Speaking Out!

SPRING TALKS SEX: When sex gets boring
Fri, 2014-09-05 20:15

By Lyba Spring

I guess it depends on what you call “sex,” but sexual routines, even when they work, can become repetitive.

Although you may get off with partnered sex, you may also find yourself observing your pleasure rather than mindfully enjoying it. Author Carol Shields called it, “going through the motions of love.” If the running internal commentary sounds like this: “Now they’re going to move to the other nipple; now they’re going to check to see if I’m wet...” it doesn’t sound like fun. Recognizing that it’s no fun is a good place to start.  

When boredom sets in, it may affect frequency of sexual contact, resulting in a discrepancy of desire in the couple. Of course, there may already be other relationship issues requiring attention. Avoidance, or a shoulder shrugging “let’s get it over with” attitude; or worse, the possibility of a real or implied threat of coercive sex, may lead to the end of the relationship entirely.

An article in The Walrus quotes the 2011 Canadian Living Intimacy Survey regarding frequency and mismatched desire. The study found that 53 per cent of Canadians would like to have sex a few times a week, but that 39 per cent are having sex a few times a month, and even less for 23 per cent of people surveyed. Amy Muise is lead author on the paper, Keeping the Spark Alive: Being Motivated to Meet a Partner’s Sexual Needs Sustains Sexual Desire in Long-Term Romantic Relationships which discusses this decline of sexual desire over the course of a relationship. The authors suggest that when desire decreases, couples should focus more on their partner’s needs. They call this “communally oriented sex” or “communal motivation:” “Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs is beneficial to the self.” This approach differs from simply being accommodating; it means actively seeking to find out more about your partner’s needs, which involves better and more specific communication.

So let’s talk--about fun. Fun often includes excitement. I’ve sometimes wondered why some people find sexual role play so alluring. Then it struck me: it’s the ultimate “let’s pretend” that we enjoyed as children. It may bring back the thrill we get with a new partner and a new situation.

So, let’s pretend that you are with someone who may be open to a new game. How do you raise it? If you have always been sexually frank, it won’t be a problem. But if shyness and embarrassment are part of the reason you have not been able to say that you are bored with your routine, you may welcome a few tricks. In a professional workshop I attended years ago, a sex therapist gave the following suggestion: use the metaphor of treats. If you just feel like having a cuddle, slip a note under your partner’s pillow that says something like “cookie.” If you are looking for the whole shebang (sorry), write “Bavarian chocolate cake” or whatever your equivalent baked desire might be. Notes these days are more likely to be texts. An erotic text like, “let’s play a game tonight…” may open the door to a new experience.

The next time you are getting ready to be intimate, start small. “Do you remember when we first met? Do you remember where we were? Let’s pretend it’s that first time.” Then you can explore memories to set the scene. Some couples who are titillated by this first scene may want to move on to others.

Another possibility is playing “don’t touch me there.” Sex therapists often forbid certain sexual activities when there is a problem with orgasm in order to allow individuals and couples to explore other parts of the body with more attention. You can tell your partner that you want to play a game. They can only do X, Y or Z but not A, B or C. You could make it more exciting by begging them when you get really excited, to pl-e-e-ease touch you there (or to do A, B, or C) with the understanding that they are not supposed to give in.

There may be a sexual activity you’ve always wanted to try but you have been unable to ask for it. Again, a note or text might work, or you can do something out of character like renting a video that demonstrates it in great and graphic detail.

But some of you are shaking your head. You just want to be able to talk openly about an aspect of your sexual relationship that--you feel--needs work. Aside from overcoming the obstacle of finding the words and getting them out, you may be worried about hurting your partner’s feelings. Perhaps the next time you set out to be intimate, start with expressing appreciation. “I love it when you/we…Let’s do that some more the next time.” Or, “I remember once you did X. I fantasized about that for days. I’d love you to do that again.” Or, “you would probably enjoy Y and I would love to give you that pleasure.”

If you like your routine, fine. If you’re bored, fix it. Or at least enjoy trying.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com


UBC Sexual Health Laboratory

Spring Talks Sex

SPRING TALKS SEX: Personal Puff Piece: The fabulous world of online dating
Fri, 2014-08-01 09:27

By Lyba Spring

Everyone knows someone who has tried online dating. Was it fabulous for them? Perhaps from the outside looking in. From inside, it can be rather dingy and depressing. Speaking personally, there may be other 65-year-old women who are having a blast. I am not.

It’s been a year since my last online dating experience. A promising (somewhat younger) man who was clearly turned on to me, disappeared in a puff of smoke after a very brief affair.

Here’s how it works. You begin with a profile, trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd—cheerful, attractive and interesting. You are encouraged to post pictures of yourself doing fun stuff. In my age bracket, there are lots of photos of men with their cars, their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. Of course, when you begin to read through the profiles of the potentials whose photos are appealing (in my case, no dogs or cars), they seem dismally similar. Comfortable in a tux or jeans. Loves to cuddle by the fire drinking wine (does everyone have a functioning fireplace?). Works out every day, cycles, skis, loves to travel…

Then, if you finally find someone literate and interesting, you work up the courage to send a message and… Well, like my last go round, it may result in a rushed first coffee date with enthusiastic follow-up. Or, you get nothing. If you’re lucky, you get a civil “thanks, but no thanks.” What feels worse is a flurry of messaging back and forth, and then nothing. I am told that the lack of etiquette is the etiquette of online dating.

Sometimes you get a date—or a few with the same person. Sometimes you have a short-term or even longer-term relationship; and then it’s back to online dating, unless you meet a real, honest-to-goodness long-term partner, which for some is the ultimate, seemingly unattainable end game.

So what does all this have to do with sexual health?

Well, for one thing, it can be very hard on one’s self-esteem. Unless you have a very thick skin, being ignored—or worse, rejected—can be hard to take. Some people check their sites obsessively to see who has looked at their profile, or to scroll through potentials; others casually take a peek from time to time. Lately, I’ve been weaning myself off, only checking in when there is some action (So and so wants to meet you! You’ve got a new message!).

The other issue is safety. I don’t mean avoiding axe murderers or con men/women, but sexual safety. If you do meet someone, and go the “first base, second base” route ending up in bed, there is the tricky question of protection. Being a sexual health educator, I am more aware than most of the risks of non-condom use. Having preached communication for my entire career, I can finally discuss both condom use and testing with someone quite easily. I can also weigh the risks of activities like oral sex without a condom. I doubt that this is the case for most women who are relatively new to the dating game.

