexuality is a joke. To be more specific, what I'm writing about here is affirmative consent, and preferably enthusiastic consent, meaning that people should expect their partner or partners to be into the idea of having sex with them and that cajoling someone into sex is pretty weird. The lack of a no should not be understood by anyone to mean "yes". If everyone had enthusiastic consent as the standard, the points about communication and confidence would be unnecessary, as they would be part of the definition of consent. Alas, we are not living in a world where enthusiastic consent is the universal norm, and that's something we have to deal with.


I must admit that I kind of took this for granted until I was reminded that it's really a pillar of the entire activity, and though I find it to be obvious, what motivates me to write this post is, after all, that the way sex is handled in society does not seem to be aimed at pleasure. Having pleasure as an expectation both for yourself and for your partner gives a pretty good goal to reach for with your communication. Of course, everyone gets to define for themselves what is pleasurable.
This is not to say that all sex has to be super-pleasurable, nor that sex should be an activity always targeted at achieving orgasms. That can quickly lead to people putting mental pressure on themselves to perform, either by always being ready for sex (which is pressure often put on men today) or to always orgasm (pressure that is often put on women to be an ideal sex partner). Putting the expectation on people to be up for sex are against the ideas of pleasure and consent both. Not everyone can reach orgasms, or cannot do so easily or in certain situations, but can enjoy sex all the same. Putting mental pressure on someone to have a certain small set of reactions is also pretty antithetical to the idea of pleasure.


Communication makes most social interactions better (imagine that!) In fact, you could even say that sex itself is communication, using verbal and body language. As such, it's important to let people gain a vocabulary for expressing themselves, as well as understand that everyone's different in how they communicate, and of course respect for the fact that communication is a mutual and reciprocal activity. By nurturing ideas of the value of communication, we make the sex that does happen more enjoyable and into more of a positive experience, and hopefully avoid sex that would not feel good or be a negative experience in the long run.
Continuing the point about pressure above, communicating when you want or do not want to have sex should also be free of any kind of guilt, and no one should feel that they need to fit what they want to express to some ideal standard of sexuality.
To tie communication to consent a bit further, it is also important for people to start questioning those who do not seem to care about communicating with their partner, and make it clear that there is no excuse for not making the effort to understand your partner or presumptive partner.


Having a vocabulary for sex and consent is all well and good, but it's useless without the confidence to express it. That means that people need to be confident that they will not be shamed or mocked for their bodies or sexual desires, and take pride in yourself. Although every aspect of sex education is something that is made difficult by the wide world out there with its many different messages, the way a lot of those messages whittle down our confidence in ourselves and shame us for who we are might be the most obvious. There is also, sadly, a constant pressure to conform to the right kind of sexual drive, like being constantly "up for it" as referenced above, or to perform a certain way while having sex. Confidence can be important to stand up to that kind of pressure to conform, and to be able to communicate what you actually want and what would be most pleasurable to you. Confidence also means accepting that people have a wide range of reactions to sex, and to listen to your partner with an open mind instead of, say, getting upset when they might not want to have sex or when they react to something while having sex in an unexpected way.


Safety means both getting the knowledge you need to have sex, as well as learning warning signs for stuff like patterns of abuse, both to keep yourself safe and to protect others by calling others out for unacceptable behaviour.

At the end of the day, these values are what I think should be expected parts of sexual interactions (there is, of course, an argument that they should hold true for all interactions). It is perhaps important to note that these core values are the same for everyone, I see no reason for different core principles for different genders, although in practice how we relate to them might differ as we are dealing with a long history of male, hetero and cisgender privilege which behooves us to take extra thought on how to realise these values. The idea of sex as a transaction (where men gain something and women lose something) or the idea of women as gatekeepers and men as sex seekers are both pretty wide-spread, so that even though I want to define a new normal, it might be better to specifically argue against prevalent and pernicious ideas of sex and sexuality.
In presenting these values I am not saying that sexual education is just about teaching them in a vacuum. Regurgitating the definitions of the words would serve little purpose; what we need is to build knowledge and understanding about our bodies, sex, and sexuality in a way that makes the above terms possible and meaningful, which is what I'll try to do in the following part presenting a rough outline for the topics that should be covered.

Our Bodies

It is pretty important to understand our bodies - sex education should allow kids of all genders to understand their bodies and what happens to it during puberty, and appreciate that the body is a pretty awesome thing. This of course also has to give information about cis- and transgender issues as well as other gender identities. Perhaps most importantly, it has to instill a sense that it's good to ask those who are knowledgable if you wonder about something and not create a dichotomy of "normal" and "other". When teaching younger kids, I must admit that I'm a bit uncertain of how to teach kids about sexual abuse in a way that does not send mixed signals - explaining meaningful consent and age seems a bit too complex, but simplistically making some parts of your body "bad" for touching seems like it could be negative in the long term - this seems like something I should read up on.
Moving up in age, learning about erogenous zones and how everyone's different in that sense and how they can find different sensations pleasurable is of course also important, as is learning about the wonders of pregnancy and vectors for infection - ideally before anyone can become pregnant.
Learning about our bodies is essential to create confidence in our physical selves, gives us understanding about what pleasure is and can be, lets us understand the risks associated with sex, and thus improves the foundations of communication and makes possible informed consent.


A problem with teaching about sex is that it's impossible to define what a good sex life is. It varies from person to person and trying to impose a model of normality in it would be both foolish and wrong. It is easier to teach what good sex isn't, but has a potential to get mired in negative messaging where you tell people what not to do all the time, which doesn't seem very pedagogical or constructive. What is needed is to give some notion of what sex can be while having an open and constructive discussion about what can go wrong, ever keeping an eye on the five core principles above. What is most important is to give a sense of the possibilities that exist, while stressing that it comes down to personal preference and communication with your partner or partners. I see no reason why we should privilege either sex in long-term relationships or sex as an activity like any other as the "normal". It might sound a bit trite, but people really should do what is right for them, based on being given solid information and the tools to use that information in a positive and constructive way.
Personally, I think a programme for sex education should, at the very least, include information (and, based on the recommendation of a friend, personal stories from these perspectives) about people who are not interested in having a sex life at all, for whichever reason, who are not interested in having a sex life with other people, who only have sex in long-term relationships, who don't connect sex to romance, who have sex with any gender (and hopefully the discussion would make it obvious that "any gender" does not mean "any person"), who have trans bodies, who have sex with one particular gender, who associate pain with sex, who associate giving pain with sex, who associate dominating others or being dominated with sex*, who are genderqueer, who like one kind of sexual contact and not others, who like lots of different kinds of sex, and who have different levels of sex drive in general. There is definitely more that can be mentioned and talked about, but those are what come to mind at the moment, and a problem with education in general is that you have a limited amount of time, so some limits must be imposed. In addition to the sexual interests listed, I think it would be very important to teach that sex drive, different likes and dislikes, and pretty much anything in regards to sex can change for a person over time, and not necessarily in an expected direction, and that even if you have a long-term partner, communication remains a crucial part of your sex life.
Though all the different views on sex and preferred kinds of sex above are different in many ways, I think the values of consent, pleasure, communication, confidence, and safety remain true for all of them, and the best way to communicate how those values relate to different situations is to talk about it and discuss in an open manner. It's important to note, to avoid becoming lazy, that the above values might be most important to talk about for sex that has been considered the "normal" for a long time; if you're doing something that is not considered "normal", you're more likely to think more about the fact that there are things that you like doing that your partner might not like, making communication more clearly important. If "everyone knows" about a specific kind of sex, then people might think communication isn't as important, meaning people might end up not having as good a time as they could.

Though I could probably present some ideas stressing the value of having relationships where you communicate with your partner and mutual respect and all that, I think I will leave it at the sex, for now.
Finally, I should mention that I do not think that a sex education programme can be a panacea to things I think is weird with the way sex and sexuality is treated in society today, but it is one factor we can and should strive to make as good as we can, while we also work to make the rest of our culture and the messages communicated about sex and sexuality better. Of course, there are lots of passionate people who do sex education already, and have worked on doing it for a long time, so this should be seen as no more than my thoughts about (part of) it given form. To be better informed, there are lots of other sources to consult, from Sweden and elsewhere. I'm also going to link yes means yes! because I really like it and it has been really informative about consent and sex.

* yes, really. Consent, pleasure, communication, confidence and safety are important terms and reading about the BDSM community has further informed my opinions about them to a great extent - I think discussions about relationships like that would be useful. One can of course discuss at which age such a discussion should take place.

I've added a follow-up to this post.