That Friday

I’ve always thought about abortion the way anyone who has never had an abortion probably thinks about it—from someone else’s perspective. Whether it be from a story, a friend of a friend, an older sister, or even the lead role in a film. My only experience was always merely a “what if.”

I wouldn’t say I was the most careful. My boyfriend and my only form of birth control was the infamous and not always effective (clearly) “pull out” method. Five pregnancy tests later, wide-eyed yet surprisingly calm, I was standing in the bathroom of my apartment staring at my boyfriend with nothing to say except “okay.”  

At first I felt bad for almost immediately knowing what I wanted. I felt like I should’ve been conflicted or at least sad, but I knew right away that I was not ready to be a mother. I called my local clinic the next day to schedule a termination. It felt strange that I was so confident in my decision as people shame women everyday for choosing to do what they please with their bodies, and that internal shame has been embedded in me without even realizing it.

This was my first pregnancy so I had no idea what the protocol was, meaning I had no idea what to expect or how much this would cost. My clinic required two appointments. The first included an ultrasound, blood work, and a consultation with a counselor to discuss how exactly I wanted it to happen—that cost $50. I ended up choosing the surgical abortion option which cost an additional $500.

To be frank, for that first appointment I was scared shitless. A cold lobby full of women, a few men, and nobody really saying anything above a whisper. I was there for about three hours. After the first appointment, you schedule your second appointment: the actual termination.

I showed up to my second appointment with my boyfriend, eight weeks and four days pregnant. I couldn’t tell if my sickness was due to nerves or the pregnancy. Either way, the only two things I could think about were the guilt I felt for being eager to get it done and move on with my life, and how I wished I had eaten breakfast. 

After about an hour of waiting went by they called me and a few other women to the back. I got up and went, pit stains and all. As I sat there I ended up talking to this extremely nice woman, I’ll call her Stacy. We kept it polite and really only engaged in small talk. It was very clear how uncomfortable we both were, as if discussing why we were both here would set us on fire. 

The nurses—who were also extremely kind—handed me a little plastic cup roughly the size of a shot glass full of pills consisting of anti-nausea, anti-diarrhea, Vicodin, and others I can’t quite remember. I went to a different back room where women wait for their cervixes to open, pain meds to kick in, and for their names to be called. My first thought was, “Oh nice, an even smaller and colder room for us to feel uncomfortable and awkward in,” but boy was I wrong. There were about five other women there, including Stacy, and the second I got there they offered me a basket full of blankets and asked me how I was feeling. I was back there for about 30 minutes to an hour with them just laughing and having the strangest conversations, from politics, to symptoms we’ve all had, to the shows we were watching on Netflix. I felt so completely safe and supported with these women.

When my name was called, I was pretty loopy, but I remember them cheering me on, saying everything was going to be okay and not to worry. I started to tear up because I knew I would probably never see them again, and they had made a very uncomfortable situation feel less taboo. Those women have made probably one of the biggest impacts on me and they don’t even know it.

All I can remember from then on is a nurse putting a needle in my arm and telling me they were going to sedate me. I was pretty much in and out after that, and only have blurry memories of seeing the doctor come in telling me he was going to start, the nurses holding my hands and stroking my hair, telling me I was going to be just fine, and that I was strong. It took about 45 seconds for it to be over. A nurse helped me get dressed, go pee, and put a pad on for me. I was placed in a recovery room with recliner chairs and other women waiting to be released. I passed out from the sedation. It came and went pretty quickly and I hardly remember the rest of that day.

Now, I am about two weeks post abortion, on birth control, and abstaining from sexual intercourse for four weeks per request of the doctor to let my cervix heal. I am finally feeling like my body is my own again. I haven’t told anyone about this for reasons I can’t quite figure out, but I wanted to share my story and just put it out there finally. I feel strong and confident that I made the best decision for myself. I hope that whoever is reading this finds a little bit of comfort and humor in my story. When put in abortion waiting rooms, women will unexpectedly band together, cheer, comfort, and lift one another up making you feel less alone. However, above all, the moral of the story is: the pull out method is not a reliable form of birth control.

Portland Is Burning

Oregon was burning. It was the end of summer running into fall, and wildfires had taken over much of the forests surrounding Portland. Each morning people would wake up to see their cars covered in a coat of ash. The horizon looked like a permanent sunset, with a red and orange glow coloring the outline of the hills.

My friend Peter told me about the fires when he visited me the same year. He said it was like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which we had both read two years ago in college. Every evening after class I used to go back to my small, leaky house in Southwest Portland and pour our dried goods into different jars. Depending on my mood, I would decide whether we needed the beans or the oatmeal when we would inevitably have to run awaywhether the couscous or the rice would be the safer grain.

We were still years away from the fires, but the more I read, the more I was convinced that we would soon have to run. I dreamed of fires every night, and talked incessantly to my roommates about them. It became a joke between us—that sooner or later we would grab the jars of food I kept on a bookshelf in the kitchen and load up the shopping cart that was abandoned in our front yard.

The fires, said Peter, were most alarming because no one was alarmed. People brushed ash off their windows in the morning and rescheduled hiking trips. Everyone adapted their lives for them, like frogs in hot water.

I had only really seen fires of this magnitude once before, even though I grew up in California. The summer when I was 20, my mom and I drove from Portland to San Jose. We spent a night in Ashland and stayed at the Holiday Inn. We were there during the annual Shakespeare festival in the beginning of August, and had tickets to see Antony and Cleopatra. We had dinner at a restaurant that served me wine, and then walked down to the small center of town, coughing from the ash in the air. 

The theater was outside, and at the beginning of the show, the stage manager came out to tell the audience that, for the safety of the actors, they might have to shut down the performance midway. The ushers all had masks on their faces, and some of the audience members had tied scarves over their mouths and noses.

