Tag Archives: sexuality

Why We Need Sex Ed Now

A really interesting infographic compiling statistics and information about sex education, courtesy of Complaince and Safety.

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Medicalizing Morality: Virginity Testing in KwaZulu-Natal

           Among the Zulu-speaking people who live outside the city of Durban in South Africa, girls as young as six line up on straw mats to have their sexual purity certified with a grade of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’. A grade of ‘A’ means she is a virgin. A grade of ‘C’ means she is not a virgin. A grade of ‘B’ places her somewhere in-between. This grading occurs systematically at virginity testing events in many Zulu-speaking communities, where the tradition of virginity testing has resurfaced as a localized response to the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

            In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that sexuality became an increasingly important part of individual identity in Western society, despite the repressive discourse that suggests otherwise. Foucault explored the religious, medical, and psychological institutions in which societies theoretically repressed sexuality while actually bringing these issues into the forefront of Western culture. Foucault’s theoretical framework dealt exclusively with the West, but in the context of an increasingly globalized regime of health, I will use this paper to explore his ideas as applied to the phenomenon of virginity testing in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

            KwaZulu-Natal has a thirty-nine percent prevalence of HIV infection, the highest among all the South African provinces. In response to this quickly growing threat to public health, many communities in KwaZulu-Natal have seen a resurgence of traditional virginity testing of young girls. Though this return to tradition began in a grass root, bottom-up fashion, it has garnered the support of government officials and many NGOs concerned with the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The practice of virginity testing enforces sexual purity by searching for the physical evidence of the nontangible idea of virginity.  This custom is legitimized within the community and in more expansive institutions through a lens of public health.

            Virginity testing also highlights related fears about the perversion of traditional gender roles. As I will explore in further detail later on, framing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of changing gender roles of youth cultures permits communities to moralize a medical crisis. This allows communities to deal with suffering actively and from within the community, in a context where medical solutions may be either unavailable or ineffective. Within a patriarchal culture, virginity testing simultaneous reinforces and is reinforced by cultural notions of certain bodies as polluters and others as vulnerable to pollution.

Advocates and Opponents of Virginity Testing

            In the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, virginity testing, or ukuhlolwa kwezintombe, is a public event. The virginity of the girls in each community thereby reflects the purity, and health, of the community as a whole. The girls are systematically examined in large numbers without much privacy, reinforcing the idea that women’s sexuality is of public concern. The way in which virginity testing is conducted also enforces the idea of a collective sexuality, whereby the “health” of the community is located in the sexuality of a group of certain kinds of bodies.

            Virginity testing advocates are found among the well-educated government and NGO officials who are dedicated to the idea of an “African Renaissance”.  This idea of cultural revival supports the rediscovery and application of indigenous African systems of knowledge to the problems facing Africa today, most notably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Seeing that foreign intervention often does more harm than good, advocates for an African Renaissance encourage localized, community solutions to issues of poverty, disease and education. While the attempt at cultural revival is well founded, it also raises many questions. Specifically, it brings up the conflict between tradition and modernity—a conflict that is pervasive in the discussion on modern virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal.

            The biggest opponents to virginity testing have been a largely female group of officials from South Africa’s Human Rights and Gender Commissions, who argue that virginity testing constitutes “a new form of violation of and violence against women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Challengers of this tradition argue that familial and community coercion plays a role in the virginity testing events, especially for the youngest girls who may not even realize why their genitals are being examined. Furthermore, opponents argue that virginity testing events go against South African constitutional rights to privacy and bodily integrity. These concerns about social oppression are largely framed by the debates over tradition versus modernity, “whereby culture is equated with tradition and the democratic constitution is equated with Western-style modernity that… espouses foreign ideas” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536).

             The most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are older South African women who are often heads of their household, supporting children or young relatives orphaned by HIV/AIDS. These rural women often “see virginity testing as the only way to reinstill what they view as the lost cultural values of chastity before marriage, modesty, self-respect, and pride” (LeClerc-Madlala, 535). The role of these women in virginity testing is contradictory and intriguing. While their involvement in advocating for and organizing virginity testing events empowers an age-set whose voices are often overlooked in larger society, these women simultaneously enforce a social oppression of the next generation of women. By bringing back the idea of virginity testing, they are allowing a cycle of oppression to continue.

            It may also be noted that these older women have economic reasons to support virginity testing. As previously stated, the most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are women who are in charge of an extended kinship unit due to HIV/AIDS deaths. Their desire to prevent the disease within their own families may be closely tied to the economic hardships they already face. Simultaneously, many of the older women who organize virginity testing events become “experts” in testing and earn a living by teaching women in other communities their profession. Their advocacy of the procedure then reaches beyond morality and tradition and opens up an economic sphere of “medical professional” that is very often closed to rural women. Their involvement has become a way to “empower older women in a society where women’s voices have been historically muted but where women… have always held power and authority over younger women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 547).

