Posts Tagged ‘HIV/AIDS’

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.

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2011 22 Oct

[litquote] The shadow of a flame, the colour of a kiss

My favorite author is named Tanith Lee. She is an unbelievably versatile writer with a varied body of work. I don’t love all her work, but some Lee books overwhelm me. I think of those books as articulating the baseline of my own emotions … or establishing that field of inquiry one might describe as the philosophy of love.

I once read a critic who called the French author Colette “a corsetiere of love”. If Colette is a corsetiere, then Tanith Lee is a surgeon with a scalpel — or rather, a more artistically violent profession, perhaps a sculptor with a knife.

My favorite of Lee’s short stories is called “The Glass Dagger”, which is part of the compilation The Book of the Dead; I don’t like the other stories in that book nearly as much. My favorite of her novels is Biting the Sun, although that could just be because I discovered it at age 14, and I felt like the main character was exactly like me. I have never felt able to satisfactorily quote these works, so they aren’t represented below. When recommending Lee’s work to newbies, I usually suggest starting with the compilation Dreams of Dark and Light and the fantasy sequence the Flat Earth novels, beginning with Night’s Master. There’s an incredibly awesome, detailed bibliography of Lee’s work at a website called Daughter of the Night.

I would give a lot to interview Tanith Lee, but I hear she’s reclusive. I’d direct you to her own website, which was once a tacitly lovely and sideways place; but it looks like tanithlee.com has been snagged by domain squatters.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a princess, outside whose high bedroom window a nightingale sang every night from a pomegranate tree.

While the nightingale sang, the princess slept deeply and well, dreaming of wondrous and beautiful things. However there came a night when the nightingale, for reasons of her own, did not sing but flew far away.

In the morning the princess summoned a gardener and told him to cut down the pomegranate tree. The man protested; the tree was a fine one, young, healthy and fruitful. But the princess would not relent. For as she said, all that one previous night a nightingale had perched in the branches, and the princess’s sleep had been very much disturbed by her song.

[from Disturbed By Her Song]

* * *

Love is everywhere … and the death of love. And time, which is built of the histories of death and love. Death and time I had always conceded, and acknowledged. And now I see plainly what love is. Not in you, pretty, mortal child. But in my arms that comfort you for wounding me, in my hands which soothe you for it, in my words which say to you, in despite of me, Do whatever you must. This lesson I will not remember. Nor shall I ever forget.

[from Delirium’s Mistress]

* * *

A rose by any other name
Would get the blame
For being what it is —
The colour of a kiss,
The shadow of a flame.
A rose may earn another name,
So call it love;
So call it love I will.
And love is like the sea,
Which changes constantly,
And yet is still
The same.

[from The Silver Metal Lover]

* * *

[This last one is both sad and cruel. You’ve been warned. The main character is a late-1800s gentleman who has stopped off at a village during a long, long train ride. We do not know where he was traveling to. In this village, he has just seduced a girl named Mardya. ~CT]

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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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2011 17 Mar

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List: 2011-2012!

SEX POSITIVE
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a FREE documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn and the awesome Sex+++ Committee!

+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

* * *

OFFICIAL FILM LIST: 2011-2012
2nd Tuesdays at 7PM
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted

Sex+++ is a film series and discussion group that’s open to all, where we discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun. When I started the series in 2009, I thought it would only last 9 months (here’s the original film list) — but Sex+++ ended up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams!

This year, we’re exploring some new themes:

+ Activist Sex (how sex and activism intersect),
+ Sexual History (how sex has been viewed in the past),
+ Love And Sex (how romance and relationships shape sex),
+ and Sex Everywhere (how people think about sex outside the USA).

You can RSVP by phone if you like: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

* * *

MARCH 8, 2011: “Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” (1992) + “Jane: An Abortion Service” (1996)
#1: Highlights Margaret Sanger’s pioneering strategies of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of birth control, and discusses some of her early-1900s arrests and trials.
#2: Tells the story of “Jane”, the Chicago-based women’s health group who performed nearly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973 with no formal medical training.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

APRIL 7, 2011 — THURSDAY: “A Jihad for Love” (2007)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, April 7 rather than the second Tuesday in April, because the filmmaker is coming into town for a talkback!
+ Fourteen centuries after the revelation of the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, Islam today is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels the many worlds of this dynamic faith, discovering the stories of its most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims. After we screen “A Jihad for Love”, Sharma will talk about his more than a decade of work and experience in countries like Egypt, where he filmed in secret, without government permission, during Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.
+ Note that there will also be a brown bag lunch with Parvez Sharma at noon on April 8, on the topic of race and identity.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sex Everywhere

