Love & Sexuality: A Personal Retrospective

Who would have ever thought that people or organizations would be interested in learning about how sexuality changes as we age?

The idea conjures up images of nieces or nephews with looks of horror on their faces, unable to stop themselves from visualizing it and begging their elders to stop talking about it. The truth is that I, for one, don’t feel as though I’ve aged-at least not until I catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the bathroom mirror and think to myself, humm, I guess that I have.

I am a gay man of 49 years soon to hit the big five-O who is living with HIV for over 31 years. When I think about how my sexuality has evolved over my lifetime I would say in all honesty that it has consistently moved forward for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to be a manual laborer for most of my life, which has afforded me a pretty resilient physique with a lot of muscle memory. Only at the beginning of last year did I have the misfortune to have developed a sudden onset of what’s called Peyronie’s disease.

Peyronie’s disease is a very taboo ailment that affects many more men than people might think because no one talks about it. Peyronie’s disease affects the male penis particularly when erect. Its symptoms are a combination of or sole manifestation of a sudden bend in the shaft of the penis at varying degrees of severity, an indentation that looks like someone took a bite out of your shaft and varying degrees of physical pain and discomfort while maintaining an erection. The angle that the penis assumes and the associated pain often make it impossible to achieve orgasm.

In my case, it was the result of an injury while having penetrative anal sex with a partner. His ill-timed constricting of his kegel muscles blocked my phallus from penetrating, which forcibly bent my erection in two. A distinct popping sound was heard and felt, followed by pain.

Seeing that I was single at the time, I didn’t have sex until the following January where I felt a very distinct painful erection.  I couldn’t achieve orgasm because the pain was so very distracting. Not long after that, I discovered a sudden 75-degree bend in my phallus.

Please don’t get me wrong when I tell you, but I was having suicidal thoughts because I was struggling to accept my newest handicap.

I never was a man who held sex to be the most important thing in my life or love life but in the face of that condition, I was devastated. To make matter’s even worse, I have always steadfastly believed and practiced monogamy and in the gay world, I wondered who would stick by my side in the face of this new obstacle? Especially with the now widely accepted mantras of the day, which laud multiple partners and open relationships as some kind of evolutionary revelation.

I’ve been living with this condition for over a year now without ever being seen by a doctor. This has not been by choice.

Early treatment is key for reversing the effects of the disease but my initial wait-time was 7 months and it has now been 11 months and counting. I took matters into my own hands by researching as much as possible, joining a support group to ease my emotional anguish, added some vitamins to my regimen and removed a statin type heart medicine from my regimen.

This all appears to be working in my favor for the symptoms that I developed have subsided very slowly and thank god for that. There needs to be more awareness about this disease for men entering their 40s and 50s and doctors need to stop treating the disease like it’s taboo.

In the couple of years before the onset of Peyronie’s disease, I was having difficulty adjusting to the different sexual customs in the Ottawa region seeing that I am a native of Montreal. There are huge cultural differences in how the two cultures approach sex which has often left me feeling dissatisfied and even disgusted on occasion.

What didn’t help matters has been the fervor surrounding the criminalization for non-disclosure of one’s HIV status before having sexual relations. I had decided to limit my sexual partners exclusively to other men living with HIV because of this. I had a couple of hair-raising experiences with men who turned out to be too drunk to remember me disclosing my status the night before. Although I have undetectable amounts of HIV in my blood for over 21 years I simply didn’t enjoy the experience at all.

Are you beginning to see a pattern yet? Here’s some more details that may fill in the gaps.

The landscape of how people meet for serious dating, casual sex and or cruising in general has changed so rapidly that it gives one the impression that everyone is   fragmented into so many different groups and subgroups that all have very specific criteria. It just becomes incredibly annoying and tedious to have to learn all of the dang abbreviations. It leaves my soul wanting to break free and scream to the heavens, “Doesn’t anyone just want to find someone to love anymore?”

The younger generation has it better than mine as far as protections in the laws and social networking but at the same time, I believe that they lost so much more. No one talks about love anymore.

Suffice it to say, writers like Dan Savage are an affront to my values and yet so widely accepted as the gospel truth which in my opinion, have led the gay community astray…

But I digress. It’s this modernization of gay culture which I feel has left behind so many of us and even has the effect of making people who have simple needs and expectations of loving relationships feeling isolated.

One final observation is that when I was 17-years old, going out to Le Garage in Montreal, the gay community was all there under one roof, young, middle-aged, elderly and everyone in between. We all talked to each other which shouldn’t surprise people but yes, we were for the most part a multi-generational family that looked after each other.

That-close knit community had many ties to each other which created more connections which ultimately led to more people meeting and falling in love. I don’t see that anymore. I see everyone sticking into closed cliques, I see distrust of anyone that comes from different tribes. This segregation has disconnected the passing down of our history, our stories and our cohesiveness.

