Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.

New Moon Meditation: Creating Mantra Cards

I’ve developed an interest in watercolor painting recently and have started a project of creating mantra cards for myself. I’m hoping to have a deck about the size of a small oracle deck when I’m done, but it won’t be for a while yet.

Trying to decide what quote or message to put on the cards as well as what to paint on them is an overwhelming undertaking for someone who is a perfectionist.

To help ease the pressure I placed myself under as soon as I settled on this idea and bought supplies, I have chosen to paint only one a month–probably on the new moon as part of the inner reflection of that time.

The first I created was in honor of my grief, a blue card with spidery script and rain splatters.


“The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” -Longfellow.

It reminds me of the importance of sadness, the futility of resisting my own process, and the beauty of surrendering to it.

This new moon, I was feeling the need to validate both my body and my sexuality. While being slut-shamed by my doctor, fighting imbalances in my body, and seeking to recover my confidence of being worthy of love and pleasure, I needed something that would be body-positive. I pained a torso of a woman in a sheer scarf and selected a quote by Lenore Kandel.

“You’re a divine animal and you’re beuatiful the divine is not separate from the beast.” -Lenore Kandel

I liked this quote in particular because it doesn’t seek to deny either the body and its humanness or the divine and its sacredness. It reminds me I don’t have to be flawless in order to love my body and celebrate my sexuality. In fact, the flaws are part of the package. They are not to be overlooked but rather to be celebrated as part of the whole. That holds true for subjective flaws like, “my stomach looks weird!” to susceptibility to infections and complications.

At first, I thought the process would be fun but that the meditation portion of what the mantra cards were for would come afterwords. As I built a collection, I envisioned myself shuffling them and drawing one out to focus on at various times.

What I discovered, though, was that the very process of creating the cards was a meditation in itself, requiring me to tap into the feeling behind the quote to understand what the picture should be, and then to further focus on the quote itself as I wrote it out.

I’m a beginner with watercolors, so there was also a certain amount of uncertainty and experimentation, allowing for flaws in my own work as well as trusting my intuition from time to time. Both seemed as important a part of this sacred process as the creation aspect itself.

I don’t know what I will be painting in the future. I find that trying to plan ahead which quotes or ideas I will explore decreases the power of what I’m trying to create. I prefer to wait for the message to come to me when and as it is needed each month.

The Good Goodbye

The Art of Goodbye

If never mastered, you stumble
Through transitions, losing your
Heart in places you never meant,
Or tearing another’s out as you walk
Away before you’ve detached.


Despite how much I love to write poetry, this may be the second time that I have ever posted it (also, first time in a year I’ve had time to write it so…).

I’m thinking about the importance of goodbye a lot right now. My semester is ending, bringing two of three years to a close for grad school. My internship is ending, and with it all of the relationships with people I’ve worked with.

It hurts to be losing so many connections all at once, but it’s also given me a chance to really immerse myself in my own philosophy of closure.

I haven’t had many good goodbyes in my life, but a handful have stood out to me. The first being my goodbye with my first ever counselor. She was an intern at my college counseling center, and the first person who had validated the pain I had gone through. When I found out that after graduation I would have to find another counselor to work with, I was devastated.

But she took it as an opportunity to give me something I’d never had before. Closure and parting “when people are still on good terms.”

She didn’t just see me on our last scheduled session, pat me on the back and say, “good luck.” She took time to memorialize what we were losing and express appreciation for what I had brought into the relationship with me.

That stuck. To this day, I look back at that as one of the most powerful pieces of the work I did with her.

As I’ve been in grad school, I’ve noticed that some teachers will keep teaching right up until the last moment before they let you go, yelling “have a good break!” as students file out the door. Others will dedicate half or entire class periods to goodbyes with rituals, crafts, or gifts to students, encouraging students to share with each other what they valued about the others in class.

It’s always more fulfilling to leave the latter classes. There’s a kind of balm on the separation wound and usually something meaningful to take home.

I’m convinced that goodbye is one of the most important skills we can master, and one of the skills that few ever try to master.

