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The Ties That Bind

 An Exploration of Anchorage’s Kink Community

by K. Jered Mayer

“Here’s a couch you can sit and relax on, or whatever. I like to suck dick while the guy is reading. It’s the sapiosexual side of me.”

Surprised, I glanced at the man guiding me through the rooms to see if the statement was meant for me. It was not. Not all of it, anyway. Everything after introducing me to the furniture had been an aside to a friend of my leather-clad cicerone as they passed by, but it had been said so offhandedly and received so earnestly that I knew right then I had never been in a place quite like this before.

The Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles–mercifully acronymized and more commonly known as ACAL–has been labeled in the past as “Anchorage’s only sex club.” It’s an oversimplification that people are quick to correct, not least of all the Center’s founder, Sarha Shaubach. The website she set up for ACAL is done so in a way as to put focus on the real purpose behind the organization’s inception. Not for scintillation nor sexploitation. Certainly not for orgies, which require “a lot of planning and connection” to arrange. Instead, the focus is on community.

“Your Kink Community Home Base” graces the top of the main page, followed by a description promising “elevated kink education and foundation building,” as well as a “judgement [sic] free, body positive environment,” and protection and equipment for healthy exploration.

The FAQ section on their website goes even further into detail. Here, BDSM is defined as a more complex, overlapping number of ideas, and not just whips and chains and ball gags. There are answers in this area to questions about privacy, membership costs and advantages and various other things to expect regarding dress codes (there isn’t one), alcohol–there isn’t any of that, either; it’s critical there is zero confusion regarding consent–and what else is offered for those not interested in the tying or whipping side of it. And there is plenty offered: card games, movie nights, bootblacking (the polishing of one’s leathers) and regular classes on rope and knot work to promote healthy bondage and prevent serious injuries.

While the club itself had some initial troubles starting up–Sarha notably sent the Press a letter in December 2014 detailing her struggles getting ACAL up and running in the old Kodiak bar building while co-leasing the space with “Fuck It” Charlo Greene–classes, play sessions, recurring memberships and group events have proven strong enough to keep the community thriving.

So much so, in fact, that it was inevitable a larger venue would someday be needed. When that day came this last summer, ACAL didn’t need to look far to find it. Back in June, weekend events began being held in an 8,000-square foot space on 3rd Avenue. By July, they were fully moved in.

When ACAL finally came to my personal attention last month, they had fully settled into the location and I was chomping at the bit to write about it. Sexuality has always fascinated me in its myriad forms, as has people’s reactions to it and how readily some subscribe to an opinion based on what they think something is and not based on what it actually is.

I wanted to know. I wanted to learn.

ACAL offers a text-based subscriptions service to alert people of upcoming events. When I reached out to Sarha for the first time, she asked if she could sign me up for what she called “the same spam stuff” she gave to anyone interested in attending the Center for the first time. I agreed–I wanted to approach this from the ground up.

So it is that I found myself downtown on New Year’s Eve opening a door with a leather pride flag draped over it. I ducked inside and scaled a gray stone staircase, then waited my turn as the woman in the box office window politely explained to a couple men that no, this wasn’t the entrance to the Latin dance party that was also going on, that was the other side of the building, this was something much, much different. They shuffled back past me. It was my turn.

“Yeah, I’m here for the, ah…” At the time, I only knew it as the Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles, which was a rigid mouthful, or as the “fetish club,” which seemed remarkably ill-informed. Which I was. So I stammered.

“Are you here for the dance night or for ACAL,” she asked. I confirmed the latter. When she asked me if it was my first time attending, I confirmed that too and she handed me a five-page pamphlet on the rules to follow, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and the safe word. Safety, discretion, clear-mindedness, consent and a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech were all heavily emphasized. I signed a consent sheet and returned it to the box office, where I was quizzed on what I had read before being allowed entry.

I passed my quiz with rainbow colors, paid my $25 non-member entry fee and had my license number written down and filed away with my paperwork. Once that was finished, I was assigned a guide to give me a tour of the facility.

“Normally, we’ve got the whole floor,” I was told. “But sometimes, like tonight, we rent out the big room to other events. Only this side is open tonight, but that’s okay. Sometimes I like that more. It’s more intimate.”

The first room I was led into was the social room. Cell phones are allowed here, but strictly for texts. Pictures are prohibited and people are asked to take calls outside, to maximize privacy. There are plenty of seats around the space to relax or recline upon. Snacks or food are customarily set out for guests, as are sodas and water. The night I went, there was a hummus plate. It was delicious.

