Thursday, July 28, 2011

Online Course: Sociology of Human Sexuality Part 2

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is a series of posts from the sexuality course I am teaching this summer. Check out the first week of notes here. If you are interested in receiving some of the readings, syllabus, and workbook assignments please leave a comment with a way to contact you!

Day 3
Gender & Sexual Orientation

For this class there were some fairly long readings that I had scheduled. The two main readings for our topic on gender were the third chapter in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book
Sexing The Body called “Of Gender & Genitals: The Use & Abuse Of The Modern Intersexual” which will totally challenge everything I taught them the first two days! The other reading is the introduction and first chapter of Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl which discusses trans people and how our societies have constructed ideas around identity, sex, experience, and ways we may begin to challenge and unlearn. The final reading for the gender section is called Words That Are Transphobic And Why.

The second part of the class will focus on sexual orientation as folks usually confuse gender and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to gender expression and exaggerations! The readings for sexual orientation include a discussion of asexuality based on Dan Savage’s
exclusion of this as a sexual orientation, Queertionary 2.0, and the Media Maker’s Salon: Espie Hernandez.

Before I started class for these themes I forgot to lecture on one topic that is important to discussions of sexuality. These are the
Circles of Sexuality. We discussed each circle (5 in total) which include reproductive health, sensuality, intimacy, sexual identity, and sexualization. Each circle intersects with the other and we are at the center of that intersection. Reproductive health focuses on managing health care and understanding the postive and negative consequences of sexuality and sexual activities. Sensuality has to do with our sense (touch, vision, hearing, taste, smell) and awareness of our bodies and what we enjoy as well as others ability to enjoy their bodies and experience pleasure. Intimacy is about emotions and being able to create relationships with others (or animals). Sexual identity includes sexual orientation and gender. Sexualization includes using sex as a form of power and coercion to influence and manipulate others. This may include assault, rape, violence, but also things many of us do like flirting and seduction.

I then asked the class what they thought was missing?

I asked where they would put class, race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, education level, incarceration history, language spoken, and other aspects of our identities. We agreed that these were vital parts of our identities that do inform our sexuality and sexual health in various ways. So, why weren’t they included? And where would they include them? Personally, I include these identities in the center of where the circles meet. Other students believed they would put others in various different circles. I think this is an important discussion to have with students to demonstrate that even in the field of sexuality not everything is included and there are ways to improve and expand the field!

To begin our discussion of gender I discussed the different between sex and gender. Sex being based on biological reproductive organs and genitals that is assigned to us at birth. While gender being more psychological, not having to be connected to the genitals. Yes, this is a very limited way of discussing gender. One of the reasons I begin these conversations in such a way is because I’ve learned that for the past 3 years teaching at this location, students have never had discussions on gender, sex assigned at birth, and trans communities as we will have in our class. I see these as small steps. These are doses of conversations that once begun can then be explored further and then challenged and critiqued. I completely recognize this is limiting, and I acknowledge that and build from a basis to help students unlearn and challenge assumptions and socialization as well as theories and critiques on gender and sex.

Sometimes I begin by asking students to take a few moments and write in their notes what the first time they realized their gender was like. Where were they? Who was there? What was the environment and context? Some students say “I just knew” and this is a useful discussion to have regarding gender and our knowledge of ourselves.

As many sociology courses are known to do, we discuss how sex and gender are social constructions; things that society creates and gives value, importance and meaning. I introduced the phrase “sex assigned at birth” (SAAB) as what we are given/assigned by physicians based on what our genitals look like which is how society has crafted fe/male identities. Because doctors and physicians are a part of society, this is one way SAAB is a social construction. SAAB may also be argued as a social construction because it is happenstance that the decision was made that females have vulvas and ovaries, et. al. and males have penis’ and testicles, Sometimes students ask “what about what the Bible says,” and my response to that is usually that people interpret the Bible differently, that some people interpret the Adam & Eve story as a transgender narrative. Another reply I have is that this discussion and our ability to have certain types of knowledge is one of the gifts we are given by the universe, god/desses, etc. Other responses I have is that these are arguments people make and they can choose to believe what they want, but they must understand people’s ideologies and why they come to these conclusions. Finally, SAAB may be argued as a social construction because we are able to change our sex, it is not ridged and static.

From here we discuss gender roles, expectations, and expressions. We create a list of how we are socialized into understanding and assuming we are to behave and act based on gender. From this list I introduce gender binaries and ideologies around gender and how folks challenge and affirm gender within these binaries. I then begin to discuss how gender is not just two different options/sexes/genders, that gender is significantly more complicated and to put them in these small spaces limits everyone.

We then begin to discuss transgender communities and refer to the reading by Julia Serano. In her introduction and first chapter, she discusses her reasons for writing her book, her goals, and what she seeks to put forth, challenge and affirm. We discuss masculinity and femininity, and how Serano argues for liberating femininity in specific ways, her challenging of gender binaries as an ideology and approach, and connecting back to SAAB.

This conversation was a challenge for some students. Many became confused with gender expression and identity. One student asked (and I’m paraphrasing) “but when I (a woman) go to play soccer I wear the same clothing as men, this does not make me a trans person or wanting to be a man.” This is a great point and an interesting perspective on where some of us may get confused. I was glad we had read Serano’s article as I could refer to passages she wrote where she states that women have more flexibility with expressing femininity than men are provided. That when men embrace any aspect of femininity they are ridiculed and isolated. We connect this to misogyny as Serano does, and the ideas that masculinity and things that are identified as representing men as being strong and powerful. That men are considered to be the “better” gender because of ideas about differences versus similarities. From this perspective of understanding misogyny, we can understand Serano’s argument that women having a gender expression similar/stereotypically associated with masculinity that it makes “sense” because men are stronger and more powerful, of course a woman would want to dress/behave/do what men do! After explaining this a bit more an connecting with the Serano reading it seemed to “click” for many students.

