Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Response to Research On Knowing Woman’s Experience with Vaginal Orgasm from Her Walk

cross posted from my RH Reality Check blog.

Research by several Belgium sexologists that focuses on determining a woman’s experiences with vaginal orgasm from her walk gained media attention in the United States this year. Neither the research nor the fascination with women’s sexual pleasure and orgasm is new. The research itself was published in 2008 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine and authored by Aurelie Nicholas, Drs. Stuart Brody, Pascal de Sutter, and Fran├žois de Carufel. A 6-page analysis of the original researcher was published under the title, “A Woman’s History of Vaginal Orgasm is Discernible from Her Walk.”

Researchers had a sample of 16 university psychology students who they identified as “female.” The women volunteered to participate in the research and completed a questionnaire. One question asked women how often they reported having vaginal orgasms as “always,” “often,” “rarely,” and “never.” A woman on the research team was assigned to work with the research subjects as each was asked to walk 100 m while being filmed. The women were first told to think pleasant thoughts “of being on a vacation beach” and then to walk the same distance again but this time “while thinking of being in the same locale but in the company of a man for whom she had thoughts of love.”

The videos were rated by professors of sexology who were trained in Functional-Sexological therapies (“incorporates retraining of muscle use, body movement, and breathing for intercourse-based treatment”) as well as two women research assistants. They judged the videos based on “global impression of the women’s free, fluid, energetic, sensual manner of walking (with an emphasis on energy flow through the rotation of the pelvis and the spine).” The trained sexologists were able to correctly conclude which women had experienced vaginal orgasm with only two “false positives.” They concluded that these findings support past findings and show that women with “vaginal orgasm have better psychological function than women without vaginal orgasm (even if they have clitoral orgasm).” Researchers rationalized the two false positives by suggesting that those two women might “have the capacity for vaginal orgasm, but have not yet had sufficient experience or met a man of sufficient quality to induce vaginal orgasm.”

It is very easy to critique this work as there are many areas and variables not discussed such as:

  • Sex and gender: “Woman” is used to define people whose sex assigned at birth is female and who identify as woman. Unfortunately, this confuses the two and does not recognize the difference between sex and gender, nor does it include trans or intersex people as it reinforces a gender and sex binary.
  • Race and class: There is no discussion of race or class of the participants which leaves the reader to make assumptions based on the national origin of the participants who were students at a Belgium University.
  • Sexual orientation: The work is heterosexist and is used to reinforce heterosexism within the field of sexology, to connect sexual pleasure for women solely with heterosexual sex. In turn it is extremely misogynistic. To claim that a woman needs penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse to experience a vaginal orgasm ignores a huge population of people who have vulvas and vaginas and do not or cannot have penile-vaginal intercourse. There are many other forms of vaginal penetration that may lead to vaginal orgasm.
  • Sexual dysfunction: The study perpetuates a field of research on women’s sexual dysfunction attached to vaginal orgasm only. This focus ignores the pleasure some women may experience from clitoral stimulation as well as orgasm from other forms of tactile activity. Thus, it creates an emphasis/elevation of vaginal orgasm over all other forms of pleasure and orgasm.
  • Physical ability: The research is "ableist" as it only examines women who are able to walk and be mobile in a particular way. There is no discussion of women who are mobile in different ways.
  • Penis size: One of the conclusions regarding a woman’s lack of vaginal orgasm is connected to “the possible anatomical issue of whether her man has a penis of sufficient length to produce cervical buffeting, and the issue of whether the man maintains his erection...intercourse orgasm with men displaying indicators of greater genetic fitness (including physical attractiveness).” This places blame on a man and continues to reinforce the idea/myth that the size of a man’s penis is what determines his partner’s satisfaction.

    Despite these flaws, it is an interesting article to read (leave a comment with a way to contact you if you’d like to read the original piece and do not have access). The physiological discussion of theautonomic nervous system, somatic nervous system, and parasympathetic nervous system regarding vaginal and clitoral orgasm is useful. In fact, the one time the authors mention different abilities is when discussing how “women with a completely severed spinal cord can have vaginal-cervical orgasms verifiable by functional magnetic resonance imaging, even in the absence of any clitoral connection to the brain.” The authors also focus on the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that sends messages to the brain from the central nervous system about what the body is feeling. They focus on the vagus nerve because it is believed that stimulation of the vagus nerve is experienced by “penile buffeting of the cervix--but not produced by clitoral stimulation--appears involved in processes of better cardiovascular and psychological function.”

