The First Time

Once again it’s Valentine’s Day, when young lovers exchange tokens and thoughts turn to romance. Valentine’s Day, day of Hallmark cards with trite rhymes repeated in thousands of homes, and wilting flowers bought as an afterthought from the petrol station on the way home.

Oh my, I’m a cynical, old woman, aren’t I? So long in a marriage that the only sparks are static when I take off my dressing gown and go to bed, cuddling my fluffy penguin. That’s not a pet name for my wife: I literally mean a fluffy stuffed toy.

But even people as old and decrepit as us were once in the first flush of youth, and Valentine’s Day with its symbols of love speaks to the surging of life with the first stirrings of Spring.

And the young certainly feel stirrings and surges! I know I did. No more beating around the bush: I’m talking about sex.

Do you become embarrassed when the subject of sex arises? Become coy at the thought of talking about it, never mind actually doing it?

Why is that? What feelings do you associate with the idea of sex? Have you been taught that it’s somehow dirty or sinful? That “good” girls (and boys, but mostly girls) don’t talk about it? Don’t think about it? And certainly don’t go out looking for it!

Well, fuck that! Sex has two purposes. The one you probably got taught about at school is procreation: making babies. But did they tell you about the other reason? The big reason? The reason why so many people have so much sex? It’s because it can be immensely pleasurable.

Pleasure. Joy. Ecstasy. Bliss. Fun. Now, if that’s not a good reason to do something I don’t know what is. I’m not here to try to teach you how to have sex, when to have sex, or who to have sex with (if anyone: it can be just as enjoyable flying solo).

No, I’m here to promote a positive attitude towards sex. And an important part of that is destroying the myth about it being something special, or precious. Ditch those thoughts: it’s not. And virginity? It’s bullshit. Just a crock of shit cooked up to try to control women.

See that body of yours? It’s all yours. Nobody else’s. There is not one single other person on this whole planet who has any right to tell you what to do with it. Bodies are great: endlessly fascinating. They make funny noises. They can look weird; they can look amazing. And you can play with them. In fact that’s part of the fun of having a body: playing with it. Doing stuff with it that feels great.

Sex is one of those things that can feel great. And really it’s not any more exotic than another activity I find pleasurable: eating. Now, when I first started eating I was very young. Far too young for sex (that came later when my body had developed more).

I wasn’t very good at eating when it was all new to me. I don’t even remember my first time. For a long time it was just messy and awkward, but kind of fun too. And you can turn it into a game: play with your food. I might have forgotten my first time but over the years I do recall the best times.

Sex is just like that. When you stop thinking of it as some special, magical activity and just take it as it comes you can start to relax and have real fun with it. Like most activities you get better with practice. Your first time will probably be messy, awkward and even uncomfortable. There’s no reason to expect it to be perfect or even memorable. Would you expect your first time riding a bike to be perfect? So why set unrealistic expectations when it comes to sex? Hey, you’re new at this: you’ll get better. Practice.

Focus on the things you like. Experiment, try new stuff, see what you enjoy. Always be in control: it’s your body so you decide what happens to it. If you don’t want to do something or you don’t like something, you get to say no. You decide to try something and change your mind, you get to say no. You set the boundaries. That’s the essence of consent: nobody does anything to you unless you give permission. And you can withdraw that permission any time it suits you, for any reason.

Anyone at all who doesn’t ask your consent, who doesn’t respect your boundaries, is in the wrong. There is no middle ground, there are no grey areas (especially not fifty shades of them). Sex without consent is rape.

I’m a great believer in exploring your own body, discovering what turns you on or off, what sensations you enjoy. The better you know how your body responds to various stimulation, the more able you will be to talk to a partner about it and let them know what you like. And hopefully they will have done the same and you can both be off to a running start.

The bottom line is that sex is not a mystery. It’s a normal bodily function, like walking. Although most places it’s probably best to keep the sex indoors. Or at least out of sight of other people. Walking in public is fine though.

So get out there, or stay in bed, or whatever suits you, and have more sex. Have different kinds of sex. On your own or with a friend. Also, be responsible: think about the risks and take steps to minimise them. After all, you don’t want anything to go wrong. It’s like making sure you have appropriate gear before going walking in the hills: the sensible thing to do. Yes, you could try to walk up Ben Nevis in a T-shirt in the middle of winter but bits would probably drop off and I don’t think you’d make it back.

