I Love May
In six hours we’ll all know whether we will see the last ten days of May or whether the Rapture has come to end it all. Me, I’m not worried. And in these last ten days of May I want to give thanks for both my mental health (which at this point in my life is better than it has ever been) and for masturbation. Oh didn’t you know? Both are recognized in the month of May. And funny as it may sound, I am completely serious when I say that, for me, they are absolutely intertwined. Read on and I’ll tell you why.
There has been much discussion online lately about sex positivity and sexualization. I’m proud to have contributed to the dialogue even before the real hype, and then to have witnessed my personal balancing act unfold on the public stage with the nation discussing the SlutWalks. Just this past weekend, in fact, I read this incredible article by Hugo Schwyzer and this incredible article by Charlie Glickman, digging in deeper and unveiling what underlies the tension that even I feel around the intersection of sex positivity and anti-sexualization rhetoric.
It is interesting to me that both of these fabulously feminist articles are written by men, and that they are two fine examples of feminism thought out thoroughly and delivered without grandstanding in a sea of feminist voices clamoring to tell you how right they are. I too am a feminist, and a passionate one at that, but I have to admit that the feminist anti-sexualization discourse is beginning to drive me crazy. As bombarded as young people are by girls and women sexualized in media, I am equally bombarded daily by feminist voices condemning them, beating a dead horse into the ground. And yet these images pervade. Does it occur to anybody that perhaps our approach is wrong?
I’ll tell you what I see when I look at anti-sexualization activists, and I’m talking about me here. I see people who care deeply about the developmental health of young people, sometimes especially girls. I see parents who harness their love for their children into activism (and sometimes come across as though they’re seeking the parent-of-the-year award.) I see women who are still bogged down by their own mental health issues which they attribute to growing up in a world of sexism. And I see people who think feminism is a lens with which they can view any subject, deconstruct it, and measure with a yardstick (a phrase from this, one of my favorite blog posts ever) just how problematic it is. What I don’t see are people who are willing to get down to the heart of the matter.
But I’d like to give it a try. I’d like to say that, while I whole-heartedly agree with Hugo Schwyzer’s analysis that sexualization turns opportunity into obligation, I also whole-heartedly agree with Charlie Glickman’s desire to see anti-sexualization activists spend less time shaming media-makers and more time considering how we raise mentally healthy children in the context of today’s sex-sells-driven consumer culture, which is unlikely to transform any time soon. Maybe we all need to open our minds a bit and have a little more faith in young people to negotiate messages they see and hear.
All of my engagement in youth culture, in the name of learning what I object to as a feminist, has also shown me just how savvy youth are in taking “adult concepts and twisting them around in innovative and artistic ways to express themselves. When you hear swears in hip hop songs, do you also hear nuggets of wisdom and keen political observations? I do. When you see America’s Best Dance Crews interpret a sex-laden pop song, do you also see them parody it or flip it on its head? I do. Adults, while we harp endlessly on our own anxieties about our culture, young people are sometimes already OVER IT.
So, starting today, I personally vow to allow my activism to morph from one that jumps on every instance of media stereotyping into one that provides honest information to young people and one that encourages adults to turn an eye inward.
I plan to focus more on really listening to young people, hearing what they have to say about their culture and their development, without an attitude of “oh, you have so much to learn or “I should be modeling better behavior for you. I refuse to patronize young people because I have seen just how much they have to teach me and to teach us all. We like to see ourselves as progressive thinkers, don’t we? But our progress is always anchored to our starting point, and the older we get, the farther behind us that starting point is. Young people were born expecting things we are only now just getting used to, like cell phones, internet dialogue, diversity in public spaces, and yes, maybe even sex positivity. Their anchors are already placed better than ours are, so let’s listen up to what they can tell us about our own futures.
