Girlfriend Therapy

My last post was about my online dating travails; it tells the story of me learning to cope with the badness of online dating, while finding the goodness in online dating (including the freedom to be many versions of my sexual self – exciting and healthy, though also quite daunting at times).

This post is going to be about something related but very different: finding the time and the space to make new female friends in middle age.

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Friends in middle age: Sam, me, and Susan – with a couple of terrific guys on the Three Ports Tour 2016.

Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: for me, this issue is intimately related (just like the online dating issue) to my health and wellness, as well as to my fitness. When I think about how I might be fit for purpose in this world – able to carry on in my job, to carry on caring for my parents and my dog, to carry on managing the expectations placed on me by all the stakeholders in my world, and ALSO, FIRST, to carry on taking good care of ME – I think about a lot more than riding my bike or rowing or yoga. All those things matter. But so much more matters, too.

This past weekend was the Women’s March all over the world, and especially in Washington. My colleague (and sometime-contributor here) Alison went to Washington; she filled me in and I was filled with envy. Catherine blogged on the weekend about not going; like her, I made an alternative choice. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was absolutely for me about self-care. I realised I couldn’t march, because I wasn’t in a place to give that much at that moment. So instead I made a joyously selfish and entirely feminist choice: to take care of myself, by reaching out to another, wonderful woman in my life.

I was incredibly moved by Susan’s last post here on the blog, about her daughter and their recent experience shopping for clothes. I decided, after reading it, to send Susan an email thanking her for it and describing how I’d connected to it. Susan and I have been riding a few times before, thanks to Sam, but we’ve not hung out. A few times I have wished we could: Susan’s canoe trips sound TDF, and her dog Shelby is a sweetheart. So this time I was bold: I told Susan what her post had meant to me, and I asked if we could maybe hang out some time.

Susan wrote the kindest email back. In it, she said (and I’m going to take a chance here and say she would not mind me quoting this to you!):

This is just the loveliest thing. I mean, how often do middle age women get emails from other women saying “I want to be your friend?” Possibly never until right now.

And you know, she’s right. We hit a certain age (for me it was my early 20s) and realise that we’re growing apart from the community of young women we’ve (if we are lucky – and I know not all of us are) become attached to and reliant on. Some of us get long-term boyfriends or girlfriends, and our dynamics shift. Then we go to college or uni, sometimes far from one another. Babies come. Or careers blossom. We move around, away. We connect online a bit, see each other sometimes. In the process, of course, we make other friends, but if we are in long-term relationships or have families at home to care for, it becomes harder and less of a priority to connect with those close friends from our past, or even those new friends around the corner. Nuclear family-think sets in – another word for (hetero)normativity.

When I left Canada for a new job in England in 2012, I left a clutch of wonderful female friends behind. I missed them like hell! And when I came back, in late 2014, I left an equally fabulous posse of wonderful women once more. I ache with the loss of them in my daily life. We connect on Skype, but it’s not the same. Even with my best girls just up the highway in Toronto now, it’s hard to stay connected. There are loads of demands on our time, many children now among us, and a two hour drive is a two hour drive…

Last Sunday, I made that drive – to meet up with Susan and walk our dogs along the glorious trails near her house on the Niagara escarpment. We shared a bit about our pasts – partners, experiences, losses – that we didn’t know about one another before. We talked about work and kids. We talked about mental health struggles. We talked about the fog, the sumac, the gorgeous spaces all around us. We shared the pleasures of ambulatory, sensory therapy. We kept on top of the dogs! We got home and Susan gave me a cup of green tea in the most hilarious mug I have ever seen. Then Shelby did some genuinely wicked canine tricks for me.

We agreed we needed to do it again.

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This is not the mug Susan offered me. Hers is substantially funnier.

I’ve realised recently that I’ve been in the process, for 18 months or so now, of remaking my life. Returning from abroad to an old job and a much-loved house but a very new living and working situation has been at turns familiar and shattering. I’ve not got my bearings yet. I’m still figuring stuff out: who I want to be in the second half of my life; who I’d like to have around me as I grow old; what I want to give my body now, and what I want it to give me in return; who I’d like to have sex with, and who I’d like to spend my nights with; where I want to live – REALLY live. At a distance from some of the people and places that have deeply mattered to me thus far in my life, I’ve at times felt helpless and bereft in the face of these questions.

