Aug 062014

This post is in response to the article Colleges Need To Do More To Ensure Rape Survivors’ Grades Don’t Suffer over on


Students of all genders who are struggling after a sexual assault are often also struggling with their grades. The person who assaulted them may be their partner, an ex-partner, a friend or acquaintance, or a stranger. It’s awful no matter who it was. It may have involved physical force, verbal force, or that insidious coercion that our society encourages survivors to shake off as a part of having sex.

As a faculty member I have a great deal of power to be flexible to the needs of individual students. At the same time it also takes a huge amount of empathy, time, and effort to respond to their needs, especially if they are members of giant lecture hall classes.

I also come with a LOT of background expertise on this topic, something most faculty and administration won’t have. Some of my students come right out and tell me all about it, especially after we cover this topic in class. Others opt not to be as direct, but it’s in their eyes and body language when they come to my office. It hurts my heart every darned time…a lot. I cannot imagine what it is like for faculty and admin that don’t have extensive training and experience working with trauma survivors.

And I can only imagine the complexities that happen when a student approaches a faculty or admin member who has their own history of sexually assaulting others (probably without getting caught). After all, there is nothing about faculty and admin that automatically make us safe people who have hurt others less than any other person out there. We just happen to have authority in that time and place, which makes us either helpful allies or formidable foes. And it’s easiest to default into the latter category by either ignoring the request for help or claiming we can do nothing. I cannot tell you how often I have heard horror stories about how other faculty and admin have responded to their pleas for help and understanding. It would be so much easier for me if more of my fellow faculty/admin were on the same page. Instead, sometimes I feel like I’m trying to throw as many life preservers as possible while others are throwing rocks. Sometimes we are on the same page, though, and it’s a beautiful thing when we can create that blanket of support and caring.

Some weeks I have spent more time working to help these students than I did prepping my lecture or writing the quiz for their class of 500. At times my role stretches out for months after the semester has ended. Colleges and universities most certainly need to do more. As do K-12 schools.

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.”


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.

Nov 072012

Dear US friends:

Please look out for each other today and for the next few weeks. Some folks are quite angry over the election results and there are pledges of violence against our most vulnerable communities. This is especially true in red states and counties. If you are in a privileged group, please turn to those peers (whether you like them or not) and make it clear that verbal, social, financial, and physical violence are not acceptable responses to political disappointment. It’s the job of folks with privilege to use that status to monitor and hold accountable within our own group. It is NOT the job of those at risk to try to make us behave like reasonable humans.

If you, like me, have some undue privilege that you can safely leverage, here are a few places to start:

  • Take some time to do your own research on what vulnerable communities in your neighborhood could use from you. Don’t tell them what you can do, ask them what you can do. Ensure you are doing more listening than talking.
  • Use a firm, concise voice to point out that violent humor is neither acceptable nor humorous.
  • Model nonviolent conversation and behavior in public, especially in front of children in your care. This is even more important around topics where the election didn’t go the way you/they hoped for.
  • Ensure that you are aligning yourself with political and religious groups/activities that are nonviolent in their work. If your group/s have some questionable aspects, either work to change them from the inside or withdraw your participation and support.
  • If you know of individuals or groups that are planning violence, document and report it. Raise the alert with the folks they’re targeting. Do not allow it to happen by remaining silent.

It can be uncomfortable to do these things, and you may lose some priveleged friends. That probably means you’re doing it right. Remember that folks with undue privilege have much less at risk here, even if it is an unpleasant experience.

These are tips taken from my work around community prevention of domestic violence that cross over into other areas of community violence prevention. I would appreciate any other suggestions or feedback!

Oct 302012

This week I received an excellent question from a university student that I would like to answer on the blog.  All of their identifying information has been removed/changed, which means that some of the wording in their question has also been removed/changed.  If you have any further resources or information about this question, I encourage you to share it in the comments section.

“…My interests are in the field of sexuality and I would like to discuss BDSM in relation to intimate partner violence from the perspective that BDSM is NOT the same thing as abuse. I am just curious if you have noticed in any of your research that women who have been sexually victimized are drawn to BDSM or may use it as an agency to help ‘deal’ with their sexual history – or if you think there is a relationship there at all.”

Thank you for your excellent and extremely important question.  I’m glad you’ve asked it, and I’m grateful that you’ve given me the opportunity to answer it.  This is a very common question to which folks often bring strong opinions, many of which may be based in fear and misunderstanding around both the topics of (1) violence and (2) BDSM.

