Detoxifying society

If people are still reading these blogs in say, ten years, I hope they will have to look up the meaning for FHRITP and “hate fuck”.

The FHRITP acronym has been used to publicly humiliate female journalists during live TV spots.  “Who would you like to hate fuck” was one of the posts of the Dalhousie dentistry students’ “Gentlemen’s Club” Facebook page.  These examples of hateful male bonding seem to be the topic of the week.

The Dalhousie students were sent to a restorative justice program rather than being summarily expelled. On the same day that I read the report, detailing the comprehensive process of rehabilitating the male dentistry students (http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/cultureofrespect/RJ2015-Report.pdf) I listened to a CBC interview on the sexualized atmosphere in the military and the way different countries were addressing it (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-22-2015-1.3083305/seeking-worldwide-lessons-on-reforming-military-sexual-misconduct-1.3083331).  The CBC interview focussed on finding the best mechanism for pursuing complaints of harassment and sexual assault of women, men and LGBT people in the military.  But when asked about prevention, one participant said that just being able to check “inclusion” off a list was inadequate; there needed to be enforcement.

Quite right.  But I generally associate prevention with education.  The word was not mentioned in either the interview on the military or in the Dalhousie report, although the Dalhousie report does describe “the way forward”:

“…addressing climate and culture is about doing the things we do differently, not just doing different things.”  They expect that “…the ways forward on culture and climate issues within the Faculty… will also be informed and shaped by the recommendations of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia … at the end of June 2015.”  I hope they are right.  Because part of a good university education is the preparation of young adults to take their place in society.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that is toxic – and unsafe – for women and LGBT people.

Inclusion and respect seem to exist only on paper.  The expression of deep hatred towards the “other” is based in the distortion of human sexuality where we commodify sex and objectify people.  I addressed some of these issues in an online magazine article on how this affects girls (http://www.cwhn.ca/en/networkmagazine/hypersexualization).  Their self-objectification starts young, when they are encouraged by societal norms, reinforced by media, to buy into their objectification and the accompanying loss of power.

When we see strong women break down because their hard earned power has been attacked, it is both shocking and distressing.  In the wake of the recent FHRITP incident, CBC women reporters assailed their harassers in a video where they related their personal stories of dealing with sexism (https://www.facebook.com/thenational/videos/10152868931477686/?pnref=story).  One reporter asks why no one steps forward.  In a recent TV interview, a female comedian also asks: why does no one step forward when we are sexually harassed on stage?

The answer is that critical mass has not yet been reached.

Addressing society’s negatives, like racism, misogyny and homophobia begins in the home.  Media literacy can take place in front of any screen, unpacking the prancing women of Victoria’s Secrets’ lingerie ads, the overt misogyny of music videos and the every-day cultural normalization and trivialization of violence against women.  Before girls become imprisoned as objects in their own minds, this work needs to continue in the schools.  For example, the 2015 revised Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum addresses stereotypes, harassment and consent at multiple grade levels.  With good teacher training and comprehensive lesson plans, perhaps we can, at last, have some positive expectations for their – and our – future.

What I hope will emerge is a generation of young people who respect one another, who have no desire to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, who are empathetic and brave.  They will stand up to the Neanderthals who have not yet absorbed the basic values of equality and respect.  This is the generation of young people who will turn rape culture on its ass and kick it to the door.

Eating Disorders and sexuality

In preparation for some upcoming workshops, I’ve been learning more about barriers to healthy sexual functioning, including age, disability and eating disorders. For this month’s blog, I am focusing on eating disorders and trying to understand the complex physical, emotional and psychological issues involved. The literature is extensive and theories about causation abound; but there is less written about their effects on sexual functioning.

What is food preoccupation, how common is it, when does it become a concern and how does it affect relationships and sexual health?

If considered on a continuum, food and weight preoccupation runs from concern about weight to compulsive dieting to compulsive over-eating to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating can persist for years, even an entire lifetime. An estimated 10 per cent of individuals with anorexia nervosa die within 10 years of their first episodes. In 2002, 1.5 per cent of 15 to 24-year-old Canadian women surveyed had an eating disorder.

Weight preoccupation can begin at an early age. Twenty-eight per cent of girls in grade nine and 29 per cent in grade 10 have engaged in weight-loss behaviours. Thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40 per cent in grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat. Even among students of “normal-weight” (based on BMI), 19 per cent believed that they were too fat, and 12 per cent of students reported attempting to lose weight (see Public Health Agency of Canada information).

