Supporting women through the full spectrum of their reproductive experiences

When I got into birth doula work I saw it as perfectly aligned with my commitment to women’s health and reproductive justice. Doulas provide birthing women with physical, emotional, and informational support so they can choose their own best births.  In retrospect, I realize I shouldn’t have been surprised, but at the time I was startled to discover that it’s wrong to assume all doulas also support women’s access to education, appropriate healthcare, emotional support, and the legal freedom to choose when and how to not birth.

However, in the last few years a new movement has been crystalizing around doulas and other birth workers who see birthing a wanted baby as just one of the many possible and valid outcomes of pregnancy.  Full-spectrum doulas still provide all the physical, emotional, and information support for birthing clients that other doulas provide, but they also recognize that birth is part of a spectrum of reproductive experiences and a whole life history of sexuality, which can also include contraception, abortion, miscarriage, and adoption.  Full-spectrum doulas also tend to be interested in the needs of people underserved by birth workers, such as people of color, queer people, the incarcerated, and teenagers.

Abortion is so politicized and polarized in the U.S. that it’s difficult to have an honest and healthy conversation about it.  Nevertheless, it’s a fact of life today that about a third of American women will have an abortion by the time they’re 45 and full-spectrum doulas believe all those people deserve support.

Here in San Francisco, the Bay Area Doula Project is one of many full-spectrum doula projects sprouting up around the country.  I feel so honored to be a part of this organization, which has taken on as its first priority making trained abortion doulas available at many clinics throughout the Bay area so that people who choose abortions, for whatever reason, can get the same sort of physical, emotional, and informational support that is available to people (or at least some people) choosing to give birth.

This month, the Bay Area Doula Project is hosting a fundraiser and salon series In honor of Women’s History Month: discussions on sex and the reproductive experience.  The salon presentation topics reflect the full-spectrum approach to sexuality and reproduction. From how hormones change over the course of a month to improving orgasms, and from what full-spectrum doulas do to how placentas can be used as medicine, there’s something on the program for everyone who cares about women’s sexual and reproductive experiences.

Plus, when you make a donation either online or at the salon, you’re supporting a hardworking group of volunteer doulas who believe passionately that everyone deserves human care and connection, regardless of what reproductive choices they are making.  So will I see you at the salon?

A Salon Series In honor of Women’s History Month: discussions on sex and the reproductive experience.

Wednesday Evenings at the Million Fishes Art Gallery: 2501 Bryant Street

March 7th @ 7pm – This Hormonal Life

PMS doesn’t even scrape the surface of how our hormones impact our lives. Learn the little-known scientific facts about how our hormones affect our immune system, productivity, sex life, sleep cycles, moods and fertility. 

March 14th @ 7pm – Orgasm Outside the Box

How do our preconceptions, relationships and emotional experiences influence our sexual and sensual experiences? Join us for engaging presentations and lively discussion on how two women are uncovering orgasms in unexpected spaces.

March 21st @ 7pm – What is a Full Spectrum Doula Anyway?

Full-spectrum doula organizations are cropping up all over the country. What does it means to be a full-spectrum doula? How have the birth doula and abortion doula movements have influenced each other and the care we provide for pregnant individuals? These and other topics will be explored by practicing full-spectrum doulas.

March 28th @ 7pm – All about the Placenta: The Science, Art, and Eating of the Placenta.

The title says it all! Come learn and play with us as we discover the beauty and science of the amazing placenta and the role it plays in women’s heath pre- and post- natal.


$10-20 suggested donation. No one turned away for lack of funds. All proceeds go to the Bay Area Doula Project

To make a donation to the Bay Area Doula Project please visit: bayareadoulaproject.org/donate/

Screwing With Our Minds: Carolyn Herbst Lewis on the medical profession, heteronormativity, and history

What I remember about Carolyn Herbst Lewis’ work when we first met in graduate school was how excited she was by what she’d figured out about pelvic exams. At the time we were both working on an emphasis in Women’s Studies as part of our PhDs.  Now she’s an assistant professor of history and a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies faculty at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and you can read what she knows about pelvic exams and a whole lot more besides in her book Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era.

I asked her about her book and what it’s like to be a professor who writes and talks about sexuality.  Here’s what she had to say:

I haven’t gotten to read your book yet, but I understand that Prescription for Heterosexuality is about the way Cold War era medical doctors reinforced heteronormative sexuality and linked it to national security. Could you tell us just a little bit more about the argument of your book?

