Warning: This post has to do with my menstrual cycle and will discuss blood. If this makes you uncomfortable, please stop reading. If this makes you uncomfortable and you are uncomfortable with the fact that you are uncomfortable, you might be interested in learning about menstrual cycles! See the fun and easy-to-read guide Menstrupedia and read here about how people are changing the period stigma around the world.
It was our first day in Bangkok, Thailand. My sister and I were doing our first go-round of tourism. After getting Malaria medication, eating at Silom Soi 20 and Cabbages and Condoms in the same day and sweating our way through tuk tuks, taxis, public transportation and city crowds, we thought it was time for some culture.
And by culture, I mean disrespectfully passing quickly through the splendor, history and architecture of Wat Pho and going directly to their massage center.
Sometimes you’re sweaty, tired, and have period cramps. And you just want a massage. A Thai massage, at that. Where else better than the very place that’s credited with it’s invention?
I came wearing long “hippie” pants and a shirt covering my shoulders. When we got the massage, they gave us traditional Thai massage clothes, which are loose fitting pants that are near impossible for me to tie. Every time I got a massage in Asia I had to seek the help of one of the employees to secure them. You would have thought I’d learn.
Both Jennifer and I were guided into the air conditioned room. In this massage center, and all others that we visited in Southeast Asia, privacy is a different concept. Your relaxing massage is enhanced by sharing a space with at least 30 other people. The employees often have full-on conversations, and then whisper to you when they want you to do something. It’s like they’re screaming to each other about their weekend -“WE HAD SO MANY PEOPLE AT MY HOUSE I DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH FOOD”-and then they gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper, “Turn over please.”
In my loose fitting clothing, I lay down in a shared bed next to a older white female tourist. She halfway opened her eyes as I climbed on next to her. I gave her the nod.
My period was heavy. Early in my cycle, the floodgates had been let open. I had a pad in, which you’ll soon find out was not the best option for a Thai massage. I thought the wings would protect me, but I calculated wrong. A tampon would have sufficed. My struggles with the menstrual cup would have resulted in a much worse situation, so at least there’s that.
My masseuse was a middle-aged man with short black hair. He was petite and walked quickly, giving me directions and leading me with his hand gestures. He didn’t speak much English but gave me frequently smiles and nods to indicate I was doing the right thing.
As he put my legs and arms in different positions, I was left vulnerable to the threat of leakage. I opened my eyes as my foot was above my head and I wondered if I was going to bleed through the pants they had given me. He turned me on my side and was practically punching my right hip (getting all those knots out, love that!) and I felt some dampness (to be less graphic on a post about periods). He and the female masseuse next to him started talking. I, of course, didn’t think anything of it. Conversation during massages are normal.
The massage continued for thirty more minutes. He cracked my back, contorted me into a quasi-back bend and slapped my upper back to signify the end of our time together. “Okay, all finished,” he whisper. I opened my eyes, rolled over, and thought, oh shit.
Earlier, I was worried about bleeding through their dark pants. I never considered the possibility of leaving a pool of deep, red blood on their crisp white sheets.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I told my masseuse. I wrinkled my face and tried to communicate how sorry I was with concerned eyes. He just keep smiling and shaking his head. He tried to tell me I had nothing to worry about. I was grateful for him not making a big deal out of it.
At least the next person to sit in the bed where I got my massage would do so on fresh sheets. Yeah, you’re welcome.
I went to the dressing room and changed back into my clothes. My masseuse was waiting for me so he could take my spoiled pants. He had to put them in a “special” hamper. Separate from the untainted ones.
I whispered “sorry” at least ten more times as I walked out. Other clients started to notice and would crack open their eyes to see who this obsessively apologetic girl was. I met back up with my sister at the entrance.
I walked out feeling disgusting. I wasn’t even embarrassed that it happened. I’m all about ending the menstruation stigma. But I was already dripping sweat and couldn’t wait to take a shower. We put our Thai Buddhism lesson on hold until further notice and left the premises.
“I got their sheets pretty dirty,” I told my sister. “I bled through their pants and onto the bed.”
“Oh god, ” was all she could say. She laughed a bit, too.
The only thing that gives me comfort in these types of situations is the thought that I can’t be the only one. Or, I can’t be the worst one. Out of the people who have filed through the doors of the Wat Pho massage center, something had to have been “worse” than my blood on the white sheets. Menstruating women aren’t banned from all temples! Only in some. There’s a success story.
You would guess right now that I would have learned my lesson. I apparently did not. In Chiang Mai, we took a quick detour from seeing the city to get massages. I was again menstruating and again I was wearing a pad, not a tampon. At the end of the massage, I was relieved to not see any blood on the bed. That might be attributed to the dark brown sheets. I changed and found a surprise…but no one but me noticed this time.
Want to read about menstruation in Thai culture? Read here about an American Muay Thai fighter’s experience in the ring and what it’s like to be a menstruating fighter.
