17 Jan 2017

What "sex sells" really means

Sex sells. This is what you get told whenever you object to having naked female butts shoved in your face from our media, day in day out. Leaving aside the fact that studies have shown sex might not actually sell products but actually decrease our ability to remember them, therefore making it an inefficient advertising tactic indeed, I think we need to examine what we actually mean when we say the "sex" part of "sex sells." Because what the "sex" involved never seems to include is:

- naked men or parts of their naked bodies
- couples whose naked bodies are shown equally
- bodies that aren't slim, white, femme, young, cis
-  genuine sexual pleasure
- gay sex (unless it's faux-lesbianism from slim, white, femme, young women)

Instead, we're supposed to be absolutely fine with the idea that "sex" means:

- naked women.


Well, as a randy member of a large and powerful demographic often targeted by advertisers, please allow me to say:


Last night I was thinking "Qwoar, The Weeknd looks a bit of alright in his new video Starboy, what with his leather jacket and leather gloves being brandished all suggestively," so I decided to check out his other videos. I made the mistake of watching the video to Earned It, his song from the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey. I expected to see some excerpts from the movie, perhaps Dakota Johnson getting spanked, perhaps Jamie Dornan with his kit off, but what did I get?

Women. Young, slim, white, femme, cis women. With their boobs and bums out, writhing in the most curiously unsexy manner, while Mr Weeknd sings fully clothed.

Talk about a lady boner killer.

Now, even if you take the solely capitalist view of media, this adherence to the latter vision of "sex sells" makes absolutely no fucking sense. The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is one almost entirely supported by women. Straight women. The books were read by women, the movie was attended by women (I can attest to that, as I watched it in a sold-out cinema packed with them, and the handful of men in attendance were all shyly accompanying their female partners), and the soundtrack will more than likely have been bought by consumers who are, in the vast majority, women.

So why the fuck is a song from said soundtrack accompanied by a video where we get to see SWEET DIDDLY JACK SQUAT of male nudity or sexuality, and instead just get to see other women's tits and arses?

It Makes. No. Sense.

Unless you conclude that, depressingly, there is still a vested interest in reminding us that our bodies will always be the ones up for consumption, whereas men get to choose when they take their clothes off, and who for.

I wrote in my last post about how the lack of male nudity when compared to the amount of female nudity in our media, including the perpetuating of the belief that you can't show an erection on UK TV, seems to be linked to male anxiety about being judged and scrutinised in the same way that female bodies are. The more I see of inexplicable, utterly irrelevant female nudity being used to accompany media products - EVEN WHEN THOSE PRODUCTS ARE CLEARLY AIMED AT STRAIGHT WOMEN - the more I think that must be true. I mean, what more do we have to do to get some equality in terms of whose bodies are sexualised and served up for consumption? 50SoG was written and directed by a woman. Women's power as a demographic was what got it to the point of being made into a movie in the first place. And, however much some people loathe it, the movie itself didn't do too bad a job of showing the "sex" that supposedly "sells" as something that happens between TWO EFFING PEOPLE, BOTH OF WHOM WE HAPPEN TO SEE NAKED.

That's where the whole defence of women's right to "express their sexuality" always falls down a bit for me. There's plenty of back-n-forth debate about whether so-and-so pop star can truly be called "feminist" because she wears outfits slashed to her vulva and writhes about a lot onstage. I'm not interested in playing that game, that one of constantly focusing on other women's behaviour and finding it wanting, but I am interested in critiquing the defence that any such woman is just "expressing her sexuality." OK, maybe she is. I've never quite seen how wearing outfits that your butt cheeks hang out of expresses your sexuality - and that's coming from someone who sometimes wears outfits that my butt cheeks hang out of. I might wear such things for fun, usually for roller derby purposes, but it doesn't give me a sexual thrill unless the hotpants I have on happen to be magical vibrating ones. The point is, my sexuality is much more likely to be expressed while wearing tracksuit bottoms and having a fun night in with my knock-off Hitachi magic wand. That's something you're never gonna see in a music video, maybe because it's not sexy to anyone but me, or maybe because no one's brave enough to suggest that a vision of female sexuality that doesn't happen to feature the subject nearly naked and oiled-up can still be valid. This is where the convenient dovetailing of such-and-such woman "expressing her sexuality" with "slim, young, femme, scantily clad," becomes a bit more suspect. No one ever has to defend Janelle Monae's fantastic suits as "expressing her sexuality," or Adele's big sweeping gowns on the same grounds. Yet it's entirely possible that both women feel fully themselves, feel thrilled, confident, sexy, sexual, when dressed thus. But no one's interested in that, because those women are not dressing in a way that's presumed to get straight men hot. That's not saying that if you express your sexuality in a way that also happens to get straight men hot, you're colluding with the patriarchy, but it is saying perhaps we should look more closely at the expressions of sexuality that get airtime, that get music videos, movies and adverts constructed around them, and say why those ones? Because sadly, the answer all too often comes down the lazy "sex sells," construction.

And also, while we're about it, if the right to express one's sexuality is so important, why do we seem to have zero interest in defending men's right to show off their bodies and serve them up for sexualised consumption all in the name of "expressing their sexuality"? If we're truly interested in equality, then why is the right to pout, writhe and be scantily clad one that we only ever fight for women to have?