But I don’t need to be. Because there are so many amazing, strong, compassionate, loving – and did I mention STRONG? – women around me. Like Susan.

Thank god for us all!

Kim

Wellness tips for women online

Almost two years ago I split up with my husband. We had been together for over 15 years, and had been living in England for two, when I made the difficult decision to return to Canada (partly for work, partly to help support my ailing mother). After six months of draining and expensive transatlantic commuting, he left me. Or, rather, the relationship fell painfully apart, as distance, time, and sheer exhaustion broke its back.

Losing my long-term partner was hard for loads of reasons, but perhaps the worst of all was knowing I’d need to get back to dating again. I wasn’t done being in love, being cared for, or having sex – but to be honest, I barely remembered how to get myself these things.

I was an awkward kid with some body dysmorphia issues, and through my teens I was fat. I hated when people looked at me, and I did not like putting myself on the line for fear of teasing, bullying, humiliation – all the stuff I’d been trained in middle school to expect when I allowed my vulnerabilities to show. How I managed to date at all, let alone find a loving partner of many years, still seems slightly miraculous to me.

Almost a year on from the break-up, I met somebody. He seemed wonderful and at first I was over the moon. But it was short lived: he had lots of mental health issues, and they intervened before we could really get started. Needless to say I was disappointed; quite apart from the fact that I genuinely fancied him, I also thought I might have had a narrow escape!

I thought I might be able to avoid online dating.

Naive, I know. What do you do when you’re over 40, a smart professional woman with a bunch of impressive degrees, a nice house and a proper salary? If you’re lucky you live in a big city and have the chance to meet folks at great bars, restaurants, or local cafes. Or maybe there are lots of prospective partners at your gym/in your cycling club/amongst your friends’ friends.

Maybe you’re one of those people who routinely gets lucky on public transit.

Nope, me neither.

I live in a small city where the majority of the population is a) my colleagues, largely partnered; b) my students, and therefore off limits; c) folks who generally don’t share my values. (My university, and the town it’s in, are both pretty darn conservative. I am not.) Which means the in-person decks were stacked against me from the start.

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Having dating issues? Phoebe Waller-Bridge (as Fleabag) will help.

This is the story of what happened when I decided to embrace the inevitable and head online. It is not meant to be a “use this site, but not this site!” how-to guide by any means; rather, it’s about self-care during the online dating process, especially for women.

Because holy cow, does online dating ever require self care.

STEP ONE: Match me. No, really.

I started with Match on the advice of a friend. It’s relationship-friendly, so that was good; I’m more into relationships than hookups. It wanted a lot of information from me, so I gamely gave details. I tried to include fun, flirty photos and information, but let’s face it: I’m a brainy geek with a cycling habit. It’s all relative, and, relatively speaking, my profile probably made me a niche product at best.

Result? Crickets.

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Note: searching for memes for this post is among the most fun I’ve ever had online.

The site kept prompting me to “like” and “wink” at men’s profiles (I am straight, and shopped for men only), and it kept encouraging me to send messages to them to boost the chances of a reply. I did that – a lot. I got nothing – literally NOTHING – in return. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Did these men get my messages, look at my profile, think “ew! brainy cycling geek! RUN!” and do just that? With no positive feedback (heck, no feedback of any kind), plus the irksome website constantly prompting me to make my profile more seductive and my images more enticing, I grew more and more sure (despite, once more, I repeat, no actual, real-world evidence) that I was simply the most undesireable woman on earth, and was just going to have to accept that.

Result? I felt like utter shit. Every single day.

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How’d I get through this? Well, for one thing, I sought the help of friends. This might sound like an obvious strategy, but it didn’t seem obvious in the moment.

Let me reiterate here that my experience online thus far had been entirely isolating and a painful trigger for every ugly fear I’d ever nourished as a young woman about my physical inadequacy. No number of degrees, salary points, or QOM victories in my pockets could make up for the way Match’s structure encouraged me to locate my self-worth in being “liked” or “winked at” by random guys on the internet.