It is the collective effect of all of these factors which have changed my sexuality in recent years.

It isn’t so much any physical element that’s changed my sexual behavior, but the sociological factors have. I am still the same person that I have always been, wanting the same types of relationships that I have always wanted. Often times it’s how other people perceive their sexuality which creates limitations or barriers to my own. These attitudes do vary to a greater or lesser degree depending on your geo-location. So much so that I have often thought that I would have to move back to my home town if I were to ever have any hope at finding an honest loving relationship where I can express my sexuality at liberty once again in that nurturing space.

The Importance of Natural Supports in LGBTQ2S+ Lives

By Laura Shiels
LGBTQ2S+ Natural Supports Worker at the Centre for Sexuality, Calgary

As the LGBTQ2S+ Natural Supports Worker at the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary, I support youth and their caregivers throughout the “coming out” process, the majority of which are looking for help supporting their gender questioning or gender diverse kid.

Although I work with families from all walks of life, they reach out with similar concerns and questions. For me, this points to a larger cultural issue whereby families have limited access to information on sexual and gender diversity. Caregivers reach out for support with a strong willingness to learn but often feel overwhelmed by not knowing where to start. Many complain that their Google searches left them with more questions than answers.

In pop-culture and mainstream media, there often exists a single story of what life may be like for LGBTQ2S+ identifying people. Unfortunately, this story is often sensationalized and depicts a lot of hardship and pain. For many members of the LGBTQ2S+ community this does not ring true and having a strong network of natural supports can help when LGBTQ2S+ people do encounter discrimination.

While professionals are sometimes essential in the lives of vulnerable youth, in practice it is rare that service providers spend time linking youth to the people that are core in their lives, their natural supports. Many of the clients I support are biological parents, but natural supports can also be any caregivers in a young person’s life who are not paid professionals. This can include adoptive or foster parents, peers, family friends, neighbours, and extended family to name a few.

For many people, turning to those who care for us may feel like common sense but (often unintentionally) service providers will refer clients to other professional services and forget to link natural supports back in as one of the resources available to youth.

For LGBTQ2S+ youth, this is particularly important. Through research done by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, we’ve learned that family acceptance has a profound impact on youth’s wellbeing. Additionally, their research found that family rejection can play a role in increasing a young person’s risks for physical or mental health problems moving forward.

Some of the most common concerns I hear from families are around if this could be a phase in their child’s life. In my work, I take a gender affirming approach which means I do not have an agenda, goal in mind, or end point I am trying to steer a youth toward. Instead, I ask questions for reflection, provide education on sexual and gender diversity, and work on strengthening the supports around the youth to support their wellbeing. While a youth is going through this process it can help caregivers to know what to expect and to follow the lead of the youth to see how additional reflection aids in their sense of self identification.

Our support for caregivers is to acknowledge this is also a process for them. Caregivers often express challenges in consistently using their child’s new name or pronouns as the old ones may carry sentimental value for many families. It is okay to struggle and have feelings about this. This can be an opportunity to turn toward a caregiver’s own natural supports to help process those feelings while practicing using these new pronouns in front of the youth.

No one has to do this alone and caregiver’s natural supports are just as important as the youth’s.

If you’re a caregiver of a youth who has recently come out, reach out to your network of supports, listen to your child, follow their lead, and try to educate yourself on sexual and gender diversity to strengthen the supports in your child’s life.

Centre for Sexuality is a community-based organization delivering programs and services to support healthy sexuality across the lifespan. Our work includes sexual health education in schools, client counseling and specialized programming for specific populations. For over 46 years we have provided relevant, impactful programming to youth which puts us in a unique position to understand the specific needs of diverse populations. A core part of our work is ensuring that LGBTQ2S+ youth can thrive in schools and communities throughout their lives. Through the support of the United Way of Calgary and Area, we were part of initial work in Calgary that focused on natural supports, and they continue to fund us to work with LGBTQ2S+ youth and their families or other caregivers.

We Asked 7 Young People What Being Healthy Means to Them

What does being healthy mean to you? Why is it important to include young people in sexual health campaigns?

TOPAZA YU lives in Saskatoon, SK. She is a woman of colour who once felt confused about sexual health and her sexual rights, and is now passionate about destigmatizing   youth sexual health.

I believe that being healthy does not only entail physical health, but other components of health such as emotional, spiritual, occupational, mental, and environmental health. Being healthy can also mean being supported by policies and peers who will encourage you to become the best version of yourself. It also means having implementation that helps you evolve into the healthiest version of you. This can be macro level public health policies or be as simple as promoting the importance of physical activities in the community. It is vital for youth to be at the forefront of sexual health initiatives because it will further promote the power of youth engagement and help revolutionize the idea that the voices of youth do matter!