I then highlighted some of the terms and language that Serano used in her chapter. These included transmisogyny, cis, cissexual and cisgender, and sexism. As with many new terms that are introduced at certain points in our lives, they were a bit confusing for some, on how to properly use them what they represent, if they are adjectives, nouns, or verbs. I asked what their reactions were in discovering terms that may describe some of them, labels that trans people have come up with to identify them. I then referred to the Queertionary 2.0 reading that included terminology that has also been created by trans and gender queer people, these included ze and hir. We had a brief discussion of how language can also shift and change when we begin to challenge and question our socialization and build more inclusive and libratory communities.

One example of this limitation would be people who are intersex. This is when the third chapter of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book is useful. I introduced intersexuality and defined it very generally as “ambiguous genitalia.” I often find that some students want to know specific details of genitals that are considered ambiguous even when they may not be clear what their own genitals look like! Instead of giving them specifics, we talk about how we may know if an enlarged clitoris is a clitoris or a penis. One way to know this is that a urethra passes through the penis and if one is present we understand that body part to be a penis. I also mention that there is nothing wrong with have a large(r ) clitoris and that these ideas are often connected to our ideas of “normalcy” which we all have a responsibility to challenge.

Instead of discussing each of the most common types of intersexuality that occurs, as Fausto-Sterling does a great job of outlining them in an accessible way in her book, we discussed a societal response to intersex people. We talked first about why doctors and parents may rush to perform surgery on babies, what motivations the doctors and the parents have and if they are the same. We also discussed in what capacity someone would know if they were intersex if they were not told, if the idea by parents and doctors is for them to have “normal” looking genitals how would they know what “normal” is? What images in our society and families may help us understand what “normal” genitals look like when we do not all live in societies where we show our genitals to others outside of specific encounters.

As part of their preparation for discussing intersex communities and experiences I had them watch a four part series of a documentary following Caster Semenya, a South African track runner (videos below). You may remember conversations about Semenya, as some of her competitors were suspicious on why and how she was so much faster than them and winning often (i.e. the faster in track is a few seconds). We discussed what was seen in the documentary, how Semenya coped with what was going on, how the world now knew what her chromosomal make up and genitals may look like (when ironically a majority of us do not know our chromosomal make up and some still don’t know what our own genitals look like because we have not ever looked in a mirror!) Many students vaguely remember Semenya, or what the societal and institutional response was to her. They were each disappointed in the response and all picked up on the fact that although Semenya was one of the fastest women runners in the world, she was not the fastest and she was not close to the fastest man runners in the world. I hope that if they one day find themselves in a position to support an intersex person they are able to remember our class and their experiences and responses to Semenya’s story.

Sexual Orientation
Originally I did not put these two topics after one another. The reason for that is because often students confuse sexual orientation with gender. I often like to do separate days and lectures for each topic, however, since we only meet three times a week for a few hours and I had some guest speakers coming in, this was one of the only options I had to discuss both topics in depth.

I began by making it clear that students understood WHY gender and sexual orientation were separate. I asked them why they thought they were different and heard their responses. We then made a list of the sexual orientations that they have heard about or are familiar with. The list we created as a group included: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and queer. As is often something that happens the group forgot that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation. I used this opportunity to remind them that this is a good example of how we are normalized to understand and see heterosexuality as “normal” in our society.

I explained that sexual orientation is not just about sex. It is an attraction and a connection. That sometimes these connections and attractions are physical and/or sexual, but when thinking about how they identify their sexual orientation it is more inclusive and centers connections that are also spiritual, emotional, sensual, and fulfilling in various ways. That when we think of sexual orientation think of who you may want to spend your life with, build a family with, and find comfort. It is far more complex than engaging in sexual activities.

Part of their readings for this section was focused on discussing asexuality as a sexual orientation. One reading focused on Dan Savage recent
ignoring of asexuality as a sexual orientation and how harmful and inappropriate that approach is for a sexuality educator. TheQueertionary 2.0 also acted as a good resource. Some students confuse asexuality with celibacy. So, I made it clear that brothers, sister, monks, and nuns may have their own sexual orientation, but their vow of celibacy means they are not acting upon their desires, but that does not mean they never existed!

We also discussed the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality. Some students did not see the difference and my explanation was that people who identify as pansexual may often “date the people they like” regardless of gender expression, sex assigned at birth, and identities. That often folks who identify as bisexual may be clear that they are attracted to a specific gender expression and sex assigned at birth, that the term alone is a good example of clearly being interested in people who are a part of the gender binary and that is ok!

I then went through a discussion of how trans people also have a sexual orientation. That being trans is a about gender, not sexual orientation; a completely different part of our identity. I explained that if a trans woman partnered with a another woman that would be a lesbian relationship; if a trans woman partnered with a man that relationship is heterosexual, if a trans man partnered with a man that is a gay relationship and if a trans man partnered with a woman that is a heterosexual relationship. Again, just as with intersex, some students get caught up on the genitals. These relationships are not always about genitals. I make it clear that it is none of our business what two (or three or four) people do in their relationship with their genitals unless we are one of those people. That to assume that a coupling would participate in certain sexual activities is problematic, and sexual behaviors do not define us. Since we had already discussed anatomy and physiology, we know where nerve endings are located on our body so it makes sense if some folks find pleasure in certain activities that we may not enjoy for ourselves. These are important things to know about ourselves for our partners, but they are not to be used to oppress other people’s pleasure, that is a misuse of power.