    I also found the discussion of bioenergetics, a bodymind therapy ("psychotheraputic" is the term used in the article) interesting to apply to the field of sexology. Bioenergetics looks to tension in the body but also to how easily/freely we move (i.e. energy flow from the body) and my ideas of what sex and sexuality are very much connected to ideas of sharing energy in certain ways.

    Reading the reactions to this research I felt that the field of sexology was being ridiculed again. When I came to this field I knew it was one that had a long history which included people laughing at our work,saying it is not important or needed, and isolating us in various ways. I think also of how work in sexual science remains in a particular place, one that reinforces the normalization of certain bodies and experiences while continuing to oppress and marginalize others. This was one reason I chose to come to this field and stay here as well; to change how we are discussed and how we do research so that it is more inclusive and useful.

    When I shared this story with some folks online I did not envision that there would be very specific and thoughtful responses by readers. As I read the amazing responses by readers I asked some if I could quote them in this piece to include a communal response to this research. I find this extremely imperative to the sexology field as much of our work we only discuss among one another, rarely with folks who will be impacted by our findings. I’d also like to share that many of these responses are by folks who we rarely hear from: people of Color, working class, and immigrants.

    Some response to my sharing of this research include:


    i saw this study months ago. it thoroughly has it’s understanding of orgasms mixed up and written up incorrectly. this is showing if a woman has achieved orgasm at all, not this mythical special “type” of orgasm that only super-awesome-normal-sexual ladies can get. i really really REALLY hate this common misunderstanding about female-bodied orgasms because it still leaks it’s way into studies, and for whatever reason it gets questioned very little. vaginal orgasms and clitoral orgasms are not “different”. hell, they’re not even two “types” of orgasm. it’s one. one orgasm. your pc muscles contract and pulse rapidly, without your help. whether this is triggered through pounding your vagina, rubbing your clit, teasing your nipples or doing kegels (or doing all at once, heheh), it’s all the damn same. i’m tired of studies casually mentioning that i have some sort of “sexual dysfunction” because vaginal penetration isn’t leading me to orgasm. it’s normal. the vaginal canal has less nerve endings to be rubbed against. my g-spot swells and aids in getting an orgasm easily. but it doesn’t trigger one. i have no psychosexual issue. i’ve been fucking for years and fucking myself for years. i’ve been freely enjoying it for years. i can reach an orgasm in a minute or two if i’m horny. this “clitoral orgasm/vaginal orgasm” shit still seems to be run-off from freud’s crappy theory that the “mature” woman would achieve vaginal orgasm, and the clitoral one was for girls.

    if this bullshit is true, then why aren’t there popular studies that consider orgasms some men achieve through anal penetration “prostate orgasms”, and the ones they get from jacking off “penile orgasms”? oh wait they don’t, they just consider it all one orgasm achieved through different means.

    p.s., my hips swing when i walk too.

    Jemima Aslana

    OMG… this makes me paranoid as all hell. I don’t want random people who randomly saw me walk to know about my sexual history… or orgasmic history or whatever. EEK!!! I’m never going to be able to move in public ever again. As if it wasn’t hard enough already.

    /hides under blanket

    Dear science, why can’t you focus on things that would actually improve this world?

    I think these are extremely important responses to consider. These responses speak to the sexism in the research, problems with binaries, and challenges to psychoanalytical approaches to sexuality. There also exists a real discomfort with such data which in turn can result in a violation of privacy. I recall my first semester of graduate school studying human sexuality and walking into a room with my classmates (all women) to meet the professor. It was cold and all of us were wearing pants. When we came to the section on pregnancy our professor (who was a man) told us he knew none of us had children because of the ways our vulvas looked in our pants. Now, this was done to show us an example of vasocongestion, changes in the body post-pregnancy, and to connect to the themes of the class. Yet, it left many of us feeling violated and uncomfortable and interacting with the professor in a completely different way. Had I known then what I know today, I may have responded differently than sitting quietly and complaining with other students after class.

    The comments by two other readers brings up another important topic: ways of knowing that are often not seen as valuable but are normalized for many communities of Color.


