Link: heart attacks & city pollution

Urban air increasingly linked to heart disease
Georgia Straight
Gail Johnson
21 May 2014


Smog might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about cardiovascular disease, but mounting evidence shows the two are related.

With air pollution being a major problem around the globe, the risk of heart attack may go up with every breath you take.

“You can sum it up like this: more pollution, more major adverse cardiac events,” says François Reeves, interventional cardiologist and author of the new book Planet Heart: How an Unhealthy Environment Leads to Heart Disease, on the line from his Montreal home.

“Pollution of the city is as toxic as cigarette smoke. It has different stuff in it, but the difference is that with pollution, you get it all through your life, from your birth to your death. If you live in a polluted milieu, as soon as you’re a baby you’ll take it in through every breath.”

Reeves, who’s also an associate professor of medicine in the University of Montreal’s department of environmental health, says there is a growing body of research linking air pollution and heart disease.

According to a March 25 release by the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to air pollution accounted for seven million deaths worldwide in 2012, which is one in eight of total global deaths that year and more than double previous estimates. The study confirmed that air pollution is the greatest contributor to the burden of disease from the environment. Exposure is a more important risk factor for conditions such as ischemic heart disease and stroke than previously thought.

Another WHO report, from 2008 and called Atlas of Health in Europe, found that nations in the former Soviet bloc have cardiovascular-disease death rates up to 10 times higher than those in Western Europe: In France and Norway, the rate among men aged 25 to 64 is roughly 70 in 100,000 people, while in Ukraine it’s 600 and in Russia, it’s 762.

“I was blown away by those numbers,” Reeves says. “We know the classical and well-demonstrated risk factors for heart disease, like smoking and obesity and inactivity. But that’s when I realized the environment has a huge impact.”

Michael Brauer, a UBC professor in the faculty of medicine’s school of population and public health, says that poor air quality is an overlooked risk factor for disease in general.

“There are 3.2 million deaths per year from [outdoor] air pollution, and 1.2 million of those are in China alone,” Brauer says on the line from his office. “There are definitely parts of the world that are worse off than others. Conservative estimates from Canada are around 7,000 deaths per year.

“Globally, air pollution ranks among one of the top risk factors for disease,”

says Brauer, who contributed to the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease study. “People are quite aware of diet and high blood pressure, but this is something people just don’t appreciate.”

Smog consists of numerous contaminants, but it is high concentrations of particulate matter that are associated with heart disease and stroke as well as respiratory illness and certain cancers. These particles cause the greatest health risk because they are tiny and once inhaled can lodge deeply in the lungs.

Exposure is also constant,” Brauer adds. “You may be exposed to a virus when somebody sneezes, and it’s done with. But you’re breathing air pollution 24/7 if you’re living in a polluted area.”

Vancouver is, indeed, one of the greenest major cities in the world, if not the greenest, Brauer notes. But local residents can’t relax altogether about the health effects of air pollution. The adverse health effects of particulate air pollution, even at relatively low levels, remain a global public-health concern.

“We’re nowhere near the levels of the most polluted places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Delhi, but, having said that, we can still measure impacts of air pollution on health,” Brauer says. “And we have not been able to identify a safe level yet on air pollution.”

According to the WHO, air quality in most major cities around the world that monitor pollution fails to meet guidelines for safe levels. An updated urban-air-quality database shows that about half of the urban population being monitored is exposed to air-pollution levels at least 2.5 times higher than the WHO recommends.

The report also states that in most cities where there is enough data to compare the current situation with previous years, air pollution is getting worse, due to reliance on such things as coal-fired power plants and private vehicles, the inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating. All of that puts people at higher risk of developing serious, long-term health problems.

When it comes to cardiovascular disease, Reeves and Brauer reminds us that there’s no single risk factor. And just as people can mitigate their risk by not smoking and getting regular exercise, there are many measures they can take to improve air quality and their health as well.

Reeves shares those steps in Planet Heart, and the list is long, but here are a few: ride your bike, take public transit, or walk; if you drive and can afford it, consider a hybrid vehicle.

“Look at everything you’re doing to minimize your footprint and do whatever you can to have an impact on global footprint,” Reeves says, adding that eating the right food is essential to minimize risk.

“Do not buy industrial foods,” he says. “These have a lot of added sugar and salt and are linked with obesity and diabetes, which are factors in heart disease. We have everything to induce a perfect cardiovascular metabolic syndrome.

“The solution is very easy,” he adds. “Eat fresh as much as you can. Have [food] the way nature delivered it to us.”

Cities and governments must continue their efforts to be green too. Reeves suggests every city have at least a 20-percent tree canopy (to reduce both the levels and toxicity of pollutants).

If those organizations need any convincing, Brauer points to a financial argument: fewer health problems mean less strain on the public system.

“If you improve air quality, everybody benefits,” he says. “It’s really, really cost-effective.”


Childhood abuse common, linked to adult disorders

One in three Canadian adults has experienced child abuse

Marlene Leung
22 Apr 2014

“Success in preventing child abuse could lead to reductions in the prevalence of mental disorders.”

Almost one-third of Canadian adults have experienced child abuse, according to a new study that also found an association between child abuse and certain mental disorders.

The study, published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that 32 per cent of Canadian adults have experienced child abuse — defined by the study authors as physical abuse, sexual abuse or exposure to intimate partner violence (having witnessed their parents or guardians hitting each other).

The study, which analyzed data from 23,395 participants in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, is the first nationally representative study on child abuse and mental disorders in Canada.

“That might include more difficulties with mood disorders and anxiety disorder,” University of Manitoba child abuse researcher Tracie Afifi told CTV News. “They may be more likely to use substances including alcohol and drugs.”

The participants in the survey were 18 years old or older, and were representative of Canadians living in the 10 provinces. The study excluded Canadians living in the three territories, residents in indigenous communities, people living in institutions and full-time members of the Canadian Forces.