The social area serves multiple purposes. Members and guests can meet here to discuss activities for the evening, or to shoot the shit, or to take a break from anything that was too exhausting or discomfiting in the play room. I saw an even mix of men and women sprawled out under a number of fantastic art pieces. Variety was the spice of life in the social room when it came to age, body types and dress. T-shirts and jeans here, corsets and leather chaps there. I saw smiling faces. I heard giggles, chuckles and guffaws. It felt safe. Relaxed.

From there, we moved into a second, transitional room. The room with the couch. While my guide took a moment to discuss oral sex preferences and unrelated plans for the weekend, I took in the small area. Some pornography sat on top of a cabinet for anyone needing a primer to get in the mood. On the walls were photos of bound men and women. There was a bookcase packed with books on sexuality and erotica. There was also a healthy collection of close-up, black and white photographs of vaginas with varying grooming situations and piercing statuses. It was fascinating to me, from an artistic perspective, to see such a display of body variance.

The last room, just beyond, was the playroom. Low-lit, blue themed. A long, padded table was positioned near the door for massages or wax play. A mattress was pushed against one corner on the right, covered in a Minions blanket that honestly struck me as the most out-of-place thing in the room. The bed was unoccupied, but the other corner on the right side was not, as a young man practiced different knots while binding his girlfriend. They moved thoughtfully, conscious of each other’s bodies, a sensuous grace about them.

To their left, against the center of the back wall, was a stand meant for kneeling over. A couple was wrapping up their spanking session. It was loud and vigorous and I could feel my cheeks flushing as aggressively as, well, hers.

And still there was more. Directly in front of me was a cushioned bench. A wooden overhang had a metal ring affixed to it. A man walked by me, trailed by a woman, as my tour guide described the layout. He stripped down to his underwear and his companion helped slip a restraint through the ring, binding his wrists above his head. She followed that with some light whipping and tickling. She massaged his bare back. She slapped his ass. The entire time, they communicated clearly.

There was one more room, an off-shoot to the left, that held a cage and two X-shaped structures one could be bound to. Whatever had been going on before I stepped in was over and the women there were busy getting dressed and cleaning the equipment.

My tour ended then, with an, “And there you go! Have fun!”

I did have fun, though I couldn’t help but feel a little like an outsider. I watched these men and women during intimate moments. A woman undressing while her friends bound her with thin rope. A young couple using the open floor space to wrestle, asserting dominance over each other. A lady in a frilly blue skirt being digitally stimulated by a man who looked like a sexy train conductor. I was a voyeur, drinking in the sights, but though I was fascinated, I wasn’t quite prepared for the role. I retreated after a while to the social room. Did I mention the hummus plate was delicious?

I left around midnight. The New Year. The ball had dropped, people were toasting. I left with nothing but positive impressions in mind.

But Sarha and I had agreed that you couldn’t gauge the Center based off one experience. And so a week later I returned. The full floor was open this time for a 12-hour lock-in event. I brought two women with me, neither of whom had ever been, to see how it felt to others.

On my return trip, the playroom I experienced the first time had been rearranged into a general activity room. There were more attendees as well, but fewer sexual activities. Instead, everyone was more focused on games like no-money strip poker and Cards Against Humanity.

My friends and I checked out the other half of the floor eventually, walking into a room I can only describe as cavernous. The floor was bare concrete, which tied up the winter cold and exposed it to us. Heat bars were plugged in, to little effect. A handful of lamps provided gloomy illumination.

There was plenty more room here to put on a show. Tables and mats were set up to lay and play upon. At the back, a silhouette screen and photographer were set up for discrete erotic photo sessions. To one side sat a Sybian. If you’re unfamiliar with those, it’s a sort of vibrating saddle to which you can secure a synthetic dick. A box nearby had an incredible assortment of different lengths, girths and angles.

The room was impressive and filled with orgasmic opportunities, but with so much cold and open space and with so few people occupying it, it felt almost too bare. I recalled my guide’s preference for the more intimate arrangements, and it made sense to me now. This felt less like a shared moment and more like an impersonal display, a sentiment shared by one of the women with me.

All the same, both of my companions–neither identified as particularly fetishistic or kinky–told me they could definitely feel the sense of comfort and community that permeated the walls of ACAL. It was a reminder, again, that this place was meant to be more than just a “sex club.”

My friends and I left and talked about the evening over drinks and in the days that followed I reached out to other members of Anchorage’s fetish and kink community to talk about their experiences in general and to see what their relationship with ACAL–if any–had been like. The majority of responses were positive, but not all of them.

In fairness and full disclosure, I did hear back from a pair of women who had been decidedly turned off by their visits. One lady told me she had been pressured multiple times by men ignoring the No Means No rule–victims of this harassment are encouraged to approach management immediately so the violator can be dealt with. Astoria, who gave me permission to use her name, told me she didn’t have confidence in the level of security or protection the club promised.