Now, some folks confuse these two: gender and sexual orientation, also because some folks may not perpetuate a stereotypical gender expression. That some people who identify as something other than heterosexual, that their gender expression challenges what we assume and are socialized to understand men and women presenting and exaggerating. I use myself as an example and share that my gender expression is very stereotypically feminine. Yet, my students do not know what my genitals look like or what my SAAB was just as I do not know what theirs is. We base those off of gender expression. Because I wear dresses, have long hair, my name is “feminine,” my voice is high, my body has fat deposited in places we assume is correct for “curvy” figures, and I wear make up (to name a few), I express femininity in this way. That does not mean that folks can assume what my sexual orientation is by looking at me. Some folks who are women may express their gender in what we understand to be stereotypically masculine qualities and that is also not grounds to assume anything about someone’s sexual orientation. Gender expression is about what we feel comfortable doing that day, how we wish to present ourselves to the world and for some people it is connected to gender, for others it may be connected to sexual orientation, or for others connected to both.

A video I asked them to watch before class was Jay Smooth’s “An Old Person’s Guide to ‘No Homo’” which I find to be accessible, and sadly, still relevant. Check the video out below:

They also watched the film Mariposa about Espie Hernadnez’s experience with planning her quinceñera (sweet 15). Some folks did not know what a quinceñera was so this was a new experience for them. Many of my students are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean where quinceñera’s are not always/often celebrated as in other Central and South American communities. One question was if Espie was “pushing” her sexual orientation onto her parents. I explained that for this rite of passage it assumes heterosexuality, thus it is a heterosexist rite of passage, which also privileges heterosexual people. For Espie to request she be partnered with her girlfriend for her quinceñera is challenging hetersexism and also speaks to her desire to be true to herself and truthful and honest with her family. Check out Mariposa below:

The next class is a quiz (if you want to know what the quiz questions were to practice or quiz yourself let me know in the comments and I’ll send them to you) for the first hour in short answer format with a diagram for students to complete. We then discuss pregnancy and birth options with our first guest speaker!

Day 4
Again, if you want to know the quiz questions, let me know! Some sample quiz questions I offered students to prepare and try to answer in short question format include:

1. What is the path sperm goes to exit the body?
2. Is PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) real? Support your opinion.

You’ll notice that we did not discuss PMS specifically when we discussed the menstrual cycle, however it was in the textbook readings and they are responsible for those readings even if we do not discuss them in depth in class. Also, in the syllabus are lists of terminology that are important to know. Many of these terms I discuss in class but if not they are in the text and readings and they are still responsible for know.

Pregnancy Options and Birth
Our guest speaker is someone that I’ve mentioned here before, my doula mentor
Sparkle. I asked Sparkle to talk about her experiences working with pregnant and parenting people and providing support for them as well as what occurs during pregnancy and birthing options. To prepare for this session, students were reading Doula Right Thing: About Purportedly Gendered Body Parts which discusses how to work with trans and genderqueer people who are pregnant and how to discuss genitals without assigning a gender to them. They were also asked to watch clips from the documentary “The Business of Being Born” which discusses the medicalization of birth, home births, working with midwives and doulas, and how medication given to pregnant people at the hospital impacts the body and baby. The clips are below:

Before Sparkle began to present I defined three terms for students: fertilization, implantation, and human chorionich gonadotrophin (HCG). Fertilization is when a mature egg hooks up with a mature sperm. Some folks believe this is when “life” begins, but I am going to leave that definition of “life” up to individual students. Implantation is when the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterine/endometrial lining which helps nurture it and grow into a fetus. HCG is considered the “pregnancy hormone” as this is what is trying to be detected in home pregnancy tests and pregnancy tests at doctors and clinics. I made it clear that home pregnancy tests do NOT have to be expensive and that the dollar store tests work just as well as the expensive name brand ones.

One of the reasons I have Sparkle come to my class to discuss pregnancy and birth options (she came last year as well) is because it is one topic that I do not enjoy discussing. I’m honest with students about this (just as I don’t like discussing deviance in introductory sociology courses) but I do it! However, if I can get an expert who is excited about pregnancy and birth I’d prefer them to have someone to talk to versus myself who is not as excited about the topic. Sparkle basically went through
this article and discussed each point in detail and incorporated a personal narrative and story when appropriate. In addition, Sparkle suggested this article about pregnancy and birth for future reference. She also took questions as they came up.

Sparkle shared that as a birth doula she may be present for the birth of the baby and the birth of the placenta providing pain management and support for the birthing parent. She also noted that she is also a support for parents after pregnancy where she will help with breastfeeding, cleaning, coping with parenting, and making sure the transition from being pregnant to being a parent is smooth.

Many students were surprised to hear that working with a midwife in a home birth or a birthing center is significantly less expensive than working with an OB/GYN in the hospital. They were also surprised to hear about how an episiotomy (when the perineum must be cut or severed to help the baby move through the vaginal canal) done by midwives who often allow the perineum to tear are more careful to stitch up the perineum than doctors are who cut the perineum which requires more stitches and a longer recovery time. I have one student who is a parent and chose to share her experience with childbirth with the class. She shared that she felt very empowered by her doctor who supported her desire for a “natural” birth (i.e. no medication) and that to this day she is proud of her accomplishment. It was such a privilege to have her share her birthing story and for it to be one that is positive as she will carry that with her for the rest of her life!

Day 5
Contraceptives and Birth Control

This session focuses on contraceptive and birth control options. For a social and historical perspectives on how these options have been used as coersive forms of population control among people with disabilities, working class and working poor people, and people of Color in the US (and abroad) we read a chapter from Dorothy Robert’s book “Killing The Black Body.” This chapter is called “The Dark Side of Birth Control” which focuses on how birth control advocate Margaret Sanger worked toward making contraceptives and birth control available but also how she aligned herself with eugenicists and the eugenics movement in the US that worked to eliminate racially Black people (and other non-white people) as well as those with disabilities. This chapter is very long! But it provides such an important amount of information about how people’s bodies were seen as valuable, disposable, and how racism, classism, ableism, and ageism played a role in the US history of reproductive health.

