$1 review: wise parenthood

$1 reviews are posts about books I find (or Hanna finds for me) on the $1 used book carts at the bookstores we visit around Boston.

Marie Stopes in her laboratory, 1904
Image made available through Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend, when my mother was here on a visit, Hanna and I took her to Brattle Book Store near the Boston Common to shop the glorious $1 and $3 book carts which they keep in the empty lot next door. There, much to my feminist sex geek delight, I found a copy of Marie Stopes' 1918 classic Wise Parenthood ("The Treatise on Birth Control for Married People. A Practical Sequel to 'Married Love'") for a mere $1.00! By the time the twenty-first edition (my edition) appeared, the book had gone through sixty-eight printings and 626 thousand copies were in circulation.

Much to my everlasting sadness, I neglected to buy a copy of Married Love when I saw it at an antique mall last fall in Michigan -- only going so far as to follow my mother around the shop reading hilarious passages aloud to her and giggling obnoxiously. So I have not read the the companion volume to Wise Parenthood. I thought I'd share this passage, however, since to at least it presages the current conversation about modern parenthood/reproduction as a conscious decision that a couple makes, as opposed to something that just "naturally" happens to opposite-sex couples when they enjoy an active sex life.

Nature herself provided that men and women should delight in meeting. Given a loving married pair in normal health, and unsophisticated in any way, there is seldom any lack of children around them after they have been wedded for some years. This is what is still described as the 'natural' condition of affairs, and in these days of sophistication in so-called 'civilization,' some reformers urge a return to Nature and an unregulated birth-rate.

If, however, the course of 'nature' is allowed to run unguided, babies come in general too quickly for the resources of most, and particularly of city-dwelling, families, and the parents as well as the children consequently suffer. Wide parents therefore guide nature, and control the conception of the desired children so as to space them in the way best adjusted to what health, wealth, and happiness they have to give. The object of this book is to tell prospective parents how best to do this, and to hand on to them in a concise form what help science can give on this vital subject.

Barrier methods, such as the sponge, rubber cervical caps, and condoms are covered, as are methods such as "coitus interruptus," nursing after birth, and the "safe period" (the rhythm method). I like this objection Stopes raises to coitus interruptus:

The great majority of women whose husbands practise this method suffer very fundamentally as a result of the reiterated stirring-up of local nervous excitement which is deprived of its natural physiological resolution. Of the far-reaching effects on the woman's entire organism of the lack of a proper [vaginal?] orgasm, which is generally the result of this method, this is not the place to speak ... [however] the local support and nerve-soothing contact which are supplied mutually to both when the act is completed normally are destroyed.

She was also not a fan of "metal instruments" (a veiled reference to surgical abortion techniques?) and was firm in the advice that one should "NEVER PUT INTO THE VAGINA CHEMICALS YOU WOULD NOT PUT IN THE MOUTH." which seems like fairly solid advice on the whole, particularly considered in the light of the era's encouragement that women use such substances as lysol, carbolic acid as douching fluids.

Here's hoping I can find a volume of Married Love on the $1 carts soon!


sunday smut on hiatus (sort of)

Vintage smut from the tumblr blog queerest of them all.

There have been Developments since I last posted a Sunday Smut list, namely that I've started a tumblr blog, the feminist librarian reads, at which I am posting, throughout the week, the links and excerpts that used to pile up in Google Reader and overwhelm me by Thursday or Friday as I began to compile the Sunday Smut list. As I explained on Monday, the tumblr posts feed into a static page here at the FFLA.

In the meantime, I've discerned that the next few weeks are going to be stressful and hectic around the FFLA headquarters, between the end of the summer (wrapping up my thesis draft!), a trip to Maine, and the start of the fall semester. Once things settle down, I plan to revisit the whole question of the Sunday Smut list, but in the meantime enjoy this charming photograph, check out my tumblr links, and savor the waning days of summer.


reading the (lesbian) classics: annie on my mind

Welcome to the first installment of a new series, "reading the (lesbian) classics," in which Danika Ellis of The Lesbrary and I read our way in a very haphazard manner through queer literature (our method is basically picking out the books that sound like a fun time and taking it from there!) and chat about it, and then post our conversations on the interwebs. So here's the first installment. This time around, we read Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden, first published in 1982.

Warning! Mild plot spoilers ahead for those of you who care!

Anna: So [rubs hands together] ... how shall we begin our conversation?

Danika: I'm not sure, I feel like I must have forgotten half the book... might as well start with first impressions and just see where it leads us.

Anna: [laughs] Had you ever read it before?

Danika: I have, once before. I remember when I first read AOMM I thought there was something a little bit off about their relationship. And now I think I know what bothered me. I don't know if it's because it's set in the 80s, or if it's Nancy Garden's writing, but they both seem a lot younger than what they're supposed to be.

Anna: Yes! They're supposed to be, like, headed for college and they act like they're in middle school.

Danika: I know it's in a sort of self-conscious "girls our age aren't supposed to do this" way, but I still liked it a lot better once I started thinking of them as 13-year-olds instead of 17-year-olds. And it's not just them: even her little brother seems at least 4 years younger than his given age! And her classmates!

Anna: Yeah. I don't think I noticed it so much when I was younger, because I read it when I was about thirteen myself? It was about the only lesbian YA novel my library had (early to mid-90s). To be fair, that was before the real boom in queer YA fiction. AOMM was probably one of the few available. And not a bad one to have if you're only going to have one (no one dies!) ... but yeah, I agree with you that, especially this time around I was left thinking, "wow, and these are supposed to be seniors?"

It's not even Annie's imaginary world ... it's more the school politics and so on. Like, no one has a real sense of a world beyond the microcosm of the prep school.

Danika: Yeah, the ear-piercing! Again, I was thinking "Well, maybe it's just because this was 30 years ago...?" But it definitely seemed a bit off

Anna: Part of it probably is the era ... and the fact that Nancy Garden was probably, on some level, harkening back to her own teen years which would have been in, what, the 1950s? 60s? When maybe ear piercing was more risque?

Danika: Aaah, yeah, that might have been part of it.

Anna: I also wondered if maybe part of it was an attempt to make the drama center around something other than the fact that Liza was discovering her sexuality? So she invented another drama about the prep school that seemed kind of forced?

Danika: Maybe, but it turns into it being about her sexuality anyway.

Anna: True.

Danika: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought the girls' meeting seemed really forced. And I definitely agree with that the second time around. The singing, the sudden friendship... again, it's the sort of way children interact, not teenagers.

Anna: Yeah -- teenagers are more self-aware, and self ... restrained? I made instant best friends with kids in art class when I was, maybe, six! Not when I was seventeen. At seventeen I was like, well, maybe going for coffee after class and see how that goes. But since NG wanted the girls not to be at the same school, she had to find a way for them to run into each other.

Danika: Still, I think she could have done better than "Don't stop [singing]. Please." "Oh, you startled me!" That just sounds really forced.

Anna: I'd forgotten how much class is an implicit part of the story. The way Annie comes from a "bad" part of town and everything.

Danika: I forgot that, too!

Anna: I was thinking, vis a vis reactions to queer teens, that it was interesting that Liza's sexuality was more controversial in her upper-class world than it seems to be in Annie's world.

Danika: Yes, because everything was controversial in Liza's little world. The ear-piercing I guess was supposed to highlight that, but it seemed odd anyway. The only question with Annie was whether she was going to tell her family or not, so I don't think we ever see how her school would have handled it, but presumably they have more important things to worry about.