The respondents were asked whether they had experienced specific forms of physical or sexual abuse before they turned 16 years old. For example, respondents were asked if they had been slapped, spanked, pushed, kicked, punched or choked as a child.

They were also asked if there had been past attempts to force them into unwanted sexual activity, or if they had experienced unwanted sexual activity, such as grabbing, kissing or fondling.

Dr. Tracie Afifi, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor from the University of Manitoba, said that the results of the study point to the “urgent need” to address child abuse.

“From a public health standpoint, these findings highlight the urgent need to make prevention of child abuse a priority in Canada,” she said in a statement.

The study also found the following:
Physical abuse was the most common form of abuse (32 per cent), followed by sexual abuse (10 per cent) and exposure to intimate partner violence (eight per cent).
Physical abuse is more common in men (31 per cent) than in women (21 per cent).
Sexual abuse is more common in women (14 per cent) than in men (six per cent).
Exposure to intimate partner violence is also more common in women (nine per cent) than in men (seven per cent).

Canadians between the ages of 35-64 were more likely to report having been abused compared to those between the ages of 18-34.

The prevalence of child abuse was highest in the western provinces, with Manitoba having the highest rate (40 per cent), followed by British Columbia (36 per cent) and Alberta (36 per cent). Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest reported rate of child abuse at 21 per cent.

The study also examined the relationship between child abuse and a number of mental conditions and disorders, which were either self-reported by the survey participants or diagnosed through interviews.

Jean-Paul Bedard says the sexual abuse he suffered as a child left him coping with addiction and mental health disorders as an adult.

“I ended up going into a treatment program to deal with the addictions and at the same time I was dealing with a lot of mental health issues, in terms of severe bipolar depression,” Bedard said.

He has since become a child abuse advocate and he recently ran the Boston Marathon to raise money for a special treatment centre for adult victims of abuse.

“It’s not something I have to put away,” he said. “It’s more of a matter of learning to live with it in a healthy way.”

Some of the specific mental health conditions and disorders examined included depression, bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol abuse and dependence, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, having suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

The study’s authors found that all three types of child abuse were associated with all types of mental conditions, whether diagnosed through interviews or self-reported. All three types of child abuse were also associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Even the least severe type of physical abuse studied by the authors – defined as being slapped on the face, head or ears, or hit or spanked with something hard – showed a strong association with all mental conditions, the authors found.

The results of the study are similar to findings from similar national surveys from the U.S., as well as findings from smaller studies from Ontario and Quebec.

The authors conclude that healthcare providers working in the field of mental health should be able to assess patients for exposure to abuse. Also, clinicians should be familiar with the mandatory reporting requirements in their respective province or territory.

“From a public health standpoint, these findings highlight the urgent need to make prevention of child abuse a priority in Canada,” they write.

“Success in preventing child abuse could lead to reductions in the prevalence of mental disorders.”

Technology: storing heat now for use when it’s cold

Canada’s first geo-thermal heating and cooling retrofit of an occupied office tower will begin next month in Vancouver’s downtown core

Kim Pemberton
Vancouver Sun
23 Apr  2014

Canada’s first geo-thermal heating and cooling retrofit of an occupied office tower will begin next month in Vancouver’s downtown core.

The installation, expected to take four months to complete, will be done at Cadillac Fairview’s 19-storey office tower at 777 Dunsmuir, which is home to Holt Renfrew and Sport Chek.

Fenix Energy will drill 30 holes 122 metres into the earth through the building’s underground parkade.

By harvesting the building’s heat and storing it underground until it is needed, geo-exchange helps reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Until now, geo-exchange systems have been installed in new projects where land is readily available adjacent to a building.

The system being used at 777 Dunsmuir involves the installation of vertical rather than horizontal piping underground. Ed Smith of Fenix Energy explained that a geo-exchange field is a place to store thermal energy.

“(It is) like a battery, but instead of charging it with electricity, we charge it with heat energy in summer and use it in winter,” he said.

“When a (traditional) building is cooling, heat goes out of a cooling tower usually at the top, where plumes of hot air go into the sky. We’re saying: Let’s take that free energy and store it in the ground.”

Smith said water pipes placed in holes in the ground take the heat and store it until it is needed.

“We have downtown buildings that generate more heat than they need, yet we still make heat for them. We need to use the heat we have,” he said.

The geo-exchange process In cooling mode, a building’s system removes heat from the occupied spaces. This excess heat is typically rejected into the atmosphere via cooling towers, contributing to global warming. The geoexchange system captures this heat and stores it in the ground beneath the building by using the soil and bedrock as a large thermal mass.

This energy is collected over the warm months and later extracted to provide heating to the building during the winter months.

Fenix Energy sets up a drill rig that is capable of operating in low headroom in the existing parking structure.

A total of 30 geopots or boreholes will be drilled in the parkade. From these pots, the piping is installed to a depth of 400 metres.

Fieldtripping junior high students absorb Coast Salish culture



Bayview teacher Gina Wane brought students (from left to right) Elyse Stacey, Rosalie Scott, Charlotte Mackenzie and Eric Kavelaars on a class trip to Penelakut Island. photo Dan Toulgoet

Kitsilano students given intimate lesson on Coast Salish culture
Cheryl Rossi
Vancouver Courier 
3 April 2014


It all started with sweaters. Elementary school teacher and avid knitter Gina Wane visited Vancouver Island, perused Cowichan sweaters and noted they were knock-offs.

“At that moment I thought my kids need to know about the Cowichan people and their art,” she said.

Wane returned to Bayview Community School in Kitsilano and launched lessons for her Grades 6/7 class about Coast Salish people, purling together social studies, science, language and art.

She assigned Sylvia Olsen’s novel Counting on Hope, which includes the 1863 naval assault on Kuper Island.

