Monday, November 25

Essay on Kinky Feminsim

Hey all!

(Who do I mean by all? There are like, ten of you, ya? Hi ten!)

Last week, I wrote an essay on kink and feminism (and what it's like to live in a body where both flourish) for a friend of mine over at the Vodka Press. It's a pretty decent essay, I think, and their podcasts over there are pretty fantastic.

Anyway, check it out!

Thursday, November 14

Other People's Herpes, or, Why I Wouldn't Give Up My Herpes for Anything

damn right, Boromir
When I first got diagnosed with herpes (see the tag at the bottom for reflections on that process) I went resource-bananas. I talked to doctors (some which weren't so helpful), and talked to friends who have it, but mostly, I binged on google. One of the most comforting, inspiring articles I read was about how having herpes can, in some ways, actually help your sex life. Or at least, tell you more about the people you want to bump uglies with, before those uglies bump.
I actually kind of hate that phrase, "bump uglies." Maybe "bump lovelies" instead?

Today, a friend of mine (unaware of my love for the first article) sent me a new essay by the same author, "How I Found Out I Didn't Have The Herpes I'd Been Living With For Four Years."

It's full of good information, statistics, and reasoning as to why tests for herpes are crappy, why doctors often don't do blood tests, and why herpes isn't (that's right, isn't) on the standard STD. Most fascinating (and something that I hadn't seen before) is that new research is suggesting that genital-to-genital HSV-1 transmission is pretty rare, and that far more common is oral-to-genital HSV-1 transmission. Which makes some sense, when you think about the fact that HSV-1 is designed to live at the top of your spine (and exist on your mouth), and so the shedding there would be more likely to transmit than shedding in a place where the virus isn't designed to exist (say, the labia). The takeaway being: folks with cold sores are more likely to transmit the virus than people with HSV-1 genitally, but the stigma around having herpes (and, arguably, how often people probably disclose) is almost exactly the opposite. As the author says: 

"Genital herpes is so stigmatized that the facts are secondary to the myth."

To sum the article up (although it's worth a read, if you have ten minutes): the author was given a visual diagnosis of herpes four years ago. She had a blood test recently, that came up negative (blood tests for herpes aren't great, and don't actually look for the virus, but rather the anti-bodies it makes, but more details on that in the article). She talked to many doctors, and learned many new things, and based on these things, has decided that she no longer has herpes (or, more accurately, never had it in the first place).

Regardless of what I think of her decisions (more on that later), it's the implication and attitude around the decision that bugged me, especially because her first article was so awesomely positive. I think it's best explained (as many things are) by the grammar. Here's the start of the last paragraph, after she's decided she won't be disclosing her history surrounding herpes diagnosis with her partners:

"I thought I’d never have another herpes conversation after being cleared. Recently, I met someone—a doctor, of all professions—and was so relieved not to have to tell him."

Notice the language. It's not "I thought I'd never have another herpes conversation." It's not "I was glad/happy/noticing that I didn't tell him." It's "have to have." It's "relieved." It's that she's been let go of this burden, this awful thing, that she's been carrying.

And I get that. Herpes isn't a party, and it isn't a cake walk. I actually just recently got an e-mail from someone newly diagnosed, and was reminded of all the stigma and pain and awfulness and self-loathing that can come from this.

But is also isn't a death sentence.

And I'm going to go a little farther than that, actually. I think, given the choice, right now, if I had to pick between having herpes and not having herpes, I'd pick to have it. Yup.

If given the choice to go back and not get herpes, or have it now, I'd choose to have it. Go my herpes. You stick around little buddies, I like you.

That sounds really unreasonable. It's not, I promise.