Anna: It would have been irrelevent in Annie's school (I'm assuming); no one cared about her there. I got the sense she was nervous about telling her parents, but her family was portrayed as fairly accepting and encouraging. I got the sense that they would have been baffled and maybe a little worried or hurt, but there wouldn't have been all the drama that Liza had in her family and at the school.

It was interesting to me how it was almost reversed ... or maybe that's not quite what I'm thinking of. But today, we think of urban upper-middle-class folks as fairly cool about queer sexualities, etc. Whereas we think of lower-class people as reactionaries. Culturally. And in this story, the opposite was the case. I doubt those stereotypes would hold up [in real life], but it's interesting that she chose to write it like that.

Danika: That is the framework we generally use. But Liza's privilege paralyzed her. Her school was so caught up in itself that no one could step out of line. It was a weird relation between them.

Anna: Yeah. Maybe I'm just too midwestern to understand the world of elite prep schools!

Danika: Yes, it was really weird seeing into that strange boxed-off world.

On a slightly different note, I was writing down some thoughts as I went, and on page 49 of my version, I thought Garden was foreshadowing the reaction to her coming out. It was when the parents found out about the ear-piercing, and the mom is pretty accepting, but the dad freaks out. So it surprised me later when he was actually really great about it.

Anna: Good point. I was really intrigued by a number of the adults in the story, actually ... and the way in which adults were portrayed in relation to the young people.

Danika: How so?

Anna: Well, I was impressed that the adults at the hearing were not portrayed as monoliths, as monsters, and that a couple were standing up to the schoolmistress, even if for their own reasons. And I thought it was an interesting (and positive) choice to give the girls such human mentors, themselves lesbians of an elder generation.

Danika: Yeah, that's very true. The thing that stuck with me most about AOMM has always been the teacher couple (oops, spoilers).

Anna: (warning! warning!)

Danika: Actually, the thing that stuck with me the most was their book collection. Lesbian books inside my lesbian book! Wow! Their presence really made the story. (The teachers, not the books.)

Anna: I agree about the teachers. In contrast to the charicatured headmistress and the reactive parents, the two teachers came across really human, but also kind and supportive, generous, and sheltering without being controlling. I wondered in my notes whether this was a conscious attempt to counteract the specter of the gay/lesbian predator?

And yeah, it was fascinating to have the books play such a role in a couple of key scenes ... from what I've heard from queer people of earlier generations, that was often the case! that they first discovered language for who they were from books ... all the more reason to be a librarian-advocate for lgbtq teens!

Danika: Aaah, I hadn't considered that! Of course! Because the lesbian teachers were fantastic teachers. If I may quote my favourite line from the dad's reaction (though he goes on to say he doesn't think gay people can be truly happy), "Oh, look. What difference does it make if a couple of teachers are lesbians? Those two are damn good teachers and good people, too, as far as I know." I mean, wow! Surprise acceptance!

Anna: Hehe. Yeah, exactly. Because there's that interesting conversation between the girls and the teachers after the teachers have been fired where the women acknowledge that if they don't press charges, they should be able to get good references ... because the school won't want to admit that they fired the women for being lesbian ... but they also fear for their ability to be hired if they were really out. So a real catch-22.

Since we've talked a lot about where the story felt kind of forced ... one of the ways in which I was really impressed with it was the fact that it a) had a couple of really sweet scenes in which the girls clearly make love, even if off-screen (so to speak) and b) that this is really seen as 100% a good thing, despite what happened with their teachers. Their sexual exploration doesn't spell doom for them as individuals or for their relationship. I don't think many YA romances with straight couples were that whole-heartedly enthusiastic about young love back in the late 1970s ... Even Judy Blume's Forever, despite the positive sexual experience, ends with the relationship ending.

Danika: That's true. It's a bit of a bittersweet book, because Liza gets suspended, nearly expelled for being gay, the teachers get fired, and we know the whole time that they end up drifting apart after they leave for university. But it's also a lot more positive than most of the queer books (YA or not) available at the time. They do end up together at the end, and there's a lot of support of same-sex love. I also liked reading it for all the tropes and patterns that young queer love, young closeted love takes. Like how you could totally tell they were in love with each other before they knew. Like the classic game of "how much physical contact can we hace before it means something?" (shoulders touching, hand holding, etc.)

Anna: Yes! Which I feel like is something that is still confusing to kids (or perhaps I only speak for myself) ... since you're trained, culturally, to expect that opposite-sex intereactions are laden, but not same-sex ones, so you aren't so self-conscious and things kind of sneak up on you way more than with opposite-sex relationships.

Oh, and it was also nice that neither of them really "went straight". Annie was pretty sure she was gay, and Liza wasn't sure, but was definitely leaning towards accepting it.

Anna: I agree! That actually seemed a little dated (in a nice way?) to me, since I feel like if this book had been written today, you'd get this whole "am I bi? am I gay? am I just questioning?" thing going on. Which is absent entirely: Liza comes to the realization she's "gay" full-stop.

Danika: That's true, it definitely has that all-or-nothing mentality that we've (thankfully) shaken off a little more by now

(Oh, wait, I take it back: Annie did try to be straight! Back when she was younger. In her words: "It was ridiculous." That made me laugh.)

They are super cute when they are together and happy.

Anna: Yeah, and as you say there was that added element of the reader being "in the know" in part because Liza's spoilered it for us at the very beginning with the framing narrative.

What do you think of the function of the framing narrative as a literary device? Do you think it adds anything to the narrative that we kind of know it ends badly (at least in the short-term) before the story begins?

Danika: I was pondering that the whole book. I kind of get why she did it, because she needed the drama to keep the story moving through the happy couple parts, but it did add this element of doom that, frankly, no queer book really needs any more of. I guess it works overall, because we get the (spoilerspoiler) happily ever after following the long(ish) separation and we process it with Liza as she processes (and processing is a classic lesbian thing to do), but I'm a little divided on it. What did you think?

Anna: Hmm. Tough question. Retrospective narratives can sometimes work pretty well, but I agree with you that the last thing any queer teen book needs is more angst! That's why I adore David Levithan's work so much -- his love stories are so ebullient. As a kid, I always felt like the way Liza blamed herself for the punishment exacted on the teachers (or, more accurately, for having made love in their home while she was house-sitting ... what the hell was so shameful about that?) was really exaggerated. Like, shouldn't she have been pissed at the secretary who had the vendetta? And the schoolmistress, etc.? But maybe that's a personality thing -- I always had an over-developed sense of self-righteousness as a child :)

Danika: Ah, I loved Boy Meets Boy for that! It's like a combination of cotton candy and sinking into a hot tub. It's just so refreshing to read a happy queer love story. I still want my lesbian version of that.

Anna: Totally! I feel like YA lesbian fiction is still waiting for its Daniel Levithan (if you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them!)

Danika: I don't know of anything quite so positive, though I have read some good ones. Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie is my favourite.

Well, I can see why they were a little ashamed. In the teachers' bed...? That's bad taste. What I couldn't see, though, was why they opened the door! They didn't have to answer! -sigh- The secretary was definitely over-the-top. The absolute poision she was spitting out was painful to read.

Anna: ... I guess. I did a lot of house-sitting in high school and college and I always slept in the homeowner's bed (clean sheets, granted) so it didn't feel so weird to me. but that wasn't in the deal Liza made with the teachers, so I guess that is a little different. Oh, totally with the door! [headdesk] Why oh why did she have to answer????

