Making a definitive statement about the true nature of human sexuality is a dangerous game, as how can we ever truly know what is natural and what is not? One group’s natural may be akin to another group’s wildest dream.

Looking at human sexuality from a historical, social and culture perspective, married authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha pose some intriguing questions and offer controversial theories on why we behave the way we do in the bedroom and beyond in their new book Sex at Dawn.

1 – Maybe monogamy isn’t as natural as we’re led to believe it is

Ryan and Jetha reject the Hobbesian view of life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and offer compelling evidence that up until about 10 000 years ago, tribal people enjoyed a high level of sexual freedom. The nomadic tribal lifestyle depended upon fierce egalitarianism, where sharing was not just encourage but mandatory and they suspect that sharing extended to every aspect of life, including sexual relations.

It was the introduction of agriculture and corresponding importance placed on property ownership that caused paternity to become a concern, leading to monogamous, heterosexual pair-bonding. Of course it didn’t help that the church was espousing commandments like “thou shalt not commit adultery” and “thou shalt not cover thy neighbor’s wife.”

The central argument of their book is that accepting this flawed myth of the origin and nature of human sexuality is ultimately destructive, as it distorts our understanding of our sexual capacities and needs. If monogamy is so natural, the authors wonder, then why has adultery existed in some way, shape or form in every culture throughout history, even under the threat of gorey punishment like being stoned to death.

Furthermore, if the well of love runs deep or even bottomless for family, friends, films, foods, and so on, how can it be true that sexual love is a finite resource?

2 –Extended receptivity is the way to go, just ask the bonobos

Human females are practically unique amongst mammals in that our fertility cycle is concealed, and we engage in sexual activity throughout the duration of our menstrual cycles, not just during ovulation. This is referred to as “extended receptivity” in scientific circles.

We may have evolved this way as a means of males constantly keeping tabs on their women, to ensure paternity, or it may be that women were given the capacity of consistent mating to confuse the men as to whose children were really whose, protecting the fate of the child from the wrath of the jealous alpha.

The only other mammal whose females exhibit this trait is the bonobo ape of central Africa. Bonobos are well-known for their high levels of sexual behavior. They use sex for social purposes like conflict resolution, pleasure and stress reduction, as opposed to chimpanzees and other primates who do it primarily for reproducing. Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has found that this increased sexual receptivity on the part of the female bonobo leads to dramatically decreased levels of male conflict.

While we often look to the chimpanzee as a mirror in the ape world, maybe we ought to pay equal attention to the bonobo, as our DNA differs from that of both species from a mere 1.6 percent. As Ryan and Jetha point out, this makes us closer to them than an Indian elephant is to an African elephant.

Interestingly enough, monogamy is not a common trait amongst primates either. The lone monogamous ape is the tree-dwelling gibbon, native to Southeast Asia.

3 – Maury would have a field day with this one!

There are societies in the Amazon that view a fetus as an accumulation of semen within an egg. Women in these tribes often seek out a varying assortment of sexual partners in order to pass on a variety of useful skills and traits to their offspring. The Paraguayan Ache tribe, for example, cites four different categories of fathers:

“Miare: the father who put it in;

Periare; the fathers who mixed it;

Momboare; those who spilled it out; and

Bykuare; the fathers who provided the child’s essence”

With more males looking out for them in the tribe, Ache children have a significantly better chance of surviving through childhood than those born into the similar societies with just one recognized father.

 4 – Marriage by any other name might smell as sweet… or sweeter

“’Marriage, mating and love are socially constructed phenomena that have little or no transferable meaning outside any given culture,” write Ryan and Jetha. In fact, there are cultures where the concept of traditional marriage doesn’t even exist, such as the matrilineal Chinese Mosuo tribe. Their language has no word for husband or wife, and the word they use for sexual coupling sese is synonymous with walking. Though this term is often translated by anthropologists as walking marriage, it has very little in common with the fidelity or vows of its Western counterpart.

Mosuo couples do not live together and their relationships exist only within the present. As soon as they are no longer in each other’s physical presence, it comes to an end, though they may visit again in the future. Men and women are encouraged to pursue as many relationships as they wish, and complete discretion is expected from all parties.

 

So what does this all this mean for the future of monogamy? While we’re definitely a long way off from the sexual freedom of our prehistoric ancestors or their contemporary incarnations like the Mosuo tribe, we’re getting closer to accepting alternatives to monogamy. It may take generations for the stigmas associated with non-monogamy to erode completely, but research like Ryan and Jetha’s is helping us get closer by getting the conversation started.

“They turned Fox into a soft core porn channel so gradually I hardly even noticed!”  – Homer Simpson

“In a hypersexualized society, you only have two choices: you’re either fuckable or invisible.” – Dr. Gail Dines, ‘Sext Up KIDS’

After watching a fascinating documentary on CBC’s Doc Zone called Sext Up KIDS, I feel even more sorry for young people, especially girls growing up in today’s hypersexualized culture.

Turn on the TV and you’ve got TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, a reality show about the kiddie beauty pageant scene where mothers get their 6-year olds hopped up on a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull ever so eloquently dubbed by the tot as “Gogo Juice” and parade them around tarted up to look like Julia Roberts as the whore from Pretty Woman. Seriously, you can’t make this up…. one woman actually chose to outfit her daughter as a prostitute, priming her for a lifetime of cat-calling, hooting and hollering.