This past August, I visited Basque Country. Yes, this is same trip as the Pitbull incident. The day that Pitbull didn’t accompany us, friends and I went to Bilbao to see the last weekend of the annual celebration, Aste Naguisa.
Aste Naguisa is a 9-day festival celebrating Basque-ness. Political and neighborhood organizations set up tents. In these tents, participants drink, play games, and see performances. Walking around the endless pedestrian-only streets we saw the organizations’ massive murals and artistic takes on pop culture, consumer society and world events.
The narrow cobblestones streets were filled with overflowing tapas bars, street vendors and loud music. Those celebrating the festival wear purple scarves.
The protagonist of the festival is Marijaia, who, surprisingly, is burned to celebrate the end of the 9-day event. Marijaia means “lady of the party,” and she is meant to symbolize optimism and dance.
She comes in different shapes, forms, and versions.
The above photo was the first Marijaia I saw. At first I thought she was just a fun decoration. Then I realized her significance. Below is an example of a smaller version, seen in a shop window in the central distinct.
Marijaia was everywhere. But among the tents and crowds, I noticed a different version of her I hadn’t seen before. This Marijaia was purple, with a winking face with the words, “Egin Keinu bardintasunari” (Make an equality gesture) under it. At the bottom, it reads, “Ez beti da Ez,” or “no means no.”
The campaign “Ez beti da Ez,” financed by the Bilbao Town Hall, had the support of 880 businesses located on the grounds of the event. The campaign distributed 700,000 napkins with the phrase, “¡Ez beti da ez; no es no. Insistir es acosar. Acosar es agredir¡” (No means no. To insist is to harass. To harass is to attack) to be placed in those restaurants.
The directors of the campaign also distributed cards with emergency phone numbers and had a hotline available for people to report violence. Buses on certain lines throughout the city were also decorated to spread the word on preventing violence, and to provide information for those who needed to report.
It struck me as impressive that the local government was able to make this campaign so visible. Everywhere I saw a billboard, a poster, a sign, a napkin. The message “no means no” was unavoidable. It was loud and clear, just as the campaigners intended it. Their goal was to make the event for all people and free of prejudice and violence of any form. Festivals are for joyous celebration, not for chauvinism and aggression.
As my friends and I joined hundreds of people circling around teams competing in traditional Basque games, I couldn’t help but notice a huge “no means no” sign behind the crowds.
I walked around the people as an announcer was speaking in Basque. When no one cheered when expected, she switched to Spanish and said, “So no one speaks Basque here?” As she continued, I saw a few girls holding a cutout. It was a giant, winking Marijaia with her face cut out. Festival goers could show their support for the campaign by inserting their faces in the sign.
For 16 Day of Activism, I celebrate this campaign. I celebrate the town hall’s creativity in associating a revered cultural symbol with consent and equality. Violence prevention efforts are more effective when they are continuous and consistent. I hope the campaign served to remind people to respect others. I hope that in case someone was in danger, the campaign’s hotline was there to help.
Do you also want to wink for equality?
On these 16 Days of Activism, I hope everyone takes a moment to understand the challenges women face around the world. Your education shouldn’t make you feel powerless, however. One of my favorite quotes is by Charles Dickens:
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of anyone else.
Each of us has a chance. A chance to lighten the burden of someone else. To step up for those who have been pushed down.
Read here for my tips on handling subtle micro-gender-based attacks, especially in the classroom.
Read here for tips on how to confront abusive language.
Read the U.S. Department of State’s blog on three ways you can participate in 16 Days of Activism. Your activism doesn’t have to end after the 16 days. Use this tips to be an advocate for human rights all year.
Read here for how you can help others by being at peace with yourself
He looked down at the practically inch-long hair on my legs. I interjected the stares of the boy who was flirting with me in Ibiza and explained, “Yeah… I don’t really shave sometimes…”
To my surprise, he remarked, “Vello es bello.” Body hair is beautiful. Before I could respond, I almost started crying I was so happy. Someone who understands me! (Don’t get excited. It still didn’t work out.)
In my discussions on leg, map of Tasmania, and underarm hair, there has been him…and what felt like the rest of the world.
The encounter with my Ibiza admirer was night and day compared to the death stares I received while traveling Europe with Kimberly this summer.
In Cinque Terre, at the height (or length!) of my leg/arm/pub hair, I caught one man transfixed by the curly-q’s sprouting from my calves. While walking the Camino de Santiago, a friend of ours was clearly disgusted every time Kimberly lifted up her arm, exposing her underarm hair growth. That was pretty entertaining to be a party to.
(It is important to note that yes, because I was a tourist, I frequented tourist areas. This also may influence people’s opinions)
Why Are People Disgusted?
In February of 2014, I wrote an article on pubic hair, one of my most favorite articles I’ve ever written. In response to American Apparel’s use of pubic merkins, I posed the question “Will this year mark the ‘year of the bush?’”