Because I have herpes, I've had some really amazing conversations, both with strangers and friends. Because I have herpes, I've learned how to talk to asshole doctors and advocate for my health, even when the very people who are supposed to be concerned for my health are doing their best to make that advocacy hard. Because I have herpes, I've gotten closer with people I wasn't as close with before (because we bonded, about having herpes). Because of herpes, I've learned (and am still learning) how to confront people who talk about herpes, or makes jokes about herpes, in shitty ways. Because I have herpes, I've had to explore a million kind of low-risk behavior (read: not putting someone's mouth or genitals on my genitals), which has lead to all kinds of creative sex that I wouldn't have imagined before. Because of herpes, I've taken new sexcapades with new partners slower (I recently had an almost nine-month relationship with no PIV intercourse, which in retrospect, I'm pretty happy about). Because of herpes, I've gotten to know the shame intertwined with my sexuality in ways that I didn't before, and have found better means of coaxing it to the surface and showing it the light, so that it might better turn to steam and float away.

Because of herpes, I've done some of my best writing (on this blog), writing that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. That writing has made a difference to other people, both with herpes and without. And that, if I were to pick a singular feeling in all the world, is what I want to do with my life. And I got to do it a little more, because I have herpes.

So yeah I'd pick herpes. And while I don't think the author of the article is necessarily wrong in not disclosing, I don't think she's exactly right either. Because if she is (like I am) working to combat the stigma around having this STD, then talk about it. I think the right answer is as simple as that. You don't have to say you have herpes, but I think, if she really does believe that herpes helped her not sleep with fuckwads (a la the first article), then telling the story of a false diagnosis would be, regardless of ethics, a pretty enlightening experience to have before sleeping with someone.

Or, maybe, she doesn't care as much about sleeping with fuckwads anymore (which sounds flippant, but I mean it seriously; sleeping with fuckwads isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I'm not trying to get all moral-high-ground about someone else's sex life).

Are there luxuires about my herpes that make these declarations easier? Yup. I have HSV-1, so my outbreaks are far less frequent and severe than if I had HSV-2 (I've had three, maybe three-and-a-half since the first one a year and a half ago). I don't take medication every day, because my outbreaks are so inferquent and minor. I'm at less risk of transmitting to a partner. I have the feel-good comparison to oral herpes, and feel-good statistic that more people have my numbered virus than those people who have HSV-2.

And I just want to put out there that it's probably partly because of these privileges (yup, herpes privileges, they do exist!) that I feel this way. Maybe if it was worse, I wouldn't be so staunch about it, or it would have taken me much longer to get here.

Are there things about not having herpes that I miss? Sure. I miss the whimsical, thoughtless fuck. The random night out, in the back of the dance party, up against the wall without talking or really getting to know the person at all. I miss the escalation, with no conversation, from kissing to being bent over a table. I miss the fairy-tale belly-flop feeling of a fling, without the hiccoughs of discussing serious real-world STD repercussions.

Except that really, I don't miss those things at all, and if I do, the reasons for missing them are basically bullshit, when I think about them for more than five seconds. Having sex without talking about sexual health is stupid. The random night out can be just as hot with a jerk-off against the closet door, or even a make-out, and it doesn't put my body or their body at risk. And the fairy tale? The fairy tale is baseless, and cheap, if the bubbly feeling doesn't keep going through, and after, a serious conversation about sexual health. That's a fairy tale I'll pass on, thank you.

Because yes, conversations are hard, and yes, having herpes can, at times, be full of shame and hurt and rejection. But hard doesn't mean worse. Hard doesn't mean avoid. Hard means difficult, hard means thinking, hard means talking and debating and probably crying some (for me, anyway). And without those things, without the difficult, I don't learn anything. Given ignorance or a good old-fashioned grapple in the mud, I take the grapple, every time.

I look fantastic in mud.

Friday, November 1

The Slippery World of Sexual Education; or, Back To High School

I was working in Jamie's classroom yesterday. Two students walked in, both women, both seniors. These students have been especially nice to me, although they are definitely high school-aged girls. It's sort of like being around another species, one that's very other-ing, in part because I used to be one (although, I hope, not exactly like they are). They like to push the boundaries of what's appropriate, they like to talk about boys and fashion, they like to giggle at texts that, when read aloud, aren't recognizably funny at all. All of it amounts to an amusing, and sometimes very surprising, interaction. In theory, they were there for study hall. In practice, they did a little bit of work, a lot of facebooking, and some talking to me.

