[ Content | Sidebar ]

Grief and Sentencing in India

September 14th, 2013

griefWhen the news was announced yesterday that four men in India would be hanged for the brutal rape of a young woman there were intense responses from all over the world. But far too many of them – because even one would be too many – were cheering for the capital sentence these young men received.

I am not writing against a death penalty for these men. Indeed, I am highly conflicted on the matter and don’t feel like I have an answer to that question. Can these men be taught, coaxed, into to being gentle, caring members of society? If that’s too high a bar, can they be even brought to a place where they don’t harm others? I couldn’t say. Rehabilitation is not my area of psychology. But it clearly isn’t the prison system’s area of expertise either, at least here in the US. I don’t have much faith that the Indian prison system would be much better, so I just don’t have an answer on the question of what to do with them. It seems unlikely that they will actually be executed in any event.

I am writing because the degree of pain involved in this case – and in so many cases that go unpublicised, untried – is so extreme that there is not a “right” answer. Given the graphic and physical and invasive nature of the pain she suffered, there is nothing that can be done to right these wrongs. There is nothing that can be done to these men that will alleviate the pain of this woman. The grief that I feel for her is overwhelming.

At the same time, I also hold an overwhelming grief for the men. What level of disconnection, what level of pain, must a human being be in so that they are able to inflict such damage on another? They clearly suffer too, although they lash out in their suffering and harm others – because surely she was not the only one. We cannot right their wrong by killing them, but maybe that’s the only response available to us in our limited human capacities.

Our world does not naturally breed connection, compassion, and relationships among its inhabitants. This case is a clear example of that dramatic and painful lacking. So regardless of the outcome, there is nothing worth cheering for here.  And I grieve for all of the victims of violence, for all of the perpetrators of violence, for the entire world.

I am reminded of the deep sense of grief and sadness in this poem by Thich Nhat Hanh (thank you for the recent reminder of it, Ruth).

In My Two Hands

I hold my face
in my two hands
No I am not crying
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep my loneliness warm
to cradle my hunger
shelter my heart
from the rain and the thunder
Two hands protecting
Two hands nourishing
Two hands preventing
my soul from flying
in anger.

I hold my face
in my two hands
My hands cupped
to catch what might fall
from within me
Deeper than crying
no, I am not crying
I am in my two hands.

Why I love the National Sex Ed Conference

August 27th, 2013

2013logoThis year I have been working closely with a number of wonderful colleagues to put together the National Sex Ed Conference. (Which will be held December 11 – 13 at the Meadowlands Sheraton in New Jersey.) This morning there was a great phone call with the whole planning team and I am just SO excited about everything we have planned!

I was considering a few things about this conference. First, why it’s important enough to me to spend an insane (really, it’s insane) number of hours working on it and then donating financially to it. Second, what it is about the conference itself that makes me jump up and down a little when I look at the conference schedule.

So here goes:

This conference holds a place near and dear to my heart. This feels a bit odd to say, since I’ve never been to it before. (Yep, I’m co-chairing a conference I’ve never actually attended. Because that is, apparently, how I role.) There is something so very unique and beautiful about sexuality educators coming together as colleagues that I can never get enough of. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m here, cast out, into the Bible Belt, away from 97% of all sex educators, but I just love it. And this is, indeed, the conference of all conferences for sex educators!

And as for the conference schedule… Well, working Cat Dukes, Bill Taverner, and Jeff Anthony to create the schedule itself was an entire boatload of fun, I’m honored to be on the schedule as a workshop presenter on LARCs (Long Acting Reversible Contraception), and to be honest I want to attend almost every session. Because that just wasn’t possible, I managed to pick a few choice ones and arrange the schedule so I could attend them. (One of the biggest perks of being a co-chair of the conference!)

The long and short of it is: GO TO THIS CONFERENCE! Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a counselor, or any other person who has any reason to talk with children or teenagers (ever!) or adults about sexual issues, you will benefit from participating. Plus you’ll be able to see me live, in person, and probably running around like a chicken with its head cut off making sure everything else is running smoothly. And who wouldn’t want to see that?

