17 Apr 2015

Gender and roller derby - are we as progressive as we think we are?

There's been a lot of conversation in the roller derby community about transgender skaters this week, some of it extremely sombre in light of the suicide of a trans junior skater, Sam Taub, in the States. There has been other, more positive news regarding the acceptance and accommodation of non-gender-conforming skaters, and following the awful, needless death of Sam/Casper #57 (believed to be as a result of transphobic bullying) a lot of people vowing to create a roller derby community that is free of bullying and supportive of trans skaters.

I think this is absolutely a vow that everyone in the community needs to take - not to mention anyone in any community - but I think people need to go further than just making pledges. It's important that we really think about how assumptions about gender, and accompanying, often hidden sexism, underpin so much casual talk and thoughtless humour that take place in our sporting scene. Even in roller derby, a community that is considered more progressive than most when it comes to gender, sexuality and self-expression, I've witnessed or heard about the following:

- femaleness being used as in insult - "I'm going to treat you like a girl." "You're just a woman with a beard"
- women being criticised/mocked by other women for having body hair
- women's sexual behaviour being judged by other women
- sex between men joked about, with the implication that it's degrading (especially for the receptive partner)
- trans skaters being told they could do with some 'tips' on 'how to pass'
- a woman joking that she was going to check another skater's genitalia to make sure she was female

It can be hard to draw a line between what's an acceptable amount of twatting about in a sport that by its very nature requires a developed sense of humour and an ability to brush off insults - this is, after all, a game in which you will spend much of your time falling over, being hit and having to laugh about it. You will encounter trash talk from other teams. You will hear off-colour jokes. You'll hear a lot of smut talked, and you'll accidentally touch more bums, boobs and crotches than even an overworked healthcare professional. I can't claim that every joke, comment or action I've ever made while participating in this sport will have been devoid of the potential to offend someone. But thinking about how to create a community that makes people feel able to express their gender identity without being harassed about it, the thought occurs that maybe we all need to be pulled up sharp.

Because it's not just about outright bullying, although obviously that needs to be stamped on. But it's easy to pride ourselves on not being part of the problem if we only target the blatant types of harassment. It's too easy to pat yourself on the back and say "Well, I never call anyone 'fag', 'bulldyke' or 'tranny,' so I'm cool," or "Well I use X's correct pronouns, so I'm obviously not transphobic," but I think what really needs to happen is a deep - and potentially uncomfortable - examination of our underlying prejudices. And it's not easy. For example, several of my teen years were spent laughing at The League of Gentleman, a deeply dark UK comedy from the late 90s/early 2000s in which most of the women characters were played by men in drag. The comedy wasn't derived from this fact as such, but there was one transgender character 'Barbara the taxi driver', and pretty much all the laughs at her scenes were based around her deep voice, her chest hair and total failure to 'pass' as a woman. You never saw Barbara's face and never found out anything about her other than the fact she was trans. Some of the laughs were more directed at her passengers' obvious discomfort as Babs described the details of her transition in colourful language - "Me nipples are like bullets" - but looking back on it, it's hard to really defend the show as it was pretty much ticking every "Let's laugh at the man in a dress," box imaginable. Babs was a caricature, not a person. So, you might say, were most other characters on TLOG - a paedophile school teacher, a cursed vet, a vile Job Centre Officer, a corrupt butcher, the inbred owners of the Local Shop - but it's disingenuous to deny that the portrayal of trans people in popular culture is something of a mirror to how we view them in real life. Not long ago it was OK to make the brown-skinned person the butt of the joke in UK comedy, or the gay person. Ceasing to take the piss out of trans people has been a bit of an afterthought, and a stage we're still in the process of reaching.

I love the fact that in roller derby there are people willing to challenge the idea that a man wearing brightly coloured leggings is degrading. I like the fact that enough guys do things like this that it no longer becomes about "He might be gay" "He might be a cross dresser," or "That makes him feminine," and it just simply becomes a fact of "He has chosen to wear those leggings, and that is all that matters." (Obviously, if any of the other three statements are true, that also shouldn't be an issue - but my point is that we need to start uncoupling styles of dress from assumptions about gender or sexuality) However, there still remains, to an extent, the idea that to make a man dress like a woman is degrading. At one recent game there was a bout where, to raise money for charity, you could pay for 'extras' such as silly rule additions to the game, or forfeits for skaters. At one point, a group paid for a male skater to wear a tutu for several jams. Now, you could say that this was more about fun and fancy dress - if you're trying to look dead serious in no-nonsense black, a bright red tutu is going to shit up your game look whether you're male or female. And also, unless you are a ballet dancer or one of those women who wears fantastic 50s frocks with layers of netting underneath, you're probably going to be pretty uncomfortable wearing a tutu, whoever you are. But I would also say that it's being deliberately obtuse to say there's absolutely no connection to gender whatsoever. Roller derby started out all-female. It also, in its current incarnation (2006 or so onwards) did start with a lot of girls wearing tutus as part of the brightly coloured, fun, fishnets-n-hotpants aesthetic that the sport still retains to some extent. For a guy to don that clothing is certainly to flip the script, but what's actually meant to be funny about it? Why's it something people pay money to see? I can only think that it's because a guy having to dress as a woman is seen as degrading. And why do we think that, unless we think that being a woman is degrading? Sexism and transphobia, they're more closely linked than you might think.

