Love and Sex in the Time of Misogyny

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“Woman in Love” stainless steel, 1983, Bob Haozous at the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2016

Prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation and no, I’m not throwing women under the bus by stating this, and yes, I am a feminist. Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Prostitution is a public health issue. Prostitution is a significant part of continued and even accelerated violence against women and children. Amnesty International‘s prostitution policy, which was enacted on May 26, 2016, frames prostitution as sex work, pimps as legitimate sex business operators, and johns as deserving customers. Did Amnesty International sell its human rights soul to the highly lucrative and heavily male-dominated sex industry?

Consider this: “The commercial sex industry is sustained through violence and exploitation. Prostituted people live with the daily threat of violence. Traffickers and pimps are not the only abusers—buyers cause tremendous harm through the repeated sexual use of women and children and other physical and psychological violence. Sex buying exploits vulnerable people and hurts our communities.” (source citations at Ending Exploitation.)  The vast majority of women and children who are prostituted come from poor and marginalized communities and have histories of childhood sexual abuse. The typical age of entry into prostitution is 12-15 years of age and upwards of 90% of all prostituted women and children want to leave “the life.” And in countries that legalize/decriminalize/regulate prostitution, the demand increases as does the number of women and children (typically, again, from impoverished and marginalized communities) trafficked into prostitution.

And consider this innovative Seattle-based program on men’s accountability (and misogyny and perpetuation of the patriarchy): The Buyer Beware partnership to end commercial sexual exploitation, coordinated by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS).  The Buyer Beware model emphasizes prosecuting (and educating) sex buyers and connecting prostituted women and children to services. The goal of the program is to reduce demand for commercial sex, thereby decreasing harm to prostituted persons, reducing self-destructive (toxic masculinity) behaviors of buyers, and curbing sex trafficking in our region. This is a highly enlightened approach and one that our health system—including public health—should support. For instance, standard screening questions on sexual health for health care providers to use with patients can include ones pertinent to sexual exploitation and the buying of sex, along with appropriate referrals for assistance.

In the Seattle area we have YouthCare’s Bridge Program for prostituted teens, the OPS programs for adult women seeking to exit commercial sex exploitation, and the OPS men’s accountability program “Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men.” There is a recent and fascinating GQ article “Can we ‘cure’ the men who pay for sex?” about this program by Brooke Jarvis (February 2, 2017). In the article, Jarvis avoids straying into the current political climate as it relates to the fueling of toxic masculinity and violence against women, but she does write this tagline: “Inside a two-month program that aims to end prostitution—and help dismantle the patriarchy—by rehabilitating the men who perpetuate it.” It should be abundantly clear that this is a lofty—and essential—goal for all of us to be working towards.

(No) Home for the Holidays

bed13b6f-4b6b-4041-8baf-3581fe5f737aThe holidays are festive, fun, frantic, frolicsome, fleeting—frankly fickle affairs. The sheer number of holiday-themed, family-times-gone-wrong Hollywood movies attests to this fact. And then there is the endless loop of the still popular Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first sung by Bing Crosby in 1943 as WWII raged on. Supposedly, major record company executives at first refused to record the song, due to its final line, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” They felt it was a downer of an ending. But, of course, it tapped into the reality for many people—not just soldiers—who couldn’t go home and were left with only nostalgic dreams of snow and mistletoe.

It continues to tap into the reality for many people. Not just for people displaced from their homelands by wars, such as the current one in Syria. (For an excellent in-depth article on this for a Syrian refugee family in Canada, see the NYT article “Wonder and Worry, As a Syrian Child Transforms” by Catrin Einhorn and Jodi Kantor, 12-17-16. This makes me love my neighbor country to the north.) And not just for people who never had a safe, warm, protective home to begin with. Dr. Nancy Goldov of the Washington State Psychological Association talks about this, pointing out that some people “find the pressure to be merry and happy difficult,” and that a particular trigger this year is the “highly fraught political situation that’s polarized some families.” (see the Seattle Times article, “Alone for the holiday—and loving it” by Christine Clarridge, 12-16-16.)

Home, not just for the holidays but anytime, is also just a dream for so many of our community members who are home-less. I know this at a personal level, yet yesterday it took on a new level of poignancy. Working in sub-freezing, snow-flurry weather, we helped move in residents of Tent City 3 to a corner of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle campus. Community volunteers helped Tent City residents sort tarps and tents and cans of food. Others moved wood pallets into a line and hammered  plywood on top to serve as partially dry and unfrozen “ground” for the tents that residents will sleep in for the next three months. Tent City 3 is part of the organization Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which is self-governed, democratic, grassroots, and led by homeless and formerly homeless people.

I am proud of the dedicated work of many of our UW students, faculty, and staff who have advocated for UW to host Tent City 3. I am proud of our public university for living up to its stated institutional values, including:

  • “World Citizens We are compassionate and committed to the active pursuit of global engagement and connectedness. We assume leadership roles to make the world a better place through education and research. We embrace our role to foster engaged and responsible citizenship as part of the learning experience of our students, faculty and staff.
  • Being Public As a public university we are deeply committed to serving all our citizens.”