But hey, perhaps I'm just bitter cos I didn't get to see The Weeknd with his kit off, wearing nothing but leather gloves.*

* Video producers, if you're listening....

12 Jan 2017

The Mull of Kintyre Myth: Yes, it IS legal to show an erection on UK TV

Yesterday, I was reading a post about penises. It wasn't the kind of garden-variety smut I might be apt to come across in my life as a feminist who also writes about BDSM, sexuality and censorship, but actually an excellent piece by sex educators Bish. In an article that examines why we're all so hung up on big penises (so to speak), the writer acknowledges that the lack of normal willies visible in our media may have something to do with it - after all, the huge, constantly-hard, always-coming penises you see in porn only represent a tiny segment of the male population. But I had to actually take to Twitter to correct the writer on the next point - "You might also see some penises in TV or film (they aren’t allowed to be hard though – you can only show hard dicks in porn)" - because in the UK at least, that's not actually true.

The problem is, everyone thinks it is true. So the myth keeps perpetuating itself.

In preparation for what is hopefully going to be my next book (shhh!), I've been going down some fascinating rabbit holes regarding obscenity law and censorship in this country. And what I've found is that while many ridiculous situations in our media landscape are, sadly, enshrined in law (see this piece by me for more detail on the legal sex acts that are illegal to show in UK porn), others have no legal basis. Instead, they're nothing more than the result of endless Chinese whispers, which few of us have ever bothered to question. The "Mull of Kintyre" myth - the idea that you can't show an erection on UK TV or in UK magazines - is a perfect example of this.

There is literally nothing in UK law that says you can't show a hard cock on paper or on screen. The Obscene Publications Act (1959, updated 1964) only says that a piece of media is obscene if it will "tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to. . . read, see or hear the matter." The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on what is likely to meet this criteria includes torture, dismemberment, bestiality, and (more controversially) fisting and watersports/scat play, but also specifically state that consensual sex, including oral and anal sex and masturbation, plus "mild bondage", would not be considered obscene. So far, no forbidden boners. Nor does the British Board of Film Classification (whose guidelines inform those of OfCom, the UK TV regulator) forbid the showing of erections; nudity and simulated sex are permitted in the 18 category (and in the 15 category if "in a non-sexual or educational context"), although real sex is saved for the R18 category. But there's nothing saying "nudity ONLY IF THE GUY IS FLACCID," so where else could this myth have come from?

OfCom, the body in charge of TV, radio and internet content regulation in the UK, only has this to say regarding post-watershed (9pm) sexual content:
1.19 Broadcasters must ensure that material broadcast after the watershed which contains images and/or language of a strong or explicit sexual nature. . . is justified by the context.
Same goes for nudity, which can also be justified before the watershed if for an educational purpose.

When I interviewed Suraya Sidhu Singh, who ran the erotic women's magazine Filament from 2009 - 2013, as part of my research on obscenity law, she told me of the repeated issues she had getting her magazine into shops thanks to distributors and vendors hiding behind the "Law of No Boners" myth. Although at its height Filament was stocked in 900 shops across the USA, sSingh could not get it stocked in UK shops. She told me "The erection thing was an issue. No one knows where [the myth] came from, but people believe it and retailers repeat it." A major UK retailers told Singh that they could not stock her magazine because their guidelines, "based on the Obscene Publications Act and Protection of Children Act," did not allow them to show male nudity. Well actually, neither of those Acts would prevent the sale of a magazine depicting nudity or sex between consenting adults, as long as it's correctly displayed and only sold to adults (duh). They could have at least just come out and admitted they didn't like the idea of women whacking off to naked pictures of men, rather than hiding behind legislation that never existed.

Zak Jane Keir, a former editor of For Women, a hugely popular erotic magazine that launched in the 90s aimed at straight women, described similar struggles to me, and like Singh, spoke of encountering an almost entirely male landscape of hostile retailers and vendors. Keir wrote:
It’s the problem that erotic products aimed at women have always faced in a world where men still have most of the power – the Man in a Suit somewhere up the production chain (a distributor, a head buyer for a chain of newsagents) ‘My wife wouldn’t buy that, so no normal woman would buy that.'
Indeed, it doesn't seem too outrageous to suggest that in a media landscape in which key decisions are still far too often made by men, the myth of the forbidden boner is going to keep getting conveniently perpetuated, because god forbid men's bodies are ever subject to the same sexualisation and scrutiny that women are expected to be happy to accept. Keir added that the problem certainly wasn't women not wanting see erections:
There was a point, fairly early on, where [For Women magazine] ran a ‘General Erection’ campaign, asking if readers wanted to see stiff dicks. Of course, the vast majority did, but the printers/distributors/company lawyers all went ‘WAAAGH NO YOU CAN’T DO THAT.”
If even lawyers believed that it was impossible to show a boner (and didn't bother taking the time to actually fact-check this claim), what hope did a magazine already struggling under the weight of extreme hostility to female-aimed erotica have of righting this wrong? It may feel like this is all irrelevant now porn is all over the internet, but as the Bish article points out, this isn't allowing us to see bodies that are representative of actual men in any way, and if we can agree that body positivity is needed for both genders, whence the representation for average-sized willies that - SHOCKER - get hard?

