Jun 212014
 

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This year’s Guelph Sexuality Conference was absolutely amazing, friends!  If you have never attended, you really must make a point of visiting the lovely University of Guelph for this event next year.  Check out #UoGSexConf and follow @UofGSexConf on Twitter and FaceBook to see many of the highlights and get a taste of the excellent workshops that went down.  And I’ll be sure to let y’all know when we open up for presentation proposals, but you can also find out at both of those accounts.

This was the first conference at which I ever presented (2004 & 2006), and I could have never guessed that one day I would be on the planning committee.  This year not only did I help plan the event, but I also served as the conference’s first (as far as we know) Active Listener.  I was available throughout the event to help folks process, listen, note any concerns, and other similar duties.  It was an honour and privilege to be able to have such important conversations with attendees throughout the event!

But before all of that, I helped wrap up the opening plenary panel with a personal story and reflections on coming out as being poly.  While this hasn’t exactly been a secret within certain social circles of mine, I wasn’t just reflecting on being non-monogamous.  I was coming out on the professional level right then and there, with friends, coworkers, and my boss in the audience.  Plus I also included my gender and sex queer identities.   The many levels of coming out never stop for some of us, eh?

The entire panel was excellent and it was thrilling to be among such amazing speakers and professionals.  Thankfully, it was taped and will be placed on the Guelph Sexuality Conference website once it’s edited and uploaded.  Until then, here is my transcript.

____________

In 2005 I married my partner of 4 years in Vermont, one of only 2 or 3 places in the USSat the time where queer people could get married.  We were unwilling to get married anywhere with heteronormist marriage laws; this was important to us.  I had proposed to him 4 months earlier, and we had our homemade ceremony by a big rock in the woods with a justice of the peace, and our parents and step-parents.  We used a poem from Virginia Satir for our vows, and I thought you might enjoy it if I read it to you:

How I want to meet you

I want to love you without clutching,
Appreciate you without judging,
Join you without invading,
Invite you without demanding,
Leave you without guilt,
Criticize you without blaming,
And help you without insulting.

If I can have
the same from you,
then we can truly meet and
enrich each other.

That relationship remains the best commitment I ever made. 

The second best happened 7 years later. At the end of 2012 I realized a lifelong dream by moving here, to Canada, to work for the University of Guelph and teach student-therapists learning Couple and Family Therapy.  The transition has been both beautiful and challenging, and over time the beautiful parts have become the majority.  My friends, family, and coworkers knew such a transition would be hard at times, and often asked how I was doing.  The one thing I didn’t feel I could confide was what it was like to grieve leaving behind every intimate partner save my spouse.  Few people are ready to hear a very happily married person talk about how much they miss their lovers.  

When I do mention it outside of certain circles, I’ve learned to do my best to make it comfortable for others.  I keep it short of details; it’s too real if I mention their names much less how much I miss her no-nonsense way of flirting or how he was able to connect more deeply with me when he finally fell in love …with someone else.  I rarely say exactly when we saw each other, or if we ever will again.  That also makes it too real.  And I definitely don’t talk about how deeper emotional and physical intimacy with others has made both my spouse, who I call my primary, and I much happier, healthier, more whole people in our relationship with each other.  It’s not that it becomes too real then, it’s that the listener begins to look at me with pity in their eyes.  Clearly my 9 years of marriage, which is 13 years if you count dating, is a sham and I just can’t admit it yet.  There is either monogamy or there is cheating and breaking up, according to that world view. 

 I’ve been told by folks who assume we are monogamous that I have the kind of marriage that some of my friends dream about, and for us it takes a community to raise a relationship.