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Home Is…

p1020046What is the meaning of home to you? What is the one essential ingredient of home? These are questions I pose to people in my workshops and talks on homelessness. I’ve adapted “The Meaning of Home” values clarification exercise that I learned from the (sadly, now defunct) Bay Area Homelessness Program, which was a dynamic collaborative of Bay Area universities and homeless-serving agencies. As they put it, the goal of this exercise is “to help participants understand the connection between home and humanity. It builds empathy for homeless people, shows the range of reasons why a person can become homeless, and shows the interconnectedness of human needs.” (Source: my copy of the exercise directions, dated September 1998).

Part of my adaptation of “The Meaning of Home” exercise is to give participants strips of colored paper (the size of a large bookmark), crayons, colored markers and pencils, and I ask them to write or draw (or both) their most essential ingredient—or essence—of home. And, if participants agree, I add their responses to a growing public art project I’ve named The Blue Tarp Tapestry. This is part of my ongoing digital humanities transmedia project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, funded, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, Jack Straw Productions, and 4Culture. (A special thanks to all of these.)

I highlight some of the participant responses here and today because they are especially pertinent to the season, the climate of our country, and the sort of community that people in Seattle seem to desire: safe, diverse, compassionate. Their responses also highlight the fact that, unfortunately for too many people, home is not a safe and cozy place. The photo above is a weaving I made out of responses to “The Meaning of Home” exercise. The photos in the slideshow below are some of the responses from recent workshops.

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Endurance Test II

fullsizerenderSafety pins are not enough—not even the giant safety pins I managed to dig out of my possessions this past week. For anyone working on social justice issues, the world has just become a much less safe, less just, less sane place. Even less so for anyone who is not a white, so-called Christian, “able-bodied,” “straight,” born in America male. Again, the wearing of silly safety pins is simply not enough. And wallowing in grief and sadness and depression is not going to help. Righteous indignation leading to considered action is what is needed.

That, and the appropriate attention to self-care. Not the banal bath-taking-day-at-the-spa sort of self-care, but the authentic self-care of trauma stewardship as taught by the amazing Seattle-area social worker, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. Her book and resource guide, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), is a permanent and oft-used part of my own resource library. I use it in my teaching. I dip back into its underlined, dog eared, sticky-noted treasure trove whenever I’m feeling the too-familiar crispy edges of professional burnout. Like now.

I highly recommend watching (and re-watching and sharing) her inspiring Tedex talk, “Beyond the Cliff,” from April 23, 2015. In it, she reminds us that in the midst of chaos, “one of the things in your ability is to bring your exquisite quality of presence to what you are doing, how you are being.” She reminds us of a whole host of inspiring people (including  Thich Nhat Hanh, Malala Yousafzai, Viktor Frankl, and Maya Angelou) and the fact that “when they could not change anything external, they were able to shift everything as a result of where they put their focus.” She ends her talk by encouraging us to take care of our own part of the web, and to focus on what makes us come truly alive and go do that.

And there is the recent Washington Post (November 12, 2016) article by Karen Attiah, “Self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency” in which she ends with a quote by Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

On Hope

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Detail from mural “Sonoran Desert:Yaqui Home” by Mario Martinez

Today was absolutely the hardest day to teach out of all of my decades of teaching. I have a class of about 150 nursing students for a course on community/public health nursing. They are a very diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender, and even age. Today’s topics were cultural humility and the social determinants of health equity. How appropriate. One of my students also pointed out to me how helpful it was that I had also assigned a training module on disaster preparedness, which included PTSD prevention. She found the content helpful in terms of facing the outcome of our national presidential election. This made me remember the highly effective CDC Zombie Apocalypse disaster preparedness public education videos and materials. There is a zombie-like mindset within our healthcare system, within academic nursing, and within our society that I find highly disturbing. It would be so much easier to just yield to zombie ways.

I take diversity seriously in my teaching and strive to promote a class climate of respect for all differences, including different political views. But the profession of nursing as a whole, and especially of community/public health nursing, is built on the value of social justice and health equity. And higher education at a public university is based on inclusion and social justice. To now have a president-elect whose political platform included openly racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and beyond-misogynistic-into-sexual-assault-on-women values, takes us—takes me as a teacher—into an entirely new and uncharted territory.

Today in class I tried to acknowledge this in a transparent and respectful way—and to emphasize our responsibility to do our part to make the world, to make our country and our community a better and healthier place. We had terrific trainers from the NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay survivors of abuse who helped us address some of these issues directly. And a group of nursing students are continuing a Knitting for Change community group, an idea my UW Study Abroad in New Zealand students brought back with them last year. My co-teacher for that program was the community empowerment “Neighbor Power” expert Jim Diers. And then after class today I received notification of this recent mention I made in a Seattle-area community event of the New Zealand concept of community cafes as places to help strengthen our communities. “Experts offer ideas to help Seattle area’s homeless youth” by Neal Morton (Seattle Times, November 9, 2016).

