Sunday, May 31, 2009

George Tiller: Murdered in the Name of Life

This morning, Dr. George Tiller of the Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, Kansas, was gunned down in his place of worship. A suspect was later detained in Kansas City some 170 miles away.

Dr. Tiller was one of a handful of physicians who provided late-term abortions. His most memorable phrase was: "Prenatal testing without Prenatal choice is medical fraud." His clinic had been picketed, blockaded, vandalized and attacked; bullet-proof glass had to be installed around it after he had been shot and wounded. In the late 1990's, he courageously invited several political and religious leaders to visit his clinic -- walking them through as though they were patients facing crisis pregnancies.

It is no surprise that the leader of Operation Rescue condemned the attack. I can only hope that those who oppose abortion will do some serious soul-searching about how their rhetoric and tactics contribute to such senseless and cowardly acts.

In the meantime, let's all pray for Dr. Tiller's family, for his colleagues and staff, and for all those who provide reproductive health services for women around the country.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Time to Lift the Ban: An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

[Yes, I did send this to the White House, via their website...]

Dear Mr. President:

During your campaign, you made a promise to rescind the current policy regarding military service known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell". To date, that promise has yet to be kept.

This Sunday morning at my church, we honored the brave men and women who have served in our armed forces. We do so three times every year -- on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day in November, and during a special service commemorating GLBT Pride here in Boston, Massachusetts. During the first two services, we ask those veterans to stand. During the Pride service, however, we feel compelled to advise them to remain seated, so that they have no fear of being "outed". It breaks my heart every time we need to do this.

Studies from the Navy, the Defense Department and the General Accounting Office have determined that there is no rational basis for any prohibition on gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving openly in our military, and that efforts to restrict or bar them from military service are in fact more costly than letting them serve.

A Zogby International poll showed that 63 percent of current military personnel either supported lifting the ban, or were unopposed or indifferent to it, and that 67 percent of those who had experience with gay, lesbian or bisexual people in their military units said that their presence did not undermine unit morale.

Several retired flag officers, including former Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvili, have called for the ban to be lifted, as well as other current and former members of our armed forces, citing the thousands of gays, lesbians and bisexuals who have served our country in uniform and with distinction.

While I am aware that you have suggested that it is up to Congress to change this policy, experts in military law have also determined that it within the authority of the executive branch to replace the current policy with one of inclusion and nondiscrimination. Even if Congressional action is required, it does not explain your administration's silence on this issue.

It is high time that the United States joined the majority of our NATO allies, who allow all qualified individuals to serve in defense of their countries regardless of sexual orientation. It is high time that we judge our soliders, sailors and Air Force personnel by their level of service and character, not by whom they may be attracted to. It is high time that you keep your promise to the American people.

On June 13th, Arlington Street Church will honor those who have fought for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We will honor those who serve in uniform as well. I would like very much if they could stand to be recognized at that time, or at least know that they do not have long to wait for that day. You have the power to make this so. Please move forward on this, so that our uniformed services can indeed reflect more fully the best that is America.

Desmond Ravenstone

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Vexed About Viagra

Every time I see a commercial for Viagra (sildenafil citrate) or other "erectile dysfunction" medications, I grumble. It's not just the side effects and drug interactions, but how the "quick fix" promised by these medications have set back men's sexual health.

Before Pfizer put Viagra on the market, doctors began treatment for erectile dysfunction by determining the cause -- psychological, physiological, or a mix of the two. Often the most common causes are (a) performance anxiety, (b) substance abuse including nicotine, (b) other lifestyle issues such as diet or stress, or (c) diseases affecting blood flow or the nervous system. Since most of these cause being treatable, that means that lots of cases of erectile dysfunction can be successfully treated, and even cured, without the need for special medications. One physician I'm acquainted with informed me that the top three prescriptions he'd give for erectile dysfunction were aerobic exercise, cut back on booze, and quit smoking.

Viagra originally was being developed as a possible treatment for high blood pressure and angina. Wasn't successful for that, but it was found to help men obtain and maintain erections where other treatments had not worked, due to irreversible nerve or blood vessel damage. Prior to that, there weren't many options for such cases. So, given the choice between having an implant put in surgically, or simply taking a pill ... well, you get the idea.