I have read many descriptions of fire that talk about its power and wildness—these qualities meant to liken it to an animal ruggedness, a spiritual closeness we’re expected to share with our greatest evolutionary tool. But that night I spent in Ashland, the only word that came to mind was oppressive. As my mom and I left the show early to go back to our hotel room, I felt as if the smoke in the air was suffocating me.

A year later, I met someone who remembered the fires too, a boy from Ashland with curly hair and feet that pointed out when he walked. We met at a bonfire where I had to ask him his name over and over again, and he helped me crush forgotten beer cans with the heels of our feet.

We went to the coast on one of our first dates, and missed the sunset. We lugged a tarp out to the beach and sat with it folded around us like a tent, drinking wine. Eventually, we gave up on the tarp and sat out in the rain, both of us laughing hysterically. When we walked back to the car, the bottom of the paper bag I was carrying the wine in collapsed, and the bottle shattered at my feet. I looked up to see him smiling, and felt for the first time what it was like to find a home in another person.

We spent all our time together after that night, staying up late with a sort of hunger to be around each other. It made me tired in my classes, but I was so happy I felt like I could burst. He was kind and smart and sweet, and even when I slept next to him I dreamed about him. It was with him that I saw Oregon the way most people see it: the lush green that stretches on beyond belief. We went to rivers and hot springs and up and around mountains, and he’d make up the origin stories of those we didn’t already know. When I think of him now, I prefer this image: swimming or laughing in some faraway place where we could have been the only people in the world.

I think he always knew I didn’t want to stay in Oregon, the same way I always knew it too. The week that he and I drove down to Ashland was only a few weeks after he had told me that long distance was not an option for him—that if I wasn’t going to stay in Portland, he didn’t want me at all. We took separate cars down the highway, and I counted the mountains he had pointed out to me months ago, the ones I will only ever know by the names he made up for them.

His Ashland was different. We stayed at his parents’ house in the woods, isolated from everyone else. There was no fire, but instead rain and wind. We left our windows open at night and slept under layers of blankets, holding onto each other tightly enough to insulate us against the impending future.

We jumped in the cold lake and had our first real fight, and one night while we sat in his living room I decided that I would stay. I would stay wherever he was. No job or place could replace this person—this person who I loved more than I ever thought possible, this person who I would have given any piece of myself for.

A few weeks later, he clarified to me that it wasn’t just about distance. He didn’t want me no matter where I was. I was too much of a burden; I took up too much of his life. He had only wanted me for a length of time, and that time was up.

I left Portland in the middle of the night, without telling anyone. I packed my things and duct-taped my bumper to the front of my car, and made it to California just as the sun was rising. I cried until I laughed, and then I cried harder.

In the end, I didn’t need to pack the dried beans or the oatmeal, because in my version of apocalypse, these things were plentiful as the road to California is studded with convenience stores. The absence that I felt, the thing that precluded my survival, was a person. My person, who I had left behind without explaining where I was going or why.

It took me months, but in the end I made it to New York. That’s where Peter told me about the fires that had been raging since I left, in a small bar on Houston Street. He was in New York to see a girl, a girl who he had brought to the bar with him. They clung to each other that night, sitting across from me as if offering a glimpse into the life I had left behind.

I don’t think we were happy in the end. I don’t know if there is a way to be happy once you know the person you love is going to leave you. We adjusted ourselves to a new normal after we decided to break up, and when I look back in time I see a split, as if there were two different relationships that I was a part of. Though, the strange thing is that even when I miss him so much that it physically pains me, even when I have to lock myself in the bathroom while my body spasms from grief months later, there is a strange sense of pride that followed me to New York. There are never any nights when I don’t miss him, but there are also never any nights when I wish I had stayed. And even though I hug myself when I lie in bed and pretend my arms are his, this feeling of pride has yet to go away.

I have spent a long time trying to understand if the fires and the end of my love are correlated.

I want to see them as some sort of vindication—that the landscape of my home is now as scarred and gnarled as I am. And yet I cannot seem to make sense of it.

I do not believe in randomness, but I do believe that things can lack meaning. Perhaps things happen, not because they were meant to or because they had to, but only because they did. And perhaps, while I sit in a small bar and Peter tells me about the summer when Oregon was burning, it is enough for things to have happened, only because they did.

Take Young Queer Women Seriously

Queer culture has manifested itself in nightlife as early as the 1930s. Gathering to mix and mingle, queer people of all shapes and sizes congregate in bars and clubs. These venues not only help queer people meet, but also facilitate safe environments for a group of people often left to their own devices when it comes to building a community. Unfortunately, many of these spaces are catered to queer men by default. 

Over the past year, I have read a number of articles about the decline in queer spaces for women all over the country. This comes as no surprise to me. I moved to New York this year only to find even less spaces carved out for queer women than I had expected. The fact that I can count on three fingers the only lesbian bars in all of New York City is a testament to the fading trend of queer female spaces across the nation. I can only imagine how few spaces are left for queer women in more rural areas.

Before moving to New York, I grew up between a small beach town in San Diego and an equally small suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. Neither place offered much representation when it came to queer women. Very few openly queer people attended my small, private, Christian high school, and even fewer of the out queer people I knew were women. Therefore, I was excited by the prospect of attending a women’s college and living in a large city, hoping the combination would offer more opportunity to build a queer community for myself.

I’m sure you’ve heard the narrative before—girl escapes Christian private high school suppressing any deviation from compulsive heterosexuality only to realize… she’s queer! This, however, isn’t my story.

Although my high school greatly lacked in representation, I realized I was queer long before leaving. It was coming to New York that made me realize how much of a community I actually lacked. I didn’t realize I wanted a queer community until I experienced it, and now I can’t imagine my life without one.