I can see how this could be a concern. Aside from having documented signatures and taking down license and ID numbers, there isn’t a way to effectively run background checks on everyone rolling through. Instead, members and guests are expected to be self-reliant and cautious through conversation. When it works–as in the case of convicted sex offender Daniel Eisman who broke his probation by attending last October–the nefarious entity is quickly rousted from the club. But when it doesn’t work? Well, it comes down to observation, communication, crossed fingers and a knock on wood.

That being said, my experiences with ACAL and my research into the community around it left me with the firm belief that these types of incidents are in the minority and that the heart of the organization beats around the desire to provide a sense of normalcy to lifestyles different than what most might be used to. They do this by promoting education, patience, discussion, acceptance and understanding that not everyone is going to get off to the same thing. And that’s okay! The lesson is to be comfortable with yourself.

Wrapping this up, I thought it best to end with something for people who might be on the fence. For that, I went back to the community. I asked Astoria–a 26-year-old local fetishist who says she’s tried just about everything–for one thing she would tell anyone curious about alternate lifestyles.

“SSC,” she said. “Safe, Sane and Consensual. That phrase is a big part of being kinky. People are in the lifestyle because it’s something they enjoy or need to get by with the rest of what life throws at you.”

Being safe, considerate of the comfort of others and treating people rationally. Crazy how key behaviors in an “alternative” lifestyle are the same things everyone should already be doing regularly.

And was there anything else I took home from the experience, I’m going to assume you’re asking. Did I come away with any new interests myself? Well, I’ll just have to get back to you. I’m a little tied up at the moment.

Complete Article HERE!

Fears of coming out dissolve with acceptance from peers

By ALEX JOHNSON

When I first decided to come out, I was terrified.

At the time, I was 16 and just starting to move up the social ladder at my school. I was passing all my classes, looking for my first job, and had finally started to feel settled in after moving here a year earlier. I had come from the conservative state of Idaho to the equally conservative state of Utah, and both states were heavily dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons.

Again, I was terrified.

My middle school in Idaho seemed to be a breeding ground for the conservative culture I was so afraid off. My peers drove tractors after school for their farms, went hunting on weekends for wild ducks, and voiced their support for the Second Amendment whenever the issue was discussed.

There were boys who attacked others with the words “faggot” and “homo,” and peers of mine who called everything from a school assignment to a lonely seventh-grader “gay.”

It was in these halls that my stereotypes about the LDS Church and the conservative culture formed. During my three years at this Idaho school, I only knew two LGBTQ classmates who had already come out; a boy in the grade ahead of me, and my best friend. They had somehow pushed passed all of these slurs and jokes to become two of the most well-liked people in the school, something my 14-year-old mind could barely understand.

When I had switched schools to the suburbs of Utah, I was amazed at how similar it felt to Idaho. There were fewer farms for sure, and the schools were structured differently, but the residents were strikingly similar. They were rippled reflections of one another, with the most prevalent similarity being the dominant population of LDS Church members.

By the time my freshman year started, I was barely acquainted with the LDS Church and its policies. I knew that something called family home evening took place on Mondays and a majority of the members were conservatives. I knew that plans should not be scheduled for Sundays, and that my favorite beverage of the time, coffee, was a no-go for the church. Other than that, it was just another religion to me.

Then I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix centered on Proposition 8, the controversial piece of state legislation passed in California that prevented same-sex couples from being legally wed. I started watching the movie because I was a teen struggling with my identity, but quickly learned that the LDS Church, the same religion that had thousands of churches and even more members in the only places I’d ever lived, was a major supporter for the movement.

My hesitation toward coming out and being ostracized in my own community had become a real fear. Prop 8 had happened in 2008, and six years later a relatively unknown documentary had made a then 15-year-old boy in Utah absolutely terrified to come out.

For six months I put up a façade of normality in hopes of finding some sort of solution. I refused to discuss my romantic life, and on the rare occasion that I was approached about homosexual people, I quietly voiced my support before changing the subject.

Then suddenly, on Dec. 14, 2014, I decided that I was ready to come out officially. I had told a few friends in the month prior, with all of them offering me unwavering support when I was ready. I logged onto Facebook that night and posted a photo of myself with the words “NO H8” painted on my cheek. I logged off, went to sleep, and woke up the next morning with a handful of likes and a few comments from friends who congratulated me.

Dec. 14 was the Sunday leading up to the biggest week of the year at my school: our annual winter fundraising drive. I had a vision of me entering the school and being surrounded by people looking to confirm the rumor they heard. I would be the ultra-confident gay, and my peers would look from afar as I became the talk of the school.