As I explained in my article on older women and sexuality, while it is hard enough for younger people to negotiate safer sex because of embarrassment or an inability to assert themselves, an older woman whose long-term relationship ended because of separation or death, has not had to deal with STI prevention for years, if ever. One cannot make the assumption that this previous long-term relationship was necessarily mutually monogamous. That, and a newly discovered zest for hanky-panky have resulted in an increase in STIs for baby boomers.

One should not entirely dismiss the potential for sexual assault or emotional abuse. I shocked a friend once by putting myself in a risky situation. Google can give you some sense of a person after you meet on a site and you eventually exchange full names and e-mail addresses. I recently visited a potential’s Facebook page and discovered he was a right-wing racist. That certainly killed the mood. Of course, a really good con man or woman can create a fictional bio with relative ease. There are many cases of people being bilked of their pensions by imaginative suitors. It can be hard to find a reasonable balance between vigilance—watching for red flags—and relaxing into what seems like a trustworthy relationship.

It isn’t easy to meet a potential partner offline—as in real life. You have to ascertain that the person is interested at some level and then figure out if they are attached. Attempting to find that out can be embarrassing and tip your hand. And while you may want someone to “fix you up” with their dentist, for others it’s the kiss of death.

Yes, it sounds like a game and I suppose, in some ways it is. But games are supposed to be fun. The online dating game: not so much. The bottom line is that you already have a life. A partner will not create your life, although they may enrich what you have. So, approach your keyboard with caution and a sense of irony. Getting lucky may end up being no more than maintaining your status quo.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com

Spring Talks Sex

SPRING TALKS SEX: Murder by misogyny?
Wed, 2014-06-25 13:50

By Lyba Spring

mi∙sog∙y∙ny  noun.  1. a hatred of women (Merriam-Webster).

Laci Green, self-described sex-ed activist, uses the phrase “misogyny as murder” in her YouTube rant about the May 2014 murder of six people and wounding of 13 others by Elliott Rodger in California. People seeking out the definitive answer to “how could this have happened” fall all along the blame continuum that runs from blaming his family life and early mental health issues, to the medications that he was prescribed, to his blatant hatred of women, and to easy access to guns and ammunition. The latter is of course refuted by the gun lobbyists who continue to assert that guns don’t kill, people do—citing their right to bear arms. Interestingly, in their effort to deflect attention from Rodger’s modus operandi, some gun lobbyists have put all the blame on prescription medication.

Rodger’s particular form of male entitlement—expecting the world to work entirely in his favour—is exemplified by his hate-filled video in which he blamed women for his persistent state of virginity. Yet despite this evidence, we will never really know the reason why he carried out this heinous crime. Despite all the “ink spilled” over his and similar crimes, it is time for a more nuanced discussion that does not attribute blame to a single issue, although misogyny continues to figure large in this picture. It is also time to start putting together a prevention package.

Zoe Mintz’s article in the International Business Times is not, in my opinion, part of that package. She states, “In the field of ‘threat assessment’, which is dedicated to studying school shootings and other school-based attacks, notable outcroppings in personal histories is known as ‘leakage.’ An individual may indicate his distress long before the crime is committed…Elliot Rodger created YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto that shed light on his mind-set before the killings.”  She never once mentions misogyny, aside from this oblique reference to Rodger’s “mind-set.”

On the other hand, Anne Theriault’s response to male entitlement in her May 31st Belle Jar blog explores the negative feelings she experienced about her own late entry into partnered sex:

“And you know what? Literally at no time ever did I think, gee, I should go on a killing spree.

I never felt entitled to men’s bodies just because I wanted them.

I never blamed all men everywhere for my inability to get it on.

Never. Not once.”

I agree with Laci Green and Anne Theriault. We need to begin building our prevention package by addressing male sexual entitlement. Readers of this blog may be tired of hearing it, but healthy sexuality education begins at home. This is where societal mores begin, and where they begin to change. From infancy, relaxing and blurring rigid gender roles, expectations and responsibilities promotes much more than the achievement of a child’s full potential; it is an integral part of crime prevention.

Boys need to learn about girls’ essential humanity to develop into empathic individuals. Girls need to learn how to have agency in their lives. Young people need to fully comprehend the horror of denying and violating that agency.

I was profoundly shocked to read more than one story these past few years about sexual assaults of young women that had been filmed and posted on the Internet. Why did they not empathize with the victim/survivor? Perhaps because rape culture promotes sexual violence as entertainment. Reasoning that it was crucial to teach students the potential reactions and harms suffered by someone who is sexually assaulted, I included a list of these after-effects in sexual health education materials intended for the use of educators across the country. I only hope that they accept the challenge of this particular call to arms.   

Few would dispute that a sense of male entitlement and rage has fuelled sexual assault, physical assault and murder. Rape culture starts with the objectification of women, promoting both the notion of the right to unlimited access to women’s bodies and its subsequent violent expression. This twisted ideology will flourish as long as we continue to ignore its impact; namely, distrust and fear, and ultimately, criminal acts. Interestingly, those very social media platforms that allow the promotion of rape culture have found their match on Twitter (See #YesAllWomen).

The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict extends this analysis to a broader context: the use of women (and men) as pawns of war. The “othering” of one’s enemies was raised decades ago in Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will (1975). It is much easier to hurt, and kill, what has been objectified. The recent kidnapping of Nigerian girls and young women may very well result in sexual abuse, as Boko Haram has threatened to sell them in “marriage.”

The theme of women as property is echoed in the rallying cry of men who kill their partners, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” I have often quoted Maya Angelou to students over the years:

“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

Elliott Rodger was steeped in misogyny, blaming and hating women for not wanting to be with him. Aside from his legal access to firearms and ammunition, as mentioned above, the question has also been raised about his use of anti-depressant medication. Because psychotropic medications alter brain chemistry, an overdosing of—or a rapid withdrawal—from a number of medications in this class can lead to behaviour that is out of character for the person taking them. This may include erratic or even homicidal behaviours. Although the latter may be rare, for the many people who take these medications and feel they are being helped by them, it is often hard to believe in or make that connection.

