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Monday, 4 May 2015

Vulva Is in Need of Touch

What does it mean to be touched? As I have gotten older I have become more aware of the ways that I have denied myself the need to be touched. When I am talking about being touched, I am not making reference to sexual desire. I am talking about loving touch. Being touched in a tender loving way that does not serve to pornographically objectify, exploit or arouse the body. As a child I remember always wanting to cuddle up with my parents. Up until the age of nine I used to find any reason to crawl into their bed sleep and between them, but the older to got the more unacceptable it became. I remember the sadness I felt when I was denied space in their bed, and the loneliness/abandonment of being forced to sleep alone. Whenever my mother used to sit on the couch to watch TV I would settle myself in the bend of her legs and rest my head on her upper thigh and the older I got, still longing for this space of touch, I distinctly remember her telling me "You're too heavy for that now!" For me, cuddling with them was a space of comfort. The feel of their warmth and their flesh was a form of physical bonding- an expression of love. It was a source of pleasure that felt good. After the age of 10 I don't recall of any distinct form of physical bonding with my parents or anyone else. I became estranged from and deprived of touch.

In her book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, author Bell Hooks talks about how the deprivation of emotional nurturance (including touch) at a young age can make it difficult for black women to distinguish the longing for nurturance from sexual desires. Hooks outlines that this deprivation does not exist in a vacuum. Living in a racist, male dominated, capitalist north American society, black women's bodies have been used as breeding machines and made into sites of objective pornographic desire. This manifest negatively in our psyche: being embarrassed of public displays of affection, masking our desires, or expressing destructive expressions of sexuality.

Before coming across this book I remember telling a friend of mine that I longed to be touched. For so long I had become disinterested in having sex and I had recently been diagnosed with Herpes and felt too grossed out with myself to have sex. I came to the genuinely surprising realization that sex was the only space in my life where I would allow myself to experience touch. My immediate family had become estranged to physical bonding and that estrangement was persistent in all my other relationships. I did not hug often, caress, or cuddle and I felt a sense of embarrassment in doing so. It felt unnatural and awkward. Furthermore, the only parts of my body that ever received touch were the parts of my body that have been sexualized and deemed desirable - booty, breasts/chest, and genitals. Being deprived of touch out of estrangement, disinterest and disgust, still I desired intimate skin-to-skin contact and to be caressed in a non-sexual way by another persons warmth and flesh. In our discussion I posed the question whether or not it was possible to have consensual non-sexual cuddle buddies. To find someone I felt close enough with to share my physical self with and could make myself vulnerable to experience pleasure with.

Some months later when the opportunity finally presented it's self I couldn't get over an over-sexed notion of skin-to-skin contact or the idea that physical contact could only exist in a sexual-romantic partnered way. The fear that touch would lead to sex scared me out of the possibility of allowing myself to experience touch, suppressing and denying myself my desires. I had learned to love and understand my body through the same racist, male dominated lens that told me my body didn't deserve tender love and care free of a voyeuristic gaze. I had internalized my afroblack female body as sexual object that is supposed to assume a sexual role despite my desire not to.

Unlearning and healing from both external and internalized racist and patriarchal realities that shape how we understand our bodies and, moving towards encounters that do not diminish or degrade our happiness or well-being is hard and requires a lot of dedication. Approaching what Hooks calls sexual healing calls for redirecting our energies from the place where we have been wounded, used or abused to write ourselves a recipe - ideas that enable us to heal, then follow it. When we are experiencing pain she affirms that having these ideas day by day and moment by moment are reminders to bring us back in touch with our bodies. For me the first step was acknowledging that I needed touch. Having someone I could openly and honestly share that with, helped in being able to name my desires and their boundaries. The second was taking the time to realize where I did and didn't receive touch. This helped be to be able to identify where I could give and receive reciprocal care. In my life, hugs have become a site for intimate contact, they are a place of safety and comfort. The third is crochet. Learning to be still and focus my attention through crochet encourages me to be mindful of my thoughts and feelings. My black sisters and cisters, we deserve joy of the flesh that makes us feel good, is awakening, heals us, is dignified, respectful, gentle and caring.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Genitalia Storyweaving: Vulva Is Humanized

