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Friday, November 14, 2008

la isla bonita

I returned to San Francisco from Puerto Rico on Wednesday filled with a sense of accomplishment from the SSSS meeting and relaxed and slightly sunburned from the last few days of lying on the beach in Vieques. Oh yeah, I'm also now a married man - a title that I never really thought that I would hold - having gotten married to my partner of seven years on November 4, Election Day, and the last day that same sex couples had the legal right to marry in the State of California. For the record, I am proud to be married to my husband and to be redefining marriage, and I hope that my marriage is a threat to "traditional" marriage and causes many people to rethink what it means to be in a legal partnership that is much more than about being in love with another person. And I do think that school children across the country should be taught about same sex couples in much the same way they learn about any other family - in fact, I demand it. We exist and will continue to exists despite all of the horrible, hateful efforts to stop us from existing. But I digress...

Puerto Rico is a contradiction. The islands are gorgeous. The extravagant hotels and resorts of San Juan are filled with obnoxious mainland American and European tourists dressed in their best "resort and cruise" wear and Crocs. The beaches of Vieques are pristine with powdery white sand and deep blue and turquoise waters. Old San Juan is charming and quaint with that "old world feel" you only find in European city centers and New Orleans (if you can look past the Forever 21's and Burger King's occupying the retail spaces in the historic buildings). It was a setting that made my impromptu honeymoon feel romantic and straight out of a paperback novel (you know the ones with the hunky guy on the cover in ripped clothing - that would be me). However, traveling just beyond the Condado or Old Town, you encounter a very different San Juan. Here you find poverty and instances of social inequity that make you astutely aware of the imperialistic nature of the relationship between the U.S. and the explicit exoti-cizing of a land and people. I won't spend much time on the topic; instead, I'll refer you to the recent post of Tamara Williams who very eloquently described the way that many of us were feeling during our time spent at the conference and as tourists. I describe this contradiction as way of explaining how I felt throughout my entire stay on this beautiful island.

I arrived on Wednesday feeling bittersweet about the outcome of the elections. I was overjoyed at having married the love of my life the day before, yet guilty and sad for all those who would now be denied the right to marry. I was excited about the conference and happy to be in Puerto Rico, but I was anxious about the work that I had to do over the coming days - facilitating a workshop, working the exhibits, attending meetings, and moderating sessions. This was the first SSSS that I have attended post-PhD as a professional in the field and being in a role other than an attendee at this conference. Unfortunately, I had little time to attend many sessions or plenaries because I was busy working most of the time I was there. I was excited that the NSRC had been able to bring such a large contingent, mostly students, to the conference this year. It honestly felt as though our mission of building a movement around sexual literacy was getting a foothold at SSSS - we bookended the conference by starting with a three-hour workshop on sexual literacy and ending with the closing plenary delivered by Gil Herdt, our Executive Director, on sexual literacy; next year's conference theme is sexual literacy. All of our work aimed at beginning to redefine sexuality has become a reality.

On the other hand, the program was filled with presentations and posters that focused on negative risk-taking, framing sexuality in a medical and pathological model. (What is sexual risk-taking, btw? Don't most sexual behaviors involve some type of risk-taking, whether it's with a new partner or trying something new with an existing partner? Shouldn't this be a good thing?) There was little talk of pleasure, desire, and happiness, and even less mention of sexual health and well-being across the lifespan. In addition, the sessions seemed to be poorly attended (is it possible that the lure of the beach and the rum drinks was too great?). It was crystal clear to me that there was a great deal of work to be done towards changing the ways in which we research and teach sexuality.

Over the past year, I have come to realize that I have a great deal of interest in mentoring and providing training opportunities for students who desire to work in the field of sexuality. I feel that this field attracts a unique brand of individual who is committed and passionate about their work and truly believes that it is possible to change the world. I made it a goal to allow for as many students as possible from our program and from the Campus Coalitions for Sexual Literacy to attend in hopes that they would find a home for their research and discover others with whom they shared a vision. I was dismayed and heartbroken at hearing about some of the experiences and listening to the reflections from some of the students.

At first, I felt angry at hearing so many negative comments about the presentations and the conference in general; after all, this is a place that I consider my home where I've watched many of my peers transition from graduate students to researchers, academics, and future leaders in the field. I felt that some comments were disrespectful to those who had taken a chance and were putting their work out in public to be critiqued by their peers and mentors; I felt it was unfair to be so harshly critical when they weren't there presenting their own work. Then I began to realize that this is exactly what they should be doing and that this is a direct result of what they are learning in their classes, in the Summer Institute, and at our recent regional training. We should be challenging the work of others and asking why they have chosen the frameworks they have chosen. We should be engaging in dialogue about the future of sexuality research and education and promoting a framework that utilizes sexual literacy as its model.

With this realization, I would like to encourage our students, ourselves, and the leadership at SSSS to continue to challenge the current paradigm and work towards redefining sexuality through our work, our presentations, and our conversations. I look forward to next year when not only do we have a large presence at SSSS, and we have a large number of students, staff, and faculty presenting their work and facilitating workshops that present a new paradigm - one that promotes sexual health and well being, including desire, pleasure, and happiness, across the lifespan for ALL individuals, relationships, and communities. We can break the contradictions and be true to ourselves and our nation with respect to sex and sexuality.


  • congratulations to you and your husband and thank you for this blog post. it is the most refreshing and inspiring thing i have read in a long time....reminding me how unique our work is, how lucky we are to be doing it....and how accountable we are to ourselves and one another to move this field forward and grow it....

    here's to sexual health, happiness and a new level of well being....here's to sexual literacy as the movement to get us there....and keep us there....ever questioning how we do our work so we can always be improving it....

    By Blogger joy, at Fri Nov 14, 11:12:00 AM PST  

  • Darn it, Chris, I don't know why, but this made me tear up. When i lost it over SSSS, I felt great at releasing all the disappointment and, dare I say, rage? But almost immediately, I began to doubt the legitimacy and ferocity of my critique. So you articulated your feelings particularly well. One of the reasons I think we are so simpatico, is that I, too, am not only committed to doing sexuality research, but to introducing budding and entrenched scholars into the breadth and scope of sexuality research. If we just shifted our glasses to the literacy model (which I get, is a problematic term for some), think of how many people would be free to admit they are doing sexuality research, and how the conversation could expand so far beyond risky bodies and risky acts.
    You're right- all sex is risky sex, to some aspect of our health. But so is the rest of life. I believe, like Foucault, that sex should not be the special case; it should just be special. and I want to commend the Summer Institute for training a sexual literacy ambassador; it is very rare that I don't daily share some insight or information I got out of the Institute.
    Go sexual literacy!

    By Blogger Tamara Williams, at Sat Nov 15, 10:35:00 AM PST  

  • Thank you Tamara and Joy. I realized that I should point out that by any sex being risky I meant that it was a positive risk not necessarily a negative risk to our health. I have issues with the way that the word risk is used (risk-taking, high risk youth, etc,). Risk is a necessary part of life and a requirement for growth. Without risk, we don't experience conflict or dissonance thus we never learn. We have to reframe risk as something that has the potential of positive as well as negative outcomes. In fact, I believe that by encouraging more positive risk-taking behaviors we could actually reduce some of the negative risk-taking that happens. that's all. chris

    By Blogger christopher, at Sat Nov 15, 02:06:00 PM PST  

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