Last year I slipped up during a grant writing meeting, and instead of saying “my partner” I said “my primary.”  I tried to play it cool for the rest of the meeting, as though I had not just breached the carefully maintained division between my work life and a very select social circle within my personal life. But I was scared for weeks.  What will people think knowing that someone who teaches and researchers in a field dedicated to romantic dyads feels closest to the main love of her life when they’re sharing what they are learning from being in additional relationships?  Did I just lose their respect, professionally and personally?  I didn’t dare ask them.  I just waited and enjoyed the sweet surprise of nothing changing.  And so I allowed the word to slip two or three more times just to see what would happen.  To my relief I have found myself in the very privileged position of still being ok…for now…a far as I can tell.  

And when someone asked if anyone knew of a member of a poly relationship that was established and going strong, I volunteered for this panel.

I guess I will know if this was a good risk to take one soon enough as my boss is in this audience today. I hope my bet pays off that it’s better to say it here and now than to worry about what would happen if I didn’t.

Families take a multitude of shapes and forms.  When it comes to intimacy, both emotional and physical, there are far more options than monogamy and cheating.  For us, my primary and I, we do not expect to be each other’s everything.  Sometimes in some ways, we aren’t even each other’s favorite thing.  And that allows us to relax and rejoice in the ways in which we are perfect together, without fretting so much about the ways in which we are fantastic yet very different.  

What would respectful affirmation look like? An end to the million everyday ways in which 2 is considered better than 1 or 3, 4, 5, or more. No more forms with spots for only 2 partners of certain genders, no more doctors who assume that married people shouldn’t need STI testing. There would be more room to see more than two people holding hands, perhaps with babies in the middle.  There would be permission to love and love and love and be healthy and full of joy with so much love that it spills out of each relationship and fills the others with excitement and laughter and wholeness.

 There would be permission to find and create what really makes a person their healthiest and happiest, instead of complying to what is supposed to work for everyone.  In that desire to cherish our authentic selves within a supportive and kind environment, I suspect we all have a great deal in common in this room.  I don’t want you to be poly any more than I want you to be monogamous or single.  I just want you to be able to be happy being you, while I am happy being me, and while we are happy for each other.

But I also encourage us to consider the value of being unhappy about falling on our faces, the importance of trying something that doesn’t work, things that hurt when they work, and how we can support each other in that.  

Let me be clear in saying that I cannot possibly represent or speak for all of the many ways in which relationships can be open. I’m only speaking for me, and a little for my primary, with their permission.  It saddens me greatly when I overhear conversations about how only monogamy can work, because a poly relationship (or one part of a poly relationship) ended in a breakup.  By this definition of success, we would have no relationship options or even singlehood as an option. But thank goodness relationships end!  Think of the first person you ever dated – was that person the best relationship decision you ever made?  Mine, for the record, is now a catholic priest, so I’m probably safe in saying that they wanted to go in a different direction than I did.  

I started this talk by saying the safe things: I’ve been with my primary for a long time and I love love.  But what if our relationship ended?   Did that mean we made a mistake?  That I was a fool?  What if one of us left the other for one of our other partners? Did we ask for heartbreak? 

Most break-ups are tough, but as one of my girlfriends used to say: there are only 3 options. You break up, you’re together forever, or somebody ceases to be.  Thank goodness for the first option!  If my relationship with my sweetie ended it would hurt very much, but I suspect I would eventually see that as part of my journey as a poly person.  I hope others would feel the same about my path.

And what of jealousy and pain? Is it ok to hurt like that in a relationship, in a way that  is related to a partner?  Again, I can only speak for myself.  Yes, we both feel pain around facing jealousy, fears, doubts, and more.  I would be worried if we didn’t.  But I learned over time that there is a difference between hurt and harm.  I gave up my fantasies of being someone’s everything, of having some kind of assumed ownership of their body and of someone owning my rights to mine.  I shrugged off my romanticized notion that only one person can make me truly happy, and that I must figure out how to do the same for them in every possible way.  I learned that I can build a stable home without giving up the connection I seek with more than one. I learned that a relationship can be based on, and defined by, things more complex than sexual exclusivity. I learned that jealousy is often a sign of a place in my life where I can grow, learn to communicate better, or discover what I need to be my best me.  I learned how important is to keep figuring out what I need to function and feel best, how to communicate that, and how to nurture it in a multitude of ways without necessarily holding one person accountable for giving it to me.

