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4 tips for keeping conversations about relationships and sex going during the teen years

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By Shannan Younger

You fulfilled your parental duty of informing your child about the birds and the bees. You’ve used proper terms for your child’s anatomy, you’ve explained exactly how babies are made, you’ve talked to your kids about the importance of protection. Now what?

To answer that question and give advice for how parents can continue the conversations with their teens about relationships and sex, I asked Kim Cook, RN, CEHS for advice. I’m thrilled that she wrote this guest blog, which combines her expertise as a nurse, health teacher and mom of three girls.

Serious conversation with your tweens and teens can be a bit of a roller-coaster sometimes, especially when talking about sex and relationships. Here are four tips to help parents navigate the twists and turns of (sometimes) awkward dialogue.

Take advantage of organic opportunities that inspire quick snippets of conversation.

Gone are the days of “The Talk.” Ongoing discussion about sex and relationships is necessary. Long, drawn-out conversations with your child may be overwhelming and uncomfortable.

As an alternative, observations of life in movies, television, music, friends, and family offer opportunities to engage your child into reflective chats. Use examples of healthy and unhealthy relationships witnessed by both of you to initiate quick 2-minute snippets of conversation.

Try this: 

“How do you feel when you hear a person describe another person as (insert terms)? Is that respectful? How might you react if someone talked to you or a friend using that language?”

Communicate respectfully.

Your child has their own unique perspective, experiences, and knowledge base. They have taken health class in school to learn the basics of sexuality.  They have witnessed their friends navigate puppy love, crushes, and serious relationships and have experienced a variety of relationships themselves.

Their value system has been shaped primarily by what has been taught and modeled at home, with a sprinkling of lessons learned within their school and social communities. Therefore, form your questions that reflect respect for their knowledge base, values, and perspective. This will cultivate a foundation of trust that will encourage more frequent and deeper conversation down the road.

Try this:

“I am not familiar with this topic (insert topic here). What do you know about it? I’m eager to learn.”

When giving the talk, don’t talk.

Young people want to be heard. It is our job to listen.

There is so much to be learned about your child when you take a moment to pay attention without interjecting your opinion or advice.  They already know what you think. Ask thoughtful questions to encourage intrinsic decision-making, rather than telling them what to do.

You may be screaming “what were you thinking” in your head – you are a normal parent – just don’t let them know that!

Try this:

Rather than, “What were you thinking?!” try “When you made that decision, what outcome were you hoping to achieve? Did you achieve that? What might you do differently next time?”

Use humor.

This stuff can be difficult to talk about. It is okay to add some humor and laughter into the conversation. Offer some funny anecdotes of your own teen years – it will allow them to see you through a lens besides “parent.”

Sharing experiences also reassures them that they are “normal” – everyone makes decisions that become “learning opportunities.”

These simple tips will help guide essential conversations with your teen and ‘tween. Building bonds of trust and respect will carry over into the adult years, which is an equally amazing and exciting time to be a parent.

Enjoy the parenting journey; you got this.

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Trans Writer E. Parker Phillips Finds Poetry in He/r Fluid Identity

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E. Parker Phillips conveys a message of nonviolence.

By Liz Tracy

At a Yale writing workshop in 2003, one of E. Parker Phillips’ college classmates said Phillips’ erotic poem reminded them of a Calvin Klein ad. Phillips, who identifies as genderqueer and uses “s/he” and “he/r” pronouns, doesn’t remember the poem itself, only one line from the work about a lesbian sexual awakening: “Love is where we stay in bed and go shopping for hats.” The classmate was trying to humiliate Phillips. But s/he treasures the memory.

“The connection between sex, power, and writing felt undeveloped at a place like Yale,” Phillips recalls. “It made me feel like things weren’t set up for me to have a voice.

“Well, now I fight for that voice.”

At the time, Phillips was studying for a degree in Chinese. These days, s/he’s one of the busiest people in Miami, juggling writing, teaching, performing, BDSM and fetish work, and activism. Phillips cannot be explained simply in a line from a poem or exemplified in a single memory. But though Phillips defies labels, he/r uniquely intersectional message and example has made he/r one of South Florida’s most prominent voices in the queer and literary realms.

Phillips was a queer kid raised by strict parents near the Adirondack Mountains in Glens Falls, New York, a largely white, Republican, rural town. There was a lot of pressure at home to go to a good school. Phillips found sanctuary and joy in playing sports. “I was an athlete before anything else in my life,” s/he remembers.

