Tuesday, June 28, 2011

zombie sponge back for revenge

It's the sponge that never ends. It just goes on and on my friend! In the summer of 2008, I joyfully wrote about the death of the Today Sponge - the company that had bought it had gone bankrupt. I have a (probably irrational) hatred for the Today Sponge so I was thrilled.

Well, that sneaky little sucker found it's way back onto our drugstore shelves without me even knowing it. I've seen it around now and investigated to see what the hell happened.

Seems that Mayer Labs bought it relaunched it in the US in the summer of 2009. In January of this year, they announced it's availability in Shopper's Drug Marts in Canada. Sigh......

So, Today Sponge, my old nemesis, why do I hate thee? Once again, let me count the ways:

1) The Today Sponge has a perfect use effectiveness rates of 89% to 91%. That means that even if you use it exactly as directed, perfectly without fail, every single time you do it, you have a one in ten chance of getting pregnant within a year. I don't know about you, but for this pregnancy-phobe, that's too damn high! One of the few reasons I can think that people would choose this is because it doesn't really interfere with sensation and pleasure at all which means they wouldn't be using condoms. Using this alone is pretty risky.

2) It's bloody pricey! A box of 3 sponges is $19. That's more than $6 per. That's fucking expensive! And expensive fucking!

3) and this is the big one. The Today Sponge is absolutely, and literally, soaked in non-oxynol 9. It contains the highest percentage of non-oxynol 9, by far, of any spermicidal contraceptive on the market. N-9 is an industrial solvent that causes major irritation for most women. Seriously, does it make sense to soak a sponge in an industrial solvent and shove it up your vagina? Not to me it doesn't. Studies that came out in the late 90's (read my previous post for more info. on this) showed that women who used products that contain N-9, if they used them frequently, have a much higher risk of contracting STI's, particularly HIV. The risk is higher the higher the concentration of N-9 in the product. For people who have many partners or who have partners who have STI's, especially if they're not using condoms, this much N-9 is a risky proposition.

Besides the increase in STI risk, N-9 is just nasty. Most women I know, including me react badly to it. To me, N-9 is yeast infection in a box. All I have to do is look at a spermicidal foam and I'll get a yeast infection. Wish somebody at the birth control centre would have told me that all those years ago so I could have avoided it and saved myself the trouble. Irritations and ph imbalances like that are not only painful, embarrassing, and major disruptions in your life, they do leave you more susceptible to bacteria and viruses.

I do understand the other side of this argument. Some people argue that it's important to have this available for women who don't have much control over their own reproductive health, can't insist on condoms, can't even talk about them, and for whatever reason, can't be on the pill. This is something they can do quietly and easily without their partners' knowledge.

But the big flaw in that argument is that the sponge costs $6 a pop! Are women that are in those circumstances usually able to afford an $18 box of contraceptives that might last them a week? No, they just aren't. The women who are using Today are not those women, they are women who have money and control over that money. And I just really wonder if those women know how truly ineffective and risky the sponge is.

Approval of Microbicide May Finally Happen

After more than 15 years of research, there might actually be a microbicide on the market in the forseeable future. Microbicides are, simply put, substances which kill microbes, bacteria and viruses. For what seems like forever, a number of groups have been working on and advocating for the development of a microbicide that would be effective against HIV. The research was promising - we had all of the knowledge and tools we needed to develop something. The problem was that it was painfully slow because the big drug companies hadn't the slightest big of interest in lending their huge research budgets to this issue. This is something that would save millions of lives. Why doesn't big pharma want to be involved. Well, to be quite blunt about it, they're not the right kind of lives.

Microbicides would be used by people who cannot, for a variety of reasons, use condoms to protect themselves against HIV, or by people who can and do but want additional protection. The latter would be a small part of the people using them, the former, the majority. The would mainly benefit women in developing countries, women in the sex trade, and women living in poverty and/or in abusive home situations. These are not people with a lot of money to spend on drugs. Hence, big pharma doesn't see the payoff. Arrrgggghhhh.

