Northwestern Sex Week and Conservative Hypocrisy

Northwestern’s annual Sex Week is coming up next week. Sex Week is basically exactly what it sounds like. I quote their website: “our mission is simple: we want people to start talking. Sex Week is meant to provide students with fun, provocative, and informative opportunities to explore the role of sex and sexuality in our lives. There is no religious or ideological affiliation: just an open forum to learn and discuss.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, according to an organization called the Love & Fidelity Network, Northwestern Sex Week has a major problem:

Northwestern University sponsored its own Sex Week last spring, entitled “Rock her World.” Featured tips for men included how to please their female sex partners.

Despite good intentions for fun and informative sexual health education, many university programs and events lack crucial health information on the emotional and physical harms of casual sex. Health Centers readily distribute condoms as the only real safeguard against STIs (sexually transmitted infections), neglecting to encourage abstinence as a realistic and effective option. Students are not getting the health information they need. [emphasis theirs]

That’s right, our intelligent, well-informed college students are not aware that abstinence is an option. Years of Bush-mandated abstinence-only sex education, along with a heavy cultural stigma against teenage sexuality (particularly female teenage sexuality), have somehow failed to inform us of the basic fact that it is, in fact, physically possible not to have sex.

Who would’ve thought?

They continue:

The institution of marriage and the important role of the family are no longer esteemed and defended, but are instead forgotten or criticized. Students learn to question “traditional” marriage, family, and sexual norms, without being given the appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate those questions. They learn how to critique these institutions and principles, unaware that a defense exists as well.

Marriage and family are “forgotten?” I don’t know, it’s pretty hard to forget about marriage and family. All around me I see LGBTQ activists fighting for their right to get married in the first place, politicians trumpeting “family values,” and fellow students in serious relationships. I also see that Northwestern actually offers a very popular “Marriage 101” class (apparently that’s not enough to offset the debauchery of Sex Week in the eyes of the Concerned Adults over at the Love & Fidelity Network). Northwestern is also affiliated with an institution that provides family and couples’ therapy, for which I’ve helped with research in the past. This institution is named–wait for it–the Family Institute.

But no, clearly, marriage and family are completely “forgotten” at Northwestern.

According to the Love & Fidelity Network, we lack the “appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate” questions of marriage and family. Instead, all we can do is criticize and condemn them. In order to evaluate these issues “intelligently,” then, we need resources and events from this completely-unbiased-I-promise-you organization.

First of all, on behalf of Northwestern students, I’d like to thank the folks over at the Love & Fidelity Network for their concern trolling. I really don’t know where we’d be without you.

Second, I’d like to propose a radical idea–what if college students are not actually the dumb, easily brainwashed sheep that you imagine them to be, and what if they are actually capable of critical thinking and of choosing whichever path best suits them in life?

I think I hear crickets.

I want somebody to find me an example of a time when a sexually active college student received information from a conservative group like this one and said, “Wow, abstinence? I never thought of that! I’m totally going to try it now!”

Do college students at times make bad decisions about sex? Of course. They neglect to use condoms. They don’t get tested for STIs enough. They pressure someone into having sex with them. They don’t ask for what they want, or they don’t ask their partner what they want. They’re afraid to give consent, or to withhold it. They use stereotypes to try to understand someone else’s sexuality. They use alcohol to fake a feeling of confidence that they haven’t yet developed.

These are all real problems, and organizations like Sex Week are trying to combat them. These are the problems that college health centers try to solve–and I would know, because I work very closely with my own college health center on many of these issues.

These problems don’t have easy solutions, and sometimes we don’t know what the solutions are.

But you know what isn’t a solution? “Hey guys! Try abstinence! It’s super awesome I swear!”

A caveat–abstinence may be the right choice for some people. No serious sex educator would ever deny this. But the thought process that should lead someone to choose abstinence should go something like this: “You know, I don’t think I’m comfortable having sex yet. I’m going to wait until I feel like it’s right for me.” It should not go like this: “I feel like having sex would make me a slut/mean I have no morals/prevent me from finding a serious partner/make me a bad person.” But that second thought process is the one conservative groups want you to have.

How do I know? I’ll continue to quote from the Love & Fidelity Network’s website:

Today’s college students are the next generation of leaders and parents. There is a desperate need for them to be well-informed about the lifestyles and behaviors that best enable them to live responsibly, reasonably, healthily and morally. [emphasis mine]

So, abstinence = moral, sex = immoral. Surprise, surprise.

These organizations love to pretend that their agenda is based on anything other than their own personal moral codes by claiming that casual sex is “dangerous.” It would take me an entire book to dispel this myth. Maybe I’ll write it someday.