As Oscar Ricketts points out in his bluntly titled article, "We need more penises on our screens" the idea that we have so much female nudity yet so little full-front male nudity on our screens because the former is somehow "justified by the context," is just bollocks. 
Female actors are often objectified, the reasons for their nudity sometimes having little to do with character, and everything to do with satisfying the male gaze. . .it is not “justified by the context” – and everything to do with feeding the male viewer a little Nuts magazine-style thrill.
 As someone who had the misfortune to flick over to Film4 last night and catch a few minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, I can only concur. I think I could have understood precisely what a decadent lifestyle Jordan Whatsisname was supposed to have lived without seeing Margot Robbie's vulva, thanks guys. But if this is the standard we're agreeing to on UK TV, then it should at least apply across the board. Since his character in TWoWS apparently had sooo much sex, and we had to see sooo many naked women in the movie in order to convey this, where were the gratuitous shots of DiCaprio's erect penis? Were they absent because, as porn producer Ms Naughty writes in The Feminist Porn Book, the erection remains "a last bastion of secrecy, a final preserve of male power"? I feel like that's got to have at least something to do with it, otherwise why would such an easily debunked myth keep persisting, even in an age where we can fact-check the existence of a rule with one mere swipe on our smartphones?

So pass it on, folks. Post-watershed erections are legal. Boners in magazines are legal. Go forth and demand them! ;)

22 Dec 2016

Abuse in BDSM and why people need to stop blaming That Book for it

Perhaps it's a refreshing testament to free speech that I spend a lot of my professional life defending a book I don't even like. I spent 8 weeks writing a blog series about BDSM, feminism and pop culture precisely because I was tired of people using the popularity of said book as an excuse to come out with all manner of ill-informed speculations about people, especially women, who practice kink, or even just like to read books about it. Two years later, it seemed that wasn't enough and I ended up writing a whole book on the subject. The book I so often end up defending has become so ubiquitous in the pop culture discussion of BDSM that I refused to even name it in my work, less it become a distracting albatross, and just referred to it as that book (or that trilogy). You don't need to me to say the name. You know what I'm talking about. And you know that because it seems the blame for every ill of our culture -- domestic violence and rape and apologism/glamourisation of them, coercive relationships in and outside of the BDSM community, unrealistic expectations about sex, relationships that echo patriarchal structures too closely for our comfort -- gets laid at the feet of it.

So I was a bit disappointed to see this post, shared by the excellent Whores of Yore Twitter account, and then the Twitter conversation surrounding it, immediately linking that book to abuse within BDSM. Now, the post itself is an important and brave piece written by someone who got themselves out of a terribly abusive relationship and is reflecting on the awful treatment they put up with. It identifies correctly that adding a kinky relationship to the mix when domestic abuse is already so underreported muddies the waters even further, because there are already enough myths in the vanilla world that women "provoke" or "exaggerate" abuse, that if you've ever voluntarily asked your partner to hurt you, you stand very little chance of the police or a jury being able to distinguish between that and non-consensual abuse.

So I don't want to detract from the act of bravery inherent in 'Bee''s piece; she has shared what sounds like a deeply traumatic experience and hopefully, writing about it will be part of a healing process for her. It will also hopefully give others the strength to identify and reject kink in abusive relationships. And it does raise the complicated and at present unanswerable questions of how we can deal with abuse that flies under the radar of BDSM when our society remains crap enough at dealing with abuse in the vanilla mainstream, never mind in less respected or understood subcultures.

But, it feels like there is also a lot of context and illustration missing from the piece, and instead 'Bee' just goes straight for the far-too-simplistic option of "blame that book." She writes 
I don't think it's unfair to summarise that the largely women following of FSOG were sold the excitement of being "owned" by a handsome Dominant lover.
Mmm...I do think it's unfair, actually, if you're making the unjustified leap from the popularity of a book to presuming you know anything about the readers' lifestyle choices. Whether that book sold women an unrealistic picture of BDSM, an unrealistic picture of (heterosexual) relationships per se, or just gave them some quality masturbation material, we'll never know - not without asking the millions of them who bought and enjoyed it. Pride and Prejudice romanticises submitting to a relationship with a man who has previously been rude and dismissive towards you, who has told you he's ashamed of you and your family, has deliberately meddled in your sister's relationship to destroy it, and will financially own and control you for the rest of your life. Yet that's considered a 'great romance', loved again by millions of women. Funnily enough, in a world where we treat women like adults, those who really believe in feminism tend to avoid policing women's reading choices because we don't assume that they are so stupid they can't distinguish between fiction and reality.

And as 'Bee' herself goes on to point out, she was no wide-eyed novice in the kink world anyway.
I've never classed myself as a submissive. Yes, I enjoyed my men to take control but I was no novice in the world of kink and BDSM. I was very comfortable with my sexuality and my wants and needs.
So why would she, and other Twitter commenters, insult other women by implying that they must all be naive enough to interpret that book as a how-to manual for BDSM relationships, or not recognise the problematic aspects of it? As someone who has spent way too much time answering back to the furious criticisms of women who accuse me of defending the glamourisation of abuse every time I even dare to suggest that book isn't the cause of all misogyny, I can tell you, plenty of women recognise the problems inherent in the relationship depicted (and I think it cannot be said enough that most of them have very little to do with kink).