After graduating from college, s/he lived “on the fringes of literary cultures at Yale and in New York City.” The red state of Florida might not seem like the most welcoming place for a queer writer, but Florida International University’s creative writing program offered Phillips the chance to study with renowned poets Campbell McGrath and Denise Duhamel. There, s/he recalls, “I could learn to embrace how I write from my groin and my heart while also exploring ideas and politics. Miami, and FIU, helped me turn my position as an outsider, once a source of shame, into a place of empowerment.”

Phillips taught at FIU and Broward College while publishing poems in journals such as Voluble (a LARB channel), The Sensations Feelings Journal, Jai-Alai Magazine, and Hinchas de Poesia. Along the way, s/he developed a unique literary style to express he/r layered experiences. “I am happiest at the nexus of language, performance, and physicality,” Phillips notes. “Writing poems is a trans-like state where I am thinking about my body both physically and emotionally, processing my experience in language — consciousness tethered to a sensual world.”

From 2014-’16, the instructor found a less conventional avenue for expressing he/r identity by opening a 1,500-square-foot BDSM commercial dungeon. “Both [kink and poetry] feel like arts of consciousness,” s/he explains. “BDSM, kink, for me brings together making money and art; it is how I have made a living in the past four years.”

S/he now operates out of a private fetish studio in Hollywood, Florida — and not just to pay the bills. “I try to work outside academia so I can deepen my engagement with the world, which affects my voice in poetry. It is not always easy. I probably do too much,” Phillips admits.

In addition to hosting BDSM play parties and a meetup for kinky people titled Miami Munch, for the past six months, Phillips has cohosted the weekly Queer and Trans Yoga class at Agni Miami.

“Poems, BDSM, yoga — these are my lifelines. Sharing these practices with other people amplifies their meaning and helps me push the boundaries of the various forms,” Phillips explains. “When I try to live up to the expectations of what I perceive as the mainstream poetry world, I end up not writing.”

In joining all of these varied pursuits, s/he explains, “If I can focus on bearing witness to my feelings and my body, bearing witness to politics and injustice, I can engage poetry as a vehicle through which I traverse the known into the not-yet-known… Imagining a different, more equitable world is particularly important to me as a nonbinary, genderfluid person.”

Part of imagining that world is changing the words used to describe it. “Language is an ontological problem — a world of ‘he’ and ‘she,’ a binary world,” Phillips continues. “How can we take that apart and build something more livable?… What happens when I share my queer, feminist consciousness with a reader? A change in hearts and minds can happen there.”

The Queer and Trans Yoga class s/he cofounded is another converging of these realities for Phillips. In a hatha class, the teacher focuses on yin — “practicing being versus doing” — according to one instructor. Students hold poses for three to five minutes, and class leaders discuss topics such as self-acceptance, self-love, and coping with rejection. During the class, a reiki practitioner attends to individuals. The class also begins or ends with a poem by a queer or trans author, or a talk by a community member.

“The message we convey is one of nonviolence toward self and others. There is a lot of emphasis on the self and falling in love with the self,” Phillips says.

Those themes will carry into he/r course at this week’s TransArt, an annual event that advances equity for the Latinx and LGBT communities through education. Titled I Talk to My Body, Phillips’ workshop will “look at the topic of the self addressing the body, which we will explore within the context of a queer and trans lived experience,” s/he says. Using works by poets Lucille Clifton, Anna Swir, and Joy Ladin, Phillips hopes to teach students to “make sense of, or even celebrate, a discontinuity between self and body.”

Phillips recalls a recent moment at Queer and Trans Yoga when a practitioner spoke about being queer-bashed by a trusted yoga instructor. The reflection evoked a related yoga practice. Class members were told to lie on their backs with legs in the air, “so we could feel the disorientation the person experienced. It felt like falling backwards,” Phillips remembers. “I really wanted to get up and leave — it was challenging both emotionally and physically.”

But the meaning of the action made it bearable for Phillips. Inversion poses like that lift energy to the throat, s/he explains, renewing one’s voice.

“Learning how to work through discomfort is a hugely valuable lesson for me as a queer person, given the discomfort I face in the adult entertainment industry, in my family, and as a poet,” Phillips describes. “Doing yoga in community and turning the raw, painful stuff of lived experience into something inspiring and shared — that is another act of poem-making too.”