But, finally, Tenofovir gel has been fast-tracked by the FDA for approval CONRAD and South Africa's Technology Innovation Agency have signed an agreement to manufacture and distribute it. It hasn't yet been approved but the fast-track means it shouldn't be long.

Tenofovir has shown to be effective in greatly reducing the numbers of both HIV and Herpes infection in women who participated in trials.

This has been such a long time coming - I'm so happy to see one of the many drugs and formulations that's been studied has finally shown decisive results and that there is hope that something will be in production in the not-so-distant future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Growing Your Pubes for Cancer - or rather Trimming Your Pubes for Cancer

Remember Movember? The cancer fundraiser that had men growing their mustaches to raise money for prostate cancer. Well, a group of women in the Toronto area have decided it's their turn. They have started Julyna - a month in which they will not grow, but rather trim and coiff their pubes to raise money and awareness for cervical cancer.

I found out about this through a post on the New View List Serve. The New View is a group of amazing people, mostly women, who are promoting a 'new view' of women's sexuality that is inclusive of the whole person and the diversity of women's experience. They are against the medicalization of female sexuality. They are unbelievably smart and active and strong women such as the likes of Petra Boynton and Leonore Tiefer. One of them posted about this campaign and a then a slew of responses followed, most of them questioning and criticizing it as silly, misguided, sexist,and potentially heralding the sexualization of cervical cancer.

I get where they're coming from and I admire and respect these women, but for the most part I disagree with them. What the hell is the harm here?

Okay - here is the potential harm and the things that they are criticizing - and that I question as well.
1. Why is it called Julyna? It's a contraction of July and Vagina. But we're not talking about vaginas here, are we? They are not trimming their vaginas because vaginas do not have hair in them. This is something that drives me crazy! The vagina is the canal leading from the vulva to the cervix, it does not encompass everything from the belly button down. So they are trimming the hair on the mons veneris or mons pubis if you lie, and the vulva and labia. So it should really be called Vulvy or Julybis. Please, we are adults, use the right language!
2. The guys grew their mustaches for Movember, why do the women need to trim? why can't we grow out our pubes too? The answers' easy, somewhere in the last about 15 years, we decided female pubic hair is disgusting. So even if it's for charity, we're not willing to grow it out and tell people we're doing that. I hate that. I hate the double-standard and the branding of something completely normal and natural as disgusting and unsightly. I think if they were growing it out, it would be a much more radical statement.

But do we really need to be so nitpicky? Chances are pretty good that the women who thought up these campaigns never thought of these things. The misnaming of female genitals is common parlance and trimming pubic hair is accepted in the mainstream so I'm sure it never occurred to them there might be political overtones to this.

One of the criticisms is that this is yet another thing that makes people feel like their doing something while diverting attention from the real issue and real activism. While that is an important issue to me (no, posting your bra color on your facebook status does not raise awareness for breast cancer), I don't agree in this case. The women who started this are actually asking people to donate to them so this does two things:
1. it raises money
2. it compels them to explain to each person they approach for a donation what they are raising money for and why - it's an opportunity for them to explain to other women how women get cervical cancer and how they can prevent it - if this makes any of the women go for PAP smears when they otherwise would not have, they could potentially be saving lives
This is hardly trivial.

So I say lighten up, give them a break, trim your pubes or let them grow naturally, donate to Julyna, and get yourself a PAP test.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

German Sex Ed just a little different

They handle things in Germany just a wee bit different than we do here. If you'd like some evidence, have a look at the sex page on Bravo, a popular German site for teens. It's a far cry from sexualityandu.ca with it's squeeky clean medical information (don't get me wrong, I think sexualityandu is a step in the right direction, but one look at Bravo and you see how different the approaches are). Bravo makes the assumption that teens are sexual beings and that many of them are having sex. It treats the like young adults and addresses their concerns directly without moralizing. It asks them fun questions and has ads for things that actually relate to their sexuality (no, not porn, condoms and tampons and things like that). If we are wondering where we need to go with sex education in our country, I think this is it.