My team trains co-ed and I generally really like that fact, as I think it does encourage us to see each other simply as 'skaters' rather than 'guys' and 'gals', it allows everyone to challenge themselves in different ways, and it puts paid to blanket assumptions about one gender being 'better' at any particular skill than the other. I love the fact that our skaters look and dress however they're most comfortable both at training and on bout day, that I feel comfortable say, wearing no bra on a hot training day, or changing shorts in front of a room full of people, knowing that no one is going to comment or lech or stare in a way that sadly, as a woman, you come to expect in the outside world. But sexism can appear in more subtle ways. If you believe - and I kind of do - that homophobia is the fear that men will treat you the way you treat women, then you realise that every act of anti-gay aggression isn't just about guys, it's about women too. It's about straight men saying to gay men "You act like a woman, and that is shameful." 

Put a group of guys together and you will inevitably encounter jokes about each others' sexuality. Add some close physical contact - which is unavoidable in roller derby - and it's only a matter of time before the gay jokes start. Some men, mindful of the notion that only a man truly comfortable with his heterosexuality won't mind being called gay, like to defuse this by playing 'gay chicken', a bit like the scene in Philadelphia when Denzel Washington's lawyer character, asked if the fact he's defending a gay man means he's now getting "light in the loafers" himself, responds "Yeah. I'm changing. I'm on the prowl for a man, a man like you," to the dismay of his terrified, homophobic questioner. And I've seen this employed by male skaters, and I think it's both a brave and funny way to deal with homophobes (see also "What are you, gay or something?" "Give us a kiss and I'll tell you.") And not all gay-related humour in the roller derby community that I've seen is about demeaning homosexuality, but rather challenging the discomfort of the homophobic heterosexual - such as the guy I saw caressing his own nipples in order to psyche out another male player. But I've also seen the standard gay-is-degrading, a-man-who-lets-another-man-penetrate-him-is-a-figure-of-fun jokes, and that disappoints me. And if I were a gay or trans player, it'd make me think twice about being out amongst such people. 

I think the roller derby community is still light years ahead of mainstream culture in many ways. It will never be perfect, because you can't achieve a perfect microcosm that's removed from the real world - it's just not possible. Most people seem to accept, or don't know or don't care that I'm polyamorous, kinky and highly sexed, but there'll always be the odd sniffy comment, cos that's people and that's life. Fortunately, most of it is sufficiently removed from me that I feel able to carry on being my sweet self. I'd like to think that other people whose modus operandi differs from what's demanded of them by narrow cultural expectations - be that being female and having hairy pits, or being male and enjoying wearing skirts, or being fat, or extremely skinny, or being a butch woman, a femme guy, an androgynous, gender fluid individual, wearing no make-up, wearing loads of make-up, having tattoos, piercings and crazy coloured hair - feel similarly free and safe to be themselves in the derby community in a way that they might not elsewhere in society. I just think that there's always more to do, always aspects of our beliefs, prejudices and narratives that we can be examining. Because culture never stops evolving, and the fact that the comedy I enjoyed as a teen would now be viewed as transphobic is not a sign of 'political correctness gone mad', it's a sign that people are learning to be less dickheaded. We are pretty damn good at this in the roller derby community, but we must never stop trying to be better.

1 Apr 2015

Some things not to say to an author awaiting the release of their book*

When you're a creative person about to release a significant piece of work, the people in your life will be very interested in it and will want to be supportive of your endeavours. This is lovely and cannot be overvalued. However, often without meaning to, people will come out with phrases that will make you want to stab yourself in the eye with the very red pen with which you've been painstakingly proofreading 80,000 words. Here are the ones I would absolutely recommend avoiding:

  • So, what's your next book going to be about?
Erm, I dunno. I might write a tome pondering the phenomenon that causes people to disregard the fact you've just poured your heart, soul and energy into writing, editing, rewriting, proofing and promoting a work, to assume that you'll have had any time or motivation to even think about embarking upon the massive undertaking that is writing another book, and to proceed to ask you questions like that one.

