Erring on the side of corsets

June 1, 2007 at 12:13 am 3 comments

It is intermission in our day of interviews, and the rain that has been pelting the sidewalks since noon has taken leave of the city, leaving tangy fresh air in its wake. I don’t know if it’s serendipity or what, but it seems like themes develop on my trip in ways I least expect.  The theme of this week seems to be in-home pleasure parties and a question that’s been bothering me for a while now – why do we cede moral ground to the people who hate and fear sex?

Elizabeth and I met this morning with Soo Ji Min, who runs the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health (ICAH).  They’re doing some pretty groundbreaking work empowering youth in Illinois to get involved in advocacy efforts.  Both the Chicago and Urbana school districts recently passed legislation requiring comprehensive sex education, and those campaigns were both youth led and youth driven.  I know from experience that being truly youth driven is incredibly difficult, and it sounds like ICAH is doing an excellent job of it.

One of Soo Ji’s goals is to combine sex education and education reform such that sex education is included in all aspects of education as opposed to being isolated in health classes and often optional "family life education". I think that would be absolutely wonderful, but it also seems like that’s a pretty uphill battle, given the realities of our education system today.  

Towards the end of our conversation, we were joined by Dimitra, who is a board member at ICAH and our fabulous host while we’re in Chicago.  She and Soo Ji began to talk about their upcoming benefit and how a planned burlesque act had generated some controversy among people involved in the organization.  Apparently they didn’t feel like burlesque was appropriate entertainment. It reminded me of a story I’ve heard in various incarnations from people across the country about one parent or principal hearing about various types of sex education happening – condom distribution or demonstrations, discussion of sexual orientation – and storming into the office in a furor demanding that the class be canceled. And guess what? It usually is.  It seems to me that people who are doing sex-positive work are often put in the position of having to defend ourselves from people who are terrified and embarrassed by anything to do with sex, and it can be very difficult to stand our ground and not give in, especially when one crusading parent can often wreak havoc for an entire program, especially in this political climate.

But dammit, I am SO sick of ceding the moral high ground to hypocritical, ignorant fearmongers who have decided that because they have lots of sexual hang-ups, everyone else should have them too.  Just because some people don’t think sexuality is a natural part of being human, I’m supposed to be ashamed when I talk about it?  The burlesque act is going on, but the performer, who dances in anything from a g-string and pasties to a corset and skirt, has been asked to err on the side of corsets.

We had lunch with Jack Hafferkamp of Libido Films, which is a company that used to publish a magazine and now makes movies that, as he puts it "celebrate sex as something that is joyful and consensual." Libido magazine was in print from 1988 to 2000 and included articles, stories, and news related to sex-positivity.  Now they make movies that present a feminist, inclusive view of sexuality and with plots that empower women. This reminds me of my reaction to Micheal Leahy’s "Porn Nation" (one of my first entries) – when I argued that if he thinks porn is misogynistic and superficial, the answer isn’t to ban porn – the answer is to make better porn.

We rounded out our day by having dinner with Searah and Carolyn – Searah runs Early to Bed, the oldest (and only) woman-owned feminist identified sex store in Chicago, and Carolyn worked at Early to Bed for a long time and also produced lesbian porn. We talked a lot about a question that’s been on my mind lately, which is – what does it mean to be political?  How do people who are working to spread positive images of sexuality identify, or not, with "being political"? What does political mean?

Carolyn started making porn when she was an undergraduate at Brown, and she didn’t see it as a political act – it was art, it was a project, but it was not political.  As she became more comfortable owning the political connotations of making lesbian porn, she became more comfortable identifying movie production as a political act.  It seems like it might be different if she were making more "mainstream" porn, but by creating movies that meet a need in the community, it becomes, for her, political.

Searah, on the other hand, seems like she never doubted that Early to Bed is political. She opened the store to create a space for women to explore their sexuality, and she has always identified the store as feminist.  As the pushback to open, positive sexuality increases (Bush administration etc), the political statement inherent in the store becomes more and more powerful – that sexuality is something that should be discussed openly and positively. that we don’t have to be ashamed for being sexual beings.


Entry filed under: On the Road. Tags: .

Wanderlust w/ Rhonda and Bruce: I want to ride my bicycle! type A personality takes a back seat and the view is beautiful!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. King Benny  |  June 4, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    Wow, how wonderfully well written!

  • 2. Mikel  |  June 7, 2007 at 8:38 am

    This is the second or third time you’ve brought up Pleasure Parties. That, combined with the idea of introducing sexual health into all aspects of education makes me wonder to what extent ethics and oversight has been considered by the people you’ve met on your trip. How would you make the judgement that an individual is equipped to responsibly handle the task of introducing novitiates into the world of sexual maturity? How do you avoid becoming a reflection of the church and the immorality that has been allowed to prevail there? Sexual health, it seems to me, is, and always will be, a sensitive subject ripe for abuse. How do you introduce such a strategy into the mainstream while making parents comfortable with the consequences? Don’t get me wrong. I truly believe that such a system could only benefit me and the society we live in. But then I think about the ways in which it could suborned.

  • 3. Mikel  |  June 7, 2007 at 8:54 am

    Oh, I also wonder how you feel about this:

    I’m still trying to get a decent understanding of what you mean by Reproductive Justice, and wonder how this fits in.

    Mikel –

    This is a really interesting case – I’d never heard about it and I’m glad you brought it to my attention. I think it has to both with reproductive justice and, more broadly, sexual freedom. This kind of situation definitely tests my definitions of sexual freedom and repro justice. I think that everyone has a right to explore their sexuality in a manner that is consensual and doesn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. Now, does that change when the people involved are children? At what age is it okay to have sex? Who gets to decide that?

    I’m thinking about this, and I’ll post more once I’ve thought more.



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