If you don't read German, here's an article about the site that gives some good info and some examples from their advice column.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Retro show not so bad

I've been watching some old episodes of the original Beverly Hills 90210 - ain't the internet grand? You can watch anything you want now! I used to watch this show back in the day but I've never seen the first two seasons because I was in college during that time. Thought I'd catch up 20 years later.

I remembered it as being smarmy and preachy - very 'after-school' special. In a lot of ways, it really is. Brandon is such a bloody upstanding kind of guy that it makes one want to hurl. But there is an aspect to it that I was surprised by - the sex.

They don't ever show any of it, of course, but they actually treat teen sex in a pretty mature way. I thought it would have been all 'don't do it until you're ready' and 'wait until you're older' in the first seasons, but it's not. Right from the first episode they talk about the 16 year-old characters having sex and there is no big deal made of it. In one of the earlier episodes, Brandon has sex with his long-distance girlfriend in his parents house. It's all rather matter of fact - just what they do because they're into each other. His mother has an issue with it because it's in her house, but again, there wasn't much of a big deal, just a passing mention that they 'were careful'. I don't like the fact that they never use the words 'condom' or 'abortion' even though they talk about both of those things, but hey, you can't have everything.

When Brenda and Dylan have sex for the first time, it's not a big deal either. They've been dating for a couple of months and they both want to so they do it at the hotel at prom. They are both happy and excited after - no angst, no long talks, no over doing the birth control discussions, they just do it and they're happy about it. Not at all what I was expecting. I figured an Arron Spelling show about teenagers would have been much more sex-negative.

Of course I haven't seen the second season and I know Brenda has a pregnancy scare so we'll see what I think after I've had a chance to watch that. Maybe the tune will change.

Friday, June 17, 2011

And another thing about victim blaming

Here's something I've thought a lot about over the years of working with sexual assault and it's something that rarely gets brought out into the light. It's quite apparent to me that there's one important reason why we blame victims - it's so that we can find some way to make ourselves feel more secure that it's not going to happen to us. When we hear about someone being assaulted, it's fucking scary and often the first thing we want to do is find some way to make ourselves feel better. I really think that's why when we hear these horrifying reports of the women who have been raped and murdered and left in farmers' fields, the first thing we hear about the victim is that she was a prostitute. You can almost hear people breathe a collective sigh of relief. "Oh, thank god. I don't have to worry. That kind of thing won't happen to me - only to prostitutes". I know that's harsh to say but I also know it's true. It's like the media is trying to make all the 'good' people out there feel safe. Yes, there was this awful awful attack on a woman and the person who did it is still running around free but don't worry too much because it's only happening to prostitutes. It's the same thing with other types of assaults - why do you hear so much about where the victim was, whether she was alone or not, whether she knew the person? It's partly because we are looking for those clues that will tell us that the victim has some sort of culpability in it - she did something that put her in that position. That means that if I don't put myself in that position, that won't happen to me.

I understand why we do this. It's basic human nature to try to find some way to control something that feels out of control - even if that control is an illusion. But what it does is it blames victims. It causes us to concoct all of these crazy prevention tips in an effort to make ourselves feel safe. But it backfires because it leaves victims thinking that they should have some control over what happened to them and therefore should have been able to prevent it. And it de-humanizes the people who are victims. Why does it matter that a woman who was murdered was a sex trade worker? Why does it matter at all? What matters is that a woman was brutally attacked and murdered and that there are murderes running around free. The fact that the victim was a sex trade worker has little bearing on what the public needs to know about this. She did not ask to be attacked and murdered and the crime should not be dismissed as less important because of what she was doing at the time.

The scary and pathetic truth is that violence happens in our society and we cannot protect ourselves from it. The only way to stop it is to bring the people who do it to justice and punish them adequately. The only way to stop it is to make it unacceptable.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Is it right that I feel bad for Weiner?

