Praise female sexuality with ‘The Vagina Monologues’ [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on December 2, 2011.

 

Sometime in the month of February, don’t be surprised if you hear words like “vagina” echoing through the third floor of the Oklahoma Memorial Union. It’s just the annual performance of “The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler.

If you’re like many who haven’t seen the play, or this is your first introduction to the monologues, you’re probably already conjuring awkward images of what the performance must be like. Is it some nearly pornographic, avant garde rambling? Or is it more of an angry feminist rant?

Well, there’s certainly some mention of sex and sexuality. And you’ll definitely see some women full of righteous anger. But more than any of that, the audience of “The Vagina Monologues” will be treated to a rare sight indeed: women speaking openly about their sexuality.

You see, our culture has this hang-up about sex. We’re perfectly fine using it to sell movie tickets and perfume and everything else. But when it comes to having real, frank, positive conversations about sex in the real world, that’s just a little too awkward. Especially if it’s a woman doing the talking.

Now I don’t think this is some conscious, overt conspiracy by the patriarchy to subvert the almighty power of the vagina. I think it’s simply a feature of how our culture has developed — we view female sexuality and the female sex organs as these mysterious, taboo things. Our cultural discomfort with sexuality leads to silence, and silence leads to shame. After all, what kind of decent lady talks about her “lady parts” in public? It’s just inappropriate.

It’s this silence and shame that lead to self-image issues, painful societal pressures and widespread violence against women.

I have to admit, while growing up, I internalized this sense of embarrassment about sex and my own sexuality without question. Sure, I could talk about the fundamentals of sex and trade safe sex facts like a champ. But I was just as embarrassed by, even ashamed of, my own sexuality as the rest of society seemed to be.

That ended the day I stepped into the room to audition for “The Vagina Monologues” two years ago.

It was disconcerting, at first, to see all these otherwise sweet, upstanding girls sitting around in a circle reading a list of names for the vagina (“cootchie snorcher” was my favorite) and what their vagina would wear if it had clothes (one was in a feather boa). But once I relaxed and had a good laugh at my expense, I realized that this was the first time I’d felt safe enough to confront my own sexuality head on. I realized that this was the healthy environment, not the one full of shameful silence and fear.

This performance was an opportunity to be truthful and genuine in a way I had never been before. It explored everything from understanding our own anatomy to the power of first sexual experiences, from the gritty miracle of childbirth to the dangers of rape. And it was open and real in a way that had many of us crying backstage in between pieces.

Through this performance, I learned that vagina is not a dirty word. That sexuality — yes, even female sexuality — is a beautiful, natural part of adult life. That our shameful, repressive silence surrounding sex only keeps us from fully understanding and celebrating it.

And I got to meet a group of strong, amazing women who went through this transformation alongside me.

So, my fellow Sooner women, I hope you’ll join me in auditioning for this year’s performance from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday in the Traditions Room of the union. I promise, it’s an experience you can’t replace.

And all Sooners, regardless of gender, I hope to see you in the audience this February. You’ll either leave the auditorium with a big grin or dabbing at tears — either way, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Mary Stanfield is a philosophy senior and The Daily’s opinion editor.

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Students need better sexual education [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on November 30, 2011.

 

Our View: College students suffer from a lack of earlier sex education. How much do you know?

 

Let’s talk about sex.

We know it’s hard to do in the U.S., given the nation’s awkward and repressive attitude toward sexuality. But recent studies illustrate a dangerous lack of sex knowledge in America’s youth, and it looks like it’s time to start talking.

College students received an average score of 64 percent on a sex knowledge test given in a study by the University of Central Florida. This is just one of several small studies that all point to the same trend: Students are reaching adulthood without a basic understanding of one of the most universal facets of human life.

So what is to blame for students receiving a failing grade in sex? It’s pretty clear that the abysmal state of high school sex education is the root of the problem.

Most sex education in public schools is based on an abstinence-only model, which teaches students that refraining from sex until marriage is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Many schools switched to this model when a vast amount of federal funding became available only for such programs.

These programs rarely include information about contraceptives or safe sex practices, and blatantly ignore gay, lesbian and bisexual students. Abstinence is, of course, a valid and safe choice that should be offered to students. The problem comes when it is taught to the exclusion of safe sex and essential information about human sexuality.

Such programs are inaccurate (11 of the 13 commonly used curricula contain outright falsehoods, according to the House Government Reform Committee), ineffective (the congressionally mandated evaluation of four abstinence-only programs found they had no impact on students’ behavior) and unhealthy (the same report found abstinence-only curricula may deter contraceptive use among sexually active teens).

By age 20, 75 percent of Americans have had sex before marriage, according to a study by Public Health Reports. Sex education must take into account this reality.

Without reliable sources of information, adolescents are forced to gather information from friends — or, worse, the Internet — which leads to the perpetuation of dangerous misconceptions.

Of course, once students arrive at college, they have access to many more resources for reliable information about sex. But by then, it might be too late. If you’ve been sexually active for years, are you really going to go out of your way to ensure your conceptions about sex are accurate?

