Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

2012 18 Sep

Reaching People: A Parable with Bookstores, Libraries, Museums, and the Internet

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve worked in more than one bookstore. I read obsessively when I was growing up; I wrote constantly, and I wrote so compulsively that it didn’t occur to me to write professionally until my twenties. I didn’t see writing as work — it was just something I had to do. Stories were sacred. The name Clarisse came from Ray Bradbury’s classic anti-censorship tale of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451.

At my second bookstore, I was working behind the counter one day when a middle-aged Black woman came in. “Is this a library?” she asked.

“No,” I said. My tone edged on rudeness. Wasn’t it obvious that this was a bookstore and not a library? It was a city storefront — whereas libraries have nice façades and sometimes pillars, right? I mean, my library did. I had seen libraries without pillars, but I figured that at least they made an effort, perhaps with elegant doors or incised stone signage.

“Sorry,” she said, and left.

An antique postcard depicting the pillared edifice of Chicago’s Blackstone Library branch (only a few blocks from Obama’s house!). The image came from this Chicago postcard history website.

A year later, someone else came in and asked the same question. This time, it was a Black gentleman. I was less snide this time, and more puzzled. He, too, left when I said “No.”

There were other differences in how many (though not all) Black customers interacted with the store. For example, Black customers would often ask for Philosophy but leave empty-handed if I showed them the gigantic section containing Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger. One of my coworkers eventually solved the mystery by asking which authors the customer sought; we learned that when most Black customers came in and asked for Philosophy, they’d be looking for authors we shelved in our tiny New Age & Occult section.

After years of working at that store, I thought I knew all the bookstores in the neighborhood. We even kept a directory of neighborhood bookstores on the counter, so that people could do a bookstore tour of the area. But one day I was out with a boyfriend grabbing brunch at a place we didn’t usually go, and we passed an entirely different bookstore. When I went in, I discovered that it stocked crystals and incense and books by authors I’d never heard of; a lot of the authors were New Age. I browsed for an hour. Not a single other White person came in.

That store? Was maybe four blocks from the store where I worked. It wasn’t in our bookstore directory. My boss had never heard of it. And it had been around for years.

A while after that, my boyfriend and I were driving across an area of the South Side where we didn’t normally go, and we passed a book-lined storefront that sported a laser-printed sign: LIBRARY. “Oh my God,” I said. “Pull over right now.”

“In this neighborhood?” he asked.

“Pull over,” I insisted, and I jumped out of the car before he was even done parking. I ran into the storefront. “Is this a library?” I demanded at the counter, although I could already tell from the spines of the books on the walls.

“Yes.”

“This is a branch of the Chicago Public Library?” I couldn’t believe it. It was a storefront.

“Yes,” said the Black librarian patiently.

I left, exhilarated by the discovery, but also humbled. I wished I could go back in time and apologize to the woman who’d asked: Is this a library? I hadn’t said anything overtly rude, but my entire demeanor had been rude. I’d thought that my answer was obvious, but she’d been accustomed to libraries in storefronts, whereas I’d never heard of such a thing. The truth was, I had responded to a perfectly reasonable question by being patronizing and cruel.

This was one of my first concrete lessons in accessibility.

* * *

I told this story to my friend Lisa, who works at the amazing Chicago social justice site Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (which incidentally hosts my glorious Sex+++ Documentary Film Series). In return, Lisa told me a story she’d heard about the Smithsonian, one of the most famous and established museums in the world. The Smithsonian offers free admission and it happens to be located within walking distance from some very underprivileged neighborhoods. But the museum collects demographics from attendees, and people from those underprivileged neighborhoods almost never go to the museum.

Lisa was recently involved in curating an exhibit (now open) about the history of a Chicago gang, the Conservative Vice Lords. Brilliantly, the exhibit was placed — not at the Hull-House Museum — but rather in an urban activist gallery that has neither a nice façade nor any pillars. The exhibit includes “pop-up” sections that move around to different places in the Conservative Vice Lords’ original neighborhood. In other words, it goes to the community whence the Conservative Vice Lords came. This is especially important because that’s not a community which is accustomed to having space in a museum, and isn’t likely to go visit one.