Crochet Vulvas made by F.D

I recently received an email from someone asking for the pattern of the crochet vulvas I make. I was caught off guard because I just freestyle making crochet genitalia, taking inspiration as it comes. The person asked if she could make one as a gift for her midwife, and I was elated! I love midwives, and on top of that I was totally digging the transnational solidarity. Asking to make them, to me, was a sign of respect for intellectual property and genius. This connection was just all kinds of right! When I asked why she thought it would be a good gift to give to their midwife she responded:

"Turns out that the movement of humanized deliveries and ethic pregnancies is growing here in Chile (where I live, South America). More women want to learn and know their bodies and how babies can connect to them. I found a few pictures of things that my Midwife would like (like crochet baby in a womb, crochet breast, etc.) and your vulva was the one that she liked the more, bcs she could teach women and show them 'how to's' not only with tact....which obvi we as the patient cant see" -- F.D

Initially when I first started up this blog it was because I wanted to see diverse representations and interpretations of female external genitalia. I got real tired of always seeing super medical, erotic, flowery, mechanical and diluted information that takes for granted (or blatantly ignores) that there are socially constructed ideas about all bodies, especially those of women and females. This same information also often ignores that all other identities and social realities we inhabit can not be removed from the ways we experience those ideas. So whether we use drugs, are racialized, are HIV positive, are queer, a migrant worker, transgender, non-binary, living in poverty, are under housed, have a chronic illness, are disabled or anything else will def have an impact on how our bodies are interpreted both internally within ourselves and externally to our surroundings. Above all that, most importantly to me is that widely available information is void of how people honestly feel about themselves - and this can be really alienating. The feeling of going through something alone and having no one to communicate that to is super shitty. There is little affirming information that makes us feel good about the choices we make, and there are limited options made widely available to us so we can make choices that suit our desires and needs. The right to dignified birthing options, midwives, learning about our bodies and connecting to our babies is a part of that too. As I have been saying since this blogs birth is that I am only one person and can only speak to my own experience of what a vulva and genitalia is, so I always appreciate when other people decide to contribute their wealth of knowledge and personal experience! Thank you for sharing your truth F.D. Check: Genitalia Storyweaving to submit content!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Vulva is a Herp Kween!

Herp Kween Vulva
In recent years I have become more and more comfortable addressing the realities of my body, particularly the things that are assumed to be socially yuck like odors, sores, itching, mensuration blood, pubic hair and fluids. It is not to say that these things have never grossed me out in the past, in fact they used to repulse me in such a way that I would purchase and consume products to try and to make invisible what I assumed to be negative outputs of my body. I had always conceptualized my body as a mechanized entity that was separate from my spiritual and mental self. Mostly this was because I felt I had no control over the social ideas around my physical body and how those ideas impact the ways I can and cannot move throughout the world. Feeling like myself and body were somehow separate, I started to think about how to experience my body as it is and attempt to find harmony in this internal-external binary. So I started using products that allowed me to engage with the natural process of my body, and stopped using those that encouraged discarding them; I started using a menstrual cup instead of pads and tampons, using a deodorant crystal instead of antiperspirants or perfumes. In using products that did not mask the natural process of my body I realized that I had an element of control, I could evoke new kinds of social interactions, and it was people’s reactions to socially yuck ideas around bodies that absolutely amazed and indulged me. Through this process I assumed that I had somehow become neutral in my reactions to yuck ideas about bodies until I was diagnosed with what I like to call the kweens herp.
After coming home one day I was taking a shower and my vulva was immensely itchy like I had never experienced before. It is hard to describe the itch apart from the fact that it was insatiable I tried everything from changing the shower setting to a jet stream and scratching ferociously, to applying creams to sooth the itch, to sitting down and gyrating. Nothing worked. I lay down dejectedly taking deep breaths, and in a state of anxious panic I decided to take a look at my vulva. It was swollen and a very deep red. Concerning. In exercising my certified google MD frenzy I got onto the internet to research my symptoms. Yeast infection, lichen planus, bacterial vaginitis, syphilis, HSV-2 and the list went on. I found myself tumbling fast back into the realm of the uncontrollable ideas about my mechanized body through experiences of my illness. My body was being broken down into its biological parts, into risky behaviour, contagious, diseased, infectious, viral, me. Exhausted and after finally finding a sense of comfort with my legs strategically apart I forced myself into some semblance of sleep.
I woke up the next morning for work in excruciating pain, so much that I was unable to walk. I squatted over a mirror and saw what is to date the most repulsive sight I have seen on my body and I thought 'this shit sucks'. I immediately became disgusted with myself, and in the instant I started wishing for a product, any product, that could hide and make invisible the yuck bodily experience and negative output of my body.  At the time I was working in an office setting where I was forced to sit, but lying on my back legs apart with a damp cloth on my vulva was the only time I was able to get relief from the pain. For three days teeth clenched I crab walked throughout the office pretending I had hurt my knees feeling too embarrassed to tell my employer ‘hey can I take a couple of days off? My genitals are shifting between in excruciating pain and immense itching and it’s pretty distracting’ Given the social context I was forced to oscillate between presenting a particular set of symptoms and hiding others to perform a convincing yet non-shaming role of experiencing illness. 