And, college students are no safer from the consequences of unsafe sex than high school students. In fact, while nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, college-age women have the highest rate of unintended pregnancies of any age group, according to a 2006 article in Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health.

New York recently passed a law requiring comprehensive high school sex education. Oklahoma owes at least that much to its students, both high school and college.

No one should reach adulthood and enter college still thinking she can get pregnant from oral sex or prevent pregnancy by showering after sex — real questions students asked of one sex educator.

And while many Sooners are already sexually active, it’s never too late to educate yourself. Email woc@ou.edu to find out how you can attend the next meeting of the Sexperts, OU’s peer sex education group. Even if you think you know your stuff, we urge you to check it out.

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Live openly to bring about change [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 11, 2011.

 

Today is National Coming Out Day, a national platform encouraging gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals to take the next step toward living openly about their sexuality.

I’ve always been a loud supporter of the importance of living out and proud, and as the vice president of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Friends student group, I’m now advocating for this in an official capacity. It’s time to be sure I practice what I preach.

So guess what Sooners? I’m bisexual and proud.

I’m not telling you this because I’m expecting it to change anything. Everyone who has ever spoken to me for more than an hour already knows.

I’m not telling you this because it’s anybody’s business — after all, no one really needs to know the details of my love life unless they want to be part of it.

I’m not even telling you this because there is anything special about Oct. 11; it’s just a day the community has chosen to address these issues.

I’m telling you this because coming out is important. And I hope that this broad gesture will have some of the same benefits that personally coming out does. Sure, it is immensely relieving to tell the people you love about your identity so you no longer have to lie and hide in your personal life. But it’s more than that.

Every person one comes out to is another person that is now aware that they personally know a GLBT person. Suddenly, it’s not so easy to blindly accept and regurgitate the stereotypes and misconceptions that plague the gay rights debate. Now,that person has to face the human aspect of their rhetoric, has to look someone in the face and say, “I’ve always liked you, but I just don’t feel like you should have the same rights I do.”

Some people will be able to do that, but a great many more will at least think twice about their views and how they apply to actual humans. I’ve seen it happen in my own life, when a loved one’s stubborn homophobia began to soften once they met an out gay man and had some frank discussions about homosexuality. I’ve seen how powerful a personal connection can be, how it can change someone’s perspective or at least get them to think about the people involved in these issues.

On a larger scale, living out and proud is a way to live for the world we want to create. I’m looking forward to a future when “coming out” is an antiquated phrase because we’ve made the closets obsolete. I’m looking forward to a future when the GLBT community is an accepted fact of life and no one feels the need to debate about how many of us there are or whether fighting for our rights is politically expedient.

They will know, because they will see us in their daily lives.

That’s where the OU community still needs work. We are lucky that we don’t face discrimination and danger around every corner here in Norman. But the biggest problem we face is our own silence. We are standing in our own way more than anything else.

We assume we have to be quiet, to hide, because this is Oklahoma. Because we come from small towns and conservative high schools and silent homes. But times are changing, and we have an opportunity to be at the forefront of that change.

We cannot afford to be silent. We cannot afford to be meek, complacent, understanding. We need to stand up and let people know that we are here, we are not ashamed and we are not going to stand silent while we are treated like second class citizens. If anyone is uncomfortable with that, it’s their problem, not ours.

GLBT students, I call on you to take the next step toward living openly this week, whatever that step may be for you. If nothing else, just make sure that you have accepted your own identity.

And straight students, you’re not off the hook. Take this week as an opportunity to support your GLBT friends and loved ones. Use the same bravery it takes for GLBT students to come out and publicly declare your support for equality. Or just help start conversations.

Real discussions are the only way to bring this debate from the land of rhetoric into the real world.

Groundbreaking activist and politician Harvey Milk said it better than I ever could, “We will not win our rights by staying silently in our closets … We are coming out. We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it.”

Mary Stanfield is a philosophy senior.

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National Coming Out Day about acceptance, understanding [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 11, 2010.

 

In case you haven’t already guessed from the influx of rainbow gear on campus, today is National Coming Out Day. For heterosexual members of the community, today is a chance to show your support for those coming out or already out. For homosexual members of the community, today is a chance to come together and, of course, to consider coming out.

That’s right, to consider. This isn’t about pressuring people into making a life-changing choice without taking into account their situation.

The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, describes coming out as “the process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others.”

The first steps are all about personal acceptance; that’s the primary concern. Revealing your sexuality to others is mostly an affirmation of that acceptance. If you do nothing else today, or ever, get to the point where you are personally at peace.

That peace can’t be taken for granted when we are inundated with messages that alternative sexualities are, at best, abnormal, and at worst, deviant and vile.

The last step, of course, is the actual coming out. But today isn’t just about individual choices.

It’s our chance to call attention to the fact that there are still those afraid to live openly. And who can blame them? Consider the recent rash of gay teenagers committing suicide, due at least in part to the daily harassment and abuse they faced.

Consider the Norman City Council meeting to discuss GLBT History Month, which was basically an excuse for local citizens — the same people you see in Walmart every Sunday — to stand up and spew anger and vitriol and falsehoods recited from fear-mongering sources.