Not only was my school lacking any sort of queer community, the greater city of San Diego also lacked in LGBTQ+ pride. Although the city has Hillcrest—a historically gay part of town—it feels outdated, and centered around an older generation. It is also largely male dominated, and as a young queer woman I never felt like there was a space for me in Hillcrest.

This trend of queer spaces catering to an older, white, male crowd isn’t new.

Most queer spaces, even in New York, cater to white men. Within the LGBTQ+ community, most things default to maleness and whiteness. If you search the city for gay bars, you’ll find most filled with only gay men. When most queer and/or gay spaces are compulsively male, it becomes isolating for women and nonbinary folk. There is somehow the assumption that gay men and women have their queerness in common and that that is enough, but there is a gap here—a lack of exclusively queer spaces for women.

Some would argue that the remedy for this issue is creating more general queer spaces where all are welcomed; however, I believe carving out space for people of specific intersectional identities may be a more effective way to build community. The sad truth is, while few designated spaces exist for queer women, even fewer exist for queer people of color. The LGBTQ+ community has unfortunately adopted systems of power that value masculinity, maleness, and whiteness above all other identities. Most queer spaces are made for white men, and this is a huge problem. Not all gay people are white men! Spaces for communities based on identity should not just be a privilege reserved for the apparent majority.

Part of this decline in spaces for queer women comes from a generational gap—many young queer women are doing away with labels and opting for a my-sexuality-is-fluid-and-I-hate-labels approach. Because of this it may seem as though queer spaces specifically for women are no longer necessary. I beg to differ. To dismiss spaces made specifically for queer women is to erase the distinction of intersectional experience. It infers that all queer people experience the world similarly, when this is not at all the case. While I have pride in belonging to a greater LGBTQ+ community, I have very little in common with the older gay men I often meet in gay bars.

There is a case to be made for traditional labels of sexuality. Although the shift away from labels is progressive in that it acknowledges how fluid human sexuality can be, it can also be argued there is some internalized homophobia in wanting to distance oneself from terms like lesbian and gay. I identify as queer, but I also embrace the terms bisexual, lesbian, and gay to counteract the stigma associated with these terms. I have mixed feelings about the no labels approach many young queer women are taking today. While sexuality is by no means fixed, there is a certain power in reclaiming terms like lesbian, dyke, and queer.

As more and more young people are identifying with sexualities outside of heterosexuality, it’s affecting how queer communities are forming.

There appears less need for separate areas of town to be designated as gay areas—as fun as they are—for they seem a byproduct of more dire times, when many public spaces felt unsafe and unwelcoming to queer people. Today, young queer people are connecting in more innovative ways: through dating apps, social media, and mutual friends. It almost seems as though the need for queer-only spaces is dying down as identities become more complex and nuanced. There is, however, no substitute for a physical gathering space, and while less space is being carved out for queer women, this doesn’t mean we don’t need the space. Seeing that we are already a demographic not taken seriously, often patronized as confused, hyper-sexualized, or seen as going through a phase—young queer women are constructing community where there is none.

That’s not to say in modern times there aren’t still a lot of lingering issues for young queer women. One example is the underlying idea that we don’t have any agency over our own sexuality. As I mentioned before, young queer women are consistently patronized and hyper-sexualized. I remember one night at a gay bar—packed with mostly white men—an older man came up to me and asked if I was a lesbian. He continued to say that he was surprised to see me and my friends in this space, as most lesbians he knew were uglier, older, and “more masculine.”

Although I would like to believe that this older gay man was trying to compliment me and my friends by creating a dichotomy (think: you’re not like other lesbians, you’re attractive, feminine, and young!), in reality he was perpetuating a dangerous stereotype and deepening a pre-existing wound in the queer community. This addresses a deeper issue not just affecting young queer women, but all young women. This idea that “you’re too pretty to be gay” is a thinly-veiled comment implying that we should be interested in men simply because they are interested in us. This erases young women’s agency over their individual sexualities, and perpetuates the outdated notion that women are only queer because they’ve failed to capture the attention of a man.

By looking closely at the comments young queer women often receive, it becomes apparent that what may seem like a harmless joke or even an attempted compliment, actually impede taking young women seriously.

The stereotype against young queer women being that we are confused only perpetuates and makes it acceptable to not take us seriously. Implying queer women are confused is part of a greater cultural conversation in which femininity is equivocated with frivolity and stupidity, and queerness with uncertainty and disorder. 

So let’s take young queer women seriously. We might surprise you.

Do It Yourself

I’m in seventh grade. My new LG Touch lights up with a message from my latest crush, Brendan Gordon. We are playing the “question game,” which is basically preteen sexting:

do u masterbate? Brendan texts me. He’s the pinnacle of eloquence.

no haha 🙂 I type back in a panic.

I’m not one to lie, but at 12, I’m wracked with guilt over masturbation. It’s at least four years before I realize that other girls masturbate too. Yet by 12 it was already common knowledge boys masturbated. A lot.

We talk about guys masturbating all the time. There are so many nicknames for the act of cis men masturbating that basically anything you say could ostensibly be a euphemism for a dude “jacking off.” The equation for creating an alternative saying for masturbate is verb-ing the noun. Beating the meat. Tugging the slug. Pulling the pope. (These are all actually sayings I found on the internet that people apparently say.)

Honestly, some of them sound incredibly violent and not at all like something I would want to do to my hypothetical penis. Bleed the weed. Flogging the egg man? (I sincerely hope no one has ever, ever, ever said this in reference to masturbation.) The thing is, if you have a penis there are hundreds of different ways to say you’re going to flog your egg man, and they’re all generally accepted, but I flounder to find a single way to refer to masturbating if you have a vagina other than saying masturbate. I have yet to find a single person who can say flick the bean without cringing or laughing. The lack of colloquialisms for female masturbation implies a larger problem than linguistic shortcomings.

