By Sharon Kattar
Something good that came out of COVID and the lockdown, other than saving my money, was the rekindling of my desire to read. I have always considered myself an avid reader. Growing up, I remember being told that I was quite bright for my age, and my parents would always say that it was because of my love of reading. Of course, I then came to McGill and realized I am a dime a dozen, but that could be a whole other article. Somewhere during the scandalous life of a teenager living in a country with no rules and the hardships of university life, I found it much harder to continue reading at the pace and volume that I used to. Netflix took over, and my weekends were spent hollow-eyed in front of Netflix on my second monitor (surely that wasn’t its original purpose) and Instagram on my smartphone. Then poof, the world as we knew it kindled and burned right before our eyes. All of a sudden, I was sitting on my balcony that faced the cross on Mont Royal, making pina coladas, and spending some much needed time with my mother. I felt a connection with myself that I hadn’t felt in a while, and I ventured to pick up a book. King has always had his place in my heart, but reading The Stand in the midst of a pandemic felt all too real. For the first time in my life, I found myself reaching for the non-fiction book that had gathered dust on my shelf. David Allyn’s Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History, a book I had bought at a second-hand bookstore down in Harvard Square (MA), proved to be a page-turner. There is no denying that I have always been interested in sexuality and the implications of sexual desire, forever a defier of the arbitrary rules I saw being set, and I had found a book that taught me how these implications came about and were changed over time in the USofA.
Allyn’s book opened my eyes to the fascinating nature of non-fiction works. As a kid growing up, I found myself needing to escape the world I was in, mainly because I didn’t yet have the tools to create the world I wanted to live in. Non-fiction appeared to be a depiction of events that had happened to somebody else in God knows where, at whatever point in time. I found that fictional novels played out like the movies I liked to watch, only better. The protagonist had a name and a description, but not a face. The town they lived in, traveled past, or hunted through had a name and a description, but not a topographical picture. I could travel the worlds between the bookends and live in a fantasy, something I thought non-fiction could not grant me.
Then I grew up. A pandemic shook my world and I was reading a history of human sexuality. I realized I wasn’t the only person in mankind who had a thought worth two cents and that there are actually people out there who have done something worth reading about. For me, it started with human sexuality. It fascinates me, and learning about what the United States went through to get where they are today was eye-opening. And funny. But mostly eye-opening. I also noticed that I was capable of memorizing dates and events, something I hadn’t thought applied to me. Turns out I just needed to care about the dates and events in order to pay attention. Who knew? Next, I moved on to toxic masculinity.
Having been part of POWE McGill for 4 years now, I have been exposed to more than a handful of male-identifying engineering students feeling the need to share their input on a female issue. This is okay. We should all talk about diversity in engineering. Hell, we should all talk about diversity in life, something BLM has taught us. But when a first-year tells me that POWE is hindering growth opportunities for men in engineering, I begin to question all over again why men in engineering need to feel threatened. Hence, the topic of toxic masculinity. Liz Plank graduated from McGill University and moved to New York to do something. Not important. The cool part was that she was powerful, attracted me, and we could bond over McGill. Mind you, I have never met her, just heard her voice on a podcast (Armchair Expert, go check it out). Plank’s book For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity tackles cultural masculine ideals that may lead to what people now refer to as “toxic masculinity.” My favorite part of the book must have been when Plank introduces an alternative to triggering “toxicity:” “mindful masculinity.” By simply changing the wording, people who hold traditional masculine ideals can correct whatever harmful behaviors they might be portraying, and become mindful of their daily actions. Plank’s first book introduces a lot of great ideas and offers some interesting alternatives, but lacks a few things an experienced writer brings to the table. The writing is less than impressive given the amount of research already done around this topic, and in my opinion the research referenced throughout the book lacks full fledged arguments and conclusions. Regardless, this book made me re-evaluate the gender norms that I put out into the world and the stereotypes I reinforce in my circle. A great read.
Having ventured into the forgiveness of not-so-great masculinity, I decided to go back to 2016, a time when gay marriage had only been legal for one year in the USofA. Back in 2016, the world was quite different, and Peggy Orenstein decided to take a deep dive into the lives of high schoolers and university first-years to see what her daughter was about to embark upon as a coming-of-age young adult. Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape hit me out of left field. For the Love of Men made me feel optimistic about our world and where we are growing, but Orenstein threw me back into the shitty reality (of 2016, but some could easily argue, of today). The stress and pressure placed on young women around their body and how they use it never fails to baffle me. I have surely been through my own sort of hell, but this book made me cry. In a great way. I mean, sure, I was crying out of despair and hurt, but I needed to. Orenstein takes readers through the hardships of discovering sexuality as a young female-identifying adult, and its every shitty implication. If you are a female-identifying adult reading Girls & Sex, I promise that you will be talking to the girls in the chapters, wishing you could show them what you now know. In this book, there are no masculine heroes. In this book, we feel the pain of being young and curious. But in this book, there are victors. In the last chapter, Orenstein shadows a youth advocate and sex educator Charis Denison, who may well be the person I want to grow up to be. Denison talks to young adults in high school about sex and everything that goes with it. And I mean everything. Biology, consent, pleasure, you name it. In January of 2020, Peggy Orenstein released her newest book, Boys & Sex. Reading list, here I come.