Our first encounters with goodbyes are often nearly traumatic, the sudden loss of a relationship—due to death, argument, or life circumstances.

Or we first learn that goodbye means fading out or ghosting.

Goodbyes tend to toggle between the sudden eruption and the slow, unclear disappearance.

We’re left to walk around with these throbbing, straggling attachments that we don’t quite know how to heal, and when we enter into new relationships, those wounds haunt our attempts to connect anew.

What I have learned from good goodbyes is that even when the goodbye is welcome—as with the ending of a class, leaving a job, graduating from school, etc.—the goodbye still marks a loss that needs to be honored. Taking time to say goodbye gives us a chance to acknowledge the grief, honor what that relationship meant, and express clear reasons why it can no longer continue (especially important with breakups).

It allows us to cleanly sever the attachment cords and bandage them up so that they can heal.

Granted, intentional goodbyes are not always possible. Sometimes, that sudden rupture is necessary or inevitable. Sometimes the fade out is appropriate (rarely, but sometimes). But I, for one, have committed myself to making sure I take every opportunity I see to give those with whom I’m parting the good goodbyes that have been given to me.

Trading One Infection for Another

This may be one of those tmi posts, so be warned. If you don’t want to hear about my vag, don’t read.

I went to the doctor recently because I noticed an “odor” down below. It wasn’t there all the time, just sometimes. However, being a responsible adult, I decided to go in and get checked for various infections and sti’s.

Turns out I had bacterial vaginosis.

So first thing: bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal infection a woman of my age can get. It is literally an imbalance of the bacterial flora in the vagina. It’s not contagious, and it’s hardly dangerous.

Why is that important?

Because I was fucking slut shamed at my appointment.

In seeking out more information about what I was experiencing, I asked some questions, one of which was inquiring whether my partner might also have an infection. I was told (no shitting), “It’s not exactly an sti, but women who don’t have sex don’t get it.”

In my own research, I found out that’s simply not true. But even if it was, what the hell? People don’t get colds if they don’t go outside. Do we blame them for going outside?!

More importantly, this infection wasn’t causing me pain.

Had I been more informed at the time that I went in to get checked out, I might have decided to treat it herbally. But I was concerned and ignorant and decided to follow the doctor’s advice.

She gave me an antibiotic.

Any vagina-toting person who has struggled with BV will probably know what happened next.

I took the medicine as instructed, stayed away from sex like an obedient girl, and wolfed down two to three yogurts a day to restore the “balance.”

Unfortunately, the antibiotics the doctor gave me were ridiculously strong. They killed off everything in my vagina, including the good bacteria, making for a hospitable place for yeast to grow.

Yeast infections.

Literally one of the most painful and gross things that can happen to a vagina.

I went from a painless, mild, bacterial infection to a raging, itching, burning yeast infection.

I looked it up, and yeast infections are so common following an antibacterial regimen that I have to wonder who is running women’s health?

And I’m sitting here thinking, “Why the fuck does the medicine make me feel worse than the problem?”

Bacterial vaginosis can rectify itself if the bacteria can get back in balance…so why kill off the whole population?! That’s like using a hydrogen bomb to get rid of house spiders. Perhaps a little more moderation would be in order.

At this point, I am feeling pretty disillusioned with modern medicine. I don’t understand the reasoning behind slut-shaming a woman for a mild, non-contagious infection…and I don’t understand the purpose of using a “treatment” that essentially guarantees a far more painful and difficult infection as a result.

Those of us who own vaginas have been cut off from knowing basic care for them. We’re told (rightly) to avoid messing with them when they’re healthy. The vagina is self-cleaning and doesn’t need to be douched when it’s healthy.

However, we’re not taught how to take care of our own minor imbalances. I wish I could go back and use a garlic suppository to treat the BV. I wish I hadn’t been so instilled with fear over my own body that I didn’t think to question my doctor at the time. I’m not making that same mistake again. After speaking with friends who have successfully self-treated yeast infections and doing considerable reading about herbal remedies, I am taking ownership over my vaginal health.

