If you've been following my travel blog, you know that I've been in China, training sex education teachers and psychology graduate students. China has 1.35 BILLION people (4 times the size of the U.S.), and has been involved in policy debates regarding family planning and sexual behavior for decades. They're currently reevaluating their "one family, one child policy," and of course sex education is part of the policy debate.
The other night I lectured for two hours to sex education teachers-in-training at Chengdu University, in south-central China. The topic was "Teaching Sexuality Education: How? Why?"
About 100 students, most between 19-24, attended. Naturally, over 3/4 were female. A handful of faculty also attended. Like every indoor space in southern China during the winter, the room was cold, and everyone wore a coat.
I talked about the usual stuff: that healthy children are interested in sex from infancy; that adults have an affirmative responsibility to handle this sexuality in a positive way; that sex ed is education for relationships with self and other.
But, I emphasized, the effective sex education teacher needs way more than information and a curriculum; the teacher needs a healthy attitude about sexuality. That's mostly what I'm here to discuss, I said.
And that was the biggest issue for them. Knowing what a clitoris is is one thing. Being able to say the word is another. If you can't do that, you'll never get your students comfortable with saying it.
These student teachers were unable to say the word. And it wasn't just in the class--they acknowledged they'd never say it in private, either. So of course I had them say it a few times, until they were laughing. And then we talked about why this is important.
"This isn't the way sex education is taught here," one said. I remembered my mentor Sol Gordon's critique of 1980s American sex education as being too fact-based: "a relentless pursuit of fallopian tubes," he used to complain.
I asked for questions periodically, but the students were too shy to ask many. I told them there's no room for politeness in sex education, which I think confused some of them. In the end, we accomplished a lot (I'm told), and then there were goodbyes all the way around.
Afterwards the faculty invited me to a little banquet. About 10 of us sat in a freezing restaurant (everyone in a coat!), chowing down on stuff that I didn't recognize, and mostly didn't like. The big challenge of such events is to smile while swallowing things that don't taste, well, completely cooked. I'm not blaming the food, but later on I was glad I'd brought raisins and nuts all the way from California.
The conversation at the meal was disconcerting. These people were supposedly the progressive thinkers in China, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. But like so much in this country, the "progressive ideas" had strict limits, and the thinking changed abruptly as soon as we touched those limits. In this case, those limits included pornography, premarital sex, and the internet.
My hosts suggested that censoring the internet was important to protect young people from sexual imagery. But they weren't talking about the hard-core stuff that concerns many Americans; they were talking about Playboy. "It's just naked ladies!" I blurted out in shock. More composed, I asked what was dangerous about that. I was told it gives people bad ideas, leads to crime, and undermines society. Those arguments are sadly familiar to me, but are generally not applied to something so benign.
Besides, my hosts said, the government was just responding to parental concerns. Parents don't want their teens using computers because of potential exposure to "bad things." And what about the educational value of computers for teens? No, parents (supposedly) don't think the risk is worth it. Given that China's leadership tells its people exactly what they need and what they will have, I found it completely disingenuous to suggest that the government's internet censorship was a response to public demand.
With all the wonderful advantages that a democratic system offers, I found China's justification for internet censorship depressingly similar to America's.
Nevertheless, they are developing a national sex education consciousness and program, and they are investing money in training teachers. They are examining the value of various curricula. And while their programs don't exactly encourage premarital sex, they aren't obsessed with abstinence. In that respect, they're one up on us.
Say a deranged woman attacked the Mona Lisa as it hung in the Louvre last week. It would be big news worldwide, including in the U.S.. Your favorite TV station would of course show the painting and discuss its historical and economic value.
Now what if instead of the Louvre it was America's National Gallery in Washington, and instead of DaVinci's Mona Lisa it was Gaugin's Two Tahitian Women. Same deal, right? Some perky anchorwoman would read the teleprompter: ". . .masterpiece done for the upcoming Exposition Universelle of 1900, similar to Gaugin's famous works now hanging in London's Tate and Moscow's Pushkin. It's worth eighty million dollars, John, not exactly a picture of dogs sitting around playing poker, huh?"
That would be the grownup way, but this is America--and if a painting involves Tahitian Women, the fear of sex can't be far behind. So depending on what station you watch, you saw half the painting (duh, the upper half); all of the painting, but with a banner "Gaugin Painting Attacked" modestly covering the models' breasts; and on fair-and-balanced Fox stations, the entire painting with the nipples blurred out. And yes, some stations showed the masterpiece as it is.
"This is evil," screamed Susan Burns as she pounded the painting with her fists. It "has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual. I think it should be burned…"
Ironically, that's the same reason why American TV stations couldn't simply report the news of a century-old, world-reknown masterpiece has been attacked by a loonie who thinks a few inches of bare breasts are dangerous.
Remember the Janet Jackson incident in the 2004 Super Bowl, when the FCC fined TV stations for showing her nipple for a half-second. Remember last year's Illinois judicial fiasco, when an adult was thrown out of a courtroom and jailed simply for wearing a t-shirt--and American TV and newspaper audiences were not allowed to see the t-shirt (it said "I own the pussy, so I make the rules"). And remember how the FCC challenged NBC's broadcast of 2000-year-old "naked" statues at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Of course broadcasters are nervous in the wake of these government decisions. And even though the Supreme Court has told the FCC to stop destroying our constitutional rights, no one really trusts the FCC to obey--and no one wants to spend millions defending themselves against the next government abuse.