Consider the general climate that persists in Oklahoma and the nation, which ranges from general denial to outright demonization and hysteria.

These aren’t distant political issues. They’re real, local and legitimately frightening. And they’re credible reasons why people may not want to come out.

Coming out can be an intimidating process, and it’s something that no one should be pressured into doing. But for those of you considering it, or for anyone who hasn’t yet, it’s vital that you know why coming out is so important.

The first consideration is personal. Everyone deserves to live openly. Even if you accept your own sexuality, the act of being truthful with others can be unbelievably freeing.

If you’re wondering what the point is — after all, what business is it of anyone’s? — think about how many times a day you have to mislead others to stay in the closet. How many times has a family member asked when you’re going to bring a girl or guy home, and you haven’t corrected them? How many times have you covered up who you’re dating, or not posted something on Facebook because you were afraid of who would find out? You shouldn’t have to lie about yourself; especially to the people you love. It’s difficult to love yourself and hide at the same time.

And that’s just it: you shouldn’t have to lie to those you love. You may be afraid that certain family members or close friends won’t accept you as a GLBT individual. You may be right. But if you truly love these people, don’t you want them to love the real you? By staying in the closet, you’re hiding a significant part of your life from them, which creates distance between you.

Again, only you can make this decision. It may never be advisable to come out to your family. But for some, it might end the way we all hope. Your family might surprise you.

And every person who comes out means more people realizing they know a gay person. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to change minds.

When you realize the guy sitting next to you in calculus or the woman who knows your usual Starbucks drink is gay — and hey, they aren’t deviants; they actually seem pretty normal, and they’ve never tried to convert you or anything — it’s harder to hold on to misconceptions.

In the end, Coming Out Day is a platform, nothing more. It isn’t a push to come out on this specific day, so much as an offering: If you’re close to making that decision, or just need the courage to take the last step, here’s the community uniting behind you and telling you it’s time.

And if you haven’t made that decision, or haven’t considered it, do some thinking today. Read some coming out guides. Check out other people’s stories. Figure out your personal reasons for living openly.

You don’t have to come out today. In fact, you never do. But everyone should take today to think about the struggles still faced by the GLBT community and appreciate those bravely declaring, “This is who I am; I won’t hide it.”

Someday, hopefully, that won’t be such a bold claim.

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Gender-blind housing must be an option [Editorial]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on August 30, 2010.

 

Male and female students began living in separate suites on a co-ed, upperclassman floor in campus housing this year. It has only been a week, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a rampant orgy problem.

And honestly, did anyone expect there to be? I know a lot of talk about propriety was thrown around in the debate about this last year — after all, “this is Oklahoma,” as our president was so kind as to remind us — but this is so small a baby step that I hesitate to call it progress except in the most literal sense that it’s a step in the right direction.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a wonderful addition to campus. Even separate from the discussion about gender-blind housing, students should have the opportunity to live in a mixed-gender environment.

It’s a learning environment that more closely resembles life outside the academic bubble than the gender-segregated environment in the rest of the residence halls.

And from personal experience, a mix of genders can often help avoid some of the common interpersonal problems one might face from an all-female or all-male environment.

But a floor where students can live in suites with students of their same gender and just happen to live next to a suite with students of other genders is not a solution to any of the problems students raised last year.

It’s a common-sense addition to campus living options; it just doesn’t contribute anything to solving the need for gender-blind housing.

There are students on this campus who do not fit easily, or safely, within the gender-based housing assignment system we use.

That might be because they date people of their same gender or because they have alternative forms of gender expression and don’t fit most people’s idea of “male” or “female.”

It might be because they no longer feel connected to their biological gender and choose to represent themselves in another way. It could be that they fall somewhere in between our strictly limiting ideas of gender. Or it may be some other entirely personal factor.

Whatever the case, or even if it’s just because some girls have more guy friends and vice versa, they are the outliers that the administration needs to think about.

Currently their only real option for on-campus housing (which is required for freshman and incredibly convenient for everyone) is private housing, which is prohibitively expensive.

This is unacceptable. Safe, reasonably affordable on-campus housing should be available to every student. That means every student, not just the ones the system was built to accommodate.

And it’s not just about these students who need it. What about the students who simply want to room with their mixed-gender friends?

One of my best friends is a man. We’re both clearly adults, and yet the university wants to tell us that we can’t choose to live together. That’s just ridiculous. Even if we were in a relationship, what right does the university have telling its consenting adult students they can’t shack up?

I know, I know; this is Oklahoma. But it’s also the 21st century. We need to start fighting for our right to choose our own lifestyle.

This co-ed floor is one small victory; it does not mean we can get complacent, because it is simply not enough.

It will not be enough until the university respects its adult students enough to allow them the freedom to make adult decisions.

We need to leave behind ridiculous Puritan fears about men and women cohabiting, and realize there’s a lot more to people’s identities than “male” and “female.”

We cannot be satisfied until every student can be sure of feeling safe in the place they call home for four years of their life.

That is Oklahoma.

 

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