When Wane mused she should bring Cowichan knitters to Bayview, a student suggested the class should visit Kuper, now Penelakut, Island.

Twenty-three Grade 6 and 7 Bayview students visited Penelakut, a ferry ride from Chemainus, Feb. 11 to 14.

“What impressed me was that they were so welcoming,” 12-year-old Elyse Stacey said. “They were just so respectful to us… and I learned a lot. You can read stuff in books about the culture and their beliefs but when you actually see it happening, it’s so much different.”

Elders and students welcomed them at Penelakut Island elementary school and the reception lasted 90 minutes. Students shared their traditional names, parents’ names and origins.

“You can’t respect anybody else if you don’t respect yourself,” 12-year-old Charlotte Mackenzie learned.

Drum maker Jorge Lewis re-laced his drum while sharing the significance of securing the laces in four places in relation to the four elements, seasons and directions. Lewis told students a drum should be played to unearth the song within the drummer.

“When he said that we could keep it everyone was a bit surprised because he’d just spent so long [working on it],” said 11-year-old Rosalie Scott.

Students observed the reverence Lewis demonstrated for the yellow cedar and sealskin that shape the drum.

“Be very grateful for what you have and don’t take things for granted,” Stacey said they learned. “They respect everything in their lives even if it’s like a tree or something small. They always say thanks to it and the Creator.”

Brothers who’d attended the island’s notorious residential school spoke about having their hands whipped for writing in their native tongue.

But the Hul’qumi’num people, which include the Penelakut and Cowichan, also taught them about forgiveness.

Students met author Olsen and Cowichan knitters, visited the Qwu’tsun’ Cultural Centre in Duncan, the Legislature in Victoria and joined Penelakut students in a mini Olympics.

A youth volunteer memorized each Bayview student’s name in three days and distributed personalized Valentines.

“In their culture they never leave anybody out,” Stacey said. “Our culture, we just shut lots of people out and I just like how even if they’ve done something bad, they still forgive them and they still want to keep them in their culture.”

Wane wants every Grade 6 and 7 student to learn from aboriginal people on their recognized turf.

Bayview parents paid $250 per child, the Vancouver School Board contributed $500 from its aboriginal education fund and a Capital for Kids grant from the provincial government covered ferry costs.

Penelakut students hope to visit in May.

“If every student could do this exchange, we can change a generation,” Wane said.


Time for a masculinity rethink starting with boys’ sex ed

The Talk
A new sex ed for boys

By Rachel Giese
Photography by Raina Kirn and Wilson Barry
April 2014


Photograph by Raina Kirn and Wilson Barry

Instead, it requires the much more radical act of teaching them to question all they have been told about what it means to be a man, and then helping them figure out how to become a good one.

“But what about boobs? Does a person still get boobs? ” One of the boys in the WiseGuyz sexual education class, at Georges P. Vanier School in northeastern Calgary, is struggling to understand the mechanics of being intersex (born with a combination of male and female genitals and/or chromosomes). For the past fifteen minutes or so, the discussion has focused on diversity and accommodation, and now it has made its way to people who consider themselves something other than “male” or “female.” There may be more delicate ways to ask about physiology, but this is a group of a dozen fourteen-year-old boys, a sea of sneakers and hoodies and cellphones and wisecracks. Boobs were bound to come up eventually.

Tristan Abbott, one of the WiseGuyz facilitators, cheerfully corrects him: “You mean ‘breasts,’ right? ” (He and his colleagues make a point of using the correct names for body parts.) Then he unfolds himself from his chair and sketches a picture on a whiteboard at the front of the room: a figure shaped like a gingerbread man, with a smiley face, a heart, and a starburst at the crotch.

Abbott points to the head and explains that gender identity lies there (whether you define yourself as a man, a woman, or somewhere in between); the heart represents orientation (whom you’re attracted to); the starburst connotes sex (your physical characteristics); and the outline, the external shape, stands for gender expression (how you dress, talk, walk, and so on). These various aspects don’t line up the same way for everyone, he says.

A few boys nod, but the rest look baffled. Stafford Perry, another facilitator, speaks up. “It helps if you understand that for many people, gender is not just two possibilities but many,” he says. “Being a man or a woman exists on a scale, so it’s not either/or. You don’t have to be one or the other.”

A moment of silence as this sinks in. Then the kid who asked the boobs question, a tall, athletic alpha dog type, calls out, “So how do you pee if you don’t have a penis? ” Several boys snicker. Blake Spence, who oversees the program, answers him, straight faced, with a brief explanation of how the urinary tract works.

The kid was probably just angling for a laugh. He had spent the session ping-ponging between peeks at his phone, friendly trash talk with the others, and testing how far he could lean back on his chair balanced just on its rear legs. As Spence explained to me the previous day when we met at the downtown office of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, headquarters of WiseGuyz, their policy is to answer every question put to them, even if they get that it’s a joke. It builds trust, it pre-empts unkind comments, and—you never know—the answer may be useful to someone. At the end of the anatomy lesson, the joker, conceding defeat, flashes a smile at Spence and lets his chair thump forward onto all four legs. The conversation is steered back to the theme of the day, more complicated than possible body part configurations.

Earlier, Spence asked what they thought of when they heard the term “human rights.” One boy, nearly silent till then, mentioned that Vanier has a Gay-Straight Alliance group, and said a gay kid would have no problem at their school.

“Everyone is cool with that here,” he says.

“I guess,” pipes up another boy across the room, sitting near the alpha dog. “I mean, I’m okay with a guy being gay, but I wouldn’t want him to look at me in the locker room when I’m changing or something.”

Spence leans against a table, with his denim shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal the tattoos on his forearms (one, he explained to the group during their check-in, a fresh acquisition from a trip to Portland, Oregon). “Okay, so what you’re saying,” he answers, “is what makes you uncomfortable about gay guys is that they might look at you in a way that’s sexual.”