Flip open a magazine and you could spot a 10-year old Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau decked out in gold lame and sprawled seductively across a leopard print rug, trying to sell you something that costs more than your rent for an entire year. Youtube is full of pre-teen wannabe sensations shaking, well, what they haven’t even developed yet.

It comes as no big surprise that kids are getting older younger, especially as we casually hand them grown-up toys like smart phones. Marketers have leeched on to this trend like salivating hounds and tapped into the 150 billon dollar pre-teen clothing cash cow with racy fashion these girls can sport to emulate their idols like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry.

According to Sext up KIDS, a recent survey of 15 major pre-teen clothing sites found that one third of the apparel was deemed “sexualized.” The French company Jours Après Lunes recently came under fire for developing a line of lingerie for 4-12 year olds. While some argue that it’s merely an instance of little girls wanting to play dress-up, you have to wonder what effect it has on these kids who are being blatantly primed to portray themselves as sex objects.

What happened to letting kids being kids?

Just as young girls are taught to project themselves as sex objects to be rewarded with popularity and the seemingly all-important male gaze, boys are being taught to view and even consume them in that way, perpetuating the cycle. And as tweens become teens, the pressure to look sexy can increase the pressure to act sexy. Furthermore, as noted in the documentary, the more young women focus on “performing for the boys,” the less they think about themselves. For an age group that already has a tangled relationship with self-worth and value, is this really the right path to be sending them down?

To complicate matters even more, today’s teenagers have unbridled access to the gamut of pornographic images. It used to be that a boy’s introduction to porn was finding his dad’s stash of Playboys or Hustlers, or borrowing a video cassette off an older cousin. Nowadays, accessing porn is as easy as clicking a button with little to no censorship or explanation of the content. At this point, no one really knows the direct effect that consuming hardcore pornographic images has on the still-growing teenage brain, but psychologists speculate that it leaves them with a distorted view of what sex is all about, leading to difficulty in fostering and maintaining healthy sexual relationships later on in life.

Not only are teenagers consuming pornography, some are ostensibly creating it by snapping pictures with their cell phone cameras and distributing those images as carelessly as text messages. The documentary illustrates just how pervasive this behavior is among teenagers. Approximately one third of those surveyed admitted to sending a scantily clad or nude photo to a crush or boyfriend. Three teenage girls bravely give their personal stories of times when they sent an intimate photo to someone they trusted, only to have it blow up in their faces when those pictures circulated around their social circles, even ending up in the hands of their family members.

Now some may argue that teenagers will be teenagers – experiencing new sensations, learning about your body and that of the opposite sex is commonplace and has existed since adolescence first came into mainstream culture. However, it seems that in today’s hypersexualized world, the deck is stacked against today’s teenagers towards growing up healthy, confident and respectful of themselves and others.

You can stream the documentary ‘Sext up KIDS’ on the CBC Doc Zone site.


Do you know anyone who played library as a child? Store, school and doctor, sure, but library? I used to take a book from my shelf, slip a piece of paper inside with my name, and the date, and read quietly.

My library memories started early: day activities at the Fraser-Hickson. I can still make a cup that actually holds water out of a square of paper thanks to them. Another day, we learned about Leonardo Da Vinci, examining his sketches of flying machines in a velvety bus that was a mobile museum. I was in pre-school. I fell in love with creative genius. The library hooked me.

Living in Cote St. Luc when the library opened its doors at its current location, I’d never seen so many books! Across the street! From my house! Open 365 days! That’s how you get spoiled!

In my teen years, the less impressive, but still pretty neat Pierrefonds library had air conditioning; I didn’t. Temperature aside, I was sure that somewhere in the obsessively organized walls of plasticized cardboard and yellowing pages were the answers to all the secrets you’d ever wanted to unravel. Certainly if you fortified yourself behind a tableful of books with tousled hair and knotted brow you could solve the equation of JFK’s bullet trajectory, or determine finally that the butler did it. If you focused hard while wearing a serious expression you would translate an ancient language, or find the co-ordinates to the long lost spaceship that explains everything. I dove into the occult, taking notes on spells, and rituals (please note, there were no goths at the time per se, and I wore too much plaid to be one anyway. Also note, vampires of the time died from the sun, and we took our angst very seriously). My friend hung out with me, carefully removing the magnetic strips from books so she could steal them. We were badass.

Back in DG early this millennium, I happily reunited with the Fraser-Hickson, though I’d somehow gotten bumped from the ornately decorated kids’ section. Time’s a bitch. One of the first Libraries in Montreal (originally at University & Rene Levesque in 1870, moving to Kensington & Somerled in 1959), there were times in the library’s history when it touted itself as the only truly free library in town. Their noble nature, including the fact that they never accepted cheques with strings, seems to have worked against them, sadly, as the building was sold to a private school in 2007, and their collection went into storage

Today, their homepage says “Library to reopen: watch this space”. The site still provides links, resources, and contact information. A vacuum was left when they closed. For a whole vital section of NDG, the only library left is Benny, opened in 1956, housed in what was originally built as a temporary chapel. It’s in painful need, deserving both pimped out new digs and truckloads of books. There’s the Cote St. Luc library, and Westmount library, though they both charge hefty annual fees for non residents, with Westmount charging $119 a year, and CSL coming in at a whopping $175 annually (Montreal West residents can become members for $5, making it arguably worth the schlep to the other side of the tracks).

