The four people that I would invite to a dinner party

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Back when I used to read Portland Monthly magazine, there was a small section in which the editorial staff listed who they would invite to a dinner party. Displayed at the bottom of the page before feature stories were names of about four or five individuals (and an artist’s rendering of that individual) who are either well known in the local community or have done something to be noticed, anyone from business owners to artists to sports players. The names change with every issue, but the point remains—these are the people who are most likely going to turn your dinner party into an unforgettable night.

It made me wonder—if I were to host a dinner party, who would I invite?

In this fictional dinner, I’m a woman in her late forties hosting with my daughter, who is in her early twenties. I’d imagine this would be a “women’s supper club” of sorts, where men are not allowed (sorry guys) because we’re going to be talking about some serious woman stuff—the kind of stuff usually discussed behind closed doors, hidden under the sheets, or tucked away in a closet in someone’s home.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about sex. Female pleasure. Perceptions and expectations. Where we get our knowledge from. Stereotypes against men and women. How society views sexual desires and activities. And most importantly, what women (young and old) think about their bodies and how that translates into their sexual activities.

But first—let me give you a little background before I reveal my dinner guests. As an adult, I can say that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about sex. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about how babies are made. Most of what I learned about sex came from books, TV shows and movies. One particular favorite of mine resonates strongly with who I was as a teenager—a book called, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” by Judy Blume. It’s a story about an adolescent girl caught in a crossroad between religion and sex. Like Margaret, I grew up in a religious home. Practically everyone in my village was Catholic and went to church every week. I was educated by nuns yielding whips and threats. But unlike Margaret, Catholicism was my only religion, whereas in Margaret’s case, her parents came from two different religions. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish. She doesn’t identify with either religion but instead talks to a God. She has a lot of questions about her growing body and forms a secret club with her friends to discuss “womanly” things like getting your period, bras, boys, etc.

Besides young adult novels, I had the media to inform me about change. Shows like Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell introduced me to the world of high school drama. Now, as an adult with two kids, I feel like I have a responsibility to pave a better road for my own daughter, so she doesn’t grow up with these misconceptions about her body, or sex, or anything in between. In short, I’d rather be frank with her, no pun intended.

"Dad said he wanted to talk to us about birds and bees so we're doing a little advance research."Lately, I’ve been doing research on how sex education has been taught in America. Not surprisingly, for the past two decades (since the early 90s), sex education has been primarily focused on abstinence-only education. For me, there was no sex education at all. Neither my middle school or high school offered it. Sure, there were health and PE classes, but none provided the information necessary for growing adolescents at their peak hormone levels. There were school nurses, yes, but I never felt comfortable going to her and asking for anything other than a Band-Aid. Sounds familiar to you?

As a teenager, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, medical exams, and the morning after pill. I went there instead of my mother because it was the only place where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I would get the care I needed and move on, whereas if I had gone to my mother, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was sexually active and seeking birth control.

The other night, I asked my husband if his parents ever gave him the sex talk. He told me that his mom attempted to give him one, but it was vague. Later, as a teenager, his dad gave him a talk about the dangers of sexual activity. He was told that he should not get a girl pregnant, because if he did, then he would have the responsibility for the rest of his life. For a teenage boy, this kind of talk is terrifying. The weight of responsibility for another human being is not something that teenagers want to deal with. But then again, it was typical American parent activity—to scare their children away from having sex by translating it into a devious, risky behavior.

I think it’s time we change that. Thus, for my dinner party, the first person that I would invite is Peggy Orenstein, author and journalist. Peggy has done many interviews with young women and asked them personal questions about their perceptions and behaviors regarding sexual activity, which she outlined in her Ted Talk here. She said that a lot of women do not take into consideration their own pleasure—after all, society has dictated that male pleasure takes precedence. In her talk, she referenced a study done on 300 young Dutch women and young American women and their early experiences. Published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, this study noted that American women had engaged in sexual activity at an earlier age and were less likely to use birth control. They’re also more likely to feel pressured to have sex. By contrast, Dutch women’s experiences involved open communication with their partners about what they liked and didn’t like, along with using protection appropriately. They were more comfortable about their bodies and more in tune with their own pleasure.

The main difference between Dutch and American parents is that Dutch parents instilled a sense of responsibility and joy. From an early age, they talked to their kids openly about sex, pleasure and mutual trust, whereas American parents either provided the “risky sex talk” or didn’t talk about it at all. My experience along with my husband’s experience fits into this mold perfectly.

