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‘I finally felt like one of the guys’

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How toxic masculinity breeds sexual abusers

By Jane Gilmore

“I’m a guy. I’m supposed to have sex. I’m supposed to be like every other guy. And so I’m like them, but [when I did this to the girls, I thought] I’m even better than them [dominant popular boys], because I can manipulate. They don’t get the power and the excitement. They have a sexual relationship with a girl. She can say what she wants and she has the choice. But the girls I babysat didn’t have the choice.”

This was Sam* explaining why he abused two girls, aged six and eight.

Sam, 18, was a foster child, abandoned by his biological parents and adopted when he was five by what he says was a loving, affectionate family. His adoptive parents both worked, but his mother did all the cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. His father “mowed the lawn, loafed around and worked with his tools”; he was in control of the family.

Sam was never the victim of physical or sexual violence at home, and he never committed any violence against his family.

School was a very different experience for him. He was short and heavy, and was subjected to constant bullying by the “popular dominant boys”. They told him he was “fat” and a “wimp”, that he would never fit in. He couldn’t play sport nor fight back when he was beaten up at school; the boys he perceived as popular and dominant shamed him by feminising him.

Sam understood this as his failure to be a “real man”. He wasn’t masculine enough for the “cool” boys to accept him. His body “served as an antagonist in his construction of masculinity”.

In his early years at high school when Sam started learning about sexuality, most of his understanding came from listening to the boys’ conversations there.

“Kids were talking at school about blow jobs and getting laid, telling dirty jokes and about having sex and stuff like that,” he said.

His understanding of sex and his own sexuality was that he had to have sex to be a proper man.

“Well, I’m a guy, so this is something that every guy does, that I want to be part of. I want to be like the other guys. I want to know what it feels like. I want to know what goes on.”

He didn’t think he could have relationships with girls his own age because he believed what the popular boys had told him for years – that his body and personality were not acceptably masculine, and therefore no girls would like him.

So at 15 he started babysitting for local families, and sexually abused the little girls in his care. He deliberately chose girls he saw as quiet and vulnerable. He didn’t use physical force, he used coercion, fear and control to manipulate his victims into submitting to the abuse.

“I felt that I was No.1. I didn’t feel like I was small any more, because in my own grade, my own school, with people my own age, I felt like I was a wimp, the person that wasn’t worth anything. But when I did this to the girls, I felt like I was big, I was in control of everything.”

This terrible and tragic story comes from a paper written by James Messerschmidt, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine. It’s a summary of several books and papers he’s written about the relationship between violence and masculinity, or at least the twisted version of masculinity too often imposed on boys and young men.

Zack*, the other boy in Messerschmidt’s paper, had very similar experiences. He was bullied for being short, overweight, bad at sport and wimpy. Zack, like Sam, decided that sex was a way to prove to himself and others that he was a “real man”, and he started sexually abusing a vulnerable young girl.

“It made me feel real good. I just felt like finally I was in control over somebody. I forgot about being fat and ugly. She was someone looking up to me, you know. If I needed sexual contact, then I had it. I wasn’t a virgin any more. I wanted control over something in my life, and this gave it to me. I finally felt like one of the guys.”

It would be comforting to think of Sam and Zack as aberrations: tragic, but unusual in their experiences.

Sadly, the truth is that they are likely to be typical of the boys and young men who turn to violence to confirm their male identity and align with what they think is a desirable masculinity.

Study after study after study after study after study has found that domestic and sexual violence is usually based on a need for control, based on toxic misunderstanding of what gender roles should be.

These studies include wide-ranging research, surveys and interviews with both victims and offenders. They all show that violence is most likely to occur in cultures that strongly enforce gender roles and unequal power relationships between men and women.

The notion that “real men” are sexually powerful, dominant, strong and never to be rejected does enormous damage to boys and men, which in turn leads to them doing enormous damage to girls and women.

Boys who fail the masculinity test suffer excruciating rejection, and this doesn’t just reinforce toxic masculinity in the boys seen to fail, but also confirms it for the boys who pass.

Anna Krien’s 2013 book Night Games was a searing insight into the world of “successful” masculinity in Australia, where the young men who achieved all the “real man” targets of being tall, strong, powerful and excelling at sport lived in a culture of sexual entitlement and an expectation that everyone would see women as objects, not people.