 

MYLES NAHAL is a first-year university student in Calgary who proudly identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community and is focused on bringing representation of the community with its wide range of sexual orientations and gender identity.

Being healthy to me means feeling confident and stable with my mental, emotional, and physical health. It means being able to do the things I love without feeling held back and get support when needed.

I believe it is important for youth to take a lead in sexual health to work on eliminating negative stigmas and break down the barriers that are preventing people from taking care of themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. The youth are the future and we are changing the way we view sex, the practice of consent, sexuality, gender and medical care, and we are creating an openness on the discussion of sex and how everyone’s preference is different and valid.

 

JESSINY LY lives in Toronto and is passionate about youth sexual health.

For me, being healthy is being your optimal self. Although certain standards matter to some extent, it is very important for people to feel their best. There are a lot of times standards do not define the best.

I think it is important for young people to take initiatives in sexual health issues because they are the generation that are the most open-minded and receptive. Younger generations also have a more inclusive and informative environment, which is the momentum for them to spread knowledge and awareness to other people.

 

ALICE GAUNTLEY lives in Toronto, on the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. She is a voracious reader and aspiring writer; a lover of speculative fiction, cats, and tea; and a student of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

“Healthy” is such a loaded word—so much of the info we get about “healthy living” can feel pretty judgmental, and also puts a lot of pressure on us as individuals to make choices that aren’t always accessible to us. That’s not what being healthy means to me. I think health is something we each have to define for ourselves, but it’s also related to bigger systems that influence which health-related choices we’re actually able to make. (But also, being healthy for me means making myself just go. to. bed sometimes!)

I actually think that it’s important to have people from all across the life course involved in sexual health initiatives because sexuality is something that can be part of us at many ages, but I think young people have incredibly important roles to play in this work. For many of us, this is a point in our lives when we’re in the process of figuring out so much about our sexual selves—our desires, our values, our identities—and work by peers, whether that’s education, advocacy, support, or whatever, is super meaningful for us to see and participate in.

 

NAFISA RAHMAN is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. Their experiences and knowledge around sexual health come from their own lived experiences as well as the time they have spent at Planned Parenthood Toronto and the Sexual Education Centre at the University of Toronto. Besides sexual health and social justice, Nafisa is passionate about anime, cats, and memes!

Healthy, for me, transcends the absence of physical disease and ailments. But, rather looks at the body as a whole—which includes the mind and soul. Our mental, emotional, and physical health are equally important when thinking about what healthy might look like; and this can look and feel different for each person. Undeniably, young people have been at the forefront of many movements, and initiatives around sexual health should be no different. Youth are important advocates for social change and I believe that putting them at the forefront is the catalyst to change within the realm of sexual health.

 

MAYA ADACHI-AMITAY is a Bachelor of Environmental Studies student based in Toronto. She is involved with various organizations and initiatives, ranging from sexual health and community arts, to environmental efforts.

Being healthy is to feel comfortable and confident in all personal aspects of health: the physical, sexual, mental, emotional and spiritual. Having young people at the forefront of sexual health initiatives is essential, as it allows for a platform to showcase the diversity of valuable knowledge and wisdom that stem from personal experiences and passions. It welcomes the opportunity for young people to bring forward youth-specific issues that may otherwise be neglected in the general dialogue around sexual health.

 

DHRUHI SHAH is a 23-year-old still trying to figure out what a bio consists of, outside of the fact that she is a social work graduate with a passion for work in the area of sexual violence, who lives in Calgary.

Being healthy means going beyond only surviving, it means thriving as well. Being healthy is unique to every individual, depends on a variety of factors, and influences many aspects of our lives. Young people are affected by policies related to sexual health, yet their voices are often dismissed or ignored. Young people should be at the forefront of sexual health initiatives because there should be nothing about us without us.

 

The above sexual health experts are part of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights’ National Youth Advisory Board. The National Youth Advisory Board is comprised of exceptional young sexual health experts between the ages of 15 and 24 who are engaged in sexual health promotion and community work across the country. The Board is currently steering Action Canada for Sexual Health and Right’s upcoming national campaign to increase STBBI testing among youth, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Aging Gratefully

by Shelley Taylor, Certified Sexual Health Educator

In 1998, I founded Venus Envy, an inclusive and affirming sexual health education shop. What started as a teeny tiny space in an out of the way location in Halifax ended up as two bustling store-fronts in two cities. At this point, I have been in the business of talking about sex and sexual health for over two decades. After years of supporting older people in their need to find lubricants, dilators, vibrators, dildos, constriction rings, and harnesses (all items that are very useful as we age), I found myself in a similar position a couple of years ago. At first, I was sort of amused by my hot flashes and softening body; it felt like a right of passage and a small price to pay for the privilege of growing older, something many of us don’t get to do. This made me value the experience dearly. But at some point, things took a very uncomfortable turn. My bits started to ache, I was getting yeast overgrowth after each period, the viscosity of my vaginal lubrication had completely changed (and become useless for sex and day-to-day comfort), and I had stopped thinking about sex.