That was over a year and a half ago. And clearly 2014 wasn’t. My experiences this summer in Europe with full-on hair taught me that 2015 hasn’t been either (hey, 2016… you out there?).
Needless to say, the opinions on the topic are many and varied. Geographic concerns no longer (if they ever did?) determine hair or no hair growth. In my experience, if you talk to anyone over 50 years-old (who hasn’t been to Europe), he/she will most likely believe that European women are ravenous, unkempt animals (as demonstrated by a facial gesture the speaker makes) who “just let it all go.”
While people in the U.S. tend to view Europeans as hairy, turns out things stateside aren’t as clean shaven as assumed. According IU sex researcher Debbie Herbenick’s 2010 study on pubic hair removal patterns in the United States, only 12% of women aged 25-29-years-olds were hair free.
Europe-wide, 10% of women completely removed their pubic hair, 15% trimmed, and 75% left it completely natural. Women in Eastern Europe, France, and Spain are notorious for leaving their armpits and legs unshaved, and one can assume this also extends to the pubic region.
I’d like to know where those women are. Because I certainly didn’t see them.
Why would some women shave and some not? There are any number of reasons, some of them personal and others political (Hard to tell which is which. The personal IS political!).
Her illustrations show a general support for not shaving, claiming its woman’s personal choice, and does not imply that she is ugly, dirty, or unwanted (Interestingly, Argentine researcher Karina Felitti makes the argument that to remove hair or not remove hair should be a personal choice. However, she notes that in some feminist circles, if you decide to remove hair, you become a slave to patriarchy and judged by other feminists. Felitti argues that this type of conflict creates a rift among woman and takes attention away from the real issues, such as equal pay, the right to decide, and violence).
What Does This Mean For the Woman Who Travels?
People who travel outside of the U.S. tend to remark how progressive Europe is, and how ignorant Americans are. But progressive in terms of what? Social policy (and a number of other topics), I would argue yes. But socially? Body acceptance? Our hegemonic standards of beauty cut across national borders. I can’t make any assumptions about the U.S. or Europe as a whole, but it seemed that no matter where Kimberly and I went, people weren’t entirely comfortable with our choice to not shave.
My reasons for or for not shaving/removing hair are more out of convenience than protest. That being said, the reason I am still okay with not shaving comes from my feminist education and understanding of why women are expected to shave. Therefore, when I don’t, I don’t find myself “unkempt” or undesirable. I am not afraid to go to the beach with a bush.
Removing hair hurts (although I am partial to waxing) and is time consuming. Generally, I would rather spend my time elsewhere than slaving away over my unruly hair and sensitive skin.
For a backpacker, this outlook makes things very convenient. Without stressing over hair removal, the female backpacker saves money, time, and is removed from shame and embarrassment of body hair.
Maybe the shower is too small or you don’t feel like shaving in cold water. Perhaps you’d rather eat a sandwich than buy a razor. Maybe, you are just tired and don’t feel like showering, period. No problem. Just don’t shave.
The trade-off? One must be prepared for the stares and disgust that not removing hair might produce.
For me, it’s worth it.
What about you? What have your experiences shaving/not shaving while traveling been? How have people reacted?
…pero en el cuerpo todo es maravillosamente imperfecto. Asi que una colgara mas, otra menos. Las cuestiones de simetría pueden ser menos sutiles de lo que imaginamos. Tienen vello. Los pezones pueden ser grandes o diminutos.
(…but in our bodies everything is marvelously imperfect. One might hang more, one less. Issues of symmetry can be more subtle than what we imagine. They have hair. Nipples can be big or small).
If living on an island where everything goes has taught me anything, it’s that there is a wondrously big world of possibilities out there, especially when it comes to boobs.
Having never seen so many different types of breasts in my life, I caught myself observing them. I am fascinated. I am in awe. Not in an objectifying way. Not in a creepy way. More as a child (perhaps similar to the one I au paired for), an infant in a world being exposed to its possibilities for the first time.
For people that grew up in societies where going topless at the beach is not only allowed but expected, it is probably not an act of bravery. It just is. It’s probably not given a second thought. But for me, and by being exposed to their “toplessness” and willingness to be comfortable with themselves, no matter what their breast shape, size, color or “imperfection” is most inspiring.
This year was the first time in my life that I reached a personal level of comfortableness with my own body, and the society I was living in could match it and welcome it.
For me, one of those things was going topless at a beach.
For people who did not grow up in an environment that was very hush-hush about bodies, my “journey” might seem completely trivial. I was not only conservative about my body, but even scared of it.
What I didn’t realize, even having traveled previously and having been exposed to other lifestyles, was that I was encouraging of people to do what they wanted, to be proud of their own bodies and not let anyone stand in their way…yet I didn’t let myself do the same (hypocrisy strikes again!).