Danika: Especially before getting dressed!

Anna: Despite the secretary's religiously-motivated poison, I was actually surprised by how little religious conservatives and the religious right as a force opposed to sexual expression appeared in the novel (contrasting, again, with the way it figures in some Levithan stories) ... I think that's another way this dates the story, since it was set just as that force was gathering.

Danika: True, I mean, when she faces the commitee/council/whatever that was, they basically say "Hey, this is none of our business", which is pretty good for the circumstances.

Anna: Yeah, I think it's interesting how the battle-lines are drawn ever-so-slightly differently than we're used to in our generation. The religious element not quite so strong, the class element more so. Being queer still being a threat to one's overall reputation/status even in secular society. (Not saying that's totally gone away, but you wouldn't think in Liza's New York or at MIT it would be an issue!)

Danika: Hmmm, yeah, I can see that...

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised Liza wanted the school to survive. I know she has sentimental attachment to it, but even before they knew she was queer, Poindexter (go to love that name) was absolutely heinous, from the patronizing way of talking to running the meetings when Liza was supposed to be running them.

Anna: Yes. Again, another way in which they seemed young for their age. By 17, you'd think she'd have more perspective. I can see a younger child being invested in the school that had been a second home, but most seventeen-year-olds I've known (including myself!) are a bit more jaded!

Danika: Very true. By 17 I had distrust for all authority, definitely including my school.

I don't know if you read my review and conversation about Well of Loneliness, but I saw a couple of comparisons between it and AOMM that surprised me.

Anna: Do tell!

Danika: Well, for one, both the protagonists were horrified at people hating them being gay, because they both felt that their love was the "best part" of themselves, or some variation on that. Also, both have a scene with the couple being happy that is described as an "illusion". It's just funny because WoL is mentioned in AOMM as part of the teachers' book collection.

Anna: Yes, it was fun to see the lesbian classics appear on their shelves :)

Danika: Especially Patience & Sarah, because Liza and Annie read it, and this time I have, too!

Anna: I read once an essay that was talking about how generations of queer folks locate themselves in history through alternate means than family ties, since so many of them don't come from families where the parents are themselves queer -- and literature was one way.

Danika: That's exactly why I feel that queer lit is so important. It is a foundation to the queer community.

Any last thoughts?

Anna: Not that I can think of -- other than that I really enjoyed the chance to re-read this with someone else, and I'd totally be up for doing it again!

Cross-posted at: Danika @ The Lesbrary | Annie On My Mind Conversation.

Watch for the next installment in reading the (lesbian) classics sometime in late September of early October! At Danika's suggestion, we're reading Hello, Groin, by Beth Goobie (2006). We thought we could use the book as a chance to consider where lesbian YA fiction has come since the "early days."


sex work vs. trafficking: npr points out the difference

On my commute home yesterday, I happened to catch this story on NPR's All Things Considered about a letter signed by 17 Sate Attorneys General asking Craigslist to remove its "adult services" section because they believe it helps foster illegal sex work and child trafficking.

A full transcript is provided on the NPR website. What caught my attention was this exchange between Melissa Block, the reporter, and Chris Koster, State Attorney General of Missouri (one of the AGs who signed the letter). Block is trying to nail Koster down on exactly what he find objectionable about adult women voluntarily offering "adult services" online.

BLOCK: I did try to look through some of them today, locally here, and I would assume that some of those ads, at least, would be placed by adult women who are not victims, who, this is their line of work, and they want to promote their services. Am I wrong about that?

Mr. KOSTER: Well, in Missouri, if you and I are on the same page on what you just said, in Missouri, that's called prostitution. And that's exactly what we are complaining and have been complaining to Craigslist for quite some time over, that some of these ads are very specific. They are clearly for sex, and Craig Newmark is providing a bulletin board for conduct that frequently violates the laws of the 50 states.

BLOCK: I take your point about these ads promoting prostitution, which is illegal. Wouldn't that be a little bit different, though, from saying that women are being victimized? One does not necessarily imply the other, I think.

I want to say kudos to NPR and to Melissa Block in particular for pointing out that objecting to something because it is illegal is different from objecting to something because it is "victimizing" the women (or children) involved, and that there is no simple way to tell if the (adult) individuals who post on Craigslist are being exploited or not. The AG blusters on, saying

That's right. I mean, every single ad that we see on this site, on this link, is not creating a victim. But there are far too many that do, and if you go through any town in America, certainly any town of any size, you're going to see a large number of ads that would certainly appear as advertisements for prostitution.

Again implying that prostitution = victimization. Unfortunately, a four-and-a-half minute story is not enough to disabuse any listener who agrees with Kloster of this notion, but hopefully Block's assertion that not all sex work is, de facto exploitation will in some small way help to shift the national conversation away from the sex work = exploitation model and allow us to ask more nuanced questions about how to incorporate, within a decriminalized sex work industry, checks and balances that would help stop human trafficking and exploitation without depriving sex workers of their livelihood.


quick hit: indexed ftw

Via my friend Diana comes this great graphic commentary by indexed

Venn diagram showing overlapping circles labelled "children" (left), "seen and not heard" (middle), and "women" (right).

The overlaps read: childen + seen and not heard = behaved, and women + seen and not heard = objectified.

The title of the post at Indexed read don't let anyone shut you up.


the feminist librarian reads: new tumblr resource

Inspired by Hanna, and her new tumblr mini blog evil angel, I've started up a tumblr account of my own called the feminist librarian reads. This is going to be the place where I post links and short snippets from blog posts and other web-based items that catch my eye. It may or may not replace the sunday smut list, which can be surprisingly time-consuming to put together at the end of every week! Although I'd miss putting together the commentary and finding sexy pictures. Maybe I'll just post the sexy pictures instead :).

Anyhow ... you can check out the tumblr blog two ways.

1) I've set up a feed so that it posts directly to a static page on this blog. A link to the feminist librarian reads can now be found as one of the links along the top of the page.

2) You can follow the tumblr blog directly with your RSS aggregator, etc., over at feministlibrarian.tumblr.com.

Enjoy your new toy for this rainy Monday afternoon. I may or may not be posting very heavily here at the Future Feminist between now and labor day weekend. I have a thesis draft to wrap up and send to my readers, and then Hanna and I are headed north to enjoy the long weekend with her folks. So in the meantime, you can catch a peek at what I'm checking out online and I'll try to be back more regularly when the new academic years rolls around!


booknotes: fast girls

So I volunteered to review a copy of Rachel Kramer Bussel's latest anthology, Fast Girls: Erotica for Women. Because let's fact it: who doesn't want a free book of erotic short stories sent to them? I mean, I'm a bibliophile, a feminist, and a sex nerd. It really it wasn't an option to say no!

The thing is, as soon as I'd said "Oh, yes, please! Send me a copy!" and the book was on its way, I remembered this thing that librarian Nancy Pearl once wrote about erotica: that one of the places to go when you're in the mood for something steamy is the stories that someone else has identified as the worst erotica of all time (I'm paraphrasing here, because my copy of Book Lust is on a shelf in my parents' house back in Michigan). Because for every person who thinks that story is the libido-killer of the century, there's going to be another who thinks that it's the hottest sex scene they've ever read, and they'll drop it halfway through to go find their significant other(s) in order to get their temperature back down to normal.

