Browsing posts from the category Musings


Apr
22

The crusade against phthalates and toxic toys

When Jennifer Pritchett opened The Smitten Kitten, her goal was to run a sex-positive, feminist adult retail store. But that mission expanded when she discovered the issue of toxic sex toys. She had never heard the word “phthalates” before, but three days before the store’s grand opening in August of 2003, while opening a shipment of inventory, she saw the chemicals in action.

You know those styrofoam packing peanuts? They were moist. And the moisture had oozed through the peanuts and into the cardboard box, so it looked like, you know when you put chocolate chip cookies on a grocery bag and they leave grease marks? That’s what the box looked like . . . They were leaking, oozing, this . . . oily substance . . . And it reeked. It smelled so bad. I’ve told people before, it smells like a headache.

Not knowing what on earth was going on, Pritchett and her staff washed the toys and set them on towels. But it didn’t help — more beads of sweat appeared on the toys. Pritchett called their distributor, who explained that “it happens all the time” and promised replacements. Then she called Metis Black, president of Tantus, who said, “you know what that is, don’t you?”

Pritchett quickly went to work researching phthalates and toxins in sex toys. She talked to others in the industry, fought with her distributor, and realized how huge of an issue she had stumbled upon. It was at this point that the mission of The Smitten Kitten shifted to encompass social justice, environmental justice, and personal health. The store’s entire inventory was revamped, despite the fact that eliminating the toxic toys made it difficult to fill even a 500 square foot shop.

Now there was an explanation for all the burning, rashes, bacterial infections, and unexplained irritation that consumers were having after using sex toys. Still, the conversation needed to change, because most consumers just thought they were too sensitive. Pritchett explains,

What we really worked to do was flip that conversation around. Your body’s having a perfectly natural and appropriate reaction to a toxic toy. To chemicals that were never meant to be in consumer products, and certainly not in consumer products that you come into that intimate of contact with . . . That really resonated with people . . . And then we started to shift the responsibility from our bodies to those products, and to those manufacturers, and those distributors, and those stores.

Pritchett even sent the industry’s 10 bestselling jelly toys to an independent lab in California, where many were found to contain various chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and hormonal disruption. In some toys, up to 68% of the total volume of the toy was a hazardous phthalate.

Now, almost 9 years later, we know a bit more about phthalates and toxic sex toys, and many stores (like us and the others in the Progressive Pleasure Club) stock only body-safe toys. But we wouldn’t be at this point without Pritchett and other brave industry folks taking a stand and knowing that a smelly, oily sex toy should not come in contact with anyone’s genitals.

  Musings      ,  
Apr
18

The art of the sex diary

For the past several years, writer Arianne Cohen has been collecting thousands of anonymous sex diaries from around the world. Her journey has culminated in a book, The Sex Diaries Project: What We’re Saying About What We’re Doing. These deeply personal diaries span the spectrum of sexuality, exploring both pleasure and heartache.

In an interview with Bitch, Cohen explains the allure of the website and how keeping a diary helps folks learn more about themselves:

People come . . . for voyeurism, and they stay for self-discovery. I think we all have a narrative (or three) in our head: “I’m super sexy and everyone wants to sleep with me” or “I’m going to be alone forever” or what have you. And what many diarists find is that when they read back over their first couple days of diarying, that narrative is very different from what they’re seeing.

The concept of the sex diary isn’t new — in fact, several famous people have kept scandalous diaries over the years. Andy Warhol, Catherine Millet, Marquis de Sade, Lewis Carroll, Toni Bentley, Anne Lister, Kurt Cobain, and Lord Byron have all partaken in the writing-down of sexual adventures.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of keeping a sex diary, you’re in luck! We’ve invited Arianne Cohen to run a 2-class workshop on sex diarying at the beginning of May, and all the proceeds go to Bitch Media! In the first class, Arianne will discuss what she’s learned about love and relationships, and she’ll lead diarying exercises. After keeping your own 7-day diary, you’ll come back for a second class to discuss your realizations about yourselves with the group.