I then discussed the difference between the terms contraception and birth control. The term “birth control” does exactly what it says: prevents a birth from occurring. Contraception attempts to limit fertilization, an egg and sperm hooking up. As a result, birth control may allow fertilization and implantation to occur, however a birth does not occur. I then made a list of hormonal and non-hormonal methods and said that after we discuss each we will be able to identify which are contraceptives and which are birth control.

Hormonal methods discussed included a list that students provided: oral birth control pills (obcp), Depo-Provera (the shot), Nuva-Ring, Reproductive Patch, Mirena (IUD), Implants, and Emergency Contraception/Morning After Pill. The non-hormonal methods we discussed included male and female condoms, Paraguard (IUD), diaphragm, spermicides, natural family planning/calendar method, sponge, cervical cap, withdrawal, sterilization (tubal ligation, essure, and vasectomy), breastfeeding, abortion, and abstinence. One website I offered for students to check out prior to this class was
Bedsider which offers a discussion of almost each method in depth and in an accessible way. I had samples of each (except for the cervical cap, sponge, implant, and Depo-Provera). We discussed each method, how it is supposed to work, what the side effects are, what folks like and do not like about the method and the cost.

When discussing EC, I shared that it is available over-the-counter for folks over the age of 16 in NYC and the cost may range from $20-60 depending on what that pharmacy chooses to charge. I also indicated that I’m not sure how men who go to the pharmacy to purchase this are treated and if they are given EC. I’m not aware of any men who have tried to get EC and what their experiences were (this may be a great social experiment for some of you reading!). I also noted that if men are not provided with EC when they request it, since men should also know about EC, that it is a good example of leaving contraception and birth control up to the person with the vulva, and that pharmacists are making assumptions about someone’s genitals based on their gender expression. The man in front of them may have a sex assigned at birth that requires them to need EC.

We also discussed how lesbians (some of which I have in my classroom) often think they do not need birth control or contraception, however, again we do not know what our future holds, and it may be that we find ourselves in a relationship with someone who is a woman but whose sex assigned at birth is male and that is a lesbian relationship, but one where if penetrative vaginal intercourse is occurring a barrier method and/or birth control option is needed. Plus, barrier methods like condoms, dental dams, gloves, and finger condoms are useful for many folks regardless of sexual orientation.

Finally we ended with discussing abstinence, which I defined as “waiting to have sex.” I shared that many people define abstinence differently and that “waiting” may mean waiting until you get condoms, waiting until you graduate college, get married, fall in love, whatever! That it is important for each of them to define abstinence for themselves and to be comfortable sharing that with any of their partners. It is also important to discuss what abstinence means to them and to their partner as they may have different definitions as well. We also discussed how abstinence may not work such as instances in domestic violence situations where a person who may not want to have sex with their partner may need to for safety and survival purposes, or when someone is a victim and survivor of rape.

Although I included abortion in our list of non-hormonal methods, I leave that up for a separate class lecture where we will discuss what the procedures actually include, laws surrounding abortion, and debunking myths. We will also discuss female sexual dysfunction and how that is diagnosed and discussed among the sexology community.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Online Course: Sociology of Human Sexuality Part 1

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is the first part in a series of posts (maybe 4 maybe 5) based upon my teaching experiences this summer semester as I teach an upper level course called “Sociology of Human Sexuality.” This is the second time I’ve taught this course and I have three times as many students this time around. I’m super excited to know that I’ll be able to share some of what I have planned each week with you all.
Our semester in the summer is four weeks long. We meet three times a week for three hours. Each class session is considered one week in a usual fall or spring semester. As a result, we’ve covered a LOT already and we have only had three classes. Below is an overview of what we discussed with links to the readings and films when available. If you are interested in receiving the syllabus I’m using please leave a comment with a way to reach you.

Day 1
Introduction, Anatomy & Physiology

I began class by introducing the course and myself by reviewing the syllabus and discussing major projects and grading requirements. Although grading is my least favorite part of teaching, it’s required. There are two quizzes, one final, 20 workbook assignments, and 5 guest speakers. The final project is for the students to either do a formal/traditional research paper of a topic of their choice or to rewrite a piece of media (of their choice) to demonstrate the characters/environment/etc. represent a sexually responsible, positive, and inclusive presentation of sex, sexuality, and topics we have discussed this semester. 

There are two required texts for my class, one is a traditional textbook about Human Sexuality called Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity by Janell L. Carroll and the second text is Tales of the Closet  by Ivan Velez, Jr. This second text is one that I adore, it was the first comic book that was written and created (both by Ivan he’s the artist and author) centering queer youth of Color in NYC. There is a great history of the book that you can read on Ivan’s website Planet Bronx.  You may purchase Tales of the Closet online (and the other parts as well) and I have the honor of having Ivan agree to visit our class on the last day and discuss his text and career as an author, artist, and media maker. 

After introducing the course I had us do our first group activity. As many educators like to do (and apologies if you have done this activity and call it a specific title), I wrote terms on a piece of paper (i.e. each piece of paper had terms: Breast & Nipples, Testicles & Scrotum, Vulva, LGBTQI, Masturbation, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, and Vaginal Sex. I put the students in pairs and gave them each a piece of paper with a word on it. Then gave them 2 minutes to write all the other terms, synonyms, people, places, phrases they could think of regarding this topic in that time without repeating others that are already written. Usually I have one student read the terms on the paper they are holding, but this time I decided against that for time purposes. Instead I asked students what their reactions were reading their peers terms and phrases. What emotions came up for them? These emotions varied from funny, happy, angry, uncomfortable, and confused. I then indicated that those are terms we are NOT going to use in our class. That we will use the “scientific” terms in our class unless we are making direct quotes, using specific examples, and/or need assistance finding another term. That this connects to the respect issue as many people respond to language differently. 