Instead, I was met with nothing; no support, no criticisms, no questions.

Eventually, people asked about it and just as quickly brushed it aside as irrelevant. I was the same person, and as one friend explained it, nothing had changed except that I had become a more complete “me.” Even in the weeks following, I found nothing but acceptance and open arms from all of my friends.

But most surprisingly, it was my LDS friends who supported me during the times I needed it most. They let me openly talk about my relationships and feelings and defended my community when a snide comment arose. Most seemed to opt for the middle ground; since my sexuality didn’t concern them, they had nothing to oppose.

Although I wish some Mormons were vocal about their support for the LGBTQ community, I understand that time is required for change to happen. And there are, of course, Mormons who are either LGBTQ themselves or allies for the community that work toward making the religion a more accepting place.

Yet, there is still this stigma that a gay person can’t be in the LDS church. When I tell people I’m gay, it seems to be assumed that I am subsequently not LDS (I’m an atheist), and I still find myself assuming that all Mormons I meet are heterosexual.

But I feel grateful that I can wake up each day and not dread going to school, because I know that I am lucky to have a group of peers who support me. There are less fortunate teens who are still afraid to reveal their sexuality in fear of being outcast; it’s an issue that can’t be resolved until the LDS Church makes it a priority to fix its relations with the LGBTQ community.

Complete Article HERE!

Demisexuality is an orientation—not a condition of ‘being picky’

It’s not a matter of fixing their libido.

by

The demisexual flag

You know that feeling. You’re at a friend’s party and you see a cute guy or girl. You begin to sweat just a little and smile, the kind that makes you bite your lip. The other person approaches, and you make small talk. As you discuss shared interests, the stranger casually looks you up and down, assessing. He doesn’t think you notice, but you notice. You’re thinking the same thing. After some time passes, he asks if you want to get out of here, and you do. You go back to his place. He doesn’t call the next day. You don’t text.

This scenario is familiar to many of us, a rite of passage on most college campuses. For Dill Werner, though, the concept of having a one-night stand is both alien and terrifying, like slipping through a wormhole into an alternate universe.

That’s because Werner, 30, identifies as demisexual. The term, which originated on the website of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network in 2008, denotes someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction right away. These feelings often take weeks, months, or even years to form, the result of building a special bond with another person. The Demisexuality Resource Center describes the label as someone who “may experience secondary sexual attraction after a close emotional connection has already formed.”

Werner, a young adult author who focuses on LGBTQ themes, describes the process of developing attraction as “unique” to each individual that identifies as demisexual.

“It’s almost describing your soulmate. You know when you meet that person and something changes within you,” Werner said.Your body is giving you permission and your mind is giving you permission to click with that person and say, ‘Now we can take it to a more physical level.’”

The word demisexual has gained greater visibility in recent years with buzzy articles in Wired and Elle shedding light on the complex romantic lives of members of an emerging identity. It’s also gained a great deal of traction on Tumblr, a microblogging website that has also popularized labels like “sapiosexual,” describing someone who is attracted to others’ intellect. On Twitter, people along the asexual spectrum regularly meet for “Ace Chats,” which provide support and space for the community.

For those unfamiliar with the term, think of it as between the poles of asexuality, where you feel limited or no attraction to others, and what we think of as normative sexuality, where such feelings are frequent. If demisexuals do feel sexual attraction to someone they don’t know—a sexy train passenger—these moments are fleeting. They pass long before you get to the bedroom, and it’s different for everyone. Some will never have that experience.

Because demisexuality is along the asexual spectrum, it’s frequently referred to as “gray sexuality.” You might also hear words like “asexual-ish” and “semisexual” used to describe the phenomenon.

 

Although experiences vary for people who identify as demisexual, they often describe themselves as feeling “different” from a very young age. While schoolmates develop crushes on the cute boy in first period and go out on dates, they don’t. Instead, many demisexuals feel as if there’s something wrong with them. Why can’t they experience what everyone else does?

“I wanted to have the sorts of casual relationships other people were having because, to me, that’s what was ‘normal,’” Werner said. “That’s what it felt like I should have been doing in my 20s and late teens. I wanted to be like everybody else, but my body and my mind wouldn’t let me. Even when I tried to—with people I was in relationships with—alarm bells went off. It wasn’t the right time and it wasn’t the right circumstances.”

Meryl Williams, a writer for the Establishment, said that what made being demisexual particularly difficult is that she wasn’t aware—until recently—that the label existed.