Complete Article HERE!

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LGBTQ kids are missing out on sex education—and it’s up to schools to change that

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Last year, California officially mandated LGBTQ history lessons in public schools, vowing to teach “the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans” and their impact on both the state’s and the country’s history.

This was a victory for LGBTQ rights, because it’s a rarity; in most states—in all but nine to be exact—schools don’t even cover LGBTQ sexuality, let alone queer history.

When surveyed by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), only 12 percent of millennials said they received sexual education material that covered sex between gay partners—even though 20 percent of millennials consider themselves LGBTQ. American sex ed is “primarily or exclusively focused on heterosexual relationships between cisgender people,” according to a different study conducted by Planned Parenthood and the HRC.

This hetero-specific focus creates a multitude of problems for all young people sorting through their anxieties and questions about sex and sexuality. For one, straight students aren’t being forced to acknowledge other sexualities, which can foster bullying and promote a culture of intolerance. For another, a lack of school discussion means most LGBTQ students are being inadvertently told to stay in the closet. And with that messaging, there is the shame and hiding, and then there are the health risks.

Proper safe-sex education is important for all students, and LGBTQ people are no exception: 22 percent of all transgender women are HIV positive, and queer men face a higher risk of contact with HIV or a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While ignoring queer students may not be a new phenomenon, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be remedied. And perhaps school districts can start by listening to the stories of queer people who have gone through the country’s lackluster sexual education systems. Through them, activists can learn how to fix such a massive gap in sex education.

This is what the queer sex ed gap looks like

Larissa Glasser, a librarian and writer living in Massachusetts, grew up in the 1980s, an era whose approach to sex ed was based in fear and simple authoritarian phrases like “Don’t do it.” Glasser, whose transgender, obviously couldn’t rely on schools to teach her about queer life.

“I was in public school until fifth grade and we had no sex education whatsoever,” she told the Daily Dot. “This was during the Reagan presidency, so all we ever heard about sex was AIDS as a scare tactic to be abstinent.”

Very little accurate information existed about transgender women outside of schools. Glasser was only exposed to trans people through filmmakers like John Waters and Ralph Bakshi.

“Finally, during the 1990s, trans issues were addressed somewhat respectfully in about 10 percent of the films I saw,” Glasser said. “Then I discovered writers like Jean Genet, Angela Carter, and Hubert Selby Jr., who were willing to portray queer femme sexuality in a somewhat positive light.”

Glasser’s experiences mirror many other LGBTQ students’ struggles. Sophie Searcy grew up miles away in Kentucky during the ’90s and 2000s, attending Catholic school all the way through high school, and she too had virtually no experience with LGBTQ education. Queer and trans sexuality just wasn’t discussed.

“The Catholic system I belonged to had a program called ‘family life,’ which was a religious health and sex education program,” Searcy told the Daily Dot. “Very basic facts about anatomy and puberty were explained in gender-separated rooms. There was no mention of safer sex methods, navigating consent, or any LGBTQ issues whatsoever.”

Searcy knew early on that her church wasn’t LGBTQ-inclusive. But looking back on those early years, she realized that queer people were treated as if they simply didn’t exist at all.

“The class explained sex as exclusively between a man and a woman, as if only heterosexual orientations existed,” Searcy said. “Similar to how the class erased all non-hetero orientations, the class explained gender, sexual development, and sexual intercourse in a way that didn’t even acknowledge the possibility of trans people. Boys had penises, girls have vaginas, boys develop into men, girls develop into women, etc., etc., etc.”

In particularly conservative areas, sexual education isn’t just biased—what it is lacking can induce violence. LGBTQ activist and writer Sarah Bess grew up in southeast Missouri in the 1990s, and she was repeatedly harassed, bullied, and physically assaulted across school districts.

“I was this awkward, autistic, queer kid from the middle of nowhere, so I got picked on a lot,” Bess explained. “I dropped out in the seventh grade because I was getting beat up so much and my home life sucked and I really didn’t care about school.”

Bess’s classes didn’t provide a respite from the attacks. “Being gay wasn’t really mentioned as a possibility in my sex ed classes. The existence of trans people definitely wasn’t acknowledged. There was a lot of fear-mongering about pregnancy and STIs, and that’s mostly what I remember,” Bess explained. “I don’t remember anyone at school even mentioning trans people. Beyond transphobic Jerry Springer and Maury Povich episodes, I don’t think we were on anyone’s radar.”