A couple of days ago, I saw the clip of Bill Maher and Jane Lynch reading Anthony Wiener's texts. I thought it would be hilarious because I love Bill Maher but I found myself feeling sad and embarrassed for Weiner.

I have conflicted feelings about this. Winer is a public figure and he should really know better than to do the things he did. You can't broadcast stuff through twitter and facebook and expect that no one will notice. Of course someone's going to pass that along and the great thing about the internet is that you have concrete permanent evidence of it. So yeah, what he did was very stupid. And it's compounded by the fact that he's married and although I haven't heard the details on this, and I don't think he and his wife have shared the details on this, I'm guessing his wife is not happy about this behavior. It's conceivable that this is an acceptable thing between them but since that's not the case for most couples, I'm guessing it's not the case for them. So the betrayal/infidelity/sending dirty pictures and texts to women who aren't your wife thing is not really cool. I've also heard rumblings that these pictures and comments were unsolicited - that he just sent them to young women that were following him on twitter without anything that might even be construed as an invitation. If that's the case, that's not cool either and he kind of deserves to be outed.

The texts that Maher read on his show sounded pretty consensual. It was a conversation in which both parties were exchanging explicit comments. And yes, Weiner should know better. When you're a public figure in our culture, you have to know that it will be next to impossible to keep this kind of thing a secret. And yet, listening to that, I felt bad for him. The texts were very graphic and when you read them on stage in front of a live audience in that way, they do sound crazy and salacious because we're just not used to hearing that kind of thing. BUT most of us have done something like that in our lives because, guess what, it's pretty normal human behavior. We are sexual people and we talk that way to people that we are having sex with or are interested in having sex with. That's what adults do. But we do it privately and it's very rare that anyone else would ever even hear us do it, much less read it aloud on a national television.

So even if I shouldn't, I feel bad for him. How would I feel if that happened to me? I would be mortified. Believe me, there are all kinds of things I've said, done, written about, texted, took pictures of, that I feel fine about having done because it was intended for a certain person in a certain context. But if anyone were to broadcast those things I would be deathly embarrassed. And I'm even more of an open book about sex than most people. But it would embarrass me because it's private. It's not meant for the world, it's meant for me and the person I shared it with. That's part of why it's hot - it's only for certain eyes.

It's odd to watch the smug smirks on Maher and Lynch's faces as they read this, when you know full well they've probably done pretty much the same thing. Why are they laughing at him when these are things most people do? They act like grade-schoolers taunting a classmate - it's only fun because you're not the one on the receiving end.

I get it, Weiner should not have done what he did because it probably violated his marriage agreement, because it may have been unsolicited, and because it makes him, as a previously well-respected public figure look like a doofus. But I do think it's sad that he had to resign over it because we are all such children that we can't stop making dick jokes every time he tries to open his mouth. Adults do this kind of stuff. Why not just get over it? He's obviously learned a lesson about keeping his private stuff private. Let's move on to more important things.

Monday, June 13, 2011

No! Not another sex toy ban!