I choose to hold on to all of these examples of the goodness and compassion in the world. I choose hope and a renewed energy to work for a socially just society.

On (Over) Exposure

 

Version 2A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a University of Washington Health Sciences fall kick-off event focusing on homelessness and health. This is, of course, where I work, and I was being asked specifically because they chose my medical memoir,  Catching Homelessness, as the Health Sciences Common Book for Academic Year 2016/17. That is both an honor and a responsibility that I take seriously. So when they asked me to do a reading from my book for the event, I agreed. Then, the event organizer asked me to read a section of my book specific to the lived experience of homelessness. I decided to read a few passages from the pivotal chapter titled “Catching Homelessness,” about the time I had spiraled into a deep, dark depression that almost took my life. “Okay, sure, I can do this,” I thought to myself as I prepared for the talk.

It is one thing to write about some of one’s rawest, excruciating, and stigmatizing life events. It’s another thing to share that writing in a book that is published and read by people, including by many of my students and colleagues. But—as I discovered—it is altogether a thing in a different league to read passages about those events out loud in a crowded university auditorium.

I managed to make it through my reading without falling apart, but the next morning I wrote in my journal: “It went okay, but was a bit odd. Almost like I was some sort of display of homelessness trotted out for the students like a case study patient in medical Grand Rounds. It was really strange to just dive headfirst into the book—rip my chest open—read a few passages from when I was hitting bottom, lying on an old cot in a storage shed.”

It felt unkind to myself and unethical when I reflected on it later. Even though I tried to give my reading some semblance of a context, it ended up just feeling as if I had done a flashing freak show. Lesson learned: trust my instincts and my professional training as a writer and not be persuaded to read anything that emotionally raw.

But it also made me reflect on why as a society we seem to demand that sort of voyeuristic display. And it drew me back to a review of some of my favorite ethical guidelines on storytelling, such as these for digital storytelling on the Story Center website under “Ethical Practice in Digital Storytelling.”  And here is an excellent overview by Kelsen Caldwell (formerly in the University of Washington School of Medicine, Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy group) of ethical considerations of storytelling in health advocacy work with communities:  “The Ethics of Storytelling.”

I thought through some of these complex ethical and personal issues about the process of sharing my personal story of homelessness this past summer when I made my “Homeless Professor” digital storytelling video. It utilizes an excerpt/adaptation from Catching Homelessness  and is linked here. And here is one of my favorite DS videos about homelessness by Wayne Richard: “Sofas.” 

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In addition to the DS videos linked above, here is a list of what I consider to be positive uses of narrative advocacy on health and homelessness—and yes, I am certainly biased in favor of the positive attributes of the first three:

 

 

On Faith

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Camp Hanover chapel by the lake: My shadow

“What about your faith? Where is it now? And what do you think is the role of faith in doing health care and social justice work with people marginalized by poverty and homelessness?”

These are some of the most oft-asked questions at author readings for my nonfiction book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. The questions typically come from people who have read my book, or who at least know what it is about. Because at the personal narrative level, my book is about my growing up in—and finally getting out of— the Bible Belt South, surrounded (and sometimes suffocated) by conservative Christian values. It is also about my work as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s. I worked for an evangelical Christian health care clinic until I was mandated to provide what I viewed (and still view) as unethical care: being asked to pressure patients with HIV/AIDS to repent of their “sins” before they died, and being prohibited from providing my female patients with pregnancy options counseling. There were, of course, other factors in my life, but because of this I lost my job, family, and home and became homeless for six months. I also lost my faith.

The truth is that I have never found my faith again. I do have a deep and rich spiritual life, and I am grateful for many of the faith-based experiences of my childhood. For many years after my own spiral into and back out of homelessness, I held a deep suspicion towards any explicitly faith-based organization or person. I have, thankfully, grown past that, and I have respect for the people and organizations that “live their faith” in humanistic and non-dogmatic ways.

This past Sunday, being back in Richmond, I was invited to talk about my book with the adult Sunday School class at my childhood Presbyterian church. With some trepidation, I accepted, and I am glad I did. They were a warm and welcoming group with many excellent questions, including ones on how they could be more effective at preventing homelessness. And sitting in the front row was my Junior HighSchool and Sunday School teacher, Betsy Rice, smiling and cheering me on. She reminded me that I organized a sit-in to protest something in her math class and that she let me get away with it. Betsy, who is now close to 100 years old, has organized a church outreach program to the adult group homes near the church. She helps provide on-site activities and mentoring services for a very marginalized population literally next door to the church. She is an inspiration and reminds me of the good things that a living faith or a living spirituality can do in this world.