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.

Mar 112013
When is it appropriate for us, as members of the public, to eroticize the persona and creations of a public person who did not intend sexualization just because that is what we would prefer to consume?
No, that isn’t want I want to ask.  I already know my opinion on that one.  How about this, instead:
Who owns your public persona, and the public interpretation of the things you create and do, once you’ve released them to the public?
No, cross out that last question.  The focus is warped toward to the artist.  Let me try that again:
How can we, as a society, stop ourselves from restricting a woman to a purely eroticized persona at the loss of every other part of her being, especially if we have seen her willingly sensually portrayed?
Maybe I could distill it one step further from a question to a directive: 
Listen to what she says about her sexuality.  Hold yourself to a higher standard when the message is that she is not being sexual and you find yourself saying “Yes you are” in response.  This is true even if you have exchanged resources to consume her sexual side in the past.   This is especially true if you don’t want it to be.
It sounds simple, and you would think that I know better by now, but I owe somebody an apology.
I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum because I am in Santa Fe, NM (USA) attending an intensive professional training.  It seemed to me that every sex educator should make the pilgrimage across the plaza to the museum if they are in town.  I visited her collection because I wanted to see her beautiful paintings of labia and clitorises and vaginas and all things juicily vulvic.  Although I was aware that Georgia O’Keeffe had protested the eroticizing of her work, I had always responded with a knowing nod.  No need to be so coy, Georgia.  You’re among friends here.
Before delving into the paintings I stopped into the little theatre to watch the aging documentary short of O’Keefe’s life.  I was ready to hear the voice and learn the history of this amazing woman who gave the world lush, colourful, undulating, asymmetrical, enticing images of forbidden femininity like nobody else I had ever seen.  Instead, I got an education.  While I am no expert on O’Keeffe, I’ll do my best to sum up what I learned.

She made gorgeous art, much of it abstract, that caught the eye of a fellow artist and photographer that happened to own a prestigious gallery in NY City.  They became smitten with each other, and as part of their personal and professional partnership he showed her art in his gallery, inviting the world to know her creative brilliance.  Nobody made a peep about anything looking sexy.  As the movie said, “she painted her joy” and it was evident in her brushwork and colour.

Their relationships progressed on both levels, and she posed for a series of photographs taken by him.  The images were sensual, and as I sat there with a few other strangers in the little theatre we were treated to an image of her nude torso, invitingly displayed without her face for our unabashed viewing pleasure.  Another image followed, showing her topless, casually looking the viewer in the eye.  And then they returned to her nude image one more time, for good measure.  Finally!  Evidence that Georgia O’Keeffe loved oozing sex in her artwork!  I smugly awaited the next bout of information from the movie, but wasn’t what I expected.

Critics evidently thought the same thing I did about her photographs, and they didn’t forget that impression when they next saw her artwork.  Without asking her, they deemed it a steamy pile of sex and spread their assumptions about her saucy artistic endeavours far and wide.  The thing is, it wasn’t erotic art; it was a pack of eroticly primed and expectant viewers.  O’Keeffe was painting her joy, not her pussy, and she did not intend them to be one and the same.  She told them they were mistaken, but nobody listened and nobody cared.  Come on, Georgia.  No need to be coy, we’ve seen you naked.  We know what you’re about, we’re in on your little game and it’s delicious.

I was agast with her critics of the time and ashamed of my smug sexual pushiness and sexism.  I listened as the movie showed me what happened next.  She was so upset by the way in which her art was received that she abruptly changed her style, painting only realistic images of things like fruit that could not be misinterpreted.  Eventually she moved to flowers, which were painted in a largely realistic way, and again she was forced to assert the non-sexual nature of her work to ears that didn’t want to hear it.  She moved on to landscapes of New Mexico, frequently painting a very realistic image of the view before zooming in so that she could always point at the former to defend the latter.  No matter how many times O’Keeffe non-judgmentally insisted “It’s not me, it’s you” people winked in response and declared it not just a painting of a canyon wall but a giant crotch canyon of smouldering wanton lesbian lust.   After all, we saw her naked and in the picture next to that one she looked us right in the eye while topless.
Well, what the farts?!  Those clandestine pussy portraits weren’t pussies after all.  Close-ups of flowers’ sex organs were eroticized by me, not the her.  I didn’t listen when she directly told us that we had misinterpreted our sexual intent for hers.
I don’t have a problem with smiling to myself when I see her art.  I did it throughout the gallery.  However, that’s on me, as it should be.  Suddenly her art took on a new set of aspects for me as I searched for additional sources of meaning.  Two and a half hours later, I walked back to my hotel in the cold rain, thankful for having learned a great deal about myself as well as one of my brave heroes.
Mar 102013
Keeping my own company in Santa Fe

Keeping my own company in Santa Fe

There is something very special about traveling far away by myself. It gives me the chance to miss my sweetie, but also to not miss him while I go exploring according to my own whims. I discover things about myself that I didn’t know, or maybe had forgotten, when my pace and direction are purely selfish. There is something beautiful about eating alone in room full of partnered others, treating my book like a best friend with whom I’m proud to be seen. Every other solo person offers the potential for a moment of focused, authentic connection, if we’re both interested in that. Live music and a pretty drink aren’t a backdrop to conversation, so they get to hold their own meaning. Even being a little lonely is nice when you’re happy with where you are in that moment.

Mar 082013

maple leaves in snow

If you happen to be following me on facebook or twitter, you might have already heard the big news:

I’m now living and working in Ontario, Canada!

After spending the last several years in the Washington, DC area, I was offered a wonderful position as a full-time, tenure track faculty member at a major university.  They were specifically seeking someone with a background in family therapy, which have I began teaching in 2008, as well as someone with a specialization in sexuality.  After applying, being called for interview, and receiving an author we decided to relocate and build a new home there.  We moved up in December, I began teaching in January, and now I am about two months into my new position.  I couldn’t be happier and am so fortunate to be able to focus on sexual well-being as well as survivors of intimate violence in an environment where I am supported and encouraged.  Yay!

So what does this mean for the blog, my workshops around North America, my writing, and more?  Well, it means more of all the good stuff, since I am no longer focusing on sexuality in my “spare” time.  I am taking 2013 off from all major sexuality events and conventions (the kind for the public vs. academics) in order to a running start with returning to more academic and professional presenting.  However, I plan to return to select public sexuality events in 2014 and will be sure to share that schedule as it happens.  This year I have already presented two workshops at the IFTA International Family Therapy World Congress, one on working with kinky and/or poly relationships, and the other on my research with survivors of intimate partner violence.  Later this year I will be offering a poster on kinky/poly relationships and a workshop on working with various demographics at AASECT.  I have one more conference at which I’m hoping to present, but am still awaiting the results.  Plus, I’m offering a workshop just for select high school students on designing your own statement of sex-positivity!  I am also diving into some exciting research and academic writing, which I couldn’t be happier about.  Plus, you know, if you’re a grad student who might like to study under me, you can always apply to our program!

Alright, I think that should bring all of you up to date for now.  I’m happy to field any questions!

Dr. Ruthie