Would you look at an amazing piece of architecture and say "Wow, nice design, dude. So what's the next building you create going to look like?" No? Then don't do it to any other creative person. Someone who's waiting for a book to come out has already spent a great deal of time having to live in the future. Don't demand that they fast-forward even further in to the future and in so doing, force them to skip over the very moment of triumph they've been waiting for - that's just sadistic.

  • I've always thought I could write a book.
That's nice. Would you like to go off and do that, then, instead of faking interest in my literary endeavours when really you're just looking for an excuse to talk about your own frustrated authorly ambitions?

Quite apart from the fact that the above statement takes my work and makes it all about you, it's frustrating and obnoxious in another way. There's a reason it's considered rude to walk up to a teacher, a nurse or a plumber and say "Yeah, I could do what you do." That's because it is rude. Yet that's basically what you're doing when you casually say "Oh yes, I've always thought I have a book in me." Also, it's de facto untrue. If you could be doing it, you would be doing it. Unless you've already done that job yourself and actually really did consider it easy, you have no authority to speak on that subject. In the unlikely event that you have done any of these jobs and found them easy, it's still pretty shoddy behaviour to belittle someone else's hard work by breezily stating that to their face. If in doubt, just don't say it.

If you want advice or mentoring on how to start writing, by all means ask for it directly. Don't insult someone who's sweated blood over their career by implying it's something you could just pick up in an instant if you really wanted to.

  • Can I have a free copy?
Did you contribute to my book in terms of providing mentoring/advice, proofreading, photographs, interviews or other forms of support? Then sure.
If not, and you're just banking on the fact you know me to try and blag a free book, I have two words for you, and one of them's "get".

  • Oooh, here's something really interesting that could've gone in your book.
Fantastic. Please climb into a DeLorean and go tell it to me 12 months ago. Otherwise, I must admit to being frankly a little exhausted of the topic I've just written 80,000 words about, and could do with some down time to look at silly memes on Pinterest, rather than encounter yet another recommendation for a book/article/TV show/movie/song/music video relating to my topic of choice. Remember- it's OK to talk to me about other things, and at this point, it's actively preferred.


Instead, here are some things you can say that will always be well received.

"I can't wait to read it."
"I'm so excited for you."
"I'm telling everyone I know about it."
"Let me know if I can help promote it in any way."
"Here's some Um Bongo/red velvet cake/wine."

*With love and thanks to everyone in my life who has supported me in creating this book - even if it was by saying any of the above, I know it was always well-meant - I promise I'll stop being so caustic when it's released.
Maybe.

24 Feb 2015

Burlesque - empowering or problematic for feminists?

I got to thinking about cultural phenemona that regularly get condemned as anti-feminist yet are largely supported by women, when I went to see *that film* recently in order to review it. Sitting in the cinema on a freezing, windy, wet British Friday morning, I noticed that I was surrounded by women. Some couples, but the audience was at least 85% female, if not more. Women of all ages, from 18 to at least 65. Women of all races, all shapes and sizes, varying socioeconomic backgrounds, all united in a desire to see the film of *that book* and find out what all the fuss was about. Some might have been there for that sole reason, others because they genuinely enjoyed the book and thought they would enjoy the film. Those who were there with their partners may have expected the film to enhance their erotic life, or simply give them something to laugh about as a couple. Others, like myself, may have been there as cultural commentators (with admittedly a little personal curiosity thrown in), trying to report on *that film* in a way that avoided lazy condemnation, pearl-clutching or snobbery. I saw very quickly that it was going to be women who made or broke this film, and if this audience - plus the opening weekend stats - were anything to go by, women were going to make it a roaring success.

This made me think about how, despite their strength as a consumer group, women are still strangely often treated as a minority group, or a "special interest". When they do come out in force and make a book or a film a huge success, it's given a patronising label ("chick flick" "mommy porn" anyone?) and treated as a trivial, fluffy, empty-headed preoccupation. And, perhaps more disappointingly (because we at least expect sexist dismissal from the mainstream media), it's sometimes treated with disdain or outright hostility by feminists too. 

I talk at length in my review of *that film* about how I feel there is an elitist and prejudiced element at work in the feminist condemnation of F**** S**** O* G***, so I won't go on about it here. But I started thinking about the parallels when I went to a burlesque fair this weekend. There are a lot of conflicting feminist opinions about the modern revival of burlesque culture; some women consider it body-positive, sex-positive, empowering and female-focused, others consider it simply more sexist objectification in cuter clothes, and of course some view it as just a bit of fun. At the fair, though, what struck me was what a female-dominated culture this was. The stallholders were majority female, as were the attendees (I went with three other women). Interestingly, not all the performances were by women - I was pleasantly surprised to see a male pole dancer and a male aerial hoop performer in the pictures afterwards. But what the whole experience made me think was that anyone condemning this as women being objectified for male pleasure would be so off-base it would be laughable. This was very much a female-oriented event, run by, enjoyed by, and supported by women. 