Sam and Zack’s stories are the ones we need to tell people who think anti-bullying and respectful relationship education in schools is a waste of time, or worse, a means of diminishing men.

Our schools are littered with potential Sams and Zacks, and with the boys they thought of as popular and dominant. All of them are damaged by the ideas they teach each other about being a real man.

And all of them damage women when they carry those ideas into adulthood.

* Not his real name

Complete Article HERE!

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How to Talk to Your Younger Sibling About Sex

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Since older siblings can sometimes be the best sex-ed teachers, here are four important topics to cover and a few links about how to get the conversation started.

Positive sexuality is at the forefront of conversations being had by student activists on college campuses. Dismantling the societal constructs of traditional masculinity and femininity and redefining campus sexual scripts are priorities aiming to decrease sexual assault rates and increase discussion about what perpetuates them.

As a result, college students are in a prime position to be instigators of conversations amongst younger groups, because they are at the core of the rapidly changing dialogue prompting social changes that support young adults in expressing their sexuality and promoting safe sexual climates for everyone.

Being a mentor to the younger kiddos in your life, and more specifically the youngsters in your family, can be a tricky yet invaluable role to fill. If you decide to open up a conversation about sex with younger siblings, some awesome topics to include are consent, gender identities and expressions, contraceptives, birth control and the construct of virginity. There are certainly other categories to include, and questions will likely arise about the many nuances of sex, but starting with broad ideas essential to healthy sexuality will set up the conversation to be productive and meaningful.

1. Consent

It’s never too early to start introducing principles of consent into children’s lives, nor is it ever too late. If your siblings are elementary school-aged, having a conversation with them about consent does not have to centered around sex, because consent is applicable to any and all interactions, whether sexual intentions are present or not.

Teaching young kids to ask for permission to hug someone or to sit close to someone plants the seed for healthy habits of asking for and offering consent to grow. If younger individuals become accustomed to asking for consent in small, everyday ways, they will be more aware and respectful of others’ boundaries. As they grow into adolescents and college students, the concepts of consent will be second nature and clearly understood when they do enter into sexual contexts where consent is required.

Regardless of the age of your siblings, consent is applicable to everyone and should be a frequent, continuing conversation. For siblings that are old enough to dive deeper, unpacking the mechanics of genuine and enthusiastic consent can include information about how things such as power dynamics, substances, coercion and intimidation can all influence the improper acquisition of consent. This is also a great time to emphasize that despite the common tactics used to unfairly obtain someone’s consent, the right to enthusiastically consent to sexual activity without the influence of outside factors is omnipresent, powerful and absolute.

Consent is a quintessential component of healthy sexual encounters! For more info on consent, and the “Yes Means Yes” campaign advocating for enthusiastic consent, check out https://www.yesmeansyes.com and have your siblings take a look, too for the scoop on all things consent and respect. As quoted in an article on everydayfeminism.com “conversations about consent—especially if those conversations are with children—are not always easy to have. They are, however, necessary if we’re trying to create a society in which consent is understood and respected by adults and children alike.”

2. Gender Identities

Another frequently skipped-over chapter in the sparse book of sex education in America is the section on gender identity. Thanks to celebrity stories in recent years such as Caitlin Jenner, Jazz Jennings and many other Hollywood young adults openly identifying as gender fluid, bisexual and indicating other identities along the gender-nonconforming spectrum, gender identity and gender rights have become popular topics. While many school sex education programs are a bit behind the times and have yet to add conversations about various gender identities into their curriculum, older siblings can try to fill some of the gaps.

The biggest point to emphasize to a younger sibling is the difference between sex and gender, and that gender is a social construct that is governed by expectations and norms that align with the gender binary system. To expand on that, include notes about how gender is made up of multiple components that fall along a spectrum; there are new models, like the gender unicorn, being developed to illustrate this idea; the colorful and simple designs are engaging for young learners and a great visual representation of the spectrums in general.

Most of all, encourage youngsters to explore and contemplate their own gender identity by questioning the norms they’re conditioned to live in accordance with, and support them unconditionally in their discoveries. Your unwavering love may serve as an example for when they find themselves being a support for a friend or peer one day.