Yes, it's important to talk about abuse in the kink community. Really important. I dedicate a whole chapter in my book to safe words, and examine the harrowing stories of women who had their safe words violated in BDSM exchanges. Both these articles I've linked to pre-date the publication of that book, as will - sadly - countless other people's stories of awful, shit-stain excuse for human beings who used kink as a cover for their abusive practices. Look at Jian Ghomeshi. His (alleged) abuses of partners under the guise of "But I'm kinky!!" date back to a decade before anyone had even heard the name C*******n G**y. But you know what effect that book had on conversations about abuse within kink? It gave them a huge signal boost. It gave me a chance to publicise them, first in the Thinking Kink blog series, then in my book about it. It resulted in someone actually coming forward on my blog post about safe words to comment that my piece had helped them realised that their experience of having their safe word violated was abuse, and was not their fault. That book also helped a lot of people simply come out as kinky, an act of enablement whose importance cannot be underestimated in a world where there is still so much shame and mental violence enacted upon those who deviate from sexual norms. Lord knows that book has given me a safe, relatively unthreatening shorthand to mention when vanilla folk ask me what I write about. Hey, I could even tell my mum I'd been to a BDSM club just by saying, "You know F***y S****s? It's that sort of place," and she barely batted an eyelid (my mum is pretty unflappable anyway, but you see my point.) And I do feel like a lot of the reason it gets so much shit flung at it when there are way heavier, darker depictions of kink in pop culture that get a pass is because at its core, it's just a trashy novel.

As I wrote in my review of the film last year:
I can’t help but feel that some of the outrage over [that book] is both selective and elitist. [That book] faces the same kind of criticism that’s lobbed at romance in general: “Oh, look at those uneducated women and their trashy reads! Bless them for not knowing that classier books exist!” I wonder if many critics care less about misrepresentations of kink in the book and more about saving the undiscerning masses from themselves.
Because why else would people say things like this about it
 while ignoring, say, Secretary, a film often hailed as a much better representation of kink, yet which shows a boss harassing and intimidating a vulnerable subordinate, not using safewords, and not negotiating a kink scene or getting consent beforehand? Or The Story of O, in which a young woman submits to gangbangs, anal stretching, labia piercing, and iron manacles being permanently welded to her body, just out of love for her partner who abandons her at a palace for various anonymous men to abuse her? Both have been around a lot longer and have many fans in the kinky world. They have not been accused of romanticising abuse, or showing people how to do kink "wrong," even though both have massively problematic areas in which consent, respect or level playing field on which the woman makes the decision to submit are not at all clear. 

So the outrage aimed at that book feels very arbitrary, and ill-reserached. It also implies we consider some people too uneducated or easily led to distinguish between fiction and real-life (and I can't help but feel there are strong links there to some serious snobbery regarding social class and level of education). It's also overly simplistic; that book is not without merit. It doesn't get everything about kink wrong. Yes, it bears about as much resemblance to real BDSM as the movie Whip It does to real roller derby (as a derby skater I can confirm that movie is SO inaccurate it's not even funny), but funnily enough no one turns up to a roller derby bout thinking they can give a fellow player a bloody nose just because they saw it done to Drew Barrymore on DVD. The point is, something can be a signpost to something you're interested in (which chances are, you were already interested in before you came across this particular book/film/whatever) without being taken as a rulebook. Thinking women incapable of making the distinction is as patronising as the narratives that fail to distinguish between independent sex workers and trafficked women, that presume female sexuality is naturally softer, gentler and more moral and that therefore women could never like nasty filthy things like porn or BDSM (both my personal experiences and my research indicate a giant HA! to that notion). And you know what those narratives run dangerously close to reinforcing? Every sexist trope out there about women being stupid, weak and incapable of autonomy. I don't doubt that anyone wanting to protect women from abuse in BDSM considers themselves a feminist; but this ain't the way to further female freedom.

Wanting to push the conversation about BDSM and abuse is admirable. It should be happening. I'm pleased to report that I've never experienced violations of consent from any of my BDSM play partners (all of whom have been cis men and have unfailingly respected safe words, hard limits, the need for prior negotiation, communication, active ongoing consent and the need for aftercare), but that doesn't mean I haven't experienced kinksters who bring shitty sexism and misogyny into the scene. I write in my book about being touched without my consent on three different occasions, one by the event organiser who had written the goddamn rules which said "no touching without consent" stuck to the wall of the bar. I write about the self-proclaimed 'misogynist' who thought he was so hilarious and edgy by constantly referring to women as 'cunts' in person and in his online profile, excused his behaviour on the grounds that "I'm a sadist," and interrupted a rope scene to shout "kick her in cunt!" about the woman being tied up. I write about seeing people jumping to criticise or ostracise the person who complained about someone caning her feet without consent while she was suspended at a play party. As Cliff Pervocracy writes "The kink community talks big about consent, but they also talk big about not having "drama." It's a theme that would sadly recur across my research for Thinking Kink. But the fact it was being talked about, and there was pushback against it, was enough to give me hope.