    Yeah, my grandmother pulled me aside right after the first time I had sex to make sure I used a condom (That was the sum total of my sex ed from her, always use condoms & never use their condoms.) and all I could do was blink at her, because I hadn’t told a soul about it. Sometimes those old wives tales are true I guess.

    Zahira Kelly

    this is really interesting in that my father and his country kin have used this method to gauge if girls were sexually active or not for a long, long time lol

    i always went back and forth about it. now its making me laugh. hmmmmm….

    so many things to think about….may come back to it…

    Including and understanding how many communities all over the world think about and understand sexuality makes me question this, and other, research. Just because we have come up with something we as sexologists think is useful, what does it mean that these thoughts and approaches have been utilized for generations all over the world in communities that some view as “primitive” and “uncivilized?” I think it very clearly calls out the ethnocentrism that is present in many fields. I believe a more useful form of research would be understanding how communities all over the world may use this methodology and how that challenges us, the “appropriately trained sexologists,” to recognize that much of our training may be a form of knowledge production that has existed for years by people who we do not claim as members of our field.

    How does this speak to the field of sexology as having existed in non-academic and medical spaces? Will we include such experiences and knowledge in future work? Or will we be scared and disappointed and attempt to shame and debunk such complementary forms of knowledge as is much of many of our histories?

    Conspiracy Theories & HIV

    cross posted from my Media Justice column

    My last post was a reflection of the many questions and myths I hear from the youth (and sometimes adults) I provide HIV education and prevention in NYC. This post is one where I’d like to discuss a topic I hear almost every time I do a session, especially with youth of Color: HIV was created to eradicate people of Color. I hear this as well from people who identify as queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, and questioning (not so much asexual as this is not yet a sexual orientation they have come to completely understand).

    When I hear this statement I know, with every bone in my body, exactly what this young person (or adult) is talking about. I know where that comes from, and how that fear is very much a reality. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that women of Color and women and men with disabilities were forcibly sterilized; researchers in the Tuskegee Experiment ,examining the racial differences of Black and White men infected with Syphilis, did not offer the cure to Black men or their families); and oral birth control pill experiments among Puerto Rican and Haitian women - with these being just the experiments the public knows about.

    The experiences and beliefs that people of Color and people who are not heterosexual are hated, devalued, and dehumanized still exists today. Just take a look at some of thecampaign marketing for some US presidential hopefuls; and how popular culture all over the world speak and write about us. Only six years ago a study by Oregon State University and Rand Corp. released data showing that almost half of the 500 Black people living in the US surveyed believed HIV was man-made, by the government, 25% believed it was created in a government lab, and 12% believed the CIA created and dispersed the virus. So, when I hear this argument or belief for why and how HIV is a part of our lives, I get it and I respect it as well.

    I do not attempt to debunk such beliefs. My role as an educator is to help people critically and analytically think about various topics, usually sex, sexuality, and decreasing the risk of becoming infected with HIV. Thus, I don’t go on about how “conspiracy theories” are wrong, or useless as that is a judgement that would not be helpful for working with the group and may isolate the person who shared and others who share a similar ideology. Instead, I often remind them that however HIV got here, it is here and if we are HIV negative it is our responsibility to remain negative. And if people are living positive, they are powerful and important people in our communities that can help HIV negative people also stay negative.

    The last time I heard this was last week. A young person of Color who identified as queer stated that some people believe HIV was created to get rid of us. I told them “you are right!” Because that young person was right; many people believe that and share it with others. I also stated that one way to “give the middle finger to” the people who did create HIV to eradicate us, is if they are negative, to stay HIV negative, to survive. That will be the ultimate revenge. Every time, I’m talking 100% of the time, when I say this the person who shared that perspective agrees with me, as do many of the people present. Reminding youth and people of Color and queer people they can survive is powerful.

    This also leads to an important conversation on testing. That getting tested is the only way to know your HIV status.

    Now, if I were teaching a entire course of HIV than that is a different amount of time and objectives. I would completely engage with such perspectives, interrogate, deconstruct and analyze them. However, when there is less than one hour to get so much information in, sometimes recognizing that conspiracy theories do exist and ways to connect them to survival and prevention is the best and most “real” way to address the topic. Plus, many of these “conspiracy theories” have yet to be debunked completely because of the histories mentioned above.