Fixation on cis male sexual pleasure has been a constant in the human sexual landscape for the past, oh, forever. Sure, gone are the days of diagnosing women with hysteria when their husbands couldn’t make them cum, but I’d like to hope the standard is a little higher than that.

Curiously enough, a fix of sorts did come through women diagnosed with “hysteria.” The percusser, more popularly known as the vibrator, was initially invented to help doctors administer pelvic massages to their patients in order to calm hysteria and “frigid woman syndrome,” which should’ve been called “I-can’t-cum-and-apparently-it’s-my-fault syndrome.” That’s right, making your girl cum was a duty delegated to medical professionals in the late nineteenth century. They disappeared off of the popular market somewhere around the 1920s and returned into the black hole of female sexuality. (Freud literally called female sexuality the “dark continent” of psychology. But let’s be honest, Freud couldn’t make a girl cum and neither can many psychology majors I know.)

But if doctors aren’t making people cum any more, then who is? Because, according to analysis of over thirty studies regarding the female orgasm, women aren’t coming during sex. Women are four times as likely to refer to heterosexual intercourse as “not pleasurable at all” as men are, according to Alexandra Fine, CEO of Dame Products.

This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘pleasure gap’ in sex.

In one of these surveys administered to individuals aged 18-65, 62% of women reported regularly orgasming from sex, compared to 85% of men. Studies aside, this is something I witness and experience all the time. The whole idea of ‘faking it’ is preposterous when you actually think about it; women are more concerned with men’s egos than their actual sexual pleasure. When I asked a female student why she faked orgasms, her response was that she “got bored and wanted it to be over” and that jackhammering only feels good for one person. If your sexual style is compared to a power tool, you can bet that you’re not making anyone cum.

Another female student noted, “Everyone acts as if the path to pleasure is the same for men and women when it’s drastically different.” Why are women so reluctant to instruct men how to make them cum? Why are men so offended by women not cumming when it’s usually, unequivocally their fault?

But even as I ask myself these questions I know the answer; throughout our entire lives, women are taught to protect fragile masculinity at all costs. Because if we don’t, the price we pay can literally be deadly. How many stories have I read in the past month about women being beaten to death or stabbed or shot for rejecting a man’s advances? I recall the high school era myth of blue balls; an urban legend which sole purpose was coercing women into sexual acts they weren’t comfortable with.

I was curious as to what cis men had to say about the pleasure gap. Were they aware of it? Did they give a shit? I decided to ask men I’ve had sex with. The interviews were a lot like the sex I’ve had: nothing extraordinary, but they got the job done.

One man I interviewed fumbled uncomfortably when I asked him if he thought he made girls cum, saying, “I don’t know, I have no idea. I feel like, honestly, maybe? I mean, people make different movements and noises and whatnot? And afterwards I’m not gonna like, I mean I don’t… ask.”

I watched realization settle onto his face.  He continued, “Maybe that’s really… rude of me?”

This John Doe wasn’t aware of the pleasure gap, but was able to guess at it quickly, comparing it to the “wage gap in that men orgasm way more often than women do.” What frustrated me about talking to these guys is that even if they were aware, or they acknowledged their own problems, they just didn’t seem to care that much. It’s almost as if making a female-identified person orgasm has become a novelty; those who can do it are special and rare. So in sex, the burden of orgasm falls to the femme for both participants’ pleasure.

So how do we reclaim pleasure in sex? Sex shop curators, such as Amy Boyajian of Wild Flower, a sex shop based in New York, are working to reform the discourse around sex. Most importantly, she’s trying to change the popular view of sex toys. Re-enter the great “percusser’ of the 19th century! Boyajian wants to combat the idea that “sex toys and the stores that [sell] them [are] lurid and sinister places that only creepy men in trench coats [visit]. With the rise of feminist sex stores, that based their ideology around education and pleasure, it expanded the market of the sex store shopper to include women and queer people. I’m working to expand this inclusion to trans people and nonbinary people also.”

Wild Flower’s website is categorized not by gender, like many stores are, but by the body parts the sex toy applies to; vaginas, penises, butts (oh my!), as well as categories for BDSM and nipple play. The store, along with her popular Instagram page, wildflowersex, also features numerous educational articles and videos with titles like “Oral Tips With A Giant Vulva” (if you want to know what an enormous paper mache vulva looks like then this one is right up your alley!) and “What’s The Deal With Cock Rings?”

When I asked Boyajian what she thought about the pleasure gap and why it exists, she brought up the effect(s) of societal norms on sex and sex toys today. “There is a common idea that sex toys are seen as competition to partners in the bedroom, when they are simply aids to women who find it hard to orgasm via penetrative sex,” she said, before continuing, “any woman who talks about sexuality is deemed a slut, myself included. Sexual wellness also spans bigger than penetrative sex, like period sex and vaginal health, however these are too ‘icky’ to be part of the mainstream narrative.”

If we’re going to talk about women’s pleasure during sex, then women’s comfort must also be discussed. If your male partner can’t say the word ‘tampon’ without lowering his voice or giggling, if your period is denigrated as something ‘gross’ or ‘unspeakable,’ then what the hell is that dude doing near your vagina anyway? Sexual pleasure comes with feeling comfortable that your body—no matter what it looks like or how it functions, your body is not wrong or bad. 

When asked if she had advice for anyone struggling to feel comfortable in their sexuality or with sexual satisfaction, Boyajian replied, “Create an ongoing romance with yourself, explore your body, and get to know what feels good via masturbation. Treat yourself to a vibrator. Make your pleasure a priority… Explore your fantasies and do it a way that is non-judgmental. Be gentle and kind to yourself.” 