In one case, her sex education teacher enabled a physical assault.

“My seventh-grade sex ed class was taught by a gym coach who watched two boys beat the shit out of me after school one day,” Bess said. “He just laughed, got in his car and drove off.”

When anti-LGBTQ sentiments take hold in a school, then queer students live in an ongoing state of fear. This not just impedes their education, it can be debilitating for their growth and self-esteem—and it can separate queer people from one another by forcing them to stay hidden. For someone like Bess, this was extremely alienating.

“I was in my late teens the first time I knowingly talked to another trans woman online,” Bess explained. “I was in my twenties before I knowingly met anyone like me in person.”

For others, sex education classes could have possibly saved their lives. A 2014 report published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the UCLA Williams Institute reveals that suicide attempt rates are particularly high among transgender and gender non-conforming students who face harassment or bullying at school. Through sex education, though, students could have a better understanding of gender transitioning or normalizing queer sexuality. The more that classrooms validate LGBTQ experiences, the more likely students are to treat their fellow classmates with respect.

“Gender was always conflated with assigned sex and body parts,” Searcy said. “It wasn’t that trans people were portrayed as evil or misguided, but that the possibility of being trans was never even acknowledged.”

Then came the internet

So if LGBTQ students aren’t able to learn about their bodies from primary and secondary schools, where do they go for information about queer sexuality? Many turn to the internet.

But the internet is a luxury, one that not everyone is able to access—especially those in previous generations. In Bess’s case, this directly impacted her exposure to trans material.

“I didn’t have consistent internet access for most of my life, so I picked up bits and pieces where and when I could,” she said. “I watched a lot of porn with trans women in it and read a lot of gross forced fem erotica, none of which was very helpful for learning about sex.”

Even when internet access is available, its resources aren’t always helpful. Sometimes they can be damaging.

Shortly after Glasser graduated from library school, she stumbled across a gender transitioning guideline called tsroadmap, also known as “Transsexual & Transgender Road Map.” Glasser felt even worse about herself while using the website, in part because the guide relied on rigid stereotypes and generalizations for trans women. In one case, the site demanded that trans women undergo surgeries in order to properly transition, when many trans people prefer not to undergo permanent surgery.

“It was useful at the time,” she said, “but in hindsight, I think its normativity had a fairly toxic effect on my self-esteem when I was at my most vulnerable point.”

Searcy, on the other hand, saw internet access as a major source for learning more about non-hetero sexuality. Some of her biggest resources for her transitioning were writers who have gained significant prominence thanks to the internet’s impact on the trans community.

“Ultimately, a close friend came out as trans which led me to question my own gender and explore resources on my own,” Searcy said. “Julia Serano and Morgan M Page were particularly helpful, as were Imogen Binnie and Casey Plett.”

So while online resources aren’t exactly perfect, the internet has advanced far enough that it can connect trans and queer people with the online communities they need to learn more about themselves. On Reddit, there are subreddits like /r/asktransgender that let trans people learn about undergoing gender transitioning. Sites like Sites like Keshet and Queer Theology provide resources for religious queer and transgender people. Resources like TJOBBANK host employment listings for LGBTQ folks searching for inclusive workplaces. And services like Discord and Slack allow queer and trans users to create their own closed groups where LGBTQ members can hang out, talk about queer life, or get together and play video games. The internet has changed over time, and that means there are more ways for queer and trans people to meet each other than before.

But it’s unfair to relegate LGBTQ students to the internet for advice, often in secret. It can stall LGBTQ kids from coming out, make trans and queer sexuality feel like a taboo, or send the message that queer and trans life isn’t important enough to understand.

Schools are supposed to provide students with learning opportunities that help young kids grow into productive adults. That’s why third graders learn basic reading comprehension skills, and high schools teach American history (albeit often from a very straight, white, male perspective), and middle schoolers get a whole class dedicated to sex and their bodies—so they can go out into the world informed and prepared.

But if schools leave out LGBTQ sexuality and force queer students to learn on their own time, then those schools are failing at their jobs. Why must the burden be on LGBTQ youth to educate themselves?

The solutions that exist

Casey Plett, author of A Safe Girl to Love, lived in an upper-middle class suburb in Oregon during her high school years. At the time, she enrolled in an “internationally-focused hippie-ish sub-program” that seemed more like “actual sex ed taught by Planned Parenthood.” And yet like Glasser and Searcy, she says, “I cannot recall LGBTQ issues ever coming up. Negatively or positively.”

