Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sexual Health Sundays

My name is Vanessa Fernando. I’m a writer, a dark chocolate addict, a vegetarian, a lady-loving lady, a repressed cat lover and an undergrad at McGill University majoring in History and Women’s Studies (which I wish was called Gender Studies). I also love to talk about sex. Every Sunday, I’ll be discussing matters of sexual health. I’ll focus on a specific topic weekly, such as gender identity/self-identification, communicating with a partner (or partners), safer sex basics, how to choose a sex toy, birth control, body image, sexual assault, relationship models, and GLBT/queer FAQs and mythbusting. To request a particular topic or ask a question, send me a note at Queries are welcomed!

In the words of Susie Bright, “[s]exuality is not a spice that you add after the meal is done. It’s the oil that you start cooking with.” Sexuality is a huge part of our lived experience as human beings, yet it’s still taboo to share our truths publicly. We have been taught through history that sex is something separate, that it is dirty, base, and dangerous. Sexuality must be restrained, or it will take over and corrupt our ability to function as rational beings. Despite this constant indoctrination, we can’t escape our sexuality. We are born into these bodies that take a lifetime to explore.  
I believe that it is possible to create a world in which every human being has the space, time, and freedom to explore their own sexual selves without force, coercion, fear or shame. I believe in the revolutionary potential of self-pleasure and intimacy. I believe that talking about sex as something without boundaries, black-and-white definitions or clear answers is a step towards liberation from the ways of thinking that keep us shackled and ashamed of our infinite potential.

Growing up, the messages I was taught surrounding my sexuality were about fear. In elementary school, we received warnings of rapists and child molesters in our neighbourhood. My conception of my own sexuality was profoundly shaped by the necessity to be constantly vigilant in order to avoid danger. I saw sexual assault as a commonplace and ultimately unavoidable danger, like car crashes or hurricanes. I thought it was my responsibility to protect myself against assault by not being “the kind of girl who gets in trouble.” (Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Don’t have sex if you can avoid it). As a result, my friends and I celebrated our own cautiousness and scorned those who didn’t conform to the rules, dividing ourselves into a good/bad binary instead of confronting the real issues underlying gendered violence. I wish that someone had told me during my childhood that rape and sexual assault are not acts of sexuality but acts of violence, and that engaging in any sort of behaviour or activity does not make sexual assault your fault, ever.

Despite the prevalence of sexual assault, I believe that everyone has a right to experience their sexuality as something pleasurable and empowering. In the words of Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, “Just cuz my world, sweet sister/ Is so fucking goddamn full of rape/ Does that mean/ My body must always be a source of pain?/No, no, no.”

Sex is in the eye of the beholder; by no means is sex equated with vaginal intercourse, or with any other set of prescribed actions. What I believe to be true is that no one has the right to dictate what is and isn’t a valid sexual experience, or the “right” way to act. There are medical facts, there is important information, but at the end of the day each individual must decide what behaviours are right for them as individuals, and they are entitled to that choice. 

The culture I live in tells me that the only socially sanctioned way to live is in a monogamous, long-term relationship, or marriage. I don’t believe this, and it isn’t something that my model of sexual education endorses. What I do believe is that there are infinite possibilities, infinite ways to love and be loved, and they are all equally valid. No one should feel ashamed for wanting more than one partner in a relationship, or more than one sexual partner at a time, just as no one should feel ashamed for only wanting one partner.

Just as I will strive not to create a hierarchy of relationships or lifestyles, my weekly column will not assume gender, identity, sexual orientation, or any other kind of self-identification. There is enough policing in the world, enough destructive desire to pin other individuals into neat little categories that no one can live up to. I want to create a space where open dialogue is possible, and where there is a common understanding that there is no such thing as “normal.” I would like to enable communication on topics such as gender expression, sexual violence, rape, and sexism, race and racism, body image, sexual orientation and sexual fluidity, and oppression and privilege, since these are issues that form the constant subtext for daily life in North American society without ever being properly scrutinized.

Sexual Health Sundays isn’t only about STI prevention or the various methods of birth control. It is also about the power of information, and about who has access to certain choices and who doesn’t. It is about intersectionality and inclusiveness, and an underlying recognition that we are all learning. I will never claim to have all the answers, or even to have the right answers. But what I do know is that we will only get better at accepting ourselves by bringing twilight issues into the open and facing them. As someone who, after a lot of self-work, feels good about herself, her body, and her sexuality, I believe in this. I believe in the beauty of sexuality and sexual expression. I don’t want experiencing one’s own healthy sexuality to be a privilege. It is a right.

illustration by Cristy C. Road


  1. This sounds super promising. I'm glad to see a savvy writer managing a topic of such importance.

    Even in this intro, you raise some great points about the ridiculous, unjustified things most people learn about sexuality and relationships.

    It's refreshing to see a stance where the health, happiness and wellbeing of the people involved trumps the perceived importance of conforming to what society says sex should be. Too many people are devoting their lives and emotions to fitting someone's idea of what's right when it should ultimately be about figuring out and pursuing what's right for them. Period!

    I'm looking forward to this feature, Vanessa!

  2. Hey Vaness,
    I'm really excited about what you have to say, especially the part about defining sexual violence in terms of good/bad binaries while neglecting to confront the underlying issues... Something I still have trouble with, because the underlying issues are difficult to address. I look forward to reading more!