Now, of course there are those who will claim that women have just been so brainwashed into objectifying other women that we don't even realise we're doing it - we are Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs made flesh, and are no better than the women who accompany their male friends to strip clubs in the spirit of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But when I was watching a size 16 woman in her 30s gyrate onstage in a spangly costume, I didn't feel like I was treating her like a piece of meat. I was aware of her as a person with a mind as well as a body, and very much aware that her performance was artifice - because it was so clearly intended this way. I was also aware that her performance was intended to be fun and humorous, and that the smile on her face wasn't trying to emulate sexual ecstasy, but was simply a cheeky grin. It certainly beat the furrowed brows, pouts and icy seriousness of other supposedly "erotic" performances I've seen, and reminded me of why I always liked the pin-up pictures one can find in the Taschen books filled with magazine covers called 'Wink' 'Titter' and so on - because the girls look like they're having fun. As someone who proudly owns a sailor playsuit and has been compared to a pin-up myself when I've posted pictures of myself in it, I can attest that it's not just a look either. It is fun to feel cute, to dress up, to feel colourful and sexy in a way that one still feels like one owns that sexuality. Yet as a feminist, you sometimes wonder whether it's OK to feel that way, or whether you should be trying to condition yourself out of it.

Burlesque performances are generally pretty tame compared to what you'll see in a modern strip club - I've not seen a burlesque performer strip below knickers and nipple tassles, although I'm sure some do, but the point is generally that it's about the art of suggestion so there's still likely to be some giant feathers or balloons in the way. Therein lies the fun - everyone in the room knows they're not going to actually see any pubic hair, or labia, or probably even a nipple, but we're enjoying the fiction that we might, and enjoying the tension that the performer is building up by teasing us with what's behind the sequins. Women and men stood and watched the performers, whooped, clapped and encouraged. It didn't feel sleazy or objectifying. It's also often forgotten that the art of burlesque didn't just use to mean 'stripping' - it also included acrobatics, tumbling, cross-dressing, skits and all manner of entertainment. The immediate tendency to focus on the nekkid-lady part of burlesque is a sad sign of the modern insistence on reducing everything to sex. I once saw a female burlesque performer dress up in a tux and do a Bruce Forsyth impression to Rizzle Kicks' Mama Do The Hump - how often does that aspect of burlesque get mentioned?

Still, as I put my pin-up-lady-themed mirror up in my bedroom, and my lady-in-nipple-tassles-and-knickers toothbrush holder up in my bathroom, I experience a twinge of feminist concern. Am I no better than the man slavering over Page 3, or leering at the women in Zoo? Am I just fooling myself that I'm more enlightened because I didn't mind the fact that the women I watched onstage the other day had rolls of flesh on their bodies, and parts other than boobs that wobbled when they moved - whereas those raised on a diet of airbrushed female bodies and porn would probably consider them unattractive and inferior? Who can say. It bothers me that there exists, in a movement supposedly supportive of female freedom to look, act and spend our money in whichever ways we wish, a faction that makes me have this very argument with myself. I also think this faction is operating on the often-mistaken premise that cultures such as burlesque only exist because of a (automatically evil) male desire to objectify and sexualise women. Based on my experience on Saturday, my answer would be - BOLLOCKS DOES IT. Some feminists will tell us that we've internalised male objectification of our bodies so much that we're now convincing ourselves that we're buying corsets or jiggling our nipple tassles onstage for ourselves or for fun, but that is, of course, just self-deception. We must be doing it because men told us or made us. 

Well, I don't know where those evil men were hiding on Saturday but they sure must have been well-concealed. Was one of them the very camp guy wearing make-up and dressed as a sailor: was he forcing my friend to alter her body when he laced her into one of the corsets he was selling, and is it worth mentioning he was also wearing a corset, as were several other men that day? Was another of them the petite, topless guy with a locked collar around his neck who was helping his much taller female partner run her stall? Were the dutiful partners following their girlfriends around as they excitedly scanned the stalls really calculating sexists waiting to reap the rewards of all this underwear their unsuspecting female partners had been duped into buying...and were they going to be disappointed if their girlfriends instead only chose to buy a necklace that said "FUCK YOU" (one of my friends' purchases from the day) or a cruet set that said "METH" and "COKE" (another friend's purchase that day)? Were the male performers onstage also victims of the patriarchy in some roundabout way, or interlopers here only to spy on all that exposed female flesh...even if it meant exposing most of their flesh too? 