Why go to the library at all when you can download a book, or hit a Chapters if you’re craving the touch of nostalgia that paper’s becoming? There are plenty of reasons.

First off, Chapters are few, far between, and atrociously expensive. I also don’t care what bestseller’s lists the book was on, I care if the book is good. I’ve never seen a big bookstore with a display devoted to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but they sure did assault me with tableloads of Oprah books, so let’s say I don’t trust them. The info-age is not the time to determine our learning curve by our economic standing.

What if you have download bandwith limits, or tricky moral clauses by which you deem pirating media to be fundamentally wrong, or an aversion to the technically illegal? Hit the library! They’re fully stocked with multimedia from the periodicals you’ve stopped buying (because they cost what soft covers used to), CDs, and DVDs. Having changed postal codes, I’m exploring my new library, L’Octogone, in Lasalle. Aside from it giving me both the resources and the necessary kick in the pants to get reading again (you have 3 weeks! And….GO!) it’s also inspired quite the documentary binge.

Libraries dare you to explore. The only thing stopping you from picking up that book, are your thoughts on the book. Will you try it? This, by the way, is how I ended up with Douglas Coupland’s Generation A, which I thouroughly enjoyed, and a book of Tupac’s poetry that I found chilling non-chalontly with Ginsberg and a few of his buddies. While I didn’t finish Tupac, it impressed me more than I’d expected, though less so than I’d hoped. At least I tried. Plus I learned that rappers, the internet generation, and dead beatniks sometimes use the same spelling. There’s nothing new under the sun….

Before I get out of your hair and let you get on with your reading, I ask you: where else can you hang out for free, in the winter, without being a weirdo? Seriously. That always bugs me about winter; you have to have a destination and it’ll cost you. When the grass runs out, there’s still the library, warm and cozy, probably nearby, with more goodies than you could go through in a hundred winters.

A library can only be as good as its community support. If we don’t use the services available, and nag for better ones, one day we’ll wake up and all the libraries will be condos (or private schools). Go! Get out! Get a library card. Reading is sexy. Take your kids there; they may end up remembering it fondly. Hopefully, they’ll grow up literate, critical thinkers who consider learning fun, thus ensuring that your grandkids will be able to read more than an infographic and a tricky coffeeshop menu. We live in a pivotal age that way.

The library system is fairly well unified these days: one free card will get you stocked up at 44 different locations. And the Bibliotheque Nationale which recently opened in the heart of the city is a great place to spend an afternoon.

The history of Fraser Hickson is from their homepage, and deserves a full read..

If you have book or movie recommendations, or just want to see what falls out of my head, catch me on Twitter @McMoxy

Rum Socialism is the recently self-published e-book by Kris Romanuik. It chronicles the author’s booze filled misadventures in Cuba while also touching on communist society and politics.

Taking the form of a short travel diary, Rum Socialism follows our Canadian protagonist as he stumbles through the kind of vignettes which are typically relayed in the pub after a drink filled man holiday. He finds himself, among many other things dealing with Cuban police, being scammed by hookers and meeting an assortment of colourful characters.

As he pines over ever dwindling pints, Romanuik also takes some respite to analyse the workings and failings of a communist land. He, being a political science graduate, speaks of his political opinions and observations confidently. He paints effectively an image of an opressed and alien society in which the people are controlled with an odd blend of fear and reverance.

During the prologue of the book Kris Romanuik does write a small discliamer in which he claims no great knowledge of Cuban politics.       It is during these sections of political discussion, however, when Rum Socialism flows and works best due to the author’s confidence in politics being stronger than his confidence in journalistic writing. Although it doesn’t seem that a journalstic approach was quite the angle that he was shooting for.

There is a Gonzo feel to the whole affair, as any chemically imbalanced subjectivly bent writing will do. If it was intentional then it has been pulled off pretty nicely. While the journalistic element is not as central to Rum and Socialism as to Thompson or the likes, the humour is, and Romanuik proves to have a caustic and dark sense of humour suited to his style.

The conversational language works for and against Rum Socialism.   It works for it, in that it could almost be somebody you just met at a bar, drinking a pint telling you of their crazy holiday this summer. It works against it, in that it could almost be somebody you just met at a bar, drinking a pint telling you of their crazy holiday this summer. Sometimes it’s funny and endearing, other times it’s pretty crass and in your face. Some of his physical descriptions of women had me laughing and cringing   with a dash of shame.

Romanuik paces the book well. It opens rather innocuosly at the airport and gradually builds in drama, laughs and tension until before you know it he’s   flying across cuban roads in a police car in the middle of the night hunting criminals. There’s also an interesting sub-plot based around his failing relationship with his girlfriend back home. It rounds off nicely and manages to end with a message of better understanding set to an unhappy image of the conservatives just having won majority government.

Rum and Socialism is available now as an e-book through kindle or kindle apps. It’s my first real experience with an e-book and it wasn’t too bad. Besides the sore eyes there were a few cool features like having various hyperlinked words within the text, these would direct you to the website of the bar in which he was drinking or the wiki of a chupacabra. I don’t think I’m converted but it wasn’t the nightmare I expected.

It’s an interesting book and one to look for if you’re interested in Cuban politics and drunken tales. An unusual combination but one that seemingly works.