And I sure as hell mean girls, too, not just boys. Girls do indeed face “The Paris Paradox, the pressure to be everything including “sexy before they even know what kinds of sex they might actually enjoy. They do indeed wish for praise and sometimes succumb to pressure to conform to an identity performance because of its short-term rewards rather than its authenticity. But that doesn’t mean they are victims who need rescuing. It means they need to given more information about alternative identities, alternative visions of beauty, alternative sexualities, alternative ways to find power and praise in this world. We need to engage them in honest dialogue, listen as often as we speak, and stop pretending they aren’t already exposed to adult language and concepts. They are. All young people are. What they need is MORE information to offset the abundance of narrow and prescriptive information they are fed from forces over which we have little to no control.
There are some great things flourishing and emerging right now that seek to accomplish these very things. Organizations like Isis, Inc. and Scarleteen provide young people with thorough, accurate, and positive information about sexuality and they even use new technologies to do it. Dr. Sharon Lamb will unveil a comprehensive sex education curriculum called Sex Ethics for a Caring Society (SECS) this coming fall, and it will be available online for free. Any activism that is youth-driven impresses me, like PBG, which was envisioned and created by the Girls’ Advisory Board of Hardy Girls Healthy Women. I like to hear girls tell big companies that their target market is not as simple as they think they are, like the innovative campaign to Talk Back to Candies. And Jaclyn Friedman’s new book, What You Really Really Want, promises to guide women in their own search for authentic sexualities. Personally, I am counting the days until I can read it.
In my new activism, I also plan to state plainly that we adults have much of our own work to do. It is not fair to allow our own mental health issues to drive our activism on others’ behalf, to project our own insecurities onto young people coming of age who may or may not navigate their media in the same way we did at their age. I’ll tell you some intensely personal things about how I did my own work, just to drive this point home.
Growing up surrounded by images of sexualized girls and women DID indeed have a profound impact on my mental health. As I stated in a previous post, I don’t need a whole report of studies to show me that unattainable beauty ideals and the exaggerated importance of “sexiness in my culture led to self-esteem issues and shame in THIS girl. And I’m white, cisgender, and thin, so you might think that I should come away unscathed by sexualization, but no. My breasts are small, and I spent some absurdly long portion of my life feeling absolutely certain that I was abnormal and unworthy of love because of it. God, it seems so crazy to me now. But the me who is writing to you now is the new me, the sex positive me, the me who is FINALLY discovering what “authentic sexuality is to me.
You know how I finally overcame this ridiculous shame? Masturbation. I’m just sayin’. It may not be the answer for everyone, but it was a big part of the answer for me. As I resolved to get to know myself better in the privacy of my room, having broken free of the fog of what I thought I was supposed to want, I began to look more objectively at the reflection in the mirror. I was surprised by my own beauty, by my skin in the candlelight, by the shadows in my subtle curves. I began to see that I am sexy, and I began to celebrate it. Hallelujah.
I also began writing my fantasies. Talk about a cathartic exercise! These scenarios that reside in my head offer great insight into my desires and my sexual identity, and I never saw myself so clearly as when I took the time to write, uncensored, what went on in my mind during masturbation. It was this exercise that revealed to me, at 31 years old, that I am queer! I have been in the closet, hiding even from myself! Can you imagine the power of this epiphany as it washed over me? No wonder my mental health has been compromised!
That is my story, and I don’t pretend that it is yours. I’d like think some of it resonates with other girls and women, and by sharing it perhaps I am inspiring them to take measures to explore their own sexual identities and take responsibility for their own mental health a whole lot sooner than at age 31. Dare I share a story of masturbation with young people? Oh the horror! Or just maybe, honesty is what young people need from us, not preaching from high atop a soap box in the name of feminism or fighting tooth and nail against the rapid acceleration of profit-driven cultural messaging and technological innovation. There’s no stopping the marketers and there’s no stopping the internet, so our time and energy would be better spent finding creative ways to reach youth by speaking in their language and expecting the intelligence, progressiveness, and strong mental health amidst challenges of which I know they are capable. Perhaps if people had expected this sophistication from me when I was a girl, I would have actually learned to embody it.