On Youth, Sexuality, Education, and Your Fears

maymay's picture

According to his Twitter and Identi.ca profiles, Meitar "maymay" Moscovitz is a "technology geek, sexual freedom and community activist, prickly blogger, and general free spirit." He's also an avid juggler and has way too many profiles on social networking sites. This post was originally published on his sexuality blog, Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed.

In just 3 weeks time, on November 21st, the sexuality education, health, and rights conference series that many people, including me, have been working on for months is going to be held at the Montgomery County Executive Office Building, a 5 minute walk from the Rockville Metro station in the Washington, DC metro area. I’m totally psyched about it because, thanks to the incredible work of Nikolas Coukouma and numerous generous donors, we have a large cafeteria space in a public building.

Being in a public venue is a big deal because most sexuality communities are extremely afraid of using public resources for doing their work. Few that I know about in the sex-positive sphere think to use community resources, instead choosing to segregate themselves from the rest of their local community. I think that’s supremely unfortunate, and it totally fails to send a message of inclusion, acceptance, and diversity that’s so central to (among other things) sexual health.

The other reason having a public venue for the conference, which we call the KinkForAll Washington DC “unconference,” is a big deal is because it legally solidifies the “open to the public” nature of the event. As it is a conference that invites anyone with the desire to learn or with something to contribute to attend and speak at, KinkForAll has always been and should always be 100% free and open to the public. We should be striving to create as public and diverse an atmosphere as possible, even in privately-owned spaces (such as the previous venues of LGBT community centers and universities).

Sadly, it turns out that even in otherwise unbiased communities, many people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that certain other people might want or should be able to participate. In particular, although many people seem to be championing the unconference’s “open to the public” nature, some of these same people have voiced strong concern over the possible presence of minors. Others have gone so far as to wish to restrict the presence of youth citing “inappropriateness” and fears that access to sexuality information could be traumatic.

I believe these are well-intentioned people, but feel that their desire to censor information from minors or create restrictions that hinder the accessibility of some information to them is adultist behavior. Such behavior, while likely spawned from understandable fears, encourages closeted behavior. Projecting a mentality of fear onto young people does them a severe disservice.

When I was an adolescent, it would have changed my life for the better to be able to be in a public, safe place where people discussed sexuality freely, where I didn’t need to hide behind the glow of my computer screen in a dark room to get information about sex, bisexuality, and everything else that sexuality touches. I was a closeted teenager. Today, most teens and younger people are similarly closeted. Indeed, most adults still are, too!

When I was in the closet, I was being secretive, I felt fearful, and I had few to zero avenues for acquiring accurate information that could have helped me live a dramatically happier, more self-sufficient life. Put simply, the closet is not a safe place to be. In a conversation I had with David Phillips, co-founder of the Rainbow Response Coalition fighting against intimate partner violence in the Washington, DC metro area LGBT communities, David notes this startling point about the closet:

If you consider that intimate partner violence, when they look at statistics in a large population, race isn’t a determining factor, income isn’t a determining factor. But what [does] pop up as determining factors: disability is a predisposing factor, and then I believe that the closet is weighing more heavily because that is one unique form of violence that’s used against LGBT people that isn’t available to be used against heterosexual folks, is, “I’m going to out you. I’m going to tell your family. I’m going to tell your friends. So shut up.” […] It could be, y’know, kink interest, for what it’s worth, but just some characteristic that’s kept under wraps becomes a source of strength for the abuser.

(Skip to about 1:07:22 in the audio recording of the conversation to hear the quote.)

Indeed, since information and knowledge is power, censorship can be a weapon. Becky Knight summed up the importance of making sexuality information accessible to youth better than anyone:

It’s kind of amazing to me that so many people wish they had better information and guidance when they were young, but then they fail to provide it for the next generation. Information about sex and relationships is critical for young people if they are going to grow into sexually healthy and happy adults. Some people can find it on their own, but many people suffer from misinformation and misunderstandings that could have been helped by simply getting accurate information earlier on.

