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.

22 Dec 2014

More on Pleasure and Pressure

I wanted to give a shout-out to this excellent Bustle article, titled "Are Vaginal Orgasms a Myth?" for summing up the conflicting anxieties about their sexuality to which modern women are subjected. Situated somewhere between Cosmo, self-help guides, porn and reality, the pursuit of female pleasure remains a complex one. As Gabrielle Moss points out, even women who feel that they're pretty in touch with their sexuality are still made to feel like failures for not being able to tick certain boxes (pun sooo very intended) "I think of myself as someone with a pretty good handle on my genitals, literally and figuratively — I can knock out as many as 15 normal orgasms a day...But I’ve never been able to quite wrap my arms — or legs — around the issue of the vaginal orgasm. And yes, it bothers me."
I think it bothers a lot of us. Considering yourself liberated from the socially imposed toxicity of body shaming and sex negativity, which bombards us with so many conflicting messages that a logician would weep - be sexy but not for yourself! Act sexual but don't have sex! Have sex but only do it to please men! Have multiple screaming orgasms but only so your partner feels manly! Actually wait, don't do any of that, cos that means you're a big whore! - is a precarious state to occupy. It can so easily be unseated by an unwelcome piece of information about the type of sex acts that everyone else is performing, or the kind of orgasms everyone else must be having, or pretty much anything that you're not doing. Because our society is prescriptive. It likes to tell us what we should be doing, and make us feel bad if we're not doing that thing. A big reason for that, I've always been convinced, is capitalism. Satisfied people don't buy stuff. Anxious, afraid people who constantly fear being deemed inadequate buy lots of stuff to try and address that inadequacy. But there'll always be something newer, shinier and better to aspire to. And that's how the money machine keeps on churning.
So what is the relevance to sex? Well, as Moss puts it, our culture is highly invested in keeping women in a state of perpetual anxiety about their sexuality. If we were to stop, hang up our vibrators and say "Whew, 15 orgasms in a day, I think I can leave it there!" then Ann Summers, most women's magazines, lingerie manufacturers, porn producers, sex therapists and sex manual authors would all go out of business. As Moss also points out, there is a long and pretty sexist tradition of women's orgasms either being disregarded altogether, or ignored if they don't originate from penetration of the vagina by a penis. Women have both feminists and sexologists to thank for deconstructing this myth, otherwise we might still be lying around wondering why our experiences are nothing like those of the women in porn, who Moss notes always unfailingly "exploded into screaming orgasms if you simply penetrated their vaginas." I'd also like to blame Sex and the City for perpetuating the latter myth, as there seem to be hours of footage of Samantha climaxing from just a few thrusts while magically never touching her clitoris - there may be some ways in which that show was feminist, but in terms of realistic depiction of how women come? BIG fail.
And yet, as Moss writes, there's still always another study emerging that says vaginal orgasms are real, and if you haven't had one, well damn girl, you just can't be trying hard enough! And as she also goes on to say, "The problem with most of the advice out there about how to have a vaginal orgasm is that a lot of it amounts to “Figure out how to have a vaginal orgasm, and then go have one.”
Yupppp. I'm so glad someone has finally said this. Cos you know what, supposedly friendly dispensers of sex advice? I KNOW where my G spot is. Funnily enough, I know where everything is down there, as one would hope after 31 years in this body. I know what makes me come, and what leave me utterly indifferent, and what actually just chafes. And do you know what pressing on my G spot does?
I'll let Moss answer this one:
"I read New Age guides to finding your G-spot, but all jabbing around at my vaginal walls ever did was make me have to pee." 
And speaking as someone who already has an overactive bladder, that is in no way ever, ever fun.
That's the problem, though. Pretty much all sex advice on trying to have a vaginal orgasm ends at the point of finding that supposedly elusive spot. No one dares suggest that once you've found it, touching it may not only not feel orgasm-inducing, but may actually feel kind of uncomfortable and weird. Someone really needs to address the false epistemic leap between "find G spot" and "amazing sensations will follow". After all, given the right instructions, I'm sure I could locate Glasgow city centre - but actually having a good time there? Well, that just may be something you can't guarantee.
So why, as Moss wonders, will no advice on vaginal orgasms ever just fess up and say  that if touching your G spot "doesn’t feel pretty darn good, you are shit out of luck; you don’t have any sensitive tissue there, and you’re definitely not going to have a vaginal orgasm. Sowwy!”  Why, she asks, do even supposedly feminist and female-friendly sex toy stores such as Toys in Babeland, refuse to "admit that there is a chance that you are just not built for this?"
This is where sex positivity is a double-edged sword. The expectation that our bodies perform like three-ring circuses is not feminist, or sex positive - it's prescriptive, limiting and attempts to shoehorn the preferences of 3.5 billion individuals into one-size-fits-all advice. But being a feminist and having sex with men can be a tricky balancing act. As Moss writes "My boyfriend knows I have stowed away my attempts to have a vaginal orgasm in the same box in the attic where I store my old Von Dutch hat and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle DVD, but I knew part of him was always bummed about it." Yup, I hear that. Sounds like the similar kind of 'bummed-out' that men have experienced when they find that however diligently they attend to me (or think they're attending to me...), they can't get a screaming porngasm out of me without my help. And it is frustrating. It would be lovely for sex to involve simultaneous orgasms, but c'mon, it's like expecting the same behaviour out of a dog and a cat, and whoever propagated the idea that sex is only good if both partners go off like rockets at the same time really does need putting up against a wall and, if not shooting, then at least smacking around with a large vibrator for a bit.