I’ve not hit a lot of glass ceilings in my life, but every morning when I woke up to check my empty message box I felt the painful banging.

Because, as I think we all know by now, the patriarchy is alive and well and breeding like rabbits on the web.

So reaching out to friends was tough – not obvious, but essential. I felt like I was admitting failure, but Sarah and Hillary, to whom I turned for support, sat me down and walked me through the ways in which the site was designed to infantilize users and create unreasonable, heteronormative expectations.

We talked about strategies for creating super-cute winky-winky profile images, sexy but not too OTT; we worked on profile language that would be clever and inviting but not confusing or intimidating for guys not in on the geek culture that feeds me. We talked about the pros and cons of listing/not listing my doctoral degree, or my salary. (Match asks for info on education and salary. Thanks, Match.) Most importantly, we talked about all of this as a strategy, not as reality. We talked about the problems inherent in the structure of the online game, but also about why we were playing it – what results we wanted it, for better or worse, to yield. We talked about the difference between the perceptions we were creating, the reality we were living, and the injustice of the two not being able to match, and still earn a Match.

In other words, we had a genuinely feminist conversation (over killer burgers and fries, y’all – because internet dating requires sustenance), and that conversation really buoyed me, lifted me up out of the sense of despair and identity confusion the online experience had been germinating for me.

The changes Sarah and Hillary helped me make to my profile did not improve results, but the time we spent together helped to improve my attitude tenfold: I was reminded I could remain firmly feminist, my whole, powerful self, and still do this, if this was a route to a relationship and a relationship was what I wanted. So when my paid three months on Match.com expired, I decided to take a risk and head for Tinder.

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My genuine apologies to the two men in this photo, but: WORD.

STEP TWO: is that a dick pic I see before me?

My goodness, yes it is. I was in theory prepared for the onslaught of purely sexual interest I knew would arrive with Tinder, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would make me feel. Once again, I was hit in the gut: a year ago I’d never have believed that an excess of interest in my body would feel as wrenching as *no* interest in my body, but there it was. Being asked for sexual favours, for photos of breasts or “pussy”… let’s just say Donald Trump was simply citing the zeitgeist, not saying anything particularly shocking.

The result? God, I felt degraded. SO. DEGRADED.

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Not because I don’t love my body, but because I unabashedly do! Because my body is so much more than its parts, isolated and fetishised; it is rich, dense, historical terrain. It is the sum of my achievements, written in its scars, in my (I think really sexy) laugh lines, and in all the ways the sun and the light and the rain colour my skin so I need not wear makeup (which makes me itchy – I’ve never liked it).

This problem was trickier to solve than the one Match had thrown me. Being asked to forget that my body is MY body and nobody else’s, being encouraged to turn it into free, animated porn on demand was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face head-on (sorry). I was socialised as a “good girl”; I’ve been programmed to please everybody all the time. But I couldn’t do this. I did not want this.

On Tinder, I had to face the shocking disjuncture between two versions of “good”: the “good” girl who tries to please the men around her, and the “good” girl who wants to take proper care of herself.

And then, of course, there was the spectre of the OTHER girl inside me: the girl who knows “good” is total bullshit, one of a million ways our culture tries to keep us from our most powerful selves, and our most powerful desires.

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Thank you, Mata Hari. Check her out on DocZone at CBC.CA.

Ironically, I came to terms with Tinder when I realised that nope, I didn’t want to be anybody’s pussy shot – but likewise, yup, I really did want to have some hot, random sex, and that there was nothing not “good”, not healthy, not wonderful about that.

So I swiped with abandon. I chose to be as direct and clear as I could be once a conversation started. No, I won’t invite you over if we’ve not met yet. Yes, I’m up for lots of things but safety comes first, including having an in-person conversation with you, and insisting on condoms every time. If you get demanding I’ll be leaving; I far prefer to share. Honesty is rule #1.