  Musings      ,  
Mar
8

Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival starts tonight

Tonight marks the beginning of the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival (POWFest), which runs through Sunday. POWFest is a fantastic showcase for the work of female directors. This year’s festival includes an array of documentaries, animated and experimental shorts, international shorts, shorts with mature themes, classic films, and even a special screening of short films made by female youth.

One film we’re particularly excited about is called Austin Unbound. Here’s the synopsis and trailer:

The first of its kind, Austin Unbound offers an intimate glimpse into the story of a deaf transsexual man. Austin always knew that his female anatomy did not match his sense of mind, heart, or spirit. The film documents his personal reflections at a pivotal time in his gender transition: preparing for a double mastectomy and the recovery afterward. Austin’s journey is an inspiration to many, his self awareness, humor, and personality long recognized and honored throughout his community. Austin Unbound is different because it is a happy movie, whereas other films portray people who are trans or deaf as somehow pathological or in need of repair. The directors use specific cinematography, subtitles, and sound design which reflect Austin’s experience in full cinematic effect.

As a part of POWFest, a double-screening of Austin Unbound and Married in Spandex is happening on Sunday, March 11th at The Hollywood Theatre. Tickets are $10 and include a reception before the screening and a Q&A with Austin, the filmmakers, and community leaders afterward. Married In Spandex and the panel will be interpreted in sign language.  This screening is a benefit for Basic Rights Oregon.

Check out the rest of the POWFest schedule for more amazing films. Festival passes are available for $60.

Feb
21

Madison Young on motherhood and sexuality

Madison Young is a lot of things: a writer, a queer and BDSM porn star and director, a performance artist, director of the feminist art gallery Femina Potens, and most recently, a mother. Young gave birth to her daughter, Emma, last March. Ever since, she’s been exploring the intersection of sexuality and motherhood in her performance art, and is even working on a children’s book called My Mommy is a Love Artist.

Young’s art exhibits, with titles such as “Building Our Own White Picket Fences” and “Becoming MILF,” have explored queerness and sex, and how they converge with being a mother. In one photographic piece about the sexual and non-sexual roles of breasts, Young is shown topless with the image of a milk carton concealing one breast, and a television covering the other. Another piece was a quilt comprised of both burp cloths and “porn star panties.” At one exhibit, Young served breast milkshakes.

Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed Young about what has changed since her daughter’s birth. In response to the oft-asked question, “What are you going to tell your child?”, Young describes her children’s book, which just happens to sound amazing:

What I tell everyone is that I plan on being honest with my child and talking with her in a language she understands, which is the same as I do with any member of my family or anyone who is outside of the adult industry.

. . . I’m creating a children’s book right now that’s called My Mommy Is a Love Artist. It’s about a mom who creates art and film that captures the love that people have for one another. There are hearts everywhere and it’s like, “My mom goes on a safari, she goes through the wildnerness and finds people who are having magical experiences together and then captures them on film as they have their magic love.” It shows them holding hands and kissing. It advocates for love and for connection. And a lot of the people that I do shoot are real couples. Everything that I do is about capturing actual authentic pleasure. I think you can explain pleasure to a child — they have pleasurable moments, they love to give hugs and to receive kisses and be tickled. I’ll inform her about more things as it makes sense to address them, but I want her to understand the basic concepts of what I do. Right now, though, it’s all Elmo to her!

Young has even launched “The Sexy Mamas Social Club” in San Francisco, where moms gather to share their experiences with sex and motherhood. The group members are writing an anthology.

Read the whole interview for more of Young’s refreshing view on balancing motherhood and sexuality.

