Monthly Archives: March 2015

Healthy sex for our children

We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for sex.

Most of us want to do it at some point in our lives, and it would be really simple if we could do it on our own. The confusion begins when we want to do it with someone else.

It is hard enough to be a person getting along in the world with other people, in clothes, without all that touching and nakedness and intimacy and everything. Whilst it is entirely possible to do sex without nakedness, it is very much harder to do it without intimacy. Even completely meaningless sex with a stranger whom you will never see again involves touching in our most private places. In opening ourselves up to this kind of touch, we make ourselves vulnerable to another in a profound way. The other may break our trust, may hurt us, may scar us for life, may go further or faster than we want.

The fix for this is communication. All parties involved must be able to communicate desire and willingness and all parties must respect bodily autonomy at all times. In short, consent is vital to the whole affair.

This is all well and good, but now we start to think about our children. In the UK and the US, we tend to be very nervous about thinking about youngsters and sex. Sex is, generally, what caused them to be, yet we still maintain a Victorian taboo 116 years after the lady passed from this realm. It’s not something we like to talk about.

The newspapers on this sceptred isle swing wildly from one extreme to another, alternately demanding that we teach our children more about sex and then being horrified that we’re teaching our children about sex at all. I mean, if we decline to give them good information, they’ll just not do it, right? When was the last time that a taboo subject attracted children like an afternoon picnic attracts wasps? Hmmm… Children use taboos as marker flags to indicate realms of knowledge that are going to be interesting and fun to find out about, with the added sauce that the adults around them are going to be profoundly embarrassed the whole time. Adult embarrassment is a delightful motivator for children to keep pushing.

So, what do we do?

Amid much public nervousness, schools do teach about sex. Frequently, schools don’t teach very much about sex, but they do have some lessons. Unfortunately, it seems, these lessons concentrate pretty much exclusively on the mechanics of penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex and leave everything else as an exercise for the reader. This leaves out a vast swathe of data that would come in really handy. For example, it leaves out the very reason that most of us do sex in the first place: the sheer pleasure of it all. When it comes down to it, most of us don’t do sex because we think that the house is too quiet and we’d like more children around to liven the place up a bit.

Once we’ve covered the mechanics of how babies are made, we can relax in the knowledge of a lesson well-delivered and get back to worrying about the upcoming exams. Nothing can possibly go wrong with that, right? My guess is that the lessons that those people attended didn’t focus too heavily on consent. Or mutuality. Or respect. Or enjoyment.

Also, a good handful of people in any given sex-ed class will be gay or bi. The legacy of Section 28 still looms over our classrooms and we seem to be quite shy about admitting it. It seems that many of us are still a bit ewwy about same-sex sex. I think we’re happy to live in a society where gay people can be treated as equals, as long as we don’t know who they are. To some extent, this is a peaceful (and very British) compromise solution. It is also a very British approach to sex-ed in the classroom.

If our teachers are unwilling to address sex-for-pleasure in general or same-sex sex in particular, then the people in the classroom who genuinely need that information are going to be left out in the dark. Not only will they lack the knowledge, they will also be indirectly stigmatised: their sexuality isn’t real enough for the lesson to even address.

Less common, but still in most of our schools (research by GIRES suggests that schools should anticipate that 1% of their roll is transgender or gender-nonconforming) are transgender and intersex people. If we’re not talking about women who love each other or men who love each other, then we’re certainly not talking about women with penises, men with vaginas, or intersex people with a whole range of options under their pants. Or, indeed, the options for love and sex for any of these people. Or, indeed, what binary, cisgender (cis is the opposite of trans, so a cisgender person is quite comfortable that their body’s sex matches their mind’s gender) people’s etiquette should be if they get into a sexual encounter with one.

What, for example, if a straight, cisgender young man (who has done all this sex-ed in school) hooks up with a person whom they read as a young woman, then finds out that said young woman has a rather different genital configuration than they were expecting? Well, the young woman could end up in court for starters… Maybe a little education might help. The trans person is taking a huge personal and physical risk when she hooks up with the young man. It would be nice if she could do so without expecting to be assaulted because of who she is. If the young man has been taught not to expect a specific genital configuration in others, the experience for both of them in this encounter will be hugely more positive.