For me, monogamy is too closed, too tight, too restrictive, too presumptive.  For others, being open is too frightening, too risky, too loose, too devil-may-care, too hedonistic.  There is room for both those views and many more.  But neither of us is proving our way wrong if we break up with somebody, or stay single, or hurt in healthy ways.  Sometimes growing is hard. Neither open relationships nor closed are easy.

But there is an especially political, activist aspect to being open, whether I like it or not.  It is an undeniably powerful statement in our culture when a fat, nerdy, gender and sex queer, married person is having a lot of great sex with a lot of great people and decides mention it into a microphone.  Hello!  While that edginess  is sometimes exciting, I look forward to a day when just being me isn’t such a political act.  And if I feel exhausted by the political nature of being me, with all of my privileges, then there is a huge amount of work for all of us to do before we even get around to how tired I am.

Perhaps a helpful step is questioning what we have learned about what is normal and healthy, and what we have learned about our roles in determining and enforcing that.  In a recent conversation with Charlie Glickman, he brought up a great point that I would like to share with his permission. As helping, healing, and health professionals we use our informed intuition as one of our most valuable tools.  However, it can be difficult to tell the difference between something that set off that informed intuition and something that has triggered a bias, especially around delicate topics such as bodies, sex, relationships, and gender.  How can we make better distinctions between our biases and  intuition, and how might that change us both personally and professionally?

Thank you.

______________

As a follow-up, many friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and people I was just meeting came up to thank me for my vulnerability during my talk.

And my boss gave me a hug.

 

 

Mar 142014
 

There is a thing going around Facebook asking why people don’t buy books for girls instead of drinks when said people are out trying to get laid. Since everyone seems to be voicing their preference about this, I will also put mine on the public record.

There is a sense of obligation that comes with receiving a gift, and a sense of impaired decision making the comes with accepting a drink. Lets not start on that foot.

Don’t buy me anything, please. I got this, financially speaking. Introduce yourself politely, briefly state why you were interested in chatting and ask if you can join me.  Maybe that reason will involve your thought that we might share a common interest or value, and that it would nice to discuss that together.  If I say no, be polite and smile as you leave. I will remember that next time I see you. If I say yes, begin with a genuine but not overly personal conversation starter. Maybe it will be about the drink or book I bought myself. Strive to nurture feelings of safety, respect, and genuine (but not overly intense) interest in my happiness and well-being as a fellow human. If I’m interested in you I will ask you plenty of questions, do not use that as an opportunity to dominate the conversation. I will strive to remember that advice, too. Maybe, down the line, we’ll co-create a relationship where we both buy each other drinks and books. But not right now.

Interesting research suggests that women are more open to casual sexual intimacy when they feel safe and as though they are likely to find the experience pleasurable.  Most often, women do not get a sense of both of those things and thus turn down the invitations.  When a rejected suitor replies with vitriol, she walks away from the encounter knowing that she made the right decision.  Having taught and spent time at some very special sex-positive events where women seem more likely to engage in casual sex than in the rest of their lives, these results sound like they have merit to me.  Perhaps we can reblog these basic values around respect, safety, and mutual pleasure until they become a culture norm?

As the FB blurb about books concludes “there is a lot better chance of that working out in [your] favour.”

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Nov 192013
 

A young girl with long, dark hair writes a letter using pen and paper.

Today an interviewer asked me to share something I, as a sex educator, wish I had known when I was in high school or undergrad.  Once I started writing I couldn’t stop, so I’m sure I gave her much more than she can include in her article.  I thought I might like to share the whole list with you, and I hope you will consider sharing your own list in response!

If I could write a letter to my young adult self, I would include things like this:

- There is no such thing as “wasting” your sexuality or “losing” a part of your sexual self or your identity as a sexual person. Life includes an ongoing process of claiming, reclaiming, exploring, learning, growing, and processing all aspects of our sexualities. Experiences, events, and people can impact that process but they can’t take it away from you.

