China’s Hooligan Sparrow, the Persecution of Sex and How It Affects You

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Meet Hooligan Sparrow. Her real name is Ye Haiyan and she has been raising hell in China. Known mostly as a blogger and feminist activist, Ye has created quite a stir in her country of origin because of her outspoken and controversial grassroots tactics. Last year, she worked in a brothel where sexual intercourse costs under $3 US dollars, but Ye chose to do it for free. Why? In her own words:

“Beginning now, I am providing free sexual services for rural migrant workers. First of all, this is to prevent them from being caught and legally robbed by police. Secondly, this is to serve the sexual needs of the grassroots and help relieve social pressure. Thirdly, I want to create a sharp contrast between my love for the grassroots and the cruelty of the government. I hope that they will be touched by my action, which will end tomorrow.”

Ye Haiyan’s activism includes sex worker rights but it is much broader than that. In addition to working to increase HIV/AIDS awareness, she also works to protect girls and women from sexual abuse. Her most recent activism involved protesting an elementary school in Wanning City which is located in the Hainan Province of China, where six girls were raped by the school principal and one other government employee.

Ms. Ye’s protests have led to her arrest more than once but she seems committed to defending sexual freedom as well as freedom from sexual abuse, regardless of the price. In her blog, she states ” this fight is against the persecution of sex!” I find her words quite compelling because I believe laws which outlaw adult, consensual sex, create a culture of sexual shame and which can lead to many forms of sexual abuse.

However, the prevailing conversation about sex seems split between protection from sex or its unfettered expression. Those who see sexual freedom as a slippery slope leading to a lack of protections for the vulnerable lobby for more laws in defense of the innocent. They tend to dominate discourse in the US. On the other side of the argument are a few rebellious souls striving to secure sex as a right which the state cannot infringe upon.

But must we envision the sexual landscape so polarized and divided? Isn’t it possible that freedom from sexual abuse and a sexual bill of rights might not only co-exist but inform and enhance each other?

In fact, I don’t think we can have one without the other. As long as these two agendas militate against each other, neither objective is achieved. Instead, we need to find our balance between sexual freedoms and protections just as we do with any other topic pertaining to rights and responsibilities. It would seem a sensible approach might be defined as permitting anything which is adult, consensual behavior.

This month has seen several major wins for sexual freedom and protections. I invite you to celebrate these with me as each one applies to you personally even if it seems unlikely to impact your personal life at first blush. The fact is that sexual freedoms and protections impact all of us in ways which may not be readily apparent.

For instance, June marks the ten year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Ruling, Lawrence versus Texas which, in the words of Lambda Legal’s Jon W. Davidson, ” declared laws criminalizing oral and anal sex between consenting adults to be unconstitutional and flung open the doors to equality for LGBT people around the nation.” Lawrence versus Texas has been cited approximately 700 times by our nation’s courts and it was a critical factor in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as well as reversing DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

In addition to striking down DOMA, on June 26th the Supreme Court also refused to rule on a case pertaining to California’s Proposition 8 which effectively made same-sex marriage legal in that state. California’s Governor Jerry Brown has ordered all counties to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples immediately. This weekend, cities like San Francisco are not only celebrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride, they are celebrating legal recognition of their love and their lives.

Most likely, even if you are straight, someone you know is gay or lesbian. Perhaps it is a neighbor, co-worker, friend, relative or loved one? Maybe they have no desire to become legally married, but laws which permit same-sex marriage still affect their life in a positive way by paving the way for equal treatment in other sectors of society. Just as Lawrence versus Texas, a ruling which only pertained to oral and anal sex, has played a vital role in changing laws about gays in the military as well as same-sex marriage, so too will this month’s Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage lead to other important gains for people who happen to love differently than the majority does.

The Supreme Court made another critical ruling about sex this month, when it decided that PEPFAR’s (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) requirement that private groups receiving federal funds adopt policies opposing prostitution, is unconstitutional and violates First Amendment Rights. The Obama administration argued that both prostitution and trafficking spread AIDS so the anti-prostitution pledge was reasonable, but as the Brazilian government so aptly illustrated when it declined $40 million in U.S. funds, working to stop the spread of AIDS without the cooperation of prostitutes doesn’t make sense. Brazil’s AIDS commissioner Pedro Chequer stated the obvious: “Sex workers are part of implementing our AIDS policy and deciding how to promote it. They are our partners. How could we ask prostitutes to take a position against themselves?”

Similarly, another illogical and counter-productive practice on the part of law enforcement is being challenged in New York’s state legislature. Known as the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill, A2736 passed the state Assembly and is on its way to the state Senate. Currently, New York police confiscate condoms during the equally controversial “stop and frisk” procedure where anyone a police officer suspects of a crime can be stopped and searched. Not only are condoms confiscated, thereby preventing the person carrying the condom to use it to prevent the spread of disease, but the condoms are being used as evidence of the intent to commit an act of prostitution. Of course plenty of people carry condoms who are not prostitutes, but it seems the health benefits of condoms are being ignored in the rush to effect convictions.

Unfortunately, New York is not the only state using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. But activists in a variety of fields including AIDS prevention, LGBT outreach and sex worker rights organizations are celebrating this small victory in New York with hopes that the health implications will become more apparent to both politicians and the voting public throughout the nation.