In the wake of World War II, the United States entered into the Cold War an ideological battle against communism. Our primary foe was the Soviet Union, and we were convinced that communist agents were infiltrating every aspect of our society, from the schools to the media to the federal government. We believed that the communists wanted to destroy all of our values in order to pave the way for a Soviet-led takeover.

The family was one of our most sacred institutions. So, those people whose appearance or lifestyle in some way threatened the family were suspect. The main group targeted, of course, was those identified as “homosexual”. Same-sex acts were prohibited by law and those laws were increasingly enforced. Those suspected of desire for the same sex were fired from their jobs. Many were subjected to horrifying medical treatments. You couldn’t even get a travel visa to enter the country unless you were willing to swear under oath that you were neither a communist nor a homosexual. My book looks at the flip side of this: if the sexual desires and behaviors that were labeled homosexual were so denigrated, then how were those labeled heterosexual valorized? If homosexuality was the threat, then heterosexuality was the safeguard.

In Prescription for Heterosexuality, I consider how the American medical profession defined sexual health in the postwar decades and communicated that definition to their patients. This definition of sexual health included not only specific performances of heterosexuality, but also gender and reproduction as well. Medical professionals linked this definition and its performance to national security in the sense that by guiding individuals into heteronormative identities, they would marry, have successful marriages, raise heteronormative children of their own, and thus the future would be secure. Marriages and the families they produced were the building blocks of American society. Doctors wanted to make sure the raw materials were the best they could be. In this story, that meant that they had to conform to certain gender and sexual traits.

How did you get the idea to write Prescription for Heterosexuality?

The project that became this book actually started as my masters’ thesis topic about twelve years ago. I knew that I wanted to do something on the history of sexuality in the post-World War II United States, and I had a strong interest in the scientific side of sex. I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed, however. Then I was at a yard sale and picked up a book about how psychoanalytic practice had changed as a result of the women’s liberation movement. It was called Women in Therapy, and it had been published in the late 1970s. I was startled at the idea that Science, which I still thought of as being absolute and objective, would have to change as a result of a social movement. I also read the 1953 Kinsey Report, and that made me wonder more about the relationship between science and intimate life how does one influence the other? I think in the end it was my future spouse who suggested that medical journals might be a good resource for looking into this. I ordered a couple copies of the Journal of the American Medical Association from the university library, I quickly became intrigued with the complex discussions about sexuality that were taking place in those volumes, and I was hooked.

Most Good Vibes readers are probably not historians.  Why would they want to read Prescription for Heterosexuality? Could knowing the history that you uncovered matter for a sex-positive activist or even for a woman scheduling her next pelvic exam?

 In my opinion, the most useful aspect of this book is the way in which it attacks this notion that any sexual act is removed from culture, politics, history. A lot of people today still want to claim that what we call “heterosexuality” is somehow timeless. The act of reproduction hasn’t changed much over the millennia (really, new possibilities for reproduction have only appeared in the last 60 years, and that is one of the chapters in this book), but the context in which those acts are performed most certainly has.

That context the politics, the demographics, the moral codes, the legal codes, the social norms is really important. It determines what meaning we give to sex beyond reproducing the species. My book discusses how we thought people should perform sex and why they should perform sex in one particular moment. There also is a secondary story here about medical authority “ where it comes from and why. Anyone who is interested in the politics of sex, the politics of science, and the intersections between the two should find something of use. As far as preparing for a standard pelvic exam, I’m not so sure. I find that sometimes I wish I knew a little less about that part of the history when I hear the click of the speculum.

In Religious Studies we talk about the “airplane conversation” that often awkward yet illuminating conversation you have when the stranger trapped next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for a living and then tells you what they think of your answer.  How does the airplane conversation go for you?

Oh, it rarely goes well. When I say I’m a history professor, the person either wants to tell me about how much s/he hated history in high school or about how much s/he still loves history and watches the History Channel all the time. Then they ask what kind of history I teach, and when I say American women’s history, most people get uncomfortable. I can’t remember the last time a stranger asked for more information after that. Even when I’m talking with family or friends about my research, there is often at least one person who isn’t quite convinced that what I do really counts as history.

One of my classmates in graduate school once flat out told me that he couldn’t believe I got funded to do this research. My father who I know is very, very proud of me doesn’t have a copy of my book on his office desk the way he would have if I’d written the history of some battle or president. People always want to tell me about their medical experiences and sexual concerns. I think it’s different with the history of sex than it is with other, more conventional fields.

You’re working on a new book project called The Chicago Maternity Center: Gender, Medicine and Power on Maxwell Street. What’s that about?