Above all, approach it with an open mind and a positive attitude. Even joke about it. (Don’t penises look funny? Imagine one with googly eyes!) Who knows, it could become your favourite hobby! Or even a career! Sex is not special, but it can be great fun. And fun is generally worth the effort.

Confidante

When I was younger I was dismissive of people who saw therapists. “What’s the use in that?” I used to think to myself. I didn’t get it at all; it made no sense.

But now I think I’d like to have somebody I could talk to about anything that was on my mind without worrying about being judged or that it might affect a relationship with a friend.

I need a confidante. Somebody to listen while I pour out a stream of thoughts from my turbulent mind. I’m not looking for answers or advice so much. But somebody who could prompt and guide the process would help.

I’m not seeking offers here; I don’t want to have to worry about how much I open up, about confidentiality. I need the reassurance of a relationship that is entirely professional and governed by professional standards.

I guess I’m in the market for a therapist. The younger me would be aghast.

The bottom line is that I need to open up about certain things. Keeping it all in is becoming harmful. It’s making me more vulnerable to depression.

There are some things from my past, some from my present. Things I’ve locked away, things I try to avoid. Things that worry me and others that absolutely terrify me. They’re not going to go away, but just maybe I can learn to live with them.

Selling Sanctuary – The Poison of the Anti-Vaccine Cult

With diagnosis rates in the United States as high as 1 in 68, there are a lot of parents who get told their child is autistic. What they don’t get told is what that means. They are left to find information by themselves.

This is a vulnerable time. These parents are faced with a huge amount of unknown. The way they had imagined their child developing, their hopes and dreams, lie in ruins. They literally do not know what to do, where to turn, who to go to.

Many of them, through luck, find supportive groups where they can talk to families who have gone through this emotionally turbulent experience before and can relate to them, educate them, and thereby help develop understanding and acceptance for the autistic child.

But a few fall into the hands of a much less wholesome crowd: those who believe against all the evidence that autism is the result of mythical “vaccine damage”.

Make no mistake: the anti-vaccine cult might spout platitudes about how they are protecting children but the reality is far from that. This is how they operate.

They start by telling parents that their child’s condition is their own fault because they allowed them to receive “toxic” vaccinations. They play on the guilt and fear, supplying literature that paints a terrifying picture using a mix of lies and misrepresentation of facts to provide the suffering parents with an excuse, an external “bad guy” to transfer the blame to, and so assuage their own guilt.

They basically tell the parents that, yes, they did wrong, but if they follow the anti-vaccine path they can save others and become saved themselves. Yes, it is exactly like religious cults.

  • They claim to have all the answers.
  • They claim that everyone outside the cult lies, that they have been corrupted.
  • They attack or otherwise punish people who stray from the beliefs.
  • They manipulate people through fear and guilt.
  • They have charismatic leaders and promote personal loyalty to the leadership.

In the eyes of the anti-vaccine cult members, the big bad is so-called “Big Pharma”, a conspiracy involving every drug company and hundreds of thousands of scientists worldwide. All these scientists are supposedly being paid to fabricate studies and show that vaccines are safe.

You can see how implausible that is: companies like Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca all collaborating, working together to promote vaccines even as they compete in every other area. And they are paying huge bribes to all those scientists, not one of whom has ever come forward and spoken about it. Literally hundreds of thousands of people involved worldwide and not one breaks the silence. They are all keeping the secret.

Yeah. As if that’s ever going to happen, right? HBO can’t even keep the upcoming plot of Game of Thrones secret!

But, if you’ve been carefully prepared mentally and led up to the revelation about the conspiracy you aren’t looking at it critically. You have been made to feel that your child is broken and it is all your fault. You want answers. You want someone to blame.

And that is when they plant the “Big Pharma” story in front of you, and you grasp at it like a drowning man.

You become invested in the belief system, in the story, because it gives you an excuse for your sinful actions: you were tempted by the devil in the guise of Big Pharma and their doctor shills.