But when I came to Ibiza, my perspective changed. When you see something (in this case, boobs) on daily basis, it no longer becomes taboo. It’s “normal.” And what’s even more “normal” than seeing so many boobs, is one realizing that, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing normal.
Therefore, my beach times here became the perfect storm of an accepting environment, a changed attitude to be able to shed my bikini top and enjoy my day as I wished.
The first time I took my top off, I was at Illetes in Formentera. I had gone for the weekend with an Italian friend I hadn’t met too long ago. Her open and general give-no-shits attitude served as silent encouragement for me to do what I had always wanted.
I took it off and laid on my towel. As much as I was enjoying it, I was still slightly self-conscious. As people walked by, I found myself turning over on my towel. It took me 20 minutes to stand up and walk to the water. Sweating profusely, all I really wanted was to go in the water. But I was regretting my decision and mortified by the thought of people looking at me.
I was scared of what they might possibly think. What if they thought my boobs were ugly? What if I disgusted people?
And then it hit me: it doesn’t matter.
It truly doesn’t matter.
This is my body. This is my life. I will never see these people again. And if I do, it still doesn’t matter.
How on earth could I be so deathly fearful of my own body.
I had always said “I don’t care what people think” (within reason and as long as it didn’t damage others) about so many different things in life, and most of the time, I was able to stick to them. But with the topless issue, up until this point, I was horrified about what they thought.
And when I say horrified and deathly fearful, I mean it. The only person who was ever allowed to see my breasts was my older sister, and it is because we are extremely close. No one on dance team in high school, none of my college roommates, none of my friends. And my previous boyfriend…only in the dark.
I once had to do a Samba dance performance and my afro-brazilian inspired top of my costume was difficult to put on and off, and one of my friends was helping me. We were stuck and I had to pull my arm through a strap, and I realized there was a moment where she would have no other option than to see my boobs. My heart was beating so fast, and I started sweating. I felt like perhaps I would have panic attack. Not from the performance nerves, but because one of my closest friends might somehow see my boob.
Part of my body that is mine, and is the way it is. I was so uncomfortable with myself.
So in that moment, at illetes beach, it was the first time that I truly understood what it means to be okay with myself. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of tranquility that has never happened before.
Ghandi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
And at that moment, I found something like a unison between those three elements.
Since beginning to go topless, I’ve had a string of reoccurring dreams of me driving topless, but that’s beside the point. I haven’t dared do that yet, and I’m not sure I will. Right now I’m interpreting those as subconscious happiness and acceptance of my body.
In life while I’m awake, this side of the railroad tracks isn’t wrong. It’s neither good nor bad, like almost everything. It’s different. It’s more carefree. It’s easier.
It’s how I felt when I realized (after years of reading about feminism and having it make sense, but not completely understanding) that I didn’t care what people thought if I had dark leg hair. Life becomes less stressful. If you’re hot, take off your pants and put on shorts. And you don’t have to have a panic attack because you didn’t shave earlier.
Saying f-you to society feels great!
We have so much pressure on so many ends to be so many things. From the moment that I became conscious of its absurdity until the moment I finally took action to change it was long. But it’s a great feeling when you finally do it. I don’t owe anyone explanations. I don’t have to apologize to anyone, or change anything about me to fit in. I am the way I am. And that’s it.
Maybe, someone will approach me on the beach. And in a very direct (we like to say “Spanish” to generalize), non-Anglo-Saxon way, the person might say “your boobs look weird,” or “your boobs have weird shaped nipples.” And I’ll say, “yes,” but take no offense. Because they’re right. But it doesn’t mean they are putting a value statement on them, or wanting me to be afraid of them. It just means that they are telling it like it is, and I can accept it.
And it’s not to say that I’m perfect either. I still am self-conscious in certain company. I am still weary of being topless in crowded beaches or where I might see someone I know.
But it’s all part of the process, and I am very proud of myself for how far I’ve come. Erika Irusta R says,
“…si les hablo. Es posible que este viviendo un ataque de amor por mis tetas y que por ello les hable sin para en un simpático monologo. Ellas siguen mudas pero yo me siento feliz de mantener esta relación.” (Yes, I talk to them. It’s possibel that I’m living through an attack of love for my boobs and because of that I talk to them withought stopping in a funny monologue. They are still silent but I am happy maintaining this relationship).
I’m not sure I’ve reached that point yet, but with more of a conscious effect, I could get there someday.
Erika goes on to say:
“podemos amarles tal y como son o podemos ser creativas con ellas y buscar las maneras que nos acerquen a nuestros deseos. O podemos hacer ambas cosas”… (we can love them exactly how they are or we can be creative with them and look for ways that they get us closer to our desires. Or we can do both things…”
If anything, I hope that this year in Ibiza has opened up a pandora’s box of acceptance of myself and others. The liberating feeling of finally realizing that there is nothing wrong with you is one of the best accomplishments I’ve had so far.