I’m not entirely sure how I got to this place; it’s in many ways the opposite of where I started. I began with Match in the firm belief I wanted a relationship, and felt instantly like I was back in junior high school, alone in the hall with my baggy clothes and self-loathing. I had, then, to find my way back to myself; I did that by reaching out to my network of feminist comrades. Next I lived through the experience of being sexualised and objectified, then realised with a fair bit of humility that I wasn’t going through anything that MOST women haven’t been through, pretty much daily, for, um, thousands of years. I remembered that together we’ve grown much, much stronger – and that I, too, am strong, proud of my beautiful body, and excited to honour it whenever I can.

That, I think, is when I realized that I can honour and celebrate my body by owning my sexual desire, and by asserting both my desire as well as my body’s human rights in equal measure online. The web dating world looks at first glance like either a grammar-school gym or a pussy-grabbing free for all, depending on your particular patriarchal filter, but it doesn’t actually need to be either.

Because man, are there ever a lot of strong women out there on the internet! Let’s own our needs, lusts, and urges, ladies, and not be afraid to assert our hard-earned power.

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Self Care and Solo Sexy Time

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Wellness for a five-day workshop on mindfulness practices and eating.  The focus was NOT on dieting, but rather on being mindful of the ways we eat and move that promote (or fail to promote) self-care.  So we had sessions on meditation, yoga, full-body exercises for strength and flexibility, mindful eating exercises, silent nature walking, you name it.  All of these activities were to help put us in touch with ourselves.

Put us in touch with ourselves… That reminds me of another type of self care that was not covered at Kripalu.  Yes, I’m talking about masturbation.  If you google “women masturbation health” you’ll find loads of sites touting the health benefits of sexy solo time.  According to this women’s health information site, masturbation :

can help prevent cervical infection and stave off urinary tract infections;

is associated with improved cardiovascular health and lower risk of type 2 diabetes;

can improve pelvic floor strength (this is a good good thing for athletes, those who have had babies and also for those over 50);

can help insomnia through hormone release and lowered tension (well duh).

Having a healthy and fun sexual relationship with ourselves is good for much of what ails us, it seems.  Of course, it’s not a tool for weight loss, as our blog has already covered. But who cares?  Also, according to many sources, it’s important whether or not we have sexual partners; it’s not a substitute for them, rather an important primary relationship with ourselves.  We can be our own best friend with benefits.

As I said earlier, this topic was somehow omitted from the Kripalu curriculum.  However, this week my friend J from the Kripalu workshop invited me to meet up for yoga, dinner, and a trip to Good Vibrations, a local upscale sex shop in town (if you click the link, you’ll see that they’re having a Memorial Day sale; just FYI).  I was astounded at what I saw there.  The last time I was in a sex shop was a looong time ago, and the appliances were generally hard plastic, yucky materials that were not inviting for the remotely timid.

Well, those days are over.  So over.  Check this out:

 

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The new (to me, at least) products are covered in soft silicone, made in pretty colors (alas, the pink’ing of all products marketed to females persists, but I leave that rant to another post).  Many of these are upscale variants on the Rabbit, a popular design of vibrator.  Of course, the classic versions are available, too:

 

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And if you really want to go old-school, there’s this (which I was told was the most popular model they sell):

 

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This one was featured in an episode of Sex and the City; you can see a clip from that episode on vibrator shopping here.

Among the great things about going to this sex shop, in addition to its wondrous variety, was that I got to see lots of people coming and in and out, browsing, buying, chatting, laughing.  Sex toys are fun and funny, and the humor was evident.  Witness this small display:

 

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Like sex itself, the experience of talking about and buying toys can be  solo or in groups.  The young women working there were super-knowledgeable, sincere, straightforward and helpful.

Yes, I made a few purchases.  And I can report that I’m a satisfied customer.  One final note:  although many things change, some things remain the same.  You can still count on the discretion of the brown paper bag for carrying your new toys out of the store.  The classics never go out of style.

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Orgasms are not a weight loss tool!

I saw the following make its way through my social media newsfeed–To stay healthy, masturbate as much as possible!

See also the 30 Day Masturbation Challenge.

Happy January! (There’s a challenge for everything it seems. I saw the Lentil Challenge today.)

