Tag Archives: youth

Our Hippie Secret Teasure

The first time I saw a condom I was nine years old and slightly too old to be playing pretend. This sounds wrong, but let me explain:

I was sitting in my friend’s parents’ 1992 Subaru station wagon and we were playing a game called “Hippie Road Trip” where we were two hippies driving across America. I’m not sure what this game entailed besides my friend sitting in the driver’s seat of the parked car and turning the wheel every so often to not crash into imaginary pedestrians and animals. While looking through the glove box for a map (we had gotten lost) I came across a box of condoms.

TreasureBox-CM

“There was something so thrilling about finding evidence of the adult world.”

I had heard about the legendary pieces of latex in class from the school nurse. She was a portly woman with red hair who had clearly been uncomfortable explaining “the birds and the bees” to a class of fourth graders. Her perspiration and rushed tone, however, had made the topic more exciting, more mysterious. And so it was no wonder then that finding a box of condoms to us was like discovering buried treasure.

“They’re my parents’,” explained my friend, who had christened herself ‘Sparkle’ whilst playing pretend. I too had taken a new name for my character, the most beautiful name I could think of, which at the time happened to be ‘Crystal’. Her parents were in fact real hippies and as a result Sparkle was somewhat of an expert on the subject of sex.

“Here– let me see those,” she said, extending her hand. She opened the box and grabbed a small, plastic square before tearing it open. It was long and cylindrical with a strange almost soft texture.

“Can I have one?” I asked excitedly.

It was not so often that I had such easy access to illicit objects. There was something so thrilling about finding evidence of the adult world. She handed me a small plastic square of my own. Pretty soon the entire box had been completely emptied and every one of the six condoms was unwrapped. It turned out that condoms could fit over your hands, your feet and even the stick shift of a 1992 Subaru station wagon.

Finally, tired of playing with them, we folded and stuffed all of the unwrapped condoms back into their box and into the glove compartment.

Sparkle readjusted her seat and went back to concentrating on driving. I stared out the window of the un-moving car, satisfied with our new found hippie secret treasure.

Monologues are independent stories. Opinions shared are the author’s own. Also, you should know that glove compartments are a terrible and risky place to store condoms. The heat from the car can breakdown the latex and render condoms useless. Do you remember your first encounter with condoms or dams?

#MySexPositivity with Erin McKelle

For this young e-activist, sex positive is a way of being in the flesh (and in the virtual). While her topics range from slut shame to reproductive health, she is most interested in how sex positivity manifests in our day to day interactions with each other. Through self-reflective vlogging and digital writing, Erin builds a bibliotech of critical feminist self-love. Her prolific writing is sure to inspire. 

1) Identify one or two trends, or influential people in the Sex Positive community that you identify with (or are inspired by) and those trends which you relate to not-so-much.

Something I can really identify with is ending victim blaming and slut shaming. We’re all taught to view women as these sexual provocateurs who need to not tempt men with their bodies. Meanwhile the media is objectifying women’s bodies and glorifying the virgin/whore dichotomy. I remember growing up and being really confused by all of this. I was also very in touch with my body and sexuality from a young age; but I was hearing these “sex is bad, and especially bad for women,” messages all around me, which caused a lot of internal conflict. Sex positivity, for me, is to reject these ideas and cause society to question our gendered and sexist views of sexuality.  And people are starting to listen.  Take for example The UnSlut Project and the recent book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation by Leora Tanenbaum that are now making big waves.

Something I don’t identity with is Kink. I think it’s great that the sex positive community is busting myths and stigma around it, but it’s not something that I personally am interested in!

 2) How do you define “sex positivity” for yourself and your work? In other words, what is your primary passion and how do you distinguish your writings and interests from other branches of thought within the sex positive movement?

I define “sex positivity” for myself as a philosophy, a of way of being that is centered on the idea that sexuality is healthy, beautiful and courageous. This has in turn influenced my work- all of my activism, writing, and blogging is rooted in this core principal.