I just didn't see anything to get one's spangly knickers in a twist about. I saw women running businesses, and other women supporting those businesses. I saw female friendships being formed and strengthened. I saw bodies being presented in a sexual yet fun way, and real bodies, bodies that made me feel good and less self-conscious about my own pale skin, my wobbly bits, my average-sized boobs, the rolls on my stomach. I saw a lack of fake tan, a lack of perfectly round breasts that stick straight out instead of being shaped more like half-moons and actually responding to gravity, a lack of underwear so groin-slicingly skimpy that retaining any of one's pubes would be an impossibility, and as a result of this, I felt at home. I felt comfortable. I felt like I saw my body and my sexuality more accurately represented here than I ever would see in the world of mainstream porn.

And next time I go, I'm wearing that sailor suit. ;)

10 Feb 2015

#ThisGirlCan - Thoughts on exercise and body image

Whatever people's feelings are on the #ThisGirlCan campaign (aimed at getting more girls and women to exercise), I'd hope that we can all agree that its aim is a noble one. As someone whose relationship with exercise and body image have been tricky, to say the least, I commend anything that's aimed at making girls feel like it's not shameful to do sport. Some may say it's patronising to assume that girls don't want to exercise because "I might get sweaty and it would look bad!" but the sad fact is, those feelings persist. We don't all want to admit to it, because that might make us look shallow and silly and like bad feminists. But as someone who still hates even being looked at when I'm exercising, I'll stand up and say yes, one of the off-putting factors about doing sport is that it might make you look like shit.
 
And this is where women are in a double bind. Society laughs at women who go to the gym in full make-up and fashionable logoed stretchy shorts, while at the same time criticising those who go scrub-faced and in old jogging bottoms. Make too much of an effort? You're a shallow bitch. Don't make enough effort? You're a slovenly cow. The same goes for body shape and size. Too slim, you're overdoing it or you must have a problem. Too muscular, you'll get called a man in a dress. Too curvy, you're not trying hard enough to reduce your shameful size. 
 
Is it any wonder that from aged 15 onwards, girls exhibit the biggest national drop-off in sports participation? Would you want to enter the wasps' nest of having your body, appearance and ability scrutinised when you're already feeling at your most vulnerable? As a formerly overweight person who loathed sports as a child (and for most of my adult life), doing exercise involves a massive departure from my comfort zone. Doing it publicly, even more so. Doing it as a team, even even more so. As soon as I'm asked to do anything involving physical coordination, I feel awkward, dorky, embarrassed and doomed to fail. I hate being watched. I hate being assessed. Sometimes I've left a roller derby training session, gone into the bathroom, repeatedly banged my head against the wall and cried in frustration at what I perceive to be my total failure to pick up skills that others seem to have no problem with. If I feel like this at age 31, how can I expect a teenage girl to want to deal with all this?
 
Six years ago, I lost 3 stone and have managed to keep it off ever since. What no one ever mentions in a weight loss success story though, is that you'll always be a fat girl in your head. It never leaves you. You'll always remember being one of the heaviest kids in your class at school. The one the sports teachers regarded with barely-disguised contempt. The one puffing at the back in the cross- country runs. The one who could never run the course in below 14 minutes, never mind the required 10. Standing on the rounders field hoping no one ever, ever threw the ball to you because you'd fluff the catch and let your whole team down. Viewing team sports as nothing more than a chance to make all your friends hate you for being so slow and uncoordinated.
 
That's not to say you don't get past it. That's not to say you can't find an amazing, body-positive sport full of encouraging people at the age of 29, and realise your body is capable of things you never thought possible. That's not to say that you can't discover in yourself an ability to keep plugging away, to keep getting back up when you fall, to laugh off your mistakes, to realise that your friends aren't watching your every error and that they really don't care, anyway. That's not to say you can't surpass all your expectations and actually end up on a team, win awards, even impress your family - who generally treat the idea of you doing any sport as a hilarious joke. Recently, I attempted skiing for the first time ever in my life, something I would never have had the guts to try had it not been for two years of roller derby showing me that I could pick up a new skill at this ripe age. While on the ski trip, someone asked me if I wished I had given skiing a go earlier (my dad has been asking me to go on an annual basis for nearly two decades, and I always, always said no). My honest answer was "No, I think this was exactly the right time. I just wouldn't have had the confidence before."

Roller derby gave me that confidence, and for that I will be forever grateful. I hope other women and girls find the sport that does the same for them. It takes a lot to undo the damage left by Nietszchean school sporting culture, disdainful teachers, mocking family members and a toxic media landscape that dooms the female body to forever being unacceptable. But despite all that, I've found that #ThisGirlCan, and not only that - #ThisGirlDid.