To conclude, I think a person-respecting sex-ed class will focus on the person. It must emphasise that we are all equally valuable and that consent and respect are foundational to healthy sex. It will speak about the different ways people love each other, and the different shapes of our bodies. It will talk about the way that some of us look rather different with our clothes off than may be expected, and that this is a good thing and not a reason to inflict violence.

A person-respecting sex-ed class will remind students that we are all people and we all deserve respect.

Erasure’s come-back album

People vanish. At times, people who are right in front of us seem to vanish too, even when we’re looking straight at them.

In 1903, Vanity Fair magazine (not that one, another publication with the same name) ran a story about (shock horror) women in trousers. It’s 1903, of course, so all of the women in the piece are white.

The Nib offers commentary about a job he did for an X-Men comic, featuring the character Melita. Melita had been described as having a Mexican father and an African-American mother. The Nib drew her quite dark as a result. The editor asked him to lighten her skin tone.

When visiting the USA, you get to fill in a form that includes a tickybox for ethnicity. Fair enough, I suppose, the USA is within its rights to ask any questions it likes of foreign visitors. What does a black British person (with Caribbean heritage) tick on the form, then? They’re not white and they are neither African nor American (in the UK, they’d be “black British”).

Barack Obama is often described as the USA’s first black president. His mother is white. To my eyes, at least, that makes him mixed race (or interracial for our American friends). He is from one of the 15% of America’s families who are of mixed racial heritage, as celebrated by We are the 15 percent.

A website I visited, last week, asked me to fill in a questionnaire. In a rare moment of generosity, I decided I’d have a go. The very first question asked me for my gender. I gave up at that point.

Icon of two people, one in a dress, on in trousers. Used to denote gender in an online questionnaire.

Last time I checked, “trousers” wasn’t a gender.

Frequently, schools ask their children to line up, girls in one line, boys in another. Where, as the cartoon asks, do the children line up who self-identify as awesome?

Science Fiction is a genre written exclusively by white people, isn’t it? Particularly white men. Maybe.

I went on a training course for school governors, a little while ago. In it, the tutor spoke to us about unconscious bias. It’s that thing your brain does when you first meet someone. You can’t stop it. You just form a gut feeling about them when you first lay eyes on them. For many of us, this gut feeling is overlaid with stereotypes that will be based on race, gender, clothing, hair, height, visible disability, weight, angle of lighting, and so on. The training asked us to acknowledge this bias and to let our conscious mind in on the act. Being aware of unconscious bias is the only way to diminish its effect.

One question that was asked at the training has stayed with me ever since and I find it increasingly disturbing with passing time. “Is the data biased?

As governors, we make use of all kinds of data about the school, about the pupils in the school, about other schools, about national trends and national learning outcomes, and so on. There’s plenty of it about. What if this data is biased? The data is not impartial. It is gathered by people. Those people are usually asking questions in order to gather the data. In order to be easy to analyse, the data are normally grouped into categories according to the answers on the question sheet.

Let’s look at “what is your gender?” that I alluded to above. Every single dataset that governors use breaks the results down into boys and girls. Whilst this is useful, because it lets us monitor results in subjects where there is an established gender bias, it also means that people who identify neither as girl nor as boy have no representation in the numbers. They have, simply, been erased.

It’s not just school data. The survey I almost took does the same. You can’t even get off the first page unless you put yourself into either trousers or dress. The web form simply will not let you move on until you have decided which side of the binary you belong to.

The law is just as bad. When you are born, the birth registration form demands that you get either an M or an F. The law mandates that you must be either male or female, not both, not neither. Germany changed their law recently to recognise that intersex people exist. Most of the rest of the world isn’t quite so willing to acknowledge that. In nations where you can change your legal gender, you’re still only given two options. You were M, and now you’re F. Congratulations. People in between are erased.

A large part of the reason that gender-nonconforming people do not figure in the national consciousness of most places is that the questions bias the data, erasing everyone who would blur the lines.

Let us look at our own unconscious biases this week, and see if we can avoid erasing others. After all, we are all people.

Bishops

In October, last year, there was a gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome, called a Synod. Last year, it was an extraordinary synod; in October of this year is the ordinary one. Both are on the subject of marriage and the family.