Well, I’m just beginning this project, but I’ve already changed the title a few times! I think the current title is something like The Gospel of Good Obstetrics: The Chicago Maternity Center and American Medicine. Whatever it ends up being called, this project is shaping into a history of the Chicago Maternity Center, which was an out-patient clinic founded in the 1890s in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. In fact, it was the same immigrant neighborhood where Jane Addams founded Hull House.

The founder of the CMC, a physician named Joseph De Lee, envisioned a network of clinics that would provide low-income and impoverished Chicago women with safe, medically-attended home births. Between the 1890s and the 1970s, the CMC performed this role, and the Center had one of the lowest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Much lower than that of Chicago or the United States as a whole! The history of the CMC fits into larger stories about turn-of-the century Chicago, the growth of obstetrical science, and the home birth movement, but there has not been any substantial scholarship on it. I’m planning to fix this problem.

I’m glad to hear you’re fixing that problem! Readers, if you’ve read Prescription for Heterosexuality please tell us what you thought. In the meantime, check out my previous Screwing With Our Minds interviews with Delilah Wood and Vinne Tesla.

Screwing With Our Minds: Delilah Wood on Domination, Gender, and Integretation

Delilah Wood worked for years as a professional dominatrix, but she’s left conventional domination behind to focus on healing and integration with her clients.  I wondered how she made that transition and how she thinks about the educational and healing work she’s now doing.  In this interview she talks about why domination stopped working for her, and how working with people’s stories and desires does work.

Why did you decide to leave conventional domination work behind?

I’ve written pretty extensively about this, particularly here, but the short version was that it wasn’t truly my calling.  I believe that some people are meant to be sacred whores, people who help strangers fulfill their sexual needs in a safe, loving and highly skilled way.  What I discovered during my work is that I admire that kind of work deeply, but am not cut out for it myself.  Being that intimate with strangers was doing me subtle harm, and I needed to find another way to do the kind of healing I was interested in.

I was also seeing primarily married men, and many of them had a lot of shame around what they liked.  I felt like I was seeing people who needed healing, and I was only able to put a band-aid on and send them on their way.  I wanted a way to start moving people toward integration, rather than being a tool for them to continue compartmentalizing their lives.

I started reading Bitchy Jones’ blog right around the time I was getting really discontented, and she really tapped into another thing that was bothering me: I was participating in and contributing to a commercialized view of female sexuality that isn’t really healthy or accurate even for the majority of female dominants.  The image that is conjured up in the average person’s mind when they hear the word “dominatrix” is exaggerated, nearly comical: the 12-foot-tall Amazon clad head to toe in skintight leather, scowling and wielding a whip.  It’s a male fantasy figure, an image.  And submissive men tend to grab onto it as though it were a real expression of female sexuality: that totally removed, sadistic leatherbot whose only pleasures are to 1) make men suffer and 2) deny sexual access to her body.  This figure apparently never has any kind of conventional sex, only “worship” (code for oral sex performed upon her, preferably in a humiliating fashion) and strap-on play (meant only for the humiliation and pain of the submissive, to “feminize” him, not for the dominant’s pleasure).  It becomes a very problematic image, one that is bad for women and men, and limits the full expression of sexuality.

So given all of that, it was finally time for me to stop.

You have an entire page on your site about what you’re not and what you don’t do.  Do you find it difficult to communicate with potential clients about what it is that you’re now offering?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that in spite of the detailed nature of my page, people still contact me asking for domination sessions.  I think it is hard for people to understand what I’m trying to do.  And I still do see a few people that way, people I’ve been seeing for years and whom I enjoy playing with.  But those people who do get it really seem to get it, and that’s exciting to me.

Are there other people offering the kind of kink counseling that you’re doing or are you really doing something new?  Do you have colleagues or peers?

I honestly don’t know of anyone else who is truly doing what I’m doing here.  I know there are psychotherapists who employ kink in their practices, though it’s incredibly taboo in that field, so they don’t advertise it.  There are plenty of folks who do workshops or offer various kinds of instruction in the modes and techniques of kink.  And there are kink-friendly therapists, people who won’t tell you you’re involved in something sick if you come to them and say that you have these desires.  But I haven’t seen anyone else advertising for counseling specifically around kink issues.  It surprises me, because it feels like a service that is really needed.

You’re offering 3 primary services now – kink consults, the ordeal path, and gender transformation.  Is one of these more popular than the others or do you get an equal call for all 3?