But you are offered a chance at redemption: support the cult, spread the word, be an anti-vaccine evangelist and you too can save people from this evil.

Because it is a belief system, because people are sucked in so deeply and become so personally, emotionally invested in the cult, it is incredibly difficult to get through to them. All but impossible to reason with them.

If you say anything that contradicts or questions their beliefs you are automatically putting yourself on the side of the devil and are to be fought. There is no room for the critical thought that underpins rational behavior. These are people on a mission from their god and any obstacle is the devil’s work.

I don’t know if the leaders believe what they are espousing; I suspect they probably do but that is irrelevant. They are running a cult, plain and simple. The lack of overt religious terminology and its substitution by pseudo- and fake-scientific mantras does not make it any less belief-centered than any other cult like Scientology.

These anti-vaccine leaders are luring well-intentioned but naive parents astray by feeding them a diet of lies and half-truths. Instead of helping their autistic children, they end up harming them because the whole belief system of the cult rests on convincing parents that their children are damaged. That autism is a burden, a curse, a judgement from on high against them.

That does not lead to an environment where the children are accepted. And I haven’t even touched on the very real harm done to entire communities when a substantial number of children are unvaccinated. That is a fertile ground for the spread of preventable, potentially-fatal diseases like measles, mumps and rubella.

Because of the success of vaccination programs the effects of these diseases are not as well-known today, and most people think of them as relatively benign. But they are not. They cause lifelong health problems and death in a surprisingly high number of cases. Much more serious consequences with much higher rates of incidence than the rare adverse reactions to vaccines.

So if you really want to know where the poison is to be found, it’s in the mouths and minds of the anti-vaccine cult. Don’t let more people fall victim to them.

Activism and Alienation – Why I Feel Excluded

I’ve seen a trend over the years and it’s not a good one: activism is increasingly becoming a bubble, an echo-chamber where the only people listening are fellow activists.

There are reasons for this and one of the most telling ones is that the message is not reaching the audience. How often do you read an article or listen to a speech by an activist? If you’re not one yourself, the answer is probably close to never.

The big question is why?

For me (and I suspect for others too) there are a couple of elephant-in-the-room type problems. Activists seem to speak a different language, they bombard us with academic jargon and unfamiliar terms. Even the words that we recognize have subtle shifts in meaning so that understanding remains elusive. And then if we don’t use their preferred terminology or accept all of their ideological rhetoric as the gospel truth we get attacked. To put it simply, we are excluded.

What a great way to convince people to listen to you! Yes, that is sarcasm.

With far too many activists it’s a case of “my way or the highway”. You either interact with them entirely on their terms or you get bullied into submission or retreat. And most people won’t submit, so the audience dwindles until the only ones left are those who echo the activist’s ideology.

What’s the point of being an activist, of fighting for social justice, if in the end you are only preaching to the choir? The congregation has gotten fed up with your hellfire and brimstone and the pews are empty.

You’ll notice the overt religious imagery I’m using here. That’s deliberate. Running into an activist has a lot in common with running into a fundamentalist preacher. They are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that to question them in any way brings down their full wrath.

 

 

Last weekend there were the largest protest marches in US history, responding to the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. These protests were instigated by women in response to fears about the actions and intentions of the new administration.

But what were the majority of posts I saw on Facebook saying? Were they talking about the historic scale of the opposition? About the importance of standing up for rights that are visibly under threat?

No, the majority of posts I saw were basically saying that the majority of those protesting did not have valid concerns, that they should be ignored for not doing things the way the activists would prefer them to.

That because they were marching for reasons that meant something important to them as individuals but did not explicitly seek to include other groups they were somehow hostile to those other groups.

Now I’m not saying that ignorance and privilege are right or fair. But they exist. And unless activists engage with these people they will continue to exist. Shaming women who believe that sexual assault is wrong and got behind the “pussyhat” because “not all women have a vagina” is a shitty thing to do. For a lot of women the vagina (and associated organs) is something they strongly identify with as symbolic of their gender. Denouncing this as binary gender essentialism, or reducing people to their genitals doesn’t change the way so many women feel. It might not align with the activist’s beliefs but that doesn’t make it less real.