  Musings      , ,  
Feb
8

Dylan Ryan and The H-Word

Bitch‘s The H-Word was an eight-week-long post series written by sex workers. Named after the pejorative term “hooker,” the goal of the series was to give sex workers — from all around the country, and from all areas of the industry — a space to talk about their lives and experiences. As Melissa Petro wrote in the introduction to the series, “We are spoken about ad nauseam but not allowed to speak.”

One piece, “Make Your Own Porn,” was written by feminist porn star Dylan Ryan. Ryan’s first foray into sex work was as a stripper, but her job at Good Vibrations would plant the seed for her future in porn. While working at Good Vibes, she would have discussions with co-worker Shine Louise Houston about starting a queer porn company. When Houston got Pink and White Productions off the ground, Ryan’s career in porn began.

But Ryan doesn’t always shoot with queer companies and directors. She encounters the stereotypes that still exist in mainstream porn, and they make it strange for her as a queer woman, especially when she’s asked to shoot soft “girl/girl” scenes.

As a queer performer, I’m asked to show a kind of sex which is not always authentic to me, one that’s less challenging when I’m having sex with a cis gendered man on camera and more challenging when I’m having sex with a woman. I sometimes feel like it’s “Here, perform homosexual sex but do it just like this. Don’t be too queer. We can’t sell that.”

I think that the bulk of my eight years has really been about talking about this, showing my authentic sexuality, performing in projects that highlight and show and discuss and reflect on sexuality . . . I think the advent of feminist porn has been hugely helpful. Feminist porn is rising to the fore these last five or so years has shone a spotlight on diverse pornographic representations, from women making porn to queer pornmakers. I think the consumer can ask for their sexuality to be better represented in porn. I decided that making porn would be great because porn I watched never did it for me. I never saw myself represented, nor did I see my sexuality portrayed. It made sense for me to try and make porn that was my sex. Though not a choice that every person could or should make, that’s another way of going about it… make your own porn. Show your own sexuality.

Read the rest of Dylan Ryan’s piece, then check out the rest of the diverse posts from The H-Word series.

Jan
20

Pushing back against the transphobic Girl Scout cookie boycott

Last fall, Girl Scouts of Colorado issued a statement formally accepting transgender youth into their troops. “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl,” the statement read, “Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.”

Now that Girl Scout cookie season is on the horizon, a 14-year-old former Girl Scout named Taylor has issued a response in the form of a transphobic call to boycott Girl Scout cookies. Her video, which went viral last week, consists of transphobic language that does not bear repeating. Taylor’s fundamental misunderstanding and misconstruing of trans issues has rightfully offended a great many people, including us.

A national Girl Scouts spokeswoman responded to the controversy in an email to The Washington Post, writing that the organization “prided itself on being an inclusive organization serving girls from all walks of life.” Meanwhile, trans activist and porn star Buck Angel has released a video about his experience in a Girl Scout troop when he was younger. The video is a brief but effective reminder of what Girl Scouts stand for.

Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Buck. And when I was growing up, I was a Girl Scout. I was born as a girl but I always knew I was a guy, and all my family and friends — and even the Girl Scouts — knew I was a little boy. And they accepted me into the Girl Scout troop, and everyone was loving and giving, and it was never an issue. And I just wanted to give a shout-out to Girl Scouts for accepting transgender girls into the Girl Scout troops. ‘Cause Girl Scouts was actually a very big part of me growing up. It really helped me learn lots of things and respect, friends, how to get along with people — and most importantly, how to sell those Girl Scout cookies. So support Girl Scouts, they’re amazing. Thin Mints [are] my favorite cookie. So please, buy as many cookies as you can and help them to really get the message across that it’s not about anything other than showing love and respect and learning how to be a good person. That’s what Girl Scouts is about.

Thank you, Buck, for speaking your mind. We completely agree! And we are quite fond of Thin Mints ourselves.

Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington have begun taking cookie orders for the year. Booths will be set up from February 17 through March 11; there’s even a cookie locator app to help you find one. Read about all the cookies here to get your mouth watering. Hopefully this controversy will lead to more cookie sales, not less.