Here we go again! For those of you out there who think that all these obscenity laws are just holdover from a long-distant repressive past, think again. The remaining sex toy law in the states was enacted in 1998 and was upheld, yet again, in court in 2010. Now there's another one in the works, this time in the Phillipines. If passed, the bill would ban not only the sale and distribution, but even the ownership of sex toys. The representatives who brought the bill forward define sex toys as 'any device that can be used to stimulate human genitals'. So this begs the question, are they going to charge people for being in position of shower heads, cucumbers, electric toothbrushes and their own fingers? When you look at that definition, the attack on sex toys becomes very bizarre. Why are some things that can be used to stimulate the human genitals okay, but others not? Why are they drawing this line in the sand? And why do we have such a problem with people using devices to stimulate their own genitals? They are quoted as saying that sex toys can trigger 'sexually impure ideas' and can 'give room to sex-related offenses'. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to show that sex toy use is associated with sex-related offenses. In fact, a number of studies show that people who use sex toys report greater satisfaction with their sex lives and with their health overall. As for impure thoughts, it's usually the thought that comes before the purchase and use of the toy, not the other way around. But the idea that lawmakers should be concerned with controlling people's thoughts has very disturbing implications. Don't people in the Phillipines have the right to think whatever the hell they want? Their sexual thoughts are private and most people will never ever know about them because of that. So what business is it of the government? What would the penalty be if this bill becomes law? Up to one year in prison and $30,000 in fines. All that simple because you bought or sold a little vibe. It's easy to see things like this as silly little news stories. They seem funny. But I believe these types of laws are a fundamental violation of human rights. Sex toys are not weapons. They cannot be used to cause harm to anyone - except in the same way that a hammer or a spatula or any other every day utensil might. Governments have no right to limit people's access to something that will be used privately and poses no risk whatsoever to their own or anyone else's health. My wish for the people of the Phillipines is that this bill is dismissed and this idea never brought up again. And if it does pass, I would be more than willing to take the risk and send some care packages to the phillipines.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I'm Just Not That Into It!

I'm so surprised and bitterly disappointed. I finally got around to reading 'He's Just Not That Into You' and it is not at all what I thought it was. I thought I knew so much about this book that I felt I had pretty much read it, even though I hadn't, but I was wrong. Let me back up for a minute.

I love Sex and the City. That's putting it mildly actually. I've watched the full series six or seven times. The 'He's Just Not Into You' moment is one of my favorites. I think Liz Tuccillo is a great writer. I thought, from knowing this series and this premise so well, that I understood what the book was about. Even after seeing the movie and hating it, I still thought so because a few of my friends told me that the book was totally different and I really needed to read it. So when I saw a hardcover copy at Chapters on sale for seven bucks, I picked it up.

First of all, this book that everyone has raved about and is supposedly the new 'rules' for women, is 185 pages long. And this is the new expanded edition. Not only that, but a good third of the pages are mostly blank. There's just not that much there.

Next, there is a co-authoer. I knew that. But it had been touted as Liz Tucillo's book so I thought that the guy, Greg Behrendt, was just a contributor to give a guy's perspective. But it's the other way around. He wrote most of it and Tuccillo just comments. Also, this guy is a comedian. He is now, because of this book that he admits in the new forward was meant essentially as some light-hearted fun, regarded as some kind of relationship expert and he obviously loves it and does nothing to discourage it. He writes in the forward about how much time he spends giving women advice. This guy has no business giving advice, all he has is a catchy little tag line that wasn't even written by him in the first place! (Tuccillo does credit him with the original idea but he was not a writer on the show).

But on to the part that really boils my potatoes. This book is really just thinly veiled misogny. He claims to be writing all these things because he loves women and he thinks they really sell themselves short and put up with behavior they don't deserve when it comes to relationships. But his advice is very condescending. He thinks he can wave that away with several well-placed 'you're too good for that, honey's' and 'believe it, hot stuff!'s' but it's pretty clear. He thinks women are too stupid to figure out any of these things for themselves.

He also has a very traditional view of gender roles. Women, he says, should never call a man and never ask a man out on a date. If he likes her, he will call her so she doesn't have to. And calling a man smacks of desperation. Men like to chase and if you call them, you deprive them of the chase and they lose interest. He seriously claims all of this and offers this as advice at the same time as he exhorts women to stop accepting manipulative tricks from men. But they should let them chase them, that's okay. Direct and open communication - just coming right out and saying 'I like you, when can I see you again.', is desperate.

He boldly claims that all men are alike. He does not accept the idea that some men might be shy or insecure and uncomfortable asking women out. He doesn't think it's possible that some guy might really like you but not have the guts to tell you that. According to Berhrendt, if a guy likes a woman, he will ask her out, he will want to see her all the time and he will not be able to keep his hands off her. All guys are exactly the same. He also doesn't believe that men can be conflicted about anything - they are always sure of themselves. If they say anything that might be interpreted as a mixed message or uncertainty it means that they don't want to be with you and are just too scared of hurting your feelings to tell you so directly.