“I didn’t have a name for it,” the 30-year old said. “It was this long, bumbling explanation. And it’s an uncomfortable topic! It’s hard to talk about, especially with someone you don’t feel comfortable with yet. I never really know what’s going to happen when I bring it up, which is scary, because it’s such a vulnerable subject.”

Williams claimed that being demisexual often makes dating “frustrating” because there’s no guarantee that she’s going to develop sexual attraction to that other person at all. Many people, she said, haven’t been willing to wait around to find out.

“It takes a lot more time for me than it does for most people,” she said. “Most people, they can tell pretty early on if they’re sexually attracted to that person. They know. And if they’re not attracted to them, they’re probably not going to continue seeing that person. But with me, I’ll probably give relationships a lot more time than I necessarily need to because I’m not sure. I want to go down that road of dating someone for a while, but nine times out of 10, I’m not going to feel attracted to them.”

What makes discussing demisexuality with partners and even friends and loved ones difficult is the great many misconceptions many people have about the term. After she came out as demisexual in the Washington Post, one reader told Williams she should go to conversion therapy.

Werner said that the most common myths about gray sexuality fall into five different camps. There are the types of people who believe that demisexuals are just waiting until they meet the right person. Others believe it’s a choice, akin to a young Christian waiting until marriage to have sex. Many might claim that demisexuality isn’t an orientation but instead the result of a low sex drive. Some claim that demisexuals are just “really picky.” The last, and perhaps most pernicious group, is the people who claim it’s merely a made-up label.

Cara Liebowitz, a 24-year-old disability activist, understands the confusion but says that these criticisms can be delegitimizing and invalidating, as if others would rather erase her experience than listen.

“I’m confused about my label, so anyone who is confused about my label can join the club,” Liebowitz said. “It makes me feel frustrated because people often tell me that it’s not a real thing. And I say, ‘I’m a real person, so obviously what I feel is real.’ People are so quick to judge, especially on the internet. It would be nice to talk about our sexuality without shame.”

A 2004 study conducted in the U.K. found that 1.1 percent of the population identifies on the asexual spectrum. If those numbers were the same for the United States, it would represent over 3.5 million people. That’s about the size of Connecticut.

While critics might lump this group in with people who experience “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” there’s a difference between gray sexuality and a lack of libido. People with a low sex drive often feel intense depression and anxiety over their limited feelings of arousal. Most demisexuals, however, don’t want to change. A 2014 survey from AVEN found that two-thirds of demisexuals were not interested in having intercourse. It’s low on their priority list.

Werner, who is currently in a long-term relationship, said that it can be difficult to find someone you bond with, who brings out those feelings of sexual attraction. For many demisexuals, it only happens once or twice in their lives. But when it does, those feelings of connection are powerful. It’s worth the wait.

“When you meet the person you bond with, the heavens open up,” Werner said. “You see colors for the first time. Everything finally makes sense.”

Complete Article HERE!

Women with HIV, after years of isolation, coming out of shadows

Patti Radigan kisses daughter Angelica after a memorial in San Francisco’s Castro to remember those who died of AIDS.

By Erin Allday

Anita Schools wakes at dawn most days, though she usually lazes in bed, watching videos on her phone, until she has to get up to take the HIV meds that keep her alive. The morning solitude ends abruptly when her granddaughter bursts in and they curl up, bonding over graham crackers.

Schools, 59, lives in Emeryville near the foot of the Bay Bridge, walking distance from a Nordstrom Rack and other big chain stores she can’t afford. Off and on since April, her granddaughter has lived there too, sleeping on a blow-up mattress with Schools’ daughter and son-in-law and another grandchild.

Five is too many for the one-bedroom apartment. But they’re family. They kept her going during the worst times, and that she can help them now is a blessing.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Schools was diagnosed with HIV, it was her daughter Bonnie — then 12 and living in foster care — who gave her hope, saying, “Mama, you don’t have to worry. You’re not going to die, you’re going to be able to live a long, long time.”

“It was her that gave me the push and the courage to keep on,” Schools said.

She had contracted HIV from a man who’d been in jail, who beat her repeatedly until she fled. By then she’d already left another abusive relationship and lost all four of her daughters to child protective services. HIV was just one more burden.

At the time, the disease was a death sentence. That Schools is still here — helping her family, getting to know her grandchildren — is wonderful, she said. But for her, as with tens of thousands of others who have lived two decades or more with HIV, survival comes with its own hardships.

Gay men made up the bulk of the casualties of the early AIDS epidemic, and as the male survivors grow older, they’re dealing with profound complications, including physical and mental health problems. But the women have their own loads to bear.

Whereas gay men were at risk simply by being gay, women often were infected through intravenous drug use or sex work, or by male partners who lied about having unsafe sex with other men. The same issues that put them at risk for HIV made their very survival a challenge.