For now, let’s just examine several things that are frequently claimed as “risks” of casual sex. One is STI transmission and pregnancy, which can be almost completely prevented through condoms and other forms of contraception. An inconvenient research finding is that abstinence-centered sex education actually increases the likelihood that young adults will not use proper protection when they inevitably do have sex. (There are many sources for this; Google it.)

Another is sexual assault. Conservatives love to trot this one out, insisting that casual sex is to blame for rape on college campuses. False. Sexual assault is caused by individuals making the decision to have sex with someone else without their consent. It is also caused by a culture that lets rapists go free if their victims seemed to have been “asking for it.”

(Incidentally, why is it that sex-positive organizations and groups like Sex Week and our own campus health center are constantly advocating for victims of sexual assault, whereas conservative groups are always silent except to berate them for “dressing like sluts”? Who’s really looking out for college students’ health and safety here?)

Another “risk” is this amorphous conglomeration of emotional issues that people–fine, let’s be honest, women–apparently face if they have casual sex. In her amazing book What You Really Really Want, Jaclyn Friedman writes:

You may have heard about oxytocin. It’s a chemical that is often released during sexual stimulation. Some studies have shown that when we release oxytocin, it can intensify the feelings (both positive and negative) we have about the person we’re having sex with. Unfortunately, this chemical response has been warped into an argument by abstinence-until-marriage advocates and other social conservatives, who claim that because of this bond, women get hurt by casual sex more than men. And the argument goes further, claimed that if women form an oxytocin bond with too many people, the effect will wear off and they’ll find themselves unable to bond properly with anyone.

Please.

Friedman goes on to cite studies that show that, first of all, it’s too little oxytocin that causes problems, not too much. She also cites research showing that oxytocin is also produced in many other situations, such as playing games, petting dogs, singing in groups, yoga, talking with close friends, and even eating certain foods.

As far as I and other sex-positive writers have been able to find, there is no research actually showing that casual sex is intrinsically harmful.

What is harmful, however, is the shame we choose to burden others with when they express their sexuality in ways that we don’t personally like. And while there are definitely problems with hookup culture, hookup culture and casual sex are not the same thing.

I can go on and on showing the hypocrisy of organizations like the Love & Fidelity Network, but this post is already nearly 1,500 words long. I could talk about how this organization links to the National Organization for Marriage on its site–yes, that one. I could talk about how marriage isn’t a panacea, how many members of our society still don’t have the right to get married in the first place.

I could talk about how great sex and marriage aren’t mutually exclusive, and how nothing about Sex Week suggests that people shouldn’t get married. I could talk about how intelligent and thoughtful my peers are, and how hard they’re working to define their lives on their own terms, and how much they struggle with sex and sexuality. I could talk about how they’re doing just fine without the Love & Fidelity Network.

But all of that would take a book, or many books.

So I’ll just say this: if you’re a Northwestern student, go check out Sex Week. And if you’re not, try to appreciate the fact that we’re growing up and finding our own answers, even if they aren’t the answers you would’ve chosen for us.

I Hope They Serve Beer in the Abortion Clinic: Tucker Max vs. Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood's newest supporter

I feel bad for Planned Parenthood. Not only have they been facing attacks from conservative politicians and cancer charities, defunding threats, and–I kid you not–firebombs, but now they have to deal with the odious filth that is Tucker Max and his publicity machine.

First, an aside–I’m not going to waste space here discussing who Tucker Max is and why he’s one of my least favorite people in the world, though I may do so in a future post. For now, Google is your friend. I will, however, say this–if you think Tucker is funny, please just take five minutes and ask yourself why. Why does he make you laugh?

Anyway, our favorite misogynist (and racist, etc.) Tucker Max has a little problem. An image problem. Thing is, people seem to think that poor Tucker is a Bad Guy. But he’s not, I swear! He’s actually a Nice Guy. He just needs to find a way to show it.

Tucker also has another problem: he makes so much money from his narcissistic writings that he has to pay really high taxes. There must be a way around this!

Luckily, Tucker happens to have an excellent media consultant, Ryan Holiday, to whom he wrote the following email:

Ryan, I have a huge tax burden this year. I can reduce it with a large donation to charity, but I want to promote my new book at the same time. Can you come up with something cool that does both?

To this, Holiday responded with a Brilliant Idea:

What if you gave a bunch of money to Planned Parenthood and they named a clinic after you? They need donors, it’d be awesome and you’d get a ton of positive press out of it for a change.

Tucker agreed and offered $500,000 to Planned Parenthood of Texas, which soon declined the donation. In a stunning demonstration of his and Tucker’s selfless altruism, Holiday immediately wrote a diatribe in Forbes about how this is “one of the stupidest and most depressing things” he’s ever seen, and how PP has “acted like a fool.”

(As another aside, I’m really starting to hate Forbes magazine.)