“Yeah,” the boy says, scanning the room to gauge the others’ responses. When it is clear that no one is going to say anything more, Spence nods at him, then moves on to a slight kid with a mop top who wants to know why all the regular members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance are girls.

“Why do you think it’s that way? ” Spence asks.

“Um, I don’t know. Maybe because guys are scared that if they join, maybe people will think they’re gay? ”

“Yeah,” Spence says, “and why would guys not want people to think they’re gay? ”

“Uh, because even though some people are okay with it,” the kid ventures, “a lot of guys don’t think it’s okay to be gay, and they’re afraid they’ll be made fun of. I think maybe it’s harder for guys to be gay or something.”

Spence nods again, then sends them off for a short break, filing away this conversation for the coming months, when the curriculum moves on to sexual orientation. It is mid-November, still early in the fourteen-session supplemental course for grade nine boys, which runs roughly once a week from October to May. At this stage, one of the main goals is to get them talking. It usually takes the first half of the program for them to become comfortable enough to open up and “set aside the masculine bravado,” he says.

At the beginning, they clam up or crack dumb jokes. They will refer to a girl they don’t like as a “bitch,” call each other “fags,” or dismiss something as being “so gay.” Often, they say things to impress the others, even if they don’t believe their own words. “They might not be particularly homophobic or sexist,” Spence says. “They just think that’s how guys are supposed to talk to each other.”

That attitude may make it challenging to teach boys about sex, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that we seem to have given up on it altogether. Sex educators report that young straight men are the most frequently ignored demographic when it comes to sexual health. Since girls and women overwhelmingly bear the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, violence, and discrimination, sexual health initiatives around the world tend to focus on their needs (one exception being AIDS awareness campaigns targeted at men).

It comes as no surprise, then, that boys often find these female-slanted programs irrelevant and boring, and may even come to think that they have no responsibility for their own sexual health or their partners’.

This lack of education and expectation, coupled with the shoulder-shrugging cop-out that “boys will be boys,” carries serious repercussions. Consider the recent high-profile assaults involving young men, such as the 2011 alleged gang rape of Rehtaeh Parsons in Halifax; or the 2012 case in Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football stars assaulted an inebriated female classmate.

Teenage boys also visit considerable harm upon themselves. They are most prone to taking risks with their health, by using drugs and alcohol during sex, having multiple partners, and engaging in unprotected sex. Studies indicate that boys are less likely than girls to seek clinical sexual health care, because they feel embarrassed and afraid to look stupid or unmanly. When they do receive medical attention, doctors are less likely to raise the issue of sexual health with them than with girls.

Meanwhile, as teenage pregnancy in Canada continues to decline, sexually transmitted infections are climbing. More than two-thirds of chlamydia cases reported in this country occur among those aged fifteen to twenty-four. In the United States, the same age group accounts for nearly half of the 19 million new cases of STDs each year. This suggests that while girls are using contraception to prevent pregnancies, boys, who have more control over the use of condoms, are not wearing them consistently to prevent the spread of infections.

So, if young men pose a danger to themselves and others, how do sex educators go about fixing that? In the case of WiseGuyz, it’s not by showing them how to use condoms, though that is part of the curriculum.

Instead, it requires the much more radical act of teaching them to question all they have been told about what it means to be a man, and then helping them figure out how to become a good one.

Or, as one boy at Vanier explained it to me, “It’s a program where you learn how not to be a jerk.”

Young people always assume that their generation invented sex, but kids coming of age at this particular moment—even more so than the baby boomers, who grew up during the sexual revolution—really are charting an unmapped world. It’s not, as you might think, because they are having sex earlier (the average age most Canadians experience what academics merrily refer to as “the sexual debut” has held steady at around sixteen). Rather, as the beneficiaries of feminism, gay liberation, and the digital revolution, they see romance, desire, gender roles, and family configuration expressed and celebrated in all sorts of unprecedented forms.

But have adults caught up enough to prepare them for all of this? It depends where you look. In the US, sex ed remains a political wedge issue, with a determined conservative lobby championing abstinence programs, a major failure at influencing teenage behaviour. (Teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are much higher than in countries with more liberal sex education and more relaxed attitudes about sexuality.) Meanwhile, in Canada, surveys find that the majority of parents—over 85 percent—believe the school system should provide sexual health education. An even higher proportion of adolescents agrees.

We shouldn’t feel too smug about this, mind you. While Canadian curricula might be more explicit, they are heavy on talk of disease and date rape, as though foreplay should include a disaster preparedness plan. Berkha Gupta, coordinator of teen programming at Planned Parenthood Toronto, says, “The fear-based model has become the cornerstone of sex ed in schools. The focus is on negative outcomes, on avoiding pregnancy and STIs, on avoiding sexual assault. In some ways, it’s just an extension of the abstinence approach.” One academic paper that examined the squeamishness of sex ed courses called the school system “a place where the body is unwelcome.”

Even if teachers want to be more open and positive, they often feel limited in what they can tell students. The Ontario government chickened out of implementing a sex ed curriculum it announced in 2010, after conservative groups complained that it discussed homosexuality in grade three and masturbation in grade six. Without new material, educators in the most populous province must rely on lesson plans released in 1998—the pre-Snapchat, pre-twerking, early mesolithic era of modern sexuality.

So what do young people want to know about sex? In a bright office on the top floor of the rambling Victorian that houses Planned Parenthood, I met with Gupta and Michele Chai, a health promoter who runs the agency’s programs for young men. They tell me about the results of a survey the organization conducted with 1,200 teenagers and young adults in the Toronto area, asking them what was missing from their sexual health knowledge. The top three issues they wanted to learn more about were healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS, and sexual pleasure.