But the guilt is pernicious. Moss says that her partner was clearly subject to a different angle of the same pressure, feeling that "If he were a real man, a “good lover,” he’d be able to “give” me vaginal orgasms, the same way that if I were a “real” woman, I’d be able to have them." As heterosexual feminists, we want to balance the importance of the world knowing "YO, FOLKS! VAGINAS EXPERIENCE PLENTY OF PLEASURE THAT AIN'T GOT SHIT TO DO WITH HAVING PENISES INSIDE THEM!!" with the fact that we have sex with men and we enjoy it. Because it's not a zero-sum game - just because you don't experience vaginal orgasms (or indeed, if like Moss and I, you question whether they even exist) it doesn't mean you don't enjoy penetrative sex per se. C'mon, there's a reason a lot of vibrators are man-shaped - and it's not just about the phallocentric patriarchy, because women don't generally waste their money on sex toys that fail get them off - it's cos they feel good. It was Germaine Greer in the 70s first pointed out that orgasms with something inside you can feel a helluva lot better than ones without, but why has this idea since been twisted to mean that women should be seeing God just because someone penetrates our vaginas but does nothing to our clitorises (or should that be clitori??)?

As Moss puts it, "Vaginal orgasms are like the AP exams of sex: a totally nonsense test that claims to measure your worth and actually measures nothing, but a test that people get obsessed with nonetheless." And it's that kind of obsession that is the most sex-negative of all, because it stops you seeing sex as fun, and makes you start seeing it as a goal-oriented box-ticking exercise. Which is precisely the opposite of what feminists have been fighting for in the battle to free women's sexuality from being viewed as nothing other than something to please men, or something to censor, or repress, or punish, or commodify. Everything else in society is already a test for women - our appearances, our relationships, our careers, why subject our private pleasure to the same insane scrutiny? "Who was I trying to impress with my vaginal orgasms? My boyfriend? The ghost of Sigmund Freud? God? I’m pretty sure all three already think whatever they’re going to think of me, and that a hands-free orgasm isn’t going to change anything. It was just going to change me into a crabby monster who hated sex."

I'm glad Moss wrote this article, because it speaks a lot of sense that's just simply not heard enough among this cacophony of sometimes well-meaning, sometimes deliberately undermining, sex advice for women. So I'll leave the last words to her:

"I can’t have a vaginal orgasm. Maybe you can’t have a vaginal orgasm, either. And you know what? Who cares. 
It doesn’t make you more or less liberated, more or less sexy, more or less fun. Being able to have vaginal orgasms doesn’t make you a special little flower — that’s a conspiracy ginned up by old-fashioned sex advice and porn. Don’t buy it. Because whatever kind of orgasm you’re having? It’s already perfect." 

8 Dec 2014

Women as window dressing

If you're a woman, and especially if you're a feminist, and you object to the way that female bodies and body parts are regularly used as window dressing in films, TV programmes and music videos as well as in advertising, magazines and newspapers, you're likely to be accused, at some point, of being a prude. Of being jealous. Of being anti-sex. It's a quick and easy way to shut down valid complaints - telling someone, "You're boring. You're uptight. You're 'square'." And since in our heavily sexualised culture, women are regularly told that the worst thing they could possibly be is sexually unadventurous, that insult does tend to carry some weight. Still, it won't stop me from identifying the unnecessary, tedious and sexist hijacking of the female body that I see in popular culture around me.
If someone wants to accuse a feminist of being anti-sex, they might not want to pick a polyamorous, sexually active woman who makes no secret of her desire for physical pleasure without the restrictions of monogamous relationships. They might also want to pick a feminist who hasn't just written a book about BDSM and, while researching said book, spent a fair amount of time in kink clubs surrounded by moaning, writhing, sweating individuals, PVC, leather, floggers, chains and spanking benches. They might want to pick a feminist who hasn't written at length about various pursuits of pleasure, including visits to sex shops, why men's violent sexual fantasies are not necessarily a bad thing, casual sex and the female orgasm. If you're going to try and tell me that because I'm tired of bums, boobs and thighs being scattered all across popular culture like autumn leaves after a high wind, that must mean I have a problem with sex itself, you're going to be on a losing streak.

And you might also find yourself on the receiving end of my riding crop.
But I digress.