A granddaughter, daughter, mother, and future grandmother’s thoughts on abortion

June 26th, 2013

I have been in Germany for the past month, wandering through Amsterdam’s red light district, seeing condom ads plastered across public walls in Germany, generally enjoying myself. I spent most of my time with my mother and my daughters. Immersing myself amongst the females in my family was well-timed. I returned just a bit before midnight last night to a state where Wendy Davis and hundreds of protesters kept draconian abortion legislation from becoming law in Texas. I flew through a dark cloud, and while I am so proud of Senator Davis and all of my fellow Texas women for standing up for what is right, I am also worried and scared about what is to come.

My daughters’ rights are being chipped away, slowly – their rights to make their own decisions about their own bodies, their own reproduction. About whether to have my grandchildren.

When my first daughter was a baby, my grandmother asked me if my experience mothering made me realize that abortion should be banned. No…if anything, it made me feel more strongly in favor of ensuring every woman has access to legal and safe abortion. Being pregnant and giving birth were exhausting work – but nothing compared to being a mother. Only women who are passionately committed to, who actively want children should do it.

I’m one of the 2/3 of women who has never had an abortion – and as a lesbian, it’s likely that I won’t ever find myself in need. Years ago, though, things were different for me. There was one day, when I was 19 and dating a boy, that I had a pregnancy scare. The boy I was dating apparently didn’t think I should have a choice about whether or not to have an abortion. Even though I had made my thoughts on the matter quite clear – he was unwilling to consider any option other than abortion. He didn’t think I should have a choice.

I left him shortly thereafter, grateful to be alone, not alone and pregnant.

Because I did have a choice – I had the ability to choose whether or not to bare and birth a baby. And I am adamant that my daughters have the same choice.

The political motion in the United States to reduce a woman’s access to birth control and abortion a movement to reduce women’s ability to be their truest and most authentic selves. It is an attempt to reduce me, my mother, my daughters, to our biology. It is an attempt to punish us for our sexuality.

It is my life’s work to make sure that this anti-women political movement will not succeed. We are, each of us, so much more than our sexuality. A million times more. Every person holds an astounding level of beauty and uniqueness. To deny it for anyone based on gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, or reproductive capacity, is an attack on basic human rights. Everybody is somebody. Full stop.


Thank you, A Mighty Girl, for this image. Love it.

Can we learn from a place of power?

February 26th, 2013

This weekend I had a conversation about education and classroom dynamics. In it, I said:

We need to remember that students will have a wide range of reactions to any curricula or activities we bring to the classroom. There will always be some who are not drawn into an activity and others who love it. As teachers, we must be attentive to this dynamic. Attentiveness is particularly important because the position of the learner is not a position of power.

I felt like a bomb went off in my head as I said the last line. The conversation continued around me as though I hadn’t said anything momentous, but I stopped attending to the flow.

It is common to reference teacher-student relationships as ones where a power dynamic is in play, which is probably why no one reacted strongly to my statement. But what does it mean to be learning when you are in a place of weakness? What does it mean to lack authority in a situation where you are trying to integrate new information and skills on a topic as deeply personal as sex and sexuality?

We talk about the need for equal power dynamics in relationships because it lends itself to all parties being able to state what they need. Why do we assume it okay for the power balance to be so dramatically different in the classroom environment? The power dynamics in a classroom are often conceived in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the student. But the relationship between the content and the student is also very important. Students need to feel ownership of the content, they need to have autonomy over themselves and they need to gain autonomy over the content. This may be particularly true in classrooms that address topics of sexuality.

What about your classrooms? Do you think your students feel that sense of power that autonomy can yield? Are they able to gain authority over the material in such a way that it feels like it belongs to them?

My new website!

February 20th, 2013

I am so excited to announce the launch of new website:


If you are receiving this via e-mail or a reader, please register to receive my blog posts via Unhushed. I will be moving much of the content from here to there over the next few months and re-organizing this space to be focused on speaking and writing.

Come read my latest Unhushed blog post on gender!

Parents: Children’s Primary Sexual (Violence) Educators

January 15th, 2013

coverI recently wrote an article for Partners in Social Change, the publication from the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs that addresses how parents can most effectively talk with their youth about sexual violence. Here is a clip from my article:

“Parents have a unique position in their teenagers’ lives. They have daily access to the dating relationships and associated emotions that young people live through. This provides parents with a front row seat to be aware of issues in relationships and potential warning signs of violence. Nevertheless, without a strong conversational relationship – one that includes topics of sex, sexuality, and violence – parents are likely to miss important signs that would allow them to support their teenager.

