Archive for March, 2011


Glee-fully Sex-Educated

WARNING– this post has spoilers in it! If you haven’t watched the new Glee episode, “Sexy,” scram. Go watch it first, then come back and read this post.

But for those of you with no intent of watching Glee, here’s a quick run-down of the episode’s features so that we’re all on the same page:

It becomes painfully evident (via one of Brittany’s fantastic one-liners) that the kids in Glee club have had almost no sex education and are pitifully unprepared to navigate a sexual adult world. So, Mr. Shue invites Holly, a substitute teacher who had a stint as glee director when Mr. Shue was sick earlier in the season, to come and teach a lesson for the club, while inserting some sex education into the mix.

The New Directions Glee Club is indicative of so many high school students across the US, who, because of poor sex education policies made by the Bush Administration and general squeamishness by educators and administrators themselves, have had almost no access to formal sex ed. Even for those who have had classes- who know the basics of how to put on a condom and “how babies are made”- that education has been woefully inadequate at addressing the real concerns about teen sexuality. Glee points that out in humorous ways, like Brittany thinking she’s pregnant because a stork has built a nest outside her window, or Finn, who thought he got Quinn pregnant by cumming in a hot tub where they were sitting, but the basic point is still there. Teens have NO IDEA what sex means physically, much less emotionally or socially, and it takes a daring person (teacher, parent, whoever) to break out of their shell and share it with them.
And while I wouldn’t call Holly’s approach (singing a song about sex, and then telling the kids that “When you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone they’ve slept with”) is terribly comprehensive, it does show that there are ways to bridge the generational divide and get at least the basic message across to kids. Plus, it’s another place to throw in a great song.

But what really impressed me about this episode of Glee was the way sex education was brought home for Kurt and his Dad. After Kurt’s friend Blaine mentions to Kurt’s dad that Kurt isn’t seeking information on his own about sex education and will likely make bad choices in future because of this, Kurt’s dad steps up to the plate to give his son “the talk.” And Glee’s producers, rather than taking the easy way out and cutting the scene as they sit down at the dinner table for serious discussion, see the scene through to its conclusion. Kurt’s dad not only has reading material for his son, but also a heartfelt explanation about how sex means something emotionally, and that it’s important to take care of your body and your mind when it comes to sex.

Now “the talk” Kurt received was far from perfect by my standards- it reinforced gender stereotypes about the difference in how men vs. women think about sex, it solidified the social opinion that sex should only be with someone you love, and it didn’t really mention anything about the different ways that people express intimacy (Kurt’s dad mostly spoke with the assumption that all parents have- when your kid is having sex, they are “having sex” and not any other form of physical closeness, which is why, I believe, people are still so dumbfounded about lesbian sex). But I still think this episode was groundbreaking, and that overall, the explanation that Kurt’s dad gave was a very good example and a fantastic starting point for everyone watching.

Thing is, even if Glee didn’t cover all the bases about sexual education, it did open the subject up for dialogue (which we all know I’m so fond of). Like Rhianna’s S and M video, Glee might not have changed minds or practices, but it elevated the issue at hand to a new level of public consciousness. Sex ed IS STILL SOMETHING WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT, and that was really what Glee aimed to get across, for which it succeeded eloquently.

And I have the perfect example of WHY it’s still so important to talk about. This article in New York Magazine details the progression that youth growing up in the social networking age are taking towards adult sexuality.

“If eighth-graders today are spared the indignity of having to first learn about sex by watching a middle-aged health teacher roll a condom over a banana, having the web for a teacher comes with drawbacks, too. Consider that a single Google search of the term “sex ed” turns up, among other—more useful—information, a picture of a naked woman, the areolae of her nipples barely obscured by what appear to be Skittles, which run in a single-file line down to her nether region.”

It is widely cited that the age of first exposure to sexually explicit material is 11 years old, and right then, as students are entering middle school, reaching the cusp of puberty, and dealing with all the ups and downs of life as a teenager, that they now have to negotiate a whole new world with unfamiliar rules and boundaries. The article focuses mainly on teens’ use of new social media (like posting racy pictures on facebook and using Chat Roulette) to explore the uncharted territory of sexuality.

It affects both young men and women in different ways- but the findings echo many of the old-guard anti-porn arguments: that the internet is making men violent, more likely to rape, and more likely to reject a woman who doesn’t have the porn-star body that they’ve grown up viewing.