I probably get about equal calls for kink consults or education, and gender transformation.  The ordeal path hasn’t attracted many takers yet.  Of course, that service is the closest thing I’m offering to a traditional domination session, so I imagine that people who want something like that will call someone else.  That’s probably the service that people understand least, anyway, and it has the greatest potential to tip over into the old patterns of professional scening.

Why do you no longer do forced feminization?

I find it deeply problematic that there is such a rash of men who want to be turned into women because being a woman is somehow humiliating, less-than, shameful.  It’s one thing to want to experiment with gender; it’s another to do it in a way that implies that doing “girly” things makes you ridiculous, stupid, or unworthy.  It bothers me, and always has.  I don’t want to deny anyone their kinks, but I don’t have to participate in them.

I also note that you never hear about women being forced to be dressed up like men and then made fun of.  Somehow being female or feminine has gotten linked up with being submissive, and so a lot of men think that the most submissive thing you can possibly do is put on a bra and panties and get fucked with a strap-on.  I’m okay with that in some cases, but I want to do it in a loving way, not a shaming one.  A man giving himself to me wholeheartedly is a beautiful thing, and I have no interest in making it ugly.

I know how powerful humiliation can be, and how many taboos there are in our culture that you can tap into if you want to make someone feel that way.  Women in our culture get a lot less flack for dressing in men’s clothes than men get for dressing in women’s; thus the power of that taboo.  But I personally don’t enjoy perpetuating or eroticizing that taboo.  Besides, I’ve never been strongly into humiliation; I think it’s one of the more heavy-duty tools in the kink arsenal, and I reserve that kind of play for people I’m very close to.

Do you consider yourself to be a sex worker?

One of the first things I came to terms with when I chose to become a dominatrix was being a sex worker, so yes, for a time, I considered myself that.  These days, not so much; I don’t feel that I’m performing the same function that sex workers – of whatever stripe – perform: that is, to arouse and fulfill the sexual desires of paying clients.  These days, I think of what I do as closer to counseling and education.

You write for 2 blogs - Advice and Consent & Topologies.  What’s the relationship between your writing and the services you offer clients?

In my writing in those places, I really try to express who I am sexually, while commenting on the larger culture of sexuality.  It is always my goal to be congruent: I want my words and my actions to match.  And so I try to write in a way that expresses my truth, and that could possibly be a help to anyone who might come and see me.

What do you love best about your job?

I love the conversations I have with people.  I love that people come to me with their stories and desires, and that I can sit there and basically tell them, “you’re okay.”  In the end, that’s the thing that most people need to hear – to get a simple reassurance that they’re normal.

For another great conversation see the previous Screwing With Our Minds in which I interviewed Vinnie Tesla about The Erotofluidic Age and the moral duty of the pornographer. Watch for future interviews! And if you know or are someone who thinks too much about sex and might like to be interviewed about your work, please drop me a note.

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Screwing With Our Minds: Vinnie Tesla, The Erotofluidic Age, and the moral duty of a pornographer

“Eleanor, he gasped, “your kisses make me quite giddy.
“Come, Dewey, she answered, taking him firmly by the hand, “let us waste no time in renewing our friendship. “ Vinnie Tesla, The Erotofluidic Age

Vinnie Tesla’s first single-author ebook from Circlet Press is The Erotofluidic Age, a collection of steampunk erotica. One reader described Tesla’s writing this way: “The author’s style delightfully combines the formal style of late-19th-century writers with a modern sense of humor and hot, explicit sex.

Everything about Vinnie Tesla is clever, even his name. As he explains on his website , “The pseudonym is a pun on the New England restaurant chain VinnyT’s (formerly Vinny Testas) and the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, perhaps best known for inventing the Tesla Coil.

I had the opportunity to ask Tesla about the thinking that goes into his erotica.* What he told me was as provocative as one would expect from the author of The Erotofluidic Age.

Tesla says he spent years reading voraciously before he finally built up the nerve to write and post something in the alt.sex.stories usenet group. Then just a bit of positive feedback was all it took to keep him writing.

He says, “My skill, confidence, and ambition have grown a bit since then, but I started late, and I started slow. I am not a very young man anymore, but I am still a very young writer. I get kind of sad when I think of how much better I would be now if, like Stephen King, I had been putting together zines to sell to my classmates in junior high. Still, I’m very pleased and proud to be where I am, and excited to see where I can get from here.