13 Jan 2015

Polyamory and mental health: how they fit together

**DISCLAIMER: This post is not meant to be a judgement on any particular romantic or sexual lifestyle, monogamous or otherwise. It is merely MY OWN thoughts and MY OWN experiences.**
 
Recently I had the unenviable experience of someone I found attractive telling me they didn't want to take things further with me because I am non-monogamous. It was particularly galling since this person knew from the off that I practice polyamory - one of many reasons I write about it so openly, so that no one's under any illusions - but for whatever reasons decided to lead me somewhat down the garden path before telling me they couldn't be with me. Everyone's entitled to change their mind, but it's still never nice to have the rug pulled out from under you.
 
It's hard in these situations to stick to your guns, especially when you really like someone and you're facing the fact you're no longer going to get what you wanted. It's a jolt, a slap in the face. It's tempting to weaken and say "Oh, fuck it, I'll do it, I'll be monogamous for you," because it seems like too high a price to pay, to lose someone you've just started forming a lovely and exciting connection with, just because you can't play this game that everyone else seems to manage (even though you know that in reality, many, many of the players aren't "managing" the mono game very well at all ). Given the disastrous state of my romantic life in the past month or so, it's tempting to conclude that polyamory is more trouble than it's worth, that it causes more problems than it solves, that I should just go back to the good old mono way of doing things.
 
Then I remember what monogamy is like. And it chills me.
 
I remember boredom. I remember depression. I remember feeling limited. I remember feeling old before my time. I remember feeling resigned.
 
I remember having wandering eyes and feeling tempted to cheat but never doing it. And wondering why, if I was supposed to be so fulfilled by the other person, I wanted to look elsewhere.
 
I remember the thought that this was the last person I might ever have sex with making me feel like doors were slamming everywhere to me.
 
I remember wanting to be seen and found attractive by people who weren't my partner, and wanting the freedom to enjoy that, even if it never led to anything, even if it was just flirtation, even if it was just a feeling; the freedom to feel possibility was always the more important part, and still is, than the freedom to turn that possibility into reality.
 
There are many reasons I might feel this way. Some of them may well be connected to the mental health condition I've been diagnosed with, namely Borderline Personality Disorder. Some characteristics of BPD people that mean we don't do well with monogamy include:
- sudden, intense and inexplicable bursts of emotion
- persistent sense of emptiness and that everything is basically pointless
- wildly altering preferences (including sexual and romantic attraction)
- impulsive behaviour
- a sense that no one cares about us as much as we care about them
 
Put a person like this in a monogamous relationship and the result is (in my experience):
- they get very bored
- they get depressed, often connected to the boredom
- they feel taken for granted
- they want to cheat
- they feel like a monster for all of the above
 
Taken so starkly, I'm sure some of these characteristics make BPD people sound like cold, callous bastards who want the moon on a stick and sulk if they don't get it. The truth is, BPD people are often extremely caring, loving people who are devoted to those around them, and yet live with a persistent sense that no one returns that devotion. We take things very hard. If someone snaps at me, it can ruin my day, and I'll remember that they snapped at me for weeks, months, possibly forever. As well as huge emotional sensitivity, I'm also cursed with perfect recall. I can remember the fights I've had with people even when they were over a decade ago, and can usually date them to the month. BPD people are sometimes described as experiencing 'hotter' emotions than neurotypical people, meaning we get burned more easily, and take longer to heal. That certainly is true.
 
When the most recent person rejected me, I cried solidly for three hours. No exaggeration. I had only known this person a matter of weeks. But I had really liked them, found them really attractive, and found the prospect of taking things further with them extremely exciting. It had made me happy. So when they took it away, I reacted very badly. I had to take four anti-psychotic tablets to calm down. It is a wonder BPD people attempt relationships at all, really, when this is the kind of reaction we know we can expect. And that's just from a very brief connection - the grief over any kind of long term relationship ending is so splintering that it's nearly killed me in the past (when I was mono, I lived with someone for several years).
 
But I do choose to still attempt some kind of romantic life; I just try and do it nowadays within parameters that leave me feeling less like an animal in a cage. I watch people who I believe are clearly not meant to be monogamous trying to shoe-horn themselves into marriage or long term monogamy and I watch them crash and burn. I watch them cheat, fail and then spiral further down a path of self-destruction because they hate themselves for not being able to live up to the monogamous ideal, and they want to make themselves feel even more dirty and useless. I do believe that these people would be better off being honest with everyone and starting to live a life of consensual non-monogamy (with the knowledge of all those involved), but I also recognise that they are so used to practising the art of lying that honesty is a stranger to them. Plus, polyamory probably wouldn't give them the twisted kicks they get out of their self-destructive behaviour.
 