It’s important to ask an expert’s background when it comes to loaded topics like these, so you can judge for yourself how to receive their answer.  If you’re not interested in this info then skip on down to the next paragraph, please.  In a very tiny nutshell: I have studied both of these areas for years and have publications and presentations in both (I can provide a CV to anyone who is sincerely interested).  In fact, this upcoming February I will be presenting at the Family Therapy World Congress about the topic of kinky and open relationships to an audience of mental health professionals.  My Ph.D. is in Family Development with a doctoral certificate in Family Therapy (and another in Qualitative Research).  On top of that, I have worked with (as clients, as well as alongside of), researched with, and socialized with a large number of intimate partner violence and sexual violence survivors as well as a large number of kinky folks, many of which enjoy BDSM.  I’ve been spending time with both types of folks (and folks who identify as both), professionally and socially, since at least the mid/late 1990s.  So… that’s a quick summary of my background in these areas for you to make of as you like.

Now let’s dive in by sharing some definitions and facts that address your question:

Sexual violence includes more acts than sexual assault and battering; it’s not actually about hitting at all: I define “violence” using Maturana’s concept of acts of imposing one person’s will over another’s.  (See the footnotes of this paper for citation of this concept back to Maturana)  This is a very broad definition and does not require physical force to commit violence, though it can certainly be included.  Using this definition, all kinds of violence, including sexual violence, are extremely common.  Sexual violence is based around at least one person deciding to inflict their will on another who does not want it, using means that have sexual connotations.  This can include hitting and other physical acts, but it can also include things like verbal violence, financial violence, social violence, political violence, and more.  That’s because it’s not about a single act that equals violence, it’s about one person (or more) inflicting themselves on  another sexually in any of the many, many ways that can happen.

Sexual violence against women is extremely common at every age and in every culture on which I’ve seen reliable data:  While it may be more common in some cultures, or if certain other risk factors (usually related to the perpetrator/s) are present, it is not an exaggeration to say that it happens to the majority of women at least once during the lifespan.  By some definitions and research, it can truthfully be said that sexual violence happens to all or nearly all women and can be expected to happen repeatedly.  You have asked specifically about women in this question, but I will add that it is also common against men and gender-queer people, although we have even worse data about exact numbers for them than we do for women.  Most of our big studies have major limitations, and focus only on one aspect of sexual violence: sexual battering.  Even this is very common (cited US data).  Sexual violence is so common that some feminist academics and writers refer to it bitingly as a terrible rite of passage for women in Western cultures (also in other cultures, but that is beyond my area of expertise so I’ll leave that to others who can better address it).   This means that every community and every population is full of sexual violence survivors, sad to say.  In other words, the fact that a community has a lot of sexual violence survivors could mean more about our world than about that specific group of people.

BDSM (kinky erotic acts that may include bondage, taking/giving directives, and negotiated activities involving pain) is not the same thing as violence, in that all participants actively seek and desire to be involved in the scenario and/or relationship/s.  BDSM can look very scary from the outside, and unrealistic media images of BDSM have helped to encourage a mistaken idea of what it BDSM can look like.  A healthy, caring BDSM relationship, scenario, or hook-up is composed of things like open communication, mutual desire to have fun/sexy feelings about the activities/relationship, mutual happiness and excitement, and certainly mutual respect for each other’s well-being and satisfaction.  Sometimes the people involved in BDSM will act out scenarios in which they pretend to have no respect for each other, but that scenario is still based on careful communication between people who both/all really want to be there doing exactly that stuff in that moment with each other.  In the case of sexual violence, at least one person does not want to be there doing that right then with the other person/people involved, or they feel they have no free choice about it, or they feel that not being there could result in something even worse.  There is a big difference there!

– For folks who have never been in or witnessed this kind of healthy BDSM interaction, it can be hard to imagine such a thing based on the wild/violent assumptions and stereotypes of BDSM that are out there.  Nonfiction books by beloved BDSM experts and community members, like Playing Well With Others, can help you to learn more about healthy, happy BDSM. So can the trio of excellent sites by Kali: PassionateU, KinkAcademy, and 50 Shades of Romance. Educating yourself like this will help clear up confusion and inaccurate stereotypes.  In case you aren’t ready to read a whole book yet, here is quick example of a common act of communication found in BDSM interactions/relationships: negotiation.  I wish it were more common in non-BDSM sexy times, too!  It’s a special conversation in which all parties explore, ask, and share what they want to happen and then work together to see if they all want to have sexy times together and (if so) how to proceed.  When I teach some of my workshops (like “Sexy Spanking for Foreplay”) I offer this list of questions to use when negotiating a scene.  (A “scene” is a kinky interaction, by the way.)