Then, I went straight into lecturing. I always like to start with what I think is the harder part of the course: anatomy and physiology. I think this is difficult because for folks who do not have a medical/science background or have not been trained to memorize things in a particular way, this is a challenge. We briefly discussed puberty and changes that may occur during this time. I then went into the reproductive organs of what is assigned to people who are male. One of the reasons I start here is because the images and pictures needed can be taken care of with one foto. Plus, starting with these reproductive organs often quiets the young men in the room if they are already feeling a bit uncomfortable. They are often fascinated with the reproductive organs they are assumed to have and how they work. 

Here is a good example of one of the images  I used to present this discussion. The body parts we discussed include: glans penis, corona, frenulum, shaft of penis, scrotum, perenium, and anus as the external parts of the genitalia. The internal parts we discussed include: urethra, cowper’s gland, ejaculatory duct, prostate, seminal vesicle, bladder, vas deferense, epididymis, testicle/testis, sperm, semen, and ejaculatory fluid. All of these parts (which you may do an internet search to find more information about each if you are not familiar with any of these parts) I presented as important parts of reproductive organs and how our society has created ideas of “normal” genitalia. 

We then discussed the pathway that sperm and semen go to exit the body. For those of you who need a refresher the pathway is: sperm develops in the testis, matures in the epididymis, moves up through the vas deferens which provides some nutrients and donates to the semen, followed by the seminal vesicle, ejaculatory duct, and passes the cowper’s gland (which stores pre-ejaculatory fluid) and out of the urethra. There was a question about retrograde ejaculation, when instead of semen (which carries sperm) goes into the bladder because the bladder neck closure connecting the bladder and urethra does not close. This closing is required for the semen to move through the rest of the body and out the urethra. 

It was a whole bunch of information and I was exhausted and thirsty and needed to sit down! And yes, I did draw images on the board to help show these body parts and the passage of semen, which is kind of hilarious in itself. So we took a break and when we returned we finished up with the internal and external reproductive organs of people assigned as female. 

I began the discussion with internal reproductive organs.  I often find that these images are often ones that people are more familiar with. I’m not sure why this may be, perhaps it is not seen as “pornographic” as external genitalia are? Or maybe it is because of our discussion of contraceptives and birth control. In any event, we begin by discussing the following parts: ova/eggs/ovums, ovary, fimbria, fallopian tubes, uterus, uterine/endometrial lining, cervix, os, vaginal canal. I then shared, similarly to how we discussed sperm moving through the body, how ova/eggs mature and move through the reproductive organs. Again, for those who are not sure the path goes as follows: ova stimulated to grow in ovar, the most mature egg busts out of the ovary (yes it is a forceful process one that some folks may feel and this has been called a MittleSchmertz ), fimbria picks it up and helps move through fallopian tube, uterus, and if there is no fertilization (the egg hooking up with sperm) then there is no implantation (fertilized egg attaching to uterine/endometrial lining) and when it is time usually menstruation occurs where the lining of the uterus exits the cervix through the os and out of the vaginal canal. 

The second part of the reproductive organs for females was the external. This is a good image that may be useful for folks to follow along. I introduced the vulva as a term that describes the entire external female genitalia; this was a term that not many folks were familiar with. I indicated how when folks say the “vagina” they are really just referencing one part of the vulva and to get to know the other great parts that make up the vulva! These include the mons pubis, clitoris, inner and outer labia lips, vagina, perenium, and anus. I made a note that I would refer to the inner and outer labia lips instead of how the textbook discusses them as the labia majora and minora. This is because for some people their inner labia lip (what some call the labia minora) is often larger and/or longer than their outer labia lip (what some call the labia majora) and this may lend to people with vulvas thinking their vulva is not “normal” because the terms associated make the assumption that “majora” is longer. 

I also shared this so that when we begin our discussion of female sexual dysfunction we can have a conversation about vaginoplasty and if we think this may qualify as a dysfunction, cosmetic, or something else. Some students were not too fond of hearing me say this about terminology, so I made the note that just like our faces, where we usually have two eyes, one nose, one mouth the vulva usually has the same features but they all look different, just as our faces look different. This seemed to have settled them down a bit. 

I then spent some time discussing our ideas of virginity. Who may be included and/or excluded in those ideas and had the class provide some commentary on how they would define virginity. It quickly became clear the students had various definitions of virginity and that it was tied for many of them to vaginal canals and hymens. With that noted, I shared the different types of hymen’s  that may exist. We also discussed what hymens’ are, how they are formed, how one may “check” for virginity, how a hymen may be a challenge for “normal” reproductive growth (i.e. no perforation for menstrual blood to flow). Here’s a great set of images to help clarify how hymen’s may look for some folks.

Day 2
Human Sexual Response, Menstrual Cycle, Stages of Erection and Ejaculation, Sexual Assault & Rape

One of the reasons I put rape and sexual assault so early in the semester and connected to stages of an erection, ejaculation, and human sexual response, is because often folks are not aware of how our bodies may response to trauma. I wanted to help students understand how our bodies function and therefore have a better understanding of why the body may respond in certain ways that are nonconsensual. 

We began with discussing parts of the breast, which I had forgotten to discuss in our first class. We discussed milk ducts, mammary glands, nipple, areola, and lactation. I then discussed hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), Gonadotrophin Releasing Hormone (GnRH), prolactin, and oxytocin. I then went into the stages of the menstrual cycle  which include: follicular, ovulation, luteal, and menstrual. I shared that, although using a 28-day cycle, that many folks who menstruate do not always full under this cycle timeline. That the 28 days is the idea that for 21 days out of the month a person does not bleed and for 7 days they do. This has historically been promoted as the “normal” cycle even though we know that there are often more than 28 days in a month. I noted that this cycle is usually attached to “traditional” (read not the type that only gives you your period 3x a year) oral birth control pills where for three weeks a person may not menstruate and then for one full week. This may be in part to the connection between reproductive health and the pharmaceutical companies in the US. 