So here is a useful moral about making something accessible: outreach is part of accessibility. If an exhibit, or a piece of art, or whatever is really intended to be reached by the public, then sometimes it has to seek out the public.

The Conservative Vice Lords exhibit did not yet exist in 2009, when I went to work in sub-Saharan Africa. But I’d already heard Lisa’s parable of the Smithsonian. It was much on my mind as I spent time in one semi-rural African town; I sought out their library within my first 24 hours. I started feeling like something was wrong as soon as I looked at their books.

The books were mostly in English. That made sense, for that particular area, because books in the local language were scarce and the local language was rarely written anyway. (The newspaper was in English, too.) But the actual books that were stocked … well, there were some African writers, like Chinua Achebe. But the majority of books in the library were donations from the USA.

I found a cheesy thriller featuring a suburban housewife who falls for a handsome kidnapper. I found an obscure novel by my favorite fantasy author, Tanith Lee. I found old books by the early-1900s British humorist P.G. Wodehouse; he sets many of his novels on gently rolling lawns with golf, or in high-class townhouses with butlers. I sat around that library a lot, and my instincts were confirmed when I did not see a single local person read those books. They came in for shade, and conversation, and for newspapers and magazines.

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2012 9 Sep

Super-Gonorrhea Is Here

This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot.

* * *

Hey, you know what word should never have “super” in front of it? “Gonorrhea.” But super-gonorrhea is here. It’s far scarier than our former adversary, and it’s a serious threat, emerging from Japan and beginning to cross the world. News first started breaking in the public health community about super-gonorrhea years ago, but it’s finally hitting the mainstream, as for example in this recent article at RH Reality Check by Martha Kempner: “No Clapping Matter: Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea Is On Its Way, and We Are Not Prepared.”

As I think about super-gonorrhea, my mind inclines towards condoms and oral sex, and my experiences as a sex educator. As Kempner’s article notes, many gonorrhea tests wouldn’t detect an infection that came from oral sex. And plenty of people don’t realize that you should use condoms during oral sex to prevent disease transmission. The risks for most diseases usually aren’t as high as they are during vaginal sex, and certainly not as high as the risks during anal sex. But the risks are there.

I know this as well as anyone; I’ve worked as a sex educator both in the USA, and in HIV-rich populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Living in an area with an overall HIV rate of 25% taught me a lot about the statistics and issues surrounding safer sex, and also scared the hell out of me. But I’ve still taken occasional unwise risks when it comes to condoms and oral sex — or, when I was younger, other types of sex. And plenty of other health educators I know have taken unwise risks, too. The dirty little secret of sexual health promotion is that while health educators may be better at health stuff (?), we’re nowhere near perfect at the ideals we espouse. (Just watch for people standing, smoking like chimneys, outside the doors of public health conventions.)

Why do people risk their lives for a heated moment? One reason was articulated by Kerry Cohen at Role/Reboot, as she wrote movingly about her past experience:

Unless he reached for [a condom] — and he so rarely did — I was never going to put my physical health over the intoxication that came from owning him, from losing myself, from letting him lose himself in me. … as he moves toward me, I won’t think about my body as anything other than something that could hook him, reel him in, and make him mine. I won’t catch an STD that time, but I might the next time. And if I catch something, I will still strip down to my core, exposing everything to the other person, even the STD. The shame I have about that runs deep — for the desperation, for the selfishness, for the utter lack of care for anything other than my need.

The reasons people don’t use condoms (or dental dams) frequently start and end with physical pleasure. But there’s often an emotional component as well, with people associating lack of condoms with trust or intimacy — or hating to “break the moment.” There is also the self-conscious agony of disclosure, when one partner knows that they have a disease. This was recently shown in an interesting, anonymously-written piece at The Hairpin, “The Perks of Herpes.” The author talks about how uncomfortable it is to disclose her herpes infection to every partner, every time. She ends up concluding that herpes (which she contracted from oral sex, by the way) actually has an up side: it’s deepened her love life by forcing her to only date men who are committed to her despite the disease. But I will point out that she’s in the sought-after position of being an educated young lady. Her trade-offs might feel very different for other people.