My primary passion is definitely reproductive rights. Without them, there’s no way that feminism could have ever made as much progress for women as it has! There’s also been a constant threat to those rights for the last 50 years, so it’s really important that this issue isn’t seen as already “won”. A recent example of this is the lawsuit that Hobby Lobby has filed to avoid covering contraceptives on their employee’s health care plans, that could result in employers deciding which contraceptives employers have access to, if they choose to offer birth control coverage at all. Another is the recent abortion restrictions that have been legislated throughout 2013 in Texas, Ohio, North Dakota and North Carolina, which beg the question of what right, if any, do we have to ‘choose’ anymore.

I mainly distinguish myself through my feminist spin that comes with all and any analysis that I do. Also, I tend to focus on how the dynamics of relationships work to reinforce patriarchal and oppressive social constructions. I believe that our day-to-day interactions with people really shape our interactions with the world and how we feel about ourselves. There’s always a lot of talk about large, institutional problems, like the lack of access to sex education in schools or the fact that in most States only heterosexual couples can get married, but never much talk about how our day-to-day relationships are central to our identities and oppression(s). I want to change that. My sex positive feminism gives me the critical tools to think through these seemingly “normal” and habitual daily practices.

3) What directions do you think sex positivity will take within the next 5 – 10 years?  Or what topics and with what platforms would you like to see sex positivity develop more thoroughly within the next 5 – 10 years?

I think sex positivity will really start to embrace a lot more ideas from queer theory (not that it already doesn’t) and this will define more of the movement. Deconstructing the structures of sexuality that exist throughout society will act as a liberator for everyone and become more mainstream.

I would really like to see sex positivity collaborate with other social movements and make connections between other forms of oppression (like poverty, racism, environmentalism) and how they perpetuate sex-negativity. I think that most social movements are working under very similar philosophies and goals. The more we connect and collaborate, the more power and influence we’ll have.

Opinions shared are the author’s own. Want to participate in this interview series? What is your sex positivity?

Youth-Made Announcements The Public Must Watch

The three videos presented here are like no other sexual health messages shared on prime time TV. They were made by HIV-positive youth from the Young Adult Program (YAP) at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals’ Spencer Cox Center for Health. This video initiative, designed and facilitated by the consultancy group Connected Health Solutions Inc., has turned top-down approaches of traditional PSAs on its head.

Just “wear a condom every time”

For those of you who can’t remember, public service announcements (PSAs) from the late 80’s to ‘90s predominantly involved high profile personalities like Magic Johnson and Whoopie Goldberg telling you to “wear a condom every time”. Here’s young Whoopie (nostalgia!).


Babies with Hiv and Aids 1990s by NoHivNoAids

Some of these messages were groundbreaking for the time. Others were not so effective. In our interview with the founders of the HIV Disclosure Project, we discuss how early HIV awareness campaigns were based on fear, pushing condoms as the only option to avoid death. These messages were vague. They obscured real-life information about the different degrees of risks and how to manage those risks with options suited for the individual or relationship. You certainly didn’t see Growing Pains’ Kirk Cameron speaking about “fluid-bonded” couples, or how oral sex is risky for some STIs while less risky for others. Consequently, 30 years into the HIV pandemic, STI stigma and misconceptions about transmission are still perpetuated today.

But there is hope. The Young Adult Program (YAP) at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals’ Spencer Cox Center for Health in partnership with Connected Health Solutions, Inc. (CHS), have changed mainstream top-down approaches of PSAs. They’ve cultivated a safe and critically reflective space for youth to produce their own public health messages. Upon contacting the project for an interview, however, I learned that their collaboration has been forced to stop due to loss of funding and state budget cuts.

#SpreadTheWordNotTheVirus

Depressing as this is, some of the youth who made the videos below are in the process of organizing an Indiegogo campaign to help continue the program. And not without celebrity pizazz and support from DJ Caroline D’Amore (whose mother died from AIDS-related causes). Watch this space for updates: SpreadTheWordNotTheVirus. And follow CHS facebook page.

YAP and CHS behind the scenes film production of "It's Not Just a Guy Issue" PSA.