Despite my BPD, I have enough self-esteem to believe that I deserve better than lying and cheating. However, what I don't believe is that "better" automatically equals monogamy, or LTRs, or marriage. When people  are trying to console you about your love life going wrong, they love to say "You're going to make some guy very happy," as if that's my raison d'etre. Guess what? I have no interest in being someone's "other half", their missing puzzle piece. Perhaps I have too much self-esteem, because I frankly question the idea that one other person could even begin to scratch the surface of giving me what I need, let alone fulfil me in every way. When I look at kinky people in full time master/slave relationships, my biggest question isn't about consent or feminism or whether it's degrading or any of that shit, it's how can the slave possibly trust the master to totally take care of them? How can they know that person will always make them feel safe? That leap of faith is one I doubt I could ever make. We trust our friends, but no one ever tests our trust by asking us to commit to one of those friends for the next six decades of our lives. Yet it's assumed that's exactly what we'll do with our romantic relationships. We're not expected to commit to one of anything for the rest of our lives - no single job, no single house, no single friend, no single country, no single child. Yet we're meant to nail our colours to the flag of one other person and make them our one and only. It just doesn't add up in my head.
 
Maybe that's my BPD. Maybe it's just logic. I may never know.

When this most recent person was telling me that they couldn't be with me because they couldn't handle non-monogamy, I thought the way they put it was very telling. They said "I want to know that the person who's with me is mine and mine only." I thought to myself, "Perhaps I have an unusual way of looking at things, but I don't think that any relationship that begins with you trying to possess another person is off to a good start." And I also sort of wanted to say "What makes you think you deserve to have me as yours and yours only?" It strikes me as massively presumptuous to make that kind of statement: love is so easy to say, so hard to demonstrate, and people fail to demonstrate it all the time. To me, devotion has to be earned and reciprocated, not just assumed. But again, this could well be the perfectionist and delusional part of my BPD making me think a) I'm massively fantastic but criminally underappreciated and b) no poor sod could ever come up to the imperceptibly high standard that is required to please me. See how difficult it is to trust yourself when someone can just throw your diagnosis in your face and call you manipulative, abusive and basically an ungrateful git?

Regardless, I don't buy that a relationship is stronger just because it's had rules applied to it about its exclusivity. If anything, I think that can make it easier to fool yourself that you're oh-so-committed, because your relationship is not subject to anything that's going to test that commitment. Whereas if you see, meet, date, fuck and love other people yet still return to someone out of free choice? That, to me, is a much deeper connection than one between two people who are just together and monogamous out of habit. And NO, I'm not saying that everyone or even most people in monogamous relationships are necessarily in that situation. But some are. I've seen them with my own eyes. I've heard their stories. And that's some too many, to my mind.
 
I don't expect the world, or even a fraction of it, to come round to my way of thinking. Polyamory really isn't for everyone. But in this case, I feel that the person in question wrote it off without properly considering what it might mean. I feel they clung to the fears that monogamy encourages us to hold (jealousy, possessiveness) without addressing them, and they assumed that nothing other than a two-person, long-term relationship could ever be considered "something real". I wished I could show them just how much you can adore someone without trying to own them.

7 Jan 2015

Dating while feminist: Thoughts on "playing hard to get"

Recently, while seeking advice on navigating my increasingly tangled and tumultuous love life, I got told on two separate occasions that I should play more "hard to get." This advice always puts me on the defensive, for several reasons:
 
1) The feminist reason. The very notion that anyone, but especially women, should treat romantic interactions as a game to be played, is fraught with sexist assumptions. Such as the assumption that women are manipulative, dishonest and underhand. Or the assumption that men are big, dumb creatures who can be toyed with as long as you use sex as your weapon and make sure you have them by the penis at all times. It strikes at the notion of love and sex as an arena in which human beings view and respect each other as full and equal people, and instead constructs it as a battlefield upon which we see each other as pawns, conquests or malleable lumps of clay. It also, unfortunately, feeds into the language of rape culture. If women "play hard to get", then surely what they say can't really be trusted? A "no" must really mean "keep pushing me", a "I'm not interested" must actually translate to "I want you to pester me". I know it's not my responsibility to dismantle rape culture through my romantic actions, but I'd be lying if I said that the idea of playing games to get what you want doesn't disturb me precisely because I believe it makes it easy for rapists and abusers to excuse their actions. "Well, we all know women don't say what they mean, right?" is the underlying presumption whenever someone tries to weasel their way out of the fact they disregarded a woman's refusal of consent. Ergo, if I don't say what I really mean in my dating life - i.e. "I really like you and want to do sexy stuff with you," as opposed to "Meh, maybe I'll see you around," -  aren't I just contributing to that myth? Shitty as it is that I even have to think like that, it's a concern and I believe, a valid one.
 