He certainly has something to be pleased about. The Erotfluidic Age is a well written collection, featuring a surprisingly diverse array of erotic scenarios. The characters and their couplings (and triplings and . . .) often represent resistance to normative images of sexuality and desire. About this Tesla says, “I do think that there is a lot of value in declaring, “This is what I like, this is what turns me on” in a culture that has such an absurdly narrow model of who may be considered attractive, or even just *looked at.*”

One can tell from the text that a lot of thought has gone into it, but ask Tesla just the right question and he’ll make that thought visible. Elsewhere Tesla has written about real Victorian smut, noticing,

Rape is not just eroticized; it’s pretty much mandatory, in a rather appalling–albeit thoroughly stylized–way. A female character, no matter how debauched and horny randy, must pretend to resist in her first sex scene with any new male partner. The ice having been broken, the sky is then the limit in their subsequent enthusiastic debauches.

So I asked him, “In what ways does your writing respond to the eroticization of rape in Victorian erotica? Do you think that writers of erotica have a responsibility to approach rape or rape fantasies in a particular way?

I’m going to give you his full answer, because to quote just part of it would do violence to the complete thought process. These are Tesla’s words:

I don’t have a neat and final answer to what the ethical duties of a pornographer are, and not for lack of wrestling with the question. I can talk about my thought process, though, and where it’s taken me.

* I believe that there is no such thing as an immoral desire. People whose fantasies feature rape, or cannibalism, or pedophilia are doing nothing shameful or immoral by feeling those desires or fantasizing about those acts. Less extremely, people who are only or primarily attracted to women with blond hair or men with Irish accents are doing nothing wrong by feeling that way.

* Further, I think people have a right to create and consume material that expresses their fantasies. So, on the simplest level, no. I do not think creating erotic material about rape, or any other taboo subject, is inherently and inevitably immoral.

The brilliant pornographer, essayist, and SF novelist Samuel Delany points out that most arguments against pornography are predicated on a postulated susceptible reader. In other words, the anti-porn crusader asserts, “I know the effect that work will have on *other* readers, though it did not have it on me.” Delany calls this lunatic mode, which gives you an idea of how much respect he has for the position.

That doesn’t mean that I think all writing is morally neutral, though.

By and large, the fetish payload of stories is not what worries me. Instead it is implicit assumptions and sincere misapprehensions that strike me as having far more potential to do any real harm in the world. I’ll give two examples that I’ve encountered often on ASSTR. One is a story about how it is the duty of any loving husband to discipline his wife when she makes mistakes. Another is a story in which it is indicated that the kindest way to introduce someone to anal sex is to penetrate her (I’ve never seen this particular meme in stories where men are penetrated, though it may well be out there) rapidly at first, ignoring her screams of pain, and then allow her acclimate to the experience afterwards.

I don’t think a story like either one of these is harmful, per se, but I do worry that a *steady diet* of such material, without anything to challenge tbe assumptions that underlie them, can potentially do harm.

Thus, I think the primary moral duty of a pornographer is to examine her own received assumptions skeptically and deeply. The bad news is that this is a really hard, never-ending task. The good news is that it’s not just a civic good; it’s good for your art. Scrutinizing this stuff doesn’t restrict your freedom-it gives you degrees of freedom that were previously invisible, and makes your work more your own.

Let me repeat here that it’s an unending process. I’m not trying to claim any specially enlightened position for myself.

To reemphasize: To the extent that porn can potentially do harm by teaching false models of sexuality, the most effective thing to do against that is not to try to stop the ‘bad’ stuff, but to have open, lively discussion around sex and porn. The discussion here when I criticized stories that treat cervical penetration as both possible and erotic shows some interesting stuff. Among the responses were “Oh wow, I didn’t know that,” “cervical penetration is totally cool, but only because my dick is so exceptionally big,” and “it’s not an attempt at realism–it’s fetish material.”

I propose that that kind of scrutiny and discussion does a great deal more good in the world than any attempt (by who?) to get rid of or avoid cervical penetration scenes would have.

Got all that? But that’s what he thinks about before he begins to write. The Erotfluidic Age, while erudite, is not pedantic, and Tesla is careful to keep it from reading as a fable. More often than not it’s just plain fun and often funny, probably because Tesla has so much fun with what he calls, “the sentence-by-sentence pleasure of saying something in a way that I find elegant and funny.” According to Tesla, “I’m a very language-driven writer, and the sudden lure of an irresistable line can derail all my careful plotting, as I gallumph off in pursuit of
the shiny. It is totally worth it.” You’ll have to read the book yourself to see what he means.

* This is the first in what I hope will be a series of conversations with people in various professions who think and write about sex. I’m tentatively calling it Screwing With Our Minds. Watch for future interviews! And if you know or are someone who thinks too much about sex and might like to be interviewed about your work, please drop me a line.

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