Problem is that Viagra became so successful -- especially with Pfizer's marketing campaign -- that pretty soon it became the treatment of choice. But what about the other treatment options? Well, why bother with changing your lifestyle or treating other underlying causes, when all you have to do is pop a pill? And with the Internet providing Viagra from overseas, without a prescription, why bother even seeing a doctor?

So you can see why I grumble. Too many men are getting these medications, without regard for what's causing their problems in the first place -- kind of like treating every overweight person with diet pills. A good parallel, hm?

The more I read about erectile dysfunction, the more I see it as a symptom more than as a disease unto itself. Likewise it seems this rush to treat so many of our problems with a quick fix -- whether in pill form or some other manifestation -- is part of a larger spiritual problem. We live in a consumer culture which tells us in so many ways that all our troubles can be solved by just buying the right kind of stuff.

Even religious leaders have fallen prey to this idolatry. How many ministries offer "free gifts" in exchange for a donation -- essentially selling stuff to raise money? How many "abstinence-only" programs have been packaged and marketed to schools nationwide, promising a quick fix to the problems of teen pregnancy and STDs? How many congregations focus on "growth plans" like they were a business needing to recruit new customers?

And how strange that both sexuality and spirituality are linked to something priceless which our world needs so much: Love. Think of the world we could create if we closed our wallets and purses, and opened our hearts and minds.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Doing Some Math on Marriage Equality

With more and more states joining the marriage equality bandwagon, here's an interesting bit of news...

James Dobson and other radical right-wingers have argued that same-sex marriage would harm "traditional" hetero marriage. One specific claim is that, since Scandinavian countries began recognizing same-sex unions, the rates of marriage among hetero couples has declined. Well, a recent article by Barrett Brown says otherwise:

"Denmark began allowing gay civil unions in 1989. Ten years later, the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 10.7 percent. Norway did the same in 1993, and a decade later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 12.7 percent. Sweden followed suite in 1995, and ten years later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 28.7 percent. And these marriages were actually lasting. During the same time frame, the divorce rate dropped 13.9 percent in Denmark, 6 percent in Norway, and 13.7 percent in Sweden. So, we may probably dispense with the Dobson Theorem."

I hope Dobson and his pals read this article, and if so I'd like to hear what they have to say about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craigslist's Shell Game


Read further down. In reality, they are replacing "Erotic Services" with "Adult Services" under stricter guidelines.

Remember the old shell game? Put the pea under one of three shells, move them around, make it look like the pea disappeared? But really, it's still around -- you just had to look more carefully, and see that the fellow with the shells palmed it.

It's clear that Craigslist is the winner here. They look good in the eyes of the public, and can make more money by requiring a ten dollar charge for every adult services ad.

And that would make erotic -- sorry, adult service providers the losers, right?

Yup. But not because of the ten bucks, or because Craigslist can screen and reject certain ads. The service providers lose by being driven further underground, which predictably heightens the risks they have to face.

And that's the real irony here. All of these moves to rein in erotic professionals is being done ostensibly to "protect" them. Look at the reason Rhode Island politicians are giving for passing stricter laws -- to prevent trafficking.

Uh huh. Trafficking, both sexual and non-sexual, is an underground industry. So how is driving sex work further underground supposed to protect people from being forced into it by threats or lies? Doesn't it make more sense to treat sex work like all other forms of work, and bring it into the light of day?

Look at how the trade is done in countries like Germany and the Netherlands -- above ground, with the government able to set standards for safe and fair working conditions, and potential clients knowing they needn't go sneaking around to find what they are looking for. No, the Dutch and German models aren't perfect, but compare them with the shoddy and hypocritical way that sex workers are handled in Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries.

Let's face it, outlawing sex-for-hire has never worked. Excessive regulation has not fared much better. It's only served to deprive those who work in the trade with the tools to better their circumstances. So let's give them a real chance to do so, by treating their work the same as other forms of work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sex and the Psychiatrists

There have always been controversies within and about psychiatry, and certainly when it comes to human sexuality. Freud shocked the Victorians with his assertion that even children had libidos. Researchers and clinicians debated whether homosexuality was indeed a “disorder”, and even after the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the 1970’s, a small minority persist in labeling it a mental illness and even trying to “cure” it.