YAP and CHS behind the scenes film production of “It’s Not Just a Guy Issue”

A New Era of PSAs

CHS has been working with at-risk youth from YAP for a couple of years. What’s novel about their work is in the production process. They collectively produce online PSAs that address issues relevant to the participants. Kenny Shults, president of CHS, explained in an email that over a period of a few month, participants would run through a series of group exercises all geared towards thinking critically about a social issue (such as HIV stigma) and develop an effective script. “We then spend about a month working together to complete all of the pre-production activities such as casting, props, locations, etc. and fine tuning the script. Then everyone shows up to the shoot (1 day per PSA) to make a movie. It is an incredibly fun, interactive, educational, and inspiring process,” Kenny explains.

What results is a number of original and thought-provoking messages. The PSAs presented here were made by HIV positive young adults from YAP. The first video conveys the message that people living with HIV can give birth to and raise healthy children, have a healthy family and lead fulfilling lives. Kenny highlights this video in particular, stating:

…a number of the youth who made the “Happily Ever After” campaign are now taking their meds after making this piece. One young woman says: “Every time I take my pill in the morning I picture Emma’s face” (Emma is the name of the actress in that PSA). We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

This is precisely the point. The significance of the workshops is not the glossy quality of the final product; rather, it is the process which matters most. Making a short film by and for the very population it represents, and finding a collective voice together cultivates a transformative power from within. Participants complete the PSA with a critical, self-reflective understanding of the issue and the social structures and institutions that influence such an issue. In effect, the participants’ attitudes have positively shifted.

The second PSA, “One Condition”, tackles HIV stigma by asking the audience “What would you do?” in the situation of HIV disclosure. It’s an important PSA because not nearly enough people understand that HIV is a manageable disease. Advancements in treatment mean that risks of transmission have changed dramatically, and so too must people’s attitudes and fears.

For more about the workshop process and theories that underpins their approach, read the company’s statement and Kenny Shult’s article at The Good Man Project.

What do you think of these PSAs? Do you feel they successfully address a lack in public discourse about living with HIV? What messages would you like to see more of?

An effective condom message

I end with this last video about the importance of safer sex. Unlike the PSAs of the 1990s, this video addresses real obstacles (like embarrassment of buying condoms) and conveys real choices. It offers an alternative ending to another video about condom use and brings light to the forgotten option of female condoms. We follow a guy throughout the day as he prepares for a date, yet at each point that a condom presents itself he is too embarrassed or uncomfortable to pick one up. When the moment comes he is unprepared. Lucky for him, condom use isn’t just a guy’s responsibility.

To view more videos campaigns made with CHS by teens, LGBTQ folk, high school bullies and more, check out the My Media Life playlist by CHS.

Sexual Health & Relationship Education via Life Stories

A riart Grrrl, a folklorist and a condom monologuer get together to discuss the phenomenon of real-life storytelling in the context of sex education

The three authors of this post come from different trajectories in the field of sex and sexuality but we share the belief that real-life storytelling should play an intrinsic role in sexual health and relationships education (SRE).

storytelling pieceHere we discuss the need for real-life stories that address safer sex practices and how to navigate health risks in relevant ways. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen and Xaverine Bates both explain that sharing real-life stories has transformative power to validate perspectives which may be overlooked or silenced in public discourse. Storytelling has the ability to convey scenarios that one may never have imagined before. Hence, they raise awareness about social issues and invite people to learn and unlearn ways of looking at bodies and desires. As stated by Xaverine Bates, founder of riart Grrls and aGender, “The power of storytelling is crucial for truly effective sex and relationship education (SRE), with a firm emphasis on emotional health in order to foster a deep understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship.”

Taboo Manages How We Talk about Sex

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen, folklorist and writer at MySexProfessor.com, argues that due to social taboo towards talking publicly about sexual experiences, these life stories

“are limited to settings where the teller doesn’t have a professional or personal stake in the listeners’ reactions. I think this is unfortunate, because personal narratives are really potent genres for education. When someone tells a personal narrative, they not only educate the listener (by conveying facts about their life), but they also invite the listener to empathize with them and consider their values.”