“While the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty.” Sherlock Holmes

Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam make quite a few bold claims in their new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts. They’re billing it as the world’s largest scientific study on human sexual desire, although perhaps they’re using the term science loosely. In lieu of  the admittedly flawed conventional research methods like interviewing subjects or giving them questionnaires to fill out, Ogas and Gaddam wanted to probe deeper into the secret realm of  male and female sexual  desire to determine what’s being fantasized about when no one’s watching, and what that can tell us about ourselves.

As Ogas and Gaddam point out, there has really only been one large scale scientific survey on sexual desire and human responses to particular sexual stimuli. This groundbreaking research conducted by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 30s and 40s was published as the landmark “Kinsey Reports.” There  have been some small scale studies since, but nothing near the 18,000 interviewed by Kinsey.

Upon first reading this, I was utterly astonished. Then I considered a notion touched on by the authors in the book, which is that obtaining reliable data from social studies on sexual impulses, desire and behavior can be extremely difficult, if not damn near impossible. With personal matters concerning sex, how can a researcher be certain the information from the subject is completely accurate? Some may be too ashamed to admit their true desires, while others may bias their answers based on the gender of the researcher. Also studies like Kinsey’s were limited to a narrow selection of the population with little variance in race or social standing.

Ogas and Gaddam have found the solution to this difficult quandary at a place where we head to solve all sorts of problems every day: the Internet. In total, they combed through 400 million different searches between July 2009 and July 2010 on Dogpile, a meta search engine (somehow it doesn’t surprise me that even search engines have gone ‘meta’ now), that compiles results from Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Ask.com and more. Of those 400 million searches, about 13 percent were erotic in nature, the top 5 being youth, gay, MILFs, breasts and cheating wives. The authors also analyzed a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, and millions of personal ads from sites like OKCupid and Craigslist, and extrapolated based on the data found during their research.

 While this method of obtaining what the authors  refer to as “unobtrusive observations of the actual  sexual activities of millions of men and women”  may not be entirely scientifically (the authors did  not have to submit their research before any type  of academic or institutional review board), it does  provide for an entertaining, albeit at times  patronizing, read. The book is very well    researched with about one third of the text taking  up the notes and bibliography, although some of  the studies cited by the authors were very small  or based on purely anecdotal evidence.

Being of a computational neuroscience  background, Ogas and Gaddam put forth the notion that our minds are the software that runs the hardware of the brain, relying on a series of physical and psychological cues to get things done. They break it down into a rather ridiculous pair of characters to represent the sexual desires of males and females: Elmer Fudd, Wabbit Hunter, off to hunt whatever wabbit strikes his fancy versus the Miss Marple Detective Agency, the overactive voice inside net  the female brain that is “designed to uncover, scrutinize, and evaluate a dazzling range of informative clues.”

They proclaim that while men are able to achieve physical and psychological arousal from one single cue, women’s brains are much more complex and require multiple cues incorporating different senses. Perhaps this is why men prefer porn whereas women get their sexual kicks through erotica and fan fiction, as “porn consists of visual cues appealing to men, romance consists of psychological cues appealing to women.”

To illustrate that men and women experience the states of physical and psychological arousal quite differently, Ogas and Gaddam present the results of a study from Florida State University. Nine lucky research assistants (four guys and five gals) went up to random strangers of the opposite gender on campus as asked if that person would go on a date with them, come over to their apartment, or go to bed with them later the evening.

The males overwhelming favored the sex option, with 75% of men saying yes to that question, compared with none of the women agreeing to such a brazen request. It’s as if for men, the very notion of having sex is both a physical and psychological turn-on, especially when so boldly offered by a female, whereas women require many more cues to activate her psychological arousal, which is instrumental in her physical arousal. However, this study runs into the same issues as Kinsey’s: it’s a small subset of the population that isn’t necessarily representative of males and females across different cultures and races.

I’m just grazing the surface of the intriguing and dubious theories that Ogas and Gaddam develop throughout the book. They devote one chapter to the homosexual male experience where they imply that while boys will be boys that consume porn in the same ways, homosexual men’s brains exhibit the female cues of submission as opposed to the alpha male dominance found in heterosexual men. Furthermore, the authors barely address the desires of homosexual women or bisexuals.

And while I found parts of the book to be quite interesting and compelling, many of their generalizations were a bit problematic for me, especially about female sexual desire. At the end of the day, neither of the authors are female and there isn’t enough science in the world to truly understand either gender’s sexual desires completely, although it can be entertaining to speculate.

Photo creds:  nonfictionbookclub.files.wordpress.com,  virtualmedicalcentre.com,  news.pinkpaper.com  

Worst Laid Plans: When Bad Sex Happens to Good People

True tales edited by Alexandra Lydon and Laura Kindred

224 pages.

Abrams Image.

$19.50 (or 7.85$ US if you’re in the states & buy through Amazon)

The back cover of this book says it all: “it has been said that the only bad sex is no sex.   The contributors to this book respectfully disagree.”

Comediennes Alexandra Lydon and Laura Kindred of the famed Upright Citizens Brigade theatre troupe have compiled those tantalizing true-life tales of sexual experiences gone horribly, horribly wrong.   From a young woman giving up her backdoor virginity because of a bet to an aborted attempt at the seduction of a midget met on Craigslist, their monologue-style stories illustrate the downside of putting yourself out there.