For me, it’s triumph over all society’s damaging opinions, voices, and control. It was empowering in that for the first time, I felt in charge of my own body. And I loved it.
I hope that everyone can experience this feeling. If you even draw your own boobs and accept them for how they are, it’s still strides ahead.
Have you gone topless at a beach? What was your experience?
When the little girl “accidently” touches my boobs any chance she gets (“oh, you see I meant to touch your shoulder/stomach/back…it was an accident, promise!”), I firmly respond, “You cannot touch anyone else’s body without them giving you permission.” When she sticks her hand up her butthole and then smells her fingers, I politely and calmly tell her that she “cannot do that in public. That is private and should be done where other people aren’t looking.”
Children Are Inquisitive Human Beings
Being an au pair is the first time in my life that I’ve spent significant time with a child. As the youngest of three girls, I was always the young one trying to act older than my age. I don’t have younger cousins and I don’t spend time with babies, infants or children. In short, up to this point I haven’t had anyone significant in my life that would have clued me into what it would be like to have to constantly confront a pre-pubescent, extremely sexually curious 8-year-old girl.
As I mentioned in my post for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I believe in the power that every individual has in making a difference in sexual education and violence prevention. Having had experience researching and being a proponent for this type of intervention in schools, it wasn’t difficult to implement. It required very little second thought.
However, when it came to my job as an au pair. It was more difficult. It often left me stumped and I didn’t know how to act or respond to some of the things that came out of her mouth. I was very weary of saying certain things, or too much, or the ‘wrong thing.’
We Don’t Touch Our Vulvas At The Table
Last summer, I happened to click on an article on my Facebook newsfeed called, “Sex Positive Parenting, or We Don’t Touch Our Vulvas At The Table” (Excellent article, you should read it!) This article would later become extremely important in my time as an au pair. It turned out to be extremely influential in my way of handling such conversation. Because being an au pair is as much about the academic aspect as it is the personal and developmental. Spending many hours a day with her, these issues come up frequently.
The author of the post explains her parenting style when it comes to talking about sex. She says,
I’m what some people call “sex positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my four year olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.
She goes on to explain that,
It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices
At this point in the girl’s life, it isn’t horrible to confront the situations (sometimes, however, I regret not responding in certain ways). Often, I have to be sex positive when it comes to touching – both her body parts and mine – consent, and general questions about relationships.
It is important to note here that sexual education can happen at all ages – the only difference is appropriate information for the time in the child’s life. In Argentina, for example, the government passed Integral Sexual Education Law 26.150 in 2006 with the goal of equipping teachers and schools to implement comprehensive sexual education (including violence prevention) to all ages. In their curriculum, the content varies by age; for example, in primary school, topics of equality, anatomy, respect for others’ bodies, and diversity of families. The earlier the education begins, the less abuses are likely to happen.
Imagine You And Your Boyfriend…
The first time I realized that this role of being sex positive would become a significant part of my caring for her, we were playing. We were in her room ‘playing house’ – a usual game for children that transcends international borders.
She had the brilliant idea that I would be the older sister, and she would be a cat. She said that we were all on the boat for vacation (their family has a sailboat they frequent).
Suddenly, I saw a sly look in her eye. Her mind was churning. She said, “Also, your boyfriend is here.” I said okay and we were continued to “play on the boat.”
Then she said it was getting dark out and it was time for bed. She (the cat) snuggled up in one side of the room. The next sentence she rattled off is what left my in shock for a couple of seconds. She said, “Now, Allison, I am the cat so I am going to sleep here. Imagine that you and your boyfriend go to bed and start having sex. And I’m just going to be here asleep. Go, start making noises.”
I froze. My mouth dropped. There were a million questions running through my mind – where did she learn what sex was? What did she hear about the noises?
And then, I thought about the article that I mentioned above. If I hadn’t have had the feminist education I’ve had or hadn’t have read that article, my first reaction might have been, “No! Don’t say things like that!” or “Why would you say that, don’t talk about that!”
Instead, I first calmed myself down, and when I was composed enough, I said the first thing I could think of: “My boyfriend and I will not have sex because that is not realistic. We wouldn’t have sex when other people were watching.” (I guess that’s not entirely true for all people, because, after all, there are all kinds of tastes and sexual behaviors. But it was the quickest and most appropriate thing I could think of to say and not ruin her perception of sex).
Importance of Sex Positive Parenting (or in my case, au pairing):
Why is the sex positive perspective so important? Why is it necessary to deal with it instead of ignoring it? The author argues,
I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks, I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.
It is a human right to have correct and accurate information. I believe that whoever is with children has a responsibility to address confusions, curiosities, and errors of consent (such as touching my boobs without my permission).