Today, many women like Schools who are long-term survivors cope with challenges caused or compounded by HIV: financial and housing insecurity, depression and anxiety, physical disability and emotional isolation.

“We’re talking about mostly women of color, living in poverty,” said Naina Khanna, executive director of Oakland’s Positive Women’s Network, a national advocacy group for women with HIV. “And there’s not really a social safety net for them. Gay men diagnosed with HIV already historically had a built-in community to lean on. Women tend to be more isolated around their diagnosis.”

There are far fewer women aging with HIV than men. In San Francisco, nearly 10,000 people age 50 or older are living with HIV; about 500 are women. Not all women survivors have histories of trauma and abuse, of course, and many have done well in spite of their diagnosis.

But studies have found that women with HIV are more than twice as likely as the average American woman to have suffered domestic violence. They have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse.

What keeps them going now, decades after their diagnoses, varies widely. For some, connections with their families, especially their now-adult children, are critical. For others, HIV advocacy work keeps them motivated and hopeful.

Patti Radigan (righ) instructs daughter Angelica and Angelica’s boyfriend, Jayson Cabanas, on preparing green beans for Thanksgiving while Roman Tom Pierce, 8, watches.

Patti Radigan was living in a cardboard box on South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco when she tested positive in 1992. By then, she’d lost her husband to a heart attack while a young mother, and not long after that she lost her daughter, too, when her drug use got out of control and her sister-in-law took in the child.

She turned to prostitution in the late 1980s to support a heroin addiction. She’d heard of HIV by then and knew it was deadly. She’d seen people on the streets in the Mission where she worked, wasting away and then disappearing altogether. But she still thought of it as something that affected gay men, not women, even those living on the margins.

Women then, and now, were much more likely than men to contract HIV from intravenous drug use rather than sex — though in Radigan’s case, it could have been either. IV drug use is the cause of transmission for nearly half of all women, according to San Francisco public health reports. It’s the cause for less than 20 percent for men.

Still, when Radigan finally got tested, it wasn’t because she was worried she might be positive, but because the clinic was offering subjects $20. She needed the cash for drugs.

She was scared enough after the diagnosis — and then she got pregnant. It was the early 1990s, and HIV experts at UCSF were just starting to believe they could finesse women through pregnancy and help them deliver healthy babies. Today, it’s widely understood that women with HIV can safely have children; San Francisco hasn’t seen a baby born with HIV since 2004.

But in the 1990s, getting pregnant was considered selfish — even if the baby survived, its mother most certainly wouldn’t live long enough to raise her. For women infected at the time, having children was something else they had to give up.

And so Radigan had an abortion. But she got pregnant again in 1995, and she was desperate to have this child. She was living by then with 10 gay men in a boarding house for recovering addicts. Bracing herself for an onslaught of criticism, she told her housemates. First they were quiet, then someone yelled, “Oh my God, we’re having a baby!”

“It was like having 10 big brothers,” Radigan said, smiling at the memory. Buoyed by their support, she kept the pregnancy and had a healthy girl.

Radigan is 59 now; her daughter, Angelica Tom, is 20. They both live in San Francisco after moving to the East Coast for a while. It was because of her daughter that Radigan stayed sober, that she consistently took her meds, and that she went back to school to tend to her future.

For a long time she told people she just wanted to live long enough to see her daughter graduate high school. Now her daughter is in art school and Radigan is healthy enough to hold a part-time job, to lead yoga classes on weekends, to go out with friends for a Friday night concert.

“Because of HIV, I thought I was never going to do a lot of things,” Radigan said. “The universe is aligning for me. And now I feel like I deserve it. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I deserved anything.”

Anita Schools, who says she is most troubled by finances, listens to an HIV-positive woman speak about her experiences and fears at an Oakland support group that Schools organized.

Anita Schools got tested for HIV because her ex-boyfriend kept telling her she should. That should have been a warning sign, she knows now.

She was first diagnosed in 1998 at a neighborhood clinic in Oakland, but it took two more tests at San Francisco General Hospital for her to accept she was positive. People told her that HIV wasn’t necessarily fatal, but she had trouble believing she was going to live. All she could think was, “Why me? What did I do?”

It was only after her daughter Bonnie reassured her that Schools started to think beyond the immediate anxiety and anger. She joined a support group for HIV-positive women, finding comfort in their stories and shared experiences. Ten years later, she was leading her own group.

She’s never had problems with drugs or alcohol, and she has a network of friends and family for emotional support, she said. Even the HIV hasn’t hit her too hard, physically, though the drugs to treat it have attacked her kidneys, leaving her ill and fatigued.