MAY 10, 2011: “Sister Wife” (2008) + “The Love Bureau” (2009) + “Muslims in Love” (2010)
#1: A fundamentalist Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage explains how she feels about it.
#2: Profiles a modern-day mail order bride service that specializes in matching Eastern European women with Italian men.
#3: Shows devout American Muslim young people pursuing love and marriage, searching for alternatives to arranged marriages common to traditional Muslim culture.
+ themes: Love and Sex, Sex Everywhere

JUNE 14, 2011: “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papi’ and Wil” (2008)
A unique, sexy, thought-provoking and above all touching portrait of an interracial, polyamorous, transgender couple. The film involves several personal interviews and three explicit sex scenes: the first with Papi’ and Wil; the second involving an extra partner; and the third an S&M role play scenario.
+ themes: Love and Sex

JULY 12, 2011: “Outrage” (2009)
Examines the issues surrounding closeted homosexual politicians and their hypocrisy in voting anti-gay on measures from HIV/AIDS support to hate crime laws — and how they have harmed millions of Americans for many years.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

AUGUST 11, 2011 — THURSDAY: “The Canal Street Madam” (2010)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, August 11 rather than Tuesday. It will also take place at the Everleigh Social Club, 939 W. Randolph St., rather than at the Hull-House Museum, because we are partnering with the Sex Workers Outreach Project on their upcoming sex worker film fest!
+ “The Canal Street Madam” follows the story of Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. When she was busted by the FBI and torn apart in the press, they escaped censure, so after her trial she set out to fight back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

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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 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 10 Jun

[litquote] Gay alcoholic heartbreak, breakup, and HIV

I’m going to start posting literary quotations that strike me. This one is from Augusten Burroughs’ sweet memoir, Dry. I post it for no reason other than that it made me sigh.

On my bookcase at home, there’s a photo of Pighead trying on a leather jacket I bought him one Christmas. I can be seen behind him in the mirror taking the picture. I’m wearing a ridiculous red Santa hat and my wire-framed nerd glasses. In another picture, I’m swimming in some motel pool in Maine. It was the Lamp Lighter Motel, I remember. It was fall and the pool was freezing cold and had orange leaves floating in it. Leaves and beetles. This was one of our first road trips. We’d known each other for about a year. I remember that after getting out of the pool, we went back to the room and I took a hot shower. When I came out, we ended up fooling around on the bed. We stayed in bed for two full days, leaving only at night to get prime rib or spaghetti at the only restaurant in town that served water in glass instead of paper.

Back in Manhattan, I told him one night, “I think I’m in love with you.” We were leaning against the railing of the esplanade at Battery Park City, watching the planes circle in their holding patterns above us. For New Yorkers, planes circling above at night replace stars, in terms of romance.

He turned to face me. “I love you too, Augusten.” Then gently he said, “But I’m not in love with you. I’m sorry about what’s happened between us. It shouldn’t have happened. I should never have let things get sexual, A. And B, I should never have made you feel that we could be anything more than friends. It’s my fault.”

I felt trapped because I did love him, but also now wanted to cause the most massive harm possible. You will love me, I thought. And then it will be too late.

It went on like this for a year. The sex, always intense, fast and hungry. And the friendship. But no romance. I’d go over to his apartment (mine was always too messy for his taste) and he’d make roast chicken or beef stew. I’d watch his hands work: slicing, stirring, grinding pepper. I would watch his hands and think, I love those hands. And all the while, I knew I had to get over him. It didn’t matter why he wasn’t interested in me romantically. Just that he wasn’t.

I started dating. … It was a year later when I finally thought I was over him. When not every song reminded me of him. And I was able to go for entire days without thinking about him on a constant basis. I was able to imagine the possibility of someone else.

One evening he called me from his car and told me to meet him downstairs. It was Friday. Probably I had plans … “You need to come downstairs. Now.”

I climbed into his car and foul mood. “Jesus, what the hell is the matter with you?” I remember asking him. Maybe not those exact words, but close enough. “You have to keep everything in perspective. Nothing is this bad. Your fucking job is just a job. It’s not like you’re HIV-positive.”

But it was. He’d tested positive.

That night, I slept over at his house, holding him, showing him that it didn’t matter to me. I wanted him to know that even if there was no cure, there was hope. The kind of hope that is powerful, because it comes from such need. That was the night he told me that he loved me. That he was in love with me.

But hearing him say it made me feel like he was saying it only because he was afraid. Afraid he’d never get anything better. I made it my mission to fall completely out of love with him, yet be there for him as a friend. That virus was something I just didn’t want anything to do with. And I was angry with him. Furious that I had spent so much energy falling out of love with him, only to have him fall in love with me after he became diagnosed with a fatal disease. Part of me felt deep compassion. And another part felt like, You fucker.

So now we’re friends and I thought I was way past all that crap. But obviously I am not over all that crap. Obviously I am sort of a mess.

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

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: 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.

January 14: 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.

January 21: 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).

January 28: 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 they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.