Interview with Susan M Squier, Acting director, Science, Technology, and Society Program, 2010-2011, Brill Professor of Women's Studies, English, and STS, Penn State
1. What do you think comics as a medium--ie the combination of words and images in sequence--offer for sex education?
We use the comic or graphic novel form to educate youth about sexuality from a broader perspective than they may receive in a standard health or sex ed class. The practice of drawing a comic gives an opportunity to tell a personal narrative, an opportunity rarely given in classrooms or curriculum. Personal narratives humanize and offer a different kind of access to our questions on sex and sexuality than the sterilized, clinical speak of most sex ed. curriculum. The absence of straightforward, open discussion around personal issues in sex ed class reaffirms misconceptions and feelings of invalidity, shame, and frustration around sex, sexuality and gender identity. Comic format also catalyzes a different way of accessing and sharing information. Having a variety of resources, and presenting information in different formats, helps youth envision alternatives, sparks discussions, and acts as a template for storytelling.
2. What led you to the title of this series?
For us, the expression “Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf,” refers to something that deviates from typical mainstream advice. It’s a kind of playful way to suggest that we are serving up something radically different from other models of sex education, trying out a new format for sparking dialogues about sex, gender, health, and sexual orientation.
3. How do you get your submissions?
We advertise everywhere that we can, try to tell all of our friends, and occasionally lead workshops for youth and adults alike. We also outreach through events held at high schools, universities, summer camps, and after-school programs, and community health clinics and community centers. Recently, we have been getting NYMM into zine libraries in independent bookstores and public libraries. Many bookstores agree to sell NYMM on consignment, and this helps to spread the word. What is so inspiring about the comics we receive, and what struck us the most, was their honesty. The comic book format somehow makes it more possible for people to open up and talk about often embarrassing or sometimes even painful experience in a way that could even be funny. We couldn't believe how eager people were to tell and illustrate their personal stories. Also, even though the comics are different from one another (from their content and perspective to their artistic style), collectively they work as one piece, because of the strong first person narrative present in each story.
4. Do you have criteria for the art? For the narrative? Why or why not?
We simply require the comics to be on 8½” x 11” paper and in black ink. We also provide a theme for each issue, to help people generate ideas and respond to a broad theme in their own specific way. We feel this gives enough creative freedom to experiment with different approaches to storytelling and narrative practice in comic making. We like to see people take risks, do something different. Our other criteria has to do more with our mission and goals of the project, to be further discussed below.
5. Do you have competitive selection of the submissions? If so, do you select for literary or artistic skill, for category of sexual experience, for potential as a sex-ed 'teachable moment'? Or for all 3?
It is always so exciting to see the variety of submissions that come in, each uniquely insightful, funny, and well executed. The submissions are like little presents, the intimate revelations of both friends and strangers are a constant surprise. Some of our favorite submissions are from people who think they can’t draw, or, even better, think they have no experience in their life that would qualify for a comic. On the other hand, we also love getting submissions from folks who consider themselves comic artists and apply a great deal of experienced artistry to their submissions. It’s important to us to display a variety of styles and approaches to comic-making.
We think that any life experience, in this case having to do with sex and sexuality, has potential to be great comic. There are also so many “teachable moments” that each of us experience in our lifetime. This is what makes the experience-based model so effective, because it is not always easy to provide a single “textbook” answer to questions surrounding sex and sexuality. Certain things are easily explained, like how to use a condom or how reproductive systems functions. Other questions, though, are not as easily answered, but desperately need to be discussed. Often there are multiple issues and dynamics occurring in these situations, which can be difficult to process, often confusing, and alienating. It helps to read someone else’s story and consider their experience. It helps people feel that they aren’t alone. For this reason, on the back cover of each Issue, we write “Experiences, Not Answers.”
We have yet to outright refuse to publish a comic. However, we have a specific mission statement that we feel very strongly about.
We describe ourselves as “a collaborative comic book project that attempts to challenge the underlying sexism, heteronormativity, and gender normative practices in mainstream sexuality education, presenting information about different aspects of sexual health from more honest, experience-based, LGBTQ friendly positions.”
As editors, we are opposed to including perspectives that are sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist. Those perspectives are dominant and privileged in our current culture, and we are providing an outlet for voices that resist them.
We once received a comic that we felt was misogynist and that did not address the lesson that could have been learned from the story. However, we started up a dialogue with the author of the comic, and ended up working with him to change the approach he took to his story. The final draft of the comic ended up being included in NYMM because we felt he had reconsidered his point of view and sufficiently edited the comic. This was ultimately a very positive experience for us because we witnessed an attitude change occur in someone who was looking for answers, with the help of a comic.
