Dress code talk has gotten too close to home

I was out with my 12-year-old yesterday afternoon when I realized I hadn’t talked with her about how a school council conversation about dress code had gone. She attends a small public downtown K-6 school housed in a larger K-8, and the school itself is still quite new (5 years). Before a letter was sent home with her a little over a week ago, the only conversation parents had ever had about clothes was to express a preference for no logos, when possible. The letter my child brought home (and only Grade 6 students at the school were given this letter) listed a much broader range of rules that have never been on our radar before this: No underwear showing, tank top straps must be two fingers wide, shorts must pass the “fingertip” test, and nothing disrespectful, hateful, or connected to drugs/alcohol/smoking. The note took care to avoid gendered language, including a “What Not To Wear” illustration that showed contraband gear for girls and boys.

(I should mention, incidentally, that my 13-year-old attends the larger K-8 school, though I’ve been sadly not as connected to the community as I have been with the smaller school. Before this letter came home, a permission form for Grade 8 graduation was distributed, detailing that “age appropriate” and “modest” clothing choices were expected: “no strapless dresses.”)

Anyway, the 12-year-old said that her Grade 5-6 classmates discussed the note in class, and realized that every single child in the class was breaking the stated dress code in one way or another. I asked what she thought of the code, and her first reaction was, “It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s like the people who came up with these rules have never been shopping before. Don’t they get that it’s really hard to find shorts that are longer than soccer shorts but shorter than capris?” Also, as a child with very narrow shoulders, she finds herself regularly breaking the rule of “no visible underwear,” as even if her sleeveless shirts are acceptable, her bra straps often show. 

When she came home with this letter, I had already been researching dress code policy from school board and provincial levels for a friend whose Grade 4 daughter (yep, grade 4) came home one day a few weeks ago after being told her top and shorts were unacceptable. In my research, I discovered that Ontario’s Ministry of Education states that it is the majority of parents in a given school who decide the dress code, not a given school’s administration. Now, there are more specific policies, like the Toronto District School Board’s, which outline that anything depicting gang affiliation, violence, and oppression are unacceptable, but the TDSB has a section D (“Add any other types of Inappropriate Dress”), which is the part parents decide. 

In theory, parents could choose to leave section D entirely blank. There’s nothing in the TDSB policy that states that a dress code must include anything other than sections A through C. This document also clearly states that students must be surveyed for their opinions and understanding of the function of any proposed dress code before it is passed.

With this understanding of policy in mind, I asked for dress codes to be discussed at the last school council meeting of the year. During this meeting, I learned that the letter my daughter and son were sent home with was distributed to all students in Grades 6-8, but that the younger students were supposed to pay the most attention to the section of the letter that dealt with scooter and bike safety. The dress code “reminder” was specifically because there have been a few Grade 8 “students” who were taking risks with their attire: bandeau bras, side boob, exposed bellies, extra short shorts.

“Students,” eh?

The explanation continued: several male teachers felt there was a risk of liability in suggesting that “students” were dressed inappropriately, particularly those “students” who were far more developed than their peers, and wanted to have clear written limitations on dress code that they could refer to so that they would be safe from harassment claims.

I asked if “students” who were less developed would fly under the radar and wear rule-breaking clothes without being challenged, and the person describing the situation agreed that this would happen. It’s only the “students” who have something to show that shouldn’t be showing it.

Now, I talk and write a lot about gendered expectations of appearance, but I’ve gotta say, I was speechless. I just could not respond. The end result of this part of the discussion was that the bigger school’s parent community had drafted and agreed to the current rules, the smaller school currently had no formal dress code, and we should take a closer look in the new year at what we’d like our K-6 code to include.

While I couldn’t figure out where to even start with what I was hearing in the moment, it was important for me to touch base with my daughter. So, yesterday. I told her what had happened and what had been said. Her reaction was what I would expect from a student her age:

“Girls. Are wearing clothes. That male teachers can’t cope with. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Is that how you understand what I’ve said?”

“Yeah. And that’s really stupid. Girls have to change the way they’re dressed because adult men can’t cope? That’s sexist.”