Honestly, while most of the stories were pretty funny, they were disappointingly tame in what I thought would be the be-all, end-all Sexual Hall of Shame.   A worthy bus read, even if just for intrigued glances from other horny bus riders.

Where the book really succeeded was in its overall sense of humour, reflected in the clever titles and the glossary at the end, which included hilarious terms like “The Cliterati” (the elite academics of the female anatomy, learned in the art of its manipulation, the most cunning of linguists) and ignoranus (one who has never experienced anal intercourse).

When I sifted through my sexual Rolodex, I realized, much to my own chagrin, that I had quite a few stories that would have fit within the context of the book.   So here’s the one I went for:

Throughout high school, I had a crush on one of my close guy friends.   He had it all: he played the guitar, wore the epitome of silly retro clothes and borrowed his mom’s car so we could drive around and hot box it while listening to Sublime.   But, being the naive and inexperience young thing that I was, I never told him how I felt and moved away for university, my thoughts still drifting to him now and again.

Fast forward a few years and I’m home for Christmas and ready to escape my family for an informal high school reunion on Boxing Day at one of my favorite bars.   A girlfriend greeted me by saying he was looking for me.   I toured the crowded, dimly-lit bar twice but he was nowhere to be found.   Ready to give up, I headed back to my table where he was waiting for me.   We chatted, we batted eyes, a hand may have slipped on a thigh.   Needless to say, my heart was racing!

The lights come on, he’s looking dreamy as ever and word spreads of an after party.   He asks what I’m up to and I cleverly respond with “whatever you’re doing.”   We decide to head back to my (parents’) place, which, in retrospect may not have been the best course of action.   I’d been living on my own for so long that the “ask back” was standard practice by then.

The guest bedroom in my parents’ house is directly across the hallway from said parents, so we crept quietly into the basement.   There we were on the leather couch that we’d watched so many movies on in our teenage years and I swear I’d never been so turned on in my life.   Furtive yet gentle kisses, our bodies pressed together, the longing being felt all the way to the tips of my toes.   He slipped my tights and bottoms off and kissed his way down my bare stomach.   Yes, I’ve always given at least 10 extra points to men who lick my pussy in our first encounter together.   So he’s doing his thing, my head is spinning faster than an out-of-control carousel when suddenly I hear a voice from the top of the stairs calling out “Jessica, what are you doing down there?”

He stops dead in his tracks and looks up at me.   I cover myself up with a blanket and bolt up the stairs to intercept my Mom, whispering through clenched teeth “Mom, I’ve got him down there.”   She sleepily wanders back to bed, me shooting daggers from my eyes at her back.   I rush back downstairs and he’s put his shirt and jacket back on.   “I think I should probably just go,” he muttered, unable face my eyes.   “No, no,” I stammered, but knew I had to see him to the door.   Yes, there’s the story of when I got cockblocked by my Mom with my high school crush.   And I never even got to handle the penis I’d been fantasizing about for so many years… maybe next Christmas?

What the fuck is up with our Arts & Theatrics section? We’ve given you reviews of half-naked people dancing around various stages via our Burlesque coverage. We’ve attended art and theatre shows that focus on breaking the glass ceiling by portraying women as silicone objects and transvestite grand-mamas?

How about the local comedy show at The Comedy Lounge that mentioned the late Patrick Swayze in ways Dirty Dancing wouldn’t be able to explain? The fact we only focus on Festivals that don’t charge artists to participate because they value their talent, rather than the profit? And loft shows, like Smoke n’ Mirrors, that ask you to consider political conspiracy theories, opening your mind to situations and facts about the state of our world that could be very possible?

Your grandparents probably wouldn’t be impressed with us, but hopefully we’ve grabbed and kept your attention. And hopefully we’ve artistically undressed you in unusual, constructive ways. It’s not that we’re deliberately trying to be raunchy, it’s quite the opposite our content focuses on showing the artistic side of Montreal (and other cities) through various interesting mediums.

In 2010 our Arts & Theatrics section went from a “dead tab” to one of the most viewed sections on the site. We’ve introduced new writers who love what they see and do, focused on shows most Montreal print and online magazines overlook and tried to bring you content you’d truly and actually like – we’re not really the fluffy type (or pretentious type…minus statements like this). So, thank you for reading our Arts & Theatrics section we can’t wait to add a new layer of interesting content to your mental wardrobe in 2011.

Here’s the breakdown of our coverage by category and in alphabetical order:

Burlesque
Blood Ballet Cabaret (September) (December)
Glam Gam (Nightmare on the Main) (Tits the season)

Comedy
Montreal Comedy Competition
The Comedy Lounge

Interdisciplinary/Multimedia
Buffalo Infringement Festival
Smoke n’ Mirrors

Misc
Expozine
Rocky Horror

Theatre
Don Quixote (Centaur Theatre)
Literacy (Tatiana Koroleva)
The Silicone Diaries (Nina Arsenault)

Visual Arts
ALLÉGRESSE (Usine 106U)

*image: Courtesy of the Preston Arts Festival. For more information visit: prestonarts.com

“Sometimes it doesn’t hit me until I walk by one of their rallies or attend a meeting.   I wonder if sometimes they look around and ask ‘Why are we so white?'” – Sharmeen Khan from The Whiteness of Green

The environmental movement was essentially initiated by Rachel Carson’s epic book   Silent Spring.   In it, she exposed how herbicides and pesticides were destroying the environment and our health.   She sparked a lot of  controversy which eventually lead to the ban of DDT.