    If there is time to explain the origins of HIV, I usually stick to the more widely accepted belief that is connected to the consumption of certain types of primates in hunter-gathering communities or those primates blood infecting a hunter. This is a great way to talk about our mucus membranes found in our mouth and throat. I also make some connections to E.coli which students have often heard of, and how important it is to cook meat for a certain amount of time at a certain degree of heat as this helps kill off various forms of bacteria.

    Because most of the research on the origins of HIV are centered in Western Africa, and US specific infection centered in Haiti, people of Color are at the center as is colonialism. This is another reason why when hearing these ideas I am not quick to judge or debunk them specifically because they are real for so many people. Colonial legacies alone are real and many of us are still surviving what comes with being colonial subjects, kinship, and offspring.

    How do you manage and discuss conspiracy theories about HIV?

    Sunday, December 18, 2011

    Myths and Messages About HIV

    cross posted from my Media Justice column

    For World AIDS Day and the week that followed I did several HIV education presentations for high school students in the Bronx. I love doing these presentations, and especially in the borough where I live, because it gives me an opportunity to work with youth that are a part of the same community. Often as a guest speaker it’s sort of a “treat” for students to hear from folks other than their teachers or academic faculty. What I realized this month was that there are some messages, inaccurate and hurtful, that students are still receiving. I wondered if I was the only one (it can’t be that I am), and as an educator I had to share.

    Here are some of the top questions and myths I receive and challenge/rectify when providing HIV education in high schools (many of which include students of Color and/or working class students):

    MYTH: Saliva is one of the top 5 bodily fluids that transmit HIV.

    When I talk about HIV and bodily fluids I discuss: blood, semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk, and pre-ejaculatory fluid. Students, without fail, will mention saliva (or spit) as a bodily fluid. I often thank the student for their suggestion, share it’s a common belief, and go into a discussion on how one would have to consume so many gallons of saliva a person living positive with HIV must create. First, it’s hard to find someone who can produce that much spit and second I have yet to meet anyone who is that thirsty to drink all of those gallons in one sitting!

    This belief that HIV is transmitted via saliva is so old school! I’m talking when we first began to see and try to understand what HIV and AIDS was and how it impacted our bodies. Folks would not drink after others who were living positive, make them drink out of paper cups, have separate utensils for them to use, and not want to come near, let alone kiss them. We’ve known better for decades, yet, this stereotype is still alive and well.

    MYTH: People living with HIV don’t have sex anymore.

    There is this idea that folks who are living positive will never, ever experience sexual pleasure again, especially with other people! I often share that if this were the case would we not see a reduction in the new infection rates? It is also a good opportunity to share how many folks who are living positive (an estimated 25%) don’t know they are living positive and thus are not aware of their status and may be transmitting the virus to others. This is also a good time to talk about how to properly use condoms, dental damns, latex gloves and other barrier methods, and abstinence. Just as many people have different definitions of what abstinence means (many students think it means “not having sex” when really it means “waiting to have sex” and that waiting period is usually one where people do not have sex, but it’s not the same as celibacy).

    This idea also assumes that pleasure is only for people who are HIV negative. Unfortunately, this idea is dangerous. Who else will be thought to be not good enough to experience pleasure? A good conversation about pleasure and how sexual experiences may be more pleasurable when people feel comfortable, have open and honest communication, and know their partner’s HIV and STI status. This may mean getting to know someone, practicing abstinence, and developing skills to discuss these topics.

    MYTH: You can prosecute someone who is HIV positive for transmitting the virus to another person during a consensual sexual encounter.

    No. I often explain that it is important to keep in mind the topic of consent. It is also important to keep in mind that if this were true it would need to be proven in a court of law that the person pre-mediated and/or had intentions to infect others with HIV through unprotected sexual activities. Often students hear stories but do not realize these stories may also be connected to domestic violence, rape, assault, and other non-consensual encounters. AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS organization, has a great discussion ofcriminal transmission and laws in countries all over the world.

    Good discussions about consent and testing also come about from these ideas and questions. Often the young people rationalize this question and idea to discriminate and hurt the positive person instead of recognizing the power and accountability the other person has in the situation. When people consent to engage in sexual activities together what does that mean? How do we get consent, what does it look and sound like? How do we learn that we have power when it comes to consent and in choosing to have sex of any type with folks means we are taking the responsibility to make a specific decision? A part of that decision is connected to communication, testing, holding ourselves accountable, and being clear about our personal boundaries. This story of William Brawner, a Black man who was a student at Howard University and living positive, spoke out on having numerous sexual partners while at Howard is also a story that comes up with regards to consent. It also speaks to HIV positive people still having active sex lives and the responsibility we all have to be aware of our status and of our partners.