Jan
16

Interviews with the author of Big Big Love

Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them) is a landmark body-positive book that was originally published in 2000. In 2011, it was majorly overhauled and re-released, and we quickly added it to our catalog. The revised Big Big Love contains new illustrations, interviews, quotes, and resources, as well as more inclusive language surrounding sexuality and gender identity.

Author Hanne Blank was interviewed on both Salon and Bitch about the release. In her interview with Salon, Blank discusses myths about fat sex, what sex and fatness have in common, benefits to fat sex, and fat fetishism. To the question, “Why is a book about fat sex necessary? What is so different about fat sex?”, Blank responds:

What is so different about fat sex is that it’s one of the kinds of sex that mainstream culture tells us we’re not supposed to want, have or approve of. There’s a machine, a huge cultural and industrial juggernaut that is devoted to making us believe that the right kind of sex and the right kind of sexual desirability is the be-all-end-all.

And in her interview with Bitch — which was actually conducted by one of She Bop’s fabulous sales ladies, Yana! — Blank offers her views on reclaiming the word fat, what fat activisim and feminism have in common, fat-negativity in the media, and even her crushes on queer porn director Courtney Trouble and erotic icon April Flores. When Bitch asks, “Who was Big Big Love written for?” Blank says,

BBL was written for people who have bodies and who also negotiate their own sexuality, especially if — but not exclusively if — they’re fat. It’s also for anyone who is or has ever been attracted to, interested in or in a relationship with someone who is, was or might someday be fat.

. . . It’s not exactly a big secret that people with bodies of all different sizes often feel that their bodies are “not good enough” for them to deserve happy, healthy, satisfying sex lives. Threats of undesirability or unloveability are used to terrorize, oppress and silence women. It is a cultural dictate that “good,” “successful,” “real” women are those who are sexually desired, objectified and the objects of a particular kind of love that is directly connected to a particular model of physical attractiveness. In the book, I call this out for the hurtful, insidious bullshit that it is.

Indeed. And that is why Big Big Love is such an important book — it’s really written for everyone.

Jan
11

Cervical Health Awareness Month

In the U.S., approximately 12,000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and 4,000 lives are lost. The United States Congress has designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month to get the word out about HPV, cervical cancer, and the importance of early detection.

Cervical cancer is caused by specific types of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is transmitted through genital skin-to-skin contact, so this includes genital rubbing, fingering, oral sex, sex with toys, and penetrative sex. Anyone with a cervix can contract cervical cancer, and this is an especially critical issue for trans men and genderqueer/gender non-conforming folks.

Cervical cancer is preventable through regular screenings and treatment. Here are some tips for reducing your risk.

  • Get vaccinated. If you’re between 9 and 26 years old, you can get vaccinated against most forms of HPV. This vaccine will block the types of HPV most often found with cervical diseases.
  • Starting at age 21, or within 3 years of your first sexual activity, get a Pap test every 1-2 years — even if you’ve been vaccinated.
  • When recommended, get HPV tests.
  • Practice safer sex! Employ condoms, gloves, and other barriers during sex to greatly reduce (but not eliminate) your risk of transmitting HPV and other infections.
  • If you have any partners with cervixes, encourage them to take these preventative steps as well. Hey, might as well remind your friends and family while you’re at it!

Discrimination against trans folks is still a big issue with health care providers and insurance plans, but on November 21, 2011, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists expressed its opposition to gender identity discrimination and formally implored Ob-Gyns to provide routine treatment and screenings to transgender patients, including Pap tests. Also, starting in late 2012, most insurance companies will be required by law to cover screenings. If you encounter problems with insurance coverage, learn about filing an appeal here.

A few more resources for you:

Jan
6

A quadriplegic woman’s journey to sexual happiness

This personal essay was originally published in 2006, but it is so honest and important that it deserves to be highlighted. Getting Around: How I Discovered My Wheelchair Wasn’t a Chastity Belt by Tiffiny Carlson is a poignant piece about a woman growing up and taking charge of her sexuality.