Consider the following conclusion to the online article published in PLoS Medicine, “Antidepressants and Violence: Problems at the Interface of Medicine and Law”:

“The association of antidepressant treatment with aggression and violence reported here calls for more clinical trial and epidemiological data to be made available and for good clinical descriptions of the adverse outcomes of treatment. Legal systems are likely to continue to be faced with cases of violence associated with the use of psychotropic drugs, and it may fall to the courts to demand access to currently unavailable data. The problem is international and calls for an international response.”

Which brings me back to that other prescription, the one for prevention. We need:

  • improved education for health care providers about psychotropic medications, and better monitoring of their patients;
  • sexual health education that promotes equity in all its forms;
  • campaigns targeting male entitlement that engage men as allies (#AllMenCan);
  • comprehensive gun control on both sides of the border.

Rx: #NotOneMore.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com

Additional Resource:

Robert Whitaker on Psychiatric Drugs, The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio


Spring Talks Sex

SPRING TALKS SEX - Choice denied
Mon, 2014-06-02 17:46

By Lyba Spring

A law with teeth is only as good as its enforcement. But when a law is struck down, politics determines how it will play out in society.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law on abortion in 1988—the famous Morgentaler decision—a woman’s right to choose was enshrined in Canadian society. In 1989, the argument of “fetus as person” was rejected, as was the attempt by men in three provinces (Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba) to stop their partners from having abortions. These legal decisions left the right to choose firmly in the hands of individual women.

But a woman’s ability to exercise her choice is limited by several factors: location (it is hardest to get an abortion in the eastern part of Canada); cost, when a woman has to travel to get an abortion or a province does not fund the procedure; and by people, including doctors, who push their anti-choice agenda on a pregnant woman trying to make her decision. (Read more about which provinces cover hospital and/or clinic abortions and which ones do not).

Only 17.8 per cent of Canadian hospitals provide abortion services. Even hospitals that provide abortions may place obstacles in the way of women who try to obtain one, especially if their administration is anti-choice.

Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) decries these obstacles, particularly for women in rural areas, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the North. They explain that provinces are able to limit access because abortion is on a list of “excluded services” in reciprocal provincial billing agreements. This means that women temporarily living outside their home province may not have access to publicly funded abortion care. Waiting for coverage is not feasible for a woman who chooses to terminate. For a woman who does not want to continue her pregnancy, every day that passes can be excruciating.

The Morgentaler Clinic in New Brunswick announced it would close its doors at the end of July 2014 after a lengthy losing battle to have that province fund clinic abortions, leaving local women bereft of an essential medical service. Moreover, for women in Prince Edward Island, the only province in Canada with no local access to abortion, women have had two choices: the Termination of Pregnancy Unit at the QEII Hospital in Halifax, where the costs of the procedure (but not those of travel or accommodations) are paid by the Province. At the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, all costs have been privately paid by the woman (with many Island women accessing the Clinic’s subsidies). Over the years, roughly half of PEI women seeking abortions have used the services of the private clinic in Fredericton. The clinic was the only private option in the Maritime provinces. After the closure of the Fredericton private clinic, only one option will remain for Prince Edward Island women seeking a surgical abortion: travelling to the hospital in Halifax. (Read more about the current situation in PEI).

Why is this service essential?

It is estimated that 40 per cent of pregnancies in Canada are unplanned. A condom may break or slip, a pill may be forgotten, a woman may be sexually assaulted; or people may be unequipped to gain access to, negotiate or use contraception.

The decision to end a pregnancy is often based on economics, especially when she already has children and simply cannot afford to have another one. When money is tight and jobs are scarce, women think first of their existing children. When I had my abortion, we already had two children; the younger was a year and a half and our financial situation was precarious. Amongst the scores of pregnant women seeking help with their decision whom I counselled in sexual health clinics over the years, their distress was often financial.

But there were also more dramatic cases.

I vividly remember the woman who said she wanted to continue the pregnancy, but was afraid to. Her husband, who refused to allow her to use any form of birth control, had kicked her during a previous pregnancy. She had miscarried.

I remember the young woman who started having sex at 13 who had had three abortions and was a crack cocaine user. I am guessing that prior sexual abuse predisposed her to ongoing risk-taking.

I remember the 28-year-old who had been drugged and raped; the 16-year-old whose boyfriend wanted to trick her into getting pregnant. 

These women all lived in a city where there was good access to services. But even when there is adequate access to the procedure, there is another component to the process which is as essential as the service itself. Every pregnant woman who came to the sexual health clinic where I worked was given the time to consider and explore her options. The counselling component is integral to the service of abortion referral and abortion provision. Counselling often leads to other service referrals, as in the case of the woman who was abused by her husband. It is expensive to pay people to help women make a fully informed choice. Whatever a woman chooses, she needs to feel that it is the right choice for her at that moment in her life. This can take time—and time is money. Counsellors who work in abortion clinics are supporting a woman who is facing a life-changing dilemma.

But health dollars are scarce and their distribution is political. For example, there is currently a lobby to extend HPV vaccination to boys despite the lack of evidence that it will save money in the long run. HPV DNA testing, which is part of good management for women over 30 is not covered by every province and territory. Pap screening and follow-up is not available to the women who are most at risk for cervical cancer. Mammography programs are not cost effective in terms of lives saved. Moreover, “potential harms considered by the [Canadian] Task Force [on Preventive Health Care] focus on over-diagnosis of breast cancer which can lead to additional imaging, biopsies and procedures, distress and other psychological responses, and additional radiation exposure from mammograms.” Yet women continue to be screened on a regular basis.

Women’s health facilities tend to be cash poor while hospitals are well-funded and able to raise huge amounts through donations.

Although the current federal government insists it will never reintroduce abortion legislation, they are choking funds for abortion services the same way they starve women’s organizations and women’s health clinics. If there was genuine concern about bringing wanted children into this country, there would be a national child care program and universal student nutrition programs.

Abortion is a medical procedure which should be accessible and fully funded—everywhere. It should be a priority for women to be able to choose when they want to continue a pregnancy and when they want to terminate one.

