desire

Schools skirting around issue of uniform

I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:

First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.

Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).

Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.

Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.

It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.

 

 

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Taking a trip

It’s New Years Eve and many will be out to celebrate. Some will plan and expect to be in a form of altered state, a buzz, feeling good in some way shape or form. Common combinations or at least socially sanctioned (to a degree) buzzes involve alcohol, dancing and sex, statistics don’t lie just take a look at the number of people who have birthdays on or around September 30th. While moderation will be exercised many will vomit, pass out, coma and all completely legal we see it as a right of passage for mates to have a near death experience consuming alcohol. But anyone caught getting stoned with the potential side effects of scoffing anything they can get their hands on (watch out for your weetbix campers), while giggling at nothing for hours will be deemed a criminal.

Indeed, anyone seeking to enjoy themselves or the world around them through other sensory parameters are deemed irresponsible, selfish, reckless, unstable psychologically, immature or lacking a moral compass. Desire and pleasure seeking for nothing other than the pure experience is a no-no. In fact we police this better than anything and we do it from birth through to death – we can’t even choose how we transition to the after life.

We’re a confused bunch when it comes to the right to experience our embodiment and all the parameters of that, especially the perception of the world and reality. And yet some brave researchers and scientists are asking why the pervasive fear of things like psychedelics. Palliative care has started to go there with LSD and psilocybin. But there is one substance pushing the boundaries from all angles and that is DMT. Ironically it is naturally occurring in our bodies and it has been nick named ‘The Spirit Molecule’ and there is a good documentary about it with real scientists doing actual controlled studies.

What we can and cannot talk about or explore is limited by available knowledge in the public sphere. Schools take an understandably conservative approach and can only teach critical thinking and decision making around notions of legal and illegal substances. Risk and preventing harm dominate with minimal acknowledgement of the reasons why human beings seek connection and sometimes use molecules to achieve this. I say molecules because that is at its most basic, stripped back beyond the paranoia and politics.

Science fiction has gone for example Neromancer, but my favourite is the spice from Dune, talk about a direct, overt reference to mind and body altering substances! I remember stumbling across some incomplete scenes from Avatar and being surprised at one in particular. It involved the ceremony where Jake becomes one of the tribe. We are led to believe this happens through some body paint with swirly patterns. However this couldn’t be further from the truth, the scene is shamanic in context and seems to allude to a serious out of body experience, one that transcends time and space. Jake ‘sees’ the truth. But for reasons unknown it was left incomplete, yet could have shifted the tone of the movie toward a far deeper understanding of why this culture (albeit an fictional one) had a relationship with nature that was profoundly different to the sky people. Back in ‘real world’ I think the Sky People represent the western military industrial complex with its overarching driving force of consumption and competition.

But it’s NYE, its unlikely anyone will read this, and if they do I just hope they read it with the intention it was meant – not as a judgement. So if you are out there tonight enjoying yourself in whatever ‘pop up’ community you join, look after your friends if they have taken on too many molecules of whatever substance. Suspend judgement of others who choose other molecules regardless of their legality, but don’t suspend action of someone is at risk or in danger. Substances and driving or swimming are risky. Being out of it shouldn’t be seen as a crime but simply taking an internal journey, a trip, and Kiwis love a good adventure. Inner space and outer space and spaces in-between are all territories to be explored. Let’s afford ourselves and each other some room to travel differently at different speeds.

 

The Porn Identity

It’s a delicate subject considering many adults can barely talk to their children about any form of sexual activity. It’s hard enough recognising children as sexual beings for most people, then we think teenagers will somehow ignore these strange wonderful feelings. While some hope that a simple biology lesson should cover it with frequent coughing and rushed syllables it’s clear we can still feel awkward about all forms of sexuality and pleasure in particular. There – I said it – desire and pleasure and warm fuzzy feelings. Human beings are drawn to these experiences like moths to flames and sometimes we get a bit singed and burnt, but we keep coming back for more (hmmm awkward pun). We’ve tended to keep pleasure conversations secret and couched in dodgy metaphors or colloquialisms and education has generally steered clear preferring the reproductive-heterosexual-preventing disease and/or pregnancy focus. Respectful relationships, negotiation and consent might show up however these still fit into a bit of a mechanistic process of sexual activity.