3. Contraceptives

For siblings that are approaching the age of dating and having sex, a little brush up on contraceptive options is a helpful addition to sibling sex-education sessions. This goes for all gender identities, not just the ladies! Everyone should be aware of how to protect themselves and their partner of choice, so that everyone can feel safe and focus on other matters at hand. A quick browse through the “Birth Control” tab on teenshealth.org gives an extensive explanation of the various methods of birth control and contraceptives, the intended uses of each, the effectiveness rates and some FAQs.

While talking with a healthcare provider is the best idea for beginning a birth control plan, providing kiddos with information about their options allows them to reflect on what they’re comfortable with and choose an option that suits them if and when they need it.

4. Virginity

When younger siblings are thinking about becoming sexually active, a chat about the virginity construct can help them reflect on what sex means to them. There is heavy emphasis placed on the “losing of” one’s “virginity” and how the experience is meant to be transformative, pivotal and special. For some, the giving of virginity to another person signifies an act of deep trust, intimacy and comfort. For others, the concept of virginity is merely an ancient phrase sometimes used to label the beginning of their sexual adventures.

There is no right or wrong way to think about a first sexual experience, nor is there a universal definition of what composes the official loss of virginity, which some sex beginners don’t get the chance to contemplate before diving in. The concept of virginity loss is associated with impurity and places the person taking someone’s virginity in a position of power, while the person who “lost” it is seen as sacrificing something valuable.

Contemplating the idea that virginity is not a physical state or thing, but instead a construct that can be accepted or disregarded, allows young people to decide for themselves how they want to think of sex and define it in their own terms. First times are a lot of things, ranging from spontaneous, meaningful, messy, calculated or a combination of everything. Restructuring the way young adults think about their first sexual experiences gives them the power to conceptualize their sexual debuts as they choose to.

Beyond everything, the most important thing about having a conversation with siblings about sex is just to have it (the conversation). In the era of change kids are growing up in, the taboo topic of sex is not yet a conversation of full disclosure, even as it gains traction. Being an advocate for positive sexuality development by starting dialogue can help change this, one awkward chat at a time.

The following websites are excellent resources with information on the topics above and many more! They’ve got tips for curious teens and lots of advice for how to start a conversation.

Complete Article HERE!

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The story of Magnus Hirschfeld, the ‘Einstein of sex’

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Decades before Alfred Kinsey developed his scale for human sexuality, there was Magnus Hirschfeld — a doctor who dedicated his career to proving that homosexuality was natural.


A party at the Institute for Sexual Science is shown here. Magnus Hirschfeld (second from right) is the one with the moustache and glasses. His partner Karl Giese is holding his hand.

By Julia Franz

Hirschfeld’s reasoning was simple: In turn of the 20th century Germany, where he lived, a law called Paragraph 175 made so-called “unnatural fornication” between men punishable by prison time.

“Magnus was gay himself,” says Undiscovered podcast co-host Elah Feder. “He was both a scientist and an activist, and he was really hoping that his science would lead to greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people.”

Hirschfeld founded what’s considered to be the first gay rights organization and established the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. He also gained international renown for his radical research on the biology of sexual orientation. “He was, in the 1930s, touring the world lecturing about sexuality in China and India,” says co-host Annie Minoff. “The American press actually called him the ‘Einstein of sex.’”

But as Minoff and Feder explore in a recent episode of Undiscovered, Hirschfeld’s legacy didn’t turn out quite as he’d hoped.

“Magnus was using the science at his disposal, right?” Minoff says. “So now, we might talk about genetics or even epigenetics, but back in his day, scientists could see chromosomes under the microscope, but they still weren’t sure if they had anything to do with heredity.”

“So, Magnus was really all about documenting and recording things like physical traits or behavioral traits, trying to see what gays and lesbians might have in common or might be different than the rest of the population.”

Today, some of Hirschfeld’s research comes across as antiquated, even a bit zany. In one excerpt from his book, “The Homosexuality of Men and Women,” Hirschfeld debunks an apparently long-held stereotype that gay men can’t whistle.

“This does not agree with the results of our statistics,” he wrote, explaining that in a sample of 500 gay men, 77 percent could whistle, although “only a few could truly whistle well.”

“But he found that among lesbians, the whistling arts were very strong, which was nice to hear,” Feder adds.