Jeana continues, “So, because of the taboo on oversharing about one’s sexual activities in many settings, people tend to share personal narratives on sexual topics within their peer groups, age groups, friend groups, and hobby groups. This guarantees that if you’re making yourself vulnerable by sharing sexual information, you’re probably doing it to a sympathetic audience. But it also means that you risk living within an echo chamber, and you’ll only hear stories that confirm your own set of values. To that end, I think it’s really important for people from diverse backgrounds to learn each other’s stories and thereby gain empathy for how different life circumstances can lead to a variety of life (and lifestyle) choices.”

The internet is one place where people subvert this taboo and overcome issues of access. At Condom Monologues we’ve circumscribed a bully-free space that aims to be as inclusive as possible allowing anyone to ask questions and share their experiences with safe sex (see our archive). Whether the admins agree with the storyteller’s values or choices is not the point. However, we do not represent everyone’s experiences and have our limitations. One can never control how stories are appropriated and re-purposed in the digital world, and that is a risk all storytellers face. But there are ways to protect identity as well as mediate discussion around sharing stories, such as workshops like aGender (explained below).

Teaching Which Facts with What Stories…

The taboo Jeana highlights also affects the way in which sex education informs students. Narratives in class are rooted in political interests and social fears around sexuality. Pleasure and desire are rarely mentioned even as a side-issue. Instead, young people are fed a platter of warnings and doom-laden data about STI epidemics and teen pregnancy. One need not look further than this and that mandatory abstinence-only assembly to be told horror stories about how boyfriends used “condoms that had holes in them” or told girls that if they use birth control “your mother probably hates you.”

KnowledgeIsPowerEducators rarely offer information about safer sex beyond vaginal-penis intercourse. Diverse sexuality and the spectrum of (trans)gender identity are excluded. Addressing issues such as STI stigma, homophobic, transphobic and sexist language, cyber-bullying, sexting and sexual anxieties are inadequate at best.

Medical information is often presented without context nor provide students with diverse options on how to apply these facts in real-life sexual relationships. And that’s if we can call them “facts” to begin with! In the US, only 13 states require sex education to actually be medically accurate, according to a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute. Meanwhile, in the UK, Xaverine explains that “there is currently a bias towards the biological side of SRE” which “favors plain biological facts” without focus on issues of enthusiastic consent and emotional confidence.

What Young Adults are Saying

Students’ experiences in sexual health class are telling. As a college instructor, Jeana hears young people share their experiences in sex education which, she explains, “constitutes their own type of personal narrative. The topics that people remembered tended to be biological rather than emotional; physiology was covered, but not necessarily relationships or pleasure.”

Xaverine agrees. She points to testimonies by 19-21 year olds who participated in women’s-only focus groups that examined the effectiveness of SRE (Kavanagh, 2011).

For example, one participant said,

I was like scarred by sex education at secondary school, they came in with like these big blown up pictures of STIs and stuff and said, you know, if you have sex and stuff this is what will happen to you. It was horrible…(ibid, p-13).

All focus-group participants commented on the lack of relationship education in schools with an emphasis purely on the biological. As one put it,

I think relationships and morals and respect need to be put back in place, for everyone, not just males or females, and I don’t believe in the saying nothing (abstinence teaching) because I think if everybody was to turn around to me and be like, you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that, I’d do it…I’d rebel (ibid, p-15).

“Comprehensive” SRE is in dire need of revision. Negligence of these topics results in an unsafe, non-engaging space that silences and restricts young people’s sexuality and gender identity. Students are left inarticulate about what they want, what they need and how to manage risks. Thus the vicious cycle of sex-shaming continues and proliferates the spread of STIs and unhealthy sexual relationships.

Changing Narratives

Failures in sex education programs are the reason why organizations like aGender exist. In an attempt to move beyond standard curricula, Xaverine states that “opportunities need to be made for young people to talk about their fears, expectations and experiences of sex and relationships in a healthy and supportive environment…without fear of embarrassment or repercussions from peers, teachers, parents or carers. This is what we are aiming for at aGender.”

“aGender is beginning its pilot project this month, which consists of a series of workshops to complement an exhibition, txt, at Claremont Studios in St Leonards, which will be a collection of contemporary visual artworks that incorporate written word. The exhibition will explore the tension and complexity created when a word is used not only for its literal meaning but also as a visual cue to lead through to layers of subtext and implied meaning. In light of the current reports on the psychological impact of texting, sexting and cyberbullying on young children, SMS messaging and the power of seemingly innocent words to imply malicious, threatening messages- it is anticipated that the challenging nature of the artwork will be both engaging and inspirational for them both as viewers and as participants in the workshops.”