I said at the time that I was sceptical about the gathering. Get a bunch of celibate old men in a room and get them to talk about young families. Great plan.

I was pleasantly surprised, as it happened, and they came up with some very surprising statements during the fortnight of the synod. In fact, their half-time document actually suggested that the church could make room for gay couples and recognise that God can be manifest in a same-sex union. Of course, by the end of the synod, Cardinal Burke and his friends had removed the paragraphs that they found upsetting, but they were there and they left their footprints on the synod.

The year between the synods is supposed to be for the bishops to return to their countries and to consult widely with other bishops, with priests, and with the people in the parishes. Sounds great. In theory.

Before last year’s synod, there was a widely-distributed questionnaire that many people filled in. My guess is that the bishops of England and Wales read the responses and ran around screaming in horror at what their people had dared to write to them. This year, to avoid the indignity of having to go to Rome with a sheaf of paper that says that the people of England and Wales desire reform in the church, they issued a document for us to read.

The first thing that strikes me about this document is that it doesn’t have a return address. The bishops want us to read it, to read the bible passages that they have chosen for us, most importantly, to read the full page they have devoted to telling us what we believe. Honestly. An entire page devoted to outlining the official Catholic position on marriage.

Do they seriously believe that we don’t know what the official position is? Do they seriously believe that reminding us is going to change our minds? Do they seriously think that we believe that they are listening to us?

Their credibility is shot to hell these days. When I hear a Catholic bishop on the radio, I expect him to be spouting some kind of homophobic rhetoric telling us all how same-sex marriage is going to cause a resurgence of rabies or something scraped from the bowels of UKIP. Fifty years ago, when a bishop spoke up, people listened. These days, when a bishop speaks up, people roll their eyes.

If they want people to start listening to them, they’re going to have to listen a little more closely to the bishop of Rome. Pope Francis is rocking the boat quite hard, telling priests and bishops that they need to be closer to their people, that they need mercy, that they need to listen to us and to learn about our actual family situations before telling us how to run our families. They need to treat us like people.

In other bishop-related news, the bishops of the Church of England recently lambasted public policies that are causing people with the least to fall even further into difficulties. The use of food banks has been growing hugely under the current government, as government spending cuts have disproportionately affected the least well off in our society. A spokesman for the Conservative party hit back suggesting that the bishops were being party-political with their statement. Sorry, but no. If the bishops are saying that policies must protect the most vulnerable, must respect the dignity of all people, must raise up the lowly, then that is going to sound party political if you are a Tory. That doesn’t make it party-political, it just means that the Conservative party takes a steaming dump on Christian values as a matter of policy.

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of Tories.

And I am not a big fan of Catholic bishops right now either.

Big Hero 6: Disney gets it right again (I’m as surprised as you are)

Last year, I briefly mentioned Disney’s Frozen and Brave, as being two films from the great creator of misogyny that actually seemed to get some things right (story-wise, at least). If you don’t want plot spoilers for Big Hero 6, look away now.

If you’re still with me, welcome to an I-Am-A-Person film review (that’s movie, for those of you across the large puddle).

To start with, the action takes place in a hybrid city called San Fransokyo, which seems to manage to blend the most iconic of landmarks from San Francisco and Tokyo. The Golden Gate bridge has even received a bit of Japanese styling. It seems to be a fully integrated society with people of American and Japanese heritage rubbing shoulders without anyone feeling the need to assert that they are better than anyone else just because of their genetics.

The hero/protagonist is called Hiro (not entirely unlike Snow Crash, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief), a teenaged Japanese/American boy who, with his older brother, is being brought up by his aunt since the death of their parents when he was three. This gives us a foretaste of one of the major themes of the film: loss and grief.

Big Brother Tadashi, in an attempt to show Hiro that the shady world of robot-fighting is no place for a fourteen-year-old, takes them both to his robotics lab at the university or, as Hiro puts it, Geek School. Hiro is clearly not impressed with the concepts of higher education, nor of being seen to be clever (Hiro and Tadashi are both gifted roboticists). For Hiro, it’s all about being cool.