Fortunately, human beings are blessed (and cursed) with an ability to do something truly extraordinary: we can imagine ourselves in a situation better than the one we find ourselves in. We can hope. Despite the obviously gendered language, George Bernard Shaw seems to have understood this when he said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I’ve been obsessed with this idea for as long as I can remember. For instance, although many people thought it was “unreasonable” of me, as a 2nd grader, to insist that traditional schooling was wildly inappropriate for my education, I have always thought and continue to believe that vocalizing my opinion was the most natural, obvious, reasonable thing in the world for me to do. I campaigned (for nearly 10 years) to convince my legal guardians and other adults that I would be better served if I spent my time learning on my own, out of school. Eventually, with no small effort, I dropped out, and every concern the caring but misguided adults had about me was proven unrealistic. I never “got into trouble” with drugs or gangs or violence, I became financially self-supporting while still a teenager, and—still without a GED—I’m now in a higher tax bracket than my parents are. (The price of “success,” I guess. Oh well.)

Why was it so difficult for the adults in my life to trust me when I assured them, “Don’t worry, I’ll be okay,” or to give me a straight answer when I asked, “Why can’t I study what I want to learn?” Why was my input so cavalierly dismissed? Was it because I was 7 years old? Maybe it was because they didn’t believe a 7 year old was capable of imagining himself in a better situation than the one he was in. At least, surely not better than a situation they could imagine for him, right? Wrong. Tragically wrong.

In a recent blog post on youth engagement at schools, Adam Fletcher writes:

The evidence that education systems across the United States are devoid of student involvement in decision-making is obvious to any young person or adult who considers themselves an ally of youth. […T]he belief that students cannot make decisions for themselves is as much a hindrance as the belief that students cannot make decisions for schools at large.

Here’s some food for thought: there’s a word for minors who are legally able to make their own choices. That word is ‘emancipated.’ In other words, most minors are not emancipated. This word might sound familiar, since it’s in the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed African-American slaves from the legal control of their owners across the United States.

When I think about this, I can’t help but be reminded of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says (paraphrased),

Every man, woman, and child on Earth is born free and equal in dignity and rights. We have reason and conscious and should be friendly towards one another. Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regardless of age[…]. You have the right to live in freedom and safety. Nobody has the right to treat you as their slave. The law is the same for everyone. You have the right to think what you want and say what you like, to organize peacefully, [and] to take part in your country’s political affairs. The society in which you live should help you to develop. Education should strive to promote peace and understanding among all people.

(Here's the original text of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

People who have not yet reached the age of majority, which varies wildly across regions, cultures, and governments, by the way, are arguably the single most disenfranchised group of human beings. In America, and in most if not all countries in the world, they have little or no legal standing, protections, or rights. Just for a moment, imagine what kind of priority adults might make education and childcare if schoolchildren could vote.

My struggle for a voice to educate myself in the way I saw best is not even worthy of a footnote when compared to the overwhelming injustices some other young people face, but it’s a personal reminder that I was once considered incapable and unreasonable thanks only to the inherent characteristic of my age at the time—something I was powerless to change.

At the same time as all of that was going on in my life, when I turned 9, I entered puberty and began to masturbate. As unfamiliar as masturbation was, I was largely well-prepared for it because I had spent countless hours at school surreptitiously reading anatomy textbooks during my Judaic Studies courses (and getting in trouble for doing so). By then, I could not only name most components of human genitalia, but could also describe the human sexual response cycle from start to finish.

I dared not speak about these things to anyone, however, because all it would do was get me in trouble for not paying more attention in school during class. Then, when I was 10, my family got an America Online account. I discovered the Internet and, of course, pornographic websites.

I was afraid to hit the “I am over 18 years of age” button when I wasn’t and yet I did so anyway. I remember learning about the public BDSM scene in New York when I was 10 and wishing I could go. I couldn’t, of course, and so I waited for 8 years—consciously, silently waiting for 8 years. I finally went out to the public BDSM scene when I was 18, and I was terrified. The places where I ended up were not, in fact, places where I think I would have been safe as a teenager. Indeed, I question how safe I was as an “adult” there. Frankly, I hesitate to return to some of those places to this day, and I’m 25 now.

A KinkForAll unconference, however, is a place I think that, had it existed and I knew about it when I was a teenager, I would have come out to because it is public, because it is safe, because it is expressly not eroticized.

So it was not so long ago when I was banned from sexuality communities for being too young. I wanted to learn about sexuality from people who were willing to talk about it with me, not engage in it with me. I wanted to learn more about myself so much that I devoured every resource I could get my hands on—not an easy feat (even in the 90’s) considering how censored everything is, especially where younger people are concerned, and it’s only getting more difficult as filtering technologies “improve.”