If I were a teacher in high school, I doubt very much that I would be the "cool" teacher. But lucky me, I'm not a teacher, and being not-a-teacher affords a weird kind of limbo position. It's less restricted, and I can get away with a little more (like, for instance, talking about birth control), but I'm still an adult, and my spouse is still a teacher (usually, a teacher of the student I'm talking to), and there's still an air of authority. Or, not authority, but... if there's a word for connecting with someone younger than you are, and being able to offer help, or have what seems like a rare conversation with them. Mentor, maybe, without all the condescending bullshit that can go along with mentoring.

That's the dynamic, between me and these girls. Kind of. One of them doesn't seem to give a fuck, some days, and others, she's really engaged. The other one, within five minutes of meeting me, asked if I had ever had a boyfriend I didn't tell my parents about. To which I replied "oh yes."


The conversation in class, as we were leaving, came around to having kids (which Occasionally More StandOffish Girl does not want) and then joking about condoms. Less StandOffish Girl turned to the OMSO Girl and said "what, you gonna make 'em wear one every time?" They laughed. I said, under my breath, that it would be a good idea to do that, yes. The girls descended into giggles again. As a throwaway, on their way out, OMSO Girl said "Nah, but I've got birth control." To which I said, good for you, in the most serious, I-really-care-about-this-and-you-and-no-really-that's-actually-awesome voice I could muster.

These are the same girls who, a month ago, rode around with me in the back of an SUV (we were moving boxes for a friend) and told me they didn't know what an IUD was. I told them about it, how it worked, how to get it. They listened, patiently, and said nothing much at all (the parent/boyfriend awareness conversation came after that one, which looking back, might have more connection than I initially thought).

And it's strange, having had both of these conversations (the IUD, and the condoms/children) with the same pair of women, and knowing that both of them (the conversations) are under the general umbrella of sexual education, but taking a moment to recognize how different they are. I've been thinking about it since the second conversation, which was much shorter, and much more in-passing. There was, by any measure, less information exchanged. But the second conversation, however awkwardly it may have ended, is the far, far more important one to have.

Do you remember the banana demonstration? Or maybe it was the "what if he tells you it's too small?" demonstration, and then your teacher pulled a condom on over their heads to show that no, in fact, he is not too small*. I do. Or rather, I remember all the sex ed I ever got, in schools, and not because of the facts it taught me.

* Addendum: condom fit is important, but the "too small" excuse shouldn't ever be a reason to have sex without one. It should be a reason to go out and find a condom that fits you.

Let me say that again.

As important as the facts were, it's not why I remember them. Learning how to put a condom on is something that you can pick up from the outside of most condoms boxes. And I sort of can't believe I never figured it out before, but: the act of learning how to put a condom on isn't why, I don't think, learning how to put a condom on is so important. It's because within those lessons, those oh-so-antiquated group-structured awkward in-school lessons, you are learning that this is what you do. As best we can, the adults are trying to impart that, no really, this is what you should do when you have sex. It's setting precedent as a thing that's talked about, it's introducing a dialogue, however awkward and strange that dialogue may be, and it's presenting it as something that is important for everyone to know.

Not just the girl who doesn't want kids. Not jus the girl who has lots of sex. Not just the boy who looses it at fourteen.


Because it wouldn't matter if the women I know here didn't know what an IUD was, if they knew, and believed, that sexual health was important. It's almost like the factual stuff is a gateway, or a coverup, for really drilling in the message of: it doesn't matter what you do or how you do it, as long as you do it safer. As long as you understand the risks of what you're getting into.

Which isn't to say that facts don't matter. Of course they do. But it is to say that: when those two women walked out of Jamie's classroom, I wasn't thinking "Oh, wow, I hope OMSO Girl knows that she should take her pill every day, and that it doesn't protect again STDs, and that she should still use condoms." (I mean, I do hope she knows all those things, but it wasn't my first thought). I was thinking "Oh, wow, I hope OMSO Girl has the backbone to stick to her guns about the health and safety of her body, because she is doing the right thing, but she lives in a culture, globally and locally, that tells her over and over again that the right thing isn't cool, isn't sexy, and isn't necessary. That taking the risk of having unprotected sex is somehow worth whatever social face it is purported to save, or that the risk doesn't exist in the first place."