Women’s reproductive rights are central to their ability to control their lives. Without access to services and funding, the abrogation of a law is toothless.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com

Read more here:

CWHN Health FAQ on abortion

History of abortion in Canada, National Abortion Federation

Access to hospital abortions, Reality Check, Canadians for Choice report, 2006

Access to abortion in Canada, Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), April 2014

Abortion access for women in PEI, CBC website, April 2014


Spring Talks Sex

GUEST COLUMN: (Not) Shopping our way to safety
Wed, 2014-04-30 18:34

By Robyn Lee and Dayna Nadine Scott

Media coverage of the risks posed by brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates almost always includes advice on how to limit exposure to these chemicals in the home. Those seeking policy change often call for effective labelling of consumer products, including  “green consumer” campaigns such as “wallet cards” with long lists of chemical names for shoppers to avoid. Apparently, consumers are expected to pull these out of their wallets in the grocery aisle, at the drugstore, in the electronics superstore. These campaigns attempt to address a lack of effective government regulation of chemicals; however, they overlook the extent to which women carry out the majority of household cleaning, shopping, food preparation, and caring for the health of family members. Attempts to limit household exposure to BFRs and phthalates require additional work that consistently and disproportionately falls to women.

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are widely used in consumer products—plastics for electronics, foams and textiles—to prevent household fires. Human breast milk is the leading source of lifetime exposure to BFRs and house dust is the highest source of exposure for adults. BFRs are “persistent” chemicals (they do not break down in the body or the environment), and dietary sources are the next highest source for adults as they contaminate ecosystems and agricultural food systems. The “body burden” of BFRs in North Americans has risen sharply since the early 1990s reaching levels among the highest in the world.
BFRs are among the group of chemicals implicated as endocrine-disrupting compounds. Elevated levels of BFRs in breast milk have been linked with lower birth weights and birth sizes. As with other endocrine disruptors, exposure to BFRs is linked with abnormal development of reproductive systems, affecting individual health but also potentially the health of future generations.
Phthalates are a principal component of a wide variety of consumer products: construction materials, cables and wires, floorings, clothing, furnishings, car interiors and car underbody coatings, products made of flexible polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC), cosmetics and other personal care goods, pesticides, lubricants, adhesives, film, toys and food contact materials. Diet is a major source of phthalate exposure in the general population as a result of food packaging and contamination of the environment. Because of the multitude of phthalate sources and the difficulty in controlling these sources, conventionally and organically produced food products may be similarly contaminated with phthalates. Breast milk is a source of phthalate exposure for infants.
Phthalates have also been identified as endocrine disrupters. In utero exposures can result in abnormal development of the male reproductive system. There have also been studies suggesting a possible link between phthalates and increased rates of asthma, obesity, and decreased IQ. The general population is widely and continuously exposed to phthalates, as a result of worldwide ecosystem contamination and direct contact with products containing phthalates.

Since women assume primary responsibility for the running of the household and the health of family members, campaigns to reduce chemical exposures from consumer goods must account for women’s share of work related to “dodging the toxic bullet.” Looking at BFRs and phthalates demonstrate that campaigns aimed at labelling as a policy solution, even as a stop-gap measure, are not only futile but actually increase gender disparities related to toxic chemicals in the environment. We will clearly not “shop our way out” of this problem.

Emerging evidence on our “body burdens” of BFRs and phthalates demonstrates that a key assumption in the promotion of labelling as a policy solution—that individuals will actually be able to reduce their exposures—is questionable.  But even putting this aside, and assuming that individuals are able to reduce their exposures through their own so-called “precautionary consumption,” the promotion of labelling as a policy response can have negative results. It is likely to actually increase the uneven distribution of harms (according to age, sex, race and socioeconomic status) stemming from long-term chronic exposures to toxic chemicals. Worse, our individual attempts to limit exposures may detract from the collective action needed to help bring about regulatory changes. Practising precautionary consumption leaves women with less time and energy to engage in environmental and political action aimed at changing chemical management policies.

The precautionary principle sanctions (or mandates, depending on which version you subscribe to) action in the face of scientific uncertainty to prevent potential harm to human health or the environment. Ultimately, in chemicals management policy, this means that governments should prevent, or minimize, public exposures to chemicals for which there is some evidence of harm, even where that evidence is uncertain. The precautionary principle challenges the conventional “permissive approach” to chemicals regulation, which was founded on the assumption that toxicology can predict the health impacts associated with everyday exposures.

“Precautionary consumption” is a term coined by Norah MacKendrick to describe the practices of individuals trying to reduce their body burdens by purchasing environmentally friendly products. The premise is that individual consumer action is the primary mode of responding to these risks  as opposed to changing government regulation.

Whenever we read stories in the media about toxins, they almost always include advice on how to limit our exposure to these chemicals. BFRs and phthalates are no exception. Advice on how to reduce exposure to BFRs usually focuses on frequent dusting and vacuuming, eating fewer animal products, frequent hand washing, and avoiding purchasing new products containing flame retardants or even suggesting the replacement of existing products with products that do not contain BFRs.

Common advice on reducing exposure to phthalates includes: limiting the amount of personal care products used on children; choosing personal care products that do not contain phthalates (however, phthalates may not be labelled as such, so you may have to call the company or visit the website to find out); finding out if the container the product is sold in contains phthalates (again, you will have to contact the company in order to know for sure); avoiding plastic baby bottles or water bottles or trying to buy phthalate-free bottles; and avoiding heating plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher. Since phthalates can become airborne and wind up in dust in the home, wet mopping is also suggested.

Most of the advice around minimizing exposure to BFRs and phthalates revolves around food preparation, household cleaning, and smart shopping—all activities disproportionately performed by women, especially mothers. When  this work is not performed by mothers, it is often contracted out to other women, who are usually of lower socioeconomic status and often racialized.

Women also do most of the work of caring for family members’ health. As a result, the responsibility of illness linked to pollution may be blamed on women’s bad housekeeping practices rather than attempting to reduce pollution at the source.

Women increasingly make household purchasing decisions, and engage in more environmentally friendly behaviours, such as recycling than men. Women are also more likely to be the ones reading product labels. As household purchasing decisions become more complex (requiring more and more research and reading of labels), women are spending more time to carry them out.

Green products are generally pricier than mainstream brands, and more time is needed to shop for them because they are often only available at smaller, specialty stores. Even the authors of fact sheets on how to avoid BFRs and phthalates admit that it can be difficult and often hardly realistic to follow all of their advice. In one study, student interns took an average of five minutes per product to wade through ingredient lists and environmental and health claims.