Last night I was slumped in front of Netflix watching The Dallas Buyers' Club, the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan man who, on discovering he was HIV positive in the mid-80s, went on a quest to get decent treatment (however illegally he had to do it). The film was OK; it went on a bit long. It had an interesting premise, and I learned a bit about how effective treatments for HIV were trialled (sometimes extremely inefficiently, and on the most vulnerable members of society, sadly). The character of Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) was generally pretty dislikeable: selfish, violent, homophobic and largely out for himself, qualities which are not mitigated by the fact that he might have helped a lot of poor, black or gay people extend their lives by giving them access to decent treatment. After all, he only did it to make money, and one does wonder why a film gets made about a white straight man with HIV when everyone knows that the black and gay communities remain the ones disproportionately affected by the condition. Also, does anyone ever mention how it was a woman who pioneered the first successful HIV treatment? Of course not, because those who run the show control whose stories get told. Privilege privilege privilege - twas ever thus.

But what wound me up more than any of this were the unnecessary tits and bum shots included in the film, which added absolutely fuck-all to the storyline. Yes, Ron Woodroof had a lot of sex, and that's how he contracted HIV. The first shot of the film is him having sex. We get the picture. So why do we see various women's boobs and arses but don't even get a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey's nipples? If the inclusion of writhing bodies is meant to signify that Woodroof is promiscuous, then why is it never his body that's shown naked or nearly-naked - only those of women? Women, by the way, who don't even have speaking roles and don't even get named, reducing them to literally naked extras, begging the question of why they need to be included at all?

In my post where I despaired over the totally disappointing nature of Kick Ass II, which reversed all the fantastic feminist good work done by the original Kick Ass movie, I pointed out that people will still - amazingly! - come to see films without the promise of female nudity in them. So why are film makers so timid about ringing the changes and leaving out totally unnecessary shots of the unclothed female body? Why does every film about a "troubled man" still have to include the obligatory strip club scene, and why is the audience always treated to a table dance regardless of whether any of us want to see it or not? I didn't need to see the thong-clad behind of a nameless woman grinding towards Matthew McConaughey for several agonising minutes on my TV screen last night. I would've paid good money not to see it. And I do pay good money to watch Netflix, so why is what I and millions of other women would like to see never a consideration in the minds of pop culture producers? Why does the shitty, objectifying dollar speak louder than the one that would like to see just a few more fecking films that pass the Bechdel test, and a TV screen free of women's bum cracks?

As I observed in the earlier post, perhaps the way the female form is constantly used as window dressing to the "real action" in films, TV and advertising is so prevalent that it "can anaesthetise intelligent, sensitive people to a point where they don't even realise how their art is throwing women under the bus until someone points it out to them." That's maybe the most optimistic possible answer. The worst case answer is that pop culture producers know that what they're making is tedious, objectifying and sexist, but they don't care. Or they actively want it to be that way, to keep women in their places. Yep, Jennifer Garner may be wearing specs and playing an intelligent, fully clothed doctor in The Dallas Buyers' Club, but she's merely the other side of the virgin/whore coin that women are still trapped in by the limiting portrayals that mainstream films offer them. Matthew McConaughey's character gets to run the gamut of emotions and bad behaviour yet remain the hero - the women characters get to be either good or bad girls. The bad girls, of course, are reduced to their bodies and their sex drives and don't have names. The good girl resists the sexual charms of Ron Woodroof and cares for AIDs patients. In terms of progressive portrayals of women, this film might as well have been set in 1885, rather than 1985.

And yet, it could've been improved in a few simple steps.
1) If you're going to show sex scenes, either film equal amounts of both parties' bodies, or don't show them at all.
2) Cut the strip club scene. Not just from this film, but from every film ever. PLEASE. Just ditch this shit. No film actually needs it. We know if a guy's sitting slumped at a bar swigging whiskey, it's a sign he's troubled. That's enough. That'll suffice.
3) Give more than one fecking female character a name.
4) And hey, maybe even have some dialogue between them!

If you're too lazy to do any of those things, then just admit it. Just admit you want to work a bit of soft porn into your film and you have no intention for apologising for it. Just tell us that you do really think of women as either whores or saints, and that's why you can't depict them as anything other. Come out and say that you do think the best way to portray the sleaziness of Ron Woodroof's existence was not to show his naked body humping and covered in sweat, but rather the bodies of the women he had sex with, because they're really the dirty ones. Just tell us. Rather than pointing the finger at me and saying I'm the one with the problem.

Because I don't hate sex, or men, or the women who take their clothes off in a film or on a strip club stage for money. I do, however, hate that the latter options are far too often the only ones offered to women, and that this is propagated by a massive and powerful industry capable of doing so much good, yet which chooses to be lazy, unoriginal and continue to perpetuate the notion that women are unimportant, that they're sluts, that they can either be beautiful or clever, or sexy or good, but never both, never rich and full and flawed and nuanced, and that it's fine to reduce our beautiful, amazing, sexy, pleasure producing-bodies to personality-devoid slices pasted randomly across films like motel wallpaper.

And after watching that film, I think I might even hate Matthew McConaughey a bit.
But give me a few days, and a viewing of A Time To Kill, and I may yet recover ;)