The culture of calling out and shaming people is wrong. It’s the tactics of the oppressor, the bully, of those we are trying to fight. It doesn’t advance the cause of understanding or acceptance. It’s just asking for them to turn around, say “Fuck you!” and decide you’re irrelevant. You might get kudos from fellow activists for being “on-message” but you’ve been counterproductive. You’ve stopped someone from listening to you before you even explain your point.

Bullying people into complying with your wishes and demands breeds resentment and opposition. If they comply they do so under duress, and as soon as they feel they are no longer under scrutiny they will actively undermine you. It’s about hearts and minds, not about coercing people by threat.

If we truly want to achieve equality, acceptance, understanding and all the other good stuff we need people to come to us willingly. Every person we alienate is a potential opponent, every person we support is a potential ally. We have a lot of opponents and some of them are very powerful. We need allies and supporters. We need to include them, not shame them and drive them away. Once they’re in the door we can educate them, teach them why some of the things they do might be problematic.

I’ve stopped interacting with activists online. It’s a toxic environment, like traversing a minefield where the slightest mis-step leaves you injured. I’m excluded, and I’m saying this as an autistic trans woman who ought to be feeling supported by rights activism. But I don’t feel supported. I feel threatened, unsafe in those spaces. I feel I have to watch every word I say or write, second-guess everything. And I’m not willing to do that – it takes energy I can’t spare to avoid any mistake that will bury me under an avalanche of bullying verbal assault.

I support many of the aims of activism for rights, but too many of the tactics are actively dangerous to my health and well-being. That’s why I am alienated. That’s why I am excluded. That’s what activism is getting wrong, for me and for others.

Learning to Think

One of the most pernicious lies I can think of is that it’s wrong or weak to change your mind. That once a decision is made you are committed to that course regardless of the consequences. To which I simply say, “Bollocks!”

As we grow we acquire a cultural opinion–a meme if you like–that decisiveness is what matters. It’s better to make any decision and move forward than to stop and wait for a degree of certainty.

Motion is everything, the direction secondary. Except that you must never backtrack. No about-face, U-turn or retreat. Think about those terms: “backtrack”, “about-face”, “U-turn”, “retreat”. See how they are imbued with negative connotations: you have been conditioned to see them that way.

The consequence of this is that a bad decision is seen as better than no decision at all, and that bad decision, once made, commits you to a particular course of action. This is accepted by many without question and yet it is utterly false.

Let’s think about a simple scenario: you want to cross the street so you decide to step out into the road. Okay, you’ve made a decision (good for you!). Are you now committed to crossing that road come what may? Or should you change your mind and retreat if you notice a car approaching after stepping out?

My point is that we rarely have all the information at the point of making a decision. We try to predict what will happen but in all except the most trivial cases we cannot know. This means we know more about the consequences of our decision after making it, once we have taken the first steps along that course.

Which is more foolish? To argue that a decision has been made, it is set in stone and we must continue along that particular path, or to re-examine the decision periodically and judge whether it is still a beneficial course of action?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Wellington was castigated in the weeks and months following the 1809 Battle of Talavera when rather than advancing on French-held Madrid (a key aim of that summer’s campaign) after the French retreat, he made a rapid withdrawal back into Portugal and spent the winter sheltered behind the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.

At no point did Wellington have complete information about the size or disposition of the French forces opposing him, but his success in the Peninsular War long-term was a result of planning for different scenarios together with his ability to abandon a plan when he saw that circumstances had changed.

If not for the support of influential figures in London, Wellington would have been replaced as commander and the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have been very different. And even today it is politically almost impossible for anybody to change a decision once made.

The core of the problem is absolutism, the idea that every question has one correct answer. Reality doesn’t work like that, but few people are comfortable dealing with probabilities. But incomplete information means that a decision based on what appears most likely at one point in time can easily turn out to be the wrong course of action, something that comes to light later as we learn more.

Politicians don’t help their situation by applying absolutist arguments to justify their decisions: their way is the One True Path, the only way that will work. It means that when events conspire to frustrate their plans they need to maintain the fiction that their original decision was correct and continues to be correct.

There can be no wrong decisions because their jobs depend on the illusion that they alone have the right answers. We are all losers because this binds them to inflexible ideologies and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.