It's familiarity and comfortability through repetition. Just like saying herpes out loud. Just like yelling PENIS at the top of your lungs in a restaurant. Just like negotiating. Being comfortable in what you know allows you to be comfortable that you know it, that you believe it, regardless of what the culture around you says. Makes your guns stickier in a slippery, slippery world.

But they don't have that. And I think that's the heart of what's frustrating about being a part of a young adult population that has zero sexual education. It's not that there isn't information offered. It's that the very idea of asking for information is sacrosanct. It makes it impossible to even get to the gun, much less hold on.

Although if there's one high school senior I know who can do it, it's this woman. Good luck, OMSO.

Wednesday, October 16

The Herpes Joke: An Analysis

Here's what happened the first time someone told a herpes joke, around me, after I knew I had herpes:

Location: a stage, pre-show.
Characters: various backstage professionals, including the Flyman (Bob), and the Production Assistant (yours truly), and one actor (Sugar Ray) doing vocal warmups.

Tensions are a little tight between Bob and the PA, as tensions can sometimes be between two departments that function together on a show, but have no clear lines of hierarchy between them. For the most part, Bob and PA make the best of this, although there are, occasionally  spats. The PA is relatively new at her job, and Bob has been in the business a long time. As a result, the PA is often unsure of herself, and frustrated with how little she seems to know; Bob, alternatively, like to demonstrate how much he knows at every conceivable opportunity.

Lights up. The stage is busy with four of five people walking across it from time to time, carrying furniture, checking lights above their heads with tiny palm pilots, etc. BOB enters, vacuum in hand, slightly before THE PA, who enters holding a clipboard.

BOB: Fucking events. I hate fucking renting this fucking place for events.
PA: Yup. They fucked with a bunch of the props too.
BOB: Ah man. You roped 'em off?
PA: I did... Yup, the whole section. Bright green gaff, big sign "DO NOT TOUCH." Maybe that makes it too interesting. Might do better with no sign at all. Was it kids, this weekend?
BOB: Yeah. Some kind of elementary cultural thing. Lots of fucking glitter.
PA: Fuck.
BOB: Yup. Theater herpes, whoohoo!
The PA looks at him, and then quickly at the floor. Bob notices nothing, and turns on the vacuum.
BOB: (yelling over the noise of the vacuum) Have a good weekend, Sugar?
SUGAR RAY: (also yelling) Yup, yup. Whatchoo vacuuming for?
BOB: An event over the weekend - they used lots of glitter.
SUGAR RAY: (looks at the floor) Ah, yup yup.
BOB: Fucking herpes of the theater, man. Once you got it, you got it, and it spreads like that (snaps his fingers).
Bob pushes the vacuum a few more strokes as we see the PA walk quickly back across the stage one more time, carrying a mirror and hand towels. As she gets to BOB, she stops, and just as he turns off the vacuum, she speaks.
PA: (yelling, loudly, although there is instantly no more vacuum): CAN WE CUT IT OUT WITH THE HERPES JOKES PLEASE.


The PA walks offstage. BOB and SUGAR RAY watch her leave, say nothing. Bob turns on the vacuum again. Blackout.

Needless to say, I was pretty hurt. I tried not to show it much, and basically failed. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, because we were at work, and I wasn't sure it was appropriate, or more so, I wasn't sure I wanted to deal with the fallout. But I said something because I had to say something, and there was (as there usually is) fallout (Bob and I had a conversation that involved a non-apology apology, and he avoided me for a while).

And those are basically the two things at odds whenever someone makes a joke like that, I think: the importance of my hurt (and by extension, how I might mend that hurt according to my beliefs and values), and the importance of propriety.

I haven't really learned to handle it much better, to the point where, most of the time, I just let it go. Which is... sucky. And not really holding with my personal philosophies about sex positivity, or life, or anything. So, here's where I'm stuck, and maybe telling you why I'm stuck will help unstick me (as it often does).

Options for responses to herpes jokes:

1. The Outing: fairly straightforward, I-have-herpes-please-don't-make-those-jokes-in-front-of-me statement. And even without the first part, I always feel it's sort of obvious (why would I ask you not to make those jokes if it didn't matter to me in some intrinsic way; the herpes-ally isn't really a thing, or if it is, I don't think other people think it is).