Porn is part of that complex mix of desire which has traditionally been built around male sexuality. It might just be luck but I have never accidentally found porn online or been sent any and I intend to keep it that way. However it is time for a reality check when it comes to young people and the rapid expansion of visual media and online communication. Working as a counsellor in a secondary school I see the first hand effects of the porn on young people. I know older people are impacted as well, but if children and young people are exposed to graphic sexual content from an early age it will inevitably impact on their understanding of sex and sexuality as well as how bodies should look and be during sex. There are also questionable messages communicated about dominance power and submission and ‘men’ and ‘women’ like. Porn can also be used as a form of grooming for abuse. So it is really important we think carefully about where things are at. Time for a deep breath.

The digital age has made both the making and distributing of sexual content easier and accessing it as simple as a google/oggle search, even if unintended. Back in the day it was pretty hard to accidentally purchase magazine or rent a video from the back room and convince someone you were 21. Thankfully there are people like Maree Crabbe who has been researching and working with young people since 1993. I’m pleased someone has done this work and put together some really great resources that have been thoroughly tested and youth approved. Perhaps what might surprise people is the openness about desire and enjoyment of sexual experiences as well as thinking critically about the gendered stereotypes and assumptions it can create. Which inevitably confuse and blur understandings of consent without creating a one sized fits all model. Sexuality is in there to so they have covered all bases…so to speak.

Parents might not want to know but they need to know this stuff. Again there is a generation gap, so let’s not just fill it with fear and avoidance or blame and shame. Fill it with knowledge and understanding – it really is time we talked.

Dodgy Digits

My line of work puts me at the scroll face of online abuse, bullying and harassment of young people. Whilst I like to think of myself as youthful I cannot claim any knowledge of what it might be like to be growing into a young adult with so many ways to connect, share thoughts, ideas and more. Taking more clothing off and sharing these pictures with others is a growing phenomenon. I’ve been consulting with police and other agencies recently. It might be a bit hard for many parents to hear but if you have a child who knows how to use a phone and is socially networked you might need to be aware of the new harmful digital communications act.

The uncomfortable truth is young people in their teens are growing an awareness of sexuality, desire and taking risks, pushing boundaries. Some of these edges are new as technology creates alternative mediums and relationships. Parents are playing ‘catch up’ and while the act defines the law it will not necessarily prevent harm, distress, upset and deep regret. One consistent message I’d like to give is for parents to try and not ‘freak out’ and send their teen back into the dark ages of the 1990’s – which to them is last century…metaphorically. If they get it wrong, support them, listen and try and suspend judgement. I’ll come back to support later.

So what should people know? This is just my summary (the act is much more detailed and I do encourage people to read it)

First the act defines harmful as that which if any reasonable person was put in the same position then they would be highly offended. There are 10 criteria that define offensive, a digital communication should not…

1: disclose sensitive personal facts

2: be threatening, intimidating, or menacing

3: be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the same position

4: be indecent or obscene

5: be used to harass

6: make a false allegation

7: contain things published in breach of confidence

8: incite or encourage anyone to send a message to someone to purposely cause harm

9: incite or encourage someone to commit suicide

10: put someone down (denigrate) for their colour, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability

One of the issues we face is that cameras are out all the time. It is not a crime to take pictures of people in public unless they could expect a privacy. This covers changing rooms, bathrooms, showers. But if they are posted online without someones consent the above criteria kick in.