I’m a sexual health educator—I think about sex all the time. But I had stopped wanting to have sex, stopped looking at Tinder, stopped asking my wife for dates, stopped wearing cute underpants—all the sexy thoughts just stopped. I sat on these changes for over a year and then finally made an appointment with my naturopath. She suggested some ways to increase hormone production and I followed these suggestions pretty closely. A couple of things improved—my genitals got “plumper,” I had less irritation after my periods, and fewer yeast infections. I even slept a bit better. But I didn’t start having sexy thoughts again. I felt deflated, empty, withered, and frankly, old. Some of the deeply held and harmful cultural beliefs that I’ve spent my lifetime trying to resist crept in like a bad dream that I couldn’t quite shake off upon waking. We tend to see old people and especially old women as sexless, unattractive, a punchline to a bad joke. It was a very depressing and dark time when even a cuddle with my partner felt like I was failing to be the person she had married. I’ve always been someone who, even if I didn’t have a super high sex drive, really valued sexual connection and play. I speak of this experience of witnessing myself change and contending with aging like it’s a thing of the past, but it’s not. It is still a daily affair and it continues to take a lot of real estate in my mind and in my life.

Frankly, with my years of experience supporting others through the aging process and how it tangles up with our sexual health, I thought I would find this transition easier. I assumed that my knowledge and beliefs in the importance of sexual expression throughout our lifespan would mean that I could navigate these changes more smoothly. Unfortunately, that only made it more frustrating. I was going out to train educators and healthcare providers about effective ways to communicate with their clients on the topic of aging while feeling like I couldn’t figure out my own body. The gift of this frustrating situation is that, because of my own challenges, I now have better insight into what others are experiencing, which makes me a more understanding and well-rounded educator.

But as the saying goes, I recently realized I had been the proverbial poorly shod shoemaker. One thing I have been saying for years to people going through sexual health transitions is that we have to be our own advocate, learning as much as we can, weighing our options, and getting as much information from as many different types of experts as possible. During a session, I found myself saying this to a class and realized I hadn’t taken my own advice. I was getting excellent advice and care from my naturopath to help me navigate my own grappling with menopause and aging, but I hadn’t explored what my medical doctor could do for me.

I recently made an appointment to get a prescription for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and requested a referral to the Menopause Clinic at Mt Sinai Hospital. So far, and it’s only been a few days, I haven’t noticed any changes except my night sweats are much worse than when I was taking the supplements suggested by my naturopath, but I’m going to be patient and see what happens in a couple months.

I look forward to feeling some positive changes while taking HRT. I recognize that hormone changes are one part of the aging process, but as with any other health issue, we need to consider our whole selves to understand and manage our challenges. If we want to have a positive aging experience, we need to understand all the factors that inform the shape it takes for us. Not only are there physical changes happening in our bodies, but we can’t underestimate the powerful societal forces and messages we get bombarded with about aging. We live in a world that uses sex to sell pretty much everything, but that same world is incredibly sex negative. We’re expected to make do with substandard sexual health education, to repress our authentic sexual selves and expression (at least for many of us) and to keep our sexual health worries to ourselves. Silence and shame, while the norm, has not really helped any of us and it has certainly not helped me as I grappled with my own aging.

With all this in mind, you’ll find a number of ideas in the Action Canada website, things we can all try to incorporate into our lives to increase blood flow, promote positive thoughts and feelings about aging, and generally pay more attention to a part of us that we often push aside or see as a trivial or frivolous part of life.

In 1998, Shelley Taylor founded Venus Envy, an inclusive and affirming sexual health education shop with locations in Ottawa and Halifax. In addition to running her business, she grew Venus Envy into bustling community spaces where people could come to gather and learn. Over the years, Shelley has taught a variety of topics related to sexual and reproductive health to individuals, students, healthcare professionals, and front-line service providers. Shelley is also an Opt Certified Sexual Health Educator with a background in Adult Education. Currently, Shelley is a Health Education Coordinator with CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

Mistreatment and Abuse is a Reproductive Justice Issue

My name is Kate Macdonald. I’m a patient advocate and complaint doula based in Toronto, Ontario and the founder of a patient advocacy initiative called The Reproductive Justice Story Project. With this year’s theme of “Sexual Health at All Ages” in mind, I’d like to highlight the epidemic of disrespectful and abusive treatment in sexual and reproductive healthcare in Canada. This is a wide umbrella that covers a lot of ground, but is rarely addressed in the public sphere, especially not as a set of interconnected issues. I believe it necessary to examine them together, framed as human rights issues —and therefore, Reproductive Justice issues— in order to imagine and implement meaningful solutions for the future.