We then moved to human sexual response, which I included 5 stages of versus the usual 4 (even today an online search will come up with the original 4 still). These staged include: desire (fairly new addition), excitement, plateau, orgasmic, and resolution. Historically desire was not included until the activism of a few sexologists. The argument is that desire must first exist and be acknowledged in order for human sexual response to occur in the way we have been taught to understand. Without desire what does that mean? What does it mean if we have sex but there is no desire? How does this connect to consent? At one point when discussing “sex flush” which is often considered a reddening of the skin when the body experiences certain things, I connected this to the normalization of white and light skin. For people whose skin is not a color where redness is easily seen and recognized there are other ways for a sex flush to occur, such as “goose bumps.” I wonder how many other educators, trainers, physicians make this note about skin color and physical responses? How many make the connection that these theories we teach still erase and ignore many of our community members?

We then transitioned into discussing the stages of erection an erection. Before doing this I drew a picture of what is inside of the penis  and discussed the urethra, corpus cavernosum and corpus spongiosum so it was clear there is no bone, how and where blood fills into the penis. This is a very physiological discussion; one that can easily get confusing and I try to make it accessible. I begin by discussing the autonomic nervous system (ANS)  and two branches: parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The ANS controls balance, breathing, urination, sweating, and sexual response; things that we often don’t always think about but are basic parts of our body needing to do so it can function in a particular way. The PNS controls muscle contractions and thus erections and the SNS controls our feelings, emotions, anxiety, and ejaculation. 

An erection is, as their textbook states” a “hydraulic event” (yes hydraulic as in what may happen with cars as they go up and down) and a spinal cord reflex. There are several parts of the body that come into play for an erection to occur. These include the brain, blood vessels, hormones, nerves, and spinal cord.  I usually draw a picture of the spinal cord with special emphasis on the lower parts called the Lumbar curve and Sacral curve. I then give students two different scenarios:

1. Touch: something/one touches or brushes against a penis and what happens is that a message from the ANS is sent to the spinal cord, specifically the sacrum which is part of the sacral curve. The sacral area is “erection central” in that it receives messages and then sends them to the penis so that blood can be sent there and fill, which is called vasocongestion. This is what causes certain parts of our body to become hard when they fill with blood (i.e. nipple, clitoris, penis, vulva). 

2. Visual: If the person with the penis sees something that they find arousing or pleasurable a message is sent from the brain that goes to the lumbar region of the spinal cord. That message says “this is something I find arousing” and thus an erection can occur. The lumbar then sends a message to the sacral area and that message is for vasocongestion to occur in the penis. 

When the lumbar does not translate that message to the sacral area, this is when folks may look to medications for erectile dysfunction such as Viagra© and Cialis®. One of the reasons these medications work is because they help to take away whatever is blocking the Lumbar in translating the message from the brain. The issue is that there is still desire that the person with the penis has for experiencing an erection, they are just not experiencing one because there is a block. 

I finished up this discussion with the three stages of ejaculation: emission (when mature sperm moves through the body), bladder neck closure, and ejaculation. One of the reasons why I put the rape and sexual assault discussion at this time was to discuss how some folks don’t understand why people get erections. I wanted to help folks realize that not all erections are sexual, that sometimes erections occur but it does not mean that people want to engage in a sexual activity. Often, these can be spinal cord reflexes. These may occur during a sexual assault. It is possible that when someone with a penis is sexually assaulted and/or raped they experience an erection. Many folks believe that if a person has an erection when experiencing such a traumatic event that the person must have “wanted” and/or “enjoyed” the interaction.

This is not true. 

Go back and read above about the stages of an erection and the first scenario regarding touch that was provided. There is no signal from the brain that this is a pleasurable experience for the person. It is a response that our bodies have. The same thing is true for people with vulvas and vaginas. When aroused lubrication is increased usually. However, sometimes people may experience vaginal lubrication when being assaulted and/or raped and again, become confused thinking their body is revolting against them. In many ways this is because our brain is the most sexual parts of our body and we do not understand how this could occur if we did not desire to have the experience. Again, this is one of the ways our body responds to certain situations. It is one way that our bodies may help us decrease the amount of friction and thus pain. 

I used the example from the book Push  by Sapphire, where Precious discussed not understanding why she would experience orgasms when her biological father was raping her. This is one of the reasons I find these topics important to connect early on. It is also a good way to discuss consent and community responses to violence.

The readings for this class came from a few places. One reading is available online and is called “The People You Meet When You Write About Rape”  and an essay from The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology by  Aishah Shahidah Simmons (the director of NO! The Rape Documentary) titled “The War Against Black Women, and the Making of No!” Students also watched two videos before class one is “The Internal Clitoris”  by Betty Dodson, which demonstrates how far back the nerve endings of the clitoris extend in the body, and Nuala Cabral’s “Walking Home."

I know this is only two days into the first week of a 3-day week, and it’s a whole lot of information! I can only imagine how tired my students must feel especially if I’m ready for a 2 hour nap when I get home! This is why I may have five parts as I may only be able to cover so many classes a week! Our next class is going to be on gender and sex assigned at birth. We are reading the third chapter in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book Sexing The Body  called “Of Gender & Genitals: The Use & Abuse Of The Modern Intersexual” which will totally challenge everything I taught them the first two days! We will follow that up with the introduction and first chapter of Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl  where we discuss trans people and how our societies have constructed ideas around identity, sex, experience, and ways we may begin to challenge and unlearn. We will end class with a focus on sexual orientation as folks usually confuse gender and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to gender expression and exaggerations!

Allied Media Conference: Part 2

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is part two of a two part series about my experiences at the Allied Media ConferenceAMC). In this part I will discuss the sessions and workshops I attended. Read part one here.