While claiming to want to help women be strong and independent and good decision-makers around relationships, he paints a picture of woman-kind that is exactly the opposite. We are all stupid, insecure, clingy masochists who can't stand up to men.

I liked the original concept behind 'He's just not that into you'. I even liked some of what I saw in the movie. I do think there's some truth behind it. But the part that really resonated for me is how women do tell themselves all kinds of stories about why unacceptable behavior is acceptable - and we encourage each other to do it too. But I don't think it's because we're stupid. I think we know all these things, we just don't want to admit we know. It's just that for those women who are single and for whom marriage and children is a main goal, dating is really tough. We just really want it to be over. We want get past all of that initial stuff get to the part where we can be comfortable with someone - that nice companionship, don't have to explain ourselves anymore stage. So for many of us, if we reach that stage with someone, we don't want to go through all that work again, so we'll hang in there even when we know we shouldn't because we're hoping maybe it really can turn into what we want, instead of having to go back out there and try again. We are not stupid, we are simply hopeful, and perhaps also tired, and a little too forgiving and generous at times. I don't think these qualities warrant the condescending tirade that is this book.

We don't need men to tell us they are scum. We can figure that out for ourselves. And things are ever so much more complicated than this book would have us believe. It saddens me that, yet again, a simplistic book written by someone who is not qualified in any way to offer the advice he's offering, that provides nothing more than pithy catch-phrases and all-or-nothing thinking became a huge bestseller.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How ingrained all of this stuff really is.

Okay, so after vowing to write regularly, I disappear for more than a week. This is due to a heinous cold or flue or whatever the hell it was that knocked me on my ass for 3 days - and then various other work and family related things that seemed to just make the days fly by.

So, back to SlutWalk again. The Walk itself was awesome. The turnout wasn't what they were hoping for but I think we still had a good 400 people there - pretty darn good if you ask me. I have not been involved in something like that in a long time and it felt really good. The best part for me was the women who were not scheduled as speakers but came up and shared their thoughts and feelings. This is the reality and this is what we are all living with - it was very powerful to just hear why people were there and how this has affected them. I was also pleased to see a lot of men there. This is something that affects everyone.

There was one thing that bothered me and it really made me realize how deeply ingrained the victim-blaming in our society is. There was one amazingly strong woman who came up and read three poems about her experience. Just incredible and so brave of her to do that. She was so clearly making her claim for justice and refusing to accept the blame. But after a few other people had spoken, she took the mike again and advised the women in the crowd to fight back if they are ever assaulted because she didn't fight back and the police wouldn't believe the she didn't consent because she didn't fight. That broke my heart. I was sad for her that she was blamed and questioned and victimized all over again. And I was so sad that she had taken that so closely to heart. It was well-meant advice. But when we tell women that they need to fight back so that they'll be taken seriously, we are, once again, putting the responsibility on them. Why do we have to take on the burden of fighting to prove that we didn't consent? Why doesn't an accused have to show that there was consent? There are a million reasons why victims don't fight back. And what is fighting back anyway? What might have looked like submission to one person, might have felt like resistance to another? How hard to I have to fight? And how do I prove that I fought back? Isn't the only proof that I fought back injury to one or both of us? What if I don't want to risk that?

If I hear one more sexual assault prevention tip, I will throw up. If comes, often, from a good place - a place of wanting to help people stay safe. But really, it simply focuses the attention on the wrong part of the equation. Let's focus on why sexualized violence happens and how to really stop it. The only ones who can stop it are the ones who do it.

Here's a link to an awesome interview with Jessica Valenti of feministing. She thinks that SlutWalks are an indicator of a new kind of young feminism that is emerging and I think I agree with her.