We’re not going to be part of the school community when September comes, so my child’s opinion won’t be heard by the parent community, but I’m so glad that she recognizes that this particular set of rules and the reasons for them are so unbelievably messed up and damaging. She recognizes that this isn’t because her body is dangerous, but that it’s adult perceptions of her that are the danger. She also already understands something that took me years to figure out: her clothing, her body, and her appearance are not responsible for potential acts of harassment and violence against her.

I just can’t stop talking about dress codes.

I’m still thinking a whole lot about this dress code situation. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and read many comments on newspaper articles and blog posts, and I feel I need to address a few of the ones that keep coming up. 

School is a place of business.
The school as an institution serves several functions. First, it’s a place families can send their children for child care that their taxes pay for. This is even true for adolescents. We have a collective need to know that our minors are supervised for the majority of the day, and schools provide this. Second, schools are places of learning. Literacy, numeracy, arts, humanities, social sciences – schools provide space to facilitate this curricular learning. They also provide social learning. After all, isn’t the biggest (fallacious, incidentally) argument against homeschooling the lack of peer socialization? Children learn at school (and at home) about social and cultural expectations for behaviour. Finally, schools are used to replenish the workforce. In a 21st-century context, that’s exactly what schools are for. As students progress through the grades, they get slotted into the spaces deemed most appropriate for them: at its most basic, doers and thinkers. 

So, yes. ONE of the purposes of school is to prepare children for the world of work. That means that learning about and internalizing workplace conventions is part of what students are expected to do. Does this necessarily mean, though, that a “professional” dress code is the right across-the-board choice to accomplish this? Some of our children will grow up to be tradespeople. Others will be gardeners. Some will work in offices, others in design studios. With the ever-changing world of technology, a significant chunk of today’s 8th graders will be working from home. Some will be performing or visual artists. And some will work in positions that come with a uniform. We have no real way of knowing what a given student’s workplace appearance expectations will be when they hit adulthood. We can guess that for some, “appropriate attire” will be health-and-safety-based, while others will quite legitimately wear their pyjamas while they work. 

Here’s one suggestion for how to incorporate the conversation of “work-appropriate” clothing into the school environment: Careers class. Every student is required to take a half-credit Guidance course in Careers before graduating. Would it not make sense to incorporate direct instruction on workplace expectations into this course?

Next suggestion: add a co-op work term to graduation requirements. Reduce the number of electives a student needs to take to graduate, and add in a two-credit co-op work placement so that students have on-the-job opportunities to learn about workplace culture before officially entering it as adults.

Both of these steps involve real-life applications of “appropriate” workwear, at age-appropriate times.

We need to teach modesty so young people don’t see themselves as only sexual beings.
Many believe it is the school’s job to foster self-worth and self-esteem, particularly in young women. Part of this fostering is insisting that young women (and, really, girls, as dress codes are a k-12 phenomenon) fit within requirements that are sometimes arbitrary, often gendered, and enforced unequally (with curvy bigger girls getting much more negative attention from teachers and administrators than their less busty classmates). Here’s the thing, though: how many of these kids are actually thinking, full-time, that they’re selling themselves sexually? Adolescence is a funny time: they’re trying to figure out who they are outside of the definitions of adults. They may have a bit more autonomy to play with. They definitely have new bodies that are a mystery. How do you dress such a body? Through trial and error, really. Tweens and teens are trying on identities as much as they’re trying on clothes. To dismiss this need for experimentation by labelling it as “attention-seeking” or “hypersexualizing” is, I think, missing the greater point. As they play with appearance, they also play with social fit: clothes and accessories may signal particular interests, and act as connectors between students who may not have otherwise crossed paths. When left to their own devices to figure out what’s comfortable, most students will settle into clothes that make the most sense to them to be comfortable and physically active. I would argue that the attention we give clothes we as adults deem “too sexual” extends the period of time in which they’re worn. Rebellion is a significant element of identity construction: the more something is outright hated by the authority figures in an adolescent’s life, the longer that something will stick around.

I know it when I see it.
I’ve read through more than my share of school dress codes, and I’ve noted that many of them have lines that say “…etc.,” or “appropriate as deemed by the staff.” While there are other more specific elements to each of these codes, the ambiguity of these two examples gives me pause. How do we know what is and isn’t appropriate, to whom, and for what reasons? “Appropriate” carries with it an undeniable level of subjectivity, and that subjectivity can create enforcement procedures that disproportionately target people based on gender, race, and body size.