            The arguments for and against virginity testing are compelling on both sides. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that “the sex of children and adolescents has become… an important area of contention around which innumerable institutional devices and discursive strategies have been deployed” (Foucault, 30). The choice in KwaZulu-Natal to focus on the sexuality of the community’s youngest women in order to combat a disease that does not discriminate by age or gender reveals specific conceptions about vulnerable bodies within those communities. Virginity testing moves society away from locating identity within individual sexuality and instead establishes a collective compulsory moral and physical purity for specific bodies. This collective purity theoretically ensures the health of the community as a whole, enforcing virginity testing as a localized, gendered response to the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

 

Locating Purity in the Body

            The results of the public virginity tests are shared with all who attend the event on an alphabetical grading system. The three tiers of virginity are labeled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’. While a C-grade certifies a failure of the test and an A-grade guarantees a girl’s purity, it is the bridging B-grade that tells us the most about the values that such a system is enforcing. A grade of ‘B’ is given if the testers determine that the girl “may have had intercourse once or twice” or “may have been abused”. Consequently, “active complicity in the sex act” bears weight on whether a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ grade is given. Though the physical requirements for being given a B-grade all imply that vaginal penetration has occurred, the real bearing of virginity seems to be a purity of mentality, ensuring that even if a girl has had sex or been touched inappropriately, it happened in the context of the girl’s own passivity (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            Within biomedical frameworks, there is no institutionally agreed upon medical definition for virginity. Therefore, the criterion that certifies “purity” in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal reflects the “folk constructs of the body and ethnomedical beliefs of health and illness” of that culture (LeClerc-Madlala, 539). While virginity is often considered a medical and physical state of the body, there are non-biological aspects that are considered in virginity. For example, an important factor in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal is that “a girl’s eyes… reflect virginity in that they ‘look innocent’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            The virginity testing phenomenon in KwaZulu-Natal reflects a collective awareness of the roles of certain kinds of bodies in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In many areas of South Africa, traditional “notions of pollution are associated with sexually active women and their bodies” (LeClerc, Madlala, 541). This reference of sexual pollution within the body lends itself to an understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as not only inherently sexualized, but also inherently gendered. To inform her own fieldwork, LeClerc-Madlala refers to the research of Ingstad (1990). Ingstad, conducting research on HIV/AIDS in Botswana, found that “informants often used female sexual anatomy as a point of reference when describing women as unclean and as potentially carrying more disease than men” (LeClerc-Madlala, 545).

            Moral conceptions about female sexuality are reflected in how female biology is symbolically conceptualized in certain communities. In Zulu-speaking areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the vagina is seen as a site of potential disease associated with its “’nesting’ qualities: not only do babies grow there, but potentially deadly ‘germs,’ including HIV, may also ‘grow’ and ‘hide’ within them” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542).  Consequently, “dry vaginas are conceptualized as ‘clean’ and disease-free, the imagery reflecting the moral character of its owner” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542). The standards of purity in the virginity testing event reflects these ideas about bodies and pollution.

            The control of female sexuality is also framed by traditional Zulu expectations of femininity. The ideal Zulu woman is “demure, soft-spoken… serves her husband, her children, and her in-laws” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). Many of the older women in these communities are fighting against the “popular perception of the modern young woman as…assertive and active in pursuing her sexual interests” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). This behavior is often seen as women attempting to act like men, a set of behaviors that fall outside the boundaries of accepted gender morality. While virginity testing explicitly controls bodies, it simultaneously controls systems of values.

Conclusion

            In South Africa, there is a “pervasive ‘national denial’ of the enormity of the AIDS problem during an era that most people expected to reflect post apartheid promises of ‘the good life’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 534). With this constant threat to the health of its citizens, the communities in KwaZulu-Natal have allowed traditional rituals such as virginity testing to resurface as a way of preventing another generation of ill bodies. However, opponents to the virginity testing events argue that while the tradition claims to be an attempt to fight HIV/AIDS, it is a rather ineffectual way of doing so. If the resurgence of virginity testing truly is a sexualized response to the threat of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, why are boys and men not included in the tradition?

