Sexuality and Gender

As we discussed in Part One of this series, a lot of us didn’t receive great sexual health education when we were in high school. And even if you did, you might have totally different concerns now than you did when you were that age. Sexuality is a lifelong process—it’s something you can always learn more about. So whether you want to supplement a pretty decent education or make up for an awful one, read on for some ways you can take charge and give yourself the sex ed you deserve.

Learn the basics. SexualityandU, run by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, gives a good overview of different birth control and STI prevention options, and has a cool app that helps you figure out what to do if you forget to take your birth control pill. CATIE has an awesome pamphlet on safer sex for queer women, and TheSexYouWant, created by the AIDS Committee of Toronto, is a great safer sex resource for queer men. Want to brush up on what enthusiastic consent means and how to talk about your sexual preferences with a partner? Look no further than this amazing comic. And Scarleteen has great info on pretty much everything, from gender identity to masturbation to kink to polyamory.

Explore your desires. Masturbating, fantasizing, discussing your fantasies with others, and reading or watching porn can be great ways to explore what turns you on physically and mentally in a low-pressure way. Note, though, that while there’s some really awesome porn out there, there’s also a lot of stuff that’s problematic in its depiction of sexual consent and gender roles, so if you can afford to, consider actually paying(!) for videos or a membership from sites that you know abide by a code of ethics similar to your own. Always wanted to try some particular sexual thing? Talk about it with your sexual partner(s) and see if they’d be down. Not really sure what you’re into? Scarleteen has a great “Yes/No/Maybe” checklist to help you articulate what you like, don’t like, and might want to try. Not really sure if you’re into any of this at all? You might want to check out the website of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.

Learn some more. Obviously these links should just be jumping-off points. There are books, websites, and real live people out there that can help you learn about pretty much any sex-related topic. Figure out what you want to learn about, and empower yourself to do so.

Get involved. Think sex education is important? Want to do something to make sure young people have access to info you may not have been given? Head and Hands and the Outreach branch of SACOMSS both run workshops in high schools on sex-related topics. You could also get involved with the Shag Shop, the 2110 Centre, the Union for Gender Empowerment, or any of the many other McGill and Montreal based organizations that educate people on these topics. And start a conversation! Share your new-found knowledge with your friends, and if you have a young person in your life, consider letting them know you’re available to talk, and answer their questions honestly.

And have fun 🙂

For most of us, sexuality is something we thought about a lot as teenagers—whether we were deciding whether or not to have sex for the first time, questioning our sexual orientation or gender identity or the things that turned us on, dealing with peer or cultural pressures to act a certain way sexually, or wondering what all the fuss was about. If we were lucky, we weren’t left alone to untangle the confusing web of desires, identities and experiences that make up our sexual selves. Maybe we had friends or family who were knowledgeable and willing to talk about sexuality with us. Maybe we had access to books or websites or phone lines that provided us with accurate and non-judgemental info. And maybe—just maybe—we had decent high school sex ed.

The sex education I got in high school—for a two-week block of my physical education class in Grade 9—was far from perfect. Some of the information we were given was outdated, like the advice to use spermicide, which is no longer as highly recommended as they used to be. Our discussion of consent mostly focused on how to say no to sex—as if none of us would want to say yes. We never talked about the existence of queer or trans* individuals, and I remember the teacher getting flustered when I asked about dental dams.

But I was actually pretty lucky. That class taught me how to put a condom on a banana (the teacher searched several different stores to find non-lubricated condoms, so we wouldn’t be grossed out from getting lube all over our hands). I learned where the nearest abortion clinic was, and where I could buy the emergency contraceptive pill. The teacher talked about what an orgasm was and assured us that it was OK to masturbate, and she did answer my question about dams in the end.

It’s no wonder the information I received in my sex ed class was a bit outdated. The sexual education curriculum in Ontario, where I went to high school, hasn’t been updated since the 1990’s. An updated curriculum, written in 2010, hasn’t been implemented because a small but vocal group of parents object to the inclusion of topics like gay and lesbian parents in a Grade 3 class on diverse families, and an acknowledgement that masturbation can be a healthy way to explore your sexuality in a Grade 6 class on puberty.