In 1971, Greenpeace initiated an environmental activism movement that involved the media, using the Quaker philosophy of “bearing witness” in order to make change.

The list goes on. It is amazing and inspiring that people have mobilized and dedicated their lives to making the world a better place.   The world always needs more of this.

If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well and that includes questioning ourselves.   While great changes have been made thanks to the ideals and passions of people who consider themselves environmentalists, one aspect has remained largely unchecked.   While subtle, it has the potential to create future negative repercussions for our movement.

As Khan implied in her essay, why is the environmental movement so … white?   Is environmental activism a result of wealthy white people?   Is this another less straight-forward dimension of environmental racism?   Journalist, lawyer, environmental justice activist and founder of Green for All Van Jones thinks so.

“To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of ALL people, not just the majority of affluent people.   We must make it plain … that we envision a clean-energy future in which everyone has a place – and a stake … making sure that “green” incudes all colors,” said Jones in The Unbearable Whiteness of Green.

The environmental movement may be guilty of excluding cultural diversity in its strident gains for environmental protection.   Development and aid work has also been criticized on the same grounds.   Basically, how can we determine what is right for the majority of the world based solely on our  localized  principles of justice?

Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person requires  several base layers of needs-fulfillment.   At the base, we must ensure that our basic physiological requirements are met (food, shelter, clothes).   At the top of this list is self-actualization, where we tackle the larger societal issues.

This is where the lines get blurred.   We pine to help those less fortunate than ourselves.   This can be noble and credible if you’re helping to create something sustainable and build the capacity of these people, otherwise you are risking a soft form of bigotry: the racism of lower expectations.

Peggy McIntosh addressed this in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.”   Read McIntosh’s essay to open your eyes and see the big white elephant that has been standing in the room this whole time. No pun intended.


Most people by now have heard of the American military industrial complex.   Although it can refer to other countries as well, the phrase was coined famously by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address speech on January 17, 1961.   It was a warning about the unjustified government spending on the military.   The warning went largely unnoticed.

In 1997 almost forty years later a similar phrase was coined by social activist Angela Davis as she named her book The prison industrial complex.   It explains what happens to the American legal system when it locks up more people for longer sentences and which industries are parts of the complex.

Angela Davis Novel

Thirteen years after that book was written, things have gone from bad to worse.   At that time there were approximately 1.65 million inmates in the American prison system.   As of 2008 there are 2.42 million, a massive 38% increase, surprising as well given that over that same time span the crime rate for violent crimes and property crimes all went down.   In 2004 the crime rate was as low as the early 1970’s.

There are a few reasons for the high contrast in trends and for the prison industrial complex as a whole.   For instance: mandatory minimum sentences for violent and non-violent crimes alike such as drug trafficking or possession, regardless of circumstances. A law that requires inmates to stay in prison without parole sometimes far longer than the crime deserves. The conservative government in Canada is trying to introduce this law to parliament as we speak.

3 strikes and you’re out!   This law, now passed in twenty-eight states in the U.S., is another element to the complex.   Some states have more lenient three strike laws than others, but California is far and away the harshest. If you’re caught and sentenced with drug possession a couple times, a crime normally punishable by only a couple months, you can then be sentenced to fifty years for stealing a bicycle or even a slice of pizza (both instances have actually happened).

The real crux of the prison industrial complex obviously lies mostly in deregulation, privatization and industrialization.   There are thirty-seven states that have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations.   IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T to name a few, all have operations inside state prisons.

The High Rise in Incarceration

In the nineteen-eighties under President Reagan, prisons began to privatize in some states in order for the state governments to save money as it would cost 10% to 20% less per inmate (these numbers are very much in dispute even today).   Under President Clinton, the number of privately owned prisons skyrocketed as regulations were loosened and businessmen began to see the amount of profit that could be made.

For starters, convicted workers in federal and state prisons make a much higher wage… ranging from $1.25 an hour to the state minimum wage.   A prisoner in a privately run prison earns as low as $0.17 per hour.   Far less to send home to the inmate’s families and a much higher profit margin for the prisons and corporations who benefit from it. Also, with each inmate in a private prison, the company is also guaranteed a set price per inmate per day by the state government, regardless of the cost to hold the prisoner.

These points obviously leads to the concern over safety and working/living conditions as any corporation will try and cut costs as much as possible.   It’s also argued that these incentives demand that the prison companies try and keep their prisons full to capacity as much as possible. More people equals more profits.   Private prisons are also known to extend the sentence of the convicts for any minor infraction that occurs within the penitentiary.

In some cases privatization can also lead to corruption as there have been several cases of the prison owners bribing local police to arrest people without just cause in order to keep their prisons full and their profits flowing.

People have been imprisoned without just cause in order to keep their profits flowing.

Some people believe as I do that the prison system in the U.S. is the new form of slavery.   An extreme thought to some.   When blacks have a 12% share of the country’s population, but have more than 40% of the penitentiary population and have been sentenced for non-violent crimes it’s hard to argue against it… more so when they earn 17 cents an hour.

When the economy is mentioned, the current crisis is likely what comes to most people’s mind. For Professor Peter Brown of the McGill School of Environment, the crisis goes deeper than that.