It is never too late to start conversations about sexual (and relationship-based) violence. Opening up a new area of conversation between two people is often awkward, regardless of what the relationship is. However, these initially awkward topics can evolve into the most important and relationship strengthening lines of communication.”

I include an elaboration on my ten tips for parents to talk with their kids about sex that addresses how the tips apply in the situation of sexual violence.

You can download the magazine, including my article, in PDF form.

Sexual Identity, Race, and Gender: The Evolution of Equality

January 10th, 2013

Thanks, Upworthy, for pointing me in the direction of this infographic from Daily Infographic. It puts many things in context. (While, of course, leaving out others, but on the balance I like it.)


Gender v. Sexual Orientation: a short primer

January 8th, 2013

Several weeks ago I had a guest author write about how to talk with your kids about sexual orientation. While I loved much of what Wesley said in her post, I was a little concerned about the way she treated gender and sexual orientation. Because this is a common point of misunderstanding, I want to take a moment and iron out some details of the differences between these two very importantly distinct points.

Our societal assumption of either being a man (and associated masculinity and attraction to women) or being a woman (and associated femininity and attraction to men) has made talking about these issues difficult. We have moved to a place where men can be attracted to men and women can be attracted to women – but this barely scratches the surface of these issues.

First: Let’s talk about gender. This is about masculinity and femininity as it is defined in our culture. Just for a second please forget that you are probably an evolved individuals who don’t make distinctions based on whether someone is a girl or a boy and quickly answer some questions: Is a nurse a man or a woman? A teacher? A football player? A car mechanic? Is a man or a woman more likely to cry? To yell? To prefer the color blue? To have long hair? These questions are about gender. Gender is about how you identify based on a set of cultural standards. It’s about, aside from anything else in the world, if you’d say you’re more feminine or masculine

Second: Now things get hairy. Before we can dive into sexual orientation (which is what this post proclaimed itself to be about), we need to talk about sex. If gender is about what our culture says we should do as a man or a woman, sex is about what our biology tells us: man or woman. For most people (and animals of all kinds) it’s pretty clear if you take a quick look between their legs if they’re a man or a woman. (But it’s not always, and that’s when we get into areas of Intersex.) However, not having access to most people’s genitalia, we rely on a number of other actors when assessing their sex, including body shape and size, clothing, hair styles, voice, etc. You may notice that many of the ways we think about sex (man or woman) is actually about gender (femininity or masculinity).

Confusing sex and gender can cause problems and confusion. For a majority of Americans, gender = sex, sex = gender. Completely aside from the fact that most people don’t fit fully, squarely into the round peg of entirely feminine or entirely masculine, and some people don’t fit entirely into the peg of biological man or woman, there are still other people don’t quite feel that their biological sex fits into their societal assigned gender. And there are people who do not identify within this binary paradigm at all. (And can you blame them?)

If you’re confused or unsure how all of this fits together, that’s okay. This is complicated stuff, particularly if you haven’t dived into these particular depths before.

Third: Now let’s talk about sexual orientation. This is generally about whether someone is attracted to men or women or both or everyone or no one or something in between all of those. Except I just pointed out that the binary assumption of men and women and maleness and femaleness is itself a complex conversation that doesn’t always have clear answers. It is often assumed that if a man has many female aspects to him, he must be gay. But gender does not equal sexual orientation does not equal sex. Each of these components can and should be understood as entirely freestanding.

My colleague Sam Killerman created an infographic that I think portrays these dynamics, along with a few more, quite effectively (I helped a little):


And finally: a dictionary. If you’re unsure of the meaning behind any of the words I used in this post, and then did not fully define, you can probably find them in Sam Killerman’s Comprehensive List of LGBTQ+ Term Definitions.

Questions? Leave them in the comment section below and I’ll help you sort everything out.

Rising Rates of Mental Illness Worry Academic Community

December 10th, 2012

Most of the issues covered on my blog are about teenage sexuality. However, this topic is related to a far wider range of material. In this post, Bree Hernandez, an education writer, discusses the spikes in college students reporting depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies. Bree provides information on how to get into college through her main website, but also has a certain expertise about the struggles and competitive barriers students today are facing. Here’s what Bree has to say:

An alarming number of today’s college students suffer from mental illnesses that, if left untreated, can lead to tragic consequences. And while many institutions have adopted programs to counsel young men and women with psychological issues, academic experts fear these accommodations are leaving them unprepared for the real world that they must face on their own after graduation.