But at least I didn’t go to a school that taught abstinence-only sex ed. The fact that my teacher was even allowed to talk about subjects like contraception and abortion means my sex ed class was more comprehensive than the sex ed in most classrooms in the United States. Since 1996, 1.5 billion dollars have been given to school boards by the US government for abstinence-only sex education. Much of this funding is provided on the condition that schools do not discuss contraception or sexual activity outside marriage in a positive way. These programs have not been shown to decrease sexual activity, but they have been shown to lower the likelihood of teens using barriers/contraceptives when they do engage in sexual activity.

Actually, I was very lucky to receive formal sex ed at all. Since 2005, Quebec has not mandated any dedicated sex ed unit, expecting discussions of sexuality to be integrated into other classes. Not surprisingly, this means that the extent to which sex is discussed, and the topics that are covered, vary widely across the province. Some organizations, like Head and Hands in NDG, and SACOMSS (that’s us!), run workshops on sexual health topics in high schools to try to pick up some of the slack, but how many students these programs reach is dependent on how many schools are willing to let these organizations come in and speak to their students.

Personally, I think that young people have the right to accurate, comprehensive, and non-judgemental sexual health information, and while schools aren’t the only place they can get that information, they’re a pretty crucial one. Most high school aged folks are in school, and schools are places where—ideally—we should be provided with information on topics that are relevant to our lives, as well as assisted in developing critical thinking skills to decide how we feel and what we believe about this information. It’s a pretty big deal that schools aren’t doing that with sex ed.

So what to do? Check out part two of this series, on how to take your sexual education into your own hands (no pun intended) and empower other people to do so.

The first workshop I attended where we were asked to go around the circle and state our preferred pronouns, I froze. It was one of those moments where you can hear that teacher, the one who always said “one day you will use this information” in your head. Which was a pronoun again? Before or after the description of the thing, or is it around the stuff where you have the action? After a few people had said theirs, I figured out what seemed to be the system, and managed to produce one when it came to my turn. My heart rate went back to a respectable level, and palms were quickly wiped clean. Thinking back, it was an interesting moment that brought a few issues to a head. First, it exposed a level of privilege that as a cis person who conforms to the physical expectations of my gender, I’ve never had to think about what pronoun to use (or even what a pronoun is). Second, it opened up some possibilities- I had this idea that there is a wide variety of gender identities that anyone can access, but I didn’t know how you actually did that. The thought that I could have control over my gender identity when engaging in discussion during a workshop felt exciting and empowering. Such a simple question- “what is your preferred pronoun?”- can convey a lot of respect.

 Though it’s a simple question, it encapsulates some pretty important concepts- namely, respect for everyone, especially the misidentified, and an acknowledgment of gender fluidity. These are important, and hopefully there will be an ongoing conversation on this blog about some specifics. In the meantime, this is article is more of a practical, how-to guide about what pronouns are and how to use them.

 What’s a Pronoun

 Back to the basics and the original word that threw me into a panic- pronoun. According to the Random House Dictionary, a pronoun is “any member of a small class of words found in many languages that are used as replacements or substitutes for nouns and noun phrases”.  If you remember our friend the noun (person, place, or thing), when someone asks you what your preferred pronoun is, they are basically asking you what you want your name or personhood to be replaced with. So instead of people saying “Sally wants that” or “That person wants that”, they can use a pronoun and say, “She wants that”.  Which brings us to the next point- pronouns can be gendered.

 Gender and Pronouns

 We encounter a lot of gendered pronouns: she, he, his, and hers. These are often used based on assumptions about other people’s gender that we perceive, which is unfortunate because for many people gender isn’t clear cut or fixed. To the person who has been classified into a gender category to which they don’t identify, these assumptions can be disrespectful.