    Unfortunately, this music video and song is not helpful in sending this message.

    MYTH: Magic Johnson doesn’t have HIV anymore.

    Yes he does. Magic Johnson is a wealthy Black man living in the US who has US citizenship. These are all important to keep in mind because they play a role in his status and his health. As someone who has access to eating foods that are “healthy/organic,” have a personal chef, physician, access to many things you and I don’t have impacts his live in positive ways. Magic Johnson has what is called an undetectable viral load. This means the amount of HIV that is detectable in his blood is minimal, but that does NOT mean he is cured from HIV. He is still positive and can still transmit the virus to other people. I often use this as another example of how condoms do work! Magic Johnson is married and his wife, as far as we know, remains HIV negative. If they are still having sex with one another it is most likely while using barrier methods to keep her HIV negative.

    MYTH: People catch HIV.

    No they don’t. You catch a ball, your shirt may get caught on a nail, but people do not catch HIV. Instead, HIV is transmitted, just as knowledge is. It is passed from one person to another in specific ways. Using the term “catch” to connect to HIV transmission is a judgement. It places blame on the person who is living positive, regardless of how they became positive and is an attempt to shame them for living positive. I also see this use of language as a way to scare people and I’m not a fan of the “scared straight” approach.

    MYTH: HIV isn’t a big deal because people are living longer and it’s not a death sentence.

    Wrong. The virus impacts each body differently. Not all people will have the same response to HIV medication and treatments as others. What works for Magic Johnson may not work for someone else (or many other people!). The medication and treatment many folks may need to stay as healthy as they can while being HIV positive, is toxic! Taking medication is not fun. Many of the side effects for some HIV medications are things that folks do not enjoy (i.e. diarrhea, vomiting, nausea), but they may also result in death. A side effect of some of these medications is death. That’s a big deal! Not to mention the cost of medication is not cheap!

    MYTH: HIV is only something that happens to gay men.

    Is this 1984? (pun intended). A homophobic presidency under the Reagan administration that sent the message that HIV in the US was something that impacted gay men only ignored the infections of heterosexual, poor, people of Color, sex workers, and people all over the world! HIV impacts us all and all of us may be at risk for HIV transmission if we make certain choices in our lives. A student asked me “why do people think only gay people can get HIV?” and I had to give a short history lesson. I also talked about assumptions that all gay men have anal sex, when in reality anybody with an anus can have anal sex! It’s a stereotype, and stereotypes like this are not helpful and harmful for us all.

    MYTH: Lesbians don’t have to worry about HIV.

    No. Everybody must be aware and know their options in living as best they can as an HIV positive person, or as a healthy HIV negative person. Lesbians are not immune to HIV (or any other STI), and the assumption that they are is problematic. If we are sharing and exchanging bodily fluids that may transmit HIV, we are at risk, regardless of the sex assigned at birth and gender of our partners.

    At the end of all my presentations I hope that youth realize the power they have. It is such an important and valuable power that many adults often try to take away from them. It’s beyond choice, it’s power. And I believe when we share with youth that we, as adults, recognize and honor their power, they may do the same which may impact their choices and lives.

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Revisiting Marianismo

    cross posted from my RH Reality Check blog

    Last year I wrote an article called “Deconstructing Marianismo” which was inspired by an article I read about a film called Marianismo by young filmmaker Erica Fletcher which focuses on Latinas living with HIV. The main purpose of my article was to deconstruct how we are discussing Marianismo and it’s connections to Latinas and sexuality, especially by questioning the “cultural values” that are applied to us, often by outsiders.

    Earlier this year I got an email from Erica Fletcher. I was very happy to hear from her as it is rare when folks whose media and art we use to spark conversation and education reach out to us. Erica shared with me that her initial response to my article was one of disappointment by she then realized that much of what I had shared, about being trained in a particular way to do a certain type of research on Latin@s, was something that happened to her as well. We have been communicating for most of this year and I had suggested we do an interview with one another to feature her work, but also talk about how we as young(er) people of Color working in the field of sexuality are working together.