Contacting product manufacturers to inquire about ingredients is time-consuming and often of little to no use. Researchers in Massachusetts found that most manufacturers contacted did not provide complete responses, and of 24 conventional product manufacturers contacted, 70 per cent provided no information at all. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported in 2002 that phthalates in 52 of the 72 personal care products tested, even though none of the 52 phthalate-containing products listed the offending chemical on its ingredient label.

Precautionary consumption is a gendered labour practice, yet it’s clear that not all women are affected to the same extent. Women’s capacity to be a precautious consumer varies according to socio-economic status and level of education. It assumes that mothers are free to choose among desirable mothering practices and protective commodities. However, research shows that the choice is highly dependent on having the financial resources.

Significantly higher levels of BFRs have been measured in people with low socio-economic status compared with those of higher socio-economic status. As well, US research has documented racial differences in BFR body burdens, with lower levels of BFR body burdens among whites compared to blacks and Mexican Americans. The researchers suggest that these differences may be due to differences in housing and furniture quality, and in the quality of diet consumed. With phthalates there are also differences in exposure depending on sex and race. Women in the study tended to have a higher level than men and non-Hispanic blacks had higher levels than non-Hispanic whites or Mexican Americans.

Our own federal government’s new and highly touted Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) proclaimed itself to be “tough on toxics.” It includes a program called “The Challenge” aimed at taking quick, decisive action on 200 of the most worrisome substances in commercial use in Canada. But critics now question the extent to which the CMP actually marked a shift towards a “precautionary” chemicals management policy in Canada.  A recent assessment (see also Environmenal Challenges and Opportunities) concludes that, despite the government’s initial stated intention to use the new scheme to designate high priority substances as “toxic,” only a minority of substances assessed in The Challenge were listed as such, and corresponding risk management measures have been inadequate and slow in coming. The result is that the ultimate goal of the CMP—reductions in exposures to these substances for everyone—is unlikely in the near future. 

When faced by a huge number of toxic and potentially toxic chemicals to be avoided, consumers may only make only a few symbolic changes.  These include switching to other products that are perceived to be “greener” but may still contain the undesired chemicals, or switching one or two products but continuing to use many others containing the chemicals. Because BFRs and phthalates are so pervasive in consumer products, are rarely clearly labelled, and alternative products can be difficult or expensive to obtain, consumers are unlikely to be able to avoid exposures. Individual changes in consumption, although important, cannot replace collective action. Education of consumers and pressure applied by consumers to manufacturers are important for change; however it is essential that government take more responsibility for effectively regulating toxic chemicals. We cannot shop our way to safety if there are no (or at least not enough) safe options.

See also the guest column by Abby Lippman and the Network article on "body burden" by Dolon Chakravartty and Robyn Lee

Robyn Lee has a PhD from York University in Social and Political Thought and is a team member of Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) team grants on Brominated Flame Retardants and Phthalates.

Dayna Nadine Scott is an Associate Professor of Law and Environmental Studies at York University. She is the Director of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.

Additional resources:

More work for mother: Chemical body burdens as a maternal responsibility, Norah McKendrick, published in Gender & Society, April 2014.

To the point

SPRING TALKS SEX - Female genital modification
Wed, 2014-04-30 17:36

...the cutting edge of a double standard

By Lyba Spring

In February, 2014, the Ontario’s Sexual Health Network organized an update on “female genital mutilation” (also known as “female genital cutting”). At the meeting, I raised the question that was so eloquently discussed in a paper on intersex surgeries about the cultural parallels between genital cutting practices in “developing” countries and genital surgery in “developed” countries. This issue was raised again in a recent discussion on CBC Radio’s program, The Current to which I listened attentively (yes, I took notes) as I am interested in these surgeries and have participated in two public discussions on the subject.

Listen to the CWHN podcast on "designer genitalia"

The Current invited the CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC), Dr. Jennifer Blake, to speak about the SOGC guidelines on both female genital mutilation/cutting and female genital cosmetic surgery. They also invited Dr. Sean Rice, a plastic surgeon who performs labiaplasty as well as a triathlete who had requested—and was satisfied with—the surgery.

Labiaplasty involves reducing or removing the labia minora—or inner lips—of the vulva. Another common surgery is the reduction of the clitoral hood. The motivation for this surgery on a functional part of the body is generally either dissatisfaction with the appearance of the vulva or, in the case of labial reduction or removal, its interference with comfort, as was the case with the triathlete.

In the interview, Dr. Blake argued that women are made to feel inadequate about whether or not they look “normal.” In her practice, Dr. Blake tells adolescent patients that their inner labia will fill out and look more proportional as they continue the changes of puberty. She applauds initiatives like the Great Wall of Vagina for normalizing the diversity in genital appearance. Dr. Blake blames pornography in particular, for playing on women’s anxieties about what the vulva is supposed to look like. One wonders if this body anxiety can eventually lead to body dysmorphic disorder (where people think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day); and whether this disorder is entirely a cultural creation of our society.

People associate female genital mutilation/cutting with Islam although it is practised by other religions and cultures as well. Although Muslim scholars are divided about the particulars, there is no Islamic religious basis to these practices. (“No verse of the Quran, or deeds or sayings of the Prophet, support FGM/C”). The practices are culturally driven.

In a film about female genital mutilation/cutting interviewees explain the norm for women’s genitals in their cultures; one woman interviewed in the film said the vulva must look “smooth and clean.” The societal implication for a woman who is not cut is tremendous in some cultures: in Somalia or Sudan, for example, she is not considered marriageable. Dr. Blake made the point that the same type of language is used with female genital cosmetic surgery. “The Barbie”—also known as “The Clam”—is a surgically created smooth version of a woman’s genitals. During the interview on The Current, the surgeon, Dr. Rice, took offense at this comparison between genital mutilation and genital cosmetic surgery, insisting that the issue of consent was central to cosmetic surgeries.

As a women’s health advocate since 1970, and formerly a counsellor in a sexual health clinic, consent—informed consent—has been paramount to my practice. On what basis does a woman make her decision about modifying her genitals? Where does she get her information aside from media images and biased advertisements for the surgeries? Part of the larger picture is our rigid cultural description of male and female genitals. What should they look like to be considered properly male or female?

In Ehrenreich and Barr’s article about the “selective condemnation of ‘cultural practices,’” they explore and critique the binary definitions of genitals and discuss how decisions are made about whether or not to modify the genitals of an intersex baby. The basis of the decision is shockingly simplistic.