Discovering what pleases you isn’t exactly a linear journey, and what’s often forgotten in conversations about pleasure today is that pleasure is different for everyone. Don’t let shame or discomfort dictate your sex life. Set your vibrator on high (or low, or whatever setting you damn well please) and get to it! Don’t settle for anything less than shaky legs, flushed cheeks, and arched backs. Men? It’s a clit, not the Strait of Magellan.

Femmes, it’s time to come to our senses and start cumming.

 

Representation Is Not Just Black And White

I am a beautiful brown-skinned womansomething I should have realized long before the age of eighteen. Growing up in a majority white, middle class community made feeling beautiful and smart difficult. My perceptions of beauty and intellect were always viewed through a white-washed lens. As a short, dark-skinned woman with a lot of hair and a large nose, I never felt as though I won the genetic lottery when it came to what made a woman “beautiful.” My accent was always a little different, I wasn’t as “culturally aware” and most importantly: I wasn’t white.

Living in a society where white ancestry feels like the criteria for success can make people like me, who are not so privileged, feel isolated.

Many people of color (POC) mature with statements comparing their intellect and self-image to the stereotypical white person. When we possess similar attributes to white people, our individuality is not recognized. POC are consistently analogized to white counterparts. We are exposed to racial slurs and pseudo-compliments such as “coconut” and “you’re pretty for a brown girl.” Often defined by their proximity to whiteness, when POC oppose preconceived ideas of themselves, they are seen as an anomaly. 

Lack of representation and stereotypes of POC are apparent in every type of media. Stereotypes uphold threatening standards and dismiss diversity in their portrayal. In a racially skewed industry where three-quarters of film actors in 2014 were white, our aspirations and beauty norms likewise become predominantly white. While increased recognition of POC in film and music (such as Grammy nominated SZA and Kumail Nanjiani, star and screenwriter of the critically acclaimed The Big Sick) has been a strong step towards the normalization of diversity, we still have a long way to go.

Growing up, I never saw an abundance of South Asian people in Western media. There were no Asian women I could relate or look up to like the all the role models readily available to white people. What little diversity existed within media were caricatures of what it means to be a minority. I always saw South Asian people play the “nerd” characters in the background or by contrast, a fetishized “exotic” woman.

The negative connotations of such roles go far beyond the character. Being a parody or a counterpart of white actors, in turn, excludes Asian actors from creating their own unique footing in the industry, and misrepresents an entire population of people. It reduces them to a subservient role, under the domination of the white industry.

While the absence of diversity is finally being recognized as damaging and the standard of roles cast to certain POC is expanding, there is still a lack of progress overall when it comes to portraying wider ethnic minority populations.

It is fantastic that we have campaigns such as Black History Month bringing cultural and ethnic celebration to the forefront. Learning from such movements helps create necessary social change, and actively working to appreciate all minorities would be a positive step towards diversity in all areas of representation. One approach to achieving this is ensuring the regular inclusion of Asian people in positive roles throughout media and entertainment. This would help reverse stereotypes, provide more accurate representation, and challenge the notion that the beauty standard is solely Western.

Even within my “own” culture in Bangladesh, the spread of Western culture is clear. While the influence of Western ideals and culture aren’t necessarily problematic in and of themselves, when they negate or devalue the culture and beauty of another region, they become an issue. In many South Asian countries, the pinnacle of beauty and power is always associated with lighter skin.

For example, cosmetic products designed to bleach and lighten skin are commonplace throughout the world, especially in India. Studies indicate that global spending on skin lightening products is expected to triple by 2024, becoming a $31.2 billion business.  This makes it clear that the Western influence on beauty standards and acceptable womanhood reach far beyond simply the white majority. This harmful aspiration of light skin shows how the impact of colonization and white-centricity has continued into the present day, and is a detrimental norm against celebrating a variety of skin colors. This cultural prioritizing of whiteness deeply affects the perceptions and stereotypes of Asian people. Supporting diversity of skin colors, body shapes, and cultural values is essential. We are stuck in a circle wherein to be white is considered to be beautifuland to be otherwise is not.

Social media such as Instagram and Twitter have been key in positively shifting the conversation surrounding race, body, and ethnic diversity. Though in many cases, the unrealistic beauty standards portrayed across social media can be harmful, for me, these apps have helped my self image. I have been able to utilize social media to access online Asian communities, coming into contact with other people who’ve also struggled with body positivity. Although social media can still play a role in my own battles with body satisfaction, sharing my life of various cultures with a diverse audience has helped me gain pride in my roots. I choose to use social media as a positive tool to create a social space in which every culture, body shape, and person can be accepted for who they are.

In a period of personal turbulence relating to my culture and heritage, refusing to accept societal biases and expressing my own identity is a way of fighting back. The argument should not be that any skin color is less beautiful or intelligent, but rather that diversifying the standard will make for a more inclusive reality. Revolutionizing such standards is possible changing the perception and representation of people of color, which means including people of color in all areas of society. We need to stop thinking that ‘white is right.’

How Our Society Enables Sexual Assault

*The content below may be triggering to those affected by assault. 

 

I have trouble discussing violence prevention because of the dangerously thin line between promoting self-defense and promoting rape culture. Necessitating the need for self-defense knowledge can sometimes imply the responsibility to avoid assault falls to survivors as opposed to the assailant.

When I was a senior in high school, I was raped by one of my close friends. For the next few months, I was subject to gossip and rumors, losing sight of myself and my experience. The whole time, it felt like people needed to find an individual to blame, but it is not that simple. After this experience, I took some intensive violence prevention seminars and classes. These classes made me begin to consider if the attack was my fault—if I could have fought back and defended myself further.