We’re a health and fitness blog so I clicked. I was also curious. The health benefits of orgasm have been in a the news a lot lately but they are almost all talking about the health of men. It’s usually reduced prostate cancer risk they’re on about. And in general I’ve got a beef with health news headlined as universal that’s really only about men.

But no. This story didn’t make that mistake. It’s actually about the health benefits of masturbation for women. Nice! But but but…It does tout weight loss as one of the advantages of regular masturbation.

Really? Honestly? Truly? Yes.

Okay, less stress, better sleep, but weight loss? I guess because it’s about women and orgasm there needs to be a weight loss tie-in. Geesh.

“According to the 2009 University of Michigan study, orgasm helps the body release oxytocin, the “love and bonding” hormone. Oxytocin release lowers cortisol, the main stress hormone chronically elevated in many women that can lead to stress eating and weight loss resistance. In other words, higher levels of oxytocin make us happy and keep those emotionally-triggered food cravings for sugars, cheese and other “happy foods” at bay.”

There’s lots to hate about that but one of things that bugs me the most is the idea you can tell something about someone’s sex life from some totally unrelated fact about them, like their weight. Hey, fatty bet you don’t get much self love!

I’m not sure if there’s a name for this particular fallacy, drawing a connection between two unrelated things about a person. You know one thing about a person and so you think you also know another.

Here’s two more examples.

Some years ago a new age-y male friend, sex positive but with a serious woo streak, told me that he thought my fear of death meant that I wasn’t having good enough sex. Why do men feel qualified to make judgments about this? Was he going to be offering up his own skills to fix things? Sigh. It also might be just a little mansplain-y given that I teach and write a bit about death. But whatever. What’s the idea behind his claim? Good sex equals feeling transcendent, connected with the universe, less individual, more a part of something larger. I agree about all that. But frankly it doesn’t make me feel better about death. I want to survive as me, not as part of the ether. See Shelly Kagan on death and survival if you want to hear more about what philosophers tend to think matters when it comes to survival.

The other concerns a topic that I get so angry about that I can barely even write a paragraph even though I’ve had a blog post sitting in the drafts folder for months. It’s emotional eating. Understanding and ending emotional eating is supposed to end your weight woes as well. What’s the idea? When you’re stressed, angry, or sad, instead of dealing directly with your emotions you eat instead. Maybe. But I’m not so sure that emotional eating is always a bad thing. Food is one of the ways we make ourselves feel better, celebrate with friends, drown our sorrows, etc. You can’t deny the emotional significance of food for human beings.

Worse though is the idea that you can tell something about someone’s emotional health from their size. Oh us chubby emotional eaters! Fat people aren’t really happy. They’re just covering up. Inside they’re crying and eating cupcakes to feel better. No no no. Me, I eat cupcakes because they taste great.

Back to orgasms, have lots if that’s your thing.

But for God’s sake please don’t masturbate for the sake of weight loss. Just don’t.

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Is running cross-training for sex?

I was out running my first 5 km in a long time along the bike paths near my house. There’s a section with graffiti called The Banana Kingdom. 

  
If anyone knows how the name came to be I’d love to know!

It was Boxing Day and I had bailed on a ride with Sam & Kim. It was cold enough that even running in protected areas I needed my Chaos Tube doubled over my face.

  
The first half of the run went great and even after doubling back through The Banana Kingdom I felt unstoppable. Suddenly I got a fairly serious cramp in the side of my right glute, that part that clenches during hip raises. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong so walked a bit then started running again. The left side did the exact thing. I ended up briskly walking the last kilometer home. I tried to figure out why I was hurting so bad since I hadn’t done much structured exercise Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  Then it dawned on me, my muscles were tired because of having more sex over the holidays than I usually do. Talk about a sad middle age story!

I started laughing so hard I had to stop altogether. I never thought about how running and exercise in general support my sex life. I have more energy and I feel good about my body but even then the daily grind often leaves me too tired to tango. 

My one resolution this year is to have more epic sex! I can’t decide if the running and cycling are cross-training for sex or vice-versa. Either way I think ensuring I’m well rested will help all my activities. 

I hope you had awesome holidays too!

Feeling Sexy!