So Janet Jackson and "I own the pussy" and the Greek statues' penises are not trivial. They're our political culture in action. And no one's interrupting the juggernaut.
The woman who attacked the Gaugin isn't alone in her eroto-paranoia; tens of millions of other Americans live in her delusional world of Devil Sex. And our traditional mass media are catering to these loonies instead of to sane adulthood. At a time like this, it's hard to see television and newspapers as worth saving from destruction by the internet.
So here's my wish for those who applaud Burns for attempting to save humanity by destroying part of its cultural patrimony. Someone should destroy every artifact you deem precious--grandma's needlepoint, your dead son's uniform, your niece's ballet shoes, and every photograph you've ever taken.
Because someone, somewhere, surely finds them offensive.
I'm in Houston, lecturing to the Houston Group Psychotherapy Society about "sexual narratives"--the vocabulary and stories with which our culture discusses sexuality, which patients and therapists inevitably use, too. Stories like "all men are hounds," "I have a hot Italian temper," "oral sex is for prostitutes," or "I'm cursed with a small penis, so I can't satisfy women."
This morning, I talked about the place where I get my hair cut. You check in, then go into the changing room to remove and hang your blouse or shirt, and put on a smock. On a busy day, there might be six or seven garments on hangers in there. Many of them smell like their owners--some of them pretty nice. Not just the occasional perfume, but more often just the scent of a woman. Silk + woman. Cotton + woman. Made in China + woman.
In that little room, it's intriguing to inhale a few times, then go out into the salon and speculate--which customer belongs to the cute black sleeveless top? Which one wears that white poly long-sleeved number with the sequins? Is the brunette the one who smells active yet clean, or is it the one with the perm?
None of them knows that a fellow customer enjoys their collective wardrobe, or thinks about who embodies which scent.
But it's interesting to ask: Is the enterprise erotic or sexual? Is the activity sex? If not, why not? If so, could it be considered infidelity? If not, what about briefly touching one or another of these lived-in garments? What about imagining each of their owners putting on their chemises this morning?
I even showed the seminar attendees a photo I'd taken of the salon's changing room, complete with blouses (and shirts) on hangers. Many attendees were fascinated--who talks about this? Who admits this? ("admits," because it's a vaguely disreputable thing to do, isn't it?) How should a psychologist think about this--is it "normal," "kinky," a "fetish," not even worth mentioning? Maybe too embarrassing for a therapist to contemplate?
But mostly they seemed appreciative, even relieved, that someone with fancy credentials and nice clothes (and a great haircut!) was even talking about something like enjoying the smell of other people's clothes in a salon changing room. That's reward enough for me--since these therapists will now be more welcoming of similar conversations with their clients. Maybe they won't even have to use labels like "kinky" or "normal."
After the morning session, one of the attendees approached me and smiled. "You talked about smelling the women's clothes as erotic or sexual," she said. "I think of it as sensual."
"I totally agree," I said, "depending on definitions. What's the difference between sensual and erotic? Erotic and sexual?"
More importantly, what's the difference between smelling a flower and smelling a woman's white silk blouse? And why, in 21st-century America, does it matter so much?
The Arizona legislature, to its eternal frustration, can't simply make abortion illegal. Its phony "conservative" Republicans want to shrink "Big Government" just small enough to fit under people's bedroom doors. But the state is still part of America, however much they--or we--might regret this.
Arizona can, of course, make the experience of a simple abortion as miserable as possible for residents who have the nerve to pursue a legal medical procedure. And the state can throw a fit and just invent reasons that people can't have abortions.
One imagines them criminalizing abortions taking place on February 30; banning abortions if the father is Elvis; and not allowing abortions if the mother is married to a kangaroo. Arizona's latest scheme is outlawing abortions if they're done for reasons of the race or gender of the fetus. And how many abortions have been done for this reason in Arizona? None. Even the sponsors couldn't name a single case, much less an epidemic.
They seem to have Arizona confused with India. When you can't tell the difference between a child and a clump of cells that isn't even a human being, it's hard to tell the difference between a small American state and the second largest country in the history of the world.
Supporters of the law note that a high percentage of abortions are being sought by minority women. Apparently, they don't realize that reducing health care options, sex education, and contraceptive availability leads to more unplanned pregnancy. Anti-choice legislators are against abortion almost as much as they're against reducing unplanned pregnancy. Maybe they don't know where babies come from.
The new law does raise an interesting question. If a Hispanic couple wants an abortion, will they be challenged as wanting an abortion because the fetus is Hispanic? After all, it's not a White, Black, or Asian fetus they'd be aborting. And what about a White couple who wants an abortion--when they know darn well the baby they don't want is White? Are these "abortion because of race?"
Arizona--the state that values female fetuses so much it criminalizes adult women's choices to run their own lives. Arizona's motto: "more fetuses, more women, less women's power."