I don’t think survivors are ever to blame.

There are more important, realistic, and educated ways to minimize violent sexual behavior in society than blaming survivors. Although conversations on the topic can be uncomfortable, they are important to have. There are people who claim survivors could do more to fight off their attacks. There are people who call survivors of rapes like my own “lazy.” To understand these perspectives and discrepancies around the definitions of rape, I began to critically examine our societal and cultural views of assault.  I have learned that although sex-ed and violence diminishing efforts should involve self-defense, it should also include education about societal structures and cultural power dynamics, and the responsibilities and privileges that come with them.

After an assault takes place, our society often blames the individual rather than the system that promotes their behavior. As we consider society as a whole and the patterns within this, we learn that the individual is not the sole root from which these bad behaviors stem. These behaviors come from a complex web of historical and social constructs that create a system where certain individuals are unequal to others. This system of inequity creates dynamics that enable those with power and privilege to take advantage of those without (or less of) it. This abuse of privilege can come in the form of rape. 

It’s also worth exploring the distinction between sexual assault and ‘bad sex’ and the dialogue around it.

‘Bad sex’ is an experience many of us have, wherein verbal consent may have never been explicitly given, but we don’t really mind. Typically, these interactions aren’t enjoyable and may cause either participant to feel bad afterward. People sometimes refer to these kinds of situations as the grey area of sexual assault, with the assumption that people know better than to label this kind of interaction as rape. I think this is an unfair assumption promotes the viewpoint that rape is only committed by random strangers in dark alleyways.

Rape and ‘bad sex’ are not the same. There is a difference between a sexual encounter where, due to clear or unclear pressures, one member feels as though they cannot express their discomfort and is being forced to continue (rape), and sexual encounters where one person is not fully present and does not care enough or feel like it’s worth speaking up to end a situation (bad sex). It isn’t rape because they weren’t active in the experience.

While bad sex isn’t rape, it comes from the same cultural influence: individuals with power and privilege feel more entitled to do what they want. To remedy this communicative disconnect, people with inherent social and sexual privilege need to understand their standing, and take on the responsibilities that come with it. For example, if one person is passive during sex while another is active, it is the responsibility of the active participant to engage and make sure the passive participant is consenting and enthusiastic about the sex they’re having. The “bad sex” argument is a cop-out for these often avoidable situations. Letting active participants off easy fuels phrases like ‘they’re just men, they don’t know any better’ and ‘boys will be boys.’ 

We need to hold all members of our society accountable, especially those with privilege, and make sure they’re aware of the power system we operate within, the toxic behaviors this system inspires, and ways to prevent these behaviors. That should be the bottom line when considering routes to minimize rape culture, not simply suggesting survivors participate in self-defense courses.

While I do believe self-defense practices are empowering and important, I don’t think they should be the only solution offered. I encourage everyone to ask themselves these difficult questions: why would someone not feel safe enough to express their sexual discomfort? Have you never found yourself in their situation? Am I genuinely considering my partner(s) needs? Am I actively making sure my partner(s) feels comfortable? 

Once you consider the societal structures that produce this kind of behavior it becomes clear that violence prevention is not an individual’s responsibility, but a collective one. This is why the individual blame model does not work. We need to learn about privilege, about compassion, and about what it means to take advantage of our privileges. We need to learn how to be advocates rather than bystanders. We need to learn what consent means, what it sounds like, what it looks like, what it feels like.

Non-Starters And Not-Quite-Exes

We were sitting at a bar and I had knocked back an entire pint of Guinness while he was nursing something paler. I had a lump in my throat as I searched for literally anything to say that would break the silence between us. In less than two weeks’ time, he would be moving across the country. We had been dating without a label for a few months, and while we agreed that we would stay in touch after he moved, I knew that stuff between us was going to change drastically.

I didn’t want it to; we really, really liked each other and he knew I was taking his impending departure pretty hard. “Would it be easier if I were a jerk to you now?” he asked, smiling. I was unsure, I told him. We laughed.

When long term relationships end, there’s usually some period of time leading up to that point where things are going south. You start to see the cracks getting bigger and bigger until the foundation finally collapses. In the days, weeks, months after the breakup, you can take (some) solace in remembering all the things about your ex you didn’t like. You can remind yourself of why it didn’t work outwhy it wouldn’t have worked out. But when a relationship ends before any negative feelings have a chance to develop, you don’t get any of that closure. You realize you never knew the person well enough to find out what you don’t like about them.

While some of my other non-starters have ended for tangible reasons like geography, most ended simply because the other party lost interest. One day they would stop texting back, and once I realized it probably wasn’t because their phone was dead, I’d lose any sense of hope about what lay ahead for us. We were never going to pore over the Sunday New York Times while drinking coffee he made for us. I would never take him to meet my friends for drinks after work. We would never rent movies or make dinner together or any of that gross stuff.

I was talking to a well-meaning person after one of these non-starters ended about how much I missed my almost-but-not-quite ex boyfriend, and she said, “Well, you never really had him.” She wasn’t wrong, but I think that the pain we feel when non-starters end could be lessened if we gave ourselves permission to go through them like we go through more traditional breakups. Instead of pressuring ourselves and our friends to simply “get over it,” what if we admitted it was okay to take some time to grieve?

Whatever grieving looks like to you: hide them on social media. Delete all text, email and app exchanges. Delete their number. Delete pictures. Cry in the shower. Go out dancing with your friends. Stay in on a Saturday night to watch bad TV and order a pizza. Dye your hair. Say you’re going to join a gym. Go once and decide you hate it and just start walking everywhere instead.