Evidence of mistreatment and abuse across the spectrum of care providers and care settings in Canada is just a quick google search away. It’s no secret that Indigenous women in this country are still forced to undergo coerced abortions and sterilization,[1] patients’ symptoms have been dismissed and ignored by care providers leading to serious complications and preventable deaths,[2] incarcerated pregnant people have gone without proper care and labour support,[3] residents of some rural and remote communities are forced to leave their homes and families just to give birth[4] or to access abortion care,[5] and obstetric violence[6] is rampant across care settings and demographics.

These issues, and others, do not exist in silos. They are part of a wider set of societal problems: the normalization of violence against women, trans, two-spirit, and gender non-conforming people, compounded by social determinants of health and the fundamental faults in our patriarchal, colonial medical system that is often not person-centered or rights-based and does not consistently prioritize self-determination, informed decision-making, or even consent!

It’s one thing to have choice in our reproductive lives, another to have access to the care we choose. Far too often, our rights are forgotten from the equation. It is not enough to have choice and access if the care that’s available still leaves many of us feeling unsupported, traumatized, or physically harmed. As long as these truths remain—as long as some of us are still leaving our sexual and reproductive healthcare experiences feeling this way—there can be no justice.

This is the idea behind The Reproductive Justice Story Project. It’s a patient advocacy initiative aimed at exposing mistreatment and abuse in reproductive healthcare across Canada. On the Community Story Blog, our online story-sharing platform, folks have been sending in their own experiences of injustice; whatever that means to them. From non-consensual medical interventions, to verbal abuse, shaming and bullying from care providers, racism and discrimination and the fear of reaching out for perinatal mental health support under the looming threat of Children’s Aid involvement. Some have even shared their experiences undergoing painful reproductive procedures without anesthesia. The blog serves as a public body of evidence of the type of troubling treatment patients are facing today.

No matter where or how the mistreatment occurred, whether the experience was medically, legally, or emotionally troubling, there are common themes that continue to come up. These include a lack of dignity, autonomy, communication and consent in the experience, as well as healthcare providers, systems, and policies that undermine our embodied knowledge and decision-making power for our own bodies and our own lives.

The Community Story Blog began as a place for people in Ontario to share their own stories in their own words, anonymously or otherwise. Now we’re pleased to begin publishing submissions from patients and professionals across Canada! Consider sharing your own experiences on the blog.

Speaking up about these issues loudly and publicly is one way to hold harmful systems accountable and push for change in the culture of reproductive healthcare. Our voices can be powerful if we all speak up together!

_____

The Reproductive Justice Story Project is a patient advocacy initiative aimed at exposing mistreatment and abuse in reproductive healthcare across Canada. The project centres on an online platform for those who wish to share their stories, and resources to help others speak up.

www.reproductivejusticestories.org
www.facebook.com/TheReproductiveJusticeStoryProject
www.twitter.com/ReproJusticeSP
www.instagram.com/ReproJusticeSP
[email protected]

Kate Macdonald turned a personal experience of obstetric violence and Postpartum PTSD into a passion for patient advocacy. Kate is now a parent, activist and complaint doula based in Toronto, Ontario.
www.complaintdoula.com
www.facebook.com/complaintdoula
www.twitter.com/complaintdoula
www.instagram.com/complaintdoula
[1] “Examine ‘monstrous’ allegations of forced sterilization of Indigenous women: NDP” by Kristy Kirkup https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/sterilization-indigenous-allegations-forced-1.4911837

[2] “Days after giving birth to a baby boy, mom dies of strep A in hospital” by Shanifa Nasser https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ayesha-riaz-new-mother-dies-strep-childbirth-1.4567078

[3] “Pregnancy, birth, and mothering behind bars: A case study of one woman’s journey through the Ontario criminal justice and jail systems” by Sarah Fiander https://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2980&context=etd

[4] “Ottawa changes policy to ensure women giving birth away from reserves aren’t alone” by Kritsy Kirkup https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-changes-policy-to-ensure-women-giving-birth-away-from-reserves-arent-alone/article34644248/

[5] “Getting an Abortion in Rural Canada Isn’t Easy” by Tamara Khandaker https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/kwpeyw/getting-an-abortion-in-rural-canada-isnt-easy

[6] “’Stop! Stop!’: Canadian women share stories of alleged mistreatment in the delivery room” by Annie Burns-Pieper https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/child-birth-mistreatment-complaints-1.3834997

Youth Leadership in Transforming Sex-Ed

Too many youth in BC are not getting the sex-ed they need to make informed decisions. That message became clear throughout the work that YouthCO has done this past year.