I'm a relativist when it comes to arts and culture (not so much when it comes to ethics and human rights): "good" art? "good" writing? who says there's one right way of doing it! And human sexuality, particularly, seems like an area ripe for radical democracy: the best way to create "good" erotica in my book is simply to create it. Which is why I'm a big fan of erotic fan fiction and other amateur outlets for lustful creativity.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: dilemma. How the fuck are you supposed to review a book of erotica in any sort of meaningful fashion when my favorite story is likely to be someone else's worst nightmare -- or I might overlook the one scene that, for someone out there, is likely to make the whole book worthwhile?

I realize this is a dilemma faced for the reviewer of any book. But it seems uniquely acute when it comes to reviewing porn. Maybe because porn is so particular. And maybe also because, well, to it's hard to talk about without giving slightly more ... intimate details as to your own particular tastes. "I really liked the scene in Tristan Taormino's 'Winter, Summer' where the narrator gets felt up at a bar by a butch she's just picked up at the pool table"? "I went fever-hot all over sitting in the subway reading the penultimate bondage scene in D.L. King's 'Let's Dance'"? "I must have some serious power issues, 'cause Ms. Bussel's 'Whore Complex' resulted in the need for a new pair of knickers"?

See? It's all slightly embarrassing, a little too clit-on-your-sleeve for my taste. So rather than attempt to pass judgment on the book qua book I'll simply offer this: I'm am happy to live in a world in which erotica for women, Fast Girls included, exists. It makes my feminist heart proud that right here, right now, we are part of a culture that -- despite its many, many shortcomings -- includes a space for women writers who want to write smut to write it. And to get published. It warms my heart (and other bits of my anatomy) that not only are we women writing and published erotic texts -- that is, texts written explicitly for the purpose of arousal -- we're writing and publishing erotic texts in which women have sexual agency. In which women identify and court (or just plain come on to) the objects of their lust. In which women take charge of the sexual encounter. In which women feel free to choose partners of any sex and pursue them expressly for the purpose of sexual pleasure. In which, sometimes, women explicitly consent to relinquish control because chosen powerlessness. So I don't really have a stake in what porn you read (or whether, really, you have any personal interest in porn at all). But I encourage you all to revel in the fact that we have such literature available to us, in all its myriad flavors.

Fast Girls is now available to purchase and can be found online at Amazon, Powell's and other online vendors. Rachel's website provides a whole array of links to the online bookshop of your choice.


in love with new blogs: Blue Milk

This week, I bring you blue milk, an Australian-based blog on things feminist and things parent+child related. As the blog tagline puts it: "thinking + motherhood = feminist." We are also offered the following image of the blog author.

I discovered blue milk a few weeks ago, thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Molly @ first the egg. Why read it? Because it challenges the notion that involved parenting = "perfect" parenting, and that involved parenting (read: involved mothering) is somehow antithetical to feminist consciousness. Some examples.

From On the backs of other women.

I initially thought this little post was going to be about community. About how much I have come to cherish the school community particularly, that we are now a part of, and how some mothers at my daughter’s preschool have been saving my arse lately, over and over again, and for pretty much nothing in return. But the big fat gender factor tells me that this post isn’t actually about ‘community’.

Discounting the teachers at the Montessori preschool and the kids’ father, it takes the efforts of five other people caring for our two children to allow me to be at work three days a week. Pick-ups and drop-offs and naps and cuddles and dinners and baths. Only one of those five are paid for it, and all of them are women.

From Guest Post: Being a feminist and raising ‘a lad’ (from her "10 questions about feminist motherhood" series). Answers from Matari.

1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
I became a feminist at the age of 11 when I was abused by my stepfather. I learnt to call myself a feminist when I realised that as a woman, my abuse was nothing unusual and, in fact, represented the lack of power that women have in our society.

2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
How attached I was to my son as soon as he was born – I almost expected to be able to fit him into my schedule and carry on as before. But no, that was not the case AT ALL – I instantly became responsible for a little life that, if was injured in any way, would affect me for the rest of my life.

3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
My feminism became more entrenched, as – with every other event in my life,- I recognised that as a mother I would (again) be a marginalised woman, exacerbated by being a single parent.

From Why attachment parenting NEEDS feminism.

This is probably the right time to admit that not only am I an attachment parenting type - our children are co-sleepers, including the older one who is now five years old; I breastfeed the toddler; and we have more slings than vehicles in our house – but for the record, I am also a mother who works part of each week outside the home. I have been separating from our toddler since before he was a year old. And to be perfectly honest, Wootan’s advice doesn’t really rattle me. I have done my share of soul-searching over the last five years about being a working mother and I feel confident that our decisions have been good ones, and what’s more, that the children are ok too. But I know Wootan’s position will distress many other women in my position; I know a few years ago it would have thrown me for a loop. And while I am sure Wootan is a very caring doctor, anyone who makes a statement like that, about how women should live their lives, deserves a little scrutiny.

And for those of you who aren't so interested in the politics of parenting, but possibly interested in the politics of parenthood (and non-parenthood) in our society, from The politics of nappy buckets.

But how insulting is the prioritising of working families to people without children? Don’t they consider themselves part of family too? Aren’t they contributing to the community? Don’t they have the right to some priority in policy planning and fiscal generosities? The term ‘working families’ creates an unnecessary division, an us and a them. It undermines the goodwill people without children might otherwise feel towards people with children. Sure, raising children contributes to a ‘social benefit’ that all of society enjoys, and its costly for the individuals raising those children, but telling everyone you’re prioritising ‘working families’ must surely niggle away at the cohesiveness of parents and non-parents. It also makes women feel like their only value is in childbearing. Although, ‘deliberately barren’ is such a ludicrous term, such an unfortunately revealing comment on the right-wing agenda that however hurtful it is to women it is also kind of soothing to see Heffernan and those like him exposed so badly.

Enjoy! And see you next week for another installment of in love with new blogs.


quick hit: defending one's manhood

My colleague, Jeremy, receives the print edition of The Atlantic magazine and I happened to notice, yesterday, the following query and response on the back page of the most recent issue (September 2010), in Jeffrey Goldberg's "What's Your Problem?" column.

I’ve noticed that The Atlantic has become very anti-male lately. My proof lies in recent articles by Sandra Tsing Loh, Caitlin Flanagan, and of course Hanna Rosin, whose July/August cover story, “The End of Men,” argued that men will no longer be necessary as our economy changes. How do you protect your manhood while working at a magazine that is so hostile to men?

P. W., Chicago, Ill.

Dear P. W.,

I take active countermeasures to protect myself against the rampant feminization of The Atlantic. For instance, I eat only what I kill, except for sandwiches from Potbelly, which are killed by someone else. I also chop down the trees that provide the paper on which this magazine is printed, using only an extremely dull axe and my signature bad-ass attitude. Other prophylactic measures I employ include hiring Chuck Norris as a guest blogger, and then firing him, by fax, for being insufficiently manly; and using actual prophylaxis, in the form of a full-body condom I wear to protect myself from the effects of airborne estrogen. I also refuse to participate in the mandatory office-wide “All Guys Have to Wear Jimmy Choos on Fridays” morale-building exercise. And though I was ultimately forced to appear in The Atlantic’s staging of The Vagina Monologues, I purposefully delivered an indifferent performance as Eve Ensler’s labia.