You’re a bad mother for supporting your child and not teaching her better.
Yep. Those of us who have young daughters and who speak out against arbitary dress codes have been called bad mothers. We’re not protecting our daughters from harm if we’re not teaching them that dressing like – how did an Ottawa Citizen commenter phrase it – “tarts” is unacceptable. I am not a fan of respectability politics. I’m also not a fan of telling my daughter that wearing modest clothing will keep her safe from violence. It’s not true. No matter what my child wears, she is at risk of harassment and abuse at the hands of men, simply because she lives in this world as a young woman. I refuse to be one more person in her life imposing a fear not based in reality on her. Instead, I support her in the development of her self image as a strong and powerful young person who is capable of choosing activity-appropriate garb. She may occasionally need reminders that it’s a gym day (so maybe skinny jeans aren’t the best option) or that it’s going to rain (so take an umbrella), but really? Aside from making sure her clothes are clean and in relatively good shape (I don’t care about knee holes, for example), I trust her judgement.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. I trust young people. Mine, yours, strangers I haven’t yet met. That’s a revolutionary statement for a parent and a teacher to make, and an important one. I trust them.

What happens when autistic young men meet up with pick-up artists? Pretty much what you’d expect.

I’m taking a big risk writing this post. I recognize that it may be misinterpreted as an agreement with concepts that go completely counter to my intention. It’s time, though. 

The media is currently abuzz with the planning and execution of Friday night’s murders at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. He must have been mentally ill, people argue, to have written a 100+ page manifesto explaining his motivations. No one sane would have uploaded a YouTube video detailing his plans for retribution against the women of the world who refused to date or have sex with him. While most mainstream media outlets gloss over the inherent misogyny of his actions (and the clear connection between his choices and those of Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989), the speculation of the role of mental health is high. Described as disturbed and unstable by people who claim to have known him well, the preferred focus appears to be on demands for greater gun control in the US as a way to prevent this from happening again. 

The other media focus has been (as with many mass murders committed by white men before Elliot Rodger) on his status as an autistic person. He had Asperger’s, folks say, so this is obviously why he hated women, killed his roommates, and planned to slaughter every woman he encountered. Because autism makes you disconnect, socially isolated, a dangerous loner. Because autism means you are incapable of empathy or of seeing other people as human beings. Because autistic people are volatile and unpredictable.

You do all realize that’s bullshit, right? 

Here, however, is where I may lose a few of you: while autism does not make someone more likely to be a misogynist, autistic men are definitely disporportionately more vulnerable to the messages of pick-up artists (PUA)  and men’s rights activists (MRA). The reasons for this are complicated, and deeply tied into our ableist, sex-negative culture. 

As a culture, we traditionally do as little as we can get away with when we discuss sexuality with children. We describe the mechanics of puberty in technical terms, we talk about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in as abstract ways as we can, and we avoid avoid avoid as much as possible, with the assumption that kids grow up and figure most of this out as they go along, or that they don’t need the information because it won’t be relevant to them, or we hope, as parents, that the school will do the awkward work for us. I’m just talking about kids who are perceived as able-bodied in this description. Disability compounds the conversation. As parents of autistic kids, we’re told to lower our expectations. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that our children will grow up to be asexual misfits who are incapable of making intimate connections and partnerships. 

For young autistic men who are seen as “high-functioning” (as I’m going to assume Rodger was), the two scenarios combine: we assume that they’ll probably not be interested in dating and relationships, but if they are, they’re smart enough to figure it out when it’s time. 

It’s not about being “smart enough.” The common understanding of how autistic people learn is that direct instruction is integral to comprehension. A lot of us are not so good with abstract concepts and figurative language. We are often concrete thinkers who benefit from step-by-step explanations. Guess who’s really good at offering young men step-by-step explanations on how to get a girlfriend? 

Pick-up artists. They demystify a terrifying process. While social skills groups and parents go around the idea of dating and sexuality, PUAs jump right in and offer concrete steps on how to get exactly what you want. They give advice on appearance and approach, and offer praise for attempts at contact. They acknowledge that autistic young men are capable of and interested in being sexual with other people (in this instance, women) – validation few others in their lives are willing to consider. 