And part of the reason those conversations can happen is that book. Remember that next time you're tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Books don't cause abuse any more than short skirts cause rape. Don't let abusers off the hook by not focusing on their actions and instead shaming women for their reading choices. Rather, as these tweeter points out, remember the real enemies:

13 Dec 2016

Pronouns, political correctness and manufacturing controversy

After the release of inaccurate articles such as this one by The Independent, Oxford University Students' Union has issued a statement refuting the notion that it had mandated referring to other students by the gender-neutral pronoun "ze." To be clear, they say:
We have not produced a leaflet implying that all students must use ‘ze’ pronouns to refer to others, or indeed to themselves.
 They add:
We would also like to clearly state that we would never tell anyone to use ‘ze’ pronouns instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ if ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the pronoun someone wishes to use.
But they also point out:
We do however suggest the use of genderless pronouns like singular ‘they’ to refer to individuals whose pronouns haven’t been confirmed. This avoids assuming what pronouns a person uses based solely on how they present themselves.
Not really that controversial, is it - or so you would think.

Yet a quick scan of comments under the The Independent article shows their clickbaity insistence that "Oxford University students must refer to each other using gender neutral pronouns such as “ze” instead of “he” or “she”" has clearly had its desired shit-stirring effect. Every single bingo square in the awful game of "hateful, moronic shit that inevitably gets said in any debate about trans rights" is ticked. The "why can't I just call them 'it'?" square. The "urgh, Generation Snowflake needs to get over itself," square. The "there are two genders and that's it, you just don't understand biology!" square. The "you can't use 'they' in a singular sense" square. And on and on and on, although I'm pleased to note there are also quite a few voices of reason challenging the uninformed and bigoted. I myself pointed out that The Indy is spreading a falsehood, but still got replies insisting that "ze" was now being taught in schools (I usually hate it when people respond like this online, but in this case I really could only think, "um, SOURCE?!"), that this is just the thin end of the wedge before more ker-razy made-up words get foisted upon us, that the people who have fought not to be labelled are now demanding just that and how silly and illogical they must therefore be.

Thankfully, there are people out there who can see what's really going on, and in a Facebook statement, OUSU's deputy women's officer Orla White pre-empts pretty much every one of these comments by identifying exactly why the media loves to start arguments over phantoms in this manner. They write:

The most important thing. . . is not the misinformation that's being spread: it's why. 
The reason that misinformed news about trans students can go viral is because of a general lack of understanding, empathy or respect for trans people in general.
It's because ze pronouns, other neopronouns, singular 'they' pronouns and even 'she' or 'he' pronouns are considered 'funny/weird/silly' when trans people use them. 
It's because any action to make spaces more inclusive for trans people is seen as extreme, absurd and an indicator of being a 'special snowflake' with all the fun add-ons that brings. 
It's because trans people are seen as being pretenders or fakes. 
It's because trans people are seen to be 'overly demanding' when asking for the most basic level of respect. 
It's because of transphobia, basically.
Couldn't have said it better myself. 

By publishing such a poorly researched article, The Independent and other media outlets who reported on what is effectively a non-story knew exactly what they were doing. They were portraying trans people as unreasonable, demanding and wanting special treatment (pretty much the same accusation levelled at gay people a couple of decades previously when LGB folks dared to suggest that they didn't just want a life free of discrimination and violence, but would actually like to enjoy equal rights on matters such as the age of consent, adoption and marriage rights). They were pandering to an audience who thinks exactly that about trans people - that at best they are to be pitied and endured, at worst shoved back in the box they came out of - and pitting them against readers who actually have a modicum of empathy with or knowledge about what it means to be gender non-conforming. They were stirring up at internet flame war (yes, I know that term sounds so 1997, but let's face it, the concept has never died, only multiplied, since social media came along) at the expense of any nuanced or sensible discussion about how, if you're not sure what pronoun someone likes to use, it makes sense to refer to them as "they" until you do know, and when you get an opportunity, just ask that person how they'd like to be referred to.

Even if neopronouns like ze, hir and so on (which by the way, have been around for decades--it just took the culture of clickbait to bring the concept to the mainstream) weren't at issue here, something else would be - because transphobia demands it. You only need to listen to the voices of trans people to ascertain that. It's not like prior to this issue, we existed in a world where binary-conforming trans people were never misgendered, is it? Deliberately calling trans women "he" has been a favourite pastime of the cis population for decades, as were comedy sketches emphasising the failure of trans women to "pass" - think Little Britain and The League of Gentleman, where an overly masculine trans woman character was repeatedly mocked for her inability to present as truly feminine. I read on Twitter only yesterday the story of a non-binary individual who had a job interview on Skype, and heard her interviewers saying - thinking the call had ended - "MTF or FTM? I can't tell!" and laughing. And it was truly upsetting to read in the wake of the Oakland warehouse fire that people who perished in the fire were still being misgendered in reports about their deaths. Basically, there always has been a vocal pocket of cis individuals who think that being asked to refer to someone who used to identify as "he" as a "she" (or vice versa) is just soooo damn unreasonable. I would put money on these individuals not having any problem with referring to a married woman by her new surname, or by Mrs instead of Miss (assuming she chooses to make these changes, and don't get me started on the toxicity of assumptions surrounding that), yet remembering a difference of one damn letter is apparently just too much of an audacious demand to make of them.