What’s the purpose of this post? Well, ranting feels good, but as with most things related to women’s issues, I feel like if we can’t talk about it, it will never get addressed. Stigma sucks. I’d rather people feel like they know things about my vagina that they never wanted to know than for me or anyone else to feel isolated in shame and silence.

Shame breeds ignorance. And ignorance, in my case, bred yeast.

Editor’s note: I want to make it clear that I am not, in any way, implying that doctors are all bad. I am glad I went to the doctor. I needed to rule out more serious issues like sti’s or cancer or whatnot. What I regret is that I didn’t know enough about treating basic imbalances that I couldn’t confidently handle things myself once I knew what I was dealing with. Had I had an sti, I absolutely would have gone with the doctor’s recommended treatment and worked closely with a clinically trained herbalist to bring in herbs as part of my support. Treating minor things with home remedies is something I feel knowledgeable enough to do, but I would not dream of eschewing medicine altogether. It has it’s place. 

Stop Throwing Trans People Under the Activism Bus!

I’m thrilled that people are taking a stand against North Carolina’s anti-trans law.

Really, I’m thrilled.

But I want to ask those who are supporting the rights of trans people, please stop throwing trans people under the bus in the process.

At least once a day, I see some sort of meme go by asking: “Do you want this person in the ladie’s/men’s restroom?”

I sort of get why it might seem appealing to use those memes. It’s the whole “get them with their own prejudice” idea…and it probably seems super ironic.

But please stop.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of attractive men and women are essentially saying, “Do you really want to risk this trans person stealing your partner?” It sexualizes and objectifies trans people even further, which is hugely problematic since trans people face tremendous risk of sexual violence, more risk than the ciswomen that conservatives are suddenly (and ironically) interested in protecting from sexual violence.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of burly dudes are even worse. They are essentially capitalizing on the fear of sexual violence, implicating that it’s not safe for a trans man whose birth certificate says “female” to be in the same bathroom as another woman. In other words, it’s implying that what the law is trying to prevent will happen by virtue of the law being in place.

Just…stop! That’s not helping!

But the biggest reason why those memes are more destructive than helpful is because they continue to support the binary myth that there are men and then there are women. End of story.

The most discriminated people in the trans community are erased as much by this pathetic excuse for activism as by the law itself because they are essentially told that they have to fit into one category or another, no exceptions.

The truth is, unless a security guard is checking birth certificates on the way in, if someone looks strictly feminine or strictly masculine, regardless of whether they’re trans or cis, they’re probably not going to be barred from using the bathroom that matches their gender.

That doesn’t mean the law is okay by any means. The intent to discriminate is abhorrent regardless of whether it’s easily enforced.

However, the ones at highest risk for this discriminatory law aren’t going to be the beefy guy or the sexy lady. They’re going to be the people who are still in transition, the ones who don’t fit into the binary (e.g. genderfluid, bigender, agender), the ones who are unable to adjust their appearance due to lack of access, safety, or money, or the ones who reject traditional masculinity and femininity for various reasons.

And the memes don’t even begin to help those people. The very opposite actually.

If activism perpetuates transphobia and prejudice or objectifies and erases vulnerable people, that’s terrible activism!

So if you want to show support for trans people and protest legalized bigotry, find another way.

EDIT: Someone pointed out that this post doesn’t offer any alternatives. I chose not to list my thoughts on how to be an ally because I didn’t feel it my place to define that for a community to which I do not belong. However, I am all for providing constructive alternatives when pointing out problematic areas. Therefore, I recommend GLAAD’s page on Tips for Allies of Trangender People.


F*ck Me Ethically: The Bad and (Invisible) Good of Porn

Porn is a problem, but it’s not the problem anti-porn activists would have you believe.

In a recent Washington Post article, Gail Dines writes about the “public health hazard” of pornography, citing some of research correlations that I myself found back in 2010 when I did my own literature review of the effects of pornography on adolescents.

However, the article, like my own review, was flawed.