So, yeah. Autistic young men who are interested in women are definitely at risk of embracing MRA philosophy, and of emulating misogynist pick-up artist practice. There. I said it. It’s out there. Now, what do we do about it? Simple answer, more complicated execution. The short answer is that we ensure that every young person has access to comprehensive sexuality education that’s based in respect, mutual pleasure, and consent. We humanize sexuality, and include the emotional parts of it in our conversations with youth. We acknowledge that sexual interest lies on a spectrum. We reinforce the idea that no person on this planet is owed sex by another person, for any reason. 

For autistic youth*  in particular, we incorporate dating and sexuality into social skills curricula. We talk frankly about dating behaviour, about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We study examples from popular culture and role play how to talk to women respectfully. We model concrete ways of interacting with romantic interests, and provide young people a tool box of strategies. We provide a space in which they can talk freely about their feelings of frustration and isolation, but also about their successes. We replace the PUA step-by-step approach to getting laid with our own step-by-step approach to building confidence in interacting with attractive-to-us people. 

Yes, the fact that Elliot Rodger was SEEN AS autistic matters. The fact that the only people he felt took him seriously also actively encourage men to hate women matters more. 

* Throughout this post, I’ve spoken exclusively about young autistic men who are sexually attracted to women. I have not talked about men attracted to men, nor have I talked at all about autistic women’s experience of sexuality. I am in no way ignoring that comprehensive sexuality education needs to include a concrete approach for young women, nor am I overlooking sexual orientation as a piece of this educational approach. For the context of this particular piece, however, men who want to have sex with women are my target audience, for what I think are obvious reasons. 

(edited to clarify that we don’t actually know if he was autistic, only that it’s been reported.)

Dress codes, redux

It’s that time of year! It’s finally starting to get warm enough to put the winter coats away for good, and the summer clothes are starting to make their way into our weekly rotation. After a long cold stretch, it’s such a relief to be able to feel the sun and breeze on our skins in the time we have outside every day.

It’s also a contentious time of year: though we know it happens throughout the year with yoga pants and leggings scandals, school dress codes hit their biggest enforcement times as the warmer layers are peeled away, even at the primary level. It seems like every day over the last week or so, someone in my Facebook feed has posted an article or blog post involving one more tween/teenaged girl who has been taken aside for dress code violations. Arguments go back and forth:

Schools are places of business, where students are supposed to be learning how to dress appropriately.

Schools are places where teenaged girls should feel safe to try on different identities without fear of being targeted for harassment.

It’s too hard for boys to concentrate when girls are dressed in ways that draw attention to their bodies.

Dress codes are enforced haphazardly, primarily target girls and young women, and those students who are more physically developed are targeted more often than those who are not.

Students should be learning how to follow the rules, and parents agreed to send their kids there knowing the rules. Flaunting a disregard for the rules of the space shows a lack of respect for authority.

Dress codes that are gendered are a symptom and a reinforcer of rape culture.

This is just a handful of the arguments I’ve heard from both sides of the fence. As with most arguments, everyone believes they are correct about their own perspective. I understand all of these sides. I’m sure it can be distracting if a young woman is wearing a tank top and shorts in class. I also think that everything on the planet acts as a distraction for many teenagers (girls as well as boys), and I am far more interested in supporting students as they learn how to self-moderate and control their responses to the world around them than I am in shielding them from having to ever figure this out.

I also recognize how some would see value in having universal rules from K-12: if 5-year-olds are expected to wear longer shorts and belly-covering tanks with thick straps, it won’t be so hard to convince them to do so when they’re 12 and it “matters” (and it only matters when our bodies hit that point where adult sexualization comes into play). We’re teaching modesty, in theory, from a very early age, so that adolescents will embrace this as a value when they start to make their own decisions about how they want to be seen in the world.

I hear the argument. I get it. I don’t agree with it, though. I think that when little girls are told from early childhood that they have to cover their bodies, they internalize the message that something about their bodies needs to be hidden. Whether this is for social conventions of modesty or personal safety or any other reason, shame becomes associated with appearance very early.

I’ve written previously about my experiences of sexual objectification in high school, and how much shame I felt about my changing body both before and after it received unwanted attention. This experience has informed my current thinking on dress codes. I don’t entirely believe that it’s the distraction of the young men we’re focused on. I do think that top-down enforced dress codes include an element of adults sexualizing children and youth, and may lead to a feeling of tacit permission by adults for young men to provide unwanted attention to the young women in their classes – regardless of appearance.

