2009 30 Sep
Hello blogosphere! I know I’ve been scarce of late. My Internet access is limited and when I can get it, there are often problems (for instance, it can be expensive; sex-positive sites may be blocked by overzealous porn filters; etc). I’m settling into my HIV/AIDS work here in Africa and it’s going well, but I’m still parsing out my thoughts about … well, everything. I’ve been working on some written pieces that I definitely intend to post online, but I’m not sure whether they’ll go here on my blog, or elsewhere. Stay tuned — if I post them elsewhere, then I’ll certainly announce it here.
I have, of course, been following the progress of my beloved sex-positive film series as best I could. The final film screening, “We Are Dad” — about gay adoption — is just around the corner on October 13th. That is, the final film in the original program that I curated … but I am thrilled to report that Sex+++ has gathered a crowd of such amazing, dedicated people that it’s likely to continue past my final curation date! I’ve been tracking the dialogue at a distance; there’s a committee working on continuing the series even now, and although my heart breaks to realize that I’ll be missing more incredible films and discussions, I am also so so so very proud that we created something that struck such a chord. (If you’re interested in being in on the continued progress of the series, go ahead and email Lisa Junkin [ ljunkin at uic dot edu ].)
I was always a little surprised that Sex+++ didn’t get more negative attention. When starting it, I was very cautious … I walked on eggshells, really. I believed and continue to believe that comprehensive sex education is necessary for everyone, that adult sex education is a vital step forward, and that sexuality is an important academic topic. But public sexuality is such bitterly contested ground in American culture, I thought for sure that someone would attack a series that’s open, honest and positive about everything from BDSM to sex on videotape.
It took longer than I thought, but it finally happened. A few weeks ago, this arrived in my inbox. It was copied to a number of people at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the series venue, as well as administrators of the University of Illinois at Chicago (where the museum is located):
Dear UIC and Jane Addams administrators:
I was appalled when I read about this film series! How you were able to get approval to show these types of movies is beyond me. You are doing this on a college campus??? Don’t you care about the minds of the students and general public you claim to be educating?
The movies you are showing are meant to get people to think about every type of sex scenario. I don’t see how this could have a positive outcome. Is our society not perverted enough? We are all affected by everything we see and hear. These young people are unfortunately exposed to so much talk, filthy music lyrics, movies, and TV shows that can find nothing to talk about but sex. They must think that is all adults are supposed to do! These students have so much pressure on them, so many negative influences, temptation to have sex before they are mentally or physically ready to accept the responsibilities involved. Why are you adding to that? Can’t you think of something that would fill their heads with something more appropriate, and keep your pornography to yourselves, if that is your perversion?
I’m sure you are all intelligent people. Why don’t you use your intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place? You can start by canceling this film series.
Thank you for considering my suggestions.
Concerned UIC Parent
The spectacular Hull-House Education Coordinator, Lisa, immediately went into action. She drafted the following letter and shared it with me; a short version was later sent to Ms. Brown, but Lisa has given me permission to post the original version. It very nearly makes me cry with pride and joy (seriously):
Hi Julie and thanks very much for your email. I am the person at the museum who runs the SEX+++ Documentary Film Series, and I want respond to your concerns.
To be clear about how the series works: SEX+++ Documentary Film Series is not a series about porn. It does show explicit material at times, though not in the majority of the films, not to minors, and not without voluntary consent forms when needed. We chose each film with the intent of educating audiences and providing discussion points on sex positivity. The way we define sex positivity is this: there is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to sex, so long as the behavior is safe and among consenting adults.
Sex positive education teaches that sexual behavior is not something to hate or fear, but something to be respected and enjoyed. This way of thinking about sex is meant to erase harmful stigmas while encouraging open and honest communication among partners. Importantly, a sex positive attitude includes the idea that abstaining from sex or preferring one behavior (including hetero, monogamous sex) over another is also completely valid, but it does not allow for judgment of other adults who are behaving responsibly (i.e. with the consent of their partners and with everyone’s health/safety in mind).