And as for trans issues? “Ha,” she told the Daily Dot. “No. Zero.”

This was in 2001. But she recognizes things have changed since then. LGBTQ equality has become more mainstream, trans rights have entered the news cycle, and queer sex ed has turned into a serious activist rallying point. Today, she thinks there’s solutions that school districts can take to bring LGBTQ education to kids, instead of forcing them to turn to the internet. That is, if they’re willing to put in the effort.

“There are plenty of gay sexual health resources out there,” Plett said. “I’d get a hold of them, pay them to come, and let them take the wheel. And be open and loving and willing to learn.”

Plett is right. Today, many local LGBTQ organizations host workshops for queer youth, providing the resources students need to learn more about their sexuality. Long Island’s Pride for Youth, for example, facilitates workshops on fighting transphobia and working with LGBTQ youth. Other community centers, such as New York City’s Apicha Community Health Center and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, provide training segments for educators, giving them the skills they need to teach LGBTQ-inclusive material in classrooms. And in recent years, Planned Parenthood has both criticized the lack of LGBTQ sex education in public schools, and begun taking a more LGBTQ-inclusive approach to sex education.

Gender therapists and counselors traditionally host workshops for teens as well, allowing them to explore LGBTQ topics in an affirming environment. And programs like the GSA Network even give students the training they need to host workshops and class sessions that can debunk damaging myths about the queer community.

For those who don’t live in “gay-friendly” metropolitan areas, there are also online resources available for classrooms. TED hosts a variety of TED Talks covering LGBTQ issues, from coming out to helping transgender teens. And many educators host lesson plans and teach-ins that are available for free online, allowing students to engage in queer sex education topics through a vetted workshop environment.

These programs and groups normalize LGBTQ sexuality. Workshops talk frankly and openly about what it means to have sex as a gay or transgender person and provide safe sex education to prevent STIs. They also give educators the training they need not just to respect queer students, but to include LGBTQ topics in future lesson plans. If school districts aren’t sure how to approach queer sexuality, here is where they can start.

“It would have been incredible for me to hear the simple facts that sex is complicated and messy but that there are a few universals that we should consider (consent, safer methods, exploration),” Searcy explained, “or that gender is independent of assigned sex and that it might be helpful to consider if my assigned sex did not fit.”

That’s something echoed by Bess, who knows all too well that many school districts are still avoiding LGBTQ topics in their entirety. She insists that the federal government should take a more active role in protecting LGBTQ youth, especially in areas where people are particularly bigoted toward queer students. Many school districts simply aren’t evolving anywhere near the rate of young people’s attitudes toward sexuality.

“It’s been awhile since I was in school, but it doesn’t seem like things are much better now in the places I grew up,” she explained. “Federal intervention is absolutely necessary to protect queer and trans students and educators, especially in rural school districts.”

Safety is where educators need to start if they want to facilitate an open, tolerant conversation about sex and sexuality. With transgender students under attack through outrageous “bathroom bills” across the U.S. and the Trump administration officially rescinding any federal guidelines for protecting trans youth, state and federal intervention is more important than ever.

For example, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially outlawed all forms of discrimination against transgender people in 2015. Discriminatory fines for “willful, wanton or malicious” discrimination is up to $100,000. Massachusetts offers the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a joint initiative that provides training for school administrators on queer topics and gives students the tools they need to become activists in their school settings.

Fostering change and giving schools a legal incentive to end discrimination is important. Seeing how 42 percent of all queer youth feel their community is not accepting of LGBTQ people, promoting tolerance and opening constructive discussion are the keys to getting there.

Schools teach basic sex education for a reason: Most adults will have sex, and the repercussions of sex are often far-reaching and far-ranging and can be life-changing. But if sex education doesn’t address the current population and the culture, then it’s time for administrators to recognize they’re doing youth a disservice. Making things right could actually save lives.

Complete Article HERE!

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In defense of opposite-sex friendships

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By Heidi Stevens

My friend Jeff does not want to impregnate me.

And thank God for that, since his wife is expecting their third child this summer.

“Let me be clear,” he told me Thursday morning. “I have two, almost three children. I don’t want to impregnate anyone.”

I called him to check, since Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene put me and my fellow females on notice earlier this week.