Speaking openly about sexual thoughts and behaviors is difficult for many of us, men and women included. But one person who has talked candidly about her sexual escapades is Amy Schumer. She is the second person that I would invite to my dinner party. In her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she talks openly about her childhood, her family, her thoughts and sexual adventures. The first chapter of her book is titled, “An open letter to my vagina,” which, as you would expect, is funny and raw. Her “openness” might be misconstrued as overzealous confidence. Whether or not that’s true, I think her “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude has helped her fit well in to the male-dominated world of comedy. As a woman, she’s had doubts and uncertainties about herself and her abilities, and I think it would be great to bring that to the table.

And while we’re at it, I’d also bring the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E.L. James. For someone who wrote one of the best-selling series in the world, I was surprised to find that she is currently in her mid-fifties. She has truly opened a lion’s den regarding people’s sexual adventures, turning something that surely has been common (but kept secret) in America into something acceptable and extremely erotic. She has redefined female sexual pleasure to a whole new level.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Recently, I watched Fifty Shades Darker with my husband. Even though it was almost 10 o’clock, our bedtime, our eyes perked up at the sex scenes. I’m not going to lie—it was hot. This movie challenges many cultural norms, such as where pleasure should be directed to. It’s clear that outside the bedroom, it’s all about him, but inside the bedroom, it’s all about her. A woman’s desires and articulation for that desire was brought forth in this film. For example, in one scene, Anastasia says to Christian, “Kiss me,” a euphemism for oral sex. In another scene, she asks him to take her to the Red Room, a secret room where he keeps his chains and whips.

What E.L. James brought forth in her novels is that women are sexual creatures too. They want to be loved, yes, but they also want to be open and exploratory. Women’s desires are just as important as men’s. Thus, she created this young woman who is just barely out of college as an anchor for what young women should be like today—confident, self-assured, and knows what she wants.

On that same note, the party wouldn’t be complete without Anastasia Steele, James’ main protagonist, as my last dinner guest. I realize that she’s fictional, but Ana is a raunchy character who keeps up her “good girl” image in the professional world (evidenced by her refusal to submit to her boss Jack Hyde’s sexual advances), but instead allows her man to take control of her in bed while telling him exactly what she wants. She is, in theory, more Dutch than American.

As a society, particularly in American society, we often undermine girls’ self-pleasure. We don’t talk about girls masturbating; instead, the attention is on boys’ masturbation. We often make a joke out of it, saying that boys are bottles of hormones waiting to be expelled, whereas it’s lewd for girls to pleasure themselves. The result is that these girls grow up into women who doesn’t know how to articulate their sexual desires to their partners.

While I don’t disagree that you should warn your kids about the dangers of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I do think that it’s important to give kids a straight talk rather than the danger talk or avoiding it altogether. Recently, I thought about how in approximately 7 years, my daughter will be 12 and in the swing of puberty. No doubt she will have questions about her body and boys and sex (she’s already asked me, “Why do women have boobs and little girls don’t?”) and I thought about how I would have “the talk” with her and what I would tell her about her body. So I wrote down a list of what I called, “Body Advice That My Mother Never Gave Me.” One of things on the list is about her hymen, how it will bleed the first time she has sex. Then I discovered this Ted Talk called “The Virginity Fraud” and it took me a step back. Whoa. Here I was, thinking that the hymen was like a piece of sensitive skin that breaks during first sexual intercourse, when reality, it’s more malleable than that.

After listening to the talk, I had to re-examine what I knew about the female body, and I realized that misconceptions such as the one about the hymen have been extrapolated from a variety of sources that I came into contact with growing up in America, such as books, TV shows, movies and my peers. It was then I realized that I, too, need to overcome certain misconceptions. I need to do my research before I tell my daughter that our bodies are the same, because it’s not. According to the speakers, hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Thus, hers might not be the same as mine. Lastly, her sexual experiences will not be the same as mine either.

At the end of this dinner party, I hope that we all can come to the consensus that while it’s important to give the talk, it’s more important to give the right kind of talk, the right kind of information, and be open and honest about our desires and experiences. As a woman, articulating my wants is something that I’m still working on. It is quite difficult to do when one grows up in an environment of secrecy, unmentionables and filled with abstinence-only education backed by religious beliefs. Still, I look forward to the day when I can talk to Lily about all of this.

Want to start thinking about sex education in a different way? Start with this Ted Talk.

Perceptions of poverty and how to overcome it

First, let me get one thing straight.

I’m not here to extend a confession as if someone is not reading, or as if I want any kind of sympathy or charity. I’m here to tell you about my experience with poverty, and how my thoughts and perceptions about poverty have evolved over the years. I’m here to tell you the truth about poverty.

I’ve been poor for all of my life, and currently just barely out of the running for state assistance benefits. I make about $100 too much to be considered “at poverty level” or “the highest need.” Yet, when I file my taxes I still qualify for credits intended for the poor. In fact, for the past few years, I belonged in the State Assistance Club. When my son was born I enrolled in the WIC program so I could get extra food benefits, only to drop out completely after several months of being limited in the things that I could buy at the store. Cheerios, plain only, in a certain size. Only a certain type of tuna, not all types. Only block cheese, whole wheat bread only, etc…you get the idea.