As a feminist, I feel honor-bound to point out that Sandra Tsing Loh, Caitlin Flanagan, and Hanna Rosin are, in fact, often very anti-man (the scene from Parenthood where Dianne Wiest's character says to her daughter, just as her young son walks into the room, "Men are such jerks!" comes to mind) they are often anti-woman as well. Or rather, they tend to subscribe to very gender-essentialist concepts of what it means to be a man or a woman, neither of which serve human beings all that well.

The idea that being anti-male, anti-manhood, and "hostile to men" are all roughly equivalent positions is a fallacy anyway. As a feminist, I'm fairly anti-"womanhood" (since womanhood, in our culture, is a very specific type of cultural performance) and yet hardly anti-women or hostile to women as human beings. Nor do I have a problem with female-bodied persons.

Which is all to say, I love the way Goldberg plays up all the stereotypes of masculinity in his response. Because really, it's about the level of attention all of those articles -- and the concern they seem to have sparked -- deserve.


a few things on education

Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas, April 1943
Library of Congress Photostream @ Flickr.com.

There've been a handful of stories coming across my feeds the past few weeks on the subject of education and culture; none of them have inspired me to a full-length blog post, but I wanted to share them with you anyway. So here's a round-up of links with some snippets. Enjoy!

Idzie @ I'm Unschooled. Yes I Can Write | The Myth of "Social Awkwardness" Among Homeschoolers & Unschoolers.
I have seen absolutely no difference [generally] between homeschoolers, unschoolers, public schoolers, or private schoolers, EXCEPT that the unschoolers who do have to work harder with social stuff are generally far more confident, far more aware of their worth, whereas the schooled people are often made to think that they're losers, that they're uncool, so have serious feelings of worthlessness. Really? That's what school has to offer kids that you're so upset un/homeschoolers are missing out on: making anyone who doesn't fit a very narrow definition of normal feel like they're a failure??

eastsidekate @ Shakesville | College: The solution to everything.
Creating jobs is not about intelligence or education. It's about having enough money to pay someone to do something. And :drumroll:.... having money is not exclusively a function of being educated, intelligent, good-smelling, or anything else, really. Of course, if we argue that wealth is solely a function of merit (as measured by education, which we assume is a function of intelligence), then yeah, it's pretty much axiomatic that a more educated populace will create more jobs.

If we realize that some folks who have a lot of money and power to burn aren't necessarily deserving of such, the wheels fall off in a hurry.

Richard Jeffrey Newman @ Alas, a Blog | The Politics of Education.
The content of education is always, always, political and there will always be someone somewhere who thinks her or his perspective has been left out of what children are taught, to their detriment as individuals and to the detriment of society as a whole. Independently of that, though, I am a big believer in trying to find as many ways as possible to include as many perspectives as possible in the classroom, not to make the point that they are all equally valid, but to make the point that the more informed we are about those perspectives, even the ones that have been shown to be invalid, the more responsible and accountable we are likely to be in our own perspectives.

Janine Giordano @ Religion in American Culture | Teaching Sexuality and Religion.
[The] student ... complained to the Department Chair of Religious Studies that the professor was encouraging and expecting students to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law as their understanding of natural law. "I didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason," he signed. The professor's email to his students, also apprehended by the local newspaper, did claim that "none of what I have said here depends upon religion," alongside an unqualified encouragement to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law within their own adult thinking.

And, 'cause I'm starting to think about what the next scholastic endeavor will be after library school ... sexademic @ The Sexademic | So You Want to Be a Sex Educator ("Sexademics do it theoretically").


monday morning madness: fluid sexuality and marriage equality

So after a weekend away from my RSS feeds, I finally got around, this morning, to reading conservative columnist Ross Douthat's second column on why same-sex couples should be excluded from the institution of marriage. Adam Serwer @ The American Prospect offers his take which covers a lot of the bases. And Douthat's justifications are so convoluted that I'm not going to try and untangle them here.

But as a queer woman in a lesbian relationship, there were a couple of ... let's call them interesting assumptions Douthat makes about fertility, gender, and marriage relationships that I'd like to briefly respond to.

Douthat realizes that he can't credibly make the claim that marriage should be limited to couples capable of biological reproduction. As Judge Walker observed in the Prop 8 ruling (and as many other advocates of marriage equality have pointed out), being straight doesn't equal being capable of, or interested in, bearing and raising children. We don't ask straight couples to undergo fertility testing in advance of issuing marriage licenses. And we don't enforce any sort of mandate that married couples produce genetically-related offspring.

So there's that argument off the table.

But Douthat wants to make that argument anyway. So what he does is suggest that it's not the physical act of bearing and raising biological children that makes hetero marriage particularly worthy of state sanction: instead, it's the cultural experience of being heterosexual.

The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does. Similarly, even two eighty-nine-year-old straights, falling in love in the nursing home, will be following relational patterns — and carrying baggage, no doubt, after eighty-nine years of heterosexual life! — laid down by the male-female reproductive difference.) This interplay’s existence is what makes it possible to generalize about the particular challenges of heterosexual relationships, and their particular promise as well. And the fact that this interplay determines how and when and whether the vast majority of new human beings come into the world is what makes it possible to argue — not necessarily convincingly, but at least plausibly! — that both state and society have a stronger interest in the mating rituals of heterosexuals than in those of gays and lesbians.

So it's not about the capacity to reproduce, it's about "fall[ing] in love as heterosexuals," and "carrying baggage ... after eighty-nine years of heterosexual life" based on "male-female reproductive difference."

Obviously, there's levels of wrong going on here, but the points I want to make are these.

1) As a queer woman, I am affected by the sex and gender norms of our (predominantly) heterosexual society. I was born into a world that expects certain things of girls and certain things of boys. In childhood, we aren't categorized according to sexual orientation (since children are assumed to be nonsexual, or only latently sexual, beings -- a topic for a whole different post) but by gender. Girls who aren't exclusively straight in their sexual attractions nevertheless find themselves on the recieving end of powerful normalizing pressures concerning what girls/women should do, be, want, etc. This includes the pressure to parent. I think, perhaps, Douthat as a straight man might be underestimating the way in which this pressure affects women, particularly, regardless of their sexual orientations. It's a gender thing, not a sexual orientation thing.

2) Douthat's understanding of heterosexual vs. homosexual pairings ignores the experience of everyone else. What about equality for folks who experience sexual fluidity, whose attractions change over the course of their lifetimes? What about trans folks whose experience of society's gender expectations shifts over the course of their lifetimes? For many of us, the idea that one would experience eighty-nine years of either "heterosexual life" or "lesbian life" (check the box that applies to you) is meaningless. We approach our relationships (no matter the gender of the person we're relating to) as ourselves, as persons whose sum total of experience doesn't fit neatly into one category or the other. Douthat's assumptions concerning the differences between straight folks and queer folks is based on the belief that one's sexual attractions are either always same-sex or always other-sex, and that these attractions are stable throughout life. This is simply not the case for many people (again, particularly women, which once more leads me to wonder how much Douthat is speaking out of his own personal biases rather than any actual research and reflection).

Thus, Douthat's distinction between the nature of "thick" heterosexual relationships and ("thin"?) queer ones completely falls apart based upon the lived experience of real human beings.

Finally, I want to tackle Douthat's parting shot: that omg gay marriage will lead to polygamy:
The claim that gay wedlock will lead inexorably to polygamous marriages or incestuous marriages has never been all that credible, because there just isn’t a plausible constituency in the United States (Europe might be another matter) that’s going to start claiming those rights in the way gays are on the verge of claiming the right to marry one another. But it’s still striking how easily the logic of gay marriage can be extended to encompass all kinds of relationships that we definitely don’t want to call marriages.