I was later diagnosed with Herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2) genital herpes.The doctor took the time to remind me that I was now medically contagious. Just like the information I found in my panicked search on the internet, the conversation did not revolve around long-term pain management options or how I felt, but my responsibility to quickly disclose to my partners for disease control measures. Feeling mortified and embarrassed by the diagnosis, I was terrified to tell my sexual partner, despite having regularily practiced safer sex using gloves and condoms. I was even afraid to display my painful experience of illness for fear of having to disclose this new status. The fear of abandonment, what if my partner didn't understand a left me? Or stayed and became disgusted or fearful of my newly contagious body? How would our relationship change? Given the social and my own psychological context, out of fear and confusion I forced myself to hide presenting a particular set of (painful) symptoms. I understood that there are social values about genitalia, especially when talking about genitalia outside of what is understood to be 'normal'. Through this experience I found the ways I moved through the world in my state of illness were dictated by social ideas I had no control over. I was unable to express any psychological relief from feeling deeply disgusted with my body and the anxiety around being represented as contagious because, at the time, I felt I had no one to talk to about it. There was no biomedical answer for that that google, web MD or the doctor could answer. In reducing my experience to pain to a biological function, or my external self, there was a major aspect of experiencing illness that was ignored.
So what exactly is Genital Herpes anyway?
Genitals Herpes is an infection that is caused by the Herpes virus. It likes to hang out in warm and moist places like the vulva, balls and butthole. The herpes virus has two strains, simplex one and simplex two. Simplex one is often what is thought of as cold sores around the mouth and nose area. Simplex two is found in the genital area. Yes, cold sores are a type of herpes!
One thing to note is that both simplex one and two can cause herpes sores on the genitals. Meaning, if someone has an active cold sore on their mouth and goes down on another persons junk without using a dental dam or condom, there is a possible chance of getting it.
How does it get from one person to the next?
Well, the herpes virus is transmitted from skin-to-skin contact. When there are sores, like on the mouth or genitals, that's called an outbreak. So if someone touches, kisses, rubs, humps or grinds on the site there is a possibility that it can be passed from one person to the next. It's all about contact, so herpes can also be passed during childbirth and through non sexual activities where another person comes in contact with the sores. But herpes is kinda tricky because virus sheds and it can be active without showing any symptoms or sores at all, so whether there is an outbreak or not there is still a possibility it can be passed on.
So can herpes be cured or treated?
No, herpes can not be cured. It is not like other bacterial Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) like chlamydia or gonorrhea that live in bodily fluids and can be cleared from the body with antibiotics. Viruses act differently. The thing about viruses is that they never go away, they kinda hide out or sleep in the body until something wakes them up. The herpes virus lives at the base and top of the spine and things like physical or emotional stress, hormonal changes, irritation or friction to the area, an unbalanced diet, or having a weakened immune system are just a few things that can wake the virus up. But! There is medical treatment available for herpes. When living with herpes there is the option of taking antiretrovirals that just lessen the symptoms and duration of outbreaks, but they are never completely taken away.