I’m actually not against dress codes. I think, however, that we do everyone a disservice when we don’t include all the stakeholders in the decision-making process. A major focus in the Ontario curriculum, at all grade levels, is critical thinking. We expect students to learn how to think critically across all subjects. Does it not make sense, then, to have them apply these skills in practical, hands-on ways? Have a conversation with students:

Why do we have dress codes? What’s the function of a dress code in our school?

What helps you learn? What gets in the way of your learning?

What are the safety issues that go into certain clothing choices? How do we define “safety?”

You want to create a dress code you don’t have to enforce? Get the people most affected by it to be your primary stakeholders.

Thoughts as I wait for the light to change at Yonge and Wellesley

Every day, I wear my sexuality as a weapon
In your face to keep me safe
Tits out
Short skirts
Femme ’cause it’s me and also fuck you
Overflowing with ferocity
Expecting your looks
Defying your expectations of
Proper

I will not hide
It makes no difference
If anything
I get catcalled less when I’m
In your face

I’ve had your eyes on me for thirty years
I’ve felt shame
Fear
Rage
And now, resistance

But now I’m back to rage
Because you aren’t only looking at me

Your new target
My fierce
Shameless
Confident
Imperfectly perfect
Barely pubescent
Child

I don’t know if she heard you
This morning on her bike
At the stop light
When you said

Oh that’s a cute one
But wait I think she’s still a bit young

You don’t get to break this one
To create shame where there’s none
To instil fear
You don’t get to have this one

Not only will I not let you have her
She won’t let you either.

This can’t continue (a probably triggering post about sexual violence)

I’m not sure how coherent I’m going to be as I write this. 

My heart is in a very bad state right now. This week has been stupidly hard for anyone who gives a damn about ending sexual violence. 

A 19-year-old young man went to police immediately after being sexually assaulted by four women. He was widely ridiculed over Twitter, but Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno decided that wasn’t enough attention. Jokes have been made at his expense about how this is some men’s ultimate fantasy, that the description of the women involved was the reason he reported it as sexual assault and not as consensual sex (because 4 short fat women would never be part of that fantasy), that there must be something wrong with this guy to have not just shrugged off the whole thing. He’s 19, and he felt his power was taken from him. His right to choose what happens to his body was taken from him by four women who have bought into the myth that all men want indiscriminate sex all the time. 

But he has, so far, survived. 

The same cannot be said about two teenaged girls who committed suicide within the last week, after being sexually assaulted, photographed during the assault, and having the photos distributed either via cellular phone or social media. 17. 15. Their peers, rather than standing up to protect them, did the opposite. They attacked. They slut shamed. They took the photographic evidence of what happened to these girls and used it as justification to police their sexuality. Bad enough to do when a young woman makes choices that lead to exposure, but when the two young women were NOT consenting to the acts being forced on them, when they did NOT consent to photos being taken of them, and when they certainly did not consent to those photos being distributed as rapist badges of honour … I can’t even finish the sentence, I’m so exhausted by the emotion that went into writing it. 

I learned something last night, from someone just on the outskirts of one of these events. Someone who had received a copy of a photo, and deleted it. When I first found out that someone would seemingly thoughtlessly delete the photo of a crime, I was angry. Then we talked about it a bit. This person didn’t know the act captured in the photo was sexual assault. This person couldn’t identify the girl in the photo, as her face was not in the shot. This person had no understanding of the legal implications of having a photo of 15-year-old “having sex” on their phone. Had this person known that they were in possession of child pornography, maybe they would have made different choices around deleting and reporting to police who had sent it. 

Here’s the thing: if you don’t know, it makes sense there’s not a lot you can do. Is it really the act of a bystander letting things happen if they don’t know what’s legal and what isn’t? 

I’m not excusing the behaviour of the students who made these girls’ lives hell. What they did was reprehensible. But as I started to talk about above, we’re socialized in a Canadian/USian context to believe there is something shameful about being a woman (young or otherwise) who has sex. Not only is it shameful, but we must actively shame those who are bold enough to transgress. “Dressing like a slut” is threatening, but I think there may also be perceived safety for many, girls and women in particular, in constructing the sexually available woman as she most likely to be raped. If I don’t flaunt my sexuality, I won’t draw attention to myself, and I won’t get raped. If I don’t make it known that I like sex at all, boys won’t get the wrong idea about me and make me have sex when I don’t want to. Having a “slut” keeps the herd safe. One sacrifice makes life easier for everyone. 