            Virginity testing in Zulu-speaking communities of KwaZulu-Natal represents a medicalization of sexual control and traditional gender roles. Its resurgence, while claiming to be in response to a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, also coincides with an era in which young women have been liberated on a global scale in terms of their own bodies and sexuality. In response to rapidly changing gender roles, communities have drawn lines of causality between the liberation of female sexuality and the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Virginity testing reemerged as a way to bridge these simultaneously threatening forces, one that is located in a cultural consciousness, the other located in a world of illness and biology. Virginity testing shapes the meaning of “health” for specific bodies in these communities by labeling sexual purity as healthy and sexual activeness as unhealthy.

            Virginity testing is supported as a way to suppress childhood and adolescent female sexuality. However, as Foucault hypothesized, it actually reveals how important sexuality is to the identity of Zulu-speaking communities in South Africa. Rather than being confined to a private sphere of the home and marriage, female sexuality is, quite literally, laid out and examined in public in order to guarantee the purity and “health” of a community. While post apartheid South Africa is often influenced by Western modernity, the trend of virginity testing reveals that anxieties about female bodies and sexuality continue to influence many community’s responses to modern epidemics such as HIV/AIDS. The contributions of tribal traditions, state modernity, and biomedicine are all revealed in the medicalized morality enforced by virginity testing.

                                                                                           Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

LeClerc-Madlala, Suzanne. Virginity Testing: Managing Sexuality in a Maturing HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 15 (4): 533-552

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Internet Threats Against Sarkeesian and Green Shut Down Debates

Misogyny against women on the internet has received increased attention in the past few months in response to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project “Tropes vs Women in Video Games“. Sarkeesian runs Feminist Frequency and makes videos about feminism and sexism in popular culture. She made a proposal for a video series about sexism in video games and used Kickstarter to raise the $6,000 to fund her project. Sarkeesian met her goal in no time, but she also met widespread threats of death and rape from members of the online gaming community. Sarkeesian writes about the image-based harrassment and visual misogyny that was created against her, from wikipedia vandalism to the creation of an online game whose objective is to beat up her likeness.

A controversy on Tumblr today is another example of threats against a woman on YouTube. Vlogger Laci Green, who runs the Sex+ channel, received threats of violence and death in response to certain opinions she expressed on her YouTube and Tumblr.

The controversy seems to have been started over the questions below, in which Green apologizes for an uninformed mistake she had made in the past.

Another aspect of the controversy was sparked by Green’s evangelical atheism and an opinion she expressed about Islam in a video about why she is no longer a Mormon. Green said that Mormonism is “probably one of the most sexist [religions] that I’ve come across, beside Islam.”

This is the question, and Laci’s answer, in regard to her comment on Islam.

“Q: Sorry if you already answered this, but I came across your other channel and just watched the video where you say Mormonism is “probably one of the most sexist [religions] that I’ve come across, beside Islam.” Since you are white and have never been Muslim, could you issue an apology, or update the video with an apology in the description? I am an atheist too, but there is horrible sexism in many religions, and in secular culture as well. It’s not right to single out Islam. It’s Islamophobic.

A: You’re right, it’s not right to single out Islam. Many religions and cultures are extremely sexist and I despise them all equally. This wasn’t the intent of my statement and I apologize if it came off that way.

The video (which is kinda old and came before I learned how to be fully “PC”) is about my experience, and in my life, Islam has perpetuated more gendered violence and sexism toward the women in my life and family than mormonism ever did. Both these religions have wounded me and my loved ones deeply, much of which was on the basis of sex and gender. Just writing about this makes my heart sink. No amount of screaming “Islamophobia” will change that, and it’s actually a wonderful example of how childish and ignorant religion makes people out to be. People get so wound up in defending anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-human, piece of trash organizations that they can’t hear criticism for what it is: a human experience that is real, that is valid, that is unjust.

Yes I am white and no I am not Muslim nor have I ever been. There are certain experiences I can never speak about, such as actually being Muslim or being a person of color. I can, however, speak about my own, and to argue that I must have dark skin or have been a practicing Muslim in order for me to do so is more of the same oppressive bullshit.

I grew up in a multicultural family. My dad’s side of the family immigrated from Iran 20 years ago. My dad himself immigrated to America when he was 16. My family is Muslim on my dad’s side and Mormon on my mother’s (although my dad eventually converted to mormonism). I grew up in a climate where these two religions dominated my life in a really painful way. 

I don’t owe ANYONE explanations of why I feel the way I do. I don’t need to rehash things that have hurt me and that I’ve moved on from. My feelings and experiences are perfectly valid on their own. If you want to call it “Islamophobia”, I’ll call you ignorant.This isn’t about quantifying pain, this is about my own experience with that pain. Calling that “Islamophobia” undermines what Islamophobia really is and how it operates. I fucking hate organized religion, including Islam, and all the pouting in the world won’t change that.”