Julia Serano has written extensively and eloquently on how trans identities are repeatedly seen as less real, less legitimate, more artificial and therefore duplicitious, in opposition to cis identities. A cis woman who wears make-up is just celebrating her femininity; a trans woman who does the same must be trying to "pass." A cis man who buffs up at the gym is just making sure his body looks the best it can; a trans man who does the same must be desperately overcompensating for his birth chromosomes. Indeed, I very recently heard a depressing tale of some acquaintances who really should know better laughing about a transmasculine's person appearance and demeanour, as if the attempts of someone born female to present masculine were both pathetic and comedic, People who believe in these overly simplistic and divisive narratives of gender are basically looking for any opportunity they can find to discredit trans people, to not have to "give in" and address as female a person they cannot bring themselves to believe is a woman, or address a trans man as male; add the idea of non-binary genders into the mix and they inevitably melt down in an implosion of "WAAAARGHH SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES PC GONE MAD WHY CAN'T I JUST CALL THEM IT WHAT ABOUT THE DAYS WHEN MEN WERE MEN AND WOMEN WERE OBJECTIFIED AND WE WERE ALL GLAD OF IT?!" The point is, the problem has never been with the pronouns. Bigots objected when we were mostly just dealing with "he" and "she" - of course they're going to go apeshit when asked to consider "they/ze/hir".There are still those who want to know why they can't still talk about "coloureds" "poofs" and "trannies," FFS, and will cry oppression from PC culture when challenged. That's not a reason for us to cede any ground to such people.

I'll leave the last words to Orla White:
So, no, we didn't publish a leaflet banning gendered pronouns. But we do stand against transphobia. The factual incorrectness of these articles is one thing; the way that it's used to make basic human decency towards trans people seem laughable is quite another.

2 Dec 2016

Protecting under-18s from porn: who's really being harmed?


So much of adult control over media is justified in the name of protecting children. The concept is inextricable from British obscenity law; one of the principle factors (not additional) for finding a work obscene under current guidelines is whether under-18s might have access to it. The acts that are currently banned from any UK-produced porn are forbidden under the justification of "preventing non-trivial harm risks to potential viewers;" by the same token, OfCom demands that porn producers take steps to keep under-18s away from their work in case it "seriously impairs the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen." 

Yet in the same document in which it makes that statement, OfCom also reports that "no country has found conclusive evidence that sexually explicit material harms children," and that "research does not provide conclusive evidence that R18 material "might seriously impair" minors' development." You might wonder, then, why the UK government is quietly pushing through a bill that penalises any porn provider who does not adopt burdensome, costly and privacy-invading age verification processes, when there is no damn proof that a) it would work and b) that children seeing explicit material will do them any damage anyway. Yet as Pandora Blake, a porn producer who has already had her business shut down once by UK censors and is fighting to stop it happening again, writes, this is exactly what is happening.

It seems particularly ironic and misguided that the government is putting so much energy into forcing businesses to make ineffective and totally tokenistic gestures at keeping children away from explicit material, when it is denying them the one thing they are loudly crying out for - decent sex education. At present, British schools are obliged to provide no more than purely biological education about sex. Even in the face of reports that sexual harassment of girls in schools is on the increase, the UK government ignores adequate evidence that a comprehensive curriculum that deals with sex, relationships, porn, consent and respect is what teenagers want and need, and instead goes after the oh-so-easily-demonised porn industry. 

Last night, I was watching a Channel 4 documentary, Kids on the Edge, which showed teenagers self-harming as well as looking at self-harm images online - for inspriation, if you like. The programme was prefaced with a warning that it contained scenes that viewers may find disturbing, and although there wasn't any major gore as such, I think what frightened me the most was how easy it was for teenagers with severe mental health issues to find social media accounts that supported or encouraged self-harm. I've just gone into Instagram and found a video of a young woman with blood gushing out of a vein in her arm, with the hashtags #suicide, #selfharm, and the caption "I want to die," within seconds. Although Instagram clearly deletes harmful hashtags (you get zero results for #selfharm if you do a search, but the results are clearly out there), there are obviously plenty of users getting around the restrictions. 

Now, I generally believe that trying to censor the internet is like trying to catch gas in a butterfly net. You might catch some of the perpetrators, but you won't know just how many others you haven't managed to catch, and you won't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting them all. Short of an operation like China's Great Firewall - which also needs the terrifying machinery of totalitarian state repression behind it to really have any teeth - you simply cannot censor every instance of objectionable content. Nor do I think it's an answer; much as it troubled me to see seriously vulnerable teens getting inspiration for how to hurt themselves from social media, I don't think it's that different to how fans of the Manic Street Preachers used to mimic Richey Edwards' self-mutilation (and yes I know many fans empathised with Edwards because they were already self-harmers, but speaking as a Manics fan of two decades, I can tell you for sure there were also copycats - whether they did it to be "cool" or because the pictures they saw had genuinely given them ideas, only they would be able tell you). I'm not going to link to it, but you can Google "Richey Edwards self harm" and see some seriously disturbing pictures of the things the man did to his own body. And before the internet, that supposed source of all social problems? Well, you could go out and buy the NME, or Melody Maker, or Select or Vox or Q magazine, or a Manics biography, and have your very own full-colour, glossy pictures of Edwards' self-harm to stick on your bedroom walls. My point is, this shit didn't start when the world got online. It's been going on as long as time itself. And I don't believe that a picture in a music magazine "made" anyone self-harm, any more than I believe that the Instagram account which one of last night's interviewee was looking at made her cut herself; she was clearly already on that path, and was looking for affirmation of her actions from others. There is community, however, fucked up, in finding those who are damaged in the exact same way you feel damaged.

