Writing sex and parenting - dangerous but essential
There are few places where our public and private lives become blended into such ugly displays as they do in custody and divorce proceedings. The current controversy surrounding Jefferson's appeal for support because of a custody challenge that is, at least partly, based on his blogging about his sex life demonstrates that better than almost anything could. The details have been documented over the past week in several other places, and I am coming late to the story having just returned to town.
Briefly, Jefferson is the pen name of a NYC sex blogger, author of One Life Take Two, and member of the community to which we all here at SITPS belong, to greater or lesser degrees.* He is currently being sued by his ex-wife for full custody of their children whose custody they had shared since divorcing, and it appears that information he revealed in his blog is being used against him in court. That information includes his bisexuality, his hosting of sex parties, his drinking, and his having sex with lots of different people, many of them women much younger than he. Some of his friends have set up a legal fund - the Friends of Jefferson Legal Defense Fund while others of his friends and some of his former lovers are advising caution about contributing.** This conflict started an online public debate about Jefferson's life, his writing, and the current custody dispute that has quickly spread throughout the sex blogosphere and has been occasionally ugly but also very thoughtful.
To echo Audacia Ray in her very honest and thoughtful post on the situation, even for those of us who radically support freedom of expression, there is acknowledgment of the dangers involved in claiming those freedoms and it is horrifying to watch the destruction that is unfolding right now. It is those issues of sexual expression that I want to focus on here.
It is both courageous and necessary that people blog about their sex lives and their parenting under the same identity and in the same space. We need to continually work at breaking down the walls of stigma that make sex somehow different from all the rest of human activity. That stigma is responsible for a great many harms to contemporary U.S. society. From the denial of comprehensive sex education to teens, to the refusal of contraception by conservative pharmacists or drug stores, to the tolerance of homophobia and heterosexism, to the refusal to welcome sex workers and their knowledge and expertise into the fight against HIV/AIDS, stigmatization harms individuals, their families, and their communities.
That such work is dangerous, and strongly resisted, is a sign of how important it is. That danger is an indicator of how much courage it takes to do the kind of writing we're talking about, and it is part of what forces so many writers to adopt a veil of anonymity. I have said before that I think sex blogs do a tremendous service by exposing the complexity of sex as it is woven through the rest of our lives. At the amazing Sex 2.0 conference I discussed the importance of sharing sexual knowledge in a time when information about sexuality is increasingly privatized and controlled by corporations. At that session we also discussed the personal risks people take in engaging in this work, and one way to manage those risks was to adopt as much anonymity as possible, which is experienced by many as a capitulation to the stigma they are trying to fight. I have even argued (see the forthcoming issue of Feminism and Psychology) that the continued expansion and maintenance of a 'sex commons' where people can exchange information about their sexual experiences, desires and fantasies should be taken on as a necessary feminist project. Jefferson's blog, like other controversial sex blogs, are an important part of that project. When they also make clear that those desires, fantasies or experiences fit into lives that include jobs and children and other mundane elements of everyday life they do an even greater service. (A blog that does this beautifully and in a very different way is Tess's Urban Gypsy. A glance through our links page shows there are many others.)
An example of the level to which Jefferson blended his openness about his sex life with his openness about his parenting comes from a Time Out New York piece on "secret lives" in which he narrated his negotiation of parenting and sex-party hosting. He explained that he did not host parties during the weeks he had his children, and he discussed the logistics of managing space in a relatively small NYC apartment. While the details might make some people queasy it is important to remember that for most of human history children and parents have lived in much smaller dwellings and the degree of privacy and separation between spheres of life we have come to take as "natural" in contemporary American society is not something that has been common historically. We need to examine the source of our own queasiness about sexual space not being clearly segregated from all the other spaces of our lives. Sex bloggers write about this tension all the time, of course, and Jefferson's case raises the issue in a way that is hyper-charged because of our difficulty talking about kids and sexuality as much as because of our difficulty talking about parenting and sexuality.
It is a mistake to think that children intrinsically need protection from knowledge about sex or exposure to sexual expression. Children need to be protected from sexual assault. It is only the social stigma around sex in this society that makes parents' sex lives something we need to protect children from knowing about. The concerns about Jefferson's kids, or any kinky parents' kids, in terms of exposure to ridicule based on public knowledge of parents' kinkiness would not be a concern at all if sexual behavior were understood to be part of everyday human life. Other commenters have pointed out, of course, that we don't live in that perfect world, but I would ask whether we get ourselves any closer by caving to the pressures of this imperfect one.
The current discussion of Jefferson's situation raises several important issues, though one is not something that can be discussed here:
- How should a person's private troubles be portrayed publicly in order to generate support, and how should those claims be evaluated by readers?
- When, if ever, should sexuality, sexual expression figure in to custody cases?
- How do we make it safer for people to openly discuss their whole lives, including their sexuality and their parenting?
- Given the stigmatization of sex how do we manage the difficulties (logistical, personal) of balancing risk of exposure with need to live openly and honestly or the need to express ourselves fully? How should we address the injustice of our kinks should be considered ammunition when they do not interfere with our work or our parenting.
- How can a community like this manage conflict and disagreement between its members while retaining the strength and vibrancy of the community? (Conflict management has also been a significant issue in the University of New Mexico crisis.)
- Is Jefferson a fit parent - i.e., can he support his kids, does he drink too much, has he been irresponsible, etc.
I suggest that in this thread, anyway, we bracket the last issue considering that the pool of people who have direct knowledge of Jefferson's parenting is relatively small, and speculation can only be harmful not only to his kids but also to our community. I don't point this out to silence those who do have such personal knowledge. Instead I want to emphasize those issues that affect all of us and that we can all benefit from discussing.
They're big issues. Where should we start?
*A few caveats: I am personally acquainted with Jefferson though I do not know him well. I have met him on several occasions, and have been a regular reader of his blog for the past two years. I have no direct exposure to his parenting or his sex life so cannot comment on them other than commenting on his narrating of them. Since it is unwise to assume that everything one reads on an anonymous blog (or any blog for that matter) is true without corroborating evidence, I can only make very guarded statements about anything connected to Jefferson's sex life or parenting in themselves. I can say that I found his accounts of his parenting to be endearing and to demonstrate an openness that could only be good for his children. In addition, I have no knowledge of the documents or the proceedings in the custody case itself and so cannot comment on those at all.
**Without spending too much time on questions about the fund itself, let me just say that decisions about contributing to a legal fund should be made using the same kinds of tools you'd use to make any decisions about contributions: do you feel like you identify with the cause, do you trust the keepers of the money, do you feel like you have the info you need to make those decisions? Most of us do not have a lot of direct personal knowledge about the organizations to which we contribute. In this case there are individuals who have been providing information gathered from their own experience of Jefferson that may, for some, raise caution flags about contributing. Others are suggesting that the information being provided by Friends of Jefferson is, of course, skewed to only reveal the positive aspects of Jefferson's case, and that in that sense they are deceptive. Without seeing the court documents it is hard to gauge these claims.