I am clearly not the constituency Douthat is writing for in his column, because the question I have for him is: "relationships that we definitely don't want to call marriage"? Who is this "we" you refer to? Please don't include me in this claim! 'Cause I refuse, as a queer woman in favor of marriage equality, to scapegoat polyamorous relationships. I don't need to make poly relationships the Other (or incestuous relationships for that matter) in order to prove that same-sex monogamous couplings should be sanctioned by civil marriage. I'm for consensual, adult relationship commitments being recognized as marriages. Full stop. If that marriage includes more than two adults, then those adults should all be able to enter into the contract of marriage and have that marriage be recognized by our legal system and honored by society. And if that's what the case for marriage equality portends, I think we should be proud of that inclusivity.

Fear mongering is just not cool, man.

This time around, even more than in his first post-Prop 8 column, Douthat seems to be transparently arguing that heterosexuals are just better, or deserve to be treated with greater respect, than non-heterosexuals. The whole column is a barely-concealed bid to privilege heterosexual marriages simply on the basis of their being heterosexual.

Bigotry: not so cool either.


sunday smut: links on sex and gender (no. 33)

Just the links this week, folks!

Also, please note that I'll be taking a long weekend away from posting next week as my mother is in town ... but Sunday Smut will be back the following weekend!

On Prop 8 ruling:

Cristian Asher @ Gay Rights Blog | Round Three in the Marriage Equality Wars.

Adam Serwer @ The American Prospect | Douthat On Prop. 8.

Amanda Marcotte @ Pandagon | Gay marriage and the patriarchy shell game.

Lisala @ That Gay Blog | A Rebuttal to Shulman.

Roxann MtJoy @ Women's Rights Blog | Op-Ed Claims Marriage Is About Protecting Ladies, Not Love.

Will Neville @ RhRealityCheck | Prop 8 and the Future of Sex Ed.

Dana Rudolph @ Gay Rights Blog | American Bar Association Endorses Marriage Equality.

Ampersand @ Alas, a Blog | The Funniest Bits of Judge Walker’s Refusal To Stay Same-Sex Marriages.

The entire text of the Prop 8 ruling not enough for you? You can access all of the documentary evidence submitted at trial online. Oh god, the geekery overload!

Other news:

Emily Nagoski @ ::sex nerd:: | banging the effeminate drum.

Sadie Stein @ Jezebel | Pretty Women, Manly Jobs: We Do Hate You Because You're Beautiful [Beauty Myth].

Rose @ Feministing | Why I'm skeptical about "negotiated infidelity" (comments are worth checking out if you're interested in sexual ethics).

Lisa Wade @ Jezebel | Where Are Fashion's Gender Neutral Clothes? [Clothes].

Ann Friedman @ The American Prospect | All Politics is Identity Politics.

Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon | Massachusetts' strict maternity leave ruling.

C.L. Minou @ Tiger Beatdown | Left Behind: About the Failures of Feminism.

rabbitwhite @ sexgenderbody | What I've Learned about Sex from Asexuality.

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn @ Jezebel | Chelsea/Marc vs. Bristol/Levi: Whose Kids Will Fare Better? [Family Values] (on the economics of parenting in the 21st century).

Elizabeth Kissling @ Ms. Magazine | The Leap from Younger Puberty to Fat Shaming.

Amie Newman @ RhRealityCheck | Does Refusing a C-section = Child Abuse?

Sharkfu @ Feministing | Notes from a bitch...a pondering on religious institutions....

Mitch Wagner @ tor.com | Heinlein: Forward-looking diversity advocate or sexist bigot? Yes.

Stacie Ponder @ Final Girl | A Waste of Time (or; why not to bother with the lesbian vampires).

Steerforth @ The Age of Uncertainty | Jolly Queer (from which this week's illustration is drawn).


friday fun: marginalia

Hanna and I are headed across the river to Cambridge this evening to have dinner with our good friends Laura and Ashley at Veggie Planet in Harvard Square.

In honor of this rare bout of sociability, I'm going to share with you one of Laura's favorite poems: Billy Collins' "Marginalia" (from Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems).

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

To download an audio version of this poem, or see other works by Billy Collins, head on over to the billy collins website.


grown-ups can say "no" too: on consent, touch, and children in public spaces

group hug by celinecelines @ Flickr.com

This post is inspired by a really interesting post/comment thread at The Pursuit of Harpyness about children in public spaces (once again!) and how our behavior toward them and their parents relates to social norms and expectations.

First, some background to the point/observation I want to make.
One of the commenters wrote
, about what was so frustrating about children in public spaces for them,

To give a concrete example, one norm that I find children violate way more than adults has to do with personal space. I really, really don’t like being touched by strangers. Brushing past someone and so on is fine but someone coming up to me and deliberately touching me without my permission is completely not okay with me and generally speaking that syncs with cultural norms so I don’t have to enforce it too much — with *adults*. Children touch people all the time and if I’m in a public space and someone else’s kid starts climbing on me or messing with my things, that’s not okay and it’s ultimately the fault of the parent or caretaker. I don’t feel I should have to explain to a child why they shouldn’t be pulling on my hair. That’s not my job. They need to stop and if their parent won’t stop them, I will, and that’s that.

To which I responded

I do think it’s important to think about how to explain to children that it’s important to ask before touching. Americans are generally schooled to be touch-averse (and above and beyond cultural norms there are people who are personally touch-averse for a variety of reasons) and for children living in American society, it’s important for them to learn that this is a social norm.

Followed by spark, who observed that
I understand that society has evolved so that it’s inappropriate to tell a stranger’s child to stop pulling your hair (baraqiel’s example), but it shouldn’t be. It takes a village etc.

To which I responded
I completely agree with you that it should be acceptable for any person to tell another person (in this case a child) “please stop touching me, it’s making me uncomfortable.” We teach children that they have a right to decline touch that makes them feel uncomfortable and I think it’s perfectly okay for an adult to speak up for themselves in exactly the same way. I see that as showing the child that they (the child) also has permission to determine who touches them and how.

This exchange got me thinking about parents and children -- and about women and children especially. About how women are socialized in so many ways to feel that they don't have the right to bodily autonomy in interpersonal relationships. Especially interpersonal relationships that involve sexual intimacy (rape culture anyone?) and in relationships that involve children. Their own children or anyone else's. Women -- and I realize I'm generalizing here, but the point I'm making is about cultural norms -- often feel like the don't have a right to say no: no to getting pregnant, no to staying pregnant, no to giving birth, no to parenting, no to care-taking. Over and over and over again in our society, women especially are told that these roles are their biological and social destiny.

Consider the example that the commenter, baraqiel, gives: a child coming up to you and somehow invading what you feel is your personal space. And the fact that, somehow, baraqiel feels unable (or at least likely to be socially sanctioned) to tell the child "hey, please don't touch me."

We, as a society, try hard (at least in theory!) to teach children that it's important for them to reject "bad touch," that they have a right to bodily autonomy and that they can assert that right in public spaces. Negotiating touch is an important skill for all of us to learn, since it's not an issue that goes away when you become an adult. Young people are far from the only offenders when it comes to different levels of desire for and toleration of interpersonal touch. A society-wide conversation should and could be happening around what it means to physically interact with others, to give and receive informed consent for touch in a variety of everyday situations.