I fully believe that I would have been a suicide case had it not been for the miniscule amount of information about sexuality that I found. As Ramon Johnson points out in his article about LGBT suicide,

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey. A 2007 San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute study shows that lgbt and questioning youth who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. And for every completed suicide by a young person, it is estimated that 100 to 200 attempts are made (2003 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey).

(By the way, if you or someone you know is feeling down right now, please read and share Kate Bornstein’s Hello, Cruel World Lite.)

I desperately needed sexuality information that I could relate to, that told me I was not alone, that told me there were people I could speak with, that gave me hope that, one day, I could reach out to people who cared a damn about what I was feeling and who could share their own feelings and opinions with me. I needed someone to do that for me when I was 12, and I never got it.

I never got it because talking about it was taboo. My schools, my teachers, my parents, and even my trusted adult friends would not talk to me about it. I suspect they must have been afraid of the very things I sense some people who wish to restrict the access of minors to the educational KinkForAll unconferences are afraid of. It was that fear of theirs that almost killed me. Finding information about sexuality in public libraries and on the Internet very literally saved my young, questioning, and very isolated life. I don’t want any other young person to go through the isolation and uncertainty I felt about my own sexuality that I did at that age.

Like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies, I believe that safe and free access to accurate, non-judgmental information about human sexuality and sexual freedom—or about anything of public interest, for that matter—is a fundamental human right, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic class, educational level, or age. That’s why I strongly believe that we need to make sexuality information freely accessible to young people. Adults must bear in mind that youth are a crucial group of people for whom education and access to quality, reliable information is perhaps more paramount for the future than anything else.

Knee-jerk and fearful reactions to young people’s potential exposure to sexuality material is often vastly more damaging than the exposure itself. Furthermore, a distinction must be drawn between the erotic and the educational. In fact, most current laws clearly recognize this distinction and expressly preclude material having a bona fide scientific, educational, governmental, artistic, news, or other similar justification from legal prosecution. It’s a sorry state of affairs that pornography has become the largest source of sexuality information due mostly to the absence of real, widespread, public sex education.

The result of such an information deficit about sex coupled with fearful reactions about filling it are youth that aren’t going to be able to feel safe exploring the world, their relationships with friends when they are young, and their romantic relationships when they grow older. As Cory Silverberg recently wrote in his guide to talking to kids about pornography,

Good sex education isn’t about forcing one agenda or another on your kids. It’s about being responsive to questions asked and anticipating what kinds of information your kids might need given their environment.

If I could only give you one reason why you should at least think about talking to your kids about pornography it’s that, if statistics are to be believed, they are likely to encounter some [porn] before they reach an age where they’ll be able to critically understand what they are seeing.

I wouldn’t recommend raising the topic of pornography out of the blue. But if you have a child who is already online or watches TV, or you have any pornography in your home (no matter how well hidden you think it is) I do think it behooves you to prepare to talk about pornography, and think ahead about how you want to talk about.

Concerns that exposure to pornography could be traumatic for people—regardless of age—who are not able to critically understand what they are seeing are not unfounded. Of course, the same can be said about exposure to electricity (”Don’t stick your hand in the wall outlet!”) or heat (”Don’t touch the stove when it’s on!”) or crossing the street (”Always hold my hand when you cross!”) or a bazillion other things that could potentially cause harm. However, in all of these cases, censorship does not provide protection, education does. By the same token, actively restricting access to sexuality information (not porn, but sexual education resources—there’s a difference) from people who seek it, again regardless of age, is like forcing them to wear a blindfold while crossing a highway.

How would you feel if someone did that to you? That’s how I felt throughout my entire childhood and teenage years, first in school when I was a boy, then at the restriction of sexuality information when I was going through puberty. Why did the adults in my life not see that what they thought they were doing “for my own good” was actually a painful and damaging experience for me? That when they saw fit to decree what I “needed” they were actually disrespectfully disregarding my input about my own personhood, a personhood that, even as a young boy, was extremely well-established.

Why? Adults routinely speak on behalf of young people without any input from them. Again, why? Why did the adults, institutions, and public systems in my life deny my rights to better my own education? Was it “unreasonable” of me to expect better treatment than that? Did they think I simply couldn’t learn on my own? That I “needed” their specific brand of structure? That smells a little One True Way™ to me.

And, even more upsetting, why should things feel that way for so many people, of all ages, about many topics, in countless places around the world? Can’t we do better than this? Don’t you also hope, as I do, that one day we will do better?