The repercussions of creating barriers of any kind to the use of condoms should be obvious. Sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies effect society as a whole and negatively impact our individual lives by driving up health care and public assistance costs.

But the long-term negative effects of legislated “morality” elude some otherwise intelligent people. For instance, Texas is doing its darnedest to outlaw abortion. Despite the fact that the current government in that state will no doubt succeed in that endeavor, one brave soul waged a one-woman war against the forces of repression when Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis held her 13-hour filibuster derailing anti-choice legislation which was otherwise slated to pass the Texas Senate. In some respects, this may be a temporary victory, but given the level of acclaim and support her efforts have met with, it would seem that the reason and compassion contained in honoring a woman’s right to choose will eventually win out even in the state of Texas.

Which brings us to Ireland. I know that may seem like an unlikely segue. But June was also the month when $45 million was awarded to the approximately 770 survivors of the Magdalene Laundries. You might wonder what slave labor in a Catholic nunnery has to do with sexual freedoms and responsibilities. And I admit it will take a little explaining on my part. You see, the girls and women who found themselves confined within the walls of the Magdalene Laundries as slaves, were labeled “fallen women” for a variety of reasons including flirting with boys, losing their virginity, getting pregnant out of wedlock and sometimes, for working as prostitutes.

You might think such barbaric treatment would have been outlawed a long, long time ago. But the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland was closed as recently as 1996. Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter made a formal and public apology to the women who survived forced silence, slave labor and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of these monstrous Catholic-run institutions. And he affirmed Ireland’s “commitment to respecting [their] dignity and human rights as full, equal members of our nation.”

That of course will do nothing to bring back the one in ten girls and women who died while incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry. In fact, the reason this travesty came to light a couple of decades ago, was that a construction crew which was rebuilding on the former site of a laundry, uncovered a mass grave where “fallen girls and women” were buried like so much unclaimed garbage. The youngest girl to die in a laundry was just fifteen.

In the absence of any sexual bill of rights and steeped in sexual shame, human history is littered with the broken bodies and spirits of those who have failed to conform to a heterosexual, married, monogamous ideal. Often, even a hint of impropriety has justified the most egregious insults to dignity and decency. In the name of curtailing “sexual perversions,” all manner of ethical and moral perversions have been perpetrated against those whose only crime was what should have been considered the province of adult, consensual activities.

In the end, it really does not matter what your personal values pertaining to sex might be and how they might differ from those around you. What is key is that we find a way to live together respectfully. Whether you are gay or straight, conservative or liberal, monogamous or polyamorous, kinky or vanilla or somewhere in between these polar opposites, the rights we hold dear as members of the human community must apply equally to each and every one of us. If they don’t, we all lose.

Are We Wrong about Who We Are?

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When Barbara Garcia’s home was flattened by this month’s tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, she was left homeless.  She didn’t have homeowner’s insurance, her daughter’s house likewise had been destroyed, and the entire contents of her home had been devastated.

But Barbara Garcia was not so concerned about all her worldly possessions. Instead she just wanted to find the body of her best friend, Bowser. Waiting for the tornado’s approach, Barbara had been sitting on the toilet in her bathroom holding her dog, Bowser, in her lap. But the force of the tornado not only ripped the toilet out of the floor heaving Barbara into the air, it also ripped Bowser from her embrace separating the two and burying Barbara under a pile of rubble. Scratched and shaken, Barbara managed to crawl out from under the rubble just as a camera crew arrived on the scene. While the cameras were rolling, Barbara recounted the story of how she was separated from her little dog. As if on cue, Bowser’s little nose peeked from under the remains of their home and as Barbara bent down to retrieve her best friend, she paused to say “Thank you God.”

As remarkable and heart-warming as this story is, that is not where it ends. Erin DeRuggiero, a total stranger living in another state, was so moved by Barbara and Bowser’s story that she launched a Go Fund Me page to raise money for their new home. DeRuggiero explains: “Barbara could have been my mother, my grandmother, my neighbor or my friend. I was shattered upon seeing her home destroyed, her recounting her experience and her joy upon seeing that her dog had survived it all. My goal is to ease her recovery, raise enough money to help her start to rebuild or relocate her life, and above all else, to show her that ‘life in the big city’ also means helping one another, even from 1500 miles away.”

You might think this is the end of this touching tale, but there is more. Not only did DeRuggiero exhibit empathy and generosity, but the many people donating money for Barbara and Bowser are illustrating that at least some strangers are motivated to help other strangers in need. In just nine days 1,292 people have donated over $53,000!

Many of us have been told that it is a “dog eat dog” world based upon “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest.” But is it possible that this view does not accurately reflect the diversity of human behavior?  Is it even an accurate assessment of dog behavior?  Rare is the dog, after all, that would ever eat another dog.

The originator of the term “natural selection,” Charles Darwin, allowed for cooperation and generosity as one form of natural selection, as this quote from his paradigm-shifting The Descent of Man illustrates:  “There can be no doubt that the tribe including many members who are always ready to give aid to each other, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes. And this would be natural selection.”

What if mammals, including humans, are more cooperative than competitive, at least under certain circumstances? And if that is possible, then under what circumstances might that be true?

Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, has researched generosity, trust, empathy, altruism and morality between unacquainted humans and concludes that the neuropeptide oxytocin plays a major role. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” and is released in mammals during touch, birth, the nursing of infants and sex.