Indeed, when people are poor or marginalized enough, the human motivations around these diseases can become hard for privileged people to understand. For example, there are cases of people deliberately contracting HIV. At one point, it was because France — in an attempt to contain the spread of HIV — extended citizenship to undocumented HIV-positive immigrants; some immigrants then commenced to deliberately seek HIV, reasoning that being undocumented was worse than HIV. Lest anyone think that this can’t happen in the USA, it’s been described in Detroit, albeit for different reasons.

When people talk about HIV in Africa, they often like to focus on the differences between various African cultures and USA culture. (They also like to talk as though Africa is one big country instead of an incredibly diverse continent, which I am trying to avoid in this piece; I apologize if I’ve failed.) Yet although culture matters — it matters a lot — humans are humans all over the world. The USA has better overall health than the hardest-hit areas of Africa simply because we have more resources, but as I’ve already shown you above, marginalized USA people can end up making health decisions that privileged ones find unthinkable. And even privileged USA people will screw up our condom usage, like in Kerry Cohen’s story (she notes in the piece that her mother is a doctor).

People want to believe that sexually transmitted infections can’t happen to them, saying that HIV or whatever only happens to “those other people.” But the truth is that although stigma, marginalization, and cultural differences make some groups much more vulnerable to disease, people also have sex with other people from all walks of life … and global networks are more interconnected than ever. The history of HIV shows millions of people dismissing it as “the gay disease,” or “that epidemic that’s storming across Africa,” etc. But plenty of folks have caught it who were straight, in the USA, or even believed they were in a monogamous relationship. Gonorrhea has always been easier to catch than HIV; with no treatment, super-gonorrhea will ravage us. I can only hope that some of us will keep in mind not just the physical risks at hand, but the emotional ones. I hope we will consider how to manage the risk-reward tradeoffs that everyone makes.

UPDATE, September 2012: A recent New Yorker article apparently stated that super-gonorrhea is actually bred in the throat, which means that oral sex may actually be riskier, STI-wise, than other forms of sex. Food for thought.

* * *

The image at the beginning of this post shows a model wearing a dress made entirely of condoms; thanks to the gallery at the website for The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani’s incredible book about the HIV epidemic and the international response. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it.

Also, Tracy Clark-Flory wrote a good recent article: How Risky Is Oral Sex?

And! There are pieces about my experiences in Africa in my collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2011 13 Jul

[random] Lost And Found Man

This piece has basically nothing to do with sex and gender. I originally wrote it a while back, pondered trying to get it published, made some desultory attempts at doing so, failed, and then forgot about it for a while. I still like it, though, and I’ve got no idea what else to do with it, so here it is. Maybe I should set aside one post each month for Random Non-Sex, Non-Feminism, Non-Gender Tangents.

* * *

My friend Ryo Chijiiwa turned down an offer from Facebook to work at Yahoo, and later moved to Google. Then, in 2009, he bought an isolated plot of land in the northern California woods — 6 hours by car from San Francisco — and built his own small house. His property, which he calls Serenity Valley, is positively covered with gorgeous trees and attractive outlooks onto the mountains. The nearest Internet access is in a town half an hour away, where Ryo occasionally goes for supplies.

Ryo has shoulder-length hair and wide dark eyes, and he wears no-nonsense clothes full of pockets. I first met him in August 2010 at the San Francisco meetup known as Burning Man, but I already knew him by reputation. Our mutual friends spoke admiringly of his intelligence and — unusually — frugality: his apartments had always been Spartan, and he built his own bedframe, even when he was receiving an excellent salary as a software engineer. (Ryo later insisted he’s not actually that frugal: “It’s just that I spent all my money on easy-to-miss things, like travel and guns.”)