How does weight preoccupation affect sexual functioning?

While there is a big gap between a perception that one is “too fat” and abehaviour that is compulsive, it is a truism that media images feed in to girls’ and women’s desire to be thin. In the general population, negative body image can affect self-esteem and the ability to enjoy one’s sexuality. Body image issues that plague many of us are clearly magnified for women with eating disorders. But the physiological effects go much deeper.

A study published in 2010 found that nearly two-thirds of women with eating disorders reported loss of libido and sexual anxiety.

“One consistently observed finding across sexual functioning domains was the association between low lifetime minimum BMI and loss of libido, sexual anxiety and sexual relationships. These findings are consistent with the explanation that low body weight impairs the physiological functioning of sexual organs…”

The researchers conclude that “independent of physical changes, individuals with lower BMIs experience a more severe presentation of the eating disorder” which “may be associated with more profound body dissatisfaction, distortion, depression and discomfort with physical contact, all of which may be associated with loss of libido and elevated sexual anxiety…” In other words, sexual intimacy is a fundamental aspect of healthy relationships that can be disrupted by an eating disorder.

How does dissatisfaction with one’s body and low self-esteem evolve into a full blown compulsion with its associated effects on sexuality?

We understand from the literature that women with eating disorders primarily seek to have control over their bodies. What triggers this loss of control?

A controlling family, a traumatic series of events like sexual trauma and even the arrival of puberty may all contribute to a feeling of lost control.

For someone living in a controlling family, for example, food intake and weight are areas of their life they believe they can bring under their own control. Anorexia may be triggered by this realization. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) sees control as the “central paradox.”

Faced with high social expectations and a “shaky sense of self,” a woman assumes that she can at least gain approval by being thin. The ideal thin body holds promise. But controlling the body becomes a precarious substitute for real control in her life. “Women feel in control of their lives through controlling their bodies, yet the need to establish this false and precarious control suggests they are desperately out of control.

Another potential trigger is childhood sexual abuse. Mary Anne Cohen suggests women who were sexually abused as children may develop an eating disorder because of guilt, shame or self-punishment. She says sexual abuse survivors may also be trying to de-sexualize themselves—becoming either tiny and childlike or obese. They may try to make their bodies “perfect” and thus “more powerful, invulnerable, and in control, so as not to re-experience the powerlessness they felt as children… Some survivors of sexual abuse areafraid [my emphasis] to lose weight because it will render them feeling smaller and childlike… Binge eating, purging or starving then becomes their ongoing self-induced punishment.”

How does this loss of control and attempt to regain it play out in a relationship aside from the physiological factors described above?

A woman who is preoccupied with her relationship with food, may be less likely to develop the skills that are essential for successful intimate relationships, including maintaining her status in a relationship as well as her ability to negotiate sexual activities and safety. Women who feel powerless; i.e., have lost control, may be less likely to be able to protect themselves from emotional or sexual abuse or from unsafe sexual practices.

If we are desperately attempting to control our bodies, we may feel ashamed of our “imperfections.” Then how can we believe someone loves us? How can we be honest with a lover when we practise secretive behaviours? How can we demand respect or communicate openly? How can we say what we want sexually, what we prefer not to do sexually and insist on sexual safety?

Treatment for women with an eating disorder will, like treatment for substance abuse, need to examine root causes—if they can be identified—as part of their treatment. The upside is that for women who recover, the prognosis for their sexual lives is positive.

I like to imagine a woman who learns to accept her body, to see it as attractive, and begin to take pleasure in it. I imagine her learning to share her body with another for mutual pleasure and admiration; and I imagine her gradual return to herself along with the desire, and ability, to love and take care of herself.

According to the website Eating Disorders Recovery Today: “in general, interest in, and pleasure from, sexual activity has been shown to decrease at the onset of the disorder and increase during weight restoration. Several explanations for this change in libido are a return to natural (and normal) hormone levels during weight restoration, and the women’s growing comfort with body acceptance and expression during recovery.” It is clear that the effects of an eating disorder are not only psychological and emotional, but physiological as well.

So the good news is, sexual health can be restored. The bad news is, eating disorders and weight preoccupation in general are increasing. We have work to do.

Resources:

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC)