Monday, September 28, 2009

In a weird twist of fate, I have been asked to be a sex columnist. Uhhh.

I thought I would post the first piece I wrote - I have to change it because she says it is too long. Here it is though. These will be appearing on in the future, but since this one needed editing down, I figured I would post the full.

Eyelash Batting, Pursuit until Conquest, and Cognitive Dissonance

Big big smile to the gas station attendant. I was ten years old, and it was summer. I was riding in the front seat of my grandfather’s camper, on my way to meet my mother and sister at the pool. I could detect a glint in the teenage boy’s eyes, and found myself tossing my hair and batting my eyelashes. At ten.
My stoic German grandfather looked over at me. He frowned. As we pulled out of the lot, he moved the van into a parking spot. “Katherine, I need to talk to you about something,” he said firmly.

I loved having the favor of this brilliant, eccentric, bellowing man. A German immigrant, a vegetarian at the age of 7, my Opa taught me the value of independent thinking and living in accordance with one’s own ideals. I could tell he was unhappy, and became silent and attentive.

He looked me square in the face. “Throughout the course of your life, you are going to be encouraged to participate in a whole host of behaviors. Some, you will be encouraged to participate in simple by virtue of being a young lady. You are an attractive girl and you will realize that you can use this to your advantage in life, to receive things or hold power with men. However, I am going to ask something of you right now. I am going to ask that you never be the kind of woman to abuse someone’s real and true interest in you, real and genuine feelings, for her own gain. I am going to ask now that you never exploit someone who has taken to you in that way, because I think you are a stronger, better person than that. You do not have to reciprocate those feelings EVER – never let anyone make you feel you do. But you can at least be respectful of someone having them as long as they are being respectful towards you.”

Fairly heavy for someone who hasn’t hit puberty yet.
I nodded. And I thought.

This moment would come back to me over years, in a host of ways. It would come back to me as I observed attitudes of my friends, both male and female. It would come back to me as I watched men and women string each other along, power struggle, bait and switch, mislead, and misrepresent. It was a heady feeling to be a teenage girl and notice the way adult men would stare at your body, apprising, appreciative – and at times scary and leering. It was terrifying to witness the nature of friendships with boys change, the nature of teasing change, of banter and roughhousing. Befriending a girl labeled a “slut” in high school afforded me the tag of one as well, years before I had ever even slept with a boy.

After a few experiences of being the sidekick to the popular girl at parties, in vans, at raves and behind the schoolyard, and after navigating my way (usually with humor and awkwardness) out of messy, scary situation after messy, scary situation, I began to get the message that attracting men was a form of power but also posed an undeniable threat. I failed to consider most of what flew at me initially as this “well-intentioned” sort of admiration my grandfather had spoken of to me.
When I began to date and had a first boyfriend, I was able to feel some of what sexual agency and experimentation could bring in the way of joy. I was frustrated that against the backdrop of any relationship I had as a girl, there was a narrative and script preceding it of how boys and girls are supposed to view and treat each other. How the story is supposed to go. It was nothing short of cognitive dissonance to realize a. I was boy crazy, b. boys often hurt or angered me, and c. boys terrified me.

We wonder why young women are confused. We are encouraged since elementary school to focus intently on our appearance, we reward the prettiest girls and often conflate “pretty” with nice; we sexualize girls from an early age yet penalize and ostracize them if they actually have sex. Young women recognize quickly that they will be afforded more benefits in life the more sexually desirable they are to others, but it centers around a lack of subjectivity. Young women do not get to have a lot of spaces to talk with one another and safe, trusted adults, about what they want from sex, dating, love, relationships, men, their own bodies. We get a lot more messaging about how to be what others want. We also did not get adequate information that some of us might not date men – we might date women. Or we might date both. Or we might want to spend years not dating.

It becomes clear to most women and girls fairly quickly that to arouse desire also means to invite unwanted advance, comment, assessment and demarcation. The same guy who tells you how fine you are one moment can scream at you that you are a worthless cunt and a bitch when you ignore him the next. Against this kind of a backdrop, is it any wonder girls and women struggle with feeling safe being sexual?
The issue is further complicated once a young woman experiences some form of sexual assault, harassment or violence, as one in three will in the course of her lifetime. Public discourse around sexual violence still penalizes women for their own victimization, shaming them into silence or self-blame. Sexual violence is so widespread that it will touch all of our lives, even those who believe themselves immune. There is no way to talk about sexuality and agency in this world without talking about the construction of sexual subjectivity as a survivor of assault. Oftentimes this victimization may occur before a young person has even been introduced to adequate discussions of consent, boundary setting, and communication.
When I do workshops on Community Response to Sexual Assault, which I have at activist gatherings numerous times now, I ask the people in the room to raise their hand if their high school sex ed curriculum included a meaningful discussion of consent and boundary-setting. Usually, in rooms of 60 or more, one or two hands only will go up. This is unconscionable.

I often think of sex as a site. In its best form, it can be a place of communion, healing, passion and restoration. It can be an exercise in hope. It can also be a place of pain, rage, confusion, and dominance. I remember talking about this to a former partner whom I loved very much. In the context of a fight, I said to him – “Your sexuality is a playground and mine is a minefield.” He countered me brilliantly and said, “How do you know what you think of as a playground isn’t a minefield for me too?” It was insightful and searing, and served as the entry point to a number of subsequent conversations we had about gender, power, relationships, social expectations, and barriers to meaningful connection. As another friend once said, we did not ask for these roles and delineations any more than we asked for ten fingers or ten toes. I know sexual violence affects men in significant ways – as survivors themselves, and often as family members, friends or lovers to those who have been assaulted.

I bring this all up because we live in a world with a tremendous, overwhelming, engulfing amount of violence and trauma. It touches everyone, and discussions about sex cannot ignore it. What I am particularly interested in is discussions of powerful, respectful sexual agency for survivors. What I am also interested in is empowering young women to ask for and get what they want from their relationships, choices and lives. Moreover, to do so in ways that honor other people’s humanity, and allow men the flexibility and right to not have to adhere to unreasonable definitions of masculinity. It can be painful, but important, to realize that if women and girls reward the behavior of hurtful, manipulative, violent and abusive men, there will be less cause for its cessation. I have been guilty of it myself, allowing charisma and physical attraction to interrupt deliberate, critical thinking around the choice of a partner. That doesn’t mean we can’t look back and assess with clearer vision, and pledge to move forward accordingly.

After all, sex, love and attraction are that much richer and more powerful when experienced in unscripted ways, by complex, whole human beings – with their own share of assets, histories, and foibles. Humans who perhaps, in the context of their relationship, can find ways to appreciate some aspects of traditional gender roles that work for them but also challenge those that don’t. As a culture, we have everything to gain from being frank about this – and, as my Opa said, honoring genuine respect and admiration in one another, as depraved as the backdrop we are living against may be.


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