Zak’s research has found that when oxytocin levels are high, people’s generosity to strangers increases up to 80 percent.  “Oxytocin,” he says, “connects us to other people, and makes us feel what other people feel.”  He has observed spikes in oxytocin levels during a variety of social interactions in humans, including with online social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

It can be encouraging and hopeful  to see that as our ability to connect with each other increases, so does our impulse to help one another. But we also continue to be plagued by large-scale violence such as war, and the more personal atrocities of rape, assault and murder.

So what are we to think? Are these insults to our trust and generosity inevitable? Or might there be an alternative to human violence which is just as natural to our genetic make-up as competition and aggression? Might we be, under certain circumstances, far more capable of generosity and empathy than we normally assume?  Might we be wrong about who we are?

There is some evidence that the calming and bonding effects of oxytocin can switch off impulses for violence and transform us into a more loving and cooperative creature. In those rare present-day cultures (such as the Mosuo in China) where sexual activity is not shame-based, peaceful cooperation becomes much more prevalent.

Perhaps the most convincing example of this phenomenon is found in the bonobo. While Microsoft’s spellchecker still insists that “bonobo” is not a word, this ape has succeeded in creating a level of non-violence we remain unable to achieve.  Bonobos are eerily similar to us, more so than any other primate.  They walk upright much of the time. Their sexual interactions include behaviors we had once thought unique to humans, including deep kissing, fellatio and face to face sexual intercourse. Not only that, bonobos engage in sex to reduce tension, redirect anger and just for the fun of it! Procreation is actually a very small part of the bonobo sexual agenda which makes them exceptionally unique when compared to most animals and much more like their human cousins.

However, the bonobo has one distinct advantage over humans when it comes to maximizing the peace-making potential of oxytocin. Unlike us, bonobos are not subject to sexual shame. While most human cultures enforce various versions of sexual prohibitions and taboos, the bonobo is free to explore and express sex in ways which make their human observers blush.

For instance, bonobos have sex with same sex partners, not occasionally, but as frequently as they couple with the opposite gender. In fact, it may be that female bonobos have sex with each other more frequently than they have sex with males. Sex between female bonobos creates powerful bonds of loyalty, resulting in their unique propensity for supporting each other when facing male aggression. The result is a culture of checks and balances between the genders despite the superior size and strength of males. Female bonobos are sometimes seen as the dominant gender in bonobo culture.  But perhaps the fact that they do not allow the males to dominate them is such a shocking departure from typical gender relations in other species of mammals including humans, that some scientists interpret the resulting female empowerment as dominance.

When it comes to sexual empowerment, the bonobo has definitely left their human cousins in their proverbial dust. As Jack Hitt, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, asserts in his article (Our Orgastic Future) for Lapham’s Quarterly:

“Human society is replete with displays of near intimacy and suggestive touching. We have developed customs of opposite-sex and same-sex hugging and kissing, handshaking, and back patting. And all of them serve as tokens of affection, perhaps with some subtle intimation that the encounter might develop into something else. Bonobos essentially went there and then kept going. On the long arc of sexual development as primate culture, maybe we’re the missing link on the way to bonobos.”

The prospects of a sexual evolution for humans which could lead to increased empowerment and decreased violence actually frightens many people. Strong cultural and religious taboos prevent us from seriously considering alternatives to our current relationship to sex.  But what might our world look like if we were to allow ourselves to boost our oxytocin levels by “making love instead of war?”  As cliché’ as that phrase has become, could there be some truth to the choice it points to? Would humans be nearly as violent as they currently are if our world cultures were not so sex negative?

Of course none of us need wait for the world’s population to shift to a more sex positive agenda. As individuals, we each can choose how accepting we want to be of other’s sexuality and how embracing we are of own sexual desires. We will always need and want healthy boundaries in sex no less than other aspects of our daily lives, but are there areas where we could be less reactive and judgmental about others?  About ourselves? Might we benefit from creating our own “Shame Free Zone?”

You might try an experiment toward that end. The next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about adult, consensual sex you don’t feel attracted to personally, try envisioning it as a measure taken to reduce violence in the world. If we begin to see sex as our “Antidote to a Mean World” maybe we can all live together with more harmony, love and acceptance. After all, we contain the roots of peace in our DNA. We have only to allow it to surface.

One Billion Rising

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When I first marched for the right to be safe from harm back in the early 80’s I recall the contentious divisions between men and women on the topic of women’s empowerment. But today, this is a topic which calls to most hearts equally.

I began my life as the daughter of a mentally ill and cruel man who began abusing me when I was only five years old. My father tormented me until I was able to leave home at age eighteen and unfortunately, those years of being victimized set me up for further abuse at the hands of the men I would eventually date. It would be years before I obtained the help I needed to heal. But when I eventually found that help, it was very much like being reborn.

Many of us have been abused as children and as adults. And each of us faces a choice. That choice is to either ignore our wounds or take the steps necessary to heal. When we choose to heal, we show enormous courage because the very act of healing requires that we relive our abuse. That is a pain some cannot bear. But we need not bear that pain alone. There is so much help available to us today. And if we get the help we need, we can live productive and joyful lives.

Still the threat of abuse continues to hang over the heads of every woman of every age and that threat can wear down our resolve. And it is the weight of that threat to our safety and our well-being which brings us together today. For what may be too much to bear alone is something we have the power to face and to conquer together.