- Everyone has a right to pleasure and joy, as well as the responsibility to pursue it in ways that don’t inflict negativity on others. And that means that we each have the right to expect others not to hurt us as part of their own pursuits.

- There are a lot of rules and stereotypes about gender out there, but just because they are popular doesn’t make them true. And it also doesn’t make them true just because there are some examples out there that seem to support those rules and stereotypes. We can each define gender for ourselves, and should respect others’ definitions of how they wish to live their own genders.

- It feels easy and natural to say “girls are like this” or “boys should be like that.” It’s so important to resist those kinds of beliefs, as they hurt and limit all genders.

- One of the most powerful and controversial acts of protest we can engage in is simply to be happy with ourselves just the way we are, and to support each other in that effort.

- Virginity can’t be lost because it doesn’t even exist. Try thinking of it all as a natural, normal process of human sexual development that includes many different experiences with ourselves and with partners over time.

- Good sex takes practice, both alone and with others.

- Don’t expect your partner to read your mind and magically provide the kind of pleasure you want. And also, don’t suffer silently if it isn’t working for you! Seek out partners who want to support you in feeling good (and who you want to support that way) and make it an enjoyable team effort with lots of communication.

- If anyone involved is not ready or able to openly and honestly discuss their needs, joys, and limits around sex then you’re not ready for each other yet. And, by the way, this is a conversation that can continue throughout your time together!

- Very few people will be a good fit for a longterm relationship with you, and that’s ok. Enjoy yourselves and grow during the time you have together, then part ways as positively as possible when the natural end of the relationship happens. Try to leave each other better than you found each other, if at all possible. Don’t cling to a relationship that met its natural end already.

- Don’t worry about what culture tells you is sexy and attractive. People have very diverse tastes and you’ll meet plenty of people who lust you just the way you are! You weren’t put on this earth to conform, anyway.

Dr. Ruthie

PS. I thought about adding something about queerness, but I don’t think I was ready to hear what I needed most back then.  And that’s ok!

Oct 112013
 
Women are listening to what we say about their bodies when we discuss this shirt.

Women are listening to what we say about their bodies when we discuss this shirt.

When we talk about this shirt, we’re talking about vulvas.  We’re talking about our culture’s values around vulvas, masturbation, and pubic hair.  And the things we say not only reveal our internalized issues with those natural things; our words are impacting everyone who listens.

__________________

I will begin by getting the distracting things out of the way.  I am not a fan of American Apparel’s advertising, and often times not a fan of the company itself.  I’m especially pissed about their approach to fat potential customers.  I hate that their t-shirt sizes run really small compared to other companies, and that the fabric is cheap and disposable.  There, now that we have that out of the way lets refuse to be distracted by our thoughts on this this company so we can focus on this t-shirt, ok?

Recently American Apparel started selling this t-shirt, and the internet and news media went into their predictable meltdown as though this were bigger than global warming, international conflict, and the US government shutdown all rolled into one.  What was the outcry?  I won’t include links because these folks are getting enough press already.  The summary: the shirt is disgusting because (1) it’s a big naked vulva (2) it’s not naked/young enough; it has pubes (3) it’s menstruating.  For much of the mainstream media it was just too taboo to include (4) the vulva is being pleasured by a hand on the clit.

Whether you or I would wear a shirt like this doesn’t matter to me one bit (spoiler: I would), nor does it matter to this discussion.  What I care about is what we’re saying to each other and the world when we comment on this shirt.  When we talk about this shirt, we’re talking about vulvas.  We’re talking about our culture’s values around vulvas, masturbation, and pubic hair.  And the things we say not only reveal our internalized issues with those natural things; they are impacting everyone who listens.