That last topic—pleasure—is key to engaging young men, Chai explains, because sexual prowess is so deeply embedded in beliefs about masculinity. Trouble is, the assumption that every boy is always “on” can make a teen feel like less of a man if he needs advice about pleasing himself or his partner. “People tend to think that the swagger young men display is because they have confidence about sex.…You want to know the three things about sex that young guys lie about most often to their peers? ” Chai asks, ticking them off on her fingers. “One, how often they have sex. Two, how much they enjoy the sex they actually have. And three, whether or not they use condoms.” She says this adds up to far too many unhappy and unsafe encounters.

Giving young men the opportunity to talk about what they enjoy and what they don’t also opens the door to considering the desires of others, and it’s a short leap from talking about pleasure to talking about consent. Boys are repeatedly told in sex ed classes that “no means no,” Chai says, but they are seldom asked if they ever want to say no themselves. The hope is that if they get in touch with their wants and needs, they will show more respect for their partners’ wishes, too. (On the flip side, a movement has emerged to encourage young women to feel good about enjoying sex, a kind of unashamed, yes-means-hell-yes concept called “enthusiastic consent.”)

Unfortunately, little support exists for boys trying to navigate this tricky terrain. Programs like WiseGuyz are rare, and Planned Parenthood’s boys-only courses are directed at those in detention centres, shelters, and foster care. Chai says she would love to expand the classes beyond those considered at risk, but no funding is available.

Meanwhile, where sex ed has feared to tread, pornography has happily stepped in. The ubiquity of porn in young men’s lives is so much a given that every sex educator I spoke to raised it without prompting. “Adults may want teens to have information about sex,” Tristan Abbott explains, “but most don’t want to give them permission to actually have sex.” Porn gives them permission.

Most sex educators, however, do not indulge in the widespread cultural pearl clutching about the influence porn may have in shaping boys’ attitudes about sex, in part because insufficient research has been done on the subject and what little exists is inconclusive. Last spring, for example, Middlesex University, at the request of England’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner, released a report titled Basically…Porn Is Everywhere, an exhaustive overview of studies from around the world about the impact of pornography on young people.

Many findings were predictable: kids look at porn out of curiosity and use it to masturbate; and boys use it more often and have a more positive view of it than girls do. While noting that young people have far greater exposure and access to porn than ever before, and that it has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex and regressive views about gender, researchers had difficulty establishing a direct causal relationship. One reason may be that modern adolescents are more sophisticated than previous generations at interpreting and criticizing media. As well, popular culture has become so hyper-sexualized that it’s tough to distinguish between porn and the general blur of dirty song lyrics, rape-fuelled video games, and sleazy reality TV.

What may be more important than measuring the impact of pornography is addressing why adolescents look at so much of it. Researchers report “emerging evidence…that young people are dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving and that they are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information regarding sexual practices and norms.” This is particularly true for boys. One study found that young men wanted porn included in sex ed, because issues around sex and sexuality were not covered well enough; another noted that young gay men relied on porn to teach them about anal sex. Researchers concluded that “children and young people want more education and opportunity to discuss sex and relationships but…many parents feel poorly equipped to help.”

Photograph by Raina Kirn and Wilson Barry

Back in 2007, when staff at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre realized that after thirty years in operation it offered no specific programs for young straight men, they commissioned a team of social workers from the University of Calgary to help them create one. Given the dearth of models, they put together a small sample of guys in their late teens and early twenties and asked them how they learned about sex and what they wished they had been taught.

Almost to a man, they said sex ed in school started too late, and seemed abstract and unrelated to what people really did in bed. They thought the classes should be frank and fun. One said he suspected that his teachers had focused on anatomy so they could “shy away from actually having to talk about [sex].” They said birth control and disease prevention is left up to girls—guys, they said, were often ignorant about risks and felt they were invincible—and they stressed the importance of teaching boys the “right attitude” about sex, in particular to be more sensitive toward women, and more responsible for their own actions.

When asked who should deliver this kind of information, they were unanimous: other guys, not too old or out of touch, engaging, smart, with a sense of humour. No nerdy academic types. No middle-aged ladies. As one participant said, “If some fifty-five-year-old woman tried to teach me all this stuff…I’d just be like, ‘You’re just like my mom. I’m not going to listen to you.’”

The ideas expressed in that focus group are evident in the WiseGuyz program today, down to the profile of the facilitators. All three are around thirty years old, confident, handsome, and dressed in the lumberjack-chic uniform of the modern urban man: well-groomed beards, dark denim jeans, white T-shirts peeping out from under fitted shirts. Blake Spence tends to be laid back and observant, while Tristan Abbott is talkative and good humoured. Stafford Perry offers the sunbeam-like attention of a beloved older brother. When a short, sweet-faced kid in a Calgary Flames jersey enters the room, Perry greets him with a fist bump and an “Awww, nice shirt, man!” then rehashes the team’s loss the previous night. The three men are undeniably cool, and the boys, even the ones who give them a hard time, regard them with awe.

One student tells me that the facilitators are relatable and non-judgmental. “Sometimes it feels like adults think teenage guys are nothing but trouble,” he says. When I ask if he talks to his parents about sex and relationships, he says he’d like to, but he’s afraid they will overreact. “It’s just easier to talk to Blake and Stafford and Tristan, because they don’t force you to tell them every detail of what’s going on.” When he asks his parents about sex, “I get the third degree. Then I say to them, ‘This is why I didn’t want to talk to you in the first place.’”

Vanier was the first of five junior high schools across Calgary to host WiseGuyz, almost four years ago now. Principal Martin Poirier, a dapper man in a blue bow tie, tells me the younger students look forward to signing up in grade nine. Though the program is voluntary, some are encouraged to enroll, the ones who act inappropriately, or who seem immature and might need more confidence. “What these boys learn,” he says, “has an impact on the whole school. They become role models.”