We are rising up not only for the abuses which have touched our individual lives but for the abuse of women and girls which afflicts this entire globe. Our hearts still grieve the recent rape, mutilation and murders of two young women in South Africa and India. And as we learn more about the random and sadistic nature of the crimes committed against them, we come to understand that the abuse inflicted upon women on a global level is not just violence, it is in fact hate crime.

These young women were attacked and killed simply because they were women. We have long known that rape is an act of domination and we have long known that any woman can be raped for no reason at all. Yet, the fact that a young woman lost her life simply because she rode on a bus with her boyfriend, as happened in India, makes it abundantly clear to the world that rape is a hate crime against women.

If these young women and so many like them are not to die in vain, we must rise up to demonstrate our solidarity with all women who are abused in any manner. Together we must refuse to participate in the status quo until there is no longer a rape culture. Together we must rise up in the name of all that is right and holy. Together we must shift this patriarchal world culture toward equality and empowerment for women and girls.

Jean-Paul Sartre is quoted as saying “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” No matter what has been done to us, we have the power to rise above it and to claim our birthright to freedom!

We use to refer to ourselves as victims and eventually we learned to see ourselves as survivors. But are we willing just to survive? No, now is the time for us to rise up as Change Agents because it is no longer enough that we become angry or outraged. It is no longer enough that we just heal our personal hurts. It is time for us to rise up together and create real, lasting change so that little girls who are alive today can count on being safe now as well as when they grow up. It is time for us to create change which will make all women safe – which will empower all women to the dignity and freedom which is their birthright.

True change agents see a future no one else does, and that vision won’t let them rest. Change agents have something about them that galvanizes and motivates other people. Let each of us take personal responsibility to become the change agents this world so desperately needs.

Whether you decide to work online, locally or abroad, find that one thing which you can commit to in service of making this world safer and more free for all women and girls. And do it with someone else so that we are in fact one billion rising!
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Secret Lives: The “Shameful” Truth About an Athlete, a Scientist, a Schoolteacher and a Police Officer

Suzy Favor Hamilton

The Two Lives of an Olympic Runner

“Bizarre, salacious and inexplicably careless” – these are just a few of the judgment-laden phrases that presently swirl around Suzy Favor Hamilton, a woman some have called the greatest athlete in University of Wisconsin history.

What has changed public perception of this Olympic runner and winner of nine NCAA championships for the UW-Madison?  What has suddenly changed her from an admired icon to a target of ridicule and vilification?

A disgruntled client exposed Favor Hamilton’s secret life as an escort and public reaction to the shocking news has reduced her to a fate familiar to sex workers the world over – she is being ostracized, stripped of her worth and dignity.

Most are surprised that a successful athlete, wife and mother chose to have sex with strangers for money. It can be difficult to understand how any woman would choose prostitution, especially when she has so many amazing accomplishments and resources at her beck and call. It does not appear that her financial life was in peril. Why in the world would any sane person risk so much to engage in something which seems so degrading?

And yet, though Suzy Favor Hamilton’s choices may appear to be incomprehensible, she is far from alone.  It is an inescapable fact that many otherwise “normal” women with a multitude of options at their disposal are in fact choosing to become prostitutes. For instance, research scientist Brooke Magnanti, supplemented her income while completing her doctoral studies by working as a London call girl. She wrote of her escapades in a book which became the Showtime cable series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Victoria Thorne held two professional positions, that of police officer and prostitute, until her conviction for prostitution in 2009. Like Suzy Favor Hamilton, both of these women were capable, accomplished and upwardly mobile. Why would they resort to prostitution?

Sports columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, Andy Baggot, expressed conventional wisdom when he wrote “Favor Hamilton, a wife and mother, indulged in a lifestyle that can’t be excused any more than it can be explained in a rational manner.”

But is he correct? Are the choices of these women and thousands of others whose names never make it to the headlines, truly insane? Or is it possible that their behavior can be explained rationally?

Most would agree that being a prostitute is an all together negative proposition.  Who in their right mind would wish such a fate on any female person they care about?

Yet, perhaps it is this assumption which leads us away from the truth.

What if we were to investigate the perspective of those women who have chosen to engage in prostitution?  While many if not most people might hate working as a prostitute, is it possible that the profession could be enjoyable for some people? Could there be something about prostitution that some prostitutes find attractive? Could there be something about the profession that is pleasing, alluring or otherwise positive for them?

While all prostitutes share the act of selling sex for money as a defining element of their profession, the actual circumstances and nature of their work vary considerably. Today’s prostitutes are far from a homogenous group. Some obtain clients from the stereotypical street corner, while others work in five star hotels and luxurious penthouse suites.  Some offer primarily “vanilla” sex, some provide BDSM services, and some are experts in sacred and tantric sexual practices.

Given the huge discrepancy in working conditions, it seems only reasonable to acknowledge there are vastly differing experiences as well as explanations for the decision to engage in prostitution.

The athlete, the scientist, and the police officer mentioned above all share the luxury of having a choice in the first place. None of them is destitute or disadvantaged or otherwise limited in their capacity to choose. In fact, Suzy Favor Hamilton, Brooke Magnanti and Victoria Thorne seem to have invested considerably in their respective career choices, carefully crafting professional paths designed to optimize their level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Given the nature of these women’s other life choices, it seems logical to assume their decision to become a prostitute more likely involved logical and practical considerations as well.