At the university, they meet Tadashi’s friends, Fred, GoGo, Wasabi and Honey Lemon. Two women, two men, from four different ethnic backgrounds, all brainy-as-hell and all of them delighted to finally meet the prodigy that their friend had been telling them about for so long. In his turn, Hiro seems to warm to them, too, and sees that “geek school” may not be such an un-cool place after all. Tadashi introduces Hiro to his own robotics project: Baymax, the personal healthcare assistant (a slightly clumsy humanoid vinyl balloon with carbon fibre endoskeleton). The icing on the cake is when Hiro meets professor Robert Callaghan, his own personal hero, and the inventor of many of the robotics techniques that Hiro has used himself, in the creation of his own robots. Callaghan invites Hiro to enter the new tech competition later in the year, the prize being a place at the university.

Having seen what a good education can do, Hiro decides that Geek school might lead to a better life than bot-fighting, so he sets about working on his project for the competition. He gets the place, of course, and he meets industrialist Alistair Krei. We’ve all seen this trope before, of course. There is immediate tension between Callaghan and Krei, and we naturally fall on the side of the academic.

As the competition is winding down, the building catches fire and Callaghan and Tadashi are killed in an explosion.

Ruled by grief, Hiro folds in on himself and is completely overcome with the lethargy of depression, until he accidentally activates Tadashi’s university project. Baymax is central to Hiro’s recovery (he is a healthcare robot, after all), and suggests several ways that Hiro might work through his grief. Helping Hiro through this process becomes Baymax’s principal motivation, and gets him (and Hiro) into all sorts of scrapes.

Together, they discover that Hiro’s robotics project was not destroyed in the fire after all, but has been stolen by a masked figure who immediately takes on the role of super-villain. Tadashi’s friends show up (summoned by Baymax) to see if they can help Hiro out of isolation and the six of them become embroiled in the battle against this new villain.

There follows many scenes where the group bonds with Hiro and form deep and lasting friendship with him, as they all work together to build themselves suits that raise them to the status of superheroes, and they set themselves in opposition to the new bad-guy in town.

[SPOILER!] During a big fight, the villain is unmasked and it turns out that it isn’t Krei after all, but Callaghan. Hiro is consumed by a grief-fuelled rage and changes Baymax’s programming to turn him into an emotionless killer and sets him on Callaghan. Hiro’s friends end up protecting the villain (who gets away), and putting Baymax back to normal. Baymax is dismayed that he, a healthcare robot, had tried to cause harm; Hiro’s friends are dismayed that Hiro did this; Hiro is dismayed that he failed to murder the man responsible for the death of his brother.

Hiro’s rage dissipates and he is able to grieve again. His friends join him and they learn that Callaghan is driven by his own grief at the loss of his daughter in an experimental project run by Krei.

It’s a kids’ film, so it’s not subtle, but we are clearly shown that grief and loss are real things, and that there are healthy ways and less healthy ways to grieve. Both Hiro and Callaghan find themselves motivated by revenge, and we see two responses to that and the consequences of both. We also see how healthy friendships can be a powerful force for good in our lives: Hiro’s friends show their mettle when they fight him to prevent him doing something he will regret for the rest of his life. In Callaghan, we see what could have happened to Hiro had he taken even one more step down that path. In the closing scenes, we see Callaghan’s daughter rescued, but Callaghan loses her again, for he will be spending a long time in prison for what he did.

So, big themes for a Disney picture. I particularly liked the way that it portrayed friendship, grief, revenge and the consequences of poor decisions. Its depiction of education as a route out of a meaningless life was not lost on me either.

Also done well was the diverse approach to ethnicity. The main characters came from a rich mix of ancestry, and this was simply a fact in the film. It wasn’t mentioned explicitly, it was just allowed to be. Society had reached a point where the cultural mix was seen as a good thing, and people’s heritage was respected for itself, without any obvious tendency to pretend that integration means making everything into a white, heterosexual, male-dominated uniformity. Two of the heroes were women, neither of them needed to be rescued at any point, and they all helped each other, willing to give and receive assistance as needed, without anyone being threatened by this.

The lead was a boy, and two (perceived) bad guys were both white men, but I’m willing to let that go as a footnote, given the generally positive attitude to race and gender throughout the film. There is no romance at all, which is also a refreshing change. Nobody is validated or motivated by their romantic interest, which frees the film of any temptation to have a woman rescued by a man, or of her being the prize for his virile manhood.

In short, everyone in the film was a person, and this is good.