“You don’t have any guy friends,” Fiene wrote in The Federalist on Tuesday. “In fact, you can’t have any guy friends.”

“Quite simply, men can’t be at peace being just friends,” Fiene wrote. “And there’s nothing you can do to change that. Platonic chilling won’t stop your inner (and outer) beauty from pulling a man towards romantic love. Telling him he’s like a brother to you won’t stop his brain from shouting ‘Marry that woman and impregnate her now’ when he encounters your femininity.”

Maybe Fiene didn’t mean my femininity, since I already have a husband. Maybe he didn’t mean Jeff’s brain, since Jeff already has a wife. But between his essay and Vice President Mike Pence’s no-dining-with-women rule, it’s a tricky time for opposite-sex friendships.

I’m here to defend them.

Jeff and I are friends because we work in similar industries, we live in the same neighborhood, our kids get along and we make each other laugh. I adore his wife. He likes my husband. Sometimes we meet for coffee. Sometimes we get together with our kids — with and without our spouses.

My husband, meanwhile, has a handful of female friends. He sometimes shares meals with them. With alcohol. Without me. I can’t overstate how much I prefer this setup over a husband who views all women as potential vessels to grow his babies. His female friends give him a greater understanding of half the world’s population. My male friendships do the same for me.

“It helps un-bro me,” Jeff said of his friendship with women. “I don’t know how bro-tastic I ever was, but certainly more so when I was younger and had exclusively male friends.”

Now his female friendships lend valuable insight and awareness to his home and work life. (He works in media relations.) “I haven’t had a male boss in 15 years or so,” he told me.

Friendships give us a different lens through which to see the world. They help us walk in someone else’s shoes. They give us people to care about, protect, laugh with, cry on, learn from, respectfully disagree with, cherish.

Friendships with people who don’t look and live just like us can open our minds and alter our behavior in ways that are immeasurable and invaluable.

And we should turn a skeptical eye — or avoid altogether — people whose reproductive parts don’t match ours?

I don’t think so.

We can acknowledge that some men are sometimes attracted to their female friends, and some women are sometimes attracted to their male friends. (And some men are sometimes attracted to their male friends, some women to their female friends, while we’re on the topic.)

We can also recognize that mature adults go through life, every single day, not acting on all our impulses. We don’t eat the whole pan of brownies. We don’t tell our bosses to take a flying leap. We don’t order martinis at lunch. We don’t sleep with our friends.

We don’t do the things, in other words, that sabotage our goals and our lives, even if they sound sort of fun at the time.

You can be friends with the opposite sex. You should, I would argue, be friends with the opposite sex.

The benefits of opposite-sex friendships far outweigh the possible, occasional risks, especially since we’re perfectly capable of mitigating those risks.

Men and women have far more to offer each other than our bodies, in bed. It’s insulting and, frankly, a little sad to suggest otherwise.

Complete Article HERE!

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Have you ever had ‘unjust sex’?

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Unthinkable: Examples include ‘women being pressured – not quite to the point of outright coercion – to have sex, or to have sex without contraception’, says philosopher Ann Cahill

“We need to remember that sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual interaction that is ethically problematic,” says author Ann Cahill.

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Uncertainty surrounding the boundaries of ethical sexual activity is not confined to boozed-up young adults or American presidents. Among academics there is discussion about what distinguishes rape and sexual assault from another category of “ethically problematic” sex.

Examples of “unjust sex” include “women being pressured – not quite to the point of outright coercion, but pressured uncomfortably nonetheless – to have sex, or to have sex without contraception,” explains Ann Cahill, author of a number of books on gender issues including Rethinking Rape.

Cahill, professor of philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina who is visiting Dublin this week, says she has tried to “figure out in more detail” what distinguishes sexual assault from “unjust sex”, drawing on the work of New Zealand psychologist Nicola Gavey.

Her analysis has led her to challenge the traditional feminist concern with “objectification”: treating women’s bodies as objects. Instead, she uses “derivatisation” – treating women as “stunted persons, persons whose identity and behaviour is primarily or entirely limited by the desires of another person” – as a standard by which to measure actions.

Cahill says “we need to remember that sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual interaction that is ethically problematic. Too often our approach to sexual ethics is limited by relying solely on the presence of consent, a reliance that obscures other crucial elements in sexual interactions that are ethically relevant”.

How do you distinguish “unjust sex” from rape?