The curriculum follows a carefully plotted schedule. After the unit on human rights and values, it moves on to the nuts and bolts: anatomy, sex, and contraception. The third unit focuses on gender and sexuality, and the course wraps up in the spring by addressing healthy relationships. It’s heavy stuff, and WiseGuyz takes it seriously, basing the content on current research and constant evaluation. The Calgary Sexual Health Centre study that informed the program drew on surveys from health and social service organizations that serve young people, as well as focus groups and academic literature. A couple of years ago, WiseGuyz commissioned another report measuring its impact and collecting feedback from interviews with teachers and past participants.

Despite this earnestness behind the scenes, facilitators keep the tone light in the classroom. Take the standard sex ed lesson in rolling a condom onto a banana. It’s a useful exercise, technically, but it doesn’t take into account what it’s actually like during foreplay and how tough it can be to negotiate safer sex amid the nerves, pressure, and lust. The typical reasons given for not using condoms are that they reduce pleasure, and they ruin the mood. Young men want to be seen as skilled and suave, and they worry that if they start fumbling with a condom they’ll look inept—the ultimate buzzkill for a guy who is already anxious about performance. One session with a banana is not going to cut it. In WiseGuyz, the students are allowed to experiment. They blow up condoms and bat them around like balloons, or fill them with water and fling them at one another. The more times they practise opening the packages, examining what different kinds feel and look like, the better. The aim is to demystify condoms, make them seem fun, not scary or ridiculous.

No evidence has surfaced yet as to whether the boys are more apt to practise safer sex later on, but Spence offers at least one compelling anecdote. He received a message from an early graduate who was not sexually active then; now he was a high school senior and had started having sex with his girlfriend. The thing was, condoms felt awkward and fit weirdly. He remembered that Blake was cool. Could he help him out now?

If you’re over the age of, say, thirty, think back to when you were seventeen and just about everything felt mortifying. Now imagine what it would have meant to have an adult in your life you could have gone to with this kind of question, trusting that he or she wouldn’t judge or lecture. Even without a shred of empirical data, you could not deny the value of this. Or this: Spence made the kid a care package filled with every possible condom brand, style, colour, and texture he could find, and encouraged him to knock himself out, trying different kinds until he found one that worked for him.

After a short break in the morning session, the facilitators divide the students into teams and assign them an activity: draw a map of an imaginary island, and establish a charter of human rights for it. Abbott warned me that one group in a previous course created an island that looked like a huge pair of breasts, while another championed the right “for girls to be naked all the time.” Today’s results are tamer. One island society has a US-style “stand your ground” law, and a convoluted origin story that rivals the plot of Lost. Another nation is divided into the regions of Dopest and Least Dope, supported by a constitution that forbids killing and currency (“If no one has money, then there’s less corruption,” one boy explains).

The discussion is half-goofy, half-serious. Enthusiastic agreement ensues when the right to free speech is raised (not surprising for a demographic that gets told to shut up all the time), along with whoops at the suggestion that people should be given free rein when it comes to eating cookies. Crayons in hand, immersed in drawing their island utopias and slurping from juice boxes, they resemble a pack of third-graders more than they do adolescents in the throes of puberty—but those awkward, hormonal hallmarks show up, too: while some kids seem outweighed by their backpacks, others appear broad shouldered and towering, with voices that croak and pop over several octaves.

Up until about age ten, children tend to hang out in single-sex friendship circles, with distinct patterns of interaction; while girls talk to each other, boys do activities together. As they move into middle school, though, “they cross that divide and start to have mixed-gender interactions and friendships,” says Jennifer Connolly, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University who researches adolescent relationships. At this stage, crushes also begin to emerge.

By the time they reach thirteen or fourteen, like the students in WiseGuyz, dating begins. Some are in what they consider serious relationships, though Connolly says exclusive adult-style couplings tend not to appear until later adolescence. (Insufficient research has been done into adolescent gay and lesbian relationships to determine whether they follow a similar trajectory.) Younger teens typically date within large, mixed peer groups. “Same-sex friends remain the most important during this time,” she says. “That’s the group younger teenagers go back to as their sounding board, the one that sets the social norms when it comes to romantic relationships.”

“The guys set the bar for one another,” Spence agrees. “At the beginning, the popular guys have the most power, and the others look to them for approval. As we progress, they start to challenge one another in different ways.” To illustrate how WiseGuyz facilitates this evolution, he tells me about a recent class in which all of the kids condemned sexual assault and bullying. Then he pushed them a little further: what would they do about these kinds of incidents if they witnessed them or heard about them? “I said, ‘You might not identify with boys who do things like that, but if you do nothing about it you’re contributing to it. You don’t have to passively accept it. You don’t have to forward that text message; you don’t have to laugh when someone makes a rape joke.’”

This has become the standard approach in anti-bullying campaigns, but it is much easier to preach than to practise. While it’s noble to tell a young person to stand up for what’s right, children (particularly those in the peer-dependent middle school and early teenage years) are pack animals who find it difficult to set themselves apart. So WiseGuyz doesn’t just target individuals; it tries to reshape the dynamics of boy culture. The popular kids are encouraged to cede some power and the shy ones to become more vocal, and the accepted rules of what Michael Kimmel, an American sociologist and author of Guyland and Manhood in America, has called “the Guy Code” (the whole “boys don’t cry” and “bros before hos” ethos) get upturned.

The fundamental lesson at work here is how to establish and respect boundaries and personal choice. With this in mind, the students will be paired up later in the program to negotiate a hypothetical trip to a water park, by asking each other a series of questions. Do you like waterslides? Do you want to go on a ride just once, or multiple times? Do you want to dive in the deep end? Do you even know how to swim?

The idea is to help them work through the tension that arises when their answers to these questions don’t line up with their peers’. Of course, the lesson is just as valuable in romantic relationships as in platonic ones. If they can’t figure out how to plan a fun, safe trip to a water park with a friend, they won’t be able to enjoy a fun, safe sex life or a healthy romantic relationship. Success, as Michele Chai has pointed out, requires a degree of self-knowledge: they need to know what they want, but they also need to learn how to communicate it.