But it doesn’t. Because this is the part that’s missing. If we, as a community, think it’s okay to treat one person with such disdain, such negation, such dehumanization, we think it’s okay to treat anyone that way. Slut-shaming doesn’t keep the rest of us safe from being raped, it just takes even more power away from individuals who have already been disempowered. It deludes us into thinking that it will never happen to us. It deludes us into thinking that we will never be the rapists who do this to others, with or without the designation of slut. 

So how do we fix this? Can we? 

I’m going to continue to try. I’ve done a lot of work to anonymize this blog as much as possible, but I think it’s time to come out again. 

I’m working on a project right now to more easily incorporate a consent-based education approach into classrooms. The document I’m working on will be a k-12 resource, made for teachers. It will be tired directly to curriculum streams, with concrete lesson plans, secondary resource suggestions, and lists of possible questions that may come up with students at specific ages (with suggestions on how to respond). 

More information about this project can be found at Indiegogo, where I launched a crowdfunding campaign to help me develop this text. I am thrilled to tell you that there are many amazing people who believe in my vision and who have funded me to my initial goal. There is still time left to donate, though, and while I am now funded to develop an Ontario-specific resource, I can now focus on raising funds to adapt the text to provincial and territorial curriculum requirements across Canada.Oh, and every resource I produce will be free. Forever.

I won’t pretend that what I’m doing is the answer. But it is an answer.

The Impact of Ignoring “No”: A Response to “Autism Ethics: Permission to Say No.”

Brenda at Mama Be Good wrote a piece yesterday on giving children with autism the permission to say no in a therapeutic context. She touched on how many therapies for autistic kids focus on compliance to achieve tasks, and that “no” is heard not as a boundary word, but as resistance we must break through to achieve success. 

This, of course, as Brenda agrees (more politely) is bullshit. I don’t need to go over what she’s written, because you should just go read her words, but I am going to make the connection to autistic people and sexuality. Because “no” is a really important word for all of us when it comes to negotiating safe sexual boundaries. We all have the right to decide our own limits when it comes to sexual expression, and we have the right to have those limits heard and respected. Some of us know we have those rights.

Disabled people often don’t. Rather than have opportunities to develop the confidence to assert ourselves, many of us have had medical and therapeutic treatments performed on us not only without our consent, but without even any explanation. Rather than a care provider explaining what the procedure is for, and offering options on how to accomplish it, we’re given no room to develop negotiation skills. Is it any wonder why many of us struggle with recognizing our right to maintain boundaries in other contexts? 

All of us are safer, healthier, happier people when we have the ability to enthusiastically agree to our participation in pretty much everything in our lives. All of us are safer, healthier, happier people when we have space to negotiate for workable compromises when those yes moments are more complicated. All of us are safer, healthier, happier people when we can refuse to engage in an activity and have that refusal respected. 

All of us deserve to be safe, healthy, and happy. Reinforcing the idea in childhood that disabled people don’t have a choice in how we communicate, that we don’t have the ability to negotiate a middle point, that we can’t ever just say no and have it be heard and acknowledged and respected as a hard boundary, leaves us vulnerable both as children and through adulthood. 

When we value compliance over negotiation, we value less those whose compliance we seek. 

Gloria Gaynor is not enough for me (warning for possible SA triggers)

I’m so fucking tired of simply surviving my life.

The latest step in the years-long quest to find the answer to what makes me sick will be an endoscopy and colonoscopy this week. Because I have a family history of many auto-immune issues (including but not limited to Crohn’s Disease), that’s what we’re looking for. The GI doc requested that while we’re at it, I should reintroduce gluten into my body to see if he can find some damage due to celiac while he’s in there.

I have been trying to focus on feeling as well as I can through this prep process. I have been unbearably sick at times over the last three weeks, wondering every day if it will be worth it to have inflicted this torture on myself. You’d think that would be the most upsetting part of this process, but I’ve noticed in the last few days that how I’m feeling physically is nothing compared to the absolute terror I’m feeling right now.