A tricky bit for young people is the sharing of images with friends or somewhere like facebook. When talking with police recently they were very clear that once an image was ‘shared’ it was a form of consent. I’m not sure I agree and others would naturally challenge this. The issue is the ability to control that image and where it goes. Facebook profile pictures are some of the most common images uplifted and used in other places. So check you profile pics folks. Shutting down and removing images takes time and in my experience it is the worry, fear, anxiety and shame and humiliation that lasts much longer. The rumours start fairly instantaneously and once spinning are very difficult to stop.

If there are sexually suggestive images being shared of any young person under the age of 16 this is also legally classified as child pornography. So yup it’s serious. Your teens need to know this stuff! They also need to know where to get support. Hopefully they can talk to someone in their family. If not someone at school, or netsafe (nz) or the police. If you know someone who is being pressured to send pictures they can use the ‘send this instead’ app.

But we need more open conversations not just ‘thou shalt not take selfies’ lectures. Young people need to lead these conversations in schools. Peer Sexuality Support Teams, Body Image Leaders, Mediators, Prefects…others with capital letters of importance!

Many of us will shake our greying heads and recall the only harmful digital communications we knew about growing up was giving the fingers or making rude words on our calculators. Times change and we need to zero in and be one.

Digital divide multiplied

There are times when I feel really out of touch with the pace of change in regard to technology. I can navigate my way around yet I still sense I am an imposter with a stick on moustache and bad wig. My relationship to all things digital is still as something external to me personally that operates more like a vehicle to get somewhere or access and communicate with others.

But things have moved well beyond passive receiving of data. The screen is no longer one way and identity as we have come to know and understand it is also rapidly shifting in multiple dimensions. The boarders and boundaries of self, other and even the notion of human bodies and connectivity have radically changed. There is a sense of disorientation exacerbated by the wide steep chasm of intergenerational dissonance of experience. Perhaps the rush of fluidity is carving out new spaces in the otherwise assumed bedrock of certain stable and uncontested taken for granted truths. Simple needs and common desires are swept into swirling complexity. This is something I am more aware of and where my hesitation is sitting at the moment is the vulnerability of children and young people forging a sense of themselves in these times.

Perhaps what is not different is the role of supportive adults – even if we ourselves have not been through it in the same ways. This will be the challenge for my generation as my folks talk about the first ever TV and I remember getting online for the first time at university and getting my first brick cell phone in my late 20’s I feel woefully inadequate at times to know what to do. So I’ve accepted my position as awkwardly old school trying to be onto it 40 something year old and decided my naive curiosity is in fact an asset. That I can ask questions from a place of genuine not knowing, suspends judgement of meaning allowing for young people to explore their own understanding of the journey they are on.

Tears and upset speak for themselves, as do smiles and laughter and that is definitely a timeless universal language.

Teaching no lessen

There are some interesting intersections brought about by my journey in education. Going from a teacher to a counsellor has seen my perspective and values shift and move and from time to time come together. But I generally only get to teach two kinds of lessons these days. I either teach juggling and unicycling to year 11 sport science classes or a one off health class on consent and negotiation for year 12’s. Never both at the same time although some of the themes of risk, fear, going one step at a time and moving at your own pace do line up.

So on Friday I will be in front of a class I have no relationship with about to launch into the realm of sex and the complexity of desire mixed with cultural and social norms, family values and gendered assumptions without any real sense of what these young people might have already experienced. Actually, that is not entirely true. Because in my privileged position as a counsellor I will know some of them, and they will know what I know. So there will be a level of extra vulnerability attached to this conversation. It is a juggling act of sensitivities to confidentiality, privacy and accepting that within the space all sorts of beliefs, values, experiences and needs will be present. I know I am there in my capacity as a counsellor but what does that actually mean to these 16-17 year old young women that a counsellor is coming in to talk with them? It really is the definition of ‘awkward’.