Abbott says he has seen a number of boys falter even when they try to express simple feelings. Unlike teenage girls, who are encouraged from toddlerhood to be vulnerable, to manage the emotional back-and-forth of friendships, and to act out romances with their Barbie and Ken dolls, most boys (whether due to nature or nurture or a combination of both) haven’t had the same practice. “Some have almost no emotional vocabulary, beyond sad or mad or happy,” Abbott says. “There’s not a lot of nuance.”

Last October, in another classroom on the Lakeshore campus of Humber College, west of downtown Toronto, Jeff Perera has drawn a square on the blackboard in chalk and labelled it “The Man Box.” A community engagement manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, an organization for men and boys that promotes gender equality, he is hosting a talk titled “Unmasking Masculinity” with his colleague Shai Kohen. Inside the box, Perera has written a string of words and phrases describing traditional views of masculinity: “tough,” “strong,” “head of the household,” “stud,” “stoic,” “in control,” “brave,” “emotionless,” “heterosexual,” and so on. Outside the box are words used to describe men who don’t live up to these standards: “pussy,” “fag,” “batty boy,” “bitch,” “mama’s boy.”

The small gathering of college students calls out suggestions: “Stud!” “Wimp!” “Leader!” “Boss!” “Queer!” The object of the exercise, Perera says, is to expose “that the formula for manhood is the denial of everything perceived as soft, or gentle, or emotional, or feminine.” He says these messages come early on, then he tells a story about conducting a similar activity with grade four boys. He asked them to write down what they didn’t like about being boys, and they returned a list that included “Boys smell bad,” “Boys are supposed to like violence,” “Boys are supposed to play football,” “Boys have an automatic bad reputation,” “Boys are not supposed to cry,” and “Boys are not able to be a mother.”

Perera, who sports a shaved head and square-framed glasses, is a born performer, funny and gregarious. He draws on his own sometimes challenging childhood as the son of striving immigrant parents from Sri Lanka (when he was two years old, he once called his mom a bitch in Sinhalese, because he had heard his father refer to her that way so often). He drops pop culture references (Breaking Bad’s Walter White as an example of “toxic manhood”), and demonstrates a “bro hug” with Kohen (“See how we’re barely touching? How we only lean in with our shoulders, to minimize body contact? ”).

Masculinity, Perera says, is a slippery identity that must be constantly performed, a house of cards on the brink of toppling. Manhood (or rather “manhood,” since he tends to say it as if it were in quotes) is especially precarious now, with gender roles in flux and women accumulating power and opportunities through education and employment. In this climate, it’s no wonder Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, created such a stir.

Rosin’s central argument—that men cannot adjust to the progressive, post-manufacturing, knowledge-based economy that women seem to thrive in—seems to reflect a generalized anxiety about the fate of men and boys. Some of these fears border on hysteria, like the conservative sideshow on Fox News Network wringing its hands over the supposed feminization of America; or a recent Time magazine cover depicting the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton, who appears as a giant kitten heel pump, with a tiny, terrified man clinging to it. You don’t have to buy into the paranoia, though, to acknowledge that plenty of men are in trouble. Globalization and the recession have devastated the economic prospects for a large swath of male blue-collar workers. In the US, one in three African American men born today can expect to be incarcerated during his lifetime, as can one in six Latinos. Boys in Canada, the US, England, and elsewhere are lagging behind academically: they don’t read as well as girls; they experience greater problems with attention, behaviour, and focus; and they drop out more often.

Observing all of this, it can seem as if the end is nigh for men—or at least a particular way of being a man—which has left some guys adrift. Perera suggests, however, that the problem is not strictly speaking that women have gained power and broadened their ambitions; nor is it the necessity for men to adapt to that.

The issue is that masculinity has been measured so narrowly that men can no longer evaluate their worth, particularly as women step into traditional male roles such as breadwinner, boss, or sexual aggressor.

“If you’re told there is only one way to be a man,” Perera says, “but in your relationship you’re not the funny one, the ambitious one, the one with the money, what do you bring to the table? ” This has created an identity crisis, even for men who embrace the evolving status quo.

Without the old definitions, Perera asks, what does it mean to be a man? He makes a quasi-joke about facial hair being back in vogue: “Sometimes I think it has become a way of asserting maleness in a non-aggressive way.” Moustaches and mutton chops aside, recent decades have seen plenty of attempts to remould and reclaim maleness, from the drum beating of the Iron John–style men’s movement to the tree house building of The Dangerous Book for Boys. But these can seem like Hail Mary passes, meant to rescue some fading, clichéd bro-dom, especially in light of programs like WiseGuyz. Teaching young men to trust, communicate, negotiate, and empathize does not undermine or threaten their manliness. It expands their humanity. It reclaims men’s possibilities.

The afternoon session at Vanier is quieter than the morning one. During check-in, the students leisurely share the events of the past week: basketball practice, guitar lessons, marathon sessions of Doctor Who on Netflix and The Last of Us on PlayStation 3. One kid is frustrated because his hockey team sucks and hasn’t won a game in ages (“Been there, man,” the guy beside him says). Another announces that he just passed his Bronze Cross exam, bringing him closer to being certified as a lifeguard (“That’s sweet, dude!” says Stafford Perry, ever enthusiastic). It’s typical, nothing-special teenage guy stuff, but they seem to savour the conversation.

When asked what they liked best about WiseGuyz, past participants named learning about relationships—friendships and romances—as the most valuable part. They talked about the pressure to be good at things and keep up appearances, and how the program provided “a stress relief,” a place where they could speak freely and let down their guard.