It’s painful to feel a connection with someone and then not be able to see where it goes, and pain that goes unacknowledged isn’t good for anyone. So don’t try to tough it out. Don’t try to get over it immediately just because it seems silly to be so upset over someone you were never really “with.” Feel it, and then remind yourself that there’s at least one thing about this person that would’ve driven you up a wall. In fact, probably more than one thing. You just never got to see any of it, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Living His Truth

The first weekend of my freshman year of college: a culmination of a week’s worth of forced binge drinking with the people on my floor, celebrated by more binge drinking.

I had gone from an all-girl’s boarding school of 200 in rural New England to a university of more than 10,000. While the changes that first year weren’t insurmountable, they were substantial. Gone was the one pizza restaurant and lone gas station; in their place, bars and clubs and good restaurants. Alcohol was abundant, and so were boys. They existed in school for the first time in four years; they lived across the hallway and went to the same gym and appeared in class.

I wasn’t the only one who seemed to notice… my boyfriend did, too.

The first Saturday of the first weekend of my freshman year ended with a crying, drunk boyfriend slumped in front of my door. He was apologizing profusely for kissing one of the people on my floor, Keith.

“Keith?” I remember asking, puzzled. “But Keith is a guy.”

I’d been prepared well by friends, family, and Cosmopolitan magazine about the precarious situation of a high school relationship carried into college. I’d thought that, if anything, I would end up cheating on him or he’d end up cheating on me. Most likely, I thought we’d grow up and out, two seedlings planted side-by-side, intertwined for a season before reaching towards separate suns.

But this? I didn’t know the natural course of action for this situation, and I certainly couldn’t ask friends what to do without outing him. So I turned to Google.

“Boyfriend bisexual advice.”
“Is my boyfriend gay?”

If Google were a person, they would’ve sent me directly to a therapist after this rain of queries. Even worse, after every fervent Googling session, I emerged empty-handed. There simply isn’t that much online about this subject.

Meanwhile, IRL I told him repeatedly that if he wanted to go try new things, he was absolutely free to do so. I wanted and continue to want nothing more than his happiness. I suggested he should try dating men, hooking up with other people, specifically men… all ideas he shot down immediately.

Statistically speaking, his behavior wasn’t irregular: a 2013 Pew Research survey notes that 84% of individuals who identify as bisexual end up in heterosexual relationships.

Still, I wondered how I could ever be enough. I wondered if he could ever be truly satisfied without at least trying to have a relationship with another man. Would I have to introduce strangers into our admittedly adventurous and fulfilling sex life? Did this mean he was now naturally inclined to polygamy? Would I wake up at 40 to find my husband had run away with a man, realizing after all this time that he was actually gay and not quite as bisexual as he’d thought, wasting my time?

While he confronted his own sexuality, I was forced to confront mine.

“How is this any different from all those times you’ve drunkenly kissed your friends,” he asked, often frustrated, “what about lesbian porn? Checking out other girls?”

According to 2016 statistics from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 17.4% of women admit to having had sexual relations with other women, compared to only 6.2% of men.

How was my behavior different?

I had to admit the perception of it was. Gay porn is still considered taboo while lesbian porn is considered universally sexy. Not to mention I’ve never had to confront my own sexuality in such boot-strapping, earth-shattering way like my boyfriend did. For me, kissing my female friends and finding girls sexually attractive had never seemed, culturally or personally, strange.

Maybe the key difference is this: for him, being attracted to his own sex had the potential to be ruin a relationship. For me, and for a lot of women out there, same sex relations are considered hot. Maybe even encouraged.

Today, having being together for four and a half years, I’ve come to view his bisexuality as just another aspect of his already complex humanity. These days, I’m worried a lot more about finding a job and paying off my student loans than his running away with a man.

Some words of wisdom: monogamous people will continue to be monogamous people. Your sexuality doesn’t change how likely you are to cheat on someone—your choices do. You don’t have to label the sexuality of others in order to understand them, and maybe most importantly, you don’t have to label your own.

 

*This post is co-published with Bitter Blush, a platform that strives to discuss topics that traditionally make people blush. You can follow the blog on Instagram at @bitter.blush. 

My Pledge Sister Is Dating My Assailant

The title makes me laugh and I know it shouldn’t… but it does. Anyways, the title is pretty self explanatory so I don’t need to write much, which is good in my opinion.

“Honey, no…” are the first words that came to mind when my boyfriend informed me that my pledge sister (a girl I went through the new member process with when I was rushing my sorority in college) is dating the boy who sexually assaulted me freshman year.

I entered college in 2014. When I arrived on campus I felt cultured and sophisticated from frequent travel, yet somehow depressed because I now  found myself in a small college town. I went to a rush event; however, I do not need to explain why I chose to smoke and drink and I refuse to explain why I pointed to my assailant and said, “He’s cute I kind of want to get with him,” to my friend. What does matter is that I remember my consciousness going in and out while in my bedroom and having my phone pushed away from me as I tried to read it and text my friends for help. I remember saying no and hearing the reply, “Why? You’re so beautiful?” I had never felt uglier.

The negative comments I received over the next year and a half were heart breaking. Very few people believed my story and wanted to believe that it was a cry for attention. Let me ask the public: why would I, or any woman want that kind of attention? Please fill me in because if I could go back I would not have told a single soul. In fact, it was HIM who told everyone why he was being suspended for two weeks and it was him who told several people that I was “crazy” and a liar. The counseling I received helped me significantly, as did the support from my true friends. Some of those friends included my sorority sisters. I pledged with 14 extraordinary girls who came from diverse backgrounds and had a lot to offer the sorority. I opened up my wounds a full year later with these girls, and felt at peace with everything that had happened.