Sometimes people ask us if we would define Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf as feminist activism, to which we respond, YES! We are trying to create space for different types of tools that can be used to discuss health. We are also trying to integrate mental, emotional, and spiritual health into discussions of sex, where the body becomes the central focus. Not Your Mother's Meatloaf can be easily situated within a history of attempts made by feminists to gain control of their own bodies, health care, and sexual choices. It is important to feminism to reclaim these terms and transform their meaning. For example, the release of Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1970 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective was a similar attempt at the time to collaborate on an alternate body of knowledge surrounding women’s health. We would also like to stress that we center our focus not only from a feminist perspective but from an anti-racist and queer perspective as well. Of course these categories overlap and intersect in many ways.
6. Are there any anecdotes or stories about compiling the first issue that you would like to share with me?
In the first issue we really tried to cover certain topics and make sure that certain perspectives were represented. We personally entered some submissions into the comic that covered things like anatomy, or alternative menstrual products. But we found that this sucked the life out of the information, unlike the vivid personal accounts we received. Plus, we decided that we shouldn't try to be the authoritative voice on sexual health; many other publications have done this better than we could. Rather, we can offer a different kind of tool that has the ability to communicate something lacking between the pages of anatomical books and STD brochures. So, in the second issue, we didn't try to direct the submissions toward certain topics, rather, we let people tell their own stories. The lessons within those stories come out naturally.
When we began compiling the second issue of NYMM in 2009, Issue #1 was already being distributed on a national level. Bookstores were ordering the comic through Microcosm Publishing, people were downloading it off our blog ( sexedcomicproject.blogspot.com ) and others were picking it up at events in New York such as “The Big She-Bang” hosted by For the Birds Collective. We began receiving more and more positive feedback, and we were inspired and motivated by the response. The tough questions we faced during the making of the first issue had been answered and we had a model to work from. We knew what we wanted NYMM to look like and contributors also had an easier time understanding what a sex education comic book might look like. Having themes for each issue was also something we started after the first one. Our theme for the second issue, "Firsts", was fun because it was our first theme for NYMM and it worked as a prompt for contributors to start from. Having a theme is something we have continued ever since; the third issue’s theme is “Bodies” and the fourth issue’s theme is “Health.” The upcoming fifth issue is accepting submissions with the theme of “Age.” We always try to use themes that are broad enough so that everyone will feel able to contribute, but specific enough to spark ideas for submissions.
7. Do you think comics have a particular cultural position that makes them helpful for working against heteronormativity? Or normativity in general?
As a project struggling with how to define ourselves, we often dance the line between being defined as a comic or as a zine. Zines are inherently positioned in an underground, alternative body of knowledge, because they are not officially published, or are “published” independently. Although the form of the graphic novel has been greatly expanded upon in the literary mainstream in recent years, comics have always occupied their own cult space, vaguely separate from other forms of art and writing.
The act itself of creating these underground bodies of knowledge and culture helps to work against any version of cultural normativity, because it provides an outlet for voices that are usually silenced by dominant or privileged culture. Additionally, the task of collaborating to create alternative resources helps build strong alliances in order to resist normativity.
Just to start, I'm very interested in learning about what response to your comics you have experienced from the health care professions. Have they been adopted for use? Where? What kinds of clinics or health care professionals have used them? What comments have they made or what experiences have they had with them?
We've had many great responses from friends and family, but also from some students, and other sex educators and health professionals. To list a few: A college professor who was interested in using the comic in her Education Studies course contacted us for permission to use it in her classroom. Many independent infoshops, zine libraries, and bookstores have told us that the comic is getting very popular (hooray!). A friend who works with a non-profit called SPARK! Reproductive Justice distributes the comic to youth who they work with in their offices. And a friend who presented it at a Social Justice Conference on Star Island received ample interest. I personally gave a copy to my gynecologist and she was supportive of its goals. The comic has also appeared in clinics such as Lyon-Martin in San Francisco, which specializes in providing “excellent health care to women and transgender people in a safe and compassionate environment with sensitivity to sexual and gender identity; services are provided regardless of ability to pay.”
One of our ongoing goals is to brainstorm about how to better integrate the comic into the healthcare profession realm, as well as the high school classroom. We are working on a lesson plan that utilizes past issues of NYMM.