The key piece is the strength of our immune system (the bodys natural defense system to fighting off things like colds). If it is weakened in any way, outbreaks can be more severe and more frequent. So doing things than keep the immune system strong like exercising, eating a balanced diet, as well as taking herpes antiretrovirals before an outbreak occurs can make living with herpes manageable. If someone is living with HIV, I have been told, taking prophylaxis for herpes when first starting HIV meds can help if outbreaks are very severe (longer lasting, larger lesions spread over a larger area).  It is important to realize that all of these 'healthier lifestyle' and just take meds suggestions are deeply contextual and not everyone can or chooses to access this type of treatment. If none of these options are possible or desired, over time people tend to get fewer and less severe outbreaks - but it might be a painful journey.

But I have an outbreak right now, what can I do?
Outbreaks are shitty, I'm right there in the herpdom with ya <3 If you have one, do what you need to feel comfy. Walk slowly, don't wear underwear, feel sad...do whatever works for you. Here are a few suggestions I have used that make moving though daily life with outbreaks more manageable:

1. Talk to someone you trust and who gets it.
I talk to my best friend. He has helped me a lot when I have felt gross or disgusted with myself and has also helped when I feel really empowered after disclosing my herp status to my sexual partners. Talking it out with someone who is willing to listen means everything.

2. Write love letters to yourself.
I sometimes feel like no one will want to be with me or think I am gross. Although during an outbreak it might feel that way, remember we are none of those things. Having a reminder of that from myself feels good.

3. Find an activity you love doing.
Personally I love crochet, it refocuses my attention.

4. Pee hurts.
It burns the sores. So things like peeing in the shower or leaning forward on the toilet so pee-sore contact doesn't happen helps. 

5. Avoid dry friction.
Use damp paper towel to gently pat/wipe up after pooing or peeing. This also helps prevent dry toilet paper from getting trapped on the sores.

6. Wash hands.
If touching the sores are a must, wash your hands afterwards to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of the body.

7. Soothe the sores.
I put crushed aloe vera on my sores to help with irritation.

8. Get comfy.
I like to sleep with my legs apart and wear loose clothing

9. Avoid sexual contact.
Not specifically because of transmission, but because it is painful and can spread the virus internally into the vagina or anus.

Can I ever have sex again?
Yes, yes and yes! Have sex when you are ready to, not only because of how you might be feeling about yourself, but also because telling partners isn't easy. I think there are a lot of links in the constant psychological pain of rejection and the really real threat of violence, whether it is based on disclosing HIV/STI status or gender. So t
o disclose, or not to disclose? The choice and timing is up to you. It's a constant journey and there are a lot of things to consider, especially with sexual partners. Really think about why, or why not disclosure is necessary. TBH I don't always disclose, and while there is for sure a deep moralizing (and criminalizing in the case of HIV) around disclosure, there are also so many personal, interpersonal and social inhibitors and motivators that influence whether we disclose or not. I believe we should all have the option to decide when and how we disclose and have access to the resources and knowledge to support our decisions.

I choose to disclose when I have met someone who is 
into supporting my emotional, physical and spiritual growth because openness, honesty and vulnerability are what I appreciate in long term relationships. Sometimes this looks like having sex after getting to know each other, and other times it looks like always using barriers and having types of sex where the possibility of transmission is low/non existent. If someone is not there to be with me like that, I know I have been taking care of my body, I haven't had a flare up for a while and I know what types of sex prevent transmission, I don't always disclose because it isn't necessary. Part of it is also linked to the oscillating feelings of self acceptance and whether or not the people I am having sex with are respectful of the boundaries I set up around sex (when they are not that's just sexual violence). However, there are also a lot of benefits to disclosing when we are ready. Receptive and gentle partners are real! It feels like a weight is lifted after telling them and we can talk about our fears, desires and how to move forward together with care. You know your self and your relationships best. Always consider your safety, health and wellness first, what resources you can get access to, what knowledge and supports you need, and assess the possible outcomes when deciding whether or not to disclose.