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RIP Howard Zinn

I don’t normally do memorial posts, but I have to type a brief note on Howard Zinn due to the impact he had on my life and my academic path. I was never a big fan of history, see. I kind of hated it, which now is hard to believe, but the history you learn in grade school is pretty narrow. In 11th grade, though, we read a chapter of A People’s History of the United States and it blew my mind. This guy was for real. Since then, I went on to get a degree in history, and I think the exposure to Zinn was a big part of the turning of the tide. So hats off to you, Sir, for daring to tell a fuller version of the story. And if you haven’t read A People’s History, pick up your copy today.

No words.

College: Not for Everyone?

I saw a blurb on my Google Reader this morning from the Times book review about a book where one man argues that college is not for everyone and another that college should stick to the basis.  Those arguments always get to me, and here’s why.  

The basics are what you learn throughout school.  Obviously they’re fundamental, which is why they’re required.  It’s probably not a bad idea to have a core curriculum in college as well.  However, by the time you get there, you know whether you like/are good at math, science, english, and social studies already.  If you like them, go for them!  But if you don’t, you should have other opportunities.  I think college is for everyone, if you find the right environment, are able to get financial support, and find a subject you really love.

Even within the basics, there are branch offs I imagine the back to basics folks might cut.  For example, art history, creative writing, poetry… I’m afraid I can’t speak with authority on math or science, but there are certainly some “off beat” things there, too.  What about computer science?  For me, I hated history right up until 12th grade, when I took AP European.  Suddenly, there was history that was interesting!  And if my school had offered Middle Eastern or African or some other histories besides Europe, America, and a wee bit of Asia, I would have been thrilled!  

And then there are the subjects outside the basics that most high schoolers don’t even know about.  I tutored a junior high student for a while, and she wasn’t interested in college.  But when I started telling her about the kinds of things you can study, I could see an interest sparking.  She was kind of going in an English direction, so I told her about creative writing, journalism, communications, etc. and she’d never even considered these options.  For me, I wish that I’d discovered sociology and anthropology earlier but I didn’t even know what they were, really, until late in my final semester of college and never got to take a class.  Languages – we should be offering more, not fewer!  People get really interested when a school starts offering Arabic.  For me, going from UMBC to law school at Iowa, I wish that I had gone here for undergrad whenever I look at the course catalogue.  Whole classes dedicated to a single poet!  Israeli literature!  History of the Islamic religion in the context of human rights!  Croatian!  Don’t narrow the curriculum, folks.  You’ll get more kids like me who as sophomores, are seriously tempted to drop out, no matter how smart they are, because there’s just nothing there.  Do we really want that?

Talkin' bout my…education?

Cara at the Curvature recently wrote a very thought-provoking post about what she calls “real sex education.”  I’m not going to talk a lot about the post, because I think you should just read it – she makes some really interesting points – but I would like to share some thoughts about sex ed.  Cara’s real sex education involves teaching young people that sex is supposed to be consensual + pleasurable for both parties.  At first I looked at that statement and thought “hey, no brainer.”  Then I thought wait a minute, I may be progressive and all but I don’t want to be teaching kids about sex.  Then I thought, well, you know what, she has a real fucking point.

The big focus now for sex education is on teaching about how to prevent STDs and pregnancy.  There’s a big debate, I gather, between abstinence-only folks and comprehensive sex ed folks, but when they say comprehensive they still mean focusing on disease and pregnancy and how to prevent them.  It never really occurred to me what kind of a role sex ed could have had in my unfortunate early experiences, but now that I think of it, yeah, that’s a good way to start.

I’m not sure if my own sex education would be considered “abstinence only” or not.  In fifth grade, we took a course called “Human Growth and Development.”  It was a one-week part of the science curriculum that required parental permission, and of course everyone was very excited about it because of the sense of taboo that surrounded the course.  We essentially learned about anatomy – I dutifully labelled charts of male and female anatomy, though I know for a fact that a clitoris appeared nowhere on those charts (the focus being “the reproductive system”).  We had a quiz on the anatomy, then for the last class period we were huddled into a separate room from the boys and a female teacher told us briefly what a period is and what a sanitary pad is – my first introduction to the subject.  And that was that.

In eighth grade, we very briefly heard something about AIDS in health class, as part of a list of various diseases that we should be able to identify, but nothing about other STDs or how to prevent them.  In high school, there was a brief unit on the family in health class where we learned that a family is a married man, woman, and children, and though other families can and do exist they are technically dysfunctional.

And then out into the world I went!  

So when I thought about my nether regions, I mainly associated them with periods and reproduction.  My mother taught me that sex was appropriate in a loving relationship.  When I started college and did have a sexual relationship with a man, though, she was uncomfortable talking about oral sex and felt that it was something very intimate, something that while it was not necessarily to be saved for marriage, was only for special relationships and was not to be discussed.  It certainly wasn’t, as my friends had informed me, foreplay, something that you do before intercourse.