Pros: I feel better for having spoken up, the irking behavior (usually) stops.
Cons: I'm outed, or at least outed as being "sensitive," or "easy to offend." There's also often a long an obnoxious conversation involving various versions of "I didn't man anything by it," and "I wasn't trying to offend." (my response to which is, most of the time "I totally understand - it still did/you still did, and I'd like you to take responsibility for that, just as I can acknowledge that your actions weren't motivated by malice, and weren't intended to hurt someone."

2. The Silent Partner, or, I Say Nothing.

Pros: I don't have to deal with any of the above.
Cons: I don't get to deal with any of the above, and I feel bad about myself, usually for a few days afterwards.

3. Joke-for-Joke, or, Anything You Can Do I Can Do Smarter: in which, when a herpes joke and/or inappropriate reference is made, I come back with a rebuttal that's both funny, and also points out how sort of fucked up it is to make those kinds of jokes. Something like:

"Hehe, fucking theater herpes - it gets everywhere!"
"Yeah! And hey: ninety percent of people who have it don't know they have it! Have you checked whats in your pants lately? Never know..."

That's not the best example, but something like that.

Pros: If the person gets it, they get both that the joke they made was ignorant and inappropriate (and sort of inaccurate, maybe), and they get to save social face, because nobody has to directly confront what's going on.
Cons: Sometimes people don't get the second joke, at which point you're stuck with options #1 or #2, again.

My favorite, by far, is #3. I've never really pulled it off.

But wait, dear reader. You might find yourself saying "but herpes isn't that bad! so jokes about it aren't that bad!" or, "in making it out like these jokes are terrible, you're painting a profile of herpes that's terrible, which it isn't really, and you're sort of undermining the whole point you're making with these incessant blog posts about STDs."

And I agree with you. A little bit.

I came around to all this because, the other weekend, a friend of mine (who doesn't know I have herpes - not that that should matter, really) made a herpes joke. We were sitting around, watching a high school volleyball game (like you do when you live in an unbelievably remote place and that is what there is to do on a Saturday afternoon), and someone passed a man we were sitting with a soda. He hesitated before drinking it, and my friend said "Oh, don't worry, his herpes is all cleared up." Everyone laughed.

In my logical brain, there are two things that make this difficult:

1) This friend of mine who made the joke is an excellent person. She's sex-positive, open-minded, accepting, non-judgmental. She likes me, and she likes my partner. Something from here wouldn't, I believe, ever be malevolent.

2) On the inside, deep down where things are most true, I know that herpes isn't really that bad. I haven't had an outbreak in... six months? (knock wood). Most days, I don't think about the fact that I have it.

Combining these two things (lack of bad intention, and trust of the joke-maker; as well as internal knowledge and security), there's really no reason for me to feel bad about this joke. No reason at all.

Except that I did. Terribly. Sitting there, in the high school gym, with the few friends I do have in this place, I felt like someone had dropped my gut out from under me, partly because it was my friend making this joke. Partly because she is one of the only people within a thousand miles who I know, let alone who I like and who likes me (I'm talking, count on your fingers here, folks. A thousand miles, and I've got... maybe five people who I could tolerate, and who could tolerate me, for the length of time it takes to eat a meal).

And the reason for the feel-bad, I think, is the same reason rape jokes aren't acceptable, even when they're made in a comedy club, by a lady comedian, on the ever-sacred-anything-goes-stage-of-modern-comedy (not that I'm equating the herpes and rape, at all; they are not the same, they are not the same, they are not the same). It's the reason why racist jokes are shitty even when they're made by "people who have lots of black friends and stuff." It's because the jokes themselves, no matter who tells them or who hears them, are based on a narrative that's shitty. They represent shitty things, and in telling them, those shitty things are given credence, period.