 There are gender neutral pronouns- “they” being the most commonly used one. It is easy to incorporate they/their/them into regular conversation. You might be thinking “hey, isn’t ‘they’ plural?”. While it is used in the plural more commonly, it can be adopted in the singular for gender neutrality- you may have also seen the singular in more formal documents before. One you may not have heard of is “ze”. Pronounced “zee” like the way American’s say the last letter of the alphabet, it is the he/she equivalent. Here is a chart about some pronunciation details that is easier to follow than any written description I’ve found. It also contains pronouns I’ve never heard of that are gender neutral- interesting for the more linguistically inclined to peruse, and some might seem catchy enough for your own use.

 Bringing it into Your Conversations

 So now you know that people are addressed with pronouns, some of those pronouns are gendered, and you don’t want to be disrespectful by using the wrong pronoun that makes someone uncomfortable. What to do? The easiest way to find out, as always, is to ask. “Hey, what is your preferred pronoun?” is a great way to kick off a conversation, either about whom the person is that you’ve just met or, if you are responded to with a blank stare, a quick exchange on what you meant- does the person want to be referred to as he, she, they, or perhaps ze? It’s worth the possibility of a little confusion at first if you can end at a place where you now can address them respectfully. This is also an opportunity to introduce the concepts of pronouns to other people if they’ve never heard of such a thing.

 In a larger group, an alternative may be to start introducing yourself with your own pronoun. “Hey, nice to meet you, my name is Lee and you can refer to me as he or they”. This also brings up the concept of pronouns, and may make other people feel more confident about asserting their own preferences.

 Outside of introductions, it’s important to keep in mind that pronouns may change- checking in with people you know will allow you to continue a respectful relationship that is mindful of their preferences.

That’s it! Simple stuff, but practicing proper pronouns shows a lot of respect to the people around you.

Columbia PhD Student Alberto Leguina, pictured above, was fired because, he claims, he rejected the advances of his supervisor. Leguina, 25, came to Columbia from Chile in the spring to work under Dr. Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension at Columbia’s Medical Center, but by the summer was forced out of the university and has now filed a lawsuit against Columbia.

Leguina says he received a message on Grindr from someone claiming to be Al-Awqati, which he initially assumed was a prank. When Leguina ignored the message, he received subsequent messages, this time more threatening. After Leguina rebuffed the messages, Al-Awqati stormed out from the next room and yelled at Leguina, “You’re out!”

Leguina sought the help of the human resources department, where he was then told to “deal with this matter as a big man.” Leguina was also threatened to be sent back to Chile if he hired a lawyer or sought help from the authorities in his native country.

It was not until a few months later when Leguina was in fact fired. After he spoke with the HR department, Al-Aqwati apologized for his advances and gifted him a new MacBook. Leguina claims his workplace conditions severely changed at this time. His supervisors began to shun him and when he again sought help from HR, was told he was simply overwhelmed by the big city. Leguina then in June received an email from his supervisors in Chile stating that due to poor feedback from Al-Aqwati, he would need to leave his position at Columbia.

Leguina’s story is exemplary of the power dynamics that can easily be taken advantage in a place such as a prestigious university, one that in this case was particularly exploited because of his status as a foreigner. In a graduate studies environment where students work very closely with professors and need the help of supervisors in order to succeed, as shown by Leguina’s story, students need a system in place to seek help should their supervisor’s abuse their power. Because Leguina is male, he was also expected to deal with sexual harassment through silence rather than speaking out and seeking help. According to Queerty, Leguina is now interested in pursuing workplace activism:

“You cannot let these [things] happen anymore. I know I’m not the first person, but I hope I can be the last.”

Ph.D. student alleges he was sexually harassed, unfairly fired [Columbia Spectator]

Grad Student Says He Was Fired By Pervy Prof Who Hit On Him On Grindr [Queerty]

As reported by the Huffington Post, Argentina has advanced rights for freedom of gender identity in significant ways. Yesterday, the senate approved a gender rights law which mandates that private and public health care cover a sex-change surgery or hormone therapy, and will also allow people to specify how their gender is listed in the civil survey, regardless of physical characteristics. The senate unanimously passed the law; President Cristina Fernandez is in support of the law and will likely sign it. As Sen. Miguel Pichetto said during the debate, “This is truly a human right: the right to happiness.” Sen. Osvaldo Lopez, the only openly gay national lawmaker in Argentina, said, “This law is going to enable many of us to have light, to come out of the darkness, to appear.”