Earlier, Blake Spence told me how as a kid he had wrestled with the demands his father placed on him. As the eldest son, he was expected to play sports and “man up.” That ultra-macho way of being a guy didn’t suit him, he says. “I would have loved to have been in WiseGuyz when I was fourteen. It might have spared me a lot of struggle.”

He adds that for each kid, the process of becoming a man is different, and he doesn’t want the program to take traditional ideas of masculinity or manliness off the table. “Being that kind of a manly man is really meaningful to lots of guys. We just want to let boys know that you can’t expect everyone to fit into that box all the time—or even at all.” Ultimately, he wants them to worry less about acting like a man and think more about acting like themselves.

With time to spare at the end of the session, they begin a game of Pictionary. Midway through, I leave to interview a couple of students separately in the hallway. They’ve gamely agreed to speak with me, even though talking to a woman old enough to be their mom about sex and relationships is about as comfortable as, well, talking to their mom about sex and relationships. When I ask one kid if he has a girlfriend, he stares at me in silence while his cheeks go red. The other one, bright, with a great, weird sense of humour, sheepishly requests that I not make him sound dumb. The conversation gets easier when they talk about how much they love the program, how much fun it is and how it helps them.

When I return to the room, I notice a scented candle burning on a desk. One kid catches me looking at it and says apologetically, “There were some farts. Farts definitely happened.” Then another chimes in, “The first rule of WiseGuyz is you do not fart in WiseGuyz.” The joke is kind of dumb, kind of gross, and kind of funny—in other words, exactly the sort of joke that kills in roomful of fourteen-year-old boys. And kill it does: they laugh until long after the bell rings.

Internet: information/social hub or corporate marketplace?

Internet power redefined

Astra Taylor disrupts Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian narrative in The People’s Platform
Internet has exacerbated inequality and hasn’t democratized culture, author says

Stephen Hui
Georgia Straight | Books
26 Mar 2014

Peoples Platform jacket

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

While the Internet is often described as an egalitarian medium that fosters democracy and openness, Astra Taylor doesn’t subscribe to such a rosy view.

According to the 34-year-old writer, documentary filmmaker, and activist, the digital age has actually exacerbated inequality, increased our society’s dependence on free labour, and resulted in greater media centralization.

Taylor, who was born in Winnipeg and now lives in New York City, believes we’ve adopted—and allowed ourselves to be deceived by—the self-serving, techno-utopian rhetoric of (mostly white and male) Silicon Valley executives.

“You’ve got these people trying to disrupt this and that,” Taylor tells the Georgia Straight by phone from Toronto. “But they never disrupt Goldman Sachs. They always go to Goldman Sachs for their IPO or when they’re getting bought up by the bigger companies.”

Taylor is the author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Random House Canada). In the 266-page book, published this month, she argues that the Internet hasn’t democratized culture but made power less visible.

Certainly, new forms of activism and political engagement have arisen online. At the same time, however, digital technology has given governments more ways to surveil citizens, helped companies monitor the private lives of employees, and allowed marketers to turn social-media users’ interactions into advertisements.

As well, Taylor observes that the Internet has a “strange tendency toward monopoly”, with corporate giants such as Amazon, eBay, Google, and Netflix dominating their respective markets. In light of Facebook claiming over one billion monthly active users, she refers to social networking as the “commercialization of the once unprofitable art of conversation”.

“Preferential attachment, network effects, and the power laws they produce matter, in part, because they intensify and epitomize the old inequities we hoped the Internet would overthrow, from the star system to the hit-driven manufacturing of movies, music, and books,” Taylor states in The People’s Platform. “Winner-take-all markets promote certain types of culture at the expense of others, can make it harder for niche cultures and late bloomers to flourish, and contribute to broader income inequality.”

Taylor warns of the advent of a “new form of discrimination”, where Ivy League alumni are served different content and ads than high-school graduates. Data from online profiles could be analyzed, without permission, to determine individuals’ interest rates for credit cards and loans, and to charge people different prices for goods.

If we care about equality, Taylor asserts, we must build it into the medium. Such structures would counteract social prejudices and homophily (people’s tendency to connect with others with similar backgrounds and values) online.

“No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering platforms to promote diversity or adapting existing laws to curb online harassment unsettling and paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind—they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things,” Taylor writes. “The term ‘platform,’ which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing and upraising certain purposes over others.”

The People’s Platform concludes with a “manifesto for sustainable culture”. In it, Taylor calls for more and larger online spaces devoted to the public interest.


Canadian-born author Astra Taylor looks at public interest online in her new book. photo: Deborah DeGraffenreid

Although techno-libertarians insist that the Internet must be free from government intervention, Taylor maintains that the state has a role to play through regulation and subsidies. After all, taxation is “a form of crowdfunding”, she points out.

Taylor suggests that a new tax on advertising could fund art, culture, and journalism, which have suffered from underinvestment online. She notes that tech companies such as Apple and Google have used clever accounting schemes to shield themselves from paying their fair share of taxes—money that could support an expansion of public media.

Other solutions that Taylor puts forward include cooperatively owned versions of iTunes and Netflix, and online news organizations based on the community-supported-agriculture model.

“We have to remember that things that were totally unpalatable become palatable,” Taylor says. “Amazing things do happen because people agitate and organize. I actually never say ‘never’.”

In 2012, Taylor helped organize the Rolling Jubilee campaign of Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, which used donations to buy and cancel millions of dollars of Americans’ personal debt. According to her, if we are to make good on the “hopes and dreams” of the Internet, we must first expose the economic forces at work behind the scenes and relearn the lessons of media history.

“I think there are lots of solutions,” Taylor says. “But the best ones are collective ones. And to get to a point where that’s even a possibility, you have to shift public consciousness.”

Know more:
Without net neutrality, Internet corporatization begins | A Mental Ecosystem | 16 Feb 2014
Google Buzz: The Corporatization of Social Commons | | 17 Feb 2010