“Briefly, I argue that examples of unjust sex and incidents of sexual assault share an indifference to women’s sexual preferences, desires and wellbeing, and that’s what explains how unjust sex perpetuates and upholds rape culture. In both cases, the specific sexuality of the woman is not participating robustly in the creation of the sexual interaction.

“What distinguishes the two examples, I then argue, is the specific role that the woman’s sexual subjectivity plays. In the case of examples within the grey area of unjust sex, women’s agency plays an important role: if a man repeats a request for or invitation to sex multiple times, for example, that very repetition indicates that the woman’s consent is important.

“However, I also argue that the role that the woman’s agency plays is a problematically stunted one that limits the kind of influence she can have on the quality of the interaction that ensues, and does so to such an extent that it renders the interaction unethical.

“In the case of sexual assault, the woman’s agency is either overcome – by force, or coercion, or other methods – or undone entirely, by use of drugs or alcohol.”

Where does “objectification” come into this, and does sexual attraction always entail some element of it?

“Feminists have long used the notion of objectification as an ethical lens, and specifically, as an ethically pejorative term. And certainly I do think that many of the social and political phenomena that feminists have criticised by using the term ‘objectification’ – dominant forms of pornography, oppressive medical practices, common representations of women’s bodies – are worthy of ethical critique.

“However, I worry about what the term ‘objectification’ implies, and when I dug into the philosophical literature that sought to really unpack the term, my worries only intensified. If objectification means, roughly, to be treated as a thing – a material entity – and if it is virtually always ethically problematic, then it seems we are committed to a metaphysics that places our materiality in opposition to our humanity or moral worth.

“But what if our materiality, our embodiment, is not contrary to our humanity or moral worth, but an essential part of it? If we approach embodiment in this way, then to be treated like a thing is not necessarily degrading or dehumanising. In fact, having one’s body be the object of a sexualising gaze and/or touch could be deeply affirming.

“Getting back to your question: does sexual attraction require objectification? The short answer is yes: sexual attraction requires treating another body as a material entity. But that does not mean that sexual attraction is necessarily ethically problematic.”

You say women “are encouraged, and in some cases required, to take on identities that are reducible to male heterosexual desires”. How do women avoid being so “derivatised” while in a relationship?

“This is a tricky matter, because human beings are intersubjective.

“Equal and just relationships among individuals require the recognition that they have a substantial contribution to make to those relationships, and that no relationship should position one of the individuals involved in it as the raison d’être of the relationship itself.”

Is the power dynamic always working in one direction, however? Women are capable of objectifying men. Should that concern us too?

“As I state above, objectification is not necessarily ethically problematic. And so to the extent that women have the capacity to treat men’s bodies as material entities, yes, they can objectify them.

“However, in our current political and social situation, women’s objectification of men’s bodies is far less common than men’s objectification of women’s bodies; even more importantly, it rarely amounts to derivatisation and does not serve to undermine men’s political, social, and economic equality.

“When I say that it does not amount to derivatisation, I mean that heterosexual men are less likely to view their bodies solely or persistently through the lens of how they appear to heterosexual women, and they rarely see male bodies represented in dominant media as defined primarily or solely through how those bodies appear to heterosexual women.

“While it’s not impossible for women to derivatise men – one can imagine, for example, a woman evaluating a man as a sexual partner solely on the basis of whether he matches her sexual preferences – structurally, those examples of derivatisation don’t add up to the kind of persistent inequality that still tracks along gender lines.

“For example, as political candidates, men don’t suffer for failing to meet the aesthetic ideals of heterosexual women, while women do suffer for failing to meet the aesthetic ideals of heterosexual men. Of course, they also suffer for meeting those ideals too well, because feminine beauty, while allegedly admirable in women, is also associated with shallowness and lack of intellect.

“Although I haven’t written about this before, however, it seems to me that hegemonic masculinity does have a derivatising effect on heterosexual men, to the extent that it requires them to derivatise women. In this sense, the subjectivity of heterosexual men is stunted to the extent that it is required to engage in the kinds of behaviour that demonstrates disrespect of women as moral equals – behaviour that is necessary for other heterosexual male subjects to be confirmed or affirmed in their own forms of masculinity.

“To the extent that heterosexual men can find their standing within homosocial relations threatened or troubled if they refuse to derivatise women, or at least pretend to, then they are also subject to a failure to recognise their own ontological distinctness.”

Complete Article HEREvi!

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