According to Katrina Karkazis, author of “Fixing Sex,” this type of law is “unheard of” because it does not ask people to change their body in order to change their gender. Sex change procedures can be painful and irreversible and this law allows people to legally assume their preferred gender identity without such drastic measures. If they do choose to proceed with either surgery or hormone therapy, however, both options will fall under their “Obligatory Medical Plan,” which means neither private nor public health care providers can charge extra for them.

Two years ago Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. Its policymakers see this law as a natural progression to ensuring basic rights for all its citizens. According to Argentine paper Los Andes, this law will further the rights and increase the visibility of trans people in Argentina, many of whom work in prostitution and do not have secondary education. By instituting a that law will allow people autonomy over their own bodies and identities without the approval of doctors or judges, Argentina is setting itself at the forefront of gender rights.

Argentina Approves Transgender Rights Legislation, Makes Sex-Change Surgery A Legal Right [Huffington Post]

El Senado aprobó por unanimidad la Ley la Identidad de Género [Los Andes]

Via Sociological Images is a video highlighting the incredible amount of sexualization present in the representation of young girls in the media. The video by Alexandra O’Dell, a student at North Idaho College, uses examples ranging from advertising to music videos to children’s toys, such as the pole dancing dolls pictured above. In a previous post I talked about media’s infantilization of female sexuality and its harmful effects, which, as this video shows, include low self-esteem and disordered eating, in addition to contributing to a society that makes girls susceptible to sexual assault. The video is well-worth a watch.

Since 2010 Sweden has been able to call itself the most gender-equal country in the world, but some are lobbying for another step forward. According to Slate Swedish activists are now pushing for not just gender-equality, but gender-neutrality.

To achieve neutrality, gender-neutral advocates are lobbying for new policies, such as the recognition of all names as unisex, but the country has already taken some steps towards gender-neutrality. Some Swedish preschools do not allow teachers to address children by gendered categories such as “boys and girls” but rather by their names or gender-neutral terms like “buddies.” The image from the toy catalog above also presents its toys as unisex by swapping the traditional gender roles. The gender-neutral pronoun hen has recently been added to the country’s National Encyclopedia.

Not all have welcomed these changes though. Swedish columnist Elise Claeson has said that the move towards gender-neutrality would confuse children while their bodies are developing, and Swedish author Jan Guillou “referred to proponents of hen as ‘feminist activists who want to destroy our language.'” Some also find the Swedish school system’s restrictions on gender-coded behavior, such as banning traditionally boyish toy cars from schools, to be too extreme. Slate also criticizes the regulated language of schools to be simply replacing one set of rules with another equally restrictive set.

The comment section of the Slate article also shows a good deal of backlash. One commenter thought the move toward gender-neutrality when interacting with children “would create confusion which could very well lead to cross dressing, bisexuality and/or homosexuality.” Another commenter labeled Sweden a “a sick society” for proposing these changes.

It’s interesting that some of the detractors equate non-gender conforming behaviors, such as cross-dressing, with confusion. These reactions suggest that gender-normative behaviors are so entrenched in our thinking as “natural” or “normal” that acting outside of them is instantly perceived as wrong. A Finnish woman commented on this article to say that Finland already has a similar gender-neutral pronoun, hän. She now lives in the US and says, “As a Finnish woman I struggle with people’s opionion of me here in the states” due to some of the gendered stereotypes she has encountered.

The subtitle of the article, “A country tries to banish gender” seems misleading to me. The image above certainly shows an awareness of gendered objects and behaviors, and does not try to hide them, but instead presents them outside their traditional confines. The proposal of a neutral pronoun does not mean people cannot still use gendered forms of identification, but simply provides a way to identify people without assuming their gender. By offering children alternatives to the traditional gender roles, it allows them to make a more informed decision on which toys or activities best suit them, rather than determining these choices for them based simply on their sex at birth.

The effects of these new policies remains to be seen. Do you find them too restrictive or too radical? Or is Sweden providing a progressive model towards achieving widespread equality?

Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen [Slate]

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