Other aspects of Hirschfeld’s science have better weathered the tests of time. “So, for example, he was interested in whether homosexuality ran in families,” Feder says. “You know — was it a heritable trait?”

“Or, you might remember a few years ago, there were a bunch of studies looking at the correlation between finger length ratios and sexual orientation. They seemed to find a connection in women. And he did stuff like that. He was looking at hip-to-shoulder ratios — pretty pioneering sex research.”

In 1919, Hirschfeld opened his Institute for Sexual Science, a big villa in Berlin’s Tiergarten. “They had medical examination rooms, they had a library, they had a sex museum that was apparently a big tourist attraction,” Feder says.

And, as Yonsei University history professor Robert Beachy explains, the institute also offered sex education to Germans who were queasy about publicly seeking advice.

“They had a little box at the edge of the property, and people could anonymously insert slips of paper with questions about sex or any sort of sexual issue that they had,” he says. “And then people were invited in, and these different slips of paper would be read out loud and then responded to.”

“There were questions about things like, I don’t know, [about] premature ejaculation and how effective it was to use condoms for preventing pregnancy. You know, just lots of relatively mundane questions. But it was supposed to be a public service.”

But if Hirschfeld hoped that greater scientific understanding could change Germany’s discriminatory law, Feder says things didn’t quite turn out that way in his lifetime. (Paragraph 175 wasn’t struck down until 1994.)

“It’s a nice idea,” she says, “but as we end up seeing in Magnus’ story, you can do science, you can hope that it’s going to be used in one way, and it can work out very differently.”

“And his story ultimately is a pretty tragic one.”

Complete Article HERE!

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What It’s Really Like To Be A Hands-On Sex Coach

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Celeste & Danielle

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Millions of Americans struggle with sex. We don’t like to talk about our coital troubles, though — so we read Men’s Health and Cosmo in private, hoping that one tip, one magic bullet, will allow us to become sex gods. Maybe sometimes these rapturous new moves work, but more often they lead to disappointment.

So what should you do when you want to be a better lover but don’t have a roadmap of how to get there? Who do you turn to when Hollywood has failed you and x-rated features have filled your head with unrealistic expectations of what sex ought to look like? Sometimes you see a sex therapist or an intimacy coach to talk about your problems. And other times… you need a little bit more. That’s where Celeste Hirschman and Danielle Harel (they’d prefer you just call them Celeste and Danielle) come in. They’re the founders of The Somatica Method, an interactive, experiential approach to sex coaching that helps clients break down emotional barriers connected to sex.

What makes The Somatica Method different than most other forms of sex therapy is that it exists in a place between counseling and sexual surrogacy. While communication is the bedrock of Celeste and Danielle’s practice — because good sex can’t happen without it — the duo also recognizes the importance of the physical realm during sessions, meaning that an appointment with them may include everything from a frank discussion about your sex life to a hands on lesson on how to bite your partner’s neck (they’ll practice with you) or throw them up against the wall (if that’s what you’re both into).

So who should get hands-on sex therapy? Can all of us achieve our dreams of leaving our partners gasping for more? We spoke to Celeste and Danielle about what being a sex coach is really like, what clients can get out of it, and how they handle even the toughest sexual problems.

Sex coaching isn’t just for the sexless.

Picture the type of person you think might seek out a sex coach. Is that person generally happy and healthy? Are they fulfilled in other areas of their lives? Are they already in a relationship? The cultural narrative (and every rom-com that revolves around professionals who helps clients lead better sex lives) suggests that only the strangest, neediest people will pay someone to coach them to be better lovers. That’s simply not true.

Committed couples come in regularly, Danielle tells us. They may seek out services because they have desires that they may not be able to talk about on their own. Or their levels of sexual desire may be vastly different and they want to find a happy medium. And men (both single and partnered) may come in because they’re realizing that being good at sex isn’t all about intercourse.

“Men come in because they want to figure out women,” Danielle says. “They can’t understand their wives or girlfriends or women they want to date and also to overcome physiological challenges including getting hard and controlling their orgasm. They want to be better lovers.”

Women set appointments for different reasons — often to work on pain during sex, to ask for help achieving orgasm, or to talk about low levels of sexual desire. Regardless of the reason, the first step in the Somatica Method is to make sure that no one feels stigmatized.