Storytelling as a Transformative Process

Storytelling has played an important role even during the preliminary stages for aGender. Xaverine explains,

“As part of our research in planning the workshops, which cover texting, sexting & cyber-bullying, we have had many discussions within our focus group about how best to tackle such a difficult subject. As a result, we have shared many of our own experiences of sex education, our own relationships, previous abusive situations and much more, all through the medium of storytelling.”

Image from Xaverine Bates' blog depicting one of her live art performances on gender stereotyping and class.

Image from Xaverine Bates’ blog depicting ‘Peepshow 2’, one of her live art performances with Miranda Sharp on gender stereotyping and class.

She continues, “It will be fascinating to hear the young peoples’ stories . We are planning to have a multi-platform element to the workshops, incorporating social media of their choice (e.g. instagram, twitter, etc.) to encourage young people to engage with the subject in the days between workshops. This way we will hopefully elicit more stories that they may feel uncomfortable in telling us directly, as many feel more comfortable revealing personal information via social media, which ironically is one of the reasons that the problem of sexting has arisen in the first place – the illusion of anonymity and neutrality has enabled young people to feel that exposing themselves in their bedrooms is acceptable to post online, to potentially thousands of viewers. This false sense of security is what leads to the repercussions as seen in aggressive bullying and cyberbullying.”

Read updates about how the work shop went.

aGender’s project is one example in which artful use of information and communication strategies can re-engage public awareness and find new ways to talk about being a body, being sexual, and negotiating healthy relationships. Jeana also pinpoints the transformative phenomenon of personal storytelling and listening. She describes how sharing experiences of sexual assault can help challenge shame and affirm agency over one’s narrative. Jeana states,

“One of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed when it comes to sexual storytelling is the importance of processing trauma through storytelling. Specifically, sexual assault survivors are often able to work through what happened to them by narrating the events in a way that is transformative and therapeutic. One of my mentors at Indiana University, Dr. Nicole Kousaleos, did her dissertation on how women who have survived sexual abuse can, in narrating their stories, experience greater agency in their lives. Narrating a story is also an invitation for listeners to respond, and in this case, the audience can help reinforce that the survivor was not to blame (since one of the biggest stigmas that prevents sexual assault survivors from speaking out is the tendency in our culture to victim-blame). I’ve observed this phenomenon informally, among multiple friends and acquaintances, and thus I believe that overcoming the shameful silence surrounding sexual assault is an important part of the healing process for many people.”

“Additionally, since one of the functions of personal narratives is to create intimacy and empathy, listeners can learn more about the reality of sexual assault. The numbers are already shockingly high -such as the CDC’s estimate that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped at some point in their lives- but numbers are abstract, whereas people telling their stories are concrete, real, human. Storytelling about sexual violence puts a face on the problem and helps to humanize it, and that’s why I believe it’s so powerful.”

Conclusion

People are inherently story-driven. The way we understand the world is through narrative. That is why first-person stories are very powerful in facilitating awareness and understanding, especially when they offer an experience of the world never previously imagined. What’s lost in the public discourse of SRE are the real, everyday lives of youth and adults, and making medical facts relevant to their complex needs and desires. The three authors here advocate for more opportunities for people to engage in safe and participatory spaces to actively listen and reflect upon stories.

Because there are so few authentic first-person narratives in sex education (especially a lack of non-heterosexual voices), storytelling provides us with non-stereotypical and often unexpected representations of people, gender roles and relationships. Stories should not be seen as merely anecdotal but as a potential source of knowledge for both the storyteller and the audience.

———–
Kavanagh, K. (2011) ‘Priming Pubescent Sexualities; Sex and relationship education, without the relationship education?’ [unpublished].
For recent reports on cyberbulling and sexting refer to Ringrose J, Gill R, Livingstone S & Harvey L (2012). “A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’”. NSPCC.