I never ended up having oral sex.  Oh, I was on the giving end plenty, as that was something he needed almost every time to have intercourse, but there was never any touching or anything like that for me.  It was very clothes off, let’s go.  I knew how to masturbate, but orgasms were something for alone time.  He asked if it was all right (the intercourse), but never offered to do something in addition.  I did finally get the courage to ask after about six months of sexual activity, and he said matter-of-factly that he “wasn’t interested in that.”  That’s fine.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But it was still disappointing. 

I don’t know that any of this is directly related to the lack of sex education in my life, but I can’t help but wonder if it might have helped.  I’m just now learning about safe sex for lesbians, and even there all the sources wildly conflict.  I think a few things could help.  1) Comprehensive safe sex information for gay and straight sex in high school.  2) Include the clitoris on the damned diagrams.  3) Teach the consent + pleasure model that Cara advocates.  4) Be realistic about sex.

I think that a huge problem with my education is that I masturbated from the age of eleven or so, but I always assumed that sexual intercourse would be this big things with fireworks and even more amazing orgasms.  When I learned that it’s kind of all right, and no orgasms whatsoever, I was disappointed.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for a woman who’s waited until marriage and then suddenly realises “fuck, I signed on for this?”  I also assumed that the actual process would be easy, tab A into slot B.  It was actually a little difficult, and clumsy, and took a lot of maintenance on my part to keep the guy ready to do his job.  This was a bit of a let down.  After sex with men, I started feeling that sex was pointless.  I mean, nothing can be better than the orgasms I give myself, so I should just give up.  Sex with women is basically going to be masturbation with someone nice to look at.  Then I started re-thinking it, and realising that it doesn’t have to all be orgasm driven.  A lot is about the touching someone, tasting someone, kissing someone, and loving someone.  I think the same could be true for heterosexual couples, especially if the woman doesn’t enjoy intercourse.  But you’d never know that from sex ed.  I think they should be frank.  Ladies, you deserve to enjoy sex.  You might not enjoy intercourse.  That’s okay.  You should search together for other ways to derive pleasure.  Etc, etc.  I think just re-framing the norms about sex that we all carry around with us would make for a much more enjoyable experience when the time comes.

Something's fundamentally wrong here

There’s been a story circulating around the Internet about how the principal of a South Carolina high school chose to resign when students chose to form a GSA (Gay Students Association).  Now I personally don’t have a problem with the man’s choice.  It seems like he handled it very well – he made it clear that it was for personal and religious reasons that he was leaving, he decided to stay out the term until 2009, and he indicated that he wouldn’t be mentioning to the students his specific reasons for leaving when he made the announcement to the school.  He also, as far as I can tell, didn’t block the formation of the GSA in any way.

The part of this news that made me think, though, was something in his letter of resignation.  What troubles him is that this and no other club deals with students’ “sexual orientation, sexual preference, and sexual activity” and that the way he sees it, the club requires acknowledging that students are sexually active with a certain sex, whether the same, different, or both.

Wait, what?  Back that train up, please.  Besides the obvious problem that others have pointed out in blogging about this article with sexualising the gay movement in general, I’m a little concerned about this specific context.  Coming out, to yourself or to others, doesn’t mean anything about how sexual you are.  Whether or not you are attracted to someone of the same sex is relevant, but sexual experience is in no way required to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or anything in between – including straight.  If sexual experience were the only indicator, I’d be straight, and I’m sure as hell not.  

But it’s not just that alone that bothers me, it’s the inherent assumption here.  In order to be gay, he seems to be saying, you have to admit that you’re sexual with someone of the same sex.  Is the same true in order to be straight?  I actually think it might be almost all right if we just said, no one is anything until they have sex (putting aside the obvious huge problems with basing orientation entirely on experience).  It wouldn’t really be accurate, but at least it would be equitable.  Instead, I think what we obviously say in society is that everyone is straight by default.  Straight is the presumption, that has to be rebutted.  How do we rebut it?  By having sex.  Hmm.  

So what we’re saying, I suppose, is that people are straight until they have a same sex experience.  You can’t have an abstinent gay person.  And I suppose it would be problematic to require straight people to have sex to prove their straightness, because, well, if you fall into a certain religious group, they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place until they’re married.  Queers can’t get married, so they might as well go have sex?  Oh, I don’t even know.

Thinking back, I realise that I encountered this attitude quite a lot when I was younger.  I said I was bisexual (which is how I identified till I was 21 or so) and people would say oh, okay, that’s great, well you don’t really know until you’ve tried it, but good luck!  Even people who were completely okay with LGBT folks, my family included, would put it that way.  This may have been because I very aggressively tried to be cool as a kid, and cool included being girly and boycrazy, so I seemed rather obviously straight, but even so, I think all this really does is encourages kids to go out and have sex to prove you wrong (whether they’re ready or not).  Now that I’m older, people assume that, because I say “I’m a lesbian,” that I’m sexually experienced with women.  The fact is that I’m not really, mainly because of timing (my one serious relationship with a girl was in high school) and the fact that I’m very picky about relationships and enjoy being single, so I’m less experienced than some people my age.  I don’t really mind that assumption so much, but I think that in general it’s a good rule of thumb not to assume.  Sex and sexuality are obviously related, but there’s no correlation between sexuality and how much sex you have.  

Just food for thought.