Working in the IES (high school), I can see a huge difference in behavior of children who obviously have parents who talk about sex, and those who don’t. The difference in education leads to a difference in self-esteem and respect for others. I hear swirling gossip of incorrect information, or degrading language and slut shaming. Perhaps if students were taught unbiased and scientific – sex positive if you will- information at home, education at school wouldn’t be such a challenge (one can dream).
She and I
I want to tell the girl the truth, but I don’t want to tread where it doesn’t correspond to me. Yet, that’s the whole point. Being “sex positive” doesn’t mean explaining every detail, especially when it isn’t necessary for the situation. It does, however, mean that you don’t lie. You don’t create answers that confuse. You respond in a way that doesn’t encourage feelings of humiliation.
The girl is extremely interested about anything related to sex. I have noticed she has already started to masturbate and if she sees anything sexual happening on the news, on a TV show, or in public, her eyes become immediately glued. You can’t pull her away.
And there is nothing wrong with that. She is feeling things and seeing things that she doesn’t quite understand, so when she asks me questions, the least I can do it tell her the truth. The last impact I would ever want to leave on her is teaching her to be embarrassed. Or that she is wrong. Or that what she is feeling isn’t okay.
In a world where girls (and boys alike) are meant to feel that they are only valid if they look and dress a certain way, it is my hope that by being honest and direct about things related to her body, she has one less pressure connected to her body image. Because if she’s already starting to feel awkward and uncool (as indicated by the comments and comparisons to her classmates she makes), it’s only going to get worse. And if I can make a difference in at least one aspect, I will try my best.
Since I’ve been here she’s discovered a lot of new things – correct body anatomy in English (you’re welcome), Shakira’s ass in her music videos (not encouraged by me. She seeks Shakira out), and even menstruation.
The last one was by accident, but it was more than entertaining. I left the door to my room open and went into the kitchen (across the patio from my tiny house). While I was gone, the dog came in and went through my trash can. What he found was a pile of previously enjoyed, blood-soaked, smelly pads.
When I left the kitchen to go back to my room, I found the dog in n playful position, with his backside towards the sky, tail wagging, eyes staring straight at me, and something dark in his paws. He was chewing contently on it when I came closer. As I stepped towards him, I realized it was my dirty pads. Trying to grab it from him only encouraged his playful attitude, and soon there were white and dark blood bits and pieces of the pad strewn across the patio.
My reactions (“OH MY GOD! GIVE THAT BACK”) were met with confusion from the girl: “What is that? Why are you trying to get it Allison? Why is he playing with it. But, seriously, what is that!?”
I learned a lesson (shut the damn door), and the girl learned that once a month (if it’s regular) a female sheds her uterine lining. This forms part of a menstrual cycle.
Gender and Sexuality Education Beyond Being Sex Positive
Something related to giving honest and unbiased information has to do with expanding the image of gender and sexuality that she is taught in the media, at home, and at school.
I don’t specifically bring up the topic, but when it’s appropriate I will make a comment in attempts of amplifying her perception of how the world works relating to family structures, bodies, and gender roles.
For example, the other day at the beach it somehow came up that girls have vaginas and boys have penises. And she said, “Well, a boy would never have a vagina.” To which, I realized, I had an opportunity to respond. I said, “Well sometimes. But sometimes someone can dress like a man and have a vagina or someone can dress like a girl and have a penis.” Because, it’s true. And taking the opportunity to explain something in the world is a chance to plant a seed.
The same goes for the typical gender stereotype assumptions – “No, Allison, boys don’t wear bracelets (why not? If they like them they can!).” “Allison, you have to be a mother. You’re a girl. (I can if I want to be, but I don’t have to be).”
And typical sexuality assumptions: “You would never see two dads, Allison (you wouldn’t? I know lots of people who are two boys and they have children together). “Families always have a mom and a dad and kids (au contraire!).
Making an Impact
I might never know if anything that I say or do – sex positive or academic related- will have an impact on the girl. Nevertheless, I know that the subtle behaviors, actions, and speech of adults has a crucial influence on children’s perceptions, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Therefore, in choosing to be a sex positive au pair, I am aiming to create a sense of ownership of her body, self-expression, and respect for others and their bodies.
She is only 8 year-old now, and I know that the years to come she will be faced with more difficult questions than if she can touch my boobs or not. I hope that in some way she will remember my comments, or at least the environment I tried to create.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. This post is my way of doing my part to create a better world, free of violence.
The autonomous región where Ibiza is located, the Balearic Islands, has the highest rate of domestic violence in Spain. As someone who previously worked at domestic violence and rape crisis center, I know devastating effects and vicious cycles that violence perpetuates. Gender violence (inside and outside the home) is a societal issue that cuts across race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, and other factors (need some definitions? In Spanish? in English?)
While men are also victims of gender-based violence, heterosexual men continue to be the main perpetrators against women. In Ibiza, this is certainly true. In 2014, 836 cases of violence were brought to trial, the highest number of complaints ever recorded. There were also 211 protective orders issued.