Much of this controversy has been playing out on Tumblr and involving the community of social justice bloggers. I agree that Laci’s comments, especially those regarding Islam, were unnecessarily negative and probably emotionally-charged. I think the right thing for Laci to do would be to conduct her research on what her critics have been saying and make an informed apology for her comments. However, everything that Laci’s critics (and Anita Sarkeesian’s critics as well) are calling attention to can no longer be the main concern of these controversies. Nobody is going to listen to or engage in informed debate about the problematic aspects of Sarkeesians’s project or Laci Green’s comments once a threat has been made against their lives. This anger, while it may be well-meaning or deserved, is counter productive to informed discussion about identity, race, religion, gender, and sexuality. These are sensitive topics, but reacting with anger, stalking, and threats completely shuts down the important conversation that needs to be happening about such sensitive topics.

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Sex-Positive Feminism 101

Many of the misconceptions about feminism come from a misconception about the sex-positive philosophy that runs through much of the third wave; a philosophy that fights against slut-shaming (see above), oversexualization, and restrictions of reproductive rights.

Sex-positivity gets a bad rap through scare-tactic reporting about teenage sexting, risky sexual behavior, and sexual education in schools. People often believe that sex-positive education encourages young people to have sex. As part of a very lucky minority that received and greatly benefitted from sex-positive sex education as a young teen, I would like to dispel some of the myths about the sex-positive movement.

YouTuber Laci Green produces the most accesible, well-researched, and overall brilliant sources for sex-positive information on the internet. Below is a video by Laci which explains what sex-positive means.

 

Sex-positivity is quite simple. It holds that there is really no wrong way to do human sexuality as long as all parties involved give their consent. The sex-positive movement is closely intertwined with feminism because the oppression of sexualities which fall outside the normative (white, monogamous, and heterosexual) is a major tool of the patriarchy. Sex-positivity therefore celebrates the diverse ways in which people choose to express their sexuality– including the choice to not have sex!

There is so much more to say about the sex-positive movement, but I would like to open up the floor for specific questions. What topics relating to sex-positivity or sex-positive sex education would you like to see me address in my next post? 

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Are we obsessed with sex-trafficking?

If you scroll down the front page of Jezebel, you will see a whole column of stories devoted to talking about sex-trafficking. The popular website has a tag for the amount of stories that it publishes covering this particular human rights issue.

Activists attempt to call our attention to the problem of sex-trafficking in a multitude of ways. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof  famously covers issues involving the global sex trade with personal and heart-wrenching stories from its “victims”. Recently, this innovative video has been circulating the internet, calling attention to the problem sex trafficking in Europe. Perhaps the most creepy is Continue reading

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The Contraception War Against Women

This Valentine’s Day, we’re going to talk about women’s rights and why this man’s argument is wrong. Lee Doren, who vlogs at the YouTube channel HowTheWorldWorks, makes an admirable attempt to remove the issue of religion from the current debates surrounding Obama’s contraception mandate for all healthcare plans. I encourage you to watch the video above and get a sense of his argument before reading further.

Now, Doren’s main argument revolves around this. “There is not a person in America, living anywhere in America… who a) has a job, b) has health insurance, and c) has no access to contraception. That person does not actually exist.” Doren’s assertion is based on the fact that everyone in America has access to condoms, and that condoms are the most effective form of preventing both pregnancy and  STD/STIs.

Condoms, while they are one of the most effective forms of contraception, are male contraception. In order for a woman or a gay man to benefit from the usage of condoms, he or she has to have a sexual partner that actually uses them. Even if you are sex positive, educated person who carries condoms on your person at all times, there is no guarantee that your partner will agree to use them or use them properly. Many people are allergic to latex and cannot use condoms. Many people are simply in monogamous sexual relationships where pregnancy prevention, not STD prevention, is the main concern. Essentially, Doren’s argument for condoms as a substitute for government mandated contraceptive coverage privileges men and harms women. The beauty of the birth control pill and other forms of contraception for female bodies is that is puts pregnancy prevention in the hands of women and allows them to control their own bodies rather than relying on a partner to do so.

Doren also ignores the fact that many women use birth control pills for health rather than reproductive reasons. This includes menstrual regulation and the treatment of ovarian cysts. These women who are on healthcare plans that do not cover birth control costs on religious grounds are disadvantaged by having to pay out of their own pockets for a medically necessary drug.