After arriving and settling in the first track on Friday morning was the most difficult time to choose a session to attend. There were so many good ones, such as “
Editing As An Act of Love,” and “Video Blogging to Expand Your Message,”but I decided on “Stories that Feed Our Bodies & Communities: Media Tools for Healing.” The AMC encouraged participates to a communal note taking system called PiratePad, so folks who could not attend the session could still see what notes were taken during the session. Here is the PiratePad link for this session.

The session I selected is part of the track “Health is Dignity. Dignity is Resistance.” It was the track and meeting two of the presenters that led me to this track. I’ve wanted to meet blogger
bfp (brownfemipower) in 3D for a very long time and hear Alexis Pauline Gumbs speak live! As you can read on the PiratePad, we spoke about how we first heard about health, how it was connected to media, and how we define media. It was good to see folks in person, and the most important part for me was the resources that folks shared. I quickly realized that other folks used the space in a different way than I did and this is because I wanted to be challenged in a particular way versus completely participate in a communal discussion of healing and trauma.

Following this session was a screening of the film
Black Girl Project, which was a part of the INCITE! track. Director Aiesha Turman, who was interviewed for the Media Maker’s Salon a while back, was present to screen the film and provide a discussion after the film. As a board member of the Black Girl Project, I attended this session to support the film, program, and hear feedback from others.

The feedback Aiesha received was very supportive. There were questions about extending the definition of “girl” to include genderqueer and trans women. Aiesha shared that she is very much open to interviewing folks who challenge and expand what “girl” means just as she has done the same with “Black.” She also shared how she went about capturing the interviews, as she didn’t use a huge video camera, but her cell phone and digital camera’s video feature.

After the BGP film screening Aiesha and I went in search of food. The AMC provides a two hour lunch break and during that time some lunch caucuses. Aiesha and I walked around the area and decided on a creperie makes crepes made to order called
Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes, which is a woman owned and operated space. The food was delicious but it did take the full 2 hours to get served because they are made to order and only have two crepe makers.

After lunch we had a challenge getting into the sessions we wanted. There is limited space in many of the classrooms and the two following sessions of the day we did not get into. I wanted to attend “
The Collaborative Design Challenge” but a sign on the door told us the room was full. The following sessions of the day had three sessions of interest to me:“Decolonizing Journalism,” “Latitudes and Longitudes: Mapping Wellness,” and “Cooking as a Form of Media: Stories & Experiences of a Traditional Native Chef.” The last two sessions were completely filled with folks sitting on the floor of the rooms! This is a good sign for the presenters and the participants, but it’s also a reminder: if there is a session I really want to go to I need to make a decision early and get there on time (if not sooner) to get a seat!

Aiesha and I sat together in the auditorium chatting until the Opening Session began. It was a great time spending the day with Aiesha in this space. I got to know more about her and hear stories she shared about her family and future goals.

The Opening Session was amazing! It was held Friday evening and had an introduction to each track by the folks who helped coordinate them. That means 19 track presentations and all of them were interactive, used media in different ways, and were very engaging. It was great to see all of the folks and children present for the elder and children’s track with babies being held up over the heads of the person holding them and elders standing up so folks know they are present. So much wisdom and power among the 2000 of us!

By the end of the day, to say I was exhausted is a huge understatement! Instead of heading over to the bowling and karaoke party that was scheduled (and free for AMC goers) I had dinner with friends at a local brewery and headed home to bed early to prepare for Saturday.

The first session I chose to attend for Saturday was the
INCITE! Shawty Got Skillz Skillshare. Several friends were presenting and I was recruited to take some notes for the Pirate Pad. There were multiple forms of media that were present and this session was set up over two blocks of time and had the feel of a “science fair” where participants could move around to each space. The spaces provided were ones that focused on dancing, sensuality, using and being safe on Twitter, using social media, DIY videos, and fermentation and memory. There are some fotos on the Shawty Got Skillz tumblr page you can check out

I was only able to stay for one block of time and had to leave to my volunteer shift in the Healing Practitioner space that was created. I was offering art therapy in the form of
transformative portraits. I had brought with me colored pencils, crayons, watercolor paints, and markers. I had about 5 people register for my slot but two of them decided to go to sessions instead of stay for ours. The folks who did stay we had a lively conversation about addiction, healing, diversity, and change. There were times where I wondered if the folks who attended actually enjoyed the session I gave, as there were some comments such as “this would be great for the kids track.” I realized that many folks have sometimes rigid ideas of what healing can be and what “art” and “therapy” (separate and together) looks like. I was glad to have been in that space, a part of it, and I came home with three images that I am very proud of. One of the images I gifted to the person I was thinking about while creating it that day.

After my session I had to go back to my room and take a much deserved nap. This led me to wonder how I may experience this conference had I attended 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago when I was still in my 20s. A majority of the participants were in their mid-to late-20s and a good amount of folks under 20. The minority in the group were 30-somethings and the folks who identified as elders. There was definitely a feeling of “I wish I had known about the AMC before” and I’m not a fan of such feelings. They sometimes make me feel as if I’ve missed out on something and have to catch up. Yet, I let myself feel that and honor it and then realized that I can give and take from the AMC everything I can now and build for the future years.

After my nap I was able to make it to one of the final sessions called “
Every Ho I Know Says So: Listening to Sex Workers in the Sex Trade.” This session was an introduction to the short documentary film “Every Ho I Know Says So” and a discussion about how partners, lovers, sweethearts of sex workers can be supportive. Led by Lusty Day, a sex worker from Canada who is also a media maker and activist, we discussed our experiences and backgrounds with and as sex workers, shared what we sought to gain from this session.

After the session a caucus was held for folks who identify as sex workers who would like to create their own video of advice to stay and do so with Lusty. Below is the full documentary that Lusty has put together and shares. Lusty spoke about the challenges and support experienced while building and crafting the documentary. You’ll see that Lusty made it a point to have subtitles for the film so that it remains accessible. A website with additional videos will be coming soon!