Yet despite this robust discourse (within feminist circles at least) about the importance of consent when it comes to touch, it seems that adults feel powerless to say "no" to children in public spaces. Or defensive and resentful when they are in a position of having to say no. Even when the thing to which they are saying "no" is something which, if done by another adult, they would quite readily say "no" to (i.e. another adult touching their hair uninvited, for example). So the question is: why? Why does it feel so impossible to make a request that a child stop doing something that is freaking you out, invading your space, making you feel uncomfortable in your skin? Why does it seem like the only possible responses are complete inaction or extreme action (i.e. removal of the child from the area completely)?

The more I think about this, the more I see it as an unfortunate, radical extension of the privitization/segregation of children/childhood. The idea that the only "appropriate" adults to interact with a young person in any direct, meaningful way, is the parent or a designated parent-substitute (i.e. teacher, childcare provider). In a pinch. Although even they are often suspect. Children are, in the "normal" course of things, supposed to reside in private, segregated spaces such as homes and schools -- not out in the world of every day society. Children, thus, are treated as an Other who because of their segregation need interpretation and mediation -- instead of just being in the world, they must be monitored, translated for, guarded, controlled. They have been removed from the human community and set apart -- and their introduction into human society is an event, rather than the normal course of business.

As a child not in school during school hours (I did not attend any institution of education until college) I experienced first-hand how upsetting it was to adults that children might move about the world more freely, yet responsibly. You got noticed. And because you were noticed, you were under heightened scrutiny; an oddity.

And because you're anomalous, you're treated as an unknown, as Other. Something to be both highly protected/revered and highly suspected/contained. Never just: yourself.

And thus, adults, interacting with these Others somehow feel disempowered: unable to say "no" and also unwilling to say "yes." (Because who wants to say "yes" when you feel like you're being coerced, when "yes" is the only option?)

It seems to me like we need a new approach to understanding children in society, a new approach to interacting with these growing, learning beings that fully acknowledges not only their personhood but also our own: that does not require that we interact with them only as two-dimensional caregivers (selflessly giving of ourselves with no ability to set personal boundaries) or keep our distance.

Which really just brings me back to the radical idea that, rather than treating children as a separate species, we treat them as indiividuals who -- like many adults! -- have specific emotional, physical, or mental needs, but who belong to the human community and can be asked to respect the boundaries of others.

Remember: When you tell a child "that doesn't feel good to me, please stop" you're showing them that part of being human is having the ability to set boundaries, to protect yourself. And by expecting them to respect that request teaches them that this is a request you can make that other people have the ability to listen to and respond to that request without the world falling apart. To know that this is an exchange you can have with strangers on the bus, or a grown up at the grocery store (someone who can be polite, yet firm about their needs) is going to help grown them into persons who will, in turn, be able to respect such requests in the future, and make similar requests for themselves.

Giving them the knowledge that they have that agency -- the agency to respond to the needs of others with care, and to have their needs met with equal respect -- is a powerful feminist act.


from the archive: new collections

It's been a while since I put up a post about the work Hanna and I do during our regular working hours as librarian/archivists at Northeastern, Countway Medical Library, and the Massachusetts Historical Society (we both work independently at Countway and the MHS and then job share a position at Northeastern with one other woman).

Hanna and I have both recently finished processing new collections at Northeastern -- "processing" being the archive-speak term for taking newly-acquired collections, organizing them, doing what we can to preserve them, and then making them accessible to the public. For each collection, Northeastern has a "finding aid" that details the scope and content of the collection, and provides some basic historical background on the person or organization.

One of the things I really like about my job at Northeastern is that we actively collect materials from under-represented communities and social justice organizations in the Boston area -- specifically the queer community, the Latina/Latino community, Chinese and African-American communities.

Hanna recently completed processing 14 boxes of records from Fenway Health, the community health center where she and I both receive our primary care. The staff there are preternaturally awesome and we suspect that they may come from a race of highly advanced alien beings who have made it their mission to provide high-quality healthcare to the human beings on this woeful little planet that can't get their act together to make universal healthcare a human right (Doctors Without Interstellar Borders?) You can check out the press release Hanna put together or the finding guide to the records if you're interested in how these materials are organized and made available for researchers.

My collection was a much more modest two boxes, the papers of Keri Lynn Duran, an AIDS / HIV activist and educator, Keri Duran, who herself was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1995 at the age of 32, after six years of organizing, protesting and educating. After working with materials that mostly date from the nineteenth-century and earlier at the MHS (although the Historical Society is still actively collecting), it was a little disconcerting to be arranging material from someone whose life and work encompassed such recent events. Her personal journals, I thought, were particularly illuminating in describing her health struggles and her anger about the slow political response as she and her friends were dying. You can read the finding guide online at the NU website.

Even though a lot of the material in both of these collections is widely available to the public now (journal articles on AIDS, public health pamphlets, brochures on artificial insemination, etc.) and may not seem very historically relevant, they are already historical in that they help to document a particular moment in the history of the queer community, in public health care, and activism surrounding AIDS / HIV. And hopefully -- if we archivists do our jobs right! -- these materials will now be around for decades to come, so that 200+ years down the road (when the events of the 1990s are as far behind us as the events of the Revolutionary War are to us today) these documents will still be here for historians of the future to access and recreate our stories from.


wtf; or, anatomy of a blog comment thread

I've been stewing about this comment thread over at emily nagoski :: sex nerd for about a week now, and in an effort to learn something from the process have decided to share my observations with y'all and ask for any tips you might have!

See, I generally enjoy being active in comment threads on topics that excite me. And I also try to cultivate openness to differing viewpoints and a willingness to engage in conversation with people whose beliefs are different (even diametrically opposite from!) my own. To me, conversation with people whose ideas I disagree with (and sometimes even abhor) is a way to cultivate compassion, empathy and lovingkindness. I also find it to be an interesting opportunity to people watch, and gather information on how folks interact, and particularly how they disagree, online. Hanna encourages me to save my energy for more important things than blog thread comment wars, and there are days when I completely agree with her. But I also feel like I do learn from them -- even when I'm not sure what, exactly I learn. So I keep coming back to re-engage.

In this particular case, the post in question was on differential desire vis a vis sexual activity in a long-term relationship (an opposite-sex marriage). The husband had written in to a discussion forum asking for advice on how to re-open communication with his wife over relational sex -- something they appear to have dramatically different levels of interest in. Emily, the blog author, pitched her response to the question of how the couple could work together to establish better channels of communication and discover where their common ground was in terms of making love. The post is a good one, and I recommend you hop on over if you want the full context of the conversation that followed.

See, the first comment out of the gate was by a man identifying himself as marriagecoach1 / John Wilder (warning: scary man profile!), in which he made the claim that "studies show that 60% of married women with children have their husbands on a starvation diet of sex once a week or less." Which is, of course, levels of wrong. As Emily pointed out in her response, gently suggesting that "people vary too much to use national statistics to illuminate an individual case." Girl Detective pointed out that "starvation diet" was a pretty loaded phrase. It implies a power differential in which the wife has power over the husband (the ability to put him on a diet) and also implies that sex "once a week or less" is a negative thing for all men, which -- since human beings' desire for relational sex varies widely by person and context -- is a fairly irresponsible assumption to make.