If the penis of an intersex baby is too small (defined as under 2.5 cm stretched), the child is likely to undergo surgery to be transformed into a girl. Not surprisingly, the authors consider this rigid definition of biological male sexuality to be heteronormative. Similarly, a baby with what is considered to be an abnormally large clitoris would undergo a clitoroplasty to reduce the size of the clitoris.

These surgeries of “genital normalization” for intersex babies—an average of 3 to 5 surgeries per child—not only have repercussions emotionally, but also can impair sexual functioning because of scarring and nerve damage. Vaginoplasty to create an opening for an intersex child has a high failure rate in terms of the person’s ability to have/enjoy vaginal sex as an adult. Ehrenreich and Barr argue that North American medical practice as it applies to intersex children is not strictly based in science; nor is it culture-free. The authors make the point that we condemn the “cultural” practices of cutting in other countries while refusing to be self-critical about the cutting practices in North America, acknowledging them as a cultural practice as well.

Intersex children rely on their parents’ consent to the surgeries. Is a woman giving informed consent when she opts for labiaplasty if she does not know whether she will experience negative health effects when she reaches menopause, like a potential increase in vaginal atrophy? Moreover, clinics offering “mother/daughter specials” on genital cosmetic surgery are unlikely to discuss with either mother or daughter the potential damage to sexual sensation due to possible scarring and nerve damage.

In the article “Aesthetic Surgery of the Female Genitalia” published in Seminars in Plastic Surgery, the authors comment:

“The vulvar epithelium of labia minora is highly innervated and sensitive. During sexual arousal, the labia evert and contribute to erotic sensation and pleasure. Incision to any part of the genitalia could compromise this sensitivity and its sexual importance. Neuroma-like hypersensitivity has been reported after surgery.” In other words, when you cut during surgery, the result may be either insensitivity or hypersensitivity, neither of which is expected as part of the package.

In the 1970s, at a Geneva conference of the World Health Organization, feminists publicly decried female genital mutilation practices. Their sisters from countries where genital mutilation took place told them to stay out of it; that they would deal with the issue themselves. And they have been. In countries where genital mutilation/cutting is practised, slowly but surely, women are finding allies, including religious leaders, to put an end to these practices. Surely women in “developed” countries who long for designer genitals have something important to learn from them.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com


Spring Talks Sex

GUEST COLUMN: Another silicone bracelet?
Wed, 2014-04-09 17:33

This one claims to measure toxic exposures

By Abby Lippman  

It seems that my tendency to see glasses half filled, if not empty, when others are happily seeing them brimming with new possibilities only increases with time. With this advance warning, I want to outline why I am not going to rush to get—nor to suggest others rush out to get—the newest of the wide array of color-coded silicone rubber bracelets which will likely soon become hot-ticket and heavily marketed items.

It used to be that a person could be said to wear her heart on her sleeve when her feelings for a new love were obvious to all. Of late, it has become more a case of sporting a cause on one's wrist. And to do so, one can sample—if not wear examples of—a full palette of color-tinted rubber circles on an arm: red (heart disease); yellow (testicular cancer); blue (arthritis); teal (cervical cancer); ; green (liver cancer); purple (Alzheimer’s disease); a rainbow braid (LGBTQI); and the almost omnipresent pink (breast cancer).

These designer accessories—the products of feel-good cause marketing campaigns—have, to date, offered individuals an outlet for their “political” self-identification. But for the future, it seems they are possibly to be restyled to also become technologically enhanced forms of “arm candy.”

In brief, some clever researchers appear to be taking  advantage of silicone's ability to absorb compounds to which it is exposed. By developing a way to measure what is captured in the silicone, they may then be able to determine what chemicals are probably entering an individual’s body and subsequently link these exposures to conditions and diseases she may later develop.

See also, the guest column on "precautionary consumption" by Robyn Lee and Dayna Nadine Scott

I do not doubt how welcome this may be for epidemiologists and public health policy makers who have long sought to avoid the traps of applying population-based and ecological data (e.g., kilograms of pesticide used on a farm; measurements of air pollutants in a city; endocrine disruptor levels in an automobile manufacturing plant) to the individual worker or commuter. If the kind of bracelet tried out can absorb exposures, it might be able to record what any one individual actually experiences herself and provide specific information over a period of time. With flick-of-the-wrist analyses, these bracelets could then allow researchers to replace studies of association (weak) with studies of causality (the biomedical holy grail).

So why am I concerned?

To explain, it may be useful to think of the critiques that have previously been addressed to what is in many ways an earlier, allegedly “empowering,” approach to strengthening individuals. I refer here to the calls from many in the environmental movements to "buy green" and thereby have a way to reduce their personal exposure to toxic substances. Might the exposure-measuring bracelets be yet another "feel good" but status-quo-supporting gesture. Or, even worse, a source of guilt if we were to blame ourselves when we know what we may have let ourselves be exposed to? At the least, both situations seem to presume that all women are able to make choices (about household and personal care products; about where they can work and live and what they may be exposed to) and change from the “worst” to a “better” option.

Moreover, I do seriously doubt whether measuring personal exposures will really be a no-risk advantage for bracelet wearers. Is having the information sufficient to protect our health? Or, as with checking labels so as to buy only “green” products, might not reading the outputs from bracelets also lead primarily to attempts (by those who have the resources to do so) to buy their way out of danger—thereby simply shifting the focus of consumerism but doing nothing to change the capitalist system which will merely churn out new stuff to market (and to harm us). And this may lead to guilt feelings among those for whom buying “green” is not a “choice” because of price, availability, or other constraints on their available options. (For a detailed analysis of this “precautionary consumption” see the excellent work of Dayna Scott and read the report, Sex, Gender and Chemicals).

It seems to me that wearing a potentially warning bracelet can turn us into our own canaries in the mines in which we live and work, signalling danger but not giving us the power to change the system creating the danger. In fact, might these adornments work paradoxically to decrease changes by making us feel individually guilty about how and where we live and work, reinforcing notions of personal responsibility for being exposed, and distracting us from creating the collective approaches needed to fight and advocate for upstream political change.

Caveat emptor….

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. Also an academic based at McGill and Concordia Universities and passionate about writing, Abby is past president of the CWHN, and is now on the boards of the FQPN and Centre for Gender Advocacy where she works in solidarity to build an inclusive reproductive justice movement in Québec. Read another column by Abby Lippman.