Burning Man, in all its chaotic artistic glory, was my reintegration into America. I’d just returned from working in rural southern Africa, and I was a bundle of confused emotions. [1] I loved the brilliant lights, libertine community, and sheer creative energy of Burning Man — but sometimes it was a bit much to deal with. Sometimes I wanted someplace more peaceful and less self-consciously hedonistic. If I hadn’t been drawn in by Ryo’s good-natured intelligence, then the minute he spoke about living quietly in the woods I would have been hooked. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I thought he was cute.

* * *

I’m still not sure how I convinced Ryo to take me to Serenity Valley, but here we are, driving out. Rather, he’s doing most of the driving, and I’m asking questions about his childhood across three countries. Ryo was born in 1980, and his family moved from America to Japan when he was 7. When he was 10, they went to Germany, and there he stayed until age 18. The family always spoke Japanese at home.

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2011 29 Mar

Grassroots organizing for feminism, S&M, HIV, and everything else

I wrote this for Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Coming-Out Day Blog Carnival; the goal is to talk about feminist “click” moments.

* * *

Earlier this month, my sex-positive documentary film series screened “Jane: An Abortion Service”. The film tells the extraordinary story of “Jane”, an underground network of women in Chicago who provided thousands of safe abortions in the years before abortion was legal. It was totally inspiring.

“Jane” was started accidentally by a woman named Heather Booth. Booth was a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s when another woman came and asked her — secretly, of course — whether she knew any abortion doctors. Heather Booth found one, and she also found that other women started coming to her for references.

As one woman in the film put it, in those days, women who sought abortions were all “hysterical and desperate and scared”: if you needed an abortion, you knew you would have to come up with some fabulous amount of money and take a life-threatening risk. Some women committed suicide when they got pregnant instead. Information about abortion was at a premium.

So Heather Booth began looking for abortion doctors, and better than that, she started vetting them. After finding the doctors, she sought testimonials about those doctors. Common problems with abortion doctors ranged from being rude to actually assaulting their patients; some doctors, who already charged sky-high prices, would demand more money at the last minute. Booth kept a list of abortion doctors who didn’t do those things. Pretty soon, there were other women who had her list too, and they were vetting doctors and spreading the word as well. The group also provided counseling before and after the procedure, letting the patients know what they could expect — physically and emotionally. They called themselves “Jane”: a woman who called them and asked for “Jane” was seeking an abortion.

After some time, the women of Jane figured out that abortion isn’t a complex procedure, and they convinced a doctor to teach them how to do it safely. And then they taught each other. So then they didn’t have to refer patients to doctors: they did all the abortions themselves, and they did them for whatever the patient could spare rather than charging prices that were out of reach for many women. Jane members continued to provide emotional support, as well: in the documentary, one member reminisces about how she would have patients over to dinner with her kids and talk to them for a while before performing the procedure. It got to the point where doctors and medical students sent women to Jane, rather than getting referrals from Jane.

That is positive activism. That is building the world we want to see.

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2010 24 Dec

[litquote] Sex workers and whore stigma in southern Africa

I read a lot when I was in Africa. One of the most interesting books available was Catherine Campbell’s Letting Them Die, which describes a community HIV/AIDS project that took place in a South African community called Summertown (not the community’s real name). It is really an exceptional description of the difficulties inherent in the promotion of sexual health. It’s also got a lot of interesting discussion and commentary on sex work and whore stigma, and the experience of sex workers who were interviewed for the study.

I want to emphasize right now that I don’t always agree with the writer’s approach, though I always find it interesting. This is a loaded topic, and there are some issues with the following quotations. However, I think there is a lot of wisdom as well. Quotations follow:

* * *

A key reason why people agreed to discuss their stigmatized work so openly in the baseline interview study lay not only in their growing fear about the epidemic, but also because, in setting up the interviews, much emphasis was laid on the fact that the interviewers regarded sex work as a profession like any other, and had no desire to criticize or judge anyone for their choice of work. [page 81]

* * *

How do people deal with having a spoiled identity, the stigma of a shameful profession? … One way was through a series of justificatory discourses. Predominant among these was the discourse of “having no option”.