Most of us have been told that prostitutes suffer from low self-esteem. But the facts seem to point away from such popular stereotypes. Dr. Suzanne Jenkins’  Keele University thesis, “Beyond Gender: An Examination of Exploitation in Sex Work” reports that 72% of escorts feel their self-esteem is higher because of their work.  Jenkins’ study also shows that 72% of escorts like their work for the independence, 67% for meeting people and 93% for the money.

Other prostitutes who have spoken candidly about their choice to engage in the trade, have listed empowerment as a number one benefit. Some point to the added economic power. Others speak almost glowingly about the positive treatment accorded them by their clients. Freedom and a sense of adventure also seem to rank high, as does the opportunity to take more control over their interactions with men in general.

To be sure, these are not the sort of fringe benefits usually associated with prostitution. In fact, it flies completely in the face of what most of us “know,” or think we “know,” about prostitution.

While society certainly heaps denigration on prostitutes, is it possible that the actual act of exchanging sex for money isn’t degrading for some prostitutes?  Could it be that adults have the mental and emotional capacity to decide what type of sex they want to engage in, with whom and for what purpose?  Might we also honor the right of adults to arrange for the exchange of goods or services or cash in exchange for sex?  And if not, what is the rationale which drives our reluctance to do so?

Will society suffer if sex is allowed to become the province of individual preferences? Certainly we must enforce safeguards for minors, but when it comes to what happens between consenting adults, is it anyone else’s business?

We fear what we don’t understand and certainly as long as prostitution is framed by stereotypes and taboo, it invites some of our deepest fears. What if our daughters, our wives, or our mothers resort to prostitution? What if schoolteachers also worked as prostitutes? Wouldn’t that erode the very fabric of society?

In fact, a school teacher was arrested for prostitution in 2003. Shannon Williams, a Berkeley high school teacher, was a media sensation after news of her arrest spread, spawning many philosophical discussions about the implications of a prostitute being allowed access to children. Melissa Petro  was fired from her schoolteaching job because she admitted to being a call girl years before becoming a schoolteacher.  The consensus seems to be that even former prostitutes pose some sort of threat to the safety and well-being of children. But are women who get paid for sex more dangerous than women who have sex for free?

Despite the abundance of sexual images (and perhaps even because of them) sexual shame drives our economy and infects our lives. It distorts our relationships and cripples our ability to experience ourselves as whole. Women, especially, are penalized by what is often referred to as the Whore/Madonna Complex – a syndrome that creates desire for a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while making desire for the respected partner (the Madonna), taboo. Although the Whore/Madonna Complex may seem outdated, clinical psychologist, Uwe Hartmann, stated in 2009 that it “is still highly prevalent in today’s patients”.

Can we comprehend the price we pay when sexual shame predominates? Any culture or society which enforces a sexual double standard and refuses to accord half the population their sexual birthright, is a culture that cheats all of us.

Many anthropological studies have established that societies with a more permissive attitude toward female sexual behavior are in fact more peaceful societies. This is true for the Mosuo in China, and the Zapotec of La Paz, Mexico. It is also true of our closest non-human relative, the bonobo. Yet the sexual double standard persists in the dominant world culture.

Over the years, many women with impressive professional careers have confessed to me their secret fantasies about working as a high priced escort. And in their eyes I have seen an all too familiar sadness that seems to communicate a desire so taboo and potentially dangerous it must never be spoken or acknowledged. Instead, it lives hidden deep in the hearts and psyches of women like a relic from our ancient past – a time long ago when women experienced their sexual power without apology.

The suppression of our sexual wholeness leads to all sorts of dysfunction including depression, anxiety and rage. It fuels the war between the sexes and the resulting animosity and mistrust feed into our violent responses to life’s frustrations and challenges. Ultimately, a negative and controlling approach to sexuality in general and women’s sexual autonomy in particular, contributes to the desecration of our planet and our ability to survive through the raping of the environment and the many wars which have plagued the human species for millennia.

If each of us examines our fears and assumptions, we may find what we truly fear is not sex workers, but our own sexual secrets and frustrations. It is so human to project onto others what we are afraid of in ourselves, and prostitutes make a convenient target for scapegoating. Fortunately, some individuals are coming forward to express perspectives which embrace a more accepting attitude toward prostitutes.

For instance, Stanley Siegel, psychotherapist and former Director of Education and Senior Faculty member of New York’s renowned Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy recently wrote in an article for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine:”The sex workers I spoke with, as well as some I have been with, share many of the same positive values and ethics as therapists. Both psychotherapists and sex workers have guided me, at different times in my life, to a deeper understanding of my true desires, partly by challenging me to confront shame.”

Even Fox News’ controversial psychiatrist and social commentator, Keith Ablow, asserts”. . . it is time to legalize prostitution, put in place safeguards to help protect those who participate in it, and, of course, tax it.” While I don’t entirely agree with his decree (I am after all in favor of decriminalization instead of legalization in the USA) I do appreciate his more practical approach to prostitution.

Despite the torrent of headlines surrounding Suzy Favor Hamilton, the fact that some professional women work on the side as prostitutes is not really news. What is getting our attention and upsetting the status quo, is how “normal” this new type of sex worker is. Blending into society with ease, many of today’s prostitutes are adventurous entrepreneurs with their own unique view of human sexuality. For some women, prostitution may represent nothing more than supplemental income. For others it may feel like a sacred calling to provide sexual healing.