Now the controversy has been focusing on the so-called paraphilias, defined in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as:

“recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving 1) nonhuman objects, 2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s sex partner, or 3) children or other nonconsenting persons, that occur over a period of at least 6 months … [which] cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.”

Got that?

So, let’s say your “paraphilia” involves a blow-up doll. You have to think about it, or do it, or both, for at least six months. And it has to “cause clinically significant distress or impairment.” Otherwise, it’s not really a paraphilia – it’s just getting it on with an inflatable plastic doll.

Now imagine that you fantasize about a sexy Olympic gymnast, who has never heard of you and probably never will. You can’t get this person out of your head. It’s distracting you no end, so much so that you consider it distressing, even impairing your ability to function. Is that a paraphilia?

Well, if those vagaries don’t bother you, it could get worse. Ray Blanchard, a member of the committee tasked with proposing a revision to this section, has put forward a new definition: "any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners." In simple English, if you’re turned on by anything other than consensual sex with a “normal” adult, Blanchard thinks you’re sick.

And before you think I’m jumping the gun, Blanchard and others who share his views have even given paraphilic labels for people who are attracted to large people, older people, and transgender people. Blanchard also stated in a presentation that he believes any "erotic interests that are not focused on copulatory or precopulatory behaviors [read: intercourse], or the equivalent behaviors in same-sex adult partners" ought to be considered paraphilic.

So, oral sex would only be healthy if it led to “copulatory behaviors” or was done by same-sex partners as an “equivalent behavior”?

The logic of this would do the Victorians proud. Sex is for procreation, so any sexual desire or action not contributing to procreation must be “disordered”. Now apply this to food. Since food is for nourishment, any desire or action involving food which does not contribute to nourishment must be an eating disorder. Do you do wine tastings where you spit what you taste into a bucket, never taking in nourishment? Then there must be something wrong with you.

In every other area, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals determine something to be a disorder when it impedes your ability to function. Thousands of people are able to enjoy all sorts of consensual, non-procreative, non-copulatory erotic activities without disrupting their lives or the lives of others. If anything, it is the stigma and shame which our culture still attaches to sexuality of all kinds that is truly debilitating. Perhaps our efforts should be focused on dealing with that “disorder” instead of trying to label the sexually different with questionable diagnoses.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Case for Privatizing Marriage

Anyone reading this blog should not be surprised that I support marriage equality for same-sex couples. In fact, given its positive effect for transgender and intersex folks, we should consider following Norway's lead and just refer to it as "gender-neutral" marriage. For someone of both progressive and romantic leanings, it's a no-brainer -- it affirms love in a fair and straightforward way.

But there's also part of me which is irked by the whole brouhaha over the issue. Take the recent news in New Hampshire, where marriage equality is closer than ever to legislative approval. They actually introduced a clause to "guarantee" that no member of the clergy would have to officiate at a same-sex wedding if they didn't want to. Excuse me, but ... clergy already have that right! They've had the right to refuse to officiate at any marriage ceremony for any reason, for centuries! The only reason I can see that this was written into the bill was to placate the paranoia of the far Right, who keep harping the lie that letting any couple which is not clearly "one man and one woman" get a marriage license would somehow hurt the rest of us.

Right-wingers have also argued that, if we take this step, then what's to stop someone from marrying two or more people, or a child, or their pet dog or cat? Well, the latter two examples are answered simply enough: Consent. Marriage, after all, is about taking responsibility for one another, and that means we should be sure that each partner fully understands those responsibilities, and is fully able to carry them out.

That being said, when it comes to plural marriage arrangements, I have no problem with three or more consenting adults joining together -- and it's my openness on that which makes me part company with many marriage equality activists. Many of them argue that it would make things too complicated, or that you wouldn't have equality in such an arrangement. Again, I'd go back to the issue of consent: If we accept those as a given, and the partners in question fully understand and accept that, then where is the compelling interest to deny them their choice? There is also the issue of whether such complexity and inequality is indeed "a given"; from what I've seen and heard of many polyamorous households, it's not.