Talking about consent invites the polarity of coercion. Society in general still needs to grapple with gendered assumptions of power and consent. I recently stumbled on a great cartoon likening consent to having ‘a cup of tea’. There are some limits to this as an analogy but I kind of like it for its simplici-tea, it’s also gender neutral , stick figures are good for that. But it’ll be me in the hot seat Friday. So…what can I bring? I can bring a non-judgemental stance, but is that enough? I can bring an openness about the competing needs and feelings, physical, emotional responses that might all happen at once when it comes to sex. I can bring a level of ‘unshockability’ while ensuring questions and statements do not position people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My hope is that I can use some of my performance skills from juggling that are about setting a safe tone for exploring, renaming or relocating a sense of failure or loss of worth into something more respectful and takes into account the realities of diverse sexual experiences.

Leaving the door open for conversations at another time for those who might have more to process will be an ideal outcome. I intend not to leave a trail of guilt, self-doubt and fear. I intend to acknowledge the range of tensions and embodied realities of desire, pleasure and the contexts that can enable and disable actions or decisions. I will be intentional not to assume these young women will all be having sexual experiences or indeed be heterosexual. That to me is one way all teachers can support the well-being of LGBTIQ young people.

But perhaps more than anything to give them and experience of an adult who will not reject or shame them because they are young women talking about being/becoming sexually active – not just passive. I think that is enough things in the air for one lesson.

Doing the (in)decent thing

Ok, I need to make a disclaimer. This blog contains sexual content, and some really bad puns. However it may or may not be indecent depending on where you are reading this. ‘Where’ doesn’t necessarily mean what country or location. ‘Where’ is your moral and ethical values base located? So what to make of a case in the United Kingdom where a couple have been changed with an ‘indecent act’ during a concert at Hyde Park. I nearly required the heimlich maneuver while reading and eating toast – was not a great time to be masticating.

Briefly: A couple in their late 40’s had imbibed a lot of alcohol and while they guy ‘slept it off’ unconscious his partner decided the music sucked, so took that theme and ran with it so to speak. Apparently when finally interrupted by being arrested there was surprise from the woman that the rules were different in England. I’m wondering how many Welsh folk right now are checking with their local council to see if the grass has been cut recently so they can make grass angels. But this isn’t really what shocked me. What caught my attention was the response from the lawyer defender her in court. He believes even if it did happen it was a bit funny and “did not outrage public decency”. His summation and I quote (unfortunately).

“Let’s think actually there was sucking the penis, nobody is condoning it,”
“Of course it must have upset the sensibilities of some there, it must have caused annoyance”.

I don’t know about you but since when does ‘finding it a laugh’ become the yardstick for whether or not something crosses the line of decency? Because that is pretty much his argument. Here are some of the questions I have:

  • Had they been in their teens, how might their behaviour been perceived?
  • Why didn’t bystanders have concern for the level of consent of the guy involved (assuming there was no indication of a relationship)?
  • Is evidence of ‘arousal’ assumed to be an indication of consent?
  • Would a guy performing the same act on a woman receive the same level of permissive dismissive humour in court?
    If someone of the same gender was performing the act would they have been treated differently by observers and the court?
  • Is filming someone doing something, when in a state of impairment and possibly a vulnerable situation decent? Who should be being charged here?
  • Why is performing a similar act on yourself in public (I’m guessing with the hands rather than the mouth – but hey I suppose there are some who could pull it off) considered indecent, if someone performing on someone else isn’t??

I’m not sure what the outcome of this case will be but it is certainly an interesting situation to explore the complexity of the performing of sexuality in public and how context might permit certain interpretations of pleasure, power, desire and consent. Perhaps a look at the new guidelines for sexuality education from little old Aotearoa could be helpful here, maybe this couple could benefit from being sentenced to a few night classes…maybe not…certainly wouldn’t want them taking too many bathroom breaks.

I just hope whatever the outcome that no-one in that courtroom mouths ‘you’re going down’.

(Many puns were sacrificed in this blog).