Lusty also has created a zine of the same topic and was generous enough to send us a copy via email. If this is something you are interested in seeing leave a comment with a way to contact you and I’ll get in touch and share it!

That was my final session I attended. My plane left at noon on Saturday so attending Saturday sessions was not something I could do, especially since I had decided to have a brunch date with three folks I won’t be able to see very often. I realized that at conferences we can overwork ourselves, make ourselves anxious, and become overwhelmed very easily. It’s important to take care of ourselves, and this is one of the reasons the Healing Practitioner space was available. It’s also the reason why I prioritized building community over attending sessions that didn’t really interest me. In the end my time at the AMC and in Detroit was invaluable. It is one of the best experiences I have had this summer and I could not have had it without the support, love, and donations of everyone who helped me arrive and participate.

I hope that my reflections and reporting back of the conference is one that inspires readers to consider attending in the future. Like I said earlier, this is the conference space I needed 10 years ago, as a young person in the movement. I’m so happy to know that this space exists and that it is welcoming for us all.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Allied Media Conference: Notes Part 1

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This will be the first part in a two part series that will highlight and discuss my experiences at the Allied Media Conference (AMC) this month (June 2011). This piece will discuss my overall experience at the AMC and the next post will discuss specific workshops and sessions I attended.

Many of you may remember when I shared some
conferences to check out this year that I mentioned fundraising to get to the AMC. Well, I raised all the funds I needed (minus some unexpected baggage fees for the airline; something to remember for fundraising in the future)! Fundraising was extra scary but also very humbling. I realized how much people in our community support and love me and sometimes asking for help is a gift we give other people, not just ourselves.

Planning to depart for Detroit, where the AMC is held, was the easy part. It was actually getting there that was frustrating! There was a huge storm earlier in the day. The kind of rain that makes folks who are wearing dark colors STILL look wet. Our plane was delayed for 4 hours, which means instead of us arriving at 8pm we arrived after midnight! We were also sharing a departure gate with three other departures that were also delayed and it was a chaotic experience. Good thing Detroit is less than two hours away!

I had traveled with a friend and we split a cab to the on-campus housing at Wayne State University where the AMC is held (a cab ride from the airport there will cost you about $50). We shared a four-bedroom suite where the lounge area and bathroom were shared but we each had our own bedrooms. We were able to request up to 3 roommates and the 3 I selected I was roomed with. It was like the residence hall was our clubhouse. Almost everybody we knew at the AMC who had traveled was staying there or somewhere nearby.

The first day of the conference started at 9am. Registration opened at 8am and because I wanted to attend one of the first sessions I got in line around 8:45am. It was super busy and crowded with folks who were arriving for the first time and registering. The registration went by fairly quickly and the three buildings the conference was set in were very close to one another and completely accessible. A continental breakfast was offered along with vegan options, coffee, teas, water, and juice. The water and juice/soda was also provided throughout the day. Food for lunch and dinner were not offered with registration but for the first time folks could purchase a lunch when they registered for $8 and there were places in the area to eat such as a diner, pizza spot, and some fast food options.

The conference had 19 tracks and an amazing listing of sessions for folks to attend. There were workshops, trainings, caucuses, evening events, and opening and closing ceremonies. There was so much to do that I quickly became overwhelmed. I plotted out the sessions I wanted to attend over the three days so that I could enjoy myself and have a good time without worrying about logistics. I’ll share what sessions I attended in Part 2.

The AMC is one of those places where the folks you meet and build community with virtually you see in 3D. This was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had at a conference! I met so many of the folks who have become chosen family, mentors, and friends over the years for the first time; and I was not the only one. Many of the folks I knew from NYC had the same experiences of meeting folks for the first time. It was really an amazing and affirming experience to know that someone who you communicate with on a regular basis is
really who they say they are!

For the first time ever, the AMC offered a Healing Justice Practice Space. This is place for activists and folks at the AMC to sign up to receive some form of healing. The healing that was offered came from volunteers, like myself, who have a skill or healing background to share. I offered my art therapy for folks and also included massage, reiki, energy work, community acupuncture, community yoga, listening sessions, nutrition and herb advice, and basic health EMT services. The reason for incorporating this space into the AMC is because often we as activists forget or don’t make healing and caring for ourselves a priority. Here the AMC offered this space so that we could have that experience and share it collectively to know that we are all in need of healing and care at some points in our lives. I’ll share more about my experience doing my art workshop in this space in Part 2 next week.

One of the most amazing parts of the AMC was that there were so many queer youth of Color! I knew to expect a large contingent of youth represented but it never occurred to me that so many would be present, sharing sessions, creating media, building community, mentoring one another and others. It was such a fantastic space that I began to wonder how different my life could/may have been as an activist had I came to the AMC in my late teens, early 20s instead of my mid-30s. If you are reading this you MUST GO to the AMC in 2012! There is no way around it, if media and media making is of value and interest and importance to you this is where you need to be!

I spent some time thinking of all the folks in my community who were not physically present who I knew would benefit and find so much in the AMC. There are so many folks I wanted to have experience what I was witnessing and be inspired and encouraged to continue their work, which is why I’m sharing this piece with you all now. I knew the AMC would be amazing, but I didn’t ever think it could be as transformative as it was. From having meals with amazing people (even when my introverted self needed space) to being offered rides to the airport by friends I had just met and waking up to the beautiful souls I stayed with while there, my travels and experience to the AMC were spectacular!

My perspective of myself as a media maker, my power to contribute to something larger and to make change in the ways I think are important have been challenged and solidified. I have a new vision for the work I want to do, a new set of tools, and a new agenda for social justice that excites me and reminds me I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing for myself. I feel myself glowing it’s that amazing. This is an experience I wish each of you can one day enjoy as well! Thanks for witnessing it with me.