Like so many of the women she advises in her support group, Schools is most troubled by her finances. She gets by on Social Security and has bounced among Section 8 housing all over the Bay Area for most of her adult life.

Schools’ current apartment is supposed to be permanent, but she worries she could lose it if her daughter’s family stays with her too long. So earlier this month they moved out and are now sleeping in homeless shelters or, some nights, in their car. She hates letting them leave but doesn’t feel she has any other choice.

Reports show that women with HIV are far more likely to live in poverty than men. Khanna, with the Positive Women’s Network, said surveys of her members found that 85 percent make less than $25,000 a year, and roughly half take home less than $10,000.

Schools can’t always afford the bus or BART tickets she needs to get to doctor appointments and support group meetings, relying instead on rides from friends — or sometimes skipping events altogether. She gets her food primarily from food banks. Her wardrobe is dominated by T-shirts she gets from the HIV organizations with which she volunteers.

“With Social Security, $889 a month, that ain’t enough,” Schools said. “You got to pay your rent, and then PG&E, and then you got to pay your cell phone, buy clothes — it’s all hard.”

At a time when other women her age might be thinking about retirement or at least slowing down, advocacy work has taken over Schools’ life. She speaks out for women with HIV and their needs, demanding financial and health resources for them. In her support group and at AIDS conferences, she offers her story of survival as a sort of jagged road map for other women struggling to navigate the complex warren of services they’ll need to get by.

The work gives her confidence and purpose. She feels she can directly influence women’s lives in a way that seemed beyond her when she was young, unemployed and directionless.

“As long as I’m getting help and support,” Schools said, “I want to help other women — help them get somewhere.”

Billie Cooper is tall and striking, loud and brash. Her makeup is polished, her nails flawless. She is, she says with a booming laugh that makes heads turn, “the ultimate senior woman.”

For Cooper, 58, HIV was transformative. Like Radigan, she had to find her way out from under addiction and prostitution to get healthy, and stay healthy. Like Schools, she came to understand the importance of role-modeling and advocacy.

Cooper arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1980 — almost a year to the day before the first reports of HIV surfaced in the United States. She was fresh out of the Navy and eager to explore her gender identity and sexuality in San Francisco’s burgeoning gay and transgender communities.

Growing up in Philadelphia, she’d known she was different from the boys around her, though it was decades before she found the language to express it and identified as a transgender woman. But seeing the “divas on Post Street, the ladies in the Tenderloin, the transsexual women prostituting on Eddy” — Cooper was awestruck.

She slipped quickly into prostitution and drug use. When she tested positive in 1985, she wasn’t surprised and barely wasted a thought worrying about what it meant for her future — or whether she’d have any future at all.

“I felt as though I still had to keep it moving,” Cooper said. “I didn’t slow down and cry or nothing.”

Transgender women have always been at heightened risk of HIV. Some studies have found that more than 1 in 5 transgender women is infected, and today about 340 HIV-positive trans women live in San Francisco.

What makes them more vulnerable is complicated. Trans women often have less access to health care and less stable housing than others, and they face higher rates of drug addiction and sexual violence, all of which are associated with risk of HIV infection.

Cooper was homeless off and on through the 1980s and ’90s, trapped in a world of drugs and sex work that felt glamorous at the time but in hindsight was crippling. “I was doing things out of loneliness,” she said, “and I was doing things to feel love. That’s why I prostituted, why I did drugs.”

She began to clean up around 2000, though it would take five or six years to fully quit using. She found a permanent place to live. She collected Social Security. She started working in support services for other transgender women battling HIV. In 2013, she founded TransLife, a support group at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“I was coming out as the activist, the warrior, the determined woman I was always meant to be,” she said.

Cooper never developed any of the common, often fatal complications of HIV — including opportunistic infections like pneumonia — that killed millions in the 1980s and 1990s. But she does have neuropathy, an HIV-related nerve condition that causes a constant pins-and-needles sensation in her feet and legs and sometimes makes it hard to walk.

Far more traumatic for her was her cancer diagnosis in 2006. The cancer, which may have been related to HIV, was isolated to her left eye, but after traditional therapies failed, the eye was surgically removed on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.

The cancer and the loss of her eye was a devastating setback for a woman who had always focused on her appearance, on looking as gorgeous as the transgender women she so admired in the Tenderloin, on being loved and wanted for her beauty.

Rising from that loss has been difficult, she said. And she’s continued to suffer new health problems, including blood clots in one of her legs. Recently, she’s fallen several times, in frightening episodes that may be related to the clots, the HIV or something else entirely.

Since Thanksgiving she’s been in and out of the hospital, and though she tries to stay upbeat, it’s clearly trying her patience.