“This is the paradoxical fear of many heterosexual 14-year-old girls: that the Internet is making boys more aggressive sexually—more accepting of graphic images or violence toward women, brasher, more demanding—but it is also making them less so, or at least less interested in the standard-issue, flesh-and-bone girls they encounter in real life who may not exactly have Penthouse proportions and porn-star inclinations. (“If you see something online, and the girls in your neighborhood are totally different, then it’s, um … different,” one 14-year-old boy tells me.) This puts young women in the sometimes uncomfortable position of trying to bridge the gap. “

This is the first online phenomenon that I personally haven’t grown up with, and it is a little frightening. It was one thing for me to come of age in the era of the internet- I was exposed to many of these same things- porn sites popped up on my browser accidentally (and then not-so-accidentally), and I went searching in some interesting places for information. But facebook was only for college kids, and Chat-roulette not even a fantasy yet. I didn’t have the ability to consider my sexuality through these mediums, whether or not I had the desire to do so.

But the fact of the matter is that these social mediums are out there, and kids are growing up and taking advantage of them. WHICH IS WHY it is so desperately important to keep the conversation going between parents and kids, older siblings, and younger siblings, those who have been over the hurdles and come out with more knowledge and a strong sense of sexual self helping those who have just begun to discover themselves. The passing along of information, of moderating and offering commentary on the crazy things the internet hosts is crucial to making sure teens understand how they fit into an increasingly complex set of sexual situations.

And Glee is one step along a winding path that brings these divergent perspectives together to create a better understanding of our society’s sexual welfare.

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I’ve waited long enough now that I think it’s fair for me to comment on Rhianna’s S and M video which caused so much media fervor when it was released.  I’ve seen many different critiques on the video and the responses to it, ranging from the mainstream arguments about perversion and the degredation of women inherent in BDSM practices to the feminist counter about male vs. female privilege in addressing sexual issues in music to those who simply hailed Rhianna as visionary and daring.  But what I want to look at the self-awareness in the S and M video which I find so impressive, and attempt to deconstruct its ideas in a way that makes sense to be people who watched the video and simply thought “WTF???”

So, for those of you who haven’t seen it already, Rhianna’s video is available here:

http://www.dailymotion.com/swf/video/xgu906?theme=none
Rihanna – S&M by jimihubabua

First and foremost, I want to breakdown the references that Rhianna used in the video, because she did a fabulous job of showing diversity of expression within the BDSM community.  For simplicity (and because I’m a bit Type-A), I made a list:

  • Submissive roleplay

Rhianna’s video actually starts out with a fairly common role-playing scenario, both within the self-identified kinky community and the rest of the world: the office submissive.  Rhianna holds a press conference and is surrounded by dozens of office underlings following her every word, nodding along to her singing, silenced by ball gags.  It’s really a brilliant opening image because of the more universal aspect to this kind of roleplay.  Many people have thought about how wonderful it would be to force that uppity Executive Vice President in their office to sit down, shut up, and start taking notes from them.  There isn’t necessarily a sexual relation to it, but the element of power play in the reversal of office roles is definitely an S and M dynamic.

  • Mummification (plastic wrap)

In the same scene as the office submissives, Rhianna is displayed behind a barrier of plastic wrap, reminiscent of the S and M practice of mummification.  Mummification, as explained by Wipipedia, is “a BDSM bondage practice involves restraining a person’s body in a non-damaging way by wrapping it head to toe in materials like clingfilm, cloth, bandages, latex or linen sheet, rubber strips, plaster bandages, sleep sacks, or strait jackets. The end result being a person completely immobilized and looking like an Egyptian mummy. They may then either be left bound in a state of effective sensory deprivation for a period of time, or sensually stimulated in their state of bondage, before being released from their wrappings.”

  • Puppy play

More than anything, I like S and M because Rhianna gets to walk Perez Hilton (that pretentious little snot) around on a leash and treat him in the condescending manner he deserves.  This is her nod to another kind of roleplaying relationships, wherein one partner takes on the mannerisms of a dog (although variations of this exist for many other kinds of animals) and the other is the owner.  Sometimes these scenes are based on a loving, affectionate interaction between owner and puppy, but others manipulate scenes primarily with the objective of giving their partner orders, as one would “train” a puppy.

  • Leather girls/boys

Leather fetish is probably the most established trope about the BDSM community in the books, probably because it establishes such a strong visual image and there’s such a large commercial market for leather gear.  Thankfully, Rhianna touched on leather fetishism without dwelling on it too long, allowing time in the video to explore other, less well-known aspects of S and M.