According to Daily Sundial, men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 are most susceptible to severe mental illnesses such as anxiety and/or schizophrenia. Individuals are also likeliest to suffer from a mood disorder (usually depression) between the ages of 18 and 25. Furthermore, Psych Central contributor Margarita Tartakovsky noted that 75 percent of all individuals with an anxiety disorder experience an onset of the symptoms by the time they reach the age of 22. Since 1997, the number of college students suffering from depression has doubled – and the rate of suicide incidence among collegiate men and women has tripled. A 2006 survey by the American College Health Association found that 45 percent of female college students and 36 percent of male college students were too depressed to carry on with their daily routines – and as a result, many have failed classes and been forced to drop out of school.

For many students, the transition period between high school and college is the primary catalyst for mental illness. Freshman must contend with a number of changes regarding living arrangements, social functions and exposure to a wide variety of different (and often, contrasting) lifestyles. Dr. Gerald Kay of the Wright State University School of Medicine noted that feelings of inadequacy within this new environment, coupled with parental pressure and “academic stressors” brought on by demanding coursework, can cause students to feel depressed and/or anxious. Substance abuse often exacerbates these mental issues. According to most reports, one-fifth of college students use illegal or prescription drugs, while nearly half binge drink. Dr. Kay also said that many of today’s students have pre-existing mental conditions when they enter college. In recent years, advances in psychological treatment and diagnostics have brought many of these cases to light.

If left ignored, mental issues among undergraduates continue to worsen as these students enter graduate school. According to Psych Central, a 2008 study by the Berkeley Graduate Student Mental Health Survey found that 45 percent of grad students suffered from emotional or anxiety-based conditions that significantly hindered their ability to function on a regular basis, both academically and socially. Roughly 10 percent of these students seriously considered killing themselves. Furthermore, a quarter of them were not aware of campus-based counseling programs at their disposal (this was especially true among international students).

Today, virtually every college campus in the United States offers some form of student counseling for individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental disorders. Other accommodations include extra time for taking exams and relaxed attendance expectations for students with diagnosed conditions. However, the majority of students do not seek help because of a perceived social stigma; only 23 percent of students polled in a 2006 survey said they would “feel comfortable” with a close friend knowing they received counseling treatment. Another concern with campus services, University of Wyoming Dean of Students David Cozzens told The Wall Street Journal, is that students receive a substantial amount of psychological attention while they are enrolled – but once they have graduated and entered the job market, that support system is no longer present.

Today, many psychologists urge young people to proactively address their respective mental issues before they develop into full-blown conditions. Hilary Silver, M.S., of Campus Calm told Psych Central that high school graduates should seek treatment prior to their initiation into campus life. In order to establish a strong identity, students should disassociate themselves from their high school personas and determine the goals they wish to reach during college – not just in terms of career, but also personal development and intellectual growth. Dr. Harrison Davis of North Georgia Community College & State University also encourages students to both improve their coping skills and set personal limits in order to avoid falling into depressive or anxious patterns. They should also commit to getting eight hours of sleep per night, and avoid consuming excess amounts of caffeine, alcohol or other stimulants and depressants that will negatively affect their academic performance.

While today’s collegiate population faces a significant amount of academic and social pressure, these stressors can lead to long-term psychological problems if students do not make an effort to mitigate them. Proactive strategies will not only enable students to flourish at the college level, but may also also prepare them for the harsh realities of the “real world.”

When your own kid might be gay

December 3rd, 2012

I am delighted to have a guest blog post from Wesley Davidson today.wesley

Wesley is an award-winning writer. She has written articles on health and childcare for such publications as Good Housekeeping, Adoptive Families, and American Baby She is on a panel of experts for the on-line publication, KIDZEDGE.com. Wesley has been on Internet radio, cable TV, and lectured to business groups.

She is currently collaborating with Dr. Tobkes, a New York City psychiatrist, on an advice book for straight parents of gay and lesbian children. She writes the blog Straight Parent, Gay Kid in which she offers support to parents on raising gay and lesbian children and also writes about LGBTQ issues on gay agenda.com.