Last winter we heard from more than 600 high school aged youth through our BC-wide youth-led sex-ed curriculum review. Two YouthCO staff members visited high schools across BC to connect with GSA (Gender and Sexuality Association) groups who hosted our discussions. We also wanted to make sure that we were able to reach youth in schools that we didn’t visit, and in places we didn’t travel to. So, we launched an online survey which expanded on the questions we asked at our discussion groups.

Our values at YouthCO guided us throughout this work. We believe it is necessary to center youth perspectives when it comes to sex-ed, especially as it affects them the most.

Youth we talked to emphasized the need for sex-ed that affirms the bodies and identities of all people (including LGBTQ+/2S youth), acknowledges the variety of ways they can experience sexual pleasure, and links them to the care they need around STIs, HIV, and sexual assault. While this is the vision that youth have for their sex-ed, most shared that they were only learning about penis in vagina sex—despite the fact that STIs are passed by oral sex too, and that most HIV diagnoses among young people in BC occur in the context of anal sex.

Youth also shared experiences where educators teaching sex-ed were not always familiar and comfortable with the different ways youth express gender and sexuality. In these cases, educators often continue the assumption that all of us are cis and straight. One example of this assumption is when sex-ed classes are separated by perceived gender, which erases those of us who don’t prescribe to this binary.

Youth need sex-ed that is affirming of our gender and the many ways we choose to express it!

What’s next for YouthCO

Following this project, we launched the Sex Ed is Our Right campaign in partnership with the Community-Based Research Centre. The campaign is a call-to-action that advocates for better sex-ed across BC and centers youth voices in those conversations. We have also been working with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education to better support and resource schools and educators to deliver accurate, relevant, inclusive and fun sex-ed classes across the province.
This project showed us that youth are excited and keen to shape their sex-ed curriculum. As one young person in Vancouver put it, “stuff [is] always changing, youth should be consulted at every point.”

 

Nuance: Centering Im(migrant) Youth Perspectives in Sexual Health

To be from elsewhere while growing up in Canada prompts questions around “home,” diasporic longing, and nostalgia to geographies where connection is lost.

When I asked friends where they first encountered sexual health resources, nearly all said they have no recollection, besides the bit of high school sex-ed they can remember that was mostly based on STI/pregnancy prevention (which tends to be code for a tactic that is often based in fear-mongering). One friend shared that it is even difficult to have conversations with her own family doctor about her sexual health because her doctor is part of her ethnocultural community, which severely limits the trust she can build with her healthcare providers.

This is an all too familiar experience for youth of color, rooted in or in close proximity to their ethnic communities across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Along with cultural, historical, and social modes of being that are negotiated in the aftermath or ongoing-ness of migration, sexual health is often overlooked as a crucial part of life that is also embedded in that experience. As first and second-generation youth, we are prone to face complex relationships to our education institutions, families, and communities that may or may not (most likely the latter) facilitate meaningful conversation around sexual well-being and reproductive health.

Even in wanting to support your own community by becoming a client/patient of their practice, we are put in a compromised position because we are very familiar with how personal information can circulate and be used against people within the community or weaponized to further surveil, stigmatize, and ostracize. All to say, there are a lot of complexities in how first and second-generation youth get access and continue dialogue around their sexual health because of the many barriers that exist within and outside of the home.

The “sex talk” – popularized by Western pop culture – is supposed to be a conversation led by a parental figure responsible for introducing information that a pre-teen ought to know about sex and puberty. This is not a reality for the majority of (im)migrant youth because sex, intimacy, and pleasure are often not brought up in the household at all – let alone in relation to youth and their potential sex-ventures. For us, this means that the “sex talk” is always located elsewhere (outside the home). Unfortunately, as #SexEdSavesLives iterates, school sex-ed curricula have always limited sexual and reproductive health education.

In August 2017, Nuance was launched to fill the void between (im)migrant youth perspectives and sexual health conversations with essays, art, poetry and prose via our online publication and through physical community spaces. A multimedia platform that is run by us and for us, Nuance engages in the tool of storytelling to unlearn, challenge, and create nuanced meanings to sexual health.

It is crucial that digital platforms, like Nuance, cultivate spaces both on- and off-line to facilitate the conversation that would otherwise not happen.

So, What Does Nuance Talk About?