    Erica is a 20 year-old Taiwanese-Brazilian American and currently a PhD student in Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her undergraduate work was in Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology at the University of Houston. She received Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women award, a Phi Kappa Phi Majorie Schoch Fellowship, and a Presidential Scholarship from the University of Texas Medical Branch for her work. Erica's last completed film, Pack & Deliver, is about sex trafficking and is continuing to receive media attention. It is featured in November 2011’s Latina Magazine issue.

    I sent Erica a few questions about her work and her goals for her films.

    How did you come to film/media making?

    A couple years ago, I became really interested in applying what I was learning in my social science classes in a way that would be more easily accessible to general audiences. For me, that medium was film. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I began making my first film, Marianismo, which is about the disproportionate spread of HIV/AIDS among Latinas. I loved the process of filmmaking, especially participating in talkbacks where I could share my research with others. After learning about the field of visual anthropology and finding great mentors at the University of Houston, I started on my second film Pack and Deliver about sex trafficking in Houston.

    What sort of support have you received for entering the film/media making field? Any specific challenges?

    Having no technical training in filmmaking, I had to learn by trial-and-error with a basic camcorder for my first film. Even after using more professional equipment with my second film, I still have much training to do when it comes to shooting and editing! Still, I am lucky to be born in a time when digital media makes it relatively affordable to do the kind of ethnographic research that I want to do. Aside from the technical aspects, learning more about theories in visual anthropology and interviewing techniques has been an eye-opening experience. There are so many ways that media reporters and ethnographers can manipulate footage, and finding a way to portray my “truth” is definitely an on-going process.

    How did you come to do the film Marianismo? What were some of the messages you thought important to include?

    As a dual citizen of Brazil and the United States, I have always been interested in Latino cultures, and I wanted to explore a facet of my identity through academic research in Houston. In addition, as an 18-year-old college student who had been home-schooled for most of my life, I had an avid curiosity for understanding the power dynamics between men and women. During high school, I had three of my friends who shared with me that they had been raped or molested, and they had blamed themselves for these horrific events. While I had never experienced anything as traumatizing, I also felt a sort of shame and guilt for a couple uncomfortable situations I had with fellow male students in college.

    As I learned more about domestic violence and the threat of STIs, I wanted to do something to show commonalities in larger sociological forces that make power imbalances in romantic relationships a normal occurrence in many women’s lives. I found an anthropology professor doing research on condom use and the spread of HIV/AIDS among women in the African-American community, and she agreed to supervise my film project related to HIV/AIDS among Latinos.

    I think the most important message of the film is that economic factors play a large role in health outcomes, and secondly that we should not be quick to make judgments about people’s lives because of their illness. I hope Marianismo illuminates the harmful impact that stigma against HIV/AIDS still has on the lives of the women I interviewed.

    Below is the trailer for Marianismo

    What questions were asked during screenings?

    The question I get most often is what I can do to help this situation? I love this question because it shows that there are many people who really want to improve the world around them, but I know that the answer to that question will be different for everyone based on their talents and interests. If anything, I hope that my films will remind people of our interconnectedness as a species and how we can all make small contributions to improve the whole of society. Houston’s Catholic Charities Cabrini Center andBoatPeople SOS do a lot of good work in immigration locally.

    How did you make a connection and come into contact with Latinas living positive?

    While working on a certification program for nonprofit management, I met Timeka Walker a social worker from the nonprofit http://www.aidshelp.org/site/PageServer?pagename=AFH_homepage " target="_blank">AIDS Foundation Houston. Its mission is to improve the lives of HIV-positive individuals. We stayed in touch, and with her help I was able to meet and interview three Latinas who were HIV positive.

    Were all of the participants documented? Did any address topics of immigration, access to resources (i.e. healthcare, job opportunities, etc.)?

    I did not ask about their immigration status. However, the participants I interviewed all had the Gold Card (which in Houston provides free HIV/AIDS treatment), so they were able to access the healthcare system when necessary. One was in a transitional housing program, and the other two were in stable living situations. More than anything else, I saw first-hand the great impact of the social services that Texas does provide. Still, my state provides very limited resources for healthcare and education, and it saddens me how many people go without necessary care.

    What were some positive messages the participants shared about living positive?