Now as a 23-year-old kick ass woman, I find myself on my typical early 20s Manhattanite path. I attend graduate school in NYC, go to brunch on Sunday’s, attend overpriced workout classes, and student teach with some of the best educators the state has to offer. One day I wondered: “Why I am blocked (yes, there is an app for that) on Instagram by one of my pledge sisters?” I turned to my boyfriend and shrugged. “I guess she is over me then,” I said, laughing it off.

The next day my boyfriend found out why she blocked me on Instagram (oh, and Facebook too): she is dating that boy from the paragraph I JUST FINISHED ANGRILY TYPING ABOUT. My first thought was “Honey, no…” then my brain did that thing where it processes information (how dare it).  I got angry. I got flashbacks of what happened freshman year, and I got angry at HER. I cannot blame him for being interested in her. She’s blonde, has a cool nose piercing, and is pretty alternative. But she also used to be one of my close friends, and I couldn’t wrap my head around why I was more mad at a fellow woman than I was at the man who violated me.

Then it came to me: she is a hypocrite.

This girl was an orientation leader, a tour guide, a sorority sister and an advocate for social justice. The boy who violated me was a hermit who did nothing but grow his hair to an ungodly length and a mustache that did no benefit to his face. He did nothing to make anyone else think that he gives a shit about anyone other than himself. Sure, he was an athlete *slow clap* but he convinced the rest of his team that I was a liar and that I made everything up. But this girl I considered a friend had the audacity to BLOCK me. It is not about losing a follower and it is not about losing her as a friend, because frankly I don’t want to know someone like her. It is about her assuming that she has the authority that she can block me from finding out what she is doing. On top of that, she does not have the right to decide that I cannot handle seeing his face. That is not up to you and it never will be.

To my former sorority sister: you are not an advocate for anyone or anything but yourself, and that is fine, but don’t you dare try and say you respect women if you are dating someone who calls your pledge sister a liar.

 

*This post is co-published with Bitter Blush, a platform that strives to discuss topics that traditionally make people blush. You can follow the blog on Instagram at @bitter.blush.

Ava Answers: A Touchy Subject

Ava Answers is a column exploring the science of sex by Ava Mainieri, a PhD student studying women’s health at Harvard University. 

It has been over 4000 years since the ancient Egyptians believed that self-stimulation should be celebrated. Their sun god created the universe by masturbating and the Nile’s currents were determined by his ejaculation patterns. Now, despite social stigmas, we are living in what some call a golden age of masturbation. Science is on board, too. 

Other mammals don’t question the pleasurable effects of masturbation. Female porcupines use sticks as sex toys, bonobo monkeys mediate disputes through oral sex, and walruses contort their bodies to self-felicitate. There isn’t a big difference between what happens in the wild and what happens in the glow of our computer screen: the Kinsey Reports, collected from interviews with over 6,000 women in the 1940s, were the first to quantify that masturbation in both sexes is pervasive. A study conducted in 2007 found that 38% of women and 61% of men admitted to masturbating within the past year, statistics echoed by Mona Chalabi’s analysis of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Other studies report higher statistics: a 2010 study reported that 85% of women and 94% of men masturbate. They even documented cases of women who can get off just by imagining erotic scenes in their heads—without any manual stimulation!

Having sex with oneself can also help prevent cervical and urinary tract infections. When a woman is aroused, her vagina can expand up to three inches. This process, called tenting, stretches the cervix and allows cervical mucus to flush out all the harmful bacteria chilling inside. Don’t think of this sticky substance like you do of boogers residing in your nose, cervical mucus is a thick jelly-like substance that picks up foreign substances living in the uterine cavity and carries them out of the body.

In addition to destroying germs, ‘polishing your pearl’ can alleviate migraines and menstrual cramps faster than popping a Midol. Orgasms also releases endorphins, naturally generated hormones which make you feel great and provide extensive amounts of pain relief. They possess morphine-like effects and produce feelings of euphoria, calmness, and that lovely afterglow that can lull you to sleep. Another study reported that 32% of women who masturbated at night did so to help them fall asleep. Serotonin, another hormone released during a climax, is the brain’s key antidepressant and a reason why people grin and feel relaxed after masturbating.

Like that apple once a day, masturbation has been proven to fire up the immune system and build protection against infections. Orgasming at least once a week is correlated with high levels of immunoglobulin A, a protein found in saliva and tears that helps your body fight colds and flus. Women who masturbate also have a higher count of T-cells, a type of virus butt-buster white blood cell. These cells help thicken the uterus after ovulation to create a more neighborly environment for pregnancy. Without this specific type of white blood cell, the immune system would instead attack swimming sperm and a growing embryo. But even if you’re not trying for a baby, orgasming spurs the production of white blood cells: keeping you out of the doctor’s office.

A man’s constant need to clean out the tubes could be an evolutionary strategy for the disposing of old sperm to make space for new, fitter sperm. The shelf life of sperm is only a few days, but men are able to create a colossal sum of three million sperm a day. The more often he ejaculates, the better the quality of his sperm. Australian researchers estimate that jerking off can significantly reduce sperm, showing DNA damage of up to 12%. Men who give themselves a hand at least 21 times a month also have a decreased risk of total prostate cancer. Harvard scientists also confirmed that masturbation is beneficial in a follow-up study, confirming that men who ejaculate more than four times a month are less like likely to develop prostate cancer.

Despite what you may have heard, there are no negative effects to masturbating. Other than some slight hand cramps during extended late night sessions, it won’t make you go blind or grow excess hair on your palms. It doesn’t cause your clitoris to lose sensitivity or erectile dysfunction. And while you may not have come out of the womb tickling your clitoris, the scientific proof has shown that self-pleasuring has significant benefits. We may never conclusively know if masturbation significantly fights cancer or rather just levels out your hormones and reduces stress, but either way—it always feels good.