Nuance writers have been committed to the project of debunking myths and mis-educations that are picked up along the way from families and societal/cultural norms regarding sex, sexuality, and sexual health (Dad, What’s a Condom?, ‘V’ For Virginity) . In addition, many articles have unpacked the politics of desirability in the Canadian context as brown, black, East Asian, gay, queer, femme, and other identities are often exotified, stigmatized, and fetishized in a context that centers white cis-heteronormative ideals of desirability (Is it Me or My Ethnicity?, “Kawaii”, Melanin Miseries, On Love and Melanin).

Whether it’s complicating how consent gets taken up in popular media (Beyond #Me Too) or critiquing how the #MeToo movement glosses over different types of resistances to sexual violence (Surviving #MeToo, 3 Fears), our writers centre their own voices and experiences in critically assessing the value of reconciling sexual harm in public arenas and how that serves survivors with intersecting identities and backgrounds.

During a time like the Toronto Gay Village attacks (The Arrest of Bruce McArthur) by serial killer Bruce McArthur, Nuance writers prompted conversations around radical love and navigating boundaries amongst chosen family in queer communities and the slipperiness of terms like “abuse,” “abandonment,” or “rejection” – and how they get misused within another (Love in the Time of Queer Death).
While I cannot do justice to all the themes we have covered thus far and plan to take on, as a community fellow, I get excited to tell folks to read Nuance and to contribute written/visual pieces and get compensated for their work!

Through Nuance, we can get as close to reflecting as many voices, experiences and perspectives as our communities need and desire.

Challenging Stereotypes around Fatherhood – Sex-Positive Parenting by Everyday Girl Dad

When I became a dad I realized I didn’t know very much about what being a dad meant. Until I picked up a tiny human and felt the true responsibility to help raise them to become a bigger human with values and morals and information to help them grow, I couldn’t have understood the feelings that come with the word “dad.”

It goes well beyond changing diapers or staying up until 3 a.m. with a child with a sore tummy, or becoming a coach of a kid’s soccer team and assigning snack duties to the other parents. Yet those were the things I saw the most growing up about being a father. So I applied the messages around me to what being a dad—and in my case being a dad to two girls—meant.

Dads are often portrayed as the friend of sons and the protector of daughters. This is manifested in pictures of dads holding up shotguns to their daughter’s prom date or dads in shirts that read Dads Against Daughters Dating. They are also often portrayed as being unengaged and uninterested in housework, childcare, and essentially anything that takes them away from football or hockey.

Beyond this, being a dad who challenges these stereotypes leads to praise beyond what should be expected for being an involved parent. Dads need to push back on these ideas, both the stereotypes themselves and the idea that a dad who braids his daughter’s hair or is capable of talking about menstruation is a superhero.

Traditional views on masculinity and their relationship with fatherhood can stunt overwhelming emotions if you are unwilling to push back on them. And the biggest beneficiary of me being willing to challenge what being a man means for me is my parenting

There are a number of learned behaviors I have had to focus on as I try to raise socially conscious children. Admitting there is so much for me to learn and unlearn both as a dad and as a partner is the key to broadening my parenting, and so I try to bring these action items into the way I interact with my kids.

This is where sex-positive parenting becomes so important for my partner and me.

We are the first-responders to questions asked by our kids. They look to us every day to answer questions about how both their bodies and minds are changing. We help them develop and define their identities with the answers we give them and even in the way we give them those answers.  Were we to shut our minds to the things we bring into the lives of our kids, the odds are high that the books they read would feature mostly white children, the movies they watch would feature primarily heterosexual couples, the textbooks they bring home wouldn’t tell the whole story about the history of our country, and there wouldn’t be a single reference to mental health issues.

So, we actively seek out ways to integrate these things into parenting and into our home.

You can easily teach the concepts of consent—of both giving and receiving it—when you hand out goodnight kisses at bedtime or when extended family is over for the holidays. Give your kids the confidence to say no and be sure you respect those times they do say no. Expect the same from them when you are not feeling like a hug or kiss. Work with them on being able to say no to people outside of their family too.

I have addressed my own mental health and talk to my kids about my medications and my therapy. We have talks about “the doctor for my brain” and make a point to talk each day about things that made us happy and things that made us sad.

I know now that a more comprehensive sex and health education would have benefited me greatly. I continue to learn more about my own identity as I get older and as I learn terms and see experiences I had never seen before. We want to make sure these are known identities, that we show our kids as many lived-experiences as we can so that they can note their own identities from a greater pool of people versus from the narrow definition of the man/woman, married/single binary that some sex curriculums teach.

I want my relationship with my daughters to be built on the understanding that they can ask me anything and that we will figure out answers together. I won’t judge who they have a crush on, I won’t judge if they never have a crush on anyone. I won’t get angry if they tell me they keep getting angry at people at school and I won’t panic if their bodies are undergoing changes mine never did.

Raising strong, caring, and socially aware children is less about how they are as kids and more about how you are as parents.