This is a line drawing of a real vulva, drawn from a vulva selfie taken by one of the artists who created this image.  (The blood was added later, if you’re curious.)  If you’re interested in learning more about the artists and their thoughts on the brewhaha about the shirt, this is a great interview.  Although every vulva is different, there are plenty of vulvas out there that look like this one.  The simplicity of the line drawing means it can represent a particularly wide variety of vulvas, to boot.  When we say nasty things about this vulva, we’re disparaging a real person’s vulva and we’re saying awful things about the vulvas of many people.  By labeling certain things that nearly every vulva was born to have (pubic hair, menstrual blood, labia, masturbatory pleasure) as disgusting in this image, we are enforcing the idea that vulvas and sexual pleasure are something to get all “ew, gross” about.

A happy vulva is a fucking gorgeous vulva, with or without hair, with or without blood.  That includes mine, yours, hers, theirs, his (genitals do not equal gender), and that one over there.  If we’re gonna get our collective undies in a twist over the need for more positive body images, then lets start with our own language right here and now.  I surely hope none of us would turn to our child, sibling, parent, best friend, our partners, or ourself and say “your vulva is nasty.”  When we put down the image on this shirt, that is one of the messages we’re sending, whether intentional or not.

The vulva in this picture is lovely.  

The pubic hair is natural and attractive.  

The fact that the person in the image is pleasuring themself suggests that they and their vulva are happy together, and that’s fantastic.  

I love this vulva.

I love that it is proudly displayed on a shirt.  

And I adore your vulva even more.  I hope you do, too.

Jun 282013
 
Bert and Ernie are seen from the back, snuggling, while watching an antique TV showing the Supreme Court Justices.  This is a cover from The New Yorker's early July issue.

Bert and Ernie are seen from the back, snuggling, while watching an antique TV showing the Supreme Court Justices. This is a cover from The New Yorker’s early July issue. Click the cover for more info.

I saw this picture today and suddenly there were tears on my face.  Bert and Ernie were an important part of my childhood and I want to do right by them (and by Mr. Rogers).  This image fills me with pride at our slow, spotty progress… as well as the need to apologize for taking so long with this on-going struggle.

Sometimes during conversations about coming out we’ll all start talking about when and how we realized that being straight was ok and being queer was socially unwelcome. I usually say that I was a late bloomer with figuring this out. When I was a kid I thought that people just lived with people they loved, whether it was platonic love or otherwise. I had no idea that gender was a big part of it for many folks. I had an aunt who lived with her mother and cared for her. My neighbors were a het couple that weren’t married and had no kids. Bert and Ernie were obviously a great pair, whatever their relationship. Same for Snuffy and Big Bird, who I assumed were at least having sleep over parties together. My parents and I all loved each other and lived together.  I reasoned that when you share sleeping space it means you trust the other person, maybe like to share jokes and giggle when you’re supposed to be asleep, and don’t care if the other person sees what you look like first thing in the morning.

My point in sharing all this is that sometimes I hear parents (more so in the US than Canada) share their fears of having to explain same sex-relationships to their kids, and that it will somehow ruin their innocence. And yet I look back on that part of my childhood as one of the most magical, wonderful examples of innocence. I was innocent of the societal judgement over who gets to love who, whatever form that love may take. What is there to explain? Lots of different people love each other, and sometimes they also live together. We should be happy when others are happy.

Although the process of breaking that blissful ignorance involved a series of publicly humiliating events (like asking for a definition of “homosexual” in 8th grade science class -who knew there were such categories?!), I am glad I hung onto the belief that everybody loved love in all its forms. I’m especially grateful that I can still remember believing that.  It gives me a vision of a world I want to help create, even if we don’t get all the way there during my lifetime.

Mar 192013
 

When the media and the folks online turn their attention to a tragedy I often find myself getting overwhelmed. I would like to comment on the recent rape trial that is now in the media, but without adding to that sense of over saturation and despair. So, I decided to write the article that my heart really needs to read. I look forward to a day when articles like this are factual instead of satire.