It’s true that adolescents exposed to pornography are more likely to engage in aggressive sexual behavior (Brown & L’Engle, 2009); however, even in the study which found this correlation, the authors acknowledged the limitations of not being able to differentiate between violent and non-violent forms of pornography in the study.

And there’s the first major flaw. Not all pornography is equal. At the time of my literature review, I hadn’t ever seen porn. I was basing my judgments off of statistics about which I had no personal knowledge. And research either failed to describe precisely what was happening in pornography and why the researchers thought that content was particularly nefarious, or it focused on the violent components of certain types of sexually explicit material.

The Washington Post article does the same.

The truth is that pornography is as varied as any form of entertainment. Yes, there is the underbelly of unethical or illegal porn, violent porn, non-consensual porn, and misogynistic porn, which I am fully on board with fighting and dismantling because fuck that shit!

However there is also feminist porn, ethical porn, porn from a woman’s point of view, educational “porn” used by sex educators (I call it porn because you actually watch people perform the thing being taught and it is *ahem* very explicit), and porn that demonstrates consent, safer sex, and mutual pleasure (even when there is choking or bondage involved).

Concerns about pornography tend to include a belief that porn is teaching people to degrade women and desensitizing people to sexual assault. To some extent, that is true. In one study that still stands out in my memory, 17% of men exposed to a suggestive date-rape scenario after viewing degrading sexual material reported a higher likelihood to commit date-rapey activities (Milburn et al., 2000). Yikes! Others have found that exposure to porn for adolescent boys contributes to a higher likelihood of viewing women as sex objects (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007).

However, one must take into account the reciprocal relationship of influence. Media often mirrors pre-existing attitudes because…capitalism 101. Producers produce what sells.

Moreover, pre-existing beliefs often influence what types of media people seek out (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Peter & Valkenburg, 2010). And, I probably don’t need to mention (or maybe I do) that parents and other aspects of culture can heavily influence children’s pre-existing beliefs.

In turn, media teaches us what to believe.

(Side note: PG movies, I’ve often found, can be far more sexist and misogynistic than R-rate movies. Rape still gets a lower rating than same-sex, consensual activity. WTF?!)

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this influence with regard to pornography because we, as a nation, don’t give them anything else to act as a reality check. Our sex ed is deplorable. Often, children learn about sex first through pornography exposure (Brown & L’Engle, 2009).

And yes, teaching kids what sex is through a form of fantasy and entertainment is bad. We don’t show General Hospital to med students expecting them to walk away knowing how to be doctors and surgeons.

However, the answer to me seems infinitely obvious. Children need better sex ed. They need to know that porn isn’t reality and to think about it critically, the way we are teaching them to critically think about advertising and other forms of media.

In fact, it is my hope that the reason that sex ed now begins at age four in the Netherlands is because of the very research I used in my literature review. They want to create a foundation of respect and consent before children get sucked into the Internet world where that barely exists in discussion itself.

In my review, I focused on adolescents because there were substantial sources indicating the adverse effects of early exposure to porn. At the time I was on an anti-porn rampage. I had planned to do the review on porn’s influence on adults, but I couldn’t find enough articles that actually found adverse effects for adults.

I thought it was because the research was biased. Now, after having learned more about pornography and realizing that seeing it doesn’t turn me into a raging, woman-hating, unthinking, sexually assaultive animal, I think it’s because there actually aren’t that many consistent adverse effects (as in aside from other factors such as pre-existing beliefs and wider culture)…if you’re not focusing on the type of porn that is violent and degrading.

I can never pretend that porn is benign. I’ve read too many studies showing that porn does indeed influence. Just as with other areas of entertainment, prejudice and stereotypes need to be addressed. Better representation of women and minorities is needed. Consent needs to be apparent as much in our sexually explicit material as in our daily lives.

And sex workers’ rights desperately need to be addressed so that vulnerable people aren’t exploited or forced into work they don’t want to do.

But the answer isn’t to continue to demonize all porn.

We need nuanced discussion about how different types of porn reflect and influence attitudes. Erika Lust gave a brilliant Ted Talk about the importance of feminists getting involved in making porn so that they can change porn. “Mainstream” shouldn’t refer to degrading, violent, and illegal porn. That should be the fringe, not the majority.