Carlson broke her neck when she was fourteen after doing a swan dive into a lake. As a a low-level quadriplegic, she has the use of her biceps and wrists, but no triceps function. For the first few years after her accident, Carlson felt out-of-place at school and worried that she would never find a partner. Because she had no experience with sexual pleasure prior to her injury, she also had trouble masturbating.

But Carlson persisted. She found boyfriends, experimented with online dating, had new sexual experiences, and slowly learned what felt best to her.

During the movie, we sat on my automatic bed and made out. He leaned over and quickly pulled up my tank, exposing my breasts. He was so deft, so confident, and clearly experienced. I let go at that point and let him explore me at will. I’m a submissive at heart and get turned on from giving up complete control. Being paralyzed makes that very easy to do, which is perhaps the one ironic benefit of my accident.

He reached down into my panties and found my clit in a millisecond. I was shocked. My legs started jumping around as he rubbed it furiously. I had never, ever thought my clit could give me that much pleasure.

. . . I was so excited about how great sex could be that I went on a tear and had sex with eight men in eight weeks. It was shockingly easy to do. Guys came out of the woodwork on MySpace, OkCupid and Match when they saw I was a sexy single blonde — disabled, sure, but most didn’t care . . . Some were good, some were bad. But the whole experience was physically and emotionally exhilarating.

Read Carlson’s full piece on Nerve.

  Musings       
Dec
20

A glimpse at comprehensive sex ed

As most sex ed programs in the U.S. continue to push abstinence, a gutsy teacher from a Quaker prep school in Pennsylvania is showing everyone what comprehensive sex education could look like — and it looks very promising. Al Vernacchio (“Mr. V,” as his students call him) teaches an elective class for seniors entitled “Sexuality and Society” at the Friends’ Central School.

The in-depth New York Times Magazine article about Vernacchio’s class recounts the roots of sex ed in America — the original concept of “proper sex” between a husband and wife only — and the winding path it has taken, including a stint in the ’70s and early ’80s when sex ed was pretty comprehensive in response to AIDS and teen pregnancy. Now, of course, sex ed has become a highly divisive, politically-charged issue, and most classrooms rely on an “abstinence is best” message. Vernacchio’s doesn’t. In fact, his syllabus covers many subjects surrounding sex:

Sexuality and Society begins in the fall with a discussion of how to recognize and form your own values, then moves through topics like sexual orientation (occasionally students identify as gay or transgender, Vernacchio said, but in this particular class none did); safer sex; relationships; sexual health; and the emotional and physical terrain of sexual activity.

Vernacchio is in the business of busting myths and making his students think. He is constantly tackling gender stereotypes — by explaining that men are not naturally hornier than women, or by asking students to examine the myriad ways in which the sex-as-baseball trope is problematic. He also shows his class close-up photos of vulvas and penises, which leads to discussion about genital variation. He even screens a medical research video of a woman ejaculating — an act that is virtually never discussed in sex ed classes.

There’s also an anonymous question box in Vernacchio’s classroom. One day, a girl submitted a note asking whether her urge to pee during sex could lead to female ejaculation.

He laid out a plethora of explanations for the feeling, everything from anxiety about having sex to a bladder infection to the possibility that the young woman was getting “some really good G-spot stimulation” and in fact verging on ejaculation.

And that is perhaps what is most amazing to hear: the way the students have benefited from the course. To them, “Mr. V” is both a teacher they can trust to tell them the truth, and a confidant they can talk to about sensitive subjects. It is clear the kids have learned a lot about relationships, pleasure, and how to navigate their sexualities.

The school’s administration is pleased with Vernacchio’s course, and so are the parents of the students, who have never complained.

Check the article out — it’s a really fantastic read.

  Musings       

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