  • Robot/futuresex fetish

Who doesn’t want to see Rhianna dressed up in white latex robot costume, taping her underlings to the wall and doing whatever the heck she feels like?  This scene was a great incorporation of robot/futuresex fetishism with dominant and submissive undertones and….

  • Bondage!

My favorite!  Bondage shows up a couple of times in S and M- not only in the dark context of Rhianna the robot and her helpless future-world slaves, but also in the lighter, more playful scene where she is bound up in a bubbly, pastel-colored Japanese manga-esque dress and jokingly bites at her restraints.

  • Daddy/girl play

That same dress may have also been a nod to another kind of roleplaying relationship with a similar dynamic to puppy play- daddy/girl relationships.  Rhianna, dressed as a bratty little girl in her infantilizing dress, illustrates the kind of “punishment-style” daddy/girl interactions that stand in opposition to more caring, loving, incest-play.  (This is a style of roleplay that many people outside and inside the BDSM community have trouble with because of its undertones of incest and child abuse, which is why I will once again take this time to note that this is first and foremost a form of PLAY.  If you want examples of how a healthy daddy/girl relationship works, I implore you to read some of the writing on Sugarbutch)

So, having semi-dissected the video, let me tell you why I really think it’s interesting and useful relative to the BDSM community.  First and foremost, S and M is a form of exposure to the community that most people would otherwise never have.  That being said, a lot of people don’t understand the video and/or are offended by it, so this can often be a two steps forward, one step back approach, but I appreciate Rhianna touching the issue at all.

Second, I am so happy, as another blogger- Vanilla Edge– brought up, that S and M doesn’t focus exclusively on the “dark images” associated typically with BDSM (chains, whips, leather, etc.).  Her video is colorful, playful, and exposes people to a spectrum of BDSM practices, which is awesome!

At the same time, however, the video is very self-aware of the way it would be perceived by the general public.  There are a few quick cut-scenes of Rhianna with newsprint running behind her questioning her sexual ethic, calling her a whore, etc, which is a very ingenious way of breaking the fourth wall with her audience.  She is acknowledging both the practice of S and M as taboo while simultaneously noting the fact that her own video will then incur those same taboo associations.  In a way, such an approach pre-empts any negative press the video would receive and makes a very eloquent artistic statement.

Last but not least, I want to look at the content of Rhianna’s video as a composite piece.  Whether she did so intentionally to make a statement or simply to avoid further censorship by the media, there’s no ACTUAL SEX in her video.  I’ve heard this used as a critique of the video because for men, it’s no problem to include much more provocative images that Rhianna utilizes and this double standard caused her to shy away from any explicit images, but let me offer an alternative explanation: the lack of sex in S and M was a purposeful statement about the manifestation of S and M relationships.  Not all BDSM scenes involve sex.  Many people get off on S and M practices exclusively, such as spanking, roleplaying, or electrical play.  There doesn’t need to be sex for something to qualify as BDSM, so the absence of sex in Rhianna’s video can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of that fact.

As you can probably tell, I really like this video, and I honestly didn’t expect to.    I expected it to feed the popular misunderstandings of the BDSM community, vilify it moreso, other it even farther so that it becomes one step more removed from “the normal world.”  Lauren Berlant wrote in her article for the Nation about sexual scandal a few words which I think are intensely applicable:

“..when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I’m doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other “appropriate” drives (to eat, for example). Then there’s the fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else’s pleasure, in a way that one doesn’t want.

Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink or the taxi comes.” (You should also read the whole article, because it’s excellent)

This is what Rhianna has done for the BDSM community, in a highly literate and entertaining way- made BDSM and those weird, awkward, uncomfortable parts of sex a little more connected to the world we know.  If a popstar can sing about them, can’t we at least acknowledge them?

I would never go so far as to say that the world will take Rhianna’s S and M video as a justification for experimentation with BDSM- in fact, I highly doubt that it truly swayed many people’s opinions at all.  But it did provide exposure, and S and M did so in an impressive and balanced way.  To get people talking is the first step towards changing opinions.

So get talking, queer kids.

*NB: More information about any of these BDSM activities can be found at http://www.londonfetishscene.com/wipi/index.php/Main_Page.  Furthermore, a must-read for anyone interested in practicing BDSM is this safety manual from  ACT Toronto.

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