To the point

SPRING TALKS SEX - ‘Getting off’ the barriers
Mon, 2014-03-31 14:05

By Lyba Spring

At a sexuality conference in Guelph, Ontario about 20 years ago, I watched in awe as a man using a wheelchair danced at a social event with his partner seated on his lap. It was mesmerizing. That was my introduction to the now more commonly acknowledged fact that people with disabilities are sexual beings. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But it is one of the persistent myths about people with disabilities that they do not have sexual lives, despite the fact that as the Canadian population ages more and more of us will become disabled in one way or another. The current figure of 14 per cent of Canadians with disabilities does not even cover chronic conditions. We will all have to make adjustments in our sexual lives as we develop the diseases of aging like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis or other mobility problems. Our sexual self persists despite these barriers. My mum was still asking me to pluck out her chin hairs just months before she died.

Disabilities include mobility issues, spinal cord injury, head trauma, hearing or vision impairments, as well as psychological and mental health issues. Aside from the disability itself, sometimes treating the conditions of the disabilities can interfere with people’s sexuality. For example, medication for heart disease or diabetes may further affect a person’s ability to enjoy their sexual life. Surgeries to treat certain conditions can leave nerve damage in key areas, affecting one’s sexual response. Some people who have lived with mental disabilities for years have found that their medications affect their desire and ability to have an orgasm. Negative sexual symptoms from anti-depressant use may even persist after discontinuing the medication.

Like people with disabilities, people with chronic conditions like Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME) may also have issues with sexual expression.

As Adrienne Dellwo says in her article “Sex With Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: It Doesn't Have to be Gone for Good”,“Either pain or fatigue may be enough to make someone fear or avoid sexual activity. When you have the FMS symptom of allodynia (pain from gentle touch) or the ME/CFS symptom of post-exertional malaise (exhaustion from moderate activity), sex can seem impossible.”

Dellwo outlines some obstacles to sexual activity, like self-image, strained relationships, depression and brain chemistry (due to neurotransmitter dysregulation) which may “sap motivation.”

While we may publicly acknowledge that people with disabilities and chronic conditions are sexual beings, their own families may have a tendency to treat them differently. For that reason, some people with disabilities may have had difficulty seeing themselves as sexual people, especially if they were not treated as such from the time their disability first became apparent. As they mature, for some, their sexuality is very important to their lives; for others, less so. And they may not necessarily just want to be intimate with other people with disabilities. The woman flying around on her partner’s lap was able bodied.

Like elderly people in a long-term care facility, people with disabilities have a right to a sexual life. Appallingly, whether in a facility or not, people with disabilities have a higher risk of sexual assault—up to ten times higher—than people who do not have disabilities. That means that education and vigilance are paramount, both for people with disabilities and their caregivers, if they have one.

Sexual health education has advanced in the thirty-plus years since I first got into the business. Aside from teaching people with disabilities and their caregivers about increased risk, we can also introduce them to wonderful materials. There are websites for people with both physical and mental disabilities, devoted to dealing with sexuality issues, such as the sexual health manual PleasureAble published by the Disabilities Health Services Network.

Here, you can find sexual aids for people who cannot use their arms, people with little upper body strength, ideas for people who are not very flexible, diagrams on how to use a chair for sexual activity and ideas for positioning. For people with MS, for example, taking anti-spasmotic medication before sexual activity can be helpful; for people with sphincter or bladder issues, it is recommended that they empty before any sexual activity. They also recommend finding activities aside from intercourse, like erotic massage, mutual masturbation or watching erotic films.

Because there are no rules or definitions about what a sexual activity is, there is a lot of room for creativity for people with disabilities and chronic conditions. And of course, as with any couple, communication is key. You need to be very clear about what feels good, what is less pleasurable and what positions provoke discomfort or pain.

Sexual health educator, Cory Silverberg, points out that it is important to explore one’s body in a systematic way; in particular, to find out where there is sensation and where there is not. Doctors, he says, verify the lack of sensation with pinpricks, but this is not the same as testing for sexual stimuli, which is more complicated. Silverberg suggests “mapping” one’s own sexual anatomy to be better informed about sexual responses.

As is often the case when it comes to our sexual selves, the more information we have, the more tools we learn to use. Using a wheelchair to twirl your dance partner or as a support for sexual activity can be a great way to get off

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com


Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain and Illness. Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg, Fran Odette, Cleis Press, 2007.


Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome

Antidepressants and sex

Spring Talks Sex

Mon, 2014-03-03 01:08

By Lyba Spring

On December 20, 2013, the morning the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three aspects of the prostitution law, my phone started ringing off the hook. Three Radio Canada programs were asking for interviews. Luckily, I had recently given a talk to a francophone agency arguing (unsuccessfully) in favour of decriminalization and had a file full of information in French. Some interviews were wide ranging discussions—from the specifics of the decision (solicitation, “living off the avails” and keeping a bawdy house) to my opinion on what the new and improved law should look like.

These 2013 interviews had nothing in common with what I would have said 40 years earlier.

In 1968, I had clear (and rigid) views about both prostitution and pornography. I have written in this space about my evolution regarding the latter. Like pornography, for me prostitution was rooted in sexism and therefore exploitative. End of story.  

As prostitutes’ rights groups began to form in the mid-70s, they changed the language of the discussion. The term “sex work” required us to consider prostitution as work. I eventually came to accept the term and all that it implied, but was still unable to accept the notion that some people chose to do this kind of work.

Part of my assignment for a while at a local public health agency was teaming up with a community centre to do the rounds of places where local street-level workers hung out. We discreetly distributed condoms and information, while on the lookout for the police. These tours did little to disabuse me of the notion that there was “choice” involved in the trade. Most of the women we encountered had personal stories of abuse and subsequent addiction to crack cocaine. We got to know some of the women, like Debbie.

Debbie was in her 40s but looked 60. One day, she came into our public health office to have our friendly clerk dye her long, gray hair. Because she had lost her “coke bottle” glasses after being beaten by a john, one of the nurses took her to get another pair. Her history of sexual abuse was no surprise to me. Over the years, Debbie had given up more than one child to Children’s Aid.