In the 2012 award winning movie, The Sessions, actress Helen Hunt gives us a window into the level of compassion and service expressed in sex surrogacy. Yet that commitment to service can be found in prostitution too. Another recent film, The Scarlet Road, is a moving documentary featuring sex worker and activist, Rachel Wotton. It reveals an entirely different attitude toward prostitution in countries such as Australia, which have legal or decriminalized prostitution. There, sex workers have organized Touching Base; a non-profit group that provides sex workers training, resources and information about disability while enabling people with disabilities to connect with trained sex workers.

I am not suggesting that all prostitutes are interested in being of service to their clients.  There are all kinds of prostitutes, just as there are all kinds of people who become athletes, scientists, teachers, and police officers. But being of service certainly is a guiding principle for some people in some professions – even prostitutes. And given the wide variety of logical and even altruistic reasons for engaging in prostitution, it may be time to stop attributing all sorts of evil to the women who choose to work in prostitution.

Maybe prostitutes are, after all, people too.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 15 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Why We Don’t Change . . . Even When We REALLY Want To

woodpecker from Teri Ciacchi

You have heard yourself say it many times, this resolution to do better next time. Each time you fall down, you promise yourself and anyone else who will listen, that this is the last time. You know better now. You will not do it again.

But you do.

So why is it that so many of us work so hard to be the best and do the best we possibly can, only to fail over and over again?

Early in life, most of us experience the shaming which accompanies admonishments to “grow up” and “learn to control yourself.”  The innocent and spontaneous emotions which arise in us are dominated and silenced in an effort to control that which is inconvenient and unwieldy.

Ironically, the more we attempt to control what we feel and do, the less able we are to achieve the results we desire.  Like sand slipping between our fingers, the tighter our grip on what we desire, the less able we are to hold onto it. We may be accustomed to applying this time proven principle to our relationships and possessions but how often do we apply it to our quest for self-improvement and spiritual growth?  Employing too much self-will when relating to ourselves can be just as damaging as it is in our other relationships.

For instance, let’s say you want to control your temper. That seems like a worthwhile goal which most people would applaud. But did you know that “controlling your temper” can actually lead to more angry outbursts and unpredictable fluctuations in mood?

I like to joke that this is why treatment for anger problems  is termed “anger management,” not “anger repression” or “anger control.”  Repression and suppression of emotions actually perpetuate the feelings we are attempting to avoid. Rather than deal with those emotions and eventually move on, our attempts to control emotions tend to imprison us with our negative feelings indefinitely.

Not only does the energy of control exacerbate the very qualities it is intended to diminish, our efforts at control set into motion a cycle of shame which perpetuates our problem behaviors. As we fail to live up to our expectations and our resolutions , most of us will feel less and less confident. We may begin to doubt ourselves and this can lead to a deepened sense of shame. Contrary to some of the shaming techniques employed by parents, partners and the culture, shame does not evoke the positive changes we anticipate.

“You cannot shame or belittle people into changing. This means we can’t use self-hate to lose weight, we can’t shame ourselves into becoming better parents and we can’t belittle ourselves or our families into becoming who we need them to be. . . Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” [Brene’ Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me, page 197]

So exactly how do we make the positive changes we desire?

Ms. Brown goes on to explain “the power of connection and the dangers of disconnection. Disconnection is both the source and consequence of shame, fear and blame.” [p. 241] When we do not connect with ourselves empathically, we cannot achieve the change we crave. Ironically, it is when we stop blaming, judging and criticizing ourselves and others that the conditions required to effect real change can begin to take form.  Here are five steps to stop trying to “make” yourself do whatever it is you want yourself to do, and start nurturing the positive changes you want in your life.

How to Get What You Want by  Giving Up Control of Self and Others

1. Breathe and Connect to Your Feelings

2. Feel Empathy and Compassion for Yourself

3. Replace Negative Thoughts with Hopeful Scenarios

4. Extend Empathy to Others

5. Let Go of Control and Practice Acceptance

These steps can take you from the hell of repressed emotions, frustrated needs and projected blame and shame. When we insist upon controlling ourselves instead of accepting ourselves, we actually lose the control we seek to gain. It is only by accepting and loving ourselves unconditionally, that we can create the circumstances conducive to positive change.  Shame is a barrier to positive change. Shame is a barrier to compassion. Shame is a barrier to connection to self and with others.

Additionally, controlling behaviors act like barriers to our goals. It is very sad when I see someone invest so much energy and enthusiasm for the constructive change they desire, only to return to the same destructive patterns they are determined to escape. Resolution and positive thinking have their place but when it comes to thoroughly entrenched habits of thought or action, it is usually more productive to connect with ourselves with empathy and compassion and then let go. Letting go is the key to implementing any new skill set – even a motor skill such as tennis. Once we comprehend what needs to happen, once we have practiced the new behavior, what remains is to let go and allow our more intuitive side to guide us.

This may be one of the most difficult concepts to teach another. It runs counter to our training and our culture. Yet it is one of life’s ironies that we must surrender the very thing we wish to gain.

No Proposition 35

Want to stop human trafficking? Want to rescue children forced into prostitution? Want to put pedophiles in prison for a long time? Most of us would say yes to all three questions and that is what the drafters of Proposition 35 are counting on. They hope you don’t read the fine print about where your tax dollars will go. They hope you don’t find out that former Facebook employee, Chris Kelly is putting over a million dollars into promoting the proposed legislation in a personal bid for elective office. They hope you don’t look into why the American Civil Liberties Union objects to Proposition 35 and they certainly do not want you to understand their sex negative agenda.