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Doren buttresses his argument with the fact that you can buy condoms off Amazon for every day of the year for less than $100. Wow, that’s awesome. Wouldn’t it be nice if female contraception was that cheap? Let’s take a look at some statistics for the price of birth control methods– only two forms of female birth control (besides abstinence and fertility awareness, which are free), are cheaper than condoms for a year. The most common forms of birth control for women exceed the price of condoms for a year, meaning that women, especially low-income women, are at a disadvantage. They will be less likely to be able to pay for a form of birth control that they are in control of, and more likely to have unplanned pregnancies as a result. Take a look below at the cost of varying forms of female birth control over a five year period:

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Doren claims, “You literally have…entire aisles of contraception that are available to just about anyone.” I’m sure many women can tell you that if you are simply walking into a drug store looking for contraception, the only alternative to condoms that is available over the counter to women is spermicides. Many women and men are allergic to the chemicals in spermicides. They are also one of the least effective methods of birth control– when used alone, they are only about 85% effective.

Doren’s argument is patriarchal and it is detrimental to the state of women in our society. It assumes that all men will be compliant to the usage of condoms at all times. It assumes that there aren’t abusive sexual partners who won’t care what their partner says about contraception.

Why are there more men engaging in this debate in the media than women? To put religion back into the issue, Catholic bishops have been the most outspoken opponents to Obama’s birth control mandate. Women cannot be Catholic bishops. According to the CDC, 98% of Catholic women admit to using birth control. There is a gendered distance in this debate. Why are we not hearing from women? Why are we allowing men (of whom most, just to remind you, cannot get pregnant), discuss this issue for us?

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Contemplating the Sex Lives of Evangelical Christians

I’ve recently developed an academic interest in the American purity movement after reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, watching the documentary The Virgin Daughters, and becoming outraged at both.

For those unfamiliar, the American purity movement is based on Evangelical Christian beliefs about abstinence and the sanctity of marriage. If you’ve ever watched TLC’s giant Duggar family on However-Many-Kids-They-Have-Now and Counting, this may sound familiar. Those brought up in the purity movement are not permitted to date– at a young age, they may attend purity balls with their fathers and sign a purity pledge to remain virgins until marriage. Essentially, women in this community believe they are property of their fathers until they are transferred into the care of their husband at the altar. And these husbands are not freely chosen either. When a girl catches the eyes of a certain fellah, that man will then go to her father for permission to get to know his daughter. If the father (after his dates with this man) find him to be suitable for his daughter, then the couple are permitted to get the know each other on group dates and chaperoned outings. No physical contact is allowed, and rarely if ever are the couple left alone for more than a few minutes to speak. After a suitable amount of courting has occurred, the man may again go to the girls father for permission to marry her. Then a proposal and engagement occur. In most cases, young men and women brought up in the purity movement are expected to save not only their virginity, but also their first kiss for the wedding day.

What catches me most about this phenomenon is the emphasis on wholeness of person and how that constructs rules of femininity and womanhood within this community. Continue reading

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A Normatively Sexual Being Combatting Normative Sexuality

I’m formulating a presentation for a class on the Politics of Health and Medicine and my topic is sexuality. I had to read two articles— one was about transgender and transexual persons and identity in contemporary Iran and the other was about barebacking and “bug chasing” in the gay community. The latter term was completely new to me, but is essentially HIV-negative gay men having sex with HIV-positive gay men in order to get HIV.

The first article was rather easy to speak on– it mostly deals with the way in which post-Revolution Iran has dealt with non-cisgender identity and how it fits with sharia law and fiqh, sharia law evolving through rulings and interpretations of Islamic jurists. In America, at least within an activist community in which I was educated about LGBTQ issues, there is a recognition of the divide between gender and sex and how that fits into the identity of trans persons. This is also true of Iran, which sees the gender of the person’s “soul”– their gender– as the true identity of the person. Following physician and psychiatrists evaluations, people who find a discord between their bodies and souls can be authorized hormonal and/or surgical sex changes, after which a certification is issued with that person’s new name and identity state-verified. To me, this seemed quite radical of such a religious state to allow. However, the article I read suggests that these new fiqh interpretations are a structured way for the state to deal with unwanted homosexual behaviors. That way they can simply assign the transgender identity to a male who is attracted to males and convince him that he feels female. Changing the body, the sex of the person, to better fit categories of identity would be easier than confronting the existence of homosexual persons in Iran. Iran has very strict rules on the presentation and interaction of the two genders, and for a person to fall outside of those strict categories would be troublesome.

This was challenging to understand, but I eventually grasped it. However, my second article, the one on bug chasing, was way more problematic. I found myself reading and reading and eventually watching a whole documentary on the issue trying to understand it. Continue reading

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