Imagining the process of having tubes inserted into parts of my body has triggered a trauma response I would not have expected. I am feeling extremely triggered. I am feeling like every non-consensual act of sexual violence I’ve experienced is right on the surface again, pushing at my skin, stretching me too tight. I can’t breathe sometimes, it hurts so much.

This is different, I keep telling myself. This is a medical procedure to which I’ve consented. I am in control of this: I can choose to not even show up, if that’s what’s necessary. But can I? Really? I’m not in control over what’s been happening to my body for the last Gd only knows how many years. My body has betrayed me, and has coerced me into needing invasive and violating procedures to determine just what the hell is wrong with it. My body, the battleground for my trauma and my illness – it’s calling the shots.

When I had my tubal surgery last year, I didn’t have one moment of apprehension. I was completely in control of the situation, and it was, although emotionally complicated, an entirely positive experience from start to finish. So what makes this time so different? Is it because it’s connected to my mystery disease that has robbed me of so much? Is it because I’m still dealing with relatively fresh memories of invasion, violation, and betrayal, and it’s all mixing together to make a giant trauma mess?

I don’t know. There are only two things I know for sure:

1) I am TERRIFIED of what’s to come on Thursday.
2) I don’t want to be.

This is the shit I have taught others about living through sexual violence but have chosen (unwisely) to think I could avoid. You never know what’s going to trigger you, when, or for how long.

And it fucking sucks.

The good, the bad, and the ugly: a debrief on my speak at Playground

Months ago, I saw a request for proposals for a conference on sexuality and relationships. I jumped at the opportunity, excited to offer myself in some capacity to talk specifically from the perspective of a parent about the language around the more complex parts of sexuality. This weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the first Playground Conference, held in Toronto. Below, I’ll share the basic content of my part of the session, as well as a critique of both my own performance and the session as a whole.

    Part the First

As a co-presenter of “Birds, Bees, and Ball Gags,” I chose to approach my piece both thematically and personally. I set up a theme/issue/tip, and followed it with an anecdote to illustrate how that worked (and sometimes didn’t) in my family.
I covered the following:

1. This is about communication, first and foremost
2. Keep it age-appropriate, and revisit what that means regularly
3. Provide kids with the language and concepts around sexuality early so that they have the opportunity to internalize (and therefore normalize) their own sexual interests as they grow
4. Offer opportunities for your kids to moderate their own level of knowledge as you go — give them the opportunity to “safeword” their way out of a discussion, with the option of returning to the topic when ready
5. Have books around to supplement their sexual education learning (incidentally, Good for Her‘s display window is currently devoted to books on how to talk with kids about sexuality.)
6. Common advice is to wait until they ask about stuff, but as children get older, if you wait for them to ask, they’re asking because they’ve already heard about/experienced it somewhere else, and you’re going to have the job of helping them unlearn inaccurate (and sometimes dangerous) information
7. Emphasize the difference between education/information and nosiness/privacy/boundary violations. You can be very open with your children about sexuality and relationships without bringing your own personal experiences and preferences into the conversation. Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s none of your business” to your child, while keeping the door open to discuss the general pieces of that question. This is going to look different for everyone, as we all have different boundaries around what is and isn’t private. The same can be said for our children – reinforcing that privacy is important to us as adults lets them know that we respect their privacy as well (assuming “privacy” isn’t being used to mask unsafe, unethical, and illegal activity).
8. Be aware that being out about anything to your children – even out as someone who is open to discussing the murkier complex pieces of sexuality – will mean that you’re opening yourself to the probability that your parents, neighbours, children’s friends and possibly teachers will know about what you’ve told your children.
9. The opposite side of that is to be prepared to have your child be really uncomfortable as she/he/zie gets older with anything you’re comfortably out about in your community, as it affects her/his/hir levels of privacy.
10. All of this may be more complicated if you and your partner(s)/ex(es) aren’t on the same page about just how much information your child should have about sexuality issues.

    Part the Second – What went well, what could have been done better


I feel like I covered the bases of what I set out to do. What I could have done better is used the flip chart to ink out the specific themes I was discussing – to give it more structure and make it look less like I was randomly pulling bits and bobs from my head.