“We’re in a tough time in history,” Brown remarked during a speech for the Food for Thought lecture series at Macdonald campus last Tuesday where he asked the audience “is the situation dismal, or could this be our moment of grace?”

Professor Brown believes that we now have an enormous opportunity to rethink our relationship with the earth and what it means to be human.   His new book, Right Relationship, Building a Whole Earth Economy, explores this question by analyzing what a good and bad relationship with the earth entails.

“A thing is right if it preserves the integrity and resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life,” Brown said, “it is wrong when it is otherwise.”

The tar sands, he explains, are a perfect example of a wrong relationship with the earth: “It is shameful conduct and a huge stain on the face of Canada…We have an indifferent attitude towards the earth rather than one of stewardship.   Our culture doesn’t have respect of affection for the land,” he argued, then warning that “the course we’re on is suicidal.”

Peter Brown described the current global situation, including all concurrent crises, as having its roots in a Judeo-Christian belief system, which also gave rise to the current political and economic order.

“If you subject the present economic order to the test of what is moral and right, it fails completely,” he stated, “Christianity has created a belief system that someone else will solve all our problems for us.   Nature is something out there that we’ll fix when we get around to it.”

The present crisis is a result of using the world as our object of pleasure.   Brown argued that getting out of this mess requires re-thinking the human situation in very thorough and profound ways.   The first step in re-thinking this relationship calls for regarding the processes of the universe as being creative, rather than something that was created.   “The universe is an open process where we are very small,” Brown said.

Brown believes that we have lost our inherent dignity because our lives are framed by the cost of commodities, such as oil and food “and this is the way we are treated by the government,” he said, explaining that “one characteristic of citizenship is to see yourself as a player in an infinite game, keeping culture and knowledge going.   We’re snuffing out that game by decreasing biodiversity on the earth and regarding ourselves as consumers rather than citizens.”

The process of re-thinking what a right relationship is with the earth includes asking the right questions.   Brown’s questions are about the economy: What’s it for? How does it work? How big is too big? What’s fair? and finally: How should it be governed?

“The current economic order can’t answer these questions in a remotely satisfactory way,” Brown said, “the economy is too big when it overwhelms the earth’s ability to support complex life.   Because of the laws of thermodynamics, the earth has been able to develop complex systems that we are in the process of destroying.”

A major solution for these questions lies in getting something like the European Union that has power to require nations to live up to minimum standards in environmental, human rights and labor issues.

“We need to think about the earth in whole system terms and fit the economy inside that understanding,” Brown stated, “we’re up against very powerful adversaries who don’t want to listen or change.   We haven’t connected our morals with scientific discoveries and our understanding of the world.”

These issues are great and the challenges, enormous, but Professor Brown says that the alternative is unthinkable.   “Could this be our moment of grace?” he asks, “we need to get rid of the present economic situation.”

We’re at our planetary limits and Professor Brown wants to know if we want to keep depending on a finite economy in an infinite system.   One audience member commented that it is imperative that we create a new economic system that incorporates environmental stewardship and social stability.

Change is constant and Professor Brown said that we need to redistribute what’s already here. “It’s all a matter of scale,” he said, “let’s hope the scales start tipping towards morally just leadership.

What comes to mind when you think about the ocean?   Serenity?   Marine mammals?   Oceanic cycles?   For Alanna Mitchell, it’s a feeling of urgency over a major crisis of what covers most of the planet. “The ocean is invisibly ill,” Mitchell, who Reuter’s called the best environmental reporter in the world, said during an interview on September 16th.

In her recently published book “Sea Sick”, Mitchell brings us on her vast research journeys over the span of 2 and a half years to learn more about the wide and open sea.   “Before writing this book, I knew nothing about the ocean or its biological importance to the planet,” Mitchell confessed, “but that’s why I wanted to write it.   I thought the world was just what I could see.   I was ignorant.”

Most of us unfortunately find ourselves in this category and we are lucky to have Alanna Mitchell bringing the ocean to us.   She was in Montreal for two days last week on a whirlwind tour of giving classes, interviews and a public presentation, which you can watch here.

Written in a highly accessible fashion, Alanna Mitchell explains the problems and solutions for our ocean, bringing us on the many adventures that laid the foundation for this fascinating account on our troubled seas.   Her most frightening experience was while she was 3,000 feet deep in a submersible looking for deep-sea creatures with potential benefits for human diseases.

“I was paralyzed with fear and I didn’t see the point anymore.   I had lost all hope,” Mitchell admitted after having traveled the world receiving grim reports on the state of the ocean.   After two hours of being submerged, terrified and hopeless, she had an epiphany.

“I decided to have hope.   It was a big turning point for me,” she said of her powerful experience.   “Like forgiveness, hope can be a very powerful thing; very human and very hard to find, but once you find it, it can be incredibly transformative.”

Mitchell believes that the solution for our ocean lies in solving climate change.   “We are changing the chemistry of the global ocean in ways it hasn’t changed in tens of millions of years and we’re setting the stage for major extinctions,” she said.   “The world government needs to be doing a lot more.”

Meeting with Alanna Mitchell and reading her book demonstrated the fact that I, too, was like many of you; unaware of the ocean’s problems and the role we play in its well being.   Mitchell leaves us with a message of hope: “We have a window here,” she said, “we’re at an extraordinary time in history where we actually have a chance to make a huge difference and I would love to see us take that up and run with it.”