2) The undiagnosed Asperger's reason. I'm very literal minded. I say what I mean, and I believe that this means everyone else must do too. This often leaves me confused when I realise people are joking, exaggerating or simply downright lying. I understand the concept of lying or bending the truth to save someone else's feelings, but I would generally rather avoid a subject than try and employ this skill, as I am not a good liar. I am inherently truthful, and although I'm neurotypical enough to realise that you can deliver the truth without being hurtful (or that there's times when it's best to say nowt), I generally find the socially acceptable codes of dishonesty extremely difficult to fathom. I don't like saying to someone "I'll be back in 5 minutes," if I'm more likely to be 8 minutes, and I don't like it when someone does it to me. I have a need for certainty, and find the lack thereof in every day life extremely anxiety-inducing - although I'd add that, generally I get through and force myself to be flexible, even though I will never be a "chilled" person.
 
But when it comes to romantic interactions, I cannot understand the point of lying or pretending. Why would I pretend I'm less interested in someone than I really am? How is that going to help anything or anyone? If someone cannot find me appealing simply because I'm showing enthusiasm about them, then aren't we kind of doomed from the start? Someone made the analogy to me of how if you have 20 chocolate bars in your cupboard, you're still more likely to go to the shop and buy the one chocolate bar you don't have, because your contrary brain will naturally want the one that's not most easily on offer. Sorry, but if someone's brain operates that way when it comes to choosing a partner, I'm not sure that's a person I want to be with. I believe that life is short, we shouldn't waste time, and if you like someone, you should tell them.
 
3) The non-mainstream sexual culture reason. I've spent a fair amount of time in the kink community, and while it can be a mixed bag when it comes to finding enlightened sexual attitudes, one of the things I really, really like about it is that it forces people to be honest about what they want. If you want to play with someone, you ask. You have a conversation, and if signs are good, then a negotiation. You might talk to that person's other play partners to get feedback on what they're like. Then you play, and hopefully keep talking afterwards. And, if it went well, play again. Look at that, how simple does it sound? Pleasure, fun and all because two people communicated. Crazy thought, isn't it?
 
This is one of the reasons I get irritated when people try to impose mainstream sexual values on me, and tell me to behave in ways that are anathema to the way I operate. I'm highly sexed, kinky, polyamorous and looking. Why the HELL would I pretend I'm not interested in someone when I am? All that's going to lead to is more frustrated nights spent self-loving and wondering why you're alone. If you play hard to get in the kink community, then you will end up exactly where logic would dictate - alone. There is no substitute for simply being an adult and approaching someone.
 
4) The feminist reason, again. The whole notion of "playing hard to get" particularly winds me up because I'm a very sexual woman, driven by my desires to the point where my behaviour and feelings sometimes makes me feel like "the man" in a relationship, if you'll forgive the horrendous gender stereotyping for a second. Sex is important to me, I enjoy some things that would make some people's hair curl, and I look for partners I can enjoy those things with. I am not interested in monogamy, long term couplehood, marriage or babies. I do believe in treating all my partners with respect and care, and enjoy feeling connected to the people I play with, but long-term commitment only holds boredom, depression and resentment for me. I absolutely hate the gendered stereotypes that dictate women want love, commitment, marriage and kids, while men only want no-strings attached sex and only "give in" to women's demands in order to have regular sex on tap - not least because my preferences and those of many other women I've met, fly in the face of it. Yet, the idea of "playing hard to get" insidiously feeds into this idea, because it implies women don't really like sex, but instead we just withhold it and dangle it in front of men to make them pursue us.  
 
Well, fuck that. I do like sex, and I'd like to enjoy it with the people I find attractive. If telling them I find them attractive and want to have sex with them is somehow going to turn them off, then it's probably just as well I find that out sooner rather than later, because they've clearly got a problem with women being honest about their desires. This idea that withholding makes one more attractive is dangerous, but it also does a massive disservice to female desire and agency. Again, life is short - why would I waste a single second pretending I'm less interested in someone than I really am, just to fulfil a toxic stereotype of the withholding woman on a pedestal?
 
All this said, it's hard to ignore the voices, especially when nothing in your romantic life seems to be going right. Due to reason 2, I'm not sure I would even know how to play hard to get even if I had any desire to, because I'm just not wired to be a game-player. I'm instinctively truthful, sometimes clumsily so, and any attempts I made to be 'aloof' would probably end up being like Michael Scott in The Office episode "The Negotiation" where he tries to unsettle an employee by being silent, but can't help himself from announcing "I am declining to speak first." Generally, I'm glad of this, but it can be a lonely spot to occupy when you can't be sure if anyone is returning the courtesy of your honesty, or if they're all hiding the truth from you behind barriers of subtle social codes you're unable to detect. I know they say "love the player, hate the game," but I'm not sure I can respect anyone who thinks I'm something to be toyed with, or who would find me more attractive if I toyed with them.