Yet, if the government insists on going after any online targets--and with the current ruling party, it seems a great, cheap vote-winner that appeases those fond of hand-wringing headlines about the future of our youth--it does seem like it would be more justifiable to deal with targets that actually encourage literal harm, such as sites or social media accounts that encourage self-harm or anorexia, than to go after those showing consensually produced adult material. I'd certainly be a lot more worried about a child of mine actively seeking out self-harm images, than a child exhibiting natural curiosity about sex. Either way, I ultimately don't think censorship is ever the answer. I don't know what is, but off the top of my head, offering children safe spaces to talk about both issues would be a good start. This government's failure to do so, and its habit of constantly scapegoating sex and porn instead, shows how far we still have to go in pulling this country's head out of its repressed backside. And yes, I know that kind of image is exactly the type that could get a website shut down by the UK censors, but I'd laugh more if public money wasn't actually being spent on legislating censorship that doesn't work and doesn't help anyone. 

Resources for those concerned about self-harm:


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10 Nov 2016

How Kink is Represented in "Transparent"

**Contains spoilers for series 1, 2 and 3 of Transparent**

There's so much good to say about the representation of sexuality in the Amazon original series, Transparent: the three-series show has so far shown older bodies being sexual, trans bodies being sexual, a breast cancer survivor being sexual, and has also managed to show lesbian sexuality in a way that's not viewed through the male gaze. While there are issues about the show's use of a cisgender man to play a trans woman, these have already been explored by people more qualified than I to speak on the issue in pieces like this; rather, I want to talk about how the show represents something I do know a bit about -  BDSM.

The show's kinky scenes are woven in to its complex fabric in a way that makes them feel fairly incidental; experimental youngest sister Ali experiences a D/s dynamic with a trans man in Series 1, oldest sister Sarah discovers the joys of kink at the hands of a professional, Pony, at the end of Series 2 and beginning of 3. Neither kink relationship ends the way Ali and Sarah - both the "bottoms" in their particular dynamics - may hope. In Ali's case, trying to have a raunchy bunk-up in a bathroom stall is disrupted by the real-life concerns about the dildo slipping and ending up on the floor, and the excitement goes out of the scene. In Sarah's case, it ends much more darkly--she tries the top role, loses control of her anger, and violates her bottom's safeword.

By using gender non-conforming individuals for the scenes, the makers do a powerful job of subverting our expectations about who should be a top or a bottom. Although the scenes initially fit the template that feminine presenting people "naturally" should assume the bottom (submissive) role, they also do a great job of showing that dominance--in BDSM, at least--is something that is given rather than taken, is conditional, and subject to change at any time. In Ali's case, her top only has as much power over her as she gives him. Although their play seems deeply gendered (he calls her "little lady," shaves off her pubic hair and orders her around), Ali is the one who chooses to dress up femininely for him, call him "Daddy," and, er, chooses the dildo they play with. When their sexual relationship doesn't work out, they still interact on equal and amicable terms. Sarah actively seeks out her kink relationship with Pony, having seen her (although played by the excellent genderqueer porn actor Jiz Lee, who prefers they/them pronouns, Pony is referred to as she/her in the show) walking another woman around on a leash at a women's festival in Season 2, episode 9. Rejecting the earth-mother vibe of one tent at the festival, Sarah is instead drawn to the kink area, with its intriguing yet discomfiting sounds of paddles hitting flesh and cries of pain/pleasure. She soon finds herself blissfully clutching a tree aiming her backside at Pony's flogger, and after the festival ends, returns to Pony as a client. Sarah may be femme and playing the bottom role, but any power that her butch top exercises over her is both actively requested and paid for; Sarah's pleasure from bottoming is also very apparent.

Furthermore, Sarah later takes on the dominant role with Pony's permission, showing that the capacity to switch is not so unusual. The more mainstream media shows people switching in BDSM, the better; as I wrote in my book Thinking Kink, "when it comes to mainstream pop culture and its love of simple and easy binaries, the switch is often the ugly stepchild--ignored, left out, invisibilized." And I think that a big reason the switch gets left out is that they're a figure who challenges the idea that power roles are set, unchangeable, and somehow natural. D/s dynamics can easily get hijacked by those outside the community, who use them to make pronouncements on what a particular group really wants--I remember reading a quote from anti-BDSM literature that claimed any gay man who liked to be dominated was really just living out mainstream culture's homophobic hatred of him. When the bottom becomes the top so easily, or demonstrates that being on bottom does not mean being weak or self-hating, it confounds these overly simplistic takes on kink, and that can only be a good thing.