The blood in our bodies is saline; an ancient link to our oceanic beginnings on this planet and as we only have one blood stream in each of us, so the planet only has one ocean.   Whatever your occupation in life, as Mitchell said, look through our great window of opportunity and go full steam into a future that has a vibrant and healthy ocean system.

In good Forget the Box fashion, this week’s environmental column is a book review.

I have to admit that it’s a little embarrassing when I don’t really know anything about a huge subject area, like, say, the problems in the Middle East.   Guilty as charged.   As someone who doesn’t pay that much attention to mainstream media (particularly concerning how this particular issue is framed) and who hasn’t had anyone sit down with her to outline the whodunit of it all, I have always been confused between the goings-on of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.

Thanks to the book “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, this whole spectrum of well known knowledge is no longer a fuddled confused pile of foreign places and problems.

At the core of this book is the message that following you passion, whatever that may be, can move mountains.   What Greg Mortenson, through the Central Asia Institute (CAI) has accomplished for the impoverished regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and other ‘stans will blow your mind.   Having worn several different hats throughout his life, from mountaineer to nurse to the director of an international organization, Greg has been on a path that has helped promote peace in regions of Central Asia by building schools for girls.

The idea of promoting peace and environmental protection through educating the female population within poorer regions is not a new idea and still it remains a very good idea.   Mortenson finds inspiration in the faces of his own children, which he projects onto the faces of the children he works endlessly to help.

Korphe School completed in 1996 (photo from threecupsoftea.com)

Having done a tiny bit of development work myself with Engineers Without Borders Canada, I have an inkling of how exhausting it can be to always be “on” and figuring out how to satisfy a constant stream of expectations (one tiny downside to the enormous opportunity and growth that does happen within these types of experiences).   Mortenson, as described in this book, has mastered these waters and goes to whatever means necessary to help the people who ask for it.

In a skeptical, “i” culture, where it can be rare to reach out and lend a helping hand for fear of not having enough for yourself, I find this selfless and heroic.   It’s challenging to keep perspective and remember exactly why we do the things we do and Mortenson is a shining example of this virtue.

Throughout this book, Mortenson’s will and determination was not shaken by the fact that he would spend months at a time away from his wife and small children, nor the fact that he was in Northern Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, during and post 9/11.   The one thing that did shake him were some threatening letters sent by his fellow Americans, brutally criticizing him for supporting Muslims while American soldiers were “over there” fighting for “freedom”.

Author Greg Mortenson (image from Wikipedia)

Not having the support of his own people was a challenge greater than climbing K2 for Greg, yet he conquered it and persevered, continuing to build school after school on minimal funding, gaining admiration and supporters in the highest reaches of Central Asia.

A few other unique things in this book are the fact that Greg is over 6 feet tall, married his wife, also a hero in her own way, 6 days after meeting each other and can get into such an exhausted state that he can sleep just about anywhere, in anything, at any time.

So, in the end, what does this have to do with the environment?   My answer is: everything. Educating women educates a village and this often leads to resource and environmental protection.

Please read this book.   As someone who is ardently fascinated by the unconventional change-makers of the world, Greg has my full attention and I intent to google the bajeebus out of him and the CAI, especially since I’d never heard of him before.

Muslim girls in Pakistan do not tend to capture the media’s attention, especially since there is plenty of opposition and confusion about the issues surrounding these regions of the world.   If you were like me and want to find yourself pleasantly informed and incredibly inspired, this book may be right for you. You may even be inspired to get out and start collecting pennies to help Mortenson along!

It seems pretty obvious that libraries and books in general are going online, perhaps to stay.   While there is still a love of the printed word and probably always will be, two projects are underway to scan, digitize, catalogue and store all books or as many books as possible online with very different approaches.

Google started its online book venture by making deals with five libraries including the New York Public Library and the Oxford Library in Britain to digitize their collections and in turn provide them with a digital copy of their works.   The Internet Archive, best known for their WayBack Machine which catalogs older versions of websites also has deals with libraries to digitize their collections.

The archive currently has over 1 million books available in digital form for all to use for free and hopes people will download them and save them themselves so the works will exist in perpetuity.   The Google plan is different.

While Google digitizing the works for free and giving a digital copy back may have seemed like a good deal to the libraries originally, some feel that they actually had other intentions which are only becoming apparent now.

“The restrictions are severe of what it is the libraries can do with the copies they get back,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told Democracy Now, “so they’re pretty much useless to the libraries.”   He went on to argue that not only will Google make money from these books by creating a subscription library, “they will be the sole organization to control access to these works.”

Kahle points to a recent settlement reached in a class action lawsuit between Google and the Author’s Guild and the American Associaton of Publishers which he feels will effectively give Google an exclusive license to profit from millions of books.   This is because Google gained the digital rights in perpetuity to out-of-print works originally published after 1923 and still under copyright in addition to the public domain works which no one owns and Google has exclusive access to thanks to their deal with the libraries.

Kahle sees danger in one company effectively becoming the world’s library as opposed to several different online sources for digitized books: “If they want those books to be available to people, they can have it in their search engine and rank it high. If books are things they don’t want to have available, I don’t know, for any reason that corporations might want to do that, they can take it effectively out of the library.”