But if HIV and cancer and everything else have tested Cooper’s survival in ways she never anticipated, these trials also have strengthened her resolve. She’s becoming the person she always wanted to be.

“A week before they took my eye, I got my breasts,” she said coyly one recent afternoon, thrusting out her chest. Behind the sunglasses she wears almost constantly now, she was smiling and crying, all at once.

Aging with HIV has been strangely calming, in some ways, giving her a confidence that in her wild youth was elusive.

Now she exults in being a respected elder in the HIV and transgender communities. She loves it when people open doors for her or help her cross the street, offer to carry her bags or give up a seat on a bus.

Simply, she said, “I love being Ms. Billie Cooper.”

Complete Article HERE!

How To Get Your Partner Into Sex Toys

By Jess McIntyre

Whether you’re in a new relationship or a well-established one, there’s every reason to introduce toys for your mutual sexual happiness. Put simply, the couple that plays together are more likely to stay together – and there’s some science behind that.

First of all, the excitement of trying out sex toys stimulates the production of dopamine – the chemical that plays a big role in both sexual arousal and pleasure in general. Meanwhile, for the large majority of women the simple in-and-out of vaginal penetration alone isn’t usually the route to orgasm, but add some clitoral stimulation and you’re far more likely to score a “Yes!”. Having an orgasm produces oxytocin – also known as the ‘bonding’ hormone – which has the long term effect of making people feel closer to and more supportive of their partner.

So, the science is great – but if you’re not yet using sex toys together, how do you get past any potential embarrassment, and avoid either partner being made to feel defensive about their bedroom technique? Here are some possible dilemmas and corresponding suggestions that could help you set off on a new adventure together.

I’ve just started a new relationship. How do I admit to my partner that I already use sex toys?

It’s always best to be honest, but be sensitive and approach the subject in a casual manner outside of the bedroom. Maybe mention that you recently saw lubricant for sale in your local supermarket and how it made you smile! Judging by your partner’s reaction, you’ll know right away if you could immediately let on about your sex toy collection, or whether to stick to a more subtle hint such as, “Do you think we should pick up some lube next time we’re out?” By keeping the conversation light-hearted and jovial, you can easily disperse any tension and it will be easier to gauge what they think of the idea. It’s always a good idea to be honest from the beginning.

My partner says that if I was satisfied with them, I wouldn’t need a sex toy. How do I convince them this isn’t the case?

The trouble is that people who aren’t familiar with sex toys are often thinking of huge dildo vibrators that are, quite frankly, intimidating! But these are really just a fraction of what’s available. The most popular toys are actually things like small bullet vibrators for clitoral stimulation, or stretchy cock rings for happy erections, and they’re far from scary.

Reassure your partner that you find your sex life fulfilling but that you don’t want them to feel under pressure to be responsible alone for bringing you to orgasm. Using a mini vibrator or a cock ring can provide pleasure for you both.

A great way to turn a man’s prejudices on their head might be to buy a male toy for you both to enjoy using on him first. A textured stroker sleeve adds a whole new dimension to a hand job, and could prove to be the path to his sex toy enlightenment…

It should be noted that toys are not supposed to replace nor detract from what your partner brings to your play time in the bedroom. If anything, toys should be seen as a treat designed to enhance the experience and discover more about each other.

We do both want to use sex toys together, but we don’t know where to start

It’s a great idea to choose something together. Cuddle up with a glass of wine on a weekend evening and browse the Lovehoney website – you’re sure to find something you both like. There’s lots of advice in the ‘Help’ section to assist you, too.

If you’re in a male/female couple you could start with a toy that stimulates you both at the same time. The Tracey Cox Supersex Twin Vibrating Love Ring is great for getting you both off, for example. The stretchy cock ring part can give him a bigger, harder erection and more powerful orgasm, while the vibrating bullet in the top provides vibrations to both her clitoris and his testicles.

Same sex relationships benefit from toys just the same as hetero relationships. And strap ons aren’t just for the girls! Guys are also both using and allowing their partners to please them with these helpful and amazing tools to enhance their experience between the sheets..and anywhere else!

Or why not go for a vibrating wand massager? Originally created for soothing tired muscles, wands are also great for stimulating erogenous zones such as inner thighs or the nape of the neck, plus intimate parts such as the labia, testicles and more.

The most important part of using sex toys together is to communicate. Go ahead and experiment, and if at any point you start to feel numb or uncomfortable, speak up – your partner won’t know unless you tell them. By the same token, if you especially enjoy something, let your partner know – the joy of discovering a new favourite sensation together is what sex toys are all about!

Complete Article HERE!