“There’s already so much shame in our culture about sex,” Celeste tells us. “Even now, when you’re seeing sex everywhere, we still have this underlying idea that sex is dirty or extraneous or unimportant, but the bottom line is we’re all sexual beings. We are wired that way from the beginning, but people have learned that sex is bad from many places. I do feel that we’re raising consciousness around sex and shame and we can see the people we work with get so more relaxed around their sexuality.”

You’re not showing up to have sex.

“When clients first come in we’ll sit and talk for a while to discover their issue,” Danielle tells us. “Then, depending on what the issue is, we’re going to do something experiential in that first session.”

If the word experiential sounds daunting, you may be relieved (or disappointed) to know that it’s much less scary than you think. No one’s going to demand that you undress. Instead, Danielle says, the practitioner may start with deep breathing exercises to get the client to feel more in their body and connect with themselves in a way that ignites erotic energy. Sometimes, the experiential portion of the session may include learning how to make eye contact (terrifying for many) or working on relaxing in sexual situations.

“It could be just talking about their fantasies or what turns them on,” Danielle says. “That’s an experience that so many people have never had in a safe nonjudgemental environment.”

That place of non-judgment is essential to the practice. Because most of us have grown up thinking of sex as something shameful (or only reserved for the very attractive and well-endowed). We forget that all of us are entitled to have good sex and not be ashamed to explore the things that turn us on, whether that be BDSM or 20 minutes in the missionary position.

“A lot of what we bring to the approach,” Celeste says, “is celebratory, fun, and exciting, and we stay away from shaming people’s desires. We are normalizing what they are experiencing in all different areas of sex and desire, which is very helpful as it gives them a different perspective about how they can embrace themselves and transform in the ways they want to.

Here’s how this works: Imagine you’re a dude coming in to work on the issue of premature ejaculation (common! Normal! Will happen at least once to most of us!). The first thing your sex coach will do is demystify the experience and explain that because masturbation is viewed as something shameful that needs to be hidden, many men condition themselves to orgasm as quickly as possible, not recognizing that this kind of pattern will affect their sex lives, and then, when they do involve themselves in romantic situations, they end up not feeling adequate.

“I had this young guy who really thought he was supposed to be able to stay hard and not ejaculate for like an hour,” Danielle laughs. “No, honey, that’s not going to happen like that. It’s not realistic. We do a reality check around that.”

And then the work really begins. Once Celeste and Danielle (they work with clients individually) pinpoint the problem, they’ll teach a client how to slow his or her body down, how to touch, and how to relax and enjoy sexual experiences.

“We see many couples,” Danielle says, “many times one partner says, ‘You have to teach them how to do that, you have to teach her to respond the way you respond.’”

But the sessions are sex-y.

While traditional sexological bodywork is a one-way street when it comes to touch (the practitioner does touch the client’s naked body, often with a glove on), Somatica is different in that the practitioner and the client touch each other. The clothes stay on, but instead of manual touch (just physical training), the client and the therapist work on both sexual and relationship techniques to prepare the client for the real thing.

“You’re learning everything from emotional connection and communication to erotic connection,” Celeste says. “A client could be learning about passion by practicing with us throwing each other up against the wall, or they could be learning about romance with tender, gentle touch. You’re learning different energies of erotic connection but also seduction and how to be more in your body in an erotic way. There’s a huge set of experiential tools we use to help people be fully realized sexually and emotionally in relationships.”

Wait up, throwing each other against walls?

“If you just think about it,” Danielle says, “we have this idea that we’re supposed to know those things and to do them. Spontaneously. How the heck are we going to get that information?”

Only the movies come to mind.

“You know there’s technique to everything.” Danielle continues. “You can really learn how to bring the right energy, you can learn how to say the right words, and touch in a way that’s going to make someone feel arousal and turn on. We see some of it in the movies, but we don’t get the full picture or the ‘How To’ – they cut out so many of the most important aspects of sexual connection.”

Media representations of sex tell us one of two stories: The first features people who, by some preternatural means, have become master lovers. We don’t know how, we don’t know why. We just know they’re good at what they do. They know how to kiss, to nibble on ears, and, yes, even throw each other up against walls in ways that are sexy and dominating without being creepy.