    The most positive message I learned from them was that their lives continued after a HIV-positive diagnosis. Now the disease is a chronic condition, and with proper management, life expectancy has improved drastically. The women I interviewed are all involved in leading STI-prevention workshops and providing support and guidance to others who are HIV positive. Their determination to share their story and help educate others about HIV/AIDS is truly incredible.

    What connections to religion and spiritual belief and value systems were discussed?

    Contrary to some of the public health articles and anthropological literature I read, the women I interviewed did not think that their religion (two were Catholic, one was Protestant) played a role in how they became infected with HIV or affected how they choose to protect their husbands or boyfriends from the disease. More generally, though, they talked about growing up in homes where sexual health was not discussed.

    From my first introduction into research in social science, I learned that individual experiences can vary significantly from what past research indicates, and that it can be very easily to stereotype people into certain culture archetypes that they don’t identify with in their own lives. Doing research is a constant process of learning from mistakes and trying to improve in the future, and I look forward to creating my own filmmaking style in an ethically and culturally sensitive manner.

    How did you come to the field of sex trafficking from Marianismo? Do you see a connection between the two?

    Themes of urbanization, health disparities, power dynamics, and Latino immigration are common to both my films. An additional connection between the films is that many trafficked women, including the woman I interviewed for Pack and Deliver, contract STIs during their trafficking experience and must cope with a disease and psychological trauma for the rest of their lives.

    What are some of your findings from this new film?

    I found a major gap between the many different organizations doing anti-trafficking campaigns and the very low number of trafficking survivors accessing services in Houston. Local groups estimate that 2,000 persons are trafficked each year throughout Houston, yet police “rescue” less than 20 trafficked people every year. Still fewer are eligible to remain in the United States and obtain social services in the city. What is really ironic is that Houston is considered to have one of the best collaborative models for ending human trafficking in the country.

    From my research, I learned about legal barriers, funding constraints, and, in one case, apathy within law enforcement that deters them from raiding well-known brothels in Houston. However, I also found an objectification and re-commodification of trafficked persons in the way in which nonprofit organizations use visceral images to encourage donors and volunteers to support their missions.

    More broadly, there were large ideological differences between lobbyists that were never resolved during the anti-trafficking debate and adoption of public policy in 2000. While, individually, I would say everyone I interviewed is doing the best they can to ameliorate the trafficking situation in Houston, structural violence and institutional barriers are huge factors for why human trafficking remains endemic in the city.

    How is trafficking related to other social justice issues?

    Human trafficking is only a minuscule extreme of much larger issues related to immigration, domestic violence, labor policies, prison policies, and free trade arrangements at work in our country. It’s so easily to condemn human trafficking, but when it comes to these larger, more taboo issues of contention, hardly anyone wants to touch them. However, I would argue to do good work in anti-trafficking initiatives we have to recognize larger connections to much more common forms of exploitation in the United States.

    How are your films connected to a larger social justice/change agenda you may have for yourself?

    During my time as an undergrad, I was convinced it was possible to combine science and art with activism. As I learn more in graduate school, I realize some of the ethical dilemmas that this position poses, and one of the main reasons why I am in school is to figure out some of those questions for myself and to learn how to speak to larger audiences in public policy, medicine, the social sciences, and the general public

    What do you hope to accomplish and begin in the media you are creating?

    My end goal with filmmaking is to create public forums to engage communities and foster discussions about improving their local environment. Films are just one way to raise public awareness about social issues, but they are only small beginnings to catalyzing the kind of social movements necessary to enact real change. I think recognizing and accepting the limitations of the film medium has been a major realization for me, but it has been a freeing experience as well. Now I am learning how to collaborate with others and find interdisciplinary partnerships to strengthen my overarching purpose of promoting education and spurring more critical analysis of the world around us.

    What new projects are you working on today?

    Right now I’m assisting Professor Rebecca Hester on her film project about sources of suffering on Galveston Island (where I am currently living). This is my first time working in a film team, and I’m excited to contribute to the production process from start to finish.

    What other projects do you have in mind or that are coming up or that you'd like to do in the future?

    I have way too many ideas and too little time to do them! Some of my goals include purchasing my own photo and video equipment, learning more Portuguese, doing ethnographic work in Brazil, traveling more, planning more film screening events, and continuing my focus on interdisciplinary studies and multimedia communication. I’m not sure what my next film/dissertation topic will be… I’ve been in grad school for less than a semester thus far, so luckily I still have time to figure that out!