My friend's joke was based on this assumption: having herpes is bad enough, and rare enough, that the idea of almost-getting it from something as benign as drinking a soda is funny (which is doubly hilarious, to me, because people get herpes from sharing drinks a lot, in real life). And that's a shitty assumption. My friend is not a bad person, and I am not overly sensitive, but the assumption that herpes is bad enough, or that the social stigma around having herpes is legitimate enough to make that joke funny: this is why it's not an okay joke.

I don't have to be uptight for it to not be an okay joke, and my friend doesn't have to be a bad person to have made a not-okay joke. But it's still a not-okay joke, and I still sat there, and waited until the nausea died down, and waited until my face stopped flushing, and watched high schoolers slap a volleyball back and forth across the gym until I could swallow enough to talk and re-join the conversation.

Because this shit makes me feel bad. Period.

So how am I going to handle it in the future? I don't know. I think things like people declaring they have herpes (as my friend did on twitter last year) helps, reading things like this post and this post helps. But what will I do in the moment? I don't know. Work on better #3 rebuttals. Get smarter, get better at talking about it. And, probably, come here to write more. Because the writing at least helps with the feeling better about it. Sort of like, in the early days, saying it out loud and calling it by it's name.

All together now: herpes! herpes! herpes!

Monday, September 9

Context, Context, Context

Because the town we have recently moved to is very small (and very remote), I was, as Jamie promised, the "most qualified substitute teacher in town the moment [I] stepped off the plane." And I was excited about that; I've worked with kids a lot, although never taught them, and I was excited to learn new things, make a bit of money, feel more a part of the community, etc. etc.

Never did we think that I'd fill in for Jamie's class, though, because we figured that when he'd be out of town, I'd be out of town with him.

That was, until the computer lab needed fixing, and he was the only one to fix it. I stepped in, last minute (and did pretty well, especially considering all the students know we're a couple, and what a fun meandering minefield that was to navigate).

But never did I think I'd be writing about it here. That was, until I was up at the board, writing my name in front of twenty seventh graders, and a kid asked a question. To which I answered.

"Yup, I'm Mr. Jamie's sub."

Needless to say, nobody else got the little joke I had with myself there.

Wednesday, August 7

Oglaf Nails It (again)

Oglaf is often great, but this one was particularly relevant to my own personal current events. The "kinkier than thou" attitude has come up a few times in the last week, but mostly, I've just seen it closer than usual. I've seen it do more damage than usual. I've seen how much it's just complete bullshit.

I'm really pulling for an occasion to use that sentence in real life. Stamping my feet and balling my fists and scream "Just because I'm not into your stupid pain cake doesn't mean I'm a blushing virgin!" Although, I am pretty into the pain cake, so... maybe that won't work so well.

Up next: Kink from the Frozen Tundra; an expedition.

Tuesday, July 30

Moving: A Short Play in One Very Short Act

(Two characters, one lady, one man, sit outside on the porch behind their apartment. They have just come from the post office where, having made it there just before five o' clock, they discovered that their bathroom scale was wildly inaccurate, and that the large totes they had lugged into the post office from the truck did not weigh what they previously thought. The weight limit on shipping was seventy pounds; the final tote, the lightest tote on which any hope of success rested 'neath their sweaty hands, was seventy pounds, six ounces).

Lady: This sucks.
Man: Yes.
Lady: (takes a drag from her cigarette, takes a swig from her diet coke, sputters, manages not to spit up on herself) What if... what if we weren't moving.
Man: We are moving.
Lady: Yes.
Man: We're moving tomorrow. Like, tomorrow we have to be moved.

(pause. Man takes a drag from his cigarette).

Man: You know what's great about moving?
Lady: What? (takes another sip of soda)
Man: Nothing.

(Lady does spit up on self, just a little).

Lady: What if... what if instead of moving, we just had foursomes all the time?
Man: That's what we've been doing.
Lady: Yes, but...
Man: That's why... that's why today is... today.
Lady: So... so there's not some magical equation where we have lots of awesome sex and then the apartment is empty?
Man: Nope.
Lady: Okay...
Man: Wait!
Lady: Yes?! Yes?

(pause. Man thinks hard).

Man: (shakes his head) Nope. Thought I had it. Nope.

(long pause)

Lady: Yeah, okay.

(both look wistfully into the setting sun).