What I have come to see over and over again is that girls are naturally wildly strong and ambitious and caring. It is the work that I can do to shift what it means to be a man, to shape the world into a kinder, more inclusive and welcoming place, that can have one of the biggest impacts on whether or not they can stay that way.

Sexual Health for Life

Sexual health is a vital part of overall health and well-being throughout the life-course.  In order to achieve the best possible health outcomes, good sexual health and positive attitudes toward one’s sexuality are crucial. This includes ensuring that:

  1. Kids and parents have access to accurate, comprehensive information that reflects their diverse needs and realities, and is provided in an age-appropriate, culturally-sensitive and respectful manner that is fully inclusive of gender diversity.
  2. All those who are sexually active know how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections (STI) and how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
  3. Conversations with health care providers about sexual health continue as adults age, including risks of STI and how to prevent them.
  4. Patients of all ages can access health care in a safe, trusted and non-judgmental setting where they can talk openly and comfortably to their health care providers.

It is essential that we work to promote sexual health at all stages of life, especially through efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination and to break down barriers that limit access to effective testing, treatment and care. A concerted effort is needed given that we are continuing to see increasing rates of STI among youth, young adults and older Canadians.

As we begin Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week (February 11-15, 2019), I invite you to reflect on the importance of considering sexual health as not only avoiding negative outcomes, but also acquiring the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed to maintain good sexual and reproductive health throughout life.

Sex Ed, Broken Hearts & Mental Health

Sexual health is about more than our body parts. The youth I work with understand this inherently.

In my role as Sexuality and Reproductive Health Facilitator at Sexuality Education Resource Centre Manitoba, I work on a number of different projects, one of which is focused exclusively on newcomer youth in Winnipeg. It is called the Our Families Can Talk About Anything project, which brings together parents and youth from newcomer families to talk about sexuality and sexual health and work to build bridges of communication between parents and their teens about these topics.

During these newcomer youth workshops, we spend as much time exploring topics of broken hearts, relationships with parents and consent as much as vaginas, condoms and STIs. Sexuality is a complex and dynamic aspect of our humanity and includes physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components, all interconnected.

I really believe that I have the best job in the province. I get to host sexual health workshops and discussions with newcomer youth who are navigating the challenges of being young in Winnipeg in 2018, learning about themselves as they transition to adulthood and struggling with their roles as children of parents who maybe just don’t understand. Add to this the pressures and stresses of puberty, social media and hallway crushes. There is so much to navigate.

With these pieces put together, it becomes clear how mental health plays an integral part of the story. Our hearts, minds and bodies are all connected.

In our sessions, the youth talk about relationships with parents and their struggle to be independent. We explore LGBT2SQ* identities, respect for diversity and how these intersect with religious beliefs. We share about consent, cat-calling and abusive relationships. We explore body image, self-image, valuing ourselves. We dissect the intricacies of decision-making, how to trust ourselves, when to trust in others. We talk about what respect means, how we respect our own bodies and how we respect the bodies of others. We discuss racism, cultural adaptation, bullying and community. We talk about birth control choices, STIs and the science of how bodies work.

We also talk about broken hearts. If there were one thing I would love to communicate fully to you it would be these amazing conversations about broken hearts. Youth understand how mental health connects to physical health. Hearts and feelings directly affect thoughts and actions. They speak with great articulation on feeling the grief of broken relationships and their need to devise strategies to get out of bed on mornings when they are so sad they can barely breathe. They know and experience the pain of breakups and the cloud that hovers above them for months, sometimes years afterwards. They know that hearts and minds are connected; they are working so hard to find a way through this.

We cannot afford to ignore the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of sexual health. Talking about bodies as if they are separate from our relationships, separate from our thoughts and feelings would be missing most of the story.

The 16-year-old woman who is asking for condoms because she feels pressured into sex by her boyfriend, the boyfriend she cannot tell her parents about because they do not want her dating until she is 18, is facing immense pressure from many sides of her life. We let her know that contraceptives are available to her, and with those we also provide information on her sexual rights, on her inherent value as a person, on her agency to use her body the way that she thinks best, on what healthy relationships look and feel like. Providing birth control options is important but not the only part of sexual health that needs attention; all of these are connected.

Sexual health is about more than our body parts. It is about how our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual selves interact in terms of our sexuality and our understanding of ourselves. It is about mental health, reproductive rights, birth control access, consent, bodies, healthy relationships, body image, smashing the patriarchy, social justice and all of the things that affect our bodies and relationships.

We cannot separate the physical from the mental or the spiritual; it just would not make sense. Effective sexual health education encompasses all of these aspects of our sexuality, while we assist youth in the skills they need to effectively Mind Their “Business”.