If the desired end result is more pleasurable, relational sex with his wife (what the husband with the original question seemed to desire), then surely the best avenue toward that goal is making the environment as conducive to more sex as possible. Approaching the lower-desire partner with an accusation that they're controlling their higher-desire partner with a "starvation diet" of sex: maybe not the best opening salvo. Just sayin'.

So, okay: combative commenter, a handful of measured responses. So far so good. Then Mr. Wilder returns further downthread to re-assert his position that "withholding" sex is a power grab.

You are violating marriage vows (well not if you are not married) but for marrieds, you vowed to satisfy the needs of your partner and it is considered unfaithful to those vows when you refuse.

Men get the bulk of their affectional needs met through sex with his wife. If she decides that she does not want to do that then she ought to file for divorce.

The old cliche about: "Behind every great man is a woman" implies that she keeps him centered and content by taking care of his sexual needs.

Ooooh boy. Issues just multiplied. So not only is this man approaching the question of differential desire by framing it as a question of gender (as becomes clear further downthread, he sees this as primarily a question of lower-desire women holding out on higher-desire men), he's also framing the question as an issue of violating a clause (the "sex clause" if you will) of the heterosexual marriage contract.

This is the point at which I jumped into the frey and posed the question I saw as central to the problem with this kind of advice-giving comment. "How exactly is characterizing the wife as a manipulative bitch who’s using sex as a weapon going to help this couple?" To which he responded

Women bash men because they are not forthcoming with their feelings and yet you acknowledge that this man is really trying for which he should be commended. The wife is refusing to talk to him about it ... It is frustrating to hear you women backing up the woman’s right to refuse the man like his wants and needs and desires have no concern. It is emotionally debilitating.

Since communication was Emily's key theme in the original post ... and all of the other commenters were backing her up on this point ... we're clearly having a reading comprehension issue. I also detect strong, strong whiffs of frustrated male privilege here: Mr. Wilder is pissed because he thinks he's giving in to the "women [who] bash men" (code for "feminist") by "really trying" to communicate, and instead of getting bountiful sex in return he's still being told that no person is obligated to meet another person's sexual needs.

He says "the woman's right" but all of us were clear on this being a gender-neutral proposition. I pointed this out ("I don’t think partners of any sexual orientation, sex or gender are well served when the conversation about relational sexuality revolves around what is owed/deserved and how withholding the expected amount/type of sex is a 'violation of marriage vows.'") which is when the shit really hit the fan

I agree that is not necessarily men against women or women against men but a violation of the covenant of marriage. Sex is an integral part of marriage and yes it is an obligation that you incur when you take marriage vows, I don’t apoogize for that. It might not be politically correct, but I don’t hold with very many politically correct notions. To me, it is a pass on someone’s disloyal behavior.

. . . For the record, I have never had a man demand his right to refuse sex to their women, that is singularly a woman’s notion.

So in a way, it is women against men. I am not dealing with homosexual sex as that is not my area and what they do is up to them.

Religiously-grounded sexism and homophobia for the win!


How to respond to this sort of comment, gentle readers? Of course (as Hanna so often reminds me!) option one is always simply not to engage. This guy has clearly made the decision to show up on a feminist-friendly, queer-friendly, sex-positive blog and promote ideas about heterosexual marriage with an authoritative air of moral righteousness. He persists on seeing the issue as a power struggle between women and men in which men (as supposedly higher-libido beings) are at the mercy of women. The posturing over not being "politically correct" signals to me that he realizes the other commenters on this blog won't agree with him, and rather than simply persuasively advocating for his position he hides behind the pre-emptive accusation that anyone who dislikes what he has to say is being "politically correct" (a phrase that invokes, in the popular consciousness, all manner of negative imagery concerning the "thought police" and liberals elites who have the power to force people to self-censor their ideas and expressions for fear of social opprobrium).

He goes on to write

The only ones I hear demanding the right to deny their partners are feminists and so yes, I have a real problem with feminists. I believe in equality but by demanding your right to say no, you are not advocating equality but absolute dominance which makes feminists who espouse such notions rank hyypocrites.

Again: the basic argument this guy has is what I'll call the Lysistrata gambit, the theory that differential desire in long-term sexual relationships is not a gender-neutral phenomenon with myriad causes and possible solutions, but rather that it is a systematic plot by women to gain power over men by withholding sex. Yeah, sure, once I bring it up he tosses a few sops to the queer community and admits that women may be the hornier member of a hetero couple occasionally (who still couldn't win Mr. Wilder's respect since they "complained louder and longer than most men"). But the through-line is clear: women have all the power and men are at their mercy -- especially married men whose wives are using a bait-and-switch tactic of luring them into marriage and then changing the rules by deciding they're no longer interested in relational sex.

In Mr. Wilder's universe, there is no room for human beings to change, grow, or experience ups and downs in their sexual desires as in all other aspects of their lives. "Many people start out equally with sex but often the woman changes the deal after the fact. That is disnegnious." To Mr. Wilder, this is sort of like reverse-rape.

For feminists to demand their right to deny it is as offensive to me as me suggesting that a man force a woman to have sex against her will. After all are you not forcing a man not to have sex against his will?

Because "forcing" someone not to touch you or not experience your touch is just the same as violating someone else's bodily integrity by sexually assaulting them.



What I finally wrote in response was this

Look, John. Here’s the thing.

You keep writing things like "you still have the obligation" like it’s a universal truth but you’re grounding it in Biblical scripture which is something not everyone in the world chooses as an authoritative text (and which not everyone interprets as you do).

If you don’t want to be in a partnership with someone who believes that partners retain the right, even within marriage, to negotiate sexual intimacy — how, when, with whom, how often, etc. — then awesome! Make that clear to your prospective partners and have that be a deal-breaker. And if your partner decides that’s not the kind of relationship they want, then you have the option of either rethinking your own position (perhaps reaching a compromise between the two of you) or walking away.

NO ONE IS FORCING YOU to be in relationship with people who don’t share your views on human sexuality, marriage, etc. What I object to is your instructional, combative tone and the way in which you are clearly laying out one set of (Biblically-based) rules for everyone.

You can read the full exchange over at ::sex nerd::.

Here's the thing, o readers ... I feel obscurely as if I've failed. And I know it's not my responsibility (nor is it possible) to get this one, clearly rigidly-opinionated person in the blogosphere to suddenly go "aha! I get it! sexual relationships are complicated and there is no one-size-fits-all solution!" just because of some comment I've thrown into the mix.

But I find this sort of exchange extremely frustrating because I feel like I offer up these big fluffy eiderdown pillows of inclusion -- no one's saying you can't live your life your own way! just acknowledge the glorious diversity in the world! -- and this other person (Mr. Wilder is but one example of so many!) keeps coming back with what is essentially the same argument: "I will only feel good about life and safe in the world if everyone else conforms to my expectations for correct human behavior!"

Sometimes I just want to be like "grow up already!!"

Not to mention how sad it makes me that people who think this way must not find pleasure in discovering new ways of seeing the world like I do. So much of what I love about my research and about my blogging is the chance I have to experience what the world looks like from new perspectives. To greet those new perspectives not with a feeling of joy at the boundless possibilities of human existence but rather with the intense desire to change all people into replica-yous must be so limiting a life!

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded request for your own stories and tips for engaging in online conversation with people who hold rigid, conservative views. Is it even worth it? If it is, what strategies do you recommend? How do you pick your battles? When do you bow out? What mistakes have you learned from? I'd love to hear from you in comments!