At first glance, rejecting a $500,000 donation may indeed seem pretty stupid. But here are some things Holiday declined to mention in his whiny rant:

1. This isn’t the first time Tucker has attempted to donate to PP. Three other affiliates have already turned down his money, not merely because he’s a sexist douchebag, but because his demands in exchange for the donation–such as building naming rights–violate PP’s gifts policy. I respect an organization that has the integrity to turn down money that would violate its own policies.

2. We all know how Tucker really feels about PP, thanks to his Twitter account. In a miraculous burst of intelligence, he removed this tweet when Holiday’s Forbes piece went up, but the internet is forever:

You’ll notice that this is from just a few weeks ago–presumably long after Tucker had already began his campaign to rehabilitate his image using Planned Parenthood.

3. Despite Holiday’s claim that this was a poor business decision for PP, it actually wasn’t–if you look at the big picture. While it’d be great to have $500,000 right now, yoking one’s public image to that of Tucker Max would be a terrible business decision. What will PP’s other donors think when it names a clinic after a notorious sexist who belittles and shames women of different shapes, sizes, and colors? How many press releases will PP have to issue every time Tucker winds up in the news for being an awful person? How would PP answer the (accurate) claims that it has violated its own gifts policy just to get some more cash?

4. Finally, the unavoidable point–the respective missions of Tucker Max and Planned Parenthood are not only disparate; they are mutually exclusive. Tucker Max’s mission is to attain fame and money by treating women like dirt and writing about it in a way that some consider funny. Planned Parenthood’s mission is to help women of all kinds stay healthy, happy, and safe. A partnership between these two entities simply doesn’t make sense. “Tucker Max Women’s Clinic” has the same ironic ring to it as, say, Santorum University or Romney Animal Shelter.

Incidentally, although Holiday tries to make the point in his piece that Tucker is really such an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood and has been pro-choice his whole life, a comment on the Jezebel piece clarifies this:

Well, he is all for women’s rights to choose… upon knocking up a girlfriend of mine, the chivalrous Master of Equality himself instructed her to “take care of it”, but made it clear he would not help support her financially or emotionally through the ordeal.

Granted, there’s no proof, so take this with a grain of salt. But judging by Tucker’s attitude towards women, I’d believe it.

Could PP have used Tucker’s money? Of course it could’ve. What it couldn’t have used is a business deal with someone who maintains a persona that is simply antithetical to PP’s mission.

For what it’s worth, knowing that Planned Parenthood is willing to take a financial fall in order to stay true to both its mission and its actual policies makes me only more likely to support it in the future. I hope other PP donors feel the same way.

To close, I’ll leave you with some of Tucker Max’s quotes about women.

Your gender is hardwired for whoredom.

Fat girls aren’t real people.

Cum dumpsters.

I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.

Look, I know everything is shitty right now, but if you don’t stop acting like such a bitch, someone’s gonna fuck that pussy on your face.

She may be a vacuous slut with no taste, but at least she’s not a stripper.

Except for one thing…she was not attractive. On a scale of 1 to 10, she should have hung herself. The pear-shape of her body was so pronounced she looked like a nesting doll made of owl pellets.

Even though I’d slept with one, part of me still believed that midgets were mythical creatures, like unicorns and educated guidos.

You show me a truly funny girl who doesn’t have emotional issues, and I’ll introduce you to my stable of unicorn thoroughbreds ridden by leprechaun jockeys.

Look, I’m not trying to judge you about it. I’m slutty sometimes too. And personally, I like sluts; they’re the most fun. But if you act like a slut, you should be ready for some guys to call you a slut.

I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up.’

You know that saying, ‘no matter how hot she is, someone somewhere is sick of her shit?’ This was the type of girl that had a lot of someones in a lot of somewheres.

Your back fat could have its own bra! Look at yourself—you look like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup!

Contrary to what some assholes think, Fat Tuesday is NOT Adele’s birthday. Shame on all of us who thought that.

Any hot black girls free today? Looking to knock out Valentines Day and Black History Month all at once.

There is a girl lying next to me on the bed, shaking me, saying something. She is not happy. She is also not skinny. Or attractive. She may not even be human.

Not even human.

Edit 4/6/12: I cannot bring myself to link to Tucker Max’s blog from my own, but here is a brilliant analysis of his blog post about the issue, over at Feministe.

The "Right" Way to Be Depressed

CNN did a great thing today. They published a first-person account by one of their editors, Stephanie Gallman, about her experience of being diagnosed with depression, and of telling her friends and family about it.

Initially when I saw this article, I was overjoyed. It’s good to see mainstream media outlets publishing articles about depression that are personal rather than scientific in nature, and I’m relieved that more people are willing to publicly state the fact that they have depression.

But then I actually started reading it:

In August, after several months of seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression.

The news came as a shock.