Sarah's experience is also a dark one which shows how BDSM can go wrong in a distinctly unfunny way. Whereas Ali's experience is more slapstick (and all the better for it--I feel like expectations of sex would be much less intense if there was more mainstream representation of people falling off beds, bodies making unplanned sounds, and lovers being able to giggle about it afterwards), Sarah's topping of Pony leads her to release her anger in an abusive and unsafe way. She's not in a good headspace, having met her ex-husband's much younger lover recently, and is clearly feeling challenged and mystified by their connection. Although she's admitted that in some ways she's grateful to the younger woman for meeting the sexual demands she can't keep up with, the fact she's still living with her ex-husband and co-parenting with him means Sarah's feeling territorial. After a jokey start where Sarah tries on funny headgear and totters unsteadily in thigh-high boots, her play scene with Pony quickly goes awry. Sarah's verbal teasing about what she's going to do to her bottom escalates from sensual threats to screamed abuse, and she continues to bellow in Pony's face even after she has safeworded twice.

Showing kink going wrong is a risky venture in mainstream media culture. It risks feeding into the belief that kink is dangerous, damaging and only practised by psychologically unstable people. It risks muddying the message that like any contact sport, BDSM has its risks, but, as Gayle Rubin puts it, "S/M sex generally involves a much lower level of force than the average football game, and results in far fewer injuries than most sports." The only other mainstream depiction I've seen of a BDSM scene going wrong is in Secret Diary of A Call Girl, which, while being a more sensationalised and much less analytical depiction than in Transparent, does at least acknowledge that "hurting people is a very special talent," and that being a domme is not the same as being an escort. However, the trauma caused by Sarah's loss of control during her scene isn't just a punchline: she goes back to visit Pony only to be told "I think you're the reason she moved to Boulder," and find out that her domme has left town, left all her equipment behind and given up her profession. That's a pretty damning indictment of Sarah's behaviour, and her inability to control her anger is made further apparent when she loses her temper with her children soon after finding out Pony has moved--she has clearly been using their sessions as an outlet, and without them, can't express her rage healthily.

It's noticeable that none of the scenes I've described take place between a cis man and a cis woman (with the man as top), and there are many potential explanations for that. It could be that, as I've just said, there are already enough misconceptions around BDSM that it seems like too much of a risk to show it in a way that could replicate already oppressive gender roles. There are enough feminists out there who believe that male-top, female-bottom kink simply is patriarchal abuse, that even the relatively mild kink depicted in the 50 Shades of Grey movie was enough for women to descend in droves to accuse the movie (and myself, for not condemning it in my review) of glorifying domestic violence. It could be that programme-makers are trying to be less hetero- and cis-normative, which is probably true in Transparent's case, and no bad thing at all. It could be that woman-on-woman aggression is seen as less upsetting for the viewer, which although it sounds patronising, could indeed be true. There are already some pretty harrowing true stories out there of male doms ignoring their female subs' safewords; we are forced to ask ourselves fewer uneasy questions about men, women, sex and power when there are no cis male doms in a scene. Indeed, Transparent acknowledges the disproportionate availability of professional female doms who top male bottoms, whereas there are very few professional doms catering to women, and its suggested answer is unequivocal about why: "it's really not hard for a woman to find someone to treat her like shit for free."

That said, we do see Sarah's ex-husband trying to top her after she has apologised for her rage and admitted "Pony's gone...I scared her away." Offering to step into the role, Len says "What does she do, boss you around? Slap you a little?" and begins to top her, asking with each act (hair pulling, spanking), "Is that what Pony does?" Sarah's enthusiasm and consent is very clear with each nod and moan, and her eager expression and movement as Len brandishes his belt and ties her to the bedpost with it. Although we're seeing the BDSM pairing most likely to discomfit us - a cis male topping a cis woman - there is so much communication from the top and clear consent and pleasure from the bottom that the scene achieves what so few vanilla sex scene achieves; it makes active, ongoing, enthusiastic consent deeply sexy. Len keeps asking Sarah "Is this what she does to you? Yeah? Is that what you want?" and she keeps responding yes, yes, uh-huh. Unfortunately, the scene fizzles out when Sarah is reminded of their emotional intimacy and complex relationship (Len makes the mistake of saying "I know you better than anyone else," which is a pretty psychologically risky thing for anyone to say in the middle of a BDSM scene) and tells him to stop and untie her. Which he does, straight away. Wow, look at that--someone stopping when they're told to stop. Such a simple concept, such a regularly overridden one. I think we can't have enough scenes like this in pop culture.

In a media culture still too apt to try and make blanket statements about BDSM or how it looks, Transparent does a great job of not offering simplistic depictions or easy answers about why anyone seeks kink or what they get from it. It also shows how players let real-life anger bleed into their play at their peril; far from the image of out-of-control thrashings and savage violations, anyone in the BDSM scene will tell you that a responsible dominant exercises extreme control at all times. It's nice to see that shown in a way that doesn't demonise BDSM or its practitioners, and rather acknowledges that like in any contact sport, shit will happen when high emotions get the better of us. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my Thinking Kink blog series for Bitch media, or my book, Thinking Kink, available in the US and UK now!