Sweeping Social Change In Wake Of Stuebenville Rape Trial

STUEBENVILLE, Ohio (DrRuthieMedia) – News of a guilty verdict in the trial of two high schoolers accused of raping a fellow student has triggered an intense response, signaling a dramatic shift in how sexual assault is viewed in North America.

The judge announced his decision to a silent crowd gathered in the courtroom this past week, yet the emotional response was unquestionable. “Not only did these young men ruin their own lives, but they caused inexcusable harm to a fellow student as well. On a greater level, I believe we all feel a shared sense of responsibility for failing to prevent this tragedy,” shared Dr. Edmond Dnomde, parent of a student that attended the party at which the assault occurred. “There have been many conversations in my household about why our son didn’t act to stop the assault, and why our younger daughter felt it was acceptable to contribute to distributing it online. We all should have had these sorts of conversations earlier, so it could have made a difference in preventing this horrible event,” Dnomde added before leaving to volunteer at a fundraiser the PTA was facilitating for the local sexual assault crisis response hotline.

Community responses have been swift and powerful. Bishop Frank stood on the steps of a local parish, speaking to an unplanned gathering of parishioners that came to the church to work together to take action. “I just don’t get how somebody decides that their own pleasure and manliness is more important than another person’s basic safety and well-being. I don’t understand how others can fail to straighten them out at the first hint of such a plan. We should have moved past this long ago. I know this is far too late, but we’re going to help make sure we get it right,” said Frank, shortly before the crowd began to mobilize into action groups centered on educating youth, modeling gender equality in the home, and creating masculine communities of accountability. “This isn’t just about today,” said Renee Eener, a parishioner and facilitator of the group on equality in the home. “This is a multi-year commitment. We’re in this until all of our children are safe and looking out for each other, instead of preying on each other. And hopefully they will be able to pass the message to their own children, as well.”

Meanwhile, classmates of the victim and assailants had already begun to organize at Stuebenville High School, with solidarity groups around the world being organized on site by social media. “Our first goal is to get her name off the internet, as well as any remaining images and videos of the attack. It’s just another form of perping on her,” declared Maria Airam. “We have a few folks with special skills that are working on that now.” In the gym, teachers were gathered to receive additional special training. “We need to be able to provide safe spaces for all students. I need to know what to do when I hear rape humor or slut shaming in the hallways, so I can help our students grow into strong adults that know better than to say or think such things,” said Sandra Ardnas, who teaches advanced physics to honors students.

“I know most rapes go unreported, so I am expecting to hear from students who had not previously told anyone. It will be difficult, but I am doing everything I can to be ready to be a good ally and a safe person to talk to,” added English Literature teacher Ralph Hplar.

Across town, local police, mental health professionals, and community college students offered services to elementary and middle school students. Officer Reciffo of the Stuebenville Police Department said, “Kids are exposed to news like this before they are old enough to understand. It’s frightening enough for adults to recognize how a community has failed, and how young men in our midst could do such a thing. But these children do not even have words for their feelings. We want them to know that they’re safe, we believe and value them, and that they have the right to expect others to respect them physically, verbally, and emotionally.”

While the initial response to the trial was focused in large part around the futures of the perpetrators, the public quickly demanded better of the mainstream press. This morning mainstream media outlets offered a series of apologies and corrections for their coverage. “We regret the inappropriate focus of our earlier coverage,” said one outlet. “To ensure that this does not happen again, we have hired a team of diverse consultants as active members with a strong voice in our newsroom.” Other outlets have launched fundraisers for existing social justice efforts in an attempt to balance the harm caused.

But for the families involved, the atmosphere is much quieter. Reporters have largely stayed away from their homes and businesses out of respect for their privacy. A few visitors with casseroles and a steady stream of helping professionals has been noted by witnesses in the area. “We are surrounding her with love, respect, and hope in appropriate amounts. We will not turn our back on her, nor will we forget that this terrible experience does not define or limit who is and who she will someday be,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. When asked for further information, neighbors simply asked reporters to encourage the public to consider donating to a scholarship for the victim to be used on the educational endeavors of her choice when she turns 21.