  • Are you feeling toppish or bottomish for this scene?
    • What does a toppish/bottomish person do/act like/feel/say?
  • What would make this scene hot for you?
  • What could happen before and after the scene to make this hot for you?
  • What needs to be avoided – anything, any words, and any places at all?
    • Where can I touch you on your body?  Where should I not touch you, or only touch you in certain ways?
    • Show me all of the fussy parts of your body, emotionally and physically.  Introduce me and tell me what they need.
    • How will I know if we’re wandering into troubling places, emotionally or physically?  How will I tell you if I feel that happening?
  • How can I best take care of you afterward?  How can you best take care of yourself?  How can you best take care of me?  How can I best take care of myself?
  • In what ways is it ok to talk/share/post about this scene later?

I learned about questions like these from people like Midori, Lee Harrington, Molina, Princess Kali, and Tristan Taormino, all of which are fantastic BDSM and sex-positive resources.  You will notice that some of my questions sound similar to those recommended by these great folks – that’s because I learned from them!

-It may be hard to imagine healthy BDSM if you do not find any of the interactions of activities associated with BDSM to be desirable.  That’s ok!  I don’t understand why some people love to eat pickles, and the idea of eating them is quite distressing to me.  Sometimes when I see someone really get into eating pickles it makes me feel a bit sick and I can’t stand to watch or listen because it grosses me out.  Especially spicy pickles!  At the same time, I respect that some folks honestly do enjoy pickle-eating, they have pickles they like and don’t like, and they have times when they want pickles and times when they don’t.  Even spicy pickles.  BDSM is the same – you don’t have to understand it or want it to stand by the rights of others to enjoy it in ways that are healthy and happy for them, even if it would not be good for you.  Although I do not like pickles at all, I am happy that pickle-eating makes some of my friends (and even my mom!) happy.  If someone tried to ban pickles, I would help defend others’ right to eat the pickles they want when they want to eat them, because I recognize that their love of pickles can readily co-exist with my dislike of pickles.

-Violence can happen in all types of relationships and interactions, including both BDSM and non-BDSM relationships.  That does not make either type innately violent.  It just means that violence can happen in any unhealthy relationship or interaction.  I have written about violence in the BDSM community and how that community might consider stepping up to better address it, and I have also written about intimate forms of violence in the general public (one example of my research).  We must all work together in all of our main communities and sub-communities to nurture relationships and interactions based on respect, trust, and care instead of unconsensual, unnegotiated aggressions of power and control.

– Sexuality, in its many forms, can be a wonderfully healing thing for many people.  For some people, a soft kiss from a caring other provides relaxation and there is nothing wrong with that.  For some people, a nice round of masturbation helps to ease stress and feel good about one’s body and there is nothing wrong with that.  For some people, hot sex (whatever is hot to them) provides relief from chronic pain and/or a sense of bonding with their partner/s, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Heck, for some people, soft and sensual sex with special loved ones helps them heal from trauma and there is surely nothing wrong with that.  And for some folks, certain kink acts done in certain ways (all variables depend on the folks involved, same as any other example here, of course) can also provide opportunities for healing and processing of trauma.  There is also nothing wrong with that.  Thankfully we live in a world full of diverse people with diverse tastes, and all of us are always changing so long as we are open to the idea (and sometimes if we aren’t).  It would be very boring if this were not the case.

Putting all of these points together yields my answer to your question:

Folks who have survived sexual violence are one distinct group.  Folks who enjoy  some form of BDSM are a different distinct group.  Being in one does not cause being in the other.  However, folks can also be a member of both groups.  It is possible that someone may be drawn to BDSM because they feel in their gut that it might help them process or heal from a past trauma, and that’s ok.  It doesn’t mean the trauma made them like BDSM, it means they are proactively seeking creative and potentially enjoyable ways of healing and growing and they have identified BDSM as something that may work for them.  If a BDSM interaction or relationship goes wrong and becomes abusive, it’s not because it was BDSM.  It’s because it was abusive.  The same rule goes for any type of relationship.

Thanks for your great question.  I hope that my answer helps you have great conversations and exploration around this topic!  If you feel like it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I also welcome thoughts from anyone else reading this post.

Dr. Ruthie