Thankfully, the other extraordinary thing about human beings is that we have the capability to turn our ideas, our hopes, and our dreams into realities. In 2006, high school student Miranda Elliot campaigned with 50 other young adults to reform public sex education in Chicago public schools, and they did. Mel Rose Dingal, young activist participating in the 2009 Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights, successfully changed the conference’s official statement regarding youth, creating one of the strongest youth statements calling policy makers from governments, private sectors, and civil society to actively address sexual rights and reproductive health of young people as a global goal.

The KinkForAll unconferences are not youth sexual rights events because, as an unconference, KinkForAll has no specific sexuality focus. Whoever participates are the right people. Whatever the topics are, they are the right ones. Neither myself nor, as far as I know, anyone else in the KinkForAll community wishes to recruit any specific individual to the unconference.

All I want is to maintain the accessibility of the event so it is available to any member of the human race who wants to participate. Again, KinkForAll always has been and should always remain 100% free and open to the public. All that being said, you can bet on my giving a presentation at KinkForAll Washington DC about youth sexual rights, because it’s an extremely important topic not only to me personally, but I think also to our children’s future.

If you’re interested in helping out, please consider crossposting the message below on your blog, sending it to any email lists you belong to that accept such messages, tweeting about it, or just telling a friend you think might be interested in checking it out. Thank you.

PLEASE COPY AND CROSSPOST THIS MESSAGE FREELY.

KinkForAll is an ad-hoc educational unconference about the convergence of sexuality with the rest of life for anyone and everyone. It is 100% free and open to the public. Anyone with the desire to learn or with something to contribute is welcome and invited to participate.

Vitals
======
What: A free and highly social day of sexuality education and discussion.
Why: To inspire a creative, interactive and open environment where everyone feels comfortable talking and learning about all things that sexuality relates to in their lives.
When: November 21st, 2009 at 10:30 AM
Where: Montgomery County Executive Office Building at 101 Monroe Street, Rockville, MD (5 min walk from Rockville Metro station)
Who: Everyone
How much: FREE (as in beer as well as freedom)

Details
=======

KinkForAll is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people of all persuasions to share and learn in an open environment. It is a fast-paced event with discussions, presentations, and interaction from all participants. (It is inspired by the BarCamp community.)

ANYONE WITH SOMETHING TO CONTRIBUTE OR WITH THE DESIRE TO LEARN IS WELCOME AND INVITED TO JOIN. When you attend, be prepared to share with others. When you leave, be prepared to share it with the world.

A KinkForAll is a special kind of gathering because there are no spectators, only participants. Attendees must give a talk or a presentation, help with one, or otherwise contribute in some way to support the event. This is called sharing and we like it. All presentations are scheduled the day they happen—there are no pre-scheduled presentations or keynote addresses. The people present at the event will select the presentations they want to see.

Anyone can lead a session, on any topic related to sexuality. You do not necessarily have to teach a new skill or idea. You might share an experience, facilitate a discussion, or read a poem. The goal is to start a conversation, make connections (and maybe even friends), and exchange knowledge. Presentations promoting specific commercial products or companies are discouraged.

Learn more about what to expect at
http://wiki.kinkforall.org/WhatToExpect

Learn more about the event guidelines at
http://wiki.kinkforall.org/TheRulesOfKinkForAll

This activity is not sponsored by, associated with, or endorsed by Montgomery County Public Schools or Montgomery County Government.

Get Involved
============

We need your help in spreading the word. Please help by participating.

Here’s how:

1. Get excited by reading fellow participants’ topic ideas on
http://wiki.kinkforall.org/KinkForAllWashingtonDC
2. Add your name or handle to the list of participants
3. Join the mailing list and introduce yourself by emailing
kinkforall@googlegroups.com
4. Show up!

Still have questions? Read the Frequently Asked Questions at
http://wiki.kinkforall.org/FrequentlyAskedQuestions

or email kinkforall@googlegroups.com for more details.

KinkForAll Online
==============

Participate online before the event at your favorite social networking web site:

Homepage: http://wiki.KinkForAll.org
Google: http://groups.google.com/group/kinkforall
Twitter: http://twitter.com/KinkForAll
Identica: http://identi.ca/kinkforall
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/KinkForAll/40066342762
Fetlife: http://fetlife.com/groups/2962

All organizational efforts are coordinated in public via the mailing list. Join for free and help turn ideas into realities!

http://groups.google.com/group/kinkforall

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