From approximately 2014 to 2016 I was on food stamps. Or I should say rather—we were on food stamps, my family and I. We subsisted on an income of less than $2000 per month. Our rent was about $1000 per month, cheap by Portland standards. At least we had that on our end. That, and financial aid money from my husband’s school kept us afloat.

Then in the summer of 2016, I got a job that I coveted for so long—an accounting position at my alma mater, Portland State University. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was an accounting job, it was more so the opportunity to work at a university that I enjoyed being at so much during my undergrad years. Even though it was a part time position, things were moving in the right direction. But we still qualified for food benefits.

It wasn’t until I got a full time position that put us out of the race for food stamps. Although my husband graduated last June, he’s still on the job hunt and things are still hard, especially when there are no longer financial aid money to utilize.

There have been many days in the past where I’ve felt shameful about my lack of prosperity in life. During my four years working for a local credit union, I handled a lot of accounts. Numbers flashed before me every single day. High numbers, that is. I helped a lot of individuals from my generation and knew exactly how much they made. I also knew how much they spent, and the numbers were both equally monstrous. Often, I’d sit there next to the quiet hum of the computer, and browsed through people’s accounts during slow times. Those who were around my parents age, I understood if they had a lot of money. But for those who weren’t, for those who were younger or my age, I’d stew in silence at how much they had and how much they made, and wondered what was wrong with me, why was I still stuck in the position of bank teller, a position that only pays a few dollars above minimum wage. After all, wasn’t I a college graduate? What the hell was I doing there wasting my time looking at other people’s accounts? Why wasn’t I out there earning more money??

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This attitude unfortunately was born out of self pity, and it’s not something I feel great about admitting. And that’s the thing that is worse than being poor—your attitude about being poor. I grew up in poverty, and one of the things I’ve realized lately is that poor folks are perceived poorly by their upper middle class peers. You’re lazy. You sit around all day and complain about why you’re so poor, why the whole world is against you, why God hasn’t given you a piece of the pie yet, when in reality you haven’t so much as gotten off your seat and made some changes. In reality you haven’t experienced an enormous amount of rejections and disrespect yet. In reality you’re scared, and you don’t know what to do, how to make the changes happen.

Without realizing it, I trapped myself in the mindset of a true poor person—someone riddled with self pity, not self confidence. Someone who fits the stereotype, which is ironic because I’ve been trying to avoid stereotypes all my life.

This epiphanic realization came to me recently following the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the New Yorker. It was called “The Psychology of Inequality” online, and “Feeling Low” in the print version. In the article, she discussed something called a “tax on the poor”—the fact that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to play the lottery versus those who are not. And they play it so much that it feeds into the system, thus becomes an informal, unwritten tax. Poor people put their money, whatever little money they had, into a bucket for a chance at a larger bucket of money, never knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

That example reminded me of my father immediately. I exclaimed in my head, “my dad used to do that all the time!!” We were always poor when we lived in Vietnam, but he never failed to play a game or two. Even after we came to America, he remained an avid lottery player. He never won anything except for $50 one time. And I’m certain he must’ve spent thousands on those lottery tickets.

So it goes without saying that when you’re poor you hope to get rich and any chance, no matter how small, is worth trying. But as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her article, research shows that even for those in the 1%, the truly rich do not consider themselves rich, nor do they acknowledge that they are rich. Instead, they dismiss their prosperity as something minute, something that they worked hard at earning, something less in comparison to their peers. For example, “My neighbor has a private jet that takes him anywhere he wants. That’s rich.” Never mind the fact that they have a million dollar mansion with four new vehicles and a half a million dollar income.

This proves that no matter if you’re rich or poor, you will never be in perfect alignment with how you actually are. When you’re poor, you submit to a lot of self pity and when you’re rich, you submit to a lot of self entitlement.

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I’m glad that I don’t work at that credit union anymore. If I am, I would still be subjecting myself to the same level of self pity. I’ve come to realize that the first step in getting out of poverty is changing your way of thinking. It’s not saying “hard work will do you good!” because it’s easier said than done. It’s not hoping and wishing that others will understand you. It’s the mindset. It’s taking the “feeling low” factor out of the equation and refusing to let it back into your head. I know that I’m not always going to be low income. I’m going to be middle class someday, and it may not happen as soon as I would like but I know it’s going to happen because I’m going to try. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something here today by admitting that hey, I used to be that person who was jealous of her peers and engaged in a lot of self pity, but now I’m not. I can only do what I can, and as long as I’m trying that is what matters.