We recognize that people who perpetuate such crimes are not necessarily born violent; rather, often they have been conditioned by society to believe that they can control or exert their force upon another person solely based on their gender. It does not happen overnight, either.
Children and adults alike are bombarded by peers, the media, and their superiors subconsciously teaching certain ideals. Imagine the images that my students see on a daily basis in Ibiza: stereo-typically ripped, tan, gorgeous men with multiple, big-boobed, huge-assed, long-haired, skinny, tanned women at their side. Doing whatever they want. Sexual encounters happening in public, music with degrading phrases such as “bitch,” “whore,” and “dumb slut” (and even worse. See the Mexican organization Fondo Semilla’s campaign Sin Darnos Cuenta (without realizing) that exposes the violent lyrics in pop culture music), and a girl’s worth based solely on her sexualization.
This isn’t just Ibiza. In fact, it is an issue of all societies. But I can’t help feeling that growing up in a “liberal party paradise” can lead to some misconceptions and confusions about what’s safe and violent-free, and what’s not. Liberation without education can be dangerous.
Teaching Early On
There are moments when as a young, female teacher, I can already see examples of manipulative behavior the young boys are learning. If students aren’t doing their work and goofing off and I mention something to them, it’s common for them to interrupt me and say something like, “Allison, yoo are berry beautiful [you are very beautiful],” as if their compliment will convince me to leave them alone.
The alpha males of each class make some sort of obligatory statement about another female student’s “nice ass” or “growing tits” on a daily basis. Nice boys are accused of being “maricones” (faggots) and are forced to show their physical strength to prove their heterosexuality. Worst of all, I can’t stand little 14 year-old boys’ fingers trying to literally tickle me to try to earn bonus points. No, I do not like it when you touch me and it’s not appropriate for you to give me a neck massage.
The bottom line is, the root of all future violence is learned behaviors of disrespect for and disregard of other human beings. You might be thinking, “…but those are just teenage boys.” Exactly. And how did we get to this point of accepting violence? Unfortunately by saying things like that.
Where your role in the classroom comes in
Teaching correct behaviors early on can have an impact on future relationships. As Kinsey Confidential reports, violence prevention is most effective when all sectors of society are on the same page. If the media, the education system, and home life all teachers the same values of respect and consent.
The Spanish government passed the Ley De Salud Sexual y Reproductiva in 2010, but reports show that it has not effectively implemented the sexual education it promised. Luckily in Ibiza, representatives from Consell d’Eivissa come to the schools (amount, length of workshop, frequency, and content depend on each year of the ESO) to give different workshops on bullying, sexual education, violence prevention, and drug and alcohol abuse. I am not aware of the curriculum nor of its effectiveness, but it’s on my list of things to investigate.
(What do violence prevention and sexual education have to do with each other? Where there is a comprehensive sexual education program, it includes topics of respect towards romantic partners and creating cultures of consent. If there is no sexual education, at least a violence prevention curriculum can address such issues.)
When seeing cringe-worthy behavior and abusive language coming from students, one might feel powerless. One might feel like no matter what they say or do, it might never change things.
Regardless, we never know the power that a simple, well-constructed comment can make. Not to mention, leading by example is key in education. I’ve noticed that in every class, there are plenty of opportunities to subtly give students a different perspective. However, I’m not always perfect at my comments, and often my emotions get the better of me. I know very well that by making someone feel alienated it is no way to make them understand. But sometimes, I am too reactive.
For example, sometimes the art teacher lets students put up youtube videos to listen to while their working on drawings. A group of 15 year-old boys that sits together were all giggling. One of them got up and put on a song, and the other boys were sneering at this point. I noticed something was going on. After the boy sat down, I walked over the computer and noticed that he had put on a song called “Raping you tonight” (Esta noche te voy a violar). You can only imagine my reaction. I flipped out, caused a scene, and probably did no good to make this student understand why putting that song on was so wrong.
I’ve since tried to take a deep breath and think before critiquing someone’s speech or behavior.
As an Auxiliary
Because working as an auxiliary with the Spanish government is a lower-level position without much authority, there are pros and cons to doing your part to create an environment of respect.
Because I don’t have any disciplinary authority, I can tell the main teacher and rely on him to follow through with disciplinary actions. However, it’s difficult because we are not often on the same page. I once overheard a boy creating a story about how he threw a girl in a pool, drowned her, and then ran his car into pool to smash her. I was horrified, told the teacher, and response was, “they are so immature.” THAT’S IT?! Violence begins with acceptance, humor, and normalization of such behaviors.
That’s when I decided to try my best to create a culture of care, at least between my students, and in the one classroom I have semi-control over.
Because I’m an auxiliary in art classrooms taught in English, students work on their art projects and my role is circulate the room and make conversation. Sometimes I ask them about their project, utilizing art vocabulary in English, and other times we just chat about their weekend and what’s going on in their lives.