The way out of the trap is to recognize and admit that the world is a complex place and it’s not always clear how best to get to where we want to be. Admit that pressing on regardless sometimes means going further down a dead-end path, wasting time and resources in pointless activity.

Adaptability and flexibility are what matters most. Setting goals matters, but it’s not so important how they are reached. Indeed, stating what outcome you hope to achieve should be the most important thing.

Regarding the EU Referendum, the biggest problem with it as far as I’m concerned is that is offered a choice of two courses of action (leave the EU or remain in it). Nowhere did it ask people what they hoped to achieve by those actions. It was like asking people whether to turn left or right without giving them any idea where they were trying to get to, or where either path might end up.

It means that the government have a (narrow) mandate to take a particular course of action–leave the EU–without saying anything about what it is intended to achieve. Is it supposed to create jobs? Cut NHS waiting times? Stop it raining on Bank Holidays?

At times like these it is more important than ever to scrutinize those in power. To be critical. To ask “Why?” and “How?” Don’t be satisfied with attractive but empty slogans. Push for the details, and if they can’t or won’t provide them ask yourself why they might not want to reveal their objectives. Are they really working in the best interests of you and me, or of corporate lobbyists?

Question everything. Be critical. Think for yourself.

 

 

Toxic Masculinity and Suicide

I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.

I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.

Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.

I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.

I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.

I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.

But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.

That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.

You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.

Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.

You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.

It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.

Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.

That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”

There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.

Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.

Tolerance and Teaching

This world needs more tolerance.

It’s getting to the point where you can’t express an opinion without somebody immediately jumping on you and shouting you down.

I get that not everybody will agree with me. I don’t understand or know every nuance of every subject. Sometimes I make mistakes, or fail to express my meaning clearly. Sometimes it’s simply an opposing perspective.

But in this hair-trigger, offence-taking, call-out culture there is no place for uncertainty, mistakes, or a lack of clarity. One foot wrong in this social minefield and the dust won’t settle for days!

I get the anger, I really do. I see people repeat the same old misinformation again and again: whether it’s vaccines or immigration or any number of other subjects. It’s frustrating.

But if I were to attack everybody who says something I disagree with or find problematic, I would be doing neither side any favors. I see it this way: either a person is going to listen or they are not.

If they aren’t going to listen to my argument then however forcefully I make it I won’t reach them. If they might listen, then shouting and bullying them will only make them defensive and unwilling to listen any further.

I know that when I first started writing about autism I was on a steep learning curve. At first I was pretty ignorant, uninformed. I invested my time in learning as much as I could, interacting with people through their blogs.

In the early days my terminology was less than perfect; there was more I didn’t understand than I did. I dread to think of the reaction I would get today from some people I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere!

But luckily the people I interacted with were patient and forgiving. Tolerant of “newbie” mistakes. So my investment of time and effort in learning about autism was worth my while.

If I’d been bullied for things like person-first language (“person with autism”) or for innocently using problematic phrases that are common in colloquial speech, I think I’d have disengaged from the autism “community”.

I don’t know that I have contributed a whole lot myself, but I know for sure that I would know a heck of a lot less about myself and autism.

So, tolerance. Be forgiving of others’ mistakes. Try to help them understand better, give them a chance to learn and improve.

Some may say that it’s not their job to teach everyone they encounter. But if not, then whose job is it? Do you seriously think everybody will spend time learning as much as possible before they begin to interact publicly?

By putting myself out there in public spaces as autistic and trans I have made myself, intentionally or not, into a representative of those identities. I owe it to myself and everybody else who shares those identities to do what I can to increase people’s knowledge and understanding.

The best teachers are patient, compassionate, and understanding as well as knowledgeable. What use is knowledge that is not shared? What use is a message that nobody will listen to?

This post was originally posted on my personal Facebook wall.

In Vino Veritas

Alcohol notions
Dissolve in black coffee.

Unwelcome thoughts
Tucked away
Like shameful genitals.

But is being candid
Really to be compared
To exposing oneself?

Surely that road
Leads to thoughtcrime
And sexcrime.

My frank words
Corrupt the innocent.