There are not dependable statistics pertaining to human trafficking. It is mostly a term which is now being applied to what we used to call pimping and pandering. There isn’t a verifiable epidemic of sex trafficking in the USA. If you care enough about this issue to vote about it, please take the time to learn more. Start with Laura Agustin’s books and blog. This woman has researched the issue firsthand – visited the countries where sex trafficking is prevalent and studied the statistics used to redirect your tax dollars to more government here in the USA. Did you know most of the women “rescued” resent being “rescued” and go right back to their profession after being put through the system? Did you know that most of the sex workers who are being referred to as children are actually runaway teens who are escaping an abusive home? Find out the facts and refuse to vote for laws which will not only fail to help those who need the help, but create more victims of the legal system.

Proposition 35 sets a dangerous legal precedent which allows government to keep a record of your internet passwords and activities for the rest of your life, if you are a registered sex offender. That may sound fitting to the crime if you don’t understand who can become a sex offender according to Proposition 35. The way this poorly drafted piece of legislation is written, you could easily be prosecuted for sex trafficking. All that would have to happen is if you gave your 17 year old niece a car ride over state line. Maybe you think she is headed to her first year of college or a high school athletic event. But really she is doing a little stripping on the side.Most strip clubs engage in prostitution and some strippers lie about their age. Proposition 35 does not allow for ignorance of the age of sex worker. It doesn’t allow for ignorance of a minor’s plans to commit a crime. You transport, you go to prison. Period.

If we really want to help sex workers who want out of the profession and if we really want to protect children from pedophiles and pimps, we are going to have to do much better than Proposition 35. Proposition 35 is being sponsored by former Facebook employee, Chris Kelly because he hopes you will vote for him the next time he runs for office. Don’t be fooled by his millions. He doesn’t give a dam about sex workers.

What About God?

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A reader recently asked me “Do you believe in God?” The question made me smile because I have a very fluid relationship with that question, and my thoughts and feelings about it are often in flux.

I could get in trouble with a few people here, but if you will suspend your personal beliefs on this topic for a moment, I would like to share some of my feelings, fantasies and understandings regarding the Divine. I do give myself the freedom to entertain many possibilities and I invite you to do the same. After all, The Shame Free Zone is all about eliminating shame – even our spiritual shame. We all deserve the freedom to explore our unique thoughts and feelings about life, God, morality and love!

Below, is the answer that came to me today, to that age old question. But please keep in mind my answer will probably be something different a few months from now. If you read to the end of this entry,  you will see why:

Well I certainly do not believe in the god I was raised with – a punishing old man who seemed to hate women and sex and animals without a shred of compassion or mercy.  I am not a follower of any single teacher or guru or holy one, not even Jesus.  In fact, I am not convinced that the historical Jesus ever existed although I wouldn’t be disturbed or disappointed to discover that he had.  If he did exist, I don’t think his goal was to be rich or famous or to found a religion.  Maybe he was bisexual and had a baby out of wedlock with that famous prostitute, Mary Magdalene, whom incidentally I think may have very possibly been an apostle and a prostitute and a mother and a prophet.  Can you imagine what a powerful woman she would have been?

But back to this moment in time which is really all I have for sure. I prefer not to believe.  I don’t like the concept of “facts.”  Humans have been asserting the “facts” for centuries only to find out they had it completely wrong.  Every time we invent another way to perceive, we learn just how wrong the “facts” are.  For instance, the solar system and germs and DNA all revoked our “truth” with new “truth.” 

Similarly, my experience of the Divine continues to morph and with each twist of the dial, I am further and further convinced that a world beyond our physical bodies does exist and furthermore that I haven’t the slightest idea what defines that spiritual world.  

My concept of a Higher Power began as Him and then became Her but now is Them.  Which concept is true?  I don’t care. I am not attached to “truth.”  I am open to the journey and guidance in the form of urgings and knowings which don’t originate from my skull but could nevertheless be emanating from some part of me which doesn’t even reside in my body. 

Now if I can entertain that possibility and yet have NO idea if any of this is “real” or if perhaps it is all a dream of some sort, than I am open to the next bit of experience and the “knowing” that it may bring.

I do believe in God. And God keeps changing form for me. The only constant is my journey toward the Love. Whatever is Love is my God.

Confused?  If you are, it isn’t a bad thing.  I like to stay confused because it means I am still teachable.

Casting a Wider Net for Sex Traffickers?

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We are currently in a battle for personal freedoms the founders of this nation took for granted. As big business tightens its grip on our self-determination and special interest groups master the art of chicanery, those few hopeful souls who still participate in our democratic process by turning up at the voting polls, are finding it more and more difficult to decipher the true intent and potential impact of proposed legislation.

Take for instance the always popular stance against human trafficking.  I mean can you imagine anyone who would be in favor of modern slavery? Of course not. And so no matter the merits of proposed laws against trafficking, all politicians will feel compelled to lend their endorsement regardless of the actual repercussions of the new law(s).