I’m not sure why, but students tell me a lot of things that I would never have considered in a million years telling a teaching assistant or teacher. Perhaps it’s because I’m young. Maybe because I’m a woman. Or maybe because I seem open and relaxed. I don’t know why, but regardless, I am happy that students are so open with me because it gives me an opportunity to share with them my opinions.
Over the course of this year, I have seen several repeat behaviors committed by my students. Below is a list of the most common, and how I have come to address them.
Abusive name calling
Abusive name calling is directed towards both males and females. Often times in a joking way (which still does not excuse it) and other times in a bullying way. Sometimes when a male member of the class gets angry at a female member, his go to phrase to insult her is “puta” (whore).
What you can do: If I overhear this language, I first say 1) why did you call him/her that name, 2) is that an effective way to resolve a conflict, and 3) Being a “whore” or “faggot” does not make someone less of a person or worthy of your disrespect, and 4) please do not use such violent language, at least not in the classroom. They typically have histories of violent action related to them, and you should not take a term like that lightly.
Where it could make a difference: verbal abuse, bullying based on sexual orientation, slut shaming
Touching without consent
This is a difficult topic, because it has to do with cultural norms. It is very common for my students to hug or put their arms around teacher or administrators. Among them, the students kiss and hug each other a lot, friends slap each other’s butts, and tickling is very popular.
What you can do: If a student touches me, I will kindly ask that they please do not do that without my giving permission. If I see students get uncomfortable with another student’s physical touch, I will make a comment that without someone’s consent, you should not touch others in inappropriate ways. I also made a rule at the beginning of the year if we could please have no ass slapping in the classroom. I’m sick of it.
Where it could make a difference: rape, sexual assault
Violent touching with “friends” or “family”
Students also hit, push, and shove each other, both in friendly and aggressive ways. If I see something, usually my eyes get wide and my mouth drops open, and they will say things like, “I can hit him. He’s my friend,” or “I can slap her. She’s my cousin.”
What you can do: I will typically make a comment regarding the fact that no matter what a person’s relationship to you, it does not warrant your violent behavior, whether in good fun or seriously. A person is a person, no matter if they are your friends, family, or romantic partners.
Where it could make a difference: physical assault, gender violence, rape, sexual assault
Bragging about sexual encounters
Especially in the older age groups, the boys love to tell me about their “wild weekends.” Recently a boy just told me he “fucked three girls in one night.” After I cringed at the repulsive image that flashed through my mind, I proceeded to give him some advice.
What you can do: Typically when boys tell me things like this, I say, for example, “Carlos. You are allowed to do whatever you want in your free time. I’m not your mother. But the only thing I hope you do is make sure that you use protection, make sure that the other person is one the same page as you, and make sure that it is enjoyable for both/whoever you are with.” Or, perhaps, with repeat abusers, I tell them, “You know what I always say. Do whatever you want, as long as it is safe, with consent, and with respect for the other person.”
Where it could make a difference: consent, sexual assault, sexual health (STIs)
Because I spend a lot of time overhearing and often conversing with students, they love to tell me about their personal lives and they often gossip. I overhear so much slut shaming: “she had sex with him.” “That girl gave that guy head,” etc. Most often than not, it is in a degrading way towards the teenage girl. I was shocked (or maybe I shouldn’t be. Because that is our society) by the way that other girls were talking about girls’ behavior.
However, this is how we are in this situation. As my beloved Simone de Beauvoir says, “El opresor no sería tan fuerte si no tuviese cómplices entre los propios oprimidos” (The opresor wouldn’t be so strong if it weren’t for the accomplices among the opressed).
What you can do: In these situation, depending on the maturity level and age group, I take this as a opportunity to open up a dialog. When they were talking about a girl who was filmed giving a blowjob, they called her a slut. I asked them to explain why. They said because she did it. And I replied to them that, “Just because a girl performs a sexual act does not make her a slut. Maybe she made a mistake by letting someone film it. Have you ever made a mistake?” I also try to make sure that they know that no matter what someone does, not matter if a girl is sexually active or not, that 1) they should be aware of how they are treating the girl and the boy differently, and 2) just because someone does certain activities, does not negate that they are human beings, worthy of respect, care, and kindness. They don’t have to agree with it, but they do not have to bully the girl either.
Where it could make a difference: slut shaming, sexual assault, abusive language, verbal abuse, gender stereotypes .
Societal change doesn’t happen over night, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that each one of us can do. Because of my low-level of authority, I have found comfort in the hope that perhaps some of my comments or corrective speech can make a difference in at least one student’s life. At least I hope that my comment will provoke a reflection or change of thought. Even a desire to understand more.
What have your experiences been in the classroom dealing with violence prevention? How have you handled it? What do you say to your students? Tweet at me! @yasminesoyyo