It also would have run a lot more smoothly had I had a chance to go over things in more detail with my co-facilitator. We really weren’t on the same page with our approaches, and it made for a bit of a fractured presentation.

We lost a few people as we went through, and I would love to know why they left, so I could figure out ways to reduce the possibility of that happening in future sessions (should they exist).

Very few people attended this session at all. We had eight, including one person who sat in the corner, outside of the conversation, and worked on her laptop the whole time. To be fair, we were “competing” against Queer Sex 101, which I hear was wildly popular. But I think there might be more to it than that.

    Part the Third – “Child” is a four-letter word


Early in the day on Saturday, I was talking with a few people about my session. Every single person I spoke with said, rolling their eyes and making dismissive hand gestures, “Oh, yeah, that wasn’t even on my radar.” They don’t have kids, they don’t want kids, and they have no interest in being involved with those who do. I think, even without being offered at the same time as a popular session, mine would still have had low attendance simply because the place of children (and those who parent them) is a marginal place in alternative sexuality communities.

It takes more organization and forethought for parents involved in these communities to participate in events due to child care and other family responsibilities, but we’re also going to hesitate to participate if how we have chosen to live the pieces of our lives that aren’t directly linked to our sex lives is treated disdainfully or as unimportant. Don’t get me wrong: my children are not welcome in these parts of my life, and that is a good thing. What is not a good thing is that by association, my identity as parent is also not welcome.

I’m not arguing that all people should have a bunch of kids. I’m not arguing that parents should have special privileges simply because they’ve bred or adopted or inherited children through a number of means. What I am saying is that for a bunch of people who can readily identify that many of us had really shitty sex ed experiences, and who can see that education for young people leads to healthier communities overall, not a lot of support is given to those of us who are actively engaged in DOING that work. That needs to be addressed.

I need to make it better. At least, I need to try.

Every time I hear about a teen committing suicide, it wrecks me. When I heard about Jamie Hubley, though, it just hit too close to home. Literally. Jamie grew up in a suburb in Ottawa. He struggled with depression for years, was bullied, and did not feel safe at school. So he chose to end his suffering, because he couldn’t imagine a world in which he had a chance of being safe and happy.

Note I didn’t mention that he was gay in that list. It’s because it’s not a problem.

Being gay only becomes a problem when other people choose to use it as an excuse to harass, assault, and dehumanize you. Being gay only becomes a problem when other people choose to exclude you from cultural rituals and social celebrations because who and how you love doesn’t reflect their expectations. Being gay only becomes a problem when people in positions of power allow people perceived as anything in the queer alphabet soup to be targeted.

I grew up in a suburb of Ottawa. I struggled with anxiety and depression since childhood. I was bullied in middle school. I did not feel safe.

I was also queer, but not nearly as brave as Jamie. And maybe it wasn’t about being brave. For some queer kids, you take one look, and you just know. That’s not choosing to be out, that’s coping with always having been read as different. Anyway, I was read as different all right, but I think most people were surprised when I came out in university. I waited, because I knew that my school was not a safe place. I dated boys I was interested enough in while hiding my feelings for the girls who held my heart, and I pretended. Did it make me safer, more emotionally secure? It really didn’t. I tried to kill myself twice in high school.

I didn’t want to die. I wanted to not wake up every morning feeling like shit. I wanted to feel like I could be the person I thought I needed to be without fear of losing my friends and family. I wanted to live in a world where people didn’t throw cold cuts at me and laugh, where people wouldn’t tell me, days before my birthday, that they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore because I just wasn’t cool enough. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be loved. I wanted desperately to be happy. But every day hurt more than the last, and the isolation was unbearable.

I could have been Jamie Hubley. But I have so far managed to survive. As a survivor, I feel I have an obligation to kids like Jamie, kids like little me. Even on my most troubled days, I’m still in a position of greater strength than these kids. I am not bullied. My depression is (more or less) managed. I have a community of people who love me for all that I am. Being queer is not a problem.

Tomorrow, I’m attending a meeting for LGBTQ students in my program, to discuss the pros and cons of being out as a teacher. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, big protects little. If my being out in a school as a queer teacher makes one student feel less isolated, less different, less small while also challenging the norms around “acceptable” bullying in school culture, it’s worth it. It doesn’t get better unless the strong take action to make things better, so we can all become strong.

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