S: “I give my clients respect by telling them I don’t like doing this job. I tell them I only do it due to poverty.”

W: “This is a job that lowers our dignity. We discuss this often, that we should look for other jobs. But the truth is that there are no alternatives.”

Virtually every woman said she had been “tricked” into starting the job. They all spoke of having been recruited by friends, who tempted them away from their rural homes with stories about jobs in Johannesburg, without telling them the nature of the work. They spoke of arriving and initially refusing to sell sex. Eventually they had been forced into it by a combination of hunger and the lack of transport money to return home.

… In a paper reporting on similar interviews with sex workers in Gambia, the authors use somewhat judgmental language, variously describing sex workers’ accounts of their lives as “lies”, “fiction” and accounts that “could not be trusted”. Possibly this was also the case in the Summertown study. Peoples’ stories of being tricked into sex work were remarkably similar.

… In relation to sexual health-promotion among this group, however, the objective veracity of their accounts is not the most interesting or key feature of the life histories. What is more important is how people reconstruct and account for their life choices, given that these accounts reflect the social identities that are crucial in shaping sexual behavior. In this context, the main interest of these stories of origin lies in the role that they play as a strategy of coping with a spoiled identity — the way they are used by women to distance themselves from this stigma in as many ways as possible.

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2010 1 Dec

News Flash, Pay Attention: HIV Is About Sex

Today is World AIDS Day. I don’t think about HIV as much as I did a few months ago, when I was still in Africa and my job was to help with the epidemic. But today, I’m thinking about it, and I have something very simple to say:

HIV is about sex.

One of the big lessons I learned about HIV in Africa is that many, many people will do amazing mental and rhetorical backflips to avoid talking about how HIV is actually spread. It’s astonishing. You’d think that when talking about HIV, you’d have to talk about sex; you’d be wrong.

In the areas where I worked, a massive percentage of people were infected with HIV. In a number of places it was about 25%. In some populations, it was more like 40%. Think about those numbers for a second — and remember that many people who had contracted HIV had already died. In other words, uncountable numbers of people had already died of AIDS-related causes, and among the people who remained alive, the percentages still got as high as 25% and 40%.

And yet I got the message over and over and over that we mustn’t talk about sex! For example, I was told by some school authorities that I could not give safer sex information to their students because that might “encourage the students to have sex”. In other words: God forbid we tell students where to get condoms and how to use them, because that might encourage them to think sex isn’t wrong and dirty. What the authorities were really telling me is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sexuality, than it is to protect people from HIV.

Another example of this phenomenon is highlighted when we look at how the USA’s HIV charity money is spent. The President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) places rather elaborate restrictions on how the money is spent, and while there’s nothing wrong with restricting aid money in principle, these restrictions include a provision that states that no PEPFAR money may fund an organization that doesn’t actively oppose sex work. In other words: God forbid we support sex workers and help them stay safe while they do their jobs, because that might make sex workers feel like they’re accepted members of society. What PEPFAR is really saying is that it’s more important that we continue to stigmatize sex work, than it is to protect people from HIV.

PEPFAR also demands that none of its money go towards condoms or initiatives that promote condoms; there are rumors that Obama will fix that, but I haven’t heard any confirmation of that yet. Maybe things are getting better on that score? And in one of my articles about Africa, I wrote that:

I can’t help noticing — with an occasional ironic smile — the phoenixes arising from these ashes. Firstly, it turns out that the best way to shut down sex-negative arguments against explicit sex education is to invoke the specter of HIV. One 2008 report from a well-respected local organization argued that AIDS prevention efforts should include straightforward lessons on pleasurable acts, such as oral sex or sex toy usage!