Similarly, uninformed voters can feel inclined to vote yes to any legislation purporting to rescue the innocent and punish the perpetrators. And who can blame them? Who doesn’t want justice to prevail? And when it comes to sex trafficking, especially the sex trafficking of minors, the level of disgust, contempt and outrage most of us experience at the very thought is almost too much to bear. We may reason that the legislation may not be perfect, but anything is better than allowing such atrocities to persist.

But is poor legislation really better than no new laws?  In the case of California’s Proposition 35, you may be surprised to learn just how bad this new piece of proposed law really is. 

For instance, the wording of Proposition 35 is so vague that instead of creating better enforcement against the trafficking of minors, it could wind up being used to put teenagers in prison for 12 years and force them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. If Proposition 35 passes, simply having sex with another teenager could garner a sex trafficking conviction.  How you might ask? 

Well, let’s say an eighteen year old boy takes a seventeen year old girl to the movies and buys her popcorn to eat during the movie. Then let’s say these two teenagers share some sort of consensual sexual interaction after the movie.  You have to admit this scenario is pretty pedestrian.  It happens every night of the week all over the state of California. 

Yes, it is illegal to have sex with someone who is underage. But do we really want to see a penalty intended for sex traffickers imposed upon someone who has barely become an adult and perhaps didn’t even know that their sexual partner was underage? If you stop for a moment and envision this scenario happening in the case of a teenager you know, your first response will probably be, “that could never happen.”

But the wording of Proposition 35 allows anything of value being given or received by any person to qualify as “payment” for an act of prostitution. And since we are talking about statutory rape, construing popcorn and a movie as payment for sex is well within the wording of this proposed legislation. While it may be unlikely that the boy next door will see the inside of a prison for getting carried away with his underage girlfriend, imagine how this law might be used to persecute less beloved citizens of the state. What if the teenagers are gay?  What if they are black or Latino? What if someone decides to prosecute to the full extent of the law? Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if our laws were clear, concise and devoid of any ulterior agendas?

Californians deserve better. Send Proposition 35 back to the drafters by voting “no.”

 

Veronica Monet, ACS, CAM

Certified Sexologist and Host of The Shame Free Zone

Blurring the Lines

My use of the words escort and sex worker inhabit mostly political terrain for me. In the strictest sense, an escort accompanies a client to a given location or event. Most escorts of course, do not venture from their private apartments where they entertain clients. I no longer do escorting. I am no longer selling my services as an escort and so I am clear that I am at this point, a former escort.

Sex worker is a different word with different connotations. Some people think sex workers are doing illegal activities and others are pretty sure sex workers take off their clothes.  But in reality, a wide variety of jobs and professions qualify to be called sex work and therefore many people who do diverse things for a living can be referred to as sex workers. In fact, some people call themselves a sex worker simply because they write about sex for a living.  That is a bit of a stretch but if you add any kind of adult images, then magically the line is crossed and many will agree that someone who writes about sex with naked pictures of themselves is a sex worker.  I suppose the line in most minds occurs at the point where the person selling sex toys or writing about sex, models the sex toys or illustrates the sex they are writing about by using their own body. If a writer or vendor sells images of other naked people, then we are not sure if they qualify to be called a sex worker.

I find these distinctions somewhat arbitrary and limiting.  But even if I go with the definition of sex worker as someone who uses their own body in some way to procure a living, then I still end up with a wider definition of the term than society currently allows for. I would include as sex workers, people who marry for money and both print and runway models. Some performance artists would qualify as sex workers too.  For instance when Karen Finley covered herself in chocolate for a photo shoot with Bill Maher, her use of her own body was deeply sexual as well as political (although I was hard pressed to ascertain what her political message was). But the popular press will always refer to her as an artist instead of a sex worker.

So what is the difference between someone like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle?  Is Annie Sprinkle a sex worker because she used to do porn or because she still uses her naked body in some of her stage performances?  Annie Sprinkle refers to herself as an activist and performance artist at this point. I know she is always comfortable referring to her past as a porn star and prostitute. Annie Sprinkle willingly and graciously stands in solidarity with other sex workers.

When women and transgenders are being murdered for being sex workers, stressing that one is a former sex worker can feel divisive.  It certainly does not seem like a show of solidarity.

Toward the end of a presentation I gave to a feminist class at a college in Marin many years ago, the professor announced that she would like to consider herself an honorary whore as a show of solidarity with all the whores who suffer for being whores. I was touched and impressed.  It was also an instructive moment for me as I realized that people all too often draw lines of distinction between each other in an effort to escape the fate of their contemporaries. I am not such a person and I will not abandon decades of activism now in order to garner a little more public approval. I would much rather enlarge the term sex worker while embracing it and standing in solidarity with other sex workers.

In the strictest sense of the word, I really am a sex worker even today, because I occasionally sell my adult DVDs.  It is funny, really.  Because if I were selling adult DVDs of Annie Sprinkle or Nina Hartley, I would not be considered a sex worker.  And when I stop selling my DVDs (which will eventually happen when I run out of copies as I have no intentions of ordering more) some may stop thinking of me as a sex worker. I, however, am fond of the word. It denotes an important aspect of the Divine Feminine which I feel called to bring forth in a variety of ways.

So while I do not intend to make more porn, I may decide to get naked in front of a camera again.  And if I do, will I be a sex worker or just like every actress in Hollywood?  Where is that magical line between the good girls and the bad girls, anyway?  I am not sure but when I find it, you can count on my arriving with a big eraser determined to blur the line even more.