    How may folks get in contact with you?

    ethnographicfilm@gmail.com or my personal website.

    foto credit: Gregory Bohuslav
    foto credit:

    Grading As Media Making

    cross posted from my Media Justice column

    Imagine it: me surrounded by a never ending abyss of papers to grade with only 2 weeks left before the semester ends. I’m writing this post because it speaks to my life right now. Now, I told my students I would have their papers to them by last Monday, only one of two classes received them. I was sick for most of a holiday break we had and could barely lift my head up. This limited the amount of papers I got to grade. Now, grading seems to never end!

    There were math equations I would do to see how many papers I had to grade a day to get through them all. How much time to dedicate to each paper. This isn’t anything new. However, I realized that when I grade a paper, especially a formal paper a student submits, the comments I’m giving them, the things I’m writing in the margins, this is all a form of media. My goal is to help Amplify readers understand this form of media and to get a perspective from an educators point of view on grading (perhaps it may encourage you to go to office hours for support, ask for clarification, or see your teacher as a person too!).

    I have a love/hate relationship with grading. I see how it may be useful for many students, schools, organizations and professions. However, I believe there are multiple ways to assess if someone is being critical and analytical around certain topics, to value the quality of work and participation they bring to a classroom. These are some of the things that make up a grade for a student in my class.

    Grading is my least favorite part of teaching. No matter what I’m teaching, I dread grading. I think in our society we have created a grading system that is set up to destroy individual students. I have to remind myself that I don’t want to be the educator that broke a student’s spirit or drive because of what or how I’ve written a comment on their paper as I grade. There is also a balancing act between helping students learn how to improve their writing and expressing their thoughts and learning from constructive criticism.

    Now, I know all too well how it hurts and destroy’s ones motivation when they are told they are not a good/quality writer or that their writing is poor. It has happened to me numerous times and it probably will again. However, it is from these experiences that I try to really be honest, thoughtful, and grade from a place of love. Not just love for education, but for helping students evolve and grow. A love for the person who w told their writing was not worthy or good enough (i.e. myself). A type of love for the work I do and for the things I do that I don’t always love but that come with the work. A love that is challenging yet rewarding at the same time.

    I’m reminded of the Allied Media Conference that I attended this summer. There was a workshop titled Editing as an Act of Love that had my good homegirl Maegan Ortiz of Vivir Latino on the panel. Maegan had posted a video that would be shown during the session by Lisa Factora-Borchers and her experiences editing an anthology, Dear Sister Anthology, for survivors of sexual violence. Check out her video below.

    Allied Media Conference Workshop: Editing as an Act of Love from Lisa Factora-Borchers onVimeo.

    I really love Factora-Borchers 5 guidelines of editing as I think it speaks so directly to grading as well. These guidelines include:
    1. You’re dealing with work that came from someone.
    2. Like love, editing is a 2-way street. (with many, many detours).
    3. Like love, editing cannot be about power, ultimatums, or one way. It’s often visionary, and takes mounds of patience.
    4. Editing is standing shoulder to shoulder, not head to head.
    5. Above everything else, editing is all about the relationship.

    This video really helps me put into perspective my love/hate of grading. It’s not that I hate or dread it as I think I do, it’s that I’m invested in grading in a way that is not often discussed or taught to educators. I have high expectations for myself, my students, and the effort I put into assessing their work. I value the relationships I build with my students and I would like to be a part of a positive memory of what education, especially higher education, may look like for them.

    As someone who enjoys writing in the margins of books and texts (that I own, although I do love the idea of writing in the margins of books owned by others or at the library even though that’s a no-no, but imagine what we can learn from those notes by others! And I’m not the only one into marginalia! The historical context alone is exciting to me, but I digress), I enjoy writing in the margins of my student’s papers as well. It is a way I connect with my students and with the habits I embrace and use when doing personal reading. It’s one way that I find comfort in a difficult task.

    I have over 20 papers to grade and three times as many homework assignments, so I’ll keep this short. But I do want to note that those of you who may find yourself in a similar situation, here are some useful tips for grading that a friend provided me via tumblr. I most definitely make a not to avoid red pens, I usually use purple, pink or teal. However, there are times when those pens run out of ink and I must resort to the traditional red, but it’s a rare occasion. Do you view grading a bit differently? What are some of the ways you cope/manage grading?