“I’m not depressed,” I said defiantly, shaking my head when the doctor deducted that must be what was ailing me.

“I hate depressed people.”

She laughed at my strange reaction, but I was serious. I don’t want to be in that category of people. Everything they take in and spew out just breathes negativity, and they are difficult to be around. I despise these people.

Gee, thanks, Stephanie. We despise you too.

She goes on to describe how, at her doctor’s urging, she finally realized that the symptoms of depression really did describe her experience. When her doctor suggests antidepressants, she’s not too excited about the idea but seems to at least consider it.

Then she discusses dropping the “D-bomb” to friends and family. Her favorite response from them, apparently, is surprise:

A lot of the people reacted to the D-bomb the same way I did — “You’re depressed?! You?  Stephanie Gallman? But you’re one of the happiest people that I know! You Hula-Hoop in Walmart!” (I really do Hula-Hoop in Walmart — every time I go.)

These are the people I wanted to reach out and hug; they made me feel like I hadn’t turned into Debbie Downer.

It’s true, to the outside world, I do appear happy. And I realize this is hard to grasp, even for me, but I am happy most of the time. I am fully aware of how blessed my life is and express gratitude for it daily. I have worked hard not to let what’s going on with me on the inside affect the way I present myself on the outside.

It’s hard not to notice how much this smacks of a certain self-congratulatory relief, of “doing” depression the right way. This woman is clearly such a considerate person, for not letting her depression affect how she presents herself!

Gallman’s gratitude for her blessed life strikes a chord with me, as it will with many other people with depression, because of how damn often we’re told to “count our blessings” and “be grateful for what we have.” There’s nothing worse, apparently, then being ungrateful.

That said, there are definitely some great things about the article. Gallman talks about her anger at being told to “do more of the things that you enjoy” rather than taking antidepressants. “Bite me,” she writes. “These patronizing (“The Secret”? Are you serious?) prescriptions infuriated me, as if the reason I wasn’t happy is because I hadn’t tried hard enough.”

She also makes a great point about the need for more openness surrounding mental illness. One of the responses she often received when she dropped the “D-bomb” was stories about friends and family members who had also suffered from depression:

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to scream like Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer”: “Gee, you know that information … really would’ve been more useful to me yesterday!” Why isn’t anyone talking about these illnesses that affect our most important body part — our brain?

Indeed, why aren’t more people taking about these common, devastating illnesses?

Unfortunately for Gallman, one answer is that it’s because of people like her.

Specifically, it’s because of the people who call us “Debbie Downers,” who tell us that we’re “spewing negativity,” who blame us for our own illness just like Gallman (tragically) blamed herself.

The problem with Gallman’s narrative is that we’re not all as “blessed” as she is. Her theory that she may be to blame for her own depression because she withdrew from friends may be applicable to her own life (though I doubt it), but it’s not very applicable to those depression sufferers who may not have a strong support network like she does. She writes, “No surprise, the wonderful people in my life have all been very kind and sympathetic, offering words of comfort and support.” Well…good for her. Not everybody has that.

Furthermore, not everybody is an accomplished adult who has a dream job as an editor at CNN. Gallman’s habits of eating well and exercising healthfully, which she is proud enough of to mention in this article, are not available as options to everybody. It’s clear that she has a full enough life that she’s able to throw herself into other things and avoid that terrible label of “unhappy.” Her optimistic personality, another trait of which she is very proud, is something that psychologists generally agree is inborn and possibly genetic–not something that all of us are so lucky to have.

After reading this article, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the message hidden between its lines–that there is a “right” way to be depressed. Gallman plays this role well. She does not embrace her diagnosis, nor her doctor’s suggested treatment; after all, doing so would imply that she “wants” to be a victim. She steadfastedly counts her blessings every day and reaches out to her supportive friends and family. She eats well and exercises. She is absolutely not to blame for her depression because she does everything “right.”

And most of all, she sees her depressive side as something shameful and ugly, just a foil to her sunny personality.

What about those of us who don’t have a sunny personality?

I feel for Gallman, not just because of her struggle with depression, but because of how indelibly she has internalized the idea of depression and unhappiness in general as something Wrong and Bad. There’s no room in this article for the scandalous idea that depression, while being difficult and unpleasant, is something that a person can make peace with–the way they might make peace with having asthma or diabetes.

There’s also no room in this article for sympathy for those who don’t play the role of Optimistic Depression Sufferer as well as Gallman does. No sympathy for those who don’t identify themselves as happy people at all.

I’m glad that Gallman has shared her story, and I wish more people would do the same–with their real name attached. But I hope that readers who don’t have experience with depression do not assume that Gallman speaks for all of us.

Edit 4/2/12: If you want to see a brilliant, prominent person discuss her experiences with depression without being judgmental and promoting stigma like Gallman does, read this.