Every now and again, the women would all disappear from the neighbourhood after the police had done a sweep. They would always drift back and the merry-go-round of doing tricks, getting arrested and getting spit back out into the street would resume. It was not just a frustrating way to earn a living, it was a dangerous one.

The Canadian Medical Association lists premature death as the primary risk of prostitution; and street-level prostitution is the most dangerous way to work. Before the Supreme Court decision, solicitation was considered illegal. If you are always looking out for the police, there is no time to check out the john or have a friend take down the licence plate before stepping inside his car. Although we now know that not all the missing Aboriginal women in British Columbia did sex work, according to the RCMP, more than 400 Aboriginal women either disappeared or were killed.

Other risks associated with street-level work are physical and sexual assault and STI infection. Moreover, there is little access to non-judgmental health, police or judiciary services.

The notion of harm reduction, which first emerged in 1990, was another stepping stone in my understanding of why the law and our attitudes to sex work had to change. Harm reduction regarding substance use (or risk reduction in the case of sexual activity) works by reducing the negative consequences of what is usually a dangerous activity.

One day I was preparing a young woman for an HIV test at the sexual health clinic where I worked. When I asked about the number of partners she had, she had to break it down by the month. She disclosed that she was exchanging sex for crack. When I asked whether she used condoms, she told me that johns would pay her double not to.

Similarly, teenagers fleeing abuse and exchanging sexual services for shelter; young, gay men who sell sex to survive after being forced to leave home; or trans women who need to buy their hormone treatments are all at risk.

My attitude towards the relationship between sex work, choice and the law changed dramatically a few years ago.

I came across a link in a sex columnist’s article on prostitution which clearly outlined the three possible options for a country’s legislation on prostitution: abolition, legalization or decriminalization. At that point I turned a philosophical corner and entered the decriminalization camp.

Abolition was what I had naively and fervently believed in before actually meeting and talking with sex workers. But in order to abolish prostitution, we would have to eliminate sexism leading to economic inequities, sexual abuse and addiction.

Legalization means using criminal laws to regulate and control the conditions under which sex work would function. This is the Reno, Nevada and “red light district” solution. 

Decriminalization acts like the decriminalization of abortion. It creates a private arrangement between consenting adults. People could exchange sexual services for money under conditions that they freely negotiated. People would be able to work collectively, hire security, have access to health care and pay taxes, no matter where they worked or with whom.

Counter arguments have centered around trafficking and the potential for organized crime to take over sex work. They also cite fears about exploiting children and those under 18 years old. Papers have been written; laws have been passed. Yet, implementing those laws is the issue.

What have other countries decided? The Nordic model is rejected by many sex workers’ organizations and their allies like the HIV/AIDS Legal Network primarily because sex workers were not at the table when the model was developed. Australia, New Zealand and Germany have opted for decriminalization. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be on their societies. On another note, Spain has now established the first sex workers’ union in Ibiza.

Terry Bedford, one of the interveners in the Supreme Court case publicly asked the Prime Minister six questions including “what is a sex act?” She makes the familiar point that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

Not all sex workers are on board with decriminalization and certainly not all feminists. Where does that leave me? Firmly on the side of decriminalization. At the same time, the day may come when people no longer want to do sex work. To be honest, a big part of me looks forward to that possibility.

For more on this subject, check out the Rabble.ca podcast debate on the recent legal ruling.

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com

Spring Talks Sex

GUEST COLUMN - Journalists: Stop blaming women
Wed, 2014-01-22 14:50

By Kelly Holloway

Emily Yoffe’s article “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” published in Slate is yet another example in a long line of highly problematic advice to women to stop dressing, talking, walking or acting in a way that makes them victims of sexual assault. Nothing that a woman does justifies sexual assault. Period. The author’s defensiveness about being painted with that brush does nothing to dissuade that reading; she is blaming women for sexual assault.

Yoffe argues that the common denominator in the cases of women being sexually assaulted by their male classmates is copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, the common denominator is assault. If, as Yoffe suggests, some of the men who perpetrate these assaults are not thinking clearly because they are drunk, then perhaps they are the ones who should not drink. They are, after all, the perpetrators.

It is despicable to suggest that the solution is to tell women to stop drinking so much to curtail sexual assault. First, sexual assault does not take place because women drink. Second, if women curtail their drinking habits there will still be sexual assault.

If binge drinking is really a problem amongst college-age women, perhaps we should ask women why they drink. I assume that most women do not want to become so drunk that they are ill or incapable of making decisions to the point where they are hurt. So it is possible that like so many people, college women drink to relax, socialize and have fun (preposterous, I know), and that sometimes they misjudge the amount of alcohol they can metabolize and become drunk (men do this too). Perhaps they want to be drunk, for a variety of reasons. It is possible that some women drink to excess because they feel pressure to drink and want to fit in. It is possible that some women drink to excess because they feel lonely, isolated or sad and drinking makes them feel better.

I imagine that if I were to speak to women about why they drink, the responses would be a window into what it is like to be a college-age woman dealing with the pressures, responsibilities and inequities facing the demographic. There is considerable research demonstrating that women are much more likely to engage in risky or binge drinking if they have experienced earlier physical or sexual trauma in their life. These are important issues worth exploring further. (See CWHN resources on Women and Alcohol)

It would never occur to me, in this imaginary conversation, to ask women whether they drink to promote sexual assault. The absurdity of that question belies the problem with Yoffe’s argument which does infantilize women—a concern expressed by  one “expert” in Yoffe’s article. Many women are assaulted on a date with someone they know. Next we will be telling women not to date—to protect themselves, of course.

The most upsetting and exhausting problem Yoffe perpetuates is the refusal to address the perpetrators of sexual assault, and the culture that promotes sexual assault. How is it that after the sweep of campus misogyny involving frosh events trivializing rape this year that we still end up with the idea that the problem lies with women?

If we’re going to be dolling out advice to college students should we not be addressing the orientation leaders who performed the chant to about 400 students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax spelling out the word “young” with a comment after each letter, including: “Y is for your sister ... U is for underage, N is for no consent,...”? 

Yoffe’s article is a sad reminder that feminists still have a significant struggle ahead; to do away with the idea that somehow we can blame women for the violence perpetrated against them.

Kelly Holloway recently finished her doctoral degree in Sociology at York University, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University, studying the commercialization of academic research. She is a long-time feminist activist and advocate for women's reproductive rights.

To the point