Possibly NSFW?

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Lately I’ve been feeling super energetic, maybe it’s the warm sunny days, maybe it’s feeling good in my body, who cares? I’m feeling sexy! Like Eartha Kitt kind of sexy.

I guess it makes a kind of sense that as I get more active I have more energy and I feel even more confident than usual. (I’ve always been fairly confident, now I’m just short of obnoxious). I’ve been buying stylish clothes at Renegade, this amazing plus-sized clothing shop here in London, Ontario and I am feeling GREAT.

My sister always admired my lifelong love of form-fitting clothes, I abide by the Marcel the Shell principle: Life’s a party, rock your body. Lately though, I’ve noticed I’m wearing even brighter colours, shorter dresses and plunging neck lines. MEOW!

Frankly, feeling a little more athletic, stronger, more flexible and more endurance certainly has invigorated my naked time with my beloved. Yes, feeling good about my body and being able to do more longer applies not only to cycling but all kinds of fun. I don’t think we talk much about how fitness impacts sexuality in empowering ways. I am still 230 lbs with a belly “apron” (the bit that flops over the cesarean section scar and thwaps my thighs). I don’t look like what the dominant culture in North America says women need to look like to be sexy. I don’t care! (NSFW: song lyrics contain swearing)

I’m feeling flirty, loving life, and getting plenty of laid.

Goodlife competition for straights only?

A friend and bioethicist and fellow academic blogger recently wrote the following letter to Goodlife Fitness: Goodlife’s straight members only competition – Open Letter to its CEO.

My partner and I have been members of your gym chain for many years. We happen to be gay. Your competition misleads members into thinking that Jamaica is a tourist destination like any other, sun, beach and a good time. Nothing good be further from the truth.

Jamaica is a militantly homophobic society, religious fundamentalists have written anti-gay provision into the country’s constitution. Here is a helpful link to a 2014 report by the respected human rights organisation Human Rights Watch on anti-gay violence in Jamaica.

My husband and I would be up ‘eligible’ for an up-to ten year jail term should we choose to engage in sexual intercourse during a vacation we might win if we took part in your competition.

Local civil rights groups lament, ‘serious human rights abuses, including assault with deadly weapons, of women accused of being lesbians, arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of gay and lesbian patients by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings of such persons.’

Given the current attention to laws permitting the active discriminations against gay customers in Indiana, I cannot help but wonder what drove your company to offer a competition that would subject your gay and lesbian members to serious risk of bodily harm, not to say long jail terms, should they win your competition and decide to actually go to Jamaica.

I am writing to you today to ask that you cancel the ongoing competition and replace the ‘Jamaica’ labelled posters with posters that offer a vacation price, but a vacation of the winner’s choosing. Otherwise, you really are telling your gay and lesbian members that our well-being and safety is of no concern to you, and that the current competition celebrating the chain’s 36th anniversary is really addressed to the club’s straight members only.

Goodlife forwarded the concerns to Tourism Jamaica who wrote back as follows ( bolded the bit that might be of concern to GLBT travelers):

Jamaica welcomes visitors from all over the world and from all segments of society equally with the warmth and courtesy they expect and deserve. We recognize that there are diverse communities and cultures interested in Jamaica as a travel destination, and we embrace that diversity with respect. In Jamaica, we are committed to the safety of all travelers. We respect the right of all visitors to Jamaica to express their own beliefs and to satisfy their own vacation experiences while staying with us.We respect the choices of adults and responsible adult activities. In keeping with travel to any destination in the world, we encourage visitors to respect Jamaican laws and community standards, and to take reasonable  measures to enhance their travel experience.  Please know that we welcome everyone with open arms and look forward to sharing the beauty that is Jamaica with them.

Luckily Goodlife also allowed that Udo and his partner could substitute another trip if they chose. ” Should you win this trip, we would be happy to award you with a trip of equal value to another destination.”

He’s satisfied with that reply but wonders whether they ought also to warn gays and lesbians who might win this competition *not* to go to Jamaica due to the risk to their well-being, as well as legislation criminalizing the sexual conduct of gay men.

I agree.

What do you think?