A 2004 “New York Times Magazine” article on HIV in southern Africa made the case that while “many experts contend that sexual-behavior change in Africa is complicated because women’s fear of abusive partners inhibits private discussions of sex, condom use and HIV,” the crisis also contributes to a better environment for those discussions. One researcher is quoted pointing out that, “young South Africans are much more likely to talk about sex and are developing ‘a vocabulary for discussing feelings and desires’.” Furthermore, southern African movements for women’s empowerment invariably cite HIV as a reason change is necessary now. Because gender oppression is acknowledged as a driver of the epidemic, gender equality is an explicit goal of both governments and major HIV organizations. Even admirably sane laws about sex work are being discussed — considerably saner than most Western ones, in fact. The laws probably won’t pass, unfortunately, but at least they’re on the radar.

In other words, in a weird way, the existence of HIV can be a positive thing because it’s a major factor forcing society towards honest, open, respectful conversations about sexuality. I believe those conversations to be good for a variety of reasons, but here’s why they are crucial to stem the tide of HIV — they make it much, much easier for people to both learn about the disease and take steps to avoid it. (After all: if you can’t talk to your partner about sex, then how are you going to communicate well about condom usage? If you don’t understand your own sexual desires or those of your partners, then how are you going to keep yourself out of sexually vulnerable situations?)

But we are not out of the woods yet. We’re not even close. And there’s ample room to slide backwards. I have read that HIV rates in America were falling for a while but are now rising again. And there are so many issues with which America is not doing much better than Africa — for example, our awful societal ideas about sex work. It seems to me that we Americans marginalize sex workers almost as much the African nations where I worked; and when sex workers are marginalized, they become more vulnerable to HIV. Indeed, just about any population whose sexuality is ignored, stigmatized, and swept under the rug is likely to be more vulnerable to HIV; history has shown this over and over, as for example with the gay community.

As long as we can’t have reasonable conversations about sexuality, we will never understand HIV. As long as we can’t have open, honest, non-judgmental conversations about sexuality, we will be hamstrung when we try to cope with it on both the individual and the community level. HIV is about sex. To deal with HIV, we have to be able to deal with sex.

The image at the beginning of this post shows a model wearing an amazing dress made entirely of condoms; thanks to the gallery at the website for The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani’s incredible book about the HIV epidemic and the international response. Pisani’s book is one of my favorites, ever — there are some valid critiques to be made, but even with those in mind, I just love it. Note that in honor of World AIDS Day, Pisani’s publisher is offering the book as a free download for the next month. Seriously, please read it. I have read very few books that I thought were simultaneously so entertaining, so well-written, and so important.

And, if you’re looking for someone to donate to in honor of World AIDS Day, then may I suggest Doctors Without Borders? Of all the organizations I dealt with in Africa, I was shocked by how little I felt like they wasted time and effort. They’re awesome.

This was cross-posted at Feministe.

2010 17 Sep

The return

I’ve returned from Africa.

I’ve been back for a while, actually, but it’s taken me a while to write about it here, because I wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. Resigning from my job was a really tough decision: I had wanted to go abroad for years, I am very interested in doing HIV/AIDS work, and I had raised the stakes by leaving a lot behind when I departed Chicago over a year ago. My job in Africa was often difficult and incredibly frustrating, but I worked with some amazing people and I learned an amazing amount. My resignation-by-telephone with my boss — who I loved — ended with me curled up in a ball on my boyfriend’s couch, sobbing, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

It was also a really tough decision to break up with my now-ex-boyfriend, whom I unfortunately seem to be in love with. Oh, well … these things happen.

So why did I leave?

Because my job was fundamentally limited and conservative. Because I wasn’t developing the way I needed to develop. Vague reasons, I know, but the specific ones are personal and/or too contextual for me to discuss on my highly pseudonymous blog.

Right now I’m on an extended vacation in San Francisco, because this is where I come when I need to figure myself out. But don’t you worry — I will go back to beautiful Chicago before the end of the year. I may not settle back in Chicago just yet, depending on how my employment opportunities pan out, but you may be sure that I will spend a bunch of time in my adopted city at the very least.