I agree with you on several things — especially that there are many negative and harmful portrayals of sex in the media and that young people often feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior. But this series aims to create a different sort of space — one where healthy sexual behavior and relationships are demonstrated via documentary films, where honest and medically accurate information about sex is made available, where a diverse audience respectfully converses and sometimes disagrees, and where there is no shame in pleasure.
The films that we show are not altogether different than some of the material used in university courses — human sexuality, biology, gender studies — and we treat our series similarly. The films are meant to expose our audience to other cultures and lifestyles, but we do not promote any given lifestyle — though we do put forth these values: 1) tolerance/acceptance for alternative lifestyles, 2) the importance of healthy, happy relationships, and 3) a belief that honest communication is necessary to healthy relationships. I would argue that not only are these critically important values for any institution of education to promote, but that they are in line with other efforts at UIC.
I certainly recognize that not everyone’s world view accepts alternative lifestyles, but as an academic professional at a public university, I believe I have an obligation to be nonjudgmental and to provide safe, educational spaces for all types of students. The SEX+++ Documentary Film Series seeks to do this, and from the feedback I have received, it has been a valuable program for students, staff, faculty, and community members. The film series is one way that the museum is working to make the world a better, more just, and pleasurable place.
Again, thank you for your email. I hope that you will consider coming to one of our public programs in the future — we have many opportunities for debate and discussion around important issues. In addition to the SEX+++ film series, we have a weekly program called Re-thinking Soup, where we discuss issues of food and justice, and we have other lectures, workshops, and events. Hope to see you in the future.
Lisa has always been way better than I at staying calm, and her response was so eloquent that at first I wasn’t sure there’s anything left for me to say. But I think I just needed time to figure out where to start.
I have done a variety of community work in the USA, and I’m currently accepting an unbelievably low salary to work on HIV/AIDS mitigation in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not just doing it because I’m interested in traveling and learning about other cultures, but because I truly am seeking to — as she says — use my intelligence and creativity to make the world a better place. I poured hundreds of hours of unpaid effort into creating Sex+++ for the same reason.
I am not much older than the students at UIC. I grew up in America, and I felt the same sexual pressures that they do. When I came up with the slogan “Among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’,” I was thinking just as much about all the sex scenarios I don’t want to fulfill — as about the ones I do.
It’s true that this series grew partly out of my own desire to destigmatize almost “every type of sex scenario”. I don’t think people should ever, ever have to face negative judgment for doing consensual things. The complicated thing is that consent is not as simple as it looks, and it gets harder to negotiate and understand consent when the people involved don’t understand their limits or their desires.
When I think about “there is no ‘should’,” I think about all the times I’ve felt pressured to have sex I didn’t want to have. I think about the times I agreed to have sex I wasn’t enthusiastic about. And I think about all the time I spent being confused about my sexuality, wondering what was wrong with me and what was missing, before I finally came into my BDSM identity.
I think about kissing boys I didn’t really want to kiss, because I didn’t know how to turn them down; I think about the way I cried, how my heart shattered and my mind went into turmoil when I confronted how intrinsic pain and power are to my sexuality.
How can anyone think that repressing sex or driving it underground will make it disappear? How can anyone think that it will make it easier to deal with sex? If sexuality had been wrapped in silence my entire life, I would have still kissed boys and craved pain — but I wouldn’t have had the words to describe what I needed or what I was. In that case, I might have been too confused or too nervous to stop kissing when I really, really needed to stop. Or I might still believe that my sexual orientation opposes my feminism, my independence, and my integrity.
I think it makes the world a better place to teach people their limits and their desires. I think that giving people positive sexual representations will help them shoulder their sexual responsibilities. I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer for their sexual desires, and I think that everyone deserves to know about the many ways they could consensually implement their sexual desires.
I think people will have sex no matter what — and that an educator’s most appropriate role is to show them how to do it honorably, creatively, and with joy.