The second story is more awkward: We either see people go from ugly ducklings into sex monsters in a brief montage or we never see them get there at all. They live in a world where sex is awkward and strange but enjoyable with the right person. Celeste and Danielle, however, are trying to tell a third story — the one in which even the most insecure people learn to feel comfortable and confident within their own bodies.

“People think we’re going to do role-play, so it seems like it’s going to feel phony,” Celeste says, “but we show up really authentically. When I’m practicing with somebody I’m Celeste. I’m not practicing, ‘Let’s pretend that I’m so and so.’ It’s a very real, very beautiful connection that we share with our clients.”

That connection helps smooth over any nerves, even when you’re doing something that sounds silly or challenging.

“When you first throw somebody up against the wall, yeah there’s definitely going to be some awkwardness and some laughter,” Celeste continues, “but we practice. When somebody comes into my office, they’re not going to practice it one time. We’re going to do it eight times, ten times. By the end, it’s like, “Whoa, that was really hot, you are sensual and you’re turning me on and it’s super exciting. I think any learning curve can have some awkwardness and discomfort to it but the outcome is so profound and fun that I think people are willing to go through the awkwardness.”

And the coaches do get turned on…

With all this talk about being authentic, we wanted to know the answer to the age-old question when it comes to any kind of work in which sex is involved: Is the practitioner aroused?

Turns out, that’s not just a hazard of the job; it’s the goal.

“The best feedback that we can give clients is our turn on, and we’re not faking it,” Danielle says seriously. “We’re letting ourselves respond authentically and get aroused. We’re teaching them how to seduce us and turn us on because that’s the best learning that they’re going to get, an authentic and real response. They really appreciate it, because men especially, very rarely they get gentle and real feedback that points them in the right direction.”

“I had a client in my office the other day and I was teaching him how to bite the back of my neck,” Celeste adds. “We were taking turns and it was so arousing. I was like, ‘Yay, this is my job.’”

But there are clear limits. Bites on the neck? Appropriate. Erotic touch? Part of the process. Kissing? Celeste and Danielle don’t do that, because it’s important to set boundaries when you’re doing this work. “Besides,” Celeste says, “there are other ways to learn how to be a good kisser.” (Yes, this can sometimes involve practicing on hands.)

Even couples have to keep it PG: “They’re making out and touching each other,” Danielle says. “They can kiss each and they can put their hands underneath each others clothing, stuff that we can’t do with them in session. But they don’t get naked.”

Hey, just more excitement for when they get home.

Speaking of boundaries, they’re a cornerstone of a sex coach’s work.

Sure, part of Celeste and Danielle’s job is to teach clients how to turn them — and others — on in order to benefit the client, but another huge part of their work is making sure that clients understand that relationships have boundaries.

“We have a relationship with our clients and it can be a very strong and beautiful attachment,” Celeste says seriously, “but it still stays within the confines of our practice and the boundaries of the session. We’re not seeing our clients outside of session, not going to dinner or dates with them. You can have this beautiful authentic connection with someone and then support them, encourage them to really go out and find that in their lives as well.”

But that doesn’t mean that all clients are so receptive to these boundaries. Some may not be ready for the type of healing Celeste and Danielle offer, others may become jealous due to the nature of the coaching.

“I think in any coach or therapist’s history there are times when things come up that are particularly challenging within the relationship,” Celeste says. “We try to keep the boundaries and try to make sure everybody’s okay in those relationships, but sometimes things don’t go well. It’s almost impossible when you’re working at this level of intimacy for that not to happen sometimes. Danielle and I always try to repair, whenever repair is possible.”

In fact, Celeste and Danielle say that the hurt and jealousy that client experience — especially when the work gets intense — is another learning experience. As is the reconnection that the pair attempt with their clients after such a rupture. Not only can it lead to more strengthened relationships, but, as Danielle points out, it can help clients understand that being part of a couple isn’t perfect all the time. It’s not about never fighting, she says, it’s about being able to repair and reconnect after conflict arises.

At the end of the day, though (and they’re long days!), Celeste and Danielle can’t imagine doing anything else. “I think being in such deep and intimate connection with so many wonderful people, seeing them grow and transform and seeing their lives get better, is so fulfilling,” Celeste says.

“I like the realness of it,” Danielle adds. “I don’t need to try and pretend that I’m someone else. I can be real in the relationship. I really love that.”

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.

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