I am now available again to schedule workshops and lectures at USA universities, museums, and so on. If you’re interested in having me do an event at your venue, shoot me an email: clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com. (Obviously, it will be easier to schedule an event — and pay me for it — if you’re close to San Francisco or Chicago. I do plan to visit New York at some point, though, because I have family there — so that’s another place where you wouldn’t have to pay my travel costs.)

I also plan to attend the upcoming Alternative Sexualities Conference, September 23, hosted by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities in San Francisco. Unlike the 2009 Chicago conference, I won’t be speaking, just volunteering there. I highly recommend it! In fact, if you work in a field like therapy or social work, you may be eligible for continuing education credits if you attend.

And if you’re new to my blog, here’s a list of posts I’ve written about my time in Africa. It makes a small but tidy pile by now, huh?

2010 16 Sep

[Africa] Male circumcision and colonized libidos

Some recent pieces of mine on CarnalNation:

This week: Making the Cut: Circumcision in Africa
Male circumcision is being heavily promoted as an anti-HIV measure, especially in Africa, where the disease is spread mainly by heterosexual sex. But as a sex-positive activist I can’t help but be aware of the very serious critiques of male circumcision. Here are my thoughts on what it means to value people’s natural bodies, yet also work against the HIV pandemic.

March (okay, not that recent …): Colonized Libidos
What do African gay folks and American S&Mers have in common? We’re both told that our desires are wrong because they were instilled in us by problematic power hierarchies, that’s what!

Also, if you missed my previous batch of articles about my African experience, here they are:

Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that condoms protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2010 31 Jan

[advice] Masculinity & African activism

I’ve been getting a lot of very encouraging email lately; here’s some excerpts from an exchange I found particularly interesting. Posted with permission:

Hi Clarisse,

A friend showed me your blog and I just wanted to say that I think you’re fantastic.

I’m a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and I recently facilitated a Feminist Student Union “SexualiTea” — a discussion topic with, yeah, tea — on masculinities in society and at Reed and I used your article Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 3: Space For Men along with the Every Girl / Every Boy poster at the beginning to spark thoughts for the group. This event was a huge success! We had over 50 people in attendance, including 10 or 15 men. It was a really honest, vulnerable, productive, and holistic conversation. We talked about gender binary pressures as children; how can personality traits be de-gendered so that a male who takes pride in being strong isn’t intrinsically stream-rolling women as equally strong leaders or pushing them into an opposite weak category; a transman brought up what behaviors he had to lose as the result of transitioning and changing his presented gender — “I was told I’d have to tone down or lose my crude, perverted, and loud sense of humor because as a man I’d be seen as a Really Big Creep and not just a rugby dyke”; etc. The men were really forthcoming and aside from a minor terrible moment that I was able to turn around as the faciliatator (“so having seen Jackson Katz speak about gender violence, I would be interested in hearing any personal stories about rape from the women in the room” “actually, rape is a large enough burden to bear without having to educate men about rape, in public, whenever rape is brought up as a topic presumably by someone who’s never experienced it. I’d suggest reading up on your own and educating yourself and listening with respect if and when a survivor decides to tell you about their experience.”) — but really, the biggest obstacle that came up was the dynamic of female feminist students purporting 2nd wave views who obliviously steamrolled the conversation, spoke the loudest, the most frequent, tried to control the conversation with an specific end goal in mind, and took up the most space. It almost seemed like the end question for me on this topic wasn’t how to get men to be in these spaces to critically examine masculinities and let male sexualities flourish because many men were not hesitant to show up and take part and really try their best, but how to hold mainstream, second wave feminists accountable for their own oppressive dynamics and how to get them to relax, ease up, open up some space, cede some old ideology?