So here's the sticky bit ... If we consider marriage a free union entered into by consenting adults, and we consider that it is not the government's business to tell consenting adults which consenting adults they can or cannot marry, then why marriage licenses? A driver's license I understand -- there is no "right to drive a car," and public safety is a compelling reason to make sure that those who do can do so safely. But, being licensed to fall in love and build a family together? Sorry, but that doesn't square with the idea of marriage as a right, or even as a responsibility.

Long before I wrote this blog, I've advocated replacing state-issued marriage licenses with contracts. Each couple (or menage) would draft their own agreement of what their respective rights and responsibilities would be, sign it in the presence of witnesses, and even register it with the appropriate government office. They could even spell out terms for dissolution, including the option to settle their divorce through arbitration rather than the more adversarial court system; or even establish a time limit with the option to renew.

Many people across the political and religious spectrum have argued for a similar approach, and especially as an answer to the same-sex marriage debate. Some like to refer to "getting government out of the marriage business"; I think it more accurate to think of it as changing government's role with respect to marriage, from that of paternalistic protector to one of record-keeper and potential arbiter. Naturally, there are many who would consider this too "radical" a proposal. So, let me address some major objections...

Objection #1: This would demand a radical change in our marriage laws. Response: Not exactly. The most obvious change would be that, instead of the government issuing licenses, they would record contracts. Divorce laws could change by allowing spouses to determine ahead of time how dissolution would proceed, but this would follow existing laws regarding prenuptial agreements. Every other aspect of law regarding marriage would pretty much stay the same.

Objection #2: What about the role of religion? Response: The only major change would be that we would not require clergy to become government agents. If you'd like your priest, minister, rabbi, imam or other spiritual advisor to sign your contract as a witness, you're free to do so. But it would no longer be required that you have such a signature. If anything, having an explicit contract in writing is in keeping with many religious traditions, such as the Jewish ketubah.

Objection #3: If everybody gets to draft their own contract, then we wouldn't have a single standard for determining who can get married, when they can divorce, etc. Response: Currently, we already have such a state of affairs in this country. Each state and territory can determine their own age of consent for marriage, whether they will allow no-fault divorce, community property versus equitable distribution, and so forth. But there would still be a fundamental definition of marriage as a freely-entered union of consenting adults based on love to create a new household or family.

Objection #4: So if a man comes to the town clerk with his five year old daughter, and hands over a contract which says he married her, ... Response: Again, there's the issue of consent. Can we be sure that the five year old fully understands the contract, her rights and responsibilities as this man's wife, and so forth? If not, then it's not a valid contract, and it can be challenged and nullified on those grounds. The real question is whether the government should have the power to tell consenting adults who they can and cannot marry, and the specific terms by which they can enter into or end a marriage, before the fact.

Objection #5: Reducing marriage to "just another contract" would cheapen it, and take away its vital social and spiritual function. Response: If anything, it could heighten appreciation for that. While most marriage contracts would likely follow a common template, potential partners would have to discuss their respective rights and responsibilities with one another before setting their signatures on the contract they draft. That means they would actually have to know what it means to be married, and especially in their circumstance -- a much more robust approach than simply filling out a license form and finding a willing officiant. While there is no guarantee that this would take place, having the specifics written out like this would certainly increase the odds for greater awareness and appreciate of the meaning and role of marriage as an institution.

Objection #6: What about the children? The whole point of having the state issue marriage licenses is to guarantee the welfare of a couple's children. Response: The history of marriage and marital law says otherwise. Marriage used to be a private contract between families, with little or no intervention by state or church. England introduced licensure in the fourteenth century as a way of waiving the three-week waiting period required for declaring banns. In the United States, marriages licenses did not become required until the middle of the nineteenth century, as a means of enforcing anti-miscegenation laws. There is also no reason to believe that children would be harmed by replacing state-issued licenses with private contracts; if anything, the partners could make specific stipulations in their contract for the benefit of any children.

I'm sure folks out there could come up with other objections and questions, but the bottom line is this: If we believe that grown-ups have a right to marry, then we should treat them as grown-ups and let them spell out the terms for themselves. They shouldn't need a paternalistic state to tell them when and how.