Feminist porn makers have the capacity to change the conversation.

One aspect of the reciprocal relationship of porn that doesn’t get mentioned is that people can’t consume what doesn’t exist. Erika Lust and other feminist porn producers and actors realize this and have worked hard to create sex-positive feminist porn.

Today, porn that respects women’s agency and pleasure and that emphasizes the importance of consensual encounters (and I would include BDSM porn that demonstrates consent) does exist, but where are the studies exploring how that kind of porn influences people?

It is just as oppressive for research to erase the efforts of sex-positive feminists in the porn industry as it would be to pretend that sexist and violent displays of women’s sexuality are okay.

Since writing my literature review on the negative effects of porn, I’ve actually exposed myself to porn in a conscious way and have experienced some of the positive influences that I think a more nuanced exploration of porn might find—such as feeling better about my body image by seeing realistic women, exploring my sexual orientation, learning to value my own sexual pleasure more in my sexual activities by seeing women enthusiastically participate, and learning about sexual empowerment through porn activists like Tristan Taormino, Erika Lust, and Nina Hartley.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that much of what I am refuting (and thus the literature I’m citing) focuses on heterosexual porn, failing to take into account the role of porn for LGBTQ individuals. I could probably write a whole other paper about the good and bad of non-straight porn, but suffice it to say that this is another area where representation is important and potentially empowering or degrading. I hate to make this the footnote on my piece because I have found porn just as important to my sexual identity as it has been to my feminist identity; unfortunately, I can’t pretend to have done nearly as much research on the importance of queer porn. For a recommended read on the topic of queer and feminist porn, check out Autostraddle’s post.

Non-linked References (Not all of the ones I used in my literature review, just the ones I cited today):

Brown, J. D., & L’Engle, K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with U.S. early adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research 36, 129-151.

Milburn, M. A., Mather, R. & Conrad, S. D. (2000). The effects of viewing r-rated movie scenes that objectify women on perceptions of date rape. Sex Roles 43(9/10), 645-664.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2006). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit material on the internet. Communication Research 33, 178-204.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2007). Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment and their notions of women as sex objects. Sex Roles 56, 381-395.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2010). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit internet material, sexual uncertainty, and attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration: Is there a link? Communication Research 35, 579-601.


Balancing Resistance: Yin and Yang

Yin Yang beer

I’ve been becoming more conscious of the fact that I organize much of my thinking along the lines of yin and yang and the concept of balancing duality. As I explore my own developing concept of counseling, human nature, etc., I find myself continuously walking the line “between.”

When I cringe at positive psychology, it’s not because I think it’s wrong or ineffective to focus on resiliency, what’s going well, strengths, etc.

People need positive goals towards which to work. Whether in personal growth, activism, or career development, if all one ever does is fight against what isn’t desired, burnout is inevitable. There will always be more to fight against, to change, to reject.

Merely pushing away from what isn’t wanted leaves a person directionless, often flying from one unwanted to another without direction or purpose.

Thus, defining where one wants to end up is essential. Have uplifting goals is necessary for renewing energy and fostering hope.

That being said, I find it equally unhealthy to eschew the negative. Resiliency doesn’t exist as a concept without its shadow side. Personal growth is more often the result of grappling with the shit life throws out.

And of course, ignoring the shadow doesn’t make them go away. More often than not, suppressing the shadow forces it to fester and grow stronger. Eventually it will demand attention one way or another.

So often, positive and negative seem to be pitted against each other, as though one has to win over the other, but such a dichotomy always leaves something lacking.

The yin needs the yang in order to be complete.

Of course, I’ve heard the yin yang symbol explained in terms of embattlement—that the dark and light are warring against each other, with the implication that one or the other wants to win. However, I find it far more intriguing to consider that the light and dark battle each other in an attempt to achieve balance.

Rather than the symbol being a representation of some cosmic arm-wrestling match, I think of it as a cosmic acrobatic performance. The resistance of each helps the other.