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about is for this project that a friend and I are doing about skin bleaching creams in Africa since you seem to be a well-plugged in activist and might have more access to this type of info being currently located in Africa. Do you know of any organizations that do work to educate the populous about the ill effects of these creams? There seems to be a huge amount of scholarly research on the topic as well as some journalistic coverage, but it seems like it stops there — so far none of the articles mention efforts of international policy platforms or organizations like Doctors Without Borders really actively fighting to stop the creams from being on the market, educating and empowering the populace about how they are damaging and toxic and addictive. My friend and I are trying to come up with a program where we’d tour doing educational presentations, do self-esteem workshops, and try to bring in doctors/med students to treat people. It seems like we may have to base our project off of the anti-tobacco attempts in some ways — but that kind of “don’t use this commodity because it’s bad for your health” doesn’t have anything to say about collonialism, race, gender, poverty, etc … though again, that’s also a typical failure of the anti-tobacco campaigns not touching issues specific to queer youth and working class people. Maybe you know of an organization or a person that I could network with? Do you think that the organization that you’re working with that does HIV/AIDS stuff would have any helpful materials?

Thanks! Take care. If you come to Portland / the Pacific Northwest / the West Coast I’d love to have you do an event at Reed College.

best,
Zoe

I wrote back:

Hi Zoe!

Firstly, thanks for this letter.  If I were likely to be anywhere near the West Coast of America anytime soon, I’d totally take you up on your offer to do something at Reed. I am so proud that my series was helpful to your masculinity event. That’s exactly the kind of effect I’m aiming for with my blog and other activism, and it’s incredibly validating to get feedback like this.  And yeah, the opening up of space for not-quite-feminist gender discussions is such a hard question.  I think a lot of feminists are genuinely afraid of losing the ground we’ve gained so far, especially considering the fact that so much feminist time must currently go towards explaining why we haven’t “already won” (“No, really, look, we did yet another study to demonstrate how women are still disadvantaged in the workplace ….”).  I have a hard time blaming feminists for that, or for having a gender agenda that primarily benefits feminism.  But promoting that agenda shouldn’t stifle any well-intentioned others ….

As for Africa.  I doubt I or my organization can assist you directly, although I might be able to share some teaching materials; and organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) are primarily concerned with things like, you know, distributing anti-retroviral drugs to people who will otherwise die of AIDS and educating the population about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  A lot of people on the ground here are rather tired of self-esteem workshops and warnings about How They Ought To Take Charge Of Their Health, at least in my area. And certainly, anyone with the mental and emotional energy to worry about colonialism and the effects of their chosen skin cream is probably hugely privileged.

Having said that, I think that if you aimed your program at the more privileged populations — for instance, students in universities — you might be able to develop some interesting partnerships.  Do you have any African expatriate professors at Reed, or an African Studies department, that you might consult?  Do you know any Africans and have you discussed this with them?  If you decide to go ahead with this, then I cannot emphasize enough that you need local partners who will help you develop your workshops such that they are culturally appropriate and intelligible (though it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the people I’ve worked with seem likely to defer to Americans and unlikely to offer meaningful critiques of our ideas to our faces, so you may have to really work hard for feedback; then again, maybe it’s different at universities).  It is really a bad idea to develop the workshops Stateside and propagate them without assistance from someone who knows your target population — with enough willpower and energy you could probably get away with doing so, but that doesn’t mean it will be effective.

If you are dedicated to this project, then I think your best course would be to find a program that will allow you to come live in Africa and get a lot of cultural exposure first.  Maybe you and your friend could at least take a semester away at an African university?  Honestly though, one thing I think I’ve already learned from my time here is that I was much more awesome and successful as an educator in the USA than I can be here. I don’t regret coming, and I think I may actually accomplish one or two things as long as I am patient and stick around for years, and I think I am learning a lot that will be relevant when I go home, but … trying to teach people without sharing their cultural context feels like, I don’t know, trying to type with one hand cut off.

I don’t mean to discourage you, it’s just that getting people to change their unhealthy behaviors is hard enough for the groups that are already living and working here; and a lot of well-meaning outsiders come in and fling money or programs at this populace, rarely with ideal effect. It seems like often they’ll try on African traditional dress, grin winningly for the camera, and then run away home without even trying to meaningfully evaluate the fruits of their so-called efforts. Not that I’m getting cynical or anything.

Thanks again for your letter.  SexualiTea sounds awesome; wish I could see it in action!
Clarisse