Sexual Orientation Doesn’t Necessarily Show Up Right Away

Not every parent is as cognizant as John Schwartz, a national reporter for The New York Times and author of his memoir about raising a gay child Oddly Normal (Gotham Books). In Schwartz’s family, by the time his youngest son Joe came out at age 13, Schwartz and his wife had “progressed from inkling to conviction.” Their toddler Joe wore a feather boa around the house and pleaded for pink light-up sneakers with rhinestones.

Schwartz’s hunch, as it turned out, was right. While some kids may self-identify as gay or lesbian as young as three, others may not know they are gay until their adult years. Time tells.

How Can You Tell If Your Child Is LGBTQ?

It’s hard for parents to know. You can’t necessarily tell by looking at your children if they are gay. Heck, the kids may not even know themselves.

Many teens may wonder if they are gay or bisexual. It’s normal for them to have sexual feelings for both the same and opposite gender partners. They experiment with the same, or opposite gender relationships as they try to discover and develop their identities. Sometimes, their experiences are the signs of their sexual orientation, sometimes they aren’t. Or, it may just be a simple process of questioning.

Gay Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

If parents perceive that all male children must be sports-oriented, “rough-and-tumble” by nature, then they will be aghast at seeing their son playing house or with his sister’s Barbies. Does this necessarily indicate that this child is gay or is this behavior a reflection of society’s perception of how a male should not act or a parent’s read of behavior that’s not boyish or expected ?

Similarly, if a daughter refuses to wear dresses and plays football on a mostly-male football team, is she considered a feminist-in-the-making, a “tomboy” or a future lesbian? It depends on who is judging her according to their standards of how a girl should act.

Don’t Out Your Child

Even if you suspect your child is gay, you don’t want to force your suspicion down his/her throat to try and get a confession. You may be dying to know, but it’s up to your child to educate you when he/she is ready. Your kid may not want to disappoint you with the big news. He/she may be in denial. Or, he/she may simply not know. After all, it’s his/her story.

Offer Acceptance, Not Judgment

Carolyn Wagner, Former National Vice-President of Parents of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) said a good place to start is with a statement that offers acceptance instead of judgment. Accepting dialogue lets Mom and Dad be approachable and open to discussion about sexual identity.

Some Sample Ice-Breakers

Ask open-ended questions with a light touch. It’s non-threatening to talk about others, rather than about yourself. For example:

  • What do YOU think of same-sex marriage?
  • Should celebrities be outed or feel they have to be come out to their fans? Why should it matter?
  • Do shows like Modern Family depict a gay family as normal as the straight ones?
  • Why is the teen suicide rate higher for youth who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer) than for straight youth?
  • Why are businesses like Starbuck’s and Oreo stepping forward to be allies with LGBTQ causes while others like Chick-Fil-A are thriving while espousing anti-gay philosophy?
  • Why do some churches accept gays and others tout condemnation based on their interpretation of the Bible? Isn’t religion about universal love and acceptance of all human beings?
  • What does your school do for its diverse population?
  • Are most of your friends having sex (define sex as it is interpreted differently by persons, often according to their beliefs and upbringing).

Sometimes teens who are considering coming out start by testing their parents’ perception of being LGBTQ by gauging their reactions to gay characters on television or religious leaders and remarks on same-sex relationship.

Your Kids Need to See You As An Ally

By bringing up these open-ended talks that can be discussed many times, you’re making your home a safe haven where any subject can be broached. In this environment your adolescent is more apt to open up about his/her sexuality.

By now, you’ve probably had the talk about “the birds and the bees.” Hopefully, it’s an ongoing discussion that includes STI prevention.

Just as important as discussions about disease is imparting your values about love and sexuality to your child. By teaching them that civil rights are for all people, you are teaching an inclusive attitude and tolerance for all individuals. These attitudes open the gateway for acceptance and security for your child.

Stability and Permanence

Parental support is so important for a gay child. In fact, studies show that positive reactions by parents of gay adolescent result in happier and healthier youth. In fact, The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has ongoing studies that show that gay teens whose parents accept their sexual orientation are less likely to do drugs, be depressed, or attempt suicide than gay teens with parents who react badly to their news about being gay. These conversations can save your child’s life.